The Soldier’s Wife 2: Death Is Not the End
The Twenty-Fifth Day of Spring, the Three Thousand and Forty-Ninth Year of the Kingdom
The Diamond Ward glittered on the horizon.
Lamahavi drew in a deep breath at the first sparkle she noticed. Her deep-lavender eyes widened. It was like witnessing the rise of a star. A day star. Something that should be impossible to see with the sun near its zenith. Awe filled her soul as she sat on the driver’s bench beside her husband. Her hand shot out, grasping his wrist.
“I know,” he croaked. “Twinkle fire bright, glittering before azure, burns salvation.”
His impromptu poem swept through her, reminding her just what the twinkling warded. The world’s destruction. The Black Rift. The wound in the fabric of Reality from which the demons bled. The demons that had attacked them two days before. A small scouting party which had almost killed Lamahavi and her new husband, Yelaikav.
She had found courage enough to fight. To weather the danger and survive. The love for her husband would give her the strength to be a soldier’s wife and endure life at the most dangerous fortifications in the world. The Bulwark around the Diamond Ward. The first line of defense to hold back the hordes of ant-like aliens wishing to spill out of their Dark Reality into her own. The greatest warriors armed with the rare Songblades served there.
Yelaikav had earned the privilege of joining the august ranks of the Songblade Knights.
The two water buffalos pulling their wagon were new, drawn from the spares trundling behind the last wagon in their small convoy. One had been lamed by her own crossbow bolt and the other slain by a demon. The monster had broken much of the furniture intended for their new home when it had fled into the back of the wagon to escape Asozyem’s sword, another Songblade Knight traveling north with them.
The loss of possessions didn’t matter. They’d survived the skirmish with the scouts. Three demons slain. Countless millions boiled beyond the rift. The Goddess Layiv had given their peoples the watch. Easterners, Westerners, and Northerners alike united to hold the demons at bay. The rest of the world could waste resources contending nation against nation, to indulge in the petty squabble over which king or emperor or satrap ruled which boundaries on the map.
The Forbidden Kingdom could not.
They’d held the trust and stood the watch for over three thousand years, shepherded by an unbroken line of divine emperors carrying Layiv’s blood. The grand generals, selected by the emperor, coordinated the military might of their nation here.
The Diamond Ward, the Bulwark, and the Ringed City.
My new home, Lamahavi thought.
The young woman knew this day would come. Known it for years when she’d come to Fortress, the military capital of their kingdom, to support the Songblade Knights. She’d wished to be a soldier’s wife, to support and succor those who would fight for their nation. She’d courted two candidates and found love in the second: Yelaikav. His humor never failed to brighten her spirits.
She wanted to brighten his.
The glimmer grew and grew on the horizon. Soon, she could see the gleaming facets of an adamant barrier that surrounded the dark wound beneath. The shadow swelled, too. A gash of night that sundered the world. It shed the inverse of light. Its opposite. Here, the last wound of the Shattering had failed to heal.
Lamahavi stared into another reality. A world beyond the harmonics of this one.
At the base of the barrier swallowing the horizon, a city appeared. A dark band. The road they followed, a hard-packed track rutted from generations of wagon wheels, became paved. The jarring change rumbled through the wagon.
There was no wall warding the Ring City from the outside. It was an inverted fortress. Its fortifications aimed at the center. Basalt buildings reared around the bottom swell of the Diamond Ward. A half-mile out, and it consumed most of the horizon and reached high into the sky above her head. She leaned back, shifting her brown hair pinned up atop her head by her jade hair comb. Her delicate face held only awe and terror, flicking between the emotions. The writhing wound of the Black Rift, appearing to twist and wriggle through the distortion of the adamantine barrier surrounding it, captured her attention.
Only a horse’s nicker pulled her eyes down.
