“Truly, it was about security. The kingdoms couldn’t begin to even talk about peace until they knew their borders were secure, from the stoneskins, and especially from each other. Once Darcana and his heirs started wandering the land with that sword, everyone fell into line surprisingly quickly. The so-called Golden Age might have only lasted five hundred years, but almost everything we know in natural philosophy and magic was discovered in that time, and so much more has been lost. Had only the queen, crowned less than a year, survived the Cataclysm… but of course, she did not. And now a thousand more years have passed, and still we squabble over refuse, while vultures pick at what little meat is left on the bones.”
- Excerpt: Tempi’s “Meditations on the Kingdom of Eight.
This is the part of my duties that I detest.
I open the door without knocking and step inside. Hannah's home is a small one, but it is well kept. Still, the stench of human is overwhelming, despite the incense and oils and flowers in vases. A nice attempt, but a futile one. My snout is far too sensitive to be fooled by such clumsy ministrations.
Hannah stands there, glowering at me from behind a table, her hand held protectively over her belly. Her husband is not here. I had the good sense to assign Mese to Wall duty this day. Let him collect tolls, while I have the conversation he is too chickenhearted to have on his own.
My snout is tingling from the rank stench of the place, and I have to keep my wings close to my body to avoid the low ceiling. Cramped. A bad place to fight in. Not that I'm expecting a fight here, but you can never tell with an angry mother. Especially a human one.
"You're not taking him!" she shouts at me, backing away and grabbing at a kitchen knife on the table. The woman named Hannah holds the knife up, still cradling her rounded belly with the other hand, as if she's worried that I'll leap across the table and rip out her unborn baby with my claws or something.
Humans are so melodramatic. I try not to roll my eyes, but I do allow myself a moment of silent gloating. I warned about this. I argued against allowing spouses of guardsmen to live with them in the forts, and no one listened. But then, I argued against allowing dragon-kin to marry human women in the first place. Blame my grandmother for that particular bit of idiocy.
It's a good thing my grandmother is not in command here.
I'm annoyed now, because while Mese obviously failed to convince Hannah to let us take the child out of her, he let her know that this was what we wanted. Now she is defensive, and I'm faced with the burden of convincing this stupid animal to do what's best for herself and her unborn child.
A long time ago, I got hit by an arrow in the shoulder. I remember the pain when the field doctor grabbed the arrow shaft to remove it. In my pain, I pled with him to pull it out slowly, not understanding that sometimes trying to be gentle can cause more pain and damage than getting the deed done quickly and decisively.
Oh, I cursed his name when he ripped the arrow from me, and did so again when he applied the hot iron to my wound, but I thank him now for the use of my arm and the tiny round scar there to remind me of the wisdom of directness.
I could be gentle with this woman, sit down and explain this calmly over tea, but sometimes the direct approach is the best one, and in the long run, she'll thank me for this.
"Hannah. Do you want your child to die?"
That at least gets her attention. The knife wavers slowly. She's confused. I don't rush forward and take the knife from her, though I easily could. I'm just not sure I could do it without injuring her, and I'm not about to risk the child's safety.
"Do you know what happens when a dragon, or even a part-dragon, mates with a human woman? Mese didn't tell you that, did he?"
She shakes her head, not moving from behind the table. She's not letting her guard down. Fine.
"You must have felt it. The hardening of your belly. The speed with which this baby has grown. How far along are you? A month? Two? If that were a human baby I'd say you were seven or eight months already. You are not built to have this child and survive. The child is not built to survive inside of you."
That gets her defiant. "Humans and dragons mate all the time! Synon is full of half-breeds! This fort is manned by nothing BUT half-breeds! You're half human! You can't trick me into giving up my baby!"
Technically I'm three quarters human, but Hannah doesn't need the details of my parentage.
"Hannah, listen to me. In all of those cases, the father was the human, and the mother was at least part dragon. When a female dragon gets pregnant, she gives birth to an egg after only a month or so, and the child grows inside of the egg, not inside of the mother. The mother nurtures and protects the egg, and when the child is ready, he breaks his way out of the egg and into the world.
"You are not a dragon. Do you know what is going to happen to you? You can't lay an egg, yet the blood of the baby dragon will create one anyway. Your insides are going to harden and solidify to protect that baby. Everything inside of you is going to wrap around that child and harden to give it what it needs. In another month, your guts will be gone, and you'll start starving to death. Another few weeks after that, your lungs will get absorbed, and you'll simply choke to death. The child might live for another couple of days beyond that before starving within your rotting corpse.
