Chapter 8 - Dire news
The rebellion raging in her belly will not be quelled with simple logic or sage advice. I have so much admiration for her spark. I can see so much of myself – a much younger self – in her. It would be a crime to douse her spirit.
Zyra enters my tent with rabid eyes. She’s still out of breath. She tosses an anxious glance at Namni, quietly munching a cookie as he sits cross-legged at one edge of my prayer rug. She makes no attempt to hide her disdain. She’s also curiously struck by Kamini, kneeling across the rug from Namni. She’s somewhat wary of Spinner – long since returned to his shoulder. But that’s not the true source of her surprise.
I don’t think she’s seen Kamini since they all arrived. She probably expected him to look no better than the day they were dragged within our walls. He harbors a strength that few in our enclave have witnessed. His pride masks a great many wounds – some healing, some thoroughly scarred over. He may know our ways, but he is every bit the Elladoran. His panache cannot be doused for long by Reaper onslaughts.
Zyra: A word, Queen Mother?
She knows exactly how her honorifics irritate me. I wave an arm with the futile desire that it might erase her needless pomp.
Me: Don’t’ be foolish. Diasporans have no queen.
Her deference does not conceal her anxiety.
Zyra: Understood. But… can we have a word?
Me: I may have seen too many sunsets, but I’m not deaf. Speak your truth.
Zyra: Right here? In front of… them?
In all my years, I have still found no solution for how to weaponize a sigh. If I ever perfect that skill, perhaps then I will accept a title as ridiculous as Queen Mother. I’ll launch debilitating sighs upon all who dare to darken my doorstep. I’ll project my terrible power with an ominous scepter. And an eye patch.
I’ve always fancied myself with a patch. But both my eyes stubbornly refuse to degrade, and it seems such a pity to cover one of them for nothing but the transient thrill of intimidation. Thus, for now, I must accept that my exasperations will barely register upon their intended targets.
Zyra grits her teeth and nods toward Namni. I only gave him two cookies, but he’s mastered the art of making them last. He gingerly nibbles at the corners, crumb-by-crumb, slowly disassembling them – sometimes over the course of hours.
Zyra: Why are you still feeding it?
Me: Their stay has not yet ended. Would you have me starve them out?
Zyra: If it were my decision…?
Me: And that, Zyra, is precisely why it is not your decision.
Zyra: As a captain of the Shield, I’m sworn to protect us from danger. Danger without. And danger within.
Me: You’re also sworn to serve my commands, and the commands of the other elders. Has your selective amnesia blinded you to that commitment?
She answers with a measured wariness. Her gaze remains on the boys, but her ire is focused solely on me. Namni is not oblivious to her attention. He stares quietly back into her eyes. Says nothing. Munches on his cookie. But maintains his watch upon Zyra. There is hope for that boy! His resolve renews my smile, even as Zyra seethes.
Zyra: No. I have not forgotten.
Lorelei: I don’t presume you came here solely to dither over Namni’s meals?
Zyra: No. There is word from the trail.
Lorelei: Well… get on with it then.
The anger wells up in her face again. She shoots me a frustrated glance, then shares it with Namni, then returns it to me again. She wants me to interject. I’ve never been able to teach her the lesson of allowing others to speak first.
She doesn’t grasp the strategic advantage that dwells in silence. She lifts her arms to the heavens in a universal display of professional helplessness, but I wait patiently for the official report. When she finally realizes that no relief is forthcoming, she continues.
Zyra: A scout arrived. From the south. From… Llanpiq.
Me: Did he bring news of Powr Xeng?
She struggles for some moments to formulate her words.
Zyra: He did. And… Powr Xeng’s dead.
I fear my smile has waned. It’s out there. Waiting for me to recapture it. But the strength evades me at the moment. I try to keep my voice aloft, but I know my words are stifled.
Me: How did it happen?
Zyra: His crew was ambushed… by the Inqoans. Somewhere outside of Sagas.
Me: Sagas is an Oneian city.
Zyra: I know. It seems they were tracking him.
