Epic Fantasy |
VERIS PAUSED TO listen. It wasn’t a sound but some other sensation that drew his attention. He took a breath, closed his eyes, took another breath. Avestine was nearby. He sensed her as prey senses a hunter. His mother had told him she knew when Avestine was close, too, but she felt her as a comfort. She said Avestine steadied her.
With Avestine so close, Veris wanted to run and hide, which made him angry. He clenched his fists and remained where he was, waiting. The feeling became a sound, the sound of footfalls, of leather on stone. A moment later, Avestine appeared from behind one of the stacks.
“In the library again?” she said in her unusually coarse voice. She leaned against the bookcase, her wool-clad arms crossed over her broad chest. “What are you looking for?”
“A book on slipweed,” he lied. “Mother was curious about its healing properties.”
“You’re a good son.” Avestine’s cold blue eyes narrowed, and Veris knew she didn’t believe him. “When you find out more, let me know. It might be helpful someday. I don’t need to leave all that knowledge to my healers.”
Before he knew it, he had laughed. He was usually more circumspect, but she had stolen the truth from him, another reason he didn’t like her. “What does healing mean to an immortal? You think I’m lying.” He took a breath and told himself to calm down.
Avestine’s smiled at his impulsiveness. “Should I have reason to doubt you?”
She smelled like violence, but he resisted stepping back.
“It’s true,” she continued. “The knowledge means little for me. But for your mother it might mean a lot. You know how much I care about her.” Her gloved hand stroked a book. “You spend all your time in this library, but you have more important things to think about. It will soon be time to put away this childishness. You’ll declare your god. You’ll take your place in service to the Emissary, like your mother.”
Veris stared at the place where Avestine had been standing long after she left. His mother thought he was keeping secrets, too. He sighed. Of course he was keeping secrets. Just not the ones everyone assumed.
“Rook told me he was traveling tomorrow,” said Kami. She reclined on a lounge in her quarters, one of a suite of rooms at the palace in Castlebejel she shared with her son.
Avestine nodded absently as she peered out the window. The snow-covered courtyard sparkled under the Ice Quarter sun. She was bred under the blue sun of the Dark Quarter. Despite many years living under a yellow sun, days like this often gave her a headache.
“I’m going, too.”
Avestine turned sharply. “I’m sending him to Bentwood. You don’t need to go.”
“I want to. I haven’t been out of the city in too long.”
Avestine smiled at a memory of Kami in a savage moment. Then she frowned. “I forbid it.”
Avestine left the window. Her mood softened when the musky scent of pleasure wafted from Kami. “There have been animal attacks in the mountains around Bentwood. Corpse desecrations. Village elders say the river has begun to flow backwards. I’m sure it’s just tales and trouble with bandits. Rook will take care of it. He’ll be back in a few days. I need you here.”
Kami laughed again and left the lounge. “You’ve spent every night with Esme. And I’ve seen you working on Astua. Has she yielded yet? You don’t need me.”
“You wanted time with your son, so I….” Avestine’s hand brushed across Kami’s smooth cheek. “Kept myself busy.” She dropped her hand. “Was your time profitable?”
“He’s sullen. I was hoping he would share what’s on his mind.”
Kami leaned into Avestine, resting her head on Avestine’s chest.
“What is it?” asked Avestine. She held Kami’s shoulders and looked into her brown eyes. Kami was more distant than usual. “Don’t worry about the boy.”
“He’s not what you think. He won’t become your Essanti.”
Avestine glanced about for a drink. Kami never kept a bottle in her quarters. “Veris is what I say he is. The way must be preserved. You remember what you did without me, what you became. Essanti serve. Essanti need to serve.”
“He is not Essanti.”
“We both know he shares the god. He must, since you lost her when he was born.”
“I’m not convinced of that. He’s never shown the same feeling for the Wild. He hates beasts.” Kami glanced away with a smile, then shook her head. “They make him sneeze.”
“He’s young still. He’s fearful. He will mature into a strong, courageous man. I can’t imagine anything else from a child of yours.” Avestine smiled. “Strong and passionate. He’s smart, too. Clever. You two are very much alike.”
“Except he doesn’t like you.”
Avestine’s eyebrows shot up. “Very often, you don’t either.”
Kami bit her lip and nodded. “Often.” She reached her handless arms around Avestine’s neck. “But today, I do.”
Avestine slipped her hands around Kami’s waist. “I’m not familiar with this sort of welcome, Child. Solicitation is not your style.”
“Are you trying to provoke me?”
Avestine started to say something and changed her mind. It’s true that she often provoked Kami. Such provocations usually ended with a rough passion Avestine enjoyed, but Kami’s mood intrigued her. “Perhaps I should say nothing?”
“That’s best,” muttered Kami as reached her open mouth to Avestine’s.
