Chapter seventeen: Old foe
Creakingly, the cell door inched open, and the prisoner became aware that a light shined on his face. He cracked open one eye, and then closed it again when he saw who it was. He thought that maybe, if he tried hard enough, he could will himself out of existence.
The dungeon cell was large and roomy, if such a thing can be said of a dungeon cell, and he was chained to the wall, constrained by chains of delicate silver metal that bit at his skin if he moved. Their frailty had made him laugh when he had seen them and understood they were meant to bind him, but hours of struggling had shown they were more unbreakable than they appeared. Over his chest they snaked, around his ankles, wrists and throat, his legs and arms. They had tied him with his knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them, wrists bound together by his calves. He didn’t know how long he had been there, in that position, and wondered if it even mattered. By all definition, he ought to be dead, so what difference did it make how long he had been tied up?
His body felt odd, insubstantial, as though at any moment it would disintegrate into dust and blow away, through the open door and away to the ocean…
He had always liked the ocean, in his former life. His mind was almost, if not more, frail than his body, and it was hard to hold on to thoughts or memories. It was as though he were in an eternal state of waking from sleep; disorientation that never righted itself, making his head ache distantly. He did recall the glittering blue and sometimes frothy gray of the sea, and the memory was laced with a feeling of freedom, and joy, and ecstasy, but even these feelings were like clutching at dust motes. He found himself wondering why he had woken from his sleep, and he opened his eyes, forgetting that he did not want to see the face.
The face watched him, with sad blue eyes. It watched him still, and he dropped his gaze again.
Sad blue eyes…
Another memory, an iris forming from the blue of the sea, and from it emerged a pupil. He realized he was seeing in his mind’s eye the face of a child, a despondent child with wild blond hair and sad blue eyes. Sabre; that was the child’s name. His son. Sabre. The name was like a foreign piece of fruit, delightful yet confounding in its strangeness. Sabre had always been sad when his father left to be with the sea. Why had he so loved the ocean if it made his boy so sad? He couldn’t remember, but even as he tried to figure it out, his mind went blank. It often did this, and he would re-awaken, wonder once again. Never thinking, never solving, just wondering and wandering, lost in his mind.
He was in a dungeon cell, arms wrapped around his knees. Sunlight tickled his face, and he opened his eyes to see someone peering at him from behind a door slightly ajar. Sad blue eyes blinked at him, and the door opened all the way, admitting a small, auburn-haired woman in heavy military clothes, a long jeweled sword sheathed at her side. What was he doing here? Where was here?
“Who are you?” For a reason he couldn’t place, his lips had parted and asked the question. Were they even his lips? He felt them move, and yet he felt nothing at all, as though they had and hadn’t spoken at the same time. The puzzlement shattered his tenuous mind like a hammer on a porcelain plate, and he stared blankly at the woman. He felt a faint burning sensation, and glanced down to see a peculiar network of silver chains crisscrossing all over his body. He cocked his head curiously. He found them pretty, and was dismayed when the girl made a motion and they slipped from around him. Clinking into a silver puddle they disappeared completely. A moment later, he forgot that they had been there.
“Come on,”said a disembodied voice. A woman was holding a hand out to him. Blindly he obeyed, rising to his feet with shaking knees.
They walked down a long hallway, and he felt as though he were floating outside of reality. The cobblestones under his feet were nothing more than misty imprints, and he forgot his cell and the silver chains. The hallway lingered in his mind for a moment as they climbed an endless stone spiral stairwell, and then it too, left his memory.
