Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Settled Dust Part Eighteen

A Continuing Haibun Cycle

The stink of slow death hung in the warlord's room like smoke from a wet wood fire. He lay there, breath labored, eyes wide and staring as he struggled to go on another turn of the glass.

Valila stood over him. Finally here, this felt strange. She had never been one to argue inwardly about the symbolisms of death. She trusted in it, was a believer in turning the soil of the world and releasing souls back into the Coriyat. She had no qualms, no fear that she wouldn't be able to finish this part, felt different from anything else she'd ever done.

"You...Namira, of the Ghost Society," Kahlid whispered. His face was slick with sweat, his body a flabby, shapeless remnant of his former power.

"Yes, it is I, though Namira is not my name."

"What do I care what your real name is? You, whose business is poisoned daggers in the dark--I wish I had never seen your face."

"You called for one of my kind, Kahlid. You dispatched me to do your dirty business, though you always planned to use me badly in the end. You betrayed me, warlord. You sent your soldiers to slay me in the wilderness. Of all your misdeeds, that is the one I cannot excuse. My own outrage is unimportant, but you've disrespected the Ghost Society, and that cannot stand."

"You needn't excuse me of anything, bitch. I lay here, free from guilt in this and all things. I did what I had to, what I wished to do. In all my years, I ever had my knee upon the neck of this worldly life. Did I make mistakes? Of course. I should have sent more soldiers, so I would have been spared another glance into your soulless eyes."

Valila shrugged. "Perhaps, though I am worth any number of your brutish soldiers, and would simply have slipped away from a larger force. You should have trusted to my discretion. I never planned to share the details of our arrangement. Killing me bought you nothing."

"Peace of mind, assassin. The most expensive treasure of all. I didn't want you coming back and giving my son any difficulty after I went into the Great Nothing."

She smiled vaguely. "It would never have occurred to me, had you stayed true."

Kahlid coughed. Something dark stained his lips. "Stayed true...did you do as much? I wonder if you really did kill a Dolgur at all. Perhaps you led my men into its lair and doomed them."

Valila's heart clenched, but she allowed nothing to show on her face. "You will have nothing more to fear from that Dolgur."

"I'll have nothing more to fear from anyone, since you plan to snuff out my life this night. Go ahead, assassin. Dampening your blade in my flesh will save me a span of discomfort."

Valila put aside her dagger, straddling the warlord's chest in the noisome dimness.

"You would lay with a man half dead, whore? Sorry to disappoint, but I'm too ill for such sport."

Valila put her full weight down on the warlord's ribcage. "You misunderstand, Kahlid. I intend to smother you like a babe, like a rat caught in a snake's squeezing coils. You don't deserve the honor of a blade."

The warlord fought weakly, struggling to hang onto his breath, but it whistled out from his parched lips at last. His sick body shook, bucking a few times as the nerves fired throughout his wasted system. It took some minutes for him to succumb, his eyes losing that last feverish light, his lips going blue.

Valila swung her leg off of him, feeling the tinge of illness upon her bare thighs. She would have to wash. She gripped the hilt of her dagger, driving it down, smashing through the dead man's breast bone. She left the weapon protruding from Kahlid's body, but the blood oozed listlessly from his corpse, barely staining the sheets.

"One more to slay before the night is over," she told the darkness.

This human Autumn
the killer suffers strange thoughts
the kill tastes bitter

All great creatures die
slow and by aching degrees
their passing ugly

The young guard idled in the hall, whistling a tuneless snippet over and over. Not thinking anyone looked on, he dug a vigorous finger into his nose, examined what he'd exhumed within, and flicked the finger at the wall. Valila waited for him to hold still in a suitable position, then leaped in to attack, silent as a sleeping breath. The weighted pommel of the Jambiya thudded against the back of his head, dropping him to the floor with only a strangled gasp.

She gritted her teeth, pulling him into the dead consort's room. Leaving him bound to a chair and gagged, she studied her appearance in the long mirror. The clothes she'd found were tighter than she would have preferred, but that very quality made them seem more appropriate for a dancing girl. She spared a moment to cover the newest of her bruises. It would have to be good enough. The idea that she'd been beaten by the harem master was not completely implausible, after all.

There was only one problem. There were no killing daggers of appropriate size to secret in her outfit nearby. She would have to traverse the castle, would have to count upon Haike having managed to complete his part of the task. She sighed. He had assured her that he could do it, but...

Valila didn't allow herself the luxury of terrible fancies. She flicked a shawl over her shoulders and skimmed through the castle, purposeful as as a circling hawk in the sky.

I cover the wounds
ever onward into night
death's freight to carry

"What butchery! Whoever was here, they killed Muklo and this boy. By the Dark Hereafter, but look at the blood! The whole place is filthy with it, and the tables look like a whirlwind has come through here." Two cooks stood at the entrance to the lower barracks, squinting at the remnants of the battle.

"Do you think we should tell someone?" the woman asked. "Fell deeds have been done down here before, but this feels strange. I've never known this room to approach quiet, with all the mean cackling of the men as they drink and boast."

The young man, stunted and lumpish after some childhood ailment, shrugged his round shoulders. "None of our business, so far as I can see. How often have these bastards bedeviled us? I've been beaten a dozen times, just because they were bored. You..."

