AVESTINE WATCHED THE handkerchief burn, taking with it the truth she hoped never to inflict on Kami. The ashes cooled and scattered from the windowsill as she reattached the heel to her boot and left the palace at Fivefold Woke to meet Rook and Wald on the dock at Trader Bay.
Her armada was in the distance, the last longboats carrying troops to the ships. Gerard had left a week before with the other half of her army. In three months, they would meet up at Black Crab Bay.
Raret, Rook, and Wald were at her side. She wished that Avesha were with her to give meaning to the future. Since returning from the forest, she felt driven to finish what she had started but found little joy in it. What difference to win the world if no one she loved remained to share it with her?
She shook off the feeling, silently scolding herself for self-pity. Everything would come in time. She was a tool made for this single purpose, to rule. She didn’t sense a spirit within her, none besides the one that had always been with her, a sublime sense of anxious prodding, of time running out, of destiny. The fullness of Arujan would come to her only if her brother was dead, and she wondered what that power would feel like. What could the Avatar of Arujan offer the world that the Emissary had not?
A legate approached with two men following, and her personal guards let him through. Legate Theron stopped with a curt bow. “The last of the men’r boarded, Excellency. Supply ships have already launched per orders. Your ship waits.” He gestured down the dock.
Avestine glanced out at sea. “Tell me, Legate. Do you remember the war in Khaimeign?”
“Course, Excellency. Never so glorious, neither ’fore nor since!”
“And you remember me, how I was then?”
“Then tell me, how have I changed?”
Theron eyed her curiously. “Not sure’s I understand, Excellency.”
“Older, certainly. More scars. Anything else?”
“Not t’all, Excellency. Same hunger. Same strength. The gods have preserved ya like none other I seen.”
Avestine smiled to reassure him, aware that, despite Theron’s uniqueness among his class, he was still sensitive to pleasing his queen. “Thank you, Legate,” she said. “I’ll be along shortly.” She watched him leave the dock.
“What worries you?” asked Raret from behind her.
“Am I to be the Avatar?”
“I don’t know the future.”
“That’s exactly what you do know, you liar.” She turned on him. “You saw enough of the future to help my shit brother with his campaigns in the Trade Quarter. Enough to help capture Kami. Enough to get Avestar to abandon Ureth Mourning so I could take it.”
“And enough to know all the powers of Arujan are already in your hands.” Raret’s mouth puckered and he turned slowly, his arm sweeping in an arc. “Look.” He was pointing at the ships.
“I commanded an army long before any Avatar arrived.”
“But not an army from three kingdoms. One-hundred-thousand lives await your orders, and another five million will soon kneel before you.”
Whatever Avestine might think of Raret, he certainly had a way of speaking to her desire, which made him a dangerous man. She looked him over, wondering briefly, but not finding him attractive in the least. He was short and the sarcastic tang of his voice made her wince. Not at all the kind of man she would expect to hold the God of Pleasure within him.
“But I can be anyone.” He transformed suddenly into Kami.
Avestine’s body felt like it had burst into flames and she couldn’t stand the pain. She seized Raret by his throat and dropped him to the ground, where he shed Kami’s image. Avestine’s guards raised their spears, and as he laughed, she let him go.
He glanced among the five guards, whose spears remained trained on him. He pointed at one and said to Avestine, “Command him to kill…” he pointed to the man across from him, “that one.”
“They’re my guards. Disciplined like few men are. I wouldn’t waste them for your amusement.”
“I’m trying to show you your power.”
“Command is a talent, not a power.” She swatted at a fly pestering her.
Avestine glanced at Wald, who appeared grim. She glanced back-and-forth a few times between her guards and Wald, who shook his head, ever so slightly. Rook, however, offered no opinion, which compelled Avestine to regard Wald with irritation. “Commander, run your corporal through.”
The commander aimed his spear, and the corporal raised his spear in self-defense before Avestine ordered him to lower it. He did, and the commander thrust his spear into him, but the chest it pierced was Rook’s. Avestine stepped back glancing around at the men, confused about how Rook had moved so quickly. The guards were confused, too, and the man who ran Rook through was on his knees in disbelief.
The corporal was standing where Rook had been, and he was examining his body for wounds. Avestine dropped to one knee and touched Rook’s chest. The bleeding had already stopped. When she touched the spear, it broke away. Rook’s chest absorbed the piece still in him, and the skin healed in a jagged circle where the spear had struck. His eyes fluttered open.
“You fool,” muttered Avestine as she helped him to his feet.
“You ruined my demonstration,” complained Raret. “Have the commander try again.”
“I told you. Persuasion and authority are talents, not divine powers,” hissed Avestine.
“Indeed, this world has been so corrupted that, of their own accord, men have learned the sort of obedience gods once had to compel. They have so conditioned themselves to kill each other and sacrifice themselves, that you may think it’s not your power at all but their pleasure. Now that the Avatars have returned, only you will retain this power. Other kings will lose their armies. This is how you will sit on the throne of the world, alone among tyrants.”
“You’re good at feeding me what I’m hungry to hear.”
