Chapter 12 of Gravity’s RevengePosted by in Uncategorized
Hall of Visitation
Bright Palm Sheamab strode back and forth in front of the women, the staff hitting the carpet with dull smacks that reminded Hiresha of the sound it would make striking flesh. The enchantress clutched her own throbbing hand, worrying what the Bright Palm intended for the novices.
The women and girls in teal clothing had been gathered on the ground floor of the tower for their safety. Now Hiresha thought them anything but safe. One girl coaxed her face into a confused smile, teeth white as rice. An older novice with graying hair and a narrow chin glanced from Hiresha to the Bright Palms, and her frown was sour. Alyla sat on one of the makeshift beds of blankets, knees clutched to her chest, looking no less frightened than her usual. The fennec pattered from her to Hiresha’s skirts. Minna had her back to the wall, her eyes huge as she stared at the flame-design carpet. The tips of her fingers twitched with tension.
Hiresha caught Sheamab glancing at her, following her eyes. The enchantress yanked her gaze away from Minna then regretted doing so with such obvious intent. The Bright Palm is trying to read me. Hiresha feared Sheamab would accost Minna, would learn of her Feaster nature and end up killing the girl before the weeping Maid Janny.
The fennec crawled under Hiresha’s skirts. She had to nudge him out again with a slipper. She picked him up with her uninjured hand.
The princess novice stood to face the Bright Palm. “I demand you allow my friends and myself to return to our chambers. We have a test to…to….”
The relentless calm in the Bright Palm’s eyes seemed to shrivel the princess’s resolve. When the staff lifted to tap her shoulder, she crumpled back to sit among the other novices.
Only one other novice would look at Sheamab. Hiresha recognized her from the class yesterday. She was the fidgety woman with the high collar and hard stare, which she leveled at the Bright Palm with something that looked like defiance.
Novice Emesea, was it? She has quite the backbone.
Sheamab stopped her pacing. The staff swung up, and Emesea caught it in one hand. The Bright Palm used her superior leverage to angle the black staff and push the novice’s chin to the side.
“Which guest room,” Sheamab asked, “holds Lord Tethiel?”
Hiresha could not suppress a tremor, and she felt twice as terrible being certain the Bright Palm saw it. Does she know Tethiel is the Lord of the Feast? The enchantress hoped beyond reason that Sheamab only wished to accost Tethiel because of his land-holding status as a lord. But, then, how did she know he was here?
The staff dented Novice Emesea’s cheek. Pushing away the black-lacquered pole, she said, “I don’t know.”
“Then who would?” Sheamab flipped the staff underhand then rested it on the novice’s shoulder, beside her throat.
The novice spoke in a level voice, with an edge of courage. “The chancellor fell, but Enchantress Aldrosi keeps records of all visitors to the Academy.”
Hiresha felt betrayed by the novice, though the young woman could not know the Bright Palms would kill Tethiel if they discovered who he was. Sheamab and two others marched away, no doubt in search of the enchantress.
Alyla approached Hiresha. She asked in a whisper. “I thought Bright Palms weren’t allowed?”
“These climbed, I believe,” Hiresha said.
Hiresha remembered the band of red limestone running through the cliff. It should have repulsed the climbers, but perhaps its enchantment had weakened along with those of the rest of the Academy. An urge to think more on this idea tickled the nape of her neck, but she knew she had to move if she wished to save Tethiel.
Do I? The question felt like treachery, but she could not help but consider it. He controls the other Feasters. If he dies, they’ll prey on even more people with their illusions, like Minna attacked Alyla with the mirror.
For a tall woman, Alyla could make herself very small. She crouched, elbows pressed at her sides, hands cupped together, and shoulders hunched. “Is my brother…he’s still outside?”
The enchantress pressed Alyla’s hand. Hiresha felt neither strong nor composed enough to tell her the truth, though she knew she should. “No, Alyla, he’s in the Blade.”
While whispering “Stay safe” in the young woman’s ear, Hiresha worked two emeralds from a pocket in an inner layer, a black-velvet gown with opalescent spangles. She rolled the gems’ sharp edges between her fingers, where garnets embedded in the fleshy side of her knuckles primed the other gems’ Lightening enchantments.
Two Bright Palms stood guard at the door, one with dark skin and clothes of tribesman red, the other a woman covered with brown and black moles. They both gripped cudgels, her weapon with a head a brass, his of polished wood. A spear leaned beside him across the wall.
Mumbling something about needing to see her maid, Hiresha stepped close and flicked the emeralds at them. The woman Bright Palm did no more than stare down at the green flicker of the gem bound to her tunic. The tribesman reacted faster and batted the emerald aimed at him with his club, the stone sticking to the wood.
