Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu
This is the fourth in a series of stories written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It takes place after the events of the first three stories Incident at Ko'Grappa, Incident at Avalon, and Escape From Avalon. It is followed by The Council of Chozanti and The Battle of the Jade Mirror. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.
The touch was gentle, a palm with the nap of heavy silk passing over his brow. Still only semi–conscious, the old impulse remained: he tried to reach up, to take that delicate hand and bring the perfumed wrist to his lips. The attempt to move brought an answering stab in his shoulder. The pain shocked his eyes open — he winced at the sudden brightness of the cool, trembling blue light.
She was looking down into his face, her eyes wide with emotion. As he watched, her pupils expanded and changed shape, forming the crimped ovals of deep pleasure. “Caido,” she mouthed — but her husky voice was muffled, so soft he could barely hear.
“Sara.” His own voice was a painful rasp. For a moment he could not tear his eyes away from her face: the huge shimmering leaf–green jewels of her eyes, the golden mask of tiny scales stretched taut over her cheeks and chin. A crest of glossy obsidian framed her face like a crown of braids. The Iron Lotus.
He closed his eyes again, trying to orient himself — but when he reached for recent memory, it was somehow elusive. Bright flashes of fire and blood slipped between his fingers, to scatter like fish vanishing into dark water. He opened his eyes again, speaking in Tarka, forcing his gaze away from her to try and take in the rest of his surroundings. “Where am I?”
The room was bare, well–lit — a smell of antiseptic and ozone hung in the air. Somewhere behind and above him, there were machines. A tangle of tubes running various fluids were attached to his body. Hospital, he thought. Something has happened to me.
“Aboard my personal ship,” she replied, in English. “You were recovered from the tube of an empty node missile in orbit around Ke'Vanthu.” Her eyes flashed with tender amusement. “Needless to say, when I saw the report, I told the Supreme I would handle the matter personally.” She switched to Latin. “Scivi te futurum esse. Non alius in mundo tam insanus est qui in tali loco inveniretur.*” Her scarlet tongue flickered laughter. “I have missed you, Caido.”
She was talking nonsense. “In the tube of a what—?” He frowned, struggling. His mind was slow, leaden. He could not remember. “That's...not possible.”
Her pupils narrowed. She looked to the side. “Something is wrong. He does not understand me.”
“He will.” The voice was soft and pitched high, a light, feminine electronic trill. “He is not yet healed.”
But there was also a voice in his mind, speaking other words — a sound both soft and yet somehow huge, like the whisper of a giant. I have not yet given back all of his pain.
Cai Rui snapped to the side, hurling himself violently from the bed. It was a brute instinct, an act of pure adrenaline. A dozen patches and tubes wrenched from his body in that instant, falling in a tangle as he dove from the mattress — away from the voice.
Stop. His body stopped just inches above the floor, caught in some kind of invisible field. The force lifted him, turning his body gently, holding his limbs immobile as if the air had somehow thickened like amber. Do not be afraid, the whisper said. You will not be harmed.
His heart was pounding. Every word that echoed in his mind seemed to magnify the fear. “Let me go!”
Sara had pounced up onto the bed — she scrambled nimbly aside now as he was returned to it. “Cai, please—!”
The musical voice sounded again from the corner of the room. “Do not be distressed,” it said in Tarka. “He is...confused. He has been...harmed...in many ways.”
Leaking from a dozen re–opened wounds, Cai Rui snarled defiance. “Show yourself, monster.”
Steel slithered over the bulkhead. A bulky shape moved into view from the right, walking on a forest of metal tentacles. The faceplate of the helm was a curving dogsnout of clear glass, framed and braced by shining red and gold enamel. The large streamlined body was encased in silvery plates, its fins and flukes set off by scarlet fletching.
Behind the mask, the cetacean's head was serene, cool blue, its large liquid eyes black and unblinking.
“You are Liir.”
It dipped its body, as if to bow. The speaker in its chest trilled softly in Tarka. “Remorse. This one did not mean to cause alarm.”
Cai Rui relaxed somewhat, and instantly the grip on his trembling body relaxed. “I expected... something else.” He frowned once again at the darkness in his mind. “I don't know what.”
“Ishii is not the enemy. He is a healer.” Sara stepped back, clearing the path. “Let him help you, Cai–do. **Amabo te.”
