Idiomatic

He is sitting in a car, the windows rolled down, the humidity pouring in, sweat pooling on his back. Mostly he tries not to think, keep his eyes on the road ahead. It’s these long glass moments, that’s where he has no control.

So many yesterdays spent lying against each other, impressing their silhouettes against their nascent forms, shuddering and trembling at the faintest touch. She says, hand clasped in his, I am not just a thing, an idea someone had. We are possibilities, infinities.

The moments shiver as they pass and sometimes hold themselves still. In memory they are glacial. The world looks ready to crumble, to slip into oblivion, without questions, without answers, as incandescent as her smiling face.

An Assassin At the Door

The same unworried face, a hint of a smile forever curling his lips, faced Keleprai, though he was grinning deeply now as he related to the Gver the impetuousness of their young Qraul.

“He is still a child, of course, but he does not realize it.”

“We didn’t either at that age. It’s a delightful blindness.”

“No, I suppose we didn’t,” Cepedutherupt said, nodding slightly. They sat on either side of a table laden with steaming dishes of food in the Gver’s personal quarters. “He’s set on making his mark like his father. He wants to be free of us old men.”

“I wish him luck. I thought I would be rid of Tehh as soon as I became Gver, and now I think he’ll outlast me.”

Keleprai picked at a dish of lentils and duck in a sauce heavy with onions and garlic. There was an extra plate set at the table for the High Adept’s Disciple, who normally attended these meetings, but he was nowhere to be seen. Keleprai had not raised his absence with Cepedutherupt. Adept’s kept their own counsel, it was said, and he disliked the man at any rate.

“I hear that we are changing the Sea Challenge.”

The High Adept laughed. “Rakai is in, yes. It’s been discussed many times before.”

Something must have shown in his face, for Cepedutherupt set his fork down and shrugged his shoulders. “He wants to assert himself, like I said. He wants to take chances and have them pay. There’ll be outcry and outrage and all that, but really, the Challenge doesn’t mean what it meant in our father’s Realm. There’s many who will agree.”

“Silently,” Keleprai said, and Cepedutherupt shrugged again. It was true there was only pride and prestige at stake now with the Challenge, no trading rights to be gained, but that had, in the strange way of these things, served only to make the competition even more imperative to those involved. He did not believe for an instant that the decision had been Laterala’s, either. Cepedutherupt would not stir this hornet’s nest without some reason. In truth he agreed with the decision, but the fact that he had not been asked, his agreement assumed, needled at him.

The Adept did not give him a chance to pursue the issue. “Tell me, what news from the border?”

“There was an incursion past the pyrsedies less than a month ago. Nothing unusual and no real consequence. There’ll be more activity now that we’re coming into summer. There’s nothing in the reports to worry.”

“My greatest worry is the desert.”

Keleprai could not disguise his shock. “In truth? With the Realm as it is?”

“Even so. They will be a grave problem, sooner than you believe. I have given blood to the matter.”

Keleprai eyed the Adept. “I suppose this has something to with alkemya and all that. Well, these matters I leave to you of course, but I don’t see why we need to worry about the Shadows. We have enough to worry here without going outside the Realm to find it.”

“True enough,” the Adept said, and smiled. “It is something to think about anyway, when you are reading those reports.”

“Half the Realm debates each morning when they get up whether they will pay fealty to the Qraul or not, and you would like me to pay attention to the wanderings of vagrants.”

“Perhaps there is purpose where we see only aimlessness.”

Keleprai frowned. “You cannot truly believe that?”

“I don’t know, to be honest. Yours is an eye I trust, though.”

“I can have the pyrsedies under my command increase their patrols if you would like.”

Cepedutherupt nodded his thanks. Keleprai poured himself another measure of wine and resisted a smile. He had no intention of increasing the patrols. Too much expense and bother for what he was certain would come to nothing. There were only the basest of reasons behind what the creatures did. They wandered the deserts following the seasons in their tribes, striking into Craitol when the opportunity presented itself. They were scavengers—no greater purpose animated or governed them.

