Story Excerpt Sunday: From Dominions by James A. Burton

DominionsDominions

Book 2 of The Bladesmith

by James A. Burton

The Goddess Mel sat in lotus, meditating, callused brown feet tucked up on lean sinewy brown thighs.  The goddess of the mountain winds did not focus on the Wheel of Life, the vibrant Nepalese tapestry hanging on the wall in front of her.  She did not focus on the solid gold statue of the dancing Kali on the floor below the Wheel, a nude portrait of her done four centuries ago that gleamed in the faint down-lights of her meditation room — a silent bare room of austere white walls and ceiling and dark varnished hardwood floor.

The Goddess Mel, currently known as Melissa el Hajj, retired lieutenant of the city arson squad, meditated on the long knife laid bare on the antique Kazakh rug in front of her.  Hand-forged steel, double-edged and straight, the patterns of its making rippled as she breathed in and out and in and out.  The God Al, Albert Johannson and once known as Alberich, had forged that blade and balanced it to her grip and arm, a blade to kill a god.  Or a goddess.

Which it had done, by her hand.

In and out, in and out, her breathing quieted as the blade grew in her eyes — the watered-silk pattern of exquisite fold-welding, razor-keen edges with the faint scallops left by hammer and anvil, gleaming, gleaming.  A faint six-pointed star glowed on the steel just above the guard.  The Seal pulsed and expanded until it filled her vision.  That remembered the source of the blade’s iron, a Solomon’s Seal old and old and forged by the wizard Solomon himself, a spell-trap to draw and weaken the powers and the memories of all gods and goddesses but his own.

A Seal tracked down and broken after centuries, millennia, by Balkis, Goddess of Sa’aba, and then reforged into the steel of this blade. Which Mel had driven through the heart of that treacherous goddess, who had claimed to be Al’s mother.  Liar . . .

Her blade had not unleashed blood that time, but fire, explosion, destruction, the power of a goddess released at her death.  But Al had called demons to make the world whole again.  Not like so many other times, so much blood she’d spilled — the artist who had sculpted and cast the statue and so many before and after.  She was the Goddess Mel, swift and dark and cold and deadly as her winds, avatar of Kali, protecting the brief lives of her tribe in a nasty world.

The blade edges glowed faint blue, a tinge Al said lay between the molecules of the steel itself.  It had drunk of the power of Balkis and had grown even beyond his forging.  It could drink again.  It wanted to.  She could pick it up and drive it into her own heart and end her endless ride on that Great Wheel.

The thought comforted her.

In and out.  In and out.  Her breath shallowed and slowed until some viewer might think that she was dead.  Finally, the blade shrank back to its true length and breadth, still lying on the intricate geometric patterns of the Kazakh rug, fine silver chain of the grip gleaming in a pool of light.  She blinked and shook herself out of meditation and breathed deep again.

She did not want to kill herself today.  She did not need to kill herself today.  She had reasons to live.

For one thing, she had braised lamb shanks simmering on the stove and Al due any moment, for dinner and . . . other entertainments.  She listened to her winds.  Yes, he was just coming down the street.  She hadn’t been able to track him — a god outside of her goddess sight — until they’d shared blood.  And other fluids.

The Goddess Mel sheathed her blade, feeling or half-hearing as always the silence the sheath brought with its copper lining, something of a psychic hum or buzz more noticed when it went away.  She knew, Al knew, when anyone touched the hilt or when the steel felt open air. No idea how or why . . .

Whatever. She unfolded herself from the lotus and stood, showing no sign of the two extra arms the portrait statue gave her, taller than an average woman and well more than a head taller than Al, body lean and stringy-muscled like the mountain warrior she was, brown and hawk-faced after the manner of those dry deadly South Asian mountains.  She stirred her muscles in a loosening ritual of shoulder and hip rolls — being next thing to immortal didn’t bar her from stiffness or aches or the rest of the questionable joys of flesh.

Or the real ones . . . She pulled on loose silk pants, royal blue and clinging, emphasizing her body, and a teal-green velvet top that did the same.  She usually did her yoga and meditation nude, out of ancient habit.  She wasn’t getting dressed because she felt self-conscious about nudity, especially around Al, or thought that it would shock him, but shedding those items later would do things to both of them that starting out nude did not.  And Al was something of a god in bed.  Or anywhere else the notion took them.

He hadn’t known he was a god until Balkis cracked that Seal and the spell it worked.  He’d thought he was an almost-man with a mystical bond to iron and steel, who had lived a long, long time and had forgotten many things.  She’d always known she was a goddess because she had a tribe of humans who remembered for her.  And they told their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, who told her again, defeating Solomon’s magic.  Al, loner blacksmith that he was, didn’t have that backup system.

And Balkis hadn’t told him, Balkis, who remembered because Solomon had weakened his magic on her name, so she wouldn’t know of his treachery soon enough to stop him.

Something nagged at Mel, and she listened to her winds again.  Something . . . missing.

Yes. She found it, across the street — a doorway alcove off the sidewalk sat dark in the evening shadows.  Her winds didn’t go there.

They always had, before.

Mel shrugged.  She had other things needing her attention.  Such as those lamb shanks.  Good food ranked high on both their lists of things that made life worthwhile.  He probably qualified as a kitchen god as well, able to turn something as simple and cheap as dried beans or lentils into gourmet fare.  They alternated his cooking and hers, his apartment and hers.  Funny how living a long, long time had focused both of them on mindfulness, on the moment, on the “be here now” of Buddhist practice.  Food was now, another fo cus for meditation.  As such, it had damn well better be good.  Same with sex.

And music was now, a peculiar passion of Al’s.  She cued up Bach, “Suites for Unaccompanied Cello”, the Casals recordings.  Al had known Bach, alive.  That composition entranced him.  She’d asked him why he didn’t play an instrument himself, and he got vague.  Got grumpy. That was one of many things out of his past she never pushed.  As he never asked her about her remembered pains.

For sure she wasn’t going to push it, tonight.  Good food, good beer, good music, good bed play after — Mel wanted him softened up good for some news.

She stepped into her kitchen, the austere monastery kitchen of white walls and cabinets and appliances, kept severely neat.  She lifted the lid on the simmering pot and breathed deep of lamb broth and basil and tomato and exuberant largess of garlic, a touch of rosemary ground to powder because she hated picking pine needles out of her
teeth, with a base of earthy potatoes.  She poked one of those.  It split around her fork.  Potatoes always remained an enigma.  After centuries of practice, she still never knew for sure how long they’d take to cook.  One might hold firm like a rock for much longer than its appointed time, or collapse into mush . . .

She felt Al’s hand on the building’s outer door, his key in the lock. Her winds told her of such things.  That meant she could dish out bowls of the lamb and crack open two bottles of the sharp Shipyard ale she’d selected to complement the savory mélange and cleanse their palates.  That drew a snort of amusement.  Halal lamb and beer — people always assumed from her name and face that she was Muslim. She was sure the halal butcher thought so, as she haggled quality and price with him in Pashto.  Even Al had thought so, when they first clashed.  Back when she thought he was an enemy.

She was not Muslim.  She never had been Muslim.  She predated the Prophet, blessed be He, by unknown centuries.  Her people weren’t Muslim or Hindu, either, no matter what their names might imply.  They worshipped the Goddess Mel.  She’d lived, they’d lived, in this land for well over a century, other lands for other centuries, and adopted those customs that they found good. Including beer.  As a wise man once said, beer and wine were proof of God’s love.

Besides, Islam meant “submission” and that wasn’t in her nature. Except now and then in bed, when the notion fitted her passion.  Even then, she knew that she left bruises and claw-marks on her partner. Which, with Al, healed overnight.  Him being a god and all.

Her winds told her that he had unlocked the stairwell door and was headed up to her fourth floor apartment in an old building without elevator and therefore cheap, the second and third floors home to members of her tribe.  As were apartments in the buildings to either side.  They guarded her as she guarded them, and no one outside her secret could learn enough to ask questions.

Something touched the building door.  She couldn’t, her winds couldn’t see it. But it was there.  It jiggled the lock, tried the lever handle. Testing.  People in this neighborhood did that — leave something unlocked, they’d find it in an hour or less.  Be so careless as to leave your keys in your car, it might vanish before your seat cooled. She had not wanted a good neighborhood when she moved her tribe. Most of the people here lived by petty theft and drug deals, but some of them were dangerous.  None of that danger touched her, or her people because of her.  And they didn’t pose any threat to Al, who was far more deadly than he looked.

But she could, her winds could, see them.

And they were good neighbors, from a certain point of view.  They never asked questions.  They never told anyone what they saw or heard. That was safer, for all concerned.