Despite himself, he smiled slightly at the caressing tone of her voice. She manipulates as others breathe — so natural. Still lying amid the stained and rumpled sheets, he glanced at the Liir and nodded. “Yes. On one condition.”
The Liir hesitated. “Condition?”
“My pain. You will give it back.” He met the liquid eyes. “All of it.”
Once again the Liir bowed. Cai Rui took a deep breath, suppressing a shiver of apprehension, and closed his eyes.
It was not a gentle transition. The numb darkness of his mind flooded with a torrent of memory — so suddenly that his body rebelled. He heaved upward, a strangled sound torn from his throat, wrenching his shoulder with a bolt of agony, and turned to empty his stomach over the side of the bed. His abdomen spasmed painfully, several times. Nothing came up but clear, bitter bile.
Dead. All dead.
When he was finished he was pale and covered with a sheen of cold sweat. The physical pain came on more slowly, as the burned skin and trickling holes in his flesh came alive in symphonic succession. Soon his whole body was trembling — but he was once again in full possession.
Sara sensed immediately when the first storm of reaction had passed. With a flick of her finger she motioned in two Tarka orderlies to attend him, swiftly and silently changing the soiled sheets of his bed and replacing them with new lengths of clean fabric.
When the linens had been changed, the two young males put on new gloves and each picked up a tray of shining instruments. The apparatus came alive around him, rising like a nest of living vines — he watched as the glittering needles, scissors and clamps rose from the trays on their own, darting like bright steel insects around the bed to snip and refit his various shunts and intravenous tubes.
Perfectly sterile. He watched as the cetacean's invisible hands changed his dressings and re–closed his wounds, bracing himself against successive waves of nausea as needles pierced his far–too–lively flesh.
He glanced at the Liir. Behind the muzzle of glass its eyes were deep, unblinking, infinitely calm.
Remorse. The word bloomed in his mind like a bouquet — in a split–second he felt all the emotions accompanying the thought — the desire to take back a poor decision — sheepish recognition of his own foolishness, his own blindness — sorrow for another's pain and loss. For a moment it was impossible to untangle his own feelings from that of the other. This one did not know that you could hear.
“I can't,” he said aloud.
“Can't?” Sara cocked her head quizzically. “Can't what, Caido?”
The other remains deaf, the whisper said. She cannot hear us unless we— “—use fleetsong,” the Liir trilled aloud.
Cai Rui frowned and turned to Sara. “The rippers. I found them on Avalon. They are like this one.” He tilted his head toward the Liir. “They talk by thinking.”
“They are nothing like this one.” The mechanical voice had deepened, icy with anger. “Nothing.” It turned toward Sara. “With permission, Ishii the Drowned will depart.”
She reached toward it, touching a fluke with her speckled golden hand. “Please do not be offended, my friend. He does not know your people as I do.”
“He will learn.”
Cai Rui watched the Liir leave with narrowed eyes, listening as the rasp and squeal of its tentacles moving over the bulkhead retreated. Sara gave a silent flick of her tail to the two attendants and they followed after, sealing the room behind them. She crossed her arms over her chest and thrust out the supple curve of one hip — a practiced human gesture. He remembered the days she had spent watching the women of his species, mimicking every movement and expression like a dancer learning new steps. “Well?”
He sighed, lifting one arm feebly. “God help me. Come closer.”
Her eyes smiled and her tongue flickered. “You are in no shape for kokari, amador. Even if it were not a sin.” Nevertheless she moved forward, coming to the edge of the bed.
He smiled sadly, reaching for her hand. “I can look at you, at least.” He shook his head. “And if I must go to hell, I fear it will hold few surprises. I have lost five saal's worth of soldiers, including a woman who loved me. I have seen my brothers crucified.” He closed his eyes, passing the ball of his thumb over the warm rough silk of her palm. “It has not been a good month.”
She knelt on a chair beside him, and tenderly the tip of her tail stroked the arch of his foot. “We must talk, if you are able. You were close to death when they found you. The colonial authorities nearly killed you with kindness — gave you too much oxygen as you were coming out of suspension. If I had not summoned Ishii, you surely would have died.” She touched his face again. “You must tell me what happened — I will avenge you. A hundred ships now answer to my command.”
“Ah.” He hesitated, and then squeezed her hand. “I am sorry. Demoted to Lac Tar?”
She turned her head away, dropping her eyelids, lifting one slim shoulder in an eloquent shrug. “I am content,” she said softly. “Politics is a dull game. It is more exciting to lead warriors.”