"Or, you might get lucky. The baby might develop quickly and be born before all of that happens. Have you ever seen a dragon, or a bird, being born? They have a little sharp tip on the end of their nose called an egg tooth. They use it to break their way out of their shell. That baby inside of you will rip its way free with its egg tooth. Maybe it will go out the back, through your spine. Or maybe it will go through your chest, and your heart. Or downwards.
"Either way, the child will get to grow up knowing that it killed its own mother just to be born. Assuming, of course, you both survive long enough for that to happen."
She's trying not to cry, and she's failing. She's still gripping the knife, though. "It's my child."
"You want your child to survive. So do I. Let me help you."
She nods, slowly, and puts down the knife. I extend a claw, kindly, and she takes it.
It's a quick walk to the doctor's tent, and I explain some of the procedure to her as we walk, though why I am wasting my time on reassurance is beyond me.
"They are going to put you into a sleep. They'll open you up and remove the baby, and place it into an egg so that it can grow safely and be born. Half a year from now, the child will be born alive and healthy, and will grow up without anyone getting hurt.”
She still seems unsure.
"This really is the best for the baby. He has to come out of you, or you will both die."
She nods, slowly. "What happens after the surgery? What are you going to do with him?"
"Don't worry. Afterward, he'll grow in his egg, and later be born healthy and happy. It will still take a couple of months, but the egg will protect him until he's born. You will be healthy and able to get up soon after the procedure. I'll see to it that everything is taken care of personally and that neither of you is hurt."
She nods again, and she wipes away her tears with her free hand, and follows me into the tent. I smile with what she must assume is kindness as they lay her upon the table, for never in all of our discussions did I actually lie to her.
The operation is a simple one, and takes less than an hour. The shell is artificial, and magical, but the baby won't know the difference. Magic likewise seals the woman's incisions and removes all pain. Our surgeons are good at what they do, and by the end of the day she will be completely recovered, as if she never was pregnant in the first place. Years of our interbreeding with humans have made them experts at such things. Hannah is still asleep, though, when I hand the egg to the young half-dragon woman we summoned to care for it. Her mate stands beside her, beaming. This child will be well-loved with them, and I am satisfied. I walk with them out the gate of the fortress, and all the way to the guard post at the gate at the entrance to the pass.
"Don't stop until you've reached New Synon. Don't spend the night in Cyrint. I need this baby across the Wall and safely at home in the city. Understood?" They both nod, eagerly. They're excited to start their new lives as parents. In some ways, I envy them.
I motion to the guards, and one of them opens the gate to let them through into the shadows of the pass. Then I turn to the other guard, still standing at attention as they walk past.
"You're going with them Mese. Now. Your possessions will be mailed to you. You're dismissed from this post, and confined to the city until I return. You can guard the walls of New Synon like a private until I'm satisfied that you're no longer a threat to your own kind. You are not to cross back over this Wall until given leave. Am I clear?"
Mese is looking at the ground, but nods. All the fight has left him. The dressing-down I gave him this morning extinguished the last of his protests. He can guard his child's new parents on their trip home, and man the walls with the recruits as a punishment. Living without his stupid pet human will be punishment enough I suppose, but he's lucky I don't expel him from the Brotherhood itself for his idiocy.
There's still one more arrow to pull.
I walk back into the fortress, and stalk over to the doctor's tent. I duck inside, and Hannah is sitting up, rubbing her eyes and tentatively feeling her belly. Damn it. I expected her to sleep just a little longer. She looks up as I enter.
"Where's my baby?"
"The baby is safe. He's in a proper egg now, and he's being looked after."
"Can I see him?"
And now I finally let the grin I've been holding back for hours creep across my face. "See him? My dear woman, he's already been given to a family who can care for him properly. A woman who isn't so stupid that she'll accidentally make him into an omelet the first time she gets hungry. See him? I'd sooner throw him into a volcano than let you see him again."
My tone surprises even me a little, but I don’t let it register on my face.
Hannah’s eyes widen, first with shock and then with rage. "You tricked me! You've stolen him! I knew I should never have trusted you!" She grabs a scalpel from the table by her bed (why would the doctor even have one of those there?) and rushes forward at me.
My tail takes her in the knees and she goes down sprawling past me, out of the tent and into the sunlight. I'm on her in a moment, pinning her to the ground and I wrench the blade from her fingers with a care that I'm sorely tempted to neglect.
She spits upwards into my face. "You lied to me!"
Now I'm annoyed.
