[Five years later]
Kalind stood on one foot and held the rod parallel to the ground, balancing the ball against her other leg, which was stretched behind her. She tilted the staff minutely to allow the ball to creep toward the end. Then she held it flat, steadying the ball’s movement. She concentrated on maintaining the ball’s balance as well as her own, as she recited the quaternary chant: “River run, ocean swell … rain, wind, cyclone hell … balance over, balance through … balance under, fro and to … River run, ocean swell…” She bent her knee slightly and flicked her wrist. The ball shot straight into the sky, soaring higher than the fortress wall. It seemed to hang in midair for a second, and then it descended back toward her. Still balancing on one foot, she lifted her heel off the ground so she was balancing only on her toes and the ball of her foot. She held the other leg steady behind her, posing like a ballerina, while she tracked the ball’s descent and prepared to catch it with the staff.
Just as the ball touched the staff, she allowed it to dip, soaking up the ball’s momentum. But she misjudged the inertia, and the ball’s weight made her shoulder drop slightly more than she’d anticipated, causing her torso to twist. She teetered on her toes, struggling to remain balanced. “Oh stink-gibbet!” She cursed as she dropped her heel to the ground. On the edge of the staff, the ball rolled slightly toward her, slightly away, and then off the edge to fall to the courtyard tile with a smack.
Grumbling, Kalind retrieved the heavy ball and positioned it near her thumb where her hand gripped the staff. She concentrated and, as she’d done a thousand times before, imagined her senses enveloping the ball and gauging its weight. In her mind’s eye she pictured the combination of ball, staff, and body as a single unit standing in opposition to gravity’s pull. Within that geometry of masses and forces, she found the fulcrum, and confidently released the ball.
She allowed herself a momentary smile at the feeling of establishing a balanced system, but she could allow herself no sense of satisfaction. The more she learned about balance, the more aware she became of her ignorance.
And anyway, achieving balance wasn’t the hard part – or it hadn’t been the hard part for some years now. She would never forget the infuriating challenge of achieving that balance as a little girl – of first gaining some sense of her own center and the forces she could wield, and then applying those forces through the staff and ball. After many long cycles of practice, achieving a balanced system became a simple matter of paying attention to masses and forces. Less simple, however, was introducing motion into that balance.
The secret technique – which she struggled every day to comprehend and refine – was to continually solve a dynamic math equation with her mind and body. The equation was this: inertia + time + position = balance.
Learning to solve this equation, while the factors continually changed, took her long cycles of maddening practice. She sweated, cried, laughed, and lost patience with herself, sometimes lashing out at the master in frustration. Bolyde patiently corrected her behavior and attitude, and brought her back to focusing on the fundamentals. Eventually, she learned to smoothly change the position of the system to accommodate the ball's movement – its inertia – over time.
That was her first real breakthrough, and it enabled her to realize a fundamental truth: The system’s state of balance did not end when physical contact ended. The balance of the various components was merely separated by position, for some period of time. This was illustrated by the basic move that Bolyde had demonstrated – launching the ball into the air, and then catching it on the staff, seemingly with little effort or drama.
Now she struggled to learn that basic move. The challenge of standing on one foot made it more physically demanding, but it actually gave her greater leverage – a bigger counterweight to use in opposition to the heavy, falling ball. She picked up the ball and prepared to start over, when she sensed someone approaching.
It wasn’t her handmaid, and it wasn’t Bolyde. Nor was it one of the King’s many silent sentinels, who lurked the halls and who once had managed to hide themselves from her sight. This was someone new.
Kalind looked up to see a young woman emerge from the stairwell onto the platform that led to the courtyard. She wore a dress much like the last handmaid’s, and bore a similarly wooden smile.
So … a new handmaid, the latest in a long series. Their faces blurred in her mind’s eye; all so alike, but all with unique dreams and unique limitations that they strove to conceal. None had lasted very long in Kalind’s service – and after the first few, she’d stopped even asking their names.
“Excuse me, Your Grace.” The woman curtsied. “My apologies, but the King has returned, and wishes for Her Grace to attend to him in his aerie.”
Kalind hadn’t been to the King’s aerie in several days. She didn’t know where the King had been, but she’d welcomed the break from their daily conditioning sessions – which lately had left her feeling increasingly jangled and uneasy. While she used to remember absolutely nothing from her time with the King, apart from arriving at his aerie and being told to follow her into the conditioning room, recently she’d started retaining vague images from those sessions. She still had no clear idea what happened during conditioning, but now certain feelings and sensations were asserting themselves in her memory: fleeting images of her uncle’s face, looking wild or exhausted or stern. Or sharp tingling pricks along her arms, her torso, and her legs. Or the sensation of ice-cold water rushing over her skin and then through her body, from head to foot. But when she tried to remember more, she found the memories were unavailable to her, leaving nothing but an uneasy feeling.
So when the King had, without explanation, stopped calling her to the aerie, she hadn’t asked questions. Instead she’d come to the courtyard, to study balance on her own. It was the only thing she was allowed to do, really, aside from solitude in her chamber.
“Who are you?” she asked the stranger, as if the answer wasn’t obvious.
“I am Her Grace’s new handmaid,” she said, curtseying again.
“Oh,” Kalind said. “What happened to the last one?”
The handmaid smiled. “I am told she was required elsewhere, Your Grace. I am grateful for the honor to take her place. Now, please forgive me, but the King is waiting. Is Her Grace ready?”
The King was deep in his cups when Kalind arrived at the aerie. The handmaid merely smiled and bowed, and backed gracefully out the door, leaving Kalind alone to face her uncle.
His face looked more haggard and fatigued than usual. He sat on his polished wooden throne. The arms of the great chair were carved to resemble folded wings, and the brass feet were forged in the shape of an eagle’s talons. The back of the throne soared up to form the side profile of an eagle – a blinded eagle, to be precise, its eye stitched over. It was the symbol of Hrangil, the first king, the blind father of Zithram, whose power was undiminished by his inability to see.
Zithram, however, had the benefit of two functioning eyes, which he now blearily trained on Kalind. He took a long swig from a goblet, then wiped his mouth with this sleeve. He belched wetly, and continued staring at her. She averted her eyes, feeling self-conscious under his gaze.
“You sent for me, Uncle?”
