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Excerpt--Raven Inconjunct

© Carole Cummings

 
     
     
     
 

Malick had always been enamored with aesthetics.

Even in the time he thought of as Before—back when he was mortal; back before he’d seen the terrifying delicacy and elegance of life, of the Balance of the gods, of the universe, of a single beat of a mortal heart—he’d admired beautiful things, beautiful people. He collected them, studied them, until he found something yet more beautiful and redirected his attention. Umeia told him quite often his attention span was that of a two-year-old child; she would change her opinion eventually and tell him it was actually that of a gnat.

His mother was the first to have held his attention. Not for aesthetic reasons, though yes, she’d been quite beautiful. Then again, didn’t every son think so of his mother? Still, the lines of her face and the drape of her hair had not been the things Malick had heeded.

The carefree nature with which she’d approached life; the hard practicality with which she’d lived it; the gentle but stern hand with which she’d led her children—those were the things Malick had seen beneath the near-perfect set of her cheekbones and the supple tilt of her mouth. But the ferocity with which she’d tried to defend herself and her children, when their father decided he wanted his family back and that a knife and a cudgel was a good way to get them—that was what had solidified her place in Malick’s heart forever. Turned a poor, mortal woman into something tragic and iconic, an ideal to which none could even attempt to aspire.

Malick thought perhaps he’d caught Wolf’s eye that same night, when his thirteen-year-old self—still all knees and elbows, but under the delusion that shock and grief and rage really could turn him into a giant—had driven off their father with his own cudgel. Malick was only sorry he hadn’t killed him. Sorrier he’d taken the time to grieve his mother and let his father slip away like a ghost into the darkness. That single regret kept his attention for years.

Umeia had been rather secondary in Malick’s attention ’til then.

She was beautiful in a different way, almost up there on their mother’s pedestal in Malick’s heart, but not quite. More their father’s daughter, really, with his looks and his disposition, and that streak of temper that turned to violence in their father, but in Umeia veered into protective instinct. She’d get violent, surely, if anyone threatened her own, and Malick was certainly her own. But she’d also come into their mother’s pragmatism somewhere along the way, and she was wily, Umeia, so she hardly ever had to opt for violence. Brains, brass, and boobs, Malick would tell her, always laughing and with a snarky grin, and he’d generally get a healthy swat for it, but he’d also get real smiles and cackles, and sometimes even a hug.

She’d been sixteen when their father killed their mother and Malick had almost killed their father. She’d had four genuine offers of marriage by then, even without a dowry or a swath of fallow dirt to bring to a binding bed, and then another three afterward. She’d refused them all, taken Malick out of Kente and to Thecia on money she’d made selling everything they owned, taught him cards and charm and petty fraud by the time they’d got there, and set him loose on the unsuspecting.

Malick had known he was aesthetically pleasing; now he knew what to do with it.

He’d loved all his marks. Every one of them. Strange, though, how their beauty didn’t seem to hold up to constant scrutiny. Blemishes of the soul were a lot harder to see than those of the flesh, but they almost always revealed themselves eventually. And then the beauty would fade for Malick, and the love would go with it, and he’d move on to a new love, a new purse to plunder, a new body to debauch, because none of them ever complained about the debauching. Malick had always made it a point to be very good at everything he did, and sex was just something else he did.

He didn’t have to trick or steal their purses from them. They handed him fortunes without him ever having to ask.

Beautiful women had left their husbands for him. Beautiful men had threatened to lock him up and keep him for themselves. Only one ever actually tried it. Umeia helped to dump the body in a swamp when Malick was through with him.

“Someone like that doesn’t deserve the fire,” she’d told Malick, satisfied. In that moment, she’d been one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen.

He didn’t know if Wolf had been watching him all along, but he thought probably. It had been Desi, though, that made Wolf decide that perhaps Malick might have his uses. Malick knew this because he’d had the audacity to ask.

Beautiful, of course; they all were, in their own ways. Desi had been special. Malick supposed that might just be because Desi had been taken away before Malick had found her flaws, and so she would therefore remain always beautiful in Malick’s memories. Still, though, Desi had been something else.