"Listen to me, you stupid hairless ape. I did not lie to you. I never told you that you'd get the child back, only that he would be safe. He will be safe, with his new parents. And you and the child would have both died if you were allowed to continue carrying him in that disgusting, soft pulpy thing you call a body."
I stand, leaving her there to glare at me from the dirt. "My mother died when I ripped my way free from her flesh, and my father died soon after from the sorrow of it. I'll not allow another dragon-kin grow up knowing he killed his own mother just to be born, just because of your stupidity and lack of foresight. Your child is long since gone, and on his way to a place where you can never threaten his safety again."
I motion to some nearby guards.
She glares at me, still not moving from the ground. "You can't do this. I am his mother! My husband won't let you get away with this!"
Two guards have already walked up and helped her to her feet, gently. I step forward, my smile gone.
"You are no longer his mother, and Mese is no longer your husband. They have been sent south, to be with their own kind and you will not follow them. You have no more claim on them. Go back north, to your own kind, where they don't care who you spread your legs for."
I turn to one of the guardsmen. "Remove this filth from the fort. She is barred from the pass, and Cyrint, and banished from the Southlands. See that she's gone from this area by nightfall."
They restrain her before she can lunge forward at me, and drag her backwards out of the fort. She struggles against them, futilely. She bites, and claws, and screams, but they are Brothers of the Flame, and they are impassive and as solid as stone. Had Mese truly been one of them, I wouldn't have had to deal with this unpleasantness in the first place.
They bar the heavy wooden gate after her, but her wailing from outside the walls follows me until I reach my office. I slam the door, more heavily than usual, and the noise is gone.I soak in the silence for a moment, ignoring the overwhelming forceful sense of presence from the corner behind me, before I walk over to my desk. I ignore that feeling, and the person it implies, for a moment, walking around and settling into my chair and leaning back before acknowledging it.
Babaiya Erinnius moves forward into the light, slowly. She's in human form, moving intentionally, methodically, carefully. Oh, she is full of rage, fairly trembling with it, and struggling to contain it without ripping me to shreds right here in this office, and I can't help but feel a thrill of glee.
I've really knocked that bitch's smug expression off her face this time.
"You are a bastard. A heartless monster."
"Oh come off of it, grandmother. I saved that child's life."
"And once he hatched, that poor women could have raised it just as well as any dragon could have. He already had two loving parents."
"He had a Brother distracted from his duty and a harlot setting a bad example. Better that Mese be back at home where he can't do any more damage. Better that the mother be the humans' problem."
She begins pacing in front of my desk. "It was a mistake putting you in charge of the Brotherhood. This used to be a mixed company. Half-dragons, full dragons, human alike were all welcome and all served with honor and bravery. Tell me, Scnadra. When was the last time you recruited anyone who didn't have dragon blood?"
"I recruit those I deem worthy. I am in command here, not you."
"Even Synon is becoming nothing but half-breeds mating with half-breeds. It used to be a city of joining, of human and dragon working together. Our city was the shining example for all races after the darkness of the Cataclysm. Now it's separated. Segregated into human and dragon districts. Your influence is not helping matters there."
"Our two peoples have less in common than you think. It is better that they live apart."
She scowls at me, and I feel a charge in the air as her control slips, just the tiniest bit, "It really was a mistake putting you in charge. I thought your unique heritage would give you an insight others lacked, and that working with other races would temper your rage. All it has granted you is deeper hatred and intolerance."
"You put me in this position, grandmother. Any time you want to take it back, feel free."
She stops then. Of course she doesn't want command back again. She has too much else to deal with, what with destiny and prophecies and caring for my doddering grandfather.
She is very silent, as if listening to something far off, and when she looks back again at me I have to flinch despite my training. For the briefest moment it seems like she's about to leap over the desk at me, claws and fangs and fire, and for the briefest moment I am honestly afraid. Then she pulls herself up to stand straight, and sets her shoulders. She looks at something on the floor for a long moment, and when she looks back up at me again, all of the emotion has left her face. She's gotten herself back under control, which is as it should be. She's finally acting like a dragon.
It takes several longer seconds for my breathing to slow and for me to release my death grip on the desk.
She frowns, deeply, but maintains her poise. "What you did today was wrong."
"It was my choice to make."
"It was needlessly cruel."
"It was necessary."
"I will not forget it."
I glare at her. "I haven't forgotten what your son did to my mother."
She's quiet, but shakes her head, then sighs. "They were both your parents. Some day you will have to forgive them. And yourself."
