The Stone Heart's Lament

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Madame Chimera watched him intently. “Who is Ruthy?” She asked him again, pointedly.

Rashari rubbed viciously at his face, still berating himself for forgetting all about Ruthy. “She was Remus’ lover, once upon a time.” He said, choosing his words carefully. “Even among raider women, who tend to give lie to any notion of the fairer sex, let me tell you, Ruthy is...well, ruthless. Her ambition is clear as day. She wants to rule. And while every bloody raider wants to be top dog, most lack the wit and means to achieve their ambition. Not so Ruthy. She took Remus for everything he had and then moved on to greater things – namely Nylous himself. Last I heard she was Nylous’ lover and helpmeet.” Remus had died still wanting her back. That had been what their layover in Danitz had been about. Ruthy had caused the rift between Remus and Nylous. She’d done it on purpose, he was sure. She played the game of divide and rule better than anyone.

“Then she would be well placed to engineer your current plight.” Madame Chimera suggested after a moment. “She would know you. She knew Remus. She could broker a deal between Einar and Nylous.”

“She’d certainly have the brains to do it.” Rashari admitted honestly. “I know I was glad when she dropped Remus. The woman unnerved me. She has a way of looking at you like she can see right through you. No, actually that is far too benign. It is as though she glare right into your soul. I always felt as though I was being dissected, piece by piece, weighed and measured for my worth, whenever that woman looked at me.”

“You did not like her.” Madame Chimera seemed surprised by this, curious.

“I most certainly did not.” He agreed with some feeling. “There were a fair few times, during her dalliance with Remus, that I was certain she tried to persuade him to kill me.” He shivered and started to unbutton his waistcoat. The sodden fabric constrained his chest and he knew his shirt would not dry while he continued to wear it. The fact that fussing over his clothes gave him an excuse not to look at Madame Chimera was simply a happy coincidence.

“You have to understand, the life of a raider’s indentured apprentice is one predicated on the simple fact that one’s life expectancy is to be counted in months not years. The prevailing philosophy is that only those who are vicious, conniving and brutal enough to make it as a raider should actually do so. Apprenticeships are therefore a process of weeding out the weak from the strong.” He shucked the waistcoat and wasted a few more precious seconds laying it out across the grass just so. “As much as I hated it, I needed to curry favour with my master to save my own skin. I was Remus’ slave, he owned me. I needed to try to remain in his good graces. Ruthy made that difficult. She was...a rival, I suppose. When Remus was smitten he listened to her over me. That was less than ideal when I needed to ensure I was all but indispensible to my master.”

Madame Chimera nodded thoughtfully. “Did you not try to have her killed also?” She asked simply.

“What? No.” Rashari blinked, thoroughly startled. “Really what do you take me for? No. I simply did my level best to convince Remus that Ruthy was a gold-digging harridan. Of course while he was besotted all that got me was some interesting bruises and a lot of time in a stockade. But once Ruthy showed her true colours – that of a gold-digging harridan – the fact that I’d been right granted me some small favour. Remus trusted me a little more after that.”

“Until you made a deal to betray him,” She pointed out dryly.

“Well, yes.” He winced. “Did you really have to put it like that? Really what I did was to be expected. It is practically a raider rite of passage. The apprentice is supposed to betray the master, or die trying. It is the done thing.”

“That hardly seems practical - or particularly efficient.” Madame Chimera wrinkled her nose rather delightfully.

“And you should be very grateful for that lack of efficiency.” Rashari said somewhat primly. “Just think how dangerous we raiders would be to the world in general if we put as much energy into conquest as we do in-fighting and backstabbing.”

The Madame levelled upon him a very flat look. Rashari decided that he should probably return to the point forthwith. “Regardless of all that, I don’t know why Ruthy would have it in for me specifically. She really wasn’t all that fond of Remus. I can’t imagine she’d care that I planned to betray him. It must be about the stone. Nylous must want it –but that doesn’t explain how she knows so much about me –or it, for that matter.”

“You said that deific energy was an open secret,” Madame Chimera said quietly. “The Adran Empire knows the most about it, through DeLunde and Project Pandora. Surely they are not the only ones to think to use the power of gods? Veridree is a Dushkui sect. Does this Nylous have ties to Dushkuland’s king?”

“Almost certainly. All the great powers use raiders as proxies. All that looting and pillaging can be politically useful.” He smirked at Madame Chimera. “I’ve met Nylous once, maybe twice. I can’t speak of the man’s affiliations.Still I see where you are going with this Madame, and you are right. If Nylous was working for Dushkuland and got wind of DeLunde’s interest in the stone; well, even ignorant of the power of deific energy, stealing the stone from the Adran Empire would be incentive enough.”

“That does not explain how Ruthy knew about your – affliction.” Madame Chimera pointed out. “Surely you did not tell Remus what you were?”

“Gods no; keeping that a secret was my greatest achievement.” He frowned, pursing his lips. “Or so I thought.”

