One Dull Distant Memory
Previous Story: https://forums.candarion.com/topic/1143/swear-it
It was well past noon when we arrived back at the palace. Cold had begun to creep back into the day and the group that we had seen shifted impatiently against the winds. They wore shawls and heavy coats stained with dust from the valley below, and if it were not for the bright orange banner that flew violently against the wind behind them, I would have mistaken them as peasants and nothing more.
“Prince Khoroush.” One of the bigger men among them called out as we approached, kneeling on the dust below with his head bowed.
We both froze.
I had known Khoroush as a prince and regarded him that way the first time we had met. But he had always been insistent that I did not treat him as such, and it had become easy to forget of the blue that ran in his blood. But to see others perform the obeisance as befits a prince drew me back to half-forgotten anxieties and uneasiness that we had worked hard to break between us. It reminded me of who he really was at the end of the day. And who I was.
He approached them uneasily as if he had forgotten how to behave at such a gesture of reverence, holding out his hand for each and every one of them to press their shawl covered heads against it, allowing themselves to rise only when they felt their prince’s hand on their shoulder.
“I did not expect to see you so soon, Aryosh.” Khoroush said, forcing a smile despite his wary voice.
“It has revealed itself to be an early spring, lord.” Aryosh responded with awkward formality in the language of the court. “Your Father-Saka has sent us upcountry for you.”
“And the tithes.” Came a voice.
Gozdarz stood by the open doorway of the hall. Behind him glowed the warmth of the hearth inside as the waning light of the sun outside began to colour the distant mountains red. His eyes flickered over towards me, and his lips tugged into a small frown that I had grown accustomed to.
“Indeed, Marzagha.” Aryosh said, his eyes cast downwards at the sudden appearance of the larger man before him.
Gozdarz made a grunt of a response, burying his nose further into his woolen cloak as a gust of wind suddenly blew between us. “The slaves will tend to it” He said, waving his hand for the party to come inside. “Come. Share the fire.” and he turned inside for the rest of us to follow.
I lingered back, wondering if I had made another childish mistake by promising to Khoroush something I hadn’t even known the stake of. I felt like a fool again, stumbling into things I hadn’t the wisdom to see ahead of time, acting impulsively.
Khoroush must have sensed the questions brimming from my eyes alone as we were left the only ones outside. He held my hand in his, smiling even as his eyes betrayed him. “I’ll tell you everything. Soon.” He reassured me, for he never broke a promise with me.
Inside the hall bustled with sudden life as slaves rushed back and forth carrying platters of food and mixing bowls of wine. Gozdarz had taken his seat at the far end of the room with his family, as all around, courtiers whispered greedily about the ones who had come to break the boredom of border-life in the mountains.
“I’ll meet you in our room?” Khoroush said, turning to face me suddenly. Looking over towards Gozdarz, I could see that perpetual scowl grow more intense as he glared openly towards me. I understood my place. I was not welcomed to this meeting.
“You’ll meet me there.” I nodded.
“Be welcomed, Shahristani-val, to Vatya-Manag.” Gozdarz announced behind me just as I began to leave the hall, his voice growing dimmer and dimmer as I climbed up the tower towards our room, and my chances of knowing a single thing of what’s to come with it. I pushed the thought away from me, if only to remind myself I will know soon enough. We were leaving, I was sure of that. And I would follow. That I knew.
Without realising it, I found myself packing when there was no need to. Other slaves would come to take our things away to the baggage train. But that is for another time. I needed it for now - to work mindlessly on things that were familiar to my hands until that time came.
There was a knock on the door, and before I could answer it, Kithia had let herself in carrying my dinner platter. I was not used to being served so readily by someone else - let alone someone I had been enslaved with. It had become easier over time to dismiss her with a simple thank you to avoid any of the lingering awkwardness that we both had given up on mending. But tonight had been different, as all nights would be from then on.
“Have you eaten yet?” I asked. It seemed silly for a boy to ask that question to the woman who had taken care of you and whose hair was beginning to grey.
Kithia did not answer immediately, her eyes narrowing its gaze upon me as if I were playing a trick on her.