I don't explode into the rage that comment might have once inspired in me. I know damn well from where my prejudices spring. Instead I swallow my anger, and don't give the bitch the satisfaction of my reaction. I lean back in the chair again and look up at my grandmother, and my face is nothing but calm, and professional. "Was there a particular reason you came to visit today?"
Her frown disappears, and she looks at me thoughtfully, as if sizing me up. I suddenly feel like a flank of beef on display.
She turns away, yet her words are clear, with a forcefulness of command that she had, until now, not bothered with.
"Scandra. I am still your commanding officer, at least technically. I have orders for you. Prepare a company to ride out tomorrow. You'll be accompanying me and some friends of mine back to the Dragonhome. Outfit your company for battle. We may encounter enemies along the way."
Even in human guise, she can be commanding when she wants to be. Without thinking I stand and salute. I curse myself for doing it, but instincts and training die hard. But fine, I'll play baby sitter for her group, and be professional. "Yes, grandmother."
She seems about to say something else, but shakes her head again and stalks out the door, slamming it behind her. In the brief moment it is open, I can still hear Hannah's wailing from outside the fort.
It is less satisfying than I expected it to be.
Cyrint is cold and my heart is ice.
I hate this town.
I am a coward. I should ignore the command of my god. I should flee, and hide, and use my skills to become someone else. I could survive for a time, before they found me. They would find me, of course. I am good, but I am not that good. I could probably defeat the first six assassins they sent after me, but they would eventually learn, and eventually they would get lucky.
As long as I obey, they allow me to live. As long as I live, I continue to be free. As long as I am free, he cannot use me to bring her back.
I need more time to fix all of this. I am sorry, whoever-you-are-who-has-to-die.
Enough. I am a practical woman. I am going to kill someone. I need details. So I go first to the inn, rent a room, then stable the mule and pay the stable-boy a little extra to have my travel pack brought to my room. Then I retire to the pub next door to learn and to plan.
The sign over the door is in the shape of a blue dragon, and that is the pub’s name. I had been told once that its owner actually was a blue dragon, or at least used to be, but I have never seen it. It would not be unheard of in these parts.
I’ve been here many times before, and nothing has changed. The bartender is a massive troll, with a smile that can peel paint, and his name is Ralph. The gnome sitting at the end of the bar, tinkering with some sort of gadget is Jake. The lady who seems human (but is obviously not to those who can see such things) is Julia. Those are not their real names, but most of their customers are humans, and they like to make people feel at home. They know me well, as I have shared drinks with them more than once.
I always make a point of becoming friendly with bartenders in every town I visit. You never know when you will need an alibi.
At this time of day there are plenty of tables to choose from, so I settle at one towards the back up against a wall. I sit, and wait, and rest my chin on my steepled fingers, the middle finger of my left hand crossed over the index. I sit, and wait, and sit some more and wait some more. Julia comes and I order a drink and then I sit some more and wait some more and Julia returns with a new ale that Ralph has concocted and I pay her and sit some more and wait some more and finally I grow impatient and sip my drink and oh my goodness I must speak with Ralph later because he has outdone himself this time.
The doors swing open and someone comes in. Just someone. He is nondescript. You would not remember him, or be able to describe him. He is average, boring, every-day, background, scenery. Ralph of course glares at him because he is trained to notice these things.
I resume my pose, and Average-man slowly, casually, walks over towards my table and sits down. I hold my hands in place as he rests his own head on his steepled fingers, and crosses the middle finger of his right hand over his ring finger.
This is a lot harder than it looks, but I nod in greeting to Average-man and lower my hands. He does the same.
He speaks first. “The harvest is ripe. Are the farmers going out today?”
“The farmers have all of their tools, but they are waiting to see if it rains.”
“The almanacs predict good weather today.”
“One of the farmers told me he wanted a thicker almanac with less weather and more gossip.”
“I’ve heard some good gossip on my travels.”
“Have any you can share?”
“I’ll have an almanac sent to you, and you can share that with the farmers.”
“I’d appreciate it. I know we’re all looking forward to a successful harvest.”
He nods, stands, and walks away, ignored by everyone and remembered by no one.
I take my time finishing my drink, and then I stand and go over to the bar. I pull out a few coins to leave as a tip for Julia and Ralph, and place them on the bar as he walks over. He puts down the mug he has just finished cleaning and stares at the coins.
“Whatever you two are plotting, I hope you keep it out of the bar. Don’t involve Jake and Julia.”
I don’t insult his intelligence by acting surprised. A lot of people assume trolls are dimwitted or naïve. It’s a deadly mistake to make, and I think of Ralph as a friend. At least, more of a friend than anyone else.
