One of the goals of SPFBO is to give a chance to self-published authors to get more exposure. This year I’m taking part in the competition with my own team. You can keep updated on our progress and all of our content on my SPFBO 5 page!
Tales from the Asylum is a new feature I came up with for SPFBO. I wanted to create a unique opportunity for the authors to show off their story telling skills by taking their characters and putting them in an asylum room to see how they would deal with the situation. A lot can happen in a closed space…
Angela Boord lives in northwestern Mississippi with her husband and nine kids, and writes most of her stories at the kitchen table surrounded by crayons and Nerf guns.
FORTUNE’S FOOL is her debut novel. She is currently hard at work on more books in the Eterean Empire series, with book 2, FOOL’S PROMISE, slated for release in mid-2020.
This scene takes place during Kyrra’s years as a sellsword in Rojornick, in between the past and present narratives in Fortune’s Fool. It *might* figure into a future book…
The Lady Serodnaya must have been a beautiful woman, before impending death twisted her limbs like a wind-sculpted mountain pine, pulling her pale skin tight and thin over the bones of her face until it was almost translucent. The flickering light from the racks of votive candles in their colored glass holders on the wall seemed to shine through her.
Her amber brown eyes glowed feverishly as she watched me walk in the room, accompanied by two of her husband’s personal guards. When they closed the door and left me there, the sound of the bolt shooting home echoed on the stone walls as if I’d just been admitted to a prison cell, not the lady of the hold’s personal bedchambers.
The lady smiled at me, her eyes narrowed as if she knew all my secrets. “So,” she said, in a weak, raspy voice, using the knuckles of her gnarled hands to smooth her blankets. “Your name is Kyris, isn’t it? I’ve been waiting for Markus to allow you up here. I asked to see you and that metal arm as soon as he hired you. And now, suddenly, you’re to be my companion. I suppose that means you’ve finally made him trust you.”
“Yes, my lady,” I said, bowing. It was true. Lord Markus Seroditch trusted me with his wife, because he knew my secret; under my male disguise, I was a woman. But the real reason I was locked in this room was because he didn’t trust me to do my job as a soldier. My failure there hurt almost as much as the wounds of my recently administered flogging. I tried not to wince as I straightened back up from my bow. But it was my own fault. I had put other men in danger by my actions on the mountain. Guilt and shame tasted bitter, but I couldn’t help directing one last, longing gaze out the narrow sliver of window as I swallowed. “He instructed me to lay your fears to rest regarding my arm,” I said.
The Lady Serodnaya regarded me for a moment, head cocked like a bird’s. Then she moved her hand in the direction of the straight-backed wooden chair. There was no cushion, though I would be sitting with her indefinitely, and her chambers were otherwise not austere. More punishment then. “Sit,” she said.
I obeyed, drawing the chair to the bedside. This close, I could tell that her pupils were too large, like pools of black water spreading over dead leaves on the forest floor. The brown glass bottle sitting on the bedside table, its neck crusted white, provided the answer to that; she’d been taking kacin for her pain. Everywhere I looked death crouched like a waiting jackal. And yet, she was too young for such a fate. Her hair was a dull brown, but it hadn’t yet turned gray, and all the lines on her face were written by her disease.
“My husband is an important man,” she said. “A brave man. But he doesn’t realize that enemies might work other fields than battlefields. Does it amuse you to think of me trying to protect my husband?”
I blinked in surprise. “In what way are you protecting him, lady?”
Her gaze drifted to my right arm. “I know more about magic than you might think.”
I was wearing gloves that hid my metal hand, and my sleeve covered the rest of it. I took a deep breath. Markus had told me that my mere presence was driving his wife mad. She had been asking for me for weeks. My arm was the reason he’d assigned me this duty instead of condemning me to perpetual cleaning of the barracks or some other, more reasonable punishment for not obeying orders.
The men are already calling you a wight, saying you ought to be dead. But I won’t have you endangering anyone, and I think it will take more than a flogging to teach you that lesson. I love my wife, more than my own life, but after you spend some weeks with her, you will do anything your commander tells you, just to be let out of that room.
I took a deep breath and sat as straight as I could, ignoring the discomfort from the wounds on my back. I was determined not to give her any reasons to tell Markus I wasn’t doing this job properly. “It’s only an arm,” I said, pulling off my glove, then pushing up my sleeve so she could see the metal.
