AVESTINE RECUPERATED IN Kami’s suite while workers cleaned and repaired the damage in the darkward tower.
The king assigned more guards to Avestine when news reached him of the attack. He questioned the other witnesses, but he was particularly interested in Veris’s account. Kami knew how much King Ogedai Harol cared for her son. He frequently visited with Veris, speaking as a man to child rather than king to subject. Ogedai had no children of his own.
Kami sat with Veris when he recounted his meeting with the demonfell to the king.
“She or he, I’m not sure which,” explained Veris, “but I think the demonfell is a girl, came looking for something in our quarters. I thought sh—the demonfell was there as a thief, and I have no idea how she made it past the guard, but she did, and she didn’t take anything—or maybe she did. She pulled a diamond from under her eyepatch outside the Warmaster’s room, and maybe it came from the room—my mother’s room I mean, because there was a few minutes when she—the demonfell—disappeared into another room be—“
Kami touched Veris’s hand, the cool edge of her wrist cap startling him from his rambling explanation. He took a deep breath before he continued. “She left the room and I followed, but the guards claimed they had not seen her. I didn’t know where they had gone, but I realized my mother needed clo—I mean, I went to find her and discovered the demonfell at the Warmaster’s door.”
The king was nodding thoughtfully before he asked, “Do you think this demonfell released the monster?”
Veris glanced at his mother with surprise. The thought had obviously not occurred to him. “No, Lord, not at all,” said Veris. “A demonfell has the duty to remove demons from the world—”
“Yes,” said the king patiently, ‘I know what is said about a demonfell, but you were with her. What do you think?”
“I never had the impression she sought anything but the destruction of the creature. She knew it was here before the rest of us, but I don’t think she brought it. Everyone in the Warmaster’s quarters owes their life to her.”
The king smiled and squeezed Veris’s shoulder. “Thank you, son.” He walked back to his grand chair in the middle of his audience chamber. The red and gold of Castlebejel’s coat of arms draped across the high back. Guards stood at attention behind him and several of his advisors were seated nearby. As he sat down, he said, “The Marshall has already questioned the prisoner but feels her responses have been inadequate. If the Warmaster concurs, we will use what methods we need to get clarity.”
Before Veris could object, Kami pressed her arm against his. They bowed respectfully and left. As they walked alone through the palace corridor, Veris said, “Will he really torture her? She’s so young.”
“Perhaps she is young. Perhaps she is even a she. We know so little.” Kami stopped and turned to her son. He was taller than her shoulder now, quickly gaining the characteristics of a man. She was both proud and sad, a curious feeling that made her wonder about the experiences of her own mother. “You have compassion—a good thing when given to someone who is worthy.”
“You think she’s responsible for that monster?”
Kami smiled at the tone that warned of an imminent avalanche of logic. “I trust your instincts,” she said quickly. “You don’t feel she’s a threat, so I don’t.”
Veris glanced away and said, “That’s not quite true.” Kami tilted her head to see into his eyes. When his eyes met hers, he said, “She didn’t bring that thing to life. But I’m not sure we should trust her.”
Veris shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“That’s it? No points of logic?”
Veris rolled his eyes. “You’re making fun of me.”
“Most of your opinions have points of order and even charts.” She laughed softly. “All right, not a proof. A feeling.” She drew him into her arms. He hugged her back tightly. “Your honesty is my favorite thing about you,” she said as she kissed his head. “Well that and your wonderful hugs.”
Kami always found it odd that life as a mouse brought with it such comfort. As she crept through the corridor poking her narrow nose into cracks, she felt invincible. The stone and the darkness were her friends, and the ease of slipping away through a crack promised safety at every turn. She paused to scratch her ear. Safe except for fleas.
She poked her nose into the crack at a junction of two walls and a floor, smelled what she was searching for, and squeezed through. She dropped between stones onto a wooden beam and sped along the edge until she reached another wall, where she squeezed through again. She paused to listen and smell. Her eyes were useless in the dark.
She was in the ceiling of the cell that held the demonfell. The smell of waste was strong, but she caught the scent of food. Hunger urged her to search out the bread, but she resisted. Instead, she stretched out on wood and waited. She didn’t know what she waited for. She wasn’t even sure why she had come. Unknown forces drove so many things she did that she had long ago stopped questioning them.
The demonfell was sleeping, and after a time, Kami dropped from the ceiling, assuming her natural form. The room was small, so she stood only two paces from where the prisoner lay in straw. A bucket with waste sat in the corner behind her. Kami couldn’t tell where the bread was and reminded herself it didn’t matter. Rodent thoughts were quickly fading. She focused her thoughts inward until she found a tether she could follow out to other lives.