“I’m a man of many talents and powers, Excellency.” He bowed low.
She examined Rook, who had found his footing but remained unsteady. She was grateful for his clear-headed sacrifice and hated how easily Raret had seduced her. She swatted at another fly and then another.
The squawking of seagulls landing in the bay distracted her. She looked up to see the skies filling with flocks of birds, and out at sea, fins heralded the arrival of sharks. Rising waves indicated the presence of larger sea creatures.
“Kami,” she whispered. She turned fearful eyes on Raret. “Who cares about my brother?” She pointed out to sea. “What power can stand against that?”
Raret appeared unruffled. “She only guides beasts’ hunger. You command the will of men.”
Avestine’s thoughts chased themselves around until Raret had her answer. “Sacrifice your pawns to save the king.”
“Katan is the Gamemaster,” warned Rook. He stepped close and spoke in her ear as he glared at Raret. “And you shouldn’t play if you don’t know his game.”
She clenched her teeth. “Then give me another option.” He didn’t answer, so she ran down the dock, her guard rushing to keep up. When she reached the contingent waiting to board her ship, she called the flagman over. Before he could carry out her order, seagulls attacked, tearing at the men with their beaks.
Avestine drew her sword and swatted a few bodies from the sky when she saw wolves descending in a stream down the hillside. They trotted but began racing as if to be the first to feast. Men on the dock were shouting for the ship that had just launched to lay down for boarding, but it continued on, and some men leapt to its decks. A few made it, but the rest fed the sharks.
The narrow entrance to the dock helped slow the rush of wolves, and soldiers kept them back as Avestine searched the sky for Kami. Among the seagulls, she spotted a falcon, and it spotted her. After falling from the sky, the creature thudded to the platform, growing into a lumbering brown bear and swatting both men and wolves from its path as it came at her.
Avestine braced herself, knees loose and sword ready.
The bear rose onto its hind legs, and Avestine ordered it to back down. The beast swiped at her a few times, making her teeter backward.
“Call these creatures off!” ordered Avestine again. “You don’t have to do this.” A piercing scream from behind startled her, and she glanced to see Wald holding a man at one end and a shark holding the man by the other. Before Avestine turned back, the bear knocked her to the ground.
She rolled across creaking wooden planks, seeing the water beneath her churning with bodies both hungry and terrified. After stopping herself against one of the dock’s poles, she snatched her sword, but as she raised it, the bear managed a devastating blow, its splayed claws like daggers tearing her chest. She felt herself dragged sideways like a doll and dropped. The claws had torn away her chest wall. A strip of flesh hung from her. It dripped blood and a feeling of warmth oozed through her.
Dead, she thought, seeing shattered ribs and gurgling blood. She dropped her defensive stance and waited to die. She waited to lose her breath, to feel her heart stop, to grow cold. Instead, she watched her chest reappear. Little-by-little, skin webbed across ghastly purplish tissue. Her insides disappeared beneath new skin that wore the same scars it had before the blow, but most of her shirt was gone and blood stained what remained.
The melee continued around her, a riot of shrieks and grunts and curses. She looked from her chest to the bear, but it had changed back into Kami, who stood before her wearing no expression at all. Kami said, “Your brother must be dead.”
Only with Kami’s words did Avestine feel any pain—the pain of the unexpected, of loss, of dreams shattered and destinies made meaningless. Avestar dead.
She cursed the gods. She waved her sword with menace, telling Kami to leave, but Kami ignored her, so Avestine made her way seaside, pushing along the dock, through men’s blades and beasts’ fangs, suffering cuts and stumbles until she reached the flagman, who still desperately tried to carry out her orders. She worked to defend him as he signaled the ships.
Kami followed until Avestine seized her by the arm and dragged her to the edge of the dock. She clutched her hair, turning her to face the bloody sea, and shouted, “There’s your ‘waters of divine peace.’ Your Godsea! Was my father wrong, Kami?” She threw Kami to the ground. “Or does blood flow just like he said it did? And don’t you worship it? Don’t you glory in this bloody orgy of death that you control like the god you are, you bitch?”
Kami looked up into Avestine’s angry eyes. “You made me do this!”
Avestine pulled Kami to her feet. “Why are you here? I told you I was leaving. I’ll be gone before sunfall.”
“You have no right to leave me!”
A blade sliced across Avestine’s shoulder and a wolf sunk its teeth into her forearm. She fell, but Kami sent the wolf away. Avestine stumbled to her feet, her wounds healing but burning even so. “We can change our destinies. Don’t you remember? Like the Spirit Fish. We don’t have to be what the world makes us.”
“You once said you were the monster your father made you.”
Avestine thought of what she could tell Kami and what she would never tell her. “What about you? You don’t trust any feeling but the one in your skin.” She shoved Kami away and ran to the end of the pier. Kami didn’t follow.
The flagman shouted his success, and Avestine looked out at sea to see a dozen men, bellies slit, thrown overboard from each ship. The seas frothed red from the frenzy of feeding creatures. The birds took chances, diving at the sea, picking what they could from the bodies.