A gathering formed before them. A small column of Rangers, the elite cavalry of the realm and who patrolled the Forbidden Arc, the lands surrounding the Diamond Ward. They raised lances in salute, holding their horses at parade rest. Most were slender and short. Their sex could be hard to judge with their scale mail hauberks and great helms covering their heads, demonic-like masks covering their faces. About a third of the Rangers were women, their smaller size and weight giving their mounts greater stamina and, thus, range on their patrols.
Lamahavi found her spine straightening. She shifted in the light-blue yukata—a summer robe that fit tight about her body and belted at her waist—covered in a pattern of white lilies. Her hands folded before her. Yelaikav’s casual ease had vanished. He wore the serious face of a soldier. He wore a man’s yukata, fitting looser.
At the end of the line of soldiers, more armored figures awaited. They wore the lamellar armor of Songblade Knights. Made of bands of steel held together by stiff cords of twine. The plates overlapped each other and shifted as they moved. They covered the knights from head to toe. Small gaps revealed the padded, dark underclothing worn beneath. Each one was lacquered in different hues to show off the character of the bearer.
The man in the lead wore his armor black with gold rings painted across his chest and stomach. He had horns thrusting up from his great helm, curling up and over his head. His war mask held the fierce, snarling ferocity of a mountain panther.
The famed Panther of the Ward, Gunsho Kofumuji. Songs of his deeds had been sung when Lamahavi was a girl. He had led the twenty knights against the black-flood breech. Only he’d walked away alive. They’d found him standing on the mound of dead demons, exhausted, on the verge of death. Beneath his armor, stories claimed, lay a mass of scars and gouges to his flesh.
Four officers stood behind him. Men who commanded squads. One of those would be her husband’s new captain, his taisho. Her gaze slid from a man in green armor with black spirals to a red armor accented in gold. Her eyes stopped on the third man.
He’d lacquered his armor a deep purple with owlish, yellow eyes painted on the chest and on his helm above his eyes. He stood tall, a Northerner, and she felt the intensity of his gaze beneath his mask. Her heart clenched.
A man she hadn’t seen in a year. He’s risen so far?
“Welcome, welcome,” spoke Gunsho Kofumuji. His voice rasped with age. He raised a hand clad in a heavy gauntlet. Her husband drew up the wagon. “We do not stand on ceremony here. Rangers brought the word of your skirmish. Already, you defend the world.”
Lamahavi managed to sit a little straighter at those words, delight rippling through her. She had done her small part in that skirmish.
“Yelaikav,” Kofumuji said, staring at her husband. “You are assigned to the Apple Blossom Octant. Third squad under Taisho Vevoztaj.”
Lamahavi fought her groan as the man in the purple armor stepped forward. The man she’d once thought she would marry. Her first lover. When she’d ended their relationship, she had cried for a week until Yelaikav had made her smile with his poem.
Tears flowing down cheeks
banished by a simple act
smiling to spite grief
“Follow,” Vevoztaj said, his words coming out hollow from behind his mask. He turned onto a circular street that led in both directions, miming the curve of the wall.
“Yes, Taisho,” answered Yelaikav, his voice strong. Deep. Not betraying a hint of emotion.
She couldn’t help but follow Vevoztaj as he marched down the street to the right. He moved with a natural grace in the armor. The stitched-together plates of folded steel allowed for natural movement and range of motion. It wasn’t nearly as constricting as it looked and could mean the difference between life and death fighting a demon.
Her husband had fought one without it by necessity. Packed away behind them was his armor. And hers, a much lighter coat of chain to be donned in the direst of events. Wives hadn’t had to fight a breach in three hundred years, but vigilance had to be maintained.
“It’s good to see you,” Vevoztaj said. He removed his war mask and then his helmet, unveiling his short, brown hair. Like her husband, the top of his head had been shaved and the exposed skin tattooed with the character for protection, a diamond surrounded by walls. “I knew you would pass, Yelaikav. You always possessed skill.”
“Your opinion humbles me,” Yelaikav said, his tone stiff as his posture.
