February 14th: Strange romance
Tempest
, by Russell Linton

When she looked at him, her eyes sparkled with wonder. Sidge noticed that first. One week into his pilgrimage, he was more used to eyes wide with fear or narrowed in disgust. Hers drank in every inch of his bulbous eyes and narrow, metallic-blue face currently cowled by his temple robe. On a lark, he spread his wings and her amazement only grew. The Paint horse, yoked to the wagon beside them gave a nervous huff.

“You’re an acolyte? Of the Storm Temple?” she asked, captivated by the translucent wings.

“Yes. Mistress?”

“Kaaliya. The name’s Kaaliya.” She stuck out her right hand. Unfurling his gray sleeves, he took her hand between two palms, each on the same side of his body. Kaaliya gasped. Sidge hastily let go and placed all four hands together in a pose of supplication. At the same time, he tried to gauge if her reaction had been mere surprise or abject horror. But that light still sparkled in her eyes, shining under the broad brim of a worn traveling hat.

From a distance, he’d thought she wore a silk scarf, dyed the color of deepest night, but as a breeze passed between them, he saw the sheet of jet black play across her face in feathered strands. He watched as she tucked it behind her ear and he wondered if it felt like flowing water.

“I see you two have met.” At the sound of Master Ivar’s voice, Sidge remained half-bowed, palms pressed together. He watched behind him as Master Ivar emerged from the far side of the wagon. The horses stomped impatiently.

“Yes, we have, Master.”

Kaaliya quirked a smile at Sidge and Master Ivar wobbled toward them.

“She’ll be accompanying us to Stronghold, acolyte.” Ivar tugged at his unruly beard, a salted black mass with a bone white streak. “Never met an Ek’Kiru before, Miss? Don’t worry, he’s harmless. He’s only an old man’s pupil brought along to assist him on the pilgrimage.”

“Is he now? Well, in that case perhaps he could stop staring and secure my bag?” The smirk never left her face.

“I’m not staring.” Sidge recalled the habits he learned growing up in the Temple among humans. “My sight encompasses most everything around me. I have faced my mandibles in your direction as a courtesy so it might be easier…”

“You’re staring,” Ivar grunted as he checked a buckle on the tack. The old Paint horse neighed in something which Sidge took as agreement. “She’s paid her fare. Take her bag and let’s get underway.”

Bowing lower under Kaaliya’s own amused stare, Sidge reached out and she draped the straps of her bag along his arm. With a pat on his shoulder, she sauntered past and sprung onto the driver’s bench of the wagon. Her formless canvas short billowed, then pressed tight against her, revealing only traces of the lithe frame beneath. It reminded Sidge that, from a distance, he had also mistaken her as a young man or boy though as she sat, the feminine curve of her hips pressed against her leather breeches was undeniable.

There were no females at the temple. At times, travelers would pass through on excursions into the Blasted Plains, but he never took much interest. His duties kept him busy and when those were complete, he always searched for what work he could find. Fascinated by his fellow human monks, he was also shocked at how incredibly messy they were. And during one of those rare times when a traveler arrived, especially one of the fairer sex, Sidge often picked up the daily chores of his distracted brothers.

The fellow acolytes, his only family. He never felt alone or out of place at the Storm Temple. Since they’d left however, it had been different.

Sidge hovered to the top of the wagon, aware of Kaaliya’s sideways glances. He focused on securing her bags to the cargo netting and took in her gaze at the same time. Not since they left the temple a week ago had someone other than Ivar eyed him with anything less than scorn.

Once the bag was secure, he floated down to the driver’s bench also under the wary eye of the Paint. The other horse, a spotted old nag, half-blind, chewed pointlessly at the dirt road. Kaaliya leaned back against the wall of the wagon and pulled the broad brim of her hat down. From inside the cabin, Master Ivar rapped on the wooden wall. Making a mental check of their preparations and not staring at the lengths of ebony hair spilling across Kaaliya’s chest, Sidge cracked the reins and the wagon lurched forward.

#

“Sod off!” Kaaliya yelled at a group of jeering kids clustered around the flagstone fence.

Although it was unnecessary, Sidge turned to face her. “Must you yell at them?”

Kaaliya leaned against the seat rail and continued to shout. “What? You think he’ll sneak down your hearth tonight and bite off your fat little heads?”

