THE ETIQUETTE OF BLOODSHED
It always seemed to begin with fire.
As it had begun in Steadbrook, that village he once called home that no one had ever heard of and no one ever would. Fire had been there, where it had all begun. Fire was still there, years later, every time Lenk closed his eyes.
It licked at him now as it consumed the barns and houses around him, as it sampled the slow-roasted dead before giving away all pretenses of being civilized and messily devoured skin, cloth, and wood in great red gulps. It belched, cackled at its own crudeness, and reached out to him with sputtering hands. The fire wanted him to join them; in feast or in frolic, it didn’t matter.
Lenk was concerned with the dead.
He walked among them, saw faces staring up at him. Man. Woman. Old man’s beard charred black and skin crackling. Through smoke-covered mirrors, they looked like him. He didn’t remember their names.
He looked up, found that the night sky had moved too fast and the earth was hurrying to keep up. He was far away from Steadbrook now, that world left on another earth smoldered black. Wood was under his feet now, smoldering with the same fire that razed the mast overhead. A ship. A memory.
A different kind of fire.
This one didn’t care about him. This fire ate in resentful silence, consuming sail and wood and dying in the water rising up beneath him. Again, Lenk paid no attention. He was again concerned with the faces, the faces that meant something to him.
The faces of the traitors.
Denaos, dark-eyed; Asper, sullen; Dreadaeleon, arrogant; Gariath, inhuman. They loomed out of the fire at him. They didn’t ask him if he was hot. He was rather cold, in fact, as cold as the sword that had appeared in his hand. They didn’t ask him about that, either. They turned away, one by one. They showed their necks to him.
And he cut them down, one by one, until one face remained.
Full of treason.
She didn’t show him her neck. He couldn’t very well cut her head off when she was looking right at him. His eyes stared into her.
Full of hate.
It was his eyes she stared into. It wasn’t his hands that wrapped themselves around her throat. It wasn’t his voice that said this was right. It wasn’t his blood that flowed into his fingers, caused his bones to shiver as they strained to warm themselves in her throat.
But these were his eyes, her eyes. As the world burned down around them and sank into a callous sea, their eyes were full of each other.
He shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he was far below the sea. A fish, bloated and spiny and glassy-eyed stared at him, fins wafting gently as it bobbed up and down in front of him.
“So, anyway,” he said, “that’s basically how it all happened.”
The fish reared back, seeming to take umbrage at his breaking of the tranquil silence. It turned indignantly and sped away, disappearing into the curtains of life emerging from the reef.
“Well, what did you expect?”
He turned and the woman was seated upon a sphere of wrinkled coral. Her head was tilted toward him.
“I am talking and breathing while several feet underwater.”
“You don’t seem surprised by that,” she said.
“This sort of thing happens to me a lot.” He tapped his brow. “The voices in my head tend to change things. It didn’t seem all that unreasonable that they might make me talk with a fish.” He looked at her intently. “You should know all this, shouldn’t you?”
“Why would I?”
“Can’t you read my thoughts?”
“All the other ones have been able to.”
“I’m not a voice in your head,” she replied.
Amongst everything else in. . whatever this was, that was the most believable. Her voice came from the water, in the cold current that existed solely between them. It swirled around him, through him, everywhere but within him.
“What are you, then?” he asked.
“I am just like you.”
“Well, no, obviously. I don’t want to murder
“You said you couldn’t-”
“I didn’t, you showed me.” She leapt off the coral, scattering a school of red fish as she landed neatly. A cloud of sand rose, drifted away on a current that would not touch her. “And before that, you told me.”
“When you cried out,” she said, turning to walk away. “I’ve been hearing you for a while now. There aren’t a lot of voices anymore, so I hear the few that scream pretty clearly.”
As she walked farther away, the sea became intolerably warm. The cold current followed her and so did he. He didn’t see when she stopped beside the craggy coral, and he had to skid to a halt. She didn’t even look up at him as she peered into a black hole within the coral.
“Two of them,” she said, reaching into the black hole. “Always two of them. One in pain, one always crying out, one weeping bitterly and always saying ‘no, no, no.’ That is the voice I follow. That is the one that’s faint.”
