The Turning of Pesh Thanat

J. Lee Strickland

 

The Emperor had soiled himself again. Elini wondered what could be left inside him. She peeled back the thin coverlet and rolled him on his side. She could feel the intense heat of his body, and she hoped that whatever spirits dwelt within him would not leap into her. She held her mouth closed to deny them entrance, but opened her nostrils. Her mother had taught her that the smell of excrement could tell much about sickness and suffering. He stank of rotting flesh and the sour tang of iron, like a sword pressed against her nose—corruption and blood. Herbs and potions would not cure this, she thought with some satisfaction.

She pulled the soiled pad from beneath him, cleaned him with several dampened rags, and laid down a fresh pad, all the while with a hand pressed to his buttock to steady him.

“Who are you?” His head spun toward her, eyes bulging with fever.

“Elini, sir.”

“Do I know you?”

“I am just a servant, sir. You would not remember me.” She didn’t say slave. To say it would be to admit its truth.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“You are at Aerys, my master’s villa in Balmeron. You have come here often in the past.”

“What happened?”

“You collapsed in the street. Your guards brought you here.”

He was not the only one. Elini had heard of others overtaken by this strange pestilence. The sickness was swift and certain. People, she heard, were laid low in less than a day.

The Emperor’s body convulsed. Sweat beaded on his face, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Elini held still, her hand on his naked flank, waiting for the convulsions to pass. How strange to be here with Tocarian, the ruler of the empire, the man who had conquered her people, who had condemned her to this life of servitude, and he, as helpless as a newborn, at her mercy.

Delirium seemed to overtake him. He muttered, “Gods! You who led my victory over the Salmae.” His voice rose to a hoarse shout. “Heed me now!”

Angered, Elini pulled away, but he grabbed her wrist. In spite of his sickness, she was unable to resist his strength. He forced her hand onto his thigh. Why did he mention that victory? Her grandmother was among the women who fought shoulder to shoulder with the men in that battle. She died with honor. Elini’s mother was not so lucky.

“Melanys,” he called out. “Tell me what gods stilled the wind at your command. I need them.” He coughed, and his body shook. “Ah, but I killed you, didn’t I. And no god raised a hand to stop my sword. Who among the gods can stand against death?” He coughed again, and mucus spewed from his nose. “Gods of my father! You saved me at the Burning Plain. My men saw your signs as well as I. I have never denied you.” His head shook from side to side like that of a man chained to the earth.

She listened to his pathetic rant. There was a time when no god could stand before him, she thought. But now, would any lift a hand in his name? She wiped the snot and saliva from around his mouth.

“Water,” he croaked. “I need water.”

The physician had ordered everything removed from the chamber. “Let the fever that burns him exhaust its fuel. Give him nothing until it breaks,” he had said.

She looked at his tortured face, youthful and handsome despite the shade of impending death. The dark curls of hair that ringed his brow were soaked with sweat, his lips cracked and peeling. He was barely halfway through his third decade, barely older than she, yet already at an end.

It would be easy to follow the physician’s instruction. Do nothing. He would probably die the sooner, but as she looked over his ravaged body, pity replaced her anger. What would it benefit her to have a hand in his death? Revenge perhaps and its small satisfaction, but a true soldier does not pray for the enemy’s defeat. He prays for his own victory and that of his fellows. He shows mercy to the vanquished. She was not a warrior. Her breast had not been seared, but she, the daughter of warriors, had a warrior’s heart. She could show mercy.

She stroked the fevered flesh of his thigh, placed her other hand high up on his chest, bent her head, and whispered a prayer in her mother tongue—a warrior’s prayer that her grandmother had taught her.

He was quiet as she gathered the soiled rags and left to fetch water. A pair of Tocarian’s personal guards stood outside the door, hands resting on the pommels of their swords. Beyond them, the Bishop, the one who called himself Usabian, talked with her master and two others she didn’t know. Usabian called to her. “The Emperor, is he awake?”

“He is awake. He asked for water.”

“Water? Perhaps he is ready for the anointing,” Usabian said to the others.

One nodded. “The anointing! It must be done soon, before it is too late.”

