Authors: John Jackson Miller
5,000 years BBY
“Good to see you too, Mother,” Adari said. “Did the children behave?”
The door hadn’t fully closed when the smaller child was in Adari’s arms, shoved there by Eulyn. Adari’s older boy bounded into the room, hobbling her. Under attack from four purple arms, Adari staggered toward the wall, looking for a spot to drop her nonliving cargo. The canvas bag thudded against the wooden floor.
“Heretic! That’s what your uncle says they’re calling you,” Eulyn said. “He was here—and neighbor Wertram, the tailor. And his wife, too—she never leaves the hut for anything!
have been by today!”
“Well, don’t look outside,” Adari said. “More followed me home.” She shooed the gangly older child away and tried to rescue her silvery hair from her toddler’s mouth. Short hair wasn’t the fashion for Keshiri women, but for Adari, it was self-defense. Where her youngest was concerned, it’d never be short enough.
“Is the stew on?”
“Stew?” Eulyn yanked her little grandson back, only to see Adari dart into the kitchen. Flushed with aggravation, Eulyn’s skin took on a violet hue that almost matched her daughter’s. “You’re worried about dinner! You don’t have any idea what’s been going on around here, do you?”
“It’s a dinner break. I was working.”
“Working, nothing. I know where you were!”
Adari stared into the clay crock full of boiling meat and vegetables and sighed. Of course her mother knew where she’d been.
did. Adari Vaal, collector of rocks and stones; young widow of the valiant uvak-rider on whom so many hopes had rested. Adari Vaal, enemy of right and order; absent mother and misleader of other people’s children. Today had been her third day of testimony before the Neshtovar. It had gone as well as the other two.
“What is that
“They’re hitting the house with rocks,” Adari said, returning with a steaming bowl that she set on the table. Standing back, she swung the front door wide and watched as several gifts from the community bounced over the threshold. She slammed the door quickly. A peppery stone under the empty crèche drew her eye. She reached for it with a sinewy, scratched arm. “That’s a nice one,” she said. “Not from around here.” She was apparently drawing people from all over. She’d have to look around, later. Who needed expeditions when you had an angry mob to collect samples?
Adari knelt and put the discovery in her pouch, already overflowing with stones of every shape and color. Above, the clatter grew louder. The younger child wailed. Eulyn’s huge dark eyes widened further with horror. “Adari, listen!” she said. “They’re hitting the roof now!”
“That’s actually thunder.”
“It’s proof, that’s what it is! The Skyborn have forsaken you.”
“No, Mother, it’s proof that they’re
me,” Adari said, eating standing up. “If it rains, the mob can’t set our house on fire.”
That wasn’t likely to happen—the widow of a Neshtovari was a protected person, unlikely to be killed in a riot. However, there was nothing wrong with making her life miserable, and since her sin was against the Neshtovar themselves, no authority would stop them. In fact, little displays like this were good for public order.
Adari poked her head into the backyard. No rocks there. Just the uvak, doing what he had done all year: taking up most of the place and being unfragrant. Emerald reptilian eyes opened long enough to shoot her a bad look. His leathery wings shifted, raking against the sides of the pen. The beast didn’t mind the cooling rain, but the noise from the street had disturbed his royal slumber.
Riderless uvak were all sloth and bad attitude, but Nink hadn’t liked his rider when he had one. He was Adari’s least favorite thing, but he came with the house. In a sense, the house was his.
In olden times, when a Neshtovari—an uvak-rider—died, the community had slain the deceased’s family, as well. That practice had ended, perhaps the only time the Neshtovar had allowed practicality to overrule tradition. Uvak were precious, temperamental, and attached to their riders; stabling them with the dead rider’s survivors often kept the beasts sane enough to be useful for the breeding market. Not to mention, Adari mused, what it must have done for
breeding. The riders hadn’t had great social lives when death was in the picture. But since the change, uvak-riders had become highly sought after as mates in Keshiri society.
Adari hadn’t sought Zhari Vaal at all. She was interested in rocks; Zhari was their equal for conversational ability. In nine years he had given her two dim-witted children, a description that seemed less harsh to her than maternally charitable. She loved them well enough, but they were showing no signs of being any kinder or brighter than their father had been. Foolishness bred true. She, the fool for not running away; he, well, he was Zhari Vaal. The “valiant young rider of the Neshtovar on whom so many hopes rested”—that was the line from the wake—had mistreated Nink one too many times. One beautiful morning, the beast had flown Zhari far out over the sea and unceremoniously dropped him. Adari was sure she had seen a hint of satisfaction in the creature’s bright green eyes when he returned home. She’d never gotten along with Nink before, but at least now she paid him some respect. When it came to Zhari, the uvak had had more sense than she did.
It wasn’t all her fault, she knew. The match had resulted from years of lobbying by Eulyn, seeking to lock in her family’s future position. Only males became riders, but Keshiri property descended matrilineally; now Adari and her mother had the uvak and the wooden house, while their neighbors still lived in huts of lashed-together hejarbo shoots. Eulyn was thrilled—and Adari was content to let the children be Eulyn’s domain, too. Adari had done her duty; the Keshiri had been advanced by another generation. Now she could concentrate on something important.
If they’d let her.
“I have to go back,” she said, lifting her younger son from his work destroying the dinner table. The afternoon hearing had gone long, and an unprecedented evening session loomed.
“I knew you’d do something like this,” Eulyn said, her gaze piercing her daughter’s back. “I’ve always said
all that digging around in the filth would do you no good. And arguing with the Neshtovar! Why do you always have to be
“I don’t know, Mother. But it’s something I’m going to have to live with,” Adari said, handing off the dripping toddler. A smeary imprint remained on her tunic—no time for a change. “Try to get Tona and Finn to actually sleep tonight. I’ll be back.”
She opened the door carefully to find that the rain had driven off the crowd. Comfort trumped belief on Kesh. But the rocks remained, dozens of ironic little statements scattered all across the stoop. If the hearings lasted any longer, she wouldn’t have to do any more field research for the season—everything she needed would be on her doorstep.
Perhaps she should offend the Skyborn every year.
“We were talking about the flamestones,” Adari reminded the chief of the Neshtovar.
were talking,” Izri Dazh said. “I accept no such term.” The aged rider and high councilor hobbled around the edge of the Circle Eternal, a plaza where a tall column served as a massive sundial. Adari looked around. Another gorgeous evening, for a place that had no other kind. It was the same every day, inland: a brief, determined afternoon rain followed by a cool breeze that blew straight through the night. But now half the village had forgone real entertainments to watch a bald, bloodless man harangue a young woman. “There
no flamestones,” he said, gesturing to a pair of crimson rocks on a pedestal beside the central column. “I see here only normal stones of Kesh, as you might find on any hillside.”
“You have something to say?”
“I’d better not.” Adari looked up from her seat in the
sandy clearing—and then around at the glaring listeners. What was the point? No one would listen. Why keep making it worse …
She took another look at Izri. This lavender wraith was the man who had eulogized Zhari. What did he know about anything? What business did the Neshtovar have telling
what to think, just for convincing a few lazy animals to take them for rides now and again?
, she thought, rising.
These’ll be two fewer rocks they can throw
. She took a stone from the pedestal. “I have—the scholars of Kesh have collected stones from every part of this continent. We record what we find. We compare. This rock came from the foot of the Sessal Spire, on the southern coast.”
The crowd murmured. Everyone knew the smoking Spire, rumbling and bubbling at the edge of civilization. Someone
have been crazy to go out there collecting rocks!
“The Spire created this stone, from the flames it holds inside. And this,” Adari said, picking up the other rock, “was found right here outside the village, buried in the riverbed.” The stones were identical. “Now, the mountains ringing our plateau aren’t smokers—what we call volcanoes—at least, not now. But this rock being here suggests they might once have been. This whole continent, in fact, might have been created by them.”
“Is my mother here?” Adari craned her neck, scanning the crowd. Someone tittered.
Izri took the stones from her and rustled along the perimeter of the audience. “You say these stones came … from
,” he said, the horrible word dripping from his tongue. “And created all that is Kesh.”
“Then, and now. The smokers are building more land all the time.”
“But you know that all that is Kesh came from the
,” Izri said, jabbing his cane in her direction. “Nothing can be born of Kesh anew!”
She knew; every child knew. The Skyborn were the great beings above, the closest thing the Kesh had to deities. Well, there was something closer: The Neshtovar, as the self-proclaimed Sons of the Skyborn, might as well have
the Skyborn as far as life on Kesh was concerned. Keshiri faith was vertical; high was mighty. The elevated were venerated. It was Izri’s uvak-riding group that, ages before, had brought down from the lofty oceanside peaks the wisdom of the great battle of creation. Riding colossal uvak of crystal, the Skyborn had fought the Otherside in the stars. The battle raged for eons, with the Otherside injuring the Skyborn before being defeated. Drops of Skyborn blood fell upon the roiling black seas, forming the land that birthed the Keshiri people.
Adari wondered about the biology of a gigantic, sandy-blooded race—but the Neshtovar notion had something going for it: The Keshiri’s few maps of the land looked as if one of her kids had spilled something on them. Long ridged peninsulas spattered in all directions from a cluster of plateaus, forming enormous, often unwalkable coastlines and fjords enough for the Keshiri to harvest marine life forever. Farther up the many rivers to the plateaus, farmers drew even more from the rich soil. The Keshiri numbers were both vast and well fed.
About the Otherside, Adari found the Neshtovar were incurious to a fault. “That which opposed the Skyborn” meant death, sickness, fire, rebellion—in no particular order—when it wasn’t taking mortal form in accordance with the storyteller’s needs. The Otherside came “from below,” another element in the message of vertical faith. And that was all there was to say. Given the elders’ devotion to the Skyborn, Adari was surprised
they hadn’t hammered down who or what the Otherside was. But then, if they had, they’d have come up with a better name.
Which wasn’t stopping Izri from invoking it repeatedly as he railed at her. “Your words glorify the Otherside, Adari Vaal. It’s why you are here. You are here for preaching—”
about the Great Battle to your acolytes!”
!” She searched the crowd for familiar faces. Her students had ducked out the day before when things had gotten rough, but some of their parents were here. “You, Ori Garran! You sent your son to the scholars because he wasn’t any good at the mill. And Wertram, your daughter. Everyone here in Tahv—do you think the village is going to
fall into a hole
because I talked to your children about some