ROOK APPROACHED AVESTINE as she picked up a spear and tossed it at the target forty yards away. It struck the edge of the leather-bound bag and skimmed into the dirt. Rook paused, well out of hitting distance, but Avestine simply stepped back and took another spear from her aide’s hands. She tossed it. It missed entirely. She took note of Rook with a nod and reached for another spear. Rook waited as Avestine finished off a decade of spears.
Avestine wiped her face with a cloth and dismissed her aide. She dropped the towel and walked with Rook back to the palace.
“She was still asleep when I stopped by.” Rook paused. “You look bad, so I assume she must be worse. Does she need a healer, too?”
Rook gestured at her face. “Those are impressive cuts. It looks like she learned something about fighting.”
“This,” Avestine said, one sly eyebrow rising, “is what she does when she likes you.”
“Ah,” replied Rook, his lips puckering in contemplation. “Has she given you any answers about her time in the Dark Quarter?”
“She says it’s still cold.”
“What about your brother?”
“If you’re interested, you should ask her.”
“Has she told you anything about your daughter?”
“That’s enough, Essanti.”
Rook held his arms behind him as he waited for her to go ahead. Guards opened the doors, and he followed.
Avestine stripped off her loose, sweaty shirt before her servants could reach her. But a woman took the shirt from her while another lifted her arms. A man used a towel dipped in a basin of water to wipe her chest and armpits.
Rook watched as the man wiped her breasts, and she watched him watching her. He noticed her watching him, shrugged, and returned to watching.
Another servant brought a wide band of soft cotton and wound it around her upper body, binding her breasts. The male servant slipped a fitted black tunic on over her head, and a younger woman tied the tunic’s belt and then the laces at the tunic’s neck.
Avestine allowed her healer to rub salve into the cuts on her face. A body servant brushed and tied her hair with an embroidered black strip of cloth, hand-sewn and fringed with silver beads by the royal seamstress. A man slipped on her boots, and after she stood, he buckled her scabbard to the studded belt that hung low on her hips.
She drew her sword—nicked but shiny and well-oiled—and flipped it back and forth. With an emphatic eyebrow she told Rook, who continued to watch her with idle interest, “I’m thinking of having a new one made.”
Surprise replaced Rook’s mild expression.
She raised the blade. “Just a thought.”
For the next few hours, she listened to petitions, followed by lunch in the public dining hall. Rook took exercise, but Gerard joined her. He enjoyed the public acclaim in a way Rook, like Kami, did not.
Citizens who presented themselves well-dressed and well-mannered sat in balconies that looked down on a long, elegant table where they might see any number of the royal court eating lunch or dinner. It was a way for people to see their leaders regularly, giving them a sense of familiarity that the former kings of the Trade Empire thought important for internal peace.
Avestine had a very different idea of an ideal ruler, learned from her years at the side of her father. The people should not see their leader in any way like them. The hereditary rulers of Darklaw were divine. The people didn’t want their monarch to be familiar, but strong. Not an ordinary man, but a divinely-ordained master who could protect the people from enemies and see through injustice to the truth in a way no ordinary man could.
But Avestine also knew she couldn’t change everything at once. The Trade Empire had traditions that unified the people, and she needed their goodwill. At least for the time being. So she ate a meal of spiced salmon and chatted with Gerard about nothing important. Citizens in the balconies maintained a continuous hum of conversation.
As she finished her plate and servants brought her a cup of whiskey, scuffling high and to her right stole her attention. The right balcony was crowded, and the people who had been sitting were now standing and moving away, slowly at first and then with cries of fear as a man emerged from behind them waving a dagger and shouting.
Flashing swords appeared behind him—palace guards in pursuit. The guards on the dining room floor drew close to Avestine, putting themselves between her and the disturbance. That left the area behind her empty of swords. Another man leapt from a different balcony and lurched forward, sprawling across the dining table, a dagger rushing toward Avestine.
Before it reached her, a body intervened, and then five swords plunged into the leaping madman, dropping him dead to the wooden table.
Her guards dragged her from the room and down the corridor. They shoved and yanked and finally forced her into a room and locked the door. She pounded on the door, threatening death to everyone, until it finally opened some time later. Rook greeted her with a grim expression.
Avestine ordered Rook to execute every guard in the hall, and finally stopped for breath when she saw no reaction from him. “What in Bala’s Hell happened?”
Rook took a breath. “Conspiracy, apparently. The two who attacked are dead.”
Avestine waited because Rook wasn’t done.