Al pushed the lever on her door.  It opened for him.  He didn’t need a key, for her door.  She had locks, yes, but they only answered to people rather than to keys.  Her locks knew him.  She had a contract with locks and doors — that mountain wind thing again.  Nothing kept the mountain wind out of a place it wanted to go.  Locks and doors
didn’t stop her, and in return she didn’t break them.

That had been a useful trick, when she was a cop.

And there he was, leaning against the door frame of her kitchen, a short broad man or a dwarf, pale skin and blond hair and blue eyes of his northern tribe and a permanent limp from one leg an inch shorter than the other, hard smith-muscles and so little fat on his body that if she tossed him in a pond, he’d sink.  He closed his eyes, folded both hands on the grip of the blued-steel cane that was much more weapon than support, sniffed the rich aroma of lamb and garlic, and smiled.

He opened his eyes.  He frowned.  “I wish you’d keep that blade sheathed.  I felt it two miles away, like a magnet, pulling at me. You have any idea how many gods humans have worshiped, through the centuries?  And what’s left of Solomon’s magic draws them to that . . . thing.  Gods are bad for the neighborhood.”

And he wouldn’t exempt himself from that statement.  But his words jogged her memory.

“Did you see anything in the doorway across the street?  The pawn-shop door, not the stair entry?”

He noticed things.  Like any true warrior, his eyes kept searching, up and down, the sides, behind, ahead, always alert.  He would have fit in with “Gideon’s Band” in the Hebrew scripture, who dipped up water in cupped hands so they could drink while still watching for any threat.

She could see him thinking, sorting images.

“Guy, sitting huddled back in the corner, looked brown but the light was bad.  Some kind of wrap over his shoulders, poncho or serape or just a blanket, maybe homeless.  Face looked Central American, Guatemalan or something, lot of Indian blood if not pure Indian.”  He paused.  “Looked surprised that I noticed him.  Homeless people are invisible.”

Her winds could find homeless people.

A loud short Snap! echoed outside, a blue-white flash strobe-lighting the buildings across from her kitchen window, and the lights blinked out.  Thunder rolled back from the evening darkness.

“What the fuck . . .”

She heard Al move, clothing rustled, and sparks lit flame on his butane lighter in the darkness.  He didn’t smoke, but both of them always carried stuff like that, basic emergency things — her guns, his knives and sword-cane.  He lit the candles she had set out on the kitchen table for whimsical atmosphere, a romantic dinner for two.

“Clear sky out there, stars, waxing crescent moon.  No thunder-clouds.”

She felt that ghost touch on the outer door again.  This time, the door opened.  It shouldn’t have — no sense of force or the guile of a lock-pick.  It just . . . opened.

What she could do, another god or goddess could do.

She brushed past Al, muscle-memory finding the closet in the darkness by her apartment door and the latch and the police shotgun ready to her hand inside, and racked a shell ka-chink ka-chunk into the chamber before stepping out onto the stair landing outside her door.  The emergency lights glowed dim and yellow, far dimmer than their batteries should provide, as if they fought something sucking power from them.  She felt the stairwell door open, again no resistance from her locks.

She clicked the pump-gun’s safety off.  She waited.

Even her ears, goddess ears, couldn’t hear footsteps, but a shadow rounded the stairwell turn below, man-sized, a hint of glimmering eyes looking up.  She centered her sights on the shadow’s chest and waited, not bothering with threats or warnings.

Two steps up, three, four, she judged her shotgun’s pattern and pulled the trigger.  The muzzle flashed bright, the boom in the tight stairwell more pressure than sound.  The shadow fell back, and she heard clattering thumping groans through the ringing in her ears. Emergency lights brightened, then clicked off as the regular stairwell lights returned.

The man-shape lay on the lower landing.  It twitched.  It forced itself up to sitting.  She had enough light now to make sense of the shadows.  What Al had called a cape or poncho seemed to be a cascade of small emerald feathers, with jade plates and gold ornament around the neck.

Gaudy. Not someone who had spent centuries avoiding calling attention to himself.

“Al, the knife, please.”

She knew he stood behind her and knew what weapon he would be holding. Reliable Al.  Good to have someone like that at her back.

They swapped shotgun for knife, and she heard him work the action to crank a fresh shell into the chamber.  She hadn’t bothered.  Careless. You’d almost think she wanted to die.