Me: Across the Llanpiq border??
Zyra: It would seem so.
Kamini is not untouched by the news. But he doesn’t flinch a muscle. He stares downward over the prayer rug, ignoring Spinner’s sudden agitation. Namni’s keen to my mood. I would have him honor his emotions, so it doesn’t feel proper to let him see me shielding my own.
Zyra shakes her head slowly before replying.
Zyra: A few… maybe. A handful of stragglers, at best. Certainly, none of the leaders. No one we’d know.
I don’t cherish the next question I must ask.
Me: Has anyone told Diamon?
Zyra: No, I wanted to tell you first.
Kamini raises his head and looks to me.
Me: As you should. I will talk to her.
Namni is confused by the upturn in my voice, but this is not the time to school him in the ways of Diasporan wakes.
Zyra: They’re asking for troops.
Me: I ask every day for peace and prosperity. All these years, and the spirits have yet to answer my prayer.
She raises her arms again. Her rage is scarcely contained.
Zyra: That’s it?
Me: What else is there?
Zyra: I don’t know... Perhaps something more than… platitudes? And quips?
Me: This news does not rest easy on my shoulders.
Zyra: So what will you do with that news?
Me: What would you have me do?
Zyra: Help them! Send reinforcements. Garrison supplies. Muster our forces. Do something!
Me: Look around you. Is there a brigade buried somewhere here in the muck? Are they perched in the trees, awaiting our signal to march?
Zyra: Surely there is something we can do?
Me: Should I start drilling the children? Should I issue spears to all the elders?
Zyra: There are able-bodied soldiers among us.
Me: And they are all assigned to the Shield. A ragtag “force” that can scarcely keep watch over our own lands.
This was meant as no slight toward her, but there’s no doubt she absorbs it as such. My choice of words was… unwise – but they are spoken now. She wants so much to bring the fight to our enemies. But she can’t bring herself to fathom the true scale of our enemies.
Me: Who do we send off to Llanpiq? Shall we carve off a portion of your men?
She grows quiet. Awkward, even. She doesn’t have the answer. But she so badly wants to find that answer nonetheless.
Zyra: Our surveillance is already a porous net that can barely catch the interlopers who violate the Manderlands.
I close the gap between us and place a hand on her shoulder. I know she doesn’t appreciate the gesture, but she won’t dare to swat my arm away.
Me: You’re doing the best you can with the scant resources we’ve afforded you. Every day, the village praises your work.
Zyra: But if our brethren fall, that work is for naught.
Me: Zyra… Llanpiq fell 80 years ago. I, of all people, should know. I was there.
Zyra: I’m not talking about political boundaries or diplomatic treaties.
Me: Nor am I. When Llanpiq fell, it was no mere military conquest. It was the wholesale destruction of our people. Of our entire way of life. Llanpiq was the last, true Diasporan nation. It was the only tangible proof that the Inqoans and the Elladorans could not simply dismiss us. The glory of that culture will never be seen again.
Zyra: But… how can you say that?? While we still draw breath?
Me: We do. But there are so many traditions. So many rites that you will never know but from the tales of your elders. They marched us from that land. For months. Many of us, in chains. My parents died on that trail, left to rot on the forest floor. And what remains here now is but a whisper of our former glory.
Zyra: And our response to that indignity is… to surrender? To cower in our hovels while we count the days until the next inevitable indignity?
Me: Have you been to Collia?
The question catches her off guard. She struggles to follow the logic.
Zyra: Well, no… but what–
Me: I’ve been. The Inqoans – they litter the countryside. They outnumber the trees. They strain the bounty of the Aequin.
Zyra: And yet they cling to the ocean. There are more than just Inqoans in this world.
Me: Indeed. The distant Tallonai scarcely acknowledge our existence. And they can never be counted on for assistance.
Zyra: I was referring to the Elladorans.
Me: I know of whom you spoke. The Elladorans are no less populous than the Inqoans. And no more inclined to champion our cause.
Zyra: But at least we share blood with the Elladorans.