Was this truly the reason for this audience, he wondered. To increase the patrols of the desert? A full and complete waste of his day, then. The Adepts were always going on about what they had scried, and more often than not it proved to be of little more worth than what any thaumaturge in any village in the Realm would see in the entrails of an ardeh.

“Have you heard the latest talk from the court?” Keleprai held his hands out. “Well, they are saying that Laterala is a follower of the Lasisen Senteurists.”

Keleprai frwoned. “The Apysel? On what basis?”

“His mother,” Cepedutherupt said. “She has taken the vows and is living in their cloister.”

“What madness has possessed her?”

“Who’s to say. But you know as well as I that the boy trusts her word as much as anyone’s. Well, everyone knows that. Hence our problem.”

Keleprai nodded. The Lasisen Senteurists were a radical sect that worshipped Senteur alone and sought to denigrate the place of Ulternon and Melinon in the theology. According to their belief Senteur was the sole father of humanity, with Melinon little more than an empty receptacle. Many in the Realm favoured Senteur among the Gods, and believed it was he who had triumphed in the struggle among the three, but to exalt him as the sole God of worship was unheard of. There had always been something in Senteurist belief which leaned towards this, but for many, even other Senteurists, it was a step too far.

It was difficult enough, Keleprai knew, for any Gver or Qraul to rule without some suspecting that he favoured this sect or the other. Even choosing among the Morning, Midday, or Evening was fraught with peril, which was why most high nobility followed the choices of their fathers. People were apt to take to the streets if they perceived that some group or other was favoured over their own. He had been careful throughout his rule to play no favourites and be part of the agnostic mass in these things. This was even more dangerous ground, though—if it became accepted that Laterala followed some sect, then no Palace would be safe from the mob. The first cloister that Lasisen had built in Lastl had been burned and the Cureders beaten to death.

“When did she do this?” he asked.

“Two months now. I have tried to keep it quiet, but of course it was no use,” Cepedutherupt said. “You know her better than I—you grew up together, did you not? Send word to her, try to speak reason.”

A rap at the door interrupted them. They both turned, frowning, to stare at its blank visage before Keleprai got to his feet and went to open it, a few choice words for Nasyren already on his lips. Before he reached the door it swung open and someone he didn’t recognize stepped through. A short, compact man, his dark shade suggesting he was from the Mgetir Isle, wearing the dress of a Palace attendant. He had his mouth open to yell at the Master of Offices for allowing this unforgivable breach of protocol—the High Adept was here in secret, for Gods’ sake, you couldn’t allow some attendant to just come wandering in—when he saw the man had a dagger in hand.

He fumbled for the ceremonial dagger he always had at his side, but the attacker was already upon him, thrusting the dagger at his throat. Keleprai managed to stave off the blow, grasping the man’s wrist and holding him at bay. While they struggled, Keleprai called out to the guards who should have been at the outer doors of the quarters. There was no response and the attacker gave him a grim smile.

“Hold,” Cepedutherupt said in a voice gone cavernous, freezing the intruder momentarily. It was enough that Keleprai was able to extract himself and get his own dagger free. The attacker eyed the two of them warily, holding his dagger out before him.

Glancing over, Keleprai saw the High Adept’s eyes begin to change, glazing in the way that all Adepts and their Disciples did when practicing their art, as if they had become unhinged from the rest of their body. It would be over quickly now, he thought. Once Cepedutherupt had the attacker under control he could step in and finish him.

Just as he thought they had victory easily within their grasp, he saw the assassin’s eyes turn as well. He did not have time to brace himself before the alkemy hit him like a sharp gust of wind. The very floor he stood on was unstable; it was something like being on the sea in a storm. There was the same trembling, the plunging of his stomach to his bowels and the sudden chance that his insides might come rushing out of his body.

The assassin and Cepedutherupt were locked in a desperate struggle, unseen but for the grim tauntness of their faces. Keleprai tried to take a step forward, to intercede in some way, but he doubled over, clutching his head in agony as the alkemy flooded the air. It was too near him, all this power, and he was only feeling the excess spilling over from the battle. His body felt numb and his nose started to run so that he wondered if it was bleeding.