“I will keep you out of it, and I will be gone before nightfall.”
He grunts. “More of those burdens you can’t talk about, huh?”
I got famously drunk the last time I was in his pub. Even after twelve bottles of ale, there are some things I just do not share with anyone else.
I simply nod in reply.
He takes the coins, turns and walks back over to his pile of dirty glasses. I think he will not speak of my being here, nor of my conversation with Average-man. I think he will respect my discretion and understand that I only do what needs to be done, not only for myself but for the entire world. I think he will not turn me in.
I cannot be sure, because I am about to commit murder.
A dirty woman in a worn black dress appears on the street, wandering and looking confused. She is barefoot. Her black hair is long, untied, unkempt. She stumbles and leans on the side of a building as wagons roll by. She wipes away grime and unshed tears from her face and looks at the various doors as she spins around, confused. There is a deepening bruise under her left eye, and several cuts across her ankles, her wrists, what little is exposed of her back. Her eyes dart furtively left, and right, and she jumps at every unexpected sound. Half running, half crouching in fear, she makes her way towards a building at the southern end of the town, a tall building seven or eight stories high, standing apart from the others, but like them half carved from the rock itself. Two guards stand in front of the door here, and she stands away, as if fearful to approach. Wagon drivers curse at her to get out of the road, and she moves forward, trips and falls on her face in the mud.
One of the guards moves forward to help her up. She winces as he holds out his hand, but then takes it and lets him pull her up. She stares at the ground, not daring to meet his gaze, but the guard lifts her chin anyway, and sucks in his breath through his teeth when he sees her black eye.
“Do you need help?”
She doesn’t answer, but hugs herself tightly, shifting her weight, and looking up and down the street as if in fear.
“Miss, we can help you. Who’s after you?”
“I… I was told… they said he can help me. They said to ask for Mr. Worm? I don’t want to go back, please don’t let them find me!”
The other guard steps forward and motions to the door, and sets his pike, looking up and down the street for trouble. The first guard gently coaxes the woman forward, up the three steps to the front door of the building. “No one will hurt you. Mr. Worm can keep you safe. Please, come this way.” Trembling, looking backwards, she follows him inside.
He leads her down a short hallway to a small room, with a single chair. The door is a sliding panel of paper. The colors are warm: deep red, brown and purple in the rugs, the wall hangings and the cushion of the chair. The lamps here are bright, but shielded and indirect. He leads her to the chair, coaxes her to sit, and quietly leaves the room, sliding the panel closed behind him.
She glances around, nervously, starting at the creaking of the wood as people move about upstairs. She grips her arms, and feels at her face, wincing. It’s warm in this room, but she shivers.
She’s there for less than a minute before the panel slides open again. A woman in a gown walks in, closing the panel behind her. Her gown is Synonian in style, skirted and billowy at the ankles, but tightly fitting otherwise. Her neck and shoulders are covered. She moves with a casual grace, an elegance. The red of her dress matches the deep colors of the room, her earrings and the bracelet at her right wrist.
She walks over to the woman sitting in the chair, and kneels before her.
“You are safe now. We can protect you. I’m Ta’lah. What is your name?”
The woman in the chair looks up, biting her lip. “Sho. Can I go home? I just want to go back home.”
“Hello Sho. It is very nice to meet you. We shall see, after Mr. Worm hears your story. In a short while, I will take you to meet him. First, I need to make sure you are safe, and no one is using you to get at Mr. Worm. I must search you for any weapons. Do you understand?”
“Search… me? Weapons? I don’t…”
“Don’t worry, Sho. Mr. Worm helps many people, and there are many bad people who would like to hurt him. The sooner I search you, the sooner you can go to meet him. Is that alright?”
“I don’t… o… ok. Yes. I understand.”
“Alright then. Please stand up.”
Sho stands, and Ta’lah rises with her. “First things first. Let’s get you something clean to wear.” She walks over to the wall and moves aside one of the wall hangings. She reaches into a small alcove there and pulls out some white linens. Setting them on the chair, she turns Sho around and begins to unlace her dress.
“What? What are you…”
“Hush. We can help you, but only if you cooperate.” With a practiced flair, she undoes the ties, and the black dress falls to the floor. “Please step over here.”
Sho steps aside, covering herself.
Ta’lah bundles up the discarded dress and walks over to the door, sliding it open a crack and handing it to someone outside. “Please burn this.”
She returns to Sho. “Please hold your hands out to your sides.” She begins running her fingers through Sho’s hair, feeling, searching.
