Sixthday, Day 18 of the Trefolkian Month of Theth, 1630 ODT
Her travelling cape was stifling. She eased out of the leathered insulation. The wind flattened her gown, caught her auburn ponytail, and tugged at the tiny tufts of hair on the tips of her ears.
Hilderbard Hammerbringer called to her from his Kaana bird. “How much longer till we reach the rest island?”
“I don’t know,” answered Jenna over the wind. “I’ve never travelled the Lake by Kaana bird.”
All four birds dipped. They extended their wings into a glide.
“What is happening now?”
Hammerbringer’s bellow was almost lost to the rushing air. He would not hear her reply. Slumped forward, Jenna motioned ahead.
On the horizon a small mound was growing, as was her apprehension.
It had been less than two days since the fierce battle at the old temple but this was more than enough time for messenger birds to betray her and the Handorian as fugitives.
She could only pray that word of their escape from Frethenia had not yet reached the islands; and if it had, she hoped the official letters in her pocket would suffice in establishing their credentials as cartographers.
The bird slowed. Its beak lifted.
Wiping away wind-stung tears, Jenna perceived a large open area. Beyond it were several buildings and beyond that, a small forest. The island was ringed for the most part by a rocky reef.
People were pouring from the buildings. They carried leather bridles, lengths of rope, and hoods for the birds. Still others were dragging carts onto which they would load the supplies carried by the other two, riderless, birds.
Jenna had never known such luxury. In the past, making the journey from place to place had always involved braving the dangers of the forest, the elements, with nothing to help her but her wits and the pack on her back.
The plumage of her Kaana bird changed colour. From its spine came a ripple of bright green, then another brighter than that, until it changed to yellow. The bird swooped up the beach, hovered above heads for a few dust-whirling seconds, and with a rasping cry that echoed off the buildings it settled onto the sand, clucking, congratulating itself on another successful landing.
There were two men for each bird. With minimal effort, a hood was laid over the fluted beak. Immediately the head lowered, docile, and it was led to a ladder where the rider could dismount.
“Antsun’alun, mi’lady. May your roots grow deep…”
“Antsun’alun, island keeper.” Jenna cut his effusion short in a way she hoped conveyed an air of entitlement.
“Welcome to Kaana Fey. Here we will watch over your bird and attend to your every need.”
Jenna hoisted her pack from her saddle. She paused to ensure the straps on the tube that disguised her sword were secure.
“Well, by Gethras’ beard! It has been many a cycle since we have hosted map-makers.”
Jenna questioned the ruddy ebullience beneath her.
“Why, the map-tube of course. I shall be glad to assist?” He held his hands out as Hilderbard Hammerbringer emerged from the other side of the bird.
Descending, Jenna handed her pack to Hilderbard and addressed the island keeper as she removed her travelling cloak from her waist. “I have been working with the Handorian Cartographer’s Guild. Arduous work, brother of Trefolk. Arduous in the extreme.”
“How fascinating my lady, and how is the world in Handorland, brother?”
Hilderbard was momentarily confused. Snakelike pupils glanced at Jenna, the tube, then back at the island keeper. He combed his beard, his locks and said, “The world, such as it is, is not what it seems.”
“Ah!” Hands, formerly clasped, spread out. “I would love to hear your tales over a fine dinner this evening. We have one of the best cooks in all the islands.”
“We must be on our way within three notches. Where do you take the birds?”
“Three notches, lassie? I have ridden till my backside feels like it’s been kicked by a Bannator and Nordilok himself has sought to pull my hair out.”
“Ah… mi’lord and lady… it is customary to spend the night on Kaana Fey before…”
“The birds?” Jenna demanded in suitably opulent tones.
“To the stables where they are fed, watered and rested, and …”
“And I’m hungry! And thirsty, by Nordilok.”
“The birds must rest adequately, mi’lady… the distance is…”
Jenna started towards the inn. “We will eat. We will rest. And then we will leave.”
“There are pirates about mi’lady and if the birds fly too low…”
“Pirates?” Bare feet churned the sand. “You speak of the Stormhammer?”
Thin lips gaped. “By the gods, mi’lady, we must not speak that name! But it is not… that ship of which I speak. There is another pirate who prowls these waters. Bloodthirsty and cruel…”
“So thirsty…” Hammerbringer strode past them. “Where is your beer?”
