Emergence – Book 2 of the Eye of the Ocean Series (excerpt)
Rit woke being held, a slow waking as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Even with the feel of smooth skin under his hands, a deep lassitude stilled his mind past wondering how the warm flesh nestled against him would taste.
Escort duty, he was on escort duty. On his way back to Endica. Had he arrived? Eunni?
But it wasn’t Eunni beside him.
A bag of tea for her birthday, the tea in his saddlebag. The Spine of the Serpent… something, he remembered something.
His mind resisted the memories, but they came regardless, the scents, the sounds. Pine and dust. Wood smoke. Horses screaming. But each of those could be from memories covering years and patched together as dreams tended to be. Dog Mountain and the old post road. The Xintan. Vinn. More screams, human screams.
Recent. Real. The sick feeling in his gut said real. The cramping twist sent bile to his throat and dragged him awake. One man, one death.
He was awake now, awake enough to know he hadn’t seen Vinn’s body, hadn’t seen the skin peeled back, but could patch that image together the same as he had the wood smoke and the dust and the tea. Then, with the screams still in his ears: Ulanda. And the rest came to him.
Blood in lines on her face marked her as dead in the way the Xintan Bluestone priestesses mark their dead. The lines in the sky. Panntin cal’Oster. The alien book on its way to the Strom Charter House in Wilni Capital. Sunrise and the world flattening to a single note. Then a stone room and blue fire moving at him. And a woman dressed in black. Or had it been white then? Ulanda again. And then… his mind narrowed to a point as he recoiled from the image.
Being awake meant finally having a body. He was on a soft mattress on the floor, a woman whose name he didn’t have the presence of mind to remember was lying beside him, asleep. Around them, the room floated in light, the walls and the ceiling a mosaic of shimmering gold.
Definitely awake. He knew this wasn’t a dream in the same way you can awaken inside of a dream and know that too. “Entalac,” he whispered as her name came to him, then was sorry he had spoken. Her head was tucked under his chin in a bristle of fragrant hair, his arms around her and his hands held by hers. His memory didn’t reach as far as getting wherever it they were, or his getting into bed with her.
“Are you awake?” she asked, turning in his arms to face him.
He pushed up on one elbow. “You speak Heg.”
“I do now.” She laughed and took hold of his hand as he tried to pull the covers up. “You can touch if you’re curious. I’m not human, not your kind of human.”
“Close enough,” he said, not sure where to look. Then sat and wrapped the sheet over his lap.
Still watching him, she stood, then stretched slowly. A robe was draped over a low table by the wall and she put it on, hiding the differences he wasn’t sure he was seeing in the shifting light. Green-gold cloth, heavy but lustrous. A darker green band on her right wrist, a finger width of cloth with long ends. It was all she had been wearing. He wondered what she would have done if he had touched.
“Where is this?” he asked.
“The ships came. This is a room inside of one of them.”
“Two ships. This one and the Zimmer ship. So we have the languages, the customs, food, and a very nice bath with lots of hot water.” She stretched again, like a cat. “Not necessarily in order of importance.”
“How long? Why?”
“Why the two of us?” He nodded. “What do you remember?” She sat on the edge of the mattress beside him and smoothed her robe over her knees.
What did he remember besides the nightmare he had woken from? A string of events starting at the Spine of the Serpent and ending at the Mound of the Lady, all of which he thought Entalac could account for better than he could. A dream of his great uncle. Then of Ulanda.
He thought the dream might only have been a continuation of what had started then. And in the way he knew he was awake now, knew that only the touch of this woman sitting next to him had kept him from dying.
“I remember I thought there would be ships or a ship.” He stared down at his hands as though the dark lines in the skin from cracks and cuts healed over dirt could give him support, and the calluses, scabby yellow and peeling, could give him answers. He knew he had needed starships and machines, had taken them from stories long dead, from a future his people had lost, but still understandable. Possible. He had wanted to find them waiting as though they were the answers needed to keep him sane.
“You were right, there should have been a ship.”
He shook his head wildly. “Not a woman dancing barefoot on a pile of sand.”
A narrow hand, rings on each finger, touched his. “What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know.” He hadn’t then either, had kept trying not to think, not to expect, just to hold each thing as it happened. He looked up. “I almost died.”