When he at last managed to raise his head he found himself looking upon an almost absurd scene. The assassin was moving towards the High Adept with painstaking slowness, as though he were terrified the ground beneath was about to fall away. At the same time Cepedutherupt was immobile, seemingly not aware of the other at all. Desperately, Keleprai tried to intervene, but he fell to his knees with his first step. The alkemy crackled in his ears, but he knew there was no sound being formed, just as there was nothing visible in the air. It was all in the realm of the spirits.

By the time Keleprai regained his feet the assassin had buried his knife to the hilt in Cepedutherupt’s side. He yanked it free with a triumphant gasp. The High Adept’s expression remained unchanged, and as quickly as it had come the intruder’s grin vanished. His hand remained in the air, holding the dagger at an odd angle while he screamed as he was suffused in a white glare. Smoke started to rise off him and his eyes rolled back into his head, his tongue flopping out of his mouth. Finally, he collapsed to the ground in a heap.

The stench of burnt flesh was overwhelming. Keleprai was left reeling. His body felt raw and stiff, like he had been lashed and beaten for hours. Cepedutherupt, he saw, had fallen to the ground. The silence was oppressive and he wondered if he had somehow lost his hearing during the battle.

He forced himself to his feet, fighting the vertigo, which was still overwhelming in the aftermath of the alkemy. He managed only a step before he went to his knees and retched, sending the meal he had just eaten to the floor. That made him feel better, though, and he got back to his feet and walked over to the assassin, pushing him onto his back with his foot. Having assured himself of the man’s demise, Keleprai stumbled out of the room and down the hallway to find Nasyren.

from Realm of Shadows

The Deluge

He needs a shot of salvation, taste of the sacrosanct, to get through the ends of the day. Those moments when he’s left with only himself and his thoughts. Survival’s the thing people find difficult. Living on a knife’s hard edge, tilting over and trying to fall, convinced of complete betrayal of existence.

Western Swing on the transistor: right or wrong, I’ll always love you; I’ll get mine bye and bye. The deluge of the moment that doesn’t quite cut clean. It festers and spreads, a pestilence no quarantine can hold. Memories he cannot escape. Like the tangle of their bodies, it never had that sort of finality.

Every Cursed Night

Clouds blanketed the sky, rippling bruises in the twilight. The city Darrhyn below, sprawling along the bend of a wide river, was draped in the resultant shadows, pierced only intermittently by the remnants of the day’s sun. Hurried figures passed from street to street in certain of its quarters to light the lamps, while others were left to what the night would bring. Along the city’s great wall the beacons in the towers were struck, signaling the changing of the Watch. The new quadras marched up tower stairs, the soldiers heading out to pace the ramparts, looking into the final glare of the sun as it cast the scrub of the desert in oranges and reds.

Within one of the watchtowers five men squinted in the lamplight at a just-overturned cup, none of them speaking. Above them the sentinel on duty was singing an academy song about a woman so light in her manners that she would invite any man to sup with her.

“Call,” the dealer said as he removed his hand from the cup, its contents still a mystery.

The youth to his left exhaled slowly as he eyed the cup. “Even. Five kenir,” he said, the flames of the beacon above them snapping as more oil was added.

“Odd. I’ll see you, Husem,” the man beside him said, and the youth grimaced. “You’re too young to be a gamester, I think.”

He had a face gone thick with age and a long scar that ran from his chin up to his ear, just above the line of his jaw on one side. When he grinned, as he was doing now, it had the effect of creating what seemed a double smile on that half of his face.

“He lacks ability,” the dealer said.

“Short on talent as well,” the man said, to the laughter of everyone but the youth. The others at the table followed through with their bets, all odd.

Masiph id Ezern bit his lip. “I hope this is all above board,” he said, staring at the dealer whose hand had strayed back to the cup.

“I hope so too,” the man, Achelluth, said. “Someone short on talent and without ability certainly can’t handle the underboard of life.”

Masiph bit his lip again, not replying, and the dealer pulled the cup away, revealing two dice—a four and a three. There were whoops from around the table, but he did not look up, his eyes fixed on the dull bones whose pips had betrayed him again.