After a refreshing bathe Jenna strolled through the tavern to re-join Hilderbard, sensing his presence on a terrace beyond the walls, but a map of the lake caught her attention. Made from bleached hide, with the landmarks burned in, it was held erect by a large and lavish frame of bones. Jenna recognised them as Kaana bird bones, and admired the craftsmanship before studying the map.
Kaana Fey, first of several rest islands was clearly marked. To the far south-east was the Jiku Archipelago, home to the fearsome Ulutloys, but in the middle of the map were two larger islands that Jenna had never heard of. She placed a finger on the name.
“Bridgetown.” The voice was accompanied by the alluring aroma of good food that made Jenna’s tummy rumble. A short young woman wore an apron over a stained gown and her red hair was tied into a ponytail on top of her head. By the resemblance she was the island keeper’s daughter.
The young woman was carrying a pitcher of water, two flagons of ale, and two enormous plates of steaming food but had no trouble gesturing. “Some say it was once one island, but then it split in two when the world shook, many cycles ago. The people there built a bridge to join the two islands.”
“Why have I never heard of it, I wonder?”
The girl made a face as if smelling something foul. “Rich people wouldn’t go there. It’s a place outside the rules of Trefolk.”
“Outside the rules?”
“Guard your soles away from there, mi’lady lest it tarnish your soul.”
“And what is this?” Jenna indicated a vortex-like depiction in the middle of the Lake.
“It is the Eye of the Lake, mi’lady. A massive whirlpool that appears sometimes. Without warning, it comes up from the depths and sucks into it anything and anybody close by. Very, very dangerous to travel those waters.”
Jenna followed apron strings that snatched at dirty soles, threading between tables and chairs.
Hammerbringer relieved the woman of the ales and quaffed them immediately. “Stay away from where?”
“By the belts of Gethras,” said the fountain. “You have good ears, and you’re a man who appreciates good ale.”
“Aye, but where must we stay away from?”
“Bridgeton, or ‘Bridg’un’ as some call it. Bad folks go there - whores and pirates. Might I bring you more ale?”
“Finally, a woman who knows her place. Bring beer this time.”
With her ponytail cascading over one shoulder, the daughter of the island keeper dropped her voice to a whisper. “There were killings in Frethenia. Some suspect a witch. I hear there’s a warlock from the far north stirring up trouble. Terrible, terrible things. I will fetch that beer.”
Jenna waited for the squeak of soles to fade. “Do you think the kidnappers would go there?”
Hilderbard was absorbed in steaming fresh bread and hunks of roasted meat, dripping with rich sauce. “You think the kidnappers of the Queen have gone to Bridge, uh…”
“Yes. Bridg’un. Only Nordilok knows, lassie. Churchmen and thieves are the same kin, so it makes sense, such as it is.”
“Would you know anything of this… Bridg’un, perhaps?”
“What do they mean? Those marks on your cheek.”
“Mosh’na!” Jenna grabbed a length of hair over her right cheek. “Do you think the woman saw them?”
Hilderbard belched. “She would not see a Kaana bird if it broke dung at her feet. Unless the bird carried a potential mate, of course.”
Jenna rummaged in her pack for the small phial of make-up. Surreptitiously applying a thin layer, she wondered when the previous application had been lost.
“They are called the Gates of Life and Death.”
“The tattoos on my cheek.”
“Don’t look like gates to me.” Hilderbard was carving more meat for himself. “Look like runes, they do.”
“They are runes. Each one symbolises one of the elements, and therefore a specific discipline in a Warrior’s training.”
The beer arrived, with another for Jenna.
Jenna made the sign of Seisha over her food, offered a short mantra of thanks. “Akiun prefer to think of them as a celebration of life. If you earn one, it means you survived the trial.”
“Sounds tough, lassie.”
“During the trial, the master has to try kill his student with that discipline.”
Hammerbringer regarded a bone between his hands. “Then tell me, lassie, how does a survivor of these trials end up in the limp-wristed Frethenia? Did they capture you too? What happened?”
Wiping gravy from her wrist, Jenna stared at the shore. The lapping water stirred a treasured memory. She had not thought about the Island of Athiera for a very long time, and yet it felt as if it was only yesterday.