They came to a pair of elaborate wooden doors, each thirty feet high and ten feet across, and so heavy that pulleys and chains were needed to pull them open. He watched in abject fascination as an auburn-haired woman in military clothes and a sheath containing a long, jeweled sword pulled a lever, kicking the system into action. It cranked and squealed above them, working to open two elaborate wooden doors, each thirty feet high and ten feet across. He figured that the captivating pulleys were to open the doors. To his surprise, the woman took his hand when the doors were opened, pulling him into a large room. Everything in the room was made of gold, and the creamy stone tiles and walls were flecked with it. The whole room sparkled. Seated on three monstrous golden thrones were three women, the flanking two with sandy-red hair and the middle one with locks of flaming gold. She had strange, lime-green eyes and a wisdom in her unlined face that belied her lovely features. She didn’t hold his attention long, and as he stared high up at a gold chandelier with golden candles, he wondered where he was.
A shuffling sound. His attention drifted back again, and he became aware that a woman was walking toward him. She had bright, red-gold hair and lime green eyes. He couldn’t decide if she was young or old, for though her face was beautiful, she also seemed as though she had seen more than her fair share of the world. Beside him was another woman, auburn-haired, adorned in military clothes. A long, jeweled sword was sheathed at her side. As he stared at her, a sense that he had seen her before somewhere, somewhere, played at the edges of his fraying consciousness. He squeezed his eyes shut against the feeling that overwhelmed him, shattering his mind again.
Where am I? he wondered, opening his eyes to find himself in a large golden room.
“Drink this,” said a voice, and he focused on a woman standing in front of him, holding out a golden chalice filled with silvery pink liquid. The woman herself was more bemusing than the cup, with her hair of rubies and gold, bright green eyes the colour of limes, and a face that was both young and old. She seemed familiar…
Something pressed into his hand. He looked down to see himself grasping a chalice made of gold, swirling with a peculiar liquid that was iridescently silver at the same time that it was pink. He raised the cup to his lips and swallowed the contents in one shot, not entirely sure why he was compelled to do so, and as he did he caught sight of a beautiful woman gazing at him. She had golden hair like fire, lime-green eyes…
Slowly, he came back to himself. As an apparition forming out of the air, he felt himself coalescing, solidifying as warm sweetness ran through his veins in place of stolid dust. He looked around and snarled with loathing as he recognized the golden room, the three mocking thrones, and the hateful woman standing before him.
He hissed her name, stumbling forward as he tried to close his hands around her throat. With a small laugh she danced out of reach and returned to sit between her sisters, who watched with sharp eyes. She called herself Nohela now, and the new name would be synonymous forever in his mind with evil. She smiled at him; his Queen, his oldest foe. She shouldn’t even be his foe anymore—he was dead.
Yet here he was, trapped in the gaze of her puss-coloured eyes.
“So lovely to see you up today,” she purred, running a slim finger over the rim of the cup balanced on the arm of her throne. “I am glad we brought you back.”
“I don’t know why you bother! It won’t be any different than yesterday. I will tell you nothing more or less.”
Anger flashed in those eyes, and he smiled in satisfaction. “You will tell me what I need to know! What we need to know, because this is no different than when I recruited you to take that last voyage. I know you are dead, but there are many more people alive and well who I am sure you do not want to end up like you.” The threat hung like a net, ready and waiting to trap him. He said nothing. “The magic—”
He snapped. “There is no magic!” he thundered, stalking toward her. Looking pained, Commodore Givlenen—whom the prisoner knew as Libby, and had been standing beside him the entire time—moved to intercept him; her jeweled sword flashed, and the flat of it suddenly pressed against his chest, blocking his way to The Queen and her sisters. Her eyes pleaded with him not to make her have to hurt him. He took a shuddering breath, trembling with barely controlled anger. “There is no magic,” he said again, as he had said the day before, and every day since they had resurrected him. “It’s only science. There’s no such thing as magic. The Oblivious Ones—”
“You are the oblivious one,” hissed Queen Nohela, snapping her fingers. As if growing from his body, the long, snaking silver chains curled around him, almost like ten protective arms. He fell forcefully into a kneel and then sat, knees pulled to his chin and arms wrapped around them, tied at the wrists with the silver. “How do you think you are even here? No science in this world could possibly restore a man dead three hundred years. And so beautifully!”
