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Becomes the Hunted
Requiem of the Moth #6
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Usira allows a tiny sip of water to soothe the coughing.
Then he kneels in front of Yun and meets his gaze. "The Stormcloak Hawk Moth produces that dust and flings it from its wings to defend itself."
"Does that mean it's…"
Yun's eyes narrow to slits. He tries to get up but some of the dust already went down his throat with the water, working in his body. Grunting, he half staggers back the way they came from.
Usira catches him, pushing his shoulders. "Where do you think you're going?"
When Yun returns his gaze, he gasps. Wrath, pure wrath, burns in his orange eyes. "To Kandamsin. If I can't take care of all the people I want punished, I'll at least wring Vy's neck."
Usira's shock morphs into horror, churning in his stomach. Is that Yun's secret, what keeps him sharp and striving—revenge?
Still, he pushes Yun back down. "Kandamsin is several drips away. You need to rest. Move as little as possible to keep the venom from spreading. If there's anyone you trust, Zhiva can go back and get help."
"What are you going to do?"
"Gather ingredients for the antidote and prepare it."
Yun rolls his eyes. "You could've said that a little sooner."
At last, he yields to Usira's efforts to make him comfortable.
Leaving Yun alone doesn't sit well with Usira but he is missing col weed and clay. The Stormcloak Hawk is a solitary species, he reminds himself as he descends the rock wall. The col weed is easy enough to find as he saw some a couple of bends earlier. Hunting around for a handful of clay, however, grates on him. Every moment that passes with bare rock all around, images flicker before his inner eye: Yun, gasping for air, too weak to move, until even his lids are too heavy, fiery light extinguished forever. Noe relatives, flooding the driphouse, yelling murder, demanding justice. Usira himself, in chains, exposed to excruciating light—one of the worst punishments.
"No," he tells his imagination and focuses on the missing ingredient, as if sheer willpower could conjure it out of the depths of the mountain.
Finally, he stumbles upon a trickle of water and follows it to another shallow pond where some clay has accumulated on the floor. Hurrying back, he still can't believe his foolishness. If Noe Yun is saved, he prays, I will sacrifice to the Moth daily for the next fortnight.
When he returns to the raised plateau, Yun sits in the same position as before. Beads of sweat shine on his brow and neck. He stirs when Usira builds a fire, blinking slowly. "You're back."
"Where else would I be?" Usira snaps and immediately regrets it but Yun doesn't reply.
He mixes the clay and col weed with various dried leaves, seeds, and oils. This produces a paste that must be carefully heated for ten breaths. Usira has to force himself to breathe deeply and count as he was taught. It's the first time he has to prepare this antidote but there is no room for failure. When he yanks the pan from the fire with gloved hands, the paste has thickened and its bitter taste makes him flinch.
He offers it to Yun. When their eyes meet over the spoon, Usira sees his own realization reflected back at him. "Trust me?" he whispers.
Groaning, Yun tries to sit up. Usira supports him until Yun's head rests heavily on his shoulder. Under the sweat, there is the faint scent of burned wood and some flower Usira has probably never seen or tasted before. Yun is still a clansman but oh, his warmth tells a different story.
They're the same.
Finally, Yun is comfortable and limply motions to the antidote. "I trust you… not to want my death on your hands."
Usira swallows a choked laugh. Of course, he hasn't lost his sharp tongue yet. He feeds Yun the paste in small spoonfuls and Yun gets it all down without complaining. Then his head lolls back, exposing his throat. "How long?"
"You should feel better within the next drip," Usira rasps. It's difficult to extract his shoulder from under Yun's head but Zhiva hands him their rations pack to use as a cushion instead. Taking a deep breath, he shuffles back and clears up the fire, grateful to have something to occupy his hands.
They've been waiting for what feels like an eternity. Usira is too tired to worry about his family anymore. Next to him, the Oat Sallows beat their wings against the mesh but all he sees is the Stormcloak Hawk, spreading its cloud of dust. Again and again. "Yes?"
"I've had you around long enough to know you're not selfless enough to warn me without thinking of personal gain," Yun says. Is it wishful thinking or does he already sound stronger? "Why did you first approach me?"
Through his weariness, Usira debates how much to reveal. In the end, however, he feels safe out here. No prying eyes, no peeked ears. "You don't give commoners much credit, do you? There was talk about your appointment as Vessi. It was hard to believe at first, that clans could have outsiders, people shunned by their own relatives but over the last few weeks, I've come to see the truth. Shared blood means little to clanspeople, does it?"
The glow has returned to Yun's eyes. Narrowed, they are like burning coals. "You thought I had no one else to turn to so you decided to capture me with information and your offer to help, just like you'd catch one of your moths. Is that it?"
Usira knows he's too weak to move but still scoots back a foot or two. "At first, yes," he admits, avoiding Yun's gaze, "but I know you're stronger than them now. I wouldn't want to trade my life for yours but I… I admire you." His breath catches in his throat—has he ever been this sincere? "I can't explain it but I want to pin my hopes on you, to see you rise and to help as much as I can. I only ask that you stay loyal to us in turn." Stay loyal to me.
Yun is silent but his expression… it's beyond words. It draws Usira closer and he finds himself physically leaning in, until…
Yun flinches, bursting the bubble. "I don't understand you. How can you possibly be as foolish as to put your trust in me?"
Usira swallows his bitterness. "Calculated risk. Doesn't my trust make you uncomfortable? Doesn't it make you want to live up to it?"
Yun's eyes widen. "As I said, incredibly foolish… or incredibly clever." He shakes his head, chuckling. "Truly, I don't understand."
"You of all clanspeople might, one day."
And Yun grows still, perhaps listening to all that Usira only dares to hint at, all that remains unsaid between them. "If that is your opinion, I look forward to it."
When Yun is strong enough to walk, they start back. He climbs down by rope, watched over by Usira from above and Zhiva from below. The rest of the way is long and quiet. Usira wonders what is going through his companion's head, knowing he won't be able to guess even if he tried.
On the outskirts of Kandamsin, Yun faces Usira. "Thank you for everything," he says. "I do not regret asking you to take me on this trip."
As if Usira could've refused. Frustration and the last remnants of shock clip his tone. "Stormcloak Moth venom is lethal to birds and bats but only rarely to Sedrivar. You might've run a fever but most likely you would've been fine in a few days."
Yun's expression freezes over. "Thank you for not saving my life then."
"Still, it would've been difficult to survive on your own out there. Rations would've run out."
"And I have no clue what's edible and what's not." Yun crosses his arms. "What are you trying to say? Spit it out."
Usira balls his fists. "I wanted you to see what we do, to take our work seriously. I know about the dangers of your world but have you ever thought about the risks people like me have to take just to satisfy your craving for comfort and luxury? I…" He bites his lip. They're back in Kandamsin and there's too much he can't say.
Yun still stares frostily as if Usira was a foreign barbarian he'd like to be rid of sooner rather than later. "You'd do well not to rile the one you're pinning your hopes on. You wanted to show me how arrogant I was to expect a leisurely stroll? You'll be pleased to know that you succeeded. I have learned my lesson. Many thanks."
With that, he marches off, followed by his lovely puppet. Usira watches them disappear into the blue light.
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So that was a whole lot of different shit going down compared to last chapter. Should we call it 'truth or death'? Either way, let me know how you liked it! In the next chapter, we'll be back in Yun's world of polite backstabbing.
This week, instead of frantically scribbling my screams into the void (or The Deep, as Yun and Usira would say) at the last minute, I tried to find smaller but more numerous pockets of writing time on weekdays. That was only moderately successful, in part due to some fantastic personal news that I had to celebrate and bask in for a few days.
It will make me very busy around October and November. We'll see where that leaves this Substack but one thing I can say is that writing has always kept me sane, even during busy times. There's merit in trying to keep up a posting habit even through crazy life events so I might in fact try. No promises though.
Poison, mentions of death and murder