One by one, the warriors of Bitter Flower return.
I watch through the broken screen, past the lotus room and the fighting pit to where the red rectangle of light at the outer door is interrupted by their coming.
They move like jaguars weary from the hunt. The cracks define their weapons – swords, knives, some have bows, a few pistols. Their clothes are a motley of armor or silk. In common are their bare feet, the patchwork stains of mud and blood, and exhaustion.
Sylvia leads the way, followed by two others who drag a third that looks wounded. As more come in behind them to spread around the lotus room, Sylvia pauses to examine the corpse of the dog still lying in the pit.
Her garb is no different from when I saw her at the commando camp; a black canvas jacket falls to her knees, sleeveless, and fastened with a belt over a shirt of dark mail. Her hair is a tangled mass of black kept out of her face with a strip of leather. Her wrists are wrapped to the elbow, and every inch of her is stained with mud and worse, her knees, her elbows, her black garments, her cheeks and throat.
The others watch the ring of men in the outer room with evident caution. A few words are exchanged with hard edges.
Sylvia’s eyes flick from the twisted canine corpse to the mauled shreds of the dog-man nearby. She raises one hand palm down as if declaring a benediction, but her voice is emotionless – a drone.
One of the men on the stairs answers her in Thai: “The trap is empty.”
Those words charge the air, conjuring a lightning storm of tense muscle. The newcomers shift their weight, coiling like springs as unconscious steps turn them to face the guns on the outer level, or toward Sylvia with ready weapons. A few of the outer circle lift their weapons and sight down them, aiming at the inner.
Sylvia considers the weapons pointed at her without fear. She turns her head toward the door and remarks: “Agafya.”
Agafya’s growl is distant thunder. He enters from the door.
As he was at Ayutthaya so he is now; naked except for his sword and the wide horn on a strap over his shoulder, but that strap has a pouch clipped to it now, which I may have merely not noticed before.
His eyes flicker around the room. His nose wrinkles.
Sylvia crouches and presses her hands to the floor. There’s a deep exhaustion in her bordering on surrender; it makes her crouch look like an obeisance. But her eyes search the room, looking for things I can’t see.
Agafya takes one step, positioning himself at the pit’s edge and the center of attention. Unlike the others, his posture isn’t a coiled spring so much as a landslide one stone’s weight from breaking free. By standing without gesture, he dares them all to attack.
Sylvia says in Thai: ‘Two walked in. The first was barefoot, male, hungry, carrying a body. Kan let him pass. He went to the throne and put the body down, then he called out. Hound came, and they fought. Hound called the dead to help him, but they came too late. The outsider killed Hound, then went out through the hound’s way to escape the dead. Unless he left by another gate, he’s still here. Then a second outsider came behind, killed Kan with a knife and went out through the throne’s door while the dead contended with the hound. The dead then went down by the stairs, and by the dog door. They are no more.’
She’s silent for a moment as her eyes rake the floor, then she adds: ‘The second was male, British military boot on one foot, cast on the other. He left by this door, about an hour later, now two hours past. Then these men came back.’
Behind her, Agafya raises his left hand, as if ready to grab her. His right dips into the pouch at his belt.
In Thai he asks: ‘Where is Maya?’
Sylvia answers with her eyes half-lidded and her shoulders hanging low. ‘Her tracks are hidden from me.’
Agafya rumbles, a sound I might normally associate with an earthquake. His lips spread in a grimace.
“Wek derosi,” he says, words I don’t know, and then: ‘has Maya spoken to you?’
At those words his aura floods out, encompassing her in trembling red which almost makes glyphs, and almost makes a fence about her.
She turns her head only, peering with one eye over her shoulder and through the tangle of hair, but her left hand closes to a fist. ‘No.’
His grimace worms into a mad grin, splitting his beard like a wound through chain armor as his eyes pivot to the other temple devotees who watch with their hands near weapons.
“Try!” he growls, his eyes mad pools of rapturous aggression. “Try!”