He snorted. “Lie to everyone but me, Saradora.”
She turned back to him, and her eyes smiled merrily. “My sisters have been suspicious for years. This was simply their opportunity to remove me from the council. They would not allow me to leave His side to come to Ke'Vanthu, unless I was willing to return to the ranks.” Her tailtip caressed him with its soft pad. “I made the choice that seemed best to me.”
He nodded. “You received my message before I left for Avalon, I hope.”
“It was delivered.”
“It was a trap.” His fingers tightened once more. “The rippers laid an ambush for me. There was an operative there who knew my name — or tore it from our minds. They are telepathic. And they have other tricks...”
“I know.” She lowered her eyelids gently and breathed a sigh. “Ishii and I have learned much already. You have been unconscious for longer than you know, beloved.” Her eyes turned serious, pupils slitted. “We were able to guess at the home coordinates of your missile. My fleet has already been to Avalon. The Rippers fled into a hole in space, as your own ships do — we lost them there. But my soldiers found what they had left behind.”
“And what was that?” His grip on her fingers grew tighter.
She hesitated. “I...”
“Tell me, Sara.”
“Perhaps it is better to show.” She freed herself from his grip and activated her wrist cuff, tickling a combination of its colorful jewels with her fingernail. “Screen,” she said, speaking Kona Kai. “View holding cell 10. No sound.”
The far wall of the room hummed as thousands of tiny photocells were activated. Its featureless blue surface dissolved, as if the wall had vanished between his own room and another. Only the occasional sparkle of a lost bit of information revealed that it was an illusion.
The little room was dark, the far wall broken by a single window, a sunbeam slanting down through its bars. A messy cot had been shoved into the corner. A shining pool of water had spilled across the stone floor from a spilled Tarkasian drinking bowl. The room's only decoration was a crucifix, the plaster image of the Savior looking down sorrowfully upon the man who knelt weeping before Him.
He recognized the cell immediately — he had occupied one very much like it as a novice. Even the stains on the wall were familiar — he could swear there was one in the corner he had made himself.
The man wore a black robe and a belt of rough rope, his feet bare. Sitting with his back to the screen, his head deeply bowed, his whole body shaking with tears, nonetheless there was something in the shape of his bald pate and bare ears that was unmistakable. His left hand was folded, the arm held tight against his ribs — the other fist jerked repeatedly, slapping first one bony collarbone and then the other. With every motion his body jumped in response — as if he had been struck.
Despite himself, his eyes filled with tears. “Deus misereatur.” He turned to her. “Where did you find him?”
“In a foul lair underground, among the gnawed bones of many,” she said grimly. “They were keeping him. Or rather...one of them was keeping him.”
His jaw clenched. “Yes. I believe...I know which one that would be.”
She folded her hands together, her eyes full of sadness. “They have broken him, beloved. Ishii has done what she can, but you see him now at his best. She made the room for him to match a place in his memory — a place which gave him comfort.”
His throat tightened with a lump that could not be swallowed. “I know it. It is the House of Studies in Rangoon. He was the abbot there when I entered the Order.”
She pointed to the screen, and then repeated the old man's gesture herself, touching her fist to each collarbone. “She has given him an illusion to hold in his hand — a whip with many tongues. He believes that he is...” She winced, shivering. “Striking himself with the lash. Over and over.” Her tail twitched with agitation. “If it were real, he would have whipped himself to death.”
He closed his eyes. “It is a scourge, Sara. To whip himself is an act of penitence.” He looked at the screen again, forcing himself to face the image. “Some great sin has been committed. He means to make amends to God.”
She lowered her head and her eyelids again. “There are some things I will never understand, Cai–do. Much as I try.” She gestured toward the screen. “Ishii has worked very hard. He could not speak at all when we found him. I still cannot understand what he is saying — he speaks only Latin, it is not my best language...”
“I must speak to him.”
She flinched. “He is...quite mad, Cai–do.”
“Nevertheless.” He pointed toward the screen. “Can we exchange words from here?”
Reluctantly she blinked assent. “Are you sure you wish it? He is not the man you knew.”
His voice hardened. “He most certainly is. And I must speak to him.”
She took a deep breath and reached for the cuff again. “As you say.”
The sound of the old man's weeping filled the room, echoing as if through a chamber of stone. “Mea culpa,” he sobbed. “Mea maxima culpa...”