“I fell in love.”
The bone in Hilderbard’s hands snapped. “Nordilok’s balls! You?”
“Don’t laugh, Handorian…” Jenna’s neck was red.
“Explain this. There was tenderness where now there are claws? Did you have to kill him?”
“Her. No, I didn’t have to kill her.”
“Then what happened?”
Omitting those details that needed to remain secret, Jenna told him of how she had been contracted, when she was still the mercenary Tulascarri, to protect and aid a priestess in the recovery of a sacred artefact. During their adventures, Jenna and Ayr of Whispers had fallen in love.
“But you left her on her secret island? Is it forbidden for her to leave?” Hammerbringer massaged bread into sauce.
Jenna’s shrug was not as casual as she might have liked. The vision of Ayr, shining bright with divine intensity, was one that had burned indelibly into her soul.
“It was a love that could never have lasted. She has her path and I have mine.”
Bushy eyebrows rose and fell, accompanied by slurps and gulping. “No.”
“No, I have never heard of Bridge Town. Never paid much attention to maps of Trefolk, despite me being a master map-maker and all.”
Jenna grunted into her tankard.
“By the beard of Nordilok, it was. Worthy of further reflection…” The Handorian picked a tree, where he spread out, head on his pack, the Hammer of Nordilok within reach.
Barely minutes later, Jenna could hear him snoring.
She envied him. For a while sleep had not come quickly, and even when it did she was never rested. Sometimes she would wake and still see shadows dancing, moving just beyond clear vision, or hear whispering, the words too faint to be discerned, and all the while the sense of urgency pressed hard within her breast.
Despite her best efforts; despite the best efforts of her brother Hahn and even the council of elders, the Queen had been captured.
Mosh’na! Even now as she rested, the men who had captured Liu were drawing further away. They would not rest; they would know nothing of reprieve.
Jenna left more than an appropriate amount of coin on the table and then ambled over to the rumbling Hilderbard.
“A siege is not won with speed, but with endurance, lassie.”
“Awake so soon?”
“I cannot sleep with all that noise in your head.”
“A siege you say?”
“You are besieged by your worry.”
“How can I not worry when…”
“I have seen you slay men with cold precision in battle. Why would a chase cause you to lose your centre?”
She started to object but he was right. Why did it take a Handorian mountain man to remind her of the teachings of Akiun?
“They’re ahead of us, lassie, aye, that be true; maybe a day, maybe two, but we will catch them.”
“I pray Seisha steals the wind from them to give to us and…”
The island keeper intruded. Once more he exhorted them to stay.
Jenna nudged Hammerbringer with sandy toes. “It’s time.”
Sixthday, Day 18 of the Trefolkian Month of Theth, 1630 ODT
Beyond the musical take-off and aquamarine shores was a flight of six notches. Sealed into solitude behind the wind in her ears, Jenna was able to calm the urgency that clawed at her mind and she fell asleep staring at the smear of water below.
It was the icy sting of a droplet that roused her.
Thick clouds had gathered. Lightning dressed the sky in jagged lace. In minutes, she was drenched. Fortunately the bird was slowing; but by touchdown, the storm was over.
This island keeper was a sullen man, tall and swarthy. He spared his guests only perfunctory welcome.
The rotund tavern owner was of a brighter disposition.
“Our guests usually stay the night on the first island, stop here briefly and then fly on.” He seemed pleased his new guests would stay tonight. With a nod towards the island keeper he explained, “He usually goes to bed early and… well… welcome to our tavern.”
The tavern keeper showed them their rooms.
Following them were two women dressed in something that was liberal contrast to the traditional atmosphere of the previous island.
Jenna dropped her pack next to a bed that might have slept four.
“You will find a private waterroom at the back, mi’lady. Samatha, here, will tend to anything you need. By the Belts of Gethras! Mapmakers! We must make sure you are well rested.”
Fat fingers wiped a crisp apron. “So you can continue your journey refreshed. Unless you wish to stay to map the island, perhaps?”
“Why do many not stay the night?”
“Most spend the night on Kaana Fey, then rest here for a few notches before flying on. Seems easier. Common practice, I think. I do apologise for the island keeper but I hope our establishment will make up for it. By the tears of Seisha! I do prattle on! Let me show you to your room, fine sir. You will need a larger bed and we have just the thing.”