More than any other aspect of this mess the thing that scared him most was the thought that he had done something to tip his hand. He had let something slip, said or done soemthing that had attracted attention. Somehow he had given Ruthy the impetus to watch him. He couldn’t imagine how she had discovered his secret –or enough of it to warn Remus, but she might not have needed to. DeLunde had never stopped looking for him after he escaped the Scarria labs (his personal prison). He’d run at fifteen, almost five years ago. He’d grown from a boy to a man since then, but he had not changed so much as to be unrecognisable. He had gone to great lengths to lose himself in the dark underbelly of crime and villainy that was the raider sects. He knew he couldn’t hide completely but he’d hoped at the least to put himself out of DeLunde’s reach. He had worked diligently to shape himself into something new, into someone else, since running away. Clearly all that work had been for nought. He’d failed. He’d failed utterly.

“You are not an ordinary,” Madame Chimera pointed out, almost as if she could track the progression of his thoughts. “You are not an ordinary human or an ordinary apprentice.” She arched one eyebrow. “I have known you only days but it is clear to me that you are not one to remain unnoticed.”

“I was,” Rashari said mulishly not wanting to meet her eyes. Instead he looked out and away across the meadow to where the horizon wobbled like heat haze in the distance, blurring the edges of an already suspect reality. Idly he wondered what nightmare vista lay just beyond his line of sight. “I was no more or no less remarkable than any number of young apprentices. I made sure of it.” Without thinking he started tearing at the grass again. He needed something to do with his hands.

He had made sure to hide any evidence of his curse. It had been difficult at first. In the months immediately after his escape from the lab his control had been slipshod at best. He’d needed a lot of phantasma energy to sustain him back then. The scorpion’s hunger had been all-consuming and the only way to maintain control was to feed that hunger anyway he could. He’d found work as a technomantic engineer on airships, jumping from vessel to vessel and siphoning phantasma from the engines. That was how Remus had found him. He’d boarded the wrong ship (or perhaps the right one –Vedeca hadn’t been a shadow of what she was now, but he’d loved her anyway. It was just a shame about her captain). Working for Remus allowed him to supplement his need with the occasional handful of necromantic bullets. He’d been careful to be circumspect and had managed to wean himself off death energy, growing strong enough to keep the scorpion in line without it. He’d actually started to feel almost human. Now he wondered if that had been his mistake. Perhaps by believing even for a moment that he could truly be just like any other human he had let something slip. He’d grown stronger than his curse, stronger than the need, stronger than the hunger inside him, but that did not mean he had been cured. He’d always known that, but knowing a thing and believing it is not the same thing. Hope was a very ugly delusion, and dangerously persistent.

“Rashari,” Madame Chimera laid her hand over his, tugging his fingers out of the dirt. He looked up at her, startled (he had forgotten she was even there). Her amber eyes held something like compassion. He was in no way sure he liked it.

“What is done is done.” She told him, voice quiet but calm. “We gain nothing from questioning the past. It cannot be changed any more than it can be understood.” She sighed and briefly closed her eyes on some hidden sadness. “It is an old road, choked with weeds and obscured in shadow. Even if once we knew the path we walked and were certain of our steps, when looking back, it can seem as though we had been walking blind all along.”

He half smiled. “Is this your way of saying that hindsight is a mixed blessing?”

She opened her eyes. “It is my way of saying that whatever you did in the past, we have far more pressing concerns in the present.”

“True,” he laughed. “It has been, what, all of an hour since our last near fatal encounter? Something must surely be along to kill us any minute now.”

“With you around I have no doubt,” the Madame agreed, with bone dry sincerity. “But I had meant that we have to find something to eat, and water to drink.” She glanced at him as she pulled her boots near her and slipped one foot in. “We may be safe here for now but starvation will kill us just as surely as the jaws of any beast.”

“How do you propose to do that?” He asked scrambling to pull his still damp waistcoat back on and reaching for his boots. “I don’t suppose there are too many travelling vendors wandering around the Steppes.”

“You would be right in that supposition,” Madame Chimera rose to her feet and shrugged her coat back on. Her shadow stretched over him, plunging him into cool shade. The bright sunlight limned her silhouette, catching her pale hair alight and making it impossible to read her expression. “However when the next fiend comes along to eat you I had thought to ambush it. I am relatively certain I shall be able to kill it before it kills you.”

“Oh well, so long as there’s a plan.” He rose to his feet, biting back a groan as his aching muscles and creaking joints protested. “Smith where are you?” He looked around him. “Come on you little bugger, or we’ll leave without you.” He waited a moment. He knew Smith was close by, had been aware of him distantly, like a warm hum in the back of his mind all this time. Several feet away the grass trembled. Flowers and grass stems quivered in a moving trail headed toward his feet and the sun sparked brilliantly off a metallic gold knee joint. Smith waded through the grass toward them.

You would not leave me. He sniffed disdainfully as Rashari bent to pick him up. Smith climbed up his right arm and found his perch on his shoulder. Madame Chimera would not allow it.

That was probably true, so Rashari did not argue. He followed Madame Chimera over the grass, watching her back and pondering what he had learned, and what he still did not know. The scales were dangerous tipped against him. He suspected that what he did not know was definitely like to bite him up the arse sooner rather than later.

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