Oof! Last week was a doozy. Digging in to the legal shenanigans of starting my bespoke costumes and props business turned out to be Way more time consuming than I originally anticipated. This has slowed everything down, both my writing and my crafting. Rest assured the slow down is almost over and you’ll have some tasty build reports to read soon! In the mean time I’ve got another snippet of fiction to let y’all know I’m still here!
This is another excerpt about Amarantha. This one features guest authors Jason Herrick, Maddie T R, and James Kirkley. Thanks so much for helping me develop such an intricate screwed up story, guys.
This one is set about two years after The Mistake of Vengeance.
The late morning sun shone down on the Invictus cabin, but its rays brought no warmth through the window panes. The house was quiet; most everyone had left and gone about their daily business, but Amarantha had slept later than intended. She went through the motions of checking her correspondence, and a cursory glance at the caravan ledger, waiting for the strong black coffee to bring life back to her thoughts.
When she went to write today’s date at the top of a letter a shadow passed over her face. As if she’d never intended to write a letter at all she set the quill back down and rose from the desk. Looking in the mirror, she took up a brush and dismissed her guard, saying she wanted privacy while she made herself up for the day.
With everyone gone, she set her small mirror up on the table. She stared into herself for several long minutes, before turning away with a look of disgust. She washed her face and dressed as if in a daze, slowly, clumsily, doing and redoing time and again until the fine garments lay just so. When it came time to tend her hair she settled herself once more in front of the mirror. As she worked the brush through her mass of hair, she grew more and more agitated. Each time the brush caught on a knot was a flinch or whispered curse.
She tried three full times to arrange her tresses in some kind of up-do, each failure driving her from her chair to pace the floor trying to look anywhere but in the mirror. muttering,”Why today. I’m stronger than this.”
The most recent failure seemed to have driven her someplace else entirely. Instead of trying again she just stood staring at the mirror. The abject sorrow that had overcome her face while pacing turned to disgust and rage as she looked upon her reflection. And with a shout she pushed the mirror away, taking the table and it’s contents with it. The expression of rage on her face faded to numb shock in just a few moments. “She’s really gone isn’t she,” she whispered just before Sekril kicked the door down.
The oaken door moaned, her praetorian nearly sprung it off its hinges as he rushed in, dagger and sword drawn. Sekril took four sweeping steps into the room in half a moment, followed by the dismissed guard. His eyes scanned the room, every corner passed under his steely gaze as he sought out intruders. With no threat to his ward’s safety apart from the overturned table, he gave a curt gesture to the other guard. Wait outside. Sekril felt one of his scars twitch as the young guard obediently shut the door behind him. His piercing blue eyes looked to Amarantha after the mechanism clicked shut.
The young noblewoman stood at the edge of the destruction taking up the middle of the room, fists clenched and white knuckled. Her gown had nary a wrinkle, but her hair tumbled down her back only half tended, and no makeup hid eyes red from wiped away tears.
He took a long measured breath and sheathed his weapons. His chest rose and fell, brushing the inside of his cuirass as he calmed his blood before stepping closer. His gaze drifted across the mess, inkpot spilled, and the scattered debris of papers. He licked his lips, searched for words, before his gravelly voice spoke cautiously, “These tables… we’ll have to see a furnisher to have the legs checked, we cannot have M’lady’s tables turning over now, can we?” The grizzled veteran bent down, and began to pick up the pieces of her emotional outburst.
A small giggle drifted from under one of the beds and a horned face pokes out from her hiding place. “Having some trouble?” Cobraxa yawned like a cat awoken from a nap, before resting her face on her arms.
Amarantha had stood staring at nothing, and it seemed like Sekril’s voice was coming across a void, distant and faint. It wasn’t until Cobraxa spoke that sense began to come back to the lady’s eyes, and she actually saw the mess before her. “I.. think perhaps that would be wise, Sekril,” she spoke non-committally. Her usual polite smile was missing, when she turned her gaze toward the lieutenant. “Trouble, perhaps, is not the right word for it. Did you sleep well?”
Cobraxa ran her fingers through her brown hair to scratch some unseen itch. “Meh. It would’ve been better, if I wasn’t woken up so suddenly.” Her hiding place was so small that her arm poked out when the young mage stretched. “So what’s so bad that even you..well. Flipped, shall we say?” She chuckled at her own joke before she rolled out from under the bed. Her neck and back crackled as she stood and stretched more.
