Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 35

An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 35

      “Why that story, Master?” she asked.
      Even hours later, I knew what she meant. “Because it was the only time I’d ever seen that there was some… hint… that both the Red Prince and the King knew they were characters in a story they were not writing. That they were there to be used for some purpose they could not understand, and it grieved them. That… if they could only win free of the constraints of fate, they would have chosen otherwise.”
      She nodded beneath my hand. And offered shyly, “I was not surprised at your choice, Master.”
      I smiled down at her. “Why is that?”
      “Because,” she said, “you are so gentle at heart. And of all the stories full of violence, you chose the one of peace.”
      My fingers faltered. “How predictable of me,” I said.
      “You do not think it a virtue, to love peace?” she asked me.
      “Sometimes war is needed,” I said, thinking of the revolution… wondering if I would have been brave enough to take part in it, if I had been alive then and healthy enough to lift a sword or man a cannon.
      “Where we are from,” she said, her voice sad, “there is nothing but war.”
      “War between people who cannot die must be terrible,” I said.
      “You will see soon enough,” she said with a sigh. “I do not think our masters would see the beauty of your story.”
      It was the closest I’d ever heard from her to an indictment of the elves. I was so shocked I stopped petting her.
      “Was that the end of the story?” Almond asked, looking up at me.
      Perhaps it was that state of shock that brought the words from me, the ones I’d been hiding, keeping for myself. “No. There was a drawing beneath it. Of the Red Prince and the King in one another’s arms, kissing.”
      She nodded. “Love drives away demons,” she said only, and put her cheek back against my thigh.
      Startled, I returned to stroking her hair. “Is that it?” I asked. “You accept that so easily?”
      “Love?” she said. “What is there to deny, Master? Love is always good.”
      It was hard to argue such a platitude, even with practicalities. Two men loving the same woman usually ended in disaster, after all, and that was only the first of the many ways that love could destroy. “It’s not a story of the Red Prince and his Queen,” I said.
      “Does that matter?” she asked.
      “Ah…” I trailed off. “Almond. It is… perverse, what they were doing in that drawing.”
      She glanced up at me. “Were they doing it wrong?”
      That startled a laugh from my mouth. “By nature, well, yes, yes indeed.”
      Almond squinted. “This is a human habit, Master?”
      “A human habit for men to love women, and women to love men?” I asked, bemused. “I took that to be a natural habit. One does not get children on men.”
      “Among the elves,” Almond said, “children are so rarely gotten at all that no one cares who lies with whom. The few women who can conceive are cherished and have great status and influence.”
      I said, “How… few… is ‘few’?”
      Almond considered, leaning against me. “I have only known one, the Lady Amoret.”
      “One… woman?” I asked, stunned. “Only one who could bear children?”
      “There have been others,” Almond said. “Not many. Ten? Eleven? They are very famous.”
      “But… but why?” I asked, horrified. “How can a race maintain without childre–ah. They don’t die. I forget.” For a moment I could grasp it, the utter strangeness of these people, and it cut like broken glass. Wars without death. Lying with one another without children. To be barren, but never to die. I felt it like thirst, a lack of… of variation. Of newness. The same people persisting forever. Complete stasis. “My God.”
      And then: “My God. I might be one of them.”
      “You are the prince,” Almond said, slipping her arms around my knee and cuddling against my leg. “You are not just one of them, Master. You are one of the greatest among them.”
      “I don’t want to li—” I stopped. Could I honestly say that I didn’t want to live forever? But the thought was exhausting merely to contemplate. I had no desire to die, but what would I do with eternity? “My God,” I said at last, drifting to a halt, all my thoughts in disarray.
      “I wonder if they will tell stories about you as the Red Prince?” Almond asked, tracing my knee cap.
      I stared down at her, my horror complete.

      On the morning of the sixth week, Gant stood with me at the prow and nodded toward the horizon. By now the lilt of the elven tongue was familiar; I understood far more than I could easily speak thanks to the captain’s erudition, but weeks spent with no other language had increased my comfort with both listening and speaking. “There’s your stop, Locke.”
      I squinted past the sea spray on my glasses, saw only a smudge of gray and brown against steel blue and storm dense sky. A warm, wet wind stroked the hair from my face. “The furthest island?”
      “Of the Archipelago, yes,” Gant said. “The natives call their kingdom Aravalís… that rock in specific is Doli.”
      I gripped the rail with fingers that remembered their aches. So many uncertainties. Out of courtesy I would have to meet with Kelu and Almond’s mistress, let her see that I was not what she sought. And then…? How would I find someone to help me? If even I could be helped? I was not only edging toward being completely disabled; by now I was truly a poppy addict. I had to find a way out of this spiral before it sucked me into the dark. I had to believe that I could return to Evertrue, to the university, to my classes, my family, my friends . . . Ivy. Even the thought of the sea could not repel me from my need to see them again as a man free of illness. I had to believe in a cure. Surely if I was healthy, I would have no more problems.
      “How long?” I asked.
      “Tomorrow morning you’ll be on the dock,” Gant said. “Go get your fluffs to paint on your blood-flag mark. It’ll need to set.”
      “Right,” I said.
      So that evening by the yellow light of a lamp I sat on my narrow bunk across from Kelu, my wrist palm-up on her knee. Almond kneeled beside us, chin lifted and chest out-thrust so as to display the medallion hanging from her collar.
      “I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Kelu said while tracing the shape onto my skin with the pen sent by the captain. “You’re not Amoret’s to claim.”
      “The captain felt strongly about it,” I said, constructing the sentence carefully. With enough time I could say quite complex things in the language now, but with the genets I concentrated on speed, which forced me to simplify my thoughts considerably.
      “Well, he’s human,” Kelu said. “You only look human.”
      “My shirt will… cover? Cover it,” I said.
      “Until we dress you properly, anyway,” Kelu said.
      “Pardon?”
      She squinted at me. “Did you not understand that, or are you being shocked?”
      “I understood you,” I said and switched to Lit. “I just didn’t quite believe what I heard.”
      “Speak the right language,” Kelu said, bending over my wrist.
      “How am I wearing too much?” I asked in the Angel’s Gift, irritated. “I am wearing just enough.”
      “Aravalís is very hot, Master,” Almond said. “You will be uncomfortable if you wear all those layers.”
      “Am I supposed to walk around naked?” I asked.
      “Not naked,” Kelu said. “A pair of very light pants. Maybe a stole.”
      “A what?”
      “A stole,” she repeated, then looked at Almond, who shook her head. “I don’t know how to say that. A decorative strip of fabric over your shoulders.”
      “They go bare-chested?” I exclaimed in Lit. At Kelu’s narrow-eyed glare, I switched languages and said, “That’s naked!”
      “We’re naked,” Kelu said. “You’ll be wearing pants.”
      “Yes!” I said, struggling with the words. What I wanted to say was ‘I most certainly will!’
      Kelu shook her head, still bent over my wrist and concentrating on painting on the glyph. I felt the drag of the nib against the tender skin there like a talon. “Well, if you faint we’re not dragging you after us.”
      “I will not faint,” I said. “I like the heat.”
      “We’ll see,” she said, and turned my hand so she could continue marking me. I watched the ink glisten on my skin and then lose its luster as my skin absorbed the pigment, sullen and bitter and black.

***

Pants! And a stole!

Morgan from Left to Right

That scene with Almond is one of the ones I remember best in all my writing, strangely enough.


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