She flinched, her face contorting. “Keep it away from my bed,” she said. “I’ve no use for that kind of magic here.” She coughed and shut her eyes for a moment. When she opened them she said, “It glows a fine red.”
Her lips pinched tight. “My proximity to death gives me a special sight. It’s a war I’ve waged. Just as deadly as my husband’s wars, but it leaves less evidence.”
Wars of tea cups, maybe, the kind women fought. In a different time and place, she might have met with my mother to wrangle a dye contract for her husband or a courting candle for her son. It had been a long time since I’d been in the company of such a woman, or since I was involved in that kind of dealing. As it often did, the thought of my mother caused a pang in my heart, bittersweet. But maybe the lady meant another kind of war.
What kind of war would magic fight?
“Believe me, lady,” I said. “I mean no harm to your husband. He’s given me shelter, employment—regular meals. I’d fare far worse in the snow. I have no desire to cross the road to the Kavol.”
Not after I had sent one of their number falling off the mountainside, in any case. The wounds from the flogging pulled, but Markus’s lady pinned me in my uncomfortable position with her gaze. She leaned forward, minutely.
“Not now perhaps,” she said. “But red is the color of death.”
My anger snapped, fanned by my discomfort. I tried to swallow it down. “In Liera, where I’m from, the color of death is black,” I said in what I hoped was a reasonable voice. “If your husband has enemies, it’s my job to fight them off.”
And to listen to my commanding officer’s orders, if I ever get out of this room again.
“Foreign magics, you bring into our home. That arm. What a foul, foul thing.” She wrinkled her nose and turned aside, as if she could smell the rottenness on me.
I flexed my metal fingers. The rainbow light of the votives rippled over my silver knuckles. The thick canopy of gold brocade above the bed captured the light and cast it downward, and my hand reflected the brilliance when I turned it, flashing light like a blade.
“A man made it for me so I could save myself,” I said. “Otherwise I’d probably be dead.”
“Tell me about him then. What manner of man was he?”
How to explain Arsenault to her? How to explain him without giving myself away? Suddenly, my sex didn’t seem like my most important secret.
My throat tightened, and I tugged the collar of my tunic away from my neck. “A good man,” I said. “Another sellsword, like me. A gavaro, back in Liera.”
She snorted. “If you gavaros were any good, you’d still be in the places you were born to.”
“The world sometimes works beyond our control,” I said. “When it moves it carries us along with it, whether or not we choose to go.”
Her eyes narrowed on me again. Dammit, I was going to fail this assignment, too, wasn’t I?
“My lady,” I added quickly.
“You were noble once,” she said. “Weren’t you?”
I raised my head. “Yes.”
Her mouth drew up at the corner. “And what about this man who forged your arm? What was the mistake that led him to the warrior life? Was it an accident of temperament or exile?”
“He didn’t speak of it much.”
In reality, he’d rarely spoken of it at all. Arsenault had a talent for answering questions by not answering them, and in many ways, he remained almost as much a mystery to me as when I had first met him, not long after my arm was severed. Maybe I didn’t know many facts about his life, but I knew him, and thinking about him now made me miss him fiercely. What was he doing? Was he still alive? He had left me to fight a war. Sent me to safety, made me promise to go. The only time I saw him now was in my dreams.
Without thinking, I touched my forehead, where he’d traced his rune of protection in a dream many nights before. Then I flicked a stray strand of curls out of my face, as if that had been my goal all along. But the lady saw me.
“Take your hand down,” she said.
I had no choice but to obey.
She squinted, craning her neck to see my forehead. Then she let her head fall back into the pillows and gasped for breath. The color in her lips faded, turned a grayish-blue…
Dear gods, what if she dies on my watch?
I rose quickly, reaching for the pitcher that stood on her bedside table, my heart hammering. “My lady, are you all right? Some water, perhaps, or–-”
“No,” she wheezed, waving me away as she caught her breath. “Water won’t help. It’s the magic, eating at my body. Keeping it away is almost impossible now, and yet I must continue to use it. How am I to protect Markus otherwise?”
“Lady, I don’t know how to assure you any more, but the magic Arsenault gave me is not directed against your husband. I’d be a fool to try to hurt him.”
“But he punished you, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but only within his rights. The judgment was fair; I’m the one who acted without thinking. And where am I to go if he ends my contract?”