She gets to Sho’s face and her fingers linger over the bruise under her eye. “I’m very sorry about this” she says, then rubs hard at the bruise. Sho shrieks. Ta’lah grabs at Sho’s hands, gently. “I’m sorry. I had to be sure it was real.”
She moves downward, searching, her fingers lingering on the cuts and bruises and scars, as if verifying them. After a minute or two, she steps away, and picks up the pile of white linens. “I am sorry, again. The worst is over now. If you will get dressed, we will go to see Mr. Worm immediately, and we will see about finding a place for you.”
“And then can I go home?”
“That is for Mr. Worm to decide. Please trust that his judgment is best.”
Ta’lah hands the linens to Sho, and quietly leaves the room. The linens are a white cotton robe, a cotton belt, wool slippers and a silk hair tie. Sho puts them on, and relaxes somewhat. She ties her hair up out of her face, and cinches the belt, casting a last look around the room as Ta’lah returns and holds out her hand, smiling.
Smiling herself, Sho takes it and follows Ta’lah up the polished wooden stairs.
Mr. Worm’s office is high in the building, on the seventh floor. Sho and Ta’lah pass offices, and a large space where men and women practice one of the fighting dances of the western islands. Above that are several floors of dormitories, where women, and even a few young men, smile and wave as she passes. All are dressed in cotton robes. All bear scars on their exposed skin. None bear bruises, and none have fear in their eyes.
The doors to Mr. Worm’s office are the first thing Sho sees as she reaches the seventh floor. They are massive doors of solid and heavy wood, painted a deep green with gold along the borders. Ta’lah walks to them, Sho following behind, wondering. Ta’lah knocks three times, and the doors swing open. A guard smiles and nods at her, and Ta’lah leads Sho inside.
The room is brightly lit, and large. It is a banquet hall, a throne room of sorts. Cushions and pillows line the far walls, and a massive long table sits in the center. Cushions line the table as well, and the walls themselves are adorned with colorful tapestries of abstract color. The rug is thick and bouncy. A soothing perfume wafts from the lamps hanging over the table. At the far end of the table is a chair, the only chair in the room. It is not a throne, per se, but on either side are statues of dragons reclining in solid jade. It has the same effect.
Sitting there is a man, tall, aging but quick of eye, black hair just beginning to grey. He smiles, and motions towards the newcomers. Ta’lah pulls Sho over to the cushion at the near end of the table, and helps Sho onto it, then bows low towards the seated man and walks out of the room.
Sho flinches as the massive doors close, and looks around. Apart from the man at the end of the table and the guard by the door, she is alone. The man sitting between dragons is, perhaps, thirty feet away.
She squints at him, and at the dragon statues on either side of him. “Dragons… oh… not Worm… it’s Wyrm!”
The map claps his hands and laughs. “Spendid. You’ve already solved my riddle! A little joke to keep the underworld confused. Scoundrel outside, noble underneath.”
Sho looks confused, and glances around nervously.
Mr. Wyrm frowns, and motions to the guard. The guard comes forward with a pitcher he procured from somewhere, and pours into a goblet on the table in front of Sho. The liquid is red. “Some wine will help you relax.’ The guard pours for Mr. Wyrm as well, and he takes a long sip from his own goblet. “Please, drink.”
Sho reaches for the cup, but then pulls her hand back and shakes her head. Mr. Wyrm frowns again, but shrugs. “As you will. Tell me your name.”
“Alright Sho. How did you come to us? How did you hear about us?”
“They came for me when I was in the fields. The men. They said I was a slave. That I had to do what they said or they’d kill me. They killed Shireen. When we were all in the wagons together, she kept saying that slavery is against the law, and they killed her. I only just met her, and they killed her.” She bursts into tears, and Mr. Wyrm lets her cry for a few moments.
“Sho, you are safe now. That woman, Shireen? She was correct. Slavery is illegal, but some Lords still practice it. Many people, like you, find themselves carried off to lands where the Council of Lords doesn’t have much influence. Even in these lands, there are some lords who keep slaves, against the law. My friends and I try to put a stop to it where we can, to help those we can.”
Sho looks up at those words, tears on her cheeks, but hope on her eyes for the first time since she came here.
“Can you tell me what happened after? Who hurt you?”
Sho looks down at her arms and legs as if they are alien to her. “They said… they said I was an example, that this is what happens to slaves to disobey. They used their whips on me.”
“I understand. How did you escape?”
She shudders. “One of the men came with a knife and started threatening us. He was going to hurt us… he tried to…”
Silence for a moment.
“I don’t know how I got the knife, but he was dead, and I was holding it.”