"I'd have liked to geld them all, but this boy...this is below even their standards, Bamek. Anyway, it could be a danger to the fortress, someone coming in to attack us in secret." Her face, pretty from the right profile, was ruined with a badly-set cheek bone on the left, a remnant of a beating that Muklo himself had given her. The number of times she'd been raped far exceeded her ability to count.

"Who would have the wherewithal to do such a thing, Mima? How would they enter the fortress?"

"I don't know. Still..."

"Still," Bamek put his hand against her arm, "let's make it none of our business. Let the warriors see to their own fate, is what I say. If the night sees them face great peril and torment, it is no more than they deserve."

"Perhaps..." Mima's statement was lost in a shriek as the dead boy struggled to his feet, all the blood in his thin body spilled all around him. Only his pale eyes, clear and merciless as a wolf's, were unstained by the gore. He raised a machete before him.

The two cooks stood, rooted to the spot, the weight of the silence squelching Mima's scream, turning it inward where it died away like an unfulfilled dream.

"It saddens me that I must slay you, for you are not warriors, but simple worker folk." The boy stepped forward, jaw set. Though he was smaller even than little Mima, the cooks turned from him, frightened as those who had confronted the spirits of the dead.

We, the unknown ones
who have known hate and cruelty
shattered, we yet live

Arisen spirit!
some ghoulish remainder stirs
a thing dead yet speaks

Valila caught both the cooks by the neck and held them still, their eyes wide and glassy with terror. "You'll say nothing of this. Go on about your business. The boy has become as death itself, and his mere touch would cause you to fall apart in smoke and ashes. Do you understand?" These words were given in a rasping whisper, seemingly louder than a shout in the gloomy underhalls of the fortress.

"Nnnggg..." the stunted man whined.

"Don't let him kill us!" the woman begged.

"Will you do what I say?" Valila asked, her eyes boring into them.

Both cooks nodded, tears springing from the woman's eyes. "We'll do as you say, sorceress, I swear."

Valila smiled slightly. Of all the many names she had been given, sorceress was new. One never knew what advantage there would be in a creative lie. "Good. Go now, and forget all you've seen, if you know what's healthy."

The sound of their feet slapping the hard stone floor disappeared in a moment, and she turned back to Haike. "Honestly, boy, there's no need to be so gruesome. We don't take strange pleasure with the kill. In the end, the death is not about us. It doesn't prove our valor or change our fate. It's the churning of the earth's farm field, and we the harvesters that assure that the seasons of the Coriyat move apace."

He nodded, but didn't appear abashed. Valila imagined that he didn't even have that expression in his lexicon. A strange child, both beautiful and terrifying in his way. Everything that stood in the way of the kill in a normal person, all those weaknesses that most imagined to be the composition of the human soul--all of those impediments where missing from Haike. The frozen river within him contained deep, wide channels, but they were unplumbed depths, and Valila could only guess what they might contain. She forced herself to leave those thoughts aside. The chances of them both surviving the night were none too good. In an hour, none of her postulations would be of any greater use than the twittering of the sparrows in the morning trees.

"Is the way clear?" she asked.

"Yes, mistress Namira. All who would stand against us in the lower barracks died this night."

"The poison worked well, then?"

"Except on that one. He came later." Haike pointed to the burly soldier, dead of slices to foot, gut, and neck. "I was knocked cold in the fight, and just recently awoke. I'll wash up."

"First, show me where the weapons are cached."

Heedless of the itch that drying gore would surely cause, Haike took her to a room filled with barrels and retrieved the weapons. She selected a thin knife no longer than her index finger. It would only do the job if jabbed into the neck veins, or perhaps the big ones on the inside of the thigh, but it was easy to secret inside her brief dancer's outfit.

"You know how to string the short bow and fire it?" she asked.

"You need only show me a thing once, Mistress."

"Good. Clean yourself up and put the barracks to whatever rights you can manage, then drop back to here. Watch for soldiers coming this way," she pointed toward the stairway up to the ground level of the fortress. "I will make the sound of an owl before I arrive. Anyone else's life is forfeit. Understand?"

Haike nodded. "I am yours. Ask it, and it will be done."

The way the boy looked at her made Valila tingle all over. She touched the back of his shoulder, one place that wasn't encrusted with blood. "Perhaps we will survive this night, young Haike."

He smiled. "We have lived free and done as we wished. If we fall, I will have but few regrets."

"And those..."

"Let them be. They would not help you this night."

"I will see you soon, perhaps in the Coriyat," she whispered in his ear. "If someone comes asking for your life, be sure you sell it at great cost."

Queen by my own lies
my sorcery-woven words
whisper infinity

We, soon to depart
share one last, tender moment
before tempting doom


Anonymous said...

How I Do enjoy reading all of the parts of "Settled Dust." Each time a new one is posted, I read it feeling intriqued and wanting more. This is turning into an addiction with me waiting for the next "fix."

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick,

Our heros are really cleaning house! Kahlid has finally been sent to the void of the Coriyat. But I fear what fate you might yet have in store.

Over the arc of this story I like that Haike and Valila found that the great Dolgars were not the scurge of all humanity - niether good or evil. They simply put the human population in check. We could use a few good Dolgurs now - else the prudent use of birth control. ...


Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Very eloquent! This is becoming more & more satisfying as it progresses. I imagine various intermediate resolutions to this episode in the lives of Vallila & Haike. Some bring contentment; some bring melancholy & some even bring shock and dissapointment. I look forward to seeing which way you go.

Across Inconstant Breath

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