Hilda stands with the other warriors. I never saw him enter, and the Bronze Woman with her maple spear lurks in the shadows of the upper level, opposite my position and above the door.
With her knees on the ground Sylvia still seems to hang suspended. Her eye stays on the corpses in the pit. Her elbows rest on her squatting knees. Though no muscle moves, the coiled snake in her body slowly drains of tension.
A rustle around the room is the relaxing of tense bodies. Several silk-clad warriors step away from Agafya, lowering their weapons, but the rifles stay in the men’s hands and the newcomers don’t look away from them.
Aafya’s grin turns gloating. With one hand and a casual surge of muscle he snatches the body from between the two ladies behind him and tosses it four yards through the air, over Sylvia’s head to tumble into the pit.
The body sprawls in a spray of sand and rolls onto its back. One leg is in a cast, and the olive uniform of Captain Brass Worther is finally rumpled.
Agafya prowls past Sylvia at the pit’s edge.
“Who is other?” he growls, his tone even harsher than his accent.
Brass wipes sand from his eyes with a shaking hand. His nose streams fluid, and the twisting lines of his body outline cracks and tears in his ribs and muscle.
His voice shakes as he says: “Sorry, chum. I don’t understand you.”
Agafya growls, he gestures at Sylvia and she stands up, making a slender scarecrow next to his bearish bulk.
“Tell us who came in ahead of you, and your pain will be less,” she says, in perfect English. “Did you free any prisoners?”
One of the riflemen near me steps forward and raises one hand. His language has a thick accent I don’t understand, but his gesture points to me.
Agafya turns his gaze past the open screen and squints at me. His ugly grin widens with a horrible pleasure.
“Garbage came back to my house,” he growls. “Hurt Drydus? Kill Hound? Sharp garbage, what do you steal from me?”
In the pit, Brass flickers a thin smile. “I’m afraid I still can’t understand a word you’re saying. I don’t suppose you know charades?”
“My house!” Agafya’s bark rattles the wooden screens around the room. He drops into the pit and stalks toward Brass.
The Captain grits his teeth as the huge hands clamp onto his shirt, lifting him into the air with the ease of a wave tossing a boat.
He snarls: “Right then, get on with it.”
Agafya holds him in one hand.
“No,” he rumbles. Then he begins to speak, a long bass tumble of hard words in what sounds like Russian.
Sylvia translates but her attention drifts away from them and toward the top of the stairs, the carved throne, and me.
“He will feed you to the pit,” she says, absently, as she walks around the lotus room toward the stairs.
The men watch her pass them, carefully staying out of arm’s reach. Several held weapons track her, but she doesn’t heed them and continues to translate Agafya’s rant: “You will fight until you lose.” Her eyes hang on me, cold and opaque as a frozen lake. “Then rest until you fight again. Each time you lose, he will eat a part of you, until you are fit only to fight the littlest dogs and the children the devotees make. You will die fighting a child-”
Her steps have taken her half up the waterfall of stairs, and her gaze falls on Jenny.
Agafya’s rumble continues behind. It sounds like he’s enjoying himself, but Sylvia’s translation ends with a grunt like from a bullet strike to flesh. Her head twitches a rejection. She starts to reach as if to touch something too distant, but then springs to the stairs top. Her knees bang onto the hardwood floor as she falls by Jenny’s side.
Her shaking fingers touch the hole in Jenny’s forehead and a jumble of confused sounds tumbles from her lips in a nonverbal incantation of dismay.
Sylvia presses her face to her sister’s throat and her wail of anguish cuts through Agafya’s monologue like a scalpel through flesh.
The men near her back away. Tellerhorn stands and moves behind my shoulder.
Her cry sends ripples through the web of tension in the room. Another cry follows, longer, and so deep it ought to come from a body much larger then hers. It’s the sound a heart makes when something immovable has been removed. The sound has no equal, and I have heard it before – in the dark of the pit, and seen it written in every pair of eyes that has felt loss. Most cannot voice this sound: we haven’t the capacity to transmit so purely what opens inside us, but Sylvia manages it. Half a hundred eyes turn away, even the other half are shaken.
