Thirty-one. Old Fire

It had been slow going and, although Iassia had seen the turn of many centuries, he’d found himself experiencing impatience. The blind woman was out of her element and did not move with the same sureness as she had back at the farm. Iassia remembered how, when he had first found the place again and watched her from trees on the hill above, he had not even realised her sight was gone. She had known the exact number of steps to the chicken shed, opened the gate without fumbling, collected eggs from familiar places. It had been as he’d swooped in closer that he’d noticed her eyes did not track, but simply stared into some knowable distance. It had made things a little trickier. Convincing commoners that he was a servant of Arkus sent to help them was not so easy, even with a little psychic nudging, but a blind woman was even more sceptical that she was really talking to a bird. Often when Iassia spoke, people did not believe their eyes, but she hadn’t even had those to disbelieve with. Luckily the child, Essie, had been there too. While her mother, Frera, may have forgotten the burning need for revenge, in Essie he found it still ran hot, and she had been easier to steer. The girl lumped blame for her mother’s blindness at Corlas’s feet, right along with the death of her father. Apparently it had not been long after Chavus’s demise that Frera, weak with grief, had caught the wasting disease that clouded her eyes. ‘Arkus is just,’ Iassia had said to Essie, ‘and desires that justice is delivered to his people.’ The girl had looked upon him as if she’d been waiting for him all her life.

It had not taken long to convince her – a little longer for the mother – that they needed to follow him to the Open Halls and exact amends if ever they were to know peace. The road, however, had been ploddingly, maddeningly slow. Frera walked with a stick and was impossible to hurry, even though Essie tried, taking her by the arm to half-pull her along.

Iassia had decided he needed to take action. As he landed before them, the bag of coins in his beak jangled.

‘Here,’ he said, dropping it in front of Essie. ‘When we come to the next village, we will hire someone with a cart to drive us.’

It would mean he’d need to stay out of view, or at least not talk, but it was better than spending a year on the road at a snail’s pace.

Essie’s eyes lit up as she spilled coins across her palm. ‘Where did you get these?’

That was easy. ‘Arkus will always provide what is needed,’ he chirped merrily.

‘Bless you, Arkus,’ she said, holding the coins to her chest and looking to the heavens.

Bless you indeed, thought Iassia, thinking of the old couple further back down the road who would soon discover that their life savings were missing.

As Bel approached, he could see that something was happening at the barracks. There was a gathering by the archery range, and clothes of grandeur suggested a lordly presence. Black-and-yellow-striped Zyvanix rose in the air. Normally Bel would have been curious, but today he was too full of purpose and his eyes sought only the Throne. As he drew closer he spotted Naphur amidst a group of lords and ladies, looking uncomfortable in unusually resplendent robes. Next to him was the wasp Trusted, poised on two of her stick-like legs while the other four hung loosely from her abdomen. Her legs were decorated with gold and silver bands and there was some kind of pale substance encrusted in patterns on her body. Flanking her was a man and another Zyvanix, whom Bel guessed to be the two translators. As a cheer went up for a particularly good shot, Naphur said something to the wasp translator, who in turn buzzed and clicked it on to his mistress.

‘Bel!’

Bel paused mid-stride.

Corlas arrived at his side. ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you all morning.’

‘I was at the keepers’,’ said Bel defensively.

Corlas didn’t notice. ‘An archery competition,’ he said excitedly, waving at the gathering. ‘And the wasps are showing us up!’

‘Well, they do have about a million eyes.’

‘I want you to enter,’ said Corlas. ‘Let’s stop those antennae waving about so smugly!’

‘I don’t feel like it.’ Bel broke away to continue his march towards the Throne.

‘Wait up, lad!’ said Corlas, catching up again. ‘What ails you?’

‘I need to speak with Naphur.’

Corlas saw the look of determination in his son’s eyes and immediately gripped his arm, halting his progress. ‘Whoa there, lad,’ he said. Bel looked down at the restraining hand in annoyance, but Corlas was unmoved. ‘Bel,’ he said, ‘I can see you have something serious on your mind, but trust me – you should wait.’

Bel shot a glare at him and Corlas held it levelly. Eventually Bel gave in.

‘All right,’ he said.

Corlas let go. ‘Naphur is very anxious when he’s around the Trusted. Look at how he fidgets. He hasn’t dealt much with the Zyvanix before. It’s clear he’s eager to please this beastie. The communication barrier is no help either. If you wish to talk to him, wait until the competition is over. Maybe then he can step away for a moment.’

