The Hæven of Punyal

This is a sample chapter of Maarten Hofman's novel The Hæven of Punyal. Enjoy reading it.

Methionine

 

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.

— Thomas Campbell

 

Punyal sat on the uneven ceramic roof tiles of a house in Bedur, looking at his target, a small wooden cabin at the edge of the village. It was quiet; even during the day, few carriages came here, and now it was night. A single gaslight atop an ornate wrought-iron pole lit the street, leaving his crouched form hidden in the darkness and the haze of smoke from the adjacent brick chimney. The friction light in the moss-covered cabin turned off, indicating his victim was heading for bed. He had planned his approach well. His course would not take him through the light, nor would the wind carry his scent to the two people standing at the far edge of the light from the streetlamp. He had seen them the day before, and the day before that, and assumed they were guarding the cabin, even though the inhabitants didn’t seem to be aware of them.

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He slid off the side of the roof onto the barrel used to collect rainwater, and then down to the ground, hiding behind the barrel. Anyone else would’ve shifted a few tiles and made some noise, but not Punyal. He waited until the engine in the house kicked in to maintain the power axles. Bedur was too small for a central plant, so each house had its own little machine. He used the smoke and noise as cover to move across the street, staying low. He had watched the guards and knew they were concentrating their attention on the back of the cabin, facing the deciduous forest, which would’ve been an easier approach. He waited for a moment behind the berberis bushes on the other side of the street, preferring either to move or be still but not something in between. Another quick, low jump brought him flat against the blind side of the cabin.

He moved his feet a little, his black shoes shifting some of the leaves, confirming that of which he was already quite certain: the existence of a wooden trapdoor leading into the basement of the cabin, used to bring larger items and coal into the building. All the engines in Bedur now ran on gas, and the trapdoor had not been used in a while and was covered with leaves. He tugged the dark wraps around his face down a bit, feeling hot and in need of some air, and squatted, his gloved hands moving through the leaves to find the ring to pull the trapdoor open. He located it and pulled. The two wooden doors moved up a bit but resisted, as if bolted from the inside. He held the ring in one hand reached into his pocket with the other, producing a circular magnet, that he placed against the space where he’d felt the lock. He slowly moved the magnet to the side while shaking the doors a little using the ring. He heard softly scraping metal and was suddenly able to pull one of the doors open, causing more leaves to shift. He held door and pried the magnet off, placing it back into his pocket. He then raised the door and slid inside, his feet finding the stone steps leading into the basement. Behind him he lowered the door and bolted it again.

There was no power demand from the cabin, so the engine was running idle. But even idle, there was some light from the gas furnace that allowed Punyal to find his way toward the other side, where another stone staircase led back to the upper level. One side of the basement was filled with boxes of different sizes, which he ignored. He crept up the stairs and placed his ear against the door to listen. He waited, hearing soft snoring. Eventually he was able to distinguish the sounds he heard and knew both inhabitants were asleep. He opened the door, the metal catch scraping louder than he would have liked. The sounds of sleeping continued, his shoulders falling a bit as he relaxed. He stepped through the door and closed it behind him.

Only when he walked toward the bedroom did he realize that there was a third person in the house, and that this third person was awake and right behind him. He moved his hand to his waist, ready to draw the dagger that defined him, but before he could draw the weapon, the stranger slipped a slick leather strap around his throat and twisted it tightly. Punyal tried to turn around and look at his assailant, but he was pulled down to the floor, and a knee pressed into his back, making the stranglehold even tighter. He finally freed his dagger, the snake-shaped blade glinting in the gaslight shining through the window. He stabbed his punyal behind him through rigid leather armor, through a possibly satin shirt, into a hip. He withdrew and stabbed again, his vision becoming dark with yellow spots as his blood could no longer carry oxygen to his brain. A third stab made his attacker grunt, but Punyal lost consciousness. He sank to the floor of the cabin, no longer aware of the cold tiles under his legs.