I don’t mean to belittle her position. Her fire is not a liability. It’s an asset. And a valuable one, at that. But I can scarcely stifle my laughter.
Me: There’s more to family than blood. They’re ashamed of our presence. They’ve manipulated us to their whims whenever it suits their purpose. They’ve been party to the treaties that have confined us to these bogs. At times, they've openly allied with the Inqoans. And for what? To keep us out of eye’s reach? To nurture their own sense of amnesia? The Elladorans have no greater desire than for us to simply go away.
Zyra: So, we wait… here? For the end?
Me: Perhaps. But it won’t be long before our tormentors begin starving.
Zyra: What do you mean?
Me: Look about you. The 9th Trial is almost a year old. Every day, Syrus fills a larger portion of the sky. The days grow hotter. The clouds darken the sky – but pass before releasing their rains. The emberstools shrivel. The muddwood is shallower. It won’t be long before it’s nothing but a dried wasteland of cracked, caked mud. I’ve seen naught but a single bottonfly swarm in days. And when the bottonflies find nothing to eat, the vast ecosystem that preys upon them will also disappear. The razers are increasing in number – and intensity. The crops will fail. The cities will fall apart. Unless the spirits see fit to call me home first, I fear that I will witness the burning of the great canopeias themselves.
Zyra: We can’t afford to let the Trials handle our enemies.
She stands for an uncomfortable moment. The rebellion raging in her belly will not be quelled with simple logic or sage advice. I have so much admiration for her spark. I can see so much of myself – a much younger self – in her. It would be a crime to douse her spirit.
Me: Call Ulises and tell him to gather an away team. Nothing ostentatious. Whatever you think you can spare. We can’t afford for him to curry undue attention. Jaylah’s been hoarding a sizeable cache of spears. She’s also been curing an impressive new batch of bloodwood armor. It’s light enough to wear like your own skin. And it’s strong enough to stop a charging parrican.
Zyra: She’s cured it with the blood of… which creatures?
I smile at her and nod before replying.
Me: It’s been properly cured. With blood that was spilled for noble purposes.
It’s the first time I’ve seen an uptick in her mood since she entered the tent. She’s certainly not happy. But my words have granted her a tiny ray of hope.
Me: They mustn’t travel via the dropways. Those planks are patrolled by the Reapers and the tyrans and a whole host of hostile eyes. And for god’s sake, warn them off the Gotten Road. They must blaze their own trail if they are to return intact.
Zyra: Thank you, Queen Mother.
Again with the silly titles. There’s no use in correcting her now…
Me: But you didn’t raise an alarm to tell me of fallen rebels in distant lands?
This actually seems to brighten her mood. Or at the least, it snaps her back into a tactical mindset. She is keen to continue her report.
Zyra: Reapers have been spotted crisscrossing the Manderlands.
Me: Just any Reaper?
Zyra: No. Rychov is afoot.
Kamini springs to his feet.
He’s on the verge of darting from the tent. It takes a mighty gesture to sit him back down.
Me: I always saw Rychov as more of an ass.
They all stare at me. Motionless. Not a chuckle among them. I know my humor is ageing poorly, but can an old lady catch a break? I can’t get so much as a modest smirk with that line? Oh well… my witty repartee is lost on them.
Kamini: Does he dare confront us here?
Zyra: Doubtful. They’re probing. Accosting random travelers. Asking a lot of questions.
Me: I presume they have a target in mind?
She glares at Kamini with renewed vigor. She points at him with righteous indignation.
Zyra: Their target, is him.
She is not pleased with the smile that I pass to Kamini.
Me: You’ve grown better at making friends.
Zyra: This is no laughing matter, Lorelei.
I suppose I’m glad that she’s dropped that Queen Mother crap. But I understand, much clearer than my guests, that her direct use of my name is a sign of her growing anxiety.
Me: Who’s laughing?
Zyra: We’ve suffered at his hands before.
She needs some sign of empathy from me, so I lower my tone and forcefully temper my smile.
Me: You are correct. But with whom is he traveling? He’s rarely one to scout alone?