She winced as a tremor ran along her arm. She withdrew it and the eel that had clamped its jaws onto her fingers. It writhed angrily as she brought her hand about its slender neck and brought it up to her face to stare into its white eyes.
“And the other?” Lenk asked.
“Always louder, always cold and black. It doesn’t speak to me so much as speak to mine, speak to the cold inside of me.”
He stared at her, the question forming on his tongue, even though he already knew the answer. He had to ask. He had to hear her say it.
“What does it tell you to do?” he asked.
She looked at him. Her fingers clenched. The snapping sound was short. The eel hung limply in her hands, its tail curled up, up, seeking the sun as she clenched its lifeless body.
“To kill,” she said simply.
Their eyes met each other, peering deeper than eyes had a right to. It was as if each one sought to pry open the other’s head and peer inside and see what each one’s frigid voice was muttering to them.
He could feel the cold creeping up his spine. He knew what his was telling him.
“So,” he said softly, reaching for a sword that wasn’t there, “you’re here to-”
“Kill you?” Her smile was not warm. “No.” She released the eel and let it drift away. “It’s not in my nature.”
He rubbed his head. “I don’t mean to be rude, but this is about the time I start losing patience with the other voices in my head, too, so could you kindly tell me why you
“Because, Lenk, you’re about to kill yourself.”
“The thought had occurred. I’m just worried that hell will be much worse than. .” He gestured around the reef. “You know,
“What makes you so sure there’s a hell?”
“Because I’ve seen what comes out of it.”
“Demons aren’t made in hell. They’re made
Her voice echoed through water, through his blood. She wasn’t just talking to him. Something else had heard her.
And it tried to numb him, reaching out to cool his blood and turn his bones to ice. It only made the chill of her voice all the more keen, made the warmth of the ocean grow ever more intolerable. He wanted to cry out, he wanted to collapse, he wanted to let go and see if the current could carry him far enough that he might drift forever.
Those were not things he could do. Not anymore. So he inclined his head, just enough to avoid her gaze, and whispered.
“Yeah. That makes sense.”
“Then you know?” she asked. “Do you know how to fight it? That you
Her voice was hard, but falsely so, something that had been brittle to begin with and hammered with a mallet in an awkward grip. Not hard enough to squelch the hope in her voice. She asked not for his sake alone.
He hated to answer.
“I’m not afraid of it, anymore.”
He tilted his head back up, turning his gaze skyward. The sun was distant, a shimmering blur on a surface so far away as to be mythical.
“I used to be,” he said. “But it says so many things. I tried ignoring it and I felt fear. I tried arguing and I felt pain. But now, I’m not afraid. I don’t hurt. I’m numb.”
“If you can safely ignore it, then is there a problem? If you don’t feel the need to kill-”
“I do.” He spoke with a casualness that unnerved himself. “The voice, when it speaks, tells me about how they abandoned me, how they betrayed me. It tells me they have to die for us to be safe. I try to ignore it. . but it’s hard.”
“You said you were numb, that you weren’t afraid.”
“It’s not the voice that scares me.” He met her gaze now. He smiled faintly. “It’s that I’m beginning to agree with it.”
Denaos looked at himself in the blade. No scars, still. More wrinkles than there used to be. A pair of ugly bags under eyes that he chose not to look at, but no scars.
He had that, at least.
Appearance was one point of pride amongst many for him. There were other things he had hoped he would be remembered for: his taste in wine, an ear for song, and a way with women that sat firmly between the realms of poetry and witchcraft.
And killing. He was not bad at it.
Still, he thought as he surveyed himself, if none of those could be his legacy, looks would have to suffice.
And yet, as he saw the man in the blade, he wondered if perhaps he might have to discount that, too. His was a face used to masks: sharp, perceptive eyes over a malleable mouth ready to smile, frown, or spit curses as needed, all set within firm, square features.
Those eyes were sunken now, dark seeds buried in dark soil, hidden under long hair poorly kempt. His features were caked with stubble, grime, a dried glistening of liquid he hadn’t bothered to clean away. And his mouth twitched, not quite sure what it was supposed to do.
Fitting. He didn’t know who this mask was supposed to portray.
Looks, then, were not to be what he was remembered for. His eyes drifted to the far side of the table, to the bottle long drained. His preferences in alcohol, too, had broadened to “anything short of embalming fluid, providing nothing else is at hand; past that, it’s all fine.”
