Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 36

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 36

      When I woke the following morning I found the ship already at dock.
      “Home!” Almond said, almost glowing as she helped me with my ablutions. “At last.”
      “Huzzah,” Kelu said without enthusiasm and left the cabin. I followed her into a sharp-edged day; the sky was a patchwork of brooding blue clouds, and the holes in their coverage were lined with sunlight hard as steel and brittle as glass. The hot, salt-brightened wind did not caress me as it had at Far Horizon… it groped. I blinked and ducked my head against it.
      “Ugly weather coming,” Gant said.
      “I see,” I said, taking his offered hand. “Thank you for the passage, sir.”
      “Be safe down there,” he said. “And come straight back if you have to.”
      “I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” I said, the words slow but coming without pause. “But thank you for the warning.”
      He nodded and we parted ways. This time I didn’t fall into the water; with Almond behind me and Kelu before I descended to the pier and halted there to take in this elven port—
      —and found it full of humans. In fact, it looked very much like Far Horizon. The buildings, the dock with its line of piers, all of them similar. What trees I could spot were different; I recognized them as palms only from illustrations in stories.
      “Looking for something?” Kelu asked.
      I found it then. “The humans—” in the Angel’s Gift, the word for “people” was self-referential, and thus always indicated elves, “—they look… tired.”
      “They’re servants,” Kelu said with a shrug and led me toward the town.
      I followed her, unsettled. The humans around me were dressed as promised in very little, men in pants of some rough fabric, so voluminously cut they resembled skirts, and the women in shifts of the same material, sleeveless and ending halfway down the calf. The sun had darkened their skin to an appealing nut brown, and they looked well-fed and strong… and yet something about them disturbed me. Their gait. The slump of their shoulders. Their restless eyes, never focused on one place for long.
      “Servants in Evertrue don’t look like this,” I said in Lit.
      For once Kelu didn’t tell me to speak the right language. “Servants in Evertrue aren’t food. Square your shoulders and walk like a person, or someone will come claim you.”
      My spine straightened.
      “Better,” Kelu said, and stalked on.
      We left the port and entered the town proper, walking beneath the rustling fans of the palms. Their fronds almost clattered when they moved, so different from the gentle susurrus of leaves in Evertrue.
      “Come on,” Kelu said. “Let’s move, or we’ll get the rain.”
      So we moved, and my body did not object. Perhaps it was their nearness; perhaps my distraction with the strangeness of the climate, of the hot salt scent of it, the sharpness of the warning in the wind. Or perhaps the poppy. They swept me up in their urgency and my impression forever after of the town of Mene is of a blur of buildings, shadowed by the storms.
      But I will never forget my first sight of an elf.
      I don’t know what I’d expected. The paintings had conveyed a sense of length and grace, an elegant repose, but listening to the genets and their warring accounts had convinced me that the elves were like humans: good and bad, with the habit of portraying themselves in the best possible light. I had assumed then that the paintings were fictions… and they were. But they did not err on the side of idealizations. Kelu opened the door on a slim office, into a receiving room I lost for the light of the creature that rose from behind the desk. That he wore almost nothing registered only because it bared more of his skin, and his skin . . . his skin was luminous. Literally: it scintillated at the edges, as if the sun had crawled through the window just to lap at his edges. There were subtleties of hue in his skin that defied description: aching peaches so profound I could almost taste them, honeyed golds so sweet I could almost see them glisten. And that was before my eyes tangled in his hair. Brown was too flat a word. It shimmered as the strands shifted across one another, as if someone had ground jasper and tiger’s eye and scattered the dust across the crown of his head.
      He looked real. More real than the world around him. We were all dead, flat things, muted. It choked the words in my throat, stole their meaning and left me naked. At last I understood the elven fascination with light and color. Unbidden my mind whispered the word: fasiral, glow, a light cast from within.
      “So, you’ve returned,” the elf said, and his voice caressed the back of my neck. “Did you bring us your quarry?”
      “Yes, sir,” Kelu said, head bowed. “May we arrange to return to the lady?”
      The elf nodded, mesmerizing me as his hair creased against his shoulders. “I’ll send a runner to the door to tell them you’re coming. How many are you bringing?”
      “Three,” Kelu said, “sir.”
      His laughter made my teeth ache, as if it stroked the inside of my skin so lightly it tickled. “Waiting outside, is he? So what’s this you’ve brought with you? Present for your mistress?”
      I dragged my eyes up to his and… all the depth and complexity of a pond’s murk when the shiver-shimmer of afternoon sunlight glances across its surface. I heard something in the back of my head begin to howl. As I stared, transfixed, he approached me, and the closer he came the more my body shook. The poppy melted beneath the pressure of his regard, leaving my skin naked and raw, and he, oh, he was a fire burning me—
      I moaned and the world tilted, and he grabbed me, and the touch of those hands! Fire and light and heat!
      “Master!”
      I’m dying, I wanted to whisper. I’m dying. And yet my traitor mind whispered back: this. This is what your body was meant to embrace. This is what your senses were honed to perceive. This is where you have always belonged.
      How sad, how sad that you can no longer stand it.

      “Master…!”
      Her voice was very far away. I struck the floor, mildly surprised at the pain, and drowned.

      I woke to Almond licking my cheek and the line of my jaw. I ached… oh, how I ached. Every inch of my skin, every hair, every pore. I hurt so much I wept as I regained consciousness, and the genet lapped the tears as they fell, purring in what I could only assume was some misguided attempt at palliation.
      “Not feeling any better, I’m guessing,” Kelu said, subdued. She was tucked against my solar plexus, her body wrapped against my lower abdomen, my hips, my legs. I could not see her: we lay on something soft that gave me no relief, in a darkness that barely soothed my over-sensitive eyes, in a pool of quiet that only magnified the sighing of air that passed through their long noses.
      “God,” I whispered through the roaring in my head, my voice cracked. “God, give me the drug. I can’t stand it.”
      “No more of it,” Almond said, hugging me tightly from behind. “You can’t, you’ve had too much already getting through the door to Serala.”
      “I don’t understand,” I said.
      “We brought you home,” Kelu said. “You collapsed in factor’s office… we thought you were going to hurt yourself.” She paused; I felt her throat move as she swallowed. “We drugged you and took you across the door to the Lady’s manor on Serala. That’s where you are now.”
      I remembered then, the bonfire brightness of the elf’s very existence. “Oh God, God… tell me they’re not all like that.”
      I felt their hesitation. Then Kelu said, “No. Most of them are… more than that.”
      I closed my eyes and gave up to despair.
      The door opened on two of them then and their presence so overwhelmed me that the sense of my body, of the genets against me receded. I clung to consciousness in terror because the alternative petrified me, but I couldn’t make it back into my own mind. My thoughts scattered as if blown by an insistent wind.

***

Here comes Amoret…

We are 4 reviews or $20 away from our Saturday episode, and I know you want to meet more of the elves. Okay, maybe not much of an incentive. I know you want to know how Morgan gets out of this in one piece!


  1. oh crap…

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