 

***

 

Chalina walked over the raised sand road between the rice fields. Tall mango trees grew on either side of the path. It was morning, and it wasn’t very hot yet. It was quiet, although there was always the noise of insects. Her face, decorated with a nose ring and framed by two elaborate gold earrings, was turned down toward the road beneath her—her sandals wouldn’t protect her from the sharp rocks and snakes that could be on the path. When she finally looked up, she noticed a group of three strangers and slowed down. They looked like trouble. She recognized they wore the garb of a neighboring village, and each of them was holding a rather substantial stick. Chalina trembled but continued to move forward. The rice fields were muddy, and she didn’t want to go all the way back. When she came closer, she noticed the strangers were young men; their moustaches were still growing. She tried to get past them, but they spread apart and blocked the road, talking over each other. She heard, “Look who we have here!” The youngest boy said, “If it isn’t the filthy traitor, on her way to aid the enemy.” And the oldest, “She’s a whore, walking all by herself.”

Chalina tried to move through a gap between them, but they closed it. “Get out of my way, please.”

The youngest of the boys said, “You shouldn’t go to them, you know. They have enslaved us, killed our parents.”

The next continued, “Better go back to your farm. Milk the cow.”

The oldest stretched out his stick. “If you want to pass, you have to be a lot nicer to us.”

Chalina tilted her head a little, her long black braid swinging to one side. She pouted her lips a bit and averted her eyes as she faced the boy who had called her a whore. He stared at the black dot on her forehead and smiled at her, relaxing slightly. Chalina’s knee instantly moved up between his legs, producing a wet crushing sound. The boy collapsed into a whimpering heap. She swung around to face the next boy, her weighted braid more slowly following through. The boy gripped his stick with both hands and aimed for her chest but never got to finish the blow, as she stabbed him in an eye with her knuckles. As she stepped away from the stick, she gave her head a quick jerk, causing the metal ball woven into her braid to hit the last boy on the back of the head, making him fall forward. She step[ed over the groaning mass of limbs and continued toward her destination.

Chalina didn’t remember the misery caused by the invaders of her country, nor had her parents ever told her about it. Instead she was intrigued by these trespassers, and on her trips to the market, the well, and the fields, she had often made the long detour along the edge of their encampment. They had built large brick houses, wore clothes that were inappropriate for the hot climate, and played a very strange game involving flat sticks and a ball that was moved around a large field. Over time she had learned their language and had gratefully accepted a job as a translator. Her parents did not approve, but the money she brought home was too good to deny her.

She always made sure she was covered in long, colorful cotton clothes, with the dot on her forehead to ward off evil. Usually a thin chain connected her nose ring with a clip in her hair on the left side. In her village she thought she was tall, but in the encampment she felt short, which she didn’t mind. She happily walked toward the encampment, narrowly avoiding a ball that flew her way, and stopped near a gate in a low fence, telling the guard that she was there.

The guard nodded and let her through, but before she could get to the main building, she was intercepted by the charming white man called Andrew. “Hi, Chalina! Good to see you again!”

“Good morning, Sir Andrew. I be glad to see you too.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘Sir.’ Just call me Andrew. Or Andy, even.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Say Andy.”

“Yes, Andy.”

“Anyway, I wanted to ask you something.”

Chalina looked at Andrew, a bit confused, as he looked rather serious. She wondered if she had done something wrong. “Yes?”

Looking uncomfortable, Andrew asked, “Can we go somewhere else? People are watching.”

“Should they not?”

Andrew tried a few more times to get Chalina to a more private spot, but she kept refusing. He finally gave in and then kneeled before her. He tried to hold her hand, but she quickly pulled it back. He asked her something, but she didn’t know the verb. She repeated the word she didn’t know.

Andrew said, “Marry.”

Chalina’s face turned paler than it had ever been, and she shook her head a little. She did enjoy being with Andrew but had not expected this.

She knew the correct answer, though. “You ask my parents.”

Andrew nodded and looked at her, wondering what her own opinion was, but it was hard to tell anything from Chalina’s face. She took the opportunity to disappear into the main building, hearing some laughter, as people had seen what had happened. She cringed, fearing the laughter was aimed at her, and focused on her work.

When she came home that evening, she saw Andrew’s horse outside her parents’ house. She hesitated before going inside, where Andrew and her parents were trying to have a conversation without knowing each other’s languages. Translating for them came easily to her, and it was strange how it allowed her to dissociate herself from the fact that the conversation was about her. Only afterward did she realize that her parents had accepted his offer, mostly because Andrew had not asked for a dowry and had even given them some money. They believed she would have a much better life in his home country, of which she knew next to nothing. She imagined it would look like the encampment. She tried arguing with them, insisting that she belonged here and that she wanted to take care of them, but they ignored her complaints.

After a discussion with the priest regarding possible auspicious dates, the wedding came quickly and lasted seven days. Chalina looked dazed through most of it, although she did follow the rituals — throwing rice, sitting around the fire, repeating after the priest, wearing the rich red clothing that her mother had retrieved from a chest under the bed. She had occasionally smiled at Andrew, who possibly looked even more confused than she did. There were lots of sweets, lots of food in general. Most of Chalina’s family came including uncles and aunts she hadn’t seen in years. On Andrew’s side there were very few people. His superior showed up once during the celebrations, and one of his mates, who seemed to be making a lot of jokes that Chalina did not understand.

It was on her wedding night that Chalina truly realized something had changed. She no longer wore the black spot, and her hair was filled with red powder. Andrew had arranged for a carriage to bring her from the wedding area to the guesthouse on the encampment, and she was surprised when he lifted her off the carriage and carried her inside. She smiled at him; he smelled good, although a little sweaty in his thick clothes, and he was handsome. She tried to say something, but he placed his fingers on her lips and then placed her on the bed. He seemed to know what to do and helped her out of her clothes. She was surprised how easily he figured out how to undo her garments, and smiled as he folded the expensive fabric carefully and placed it on the table. She struggled a lot more with all the buttons on his clothes, and he helped her undress him. He laid her down and kissed her for the first time, which also made her smile, and she practiced a lot more kissing as his hands roamed over her body, exploring her curves, massaging her shoulders, walking down her spine, spreading her thighs. His hands and lips moved everywhere, discovering Chalina’s body along with her, finding spots that gave her more pleasure than she had imagined possible. She moved her hands over his body, too, fascinated by the contrast of her brown hand on his white skin, but she had trouble finding ways to please him in return.

By the time he took her, she was more than ready, her scent quite feminine and her body glistening with moisture. She winced, but was glad to hear that now he, too, seemed to be content as their bodies merged, became one. He made her feel wonderful, and she forgot all about the worries she had had about the marriage, and relaxed in bliss. That night he taught her some ways she could please him as well, which she did. Some of them seemed unromantic, but she delighted in hearing and feeling his excitement, and he was always happy to please her in return, until they were both exhausted and fell asleep.

The next day the airship landed in the encampment.

She had previously seen them only high up in the sky, and she was delighted. “Oh, Andy! It be an airship!”

Andy smiled and lifted her suitcase and his own. “It will be even better, Chalina.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, you’ll get to be on the airship. We’re going home.”

Chalina swallowed a bit. She had known this day would come, but she hadn’t expected it to be so soon.

Andy continued, “Yes, because I’m married, I’m allowed an early leave. Don’t worry, I made sure your parents would be here, so you can say good-bye.”

Chalina indeed noticed her parents waiting, and she rushed outside to hug them, tears forming in her eyes. They comforted her, and promised her many letters. The farewell was short, as the airship was on a tight schedule.

Andy said, “Unfortunately, we need to go now, my love.”

Chalina nodded, and hugged her mother and father one more time before she boarded the airship. She looked around in amazement and didn’t notice it had taken off until she looked out of the window and saw the encampment and the village becoming smaller below.

 

***

 

Capa took off her cloak and shook it out a few times after she had returned home from the hospital in the center of Crazad. She looked tired and stretched her right arm and rubbed that shoulder with her other hand. Her red hair was a bit of a mess; it had been a busy day. During her shift at the emergency entrance  she had saved two people and stabilized a third, who she believed would make it, if Capa’s replacement didn’t mess up. When she stopped stretching, she noticed a note that had been pushed under the door of her apartment. She bent to pick it up and looked at it. There were no official markings or writing on it. The note was in a wax envelope, keeping the inside protected from moisture and air. She opened it and found a piece of parchment. She recognized the paper and knew that it would be bad news. She opened it and read it slowly.

 

It is with great sorrow we report that the Punyal did not respond as arranged after his last mission. We are not sure if he has been taken prisoner or killed, but we fear the worst. Normally we would not have informed you, but the Punyal gave us explicit instructions to notify you under these particular circumstances. Do not try to contact...

 

Capa dropped the piece of paper as it caught fire. She tried to stomp it out with her foot, but she realized the ink had been designed to ignite within a certain period of time after being exposed to air, and it refused to stop burning. She imagined there would be a warning about it at the end of the message, but she would never know. When she bent again to gather the ashes the door behind her opened, bumping her from behind and almost making her fall. She slowly got up, looking behind her, but didn’t seem surprised. When she saw who was there, she smiled and straightened herself, using her hands to fix her hair. In front of her was a taller man who smiled at her and apologized. She got closer to him and kissed him, wrapping her arms around his neck. He was a few years older, and already had a few gray hairs and a short beard. The only wrinkles were around his brown eyes. It was Velas, her life partner.

He kissed her back and continued his apology. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were standing there.”

Capa kept her arms around him, turning her head to face him. “Oh, Velas, it’s my brother. He’s gone.”

“Where did he go?”

Capa stepped back a little and showed the ashes that she had in her hands. “They sent a message. They wrote that he was taken prisoner or killed, but I know they could never keep him in a prison. Not my Punyal.”

“True. He is a rather slippery individual.”

“I know what you’re going to say. But they would never risk exposure with a message like this if there was no grounds for concern.”

Capa’s voice was breaking, she was about to cry, and Velas pulled her to him again. “It’s all right.”

“It’s not all right! It’s not fair! I know that he was not a noble individual, but he was my brother. He always looked out for me.”

She heard Velas sniffing and knew that her emotional state had made her scent reappear. “You’re smelling me again?”

“Yes, darling. I’m sorry, but you smell so good.”

“Only you think that. Everyone else wrinkles their noses in disgust and says I smell like creosote mixed with oleander. One person even got sick once.”

“Creosote isn’t a bad smell. And as far as I recall, that person had a specific trace deficiency.”

“Well, I’m glad I can’t smell myself.”

“And I’m glad I can smell you. Come here, I brought dinner home with me, and I don’t want it getting cold. Let’s eat, and you can tell me everything you want to tell me about your day at the hospital, and about the Punyal.”

“You, too? It’s Punyal. There’s no the. I’m not the Capa either. I’m Capa.”

“My Capa.”

Your Capa.”

 

***

 

My dearest calf, you did not expect that I would be completely gone, did you? Of course not. Punyal, he doesn’t just disappear after he dies. No, he lives on. To be honest, I was surprised too. I didn’t expect to be dead so suddenly. But that is the only explanation I have for my transition. At one point I was off to who knows where, and the next moment I’m in Crazad, eating dinner with my sister and her partner. She’s completely unaware I’m here, but I know. I knew I had a connection with my sister, but I didn’t know it was this strong. She knows so much about me that a part of her is me, and that is the part where I moved after my death. Now, whenever she thinks of me and sees the world through my eyes, I’m there as well, seeing the world through hers. I know, it’s confusing and not very easy for me to explain. But there is plenty of time. Let’s just hope my sister keeps thinking of me.