Handan opened his eyes. For a moment, he could not tell where he was and why he was feeling a wrenching pain in his whole body. His mind was a blank slate.
Then he turned his head, and he realized. The Lakes. The fantastic landscape. The battle. They had been attacked by marauders, not surprising in such a remote area.
The fighting had been short but furious. Handan couldn’t remember anything so vicious, and he had seen his fair share even at his young age. But they had fought back. Their assailants hadn’t expected their reaction, and many bodies littered the ground, some already scavenged by vultures.
With an effort, he got up, looking around. Not far away from him, Brother Yaaran lay immobile covered in blood, his eyes wide open, his skull broken. An axe had almost severed his neck, but the sword was still in his hands. He knew the risk, Handan said to himself, this is why he instructed me to carry my weapon. But for some reason, that thought didn’t make him feel any better.
He walked around, every step inflicting fresh pain on his body. Yet he couldn’t but admire that scene of destruction in the bloody twilight of the three suns. They shone upon his head in contrasting colors, their reflection on the lakes like glittering gems. He felt a strong emotion and, for the first time in his life, his eyes welled up with tears. He cried of joy, because he had never felt so alive in his entire existence. He cried of sadness, because he had come to respect the man that lay near him. He cried of sheer admiration for the magnificent sight in front of his eyes ― a sight that gave him a sense of wholeness and the vertigo of freedom.
It was day 123. The start of a mathematical series, Handan thought.
“I discovered beauty, monk. You can rest in peace now,” he said, preparing Brother Yaraan’s body for the burial. Handan didn’t believe in any superior power ― the Monkey God of the Walled City was to him only good for cursing ― but his teacher deserved to say goodbye in the way his own divinity prescribed. “Maybe I don’t use words you would approve, or concepts you would share. I remember what I’ve read ― that beauty is what I feel with my mind before my senses take over, and I become reaction, instincts, and mistakes. Control is beauty, and so it is awareness, even though truth isn’t but a different name men give to their illusions. Life is beauty, the most precious possession ever ― and the most ephemeral. This is what I have learnt from your books, and from you. And I’m grateful for that.” Handan put the body into the grave, covering it with stones. “But to me, beauty is something else.” He piled up his long hair on top of his head. “To Handan Faen ― hunter, atheist, human, beast ― his weapon is beauty. This crossbow covered in silt and blood, its poisonous arrows, its perfect balance; the way its string bends and shoots; the sound it makes when the bolt darts and kills ― all this is pure beauty to me, and so are the deadly gifts it bestows. And I’m the master, here. For your killers, Brother Yaaran, it’s learning time.”
Kissing his quiver and putting the crossbow back on his shoulders, Handan went to the hunting ground, following the tracks of his assailants. Tomorrow, he smiled, is going to be a beautiful day.
Russell Hemmell is a statistician and social scientist from the U.K, passionate about astrophysics and speculative fiction. Recent stories in Not One of Us, Perihelion SF, SQ Mag, and elsewhere. You can find him online at earthianhivemind.net