Darklaw – Episode 57


A NEW ALLIANCE between Avjakar and Koledoon threatened the borders. Arrowreign’s army was in need of training and seemed slow to demonstrate its skills. Supplies were slow in arriving.

Avestine complained about incompetence and launched into tirades about greedy traders while she watched Kami in the palace courtyard through the green glass windows. Behind her, Rook and Gerard argued about ways to increase production.

It was easy enough to provide arms in the Dark Quarter, since every officer was in charge of arming himself and his subordinates, and those who couldn’t manage it were demoted. But in the Trade Quarter, that responsibility fell on the royal house, and raising revenue was only half the problem. Finding blacksmiths, cobblers, and armorers who could meet the demand was the other. Craftsmen who expected to set their own price were enough to keep Avestine sputtering about mass hangings.

What made the situation dire was that in the Trade Quarter men weren’t bound to follow their fathers’ professions or bound to apprentice into a profession at all. They were free to pursue a trade of their choosing.

“All this freedom!” exclaimed Avestine one day. “How can I maintain an army when men would rather engage in speculation than learn a useful trade? Sons run off to other cities and their fathers lie on the census. They abandon the family business in order to trade in furs or baubles. What use is a trader with a cart of feather caps to me? Where are all the blacksmiths? We need at least a thousand working nonstop to get this army ready.”

“Then make it happen,” said Rook.

Gerard regarded him with his usual circumspection, while Avestine eyed him with interest. “Go on.”

“Expand the royal armory. Appropriate the forges in Ureth Mourning and surrounding villages.”

“They’ll want compensation,” said Gerard.

“Saving their lives won’t be enough?” exclaimed Avestine.

“The lords and those who serve them aren’t afraid of Avjakar,” said Gerard. “Avjakar has been sending messengers across the border. It’s rumored they’ve met with the largest landholders, told them they’ll keep their lands if they don’t interfere. Some lords want to hand you over, avoid confrontation completely.”

Avestine walked up to Gerard, eyeing him severely. “Why haven’t I heard of this before?”

“Jesma tried to tell you when you returned, but you dismissed him. It goes without saying, these are rumors. We’ve caught no insurgents, and the lords deny any such meetings.”

“Jesma knows everything. If he says it’s so, then it is.” Avestine rubbed her face with exasperation. “So, despite my patience with the petty bickering of every fat farmer from here to Tanyka, they’re plotting to hand me over at the first sign of trouble. I even let them take more of the peasants’ harvest, obligated those peasants to serve for five more years, and this is their gratitude?” She sighed. “Coth brand them all! Do it.”

“You can’t steal the forges, Avestine,” warned Gerard.

Rook startled at hearing her name, but Avestine raised a hand to keep him silent. She turned to Gerard, “They’ll be compensated. I want every division to draw up its needs. Organize them by importance, quantity, and their value. I want that list by evensun tomorrow. Where are the two largest forges in the city?”

“I will find out.”

“Before you go to sleep.”

Gerard nodded and left.

Rook stood waiting. “You should not let him treat you with such familiarity.”

“I want to hear my name sometimes. You don’t use it.”

“Of course not.”

Avestine looked through the open window at Kami, who was swimming.

After a while, he said, “Is there something I can do for you, Your Grace?”

She had an entire list he could help her with, but she shook her head and gestured for him to follow.

A maze of gardens surrounded two large pools, and in one, Kami was swimming. She spent her days in the water. The pools provided scenery not a place to swim. They weren’t deep, and algae coated the surface where water striders whirled, frogs sunbathed, and dragonflies hovered. 

Avestine had given orders to the guards that Kami wasn’t to leave the palace grounds, although Avestine wasn’t sure whether Kami knew that yet. No one had reported her trying to leave. Since returning from the wilderness, she had kept to herself, preferring her own company or that of the wild animals. Even the domestic animals held little interest for her. Avestine had once found her stroking a fox. She chattered with the birds, and Avestine wondered if she actually understood their noises.