Jenna was grateful to be alone for a little while. Closing the door, she jumped when Samatha spoke.
“I have already drawn a bath for you mi’lady.” Samatha ushered her to steam that smelled of roses.
It took an effort to peel off the cloak; even more effort to remove her gown.
While Samatha stood with her back to Jenna, the warrior hung oiled leather on a hook and draped the sodden gown over a chair. It was glorious to sink into hot water.
“There is wine next to the tub, mistress. With your permission I shall see that your gown is washed and dried.”
The pack Jenna had dumped next to the bed contained only basic necessities and only one spare gown. The rest of the clothing she had brought was still with the Kaana birds.
“That would be most kind, thank you.”
The wine was full-bodied and just as tasteful as the furnishings. The latch clicked and Jenna soaked in rejuvenating herbs. She savoured the heat, the steam, the fragrant lather; and when her fingers had pruned she wrapped an equally generous watersheet about her.
Samatha waited on the other side of the door.
Fluid movements indicated a tray. “I have brought more wine and some food, my lady.”
Samatha was just shorter than Jenna, with a round face. Though predominantly brown, there were prominent streaks of blue in her shoulder-length hair. Her pale blue dress was little more than a tabard that left the flanks bare and the neckline plunged to a ribbon, fastened carelessly around the waist.
“It is my pleasure to serve,” Samatha nodded. “My lady speaks the Ancient Tongue. You must be very learnéd.” Nimble fingers pulled back the covers of the bed.
Thunder charged the shutters.
Heavy rain throbbed against the timber.
Samatha kneeled at the hearth and stoked the flames; dirty soles on an ember-scarred rug. A careless gape of material bared a breast to an amber glow and hungry eyes.
Samatha replaced the stoker. “You will have plenty of heat now.”
“You say I am learnéd but it seems you have knowledge of the Ancient Tongue. You did not grow up on this island, did you? Frethenia, perhaps?”
Samatha idled with the ribbon. Freckles floated in olive skin.
“Mistress is very perceptive. I was... educated in Frethenia. That is where I learned to make this garment…” Light hands trailed over small breasts. “But Frethenia is not where I grew up.”
“In Frethenia, you learned this? I would have thought such a garment forbidden in that city.”
“In the streets, yes..."
"Oh…" Jenna caressed a swath of hair. “It is rare to see Thailor’s blue so strong in the blood.”
Samatha’s cheek purred in Jenna’s hand, but there was an edge in her voice. “Mistress would be surprised to know how many Frethenians dye their hair to hide their tribe. I shall not use false colours to hide mine.”
“More than a clever turn of words, Samatha. What pain hides in their history?”
Samatha shrunk away. "Mistress is too kind, but..."
Gently, Jenna caught her hand.
"You can tell me, Samatha. Your confidence will not be returned as betrayal. I know too much of such things. Come…”
“It is strange…” began Samatha, as Jenna poured wine.
“What is strange?” Jenna settled on the rug and held out Samatha’s glass.
“Mistress is a stranger to me yet, I feel I can trust you. Like me, you carry your wounds behind your eyes.”
Jenna looked away. If only Samatha knew…
“I left my village with hopes of a better life, and an education," said Samatha. "But when I arrived in Frethenia, I learned it would come at a price. I borrowed money from Truruch... In repayment I was to work in the archives… and at times I did, but my real duties were less between pages and more between sheets."
"So you ran away?"
"No... I was afraid. I was too scared. Then one day, I was in the archives. There was a fire. At the time we were restoring books; books that all had references to Seisha and her teachings and all were destroyed. When I mentioned this to the segurat in charge he told me not to worry. Shortly after that, the segurim came to collect on my debt. That's when I fled. Every day I live in fear that they will find me here.”
"It is a lonely life."
Samatha leaned on one hand, the dress sighing from her shoulder. “You are a woman of rare beauty, my lady. Why would one like you seem so lonely?”
Jenna sighed. There was so much to say… but Samatha was leaning forward and her dress was falling away.
"Mistress is far from the comforts of home. Sewing is not the only thing I learned in Frethenia and there is nothing ancient about my tongue..."