Zyra: He was spotted days ago. At first it was nothing but him and a few cronies. But he seems to be gathering intelligence. Triangulating, if you will, on the village. When we saw him again, just a few hours ago, he had at least a dozen foot soldiers in tow. That’s when I decided to alert the elders.
Me: Where, exactly?
Zyra: Last we saw them, they were making their way up the Ontor Gulch.
Me: That can’t be more than a few klicks from here.
Zyra: And that’s why we raised the alarm.
Me: I will have to consult the elders.
Zyra: What are we to do in the interim?
Me: Tail him. But at a careful distance. We don’t need to risk a confrontation just yet.
Zyra: And if they come closer?
Me: They won’t. At least, not yet. A dozen men against our entrenched position is not a winning proposition. And Rychov only strikes when he believes he has a winning position. He’s biding his time. And… recruiting.
Zyra: We could eliminate the threat right now.
Me: Oh, really?
She renews her attention on Kamini.
Zyra: By simply ejecting this one.
Kamini: Sounds like a reasonable plan to me.
Zyra has just gone a step too far. She will learn that my happy countenance is not for lack of resolve.
Me: Have I ever traded your safety for that of the village?
Zyra: I should hope not.
Me: So which members of the village are suitable for sacrifice?
Zyra: He’s not a member of our village!
Me: I’m going to tell you this for the last time. This is not for you to decide. Nor is it up for debate. You are my family. This village is my family. And regardless of how it sits with you, Kamini is my family. If you care not for the safety of my family – for our family – then you have violated the most sacred duty of the Shield.
I can’t afford to extinguish her fire. But I’m not having this argument with her every day. It is done. And by the look on her face, she knows that it is done.
Zyra: Queen Mother… I didn’t mean to–
Me: If you wish to disavow our people, there are several million Elladorans out there who would give you good company. You can get right in line behind the rest of them. Do I make myself clear?
Her head is bowed. It’s a posture that is foreign to her. Uncomfortable, even.
Zyra: Yes, ma’am.
Me: Good. Now get with Ulises right away. See what you can gather for our remaining friends – such that we have any – in Llanpiq.
Zyra exits in silence. Kamini traces the patterns on the prayer rug. I don’t know if it’s because he’s finally finished his cookies, or because he’s genuinely intrigued by the interaction, but Namni is more attentive now than he’s been at any other time today. He wants to speak, but he allows a minute to pass before he summons the courage.
Namni: She seems so… mean.
Me: Not mean, Namni. Angry.
My words clog his brain and furrow his brow.
Namni: What’s the difference?
Me: Meanness is born of hatred. Anger is born of injustice. That’s why I love her so.
Namni: But she’s so defiant…
Me: You would be too, if you’d seen half of what she’s seen. Her defiance is not a threat to our people. It’s an advantage – to be fostered. Molded.
Kamini: She’s right, you know.
Me: She’s righteous, but not right. Truthful, but not correct.
Kamini: Rychov has no interest in stalking Diasporans. He’s only looking for me.
Me: I’ve seen your handiwork in combat. And it’s impressive. But no amount of training can level the odds when it’s twelve-to-one.
Kamini: Hunters don’t attack the herd. There are ways to separate your prey from the pack.
Me: No doubt that Rychov would say the same about you.
Kamini rises. As he stands there, I close the gap and give him a firm embrace. He instinctively stands there, motionless, neither returning my affection nor rejecting it. But he knows me too well. As I clutch his torso, he cannot conceal the pain. His breath quickens. His heartrate jumps.
Me: You’re looking far better. But that black get-up hasn’t magically cured your wounds.
Kamini: I can fight.
Me: Oh, child. You can barely run right now.
Kamini: I’m not interested in running from him. I want to face him.
Me: And that’s exactly why you’re not ready. I have no desire to see Rychov humble you again.
Namni’s eyes are transfixed upon us. I don’t believe he’s ever heard Chey talk to Kamini in such forthright terms.
Me: Did you think your little encounter in the canopy was Kamini’s first scuffle with Rychov?