“Threats against him lurk everywhere,” she said, leaning forward as far as she could. “I trust no one, not a single person! The Grand Prince has all the resources of Rojornick at his disposal. Do you think he couldn’t buy a magician to make an arm like that?”
Her eyes burned hot, the brown swallowed up almost entirely by black, kacin-blown pupils. The air crackled around her, the way it did before a lightning strike. The hair on the back of my neck rose, and my arm groaned.
“Lady—” I said in alarm, putting both my hands up where she could see that they were empty, nonthreatening. “I’ve never set eyes on your Grand Prince. I got in trouble at home in Liera, and I ran away. I was in the peaks until the snow came, and that’s the truth. Ask Lord Seroditch and he’ll tell you; I wasn’t a threat to anybody when I finally came down. I was starving and almost dead.”
“No one believes me,” the lady muttered in a bitter voice, falling back against the pillow and tossing her head, first to one side and then the other as the magic writhing in the room subsided. “They can’t see the threats, so they assume they don’t exist. The chirurgeons say I have a wasting disease, some ill humour that seeped into my bones, perhaps as I slept at night, perhaps from the cold. As if I wasn’t born and bred to these mountains?”
She turned her strange, wild gaze on me again, her chest heaving, breathing as hard as if she’d been running. “Death, you bring with you,” she panted. “And war. You run from both, but they swirl around you, wherever you are.” She took a ragged, whistling breath. “And yet you are sealed from their effects. Protected by your own blood and the metal within your soul, the whole of it completed with bloodrunes only a powerful Fixer might write.” Her breathing made her sound like she was drowning. “My grandmother told me of such men. I thought she was lying. But now you are here.” The little air she’d taken in left her in a rush. “What has he created?”
“It’s just an arm,” I said, desperate to reassure her, to calm her down. “It’s a blessing and a curse, but it’s only an arm.”
Perhaps if I sat down… I put myself back in the chair and scooted it away from her. If something I said killed the lady of the hold, Markus wouldn’t flog me or throw me out in the snow, he’d hang me on the gates for every traveler on the Spice Road to see.
“I only want to fight in your husband’s army,” I said. “I’m a gavaro—nothing more, nothing less.”
“You will bring my husband death,” she said. “I can See it already.”
“Lady,” I pleaded. “Your husband is the lord of a hold. From what I’ve heard, he courts death from a dozen directions, none of them magical.”
All the largeness, the danger, went out of her suddenly, and I regretted my words. Now she was just a small, frail woman, like the sketch of a person, lying colorless and faded in her bed. Her eyes glimmered, and tears leaked slowly from their corners, trickling onto the pillow, staining the silk pillowcase. She was breathing again, thank the gods, but was this state of affairs any better? Ashamed, I stared down at the fingerprints whorled on the fingers of my right hand, that Arsenault had taken the time and care to Shape for me. How I wished he were here with me now.
“Do you miss him?” the lady asked suddenly. “The man who made your arm?”
I stared at my palm a while longer, at the creases that could only have been made by Arsenault, who knew me so well. New lines on my palm, a new destiny granted me. One I wasn’t sure I wanted, since the only part he had in it was as a fleeting actor in my dreams.
“Yes,” I said, clenching my hand into a fist. “Yes, I do miss him.”
My answer seemed to satisfy her. She closed her eyes. “You’ll stay with me until I die. I’d like to know death before it possesses me.”
Her breathing slowed. The lines of pain on her face smoothed. When I was sure she was asleep, I rose and walked to the narrow window. Through its thick, bubbled glass, all I saw were blurry fields of barren white and jagged silver peaks.
Sanctuary, Arsenault had wished me, tracing that rune on my forehead, molding it into my arm. I laid both my arms on the sill and rested my head upon the metal. It was cold against my flesh, but touching it, I could almost feel Arsenault’s thumb against my brow, his lips on my hair.
He had wanted safety for me with no thought to his own, just as the lady pursued safety for her husband the only way she knew how, though it ravaged her body. She would never think she had done enough to save Markus. Would it comfort Arsenault to know that I had found my sanctuary trapped in a room with a dying woman? A dying woman who saw threat in every flickering shadow?
Did he understand how many times I would put myself in danger, if it only meant I could be reunited with him?
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Angela Boord entered Fortune’s Fool into SPFBO and got elected as a finalist by Nicole at Thoughts Stained With Ink. Read her review here.
Please check out all the other tales on my Tales from the Asylum page!