“That’s it. I’m out,” he said, pushing the last of his coins across the table. “I’m getting some air.”

“Neither the coin nor the stamp for it, Husem,” Achelluth called out, the white of his scar almost gleaming. “You haven’t run through your allowance already, have you?”

“Hardly. I have better things to spend it on than at this table.”

“Well, at least you are wise enough to know you will be spending it here,” Achelluth said to more laughter. Masiph just nodded and walked out the door.

He wandered from the tower, stopping just outside the glow of the beacon to lean against the ramparts. It had been a cool day, given the rains could not be far away, and now that the sun was nearly set the night brought a chill. One of the two men on patrol on this stretch of the wall passed by, and they greeted each other. Masiph reached into the folds of his robe for the pouch that held his aslyn and put a quid in his cheek.

“Quiet night,” he said, as the soldier passed back in the other direction.

“Every cursed night is quiet, Husem.”

Masiph smiled, starting to work at the quid, as he stared idly at the veil of the night descending upon the desert. Here, so near the Eresnan River, it was a green desert—the short grass and sage brush that was its hallmark, plentiful and vibrant in color and scent. Once the rains began there would be even more as other plants began to flower. It was something he was curious to see, for though he had lived in Darrhyn his entire life he, like so many others from the city, had not set foot outside the western wall. When he had travelled it had been east into the Ferryen Plains, or down the Eresnan where the desert, so near, was safely kept from sight by the trees that lined its banks. To most Darrhynna, the desert was worthy of no more than a wary glance to the west and a scuff of a boot heel at the earth when talk turned to the Shadow Men.

Masiph had joined the Watch at the beginning of the dry season, five months ago, over his father’s objections. For once Ibrazol had relented, though it had not felt like a victory as Masiph had expected. It felt like his father had in some way outmaneuvered him again, achieving his desired end in allowing his son this. Perhaps he had. Masiph never could tell what his father’s thoughts were and was still not clear on his own feelings now that he had achieved his desire. The work itself was tedious—a few weeks on, a few days off, and always a quiet night.

This in spite of what one could hear walking the streets. To listen to the talk there was to believe that the Imperial city’s very existence was precarious, given its location in that nebulous region near the Empire’s border where the desert began. And the desert was the creatures’ domain. Never mind that the Shadow Men, even as they were conquering the desert, shattering the Empire a hundred years ago, had never dared an attack on Darrhyn and its fabled great walls. None had in the five centuries it had served as capital of Renuih.

There had been a raid a week ago in Fardun, little more than a day’s journey southeast—the first of the season, and earlier than usual, given the rains had not started. Strangely, the fact that it was an unimportant farming village seemed to lead to even more anguish among the populace. There was no sense to it, but why did there have to be? It was the creatures, after all. They were without reason and purpose, moving like common beasts with the seasons, content with the barest of existences on the rock and scrub of the desert.

In the streets talk turned to conspiracy and invasion. This was the only tangible result of a Shadow Men raid. That afternoon Masiph had heard that the shadows were gathering near Ghehel and were working to rebuild the Nasuila Bridge to use as a gateway to strike at the heart of the Empire, cutting the Ferryen Plains off from the capital and the southern provinces. At any given moment in the rainy season Darrhyn was a day or hours away from a massive army of the creatures materializing at its gates. In a week, maybe less, it would all be forgotten—until word of the next attack arrived.

We live in an age diminished, Masiph thought, the shadows of greater days. Before the fall of the desert, even during that desperate struggle to maintain their hold in that realm, the denizens of this city would never have cowered at the mention of a mere raid by the creatures. The thought would have been laughable. Now those who had to memorize their invocations, and even some of their betters, spoke of the Shadow Men as the natural inhabitants of the desert. Generations of Renians had known no other life but that of the desert—and that included his own family—yet that seemed to be almost forgotten now, or at least dismissed.

“What’s the thought this evening?” Nustef id Illied said to him as he stepped out of the tower. The Nohritai was older than his fellow nobleman, with narrow features and a heavier green tone to his skin than was usual for those from Darrhyn.

