“And the girl?” asked the torturer. “The same?”
The Queen did not turn to her man’s gravelly voice. She did not want to see the smile playing across Bima’s scarred face or what he had done at her command.
Instead, the Queen lingered on the balcony of the palace. Despite the slight breeze that she sought, the late afternoon heat caused her golden sarong to cling tightly to her ribs and the backs of her legs. She squeezed her hands on the teak railing to hide the trembling that threatened to overcome her body. The edge of the sky tumbled a dark gray, the front of the tropical storm rising like a wall. Shafts of light broke through causing the rice fields to glow such a bright green that she was forced to squint. At the far ends of the valley, the jungle tangled dark and impenetrable, chaos kept at bay but always threatening.
Her world had become an endless mix of darkness and light, the two inseparable.
She inhaled deeply trying to calm herself. She was the darkness and the light rarely shown through. How had she become this way?
Mixed with the sweet rot of the jungle, she smelled the salt of the sea. The scent evoked a memory of the day she too had arrived in Savaya as a foreigner, a bridal tribute, but she repressed that feeling. Hiding her fears. Hiding her memories. How was it that the most powerful woman in the empire was forced to hide her true feelings? Maybe that’s where the darkness was born.
The Queen turned to Bima where he stood with the girl, the choke cord already furrowing the flesh of her neck. He did smile behind his tattooed cheeks. But the Queen’s attention was drawn to the boy crumpled on the floor. Bima’s cord had left a single, long red mark around the boy’s pale throat. His fur-lined cloak, a ridiculous garment in this heat, was soaked dark with his blood from the deep cuts and clever fillets that had made the boy talk, forced him to reveal the truth about the foreigners.
The Queen looked at the girl, her skin pale like that of a ghost, her braided hair the color of bone. Such a contrast to the mahogany skin of Bima. Before the arrival of the foreigners from the North, the Queen had thought her own skin light, but now she realized how mistaken she had been. Despite being a child, maybe a dozen years old, the girl was nearly as tall as Bima, her shoulders broad, those of a breed of fighters, these White Demons from the fabled lands far to the North.
They had drifted on their dragon ship after a month of misery on the Sea of Sorrows. A score of swaggering men, thick bearded. With wicked axes and tunics of metal chain. An army of such men could rule the archipelago. But these men had fled. The God-Emperor’s assembled thousands made these men realize that they had made a grave mistake landing their lone vessel. No easy pillaging in the empire of Savaya.
The Queen took a few steps forward, returning to the cool shade of her chambers. The girl stared at her. The Queen could see the anger in her eyes, but there was also something else. A deep sadness, one that the Queen recognized. The despair of being left behind. The Queen again fought back a rising emotion.
“Your name, girl.”
The pressing of Bima’s bloody knife against the girl’s ribs loosened her tongue. “I am Maja.” Her lips returned to their pursed state, a petulant look that made it seem as if any moment the girl would smile, or maybe unleash a war cry.
“Are the things your friend told us true?”
Maja’s gaze, her eyes the color of a calm shallow sea, did not turn from the Queen. “He was not my friend.”
The Queen smiled. The girl had spirit. “Are you the cook’s helper too?”
Now Maja broke her stare, glancing for a moment to look out over the jungle, in the direction of the coast. When she looked again at the Queen, her eyes were moist. “My father is the captain of the ship.”
“No king’s daughter then?”
“The jarl gave me no choice.”
“Did he even bring his daughter?”
“She hid below the decks.”
“And your father let the jarl do this? He willingly left you here as a hostage? Allowed the jarl to present you falsely as his daughter? Knowing that lies only lead to death? He did not fight for you?”
“My father left me here too,” said the Queen. “Long ago. But I am the daughter of a king. I was no false gift.”
“He’ll come back for me,” Maja suddenly said, stepping forward. Bima yanked on the choke cord and she dropped to her knees.
The Queen closed her eyes. Drops of rain pattered and hissed on the palm thatch roof. A breeze wafted from the balcony, the coolness touching the Queen’s ankles below the bottom of her sarong. The storm had arrived. Darkness descending on the land. If only the rains could wash away the years of blood.
Bima’s rattling voice broke the calm. “Your pleasure?”
The Queen opened her eyes to Maja tight in Bima’s arms. The choke cord bit into her neck, the flesh rising on either side of the leather. The knife had drawn a trickle of blood from the girl’s cheek, bright red against the unnaturally pale skin.
It would be easy for the Queen to flick her fingers and then turn back to the expanse of the kingdom outside her balcony. She could revel in the gilded turrets, the carefully tended rice paddies, the white banners flapping against the iron-smeared clouds. The world would go on as it had for decades under the beneficent rule of the God-Emperor. Order returned. Chaos strangled.
Before the fury of the storm smothered the palace, the bodies of the boy and girl would be gone. Of course, the blood stains would be another thing. The servants would be at work for days on the wooden floor, bent with fungal sponges and brushes and buckets of water, and as hard as they would try the stains would never completely disappear.
The Queen turned her hands over and stared at her palms. The dark shadows slithered across her skin. She had scrubbed them. Every day she washed them in near boiling water, soaked them in lime juice, scraped at the skin with lava stone. But as hard as she tried, the blood stains always hid in the creases, leaping with the changing light, liquid, elusive. Not always visible, but itching deep beneath her skin.
“He won’t come back,” the Queen said. “Your father won’t return for you.”
“He will.” Spittle flew from the girl’s pale lips. “We are not like you. Murderers.”
“Return her to her chambers.”
Bima hesitated, blinking.
The Queen felt tension rising in her hands. “She is mine now. Her life is mine, and she will serve me.”
“She is a demon. She is dangerous. A great danger to Yavasa,” hissed Bima.
“That is why I am keeping her.”
Maja struggled and almost broke free of Bima’s grasp but he tightened the cord until she spasmed into unconsciousness and then he dragged her to the doorway where several soldiers in the white fungal armor of the God-Emperor picked her up.
The rain suddenly sheeted from the sky, blurring the distances. The surface of the river foamed white. The Queen peered at the jungle-covered hills and wondered how far the foreigners had gotten.
Did Duke Buranchiti permit them to sail them out of the mouth of the river and into the bay where his ships waited or had he grounded them on the beach at the foot of the Eye of the East? She opened her palms, the shadows retreated to the creases in her flesh. Maja’s father would not return for her. None of them would. They would never reach the Sea of Sorrows. If they were not in the dungeon yet, they would soon be dragged down those steps, the Duke deciding which of the pincers, needles, and knives would reveal the secrets of the demons from the North. Duke Buranchiti enjoyed it all too much.
The Queen needed to talk to the God-Emperor about the Duke. He was becoming increasingly bold in his displays of power lately. Better to keep him close, and his son even closer. Chaos had no place in Yavasa.
But later. Right now her palms were itching and she needed to sit down with a pumice stone. Maybe the fresh rain would wash the shadows away.