Kami paid little attention to Avestine. Throughout the long hours of sunfall, she returned to Avestine’s room and slept soundly. The rest of the time, she was in the courtyard. Avestine had servants watching her, providing her food and clean water, offering tea and whiskey. Kami ate almost nothing, and a servant discovered she wasn’t hungry because she was eating insects and small birds. She didn’t even wear clothes.

“Have you talked to her?” Avestine asked Rook.

“Yes.”

“Is she angry with you?”

Rook turned quizzical eyes on Avestine. “Why would she be angry?”

“You passed judgment on her. You tried to kill her.”

Rook’s eyebrows rose. “We’re both Essanti. She knows where my loyalty lies. Besides, Umoman told me her kind doesn’t take offense.”

All her life, Avestine had learned to manage the Essanti a certain way, to think of them a certain way. Those who understood the path of Essanti viewed Kami’s light among the dimmest, the lowest Emanation a person might follow. But in all of history, among all those Avestine had known or even heard of, no Essanti had displayed the kind of power Kami had.

But Avestine needed strategy to manage it. If Kami thought like a general, saw her creatures as regiments, and deployed them with tactical appreciation for what they could do, then she might be unstoppable. 

“It’s curious,” muttered Rook. “Umoman said a bear doesn’t care what I think of him. Is Kami an animal? Has she become an animal?”

The warmth generated by Avestine’s ambitious plans cooled when she realized again that she might have lost Kami. The Wild had always been her enemy, now even more so, yet Avestine had never backed down from an enemy. “The gods gave her to me. I won’t let them take her back now.” She thought of the dark days at Graystone.

“But how can you be sure you have her?”

“You mean, what’s the difference between a bear and a woman?”

“It should be obvious, but it doesn’t seem so when I look at her.”

“She’s not an animal because she loves me.” Avestine walked over to the side of the pool where Kami was drifting in circles. Kami saw Avestine and dove under the water, her body extending into a sleek line as she raced down, rolled over and broke the surface some distance away. She smiled, a sight that lightened Avestine’s heart. Avestine bent to invite her out, but Kami dropped down under the water again and turned somersaults before kicking to the far edge of the pool. A school of orange fish scattered, and Kami’s shadow roamed beneath the water lilies.

A messenger had arrived with a reminder. “We should prepare for the performance,” said Rook.

“She smiled at me.” Avestine brushed her blue cape back over her shoulder as she sat down on her heels and tracked Kami’s shadow. “She needs to see me. You go. If I stay, I might get her attention again.”

“And it might be seen as an insult if you aren’t present. This is an important exchange with Avjakar.”

“Music. What does it mean to dog vomit like Severesh?”

“Nothing of course. He’ll never forgive you, but his subordinates won’t be subordinate forever. You must at least pretend to respect them. Especially now, if the rumors Gerard mentioned are true.”

“If those rumors are true, it doesn’t matter what I do, and this is a distraction, or worse, an attempt to spy. Maybe one of the singers has a dagger meant for me. The lords are fools to believe Severesh, especially now that he’s giving tribute to Darklaw. He’s sold himself for peace and the lords think they’ll sell me for peace. And then this land won’t have Avjakar alone to deal with; they’ll have to deal with Darklaw’s greed, too. Body and land, sovereignty must always be maintained, because a foothold is never relinquished.”

“The Architect’s precept.”

“Father was the greatest ruler this world has ever known.” She looked into Rook’s doubtful eyes. “I didn’t say he was a great father.”

“He had his reasons.”

“What?”

“Your father realized his mistakes too late.”

“Mistakes? He made mistakes? That brutal bastard didn’t make mistakes. He used every excuse to call himself a god and every vicious means to prove it. Are you defending him?”

“No, Your Grace. I’m not defending him.” He squared his shoulders. “I’m…forgiving him.”

Avestine stared after Rook as he began to walk away. Too stunned by his impudence to think clearly, she followed along.


Published in Darklaw |
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