“And how is Fejisoza?” Lamahavi asked.
“She’s good,” Vevoztaj answered. “She’s settled into life here.”
“I’m not surprised. She has a spine of iron.”
Vevoztaj nodded, not looking back at her.
Lamahavi had known they would both be here; she just hadn’t expected to see him so soon. To have to live in the same barracks as him. All the squads of Apple Blossom Octant, one of the eight districts of the Ring City, would have their own barracks, militant apartments for their soldiers and families to inhabit, sharing a small garden and pooling their resources to support and knit together as a cohesive unit. She’d see him every day.
“She made a good wife for you,” Lamahavi said, feeling an awkward weight pressing on her as their wagon trundled down the street.
They passed watchers. Children peered over the railing of porches from the second or third stories of barracks they passed. Banners with stylized characters marked the different squads and their homes. Between them lay various craftsmen. Brave and skilled laborers who brought their services her, the most dangerous place in the world. She let her eyes drift to the basalt buildings. The roofs all had crenellations. The sides facing the rift had only narrow windows, mere arrow slits, and none on the first two floors. Some of the buildings had machicolations along the eaves, slots in the floor of the ramparts thrusting out past the side of the building so the defenders could shoot down at the attackers besieging the base.
A blacksmith worked outside on an anvil, bare chest gleaming with sweat. A spear leaned nearby where it could be seized. He pounded glowing metal, sparks bursting in flares.
A group of women carrying laundry baskets waved, their hair done in braids or folds, all pinned with hair combs to leave shoulders bare. They wore a variety of yukatas cut in different fashions and with different patterns, displaying the style of their homes with pride.
A group of armored Songblade Knights marched by not long after, all smacking fists to chests in salute, rattling their lamellar plates. Yelaikav beat fist to chest, and she inclined her head out of respect.
Finally, after covering nearly half the city, they entered the Apple Blossom Octant. Green banners hung at the entrance, the character for “tree” stretched almost to near unrecognizability to resemble a tall tree with a wide canopy. The characters for “fruit” dangled beneath it as apples. It was clever. The characters for “tree” and “fruit” combined made the word “apple tree.” Lastly, falling like petals were the character for “blossom.”
Beyond it, at the first barracks, a group of soldiers in armor waited; behind them gathered wives and children. A nervous ripple ran through her as she recognized three of the wives, women she’d known at her time at the Academy, Fejisoza among them.
“A year, and already you commanded your own squad, Taisho,” said Yelaikav. “I am impressed.”
“Our last taisho lost his head two months ago. I gave orders and they proved fortuitous.” Vevoztaj said these as if they were matter-of-fact. “Gunsho Kofumuji gave me command of the squad.” He paused. “Squad Three, I give you our newest brother, Yelaikav, wielder of a diamond sword. With him, his wife, the honorable Lamahavi.”
The eight other soldiers pounded fists to chests. They bowed, the points of their great helms aimed at them for a moment. Then they straightened, all looking fierce behind their war masks. They had the bone handles of their Songblades tucked into the silk sashes around their waists.
Yelaikav climbed off the wagon then held his hands out for her. She scooted down the bench and he grabbed her waist, setting her down. She bowed low but kept her eyes raised with pride, as he smacked his fist to his chest.
“My wife and I are honored to join you, brothers,” Yelaikav said. “Though my body may fail, my spirit shall never flag. Through pain and blood, through grief and sorrow, I pledge to stand my watch, Songblade in hand. My life belongs not to me, but to the world. Thus, I promise to spend it without hesitation so that the world may flourish. Death is not the end, but the beginning of eternity.”
He spoke the oath without a hint of fear. She straightened, her heart reverberating in pride. To her left, the Diamond Ward covered the sky. The black wound to the world writhed and bled the demons who would destroy them all.