The King didn’t immediately respond. She could hear him breathing heavily. She glanced up to verify that he was still awake, and hadn’t passed out or something; nope, still staring. The King smacked his lips, cleared his throat, and spat on the tile next to his throne. Kalind suppressed her disgust and remained passive.
Finally he slurred, “Yes, I sent for you. Do you know why you’re here?”
“Um, because you sent for me, Uncle.”
“Hah! Smart mouth on a mud minx. No, idiot, I mean why you’re here, in the fortress,” he banged his fist on the arm of the throne. “Why aren’t you back with that mind-wiped wet-nurse you used to call ‘Mama’? What are you doing here?” He continued in a sardonic and drunken tone. “Can you tell me, oh kin of my kin?” He looked down his crooked pier of a nose, waiting for her response.
Kalind felt stung by the King’s patronizing tone, but stood straight. “When I first came here, you said it was my destiny to replace you. You said that I need to be as strong as a fortress … that I need to be prepared, in order to bear your great burdens. But…” She hesitated.
“I have worked hard, and you have been conditioning my mind. I feel well prepared, but I am ignorant, Uncle. Still I know almost nothing about your kingdom, or how to rule. I cannot take your place knowing so little. Will you not share your knowledge with me, Uncle?”
“Hah!” he barked derisively. “You think knowledge will let you rule? Be sensible, girl. Do you think I learned what I know by listening to scholars prattle on, or by studying stacks of books? No.” He dismissed the idea with a wave. “I know what I know because of my gift, girl. My knowledge is the knowledge of my acolytes, and it will be yours too if you can maintain control over them. All the knowledge you want, and much more, will be there for you. But …” he continued darkly. “Maintaining control will stretch the limits … the limits of your gift. You’ll never survive if you aren’t strong. And that is why you are here.”
He sighed. “You are still young, Kalind. You don’t know what it is to be old.” He held up a wrinkled hand, inspected it dramatically. “To watch your skin withering on your bones, and to feel those bones growing brittle. Lungs corroding, guts failing, brain softening …” he trailed off and chuckled, then waved dismissively.
“Do you know about my idiot twins?” he asked.
She looked surprised at this turn of subject. She knew only that the King’s brother was her father. She knew nothing of any twins.
“No, of course you don’t. Well, I’ll tell you. I kept them confined. Safe. It was for their own good, you see … not to mention the good of everyone else in this world. Their minds are broken, sick. But though they be idiots, they have power. Tremendous power, actually. And that’s the irony, my niece.” He looked gravely at her. “They are like crazed stallions, trampling everything in their path, mindful of nothing. They do not know the harm they cause, and they do not care.”
“But, you said they were confined.”
“Yes, they were confined. And now they are again, thank the Fire.” He added quietly, “But only at great cost.”
He took another swig from the goblet. “I was betrayed, Kalind, by your father. Yes, he betrayed me again, the fool. He found the place where I had our idiot brothers confined, and he took it upon himself to kill them.”
“He doesn’t believe they can be controlled, that’s why. I’ve been working for years to pacify them, to bring them under my control. But Sangil never agreed with me, and so when he found the stronghold, he overcame my guards, and tried to kill our brothers, the twins. But between the two of them, even with their diminished minds, they overcame him, and they forced him to release them.” He shook his head in frustration. “It cost me three acolytes and a dozen guards to bring them down. It was all I could do to avoid killing them myself, but Fidore and I managed to put them to sleep long enough to get them back under lock and key. No thanks to your father.”
He drained his goblet of wine, dropped it clattering to the floor, and rose unsteadily from the throne. “So we must accelerate your conditioning, girl, because I discovered two things from this little adventure. One is that my body and my mind are not what they once were. It was much more difficult for me to rein in Donan and Danil this time, and I am exhausted from the effort.”
“What was the other thing?”
“Hmm? What’s that?”
“The other thing that you discovered. You said you discovered two things.”
“Oh, yes. Well…” He chuckled. “I suppose that was more of a reminder than a discovery. Your father reminded me what a traitorous bastard he is, and if he gets a chance, he will take me down on principle. Which means, oh daughter-of-Sangil, your destiny may arrive sooner than I wanted to believe. And so, starting now, you will come to the aerie twice each day for conditioning, instead of once.”
Kalind nodded. “Very well. What about Bolyde?”
“Hmm?” the King said. “What’s that?”
“Bolyde. The trainer. He helps me to learn balance.”
“Ah of course. Bolyde. Sergeant Franks, that is, Sergeant Bolyde Franks. Yes, continue training with him. There is no one better, so learn well.” He shook his finger in her direction. “You will need all the strength and control that you can get. Now … let us begin.”
She followed him again into the darkened chamber for her conditioning.
“Pilos, you shouldn’t take such rumors seriously,” she said. “People are always making up ridiculous stories. Zithram is as powerful as ever, you needn’t worry about that.”
“But, Your Grace, what if the acolytes are losing their connection to the King?” Pilos asked. “What could it mean?”
Kalind laughed. “I think it means people spread folk tales about things they don’t understand. Really, Pilos, I’m surprised at you.”
Even as she chided Pilos, however, Kalind’s worries grew. Were they actually folk tales? And even if they were, what effect might they have on her uncle’s kingdom? Folk tales could grow into powerful forces, she knew, especially when combined with rumors (or facts!) about the King losing his grip on sanity.
Mirroring her thoughts, Pilos spoke up: “Well, something isn’t right, that’s clear,” he said. “He skulks around all day in his aerie, grumbling and scratching his beard. Then he’ll suddenly bark at one of us. ‘Bring me some hot tea!’ he’ll say. Then when we bring it, he knocks it onto the floor and says, ‘What’s this? I called for ale!’ Or he’ll say, ‘Move fast, fetch my maps!’ But they’re right there on his table, where he’s been going over them all morning.” Pilos suddenly realized what he was saying, and became even more fearful. “Forgive me, Your Grace.”
Kalind kept her voice low, and extended her protective veil around Pilos so that no one would sense their thoughts. “Pilos, spreading rumors about the King is treason,” she whispered. “Promise me you will keep quiet about this.”
“I promise,” he said gravely. Kalind reached out with her mind to detect whether Pilos intended to keep that promise. She found plenty of confusion and fear in the man, but no deception. Even so, as a cautionary measure, she smoothed out some of his anxiety and amplified his feelings of loyalty toward Zithram. Then she assured Pilos she would visit her uncle right away, and try to determine the cause of his strange behavior.