Namni: Well… yeah. I kinda did.
Kamini: Do we really need to go over this?
Me: Before young Kamini even had hair on his sac, he had a habit of disappearing for days at a time.
Kamini: I’m not one to laze in the village.
Me: Nor are you one to choose the wisest company.
Kamini: I was bored.
Me: And I suppose one way to alleviate such boredom is to become a runner for Rychov.
Namni: You were a Reaper?!
Me: Not as such. He was more of an… apprentice.
Kamini is hurt. Anxiety is etched upon his face. Did he really think that I didn’t know? I always assumed he gave me more credit than that.
Namni: How could you??
Kamini: I was not a Reaper!
Me: He speaks truth, Namni. He was not coronated.
Namni: But you were working? For them?
Me: Don’t judge him. It’s really more of my doing. Idle hands, and whatnot.
Kamini: My actions were my own.
Me: Yours were the actions of a boy.
Kamini: I own them, to this day.
Me: Honorable, to the last.
Namni: Does Chey know of this?
Me: Know of it? She saved him from it.
Kamini: I required no saving.
Me: You can paint it as you wish. But young Kamini dropped a shipment.
Kamini: I was ambushed. By tyrans.
Me: Don’t plead your case to me. I care not for your narcotic transactions.
Namni: So Chey saved you? From the tyrans?
Me: Hehehe, no. Even as a snotnose, Kamini always had the drop on the tyrans. But when Rychov came calling, and Kamini had neither the product nor the profits, he decided to make an example of our beloved Kamini.
Namni: What… what happened?
Me: He would have killed him.
Kamini: He would not have killed me.
Me: But Chey intervened. I wouldn’t trust her as far as I can throw her, but I will never speak ill of that woman’s timing.
Namni: That’s how you met Chey?
Kamini: We’d spoken. A handful of times.
Me: Chey may have saved him, but if she’d gotten there moments later, Rychov would have had him strung up as a warning for the other trainees.
Kamini: I still could have escaped.
Me: Of course, you could have.
Namni: Chey never told me…
Me: And you are to tell no one else. Not Jarin. Not Montal. No one. Do you understand?
Namni: Yes, ma’am.
Namni: Well, sure. But there are some things that you just don’t ask Chey.
I know that Kamini’s angry with me. But he’s intent on concealing that anger from Namni. Poor Namni’s got a load to process, and I can see the gears turning in that ghostly head of his.
Me: You know, that’s what everyone in the village calls you now?
Confusion passes between them until Kamini realizes that I’m talking to him.
Kamini: What do you mean?
His voice is soft. He does not wish to meet my eyes.
Kamini: Well… I am Elladoran.
Me: Indeed. I brought you from their klysters. When you were one.
Kamini: I… I’m not sure what you’re getting at.
Me: And you spent the next decade here. With us. Holding our ways.
Kamini: I’m not the first one to leave the village.
Me: Kamini, I don’t care where you go. I care only about who you are.
An awkwardness grips the room. Lord, how I despise such interludes. I could feed Namni another cookie – an escape he’d no doubt cherish. But treats have lost their affect on Kamini. A change of subject is in order.
Me: Come, Namni. There’s a feast to prepare for.
I don’t mean to jumble the boy, but at times his innocent confusion is precious.
Namni: A feast? On what occasion?
Me: We are to celebrate the life of a great man.
Kamini: Powr Xeng.
Namni: You knew him?
Kamini: Only in passing. But he was… a legend.
Namni: But we are to celebrate his death?
Me: No, Namni. We are to glorify his life.
Namni: Oh… I see.
Namni most certainly does not “see”. But that’s alright. There is so much more for him to learn.
Me: And you will have something more to celebrate.
Namni: I will??
Me: But of course. It’s finally time to see your brothers again.
He springs to his feet. The joy that bursts from his face fills the room.
Namni: And… Montal?
Me: Yes… Montal. You will have some… reacquainting to do.
Like so much else that happens around him, Namni doesn’t quite get my meaning. But that, too, is alright. There is so much more for him to learn.