Sold to a Thecian lord when she’d been six, coddled, really, perhaps even a bit spoiled, and taken to the old man’s bed when she’d been twelve. She’d been seventeen when Malick had first seen her, her purse heavy and her dark eyes handing him an easy in.

She’d learned her art just as thoroughly as Malick had, and that bit of fractured steel inside her, covered over with layer after layer of silk, had bitten him deeply. She had fire in her, did Desi. Smothered to near suffocation beneath the oppression of captivity disguised as wealth and favor, but it was there, and she’d kept it kindling for over a decade. Here was one whose beauty was her strength, and whose strength was her beauty, he remembered thinking. Here was one who could laugh and bite and moan and snarl, and yet he thought she might—maybe—accept a cudgel to her beautiful face for her children, should she ever be blessed with them. Or cursed. Her lord was rather an old, ugly little man.

Malick had Desi twice, and then he didn’t see her again until her mutilated body had been displayed on the gates of her lord’s manor. FAITHLESS, the placard had stated.

Malick hadn’t wept. He hadn’t lost control. He hadn’t done anything but stare, mark each score and welt on what had been flawless ebony skin, mark each bruise and slash on her bloodied, disfigured face. Knowing, knowing, that Desi would go unavenged and unmourned, because she was chattel, and a man could do as he pleased with what he owned.

Malick wouldn’t understand it for many years, but he thought now that was the moment he became Kamen, even before Wolf had turned him. Back then, he’d only understood that justice didn’t come for everyone; sometimes you had to go and get it.

So he’d watched.

He’d waited.

And then he’d hunted.

It wasn’t easy. It took patience. It took charm. It took finding the right people and asking the right questions. It took amiably bedding those he didn’t even want to touch and wringing secrets from their mouths as he wrung orgasm from their bodies. It took finding that sliver of cruelty, a legacy of his father, and letting it blossom, take root, flourish.

Malick didn’t only take care of Desi’s lord in her honor—he took care of every man in the lord’s employ who’d marked her, who’d taken her broken body and used it as she’d spent her last breath on a cry of agony. Malick made them scream just as loudly and desperately as he was sure Desi had done in the end.

Malick was thorough. Malick was methodical. Malick hunted them down, one by one, and showed them what “merciless” really meant.

And when the last two had divined the too-obvious pattern and fled, Malick had stalked them across two cities and the reach of a sterile wasteland between, and taken care of them too. Thoroughly and methodically.

Wolf had taken him then, made him Kamen, and Malick-now-Kamen had dragged Umeia with him.

A whole new sort of beauty opened up to the Temshiel Kamen, Wolf’s-own. The beauty of vastness and things unseen by mortal eyes, and knowledge impossible to attain within the narrow stretch of a mortal life.

Hunting was easier now. It took him almost two decades to learn how to use the spirits properly, how to be just cruel enough to be sure you were getting the answers you needed, but not so cruel as to hasten their slow slide into true insanity. Malick did Wolf’s bloody work while he learned, and when he’d learned enough, he’d hunted down his father—an itch in the back of his mind for years—and made his mother’s murderer look him in the eye, know his son, as Malick strangled him. A knife would have been quicker, a simple surge of power easier; Malick had wanted to feel the pulse slow and sputter beneath his hand, wanted to watch up close as the life sparked out of eyes that were too like his own.

Malick generally got what he wanted.

Wolf’s law wouldn’t allow Malick to bury the corpse and so bind his father to the earth. Malick sulked a bit as he watched the pyre, but he obeyed. He was Kamen Wolf’s-own, and he respected his god.

And then, out of the blue and all unlooked-for, there had been Skel.

Malick hadn’t been impressed by Skel’s perfect face. Malick hadn’t been impressed by Skel’s raven-black hair, or his cobalt eyes, or the lines of his body, or the way he moved it.