First god. One god. Nameless god. Veris’s finger traveled across the page as he read in silence. The foundation is one. The foundation becomes two. The two become many. He sat back and thought about the meaning of the text. A drawing accompanied the words. It showed a circle divided in six parts with two rings surrounding it. It looked very much like Pah Gol, taught to him by his mother. The six sections probably represented the gods of the Pantheon. He didn’t know what the rings represented. He didn’t know what the “foundation” referred to. And there was no fish. The sacred doctrine always had a fish at its center. The world had poured forth from the sea.
He carefully turned the page. The book was very old. He sneezed.
The next page had no words he recognized. He turned back, comparing the pages. They appeared to be written in different hands. He closed the book. He climbed onto the desk and slid the book back onto the high shelf where he had found it.
Veris had spent most of his fourteen years in this library. Only recently had he found himself examining books he had once ignored. Something important was hidden in the strange symbols. He spent whole afternoons just staring at them, willing them to make sense yet always failing.
This library belonged to the king of Castlebejel, an old man who found value in the obscure and unique. Veris had heard Avestine refer to King Harol Ogedai as a “tired and impotent leader,” but Veris knew the king to be friendly. He wished the old man would wander in; the king was the only person Veris felt safe asking questions. Even his mother was pressing him for explanations in a way he could no longer ignore.
He wasn’t particularly good at lying. He didn’t have the patience for it. He didn’t feel he owed words to anyone, not even his mother. But she worried. And that made him worry. He needed to allay her fears without too much truth.
Not that he knew the truth. He had suspicions. He had strange feelings that might find their reasons in places that frightened him. There was too much he didn’t know, and that frustrated him. He needed to know things, so much so, his mind seldom let him rest.
He climbed down from the desk and sat with his head in his hands. His temples throbbed.
He jerked awake. He was sitting on the floor in the library. His mother was kneeling before him.
“Were you sleeping?” She smiled and touched his face.
The gold wrist cap was cold against his skin. He had never seen her wrists without some covering, but he could imagine the deformed bone and scarred skin. Avestine’s brother had chopped off her hands in the ceremony that he would also experience, if Avestine had her way. She always had her way.
He had no idea how long he had been there. He glanced about but wasn’t near a window. Nevertheless, he knew the sun was low. It was past evensun. “You always want me to nap, right?”
“Somewhere warm and soft. It’s so cold in here. And the dust…it makes it hard for you to breathe.”
“I’m fine, mama.”
She kissed his head and stood up. He tensed when he smelled Avestine on her.
“Scouts tell us a blizzard is traveling darkward from the ice desert,” said Kami. “It will reach us tomorrow. I want you to stay in the suite until it passes.”
He stood up. “I’m not afraid of the snow or cold.”
“I am!” She shook her head. “One of these days I’m going to show you the Demonforest where I was born. So much life. So warm. One day you’ll see it for yourself. This land is so empty, so cold, so…so lifeless.”
His mother often told him stories about the Demonforest and her childhood. She said the sun was so warm there you could walk naked outside and fall asleep without blankets. She described colorful birds and creatures who stayed warm with no fur. The trees and bushes were many colors, and the ground was all green. Insects could fly like birds and they crawled everywhere, even outside. Veris didn’t find joy in his mother’s descriptions, but he saw how much she did.
She put her arm around his shoulders and they walked from the library. “I wish the sun would warm this land like it does demonward. Makes no sense to me why it’s always winter here. Tradeward they have both seasons. Maybe darkward, too. Here, well, I hate this place.”
“I’m getting older. We can leave. Would the Emissary let you?”
She scowled without looking at him. “Not for her to tell me what to do.”
Veris nodded, but he knew his mother. He saw the tether that kept her with Avestine. He didn’t understand it, but he had learned to accept it. When he was younger he thought one day he would kill Avestine and free his mother. Now that he was almost a man, he saw his mother was living the life she chose. She seemed to need Avestine, and sometimes, Avestine could be kind. “Maybe the storm will die before it reaches us. We might get a warm day. Stranger things have happened, right?”
She shrugged. “Yes, I’ve seen much stranger things.”
Veris thought about the blizzard, imagining the terrible wind and icy cold pouring down on the world, on his mother. He hated it. He imagined a warm day, a bright sun, and his mother standing on their balcony looking out over a green field. He wished he could give her that.
They made their way to their suite.
A day’s ride iceward, the raging ice storm moved toward Castlebejel, just one more in a continuous procession that kept the desert a frozen wasteland. But that day, as evensun dipped toward sunfall, the whipping wind grew calm. Snow turned to rain and white to gray. The air was wet and carried a warm breeze. Low places flooded with melt, and within a few days, green found its way into the Ice Desert for the first time in living memory.
Copyright © 2020 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.