His gaze was like knives, and he wished for an orbalite stone and just a dash of hasinite.
His skin was coarse and flaky, what hair he had left falling out in clumps whenever he moved his head. His eyeballs scratched dryly at the insides of his onionskin lids. His tongue was like dry rubber, his teeth rotting and mostly broken. He wondered that he could speak at all, and that his brain didn’t roll around his head like the old, dry dead thing that it was.
“Beauty must have taken on a new meaning since I was last alive,” he said softly, yellowing eyes still focused on Queen Nohela’s contradictory face, his anger like lava. He hated sitting here like this, like some sort of…child, or slave. Remembering what Libby had told him the other day, he ignored the pain of the delicate silver chains, and with one bursting motion of his sinewy muscles he exploded out of them. The silver bits vanished before they even hit the floor. Looking amused, Queen Nohela clapped her hands and Lieutenant Sihilan, another military guard, appeared, struggling with a bound and gagged woman. They stopped in front of Queen Nohela’s throne. Forcing the woman to her knees, Sihilan grabbed a handful of her brown hair, keeping her young face in sight.
The prisoner felt a plummeting shock as though he had woken to find he was falling from a three-hundred foot cliff. Drawing his sword with the other hand, Sihilan waited, the sword pressed against her slender white throat. He kept his eyes down and to the side, refusing to meet the prisoner’s livid face.
“You witch,” he growled at Queen Nohela. There was truly nothing stopping him from charging her now, as he would happily welcome the slice of Libby’s sword through his chest. He wondered what it could do, really—it wasn’t his unbeating heart that kept him alive. But he stood still, eyes on the prone woman as though he were mindful of her wellbeing.
“‘There is no magic,’” Queen Nohela mimicked mockingly, flicking the edges of her wispy white gown over her ankle with her foot. Standing, she moved to the prostrate young woman and cupped her cheek with a slender hand, gazing down at her. Turning back to the prisoner, she reiterated her mandate. “You will tell us what we want to know. We are not only persistent, my dear, we are patient, and there is no question as to whether or not we have the time for this. You and I, and them”—she motioned at her sisters, who watched with sharp, silent attention—“have centuries, still, before we need worry about time. I tell you, we have forever. Mivaya, on the other hand, does not.” Nohela curled a long-fingered hand around the girl’s neck gently, tenderly, smiling smugly at the prisoner. His lips twitched, and nearly imperceptibly, he flicked his eyes at Libby, who hadn’t moved an inch.
With a motion like the breath of an ant, Libby pressed the sword harder against his chest, once, twice…and three times. His dead heart sunk.
This was a real girl.
All the other times Queen Nohela had brought in people to be sacrificed—men, women, and children alike—he had still refused to help the evils. They were slaughtered while he looked on, and every night in his cell, before his mind fractured and his body faded, he would sob silently over them, and sob for himself that he would have the strength to continue allowing them to die. The secret knowledge that only he possessed, he reminded himself, could never wind up in the evil queen’s greedy, pitiless hands, because then many more would die, all over the world, torturous deaths that would go on until Queen Nohela was satisfied. Until the entire world had bent to her will. Or no one was left. The prisoner sacrificed his humanity, as surely as they sacrificed their lives. After the first, a young boy, he had promised that the child’s death would not be in vain.
When two nights ago Libby had risked telling him that all of the people he had seen killed were merely figments of his imagination that Queen Nohela had created, he thought the relief would kill him.
And now, Libby’s warning.
This was a real girl.
He had done it before, let—whom he thought had been real—innocents perish under Queen Nohela’s command. He had done it because he had no choice; they would die anyway along with so many others. When he learned that no one had really died, the knowledge had put in him a sweet peace over doing the right thing. Now this was somehow a thousand times worse after playing along with Nohela’s game, knowing it was only a game. Now he was responsible once again for a life, responsible for the sole reason that once he had been a great scientist, the greatest in the world, and he possessed what Queen Nohela wanted.