She wasted no time; when Kalind left Pilos, she headed straight to the King’s aerie, though she knew she was breaking protocol by going there without being summoned. When she arrived, she found the King in an agitated state. He was pacing back and forth along the balustrade, his face darkened with worry and frustration. Gingerly she reached out to gauge his state of mind. She was careful to screen her thoughts from him – especially her concern for his well-being. She’d learned the hard way to avoid showing any hint of pity toward him – or, for that matter, toward anyone else in his presence.
Now, she sensed that he felt tense, almost frantic. His thoughts were tightly focused, as one who is grappling with a sticky problem. She reached out a little further, trying to get a glimpse of what bothered him … and suddenly she felt an overwhelming force seize her mind. He’d detected her intrusion, and she dreaded what would come next.
Kalind began trembling as the King continued staring out the window. When he finally spoke, his voice oozed sarcasm. “You worry for your withered King, my dear niece?”
Her first instinct was to deny it; to hide her feelings. But experience had taught her that abject submission was the only hope for avoiding his wrath. Reluctantly, she bared her thoughts before him. She cast her eyes downward and whispered, “I am ashamed of my presumption, Uncle. I beg you to forgive a stupid child.”
After a moment, he released his grip on her mind, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. “Very well, Kalind. As you acknowledge your insolence, you will be not be punished – for now.”
She sensed a note of disappointment in his emotions. Nevertheless, Kalind relaxed and sighed in relief. Her eyes still downcast, she nodded silently, and turned to leave the aerie. But as the King returned to his thoughts, Kalind caught a glimpse of the problem that weighed on his mind. He was indeed bothered – infuriated, in fact – by the apparent weakening of his acolytes. It seemed that one by one, the psychic bonds that he’d forged with them were fading away or disappearing altogether. Fear of losing control occupied his every thought.
Kalind paused a moment, and then made a decision; she would offer her help. She knew he’d probably ridicule or even punish her for being presumptuous. But on the other hand, perhaps he’d view it as a sign of her preparedness. He’d been diligently preparing her to take his place. Perhaps that time now had come, and she needed to reassure him she was ready.
She drew herself up straight, and in a strong voice said “I would ask a question, if my uncle permits.”
Zithram’s back stiffened. “Oh?” he said.
“The King is troubled. I am here to help bear his burden. Perhaps…”
She didn’t get to finish the sentence. Zithram abruptly turned and shuffled up to her. His face drew uncomfortably near, and the network of wrinkles in his grayed skin deepened as he frowned. His eyes, milky and clouded with cataracts, gazed at her unsettlingly. She tried to avert her gaze, but found she couldn’t turn her head. Then the force of his will plunged into her mind, and a spasm of shock jolted down her spine. She resisted the urge to struggle, but she couldn’t help squirming. She groaned with fear and tried to back away, but her feet wouldn't move. She tried to expel his mind from hers, to raise her protective veil, but his mind’s grip held fast.
Kalind shuddered with horror as his desecrating presence slithered into the core of her mind and took possession of her senses. She swooned and felt a thousand biting pricks and jabs across her entire body. Looking down her view blurred momentarily, and when clarity returned, it appeared that her body was tied naked in a pit of rats. She struggled under the ropes, but she could not move. As rats attacked, she could feel every claw, every tooth, every whisker … she shrieked as, to her added horror, she now could sense the rats’ desperate hunger and bloodlust, as they went after every part of her exposed flesh.
She felt herself whirling in midair to be suspended upside down by her ankles. Her body was whole again, unharmed … but in an instant she felt herself spontaneously disemboweled, her stomach and guts bursting from her torso with an explosion of pain. The pain transformed into flames that quickly engulfed her body. Her skin sizzled, every nerve scorched with intense heat that never stopped. Her skin burned on and on, and she tried to scream, but her throat was scorched away by flames.
She knew it all was an illusion, fed into her brain from the sadistic depths of Zithram’s imagination. Her torn body, however, didn’t know that. Her bowels emptied themselves, and she felt overwhelmed with nausea. Bile surged from her stomach, burned at her throat, and exploded out through her mouth and nostrils. It kept coming in a flood, and she was choking, suffocating, drowning in vomit.
Now the illusion changed again, and her body was fully intact, clean, and clothed again. She found herself in her chamber, lying in her nightgown, shaking but apparently unharmed. She wept in relief and burrowed into the soft comfort of her bed. It was over! It was all just a nightmare! But then … she felt a painful stab into her foot. She cried out and threw the covers back to see a stiletto protruding from the bottom of her foot. As she reached to withdraw the knife, another appeared out of nowhere and plunged into the other foot. She had no time to react before another followed, and then another, and soon dozens of knives were stabbing into her feet. She screamed again and tried to scramble away, but found herself anchored in place, as if pinned down. She could move, but could not withdraw as the knives began twisting, slicing, methodically flaying the flesh away from her feet. Blood gushed forth and covered her bed as the knives worked their way up her ankles, legs, her torso and arms, and finally her face. Blades plunged into her eyes and plucked them out of their sockets.
She howled in horror, and again felt herself whirling in midair. When the whirling ended, she found she was standing with her eyes closed tightly. She heard a ragged panting sound, and then realized it was her own hyperventilated breathing. She opened her eyes and saw an image of herself, as if through Zithram’s eyes. She was naked, standing in the dark, looking absurdly weak – utterly exposed. And in addition to seeing through the King’s eyes, she also was sensing what he felt, together with her own sensations. To the ancient King, her naked form seemed an object of scorn and vulgarity. Shame rose within her, and she watched herself reaching to cover her nakedness. As her embarrassment grew she felt her face flush pink, and Zithram’s scorn turned into a smoldering lust.
A profane dance began – a dance that seemed vaguely familiar to Kalind, as if it had happened a thousand times before, but that she’d somehow forgotten. She squirmed inside, as she experienced the King leering at her naked body, moving in closely to inspect every inch of her. His breath felt humid on her skin, as he panted like a sick animal. Then a slimy sensation rolled across her face; it was his tongue, starting at her cheek, and slowly crawling across her eyelid and brow. The single tongue became several tongues, licking her entire face – both cheeks, her lips, her forehead … then her ears and neck. She writhed in horror and the tongues were multiplied by hundreds, licking their way across her entire body, until every inch of her was being slimed by his legion of tongues.