They ignored her, and she moved off to the kitchen. When she returned laden with clean rags and water, they were all inside the room. The Emperor was speaking, his voice weakening.

“Usabian, call upon the gods to stay this illness. My work is not done.”

“There is but one God, Excellency, and He favors only those who have been anointed in His name. You have done great service to the Holiest of Holies during your reign, sire, but you have never sworn yourself to His name. Please, the ceremony is brief, before it’s too late.”

“Ah, your ceremony, Bishop. It’s a drink I need, not a massage.”

Elini stood in the shadows near the door, unsure of what to do. Now, Tocarian saw her. “Elini! Bring me the water.”

“But the physician…” Usabian protested.

“Damn the physician to the Dark Realm,” Tocarian shouted, his body quaking.

Elini moved quickly to the bedside. She held his head in her hand and brought the cup to his lips. The fever would break soon, she could tell. His breath felt warm and sweet on her face. His eyes were bright and steady.

His bowels loosed again. Elini’s eyes teared as she breathed the fetid stench. Usabian stepped back, turned, and covered his mouth against the smell. The others reeled in disgust.

“Gentlemen, please,” Tocarian whispered. “Leave us for a moment. Allow Elini time to restore my dignity.” The men left without protest.

Elini removed the coverlet. With great difficulty, Tocarian rolled onto his side. She cleaned him carefully and replaced the pad before easing him onto it. She made a sudden decision. It surprised even her.

“I can save you.”

Tocarian grinned through the pain that etched his face. “Those men outside, that’s their job.”

“To save you? They and their god will save you after you’re dead. Isn’t that right?” She sneered. “What kind of stupid salvation is that? To be alive, to have your power, that is to be saved.”

“You can do that?”

Elini nodded. “I can make you whole again. More than whole.”

“How?”

“The Salmae have practiced this for thousands of years. If a warrior falls in battle, another can lift him up to fight again. We call it Lenris. In your language, the Gift.”

“I have heard of this. I have seen, in battle, warriors of your tribe bloodied beyond recognition, who fought on like demons, but in battle who can tell? I believed it to be a child’s tale.”

“It is no tale. I can do this for you, but there is a price.”

“What would you have?”

“I would have my freedom.”

“A life for a life. That is fair.”

“That is not all I ask. Four years ago at the Battle of Pesh Thanat, you defeated my people. Many died. My grandmother died in that battle. My mother fought bravely and survived only to be raped, beaten, and killed in the aftermath. Those who survived were made slaves.”

Tocarian nodded. “This has always been done. It is the way of things.”

“Not with my people,” Elini countered. “Salmae women and men fight side by side. We have treated our foes with respect. The defeated we leave with their dignity. People who are not free are nothing. Those who enslave them, even less.” She wanted to spit in his face to show him her contempt for his “way of things,” but she did not. “I want freedom for my people, the return of their lands, your pledge that we will live in peace.”

“You ask a great deal.”

“You are the Emperor Tocarian. What would you have me ask? For a meal and a hot bath? My master feeds me well enough, and I bathe. He does whatever else he wants with me, but I don’t complain. Slaves have no voice. Smell your own shit, Emperor. You will be dead within a pair of hours. Choose death.” She paused. “Or choose life. It’s what I offer.”

Tocarian was silent, but he watched her steadily.

“There is one other cost,” Elini said, moving her face closer to his. “If I do this, we shall be joined. We will be closer than any husband and wife, closer than any parent and child. Your strength will be mine; my pain will be yours. What one suffers, so will the other. Whatever I have will be yours without asking. What I need from you will come to me unbidden. Only death can break the bond. This is the way of Lenris.”

§

Elini followed Tocarian from the room. He wore a clean tunic that she had found for him. Though ill-fitting, it did not detract from his regal posture. She felt admiration for his commanding presence—that feeling amplified, she knew, by what they now shared. Everything ceased when he appeared. The two guards stood openmouthed. Usabian and Mathon, her master, wore looks of confusion.

“Cloris, fetch my sword.” In his voice, his stance, his demeanor, there was no hint that he had lain so intimately with death only moments ago. The boyish-faced guard stuttered assent and trotted down the corridor in the direction of the street.

Usabian found his voice. “Emperor, what—”

Tocarian silenced him with a wave. “Time is short. Whatever has been done to prepare for my death must be undone. Whatever rumors have spread must be called back. Find your acolytes. See that it is done.” Usabian exited as if stung with a whip. Tocarian turned to Mathon as Cloris returned with his sword.

“Mathon. Thank you for your hospitality. My temporary infirmity has been a burden to your household, and I appreciate your tolerance and generosity.”

Tocarian moved closer. Mathon looked as though he were confronting a ghost.

“I need ask you one more indulgence.”

“Anything, Emperor.” Mathon nodded vigorously.

“This woman”—Tocarian indicated Elini—“she will go with me.”

“Elini? With you? But….” Confusion clouded Mathon’s face.

“I ask you to release her bond.”

“Emperor, not Elini! She is…. There are several of my slaves cleaning the courtyard right now. Please, have your pick of them. Take two, even three if you wish.” As Mathon spoke, he grabbed Elini by the wrist and pulled her to him. His grip was strong, and she felt its pressure. She didn’t struggle. Tocarian stared at Mathon, implacable.

“I have a right.” Mathon’s voice rose. “The state sanctions my ownership. I cannot be compelled….”

Elini struggled against his grip. Pain shot up her arm as he squeezed. She watched Tocarian. He looked at his own wrist and then at her. She nodded, and he understood. My pain will be yours.

And what I need from you will come to me unbidden, she thought. She drew a measure of his strength into her and broke Mathon’s grip. She trapped both his hands behind him in her own iron grip.

Tocarian smiled. “This woman is no longer your property. Resist me on this, and I will squeeze your head like a grape and stir your brains with my sword.”

“What sorcery is this?” Mathon cried. “This she-devil has possessed you.”

“This woman saved my life, a feat your physician could not accomplish. For that, I grant her freedom. You will stand aside.”

Elini released Mathon’s hands and followed Tocarian as he strode down the corridor.

“There are two others in the house who will come with us,” she said. Seeing his hesitation, she added, “In keeping with your promise.” She turned away. She was not asking.

She entered the kitchen. “Antis! Vala!” she called. An older man and woman looked up from their work. “Come, we’re leaving. We’re free. Leave everything and come.” She turned on her heel, hesitated, and called back over her shoulder, “Bring some knives.”

Outside, Tocarian had assembled his contingent. As Elini appeared, he pointed to her. “No harm is to come to this woman. You will protect her as you would protect me, with your lives if necessary.” To Elini he said, “You will come to the palace with me. You and the others—” he nodded toward Antis and Vala— “will stay there tonight. Are there any more?”

“Not in my master’s … not in Mathon’s house.” She reveled in the correction. She was free.

As they marched toward the palace, Tocarian talked. “Tomorrow, I will distribute a proclamation. I must go to the Senate—a formality. I will declare all Salmae free of their bonds. Your people will be provisioned and provided escort for the journey back to your ancestral lands.”

He walked close to her. She could feel the movement of his body. She could feel the stones beneath his feet. She could feel his desire to be near her. She wondered if he was aware, if her presence within him bled through, but she said nothing. Her own mind worked feverishly to parse the details of how to assemble her people for the return.

§

The Emperor showed the three Salmae to their rooms and instructed his staff to see to their needs. He pulled Elini aside.

“I don’t want to leave you,” he said. “I fear the slightest harm that may come to you.”

“Do you fear for yourself, or for me?”

Confusion etched his face as he struggled to answer. “I cannot find the difference.”

“If you open yourself to this bond, you will always know where I am. No hurt can separate us; no strife can force us apart. Only death.” Elini laid a hand on his arm, and he covered it with his. “This room you gave me…. When you look for me, look here. This is where I will be.”

After Tocarian left, Elini called Antis and Vala into her room.

“Go about the palace and find other Salmae who may be here. Ask them to come to me.”

A short while later, two young boys came to her door. She told them her plan. “Tomorrow, the Emperor will issue a proclamation declaring all Salmae free of their bonds. It will be read in the streets of the city and throughout the country. You must go out and find other Salmae and deliver this message: When they hear the proclamation, they must leave their places immediately, discreetly without fuss. They must come to the central plaza outside the palace. Tell them, bring a tool or implement if they can. We are starting a new life. We have need of everything.” She smiled at the boys. “Do you understand me?”