Death was not the end. Beyond lay paradise. The eternal reward for those who served mankind. Civilization was a vast machine. In the Forbidden Kingdom, every person, from the farmer who planted the seeds to the miller who ground the flour, were all a piece of it. A machine united in defending the world from destruction. Those who served, no matter how small it might seem, would find their rest and succor.
She was ready to do her part and was proud of Yelaikav for pledging the entirety of himself to it. Just let him survive. Retirement was not a shame, but the greatest reward in this life. For it meant that the World’s end had not arrived.
The wives stepped forward with welcoming smiles on their faces. Each one of them held a small charm, an ofuda with characters of blessing painted on them, to be hung up on the windows and door frames of her new house.
“Thank you for your warm welcome,” she said as each one introduced themselves, a blur of names she would need days to get straight as she came to know her new neighbors. “I promise to help us knit a community in the wilderness, to make it a bastion of civilization amid the horrors that threaten our world. I shall build with you a foundation of courage.”
“Be welcome, sister,” each said and placed a kiss on her cheek. Left then right.
Fejisoza came last. Vevoztaj’s wife possessed the round face and silver hair of a Northerner. She wore it cut short along with a tight smile, a single red stripe painted in the center of her pink lips. She planted the two kisses and pressed her ofuda into Lamahavi’s hand.
“Be welcome, sister,” she said, voice strained.
Lamahavi swallowed. She felt Fejisoza’s eyes upon her. A strange guilt swam through Lamahavi. She once thought she would wed Fejisoza’s husband. Handsome, daring, the epitome of a Songblade Knight. But Vevoztaj had been cold. Kissing him had stirred nothing inside of her no matter how hard she tried. She forced herself to stay with him for months past when she should have broken off their courtship.
Perhaps, she’d wanted too badly to be a wife of a Songblade Knight that she’d ignored her own heart’s pain. Though he’d always seemed so stoic, his mask had cracked the night she’d broken off their relationship. She had fled crying only to be comforted by Yelaikav a week later. With him, she didn’t have to force herself. It wasn’t a chore to love him.
“Let’s get them settled in their house,” said Vevoztaj. “You have two hours before we muster for the night patrol.”
“Tonight?” she asked, a spike of concern through her. So soon?
Vevoztaj turned from her. “It is our octant’s night. That should change because a new brother has arrived?”
“Of course not,” she said, flushing, feeling the other wives staring at her, judging her. “My apologies. The travel was wearying. It was not a smooth journey.”
“Yes, our new brother has already slain two demons.”
“I had help,” Yelaikav said. “My wife proved an able distraction and Asozyem wounded the other.”
“Come, come, let’s get them unpacked!” snapped Fejisoza. “Hurry.”
Activity fluttered around Lamahavi. Everyone rushed in, including knights in their full armor, hauling off what furniture had survived. A few chairs, though the table they went with was lost. One nightstand. Two out of three of the flower vases her older sister had given as wedding presents. Clothes were piled in the corner since their traveling chest had shattered and their wardrobe splintered.
Soon, she helped her husband dress in his blue armor painted with white diamonds. She drew on the cotton hakama and coat that protected his body from the abrasion of the steel plates. She closed it before pulling on each piece. All the knots had to be tied precisely and since many of them in difficult places to reach, it meant no knight could adequately armor himself. She shook as she worked, her fingers trembling as she twisted the strong, silk cords into perfect knots.
“You’re shaking worse than our first time,” he said, giving her a smile.
“I didn’t shake,” she said, frowning at him. She hadn’t come a virgin to his bed. She’d given that to Vevoztaj. It had been . . . disappointing. Pain but not much pleasure.
“Not with fear,” he said and grinned at her.
A smile played on her lips for a moment. “Well, that’s not why I’m shaking now.”
“The only thing to fear of death is the momentary parting it will cause,” he said.
“Momentary for you. I’ll have to live another fifty years cursing your name for getting yourself killed on your first patrol.”
“So you have something to look forward to.”
She glared at him. “That is not even funny. You think I want to curse your name? I would rather have you all those fifty years. Longer.”
“So would I.” He thrust out his arms, letting her tie on the bands of armor plating that covered them. “I would give anything for that, but no one knows how long their soul shall hum.”
Like a tuning fork struck, the note it sang wouldn’t last forever. Some tuning forks could sustain a tone for hours, like the ones powering the Diamond Ward. Others could last a few minutes, perhaps an hour at best, but they all faded. Entropy was the state of things.
“So I shouldn’t worry because you’ll die when it’s your time?” she demanded as she finished her knot.
“Just know you’ll be in my heart,” he said, his eyes soft on her. “One way or another, we’ll see each other again. Like that cat your mother owned.”
Her gaze narrowed. “The one who ruined my favorite kimono by peeing on it?”
“Exactly. No matter how many times you washed it, you couldn’t be rid of the stench. I’m much the same.”
She stared at Yelaikav in hopeless despair and then burst into laughter. He could never take anything seriously. He said the most absurd things, and she loved him for it. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, clinging to him, wanting her joy to last.
She broke away from him and soon she was alone, though not for long; the other wives were soon calling on her, and she found herself playing hostess, serving tea and being distracted from her husband’s patrol as she gossiped with the others.
She lay on her cotton-padded futon and stared at the empty pillow beside her own. She stroked the round cloth stuffed with the soft down of an alpaca. Her finger danced over the linen, wishing it held Yelaikav’s warmth.
Their first night in their house felt desolate. A profound ache filled her. She couldn’t sleep, and not because of the purple moonlight spilling through her bedroom window. Plum was glowing full tonight, his violet joy drowning out the light from the six other moons. She stared at the pattern it painted across the back of her hand, the small shadows caused by tiny imperfections in her near-flawless skin.
She studied them as she worried for her husband. He would be endlessly circling the Diamond Ward, marching along the Bulwark. He would make sure that each of the Diamond Hearts of Layiv resonated, their three tuning forks humming away. Only one was needed to activate any gem, even the largest diamonds in the world.
Three gave redundancy.
They would be on the lookout for any signs of a breach. Of any activity bleeding through the Rift. The battle would start with their alarm and their Songblades meeting the resinswords of the demonic invaders seeking to bleed through into their reality.
She squeezed her eyes shut. He’s fine. How often do they attack? Just a few more hours. Dawn can’t be far off. He’s fine. He’ll hold you soon.
She hugged her pillow to her chest. She knew this would happen, that she would spend lonely nights in her bed aching for Yelaikav’s to return. She was strong enough to accept it. Love was the foundation of courage, and from there strength built. She loved him enough to endure. Together, they would help protect their world. They—
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
A massive taiko drum thundered through the night. The beat was frantic, pounding out an urgent call. A breach.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
“No!” Lamahavi gasped as she burst out of the tangle of her blankets. Loose, dark-brown hair spilled about her face, painted with violet highlights.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The alarm beat faster than her wild heart. She trembled, wearing the loose linen of her jinbei, her sleepwear. Her feet moved before she even realized it. She grabbed a thicker yukata from where it hung, pulling on the blue cloth and belting it loosely about her waist. She slipped her bare feet into her slippers.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
She grabbed her crossbow from its hook by the door and slung it over her shoulder. Next, she belted on her quiver of bolts. They hung from her left side, ready to be drawn, the weight familiar. She threw open her door onto the open walkway.
“Lamahavi!” shouted Vipaloza, one of the wives. “Come with me!”
The woman hurried down from the next door. In it, a young boy held a spear cut for his size, his face wide with fear. He struggled to look brave. A toddler clutched his clothing, her eyes wide but only curious.
How often does the alarm ring to not concern the small child?
“Hurry,” said Vipaloza. She wore her yukata open, showing the thin sleeping garb beneath. She held her crossbow slung over her shoulder, her quarrels rattling in their quiver. “You were trained as a healer?”
Lamahavi nodded, letting the woman pull her along. Other wives were rushing out. Some emerged with spears. One had her daughter helping her don a simple hauberk of chainmail. Lamahavi had left her own behind. Fear burned through her.
Her man would be where the breach was.
“This way,” Vipaloza shouted, breaking into a run. Her loose hair danced about her shoulders. The silvery strands flashed purple.
Lamahavi ran after. She was good at it. Her bolts jostled in her quiver. She held her crossbow tight to her chest as her heart thundered beneath. The drums kept booming. The sound seemed to come from every direction.
The Diamond Ward shimmered and rippled above them. She gasped at the bleeding cracks of light marring up the surface on one facet. Shouts roared through the night. Squads on standby, armored in case of a breach, rushed past them with a clank of metal, Songblades out and humming, spilling a rainbow of light along with their lacquered armor.
“Here, here!” Vipaloza shouted, racing down a side street into a narrow alley and towards stairs. She rushed up them.
Lamahavi followed. The steps were narrower than the alley. Only one person could rush up them at a time. They snaked back and forth three times as they climbed up onto the fortifications above. She gasped as they spilled out onto the Bulwark themselves. Songblade Knights rushed up wider stairs, their swords glowing. Singing.
Vipaloza’s shout drew Lamahavi’s attention towards a small building before a maze of rhino horns. Large stone blocks thrust up like the beasts’ horns to slow the rush of attackers, forcing them to weave through the obstacles. Beyond, a low wall stood with four wives already manning it with crossbows. Two more with long spears waited behind them. They nodded to Lamahavi and Vipaloza as the pair rushed through their defenses and into the building.
The scents of medicinal herbs filled her nose, reminding her of the apothecary she’d trained with at the Academy. The mélange of various remedies was too mixed for her to separate their components. They blended together into a heady aroma. Vipaloza moved through the dark room with purpose. She found a tuning fork and smacked it against a wooden shelf. It hummed with an A note. She placed it beside a diamond lamp.
Clear light flooded the room.
Lamahavi struggled to gather breath as she hung up her crossbow and tied back the sleeves of her yukata above her elbow with red ribbons. A cistern in the back held water. She dumped her hands into it and then splashed the shockingly cold liquid on her face.
Then she waited.
The shouts echoed through the night. She paced in the small room, waiting for the horror to end. Fear for her Yelaikav weighed at her belly, ripping at her stomach. Her slippers’ tar-coated soles whisked across the room while she paced. Vipaloza sat at a table, her eyes distant like she was seeing through stones to the battle where their men fought.
A crystalline shatter burst through the night.
The sounds made her jump every time. Was this the end? Would the Songblade Knights finally fall? Would the women outside have to use their spears to hold their position? Would she fire her crossbow out the door in a vain attempt to kill the demons before she was torn apart?
Death is not an ending, she repeated. The promise of suffering in this life was rewarded in the next.
It felt hollow.
Shouts grew outside. Women cried gibberish to Lamahavi. Her ears couldn’t understand what they meant, but Vipaloza leaped to her feet and grabbed bandages. Lamahavi watched her, not understanding why they should do that.
Then the boys carrying stretches appeared. They were the sons of knights, twelve or thirteen years old, not men yet, not old enough to train at the Academy, but trusted to be runners. They brought the first stretcher and laid it on the floor. Vipaloza rushed over to tend to a knight clutching at his mangled arm. The skin and bone had been stripped from his forearm, the white ulna peeking out.
The second stretcher entered, the man screaming in pain. He held a wad of cloth over his stomach. His blood had soaked through it. Lamahavi stared at him for a moment, too terrified to glance at his face and see who it was.
“Lama, surrendering to fear is a choice, too,” whispered through her mind. Her husband’s words from days ago.
She could choose to be useless, to stand rooted in terror for Yelaikav, or she could do her duty for the man wounded in the defense of the world.
