Authors: Ken Scholes
He flew to the center of that hidden place following the most recent scent of desolation and stopped to hang above the wide and silent grave of Windwir, where his journey had started what seemed so long ago. He turned and looked north to the Marshlands, east to the Ninefold Forest. Then, he banked south and once more broke the sky open as he sped for the seaway that had brought him home.
No, not home.
This had never been his home.
He would return to the Firsthome Temple—his truest home, he knew—and tell Petronus what he’d found. Then, Nebios Whym would return to Lasthome and take back what he needed to finish his work upon the moon.
Rudolfo winced at the pleasure and pain of Ire Li Tam’s hand upon his bare chest as she dabbed salve onto his wound. He’d not been surprised by the sharp ache of it, but the stirring of desire he felt from it was an ambush he’d been unprepared for.
He lay slouched in a soft armchair in the corner of his bedchamber, and she had taken up a position on a cushioned stool across from him, leaning forward in a way that made it difficult for him to not notice the curve of her own scarred breast. He’d grown used to her scars, finding a certain beauty in them, knowing she’d taken them for the sake of her own family just as he had done. It was a powerful liqueur, and he suspected his desire built not just from her constant companionship but also because he often felt a slight arousal at the prospect of well-conceived violence.
Her fingers were strong, and he gasped when one touched the raw wound. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it hurts.”
He closed his eyes and settled back into the chair. “How old were you when you took your first mark?”
She traced more of the ointment along the edge of the wound. “This mark is always the first mark. I was twelve and an acolyte among the Daughters of Ahm. My grandfather had arranged it in secret. He had an ally there, though I never knew her name.”
Rudolfo nodded. He knew little of Ire’s life before she pledged her blades to him, but he knew it had been difficult. And he knew that as much conviction and power as the Y’Zirites had, there were still dissenters within their ranks and those who felt there was a better path than the blood of martyrs and sacrifices.
He had hoped against hope that his father was one of those, but in the end, he suspected that the best he could hope for was a father who believed collaboration and cooperation were the only path to assure his sole surviving son a place in the new world being born. And that was not enough.
Ire patted his chest, her hand lingering, and Rudolfo released his held breath. He’d not been with a woman since the night before his family left for the Machtvolk Territories. It was his longest stretch since an early age, and for the longest while, it had been because he wished to tend the love he had for his wife like a garden. He’d never imagined it would be a long-term choice—monogamy was certainly not an expectation in kin-clave, particularly for a king. But his bride, certainly for good reason of her own, had betrayed his trust, had fled from him with his son, and in so doing had violated their partnership. She was still the fiercest and most formidable woman he’d ever known, and he suspected that love still grew there amid the weeds that choked it into something smaller and weaker than it had been. But until he fully comprehended and accepted her choices, there would be a gulf between them that limited his affection for her.
So certainly, he could do as he wished now in this place. But he would not. Instead, he would accept the truth of what actually aroused his passion and seek that particular consummation.
He caught himself in a moan that wasn’t pain, and he gently took hold of Ire Li Tam’s wrist. “Thank you,” he said. “I think it’s time to dress for dinner.”
“Let me bandage you,” she said, turning to the small table she’d pulled closer. She replaced the lid on the jar of ointment and then took up the white lengths of cotton fabric.
Rudolfo leaned forward and stretched his hands over his head as she wrapped his torso.
The day had gone about as he’d expected. Despite arrangements made, none of the emissaries of kin-clave had stayed. They’d shuffled forward without eye contact to sign the fealty compact, and they’d vanished as quickly as they could. Philemus had lingered, and Rudolfo knew the man had wanted to speak with him, but he’d not dared to slip away with all eyes upon him. Instead, he’d arranged for Ire to pass him a brief and uncoded note that dealt with more trivial matters and thanked the man for representing the Ninefold Forest on Rudolfo’s behalf.