It was always a deadly thing, to stubbornly possess what the Queen wanted.
As great as his relief had been at being told that the dead ones weren’t real, greater still was his anguish over this new woman. If not for her brown eyes, she could have been Ceanira. He remembered every detail of that last day—her brown hair plastered from the downpour, her blue eyes streaming rain and tears as she kissed their son and then him. That last kiss was branded into his memory. He hadn’t wanted to let her go, but the guard sent to ensure he didn’t try to escape his bargain with The Queen reminded him that he had no choice, if he wanted her to live…Before leaving, she had begged him to take their son, if nothing else. She had ended up saving his life. He had only allowed Sabre to accompany him because the boy was almost a man, anyway, and he would never grow into himself if he was always cooped up at home. Sabre’s heartbreak whenever his father left without him for long months at sea burned blackly. Why not make them happy for once? The prisoner hadn’t known that he would never see his Ceanira again.
He couldn’t let sentimentality get in the way of honour and duty, he told himself achingly as he stared at Mivaya, the Ceanira-lookalike. Was she some distant relation? A descendant of one of her sisters? His gaze hardened and he lifted his chin, flicking his eyes to Queen Nohela and her consorts. Ironically, pretending that the strange woman was Ceanira gave him strength to let her die—Ceanira wouldn’t have wanted her baby to die for her. He smiled a sad, rueful smile at the woman. “I so am sorry, Ceani—Mivaya, child, but this is bigger than you and I.” To Queen Nohela: “Nothing in this world will make me tell you the formula, my Queen, or where to find the elements, or anything else.”
Her lips curled like the claws of a cat. “I beg to differ, darling. You have turned out to be a cruel and soulless man, but tomorrow we will have more than enough of what we need for the trifecta to make you tell us,” she mused, then lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “We had rather hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but”—she spread her hands helplessly—“as you wish. Off with her head.”
Finally, the woman had worked free the gag. Spitting it aside, she screamed at the prisoner: “No! Please! I have a son, and three daughters, and my husband, I don’t think he can—”
The prisoner nodded. “Yes. Know that you and I have saved them for now, Lady Mivaya, and I will do my best here to make sure they stay saved.” She stared at him, wordless horror in her eyes. “I sincerely promise I will do all in my power. Take comfort in that.” he implored. Dimly, he recalled his own death. The terror, the surreality.
“Evugo efo histi!” Queen Nohela shouted, rising to her feet. “What are you waiting for, Lieutenant? Did you not hear me? Off with her head!”
Lieutenant Sihilan closed his eyes for a moment and leaned forward to brush Mivaya’s hair from her neck. The prisoner thought he saw Sihilan murmur something to her, and she took a deep breath and nodded. Looking once at the prisoner, she nodded at him too, and he smiled encouragingly, even as his dry eyes burned. Out of the corner of his eye, the prisoner could see Libby quivering subtly. Princess Daletha, seated to the left of the Queen, reached behind her chair to grasp a large, silver bowl. The prisoner grimaced, remembering what happened to the dead of the Acropolis – their blood, taken to water Daletha’s Garden of the Walking Mists.
Mivaya’s face became the picture of serenity, and she closed her eyes, bowing her head as though she had fallen asleep. A resolute smile fluttered on her rosy lips. Smoothing his face from his look of repugnance, Sihilan lifted his sword.
Through her fright and hopelessness, Mivaya smiled as the sword swung down.
* * *
The heat was getting under their skin, magnifying small annoyances into intolerable nuisances, taking the minutes and stretching them into hours. The heat baked the wounds on Xarthanias’s back, and melted his cool demeanor. When he wasn’t draped over Shimmer’s neck, asleep, Belladia was the default outlet for his impatience. Xarthanias’s verbal abuse chaffed at Nolle, who was melting too, agitation and resentment showing through. Fights were imminent, but they had to keep going nonetheless. A fact that only added to the annoyance.