“Yes, you did.”
“What did she do? Ulanda?”
“Priest Ulanda. We dropped titles and rank there, but until things are better settled, and you know the customs, just go with that.”
“As best it translates into your language. A priest is a conduit to the Unity.”
He hesitated and asked the more immediate question. “And you, what’s your title?”
“Entalac will do.”
“Would a title tell me something I need to know?”
She sighed. “Of High Priest Sarkalt’s household. Temple medic of the Master rank, which, with my already having some contact with you, is one reason I’m with you now. My rank is also why I was with the others at the dance.” She touched the braid on one wrist. “My service is to the High Priest, and for this, his interests coincide with Priest Ulanda’s.”
“Are those basic forms?” he asked, letting the meanings of the words float for now.
She laughed. “Quintat says I deserved that. My husband and Chief of Staff and sure someone else could have handled this. Have you had much experience with jealous husbands?”
Only once, and he’d been much younger and not as smart as he had thought he was. “I’ll have to play it by ear,” he said, trying to find a way to escape being so close without it becoming a rout. “Will that be part of my handling?”
“Not jealous,” a deep voice said from behind them. “Try exasperated.”
“He also has terrible timing. We were just getting to the interesting part of our conversation.”
“So I noticed,” Quintat said.
The other man was a head taller than he was and far larger, with skin the color of oiled cedar. The shape of his face was a rocky outcropping on a mountain. Rit half expected the floor to break under his weight, but he moved easily and knelt next to the bed, putting a large round tray down between them.
On the tray was a plate of toasted bread, darkly browned and smelling of wheat. No butter, but an herb-flecked oil in a small pool on the plate, the cut edges of the bread soaking in it.
A plain red clay teapot, unglazed, but buffed to a soft shine. Well used, with minute scratches on the rounded belly, differences in color where oils from the skin had darkened the handle. A patina like silver got over years of use. A pot not any different from what he could have bought in the market at Endica, stouter perhaps, and the handle shaped like a hand gripping the sides, only the fingers had twin knuckles.
Too late to escape that detail. His own hands made fists, and he closed his eyes, but it didn’t help, he was shivering the length of his body.
The other two waited, sipping tea and eating toast.
When he opened his eyes, Quintat handed him a bowl of tea, his other hand holding his sleeve back from brushing the tray. A light green silk robe, like Entalac’s, and the same wristband in darker green. “You’re doing fine,” he said.
Quintat nodded. “Your animals, horses. We’ve seen what appears to be wild ones as well. Do you breed your stock, or do you catch the others?”
“Both.” The tea was strong and bitter, the surface of his tongue numb at the first sip. “Is that what you’re doing? Taming me? Gentling me? Or was it handling me?”
Trembling again, he had to concentrate to keep from spilling the tea, but a good portion of it was a sudden and almost overwhelming anger, mostly against himself and how he hadn’t given his men the loyalty owed them. How he had let Cillamet be treated. Or when Gennady told them Vinn had been taken prisoner, how he’d just stood there, waiting for whatever the others were about to do. Not the deaths, he told himself—they all took that risk—but the lives.
“Have a piece of toast,” Entalac said calmly, nibbling on hers.
He slammed the tea bowl across the room. It shattered and dropped before reaching the wall.
“You came to us gentled,” Quintat said evenly, looking at the pieces of earthenware on the blond wood of the floor. A mottled red glaze on white but over clay the same color as the teapot. “We would be interested in knowing by who and why.”
“Where are my men? Panntin and Cillamet?”
“Both are safe. Why did you untie Clan Lord Gennady?”
“What?” Rit stopped halfway up, holding the sheet in front, then sat back down before he fell. His head buzzed. Someone came with another bowl, a shape there and gone, but he was scarcely aware of it.
Quintat poured and offered more tea, then put the bowl on the floor when Rit didn’t move to take it. “You were faced with an apparent alien to your world. We’re sure you understood he wasn’t human. At the very least you knew him to be dangerous, your instinct should have been sufficient, and added to that was the actions of the man’s companion. Yet you untied him.”
Rit pushed the sweat from his face with one hand, noting absently that they had shaved him. “I don’t know why.”