Amarantha made a noncommittal sound in her throat at Cobraxa’s complaint of sudden wakefulness, wondering just how much the girl had heard and seen. As she considered an answer to the lieutenant’s question, her gaze wandered the room as Sekril put it back to rights. “Not all lessons are gentle.” Half hidden by the tablecloth a glint caught her eye, a piece of glass had chipped off the edge of the mirror that stood once more on the righted table. Bending to pick it up she pondered just how much of her pain was hers alone to learn from, and how much was meant to be shared. “And some wounds go unfelt until someone points it out,” she clenched her fist around the shard, heedless that it drew blood.
A cold draft crept through the room. Amarantha didn’t even notice herself shiver, caught up in quiet deliberation. Sekril’s step behind her followed by the weight of a cloak being rested on her shoulders shook her out of her reverie. The noblewoman’s gaze drifted from the lithe young mage-liuetenant to Sekril as he pulled out a chair for her. Exhausted, she sank into a chair, cloak wrapped around her
In the quiet Cobraxa crossed the room to stand in front of Amarantha. The horned girl gently unwrapped the other woman’s hand and set the glass shard on the table, blood darkening the red tablecloth. “You’re gonna stain the cloak.” She tried to sound like she really didn’t care. “Isn’t that something you fancy people try to avoid?” She gave Amarantha a kind half-smile. One last parchment out of place caught the younger woman’s eye. She handed it to the Lady, clearly uncertain what else to do.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been scolded for bleeding,” Amarantha murmured, looking down at the parchment in her hands. It held today’s date, nothing more.
Sekril exhaled audibly, glancing at Amarantha’s hand as he lay his own, littered with dozens of scars, on her shoulders. Her flinch was almost imperceptible. He pressed and kneaded at stress-taut muscles for a long quiet moment, but his ministrations brought her no comfort today.
“What troubles you M’lady?” He stroked with slow circular motions along her upper arms and shoulders, patiently returning to muscles that cramped again the moment his hands left them.
“I,” Amarantha would not, could not, apologize, though the shame was evident in her voice, “I die tomorrow.” She couldn’t raise her eyes from the pricks of blood on her hand, the faint pain an anchor to the present. “I don’t,” she shook her head; there was so much she wanted to say, but how? “You shouldn’t have to see me like this.” Her throat felt tight, and it infuriated her that she couldn’t keep the pain from her voice.
“Die? Well that’s inconvenient.” Cobraxa chuckled, but her darkened eyes belied her cheer. She cleared her throat, and reclaimed a serious composure. “So what brought this on?”
Amarantha shook her head again. “No, I mean two years ago, tomorrow, I did die.” The noblewoman sighed, “I haven’t really been,” she gestured vaguely at the room,”here, since I realized. I thought I was past this, I hardly even dream about her anymore.” As she spoke her voice trailed off, so that the last was soft, like a person speaking to themselves rather than holding a conversation.
“Her? Who exactly?” Cobraxa blinked, brown locks falling into her face as she tilted her horned head.
Amarantha stiffened and a flush of embarrassment spread across her countenance when she realized that she’d said more than she’d intended. “I,” the noble woman tried to relax, tried to banish the memories of the blood and shame and rage of that November morning so long ago. “Her name was Seralyn,” she wanted to stand up, to run away from the memories, but she felt transfixed by her guardian’s hands on her shoulders and Cobraxa’s gaze, a part of her felt like she owed them some honesty. Or maybe it was that she owed her love’s memory that honesty. “She’s probably dead, or worse now.”
Sekril’s response was quick, emotionless, and stale. “She’s dead.” He continued to work the tense knots out on her shoulders, as if his response to her lingering uncertainty to her handmaiden’s fate.
Amarantha wilted at her praetorian’s words. The finality of saying it out loud was all that she could bear, to hear it repeated back with such certainty was too much. She felt like a broken vessel, all her hope and pride spilling away from her grasp, empty and hollow with the shame of her failure. As tears began to flow, her head drooped and her shoulders curled inward, pulling weakly away from Sekril’s hands. “I don’t. Why does it still hurt so much?”
“There are many things that hurt. Death of people we are close to is one of them. But think of it as an opportunity, rather than failure. Besides, I’m here, what more could one ask for, eh?” Cobraxa chuckled, once again she tried to lighten the mood.
“An opportunity?” Amarantha’s brief laugh held no humor. “An opportunity for what? She is gone and even my vengeance has been taken from me,” her voice was bitter with a rage that had no one left to target but herself.