He would not be remembered as a handsome man, then. Nor a man of liquids or songs. What else was left?
The glistening of steel answered. He looked at the blade, its edge everything he wasn’t: sharpened, honed, precise. An example, three fingers long and with a polished wooden hilt and a taste for blood.
“Are we doing this or what?” a growling voice asked.
He tilted the knife slightly. She was still there. He had hoped she wouldn’t be, though that might have been hard, given that she was bound to the chair. Still, less hard considering what she was.
Indeed, it was difficult to see how Semnein Xhai was still held by the rawhide bonds. They might have bit into her purple flesh, they might have been tied tightly by hands that were used to tying. Her arm might have been twisted and ruined, thanks to Asper. But that purple flesh was thick over thicker muscle, and his hands were shakier these days.
She stared at him in the blade, her eyes white and without pupils. Her hair hung about her in greasy white strands, framing a face that was sharp and long as the knife.
He had been wearing a different mask that day, that of a man who had a better legacy than him, a man who was less good at killing. But he would do better today. He had people counting on him to find out information. That was a slightly better legacy.
His face changed in the blade. His mask came back on. Dark eyes hard, jaw set tightly, twitching mouth stilled for now. Hands steadied themselves. He smiled into the blade: knife-cruel, knife-long.
He held up the knife and regarded her through the reflection of its steel. Glass was fickle. Steel had a hard time lying. He knew what he was doing. He knew this should have been easier than it was.
One look into her long, purple face reminded him why it wasn’t. No fear in her reflection. Fear would have been easy to use. Contempt, too, would have been nice. Lust would have been passable, if weird. But what was on her was something hard as the rest of her, something impatient and unimpressed.
That was hard to work with. That hadn’t gotten any easier.
“And?” she grunted. “Any more questions today?”
“No,” he replied, voice as soft as the sunlight filtering through the reed walls. “I want to tell fairy tales today.”
No reply. No confusion or derision. She was listening.
She was also fifteen paces behind him.
“Old ones, good ones,” he whispered. “I want to tell the stories that mothers make crying children silent with. Handsome princes-” he paused, turned the blade, stared into his own eyes, “-ugly witches-” he ran his finger along the blade, felt it gently lick his flesh, “-pretty, pale princesses with long, silky hair.”
He shifted the blade, looked at her again. Three paces to the left.
“Was a quiet child,” he continued without turning around. “Mother didn’t tell me stories. Never cried. I had a friend, though, cried a lot. Probably why he didn’t think he was too old for fairy tales. Made him cry once. . twice, maybe. Heard his mother tell him stories. All the same: evil witch captures pretty princess, handsome prince rides to tower. The ending. .”
He shifted the blade to his left hand. He stared at her for a moment longer in its reflection.
“It’s always the same.”
His arm snapped. The knife wailed. It quieted with a meaty smacking sound and her shriek of pain. He turned, smiled gently.
“There is a struggle, some brave test for the prince to conquer,” he whispered as he walked over to her. “But in the end, he reaches the top of the tower-” he took the hilt jutting from her bicep, “-he kicks in the door-” he twisted the blade slightly, ignored her snarling, “-and he carries the pretty princess out.”
He drew the blade out slowly, listening to it whine as it was torn from its nice, cozy tower, listening to the flesh protest. He caught his reflection in the steel, saw that his smile had disappeared.
“Always the same,” he said. “The fairy tale is how we tell ugly children to survive. This is why the same stories are told. Through repetition, the child understands.”
He lifted the blade, tapped it lightly on her nose, leaving a tiny red blot upon her purple flesh.
“And we can repeat this story forever.” He slowly slid the blade over, until the tip hovered beneath her eye, a hair’s width from soft, white matter. “The princess can keep going back into the tower until you tell me. Until I know where Jaga is and what you handsome princes want with it.”
Now, he waited. He waited for the fear to creep up on her face. He waited for something he could use. He waited until she finally spoke.
“I have to piss.”
He sighed; mistake. “Just let me-”
She wasn’t making a request. The acrid smell that hit him a moment later confirmed that. He blanched, turned around; bigger mistake.
He turned around to face her. Tremendous mistake.
