Unsaid -- but revealed -- emotion to me, is the key to good fiction. In the hands of a fine craftsman like Steven Erikson, it becomes gold:
‘You took my anger.’
The voice came out of the shadows. Blinking, Lostara Yil slowly sat up, the furs sliding down, the chill air sweeping around her bared breasts, back and belly. A figure was sitting on the tent’s lone camp stool to her left, cloaked, hooded in grey wool. The two hands, hanging down past the bend of his knees, were pale as bone.
Lostara’s heart thudded hard in her chest. ‘I felt it,’ she said. ‘Rising like a flood.’ She shivered, whispered, ‘And I drowned.’
‘Your love summoned me, Lostara Yil.’
She scowled. ‘I have no love for you, Cotillion.’
The hooded head dipped slightly. ‘The man you chose to defend.’
His tone startled her. Weary, yes, but more than that. Lonely. This god is lonely.
‘You danced for him and none other,’ Cotillion went on. ‘Not even the Adjunct.’
‘I expected to die.’
She waited. Faint voices from the camp beyond the flimsy walls, the occasional glow of a hooded lantern swinging past, the thud of boots.
The silence stretched.
‘You saved us,’ she finally said. ‘For that, I suppose I have to thank you.’
‘No, Lostara Yil, you do not. I possessed you, after all. You didn’t ask for that, but then, even all those years ago, the grace of your dance was…breathtaking.’
Her breath caught. Something was happening here. She didn’t understand it. ‘If you did not wish my gratitude, Cotillion, why are you here?’ Even as she spoke, she flinched at her own tone’s harshness. That came out all wrong—
His face remained hidden. ‘Those were early days, weren’t they. Our flesh was real, our breaths…real. It was all there, in reach, and we took it without a moment’s thought as to how precious it all was. Our youth, the brightness of the sun, the heat that seemed to stretch ahead for ever.’
She realized then that he was weeping. Felt helpless before it. What is this about? ‘I took your anger, you said.’ And yes, she could remember it, the way the power filled her. The skill with the swords was entirely her own, but the swiftness – the profound awareness – that had belonged to him. ‘I took your anger. Cotillion, what did you take from me?’
He seemed to shake his head. ‘I think I’m done with possessing women.’
‘What did you take? You took that love, didn’t you? It drowned you, just as your anger drowned me.’
He sighed. ‘Always an even exchange.’
‘Can a god not love?’
She was appalled. ‘But then, what keeps you going? Cotillion, why do you fight on?’
Abruptly he stood. ‘You are chilled. I have disturbed your rest—’
‘Possess me again.’
‘The love that I feel. You need it, Cotillion. That need is what brought you here, wasn’t it? You want to…to drown again.’
His reply was a frail whisper. ‘I cannot.’
‘Why not? I offer this to you. As a true measure of my gratitude. When a mortal communes with her god, is not the language love itself?’
‘My worshippers love me not, Lostara Yil. Besides, I have nothing worthy to give in exchange. I appreciate your offer—’
‘Listen, you shit, I’m trying to give you some of your humanity back. You’re a damned god – if you lose your passion where does that leave us?’
The question clearly rocked him. ‘I do not doubt the path awaiting me, Lostara Yil. I am strong enough for it, right to the bitter end—’
‘I don’t doubt any of that. I felt you, remember? Listen, whatever that end you see coming…what I’m offering is to take away some of its bitterness. Don’t you see that?’ He was shaking his head. ‘You don’t understand. The blood on my hands—’
‘Is now on my hands, too, or have you forgotten that?’
‘No. I possessed you—’
‘You think that makes a difference?’
‘I should not have come here.’
‘Probably not, but here you are, and that hood doesn’t hide everything. Very well, refuse my offer, but do you really think it’s just women who feel love? If you decide never again to feel…anything, then best you swear off possession entirely, Cotillion. Steal into us mortals and we’ll take what we need from you, and we’ll give in return whatever we own. If you’re lucky, it’ll be love. If you’re not lucky, well, Hood knows what you’ll get.’
‘I am aware of this.’
‘Yes, you must be. I’m sorry. But, Cotillion, you gave me more than your anger. Don’t you see that? The man I love does not now grieve for me. His love is not for a ghost, a brief moment in his life that he can never recapture. You gave us both a chance to live, and to love – it doesn’t matter for how much longer.’
‘I also spared the Adjunct, and by extension this entire army.’
She cocked her head, momentarily disoriented. ‘Do you regret that?’
He hesitated, and that silence rippled like ice-water through Lostara Yil. ‘While she lives,’ he said, ‘the path awaiting you, and this beleaguered, half-damned army, is as bitter as my own. To the suffering to come…ah, there are no gifts in any of this.’
‘There must be, Cotillion. They exist. They always do.’
‘Will you all die in the name of love?’ The question seemed torn from something inside him.
‘If die we must, what better reason?’
He studied her for a dozen heartbeats, and then said, ‘I have been considering…amends.’
‘Amends? I don’t understand.’
‘Our youth,’ he murmured, as if he had not heard her, ‘the brightness of the sun. She chose to leave him. Because, I fear, of me, of what I did to her. It was wrong. All of it, so terribly wrong. Love… I’d forgotten.’
The shadows deepened, and a moment later she was alone in her tent. She? Cotillion, listen to my prayer. For all your fears, love is not something you can forget. But you can turn your back on it. Do not do that. A god had sought her out. A god suffering desperate need. But she couldn’t give him what he desired – perhaps, she saw now, he’d been wise in rejecting what she’d offered. The first time, it was anger for love. But I saw no anger left in him. Always an even exchange. If I opened my love to him…whatever he had left inside himself, he didn’t want to give it to me. And that, she now comprehended, had been an act of mercy.
The things said and the things not said. In the space in between, a thousand worlds. A thousand worlds.