As her horror intensified, his hunger increased, and his countless tongues pressed harder, more urgently, licking and coating her with sticky mucous. Silently she screamed in disgust and panic, but her panic only served to intensify his sadistic glee – which she felt as perversely her own. Her fear intermingled with Zithram’s predatory lust until Kalind could no longer distinguish between her emotions and his. Steeped in a nightmarish blend of agony and thrill, her sense of self diminished. She wept inside, silently begging him to stop, to let her escape.
In response, the King’s foul presence coiled around her consciousness and began smothering her. She panicked as her senses dimmed, and she knew she was dying. Kalind struggled and thrashed as she felt her mind fading, her very ego fading into blackness. Finally she ceased struggling, and fell gratefully toward oblivion.
But Zithram denied even that mercy, and withdrew his presence, releasing her at the last instant. Kalind’s mind reeled as her senses flooded back. She opened her eyes and realized she was fully clothed and unharmed. The King’s decrepit face leered over her, like a jackal inspecting an abandoned baby.
He licked his lips, grinned obscenely, and turned away, chuckling darkly.
She fell to her hands and knees. A wave of nausea welled up from her guts, and she fought to keep it down. At the same time, she seethed with anger and shame, reminding herself that she had provoked him. She cursed her infernal sense of guilt, and the empathy that had led her to seek the King’s audience in the first place.
She looked up at Zithram and saw him standing, with his back turned, surveying the western landscape; angry crimson storm clouds threatened the Stone Mountains from the iceward south. For an instant, she imagined attacking him, sending him over the balustrade, to plummet to his death. And then she felt the effects of her conditioning, the tether that connected her to him. And with a sense of shame, she remembered the burdens that had gripped the King. She remembered how he struggled to maintain not only the stability of his mind, but his control over dozens of powerful acolytes across his vast domain. She cursed herself yet again for being stupid enough to provoke him in the midst of such distress.
Suddenly Zithram whirled about. His eyes had a mad look.
“You!” he shouted, storming toward her. “You and your pity! Pathetic defect! If it did not serve my purposes so well, I’d scour it out of you once and for all!”
At first she was perplexed, then understanding hit her like a bucket of icy water. Her propensity for compassion had enabled the grisly interplay of emotions she had just endured, and that interplay fed his lust. That’s why he’d drawn her so close to him, why he tolerated her continued presence. Her compassion was the doorway that allowed him to penetrate her deepest self and extract his ghastly satisfaction.
And yet ... was there something else? She sensed an even darker purpose hidden behind his perverse intent.
Cowering before him, she stammered, “What does my uncle … require of me?” She struggled to conceal her fear and confusion.
He reached out a wrinkled claw and seized a fistful of her hair. With strength that surprised her, he pulled her to her feet. She stifled a scream and reached up to grab his wrist with both hands. He snarled and brought his face close to hers. His cloudy eyes had a crazed look, and he grinned cruelly.
“What I require of you, girl, I will take for myself,” he snarled. “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it is time.” He chuckled darkly, and with overwhelming mental force he plunged into her mind and seized her consciousness once more. Her hands went slack, losing grip on his wrist, and her arms fell to her sides. As she stared, terrified and shaking, she saw that the King’s eyes seemed to be changing. The thick film that had coated them now receded, revealing clear irises and bright blue corneas – in fact, the exact vivid blue she’d seen reflected in the mirror every day.
In terror and confusion, she asked herself, “Is this a reflection of my eyes? Or an illusion? Do I really have my uncle’s eyes?”
As her mind focused on his eyes, her terror subsided, and her memory of recent horrors faded away. She struggled to recall exactly how she’d come to be here, and exactly what had happened. And now she wondered, what was she thinking about before her uncle caught her in those clear blue eyes? Had they been clouded with cataracts? Or was it her own eyes that were clouded? Was she the one who was ill and decrepit? Or was it her uncle? She couldn’t be sure.
The blue eyes glinted, and she sensed his presence expanding in her mind, this time with grave determination. Bolts of pain shot through her head and into her extremities, and she groaned as her body began to convulse. Zithram’s will clamped down on her mind like a python crushing a piglet, and Kalind felt the convulsions cease even as the bolts of pain intensified into pulsing waves, and finally became an all-encompassing blaze that seemed to penetrate every pore, every vein, every cell of her body. The pain carried a purposeful form; that form was Zithram, and it pervaded every corner of her mind and body.
Struggling against him, she strained to find her center, to regain her grip on reality. She tried to focus on the fundamentals: Was she standing, sitting, or lying down? Which way was up? Where did she end, and where did Zithram begin? She struggled to twist away, but his grip only intensified, and in a final obliterating blast, he thrust the totality of his ego into her, and she strained to keep herself intact, to resist the force of Zithram that she now realized meant to supplant her.
Just then, someone burst into the chamber. It was Pilos, and he was out of breath.
“Your Highness, an acolyte has just arrived. It’s Fidore. He insists on seeing Your Highness immediately, and that Your Highness ordered it. Should we allow him into the aerie?”
The interruption distracted Zithram and he turned to look at Pilos. When he broke his gaze, Kalind’s consciousness surged back. She gasped as pain blazed momentarily in her head and then quickly dissipated, leaving behind only a throbbing headache. The King muttered something unintelligible and turned away from Pilos, back to Kalind. His expression had changed; he looked perplexed, diminished, somewhat lost. And she noticed at once, through the throbbing pain, that the vivid blue was gone from his eyes; they now were as dim and milky as they ever were.
He glared at her through those murky eyes, and mumbled, “Time. Time. Not time.”
Behind him, Pilos said, “I’m sorry, Your Highness? I did not hear.”
The King stammered, “I … I…” He smacked his lips and glanced around, looking confused. Then he focused on Kalind and scowled. “I said … I said I wasn’t finished!” he shouted. “I needed more time, Fire damn you!” He released his grip on her hair, King turned away, and moved toward Pilos. When he let go, Kalind stumbled and nearly fell.
“Stay there,” he said over his shoulder to Kalind, as she regained her balance. “I … you are not finished. Stay with me.”
Kalind bowed low, and despite the King’s orders, retreated out the chamber as he went to speak with Pilos.