Cobraxa bent down to look into Amarantha’s eyes, all humor suddenly gone from her own. “It IS an opportunity. An opportunity to prove to yourself and others that you are strong. Strong enough to move past your grief.”
Meeting Cobraxa’s gaze was not as hard as Amarantha had thought it would be.”Calling that an opportunity would imply that I have the option to avoid it. I do not.” Rage slowly took the place of grief and stemmed Amarantha’s tears, and though the pain remained it was no longer pulling her into the past. She was very much here again, here with her pain.
Cobraxa blinked slowly at the venomous response, much like a calm feline. “This is what I’m talking about. Whoever she is, she would not like to see you like this. This much I know.” The mage’s voice was soothing, and soft. She must have said this to a lot of people before.
A thin growl above her startles the two women. They looked up to see Sekril’s face shadowed, the light curled around his scars as he tightened his fists. As if touched by a hot brand Amarantha rose abruptly from her seat to face her guard. The sound of his hands curling was like leather creaking as he let his growl become a low hiss. His voice had an unusual pleasantness to it. “M’lady, if I might speak… freely?”
The tone of his voice made Amarantha flinch. Nothing good had ever come of someone from her home speaking with such a tone. Despite wanting to put as much space between them as possible the noblewoman squared her shoulders and faced both the Lieutenant and the Praetorian. “You have yet to steer me wrong Sekril, speak.” Amarantha was much more composed than she had been moments before, but it was fairly clear that her control was still shaky.
Sekril was obviously tense, his entire body was more solid and rigid than a Nadine forged blade. “A dead brother? Nothing. A dead handmaiden? Nothing. Death means nothing in the Empire. The Empire teaches us what death is, it is natural and untimely. It isn’t something to pine about. It is something to learn from. A single life means nothing; dozens of lives mean nothing. So long as you possess the control within yourself to remember that they mean nothing, you maintain power. Your brother knew this, he knew you’d snap. He dared you, and taunted you into a fight. He knew you’d eventually lose. Why? Because he maintained his control, his power, his goal. He saw it through. Yes, you gave him scars, but he took your life. Learn from that mistake. Remember, you are first and foremost a Nadine noble, of house Invictus. Do you think your father cared a fig for slaying his brother? No. He saw himself in his son, albeit his son was nothing more than a bully. Your father couldn’t protect you from yourself or your choices, but he still shielded you from the worst. You won’t have that for too much longer. This…” He gestured to the last remains on the floor, “scene is not only unnecessary, but also does you no good. It is wasted effort. Remember whatever pain you feel there is only two kinds of pain; The kind that makes you stronger, and the kind that is only suitable for suffering.” his words hissed from between his teeth on his last sentence, , “And your family cannot abide suffering.”
Cobraxa blinked at Sekril’s words, but noded in agreement. “He’s right.” She smiled wryly. “Of course it’s a bit different to us Coatl…but what he’s saying is important.”
Amarantha let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, “As usual you are the voice of reason… It is wasted effort, but it seems to come over me when I feel there is nothing I can do to affect anything. Perhaps I need more projects. I wouldn’t have time to fall into the past like I did this morning…”
Sekril let out a slow exhale and a curt nod. “Perhaps it’s time to oversee your new soldiers soon? We have recruited veterans, as well as freshly trained soldiers. It would be well to watch them drill.”
“That should be just the thing. I will get myself cleaned up and join you.” Amarantha was finally calm again, but her smile did not reach her eyes.
The next morning, in the dim light of predawn Amarantha crept out of the cabin, settling herself down to watch the slowly waking town below. The wall of the building felt cold behind her. As she wrapped the blanket tighter around her chest she relished the bite on the cold winter air. She had not slept well, lingering on the events of yesterday morning, and of times long past. She felt scattered, drawn every direction except here and now.
She unrolled a small black bundle on her lap, glass and steel glinting in dim light. Her hands brushed across the phials and corks until it came to rest on a narrow blade, no more than a hand long. Like reacquainting with a long missed lover she smiled and handled it tenderly, bathing it in a clear liquid from one of the larger vials. As she moved through the paces of the ritual the world slowly fell away. Anticipation and memories of a hundred times before pushed back the worries and grief as she rolled up her left sleeve. She had been so young the first time, and her troubles then seemed so small compared to today’s, but it would work; it always worked, if only for a time.
She hissed out the breath she’d been holding as the knife broke skin. Slowly, firmly she sank the blade across her arm. Her world, her mind, her everything, narrowing to the sharp sensation and that first drop of blood and nothing more.
“That….” Gregor cut in, he was sitting just around the corner of the cabin, his smoldering pipe betrayed his purpose. “That is a rather self destructive habit you are engaging in.” Sarcasm and concern in equal portions colored his voice.
Amarantha went perfectly still for a moment until she recognized Gregor’s voice. She set aside the blade and wondered distantly how she hadn’t noticed that he wasn’t in bed moments ago. “It helps,” her voice was soft as she pressed a phial against her arm to catch the slow flow of blood, “I’ve been through worse.”
Gregor slowly got up. His knee brace creaked in the cold weather as he readjusted it and carefully sat down next to Amarantha. He produced the hot ember he was using to keep his pipe lit and held it to the tobacco until it flared up again and he inhaled deeply. He blew out the fragrant smoke while considering his words. “You think, it helps. It does not. Pain is merely communication. It is the world trying to tell you something. But you are causing it, so the question is, what are you trying to tell yourself?”
“Communication?” The young woman tilted her head to look at the man beside her. The low brim of his hat hid his gaze from so much of the world, but from here she could just make out the blue of his inscrutable eyes. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. This,” she emphasized as she corked the tiny, full, phial, “is clarity. This kind of pain I can understand.” She pressed her handkerchief to the cut, waiting for the bleeding to stop. “But if pain is communication, how is anyone supposed to hear the meaning of it when there is too much of it?”
“With practice, with patience. But not all pain is useful. Like words or anything else sometimes less is more.” Another long drag, Gregor perhaps subconsciously massaged his false knee. “Are you really giving yourself clarity, or just confusing the issue?”
“Confusing the issue, no. Avoiding it?” She smiled wanly, “without a doubt.” She sighed leaning her head back to look up at the sky. “I don’t really know what else I can do but wait it out.”
Gregor could not help but glance at the knife with a look of mild disdain. “Waiting will not make that go away. And what happens when another problem comes up, are you just going to pick up the knife again? Avoiding it or confusing yourself will not help.”
She looked back at him sharply, “Another problem? Huh, Cobraxa must have kept her mouth shut after all… Well, then what would you have me do? There is no solving the ‘problem’ bringing me so much pain. This smaller pain is the only thing I know that can keep me in the present when it gets bad. Do you have some better idea? I hear some cultures find it appropriate to drown in alcohol, never to be sober again, after they lose the love of their life. However, I prefer to be able to actually think.”
Gregor looked over at her, tactfully tipping his hat upwards so Amarantha could see the concern in his eyes. “I have seen those people, the ones who drink themselves into a coma. It is not a solution to the real problem, it merely makes you feel like you are doing something about it. But you are not. You are distracting yourself from the real problem. If you were to do something about that you would not need this anymore.”
Amarantha met his gaze defiantly, seeing condescension in the place of something she barely recognized anymore. “Since you seem to know so much about this, do enlighten me, what can I do about my problem?” She finally stopped squeezing the cloth to her arm and turned her attention to cleaning the blood from the blade in her lap. “Honestly, I should stop caring altogether. In fact that is what I’ve been taught to do all my life. ‘A single life means nothing, nor do dozens of lives mean anything; so long as you possess the control within yourself to remember they mean nothing, so long as you maintain power.’” Her voice was bitter and tired. “I’ve only ever been able to fake that. Twenty-two years of trying and I still don’t know how they manage it.”
Gregor looked more perturbed than usual, a real feat. “Maybe if you would demonstrate this fabled Nadine emotional control and actually told me what the problem is I could offer some advice. So far all I have heard are vagueries.”
“I thought you knew.” The young woman was silent for a long moment, steeling her resolve as best she could. “It’s Seralyn.. When I first met you, I still dreamed about,” her hand went back to press her wounded arm, and the muscles of her jaw clenched and unclenched, “the day I lost her, more nights than not. I thought maybe I was getting past it when the dreams stopped coming so often.” She blinked back tears silently cursing the memories as they came. “Two years ago yesterday is when I found her…” She stared down at the town desperately trying not to see the images brought along with the memories of that day, her hand now fisted around her injured arm.
Gregor’s irritation disappeared in an instant. It had probably been faked anyway, knowing how Amarantha tended to respond to it. “Well, something like that is not easily forgotten or moved beyond. Not that one should even. Keeping that sort of thing close to you can become a powerful motivation if used right. I use something similar every day. That pain is internal, it never goes away nor do I want it to. That and my faith are what motivate me to do what must be done.”
