The wooden doors slammed back against the stone walls as Vedek stormed into the Ersan ambassador’s house. A phalanx of monks marched in behind him; with the arrival of the new reinforcements from Temalta, they had finally been able to storm the grounds of the house, and enter it.
“Maedik! You cannot keep us at bay any longer!” The challenge echoed from the walls, and was met with silence.
“Spread out, see if you can find them. Do not harm them, I want to discuss a certain matter with the ambassador and his daughter.” Vedek spat out the commands, and motioned to a group of monks to come with him. He ascended the stone staircase, and began to explore the rooms with his sword drawn. As he drew back the curtains that lead to a lushly decorated sitting room, he saw them. Maedik and Kaedti sat calmly in their chairs, watching him as he entered.
“Maedik, your days of hiding are over. You will be called to answer for your actions.”
“And what actions might those be?” rumbled the larger man, red hair and beard bristling. “Hosting a party? Inviting people into my own gardens?”
Vedek scoffed, “Sedition, treason, blasphemy, and any others that I can persuade the tribunal you are guilty of.”
“Ypou cannot have me executed, you know. The word would get out sooner or later, and then you would have a real war on yyour hands.” Kaedti squirmed uncomfortably at her father’s words, but he did not seem fazed by them.
“No, and I do not intend to have you killed. We shall expel you from this lands, of course, and forbid you or any of your people to return, but there is no profit for us in killing you.” He paused, turning slightly on his heel as he cast an eye towards Kaedti. Maedik rose swiftly, but stopped as he found one of the monks’ swords held against his throat. Vdek continued.
“You see, you have nothing that we need, and we would prefer to see you sail away as soon as possible. However, your daughter was a friend to the woman we are looking for. The people are much in support of her, and until we find her, the resistance on Mei and some of the other islands will be strong. No-one seems to know where she had gone, but it is always possible that your daughter might.”
Kaedti stiffened in her chair as the cold steel of a Temaltan blade whispered across her throat. She swallowed hard, feeling the razor edge of the blade dig ever so slightly into her skin as she did so. She met her father’s eyes calmly, and he slowly lowered himself back into his seat.
“That’s better. Now, young Kaedti, do you know where your friend went?”
The young woman’s voice was full of disgust as she answered. “No. And if I did, I would never tell you. I would rather die before I would give even a rat to you.”
“And if I were asking you for a rat, that might be a problem for you. However, I want something more. And I was not asking.” He nodded to the monk who stood behind Kaedti; he grabbed her hair, and pulled it back roughly, and once again held the sword to her neck.
“Now tell me where she might have gone. There are thousands of islands, but surely she must have had some kind of plan, or even just a preference.”
Kaedti could feel the sharp pressure of the blade on the thin skin at her throat, but she pressed her lips together and refused to utter a sound. After a few moments, Vedek waved a hand, and the sword was resheathed, and the monk released Kaedti’s hair.
“Have it your way, then. Your father will be on the next boat to Ersa, but you will remain here until we find Tsuda, with or without your help.” Maedik roared, and lunged for Vedek, but the younger man dodged his first blow, and before he could reach out again, he found his arms gripped securely behind him. “I will not leave without my daughter!”
“Actually, I think you will. Feruk, Loisti, please escort the good ambassasdor to his ship. We will send his belongings after him; it may take us a few months to pack them up, though.” Still struggling the ambassador was forced through the doorway, and down the stairs. Vedek could still hear his yells until he was out of the house.
He turned back to the young woman to find her staring at him out of wide blue eyes, cold with disgust. “Do not worry, young Kaedti, about your precious body; I am not going to force myself on you, nor will any of my men. We do not mate for pleasure, nor would we do so for procreation with of one your race. You need not fear that. But I can send your spirit flying away with a single stroke of my sword, and I would fear that much more if I were you.”
Kaedti clutched the arms of her chair until her knuckles turned white, but she remained silent.
As the sun rose, the small boat rose and sank on the swells. Judak stowed away the oars carefully. “It’ll soon be too hot to row, and we don’t have any water. I don’t think we should stop at any of these islands, they’re too close to the Free Astaldi. Let’s just float through the day, and wait for nightfall. When it’s dark, we’ll beach on the nearest island.” With that, he unrolled the hammock and carefully spread it over them. The shade was cool at the moment, but Tsuda knew that it would soon get stuffy under the heavy cover; at least they wouldn’t burn, she thought, remembering Mede’s pale skin.
Mede lay quietly in Judak’s arms, but stretched one hand across the boat to lay gently on Tsuda’s ankle. The couple soon drifted off to sleep, but Tsuda remained awake, her thoughts too restless for sleep. The light filtered in greenly through the woven fronds of the hammock, and occasionally, a small breeze would find its way into the boat.
Her thoughts drifted back and forth, between past and present. She gradually sank down into the now familiar trance, falling backwards into memory.