The moment she was through the arched doorway, she bolted down the short hall and began descending the long staircase. Head still throbbing, her mind roiled with awful images and memories. The vivid sensations of molestation, torture, grisly murder … all products of the King’s perverse imagination! And what other torment had he imposed on her, all these years? She shuddered to think of all the time she’d spent alone with him in his conditioning chamber, only to have her memories blocked from her.
As she strained to remember details from any of those countless sessions, a dam seemed to burst in her head, and she found herself suddenly recalling a lifetime of horrors – a hellish nightmare of abuses, all at her uncle’s hands.
Dazed with shock, she did not notice as Fidore went past her on his way to the aerie. He gave her a quizzical look and bowed, saying, “Your Grace.” But his greeting didn’t register. Kalind stared into an unseen distance, her heart thundering in her chest. The acolyte continued up the stairs and entered the aerie, and moments later, nausea overcame Kalind. She gripped the rail and geysered her stomach contents onto the black steps. When the vomiting subsided, she sobbed, tears welling up in her eyes. Outrage shook her to the core. The betrayal! She’d trusted him! Loved him, even! She wanted to scream: Heartless monster! Vile snake! Zithram, you are no King; you are scarcely human! But she kept quiet, fearing that he would hear and summon her back into the aerie.
Feeling lost and hopeless, she began descending the stairs again. She took two steps, slipped on her vomit, and felt herself falling. For an instant, she panicked at the prospect of tumbling down the unforgiving stone staircase. But then, almost unbidden, her foot planted itself on the step, as the other foot stretched out in counterbalance. Her body pivoted effortlessly into a stable position, and before she even knew what happened, she was standing firmly on the solid surface.
Shaking, Kalind blinked through tears. She held still for a moment, and concentrated on breathing. As she lowered her leg and found stable footing, she bade her silent gratitude to Bolyde for drilling balance into her every fiber. At least that part of her remained intact; she knew where her center was.
As her heartbeat steadied, she smoothed her dress, and wiped away the tears and vomit with the back of her hand. She was about to continue her descent down the stairs, when she stopped and looked up toward the aerie. She felt a spark of resolve ignite within her, and quickly realized an inevitable truth: Zithram had to die. She knew this now. He was a menace to everyone and everything – but most importantly, he was a threat to her.
She gritted her teeth, steeled her will, and began re-ascending the stairs.
* * *
Fidore felt self-conscious as he entered the aerie. He hadn’t had time to refresh himself or to wash off the road dust, and so he imagined he looked somewhat rougher than the King’s acolytes normally appeared – and certainly worse than he’d prefer. But Zithram demanded an immediate audience, and so Fidore assumed that meant he would overlook Fidore’s state of filth and dishevelment.
That assumption was mistaken.
The King was looking distracted. He shuffled along the balustrade, his walking stick in hand, muttering and giggling to himself.
“Your Highness summoned me?” Fidore said, bowing low and doffing his black cap.
The King seemed oblivious at first, but finally he turned toward Fidore. Slowly his eyes focused on the disheveled-looking acolyte. After a few seconds, he scowled. “What do you mean, barging in here, looking like a pisspot?” Zithram demanded.
Fidore felt his cheeks flush as he remained bowed. “Your Highness, I apologize. Please forgive my stupidity.” Fidore had well learned not to openly object to anything the King said or did, but he allowed his thought-shield to slip just enough to allow the King to understand his dilemma; in order to follow the King’s orders, he had to barge in as he did.
Fidore continued his bow, and waited for the King’s reply. The old King grumbled, then said, “So, then, what’s your game?”
Fidore stood straight, but kept his cap off and his eyes averted. “My excuse, Your Highness? I am responding to His Highness’s orders.”
“Don’t spar with me, acolyte. Why did you break your tether?”
Fidore looked confused. “My King, I remain tethered to His Highness.” He mentally tugged at the links that tied his mind to the King’s, and conveyed a sense of supplication. He lowered his thought-shield completely now, revealing to the King his truthfulness and steadfastness.
Zithram’s eyes narrowed, and he shuffled toward Fidore. “On your knees, acolyte!” the King barked. Fidore dropped to his knees. Zithram’s walking stick fell to the floor with a clatter as he gripped the back of Fidore’s head with both hands. For what seemed like several minutes, the King gazed intently into Fidore’s eyes. The acolyte left his mind open, to allow the King’s inspection. Zithram chewed on his tongue and breathed sourly into Fidore’s face, while his gaze shifted from one eye to the other. The King struggled to see something behind Fidore’s eyes, but strangely, Fidore’s mind felt untouched.
This puzzled the acolyte, but he dared not say anything for fear of reprisal. The King’s moods had become increasingly volatile of late, and his punishments more severe. This could be some kind of test, for all Fidore knew. So he stifled that line of thinking, and kept his mind as passive as he could.
Finally, the King gave a deep sigh, grunted, and released Fidore. Without a word, he turned away and moved toward the corner, muttering to himself.
Fidore rose to his feet and restored his thought-shield, feeling irritated at being so urgently summoned, and then so summarily scorned and dismissed without a trace of explanation. As he watched the hunched King shuffle across the floor, he could not help but feel that a change was coming, and he couldn’t guess whether it would be for the better or for the worse.
* * *
Before Kalind reached the threshold to the aerie, she felt a peculiar tugging sensation in her mind, then heard Pilos call to her from below. “Your Grace, can I be of service?” The voice was laden with feelings of subservience and concern.
She realized then her mind’s protective veil was open. She stood still with her eyes closed for a moment, rubbing her temples, while she concentrated on restoring the veil. It felt heavy and somehow foreign as she cloaked herself in it. Finally she answered Pilos. Her voice came out a croak, and she cleared her throat. “Ahem,” she said, “I’ve made a mess of the stairs, Pilos. You’ll want to send someone with a mop. And … I might need your help, actually.” She opened her eyes and looked down the staircase. “Can … can you help me, Pilos?”
His footfalls echoed as he rushed up the stairs. “At once Your Grace.” While he ascended, Kalind began coming down the stairs, this time careful to step around the mess. Pilos met her on the landing beneath the top flight of stairs. He bowed briefly and panted, “How may I serve Your Grace?”