Jenna’s watersheet surrendered. Samatha’s blue ribbons drifted to the floor. Her fingers pressed the butterflies in Jenna’s belly and from her petals gave them flight.
A moan caught in Jenna’s throat and she pulled Samatha deeper.
In the arms of this stranger she found salve for wounds she had not known were still open.
Firstday, Day 19 of the Trefolkian Month of Theth, 1630 ODT
The fragrance of blossoms mingled on humid air. Beyond the ledge a flutter of moths danced just out of Hahn’s reach.
Holding the railing he watched them, trying to discern predictable patterns in their movements. There was a rhythm to all things and if he just studied them long enough he would learn their secrets.
He wondered if this was the kind of thing dead people thought about. He was, officially, dead, after all. Less than two days had passed since Jenna had left Frethenia and it was just longer than that since Hahn had died.
True, his body had never been recovered, but to those who recorded names against events, he was dead. It suited him to remain so.
The Segurim taught that those who went to the arms of Gethras would spend an eternity in paradise. Descriptions of that paradise varied but clouds and harps were common themes.
Apparently one left this life to sit on a cloud and play a harp forever. Why a harp, exactly, was not a question any of the Segurim could meet with a ready answer; and once, in a session of religious instruction, Hahn had expressed concern about exposing his bottom to moisture for prolonged periods. When the segurat’s explanations evaporated under Hahn’s inquiry, the segurat had sighed with pious visage, if not mental bereavement, and had merely said that such were the wonders that awaited in the afterlife.
The "afterlife" in which Hahn found himself today had no harps or clouds, but wonders were not in short supply.
Instead of moving to the tree house deep in the forest, as he had told Jenna before she left, Hahn had found more convenient lodgings and here, in Stonebark, wherever he turned, marvels met his gaze.
Unlike the segurat’s mind, Stonebark thrummed with vivacity. The massive cavern, deeper into the earth and far more extensive than the Silvermist Keep, was the true home of the Incasts; and the fact that they had kept this community a secret for so long was the most astonishing wonder of all. Here, the Incasts had transmuted their punishment to prosperity. And even more than this, there was a spirit of liberty; a sense of freedom, cavalier in its disregard of Frethenian customs and laws.
Above ground, in Frethenia, many of his peers would be celebrating their passage into man- or womanhood; some would celebrate their first entwinements. If he was still living there, he might be pressured to do the same and that would only detract from his purpose. So it was good that death had relieved him of social pressures. Of bodily ones, it had not.
Though Jenna had tutored Hahn well in the cooling breath, Hahn's body was the crucible in the alchemy of maturing drives. He had dressed this morning in a Kren'an, thinking that the warrior's skirt, combined with the cooling breath were enough of a shield against that furnace, but the pitted ground nibbled sensually at his soles; his skirt caressed him wantonly, and he realised he might have been wrong.
He breathed, calming his blood, grateful he was alone.
"The view is impressive, is it not?"
Hahn’s cheeks burned. He dared not turn around.
Yet the voice was natural. It was free of the hollow timbre typical of Sentience-born tones.
He had to know why.
He completed the breath, composed himself, but the vision he met fired his veins. Like most Incasts she was naked, and Hahn's skirt was now a tent.
“You praise me, my lord!”
Hahn flushed. He turned away.
“Do not be embarrassed my lord. Your body speaks the truth your mind seeks to hide. Such honesty is a compliment.”
The woman was sincere. Something about her was reassuring.
Perhaps it was because he had not heard a regular voice since Jenna left, but this lady’s words were music he had never heard. The sudden throb of his heart was, surely, audible accompaniment.
He determined to present his most charming self, but the greeting, so eloquent in his mind, fumbled on his lips.
She squashed a laugh. Long purple locks swayed over firm breasts. “I am Si’Thea. Antsun’alun.”
She glided, like a vision might glide through a dream. The confidence in her hips was a smoulder beneath creamy skin and large purple pools sparkled above a strong jaw.
Fingers with hidden strength curled around the railing. Subtle but inviting perfume tempted with warmth.
He doubted that any of the Segurim’s sermons on the rewards of the afterlife had ever contemplated wonders such as she, though he was certain their desires did.
“You have strong harmony between mind and body, my lord. Unlike you, most of those men who have completed their rising sap either run from me or collapse in pleasure.”