A man with skin like bronze
The tickle of a beard against her belly
A small child giggling
The comfort of a hand to hold
The beauty of the moon rise on a quiet garden
Warm brown eyes set in a pale face
She awoke gradually, not wanting to leave the comforting images behind. She had usually sought out the stronger memories, the ones that tended towards tragedy, as the signposts of her life’s journey. These images were mostly new; they had made a small appearance in her other visions, but only as counterpoints to the tragedy. Now they had swum unbidden to the forefront of her mind’s eye, and she dwelt on them as she rose towards consciousness.
Tsuda held the memories in her heart, feeling them almost like a small but intense flame. She imagined her heart as a metal lamp, empty and cold, and the memories like a candle lit inside the lantern. Her chest ached, and she gasped for breath as the memories swept over her conscious mind. Kaedti’s wide and trusting eyes, Mede’s unasked loyalty, her own parents quiet acceptance and love.
With a quick motion, she threw off the hammock from where she lay huddled, and drank in the fresh sea air. The waters were clear and blue, and the sunlight reflecting from them was blinding. The breeze brushed lightly over the sweat on her forehead, and tossed wisps of hair over her eyes. Her dark skin warmed as the sun poured over it, and for the first time in months, she did not feel empty inside.
“I am not yet who I must become, but perhaps it is enough to be on the path,” she whispered, letting the words drift away on the wind.
The boat bobbed on the waves, drifting swiftly in the current as the islands passed on either side.
As evening fell, Tsuda began to roll the hammock up; Mede sat up to help, and between the two of them, they got it safely stowed away before Judakl woke. Mede looked down at her fiancée and smiled. “I think he’s exhausted. He didn’t really get any sleep last night, and goodness knows he didn’t get much rest on that trader ship. I think I’ll just let him sleep a while.”
Tsuda smiled, seeing the love in her friend’s eyes, and grabbed a paddle.
“I’m going to head for the next island we see. We need water and food, and I don’t want to go another day without them. We’re still in the central islands, I think, so I doubt we’ll run into any of the monks.”
The boat scraped bottom a few hours later, and Tsuda leapt out to pull it up on the beach. By that time Judak was awake, and he and Mede helped to beach the boat. The island was a small one, with no obvious signs of a stream. As they trekked further inland, the trees seemed to be all palms with little edible vegetation,, and Tsuda began to be worried until they nearly fell into a small lake of cold clear water. At the far side of the lake Judak noticed some frujit-bearing trees and went to stock up. After about an hour, he returned, fruit stowed in a rough bag he had quickly woven from two large palm fronds.
“The other beach is just past the edge of the lake; the island is quite small, and as nearly as I can tell, uninhabited. It’s possible that some Astaldi live here, but I didn’t see any signs of it. It might be a good idea to stay here for several days.”
Mede agreed readily, and set about finding stones to build a firepit, but Tsuda stood deep in thought. After a few moments, she walked over to where Mede knelt, clearing a space for the ring of stones.
“Mede, I think that I want to stay here.”
“Yes, Judak thought it would be a good idea to camp here for a few days.”
Tsuda ripped up a dry weed, and tossed it aside. “No, I mean after that. I want to stay here. I cannot go back to Mei, and I have nowhere else to go.” She paused, then continued without looking at her friend. “I want to get rid of this emptiness inside me; I want to remember love. I know I have been loved, in every lifetime, but I have spent too much time focusing on the hatred and anger, the violence, the bloodshed…” she shook her head, and began placing stones in a ring. “I want…” She paused, looking down at the rock in her hand. “I don’t know how to explain it. But I am going to stay here.”
Mede sat back on her heels, looking at Tsuda. The coldness that had occupied her friend’s features for the past months seemed to be melting; her face showed a hint of the animation she had had before leaving Mei.
“I will stay here with you. I’m sure Judak will, as well. We can live here as well as anywhere. Unless you wanted to live alone…” her voice trailed off as she placed the final stone in the circle, and began to pile the dry weeds in the center of the cleared circle.
A small smile crossed Tsuda’s face. “It would be a little pointless to try to learn about love on an island all alone, don’t you think?” In a few minutes, a small fire was crackling in the pit, and Judak brought back two birds he had shot down. He and Mede sat by the fire to pluck and clean the fowls.
“Judak, what would you think about making a home on this island?”
He shook his fingers slightly, which were sore from plucking the birds, and replied, “I think it would be a fine idea. I would be happier here than in Mei whil,e the priests occupy her. There is no other place that has my loyalties, and I will be happy wherever you are.” He plucked the last feather with a flourish, and stood. “Besides, I know that you would not be truly happy unless you were with Tsuda wherever she goes, and I take it that she is staying here.”
Mede blushed slightly, and nodded. “Yes. She wants to stay here. And I think it will be good for her, but I cannot leave her.” She sighed, and set her plucked bird down on a large clean leaf beside Judak’s and stood. “I have been by her side for several lifetimes now, and I do not think I can leave her now. I love her.”
Her fiancée pulled her into a close embrace, and gently stroked her ginger hair. “I know. And I would do nothing to damage that love, or separate the two of you. We will make our home here.”