Okay, everyone just calm down! Chimley exclaimed finally, having had enough. He was trying to think, as he had been for the past few days, of where to go with the plan, what exactly he intended to do when he found the Capraiwan but was constantly interrupted by snubs and snaps from one person or another.
Xarthanias glowered but Nolle sighed, nodding in resignation. Yes. You’re right. Well he is, Xarthanias. I apologize for being short tempered with you, brother. Its this blasted heat!
Chimley rolled his eyes.
Yeah, whatever, Xarthanias sulked, and went back to sleep.
A few minutes of silence. Why don’t they just come and get their stupid jewels themselves? asked Princess Belladia, breaking both the silence and Chimley’s concentration. A plague on her!
Because, Nolle replied, three hundred years ago Thegin Fin got the best of them, and they want to prove to themselves that they still have some control over their New Land. My father always said that the Vaupen Royals were all about control, and getting what they want no matter what. It must have been quite the insult when Thegin Fin defeated them and sent them home with nothing but his charity. He didn’t have to give her anything, but he knew that she would never rest if he didn’t. He always hated war, that’s what my father said, and wanted to protect his son and the rest of his people from them. He was glad that he had found a way to save them from her. Queen Pavliona I.
Chimley was only slightly interested in the boring history. It was nothing Shaethan hadn’t told him, but he had never heard it put that way. Shaethan had told Chimley that Queen Pavliona I decided to be benevolent to the rebels of the new country, and demanded the regular payments to ensure the Despartans remembered their mother country. It also meant that her troubles weren’t for nothing.
Xarthanias opened an eye. Father never told me all of that.
Nolle shrugged, and Chimley thought he could feel a small twinge of smugness coming from him. Xarthanias shook his head and took a swig from his bottle, mercifully letting the matter slide.
It was the third day along the South Ologo. Having finally convinced Chimley the night before to make a run to his mysterious pond and fill their flasks and canteens, they were moving much faster than before from a long deep sleep, a fresh supply of water, and the promise of even more water just over the horizon. It was still stifling hot and bright, but they washed their complaints down with gulps of sweet water. The shagar was like poison to all except Nolle, but it was kept in case of more desperate times. There was no doubt that there would be more desperate times, right up until the end of the trip.
Only Nolle still drank the wine. Keeping his awareness muffled was the only way he could deal with his ornery brother.
Chimley was only just starting to sweat a little. He could smell the water in the pond up ahead over the putrid sulfur in the river, horse and people sweat, and the sparse beds of wildflowers. The stench of animals, lots of different ones, drifted on the near-motionless air.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he quaked. He recognized a scent that was chillingly familiar.
The memory associated with the scent drifted just out of reach, taunting him with its unnamed horror. He rarely felt afraid, and this irrational knee-shaking fear would have baffled him if he weren’t suddenly so single-mindedly searching for the danger. Uncertain and edgy, he lagged behind as the others rode onward, oblivious to Chimley’s distress. He stalked forward, nearly in a crouch, shying at every too-loud crunch of dry grass under his feet. Ahead of him, the procession stopped at the crest of a rise without warning. A wordless exclamation popped in the air.
Chimley made his unwilling feet move him forward until he stood beside Nolle, in full view of the waterhole below them.
Chimley had been alone when he had visited that morning, but it was now overwhelmingly occupied. A large, mismatched herd of animals milled around, fighting each other for space to drink and the tufts of lush grass that grew at the water’s edge. Most stayed away from the west side, the side closest to the toxic river. They made an impressive din. Some of them had moved on and were nearly at the top of the rise. Pale green streaks in the dry brown grass turned out to be snakes, an inch wide and nearly ten yards long, with small hooded heads and solidly blue eyes. They moved through the grass to the left, but one stopped near Xarthanias to hiss at Shimmer, raised up and dancing before her. She took a step away but it moved on, speeding after its companions. Purple stags with blue antlers trotted by, not paying them a glance, and strange animals the size of housecats that looked like horses but had stripes like tigers and tails like monkeys. They were mostly white or silver, and had bright blue hooves.