He followed her down the stairs, close so he could keep the muzzle of the shotgun beyond her elbow for a clear field of fire.  She knelt in front of the man-god on the landing.  She drew her blade from its sheath.

“I don’t know who you are.  I know what you are.  Do you know what I am?”  He didn’t try to speak, not with his chest full of birdshot.  He gave her a slight nod.

“You won’t die from those shotgun pellets.”

Which hadn’t spread beyond his chest.  That pleased her — less damage to patch up.  Not much blood, either.  That feathered cape seemed to soak it up.

“A shotgun won’t kill you.”  She raised her knife.  “This could.  You see it.  You know what it is.  You know why it drew you here.  That lure is the bait of a trap.”

His eyes were focused on the point of the blade.  He nodded again, horror on his dark face, his Indian face, First People face, Mayan or some such.  Al had been right.

“It wants to kill you.  It’s hungry. I think that if I let go of it, it would slit your throat by itself.”

He nodded again, still focused on the point.

“I don’t want to have to clean up the mess that would cause.  You will leave.  Now that you know what pulled you here, you won’t come back.”

That drew a third nod, slow and painful.  And she didn’t trust it.  She knew what she felt from the knife, and Al had forged it to love her and protect her and obey her.  He too could draw it from its magical sheath and use it.  No human could.  She didn’t know about other gods.  But it was her knife, an extension of her hand and arm and will.  If she thought a move, it twitched.

Fresh blood had stopped seeping through the feathered cape.  A wound like that — close-range birdshot blast to the chest — a human would have lost a quart or more of blood by now.  For that matter, the cape was healing also.  Should be a hole a foot wide, at that range.

For her or Al, that would take days or weeks to heal.  Even gods have limits.

But the knife . . .

He still cringed away from the blade.  He knew.

She should kill him.  Otherwise, he’d just come back.  But “mess” didn’t cover it.  When she’d killed Balkis, the explosion would have taken out four city blocks, killed dozens or hundreds of people. Humans.  Wouldn’t have touched her or Al.  The wrath of god.

She couldn’t do that to her people, her tribe.

Mel sheathed her blade and tucked it into the waist of her pants, those loose clinging revealing harem pants she’d worn as bait for Al. “Help me haul him downstairs.”

“Goddess, let us do it.  You have good food waiting.  And the god Al.”

Mel blinked.  She’d tossed her comment over her shoulder, to Al.  But that was a woman’s voice.

She shook herself.  Lakshmi.  Third floor.  Broad and strong and even darker-skinned than Mel, the woman stood in her doorway off the stair landing with the shadow of her husband Bismillah behind her.  Neither looked at all surprised to have thunder and lightning and shotguns blasting away outside their apartment, or to find a body waiting for her to haul away.  Mel couldn’t remember having needed such services in this generation.  Lakshmi’s ancestors, now, that was a different question.

And Lakshmi approved of Al, was pleased that Mel at last had found a partner to make the floor thump overhead from enthusiastic sex. Mel’s people held a rather . . . earthy view of life.  And death.

So many bodies.  So much blood.

All in protecting her people.

Mel set her winds to seek a paradox — find things they couldn’t see, places where they couldn’t go.  She set them looking for holes in the world that might hide threats to her people.

They found one.  Two.

More.

Mel shook her head, strictly to herself, adding two and two and coming up with much more than four.  This had been growing on her, as she understood her knife and what it meant.  They now lived in a world full of gods who remembered what they were.  Some gods were nice guys.  A few.  Most weren’t.

“Treat him with care and honor.  He is a god.”

Lakshmi nodded.  Bismillah behind her nodded.  Up the stairs from their second floor apartment, Ravi and Desa nodded, more of her tribe. They would do what needed to be done.

But first, she had a duty to those lamb shanks, and Al.

*************

James A. Hetley also writes as James A. Burton. He lives in the Maine setting of his Hetley-authored contemporary fantasy novels The Summer Country, The Winter Oak, Dragon’s Eye, and Dragon’s Teeth. His residence is an 1850s house suitable for a horror movie, with an electrical system installed while Thomas A. Edison still walked the earth, peeling lead-based paint, questionable plumbing, a furnace dating back to Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, a roof perpetually in need of shingling, and windows that rattle in the winter gales. He’s a retired renovation architect. And the cobbler’s children go barefoot . . .

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