Hahn finished a cooling breath. “Through the folly of our forebears are we, born free, shackled with shame.”
“Now you set me to shame, my lord.” Si’Thea’s head bowed. “Though I have twenty-three cycles I have none of your education.”
Hahn felt guilty. “Forgive me, Si’Thea. I was not…”
“We are born the innocent children of Mother Forest, yes? But because our ancestors forgot the old ways, we are prisoners to ignorance of our heritage. Is this what it means?”
He marvelled at her. “You are a singular enigma, Si’Thea. What is a woman, who can speak and with long hair where most Incasts wear it short or bald, doing in the Silvermist Keep?”
“You mean Stonebark, surely, my lord?”
“Of course… Stonebark.”
“Do you not think that the shape of the Stonebark resembles a sandglass?”
In the centre of the great cave’s autumnal palette an enormous column closely resembled her description.
“My thought on seeing it was that it was a petrified tree. If not for the stairs around it and the complex network of catwalks hanging from the roof, we could see it more clearly. But even from here you can see that those streaks of crystal white make it far more impressive than any tree. It’s at least as wide as the Great Bark itself. Do you see how the ‘branches’ hold up the roof?”
“I see the truth of it.” She rested on her forearms, her body so close Hahn’s skin tingled.
Her back hollowed into a sweeping arc and Hahn knew that if his gaze followed that curve, at its end… would be his.
“I wonder sometimes what magnificent goddess created this place.”
“Whoever they were, I submit they were drunk.”
“Do you mean it might have been Bathcus, god of wine and merriment? I never thought of him.”
Si’Thea’s innocent oblivion of Hahn’s sarcasm was disarming. He wanted to laugh but he was not sure if it was out of mirth or appreciation. Either way it would not be perceived well.
The walls of the cavern were far from even. In addition to crags and bulges, roughly a third of the way up, a series of ledges protruded as if, in a fit of rare industriousness the god of merriment had deemed it necessary for the cave to have adequate shelving but, true to the nature of Bathcus in fact, the god had had no sense of aesthetics. Though the ledges formed a ring of varying width around the interior, they were disjointed. Maybe once they had been a uniform ring but that time was long forgotten.
“Perhaps,” said Hahn with a wry smile. “But it was mortal ingenuity that joined the ledges.”
Whether born of a need for more space, or a need to express themselves, it was certain that Incast engineers had seen opportunity. The ledges had been united by robust wooden staircases; or otherwise stairs had been gouged from the rock.
“Stonebark has no shortage of imagination, my lord. We learned to adapt, to use what we could, however humble.”
From their right a horn, deep and tremulous, grumbled.
“Is that a time keeper, Si’Thea? I have heard that horn once every notch.”
“It is my lord; declaring the nineteenth notch. We have only one crystal marker in Stonebark, directly below the oculus.” Si’Thea pointed up and to the right of the monolith where a hole in the ceiling, ten paces wide allowed sunlight to pour onto a mirror system by day, and moonlight by night.
“Only one crystal marker?”
“The markers do not work in Stonebark.”
There were small scars on her fingers and forearms. Hahn had seen similar on blacksmiths.
“There are many, but the oculus is special.”
“How so? I imagine it was a fall of rock that created it.”
“It is still a subject of debate, but if it was only a fall of rock, how is it that, on the same day, every cycle, Cirilius shines, precisely, upon the dome on the temple roof?”
“Does he?” Hahn wished he could see the temple clearly. He had heard of it from Caixa earlier today. Nestled neatly between two of the ‘roots’ of the Stonebark, the temple was the oldest building of all.
“There is, on the furthest side to us, a section of the wall a hundred paces, at least. On it, panels have been marked, each one possibly three paces wide. Every ten cycles an artist goes to the next open panel and paints a record of the Stonebark.”
“A kind of chronicle of the Incast settlement.”
“Yes. The earliest painting shows the floor rich in stalagmites and bulging rock formations, but only one building.”
Hahn imagined a shaft of sunbeams striking the emerald dome; he imagined the rays splitting into prisms, scattering rainbows throughout the Stonebark; and he was enchanted by how the spectacle might present to those within the temple.
He had to see it for himself.
“On what day does Cirilius light the dome?”
“On the fifth day of the month of Stara, about five months from now.”