She sprang for the bandages and grabbed them. Her ears suddenly worked, words becoming understandable. Vipaloza worked on the other man. She’d already tied a tourniquet about his arm above his elbow and twisted it tight with a dowel.
Amputation would follow.
Lamahavi rushed back to her patient and sank to her knees, hair falling loose about her face. She peeled back the bandage. Horror struck her. A demon’s mandible had ripped through his armor and belly. The jagged tear gaped open wider than the span of her fingers, the two halves of his flesh ragged. They didn’t match up. He was missing a chunk of his stomach. His innards looked to have spilled out and then were hastily shoved back in followed by a wadding of cloth to hold them in place. She knew of no way to repair the damage. She couldn’t close the wound, and blood pooled across his organs. Some torn. She breathed in. The sour aroma of flatulence filled her nose.
Bowels punctured. Blood poisoned.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Despair crushed her. The first patient she had to treat, and she had no hope to save his life. She pressed the bandages over the wounds, the white cotton absorbing his blood, blossoming red.
“Lama . . . havi . . .”
The sound of her name stiffened her. “Yel . . .”
Her words died on her lips. It wasn’t Yelaikav who lay in pain. It was Vevoztaj.
Her former lover’s face held a pale sheen of sweat across his brow. His face twisted with the agony of his injuries. His hand reached out, fingers trembling. He took her wrist and smeared blood across her skin.
“I know . . .” he groaned, his fingers crushing like iron about her.
“Know?” she asked. Her eyes burned with emotion.
“I’m dying.” He said the words with such finality. She shifted on her knees, moving closer to his head. “I kept them alive. My men. I didn’t let those demons hurt them.”
“Of course not, Vev,” she said. Her free hand stroked the side of his face. She smiled at him. “You love your men. I saw that in training exercises.”
“Loved you, too,” he croaked.
She didn’t know what to say to that. It was the first time he’d ever spoken those words. She’d known he loved her, but he could never express it. She couldn’t face a future sharing her bed with an icy mountain, his heart a glacier so remote that no human had ever tread upon it. She could have tried to make the attempt to reach it, but she feared she’d die in the process. A frozen husk left uncaring on the slope.
“There was a time when I loved you,” she admitted. Fear squeezed her heart. She wanted to ask for Yelaikav. Did he still live? Vevoztaj said “his” men. Did he count the new arrival in that tally?
“You were my plum tree,” he said. “When training was hard, I would lie beneath your shade and stare up at your blossoms.” Pain rippled across his face. His hand crushed her wrist.
“Demons curse me!” he snarled.
“I can get something for the pain,” she said. She tried to rise, but he held on tight to her.
“Just let me look into those eyes,” he said. “One last time.”
She nodded. The tears built in the corners of her eyes. They were almost spilling over her cheeks. She leaned over him like she once had. Her free hand stroked across his brow as a great wellspring of pity surged through her.
His breathing slowed. His eyes grew into dark pools. Eternity.
“It wasn’t . . . all bad . . . ?” he croaked. “Right?”
“No,” she said. “No, it wasn’t. Some of it was good.” She leaned over him, her loose hair falling about her face. She pressed her lips against his forehead. His flesh was cool. “You can rest now, Vevoztaj. Your duty is over. Set down the burden. Another shall carry it for you.”
“Loved . . . you . . .” he croaked. “Always . . .”
She straightened and stared into the dark depths of his eyes. The pain fled. Peace embraced him. His grip slackened on her arm. The tears fell down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I needed someone warm. I wanted to love you. I did.”
She sat up straight, the tears falling hot down her cheeks. The back of her throat felt raw. Outside, a mighty chime rang. A resonance that shook the foundations of her body. Her bones vibrated to it. A pure light blazed, spilling through the narrow windows and bleeding through the cloth curtain. A new dawn had arrived upon the world.