She was sitting there, grinning broadly as the liquid trickled down her chair to stain the hut’s sandy floor. He showed her no disgust, though for how much longer he was hesitant to say. There was something in her grin beyond the subdued hatred, the pleasure in suffering that he had come to expect. There was something in her eyes that was beyond scorn and fury.
Something that made it seem as though she wanted him to smile back.
“What?” she asked.
“You disgust me.”
“Why would a man who asks for piss and blood be surprised at getting piss and blood?”
He blinked, looked down at the stained sand. “I’ve known of your breed’s existence for almost a month now, so if this is a riddle, I don’t feel ashamed saying I don’t get it.”
She smiled; not grinned. “Master Sheraptus said you were stupid.”
“Your master is dead.”
“Master Sheraptus is never wrong,” she said. She looked at him curiously, sizing him up. “But. . you’re not stupid.”
“But you desperately want to be.”
It was generally agreed by most torturer and interrogator manuals that cryptic musing from one’s victims was generally a poor reaction. He flipped the knife around in his hand, noting that there wasn’t a great deal of blood on the blade.
Possibly because there wasn’t a great deal of blood from her wound.
“It doesn’t work that way,” she grunted, smiling at his recognition. “Cut me however deep you want to. I won’t bleed.”
“You won’t,” he said, forcing his voice cold, trying to force the conversation back into his grip. “Because you’re going to tell me.”
No defiance. Only fact. She would not talk. It made him cringe to realize that he believed it as much as she did. It made him cringe again when she noticed this and smiled. Broadly.
“You’re not stupid,” she repeated. “There is a way it is. Everything works as it should. You call it inev. . inva. .” She grunted, spat onto the ground. “You give it a stupid word. Netherlings know it because we are it. From nothing to nothing. We live, we kill, we die. This is how it is.”
She looked at him, searching for a reaction. He felt his skin crawl under her gaze; there was something about not being able to follow her eyes, milk white and bereft of iris or pupil, that made him shudder.
“But you want to be stupid,” she said. “You want to think there is another way to do this. You want to think I’m going to break under this pain. I’ve had worse.”
There was a sickening popping sound and he knew she was clenching her fist behind her. That he couldn’t see the ruined mass of flesh and twisted bone that was her arm was a comfort that grew smaller every time she made a fist. The bone set back into place, the flesh squished as she overcame the injury out of a sheer desire to unnerve him.
It was working. It reminded him of just how much pain she had gone through. He was there when it had happened. He had seen Asper do it.
“You want to think I’m going to tell you everything you need.” She smiled a jagged smile. “Because then, you can tell yourself you’re as stupid as everyone else, that you just didn’t know. That’s why you pour reeking water down your throat. That’s why you talk to invisible sky people.”
He felt her smile twist in his skin.
“I bet you have a stupid word for that, too,” she said.
He meant to smack his lips. His mouth was so dry all of the sudden, so numb that he didn’t even feel it when the word slipped out of his mouth.
“Denial,” he whispered.
“Stupid,” she grunted. “As stupid as anything.”
She fell silent. She was listening intently. Unpleasant.
But he continued.
“If you accept that things happen a certain way, then you accept that there’s no particular point in trying to change them,” he said. “Thus, there’s no particular point in withholding information from me. You’re here. I’m here. I’ve got the knife. If the future is set in stone, then why are you fighting it?”
“I said you weren’t stupid,” she grunted. “Stop trying so hard. Things are what they are, not what they should be. We are solid, nothing else is. That’s what you don’t understand.”
She leaned forward. His nostrils quivered, eyes twitched, ears trembled, full of her. Her foulness, her sweat, the heat of her blood rushing in her veins, the creak of heavy bones under heavy muscle, everything that should disgust him, that did disgust him, that he knew was in her.
“You want to think there’s a way that this doesn’t end with you killing me,” she whispered, breath hot and hard like forged iron. “Because if I live, or if someone else kills me, you can pretend that you aren’t what you are. You can tell yourself that you didn’t know you’d have to kill me the moment we met.”
“We didn’t meet. You tried to kill me. I stabbed you.”
“And that’s how we do it. With metal.”
Nothing primal in her smile: no hate, no rage, no hunger. Nothing refined there: no delight in his suffering, no complex thought. It was something else, something simple and stupid and immutable.
