Catskin

Catskin

By T.S. Lowe

 

Chapter 1: Athena

Goddess Athena wanted a brother more than anything else.

“But you do have a brother,” said her favorite maid, whose disfigured face and body betrayed the kind soul underneath.

“What? Where?” Her five year old mind couldn’t quite get to the question of, if she had a little brother, why she had never seen him.

The maiden, Dorothy, instantly looked alarmed. Or, at least, the ruined, vein-like crevices of her face puckered up in something that Athena recognized as alarm, because it was the look she made whenever Athena did something like jump off her dresser or hang out the window too far.

“What?” she asked.

“My brother. Where is he?” Athena had learned to be patient. Adults had poor hearing.

“I said no such thing.”

“Yeah huh. You said brother.”

“You have no brother.” But even as she said it, her eyes held that look Athena saw whenever Dorothy told her pretty white lies about her mother being kind. Athena knew for a fact, deep in her little bones, that her mother was not nice.  Dorothy, Father, and her favorite guard Osa were nice. Mama was like a hot fire that burned.

Thus, Athena felt quite justified in sticking out her lip and rolling out the big tears.

It wasn’t till after the tantrum, when she lie exhausted in her little, gold gilded bed, that Dorothy approached to tuck her in with her burnt, rough hands.

“I’m sorry, sweetling,” she breathed. She stroked Athena’s strawberry gold hair until she was nigh to sleep before whispering, “If I tell you about your brother, do you promise not to tell anyone?”

Athena was instantly awake. “Why?”

“Because…your mama doesn’t like him. He has a different mama than you, so she doesn’t like that.”

“Then how my brother?”

“You have the same daddy. But your mama wouldn’t be happy if she knew you knew about your brother, so you have to promise to keep it a secret, okay?’

Athena hadn’t gotten most of that, but she could understand wanting to keep something from her mother, who got her meanest when she didn’t like something. And at the thought that her mama would want to be mean to her brother—a surge of protectiveness heated her little body.

“Yes! Keep brother safe! Keep brother safe!”

Dorothy’s ruined face twisted around her lopsided smile. “You’re such a sweet little thing. Okay then. If you’re good tomorrow, I’ll bring him up to visit, okay? But remember, it’s a secret.”

“Secret! Oh,” she quieted down. It was hard to suppress the five year old need to belt everything, but she wanted Dorothy to know she was serious. “Secret,” she whispered, a finger to her lips.

Dorothy laughed. Not the kind of reaction Athena had been aiming for, but she was pleased nonetheless.

 

Chapter 2: Yourne

The wicker basket handle had gone slick with sweat in her hands. Standing at the edge of the unmarked space in the dirt and grass as shirtless men from the village finished their sparring exercises, she couldn’t help feeling incredibly stupid. The worst part was that she couldn’t figure out why. She was just holding a basket of food for a guy, what was so weird about that? Girls often held food and guys liked food. This wasn’t weird. And it wasn’t like she was confessing her love or anything compromising. It was a bribe. Politics, subtle and dirty.

Still, she waited until the last student had passed her before approaching the man the village called the Warmaster. His real name was Dimitri Korkovich, but the ‘v’s came hard to their tongue, so Warmaster it was.

Her first premeditated move, however, was to use his real name.

“Mr. Korkovich?” She pronounced it perfectly. She knew she did.

As she expected, he didn’t act surprise. It did get his attention, though. She could see it in the steady way his dark eyes snapped to hers and stayed there. Other than that, though, his face was as unreadable as always. It was something she found most frustrating and fascinating.

“Yourne, right?”

Hearing her name from him gave her an unwarranted thrill of pleasure, which she beat down with inward screeches of indignation. Of course he would know her name. Everyone knew everyone here, not to mention she stood out…in a bad way.

“Yes. I had something I wanted to talk to you about.”

He straightened from the water trough that he had been hunched over, wetting a towel and wiping the sweat from his neck and face. She kept her eyes on his face. Even so, her mind played the image of well toned, thick muscles striped almost artistically random scars across them.

He didn’t say anything. Just looked at her. But she could sense the invitation.