Yazmeera had been perplexed by their unwillingness to avail themselves of the planned festivities, and inwardly Rudolfo had laughed at the blindness her convictions engendered. Outwardly, he’d smiled and nodded. “They do not yet see clearly a future they can embrace,” he had told her.
“And what of you?” she’d asked him.
His smile had widened. “Oh yes,” he said as he touched the bloodstained robe he wore at the time. “I see a very clear future that I can embrace.”
He’d spent the remainder of the day resting in his bedchambers.
Ire was nearly finished wrapping him when she stopped. She reached into her shirt and drew out a small pouch that he recognized. One of Renard’s men had left the fresh scout powders in the passage that led to the hidden door that opened upon his garden. She pressed the pouch against his chest at the uppermost edge of his wound, and he felt the ache of it.
“I’m putting it here,” she said, “where reaching for it won’t arouse suspicion.” She wrapped the bandage twice more over it, leaving the looped end of the drawstring hanging out like loose threads. “Can you reach it?”
He reached over with his right hand and slipped a pinky through the loop. Rudolfo tried it a second time and then nodded. “Yes.”
“You’ll have to be fast. But not too fast. If this goes as you say it will, there will be a few moments of uncertainty that we can take advantage of.”
He looked at her and their eyes met. “Are you certain of this?”
She shrugged. “I’ve done what I came to do,” she said. “I need no certainty.” Then, she smiled. “But I would see you safely to the completion of what you’ve come to do if we can stay alive long enough.”
He wasn’t certain exactly how he would find his way to Y’Zir, but once this night’s work was done, he’d take stock of his resources and plan his next steps. Returning to the mainland was a simple-enough task—he could do that in a rowboat. And once there, he’d overtake Philemus and his small party of scouts and start scheming what must surely come next.
Rudolfo stood and paid no mind to the woman as he slipped from his robe and went to the clothes she’d laid out for him. These were his own clothes, brought by Philemus, and they were welcome in his sight. Silk pants of a dark green that matched his forests; a silk shirt the color of rich soil, set apart by a yellow scarf. The soft low boots, made for affairs of state that might involve outrunning angry husbands, were comfortable and reminded him of other, less violent conquests.
When he was finished, she slipped into her own chambers and emerged quickly in a fresh uniform. Her own blood magicks dangled now from a chain around her neck, and her scout and ceremonial knives hung at each hip, ready to be drawn.
Rudolfo inclined his head to the woman. “I am ready.”
She returned the gesture, and together, they left his borrowed house for what he knew would be the last time and walked slowly through the afternoon light to where the others had gathered. He took his time, feeling the ache in his chest and the sunlight on the back of his neck. When he entered the house and climbed the stairs to the rooftop where they would dine, he heard the sound of the gathering guests above and smelled the food. The dishes he himself had overseen dominated the air, their spices setting them apart.
Rudolfo reached the top of the stairs and waited at the entrance, looking out over the crowded tables. The Y’Zirite officers had traded their uniforms for bright-colored clothing that would’ve blended into his own feasts in the Ninefold Forest. The only uniforms present were the Blood Guard that took up stations around the room. He took them all in and knew the woman beside him did the same.
A woman in a deep crimson dress that clung to her sparse curves noticed him and stood. He nearly did not recognize Yazmeera until her face broke into a smile and their eyes met. “Brothers and sisters,” she said in a loud voice, “I give you the host of tonight’s feast.”
The men and women gathered were on their feet, their faces bright beneath the silk canopies that shaded them from the afternoon sun. They applauded him, and Rudolfo felt his arousal shift now into an excitement that buzzed in his ears.
I am drunk on this moment,
he realized, and thought perhaps he’d not felt so alive in more years than he could count.
Yazmeera met him and guided him to the master table, gesturing to his seat. He went to it but remained standing. Then, at her nod, he sat and they commenced to eating.
As they ate, he made small talk with his neighbors, answering questions and accepting their congratulations with a smile so practiced that it could never seem false. He explained the dishes he’d provided and listened to the explanations around the others. And when they’d passed two hours with ease, he sat back. He’d kept his portions small but had shown his gusto with how many plates he emptied. And when it was finished and they neared the final course, he met Ire Li Tam’s eyes. She moved casually to the door as Rudolfo stood.