They nodded together.

“Tell all those you see that they too must tell those they know. We need to spread this message quickly to all our people. Now go.”

Throughout the evening, others came to her room and she gave each of them the same message. To the curious who asked, she replied simply that she had saved the Emperor’s life. This was his reward.

Finally, she was exhausted, wanting only sleep. She went to bid Antis and Vala good night. “You have done good work today, my friends,” she said.

“It is you who did the work, Elini,” Antis replied. “I can’t imagine how you accomplished this miracle, but I am grateful.”

Elini waved her hand, dismissive. “I saved him from an incompetent imperial physician.” She laughed. “Not difficult if you get there before they’ve done too much damage.” She couldn’t tell them what she’d done. It must remain a secret. Lenris had never been shared with an enemy. “The Emperor is a good man,” she said. “I trust he will keep his word. But you two have made some friends in the palace. It would not hurt if we had something for personal protection. Swords are probably out of the question, but perhaps a few more knives?”

“We will see what we can do,” Vala said. “Sleep, Elini. Tomorrow is a new day.”

In the dark of night, the Emperor came to her, both of them fierce and passionate. Such is the way of Lenris.

§

The Emperor must have sent out his criers early, for before midday Salmae were already gathering outside the palace. A huge crowd assembled, more coming at every moment. Elini came out to speak to them.

“Many of you know me. I am Elini, daughter of Lia, granddaughter of Peloris who fell in the Battle of Pesh Thanat, as did many of your kin. I welcome you to your first day of freedom.” As she spoke, Antis and Vala came from the palace, each carrying a large sack, and took their places at the head of the throng.

A disturbance made her turn her head. She felt the Emperor’s presence before she saw him, and her heart leapt with joy. He entered the plaza from the opposite side. Behind him came a line of soldiers and behind them another and another. He stopped. His powerful voice boomed across the open space, echoing off the palace facade.

“Elini. You have asked too much. I am facing rebellion in the Senate and in the Great Houses. Tell your people to return to their masters. Tell them I need more time.”

She felt dizzy from his words and from the intense emotions boiling within him—sorrow, shame, desire. She wanted to run to him, to mold her body to his as she had the night before, but she didn’t. She turned to the silent crowd behind her and spoke in the language of the Salmae.

“People, the Emperor has failed his promise. You know what to do.” Tears flowed from her eyes with the pain of saying it. “I will deliver to you his head. The rest is up to you.” Antis and Vala stepped forward with their sacks and emptied them—two piles of swords—in the street.

She faced Tocarian. Even from a distance, the bold lines of his face quickened her pulse. She turned her mind away and thought instead of the day long ago in the village when her mother placed the lamb in her lap.

“Calm, gentle, loving,” her mother had instructed.

With love, Elini thought, as she drew Tocarian’s strength into herself and watched his sword arm sink slowly beneath the weight of the steel in his hand. Calm, she thought, seeing the puzzled look on his face. Her hand gripped the hilt of the knife beneath her robe.

“Gentle,” she whispered as the surprise on Tocarian’s face dissolved into the wide-eyed, trusting countenance of the lamb.

She slit the side of her own neck, and it was the lamb’s neck she cut, the slice so fine, so precise that she did not feel it. The blood spread across her bosom, soaked her tunic, coursed down her arm, and puddled on the stones. She watched through the fog of her own waning strength as Tocarian fell to his knees and then collapsed on his face.

Behind her, a deafening roar rose from the crowd. They rushed forward past her into the confused and leaderless throng of soldiers. She fell to her side, reaching as she did for one last sign of him, but there was nothing. A young girl carrying a makeshift spear knelt beside her, laid a hand on her cheek, and began to chant.

 

J. Lee Strickland lives in upstate New York. His work has appeared in Pure Slush, Sixfold, Atticus Review, Latchkey Tales, Scarlet Leaf Review, Workers Write!, and others. He’s working on a short story collection similar in format to the long-defunct American television series “Naked City” but without the salacious title.