She grabs the steak knife beside her, as if to demonstrate.
“None of the other guards saw, and I knew… I knew they’d kill me, so I jumped out of the wagon and ran. They tried to chase me, but I took the knife and threw it.”
The knife is halfway across the table.
Mr. Wyrm has not noticed that it has left my hand. I am already turning and grabbing up the cushion. My arm comes around, grabbing it, and releasing it. It hits the guard in the face at the same moment that the knife hits Mr. Wyrm in the throat.
Mr. Wyrm rises. This I sense through nahhu as he reaches out, choking on his own blood. He manages to grab the knife and pulls it free, the poor, poor man. Blood decorates the wall as he spins and falls.
The guard is so startled he does not really have time to react before I am in his face, my hands flying, crushing his windpipe, and then snapping his neck. I lower him to the ground, gently.
It is suddenly very quiet.
Oh my god. Oh my goddess. What have I done? What have I done?
Who else is there to blame?
Not yet. Not yet. Not time. Focus.
Mr. Wyrm lies where he fell, upon his stomach. I move down the table, warily, and kneel to check his pulse. He is gone. I close his eyes.
Not yet. Not yet. Not time. Focus.
My eyes drift to the side, to the sprayed splatter of red upon the wall where Mr. Wyrm’s lifeblood was splashed. I instinctively focus on the splatter, on its shape, wondering what it will be this time.
I have no words for this.
This is new. This is not of my god. Someone else has placed their hands into the game.
Words come to me suddenly, unbidden.
You bring in your wake destiny,
And do not brook dissent.
Such is life,
Such is blood,
And I am struck with a searing pain in my belly as nahhu screams and flees.
Not yet. Not yet. Not time. Focus.
It is hopeless. It is only me, Darsena, and the banquet hall. I cry and give my water unto the dead. Then I burst out laughing. I laugh with a screeching shriek that makes my face ache.
The door opens.
Ta’lah looks in. “Is everything…”
She sees. She screams. She flees.
Nahhu is slow in answering. By the time I have cloaked myself in it again, I can already hear the sound of boot steps upon the stairs, and the clatter of metal. Guards.
Nahhu, now in the hour of our deaths grant us the understanding to reject false illusions.
All paths lead to blood. All paths lead to… my death.
That cannot be right.
Nahhu, now in the hour of our deaths grant us the understanding to reject false illusions.
All paths lead to blood. All paths lead to my death.
I hold nahhu in place and call upon her sisters.
Nehhu, come to me. Nehhu, she who sleeps, show me the path.
All paths lead to blood. All paths lead to my death.
No no no no.
Neghhu. Girdle of fate. Give me another way.
All paths lead to blood. All paths lead to my death.
Oh no, please, I cannot. I cannot use it.
Neghhru, the oldest sister, sits, just out of sight to my right. It laughs.
No, I will not!
It simply laughs. The doors fly open and guards pour into the room. They stop, see me standing near their fallen master. Their eyes narrow. Their grips tighten on hilts. Their shoulders set.
I am going to die.
Neghhru laughs. She whispers. “I will save you. “
She lies. She merely wants me for herself.
Oh goddess, I am afraid!
The guards begin to circle around the table, slowly, warily. I look from side to side, but there is no other exit to this room.
Neghhru giggles. “You will die. Die die die die die die!”
Oh, goddess, please save me. I do not want to die.
Oh, goddess, forgive me.
Visions of my own death assail me, of my own body sliced and carved and mutilated and desecrated. She slides in close and whispers into my ear. “Now, or never, dear.” Oh goddess, help me, I dip my toe into neghhru. I dip it into neghhru only for a moment because it is a fire that burns, but it is enough.
I am sorry.
I am sorry.
I am so, so sorry.
Freedom. Sweet freedom. Life. Beautiful life. Such vitality. Such blasphemy! Oh, to see it end! Her breath catches in her throat and her entire body bursts in a spasm of ecstasy at the mere thought of it!
Far away, the girl’s tiny little voice screams in terror at these thoughts. Oh, quiet down, will you? she thinks. I must enjoy every moment of this!
She stands, facing them, head bowed, shoulders trembling, her breath coming ragged and fast. They spread out, attempting to surround her. She stands, stock still, holding her breath now, her trembling shoulders the only indication they she is even alive. They move closer, kicking pillows and cushions out of the way, encircling her. They move very close, and hold their weapons out at the ready. “She is going to pay for her crime,” they must be thinking. “She is going to die.”
She feels their thoughts, for death has always been her domain.
Why did they forget? she thinks. How dare they forget!