She held out her basket. “First, I want you to taste this.”

He eyed it, raising an eyebrow.

With a practiced cool, she fought down the blush. “I need you to know exactly what I’m offering.”

“I know you can cook,” he said, and she did not linger on his soft, low voice.

“Then you’ll know I’m offering a fair deal when I ask for lessons in self-defense in return for lunch each day. I’ll be working extra at the blacksmiths to afford good ingredients too.”

He shrugged. “Fine.”

She blanched. It was like she had walked into a clsoed door. “What?”

But he just bent over the trough to dunk his head in, shaking his ragged head of dark brown hair.

“You mean, fine you’ll give me lessons or fine…what?”

“I’ll give you lessons,” he rubbed the towel over his hair.

That had been way too easy. Way, way too easy. Could it be he wasn’t aware of the kind of flack he would get for teaching a woman how to fight in this country? Was his country filled with amazon woman warriors or something?

“What’s the catch?” Please oh please let it not be something outlandish.

“No catch.” He hung the towel about his neck and nudged his chin to the basket. “Food for lessons. I’ll see you tomorrow morning with the rest.”

With that, he turned to head down the short trail out of town where his small cabin stood amidst a struggling garden and proud chickens.

In a way, it made her angry. She had stayed up most of the night, stressing over what he might say and her counter arguments, over the ways she could sweeten the deal, and smashing all the stupid little fantasies that sprouted in here and there, and he just gives in that easily?

“Wait!”

He stopped immediately, looking back at her with that same steady, straight into your soul attention. Waiting.

Unable to stop the blush now, she held out the basket. “I was going to use this to bribe you, but since you gave in so easily you might as well take it. But I want the basket back. It’s the only one I have.”

He nodded and came near to take it. She hated how her fingers trembled as his wrapped about the handle, so close to hers. His nails were broad and short.

Then he just walked away.

Her head kept trying to float off all the way home. On the opposite end, her stomach cramped. She hadn’t eaten that morning.

Grandmother Fiona waited for her by the fire with a knowing, mischievous smile.

“Who did you give that basket too?”

Yourne wrinkled her nose. “The Warmaster. For lessons on self-defense.”

The smile fell away. The wrinkles on her brow deepened.

“That’s going to cause you a lot of grief,” she said. “But you already knew that.”

“Pretty much.”

“You know that man’s not interested in women.”

The blush returned and her stomach cramped harder. “I’m not trying to romance him. I’ve been needing to learn how to defend myself, and you know I might not always be here.” Yourne looked to the side and into the fire. “I’m just a guest.”

The old woman snorted. “If you’d just marry older son that wouldn’t be a problem.”

Yourne sighed and dropped her gaze to her feet. The old woman didn’t know what she was asking for. And Yourne didn’t feel up to reminding her.

She didn’t even know if she wanted to marry anyone, even if the Warmaster turned out to be perfectly interested.

“I’ll be getting to the laundry then.” She checked her headscarf to make sure no stray hairs had gotten loose. “Do you need anything?”

“I would love to join you, if you’d give me a hand up. These early spring nights are still a bit too chill for my back.”

Offering her arm and a smile, Yourne escorted Grandma Fione back outside and around to the back of the blacksmith homestead, where the washing basin, clothesline, and sunshine waited.

 

Chapter 3: Athena

Her brother was a lot smaller than she had expected. On hearing the tale of the Swan Princes, she had a much taller, much more formidable image in her mind. This boy only looked a few years older than her, and he wouldn’t even look at her. He was also scrawny and brown, like dirt or a mouse she had seen in a book. Brown freckles, brown hair, brown eyes, brown clothes, and with skin that might as well be brown, though it reminded her more of milk that had a dash of chocolate in it. Or it might just be dirty. But Dorothy was meticulous about dirty things, so Athena couldn’t see the maid bringing her a dirty brother.

“This is Theseus.”

Athena lifted half her skirt and bowed her head as she had been taught. In her young mind, she did it impeccably and was quite pleased with herself. He must be rightly impressed. “Pleased to meet you, Lord Theseus. I’m Athena.”

The boy stiffened, as though struck. Athena wrinkled her nose.

“Just Theseus, sweet,” said Dorothy, her face bunched on one side from her lopsided smile.

“But he my brother. Mama said…” she snapped her mouth closed. The part of her that saw monsters in the closet suddenly feared mentioning her mother around the very secret she should not know.

“I’ll explain when you’re older, but it’s just Theseus. It will make him uncomfortable if you call him Lord.”

Athena didn’t get that either. But the last thing she wanted was to make her brother uncomfortable. If she did that, he might not play with her.

Impatient to get to said playing, she snatched his hand and started dragging him towards her corner of toys, which she had spent all morning organizing over and over so all the best toys would be displayed to her brother. One wanted to impress new brothers, after all. They’d be risking their lives to save you from corrupted princes and monsters, after all, so it only made sense.

Since he didn’t seem much into talking, she jabbered to him and stuffed the first toy that seemed to catch his eye into his hands. Eventually, he relaxed enough to play a basic battle between a stuffed dragon and a rather bright blue sheep. She quoted lines she could remember from her favorite stories  as she voiced the dragon in hopes it would make him sound more real and powerful. Inwardly, she knew that blue sheep had nothing on the ferocious dragon, but she had to make it sound as though the dragon took the sheep seriously or else Theseus might not play with the sheep, and she wanted the dragon to defeat the sheep. It wouldn’t look as cool with anything else.

Despite not saying much, he went along with her games and even added some, in her five year old mind, ingenious adaptations to the stories they acted out—for the world she lived in was a constant play of stories, running one after the other. Because of that, she loved him, and loathed the coming of night when Dorothy would take him away.

Soon, he talked well enough. Or, at least enough for her. One didn’t need to talk much to satisfy Athena. She liked making up the stories anyways.

One day, her father came to visit. She didn’t think anything of it, but on seeing Dorothy and Theseus go scary quiet and still, she became apprehensive. The anxiety increased on the furrowed brow of her father. But he didn’t look at Athena to scold her, as she had expected him to.  Rather, he looked at Dorothy. But he didn’t scold her either. In fact, all he said was her name, but it was enough to make her flinch.

“She just wanted to know her brother,” she said. “And Theseus was so lonely, he wasn’t talking to anyone but me, but he’s already warming up with her and talking lots, and she’s so happy.” Her voice had started warbling, and Athena instantly stood to go to her side, afraid that Dorothy was getting sick. In her stories, people sometimes died from getting sick.

“It doesn’t matter what I think. He can’t be here.”

Dorothy bowed her head and got up from where she was sitting on the nursery couch.

“Come, Theseus.”

Athena turned to catch him—but too late. Her small, big brother took flight from there as quickly as bird, with Dorothy on his heels.

The wave of dismay overcame her little body like a wave over a tiny shell. She pitched back her head and wailed till every last atom of air had left her body. She didn’t care that her father, who she was always conniving for more attention, had his big hands about her to calm her down. She didn’t care when all her nursemaids came in to offer her all her favorite desserts and pastimes. She didn’t even care when her mother came in, all golden flame in her floorlength mass of golden red hair, to hold her and beg her to just be still for one damn moment and listen. She screamed and cried until she threw up. Even after she had passed out, when she woke up and was told by Dorothy that she must never see Theseus again, she refused to eat. She wouldn’t touch her toys, especially since they wanted her to play with them. It was the best way the five year old goddess knew how to punish the grownups.

Her mother visited her once, but lost patience with her temper, and left to leave her father. When night came and she still had yet to eat, the other maids were in a right panic, to Athena’s satisfaction.

Dorothy, however, was the most calm of all, which would not do, as she was the one Athena wanted to punish most of all. Dorothy, after all, was her way to Theseus. She knew where he was.

“You wouldn’t want your mama to be mad at him, would you?”

No. It made Athena angry that Dorothy said that. Why couldn’t she just see Theseus and keep it a secret from her mama, like Dorothy had said to? Why did she even have to do what her mama said? She wanted Theseus.

When Dorothy wouldn’t relent, Athena howled into the night.

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