The Killing Ritual, Chapter 9

The Cuff of Consequence

The cuff didn’t look weird. Basic, normal. Fighters wore them sometimes. Yet it rubbed against Torek’s flesh and made all his nerves tingle acutely. It was as if the feeling fibers of his body were aligning toward something, like a compass. Except he wasn’t being drawn North. The cuff and every inch of his body ached for the South.

The cuff didn’t just remap him. It made him hear things, see things. It screamed loudest whenever he attempted to remove it. Torek had tried prying it off with his knife, took a hammer to it, and went to a blacksmith. The cuff stayed, no matter what he tried.

Torek shifted in the chair. The wizard was uttering an incantation. He winced as the name ‘Murin’ bounced around the inside of his skull. It was the same name that had plagued him as a child. Still, the cuff didn’t come undone, it didn’t glow or make strange sounds. He rubbed a hand over his face, winced at the way fire danced through his joints, muscles and skin. The cuff of sleeplessness.

“What does it do?”  Grimshader and Sorchaich had only laughed when he’d asked them. The bastards had turned their backs on him and walked away. He followed them for 2 leagues, shouted questions at their backs, to their faces. But they trotted their horses ever away from him. Didn’t even pause.

“How did it come to you?” the wizard asked.

“I already told you. I was attacked, and the thieves slapped this on my wrist.”

The man’s eyebrows twitched. “Robbers gave you something instead of taking it. Peculiar.”

There was always a wise ass, and honestly it was none of this hack’s business. All he had to do was get it off.

The wizard smiled, his gaze apathetic. “I’m soul-glad you’re paying to stare at me. Most people want so much more.”

“You know what I want.”

“I can’t help you with the cuff if you’re not willing to tell me how you came about it. Truth is the path to liberation, my friend. But by all means, keep up the veil if it makes you feel better. Just know that when you’re bare, when deception disintegrates, what lays beyond will be all that much more difficult to gaze upon. And navigate through.” He leaned back in the chair, folded his arms over his chest.

Torek tapped his finger on the table. “Fine,” he said. “They weren’t robbers.”

“And?” The wizard already knew who. Somehow. That was the only explanation for the look in his eyes.

“Something to do with the Darkness Hunters and the Guardians.”

The wizard’s brows raised. “Something?”

Torek shrugged.

“Right. Well, my friend, the only reason why this cuff remains on you is because you bound it to yourself. As for what it does, I suspect that the manner of the binding will reveal the function.”

“Huh? I didn’t chose this. They’re the ones who put it on.”

The wizard didn’t respond. The lout turned away from him and stuck his nose in a book. He paged through it, paused on one particular page and ‘Ah’d’ to himself. “Of course.”

“Can you get it off?”

“Torek, son of Astasiana, Huntress of Darkness and Guardian of the Pearl, no amount of money would entice me to remove that Consequence from your wrist. Even if I could.”

Torek flinched. “How the hells do you know who I am?”

The wizard smiled. Light flashed in his eyes like jewels.

“You’re with Grimshader and Sorchaich, aren’t you? Bastards!” He jumped up from the table and paced back and forth. He should just get out of there. He reached for his hat.

“Run along then.”

“It’s my life. Mine. It doesn’t belong to anyone else.”

“You are a ripple in a pond.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“If you had accepted the training, you would have more answers and better questions.”

Torek shook his head. “I want my money back.”

“Take it. Remember, that cuff binds you to your choice, and everything that follows from that choice.”

The wizard’s voice faded as Torek walked out the door. He looked around the alley for others like the damned wizard. When would they get it? He didn’t care. He didn’t want to be part of their secret magic club. He didn’t want to be son of anyone. Just Torek. A half-elf of no past. A half-elf who needed one more good run to keep occupied for the rest of the season. Then things would settle down. Perhaps the cuff would come off on its own.

He dragged his horse from the stables, tethered the wagon Bian had given him to it. What did the cuff do? Probably drove him to seek out Guardians and Hunters. What had the wizard said? Something about Consequence? The only consequence of his choice was freedom. He chose when to wake up in the morning, in which direction to travel, with whom to talk. He was free of ritual, of asinine incantations and histories that were little better than dust-covered mold.

The horse turned toward Sena without being directed. This errand had been a miserable failure. He hoped more from the next. He had to find someone called Edrish. “If there’s a man who knows of work for a halfie like you, it’ll be that one,” Bian had said.

Once Torek had work, everything would be fine. He’d be able to sleep. The wind would no longer shout that damned name at him. He’d be able to thumb his nose at Astasiana and inform her that Guardian and Hunter blood was nothing special. Then he’d walk away from them forever.

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The Killing Ritual, Chapter 8

The Secrets of Manhood

Zaz eased the front door open and pressed his face against the edge of it. Mother was in the garden, where she could be close to Murin. Father was in the fields, the one closest to the house. Vana and Ratri had gone to some stupid girls’ ceremony; so he didn’t have to worry about them. He eased back from the door, stayed standing in the kitchen.

His stories weren’t good enough. Zaz could tell from the way Anagata had stared at him, raised his furry eyebrows and sighed as he reached for another vial.

Story 1: Since they came back from the village, Mother and Murin hadn’t left the house.   Not an interesting story.   Apparently Anagata already knew of it. “Dandazuka,” he’d said, “everyone one knew it.”

Story 2: Now Murin insisted on wearing her headscarf all the time, even at home. Not interesting.

Nor was the new game Vana and Ratri had (story 3). Who could snatch the rag the quickest. Who could hide it the best. Who could soil it the worst so it became unusable, but Murin would try to wash it anyway.

Zaz had tried to be tough with them. “That’s mean,” he’d told them.

“It’s not mean if it’s your sister,” Vana said. She lunged at him, dug her fingers into his flesh.

He squirmed away from her, held his hand over his stomach. It looked playful, but she meant for it to hurt. Spite leaked from her, with a dash of jealousy.

He’d left out the next bit from his report to the Augur. He didn’t need to know everything. And it wasn’t like he was going to check with the twins.

Vana had screeched at him. “You shouldn’t defend her so much. You’ll fall from ‘Chosen Son’ just as quickly as you got there.”

“Is that what’s got your girdle in a pinch?”

It wasn’t Vana, but Ratri who leaned forward and scowled at him. “You don’t deserve it.”

He glared back. “Anagata picked me over you.” His voice had teeth. “Get used to it.”

Her eyes had widened. She might have even stepped back. Then Vana giggled and tugged Ratri away.

No. Anagata didn’t need to know about that at all.

“Is there nothing else?”

Zaz shrugged. “I guess not.”

“Did you ask any questions? Did you look around?” Anagata had asked during their last meeting.

His heart had rattled in his chest. “You didn’t tell me to do that.”

Another sigh. “Zaz, next time the Regent is going to be here. Next time, we must have much better stories to tell him.”

So here he was. In the house. Alone. Peering through the cracks to make sure that they were all busy. Okay Zaz. It was time to grow up. It was time.