Hiresha gripped her skirts and ran between them, knocking the Lightened woman off her feet. She flailed, suspended in the air.
“Stop or I throw,” the tribesman Bright Palm said.
“You do that,” Hiresha said under her breath, running down the hall.
She thought he would throw his spear, and her enchantment would protect her from the obsidian at its tip. When she glanced back, she saw he had thrown his club instead. The Lightening emerald glinted on its wooden head as the weapon hung in the air then drifted forward and back to the floor.
Hiresha dashed up a wallway, afraid that she would feel herself fall backward. After passing through the archway leading to the next floor, she did lose her contact with a black tile, but she rolled to the side and onto the ledge. Her gowns padded her from the drop of a few feet. She took care not to land on the fennec.
Through the half-circle passage in the floor, Hiresha could see the tribesman Bright Palm leap to sprint up the black and white tiles of the wallway. He fell back down, smacking his hand against the floor to dampen his impact. Excellent. He lacks an Academy amulet. She had no desire to do Sheamab’s work for her by leading a Bright Palm to Tethiel.
She ran by a tree carved out of stone, past a glass sculpture designed to look like flowing water. Over-heated now and muddled by fatigue and worry, Hiresha struggled to keep her gowns’ hems from slithering under her feet, wishing with every gulped breath that she had defied all convention and worn but one gown that day.
On the far side of the hall, she descended the wallway. By doubling back she was hoping to travel to the guest quarters without being followed. Only when she reached the ground floor did she see the Bright Palm.
The man’s back was turned to her, and he leaned on a bow. He did not seem to have heard her walking down the wall. Hiresha thanked the magical lightness of her gowns and the softness of her slippers. She rested a hand over the fennec’s face and stroked his side.
If he turns, he’ll shout for help. Then Hiresha would have to retreat back upstairs, leaving the Bright Palms to track Tethiel down and murder him.
Hiresha tiptoed toward the Hall of Visitation, glancing at the Bright Palm each second. She felt as if she walked on a cliff ledge, where a misstep could cause her to plummet in a soul-screaming dive. Any moment the fennec might start chirping or singing or any of his other sounds that would at this juncture be adorably catastrophic.
The Bright Palm remained slumped over his bow. The grey folds of his hood shifted as he changed his stance. He never turned.
The enchantress slipped down a hall decorated by banners of each nation in the empire. Her eyes rested on the design of a palm tree leaning over an oasis, as well as another tapestry with the octahedral of an uncut diamond for her own homeland.
She remembered last night leading Tethiel back to his room and closing him in. Was it between the flags of Nagra’s monkey and Salarian’s tree? She believed so, and touching her bracelet to the door unlocked it. Before she could open it she was startled by a blast of voice.
The fennec’s ears shot up. Hiresha jerked around, saw the Bright Palm close his mouth and draw his bow. The black glass of an obsidian arrow aimed at her chest. Even so, he did not face her, did not seem to be looking at anything, his features a mask devoid of expression. The alarm of the moment burned the sight of him into her mind, and later she would remember more details, his sack-cloth shirt, shoes like leather pouches tied about his feet, quiver at his waist bristling with brown feathers, a greyness filling his eyes, the cloudy death of vision.
Right then she had no time to question how a blind man knew where to aim. Three more Bright Palms raced down the hall, the tribesman among them and the woman in the lead swinging a black staff.
“Well scouted, Mavin,” Sheamab said to the blind Bright Palm. “Enchantress, move away. Rommick, prepare yourself for the Lord of the Feast. I am certain he is behind that door.”
A Bright Palm with a brick of a jaw was sliding two bronze spikes from his belt. He braced them between his fingers like long claws.
Hiresha did not know what to do. The guest rooms had no back doors, and she saw no escape for Tethiel. They know what he is. She stammered, “Lord Tethiel, why, his room is down the hall to the left. This room—”
Sheamab thwacked Hiresha aside, the staff leaving a burning line across her arm. The Bright Palm kicked open the door and charged inside along with two others. The blind bowman remained where he was, his head cocked in a pose of listening.
Hiresha clutched her hands over her stinging arm, hurting doubly because she expected any moment to hear Tethiel’s screams. His illusions will burn away near a Bright Palm, and he can’t frighten them.
She heard Sheamab’s voice. “Search the closets, and you, the bed.”
Hiresha imagined Tethiel hiding between a rack of coats, knowing that strong arms would soon yank him out and pound spikes through his neck and leg. Her mind was so full of Tethiel’s image that she thought she saw him on the far side of the hall in his black coat and blood-hued vest.
Hiresha blinked then forced her eyes fully open to look again. Tethiel lifted a crooked finger to his lips and beckoned her closer. It is him.
