The Skybound Sea


Page 6



Well, of course it is. You haven’t had a drink in . . . in . . .

“That can’t be healthy,” he whispered. “Where’d I leave my drink? Back in there?”

Don’t go back in there, stupid! She’s still in there! You can’t look at her again.

“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.

Did you already forget who is in there?

The image of her smile flashed through his head. Too broad, too excited, too bereft of hatred. She was supposed to hate. She was supposed to curse. She wasn’t supposed to smile and this wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

Not at all this hard. She’s a woman . . . well, in theory. You’re good with women, right? You can’t not be good with women! You’ll ruin the group dynamics! What else are you good at?

“Killing.”

NO! Women! Women are easy for you! Things don’t get harder around women!

He chuckled inadvertently. “That’s funny.”

Yeah, I just got that. Remember that for later because—STOP TALKING TO YOURSELF.

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.

Might be the chronic drinking, actually, his conscience replied.

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.

Always before.

That’s it, you know, his conscience whispered. This is a sign. This is an omen from Silf.

“No, not yet.”

You’re already stinking drunk. You’ve been drunk since this morning and you’re still thinking about this.

“It is obscenely rude to be bringing this up now. I haven’t had enough to—”

There won’t ever be enough. Not enough to change the truth.

“Truth is subjective.”

You killed her.

“Truth is—” His sentence was cut off in a hacking cough.

You opened her throat.

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.

You killed them all.

He fell to his knees. Why was the air so damn clean? Didn’t anyone drink today?

You’re going to hell.

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.

Sensible plan.

Reasonable man.

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.

Somehow, that was the worst part.

“Get up.”

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.

“About?”

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 . . .”

Unnerving? Slightly emasculating? A little arousing in the same way that it sort of makes you want to cry?

“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.”

“Probey.”

“Probish. Probesque. He’s always staring at us.”

“He’s staring at you. He stares at no one but you.” She smiled blackly. “Watch your back, lest he try to probe you more attentively.” She wiggled her fingers. “Electric touch.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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—”

“Lenk doesn’t know them,” she snarled, whirling on him. “He thinks they’re savages. The only reason he hates them is that they’re more longfaced than his little savage. I know them.” She jabbed a thumb at her chest. “I know what they’re capable of. I know what they do. I know how foul and utterly—”

“You think I don’t?” he interjected. “You think I haven’t seen what they’ve done?”

“I don’t think anything about you,” she said. “I know you, too. I know you’re scum.”

He knew why she knew, too. Just as he knew he couldn’t deny it.

“And I know that you know nothing about them.” She turned on him now, turned a face cold and trembling upon him. “Because you came too late to stop it from happening. Because you did nothing to stop it from happening and because you . . . you . . .”

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 violated me . . . and then . . . then, my arm—” Her face trembled so violently he had to fight the urge to reach out and steady her. “And with it all, after all the secrets about it and all that happened with him, I thought at least I had you, at least I had someone to . . .”

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.

“I needed you . . . and you shoved me away, like I was . . . like I was unclean. Trash. And now you won’t even look at me.”

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, “any of this. Do you have any idea how long I’ve—”

“Yes.” He looked at her now. “Yes, I know what it’s like to wait that long. And yes, I know what happened to you and I know what’s happening to you.”

“Then why won’t you?”

“Because I’ve seen it before.” He clutched his head. “I know why you threw yourself at me because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen women, children, people get torn apart like you did. I’ve seen them carry worse things and think that they have go into the arms of someone, anyone, just to tell it. But it can’t be anyone, Asper, and it can’t be me.”

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.

Could have gone better.

True, he admitted.

She might hit you less if you actually talked to her, you know.

That sounds really hard.

Good point. Want a drink?

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.

FOUR

THE DEAD MIND

She was floating, drifting upon a current that seemed to obey her without a word. Through the fish that had thinned from colorful curtains to ragged schools, over coral that was dying out and becoming barren desert underneath Lenk’s feet, still stubbornly bound to the sandy floor.

But no matter how he changed his pace or tried to navigate through the coral, she remained always above him. Her shadow was colder than he had expected.

“You’re not talking,” he said.

A condition she was apparently not prepared to break with his stunning observation.

“If you don’t talk, this all seems slightly more insane,” Lenk continued, throwing up his hands. “Because now I have to start looking for meaning everywhere.”