Her head whips up. Her eyes shine golden. Her mouth opens as if in a scream, and golden light pours forth. A nimbus of golden light surrounds her and blinds those who are the closest to her. She weeps, because they will not see the glory that claims them in the last moments of their lives. Her arms come up, and she is suddenly everywhere at once.
She moves. Men die.
It is sudden. It is bloodless. She touches them and they crumple. She spins and dances among them, lightly touching each man upon the wrist, or the shoulder, or perhaps upon the small of the back. Each collapses, dead. Twenty men die within a half minute. It is a fact. Lovi calls them, and they die. The sun comes up. Wind blows. Snow is cold. Lovi kills.
It has been so long.
She is trembling at the sensation of her power poured out for the first time in thousands of years, and she wants more. Her power is bloodless, and she wants to sink her claws into them, to drink their blood, to set fires and watch them burn. It is over so quickly. Too quickly.
She tilts her head, almost disappointed, as the last man falls. She extends her senses downwards through the building, but there is no one else nearby. Everyone has fled downwards, even Ta’lah. She wanted Ta’lah. Ta’lah might have been fun for a few moments.
She considers walking downstairs, but pain (and she knows so well about pain now, doesn’t she, doesn’t she Yuu?) reminds her that this is not her body, that she is merely borrowing it. It is so fragile. So disappointing! The voice of the girl Darsena screams at her to hurry, so small and feeble against the wind of her power, but she agrees. She is disappointed, but she agrees. Her time is not now. She will have to return to the Heart of the World. It is sad, but she is used to the pain now. She welcomes it. She will share its unexpected delights with everyone. Soon, she will be free forever. Soon, the game will never have to end.
Lovi turns and walks out of the room, the blinding glow fading from her as she walks. She shakes her hands as if discarding dirt, and walks down the hallway, looking upwards as she goes. There, in the ceiling, is a skylight. She lifts her arms and rises through it. The glass shatters. It does not cut her. She is Lovi.
She hovers and floats, high above the rooftops, near to the wall where none would bother to look. Far below, merchants and guards and travelers are far more focused on the screaming and shouting men and women pouring from the building to notice her flying far above. She smiles. You see, she thinks. My ways are always the best.
Lovi floats up, casually, regally, over towards the other buildings, the ones nestled up against each other. This building has a pub on the ground floor. This one is the stable. This one is the inn. She settles upon the rooftop there, and lowers her arms. There is another skylight, but it is hinged, and unlocked. She opens it, and drops down within.
She is in a corridor lined with doors. Darsena’s room is the second one from the end down the hall. Lovi smiles. You see? Soon we will be able to do this all of the time.
I will be waiting!
No. Goddess, no!
Her departure rips something from inside me, and I cough up blood. Why did I… this… oh Gorgus, damn you. You and your insane wife both!
I fall to my knees, retching, coughing into my sleeve. I look and it is stained red.
There is no one here with me. It is only me, Darsena, and the inn. There’s no nahhu. There’s no nothing. I am empty inside, except for the residue of negghru, which is a fire that burns. My belly aches, but I hold it within me.
I slowly, carefully, walk towards my room. Negghru screams and beats against my flesh, awakened fully, wanting to escape and join her sisters, ravenous with the memory of Lovi’s bloodlust. I hold her back. I force her down. Not yet. Not time. No!
Gently, I open the door, slip inside, and close it behind myself, carefully and quietly. I hold the last piece of negghru in place for a moment longer, but the pain is a knife in my belly. I carefully, slowly, untie the robe, and let it fall to the floor. I untie my hair, and let it fall free. The hair band joins the robe on the floor. I slip out of the slippers.
I let out a final breath. He wants me. He finally has me. It was so sudden, just the vagaries of chance. He finally has me. After all this time.
It is no more than I deserve.
I tried. I tried. When the world ends, please know that I tried.
I was just one girl.
Damn you, Gorgus. Damn you, Petyr.
I release my will. The fire burns its way through the last of the bonds I have placed upon it.
I fall onto the bed unclothed and turn onto my stomach and grip the pillow tightly before burying my face into it.
Neghhru is not denied. My skin cracks and blackens and smokes and burns and the fire lurking within my belly surges up and consumes me from the inside out.
Somewhere, Lovi bursts into laughter. Somewhere, Gorgus licks his lips. Somewhere, Petyr is probably bored and twirling his finger to get on with it. “Really,” he would say, “you are such an actress. Just die already!”
I scream into the pillow as my flesh splits and boils and neghhru has its way with me.
I am so sorry.