He trudged up the stairs. If he was caught, he could just say he was tired, not feeling well and had to lie down. He stopped in the doorway of the room in which Mother and Murin slept. Perhaps that was something for Angata. After all, women usually slept with their helpmates. That’s what he’d heard, anyhow. But Mother had never slept with Father.

The room was small, almost empty, except for the small pallet of straw and wool, and the trunk. An opening in the wall let in air. The square was so tiny; it could hardly be called a window. A little door hung on the outside of the house, and another one from the inside. During the winter, they stuffed the space with old rags to try to keep out the cold. Along one short wall was a shelf. Murin’s clothes were all there, folded into perfect squares and stacked in precise geometric towers. They were brown and grey, like the walls of the room.

He looked in the corners, at the pallet. There was nothing here, no stories for Anagata, unless he wanted to know each grain of their simple life.

Zaz swiped at the sweat beading on his forehead, and scuffed his way out of the room. He was nearly in the hall before he stopped, still as a dead dhenu. He turned. His gaze drifted until it fell on the chest. It was Mother’s chest.

He hadn’t realized the box was pulling him until he stood in front of it. A simple thing rough-hewn out of ash. Father oiled it. Once. Mother had sunk into a silent rage. Her thin-slitted lips had carved sharp words out of air. “Don’t ever touch it again.”

Even though he was the man, Father had obeyed.

Zaz knelt on the ground. His fingers trembled as he reached out, and undid the latch. It popped. The hinges groaned as he eased the lid open.

“Oh.”

Did you even look around? Anagata’s voice hissed in his head.

He pinched the drab corner of one dress, and eased it up. Beneath it was another drab dress. A drab shirt. A drab shawl. This was pointless. Anagata was not going to give two pocs about a woman’s clothing.

Shifting forward, he leaned on the hand in the trunk to push himself up. That was when he felt it. A cool sigh of fabric, which felt like water silking over him. He closed his fist on it, dragged it out from its hiding place at the very bottom of the trunk. The color of it was impossible. It shimmered the shades of a purple-tinted bhavah flower.

“How?”

He held it up to the window, where a narrow shaft of sunlight trickled in. The light glimmered through the fabric, revealed the tight weave of it—so well-made that each thread crossed at a perfect angle to another. The stitches were exactly the same length. Little buttons made of a hard white substance adorned the sleeves. In short, it was the most elaborate garment he’d ever seen. No one dressed like this. Not even the Regent.

Frowning, Zaz draped the dress over the edge of the trunk, dug around the bottom some more. His fingers grazed something cool. He brought up another handful. Two rings and a necklace. The rings were made of a yellow substance. It reminded Zaz of the sun as it sunk into the horizon. One had the same white stone as the buttons set in it, around which some sort of lizard curled. The other had three different stones competing to be the biggest and brightest. The outer ring was green, the inner blue, and the stone at the center was violet.

Zaz stared at the rings. All the hard winters they had could have been made into nothing by these. Beauty beyond compare. Riches worth a thousand harvests.

In their hearts, people couldn’t really care about these things. Frivolous. Jewelry didn’t plant crops or preserve the harvest. But some things bore the lure of craftsmanship. Doing something with care. Making them perfect. That part of these rings could have solved any problem they ever had.

Then there was the necklace. Metal was made into a chain as thin and fine as thread. From it hung another ornate bobble that sparkled in the sun. Lines made patterns on one side of it. A scene graced the other. A man peered over his shoulder with a sharp gaze as he walked through a throng of people. A giant lizard skin hung from his shoulders. Its head upon his head.

A door slammed.

Zaz froze, then he shoved everything back to the bottom of the trunk.

The door creaked, then slammed again just as he was setting down the lid.

“Don’t walk away from me.” He recognized Mother’s displeasure immediately.

Whoever was down there with Mother said nothing.

Zaz tiptoed out of the room, hovered in the hall where he could hear everything.

“You’re just going to pout? I asked you a question and I want the answer.”

Silence.

“Murin, so help me. If I have to force it out of you, I will.”

Someone snorted.

“Amused?” Mother’s voice cracked. “I’m doing this for you, you know. This place, this life, this misery. It’s all for you.”

Zaz held his breath, gnawed at the inside of his cheek.

“Good Vizva, Claire. What about your husband, the rest of your children?” Mother must have been about to speak, because Murin said, “Stop it. Just stop it. I don’t want to hear it any more. The entire walk from the village, all week, nothing but the same. It makes me—”

“Murin, sooner or later you will have to see the truth of things. Please start seeing it now. It’ll make what’s coming easier for you.”

Huh?

Murin repeated his thought.

“Murin, you’re—” Mother stopped, fumbled for words. “I suspect you are going to be going through a lot of changes.”

“But I’ve already started my Kusumavat.”

Zaz wiggled his nose. It was starting to itch.

“It has nothing to do with that.”

“I know how to be a helpmate. Not that that will ever happen now.”

“You are destined to be more than some agrarian miscreant’s wife.”

Zaz’s eyes watered as he tried to hold back the sneeze.

Murin groaned. “By the Vizva, Claire. Don’t you see it? I’d be lucky to have a bad helpmate. I would be blessed beyond the Valika Catur to have a good one.”

The sneeze escaped.

“Who is that?” Mother asked in a tense whisper.

“Why does it matter?”

Mother answered very very quietly. “This conversation is private.”

“This is not a private conversation. Insulting the Augur, Father and the Guards is something you should keep private. But this, my change into womanhood, every Tarskan girl goes through it.”

Someone hissed.

“Really, Claire? Great Kenara. It’s just Zaz.”

He smiled. No, he wasn’t ‘just’ Zaz anymore. And now he had a very good story to tell Anagata.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 7

What Ails Them

It wasn’t enough for her mother to revel in Murin’s disgrace and argue constantly with Father about the deep wisdom of it. Her mother also had to come to town and make sure to give Anagata and the Regent even more cause, more proof that some righteousness had been served with Murin’s exclusion. Claire was doing one of the exact things of which the Regent had accused her.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Murin said. The Augur’s words, everything about six days ago was bright in her mind. It made sense now, what they had asked of her. It was kind, even, given what had happened in the garden two days past.

“I care not about their idiotic rules,” said Mother.

“I care.”

Mother continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “What I do care about is that you’ve been avoiding me. I care that there were too damned many people on the road, watching each blink of our eyes. I care that this is the first chance we’ve had to be alone.”

“I didn’t have to come. Neither of us should be here.” Maybe they could hide Mother’s herbs and mask the unnatural hue of their hair, but all it would take for Murin was one little burp, something so small as a hiccup. Being anywhere near town could be disastrous.

Mother glanced at her. In between labored gasps she said, “Stand up straight.”

Murin doused the image of the blackened fruit, peeked at the upper walks of the town’s walls. The men were up there, watching, just like always. “They notice when I do.”

Mother glanced up, too. “So?”

Murin shook her head. “It just makes me stand out even more. We can’t stand out right now.”