He swept his stare around the sea floor. The coral had vanished, leaving nothing but the most stubborn outcroppings of rock. The sole fish was a lone, ragged creature: something that vaguely looked like a bloated axe-head if bloated axe-heads were capable of eating disorders and stares that belonged to veterans, whores, and herb-addicts. Everything about the creature suggested something that had no business existing and being keenly aware of it as it slowly swam away from decent sea-going society.

Lenk blinked, staring blankly. “Okay, this one is going to take some doing.” He held out his hand, as if to grasp the meaning implied by this finned degenerate. “All right . . . it looks like a . . . what? Some kind of hoe? So, it’s suggesting I invest a future of farming . . . fish?” He furrowed his brow, looking thoughtful. “I guess that’s not the weirdest way this could—”

“Ask me.”

Her voice struck him across the cheek. A shadow stared down at him, not nearly dark enough to hide the merciless blue of her stare.

His words tasted like salt. “Ask you what?”

Her glare and the abrupt end to his heartbeat suggested they both knew the answer. It didn’t start again until the words had pulled themselves from his mouth.

“Who are you?”

She shook her head. His heart moved under her gaze, trying to avoid being seen behind an immodest curtain of flesh. He wanted to say anything else. If he didn’t say it, though, someone else would.

And they would speak much louder than she could.

“What do I have to do?” he asked.

“Kill.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I wasn’t talking about your friends.”

“Neither was I.”

She looked inside him. What she saw caused him to turn his head down. He was not lying.

“You listened,” she whispered, “to the demons.”

Neither was she.

He had listened when the demons had spoken to him. Specifically, when the demon spoke to him. Ulbecetonth, the Kraken Queen, Mother Deep; he could still hear her voice coming from the faint place his conscience should speak from. And like a conscience should, she begged him not to.

Not to interfere with her plans, not to embark on his errand to retrieve the tome, not to spill the blood of her faithful and her children. Not to force her to listen to the cries of her dying children as they bled out on his sword.

If he let his mind empty, in the moments between his breathing and the voices talking in his head, he could hear them, too. They cried so loud. And so often.

“Why?” she asked.

“She spared my life,” Lenk said, looking at the earth as though his reasons lay in the sand. “She told me things that made me feel better.” He tried to ignore her stare. “She told me I could avoid this . . . this whole thing with the tome, with them, with . . . with her.”

“And so you want to kill them, anyway? But not the demons? Lenk, how—”

“I AM BREATHING UNDERWATER.” He scowled at her, heart pounding. “This is the third time this has happened to me. The last time involved a giant set of teeth in the earth that tried to argue with a voice in my head that’s kept me from trying to kill myself while also telling me to kill a woman I really want to talk to despite the fact that she left me for dead so she could cavort with a headhunting, hideskinning, green-skinned, long-eared son of a bitch, so forgive me if this sounds a little complicated.”

He rubbed his temples. His head hurt. Suddenly, there was so much pressure. His mouth tasted of salt. The world, this world, began to move beneath him while he stood still. He felt uncomfortably warm as her shadow shifted off of him.

All this, though, he barely noticed.

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to kill people, any people. I don’t want to feel naked without my sword. I don’t want to feel right when I’m covered in blood and I don’t want to live without—”

The massive hole he only noticed when his heels went over the edge.

He scrambled away from it, falling to hands and knees as he whirled about. The coral and its colors were far behind him. The sea floor was only barely beneath him. Before him, this world had simply stopped, disappearing into a vast and endless blue.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Hell,” someone replied. Was that her?

“Why?”

“You brought us here.”

“No.” He rose to his feet, shakily. His head was spinning. His heart was thundering. His words drowned in his ears. “No more riddles. No more crypticisms. No more interpretations. You came to me. You brought me here. You have to tell me what to do.”

“Jaga.”

“What of it?”

“Duty.”

“What duty?”

“What we do is not our choice. We weren’t born with that. We’re not lucky people, Lenk.”

“People? Do you mean you and I or . . . are there more of us?” He clutched his head, trying to dig into the flesh of his scalp and extract the memories. “There was a man . . . man in ice. I remember . . . I remember. It’s me. My memories, my friends, my voice . . .”

“Ours.”

He was floating now, too. This world disappeared. His world was at the surface, far away. That world opened up beneath him. He was nowhere.

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