Both relieved and disconcerted, Hiresha could only guess he had spun a false image of himself last night, leading her to believe she had locked him in his room. As he did with the spellswords. The thought that he would trick her as quickly as hoodwinking a stranger pricked at her, but she was relieved enough to see him.
After a few false starts and glances at the blind archer, she walked toward Tethiel. The Bright Palm with the bow seemed to hear her go, but he stayed at his post. They think they have the Lord of the Feast trapped.
Hiresha reached Tethiel only for him to turn into a cloud of black butterflies with red eyespots. Another illusion, and he’s even farther away. The winged creatures made not a sound as they led Hiresha down a hall, past a twin set of fountains, one on the floor and ceiling, where water typically flowed between them. All liquid had fallen out of the upper fountain, leaving it dry, and the surrounding floor was soaked.
The butterflies swirled into a tall and narrow cloud, folded their wings together in a hundred blinks of red, and became Tethiel. He said, “Nothing is more telling of a host than the character of her uninvited guests.”
“At least you don’t think I invited them.” Hiresha wished she could know she now spoke and faced the true Tethiel. Does he stand in front of me, to the side, or even behind? “The Bright Palms know you’re here.”
“I suppose the surest way for everyone to find out your whereabouts is to refuse to tell anyone where you’re going.”
“Enough of your paradoxes. The Bright Palms mean to kill you.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t think so. They tend to inflict me with their pettiness then let me go.” He lifted his mangled hands. “Even brains soggy with light can see that I’m a gentler ruler for the night than Angler or the Bleeding Maiden.”
Hiresha assumed he had named two other Feasters. “Don’t be so certain you’re safe. This Bright Palm Sheamab seems ruthless enough for two falling boulders. You’ll have to hide yourself, but not in this tower.”
She shifted her Academy amulet, and the links of its gold scraped her neck. She could not remove it without first loosening its enchantment in her dream. Fanning out her skirts, she settled against a tapestry of the four concentric circles of the Academy. Even as she began coaxing herself to her private laboratory with yawns, she heard the footfalls of Bright Palms running down the halls, closer, closer.
“Once I’m asleep, take my amulet. Use it to lock yourself in my workshop. In the Grindstone. Wait for me there.”
“You must come with me.” He gripped her shoulder, and the rushing sensation that followed battled against her drowsiness. “They’ll mistreat you if you remain.”
Hiresha’s head swayed from side to side. A whispering chorus inside her told her to flee with Tethiel, to escape into the night and secret herself with him in the thick walls of her workshop. That would mean leaving Alyla, Minna, and the other women under Sheamab’s staff.
“Stand. My heart….” Tethiel lowered his voice. Bright Palms called from down the hall.
“The elder enchantress went this way.”
“Did she mislead you, Sheamab?”
“The Lord of the Feast deceived her. She believed him there.”
Tethiel whispered close to her. “…My heart. Giving me your amulet will entrap yourself in the Academy.”
Slipping toward sleep as she was, Hiresha could think none too clearly. Still, she managed to mumble, touching the center of her chest. “No. Replicated enchantment. In a diamond that….”
She drifted off to sleep. Hiresha heard and saw nothing more before whisking upward into the circular laboratory of black rock. In the crystalline lucidity of the dream, she realized she had almost told him of the red diamond he had once given her, a jewel the size of her thumbnail that was so rare that she had sealed it in her sternum to avoid ever losing it. She had resolved to hide it from him. Bad enough that I kept a gift from the Lord of the Feast.
“We have to be quick!” Her reflection in the yellow dress spun her hands in encouragement. “Undo the amulet so he can escape.”
“Already done.” With a thought, Hiresha clipped the Attraction enchantment that bound the links of the necklace together. Another mirror showed her prediction of Tethiel lifting the gold band from the tangle of her headdress and running.
“No!” The sapphire Feaster dug her claws into the glass of her mirror, etching its inside. “Don’t let Tethiel escape. You have to turn him over to the Bright Palms.”
The reflection said, “We’re not going to betray him.”
“He’s betrayed you,” the Feaster in the mirror said, “or he will soon. Sacrificing him to the Bright Palms is the only way they’ll spare you now.”
Hiresha waved a purple glove, and a balance flew from a shelf to an operations table in front of her. She started arranging glass possibilities, calculating likelihoods, represented by figurines on the scale’s plates. Leave with Tethiel. Stay to negotiate with Sheamab. Betray him? Even though she could think fast enough in her dream to count a thousand beads in a quarter second, she knew the Bright Palms had to be racing close.
“I have to wake,” she said. “I should’ve gone with Tethiel.”
“No, you mustn’t!”
“Yes, we must.”
Hiresha blinked awake.
A staff pushed her chin upward. Hiresha gazed up the black length that was knobbed like bamboo, into the seething-white eyes of Bright Palm Sheamab.
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