“In my Forest,” he said, “our feasts and our toasts are famed throughout the Named Lands, and everyone drinks.” He looked to the Blood Guard at their stations, then back to Yazmeera with a raised eyebrow.
She smiled and inclined her head. “One glass could not hurt.”
Ire slipped through the doorway unnoticed by all but Rudolfo.
He grinned. “Men know to hide their wives from these events; and women have been known to sneak from their bedchamber windows to attend them.” The room roared its laughter. “I hope that soon, those feasts and toasts will be famed not just here but also abroad. One day soon—maybe even tomorrow—I’m convinced that they will say ‘none feast, nor toast, nor woo as well as Rudolfo.’” The room laughed again, and he laughed with them. He inclined his head, and the servants began moving amid the tables with their carafes, the condensation beading around the chilled peach wine they contained. As they moved, he watched and waited until everyone upon the rooftop had been served. “We have a saying here that my people have earned: ‘If one must drink, drink deep as a Gypsy.’”
The glasses were full now, and Rudolfo held his aloft. The others followed his lead. Then, he looked to Yazmeera and raised his eyebrows. “But what to drink to?”
Her eyes twinkled with merriment, and with the earlier Delta wines they’d consumed. “How about the future?” she suggested.
“An excellent toast,” Rudolfo said. “To the future.”
And with his son’s face behind his eyes and the mark of Y’Zir upon his heart, Lord Rudolfo of the Ninefold Forest brought the glass of chilled peach wine to his lips to drink deeply.
Then watched his enemies do the same.
The moon was high and hidden in clouds as they sat upon the rocky beach. They sat side by side upon a fallen log, and the girl held hands with her metal companion.
“What are we waiting for?” Marta asked.
Isaak glanced down at her. “I am waiting for transportation and for you to come to your senses and return home.”
The others had left them, continuing on toward Caldus Bay. Isaak had led them here, his limp more pronounced since the earthquake that had marked his father’s passing. They’d sat in silence but for the times he’d tried to convince her that she should leave.
“I could keep you from coming with me,” he said finally.
She squeezed his hand, though she wasn’t sure a mechoservitor could feel that kind of assurance and hoped her words would be enough. “You could try.”
Isaak sighed and returned to silence.
Another hour passed.
“Is it a ship?” she asked.
Isaak shook his head. “No. Something … older.”
It was past midnight when she heard it—a clanking and a chugging like the other metal men she’d met, only larger. And she heard water bubbling and splashing around it as it approached. When it rose up from the deep water just beyond the shore, she gasped.
Barely visible in the moonlight, she thought it must be a sea monster of some kind. But this one was metal, and as it pushed its way closer to them, the water of the bay receded behind it, displaced by its weight. Its mouth twisted open, and a dark red light spilled out from within it.
Isaak stood, and she stood too, taking up her pack. “What it is?”
“Behemoth,” Isaak answered.
“Where will it take us?”
“It will take me to the staff of Y’Zir,” he answered. “But first I must convince a friend to take a different path.”
He’s talking about me.
And with the realization, she found herself blushing at the notion of being called his friend. “You’re not going to convince me of anything.”
Isaak laughed, and it was music by moonlight for the girl. “I know that already, little human.”
“Good,” she said.
“But you should still go home. Your father is worried for you. I saw him weeping in the dreamstone.”
She noted the last words, marking them for later questions. Then, she focused on the others. “I will worry for you if I’m not with you,” she said. “And that isn’t my home anymore.”
Isaak looked at her, his red eyes questioning.
“Silly metal man,” Marta said. “Don’t you understand that you are my home now?”
Isaak said nothing.
Then together they climbed into the mouth of the massive, waiting beast, and Marta smiled as the metal hand in hers squeezed back.
A Glossary of the Psalms of Isaak
A Marsher village.