Winterdim

Chris Howard

34

The Throne of Numezhin



I hadn’t really thought about it, but it just seemed normal that we’d come through in the middle of the night, and there happened to be enough reflected light from whatever star powered this place to guide us.

So it turns out, it really was dim, Winterdim, all the time.

But it’s not natural.

Give you one guess whose fault that is. Yup. Our illustrious overload, Numezhin the Terrible.

Dimness brought to you by the same fuckwit who brought you wings of fire.

How do you rub it in with those who live in the dark in a world under your oppressive thumb? Right you are. Big bad-ass and bright wings of fire.

And I thought I felt like an idiot sporting them in the middle of a dry grass field. In Winterdim it was like driving a tanker truck full of water through a desert of people dying of thirst—and fucking honking the horn the whole time just to let them know what they couldn’t have.

No sun to speak of? My first thought was how do they live? And then I thought of whole habitats at the ocean floor with a chemosynthetic foundation and suddenly I didn’t want to think about it anymore.

I hate the fucking ocean. And flying through the air’s not much better.

I couldn’t wait to get on the ground. Walk among whatever passed for trees here.

Where were all the orange groves? I smelled rich citrus every time I made some intimate contact with Reed and the Winterdim. Show me the oranges.

We settled for Numezhin’s palace, which stood about as far from the ground as a small mountaintop, and it was bright as midday back home. The bastard had done something Reed called “reflective magic” to direct all light from the star where he wanted. He generated a layer that blocked up most of the light, moved with the rising and setting star, and then removed specific sections to focus the light on particular targets—mainly his palace and a few other selected sites.

This seemed like an even dumber play than the fire wings.

A thousand questions popping up through the soil, but they’d have to wait until Reed and I were alone again. I had to fly us up the front steps. Apparently Numezhin was like two or three times taller than we were.

Then we were on polished paving stones, red and purples veined in bright blue. The household of the lord, his guard, servants, and a hundred courtiers waited for him...I mean us.

I just kept thinking, act like you own the place. Walked in holding Reed’s hand, trying not to stare around like a damn tourist. That was the tough part.

This was all new, new world, new people...entirely different kinds of people. Whole new biologic shapes to take in and process.

Tall vertical gray armless, legless towers that floated a meter off the ground, with one upside down smile slot of an eye, and a silvery lower face with a projectile mouth full of glassy needle teeth.

Augustine dropped off my back, and walked beside me as if he, too, owned the fucking place—or at least was on good terms with the owners. He was. Pretty confident for one weird looking dude. I liked him immediately.

“Augustine’s a Mirm.”

Six short gray-furred legs with a bunch of big three or four knuckled fingers on each—and all of them looking the same. I couldn’t see any difference in the limbs. That was the normal part of him. His head sort of ran on thick flexible cabling within a central body tube, and could pop up at either end of the body—or between any of the limb joints. The legs were covered in short hair, the rest of his body nearly transparent with layers of skin and bridging connective tissue. The see-through option was a bit odd for me, but made sense if he could pull his entire head inside his body. How else was he going to see in that position?

We marched right through the gate, the gravity a bit lighter than earth, and it made you feel like you could skip in ten meter strides over the smooth road surface. I was tempted to jump, but reined it in, and did things with dignity.

Sure the fire wings were an idiot’s toy, but it didn’t mean they couldn’t be used to make an entrance.

I flew Reed to the top of a set of giant’s stairs, twenty of them rising above the square, with facings a meter high. No way we could climb of jump up those without looking ridiculous. They were steps for something far larger than we were.

“Numezhin was one big guy?”

Reed nodded back, straightening his shoulders, trying to appear as tall as possible.

We strode through the crowd.

Hushed voices—almost human sounding—along with some high-pitched chirping.

A crowd of various kinds of beings from the Winterdim spread thin—one or two deep—along the walls of the hall. I looked up at the gold ceiling so far away. There was a platform at the far end with a massive carved stone—carved in the shape of flowing waves—that had one horizontal cropping that must have been the seat for the Winterdim Lord. That was our throne. Cool.

We were met at the open end of the throne room by a being no shorter than three meters tall, roughly human in structure with limbs thick as mature oak trunks, but all striped and shimmery with paint or tattoos, and clothing or armor that slid in and out of his skin, smooth curves at his neck, across the dome of his skull, faceted rolls over his arms, interlocking muscular bulges and planes jigsawed across his chest and middle. He had a band of glowing blue running from a knot high on the right side of his head across his eyes, down his left cheek, over the joint of his jaw and into a stiff vertical collar. Little trickles of blue running into his mouth, which was full of bright green triangular teeth. I didn’t understand the purpose of the veined blue that I eventually traced to his feet, branching across his skin and clothing like some kind of exposed neural system.

But he was smiling, and that had to be good, right? Even if the smile was a little hungry.

Reed stopped, and I stopped with him, at his side, holding his hand. A glance down showed me that Shirley and Augustine were both behind us now.

Reed looked up and spoke in the court language. The giant’s eyes narrowed, a firm respect in his voice, but no sign of obeisance.

Reed was talking to a respected underling, rattling off what could have been a greeting. Then the two of them went into a serious back and forth word-lobbing, the giant asking a set of questions, Reed responding with short bursts of words.

The giant smiled, pulled his dark blue lips from his teeth.

And Reed looked up as if at an old confidante, making a sideways tilt gesture with his head. “Azhelros.”

Azhelros turned, lifted his arms like an offering, wide open palms at the sky. He sang to the world, a rolling deep voice that carried far.

I leaned in, whispered, “That’s his name? What’s he singing?”

Reed nodded. “He’s announcing us, me, the Lord and you, his Lady from the upstream world.”

“Upstream?” I understood. “Upstream is the Rootworld, and we grew up in the downstream, the Dawnworld?”

“Yup.”

Interesting that they’d positioned themselves—and their own world—in between when anyone’s normal first reaction would be to put themselves on top.

Azhelros leaned over us, still smiling, and said something for Reed’s ears only, although it carried enough for the nearest of the trailing courtiers to hear—and then to gasp in shock over. A sharp turn of his head, the smile vanished, and it was as if Azhelros hadn’t really heard himself say something offensive to his lord.

He dropped to his knees, both his clawed hands going to his throat, ripping open his armor, exposing softer pale blue flesh underneath.

Reed leaned in close to me, breathed the words, “Give me a sword.”

“What?”

“Make a sword appear, any kind of sword, some kind of bladed weapon, the fancier the better. Think court blade, decorative, probably get you killed in a real fight, but still sharp enough to cut skin. Something flashy.”

I had it, and then my fist was curled around a long slender sword scabbard, a grip surrounded by a fancy net of metal blooming like a gold flower out of the end. It looked like some overly ornate useless weapon out of a cheap history flick. Apparently it was exactly what Reed was looking for. His face lit up, his hand took the grip, and drew the sword with a flourish, bringing the tip around to Azhelros, whipped it into a couple figure-eights, and lunged, the tip cutting handily though skin in a ten-centimeter straight line.

I tried to sound a little disappointed. “Thought you were going to carve your name, and maybe our initials in a heart. What happened? Lost your nerve.”

Reed gave me a funny smile. “This is serious, Thea—complex social structure. My friend, commander of all my armies, ruler in my place, Azhelros has said something to insult me—called me ‘small’. Punishment is required for this breach of etiquette, but the nature of the punishment is up to me. I could have cut off his head or made a mark with my ultra-fancy sword. Something had to be done. The only thing I couldn’t do, was ignore it.”

“Doesn’t sound complicated.”

“You haven’t seen the Orange Ceremony yet.”

Reed released my hand, made an open swinging gesture with both of his. And I stood there frozen, hoping I wouldn’t disappear, become immaterial, fade from Reed’s side without my contact with him.

Reed continued, unconcerned. He hadn’t noticed that he’d let go of me.

“My subjects...”

Augustine climbed up one leg, then up my back to my shoulder, to whisper the English translation in my ear. Subjects? Man, Reed was really getting into monarch mode with this. Shirley’s claws bit into my leg, and then she, too, climbed up to my shoulder, her wings fluttering to take the the weight off.

“I return to Winterdim the same lord, the same power, the same soul that departed so many years ago. Remained the same, even as the journey has changed me, divided my form in two.” He gestured to himself then to me. “I have sealed alliances, spread the fear of my power wide, joined with these two up and downstream world beings. I have extended my dominion over those two other worlds.”

What a pompous asshole.

I looked around at the gathered courtiers, too many to get a clear look at, but the closer ones showed approval—as far as I could tell, a universal serious focus on all of them, different responses depending on the kind of being, some symmetric ear swiveling—from the ones like Augustine. A sort of gyrating wing motion from the Bizhasen—like Shirley. Others stood absolutely still, which at least didn’t come across as disapproval.

Reed brought one hand to indicate his right side, about halfway up his ribcage. “I do not plan to remain long, because there is more work to do to harden these alliances. I have returned—for a short time—because I am injured.”

The gasps of shock didn’t sound otherworldly at all. Azhelros rushed to Reed’s side, whispered something, Reed put a hand on his forearm—about as high as Reed could reach, and stepped through what sounded to me like a series of commands.

“Thea?” It was Shirley breathing my name in my left ear. A flick of my eyes in her direction.

“What is he telling Azhelros?”

“He’s arranging the surgery to investigate and remove the thread.”

“Are these doctors trained well?”

“The lord’s? I would think there are no better doctors in this world.” She flapped a wing to change the subject. Apparently Reed was in good hands. “Thea, you have noticed that you remain in the Winterdim without the skin connection to Reed Gossi?”

“I did. Find it mildly interesting that I’m still around—when I was absolutely certain I needed that connection to Reed to make all of this world work for me.” I gave her a raised eyebrow. “I wouldn’t happen to have you to thank for this, would I?”

Shirley came back matter-of-factly with, “All the work I performed for Reed from the day I jumped to him in the Rennonvorah?”

“I’m guessing it was a lot because he spent the next several days a captive of OKF forces.”

“And I charged hazard rates the entire time. Guess who paid the bill?”

“It wasn’t Reed?”

“Not exactly. I charged everything to the Numezhin account, and he paid in full. When I returned to you after the ordeal, I deposited the lot. I was pretty sure it would be useful.”

“Holy Tree, I owe you Shirley.”

I didn’t know what else to say. Nothing I could promise her. Nothing I owned was valuable enough to repay her.

Reed finished up his homecoming speech, joined me again, put his arm around my waist.

“I think you’re going to like this.”

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