Seeking Solace by Anna Steffl by Anna Steffl - Read Online

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Seeking Solace - Anna Steffl

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HOW THE TENDRILS GREW

The Gheria/Sarapost disputed Borderlands,

70th of Winter,

Year 735 of the Saviors

Though he’d lost his senses of smell and taste a dozen years ago, Lieutenant Juvenot swore he could smell fear—and it made his mouth water like his once-favorite food, new pickles. He recalled the heat of the summer solstice and tiny yellow flowers peeking from a green mat of hairy cucumber leaves and tendrils. What a fine time in his life that was, before everything had been ruined. But now, in the snowy depth of winter, within a cast-iron pot so big five men could curl in its belly, was the promise for even better times.

His raiding party’s two light sleighs had flown through their escort regiment’s encampment and down the road toward him until they reined in the horses and stopped two hundred paces off. His mouth filled with pleasantly hot spit from the sight of his raiders unbundling four Sarapostan captives from the sleighs.

He rose from where he lounged against the warm pot on the front of his sledge; on the back, a step ladder, which escalated to the top of the chest-high pot, took all the room.

A screech echoed from the pot and steam curled from the air holes in the lid. So, Seraph smelled them, too. Juvenot swallowed the pooled saliva. Don’t worry. Dinner’s coming soon, Little One. He patted the pot with his glove. Even through the leather the pot was warm to the touch. You’re not so little anymore.

Since they left the Forbidden Fortress twenty days ago, Seraph had grown from a small, wriggling thing the length of a human babe, to a creature that twisted over itself to fit within the pot. How big would he grow in the hot spring lake that was their destination? A smile cracked Juvenot’s frosty mustache.

Two raiders stayed behind with the sleighs. The other four, with drawn swords, forced the captives to trudge through the snow. The nearing captives began to grimace. Seraph, Juvenot had been told, reeked unbearably of sulfur, as if every egg in Gheria had been left to rot in his iron pot. With their hands bound behind their backs, the captives couldn’t cover their noses, so they buried them in their collars.

A member of the raiding party started to raise his glove in a salute but it flew to his nose. He halted the group and in a glove-muffled voice called, We can come no nearer, ‘Tenant. The stench is extra-strong today. Good thing we’re nearing the lake. He won’t fit in the pot much longer. You’re lucky not being able to smell.

At one time, Juvenot would have crushed the man’s nose for such a stupid comment. What luck was there in being spared a bad smell or taste if the price was never again inhaling the scent of baking bread or savoring a salty, slightly sour new pickle? But, the raider was right. His misfortune had become his fortune. Because no one could stand being near the pot except him, his disability had earned him a place of honor.

Since pinning the regimental medal on his coat, nobody doused him with skunk spray or tricked him into eating spoiled sweetbreads, as the cabinetman’s daughter had, which made him so sick he nearly died. How she had played him for the fool—and he’d been one to think a girl who wore sapphires could love the boy who shined her father’s copper pots. To return her the favor, he’d followed her into the woods, wrestled her to the ground, pinched her nose closed, and forced a pilfered bottle of wine down her throat—until the groundskeeper caught him. He’d been five years in jail until Sovereign Alenius ordered his release and assignment to the regiment. For that alone, Juvenot pledged his life to the sovereign.

However, the sovereign promised more.

After the fall of the southern kingdoms, as a reward for trespassing the hants, the ruins of the ancient cities, and delivering Seraph to the hot spring, he would receive a prime piece of land, perhaps even in Acadia, a hundred southerners as field hands, and the title of cabinetman for himself—the once-jailed son of a steward and his drunken cook wife. Too, men said that since Alenius knew the origins of the hants, he would know where The Scyon had hidden his hoard. What treasures of antiquity might come his way? Still, even when the day came when he was a landlord with a jeweled ring, he’d not forgive his mother.

Having reached the raiding party, Juvenot held up his gloved hand to the raider who had saluted him and harkening back to the man’s comment about it being lucky he couldn’t smell, he said, Most people wouldn’t count themselves lucky to have their mother hit them upside the head with a fry pan.

With a jerk of his chin toward the captives, the raider said, They’ll wish someone hit them upside the head with a fry pan. He hadn’t flinched in the slightest at the revelation about the frying pan. Everyone in the regiment had suffered a grave wrong. They were brothers in hardship.