Avestine’s ship returned to the dock. She made short work of the remaining wolves, using fire and sword to drive them away. The survivors carried the injured on board, and once the rest of the army had cast out from port, deckhands risked open torches aboard ship. The flames and smoke helped to drive the insects away as the rest of the army boarded ships and sailed through the bloody water.
The sea began to settle as the number of beasts dwindled. The flocks of birds remained with them the longest, but as sea creatures consumed the bodies, the birds turned on the insects and became only a nuisance as they dove about the ships. The captains assigned deckhands to clean the droppings and repair the sails torn by squabbling seagulls. By the time the armada reached open water, the seas were calm and the skies, peaceful.
Rook and Wald helped with the wounded and when all were as comfortable as they could be made, Wald retired to Avestine’s room, where he would bunk in one corner. He spent a great deal of time praying before he slept, so Avestine was happy to stay away. Rook said he wished to check the ship’s stores, although she had not ordered him to take charge of anything.
Avestine watched sunfall alone. The deckhands were busy with work and the captain roamed. His first mate was at the wheel.
“You weren’t there,” said a voice behind her.
Avestine’s guards presented spears before she waved them back. She turned around.
Kami was leaning on the railing. She stared down into the water. The deckhands went back to work, but the guards eyed her warily. She had probably arrived as a falcon, transforming into a naked young woman before their eyes.
Avestine said, “You killed nearly a thousand men.”
“You killed them.”
“I made a sacrifice to stop your beasts. I couldn’t let them all die.”
“You don’t own these men. Their lives aren’t yours to use.”
“You said you weren’t going to kill me.”
“That.” Kami bit her lip. “I didn’t mean that.” She turned with anxious eyes. “You were gone. You said you would wait. You abandoned me. You lied.”
“Whatever the ancients called her, we call Bala a demon because she’s contrary to the spirit of man.”
“Not man. She’s contrary to the spirit of empire. When you get to Sahrdon, you can read the ancient texts, see with new eyes.”
“You’re going to let me get to Sahrdon?”
“You’d kill every last soldier to get there.”
“If you make me.”
“You don’t care about them. All you care about is power.”
“I think about every man I kill. Can you say the same?”
“Why go? Your brother’s dead.”
“Whoever killed him will pay for it.”
Kami sneered with self-satisfaction. “You looked forward to killing him yourself. Vengeance for the lack of vengeance?”
“Not revenge. There’s only one thing I’ve ever had to look forward to and it wasn’t killing my brother.”
Avestine turned back to stare out at the sea. She felt empty. What else could she feel when no questions remained? When she would outlast anything she built or any child she bore? When she had all eternity to relive childhood horrors and recollect her own? Until the moment she stripped off her mortality, her one true comfort had been the knowledge that peace awaited her in the end. Now there was no end. Forever wasn’t a time but a place, and to Avestine it looked a lot like Hell.
Kami seemed to know Avestine’s thoughts. “Forgetting isn’t the only way to find peace. You’ll find another way.”
“Have you found it?”
Kami slumped to the deck and sat with her arms around her legs. “I forget things. Why do I forget, only to remember later that I forgot? Where is Rook? And Wald? I thought they never left your side.”
“They’re no longer Essanti. They’re Avatars. They have their own interests. Wald’s praying. Rook’s in the stores.”
Avestine searched the sky as if it might offer some way to end the madness. She was afraid for Kami. She didn’t know what to tell her, what would matter, what she would even believe. She didn’t know how much time she had before Kami became more demon than god, or even what that difference would look like.
“I’ll get you some clothes, and you can sail with me.” She saw Kami beginning to shake her head, so she added, “Then come with me, just to Four Demons Sea.”
“Forget the clothes, and I’ll sail with you to Agate Bay. Let’s go to your cabin. I never feel as free as when I’m in your bed.”
“What about the forest?”
“I’m beginning to think that freedom isn’t about doing what I want but having what I need. And I never seem to have what I need. No matter where I go, something’s always missing. Right now, I’m missing you.”
With Kami’s confession, Avestine finally saw how the demon would take shape. Kami had arrived lonely and resentful, and a thousand men had died. She was passion in search of meaning. As the Emissary, Avestine had provided enough meaning to keep the demon away, but she wondered if the scrappy girl she had seen at Featherwood, who became the intense young woman at Queenscourt, who had become the handless young woman before her, would always find Avestine to be enough, or if a dark destiny would catch her anyway.
She drew Kami to her feet and escorted her to her cabin. When she reached her room, she ordered Wald to leave.
“Let me love you until we reach the realm where the sun sets,” said Kami as Avestine dropped her trousers to the floor. Kami kissed Avestine’s cheek and chin, her neck and shoulders. She pushed her onto the bed and raised Avestine’s arm and kissed her wrist and elbow. She nuzzled the hairy patch and sucked the sensitive skin of her underarm, and Avestine began to understand what Kami meant.
They shared love as slow as the sea and just as lacking in resolution because, even for Avestine, pleasure didn’t always follow upon fevered passion. Sometimes it followed upon a sigh.
Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |