A Short Story
By E. S. Furlán
“There can be told no story of a love more fair than that of Ilas and Mannem, divine souls cast only twice from their die.”
Cups of ale in hand, froth spilling over the brims as Kanika and Tellio swayed in the alleyway together outside the Wonky Donkey Inn. The occasion, not that they needed one, was Kanika’s twentieth nameday. The curfew was not yet in place, the sun still balanced on the horizon like like a spinning coin about to drop. Their alcohol rations, saved for weeks, were almost spent and all they had left was the sun’s dying light and the faint tinkling of wind chimes in the low summer breeze to serve as their accompaniment as they danced among the mud and stones of Argorien’s streets. Kanika let her pale blue eyes find Tellio’s gaze and they shared a smile. She let her fingers tug playfully at his collar, his grin of anticipation all the answer she desired to a question neither needed to ask.
“You smell like ale,” Tellio said. He pressed in close, their lips meeting in warm ecstasy, the dance slowly. Kanika chuckled.
“As do you, lover,” she replied. Her fingers slid up into his white hair, their palid skin flushed in the cheeks from both lust and ale. “We should go back to your house and sleep it off.”
“You read my mind,” Tellio said, pulling her in by the waist and kissing her long and hard. They broke apart and returned their cups to the inn, then made their way off into the evening.
“Sweet Mannem and Ilas the Cruel, no sooner met than to bed, found but brief relief ‘fore Fate turned eyes on their love.”
“What’s that up ahead?” Tellio asked as they walked. He slowed his steps. They were but a few minutes from home, the streets emptying as curfew descended, but revellers seemed to be blocking their path on the crossroads. Kanika frowned as she spotted them too.
“They best not be out much longer, or the guard’ll have them.” She and Tellio exchanged a glance. He gave an exasperated sigh as he realised her intent.
“Kanika, they can take care of themselves, and what if the guards catch us too, hmm?” He tried to take her hand to slow her, but only wound up being towed along in her wake.
As they drew closer, Kanika hesitated. Instead of the white-blonde tresses and pale skin of other Ilaseans like them, they were dark of hair and lightly tanned. Rich, deeply coloured clothes in silks and velvets with nary a patch or a scuff to show wear. Vraithans. Kanika glanced back at Tellio, noticed his lip curling in distaste for the carefree invaders making merry in sacred Ilasean streets.
Before they could turn and slink away to avoid the jovial group before them, but it was too late. One of the Vraithii had caught sight of them; he hailed them and the dozen or so revellers turned as a tide and headed straight for them.
“Nmuddyn of the many arms rose from the endless chasm, to pierce cruel Ilas’ heart. When fell flesh meets sky steel at the end of mortal reach, the wounds long inflicted lay deeper waste.”
“Fair Ilaseans, with tresses of gold!” The man who had hailed them was far more intoxicated than they were. “Noble people, will you not join us?”
Tellio’s grip tightened fractionally on Kanika’s wrist. Kanika smiled at the Vraithan and shook her head, attempting to skirt past the group, but another of the drunks stepped in their way.
“Come now, it’s the least we can do, given all you’ve suffered at our people’s hands.” The group murmured in agreement. The speaker turned openly to a guard posted on a corner some distance away. “Bastards!”
Kanika’s heart dropped. No Ilasean would ever behave so brazenly. The guard peered at them, readying herself to come and investigate, then seemed to change her mind.
“So what’s your name?” The Vraithan who had first hailed them had been inching closer, his friends edging around Tellio to touch his hair and exclaim at his eyes. Kanika glanced over at him in panic. He looked as unnerved as she felt.
“Kanika,” she told the Vraithan. He leaned in closer, seemingly fascinated by her face.
“A name fit for a princess, or even a queen!” the man exclaimed. “I am Atham, and the pleasure in this meeting is all mine.”
He grabbed her hand and brought it to her lips. The pleasure was undoubtedly only his, she thought as his wet lips pressed into her skin. His name seemed familiar, though, despite Vraithan names all sounding more or less the same to her. He withdrew his lips but maintained his grip on her hand.
“Nmuddyn knew the goddess would be slayer, not the slain, ‘fore the end time, but to wound was no great feat. One lash of his foul arm, and the two were parted evermore.”
“So where do you live?” he asked, still staring at her in a way that made her skin crawl.
“Not near here – my betrothed lives – ” The Vraithan threw an arm around her shoulders, all but catching her in the windpipe with a careless hand.
“Ah, no, it is almost a crime for such a beautiful woman to be betrothed already!” Atham said. “I should make it so.”
Kanika realised with a panicked shudder that the Vraithan holding her far too close was the Crown Prince, the son of the man and woman who had lead the charge against Argorien and slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands of Ilaseans who got in their way.
“You should come to the palace,” Atham slurred, still holding Kanika close. “Your friend will understand, I’m sure.”
Almost as quickly as the drunken group had set upon them, they were on their way again, leaving Tellio to watch helplessly as Kanika was borne along with them. As they left, the guard that the Vraithan had insulted earlier pushed off the wall she’d been leaning on and approached Tellio, saying something and pointing at the sky.
Kanika tried to break free and go back to him, but the drunken Vraithii nobles were pressed in at all sides, jostling and laughing, and Kanika lost sight of her beloved.
“Cruel Ilas raged, but all for nought, and wept ten thousand days. Mannem will sleep eternal, lest the Slayer find her sweet reward in souls a pair like they.”
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