“How? How do you keep it from dragging you away? I, every time I remember her.. it strangles me. It takes so much effort to not relive that day. I can’t,” she shook her head, “I can’t.”
Gregor gently put an arm around Amarantha. The embrace took her entirely off guard; In one swift moment she felt comforted even as the memory of soft narrow hands dragged her spiraling into the past again. It took everything she had not to sob, and it felt like an eternity trying to pull away from thoughts of all she’d lost. He held her tight until what emotional turmoil that had welled up inside her passed, at least for a time.
He only spoke when he thought she was prepared to listen. “It is not easy. When it first happened I… did not react well. I ran off and bought a sword, a terrible piece of pig iron barely worth the name. I hired a few local hunters, did not tell them what they were tracking. When I found the thing that had done it I was not ready. I was not prepared in my mind or my body. It made easy work of me and it was only by a small miracle that I survived. If I had reacted out of logic and thought rather than hatred, sadness, and anger I may have actually succeeded. I let my emotions rule me and it very nearly cost me my life. I found my cold dark place that day.”
Slowly she cognized what Gregor was telling her, “I was going to say that I was not so lucky as to survive my own attempt at vengeance.. but then, I guess I’m here now… I don’t feel very lucky.” She took a few moments, trying to relax into his embrace, with only middling success.
“Luck has very little to do with it. I mean I survived sure but accomplished nothing, and that thing is still out there. I more think that I was chosen to kill it. But that is neither here nor there. I am not some sort of stoic either, emotions are a natural part of us. I was taught to use them to drive myself to action rather than allow them to take over.” Gregor did not let go of Amarantha as he spoke.
“You make it sound so easy… Does,” she hesitated, her voice betraying her uncertainty, “Does the loss ever get easier to bear?”
Gregor thought about the question for a long time. “No… but…. would you want it to?”
“Yes. No… I…” she was trembling. “I don’t deserve it,” she whispered.
Gregor drew deeply again from his pipe. “Now you’re just being young and self defeating. Think about what Seralyn would want from you. Was she really so petty that she would want you to agonize over her for years to come? I may not know her but I imagine anyone who you would willingly associate with would have the basic empathy necessary to realize that no one deserves that level of self torture.”
“No, she wouldn’t. She was the most giving soul I’ve ever known.” Amarantha shuddered trying vainly to shake off the memories and guilt, “I may as well have killed her with my own hand, I’m such a damn fool. I shouldn’t have shown her any favoritism, Eamon would never have if he didn’t know how much it would hurt me. That monster, I should have killed him when I had the chance.” She choked back a sob, “I had the chance, I had my chance and I didn’t take it, and I died, and now she’s dead, and he’s dead, and there’s nothing I can Do”
“Did you hold the sword that killed her, did you poison her? Did you even fall in love intentionally? No. None of these things you did with any intention to hurt her or anyone. Your brother Eamon did those things and you know it. Blaming yourself is misplaced. When you learned of what happened you did the right, albeit rash, thing and confronted him. What more could you have done.” While he spoke Gregor fumbled around in his long coat and eventually produced a small book.
She leaned against him; the rage and guilt mellowed as he spoke, no longer shaking her with its force. “You don’t understand,” Amarantha’s voice had a cold edge of hate and pain, “Yes, I was rash to challenge him. But I had him. Three times I had him in that duel that I could have killed him. And I knew it.” She sighed, deflated, “All the rest, you’re right, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t change how things happened… But I will never make that mistake again. Seralyn and I both would have lived if I’d had the sense to end things quickly.” Her hand went to her neck looking for a scar that wasn’t there, “That it should cost me my life to learn my lesson I can accept. But she deserved better.”
“Well, now you know better. All life, and I guess in our case death, is about learning and hardship. We learn through pain and sadness, and we also learn through joy and happiness.” He flipped through his book before settling on a particular well worn page which he read from. “ ‘Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of you and your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’ I happen to like that passage quite a bit.”
Amarantha tilted her face up to watch him speak; The pain had faded to a comfortable roar, and something she couldn’t quite place was lurking beneath it. “You really are something else… Does that book of yours have any more pretty words, Gregor?” Her words a mixture of genuine curiosity and flippancy.
“This,” Gregor indicated the small book. “Is my abridged Book of the Word and hymnal. I would happily read more of it to you if you could stomach such a thing.”
“Huh,” somehow she hadn’t actually anticipated Gregor’s response, obvious though it should have been given their past debates about faith. “I can stomach a lot of things. I am curious, though I may regret it later.”