I begin to gather my feet under me, to rise and go to her, but a hand on my shoulder stops me. Drydus stands behind me. Beneath the mask of cracks, he wears a grim determination. In his other hand is the golden pitcher, and heros.
Sylvia’s body curls over the corpse of her sister, a ragged tangle of marred flesh and failure. But in the pit of her stomach is something new: a rainbow hue, dim, curling, and so beautiful it steals my breath. It flows up her spine, spreads in her chest, pools behind her eyes and sends coruscating wisps out her pores like a waterfall’s mist in sunlight. As it moves it brushes aside the snarl of cracks in my eyes like a flame through cobwebs.
I know this light. This transcendent power burns the brightest light, the richest anima, I’ve ever known.
It moves her. She rocks, and her tears shine with life. Each drop, a concentrated universe of anima – of life-force and feeling, pierces my eyes, burns back the hatred and the tangled death that covers my sight.
I can see her. Her body is curled memories bound together by flimsy flesh. Those memories are all fighting, torment, murder, unceasing struggle. The naked child with her flashing knife bares white teeth and barks, howls at her tormenters. She has fought through a dozen years, mastered her body and mystic secrets few know, fled and been caught and fled again, killed her captors and killed for them, until they followed her, until she knew no other home or way of being but the fight. But an old memory lives near her heart, a ragged thing, a book long beloved and read until its spine is broken, pages sheer and torn. In those pages, Jenny’s face waits, a picture of a wide-eyed child, innocent and smiling, and beckoning Sylvia home.
In the hands which curl against Jenny’s cold flesh, the pages of that book lay torn, and all the memories of pain and struggle flood over it, consume it, tear it apart and leaving nothing behind but disarray. In the broken glass fragments of her shattered self I see new shapes. An identity which is none of her memories remains and flowers among her body like fire.
Behind Sylvia, Agafya mounts the stairs. He stops at her shoulder and looks down. His face is a wall.
“Cho et?” he says. “What is this?
But if Sylvia hears him, she doesn’t care. Her hard body is frail to the fire inside it.
Agafya’s eyes dismiss the dead girl without ceremony and he turns his attention on Sylvia. He closes one hoary-knuckled hand in her hair and lifts her into the air. She dangles from his arm like a corpse from the hangman’s scaffold.
“Who is this?” he asks, pointing at Jennifer.
Sylvia’s silent struggle scrapes every pair of watching eyes.
The rag-doll he holds isn’t a person; it’s a human-shaped sack of anguish, with aggression hammer forged into its flesh and memory by a lifetime of struggle and the hands of masters. If I were him, I would not have gotten so close.
With nothing left of hope, Sylvia does the only thing she knows how.
With both hands around his wrist, she cracks her body like a whip, snapping a foot into his chest. The slap of the blow is like a strike of lightening.
The giant grunts and staggers, doesn’t fall, but before he can move she’s wrapped her legs around his arm and bent his elbow back with her body.
“Ah,” he says, his deep voice almost sad. “Finally.”
He stands for a moment, bizarrely resisting the flex of her body with his elbow alone. But then the joint pops like a gunshot, and at that signal the room explodes with violence.
Guns fill the air with sound and fury as arrows and bullets fly. The priests of the temple unleash their coiled bodies and spring outward like flame spreading through oil. Some fall as bullets find them, but few. They’re too swift, weaving like sharks through water toward the ragged men and their mismatched rifles.
My sight seems cleared of much of the tangle of mars that blocked it. All of the dozen who came in at the door and about half that number of the men who waited for them wear a lotus in their aura, or a peacock feather. Their bodies crowd with twining and brilliant anima which seems to lend their legs speed and their weapons force. But they are far outnumbered by the others: men nearly all, with auras a haze of tangled blacks and reds, adorned with the memories of pipes, poppies, and violence. Those men bare the marks of yellowed teeth and bodies made thin by hardship, but they’re also the ones with guns.
Some of these drug men have opened fire. Others draw blades or bayonets and rush to meet the flower wearers, while still others of the drug men run to gather around Agafya. Shouts and shooting thunder in the hall, and the sudden, fierce song of blade on blade.
Agafya spins, whirling Sylvia around like a discus. She tumbles free of him and twists in the air like a cat to land in a crouch, sliding backward. Her hand whips a pistol from under her open jacket before the backward slide is ended and her aggression pours toward Agafya in a torrent. He answers her pistol with the dreaming diamond, whipped from the pouch on the horn’s strap and gleaming with an evil light that cuts the wave of her fury in two.
Many voices cry out as the stone’s light shines – a chorus of words too chaotic to understand. Agafya’s grin is wild and unreasoning. The light in the diamond moves in his hand and arm as the ragtag drug men behind Sylvia reach for her with thrusting bayonets.
She steps sideways and vanishes into the smoke and sound as if she were a curl of incense.
“Well well,” says Drydus, at my ear. “This is a good start.”
He sets the heros by my knee. Then the huge warrior leaps away laughing into a knot of armed men who stand, back to back, looking in vain for Sylvia. A sword dances in his hands. The knot of riflemen scramble back as his laughter and blade cut through them.
Agafya’s pays him no mind. His eyes crawl over the seething combat. His left arm hangs limp. Something in the lotus room catches his eye. He shouts a loud “Ho!” and leaps down the stairs. The light from the diamond flashes out, searing through the crowding anima of two armored women and leaving them empty and hollow. Their weapons fall from their hands and, like tongues of the empty fire, they race for something to burn.
Above the open temple entrance a curl of smoke reveals Sylvia, standing and watching the fighting in the lotus room below her. She stamps her foot once and raises her hands as if lifting a heavy weight. Red anima rises from the temple like mist from a river. Already the air is thick with it as arms clash and wounds bleed, but it comes also from the stone and wood of the floor, from the tile ceiling, the panels of the walls. That red torrent of the temple’s anima carries images of a thousand striking hands, the stamp of fighting feet, the heave and thrust of intertwined bodies, the glaze of drugged eyes and curl of colored smoke. Bhetel nut and opium wash from the walls in a torrent of ugly red-browns – dog bark and bite and gold coins tumble in that putrid haze.
“Yes!” Crows the voice of Maya, in a whispered song as if spoken through the vibration of my ribs. “Yes!”
Deeper, older memories come from the temple: laughing faces, dancing feet, kisses and instruments of music. Those too rise from the floor and walls, but in many colors, riding the red like rainbows in mist.
I watch as the girl in golden silk I saw at Ayutthaya gathers those deeper memories around her so they spin in her aura as a whirlpool of light. The rush of chromatic anima propels her feet so they’re like a bounding waterfall as she darts past thrusting bayonets. The spray of blood in her wake might be rubies.
The bronze woman is a dancing mirror – her armor reflects the colors about her and amplifies them, so there seem a dozen of her moving different ways. Bullets pass about her like hailstones as she darts among her enemies. Her blade paints a daring calligraphy of blood, hair and bones on the temple walls.
In Agafya’s hand the diamond glows with evil presence. The empty ripples out of it, burning through the flow of life and memory in the floor beneath his feet like fire through silk.
One of the ladies throws herself at Agafya, a hooked blade spinning effortlessly in her skilled hands. Her aura is a host of laughing faces whose hands overlap along her arm, lending force to her swift blows. The light from the gem tears through her and wipes away the laughing faces as effortlessly as a wind spreading figures of smoke. She becomes another faceless agent of the fire.
The temple howls with a rainbow maelstrom of anima conjured by the temple devotees. Their violent whorls of memory and life thin the diamond’s light like storm clouds holding back the sun. But with each corpse spreading its blood on the floor the anima thins, and with soul hollowed, the diamond shines stronger.
As he fights, Agafya grins in delight.
“Rise, Summanus.” Maya whispers in my ear. “Repay your mother’s debt.”