Authors: Bradley P. Beaulieu
But he could only take one—the one he’d heard rumor of nearly two years ago in the capital of the Empire. He’d come to Trevitze in search, and he’d nearly given up hope of finding the child who’d stirred such feelings of power within him, but then, as the children had been riding back to the orphanage on wagons, Nasim had felt a hollowness in his gut. It had yawned open as they came closer and subsided as they traveled uphill toward the orphanage.
He’d experienced this before, many times in fact, though rarely so strong. Only on one other occasion had it been as such, and when it had, he had found Rabiah and convinced her to join him.
He’d talked with Rabiah for days before she’d finally agreed to join him. This time, he thought, little convincing would be needed.
The yawning feeling returned, though for some reason it was muted. He traveled up the length of the table, concentrating carefully on the children sitting on the opposite side. When he rounded the end of the room and came back along the other, he stopped halfway down. Sitting across from him, staring down into his mealy stew, a half-eaten crust of bread in one hand, was a boy, fifteen years old, maybe sixteen. He was not Yrstanlan. Nasim would know even without the void in his gut.
It was not rare for the Aramahn to be taken against their will—war, plague, criminal executions all played their part—but for some reason this boy having been taken and forced to work below ground, all day, for nothing, set Nasim’s blood to burning.
“What is your name?” Nasim said in Mahndi.
The boy’s head snapped up, but he immediately pulled his gaze back down to his bowl.
A whisper spread among the children until the snap of a narrow length of wood against the head of the table brought them back to silence.
The matron stalked between the two tables to the center of the room and stared at Nasim. “You will be silent.”
“What is your name?” Nasim said again, ignoring her.
“You will be
Nasim regarded her. Outside the orphanage she had seemed muted, somehow, perhaps small under the stare of the sky and the mountain peaks, but here, inside her domain, she seemed arch and menacing, like a black widow at the borders of her web.
Taking the small pouch of coins he had prepared for her, Nasim threw it over the heads of the children. It landed with a dull clink near her feet. “Take your money, but order me no more.” He set his sights on the boy. “Give me your name,” he said for a third time, “unless you wish to remain here with them. If that is your choice, I will honor it.”
The boy glanced to one side, mindful of the matron behind him. After a moment filled with consequence, he swallowed, placed his hands on the table, and pushed himself up from his bench. He glanced at Nasim, but was unable to hold his gaze long. “My name is Sukharam,” he said in imperfect Mahndi. “Sukharam Hadir al Dahanan.”
The matron grabbed his shoulders—“Do you think he is for
?”—and shoved him back down. “Do you think this a house of slaves where children can be bought for the pittance you tossed at my feet?” Her face was grim. She could still be bought—it was the kind of woman she was—but Nasim’s insults had raised the price.
Nasim walked to the end of the room and approached the space between the two tables. The matron dug her hands into Sukharam’s shoulders, who winced in pain but made no sound.
“Release him,” Nasim said.
She dug her fingers in further. A whimper escaped Sukharam’s lips, which were drawn into a grim line.
The barest of drafts ran through the room. Nasim drew in a long breath, staring at the woman with a calmness he hadn’t felt in ages. He wore no stones. Ever since the ritual on Oshtoyets, the small keep on the island of Duzol, he had been unable to use such things or commune with hezhan on his own, but through Sukharam he could feel a hezhan. Slowly his awareness grew. As a blind man hears the wind through the trees, as he feels the current of the water running over and around his feet, as he feels the weight of the very earth below him, Nasim felt the havahezhan, and he beckoned it.
It came, pulling at the air like the drawing of breath. It was easy now to discern the currents in the room. The air was chill, and already getting chillier. He could see the women stare into the corners, into the hearth along the right side of the room.
The expression on Sukharam’s face was one of confusion and growing discomfort. Soon he would reach for his gut, as Nasim had done so often in his childhood. Nasim had never felt right doing this—using someone without permission—but were he to ask Sukharam now, he would not understand; he would be
to answer, so for the time being Nasim would have to assume his answer would be
and give apologies later if he’d been wrong.
“Release him,” Nasim repeated.
The matron looked back to the women, who seemed too petrified to move. “Get the rods!”
They stood and grabbed the wrought-iron dousing rods from the wall. One came up behind the matron, protecting her. The other sidled along the wall, keeping a close eye on Nasim as she went. The children began to rise until the matron shouted, “Sit!”
Time was running out.
Calling upon the havahezhan, Nasim summoned the wind. This was only a distraction, however. He called upon a dhoshahezhan as well, using it to touch the life that remained in the wood of the tables and benches. He pushed, drawing upon it more than he should, and a moment later he heard a ticking sound that steadily grew.
With increasing ferocity, the benches and tables cracked and snapped. Splinters flew, causing the children to stand and cringe and scatter from the benches. The planking along the floor buckled as the children stepped upon it, causing them to fall between the joists that supported the tongue-and-groove flooring.
The effect stopped as it neared the dousing rods, however. If the matrons were able to surround him with the rods, his ability to commune with the spirits would dissipate like smoke, but they were hampered now by the crumbling flooring and screaming children.
Nasim allowed the effect to continue up through the walls, to the ceiling. The plaster popped. Cracks ran through the entire room. And yet it was only when the structure itself groaned that the matron yelled, “Enough!”
Nasim willed the effect to fade, though not completely. A slow sifting of dust continued to fall from the ceiling. A piece of plaster fell and crashed to the floor between them.
The matron flung the boy away from her while staring upward, wondering if the floor above was ready to come crashing down. “Enough!”
Finally, though the hezhan was reluctant to allow it, Nasim brought everything to a standstill. He looked around the room, at the children who watched him in abject fear, at the damage he’d caused in mere moments.
It had gone too far. So much had been this way since he’d awoken after the ritual in Oshtoyets five years ago. He had struggled to find a way to touch Adhiya, finding that only through others could he do so, and then imperfectly. Too often it was more than he wished, or too little.
Still, he wished he hadn’t needed to resort to communing with hezhan. He wished he were able to speak more convincingly—as Ashan had always seemed able to do, or Nikandr—but he could not. He knew his limitations, and there was more at stake than the damage to an orphanage in one small corner of the Empire.
“Are you ready, son of Dahanan?” Nasim asked Sukharam, who cowered at his feet.
Sukharam looked up and stared into Nasim’s eyes. A bit of courage seemed to spark within him at those words. “I am.”
“Then come”—he offered Sukharam his hand—“for there is much to do.”
After the barest moment’s hesitation, Sukharam stood and took it.
With Sukharam at his side, Nasim walked the cold streets of Trevitze, heading toward the city square and the hovel he’d rented beyond it. As he neared the rise that would give him a clear view of the square below, he saw a girl waving from the shadows of an alley.
“Quickly,” Rabiah said.
Nasim could hear people talking on the street. They were still hidden behind the rise, but they were coming closer. He moved quickly and quietly, pulling Sukharam by the wrist. Sukharam, thankfully, heard the urgency in Rabiah’s voice and remained silent.
They made it to the alley and hunkered down, using a fat rain barrel to hide behind. Dusk had fallen on Trevitze, but there was still enough light to see down the alley if one’s eyes were sharp.
The voices approached, and soon several men and a robed woman walked by. One of the men wore a white turban of the style that many of Yrstanla’s ruling class wore; it was large and curved, like an olive on a thumb.
It was not he that made Nasim’s heart jump. It was the woman. Her name was Ushai Kissath al Shahda, and she had been following Nasim for months. He remembered hearing her name during his short time in Iramanshah. He had heard it again several times during his stay in the floating village of Mirashadal, so when he heard it once more in the slums of Aleke
ir, he had known that Fahroz had sent others to find him, to return him to her care. Nasim and Rabiah had fled the capital the very same day, and from then on, from village to village and city to city, every time Nasim thought he had lost her, Ushai would turn up again, though thankfully he or Rabiah—who had become very adept at sensing the signs of pursuit—found her, and they had fled once more.
Ushai stopped suddenly. She continued speaking with the portly man, who was very likely the khedive of the city, but she cocked her head to one side as she did, turning ever so slightly toward the alley until Nasim could see the softly glowing stone of alabaster in the circlet upon her brow. The wind was low this evening, but it kicked up, tossing Ushai’s long, dark hair around her shoulders.
Nasim’s fingers went cold. Through Rabiah, he touched Adhiya for a bare moment, but then stopped and cursed himself for a fool. Fahroz had not been unkind to him, but he knew that he could not allow her to keep him from his path. He would do what must be done, but still, he could not harm Ushai—the Aramahn did not do such things. If the fates saw fit for her to find him, he would embrace it and find another way to continue his journey.
The moment passed. Ushai and the man moved on. Their voices faded, and soon, there was little sound but the baying of a pack of dogs somewhere in the hills to the west of Trevitze.
Nasim looked to Rabiah and Sukharam. Both of them looked as nervous as he felt. They left without speaking another word.
hamal walks along the edge of the water as the surf rolls up against his feet. The frothing water is cold against his feet and ankles. The sound of breaking waves is all that he hears.
Ahead of him, two creatures walk. They hunch as they shuffle along the sand. The skin of their eyes has grown over. The features of their faces have shriveled, but their mouths are wide and hinged strangely, making them look like ashen things of clay, not creatures of flesh and blood. The two of them walk side by side, but they do not acknowledge one another. For all Khamal knows, they don’t even know the other is there.
They are akhoz, creatures forged on this very island centuries ago to stop the spread of the rifts. The girl—the taller of the two—releases a call that sounds like the bleating of a goat. It is insistent and desperate.
Which saddens Khamal to his very core.
To Khamal’s right lies a massive rock, dark gray against the white beach and the blue-green waters of the bay. The two akhoz stop near it, waiting obediently as Khamal approaches.
“Go,” Khamal says to one of them, the girl.
She turns, her eyeless face looking up at him, her mouth pulled back in a feral grin.
She scuffles along the beach away from him. A wave surges up and sizzles as it rolls across her feet. She bounds away from the water, looks back one last time, and then gallops toward Alayazhar.
Khamal turns to the other akhoz—a boy whose limbs are so frail his joints look diseased—and motions him toward the rock.
As the boy begins to climb toward the flattened top of it, Khamal touches the handle of the khanjar at his belt, as if to assure himself that it is still there. “Nasim,
Nasim opened his eyes to find Rabiah kneeling over him. His clothes were drenched, and his breath came rapidly.
He swallowed, trying to clear away the feeling of cotton in his mouth, but Rabiah already had a clay mug in one hand. She held it out for him. He accepted it, feeling—as he always did upon waking from one of these episodes—like the Nasim of old, the Nasim who could control nothing, who could not differentiate the material world of Erahm from the spirit world of Adhiya. He was better now—Fahroz and the mahtar had seen to that—but he had never found a way to free himself from the shadow of Khamal. These were not dreams. They were memories. Khamal’s memories, playing as if they were his own. Some were simple, benign, but many were filled with pain and yearning and shame and a thousand other emotions that Nasim felt but did not understand. Not without more of Khamal’s memories to work with.