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Authors: R. J. Pouritt

In the Skin of a Nunqua

BOOK: In the Skin of a Nunqua
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In the Skin of a Nunqua

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

R. J. Pouritt

 

 

For Joani

1

Escape

H
e was close
enough to kill.

She couldn’t do it—not even if she ran him through with a sword and shot him with a poisonous dart. Nothing could kill Caravey.

He poured whisky into a cup and gulped it down. “Show me.”

Shanti adjusted the strap securing the sword across her back, then tightened the wristlet of attached darts on her forearm. “Show you what?” She would pay for such an insolent remark, but she played the fool anyway, just to deny him complete domination.

Leopard’s spots patterned his smooth skin, and his lips were more brown than red. Caravey unsheathed a knife from his belt and scratched the tabletop with the point. The table had been carried off from a local tavern after a night of drunken revelry and brought to his quarters by Shanti and five of her fellow warriors. The battered surface showed the abuse from men who cared more for fighting than for furniture. Two chairs, a bench, and an ample supply of liquor with mismatched cups were also in the room.

“Of all my warriors,” he said, “you’re the most trouble. Why should I keep you?”

Shanti went to the table and poured herself a drink. “Because I’ve brought you the most honor by competing in the arenas.”

The knife swung at her, and Shanti blocked the weapon from piercing her flesh. A mistake. Defending herself from Caravey’s attacks would only prolong her suffering. She braced for the cruelty to come.

He seized her shoulder and pulled close, plunging the blade into her abdomen.

The air left her lungs, and she dropped to her knees. Shanti covered the wound with her hand, blood seeping through her fingers.

Caravey calmly wiped the knife with a cloth before returning it to its sheath. He knelt beside her.
Close enough to kill
.

“Who are you loyal to?” he said.

The steady tone of his voice made her flesh crawl. She envisioned drawing a blade across his gut and plunging a poisonous dart into the vein in his neck. And he still wouldn’t die.

“Answer me,” he whispered.

Always the same. He would hurt her then heal her, hate her then love her. How she tired of playing the dutiful servant, dependent on him for her very life. Saliva drained into her mouth, and black fog consumed the edges of her vision. The pain made her want to retch, but the shame of having to grovel before him was far worse. What choice did she have?

“You,” she said.

She leaned against him, her head resting in the hollow of his neck, skin touching skin. Healing power, like rays of light, coursed from his body into hers, and the nausea subsided. The bleeding from the gash in her abdomen eased as skin sewed itself shut. She inhaled fully and trailed her fingers along the newly formed scar, disheartened that the miraculous recovery should come from the source of her suffering.

Caravey lifted her jacket and shirt to examine the scar. With the same cloth he had used to clean his knife, he wiped away the blood. “All better,” he said, acting the part of the kindhearted physician.

Caravey and his crazy moods.
She wondered whether power and madness were two sides of the same coin. She was tired of playing his games, tired of
him.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said, knowing that his violent outbursts were followed by flashes of benevolence but never by regret.

“Then why disobey me?” He took off her wristlet, revealing more scars along her forearm—parallel scars made by the blade of a sword. “Show me,” he said. “Change for me.”

Shanti willed the scars to disappear, and it was so. A familiar flush warmed her cheeks, and her lips cooled in response to the change as she altered her appearance from a spotted Nunqua into a clear-skinned Willovian—a feat she had mastered as a child.

“Shanti, my sweet,” he said. “My glorious witch.”

Power and madness—two sides of the same coin. “I’m not a witch,” she said.

“You’ve been distant.” He stroked her cheek, and she moved away from the touch that had once pleased her. “I know how you miss Willovia, so I’m sending you back to the land of your birth. It’s time to act on the prophecy concerning the king of Willovia.”

More madness? Caravey always put too much faith in the supernatural. “A prophecy by an old hag,” she said, “whose teeth were stained gold from chewing beetle wings. You can’t trust a woman looking for gold to support her addiction.”

“Three summers, and the king of Willovia will be dead,” he said. “Three summers left to prepare. We know little of their society, their royalty. The king’s daughter, Rega Bayla, is heiress to their throne. Our mystics have been unable to tell us about her. It’s time to gather information in a more practical manner.

“I want you to seek out Rega Bayla, get to know her, provide us with information. What sort of queen will she be? Who are her advisers, her military commanders, her lovers? What’s the biggest threat to her reign? Determine her weaknesses, her strengths. How do the commoners feel about Rega Bayla as their future queen?”

“You want me to spy?”

“It’s the reason I chose you,” he said, “the reason I trained you. You can travel as you please in Willovia, without suspicion. Hide the scars and spots on your skin that prove you’re Nunqua. Once you’ve gathered the information we require, you can return home. Your fame will be greater than it is now.”

Shanti had grown up in Willovia but spent the last few years with Caravey and the Nunqua. She considered both kingdoms home. Why was it so important for her to return to the land of her birth? The answer hit her like a bolt of lightning. “Are the generals planning war?”

“As soon as their king dies, we will combine our resources with theirs.”

“War,” Shanti said.

“An acquisition.”

“A forced acquisition.”

“It may not come to war,” he said. “A peaceful alternative can be pursued dependent on the next monarch.”