“But you’re not stupid. You know this ends with your hands slick.”
He snapped. Spine snapped. Arm snapped. Fingers snapped. The knife went hurtling out of his grip, whined sharply, continued to whine even after it had struck.
She looked to her side as it stood in the sand for only a moment longer before drooping down to lay flat and impotent upon the dirt. She looked up and he was walking out the door.
“Missed,” he grunted.
“No, you didn’t,” she said after him.
He was gone. She was still smiling.
When he emerged from the cramped confines of the hut, he found the outdoors intolerable. The bright sunlight, warm winds, unbearably fresh air struck him with such force as to make his head ache.
Or that might have been his own fist as he brought it up to his temple.
“What was that?” He struck his head, trying to knock the answer loose. “What just happened?”
His head hurt. The sound of wind turned into a shrill, ringing whine. The scent of sea was overpowering, scraping his nostrils dry. He felt dizzy, nauseous. It was hard to think.
“That can’t be healthy,” he whispered. “Where’d I leave my drink? Back in there?”
“So, what? Kill her, then?”
He looked down at his wrist, the heavy leather glove upon it. He could feel the blade, hidden and coiled upon the spring behind the thick leather. Just a twitch, he thought, and it would come singing out, a short, staccato song that ended in a red note.
The image of her smile flashed through his head. Too broad, too excited, too bereft of hatred. She was supposed to
He chuckled inadvertently. “That’s funny.”
A reasonable idea for a reasonable man, the kind of man he ought to be. A reasonable man would be able to see the problem: that the drink only soothed thoughts that he shouldn’t be drinking away; that confronting those thoughts that tormented, those thoughts that returned to him when a woman smiled at him that way, when a woman confronted him as he had been confronted once before, was the only sound philosophy.
Reasonable. Denaos was a reasonable man without philosophy or drink to turn to. And so, he turned to blame.
Women, he told himself. It was the women causing his trouble.
No. He wasn’t ready to face that.
It was that one woman, the priestess, who had nearly died. She had caused the whole thing. He had stood over her, cried over her, like he had done before. And that led to the memories, the waking nightmares, like he had had before. That led to the drink, which led to Teji, which led to netherlings, which led to Xhai, which led to her smiling with a broad smile that didn’t hate him or mildly loathe him and told him he was a good man.
Like he had seen before.
“No, not yet.”
“It is obscenely rude to be bringing this up now. I haven’t had enough to-”
“Truth is subjective.”
“Truth is-” His sentence was cut off in a hacking cough.
He tried to respond, tried to reply. The coughing tore his throat apart. The air was too clean out here, too fragrant. He needed stale, he needed stench.
He fell to his knees. Why was the air so damn clean? Didn’t anyone
He inhaled sharply, ragged knives in his throat, jagged shards in his lungs. It hurt to breathe. Hurt to think. He shut his eyes tight as he tried to regain his breath.
It was so bright out here. He belonged in a bottle, in something dank and dark that would prepare him nicely for the blackness he was going to.
And that was the truth. That was what it all came down to, what all the drinking and vomiting and crying and killing had done its best.
He was going to hell.
He killed them all.
He killed her.
And, on cue, the dead woman was there when he opened his eyes. Her feet were, at least: white with a white gown wafting just above them. The sensible choice would be to watch the feet, stare at them until this nasty bout of sobriety passed and he could stare into a puddle of his own vomit again.
So he looked up. Each sight was familiar enough to be seen in his skull before he saw it in his eyes. Ghastly white robe, ghastly white body, so thin and frail. Throat opened up in a bright red blossom, blood weeping onto her garments. Thin black hair hanging around her shoulders. The worst was yet to come: her smile, her grim and wild and hateful smile.
He looked up. The dead woman was frowning at him. The dead woman hated him.
She had never done that before. Not when she was alive. Not when he had opened her throat.
She was disappointed in him.
A voice. A woman’s voice. Not the dead woman’s voice, though. Her voice was something with claws and teeth that he felt in his skin. This voice was something with air and heat, something he heard.
The boot heel that dug into his shoulder and knocked him to the earth wasn’t, but he felt it all the same.
“I’d really rather not,” he grunted, clambering to his knees. “A man who aspires to rise beyond his station is invariably struck down by the Gods.”