She put her hand on his shoulder and expanded her protective veil to encompass him; she sensed it looming over the two of them invisibly, throbbing with surprising intensity and solidity. Tentatively, she reached out with her mind to sense the state of Pilos’s thoughts. His worry had only intensified since the King’s giggling spell and attack on the servant. And the apparent urgency of Fidore’s summons seemed to corroborate rumors about the King’s waning control. If Zithram was concerned about a steadfast acolyte like Fidore … he was distressed by the very thought. It conflicted with the loyalty the King had forged into him.
Kalind beckoned him close, and whispered into his ear. “Pilos, our worst fears have come true. The King is losing control over his acolytes, and worse, he has lost his senses.”
His face showed deepening dread. Subtly Kalind reinforced his feelings of dread, and tried to squelch his loyalty to Zithram, as she continued at a low whisper, careful to avoid being overheard. “He knows the end is near,” she said. “And he has become desperate. He scarcely recognizes his kin anymore.” She paused and looked pained. “Pilos, just a moment ago, he tried to kill me.”
His look of fear turned into shock. “Truly? You?” he said, too loudly for her liking.
“Shhh!” she shushed. “Yes me!” she whispered.
He shook his head, disbelieving. “But … he was … you were … we understood he was conditioning you for …”
“For my destiny, to succeed him, yes,” she whispered. She withheld her newfound understanding of that conditioning, and the destiny it implied. She said, “But I am telling you, he has lost his capacity for rational thought. You’ve seen it, don’t tell me you haven’t! Just today, at dinner, with the burning branch?” As Pilos recalled the scene, Kalind adjusted his memories slightly to make it even worse than it was … the server’s entire head blackened and burnt … his eyes boiled in their sockets …
Pilos shuddered, and Kalind continued. “And now, he aims his madness at his kin. If you hadn’t interrupted just now … I would be dead, and more importantly, all of the King’s work would be wasted. Do you see?” She projected images of mayhem and collapse into his mind.
Pilos nodded slowly. “Without a successor to the King, chaos will reign,” he whispered. “But … but what of Your Grace’s father, Prince Sangil? Could the prince not rule?”
She rolled her eyes. “He could, but he won’t,” she whispered. “Sangil despises responsibility and authority. He refuses to rule anything beyond the bed of his latest mistress.”
Pilos looked uncomfortable, hearing Kalind speak so openly about her father’s proclivities. Zithram had made his brother’s behavior well known to all in the King’s service, but nevertheless the topic was never discussed in Kalind’s presence. “Then, uh, then,” he stammered. “The acolytes, surely they …”
Just then they heard the door to the King’s aerie open, and they fell silent. Their faces registered panic as they listened and heard steady footfalls in the short hallway. With that gait, it couldn’t be the King; it had to be Fidore. And indeed, the acolyte emerged at the top of the staircase, wearing his blue-feathered cap. Looking down, he saw the vomit on the stairs, and then saw Pilos and Kalind.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
“Um, yes sir,” Pilos said. “Careful on the stairs, sir. The custodian will attend to that presently.”
Fidore slowly descended the stairs, giving a wide berth to the mess. As he approached the bottom, Pilos stood to the side to let him pass between him and Kalind. But instead of passing, Fidore stopped on the landing and eyed them both.
“Sure everything is all right, Your Grace?” he asked Kalind.
Kalind looked into Fidore’s eyes and carefully stretched her awareness toward his mind. Fidore’s thought-shield was firm and solid, but she thought she sensed something behind his eyes – fear, maybe? Or suspicion? In amazement, she realized that the acolyte’s shield was slightly transparent to her. She intensified her concentration … Yes! She could sense it clearly now. Fidore was both suspicious and afraid.
She spoke quickly, before Fidore had a chance to realize she was eavesdropping on his thoughts. “Pilos wants to fetch the doctor for me, but I told him I’m fine. And anyway, it’s impossible for me to go anywhere. My uncle is expecting me to return to the aerie.”
“I’m not sure he’s entirely well either,” Fidore said, looking back up the stairs. “Something is very odd …” he said, trailing off.
“Nothing to worry about,” Kalind said. “As soon as the King is finished with me, I’ll go see the doctor, and I’ll suggest that he pay a visit to the King.” Kalind smiled and radiated reassurance toward Fidore.
Fidore continued looking up the stairs. After a few seconds, he turned to Kalind. “Hm? Oh, yes,” he said. “That’s an excellent idea. Please do that, Your Grace.” Fidore smiled and turned to Pilos, who was beginning to sweat. Kalind sensed that Fidore was attempting to access the attendant’s mind, though he dared not reach into Kalind’s mind without a compelling reason. Kalind continued to cloak Pilos with her protective shield, preventing Fidore’s effort. The acolyte’s brow furrowed in consternation, while Pilos held his breath.
“Hmm. Something very odd indeed,” he said, eyeing Pilos suspiciously. “I might have to visit the doctor myself.”
With that, he doffed his hat to Kalind, and walked past them to descend the next flight of stairs. Kalind and Pilos waited silently while Fidore’s footfalls echoed in the stairwell. Finally they heard a door open and close. Kalind reached out with her mind to confirm he was gone. Pilos took a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak, but Kalind cut him off. “He’s suspicious, that much is clear,” she said. “And he wants more power. He will stop at nothing, I saw it in his mind.”
“Truly?” Pilos whispered. “But I thought Fidore was …”
“The King’s most loyal acolyte, yes. Well, at least one of the most loyal. But believe me, he is as fickle as the others, as fickle as the wind, and twice as dangerous. I know him … I have known him all my life. He is loyal, yes, but his loyalty conceals deeper ambitions. Even if he doesn’t think it openly, Fidore is waiting for the King to die, expects it any day. He is very canny; you can see that, can’t you? And if the King dies with no one to take his place, what do you think Fidore will do? And what will the other acolytes do, for that matter? Peacefully choose a leader among their ranks? To serve as a benevolent regent?”
Pilos chuckled darkly. “Hardly. There would be … conflict,” he said.
“There would be chaos,” she whispered emphatically. “It would be the Time of the Warlords, all over again.”
Pilos’s eyes went wide, and Kalind subtly amplified his sense of horror, intensifying the images in his mind. The Time of the Warlords … rival factions hoarding artifact weapons … gigantic plasma cutters leveling buildings and tearing people apart … smoldering piles of corpses and body parts … the fumes of death choking the air, for months, years, decades … Warlord factions raging across three provinces … torturing, maiming, killing … most of the original Colony’s descendants exterminated by war, disease, and famine.