Malick had been impressed by the carefree nature with which Skel approached life; the hard practicality with which he lived it. Skel was fierce and beautiful and whimsical and foolish. When he’d tested Malick in a seedy tavern—Malick somewhat drunk and grieving his mother all over again, grieving all those he’d already outlived, still smelling of the smoke and incense from his father’s pyre, and wondering if acquiescing to being the bloody hand at the end of Wolf’s long arm on mortal lands had been such a brilliant idea after all—Malick had been struck not by the pleasing angles of Skel’s face, or the open invitation in his too-blue eyes. Malick had been struck by the tiny hints of fracture behind the reckless audacity. By the singular pinpoint of satori that Skel was just as broken inside as anyone else; perilous enough to be interesting, and yet still strangely safe.

Skel was Temshiel. Skel couldn’t die.

He’d been beautiful in his way, in more than the aesthetic sense, though he was, of course, extraordinarily aesthetically gifted. His sense of justice was perhaps a bit rigid, to Malick’s mind, but it lit his soul with such a bright fiery blaze sometimes that Malick couldn’t look away. Blinded. Skel was beauty and distraction and laughter and forgetfulness. Skel was friend and sometime-lover; touchstone and confidant; role model and bad example.

Malick had thought Skel wouldn’t take a cudgel to the face for anyone. He’d been wrong.

There’d been Asai and foolish choices and betrayal and bewildered grief, and then there’d been no more Skel.

Malick finally felt the true weight of what he was. What he’d chosen. What his god had made him, and what he’d allowed himself to become. Malick looked Kamen in the eye, and… flinched.

He retreated.

Umeia didn’t need to. Umeia was much better than Malick at being what they were. Still, Umeia had come with him. Malick would regret that eventually, but at the time, he’d been grateful.

Always enamored with beauty, and now it hovered just out of Malick’s reach. No matter how many drinks he poured down his throat, no matter how many beds he fell into. He searched for it in the wrong places—pink lips, light-stubbled chins, firm breasts, muscled backs, pleasing faces, sweet-scented skin—he knew he was looking in the wrong places, but he couldn’t bear to look within. If he found it, he might lose it. He loved with little splinters of himself he didn’t mind risking, and nursed with liquor and more liquor the shriveled part of his spirit that hunkered inside him and hardened into a snarling little knot.

He observed the world around him with ever-growing contempt, nurturing his useless craving for vengeance, while he watched and waited.

And then, out of the blue and all unlooked-for, there had been Fen.

Malick had thought, right up until Fen had shot him that first hate-filled glare, that he’d been waiting for a chance at retribution. He’d been wrong.

He’d thought at first he was enamored with Fen’s aesthetic beauty. Angular and sharp-boned, every slant and slope in exactly the right place. Eyes like storm clouds over a roiling sea, flecked through with the light of the suns forcing their way from the other side in scattershot amber. And oh bloody hell, the fucking hair.

He’d thought it was Fen’s face: perfectly proportioned, perfectly angled, perfectly exquisite. He’d thought it was Fen’s body: deliberately sculpted and honed, and all the more beautiful for the intrigue of the scarred map of self-inflicted sanity. He’d thought it was Fen’s hair: an outward symbol of inward bondage, and the bit of rebellion in the choppy fringe that hid his eyes, but never well enough. He’d thought it was the way Fen moved and glared and spoke and sneered. He’d thought it was the way Fen snarled and spat and fought and came this close to actually winning.

And it was. It was all those things. Except all those things Malick could have walked away from. Yet somehow, he couldn’t walk away from Fen. Malick told himself it was because he just didn’t want to.

Fen was not whimsical. There was no laughter with Fen. Fen’s approach to life was not carefree. Fen’s approach to life was wholly self-destructive, and yet Fen wouldn’t permit that destruction until he’d saved everyone he loved. The way Fen loved was, in and of itself, a prelude to suicide. Fen was not safe.

Fen was a black hole, all unknown and unwilling, sucking those around him into hopeless orbit. Malick had passed the event horizon almost the moment he’d plunged into amber-shot gray banded by indigo.