Beetles and worms and smaller creatures without names littered the room—in corners, straw, and waste. Pulsing connections like a living web drew her from the prison cell to the demonfell’s body, where she discovered lice and fleas. Seeking deeper connections, Kami traversed currents of creatures that seethed through blood and sinew, bones and organs. The demonfell was as human as any other, a host to a remarkable world unknown to all but Kami.
Kami’s attention wandered with the flow of life from limbs to shoulders and head. She explored the empty socket where an eye had been. The scarred flesh was not so ripe with creatures as Kami expected. The injury was very old and very clean.
“Clean” was not a word she liked. “Clean” meant dead. Where things were clean, nothing could live because there was no food. Avestine insisted on her world being clean, but Avestine preferred death, as did most people. As she thought of the cleanliness of the eye socket, Kami remembered the demonfell had stored the diamond there. Clever, she thought. She understood why Veris did not trust him. Him. Kami knew the demonfell was a boy, so again, she understood the distrust from her son who couldn’t make sense of what he saw.
“Who are you?”
Kami crouched in surprise at the voice. The demonfell sat up. Kami recognized movement from the sound and sway of all that moved within the young body. The utter darkness provided not even a glint of silhouette.
“Who are you?” asked the boy.
Kami focused her thoughts with intention, so the fleas and lice dropped from the boy’s body. She knew he, like most people, felt comforted by the emptiness of death. “You saved lives that matter to me.” She scattered the crawling things in the straw, sending them into the walls with an urge to find food elsewhere.
“Why are you here?” asked Kami.
“When the gods returned, so did the demons. Are you a god?”
“I am chaos.”
“Bala,” said the boy.
Kami felt a smile in the voice, and she asked, “What does a boy know about Bala?”
“I’m neither boy nor girl.”
“Your body tells a different story.”
“My body doesn’t matter.”
“The Warmaster will have questions. I suggest you have answers.”
Avestine was in-and-out of consciousness for days. Her skin healed slowly and incompletely, leaving new scars among the many old ones. Kami returned to her bedside throughout the days, along with the palace healer and servants who kept her clean and fed.
Kami had sent a messenger to find Rook and have him return. When Avestine was strong enough to sit up, Rook had still not returned. Avestine was complaining about the soup she was eating when Kami arrived to check on her progress. “Get me a pheasant and fish,” shouted Avestine, “and I want whiskey, damnit!”
A young maid stood near the bed startled by each outburst from Avestine. Another maidservant scurried to the bedside and used a cloth to wipe spilled soup from Avestine’s tunic. As the girl dabbed the cloth, Avestine seized her arms and shouted, “I’m not an invalid!” The girl stared at her with terrified eyes, and Avestine’s anger dissipated as her eyes roamed the young woman’s softness.
“You’re a brute,” said Kami when she reached the bed. She drew the young woman free from Avestine’s reluctant grip.
Avestine glared from under an angry brow. “What have you found out from your son? What was he doing with that thief?”
Kami sat on the edge of the bed. She smoothed a wrinkle in the quilt, her silver wrist caps gliding through piles of white rabbit fur. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling stronger.”
“I was never not strong.” Before Kami could argue, Avestine exclaimed, “Magic! I’ll cut out every sorcerer’s tongue and skin every familiar. Summoning demons and destroying order. It’s disgusting. Has the old woman been found?”
Kami pressed her lips together and shook her head. “There are a hundred old women working here.”
“Not so many,” replied Avestine. “I’ve released quite a few.”
Kami nodded. “I’m well aware that you wish to populate the entire palace with beautiful young women.”
“I don’t manage the kitchen.”
Kami laughed. When Avestine scowled at her, Kami said, “You manage everything.”
“The old woman must have been a witch. That damn ruby she gave me was cursed. When I find her…” Avestine tossed off the quilt and slid to the edge of the bed. Kami rose to block her. “I’m fine, Child. Get out of my way.”
Kami frowned but stepped to the side. “Rook hasn’t returned.”
“You shouldn’t have sent for him.”
“We were fortunate that a demonfell was here. So yes, we need Rook. We need everything.”
Avestine raised an impatient eyebrow. “You think there will be more?”
“Of course I do. Don’t you? You sent Rook to deal with magic in the villages. You know there’s more.”
“He went to prove it wasn’t magic.”
Kami stared into the blue eyes. It wasn’t like Avestine to deny the truth.
Avestine rose from the bed and stepped very close to her. “I’m the one who decides the truth.”
Kami brushed Avestine’s cheek with her wrist cap. “I’m glad you’re healed.”
“Of course I’m healed. I’m immortal.” Her eyes narrowed several times before she turned away and sent her guard to bring the demonfell to her audience chamber.
As Avestine stood still watching the young women dressing her, her mood eased, and her body warmed. Kami felt Avestine’s mood as if it were her own, so she was grateful for the sensual distraction that eased Avestine’s anger.
Kami watched the maids dress Avestine, and then she followed her and the guards from the room.
© 2021 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.