The breach mended. She could feel it in that moment. Vevoztaj had saved the world today. Him, his squad, the rest of the Songblade Knights. Her husband. Lamahavi stayed kneeling there, staring at Vevoztaj’s dead face.
He could be sleeping. Memories of watching him sleep haunted Lamahavi.
“How is he?” asked Vipaloza.
“He laid down his burden,” she answered, her tears ended. “Yours?”
“He needs something to help with the pain.”
Lamahavi rose and began making a tincture of boswellia for the pain, yarrow for the bloodloss, and a strong distillation of epheda to let the knight slip into a deep sleep. Vipaloza bandaged the stump of his arm, the severed limb covered beneath a white cloth beside him.
After giving the man the tincture, the curtains burst open and a woman gasped. Fejisoza rushed to her dead husband. She fell to her knees and a keening wail burst from her lips. She pressed her face into his chest and clasped his hand.
The one which had clung so desperately to Lamahavi.
She didn’t know what to say to Fejisoza. How to take away her loss. Lamahavi knelt beside the woman and placed a comforting hand upon the widow’s shuddering back. She stroked Fejisoza’s long, silvery hair. Lamahavi didn’t stop until Fejisoza lifted her head and turned a grief-stricken face to her.
“Did he . . . say anything?”
Guilt stabbed deep into Lamahavi’s heart. “He said he loved you,” she lied. “His last words were of you.”
Fejisoza nodded. The words took away some of the pain. A little. Lamahavi didn’t regret them. She couldn’t control what Vevoztaj felt for her. When he’d married Fejisoza last year, she’d hoped he would find happiness with the woman.
To let go of her, but he’d held onto her until the end.
Maybe he’ll find acceptance in the next life, thought Lamahavi as she rose. As he takes succor in Paradise. He’d set down his burden.
Lamahavi hadn’t. Nor had her husband.
She stepped out of the infirmary. No others were brought in. Perhaps they were taken to different ones. She stared at the passing Songblade Knights. Many dripped with ichor. She searched for Yelaikav’s blue armor patterned with white diamonds. Her hands clutched tight before her, fearing that he lay dead.
Would he think of another woman as he lay dying? You could never truly know a person in this life. She thought she knew Yelaikav, but didn’t Fejisoza think the same thing of her husband?
The thoughts were poisonous. She knew Yelaikav. His love. He made her smile. Ever since that day he’d found her crying. She stood tall, waiting for him to return to her. She watched the passing knights stoically.
One broke away in ichor-splattered armor, his great helm missing. She hardly recognized her husband. He looked old. His face haggard. His movements felt brittle as he stumbled to her. She spread her arms wide. She couldn’t be Vevoztaj’s plum tree, but she could be Yelaikav’s.
His armor clattered as he embraced her. He pulled her to him. He tried to smile, but it felt fractured, broken by the night. His eyes stared distantly. There was more than ichor on him. Blood matted the shoulders of his armor and clung in his hair.
“Vevoztaj?” he asked.
She shook her head.
He closed his eyes. “That’s two we lost. They ripped Najozham in half. Just . . .”
He needed her. Clung to her. She stared into his eyes and did the most Yelaikav thing she could think of. “How many knights can still look as beautiful as the sun setting over the Golden Sea?”
“How many knights . . . ?” His brow furrowed. His eyes sharpened on her. “Did you just . . . call me beautiful?”
“There is nothing more beautiful than you right now,” she said, pressing her face into his chest, feeling the slick lacquer painted over the plates of metal that made up his armor. “Nothing.”
He kissed her brow and whispered, “I kept thinking about you. When they first breached and fell upon us, I fought with a ferocity of a denned badger. I had to come back to you.”
Death may not be the ending, but she wanted Yelaikav to carry his burden for as long as possible. To grow old with him. She knew that each dawn she had with him was a gift.
Something to be treasured because it could be taken from her so swiftly.
To be continued…
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