“If that were true, I wouldn’t be here looking down at you right now.”
Asper’s voice was cold. Her stare was colder. It was almost refreshing. The air was a little staler around her, possibly due to the palpable bitterness that emanated from her.
Looking into her eyes quickly quashed any sense of refreshment. Something was boiling behind her mouth, twisted into a sharp knife of a frown.
Resentment, maybe: for having arrived too late to save her the nights before, too late to have saved her from what had happened to her. Scorn, maybe: for having seen what he’d seen that he, nor anyone, was ever meant to. A face on fire, a body engulfed, an arm pulsating like a hungry thing.
Or, much more likely, hatred: for having known what had been done to her, for having known what hell she carried in her arm, and for having not so much as looked at her since it had happened.
Or maybe it was just spit?
“What have you learned?” she asked.
She stared at him, unblinking. He sighed, rubbed his temples.
“Not a tremendous lot,” he said. “It’s not as though it should come as a colossal surprise, really. I’m sure the vast majority of her is bone-”
“Muscle,” Asper said. “Over half.”
“Whatever. The point is that getting information from her is proving. .”
“Difficult,” he said. “If she even knows anything, she won’t tell me anything.” He glanced to another nearby hut. “Dreadaeleon might be able to coerce her, or-”
“Or Bralston?” she asked, thrusting the question at him.
“Or Gariath,” Denaos said. He narrowed his eyes upon the hut. “I don’t like the look of the Djaalman. Too shifty.”
“You’re in a poor position to comment.”
“And a good position to observe. The man’s too. . probey.”
“Probish. Probesque. He’s always staring at us.”
“He’s staring at
“Was there something else, or. .”
She turned her stare at the hut’s door, looked at it for a moment. When she turned back to Denaos, her face was a hard, iron mask. “Why not just kill her?”
“Go in there and open her throat.” She scowled at the door. “She’s too dangerous to leave alive.”
“Granted, but that’s not for us to decide. Lenk thinks she still might have-”
“You think I don’t?” he interjected. “You think I haven’t seen what they’ve done?”
He knew why she knew, too. Just as he knew he couldn’t deny it.
“And I know that
Asper was an honest woman. Too honest to survive, he had once thought. Her face wasn’t made for masks. Her face fragmented with each moment it trembled, cracking and falling off to reveal eyes that weren’t as cold as she wanted them to be. There was fire there, and honest hate.
“Everything. . everything that happened to me, what Sheraptus. .” She winced at the name, clenched her teeth. “He
A curse would have been nice. Spitting in his eye would have been workable, too. The sigh she let out, though, was less than ideal.
And Denaos wasn’t looking at her now. He was looking at her forehead, at the hut door, at the sand and the unbearable sun. Her eyes were too hard to look at, too shiny, too clear; he might see himself in them.
“You don’t need me.”
“You’re the only one who knows this,” she grabbed at her arm, “
“Then why won’t you?”
Not entirely true. There was a lot she could tell him, a lot he needed to tell her. But what, he did not know. How exactly a man went about telling a woman he had seen what women do after being violated because he had watched it happen was beyond him. He neglected to tell her that. That, he reasoned, was slightly better than lying.
“I am not a good man. I am not what you need.”
She stared at him for a moment. He never saw the blow coming. It was only after she had struck him, sent him reeling, that he admitted she might be better with masks than he thought.
“No one tells me what I need,” she said. “Certainly not a man hiding cowardice behind more cowardice.”
She stalked off silently, swiftly, leaving him alone with his conscience.
Wanted one, yes. Needed one, yes. He needed many things at that moment. The most important of which became apparent when he looked back, toward the distant huts and the figure standing amongst them.
Bralston stood out in the open, unabashed, unafraid. A Librarian did not need to hide. This Librarian, however, didn’t bother to hide many things. The stare he fixed upon Denaos among them.
Denaos, too, did not bother to hide his stare. In the moment they met, the brief moment before Denaos turned and stalked into the distant forest, there was a brief trial. Accusation, confession, sentence, all handed down in the span of a blink.
And Denaos knew what he needed most, then. In the feel of heavy leather on his wrist and in the sound of feet crunching upon sand, following him into the forest, he knew.
This, at least, would be easier.