‘Wait until the competition’s over, eh?’ said Bel, eyeing off the range. ‘Very well.’

Once more he marched towards the Throne and Corlas fell in at his side, now grinning. Naphur saw them coming and burst into a relieved smile. Bel bowed before him.

‘My Throne,’ he said. ‘I am late, but I would still compete.’

Naphur clapped his hands in pleasure. ‘Of course, Bel,’ he said, and turned to the wasp translator. ‘Trusted of Cindeka, this is Bel Corinas, one of my best soldiers.’

Again the translator clicked and buzzed at the Trusted, who waggled her antennae and clicked back. The human interpreter spoke: ‘The Trusted is eager to see your man in action.’

Naphur nodded to Bel, who turned and made his way to the range. Wasp warriors were hovering in a row, firing off barbs towards the targets. As Corlas had said, they were extremely fast to notch new arrows and their accuracy was excellent. As Bel took up a position with the waiting contestants, he glanced over to see M’Meska baring her teeth at him in a lizard grin.

‘At last,’ she hissed. ‘Some real challenge, yes? Now we truly see who is race superior on this range.’ She bobbed her head and tapped her scaly chest. ‘Saurian,’ she added, for clarification.

The wasps on the range emptied their quivers and flitted back from the line. Scores were totalled and targets cleared. Stepping into position, Bel loosed off arrows in quick succession. They flew through the air shaft after shaft, each pounding deeply into the red centre of his target. The spectators watched in awe as he began to split arrows in a display of skill unmatched on the field. He swapped his grip on the bow to fire with his left hand and his accuracy remained unchanged. He lifted up a leg and shot from beneath it; pulled the bow over his head and shot that way; averted his eyes from the target to wink at the crowd as each arrow travelled a perfect course, not a single one falling outside the centre circle. Applause rose from the crowd. Bel hadn’t shown off like this for some time and, despite his distraction, it felt good.

So it went for the last few rounds. Thanks to Bel, the Varenkai score quickly overtook the Zyvanix’s. He looked over to see the wasp Trusted very still, Naphur looking uncomfortable and Corlas unreadable. The Trusted turned, clicked something to Naphur and took off without waiting to find out the final scores. Several of her guards rose to join her.

Bel bowed to the crowd and made his way back to the Throne, leaving behind a very sulky Saurian. As he arrived, the Trusted’s human interpreter was finishing speaking to Naphur. ‘Forgive my mistress – she desires respite from the sun.’

Naphur watched the interpreter leave, not seeming to know whether to be worried or pleased. ‘Well,’ he said to Bel, ‘that was quite a showing. Quite a showing indeed.’

‘Quite a showing up ,’ Corlas put in quietly.

‘Thank you,’ said Bel briskly. ‘My Throne, I must speak with you about an urgent matter.’

Naphur was still staring after the wasps and seemed not to hear. ‘Well,’ he said, almost to himself, ‘I don’t know whether she’s offended or not, but by Arkus it’s a relief that she’s gone.’ Finally he smiled at Bel. ‘Politics,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I didn’t become Throne to get mixed up in blasted politics , eh, Bel? It would all be easier if everyone just did what I said.’

‘My Throne, I must speak with you.’

Naphur unceremoniously wiped the sheen off his brow with his cloak. ‘Forgot to bring my poxy silk handkerchief,’ he said. ‘Now, what is it, Bel?’

Taking a deep breath, Bel launched into a somewhat confused yet passionate explanation about how Cydus had wronged Jaya. When he had finished, the older men both looked troubled.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Naphur. ‘I don’t see what I can do about it.’

‘You’re the Throne!’ said Bel. ‘Surely that counts for something!’

‘I like to think so,’ said Naphur, raising an eyebrow. ‘But Cydus is a noble, and his complaints against this Jaya girl are real. I can’t just disregard the laws our land is built on.’

‘Why not? Cydus did when he murdered Jaya’s partners!’

‘Her thieving partners,’ said Naphur. ‘It’s misconduct begotten of misconduct, and right now her word against Cydus’s is not enough to have him questioned by an overseer.’ He scratched one of his hairy arms. ‘What is this girl to you, Bel? Why have you taken such an interest in her case?’

‘She’s …’ began Bel, then shook his head in frustration. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘Oh, so it’s like that, eh?’ said Naphur. ‘In which case I’m afraid I may very much understand.’ He sighed. ‘Please tell me you weren’t mixed up with her before this crime.’

Bel remained silent.

‘What is it, lad?’ asked Corlas. ‘Answer the Throne. How are you involved with this girl?’