And then, Hrangil the Great – Zithram’s father, Kalind’s grandfather – emerged from the sunward wastes, blinded and mutated, but bearing fearsome power, and a willingness to impose order.
Of course, no one now living had actually witnessed the Time of the Warlords; even Zithram, ancient as he was, wasn’t born until halfway through Hrangil’s long reign, decades after the Warlords had bowed to his father. By the time King’s Fortress was erected and the last Colony artifacts were destroyed, the Time of the Warlords had been conflated into a terrible myth, a story told to frighten children. The truth, however, needed no embellishment; it was amply horrific. And Kalind knew that by invoking the Time of the Warlords, she was tapping into a potent mythos. She felt a thrill of irony at using that mythos to bring down the very King who embodied its idealized resolution.
“I am not ambitious like the acolytes,” she whispered, reinforcing her words with feelings of humility and concern. “If I had my choice, I would run away like my father did. But Pilos, I have no such choice; I cannot run. If I tried, then Fidore or one of the others would hunt me down and kill me. You know this is true,” she whispered, bolstering his willingness to believe, and pushing away any doubts. “The acolytes would not allow me to live, because they know that Zithram has prepared me to take his place. They know that if I occupy the aerie, I will keep them bound to their duty. I am an obstacle to their selfish ambitions, so they would kill me if they had the chance.”
She watched Pilos as he processed what she was saying. Finally she added, “But Pilos, even if I could run, I would not do so. I am not like my father either! I will not abandon Yinyan to a new set of warlords.” She leveled her eyes with his, and projected earnest determination into his mind. “I promise,” she whispered, “I will accept the burdens that my uncle no longer can bear … if you will help me.”
His eyes grew wide with understanding; they would be taking a perilous risk, he knew, but at this point, every option represented a risk. At least if he helped Kalind fulfill her destiny, he would be taking a risk on someone who was not demonstrably cruel, or insane, or both. And it’s what the King had wanted, wasn’t it? When he was sane enough to know what was best for his domain?
Pilos glanced up at the stairs toward the aerie door and then looked at Kalind. He nodded once and said, “What must I do?”
* * *
Ever since Kalind was a little girl, she’d taken pride in being honest. She saw everyone else around her lying and cheating, and she’d grieved at how irreparably a lie could destroy trust and kinship. So she always tried to be scrupulously honest.
As a consequence, she’d never developed any skill as a liar. She knew how to stay silent, of course, but anytime she’d found herself in a position where she was forced to conceal the truth – to protect someone, for example, or to fulfill an oath – then her lies and evasions invariably came out so unconvincing as to be laughable.
Now, however, as she neared the door to the aerie, she became vaguely aware that she was actively deceiving Pilos – and was doing so easily, without any sense of remorse.
Knowing it was for the best, she shrugged off the feeling, and turned to Pilos. “You’re ready?” she asked.
He nodded, looking frightened but committed.
The plan was simple. Kalind’s protective veil would cloak the thoughts of both her and Pilos. She would approach Zithram and get his attention – staying careful not to look into his eyes, which would make it easier for him to reach into her mind and discover her treachery. Meanwhile Pilos would work his way around behind the King, and when he had a chance, he would seize Zithram’s walking stick and toss it to Kalind. She would wield the stick like a staff, putting Bolyde’s balance training to use in order to render Zithram unconscious. She would only kill him if necessary, she reassured Pilos, but they both understood that Zithram would not relinquish power without a fight.
Kalind imagined what either Bolyde or the King would say if they knew how she was using the skills they imparted to her, and she savored the irony.
Many things could go wrong, of course, but she felt no fear or doubt. This was her destiny; Zithram himself had told her so. But more importantly, she felt it was true. She was as prepared as the King could make her, even despite the time he had wasted to violate her. In fact, she suspected that she’d actually been ready for years, and Zithram had simply refused to acknowledge that his time was spent. The fact that his actions had become increasingly cruel and desperate spoke volumes about the depths of Zithram’s self-deceit – and his mental state.
Under her breath, Kalind said, “Mortality comes for us all, uncle,” and pushed open the door to the aerie.
She and Pilos did not expect what they found.
Rather than looking over his domain, or sitting at his throne, Zithram was hunched in a corner, swaying slightly from side to side, muttering incomprehensibly. A puddle of urine was spreading on the floor beneath him. He’d left his walking stick in the middle of the floor, and Pilos went straight to it. He picked it up and looked questioningly at Kalind. She shrugged and approached the King.
“Uncle?” she said, unsure of whether he was truly insensate, or whether this was some kind of ploy. “Uncle, it’s me, Kalind. Your niece?” He made no answer or signal, so Kalind continued moving toward him. She stopped when she came within a few steps. Still looking at the King, she beckoned toward Pilos to bring the walking stick. He obeyed and handed it to her. Still focused on the King, she weighed the stick’s balance, found the center, and visually took measure of the distance between her reach and Zithram’s head. She positioned her grip appropriately, and again said, “Uncle?”
He twitched slightly and grumbled something unintelligible. Kalind said, “What was that, Your Highness?” He turned his head, and Kalind saw that his face bore a beatific smile. His eyes looked crazed and unfocused. Drool dripped from his chin, and he said, “Time. Time is … time.”
Slowly he turned. Kalind planted a foot behind her, preparing to strike. The King giggled quietly, and began shuffling toward the aerie door.
Cautiously, Kalind reached into his mind to sense his thoughts. Oddly, his thought-shield was wide open. His mind was scattered, unfocused on anything except putting one foot in front of the other. As he worked his way toward the door, she sifted through his recent memories. She saw the encounter with Fidore, and how the King had been unable to sense anything from him. Through the haze of Zithram’s cataracts, Fidore had appeared as a dimensionless avatar – nothing behind the face – just as he’d appeared when Kalind had first met him: A silhouette with a blue feather in his cap.
That had been the moment Zithram realized his reign was over. Not only had his most trusted acolyte broken his tether – apparently without even trying – but now the King couldn’t even ascertain whether his acolyte’s thought-shield was in place, much less sense his thoughts. It was as if Fidore wasn’t real. He looked real, felt real, smelled real – phew! – but he could’ve been an animated doll, for all Zithram could tell.