A shimmering cloud of rainbow coloured specks buzzed around Belladia’s head, and they turned out to be hummingbirds with bodies the size of a baby’s pinky-fingernail. No larger than common flies, they came in bright rainbow colours and buzzed and hovered around her for a moment. There were five or six animals that looked like tigers, except they were light green coloured and had feet like human hands, and flicking tongues like a snake’s. They were most of the beasts of the Verien forest, making a grand exodus. Luckily there were no siederharks, casais, or volcano wolves. Chimley took them in with a sweeping gaze, returning his attention to the largest animal.
A hulking blue bear.
How had it beaten them there? Chimley’s knees felt weak.
Xarthanias had seen it too, but he sighed in relief. Don’t worry, it’s not the same one. Unconsciously he reached a hand behind him to clamp onto the wooden chest.
There was no easy way to get through the flashing claws and gnashing teeth warring for the water. Chimley felt thirsty just thinking that they might not get any water after all.
Just wait, they will be gone soon, Nolle suggested without concern. Even in the five minutes that the travellers had been gawking, about a quarter of the strange animals were behind them, heading toward the Larentac. Every once in a while more left the waterhole and continued to trek onward, and other animals vied to take their place. The fights dwindled as the space grew less congested.
They moved over, cutting off a stream of animals, to stand far left of them. It took twenty minutes for them to clear out; the smallest animals generally went first, those little enough to squeeze through the melee and get at the water. Another rainbow cloud of barley-sized hummingbirds passed, and Chimley had to pick off three of the long thin snakes that tried to wind their way up the packhorse’s legs. Some of the animals had been killed and bodies were strewn around the perimeter of the small pond, slashed and bloody. The commotion died down and moved north. Finally, only the blue remained. After a few more minutes, it too left the pond. Between the travellers and the river, the blue had a path wide as a farmer’s field.
Chimley was glad that he had no essence; if he did, he would be reeking of fear tangible for miles. These bears, these undefeatable, telekinetic creatures that shouldn’t have been as intelligent as they were, had the potential to hurt him if they wanted to. Chimley was used to being the most powerful thing in the forest, maybe even the world, and had never dreamed he would meet his match. He didn’t feel any hotter in the sun than before, but he was suddenly sweating gallons.
He held his breath as the bear lumbered up alongside of them, a hundred metres away, and didn’t even turn its head. From the west, a faint breeze suddenly picked up, and it was like a sigh of relief as the bear lumbered passed.
The four of them galloped to the edge of the watering hole and nearly dove from their horses into the water, laughing in delight. Xarthanias moaned as the water washed his chapping back.
Osarius knew what he was doing when he recruited you, Nolle declared, happily shaking the cool water from his hair.Chimley could tell that Nolle was simply testing his friend’s name to see if it still stung, and by the shift in his eyes toward his wineskin and the heave of his shoulders, it still did. The three of them cast their eyes down, into the water, and didn’t say anything.
Well, we survived, Chimley said, breaking the awkwardness, but it wasn’t so that we could lounge around poolside. We’ve got to keep moving. In silent agreement, they took long drinks, splashed themselves, and filled anything that would hold water, dumping out the offensive wine in favor of it. Nolle cringed in horror, and tried to convince them to keep at least some of it, as it stained the water like ribbons of blood. They were about to remount and go on when Belladia made a sudden exclamation. She dropped to her knees by the west side of the pond, where, shy of the river, few animals had ventured. Half-buried in the thin mud was a bloody cloth bandage.
Even this far away from her, Chimley detected the unmistakeable odor of the crude medical salve.