“I thought you had come to your senses. We are fine the way we are.” She gasped for air. Her feet scuffed against the dirt and stone of the path. “Good and natural. There is nothing wrong with us.”

“Other people have to believe that for it to mean anything in the end.”

“Ridiculous. These people don’t know gold from bronze. Ugh!” Mother cried out. Her breath rattled in and out. “Damn Vapan. This is his fault”

“Not so close.” The walls were just there. The Watchers, just there.

“Damn them, too.”

She stopped, leaned into the slope leading to the town gate and stared at Mother. “You can’t say those things out here. You shouldn’t even say them at home. This is exactly why they hate us.”

Mother stopped. The bag of remedy swung from the tether around her waist. Olive leaf oil, whatever magical thing the Bombyx had in their bellies, and the waxy matrix of a honeycomb. Sweat trickled down her flushed face. Grey tinged the hollows of her cheeks and under her eyes. “We are walking to town instead of taking the wagon. How can you not find this ridiculous?”

“You could have taken the wagon.”

Her brows arched. “So you could walk behind me? Like a criminal.”

“I didn’t have to come. And how can you not see the disgrace?”

“No longer being brainwashed is a blessing, Murin. Not a disgrace.”

“The Initiation is a sacred tradition, not brainwashing” Murin said. “Besides, Zaz wanted to come with you. I wanted to work in the fields.”

Mother’s hand sliced through the air. At the end of the arc, her arm quivered, and those smudges of grey darkened. “Enough of this. I don’t need Zaz hanging all over me. And you are to stay by me. Not Vapan. Clear?”

Hardly, but Mother had turned around and was trudging up the slope again. Her shoulders stooped and her steps were heavy.

Anger flamed over Murin, and her skin slick with it. She curled her hands into fists, felt her fingernails gouging her palms. Not to control the emotion. No, she didn’t want to do that. She wanted to hurl herself at Mother. She wanted to make her see.

The guard at the top of the wall called out. It was the song of Parivrtti. The changing. From somewhere in the town, a muffled melody responded. The guard bowed in the four directions, starting in the East, and ending in the West. He disappeared. One, two, three, four, five, six. A new guard appeared, sang a song of duty, and immediately turned his gaze to them, as if no other threat existed out there.

Murin closed her eyes to search for a song to restore peace. She snorted. That was probably taught during one of the Initiation lessons she’d never attend. Stop it. Getting mad wouldn’t solve anything. She glared at her mother’s back, wanted to send her rolling down the hill. Abruptly, her rage snuffed out.

Questions bubbled up in its place. Before she could swallow it, one burst out. “Why do you help them when you hate them so much?”

Mother’s step hesitated, halted, then continued. “I only dislike them. It’s their ways I hate.”

“They’re your ways, too.” The Praxis belonged to each Tarksan. All. In body and breath.   The price of negligence was acres, that’s what Father said. They had to keep the traditions close. Otherwise they would falter, in slow and imperceptible movements at first. Then later, as rents in the earth, devastating and irreparable.

The town gate appeared in the folds of the stone walls. It opened inward, into the narrow corridors, which were typical of the passages at the edges of the town. The gate was a jumble of thick planks of wood, which were shaggy with bark and bound by decaying straps of metal. It was always open, this gate. They walked through it.

“They are hardly my ways,” Mother said The word, barely audible. “My ways are far different.” Mother moved more slowly, glanced around corners. “The women deserve better care. They’ll never get that from him.” Anagata was who she meant. “Quiet now.”

Movement flashed in a second story window. Murin ignored the heat and pain building in her thigh muscles, and crouched down even further. She glanced at her mother’s back. Blonde hair flowed down it, and flashed in the sun. A warning. Murin touched the scarf on her own head, pulled the edges of it forward so it was flush with her skin.

Apparently Mother knew where she was going, and walked in a direct path right to the home. The whole reason for this ridiculous trip was that a woman there was sick. No surprise. Anagata’s potions weren’t working. And that was no surprise, either.

Mother stopped at a door. Tattered and worn, it hung in the frame crookedly. The wood warped and came away in giant curling splinters at the base. Its edges were grey. Mother covered her knuckles with a handkerchief before knocking.

“Why is she here?” A harsh whisper floated through the cracks. A rasp and an organ-wrenching cough came, next a desperate gasp for air, then a hollow word. “No.”

A different woman whispered, “Lazy girl. I told you to tell them.”

“But the stories—I was scared.”

A sigh. “I know.”

“Don’t these people even know how to answer a door?” Mother muttered and knocked again.

Murin frowned. “Can’t you hear them?” she whispered.

The door groaned open. A girl Murin had never seen before leaned against the edge of it. Thin and frail, she gazed straight into Mother’s face, into Murin’s, without blinking. “What’s wrong with your hair? Why are you so pale?”

A hand veiled the girl’s face before the woman herself appeared.

“The stories are true,” the girl said into the hand.

The woman hugged the girl to her body, and bowed to plant a kiss on her head. “Ksamtavyoham bhavata.”

“Quite alright.” Mother waived her hand. “Refreshing actually.”

The cough rattled again. Mother peered into the darkness, but the woman stepped in front of her, blocked the way.

Murin had seen. The sick woman’s hand tried to block the cough, and came away speckled with blood.

“I really should come in for a visit,” Mother said, glanced up and down the alley.

The woman in the doorway shook her head. “No. We don’t need a visit.”

“But you asked for me.”

The woman’s gaze flicked at Murin, at Mother’s hair. She pursed lips and shook her head. “No. I did not.” And in the next moment the little girl was hauled back into the darkness of the house, and the door was heaved shut.

“What on earth?” Hands on hips, Mother glared at the door. “That was the rudest—”

“Can we just go home?”

“I came all this way to help that ingrate. No, we cannot just go home.”

Murin bit her lip, peered around. Clouds made shadows, which in corners crawled. The silence was less an absence of sound and more like the holding of a breath. A waiting. She jumped. Mother was pounding the door again. Silt tumbled off the wall from the force. “Subtle, Mother.”

She spun and hissed. “Be quiet.” Then she turned back to the door and continued hammering it.

The door surged open. “Stop it, woman.”

“You cannot summon me for healing herbs and shut the door in my face.”

“You have no tact and no decency. I summon you for nothing.”

Mother snatched the bundle of herbs from her waist, and throttled it. “Then what is this? You think I go around preparing cures for the Coughing Sickness for pleasure.”

The woman’s gaze fixed on the bag of herbs. “I don’t know and I care not. We have no need for you or your maya.” A wet cough oozed out the door.

“I’m not a—”

“The only sickness in this house is you.”

“Hardly.”

“You show up here, unwanted. You disturb my home. You and your,” the woman razed Murin with her gaze, “offspring.”

“My daughter is better than—”

“Mother, I’m not feeling well.” Murin fired out the words. She staggered away from the scene. Holy Kenara, if this went on much longer, there wouldn’t be any vote. There’d be no more arguing. There would be the Parakya ritual. Then there’d be no more.

She took the shortest path back to the gate. Away from there. From Mother. Not Mother. Claire. How could she?

“Murin.”

“Don’t speak so loudly.”

“What’s wrong?”

“A stomach ache. I need to go home, lay down.”

One person came into view. She hunched her shoulders, waited for the rock to fly. He just spat at her feet.

Claire gasped.

“No more. Let’s go home.”

protocols for being human: get thee to the wilderness

We live in the city, surrounded by millions of people.  We barely know our neighbors, spend hours in traffic.  There is a daily grind, a routine.  Life as habit versus intention.

Groceries stores are stocked and imply a world of abundance. How often do we ask ourselves where something comes from or how it’s made?  In this modern life, in this moment, the simple fact is we don’t have to ask ourselves these questions.  All we have to know is how much it is, and if I have enough money or credit to buy it.  In the history of humanity, this is such an absurd notion, to be completely divorced from the origin of a thing, to have no hand in the making of it.

We live in a contrived reality, designed by thousands of years of cultural evolution and –dare I say — by companies who stand to profit through our manipulation and molding into perfect little consumers endlessly dissatisfied by what we don’t have.

Enter the wilderness.

It’s summer in Southern California, which, despite the popular view of rolling waves and sandy beaches, is mostly an arid, sharp and jagged environment.  A sometimes inhospitable desert.  Decomposing granite comprises much of our geology, in addition to fossilized marine beds.  The brush growing in the backcountry has often has thorns and small leaves to prevent water loss.  It has names like cat’s claw, mormon tea and buckwheat. You would never know it just from time spent in the cultivation of the city, where lawns are watered, where jacaranda trees grow.

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El Cajon Mountain Trail

On the trail, however, away from sidewalks and air conditioning, you have to be attuned to your surroundings. While there may be a destination or a goal to attain, arguably the journey to it is not some disconnected mindless endeavor.

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Mt San Jacinto USGS Tag

You are in it.  You are surrounded by it and miles from your car or a source of food and water.  Nature is not paved over and hidden.  It is unbridled and real, and you are of it.

Out there, things (or the choices you make) can hurt or kill you.  That cloud, for example.  Is the shape of it safe, or does it look like a flying saucer? Is the air devoid of humidity, combined with high winds? Is there shade or are you exposed to the constant sun?

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When we hike, backpack or camp, we’re always watching the weather, minding our foot placement, and scouting out those places where snakes might dwell.  We’ve encountered their tracks, along with those of deer, rabbits, dogs, coyotes and once even a mountain lion.  All that news, all that recording of the comings and goings of life written in the dirt at our feet.  There is beauty in it, and a satisfaction that goes deeper than gazing into the screens of our cell phones.

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San Pasquale Hike, Mountain Lion Track

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Snake Track, El Cajon Mountain

Aside from noticing our surroundings so much more, we also have a heighten awareness of our own bodies. Heat, exposure, sunburns, thirst and hunger. Fatigue.  All of it is important, and managing a body on the trail depends on having the right things packed with you.  Water.  Lots and lots of water.  Recently on a hike up El Cajon Mountain in San Diego County (admittedly dangerous in the summer), we each packed 5 liters of water.  We thought it was plenty, more than we needed, and it ended up barely being enough.

Out there, it is easier to experience a scarcity of resources, to realize that water and food and shelter is not in abundant and endless supply. There is a limit to all things and being away from the machinations of society just brings you closer to what’s already part of our reality. It’s a reminder to take care, to be mindful.

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Our grocery store and home in the mountains

We need nature to knock us down a notch, to remind us that we are not singular and that we are part of, and not separate from the world and everything in it.

The world is not our air conditioned environs, it is not our controlled spaces.  It is not our self imposed rules and the designed grids of our cities.  The world is a dynamic balance of its microenvironments.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 6

Prisons

Torek cursed and ducked his head down to hide his face beneath the brim of his hat. It figured she’d send someone after him. Eventually. Except it wasn’t one person. There were two of them. And not just any two blokes. He exhaled a rush of air. What should he do? Run like hell. Slither away. Duck into the tavern and find a back door from which to escape. Stay, wait it out. After all, they might not recognize him. He’d heard about some half-elves’ auras changing during puberty. It could have happened to him.

He peeked at them. Grimshader and Sorchaich. Grimshader wore the characteristic black garb of his kind, together with a leather chest plate dotted with steel studs artfully arranged into the image of a beast the Darkness Hunters had adopted as their mascot. He also had a battle-worthy armament strapped to him. Each weapon had been christened in blood dozens of times over. It was what they did. Darkness Hunters, like Torek’s mother, considered themselves to be the balance. They were good to others’ evil, and their greatest desire in life and death was to tip the scales more towards the side of good.

Sorchaich, on the other hand, seemed like a pious gentle giant swathed in simple, undyed and unadorned robes. Glorified librarian. Guardian of the Pearl, which was really just a fancy euphemism for knowledge, books, languages and all the other intellectual treasures the dragons were said to covet. Torek’s mother was one of those, too. A Guardian. And that was what he was supposed to become.

Sorchaich and Grimshader were walking in a conspicuously straight line with him as the terminal point. He cursed. Maybe Bian wasn’t such a friend after all. It couldn’t have been that easy to find him without someone pointing the way. He pushed the door open, and crossed over the threshold of the tavern. Light from the auras of the people pulsed all around him. Blinding. His nostrils flared at the stench of alcohol and half-rotten food. The sensations made his stomach heave. But there was a door in the back just past the bar, and the sunlight licking at its edges screamed escape. Torek snorted. This was going to be too easy. Dipping, gliding and dodging, he moved toward the back through the thick of the smell.

He was nearly to the bar when someone’s elbow knocked into his shoulder and spun him into a barmaid. “Scales!” she exclaimed.

Beer splashed his hat, splattered his eyes, and soaked his shirt and pants. He grimaced, and tried to shake the sting out of his eyes. “Sorry.” He didn’t stop to help her with the mess. Didn’t toss a coin in her direction. Getting out of there was the most important thing, the only thing. He reached the door.

“Stop ‘im. He ruined my dress and my tip, he did.” The barmaid’s voice cut through the tavern like a wailing bean-nighe.

“What’s the rush, now? The lady has a bone with you.”

It doesn’t matter, Torek reminded himself. From the edge of his gaze he saw the barkeep sigh, set down a mug and start toward him. He leapt the last few steps, grabbed the door handle, and yanked. The wood cracked in rebellion. His head tipped back to scan the alley for danger.

He blinked, and shook his head.

It wasn’t an exit. It was a portal to the bizarre. Two blonde men sat in a corner, and watched as a woman danced for them with nothing on but chains. Her head lolled on her neck as her face drifted over her shoulder to look at him. She was a full-blooded elf. The jeweled tones of her eyes were dull. Pale yellow stained her skin.

One of the men snapped his fingers at her. Like a dog. She turned back to him, so slow she was barely moving. The other one stared at Torek. Hard. Cold. Like the guards who ran the prison camp in which he grew up. A smile—no, actually it was a sneer—cut through the man’s lips.

Then the barkeep appeared between them and the door closed on its own. Magic.

“Pay your damage and get out.” The barkeep sounded bored.

Torek blinked. “Pay for what?”

Nails scratched at his sleeve, yanked him back into the room. The barmaid pulsed red with anger. The whole bar did. “For my dress and these men’s beers. That’s what.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked up into his face, directly into his eyes. “Demon.”

All faces turned toward him.

The red of the room brightened, lapped at his feet and threatened to sink into his skin. Half-breed? Demon? He sneered. Artesia was no paradise, but they had some degree of civility. Or at least that’s what he’d thought before coming into this wretched place. Lowlifes, drunks, and derelicts. Lovers of the worst haters in the known world. He glanced at a nearby lantern, at the pile of dirty rags in the corner, at THEM. They wanted to throw names at him? It was only polite to throw something back.

The front door opened. Light flooded in, diluted the red. A little. His hand lifted, sought out the heat of the lamp.

The barmaid spat at him. “You’ve got a lot of nerve coming in here, Dragon-lover.”

“Dragon-lover?” Torek repeated her words. “You sound more like a Seduman than an Artesian. Sure you’re in the right place?”

“Dragon. Lover.” Flecks of spit erupted from her mouth as she said the words.

Torek’s lip twitched. “I’m having a hard time deciding if you’re just ignorant, or if you’re really that stupid.”

“Torek.”

Sharp and clear, his name cut through the room. Who would know him in a place like this? His fingertips grazed the heated metal of the lamp as he looked to the speaker. A giant man. No, a giant elf. Torek blinked, and frowned. His skin didn’t feel like his own. His hand, not his own. He looked at the barmaid again, and the barkeep.

A grey fog was slipping through the barkeep’s veins, created a kind of veil between him and the rest of the world. Torek glanced at his hand, and saw the same haze lurking in his own veins.

“Soilleireachd.” A familiar elvish voice spoke the command.

Torek groaned. Sorchaich. And with him, Grimshader. That was the only reason he was in here. To escape from them. How could he have forgotten?

Sorchaich had pushed all the way into the room, stood right behind the barmaid. “Uist.” Though it was barely a whisper, silence invaded the bar and slipped into the people. It cradled them in stillness. The red dissipated and nebulous mist rose in its place.

Nothing here was real. Torek stared, his throat tightened. It reminded him of his childhood, and the prison camp in which he grew up.

Sorchaich reached out to him.

Suddenly he was happy to have been found. His burned fingertips released the lamp, and moved to meet the elf’s wrist. They grasped each other in a formal greeting.

“Come.”

He swallowed, released Sorchaich’s wrist. But the elf wasn’t letting go. He jerked his arm. The elf’s fingers tightened slightly.

“Enough of this place and your foolishness, Torek.”

Any feelings of kinship he’d had with the elf were squashed in the face of why he was really here. “Astasiana that angry with me? I’m surprised she even noticed.” He stepped around the frozen figures now inhabiting the bar.

Grimshader waited for them at the doorway. “Your mother noticed your absence long before you ran away.” Disappointment lurked at the edges of his voice. Then he turned to his accomplice and said, “I’ll meet you at the bridge.”

In the tavern, the back door had re-opened. The Sedumans were no longer sitting in easy amusement; they were stalking toward them, a bright darkness in their gaze. “Alone?”

Grimshader smiled and nodded. He pushed past them, into the room.

Torek rushed out into the street, turned away from the tavern and the rumble of sound already brewing there. He was dragging Sorchaich instead of the other way around.

The elf stopped and hauled him back. Torek searched for escape again. This town wasn’t safe. It was no where near the borderlands, but somehow the Sedumans were here, and using it as their play yard. Another blank spot on his map.

The bridge. The Sedumans probably heard Grimshader say it, and whatever spies they’d planted heard it, too. He lunged to the south, which was exactly opposite the bridge.

“Torek.” Sorchaich’s voice cut. His grip tightened.

“Stay if you want. I’m getting out of here.”

“You’re a coward. A disgrace.” He paused, as if deciding whether or not to continue. “Not only to the Guardians of the Pearl, to the Darkness Hunters, and to elves, but also to men.”

“Well, I must be a real disappointment then. It’s a wonder you even bother to follow her orders and waste your time on me. I bet you don’t even question her.”

“You have a duty to fulfill. Why do you deny it?”

“It’s your duty, and hers.” He tested Sorchaich’s grip. “I never chose it.”

“It’s your legacy.”

The ground trembled. They both looked at the tavern. Light flashed at the gaps in the siding. People rushed out of the door, along with smoke and a noxious smell.

Torek took a couple of steps back. “No, it isn’t.”

“It’s your destiny.” Reverence weighted Sorchaich’s words.

Torek laughed. Apparently Astasiana hadn’t given any tips to these two warriors on how to handle her son. “Destiny is just another prison.”

The muscles of Sorchaich’s jaw tightened. He dragged Torek north, to the bridge.

The idiot led them right through the middle of the town, didn’t cover his elvish eyes or ears. Surely people were watching them from their windows, secretly recording details to report to them. The Sedumans. “You just going to leave your friend back there, by himself? He’ll be slaughtered, you know.”

Sorchaich’s eye twitched. Wow, and a scowl, a frown, and a clenched jaw. This was more emotion than Torek had been able to get out of Astasiana in years.

“Grimshader—” Sorchaich stopped speaking before he started.

The bridge had come into view. The road extended beyond, into the distance. Trees and a few buildings lined it. No one minded the bridge. A muddy river rushed beneath it. To the right, three horses munched on grass, as if nothing important was happening.

“I’m not going to argue with you, Torek,” he finally said. “There is no point, for it’s clear you are unable to see reason. You talk of destiny as a type of prison, and yet you have not considered that living your entire life driven by the fear created by that experience is a continuation of the prison of your childhood. You are lost, trapped in your past. You exist in a prison of your own making.”

Footsteps crunched behind them. Torek drew his sword and spun around. He froze, and blinked. “Grimshader?”

“Who’d you expect?” The Darkness Hunter asked.

“But the Sedumans—”

“What of them?”

“They didn’t kill you.”

“Optimistic lad, aren’t you?” He nodded at Sorchaich. “Is it settled?”

Then the elf did a most un-elf-like thing. He shrugged. “We haven’t arrived at that discussion, though I’m fairly certain of the path he’ll chose.”

Grimshader nodded. He turned to Torek. Soot smudged his cheeks, and his eyes were bloodshot. “You know who we are, boy?”

Torek snorted. “I’m 31 years old, hardly a boy.”

“Agreed. More like an infant in elven terms. Even for a half-elf. You know who we are?”

“Grimshader and Sorchaich.”

Grimshader’s brow twitched. “And?”

Torek rolled his eyes. “High Council of the Darkness Hunters.” He tore his hat from his head and bowed low to Grimshader. “And an Elder Guardian.” He did the same with Sorchaich.

Grimshader shook his head. “You know why we’re here?” He continued with the idiotic questions.

“Had nothing better to do?” Torek snorted.

He didn’t respond to the taunt. Instead, Grimshader said, “Astasiana, Elder and High Council has had enough of your teenage rebellion. Her tolerance for your selfishness has reached its limits. You are to chose to whom you will report: either the Darkness Hunters, or the Guardians.”

“Or else? I’ve been hearing this for years. Nothing she’s said has changed my mind. Repeating her threat word-for-word isn’t making a difference either.”

Grimshader smiled. “So your choice is the consequence of continued rebellion?”

Torek froze. The smile unsettled him, made his insides grow limbs and crawl. He pushed it aside. “If you mean traveling around the world and earning my living through trade, yeah, I’ll choose ‘or else’.”

The smile broadened. “And if it does not mean that, do you still choose ‘or else’, as you put it?”

He glanced at the Guardian and the Darkness Hunter. ‘Or else’ was infinitely better than the life they led. He wasn’t a hero, or a crusader. He didn’t want to battle against evil forces. The world was fine the way it was, and if these people just stopped what they were doing maybe they’d realize their meddling did more damage than good.

“I refuse to report to either of you.”

Sorchaich and Grimshader exchanged a look, and nodded. The next moment a cuff closed over his wrist and locked in place.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 5

Where Eyes Once Were

Vana leaned into Zaz. “Someone is looking at you,” she said. Her voice dripped vinegar and honey.

The House of the Initiates had come into view and Anagata was standing there outside the door.

Her words made him squirm almost as much as Anagata’s gaze. He tried to focus on the building instead. It was one of the newest in Tolslovel. The rest of the village looked like a broken horse in comparison, all soft and sagging. But not the House. The rocks of its walls were clean of moss, and sap still oozed from the timber. It stood straight. Proud in a way.

Zaz tripped and crashed to the ground.

Vana and Ratri giggled. Arms entwined, they sauntered past him. “Zaz the Drea-mer.” Vana sang. Their laughter spread quicker than floodwater.

He breathed shallow and fast, but he still pushed himself up from the ground.

Anagata was the only one who wasn’t shaking with laughter.

Zaz jogged to Vana and Ratri, but it wasn’t to catch up to them. It was to hide from the Augur.

“It’s so different without her here,” Ratri was saying.

He nodded, but Vana tugged her sister to her. “Sh. It’s better. You know how embarrassing cripples are. That’s what she’s like. A cripple.”

“She is not a cripple.” He wanted to scream it, but whispered instead.

“She does walk like one.” Ratri nodded slowly, then her head tilted, as if she was pondering something else.

“She doesn’t do that at home,” Zaz said.

Vana leaned forward, around Ratri, and stared at him. “She’s always yellow. She’s pale, and looks like sickness. Stop defending her.”

“I’m not.”

“I’m not.” Vana mimicked.

“I don’t sound like that.”

“I don’t sound like that.” Vana nudged Ratri.

“Stop it.”

They both said it this time. “Stop it.”

By the plow. They were impossible. Father should take the belt to them. But he didn’t. He never did.

Near the doorway, he realized Anagata was still watching him.

“Good day, Augur.” Zaz bowed his head.

“Zaz.” Next came the words he was dreading. “Wait here.”

Ratri and Vana looked back at him. At first shock widened their eyes, but then mischief glazed over them and their mouths formed a perfect O of surprise.

“Girls,” Anagata said, stepping between him and his sisters.

Immediately, they cast their gazes to the ground. Their faces became expressionless. “Good morning, Augur.” They tried to skirt around him and escape into the building.

“I did not permit you to leave.”

Zaz swallowed. Anagata’s voice sounded stern and harsh, more like the Regent’s instead of his own.

“Yes, Augur?” Vana asked, the words slow to come.

“You may not gaze upon a man’s face.”

“But it’s just Zaz,” Vana muttered loud enough to be heard.

Anagata huffed. “It does not matter who it is. You know the Praxis, do you not?”

They shifted.

“Do you not?”

“Yes, Anagata. We know”

He said nothing for a moment.

Zaz scanned the interior of the House, and found other Initiates watching them. The boys looked at them directly. Some of the girls watched from the edge of their gazes. The clever ones held smooth, glossy rocks in the palms of their hands and watched the distorted reflection. Zaz chewed the inside of his cheek. They learned that from Murin, though none of them would have admitted it.

“Have you nothing else to say?” Anagata asked.

Ratri broke the awkwardness. “I’m sorry, brother.”

“Vana.” There was a sharpness, a demand to the way the Augur said her name.

“Sorry.”

“Perhaps this is how you are allowed to behave in your home. This is not the way a proper Tarksan woman behaves.” Anagata’s voice was soft once again, but there were edges to it.

Vana’s hand twitched, clenched into a momentary fist before relaxing. She turned from Anagata to Zaz, and bowed low. “Please, forgive us.”

If he didn’t live with her, didn’t know her so well, he could have believed she was sincere. The twins were always pretending, though. They pretended the most ludicrous things. That they were rulers, that they could make things happen with words and with their minds. That they were greater and better than anyone else.

He pursed his lips. “Forgiven. Thank you,” he said. His words didn’t flow as well as hers, and sounded anything but genuine.

Vana bowed even deeper before she spun on her toe and sauntered into the House.

Ratri backed away before turning. It was an older tradition no one used anymore. Tears pricked Zaz’s eyes as she disappeared into the room.

He kept his gaze lowered, watched as the dusty hem of Anagata’s robe came into view. His shoes peaked out, with the toes pointing straight at Zaz. The last Initiates were arriving. He could tell from the way the air stirred around him.

Anagata didn’t move. He was waiting for something. He was going to ask Zaz to leave and never come back, like what he must have done with Murin to make her so timid and to make Father crazy and to make the twins turn from simply not caring to being cruel little gnats. Except, maybe he waited something else.

“Please forgive me, Augur.”

The robes rustled. “Why do you beg forgiveness?”

Zaz bit his lip. He looked in the dirt for the answer. Father and Murin had always seemed able to do that. If a crop was failing, they’d pick up a handful of dirt, rub it between their fingers, smell it and know exactly what was going on. Man skills, Father called them.

“Zaz?”

Whenever Father brought up man skills, he’d look at Zaz for a long time. Like something was missing. Then he’d look at Murin, where he apparently found it. A sweet rush of air swirled in Zaz’s throat. “I was apologizing for not doing my duty as a man. You shouldn’t have had to get after them for me.”

Another long silence drew out until Zaz felt as if fire ants lined his shoes, nibbled at his feet.

“There is no need to apologize.”

“Oh?”

“Please follow me. I’d like to speak with you separately.”

His shoulders tightened, curled inward. Then his legs started to shake. “Don’t you need to teach?”

“Later. The Regent is speaking today.”

The Regent! But he never spoke to the Initiates. “I didn’t do anything.” He whispered, words rattling like a lid on a boiling pot.

Anagata turned, walked away from the House. Zaz stared into the darkness of the doorway.

“Close that door.” The Regent’s voice boomed the command. “Now children, today I am going to speak about the Svarasa, and the very roots of our heritage.”

Bhas, from the village North, watched Zaz as he closed the doors.

Anagata cleared his throat.

Zaz was supposed to be following. “Coming,” he mumbled. They wound around the House and made their way to a small entrance. The door had no handle. No hinges. It was completely smooth. The Augur moved his hands over the wood as if he was drawing a symbol.

“Turn around, boy.”

Zaz obeyed. Anagata was powerful indeed if he could open that door. Then Zaz heard scraping, a complicated medley of sounds he couldn’t hope to identify, and then a click and the scratch of wood over stone.

“Come on now.”

Zaz turned, found a passage where the door had been. “How?”

“It’s none of your bother.”

Questions bit Zaz’s tongue, begged to be asked. Was this where the Augur had rejected Murin? Why did the House of the Initiates need a secret entrance? Why couldn’t anyone go in? And most of all, what could Anagata have to say to him in such privacy?

Anagata drifted into the darkness without looking back. Zaz was alone in the alley. There wasn’t even a goat, or a nosey neighbor to share this moment with him. Of course, Murin wouldn’t have hesitated. She thought she was obedient. Sure, she kept her head down, her shoulders slumped. Weeds! she even walked with her knees partly bent so no one in town would realize how tall she really was. But she always faced things. Whether it was a group of girls with stones in their hands, or boys with scissors to slash at her hair, she walked right into it.

Zaz ambled down the stairs, and stepped into the darkness, too. The passage was more convoluted than the Village’s alleys. He came to one turn, then another, then a set of stairs and more turns and more stairs. The torches were spaced too far apart, and he had to stumble in the dark while keeping his gaze to the next beggared pool of light. Sometimes the light grew faint as Anagata’s body crowded the space it occupied. Finally Anagata stopped at a door. Hand poised on the latch, he waited for Zaz.

“This is a sacred space, boy. You may tell no one of it of your time here.”

Zaz’s heart raged, collided with his ribs and made everything sound hollow.

“Do you swear it?”

“But I—what if Father asks?” Murin.

“None.”

“I can’t disobey him.”

“You would disobey the town Augur instead?”

Zaz breathed loudly through his nose. It was an impossible question. “I can disobey neither.” His palms felt slimy, and it seemed a thousand needles pricked his face.

“What is beneath the House of the Initiates, boy?”

“This place.”

“But we are not under the House.”

Zaz pressed his lips together.

“If Vapan asked, what will you answer?”

Tears fogged his vision. Vana and Ratri’s taunts returned. After a long while, he said, “Nothing.”

Anagata tapped the latch, and opened the door. The room was bare, save for a table, a lantern, and a vial. He closed the door once Zaz entered, gestured toward the table. “Please, sit.”

Zaz inched toward it. The fluid in the vial jittered when he hopped on the table.

Anagata picked up the vial, rolled it between his fingertips. “You are not like the other boys.”

You are not like the others. He probably started with Murin this same way.

“No, sir.”

“You are small. You always have been. And sensitive.”

Like a woman. The Augur didn’t have to say it for Zaz to hear the words.

“I wish to change that.”

“Huh?” He looked up. The old man was staring down at him. Sadness weighed heavy at his eyes, the corners of his mouth. Zaz slammed his eyelids shut. “Please forgive me.”

A hand clamped on his shoulder. “It’s alright, I permit it in here. Expect it, even.”

Zaz opened his eyes, and slowly looked up.

“Do you know what this is?” The fluid danced in the vial.

He shook his head.

“It is help.”

Zaz frowned.

“For you to become a man. A real man, not just one in word. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

He was supposed to want that. Everyone told him that’s what he should be, so he nodded. “But how does that change—” what he already was.

“You drink it. It makes you stronger and braver.”

“It’s not very much for such a big change.”

Anagata sighed. “Well, this is only the first ministration.”

They sat for a while in silence. Everything above them seemed to press down, the buildings, the earth, even the sky. Anagata cleared his throat. “I must ask for something in return, and you must not refuse.”

Zaz closed his eyes. His throat tightened again.

“You will tell everyone that once a month, instead of Initiation, we have private study to train you in the ways of Augur.”

“Really?”

Anagata looked away. “This is what you will tell them if they ask. I will teach you some small things. So you can share them. If they ask. Mainly, you will share your own stories with me. In exchange, I will give you another dose.”

“What stories?”

“Careless fool. I forgot. Here, drink it.”

“But—”

“Drink.”

He had to obey, didn’t he? He pulled the stopper loose, sniffed it. The strange smell he expected to attack him was missing. At worst, there was maybe a trace of earth.   He dabbed a spot of the liquid on his tongue. It tasted bitter and sharp. It was the kind of taste that was supposed to make him strong. He downed it, and grimaced as it burned. In the next moment, his tongue thickened and became numb. The numbness spread through the rest of his body. He had a question. What was it? Right. “What stories?”

“Of your family.”

Zaz’s gaze drifted to Anagata’s face.

“Of your father. Your sister. And most importantly, your mother.”

“But I have three sisters.”

“Murin. Only her.”

Cold fingers pried his eyes open. A huge eyeball examined him. “Hmm. Alright then. Off with you.”

“The stories?”

“I will send for you. When the time comes, you will tell me all of their stories.” Anagata helped him from the table, guided him to the door, and opened it for him.

Zaz stumbled down the passage. When he emerged from the darkness, he felt lighter, less real. The high sun beat his eyes until it was all he could see. He waited. Shadows emerged, and then shapes. Finally, he recognized the alley, and the buildings. He frowned. That wasn’t right. Why hadn’t he noticed that before? Stones, as new and bright as the ones of the House of the Initiates filled spaces where windows once were. He glanced behind him, where he’d just been. A Murin-story came to his mind. Actually, it was just something she said once.

Nothing good grows in the dark.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 4

Indigestion

Murin glanced at the horizon. The Dragon’s Eye danced there. It was the whisper of a glow, but that star, the one she had been born under, would blaze in the sky once it reached its peak.

“Murin? Are you alright?” Mother’s voice sounded like a rustle of birds’ wings. Her questions had become incessant since Murin’s shame.

“I’m fine.” She shook her head. A song to disappear would have been nice. Though what she really needed was a song to bring normal.

“If you’re fine, you can stop dallying. Bring the water, and the eggs.” Mother hunched over in the doorway. Not only was her skin daikon-pale, the woman also didn’t have the decency to cover her hair. It simmered in the morning sun. “Now.”

Murin marched to the hen house. She could sharpen her hunting knife. She could hack off Mother’s hair. Her own. Maybe that would appease the Augur, and show him they chose to be part of things, not apart.

No. It wasn’t enough. She held the latch to the hen house door and laughed. Or meant to. It came out as a sob. She ran a hand over her headscarf, focused on the door, on the regular lines of the brown-grey wood. Father had made it the year the twins were born. It was the first time he’d let her touch his woodworking tools. She actually planed one whole side of it. Mother had screamed at him. Murin was too young to handle such things.

Murin pressed a palm to the door. This was real. Not what any of them said. She unhooked the latch. The birds snapped their beaks in terror and huddled against the back wall in a sea of feathers. “Oh, please. Just once?” she asked them. No matter how often she fed them or how good the grain was, they always had the same reaction to her.

One of her little sisters poked her perfect, dark head out of the kitchen door. “Are you killing the birds or gathering eggs?” Ratri asked in a singsong way.

Murin glanced at her. “Why don’t you do something useful? For a change.”

“Even the birds are afraid of you. They must have heard the news, too.”

“Oh, be quiet,” she said, afraid to say anything else.

Murin collected the eggs, hurried out of the hen house, grabbed a bucket and filled it with water from the well. Water sloshed out, soaked the hem of her skirt. Eggs in one hand, she carried the bucket in the other.

Father and Zaz were still upstairs. The men always took their time. It was up to the women to fix breakfast, to get them ready for a day with the earth. Mother always woke up before the rest of them to light a fire. The old stove coughed smoke through its cracks and into the house. Normally the stove combined with the heat of late summer added up to broiling misery. But now the corners of Murin mouth twitched up, and she wrenched the door closed to keep the warmth inside.

Her sisters whispered, turned away from her.

Mother glanced up just then, examined her from head to toe. “Are you sure you’re well?”

“You already asked, and I already answered.”

Mother kept staring at her.

“Fine. Except for being eternally shamed, I’m me.”

“Stop being hyperbolic.”

“Really Mother?” Murin paused, felt the weight of the water tugging at her arm. “You don’t understand, do you? And yet even you look at me as if I was a Parakya invader.”

You are, Ratri mouthed at her.

The knife in Mother’s hand hovered above the solid fat she was mixing into the flour. She clutched the knife until her tendons and knuckles strained to escape her skin. “Don’t. Ever. Use that word in my presence again,” she said through clenched teeth.

“I only meant—”

“It doesn’t matter. That word is loathsome and should be buried. Along with all the other archaic traditions of these people.”

These people? “But you’re one of us?”

“Enough.”

“You mean ‘our people’. You mean us.”

“I’ve said what I meant.” Curt and crisp. Classic Claire speech.

Fine. Murin scrubbed the eggs, broke four of the six she’d gathered, filled the kettle, and did whatever else she was told. She couldn’t have a normal conversation with her mother. Her sisters were horrible. Since her disgrace, they were quite possibly worse than all the girls in town who called her Parakya to her face. And meant it.

On the surface Parakya meant stranger, which itself wasn’t bad. It was all the other connotations. Alien, born of another, hostile, outsider. Parakya didn’t belong. Being labeled one was a death sentence. One that had its own special ritual. The person was bound, gagged and stuffed in a cured leather bag, so that when the beating began with rocks and clubs, the blood wouldn’t taint the ground.

“You carried all that water by yourself?” Mother asked.

Murin blinked, shook away the surge of anger. “Yes,” she said. “Why?”

“Wasn’t it heavy?”

She was about to laugh, then she followed her mother’s gaze. She’d grabbed the large bucket instead of one of the smaller ones. It carried five gallons. Even Father teetered back and forth when he lugged it from the well to the house. Murin blinked. Yes, it should have been heavy. Actually, it should have been impossible for her to carry.

Something stirred in her gut.

She readied a joke about taking a concoction of Mother’s herbs for strength. She didn’t need anything else to make her more different. Then she saw the expression on Mother’s face.

“I didn’t fill it all the way.”

“Murin.”

“I didn’t fill it.” Her voice squeaked at the end.

“Girls, get the herbs for tea.”

Vana moaned, while Ratri complained for them both. “But that’s Murin’s job.”

“Well, this morning it’s yours. Get.”

They slammed the door, left her alone with Mother. Murin turned away, and rearranged the porridge in the pot. Please. Father and Zaz had to be awake. They’d come down any moment. A heavy weight settled behind her. The sweet smell of Mother’s breath drifted over her shoulder. “Murin.” It was almost tender, the way she said it.

She cringed, waited for whatever bad news was about to come.

“I-is everything alright?” Mother cursed. “No, that’s not right. Do you feel any different? I mean–”

Murin spun around, frowned at her mother. “What are you trying to say?”

They stared at each other.

“There’s something we need to talk about,” Mother said.

The floorboards creaked overhead, followed by the squeaking of the stairs.

Murin frowned. The softness to Mother’s face. The way the color of her eyes changed to that of storm clouds. “Mother?”

She reached around Murin to grab the bowls and spoons and rushed around the table as the feet of Father and Zaz appeared.

“Mother?”

“Not another word.” Then louder, she said, “Good morning.” Her voice bounced off the walls like pebbles against a plow blade.

They all sat down for breakfast. Four dark heads, and their two blonde ones. She kept peeking at Mother, waited for the morning to start making sense, or for Mother to say something else. Just as much as she wondered, she glanced at the door, at the light tempting through the gaps.

“Come on, son. You’re in the fields with me today,” Father said after breakfast.

Murin nearly looked at him in surprise. She focused on the coarse grain of the table. “I’m coming, too?”

“Not today.”

“Why not?”

The wooden floor flexed beneath Vapan’s feet as he walked. He laid his hand on her shoulder.

“You know why.” After a while, he sighed, and said, “Zaz needs to learn, and he can do that better without you there to do everything for him. He’s nearly a man now. It’s past time for him to learn how to work the fields properly.” He squeezed her shoulder.

She tried not to lean into it.

“Let’s go, son.”

Mother gathered the plates. “Murin, you tend the garden. I’ll help you.”

Ratri yowled. “But I need help with my dress.”

“Ratri—”

“Claire.” Father’s tone cut through whatever Mother had been about to say. She glared at him, slammed the dishes in tub. Finally, something that made sense.

Murin sighed. At least it was gardening instead of housework. She could soak in the heat of the sunshine outside, away from Mother.

The sun broiled the sky. The headscarf and her hair under it felt as if they had been freshly ironed. She savored the searing heat as she pulled the weeds, green, prickly and sticky. Once the rows of vegetables stood alone, green amid the brown dirt, she picked what was ready to be picked. Her basket overflowed with cauliflower, kale, broccoli and peppers.

As she came to the tomatoes, her stomach clenched. Gasping, she rubbed it to soothe the ache. Maybe Mother used too much grease this morning.

She knelt in front of the tomatoes and reached out to break a stem laden with fruit. The burning in her stomach screamed at her.

She’d never had indigestion before. Wasn’t that a malady for the old?

The burp sped through her esophagus, burning all the way up, and erupted from her mouth. Murin squinted against a brilliant flash of light. Then her eyes widened. She gaped at the tomatoes.

The plant was smoldering. The tomatoes closest to her had burst from the sudden heat and the brilliant green stems were now charred and brittle.

“By all the demons in all the hells. I just breathed fire,” she said quietly.