“I have not.”
“Come join me.”
“I will not.” She said defiantly, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Then let me speak. Just this once.” I told her, adamant on this one thing. “I’m leaving. For Shahristan.” I said.
If she had any opinion about what I had just said to her, she did not show it, and remained expressionless. “For the prince.” She corrected me after a while. “You are leaving for the prince.”
“Yes.” I admitted.
Her question shocked me and I had trouble putting together an answer for her.
“Do you know what you’re getting yourself into, Tsaveyyo.” She pressed on, clear anger in her eyes. “I might have been born a slave, but I have been in this Forgotten land far longer than you have.”
“Ask your prince what will happen when he’s Saka. Ask yourself if you were ever really worth more than your weight in gold.” She was trembling in rage now, and there was pain in her voice.
I was stunned, shaken at her words. “What will happen?” I asked.
She closed her eyes now and her voice dropped from her high. “I have made peace with myself, Tsaveyyo. When I die here, I will walk with Antho, God of gods.” She opened her eyes once more to look at me inquisitively. “You understand what will happen to your soul if you die here?”
I nodded my head, unable to bring out words for an answer. It was said that our souls are returned to Twae’koa, so that we may be born again on earth to await our return to paradise. But Twae did not dwell here; no soul who has died here would return to be born again. This was the land that Water forgot, and all here would be left forgotten.
She sighed, stepping forward to place her fingers upon my forehead, making a small circular motion there. “May the Light be your guidance, and guidance be your Light.” She intoned. A solemn and soft prayer that reminded me of the hymns she used to sing at night. And without another word, without looking back, she turned and left me alone in that room.
Could fate be so cruel to give happiness too few to only to rip them away just as you’d think it would last? It was almost a cruel sick joke to be left collecting memories by the thimble-fulls. The poets sang of youths whose body slept the sleep of bronze that even death could not expose anything within them that was not beautiful. But all I saw were maybe’s and could be’s.
Khoroush came not long after, and I clung to him on the doorway, burying my face against his shoulder as I held him in my arms with the sudden urge to commit his body against mine to memory. “What will happen?” I asked him.
I felt his body tense against mine, felt his breath draw to a close as I waited for his answer. “When we get to Shahristan?” I felt him stalling.
“You promised. What will happen when we arrive there.” I demanded from him.
He held back and bit at his lips anxiously as he registered the wild desperate look of my eyes, understanding where my sudden need arose from. He wrapped his arms around my waist and let out a weary sigh. “If my father is dead; then to the strongest.” He finally said.
“When?” I pressed on.
“Not soon.” He tried to reassure me, though he sounded unsure of himself, “Not now.” I imagined cold daggers slick with blood buried in warm flesh and closed my eyes, squeezing him tighter, pressing his body against mine even further than before. “Swear it.” I told him.
His lips broke into a smile then - his genuine one now, tender and soft as he brought a hand up to cup my face, brushing his thumb across my salty skin. “I swear it.”
We left Gozdaz’s palace three days later. The border-lord and his courtiers all escorted us out before the palace as the slaves worked to prepare the baggage train for the journey ahead. “I hope my rivals take you as their charge next year, Prince Khoroush.” He told him just as we were about to leave, exchanging an embrace that was devoid of both fondness or malice.
‘Next year.’ I thought to myself.
He turned to me then, scowling his scowl that was fast becoming a signature of him whenever I was near his presence, and brought his large hands atop my head, ruffling it. “You were a waste of a purchase, boy. I only hope you are worth more than you weighed.” He told me coldly.
I avoided his eyes in discomfort as he left us, spotting Kithia amongst the rest of the servants who had come to bid their royal guest farewell. Her eyes were locked with mine, even as he remained defiant over any emotion she might have felt at the time. I watched her behind my shoulders every few miles that we moved, slowly watching her figure grow smaller and smaller in the distance until I could see her no more.
I would never see Kithia again. Many years later when I had come to find her, the older servants would tell me she had died years before. They had found her in her cot one quiet morning, clutching at the disc she wore so zealously for her distant god. She would have been far too young, but I believed them anyway.