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the rain queen
stephanie pui-mun law
page 04:05

Anger now. "You defied me then? You sent her away, knowing Madruj needs her?" 'Knowing I need her?' was the unspoken in his tone. Somehow his words struck unreasoning terror in me. There was no basis to my fear, for he was right. Madruj needed her - no, needed a Rain Queen -- else it would be a city of dust very soon. I was afraid because the need that burned in Tohln's eyes was such that if Risilka was not what he wanted to believe she was, that need would burn her to cinders. "No." Respectfully. Carefully. I did not wish to affront Lord Tohln. "I told her of your request. And she...left."

Lord Tohln leaned back. "I see." He steepled his fingers again, eyes thoughtful and distant. At last he glanced back up. "Find her. And bring her to me, Lahn. Or else I'll have her brought before me as a witch by whoever does find her. And you know what our laws do to witches." He smiled, and it was a thoroughly detestable expression.

My face was white, I'm sure, but I nodded.

"I'm glad you understand me, Lahn." He sipped from the glass of wine at his elbow and nodded my dismissal.

I left, passing the page...what was his name? Reibert...on the way back. He paused to stare at me in surprise, but I hurried past. My mind was on other things. Risilka. Where was she? Come back, Risilka, please. Come back...or else I hope you have fled far, far away. Though for her own sake I prayed for the latter, my heart hoped against hope she would return.

She returned. Two days later, I came back to find her sitting outside my door. Fearfully, I glanced along the hallway, but no one else was about. No one had seen her, I hoped. I pulled her inside, and only when the door was closed and locked did I lose all restraint and hugged her. I held her tight and sobbed like a relieved father, a bereft lover, a little boy. She returned the embrace. "Come with me," I said to her, and like an idiot, I brought her to Lord Tohln, trusting a man who would threaten Risilka's life in the first place.

Of course he lied. He had her accused of a witch even though I brought her to him, tore Risilka from me and placed her in one of the old wine cellars. To let her think for a bit, he said.

That was three days ago. I had not seen her since, until this moment when Lord Tohln had had her brought out before his entire court. Displaying his little Rain Queen, who would break the drought or die for his pleasure because she dared to defy Tohln's belief and desire for a true Rain Queen.

At noon, they dragged her forth once again, but this time they brought her out to the King's square that stood right before the great Madruj Keep. There, within a little wooden cage, they put the proud Rain Queen. No water, Lord Tohln declared, for if she were that parched, she should be able to call the spirits of the heavens to save her. He gave her an empty bowl.

I began to realize that Lord Tohln wanted a Rain Queen not merely to save the land, but for the power that possession of such a creature would give him. The power of the elements....

She sat within her cage, cross-legged and straight-backed, just as she did within my chambers all the time. I almost cried to see her in such a state, for her eyes were sunken, her hair no longer gleamed, her lips were cracked and bleeding, and I could see numerous bruises along her arms as well. Children in the streets came to stare and laugh at her, this wretched girl with her claims to greatness. Grown men and women as well, to stare, to point, to denounce as the Kings and their sons had long ago denounced the true Rain Queens. Through it all, she sat still, proud and sure before them all.

When dusk fell, I crept close. The guards let me near, for they recognized me, but they did not speak to me, nor to her. "Risilka," I whispered, reaching out to touch her thin hands as I crouched on the ground. The stones were still warm from the day, and her skin was hot to the touch, reddened from sunburn. "I'm sorry," I said. "He told me if I brought you to him, that he wouldn't do this... He promised me. And so...I was afraid for you...hoping you would stay away, far away. But you came back, so I had to bring you out, or they would find out, and...he promised that he would--" I broke off my rambling.

"It's not your fault, dear Lahn. I understand," she said softly in a rasping voice, her throat too dry to say much. I glance at the Guards furtively. They stood like statues at the four corners of the enclosure, their backs towards us. Hastily, I uncapped the waterskin I had brought for her and thrust it into her hands. Her eyes gleamed with a fervent light and she drank it all within moments. She did not spill a drop. I stuffed the empty bottle back into my coat. "There is nothing to forgive," she said. "You did what you thought you had to."

"Please, hold on," I murmured. "I'll find some way to change Lord Tohln's mind."

"Don't worry about me," she said. Her eyes were distant. "We are what we are, and we do what we must." She hummed another unfamiliar song to me, the soft melody weaving out into the night, mesmerizing....

The empty waterskin fell from my pocket. It clattered jarringly, and one of the Guards turned to eye me suspiciously. Hurriedly I scooped it up, and with one last glance to Risilka, I hurried back to the keep. Her smile remained imprinted in my mind even after I fell into a fitful sleep.