Cai Rui swallowed hard. “Your Eminence?”
The old man gasped and froze, turning toward the screen with a wide–eyed, hunted look. Cai Rui flinched at the sight of his face, gaunt and hollow–eyed, scarred and beaten. He had lost a great deal of weight in a very short time – they had fed him little, if anything at all.
It was nearly impossible to connect this man to the one he had seen just a few weeks before, recording a message for others to find in the presbytery on Ko'Grappa. He would not have guessed even that the two were brothers.
“Who's there?” His voice was a hushed whisper. “Who speaks?”
“It's me, your Eminence. Cai Rui, your old pupil.”
The old man frowned. “Cai Rui? Where are you, boy?” His eyes darted about nervously, searching the room.
“In the next room, Eminence. I heard you praying.”
“Why do you keep calling me that? I am no 'Eminence'.” He made a peevish face.
“He remembers little,” Sara murmured in Tarkasian. “They have taken most of his memory...”
Cai Rui held up his hand, warning her to silence. “You have forgotten, Eminence. You were made the metropolitan of a new diocese four years ago.”
The old man seemed confused. He licked his lips nervously. “I do not remember.”
“You have brought the Faith to a new race of beings,” Cai Rui coaxed gently. “Made many converts. Won many to the light of God, Eminence.”
He blinked. “I...did?”
“Yes. On Ko'Grappa.”
Tears began to flow down the old man's cheeks. “Ko'Grappa...”
“Do you remember, Eminence.”
The bishop put his face in his hands. “May God forgive me...”
“He can,” Cai Rui said warmly. “He does. His love and His mercy are infinite, Eminence. This you taught me yourself, years ago. And you have only to confess, and all can be forgiven...”
The bony shoulders heaved, the old man's shoulders wracked with sobs. “He was strong,” he whispered hoarsely. “So strong. He moved me like a puppet.” He looked up to the ceiling, his face raw with agony. “I could not save them, Lord. Benedict and Antony died trying to defend us. And Thomas...” His face crumbled. “My poor Thomas...”
Cai Rui winced. “I know,” he tried to say. He remembered the deacon hanging from the rood. “I saw...”
The old man looked down into the palms of his open hands, his gnarled fingers curled into claws. “With my own hands, I drove the nails.” He took his robe in his hands and clutched at himself, his head bent, convulsed by emotion.
Cai Rui recoiled. “Dear God.”
The old man threw his head back suddenly, his whole body locked into a wordless howl. Cai Rui grimaced — Sara curled into a ball, all three of her eyelids clapped shut, both hands clasped over her ears.
It went on and on, impossibly, as if all the pain and rage and loss and guilt and shame in the universe cried out at once. When the old man fell to the floor, writhing and pounding his withered fists against the stone, Cai Rui turned to the Tarka woman at last.
“Enough,” he said. “Help him. Make it stop.”
“Ishii,” she said, speaking to the screen. “Enough.”
The old man suddenly went still. The image of the monastic cell dissolved, revealing a simple berth somewhere in the ship. The Liir stood in the corner, its serene blue face bent in silent contemplation. “He will rest now,” it trilled.
Lightly the old man rose, as if gathered into the arms of an invisible angel, and floated toward the bed. The pair of Tarkas hurried forward to tend him, nestling him into a cocoon of restraints.
Cai Rui squeezed his eyes shut, fighting tears. Sara touched his arm lightly. “He will die soon, despite everything.” Her eyes were saturated with sorrow. “Ishii cannot repair the damage that has been done, and the fits...they come often, and do more harm each time.”
Cai Rui trembled. “Has he said more? About his imprisonment?”
“Yes, Caido. Ishii has learned much.” Her fists clenched. “These rippers tear more than flesh and steel and space. They also tear the minds of those they take captive.”
Her tail flicked, the rapid staccato of rage. “What they tear free, they make their own.” She turned toward the screen, indicating the old man now dying in his silken bonds, wrapped like a fly in a spider's web. “The one that took Father Tourneau — all that he was, all that he knew — has learned to call himself 'The Deacon'.”
Her eyes whirled. “And this 'Deacon' wants you, Cai Rui.”
“He wants you very much.”
* Trans. “I knew it would be you. There is not another man in the universe insane enough to be found in such a place.”
** Trans. Idiomatic. “Please.” Literally, “I will love you.”