The King had dismissed Fidore, and began pacing along the balustrade, trying to work it out. Kalind followed Zithram’s thought patterns: Was it the creeping oblivion he’d felt now for some time? That dark shadow intruding on his memory, leaving him unsure of what had transpired in the previous hour, or day, or half-cycle? Or was it Fidore? Had the acolyte strengthened and perfected his thought-shield so completely that Zithram couldn’t even tell whether it existed? Fidore had been out of touch for so long, maybe that’s what he’d been doing … conspiring against the King and exercising his talents to wage an assault on the aerie. But if so, then why did he kneel so readily when commanded?
As a conspiracy, it made no sense. Fidore was not some rash youth with a naïve agenda. If Fidore wanted to supplant Zithram, then Zithram would be dead right now. A treacherous acolyte, bearing a thought-shield as strong as Fidore’s, would not have walked out of the aerie without taking advantage of Zithram’s weakened state. No, if Fidore had become disloyal, then Zithram would be dead.
That left only Kalind.
Recalling his last conditioning session had brought a pit to Zithram’s stomach. Something had happened that the King hadn’t expected … something regrettable, at a pivotal moment. What was it? His memory was failing him again.
Kalind looked up at her uncle just as the door opened and Fidore entered. He looked at Zithram, saw his vacant expression, and said, “Your Highness? I …”
“Time,” Zithram muttered, chuckling. “It’s time,” he said, shuffling past Fidore. As he moved to exit, he stopped. “Oh stinkgibbet,” he said. “Where’s my stick? I’ll never make it down those firedamned steps without my walking stick.”
The King glanced around, looking lost and confused.
Kalind probed the King’s thoughts, and confirmed that he was every bit as confused as he looked. He was focused on finding his walking stick, but behind that focus was a roiling cacophony of doubt and regret. He only knew that he wanted to leave the aerie, and get away from these people who he knew could perceive his vulnerability as plainly as they could see his wrinkled skin and his shuffling steps. He felt an urgent need to leave before something bad happened.
Kalind then turned her focus on Fidore. His shield remained firmly in place, but on a whim, she reached out toward him with her mind, and gave a tug. Fidore winced, lurched involuntarily toward her, and looked at her in shock. Kalind smiled and, not breaking her gaze with Fidore, walked to her uncle. “Here,” she said, placing the stick in his hand. “It’s here, Uncle Zithram. And Pilos will help you with those stairs.” She gestured toward the door, still looking Fidore in the eyes.
Pilos heard and dashed to the King’s side. “Your Highness, allow me,” he said, presenting his arm to the King.
The King giggled briefly as he took Pilos’s arm, and together they made their way through the door and down the short hall.
Fidore’s face seemed calm, but behind his eyes, Kalind sensed apprehension. The acolyte’s thought-shield was strong, but the tether subverted it, and gave Kalind a direct connection to his mind. She wondered whether the connection went both ways, so she decided to check his loyalty. She imagined knocking Fidore unconscious, putting him in chains, and hanging him upside-down from the balustrade, as she had imagined doing to her uncle. Then she imagined having him flogged, disemboweled … thrown into a pit of starving rats.
Fidore did not react. Instead he maintained his impassive expression, while his mind roiled with uncertainty.
Kalind smiled. She seized the tether with her mind, and said, “Worry is not necessary.”
* * *
Zithram hadn’t noticed when his guards abandoned him.
He found himself sitting on a small boulder, atop a hillock, with no idea how he’d come to be there. He was somewhere in the wilds of Sindlan, he thought. Or was it Vokk? He strained to recall; he’d been heading for Sindlan … or was it Dustan? Yes, it was Dustan! The great continent! And more importantly, the great city of Ravvenna, where traders from across the world came to trade in every manner of commodity, delicacy, and artistic ware.
For some time, he’d longed to see Ravvenna again. The towering walls that had protected it for generations, even during the Time of the Warlords … the old Colony buildings and dwellings … the smooth concrete streets … the remarkable Colony plumbing …
The plumbing still functioned perfectly, Zithram had learned, even more perfectly than the network of cisterns and viaducts that his father’s engineers had designed into King’s Fortress. And more to the point, he’d learned that in Dustan, some artifacts from the original Colony were kept in a fortified cell. If he could find them, if he could get in … who knew what wonders they might perform?
And if he could not find Colony artifacts in Ravvenna, then he’d look elsewhere. There were rumors of a mysterious artifact contained in a ruin, in eastern Sindlan. Or was it in Vokk? Right, it was Vokk! There was something very odd in the ruins of old Livan, something his father had mentioned.
It was so long ago, he wasn’t sure anymore. But in any case, he’d like to see Ravvenna again. And now that he no longer bore the burden of ruling an entire domain, maybe he could enjoy himself in anonymity as a wandering tourist, like his miscreant brother.
Deep inside, the thought galled him. Here he was, the Great Ancient King Zithram, abandoned like a vagrant, somewhere in the Vokkan lowlands. It was an outrage! But, alas, these were the depths he had reached. He knew his gifts weren’t what they once were. And now, a mere girl held dominion from the aerie. That girl, his niece, whom he’d painstakingly conditioned to serve as his mindborne host … now she held dominion over all Yinyan. All by herself.
He should’ve known she’d betray him, depose him the moment she gained an advantage. She was, after all, the daughter of his treacherous brother. How could Sangil’s treacherous blood not flow through her veins?
Zithram clenched his jaw; if Kalind imagined she could rule in his stead, then let her try. It’s the task he had shaped her mind to perform, after all. Let her try … and may the Fire take her when she failed.
He chuckled darkly, picked up his walking stick, and pushed himself into a standing position. Surveying the landscape, he spied a wagon pulled by a team of horses, trundling along a rutted path. Zithram gathered his concentration and reached out with his mind to sense the driver’s thoughts. Instantly he formed the connection. With no thought-shield to prevent him, Zithram found the man’s mind easy to penetrate. Moreover he was half-drunk, swigging from a jug of mead as he drove the wagon. He was a trader, bringing barrels of the same sweet Vokkan brew to Firhaven, for shipment to Ravvenna.
Zithram compelled the trader to steer the team in his direction. As he shuffled toward the road, he began giggling quietly to himself.
Author Notes: This novella is excerpted from a longer work in progress.