Now Shanti understood the real reason that Caravey took the time and effort to train her. He needed a liaison to communicate with the Willovians, someone they could trust and he could manipulate. She also knew that Willovia would never willingly unite with the Nunqua. No use telling Caravey. He thrived on conflict, chaos, the struggle for supremacy. Caravey wanted the fertile lands of Willovia. He wanted war.

“How am I supposed to access royalty?” she said.

“You’ll find a way. You always do.”

Shanti stood and arched her back. The muscles of her abdomen where the knife had penetrated were stiff but otherwise intact, and the bloody undershirt clung to her skin. She wiped her hands on her pant legs then retrieved her wristlet. “I’d like to visit my uncle before going to Willovia.” Both Caravey and her uncle held the rank of general, but Uncle Seiko was more moderate and thoughtful. If she could consult with him concerning plans to overthrow . . .

“You leave tomorrow for Willovia.”

So soon? Three years until the king of Willovia’s questionable death, and Caravey wouldn’t give her three days to see her uncle.

A knock sounded at the door. “General Delartay.”

“Enter,” Caravey said.

Gitonk and Tracker came into the room, glancing at Shanti and the blood on the floor. “The men are ready for your review.”

Caravey straightened his black uniform. He was the perfect image of confidence and cunning. Men would kill to be welcomed into his unit of warriors, and women would sell their own mothers for the opportunity to bed Caravey. If only they knew the price!

“Shanti,” he said, “you’re exempt. Get your things ready. We’ll discuss this matter in more detail tonight.”

Gitonk snickered.

“Find someone to clean this mess, maggot,” Caravey said.

Gitonk’s demeanor changed under Caravey’s scrutiny. “Yes sir.”

One more night with Caravey. One more night to pretend she still cared. Caravey offered her the drink she had poured for herself. She took it with a bloody hand, swallowed, and returned the empty glass to the strange table. Scratches and crude carvings marred its surface, and stains from unknown concoctions discolored the wood. The table, which received the occasional waxing, was strangely pleasing to the eye and touch. More than a conversation piece, it was a piece of history, every outer imperfection a test of its inner strength and durability. Perhaps that was why Caravey coveted it.

She
was the table.

Shanti brushed past her two fellow warriors on the way out, changing in appearance to a spotted Nunqua.

“You’re beautiful,” Gitonk boomed. Oval spots stretched wide over his bulk.

She was a pawn, a candle that could be lit, blown out, then lit again until all the wax had burned away and the wick was a black crinkle of ash.

“Remember, Shanti,” Caravey said, “some fates are worse than death.”

She left the room, wondering whether escape was possible.

*

After washing and putting on a clean uniform, she wrote a letter to her uncle to inform him of her return to Willovia. Nothing in the letter gave any hint of her mission to gather information concerning the princess.

She had no intention of becoming a spy.

Shanti searched the grounds for Tracker and found him in the stables. He scooped oats into the horses’ feed buckets. “I need a favor,” she said.

Tracker always rolled up the sleeves of his uniform, no matter what the weather. Leather bands circled his biceps. Shorter than most of Caravey’s handpicked warriors, he could sniff out a trail better than any hound. “What happened between you and the general today?” he said.

“The usual.”

He continued filling the buckets. “Why anta . . . antagin . . . why defy him? You can’t fight a healer and win.”

“‘Antagonize,’” she said, correcting his Willovian—a language that Caravey insisted she use when speaking with the warriors under his command. “I thought the abuse would have ended by now. After all I’ve accomplished, he still treats me like a dog on a leash.”

“You mean a bitch,” Tracker said playfully.

“It’s good to know you’ve mastered some of the language’s subtleties,” she said. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

“Leaving?” He sank the scoop into the bag of oats and left it there. “Why?”

“General’s orders.” She removed the wax-sealed envelope from her jacket. “Can you see that this gets to General Seiko?”

“Why not give it to General Delartay? He can give it to Seiko.”

“He’ll read it first. It’s just a personal letter to my uncle.”

Tracker took the letter. “Uncle Seiko, huh? I could get into trouble for this.”

Always a catch. “What do you want?” she said.

“There’s this woman at the inn. I need some funds to treat her to a special night. I’ll pay you back.”

“You want to treat her to a special night, or to yourself?” She gave him a coin from her money bag.

His hand remained raised. “A very pretty woman.”

Shanti dropped another coin into his palm.

“I know one of the warriors under General Seiko’s command, who can deliver your letter.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you going to the inn tonight?”

“No,” she said. “I have to pack.”

“When are you coming back?”

“In a few summers,” she lied. As long as Caravey lived, she wouldn’t return. And healers were rumored to live a long, long time. Did they even die?

She would go to Willovia, blend among the people in a way that Caravey, with his spots, never could, and find a job in the military—a way of life she had already mastered. Besides, being surrounded by soldiers would give her a certain degree of protection in case Caravey ever came looking for her.

Tracker wrapped his arms around her legs and lifted her over his shoulder—an overzealous and awkward, yet much appreciated, gesture of good-bye. She put her hands on his back for balance.

“It’ll be boring here without you,” he said.

A horse in its stall neighed in annoyance, waiting for its oats.

“I’m sure General Delartay will find someone to take my place.”

“Nobody can replace you, Shanti.” Tracker put her down. “Nobody.”

That’s what I’m afraid of
.

BOOK: In the Skin of a Nunqua
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