Finally, the Eternal Master had sent Gheria a sovereign who saw the plight of all his people, not just those who stuffed the coffers of the Forbidden Fortress with gold. Sovereign Alenius was a divine gift; the proof was in the pot. After seven hundred years, the hopes and dreams of the brave Gherians who had burned their homes and crossed the sea for a fair share in The Scyon’s spoils would finally be achieved and retribution made for their exile to the bitter north, where even here they were begrudged their own country. He glanced to the captives. They were squatters, Sarapostans guilty of occupying the Borderlands that once belonged to Gheria. They deserved what they had coming. They’re cold. Do you think I should warm them in the pot? he asked the raider and laughed.

"I got something to warm you, ‘Tenant. The raider nodded to one of the captives. What do you think of her?"

Her? Juvenot drew himself tall so his thin frame appeared more impressive. They weren’t the usual lot of scruffy trappers still stupidly dragging their pelts. They were clean-shaven, wearing fine beaver coats hastily drawn over their nightclothes. And one had a soft face. A woman with the prettiest plum cheeks and quivering, wild-cherry lips. He grabbed the front collar of her fine coat and pulled her away from the other captives, who started to yell. He stopped by the mules he’d tethered to roadside trees. To prevent the animals from shying at the odor, like the raiders’ horses, he had to keep them in close proximity to the sledge so they stayed accustomed to the smell.

He touched his glove to the woman’s cheeks. She raised a pleading gaze and muttered something in New Anglish. Don’t talk that gibberish to me, he growled and clutched her to his chest. So afraid. The smell of fear was intoxicating. No one would care. No one would stop or punish him. He was leader of the raiders, Keeper of the Creature. Commander Halskar’s regiment, which was escorting them, was camped up and down the road far enough away to be clear of the smell. His heart raced and his temples pounded. Had he ever felt this alive before? He bent and buried his nose in her hair.

A wail echoed from the pot. Like an infant’s cry, the sound clenched Juvenot’s heart and compelled him to soothe it. He took a last deep inhalation of air warmed by her skin, then shoved her into a snowdrift by the mules. He motioned a raider to come guard her, then tramped back to the other prisoners. Undress one.

Which one? a raider asked.

What does it matter? Any one. No, wait. The fat one.

Juvenot rounded to the back of the sledge, leaped up, and mounted the step ladder next to the pot so he could unlock and open the hinged lid that lifted to the side. A curtain of steam rose from the wide opening. Back amid the captives, a raider cut free the fat man’s hands and undressed him. The shivering, naked man hunched and tried to cover himself with his hands, but the raiders retied them behind his back. Was there anything more revolting than a fat, pink, hairy man naked in the snow? Juvenot backed down the ladder, jumped to the ground, and slid out a ramp on glides from beneath the sled. Without the ramp, it was too hard for a bound man to scale the sledge.

Juvenot drew his sword and strode to the naked man who the raiders had heaved toward him. The captive was looking frantically from the woman in the snowbank to his still-clothed mates. With burning impatience, Juvenot, too, eyed the woman. Go, he shouted to the man and after rounding him, put his sword point to the hairy small of his back. Don’t make Little One wait. After a nick, the man, coughing and gagging, started toward the sledge and went up the ramp. Juvenot motioned him to climb the ladder’s thick steps.

Juvenot followed.

The naked man, wheezing from the stench, reached the top stair, which was shin height from the top of the pot. He peered inside and his whole body shook from far more than the cold.

The glorious smell of fear sent the thrill of power pulsing through Juvenot. He pushed, fast and hard, so as not to touch the quivering flesh any longer than necessary.

Usually, he liked to linger to watch Seraph eat. At first, it had been difficult to stomach how Seraph killed his meals by winding about their necks and choking them until they collapsed to the bottom of the pot filled with liquid so corrosive it dissolved skin and hair. After a while, Juvenot ceased to see the captives as men; they were merely meat that made his charge grow larger and stronger. Today, he shut the lid over the screams and glad he didn’t have to clean his sword, resheathed it.

In the snowdrift, the girl waited.

Not bothering with the ramp, he leaped from the sled and went to her. The mixture of horror and sobbing grief twisted her face into an even more mouthwatering beauty. Help me get her up, he said to raider guarding her. Each taking an elbow, they pulled her to her feet. Juvenot dusted off the snow crusting her coat and hat. Stand guard of the pot, he said to the guard to dismiss him.