It was a simple question. It was a simple answer. Nothing about either was magical at all. Yet Hahn’s Life Seed twisted. The premonition was so strong the hairs on his neck prickled.
“The… fifth of Stara, you say?”
“Yes. Every cycle. Does the date hold any significance?”
“I mean… I do not know of any recorded significance.”
Si’Thea shrugged, straightening up in a way that would make a cat purr. “Then it remains a mystery.”
Hahn knew the date. It was significant, but only to him. Was there some connection between the cyclic light on the dome and…
“Pray?” Hahn blinked at a broad mouth with perfect teeth. Si’Thea had asked him a question.
“Your lodgings, my lord. Are they acceptable?” There was another small scar on her left cheek. It disappeared into crinkles when she laughed.
Fifteen paces behind them, a heavy patchwork hide marked the door to Hahn’s new abode. The ‘dormem’ was about thirty paces square, the front two thirds formed the kitchen and dining areas, with a waterroom to the left of the entrance. The back third was the bed chamber.
“It is the largest room I have ever had. It is more than acceptable, it is majestic. Thathenu. Where do you live, Si’Thea?”
In the distance, close to the far wall, a spire shimmered.
“At the base of that far spire, my insem and shemool have their home, where I live, my lord. Both my insem and shemool were Incasted when I had only ten cycles. When they came to live here, so did I. They said I, not being an Incast, should let my hair grow, and…”
“Forgive me,” Hahn interrupted. “Why should you address me as ‘lord’?”
Her response was halting. “You… are the brother of Lady Jenna… Kensu to the Queen, are you not?”
“Oh… I see. Yes. I am he…” Once again, the difference between life here and life in Frethenia. “Do you know my sister?”
Si’Thea rolled beads in a necklace Hahn had failed to notice. “Seisha’s tears, no. I know of her. Everybody knows of the Lady Jenna. She is the Queen’s champion. She is our champion.”
At the mention of “champion” the real world, the events of the days past and the overwhelm of new revelations caused a crease in Hahn’s brow and a knot of his arms.
“Have I misspoken. my lord?”
“No…” He dared to touch the warm skin of her forearm. It was a simple gesture, unremarkable really; but down here, he had the freedom to do it.
“Then I must assume your heart longs for your sister and I have reminded you of it.”
“More than that, Si’Thea. When Jenna left, it set in motion a series of events upon which I can only speculate, and it is difficult to speculate when the world I knew is quite obviously not what I thought it was...” He gestured at the town below, to emphasise.
“You have that look.”
“The same expression all new-comers have on their faces when they come to this vantage on Redledge.”
“Redledge? You mean this section of insalubriously constructed shelves?”
Si’Thea sniggered with mirth. It was infectious. Cerulean streaks in her hair cupped freckles on her jaw; and they whispered over a constellation of beauty spots on one shoulder.
His gaze dropped over inviting breasts, a flat belly, the smooth mound of her womanhood and he wrenched his head to the cityscape.
In the distance a vent opened. The perpetual twilight smeared erupting steam with dirty red. A lull in the hubbub of the cavern followed and for a brief moment, the ping of a blacksmith’s hammer was a solitary rhythm.
“Your awkwardness attests your honour, lord Hahn. Do not be ashamed. There are many who are still growing used to the return of the old ways. For those who have lived in shame their whole lives, however, the practice is always more… complicated than the theory.”
Hahn analysed her words. They had been chosen with great care. In so doing, though, she had dichotomized the recent return of the old ways against their prior non-existence.
“I find it hard to reconcile the elders’ decision to return to the old ways to the recent receipt of the Doctrine of Seisha. For hundreds of cycles people have reviled and maligned the old ways. For hundreds of cycles people have had their tongues cut out or worse for practicing the secrets of the old ways. People are people. Despite being Incasts, values do not summarily change overnight. The decision to return to the old ways was not made upon the receipt of the Seisha codex, Si’Thea. It was made a while back.”
Si’Thea’s nostrils flared. The beads were strangled. Her throat was tight.
“You are right, but Incasting is vicious and cruel. To be punished for something you never did? Would you not then proceed to do that very thing? There’s something that happens to a person when they have their tongue cut out. There’s a rebellion that wells up, but for Incasts, it is powerless.”