Not merely fractured inside, but shattered, and yet Fen wouldn’t just accept a cudgel to his beautiful face for those he loved; Fen would wield one. Fen would learn the heft of it, how to swing it with the most precision, which point of the body to target, and he’d do it better, faster, and with a strange elegance that wasn’t elegant at all, but still dangerously seductive. He’d take your cudgel to the face, then snatch it away from you and very efficiently set about killing you with it. And then he’d make you thank him for letting you take the image of his terrible radiance to hell with you.

There was a feral beauty in that sort of brutality, one that took that pedestal Malick had set in his heart, decades and lifetimes ago, and rocked it. One that made it all too imperative for him to irrevocably accept Kamen into his skin.

Kamen was necessary to save Fen and Jacin and Jacin-rei. Malick was necessary to care enough to keep the trinity from splintering into irretrievable pieces. Kamen Malick was necessary to show Fen that living in the same skin with all the parts of himself, without losing any of them, was possible.

It had, apparently, never really been about aesthetics for Malick.

There were probably some things Umeia would tell him, things about broken dolls and wanting to fix them, or damsels and wanting to rescue them; Shig would speculate that Fen’s unwilling and oh so carefully hidden vulnerability appealed to Malick’s predatory instincts. Malick knew some of those things might be a little bit true, but they weren’t all of it.

It was the beauty in the shards of a riven soul; it was the beauty in watching that soul pick up each jagged piece, examine it, judge its worth, then discard it with learned indifference, or fit it back into the mosaic of Self, use it. The very tragic beauty in watching Fen do all of that not for himself but for everyone else.

A cudgel to the face was nothing, when compared to forcing life and sanity you really didn’t want on yourself because someone else needed you to.

Malick would’ve liked to say he’d known he was in trouble from the start. He’d dismissed it when Samin warned him, scoffed when Umeia did. Umeia thought she knew him, but she only knew Malick; she’d never understood Kamen. Malick had told Umeia she was being absurd, she didn’t know what she was talking about, and in many ways she hadn’t. Still, in that one thing, she’d seen when he had refused to, and it had almost cost him everything.

He’d denied he was in deep when he’d watched the trinity that was Fen shatter then rebuild itself on a lonely road in the middle of the night; he’d denied it when he’d watched Fen put a knife through the eye of the man he’d loved nearly all his life then pry his heart from his chest and stomp it; he’d denied it when he’d spoken the words and told himself he’d only said them because Fen needed to hear them. He’d even denied it when he’d found himself not just willing but eager to break the laws of his gods to save Fen.

When Fen stepped in front of Kamen’s sword, Malick couldn’t deny it anymore. When Malick understood what had been hidden beneath “Untouchable” as life bled from the wound Kamen had inflicted, Kamen stepped in again and forced life where it was not wanted.

He remembered wondering if Wolf had known all along, if it had all been planned exactly as it had played out, and he supposed it was likely. If Husao had seen all the esoteric and mercurial reasons why Fen would become life and breath for Malick, it was almost blasphemous to imagine Wolf hadn’t. Just as blasphemous for Malick to raise his fists to the sky and curse Wolf for it, though he sometimes did it anyway.

Kamen never did. Kamen understood. Malick grudgingly admitted that he did too.

Asai had failed mostly because he’d underestimated Fen, but partly because he’d only glimpsed Malick through Skel. Asai had known Kamen; he’d never known Malick.

Kamen was Wolf’s, but Malick was Fen’s, and he would no longer deny it. For Fen, Malick could be just as fierce and merciless as Kamen ever was.

It wasn’t going to be easy, showing Fen what he was now, watching as Fen came to understand the necessity of living. The onus now strapped to his back of doing so for others yet again. It was hard and cruel and just fucking tragic, and Malick bled with it.

Cruelty had never come easily to Malick; Kamen, however, had been born of it, had suckled at the teats of ruthlessness and brutal malice.

And he was, after all, neither Kamen nor Malick, in truth. He was one or the other and neither and both. He was Kamen Malick. He was Wolf’s-own.

So, then. Wolf’s will be done.

There was a vicious sort of beauty in that.

 

 

       
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