Part of it was that the men would have poked at him. Not all, not right off, but one would have started it. Vinn, he could have said. Gennady didn’t fit any of Vinn’s categories, his need for order that drove the rest of them half-crazy with impatience.
He knew how Vinn would have died, a long slow death screaming. He remembered through years of skirmishes between the Olum Hegemony and the Xinta, finding others killed that way, and how orderly the Xintan were in their skinning.
“Untying Gennady seemed reasonable at the time,” he said. He took the bowl just to have something to touch. With Gennady loose, the men had to watch out, react to the alien as something real because they could have ended up dead if he took anything wrong. And when they saw he acted human… he almost laughed out loud at the thought, but suspected hysteria was waiting if he did.
“Well, not entirely reasonable, but then nothing that happened…” He took a long, slow breath. “How long was I unconscious? Since yesterday? Was it yesterday?”
Quintat picked the bowl from his hand as the first drops spilled over the lip. “You worry about loyalty, besides to your men, to your superiors, most likely. But the letter you sent along with the book wasn’t going to them, was it?”
“Clan Lord Gennady is experienced in dealing with alien cultures, not in adapting to them as many human lines do, the Zimmer don’t consider that desirable, I’m not sure it’s even possible…”
Entalac threw the last quarter of a piece of toast at her husband. “I think my questions would have gotten us further.”
The large man picked up the piece of bread, tiny in his fingers, and sighed, a deep rumble of sound. “I’m sorry, Captain Wilnmeit. When I said you’re doing fine, I should add that each decision you’ve made since that first one has shown a remarkable sensitivity to the flow of what is happening here.”
“Panntin could see the lines in the sky right off.” He took the bowl again, and looking at the dark surface of his tea, saw shimmers of gold where his reflection didn’t block what came back from the walls and ceiling. No lines. “You knew immediately what was wrong with the boy and had a drug to help.” Entalac looked at her husband, but neither spoke.
“The lines didn’t start with you.” He forced himself to look at the two people watching him. “When Ulanda… danced, the lines were there again, the same ones, same as those drawn on her face, same as those cut into the Xintan dead, and their priestess’ tattoos.” And in a related form, the seal of his father’s House. A flower with six petals. Xintan tapestries, the white flowers with centers made of three near parallel lines, the ancient form for vulva. “They’re older than a couple of days.”
Three people watching him now. “Much older,” the other man said from the doorway. Rit scrambled back across the room before realizing he was moving. His tea splashed on the floor and then the bowl fell.
“Are you mad, allowing him in here?” Entalac said sharply. But she was speaking to her husband’s back, the man already up.
A mountain blocking the sun, Rit thought, desperately trying to blink back the spots hazing his vision. His mind didn’t want to work, to make the connections. A river of sounds splashed in the air, and the man was gone.
Entalac knelt close beside him. “Take deep breaths, head between your knees.” One hand rested on the back of his head. “You asked why the two of us, like this.” She moved one of his hands to her thigh, her hand over, all the silver rings warm and cold. “From what you’re feeling, coming back means coming back to flesh and warmth, and when you don’t have enough of your own…” Her hand guided his higher, pushing the silk of her robe up. “… or can’t find it, then someone else can help.”
His disorientation crashed into the pit of his stomach and his vision blurred. As he straightened, he thought he might pass out, then as quickly as it had happened, the terror was gone.
He was a vacuum waiting to be filled by what the moment offered. Anger, fear, desire. “I think I’ve found myself.” His sheet was half the room away.
She giggled. “Yes, so you have.”
Quintat was back, clothing draped over his arm, soft leather boots held in his hand. “You might prefer these to what we’re wearing.”
The clothes sorted into black pants and belted tunic in pale gray, split at the sides to the waist. Pants first, and before he said a word more.
“Who was that?” he asked as he pulled one boot on.
“High Priest Sarkalt.” Entalac arranged her robe as she sat back on her heels. “You’ve been over-sensitized to pattern, but even if you hadn’t, he takes some getting used to.”
He hadn’t really seen the man, even the memory was blind in the center, as though he had looked at too bright a light. “What the hell is pattern? And will I have to get used to him?”
Quintat sat next to his wife. “You’re part of an arrangement, one that means you having to get used to priests is a certainty.” He sighed. “I want to tell you a story. About some goats.”