“Until now,” said Hahn.
“Any impotence of Stonebark ended the day the Incasts received Seisha’s Codex.”
“Seisha’s tears! You presume too much. Look.” Si’Thea gestured. Two naked women were passing behind them. They each carried a tall jar, supported on one shoulder, talking in eager, albeit hollow, Sentience-voice. They shared a joke, perhaps a reminiscence.
Hahn watched their dirty soles wink, the carefree sway of their shikai, their casual hips.
Si’Thea’s voice was edged with zeal. “Try to ignore the fire in your blood. Beyond their obvious allure, what do you see?”
“I see a way of life that is radically different to the bustling, teeming, pretentious city of Frethenia, just a short distance away, and above ground. I see a brazenly free way of life that could call down the wrath of Truruch and should thus be protected. And… I see your point. They walk with pride. They walk with confidence, unashamed of their bodies, their nudity, as fearful men would have them be.”
Hahn knew Si’Thea was showing him how the Incasts had turned misfortune to pride; how they had restored their dignity, but he also knew that pride can mask a deeper wound; and with the arrival of the Doctrine of Seisha, the spirit of rebellion she spoke of was no longer impotent. The clang of that hammer was a portent too loud to be ignored.
“My lord, my lady…”
A sinewy man interrupted. Like the women with the jars he was naked, and seemingly unaware of it.
“Ah…” Si’Thea acknowledged the visitor. “My lord, I am summoned to the elders. I have enjoyed our conversation; but I confess, the real reason for my visit was to advise that you will be inducted into the Incast elder council, as the representative of Lady Kensu. Forgive me that I did not mention it sooner. I was distracted by your… compliment.”
“Inducted? Into the Incast… elder council, you say? But my sap has scarcely risen? Surely this is unprecedented?” Though amazed, Hahn was also highly flattered. Her wayward smirk only made those lips more enchanting.
“In certain cases, such as yours, exceptions may be made… The council meets twice every month. Your tabard of office should be ready before the next meeting.”
“Imagine a Dniban gown with no sleeves and no sides. It’s just a panel of cloth with a hole for your head.”
“Surely I shall be the youngest council member in recorded history?”
“Do not allow the swell of the chest to pop the head, my lord. You will be allowed to speak, but not to vote.”
Reaching her escort, Si’Thea fondled her beads. “Should you need anything, my lord… anything at all… I am happy to serve.”
Hahn bowed as best his loins would allow. Already his imagination was conjuring stately images of his tabard of office. He should celebrate. Indeed, his captains should share his exaltation.
But his mind usurped his fancies. Fragments of intuition and observation connected into a whole. All subtlety was lost.
“Have you ever seen a Nehari soldier, Si’Thea?”
Si’Thea’s face was a question. “I am nought but a humble servant of the council my lord. What would I know of such things?”
“Surely you know that any rebellion would be swiftly crushed? How many Incasts are there? One… maybe two thousand? Exacting vengeance on Frethenia may proceed with few losses, but what then? Pride and confidence alone will not stand against Imperial Nehari.”
“My lord should not presume…”
“I hardly ever presume, Si’Thea. Come and look.”
An indignant flush. “I see Stonebark.”
“Then you should look closer. Do you see that faint red glow? You hear that metallic clanging? It’s far away but it’s been ceaseless since I arrived here. That’s a blacksmith at work. You’ve no horses in town so I’d wager those are not shoes being forged.”
“We have not the resources of Frethenia. It is of pure necessity that fire and water are entwined.”
“And metal is the progeny. I know the difference between spindles and spears, Si’Thea. The Incasts have the Seisha Codex. Everybody here seems to know who my sister is. You said yourself she is ‘our’ champion. Indeed, when the woman Misre and her mercenary battled Jenna on the island those ten Incast Wyrders who aided her were already skilled. It is not a far reach of mind to deduce that which underlies Incast pride and confidence.”
“My lady…” The sinewy man was nervous.
Si’Thea collected her calm, and bowed. “Perchance, my lord, we shall continue this another time?”
She did not wait for an answer. Desire urged Hahn to watch her leave but his mind burned hotter than his flesh and with stronger need.
Jenna had gifted the Book of Seisha into Incast arms of open grace. She would be dismayed to learn those arms belied hearts of vengeance.