‘I love her!’ yelled Bel, so loudly that some of the courtiers glanced over. He surprised even himself and fought to regain composure. ‘I don’t know how it happened, it just did.’ He raked a hand through his hair and looked away, falling silent.

Naphur exchanged a glance with Corlas, then stepped forward to take Bel by the shoulder.

‘My lad,’ he said. ‘You know I care about you, so what’s important to you is important to me …but this all seems very sudden. A pretty girl can sometimes turn our heads so that we think –’

‘No,’ said Bel, the fierceness of his look daring Naphur to challenge his conviction. ‘It isn’t like that. Not wishing to be crass, my Throne, but I’ve had plenty of pretty girls, and I know I’m not mistaken in this. This is different.’

Naphur sighed. ‘I see that it is. I believe you, Bel.’

‘Then?’

‘What would you have me do? Declare her innocent and set her free?’

Bel looked darkly at the ground. It was clear from Naphur’s tone that this was precisely what he could not do.

‘I’m sorry,’ continued Naphur. ‘I wish I could help, but I have responsibilities. The Thrones are not despots like the Shadowdreamers. Our land has laws so the people retain rights. I can’t rise above that, lest the traditions of a thousand years crumble to dust. I cannot be seen to pervert the course of justice .

‘I see,’ said Bel.

‘Bel –’

‘It’s all right!’ he said, trying to force calm into his tone. ‘I understand, my Throne. You have your duty.’ Anger scorched his voice, despite his efforts. ‘I’m sorry for asking this of you. I must go.’

With that he bowed abruptly and quickly took his leave.

Naphur sighed. ‘He asks too much, Corlas.’

‘Aye, my Throne. But that doesn’t mean you need do too little. Excuse me.’

Corlas followed his son, leaving the ruler of Kainordas looking perturbed.

‘Where are you going?’ asked Corlas, catching up to Bel with great strides.

‘To see her. I promised I’d ask the Throne for her release, and I won’t have her hoping in vain now I know that he won’t help.’

‘No, that wouldn’t do,’ agreed Corlas. They went in silence for a moment, then Corlas said, ‘Will you tell me of her?’

Bel glanced at his father in irritation, but saw that the man was simply curious. The hardness within him mellowed.

‘I would know,’ continued Corlas, ‘of the thief worthy enough to steal my son’s heart.’

Bel tried to repress a smile.

‘Indulge an old man,’ said Corlas.

‘All right !’ said Bel. ‘Stop it! I will tell you, if it will make you be quiet!’

He told Corlas the truth of how he’d met her and Corlas listened attentively …but when Bel began to describe her eyes, his expression turned strange.

‘What is it?’ asked Bel.

‘She has Sprite blood.’

‘Yes.’

Tears welled up in Corlas’s eyes and he tried to hide them by looking away.

‘Father?’

‘You are lost, my son,’ said Corlas. ‘In the nicest way.’ He smiled grimly. ‘Your mother would have approved. Actually, I don’t think she would have approved of anyone who wasn’t part Sprite. In fact …’

Bel waited for him to collect his thoughts.

‘…she would have called it a “soul kiss”,’ Corlas finished, and smiled.

‘What’s that?’

‘Let me see if I can summon her words,’ said Corlas. ‘She rattled on about the Sprites quite often but not everything stuck. Hmm. I remember her saying a “soul kiss” for a Sprite was the most common and natural way to find a partner. Sprite souls are a lot more intuitive than minds and bodies, apparently. The best I can explain it is like this: two souls recognise that a capacity for love exists between them and bind themselves together without bothering to speak to their owners first. The two people fall suddenly and madly in love – an event celebrated by Sprites as we would celebrate marriage. In fact, experiencing a soul kiss was something of a rite of passage for young Sprites as they,’ he looked fondly on Bel, ‘grew up.’

Bel considered his father’s words. ‘Was it like this for you?’ he asked quietly.

‘Yes,’ said Corlas. ‘Very sudden. And very real.’

‘Father, you told me that Mother always claimed you had the blood, but you never really believed her.’

‘Yes,’ said Corlas sadly.

‘Well …since meeting Jaya, I think I am better at sensing others who have it …and I think that you do.’

‘Bless you, boy,’ Corlas said, and smiled. ‘I think so too.’

On the road south of Kadass, the blind woman could hear the sounds of the city. ‘How far to go?’ she asked in a quavering voice.

‘We’re close, Mother,’ said the hard-eyed young woman by her side.

‘Yes, Frera,’ said the colourful little bird perched on her shoulder. ‘Almost there.’

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