“Kaaliya!” Sidge hissed even as he rose slightly behind her and clacked his mandibles. This sent the children running. He drop to the seat as she turned around.

“Don’t you get tired of that?”

“What?”

“Oh come on. It’s been a week and every little mouth breathing peasant we pass starts gawking and praying like your the spawn of Kurath.”

“They simply aren’t used to my kind.” Especially his kind driving a wagon of the Storm Temple, the fabled protectors of humanity. Somehow the absurdity of an Ek’Kiru acolyte never crossed his mind while sequestered away behind the walls of the temple. He had been an obedient student, and Master Ivar a patient mentor. Very few had passed judgment.

Of course, as their journey dragged on, in the face of his crude reception in the human-dominated Knollunds, many things became clear to Sidge. Like why Master Ivar never took on new acolytes. Or why his Master resided in the lower wing while the other Cloud Born Masters enjoyed the private apartments closer to the inner sanctum.

He removed a rock from Kaaliya’s hand as another group of peasants came into view. He hadn’t seen her pick it up. Must have been at their last stop, or maybe saved from the first town where the farmers hurled stones of their own.

“Just children again, Kaaliya. They only act this way out of ignorance.”

Disarmed, at least physically, Kaaliya slouched against the wagon and yanked the brim of her hat down over her eyes. The dirty cluster of children stared, but perhaps warned by other travelers of the vicious female, mused Sidge, they kept to themselves.

“You’re a better person than I,” she said. Without turning, Sidge knew her eyes, buried in the shadow of the hat, were fixed on him and he waved his antennae in response. Kaaliya patted Sidge’s thigh hard enough he could feel it through his carapace. Her hand lingered there. “It must be hard.”

“Pardon?” Sidge straightened on the driver’s bench. He’d gotten to know Kaaliya through the many hours they’d spent grinding along the Upper Knollund trail. For a human female, she was quite crass in her ways and he sat in silence, struggling to think of the proper ways to describe his physiology.

When she broke the awkward silence, he was certain a smirk flashed across her face. “Keeping so respectable.”

“I will admit, the journey has been more difficult than I anticipated.” His thoughts lost in the rolling hills ahead, he spoke his next words without much consideration. “But you’ve done a great deal to alleviate the stress.”

Kaaliya chuckled but it was a mirthless laugh. Patting his leg, she pulled the brim down further and crossed her arms. “That’s what I do, Sidge.”

#

The words lingered in Sidge’s mind. One evening, Master Ivar was lying in a heap by the fire at their campsite, off searching for visions in the fungal spores purchased from a troll shaman. Long after the wheel of the sky was on its final pass, Sidge decided to he should ask but felt the words dying in his throat.

Over the past few days, he’d taken to running his combed forearms through Kaaliya’s hair as they spoke late into the night, all at her request. At first, he had been reluctant. The fathomless strands fascinated him, and she was aware of this, but the motions seemed awkward. Most women would have wretched at the thought, despite the fact that their greasy strands were far filthier than his fastidiously kept carapace. But Kaaliya was not like most women.

She was confident, brash and appeared more comfortable around men than an unwed woman ordinarily would. In her boot, she carried a small knife which was less than intimidating until she announced its purpose as being for “small matters”. The way she said it armed her with a broadsword.

“You never said why it is you are traveling to Stronghold, Kaaliya. With all the stories you share, surely you’ve been there before?”

The fire crackled and glowing embers scattered across the ground. Sidge half-watched them for a while, making sure they did not light the dry grass.

“Yes. I’ve been there. The Singing City. The Floating Grove. You’ll enjoy it, it’s a wondrous place.” Her response came with little of her normal conviction.

“Tell me, why do they call it the Singing City?” It was unusual for Sidge to have draw stories from her in such a way. Normally she seized any opening to regale the cloistered acolyte with tales of the world. Sometimes, he found her the only thing in his vast field of view as she waved her arms and pointed to the vivid pictures she’d made real from the fringes of the dying fire’s light.

“As the stories say, long ago, when the humans first came to Knollund, they were led by an Urujaav guide who had taken pity on their enslavement by the Children of Kurath. When they reached the farthest sea, they stopped to build their new home and the Urujaav called to his people. They enchanted the great wooden palisade so that it would never burn nor rot and so that the silvery moat surrounding it would rise up and defend them if need be. Those magics, those Words of Making, sing to this day.” Her voice was distant with no sign of her boisterous theatrics. She reached back, gathering her hair out of Sidge’s forearms. “Surely this is part of the Storm Temple canon?”

Sidge nodded. “It is,” he said to her half-turned face.

Kaaliya’s lips formed a wounded curve. Somehow, Sidge had done what he intended not to do. “I’m going there to pay a debt. Nothing more.” She faced the fire again and flung her hair into Sidge’s waiting forearms.

With that, Sidge again began the repetitive motions and let the wheel continue its journey across the sky in silence.

#

The Singing City, indeed. Built on a flooded plain, the streets were more often than not elevated timbers. The legendary wall, a collection of unstripped, massive tree trunks brought from the ancient woods near Cerudell. Every board hummed. Every trunk vibrated with an almost imperceptible ringing. To human ears. For Sidge, it was a constant nuisance.

He was used to the thrum of meditating acolytes reverberating across stone walls and floors. And camping outside, he found a certain solace in the call of lesser insects. But this, this was an itch he couldn’t scratch. From a distance, on the hills overlooking the city, the song had drawn him to it. Now he felt trapped. He jerked the hood of his robe over his head, tucking it tightly around his mandibles.

Outside he could hear the cargo netting thump against the sides of the wagon. The collection of crystals and earthbound items Master Ivar felt to be imbued with the powers of the Making jangled incessantly. With every thin breeze, the aging wagon creaked. Not far away, the Paint neighed mockingly. Sidge knew it was the Paint. It would stay awake all night only to draw them through the streets at a sluggish pace the next morning.

Six days had passed. Master Ivar and his rather eccentric ways had failed to secure a sponsor for their pilgrimage. At this rate, Sidge knew they had exactly two days before their supplies would not even allow them to return to the Storm Temple.

Six days, nearly seven nights, spent in the rickety wagon. Master Ivar had secured a room on promise that the innkeeper be reimbursed when they had the funds. That room had only one bed and the innkeeper had made it plain Sidge was not welcome. To avoid conflict, Sidge had suggested the wagon.

He wondered what Kaaliya would have said to the innkeeper. The moment they arrived in Stronghold, she’d left.
He recalled the faces made at rude children. Tossing stones at angry farmers. Her hand on his thigh. The one time she kissed his mandible to stun the shopkeeper who’d tried to negotiate with her and ignore Sidge, his only true customer.

“Ah, Kaaliya.”

“Yes?”

Sidge sat upright, his head cracking a shelf directly above the row of chests where he lay atop a pile of blankets. Wildly, he swung his neck, trying to shake off the hood of his robe. He planted a hand on the shelf, mostly checking to see that it had not cracked. Two others hands, he used to dig for the opening of his cowl. The fourth, he stuck blindly in front of him as he scooted toward the edge of the makeshift bed. This palm found something. Something soft.
Writhing out of his hood, Sidge emerged to see Kaaliya, lips pursed and eyebrows raised. She knelt at the edge of the chests, Sidge’s hand cupping hers. He shrieked, slipped back and his head shattered the shelf sending religious accoutrements clattering to the floor. As he disappeared into the cowl, he could swear her pursed lips parted in a grin.
Kaaliya snatched the hood from his head. She was indeed grinning. A hopefully good sign. He checked her hands for her small problem solver. They were empty.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. Or hear you. Or…”

“You felt me, Sidge.” She stated plainly. Sidge cursed his lack of eyelids and relentlessly all-encompassing vision. He tried again to disappear into his hood. Kaaliya swatted his hands down. “Calm down. It’s all right.”

He stopped struggling and stared. In the darkness of the wagon, Kaaliya both glowed and made the shadows of the corners seem pale. Released from the broad hat, her hair steeped in the darkness creating a perfect outline of the deepest black. Instead of her bulky canvas shirt and trail-worn leathers, she wore what Sidge could only describe as the sun. A saffron dress hung loosely from one tanned shoulder and clung to her hips in such a way that Sidge regretted withdrawing his hand.

“You’re staring.”

“No. I’m facing you. My eyes…” Kaaliya sparkled with amusement and he gave up on his reply. “You look.”

“Like a princess?” Kaaliya spat, rolling her eyes. “Like a wayward sun risen only for thine eyes?” She now arched her back and stuck out her open hand, looking through the wagon’s drafty roof to the night sky. With a swoon, she crumpled to the pile of blankets next to Sidge and propped her head on her hand. “Sad, isn’t it?”

Though he didn’t want to, Sidge nodded. “Where have you been?”

“Here. There.” She took his hand. “I have good news.”

Sidge felt her slender fingers find the three knobby appendages that served as his.

“Well?” She squeezed his hand. “You want to hear it?”

“Of course. Of course.”

“I believe I have found you a sponsor.” Her face shone to match the dress and she gave his hand an excited shake. She rolled to her stomach and perched on her elbows, her long hair cascading down the curve of her spine.

“You? But how?”

“It’s like I said, I’ve been here before. I know people. The nobles here are a predictable lot and easily swayed, if you know their interests.”

“Why?”

Kaaliya’s eyes turned toward the blankets. “Sidge, these last few weeks have been really…nice. It isn’t often I get to relax. Leave things behind.”

“Then you should come with us!” Sidge tightened his grip on her hand as he felt it slipping away. “The pilgrimage. I couldn’t imagine it without you.” Somehow, he knew this to be the wrong thing to say but he could not help himself.
She looked up and again managed to fill every facet of his eyes. After a moment that stretched into a timeless age, she sat up and turned her back to him. The yellow folds of her dress slipped from her shoulder and she reached behind her with both hands to gather her hair and let it fall across her smooth skin.

Sidge assumed the lotus and with his upper arms, began to comb through her hair. His lower arms found her shoulders and he felt her first tense and then release under his cool touch. Confused thoughts raced through his mind. He wanted to grip her, hard. Pull her into him and cinch his mandibles around her slender neck.

“What are we doing?” He asked as he slumped, pressing his forehead against her scalp. His antennae wriggled forward and caressed her forehead. A shiver ran down her spine.

“I don’t know.” Kaaliya’s reply was breathless and through his antennae, Sidge could feel the pulse in her veins quicken.

She whirled around, slamming him onto the chests and tore at his robe. Fabric ripped. Sidge lay stunned as she straddled him. A stray beam of moonlight penetrated the roof, lighting his metallic carapace with a thin silver line. Kaaliya cast about wildly, feeling along his thorax with grasping hands. Grasping at her hair with one pair of hands, the other, held her at bay, but only briefly.

“I don’t…”

“Here?”

“Where the…”

“Is that better?”

“What’s in these bottles?”

“Not that. Blessed soil.”

“Ow! Nipple.”

“Shut up already!”

“What?”

“Not you. The horse.”

“Fuck the horse.”

“It might be easier.”

Another shelf crashed to the floorboards and the aromatic smell of incense and soil rose around them. Tangled in blankets and bent over the chests, now driven apart creating an awkward gap, Sidge pulled Kaaliya closer and let her sweat-drenched body rest against his shell.

“I’m sorry. Maybe we could…” stammered Sidge.

“Oh by Vasheru’s light, don’t apologize.” Kaaliya pressed against him. Exhausted, she shimmied the two chests closer and collapsed with the graceful curve of her spine mated against his thorax and abdomen. “Just lay here. Lay here with me.”

Sidge felt for the blankets and pulled them over her, letting his wing drape across her shoulders. Before long, Kaaliya’s breath found a steady rhythm and Sidge listened as though it were a mantra. Letting his thoughts slip away, he drifted into a space somewhere between this world and the house of the mighty dragon, Vasheru, who electrified the eternal tempests above the Storm Temple. Within the walls of the temple, he was safe from the storm.

In the morning, through lidless eyes, Sidge would watch Kaliya rise. Her slender body arching in the feeble sunlight. Her dark hair draped between the gentle curve of her breasts. She would smile a pained smile and kiss his whiskered face before slipping into her dress and taking the last bit of twilight with her.

*

In the fourth grade, Russell Linton wrote down the vague goal of becoming a “writer and an artist” when he grew up. On a journey that led him from philosopher to graphic designer to stay at home parent and even a stint as a federal investigator, he finally got around to that “writing” part which he now pursues full time. Russell’s interests lie in speculative fiction of all varieties – as long as there is a bit of fantasy. He enjoys stories that allow readers to be lost in the possibilities long after they’ve read the last word and that merge the mundane with the fantastic. see more of him at FictionalWork.com


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