“We can only bear a life of fear so long,” Masiph said.

“Heavy things indeed, especially for someone with no marrow in his bones,” Nustef laughed.

“Where else do you find the pox but in the bones?”

“The voice of experience, perhaps? Are you preparing lines for your chronicle?”

“I don’t think so. The historians just put whatever words they want into the mouths of whoever anyway. Husem Azyereh was illiterate, I’ve been told.”

“Really?”

“Yes. He was not a favored cousin.”

More laughter. “Fair enough, I suppose. I always forget that he had a life before he became the Ad Eselte’s Vazeir.”

“Someday though,” Masiph said, “we’ll have to do something about the shadows or we’ll be nothing more than carrion for them to feast on. Better to act now than to be put to the squeak later.”

“You shouldn’t listen to what you hear in the drinkeries. It only bothers the blood.”

“The drink or the talk?” he said.

“I wouldn’t know these things. I lead a pious life, as my ancestors and the sage Delth proscribe.”

Masiph spat over the wall in response and Nustef smiled. “Talk to Our Most Benevolent One. Don’t you have his ear by now?”

“Oh yes, I join him daily for his constitutionals and we discuss all the important matters of the Empire in between verses.”

“Does he really go walking about every morning?”

Masiph shrugged. I would be the last to know.

Nustef took his own quid out, putting it in his cheek, and the two of them chewed in silence. There was a small copse near the wall that was filled with dahrrynna birds, the capital’s namesake, and their animated calls as they roused themselves for an evening of feasting on insects drowned the air. This was the scene that faced them every night as the sun slipped below the horizon, and that familiarity and the calm that now settled over the day’s end was seductive.

Masiph felt strongly about what he said regarding the creatures. It was an easy thing to be passionate about, given no one was so derelict of their senses as to invade the desert. A byproduct of the restlessness of youth, his father would say in that dismissive tone which burned his ears. That his father, and no doubt that useless philosopher Ad Eselte, frowned upon his views only served to confirm them even more firmly in his mind. Something would have to be done, if only because no one else seemed to think that was the case.

The last Renian force to invade the desert in an attempt to reclaim their birthright had been led by a cousin of his father’s, Waleen, ten years before his own birth. Two hundred sons, the flower of the Darrhynna youth, had joined him, dazzled by his speeches calling for a crusade to purify the desert of the black scourge, to resurrect those ancestors lost there and restore the empire whole. The result was predictable: a laughable disaster guided by a mad fool. Most failed to return and those who did were ruined, never to be whole again. Masiph had seen a few of them on visits to other Nohritai homes, balding men who walked about like children, unsure of each step.

Such a catastrophe had the effect of ensuring that no Ad Eselte or Nohritai would propose a war against the Shadow Men for generations. Still, Masiph admired Waleen his madness. His cousin, he thought, probably had felt much as he did the echo in each step of his life. If a cauldron of blood in the desert was necessary to drag this plain into a new age, then let it come.

“He’s a poet,” he said, breaking their silence. “He has the pouting lips for squeaking after all. Certainly no stomach for war.”

“Probably he’s too concerned about self-important Nohritai who think they know better than him how to run the empire.” Nustef said.

A clanging bell down the wall stifled Masiph’s reply. Just as it started to ring it dropped silent, leaving a dimming tremor of sound in the air before it began again in earnest. Both of them stood confused, unsure of what to do. The ringing stopped and did not resume, the darrhynna continuing their chatter, oblivious of this brief disruption, the alluring stillness holding

from Realm of Shadows

Bound

He ties her in knots, leaves her hushed with anticipation and the heavy weight of knowing…

He was so many things: the breath of morning sunshine upon her face, the caress of the wind, the sky forever beginning above, and the darkness that is not there and then suddenly whole.

It is surreal to be separated from the cataclysm, standing and watching in a passing thought, empty of everything. The rain pours and then dries slowly away in the returning sun. She never felt the lightning, only heard the echo of thunder, long after the blinding flash had turned her eyes to dust.