Juvenot locked his arm around hers and half supporting, half dragging, led her past the mules and into the woods. Out of sight behind a cluster of pines, he reached inside his coat for the ration of burned wine, uncorked it, took a swig, then held the flask to her lips. With one of the few Anglish words he knew, he said, Drink. He wanted to see her full lips suckle the rim, enjoy the taste of the wine. At first, the wine spilled over her tight-lipped mouth and streamed down her still-quivering chin. I won’t drown you. He took the flask away and brushed the tears from her cheeks and the wine stains from her chin with the end of his scarf. Drink. This time, when he tipped the flask to her mouth, her jaw opened. She swallowed.

It tastes good, doesn’t it? Though he didn’t know why he spoke with her since she understood no Gherian, it still was pleasant.

I let you enjoy something. You’ll let me enjoy something I haven’t tasted for years. He corked the flask and returned it to his pocket and went behind her to peel the gloves from her bound hands. Upward curling, her thumbs looked like the smallest, most tender, of the cucumbers it was his job to pick for his mother. He lifted the girl’s hands to his lips, ran his tongue along the side of her thumb, and finally took the whole of it in his mouth. Sweet. Not sour like the pickles. Was she really sweet, or was it just his memory of what sweet should be? How had honey tasted? His eyes drifted closed, and he started to suck, her flesh smooth and pliant to his tongue, except for the nail. Was he healed? Could he taste again? Even if it was only fear, it was sweeter than anything he remembered. He was glad he had fed Seraph the fat man first. It would keep him full for several days, give Juvenot time to find a way to keep her alive.

Then, the thumb pulled from his tongue and the loud pop of loss of suction filled his ears. For a stupid moment, his mouth gaped after her finger, like a fish groping for food.

She yanked her hands from his.

He opened his eyes. A fist was in his face.

Pain shot through his right eye.

What in all the Eternal Master’s Hell had happened?

He touched his face. A painful, throbbing hole was where his eye had been, and she was darting through the woods. His feet propelled by rage, he ran after her. One woman beat his sense of taste and smell out of him. A second nearly took his life. This third destroyed his sight. They were all vile, cruel creatures. To think he had considered sparing her. He should have drowned her with wine.

She tumbled forward, her fur coat flapping like the wings of a doomed bird.

As she tried to rise, her foot still caught in a tangle of branches, he drew his sword and held it at the nape of her neck. She flattened again into the snow. He fell to his knees beside her, knocked off her hat, and pulled her by the hair so she saw his face. You made a mistake. You only took one eye. Tomorrow I’m going to watch you die in the pot. Next winter, it will be all your people. The draeden are back.

Her eyes, already opened wide in fear, glazed with terror.

So, she understood the word draeden.

Blood from his face dripped into the snow.

A sign of things to come, Sarapostan, a sign of things to come. But it won’t be my blood ever again.

A WARRIOR WITHOUT ARMOR

The order’s 736 years of watching and waiting are ended. What our founding superior feared is begun. I trembled at a vision of a girl birthing two beings no living eyes should see. Now, I have fulfilled my secret charge, though I confess it gave me little joy. Maker have mercy on the world and the one I send into it. I pray I have done your will—that it was you who sent Arvana to me and changed my heart. In retrospect, it seems so.

~From Superior Madra Cassandra’s Journal

5th of Spring, Year 736 of the Saviors

The Citadel, City of Shacra Paulus,

New Acadia, 7th of Spring

The bell in the Saviors’ Gate began the double toll of half past nine. A Solacian would have had to kiss the floor for such tardiness. Arvana couldn’t demand that of her new student, a fifteen-year-old princess, but ignoring the behavior would seem to sanction it. Dear Maker, how could a simple thing like punctuality be so difficult? Arvana touched the front of her gray habit where the relic lay hidden, its smooth back clinging uncomfortably to her skin. That was why a simple thing could be so difficult. How many ancients had died by the Blue Eye? How many had been saved? The numbers were beyond any but the Maker’s reckoning.

And now it was her duty to find a champion to use it. Her stomach knotted. She didn’t belong here. She never wished to leave the confines of Solace. Not even to see the Saviors’ Gate. Looking at drawings of the tower, with its gilded icons of Lucas and Paulus watching over the city of Shacra Paulus, had satisfied her curiosity. In the Cloth Merchant Street, on the way here, she’d passed more people than she’d seen in her entire life—and they all stared at her because of her habit. Tomorrow, she would find a more private way to come to the Citadel.

The sound of heels, in no great rush, clicking down the stone floor of the hall drew Arvana back to the enormity of her task.