“As is Gerard.”
Avestine stepped back as if Rook had slugged her. “Gerard?”
“He threw himself in front of you, took a dagger in the back.”
“No.” She shook her head in disbelief. “That was him?”
“I’m sorry to say.”
“I want to see him, the body.”
“They took him to his room.”
Avestine arrived at Gerard’s room, her guards and Rook trailing. A man sat holding his hand, weeping. He was younger than Kami, with long golden hair. Avestine glanced at Rook who could offer her no information.
Avestine touched the young man’s shoulder, and he rose with surprise, wiping his green eyes that were likely beautiful when they weren’t swollen with tears. Bowing repeatedly, he said, “Most Gracious Excellency, forgive me. I didn’t mean to intrude. Please allow me to go, and I won’t get in your way again.” He bowed again and made to walk away before Avestine took hold of his arm and pulled him back around.
“Who are you?”
The man stared at the ground and stuttered, “Rayn, youngest son of Jesma.”
Avestine found it hard to believe her unbearably ugly dispatcher could produce such a child. She wondered if Rayn’s virtue were as sharp a contrast to his father’s vices as was his beauty. “You knew our warmaster?”
Rayn tried to answer but couldn’t hold back his tears. Avestine indicated one of the servants should take him from the room.
“Lovely boy,” said Avestine as she watched him leave. She sat down on the edge of the bed and studied Gerard’s pale face. His usual tan skin was ashen, making his dark, wispy beard and black hair seem even darker. She glanced about his room, which was plain except for items on a shelf against the other wall.
She went to look and found several coins and a wax stamp. The stamp made her curious, and her fingers trailed through the other items on the shelf: a few polished stones, a book of philosophy and another of poetry. She lifted the lid on a box and found a series of insects encased in amber.
Rook had approached quietly, but she felt his nearness before he whispered, “What is all this? Mementos?”
She nodded, imagining these objects as pieces from his life, from his childhood and service in Avjakar to his travels through Koledoon to Ureth Mourning. She returned to the bed. As she looked at him, she grew angry. She had counted on him, needed him beside her. They had maintained an odd but beneficial relationship. What she didn’t understand was why he would sacrifice himself for her. Rook would have died to protect her. Maybe even Kami. But she had assumed Gerard was at her side as long as it benefited him, not for duty—and certainly not for love.
“Clear the room,” she told Rook. When they were alone, she rolled Gerard onto his stomach and examined the wound. It still oozed, and the bed beneath was soaked red. She rolled him back, thought a moment about what else he might have been hiding, and then reached under his mattress. She swept her arm the length of the bed on each side and came out with nothing.
“What are you looking for?” asked Rook.
“He was very careful, wasn’t he? Only I don’t know why he would think it mattered, since I already knew.”
She glanced around the room again, and then shook her head. When she sat back on the bed, she noticed the bed post looked odd. She touched the carved ball on the top and it moved. She pulled it off. The post was hollow. She reached into it and found a piece of parchment.
Rook stepped closer, curious about the parchment in her hand.
Avestine unfolded one sheet. She sat back down. “Get Kami. I want this read to me.”
Rook brought Kami to the room a short time later, where she stopped beside Gerard’s body and muttered a prayer. “He was a faithful servant, wasn’t he? And we all owe him for saving your life.”
Avestine nodded and said, “Read this.” She handed Kami the letter, and glanced at Rook as she added, “Gerard had his secrets.”
Kami took the parchment, and when she began to read in silence, Avestine scolded her. “To me, child. Read it to me.”
“To my dearest Lord and Master, with all my love and tender kisses.”
“Ah,” said Rook, sharing a look with Avestine.
“My heart is light this day, having just come from our time in the garden. As I lie here writing this, my skin still smells of you. What joy I found as I sat at your feet, hearing your voice, like music, as you read to me. The poem you wrote and sent along in your last note could rouse the passions of Katan himself, though His desire is long sated under the exquisite lips of divine boys. Were I a footman to the divine court, and you my Glorious Master, I could feel no greater worship, nor more complete obedience. I am your slave, and the yoke I bear willingly.”
Avestine was staring at Kami, who looked up at her and said, “He’s quite in love, isn’t he? How old is he?”
Avestine guessed, “Twenty?”
“I didn’t think he was that old,” said Kami.
“You know Rayn?”
Avestine took the letter from Kami’s hands. “The boy who wrote this letter.”
Shaking her head, Kami pointed at the signature. “It’s signed by Wald.”
Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |