Ember had wandered the frozen desert for weeks, too hot in the day and too cold at night, always thirsty, always hungry. Now the tiny village stretched out before her, snow covered buildings filled with happy people, walled pens filled with fat cattle.
She looked through a window and saw Ean laughing with Tala and his father, Kaim guarding the door as he munched on a sandwich, Representative Meakrun giving a speech about the the role of a proper citizen while Dahr Harbrathan sat at a table and listened, surrounded by his children. A whole host of people beside them, laughing and singing and eating as they sat around their own tables loaded with plates of meat.
She shifted around the empty space in her belly and heard the grating of the razor-edged scales covering her body.
They would never let her in. They had chased her off once already. Now they feasted on everything they had in front of them, too involved with their meal to even look out at her, starving in the snow.
Freezing in the cold.
Probably wouldn’t even let her warm herself by the fire.
So much easier to be the cold.
To break down the door and make them all her meal.
Delicious little humans…
Ember woke up.
The coils were heavy on her, great shadows draped about, fangs sunk in her right arm. She thrashed, pushed at the sand, whispered Yahsaw’s name until she could scream it, then snarled and snapped at the shadows.
So tiring. She wished it would end and she could wake up without having to fight.
Better to just go back to…
Not her. Not her.
Ember felt the grip on her arm shifting, the cold poison a thought in her heart. She put it away, pushed up off the ground, wishing that she could face almost anything but this presence, this constant attack in her mind.
Why Kai? Why did she have to…
No. Not her. Not who she was. She would face whatever she had to face.
She heard a snarl that had no sound to it.
I hate you!
She got up.
The weight remained.
Ember looked for the mountains. They looked no closer. Even after three days of walking.Three days of walking since she had made it off the rock in the river after two days of waiting for the water to slow enough to be safe to swim across. She wasn’t sure, but she had probably lost a little ground being swept along in the river.
She was never going to make it, was she? This journey would just go on, and on, and on, and every step would hur…
No. No. Move forward.
She took a step. Another.
Forgot how, like her mind was suddenly looking someplace else and walking had fallen out of it.
She started to hum, a little song she made up as it went on.
She took another step in step with the song, and began to move forward until she was walking and not stepping.
Sand stretched out before her and behind her, to every side and in every direction but up. She was truly in the desert. In the desert with the hot sun beating down.
What was that she had heard?
Three days without water could kill.
But she was a Garagran. Or an Alleji.
That didn’t mean she wasn’t thirsty.
And one of her ribs ground with every step. Every breath.
And she felt stiff all over, like her neck was too short and something had chopped off half her tail.
But she was walking. It was something.
She pushed the song louder as the sand slid under her feet.
Forgot it when she crested a dune and saw even more sand stretched out before her, complete with an even higher dune that almost hid the mountains so far away.
The ground trembled. The sand shivered and slid.
She tumbled down the dune.
How many times was this?
She had lost count.
But somewhere, someone was chuckling.
She didn’t want to put a name to that.
Ember lay in the sand for a moment, remembering how to stand up.
So tired. Just a little nap…
No. Had to…
Go where? Do what?
Just a cripple.
Who was she going to save?
But no. Yahsaw…
There is no Yahsaw.
…Yahsaw could do a lot with a cripple.
Besides. She had family.
No you don’t.
If there was something she could do…
They don’t want you. They have their own lives to worry about. Cripple.
Even if not, she had to go. That was who she was now.
Sister to Trin. Beloved Trin.
Granddaughter to Bethania.
Child of Kai.
She got up, started singing again, and went back up the dune.
Three days later, six since crossing the river, she still hadn’t come across any water source and the mountains still looked no closer. She stopped at the peak of a dune to pick out her course and realized several kellas later that she had been staring at the horizon without thinking.
Why did her head hurt so much?
She had a pounding headache that went on and on and on, and it was so hard to think.
It had to be dehydration.
How did people cross this abominable waste?
She looked for any sign of water, realized again that she had been staring into space for some time not really seeing anything.
Perhaps she should go back to the river. All the water she could want, there.
She turned the idea over, looking for the flaw in it. She knew there was something wrong with it, but she couldn’t think of what.
She prayed over it. Begged for insight.
Six days there. She would be dead before she made it.
Better to keep going the way she was. Perhaps she would find an oasis before it was too late.
She tried to start forward again but her feet wouldn’t move.
She tried to start up a tune but her throat was too dry. The only sound that came was a muffled croak.
Maybe she was at her end.
She looked at the sand under her feet.
It looked like a good soft place to lay her head and go to sleep.
Go to sleep and never wake up.
Maybe Ean would miss her. But he’d get over it. He had more important things to think about.
Bethania would miss her.
She would miss Trin more. Ember did not want to have that conversation.
So very soft… Ember pushed at the sand, feeling how it dented and hollowed under her touch, how easily it would make a bed for her right where she stood.
Nanli… Nanli would definitely miss her. Nanli would cry.
Ember thought of Nanli, lying in that hospital bed, and began to whisper the kahtahkism she had memorized with her.
The pounding headache became worse.
She continued her whispering anyway.
Down. She had to go down the dune to go forward.
Step. Another step.
One more and she settled into moving again.
The blow caught her in the side and lifted her off the ground so high that for a moment she felt like she was flying again.
She crashed into sand, slid and tumbled down the slope of a dune, broken rib screaming as she rolled and twisted.
When she came to a rest she remained still, trying to figure out what had just happened. She looked around and saw…
Legs. Great black legs reaching into the sky, larger and higher than the buildings of Sunfire Falls, like pillars of dark cloud connecting heaven and earth.
She followed the legs to a long snaky body and a great fanged maw reaching down on a serpentine neck.
Those red eyes. The same ones that had watched her from the storm when she was caught in the river.
Ember cowered as they looked her over.
“Where are you going, daughter? This is not the way to your home.”
He spoke in a voice deep as thunder, yet clear as a conversation at a quiet table with a friend. It was a voice that pulled on old ways, drawing her to trust and worship.
Ember gathered herself and replied.
“Salshira is my home now.”
Nk’drak’sil let out a barking laugh that shook the sands of the desert.
“Your home? Truly? I believe their representatives took a vote on that idea and disagreed with you.”
Ember felt ashamed as the judgement of those representatives pressed in on her again. Her head continued to feel foggy and a low terror made her heart beat faster and faster as the red eyes continued to study her.
This was not going to go well.
Ember looked for a way around, hoping to avoid any more conversation. Somehow with a threat close at hand it was easier to remember how to move.
How was she supposed to get past a Garagran the size of a mountain?
She saw the mountains themselves still ahead, framed by the legs of the great shadow.
Not around, then. Through.
She lunged forward.
Her feet sank into the sand on the second step.
The shadow laughed again, and as the sand vibrated to it, Ember sank deeper until it was up to her belly.
“No, you are not getting away from me that way, daughter. Now, tell me. Why are you trying to get back to those people who do not love you? Didn’t you memorize my proverbs? ‘Give to others just as they give to you. Worse, and your enemies will outnumber your scales. Better, and you will beggar yourself to nothing.’”
He paused for effect as Ember tried not to remember all the other Scales of Wisdom that flooded into her mind. She had forgotten them for months, but now they were returning.
“It is a wise saying, don’t you think? Why are you ignoring it? Consider, these people betrayed you. Forced you out. Even if you had something to give them, which is doubtful, why try? After all, you are already so poor. You don’t have enough to afford any more loss.”
The words twisted and tore at her, filling her mind with visions of Kaim advancing on her with his sword, and the Council jeering at her as they cast their votes. She struggled against the sand at the same time that she struggled against the images, but only sank deeper.
Where was her strength?
What he said was true.
They did hate her.
Why was she doggedly walking back there?
To a place where the people would just turn on her again.
She got the impression of a smile from the darkness.
“You see my point, of course. You’re being very silly.” The shadow walked around her, each step an earthquake, stopped on her right, and pointed into the distance. “Now, look to the west. Three days that way lies a small city in the stony desert hills, filled with my worshippers. Presently, they have no Garagran to rule over them. They wisely killed the last when he became too cruel. But, at my word to the priests, they will receive you as their queen. It is a small place, and well hidden, but has some trade with the nomad tribes and plenty of water and food from mountain springs and ancient cisterns. They have many sheep and goats, and also a good number of cattle.” He looked down at her again. “You will never make it on your own, not in your current state, but swear allegiance to me again as your god, and I will sustain you with my power. You will make it there safely and receive what you deserve as one of my children: a place of honor.”
Ember shivered. She didn’t want to look west, but she could feel the city out there, calling to her.
“Think of it, Ember. Throngs of people, worshipping you and bringing you whatever you want. Looking to you for guidance, and eventually protection, though not much, as the city is quite well hidden, as I said.”
Ember did think of it. She didn’t seem to have much choice. The cheers of the people filled her ears, the scent of the meats they laid out before her tantalized her nose, the cushions of her throne were soft under her feet, and the wine that they served her… it was very good for a parched throat.”
“If you wish, I can find a mate for you. Someone strong, and worthy, but not foolishly treacherous. Or you can simply raise your child in peace without the distraction of a male to keep in line. Many of my daughters have chosen the second, and there is certainly wisdom to it.”
Ember thought of the possibility of a male. Pleasant as one could be, it would be easier without, especially with a child to keep safe. Males could be jealous regarding offspring that weren’t theirs.
The thought struggled through her fogged brain.
Oh, sweet Kai no!
She wanted to vomit. To tear out her womb with her own claws. The shame made her shrink until the sand was up to her shoulders.
Could it be?
“Yes, Ember. You are pregnant. Some might consider you defiled, but I do not. Woldmont was foolishly proud, but he comes from an excellent line, and his offspring will be very strong. A sound combination, your line and his. Of course, you do not have to raise it, but it would be a waste of such potential to end the product of such a mating. I have little doubt that your daughter will be as strong as your mother, if not stronger.”
Like her mother?
What would Ean think? She couldn’t… there was no hiding…
The shadow curled down so his eyes were level with hers.
“Why so worried, Ember? The people I will give you will not condemn you for your choice or your offspring. They will rejoice in a strong heir to their queen. You will never have to be ashamed again. Are you still thinking of Salshira? Forget it. If you being a Garagran was too much for them, they will never tolerate you having a child they consider illegitimate. Or marrying their future king after making what they consider a terrible mistake. And besides, Salshira is almost done now. It will soon be part of the Empire. But the city I am offering has stood on its own for a thousand years, and has many more left to it. It is a good place to raise a child, and a good place to rule.”
Ember tried to see herself going to Salshira with the child of the Emperor’s son in her womb, but couldn’t. And it was a child, however she had become pregnant. She had to take care of it. If Salshira was about to be swept away by war…
What choice did she have?
“I see you are convinced. Excellent. Now, cheer up. Think of what it will be like when you are made queen. Or even better, think of what you will name your daughter. You may look on it as terrible now, but I know you. You will find it joyous when she arrives, and you should have a good name ready.”
Ember didn’t want to think of a name, but one arrived on her tongue anyway, seeming to come from somewhere other than her helpless brain.
“‘No mercy’. She should be named, ‘No mercy.”
The red eyes hardened.
The story unfolded in Ember even as she searched for the reasons for the name. The story of a prophet that Aihay had commanded to marry a whore. And of how, when that whore abandoned the prophet and became someone’s slave, Aihay told him to go buy her back.
And how he did, because he loved her.
She looked at the red eyes, her head clearing as the story filled it.
She opened her mouth and whispered the words that she remembered.
“And in that day I will answer, declares Aihay,
I will answer the heavens,
And they shall answer the earth,
And the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
And they shall answer Yesreel,
And I will sow her for myself in the land,
And I will have mercy on No Mercy,
And I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’;
And he shall say, “You are my Kai.’”
Light flashed in the dark like the stroke of a sword and the great shadow recoiled.
“You raise your voice against me!?”
The earth began to quake, continuously, and the sand sucked at Ember, pulling her deeper. Even as her heart beat faster, though, Ember found the story filling her even more, and the understanding that came with it.
“I am not yours, Nk’drak’sil. And I will not bow to your authority or fear your power. Whether the people of Salshira love me or not, Aihay loves me. He is my god now, and because of him, I will love them even if they hate me.”
Her feet suddenly felt like they were covered in lava, but they did not hurt. At the same time, the sand stopped pulling at her, and she sank no more.
“I will go to Salshira, because Aihay calls me to love its people and I cannot love them if I am not there. And you, you will not stop me.”
She lifted one foot out of the sand and set it down.
The sand remained rock hard under it.
Her other feet followed, and she stepped up out of the sand until she stood on top of it again. For a moment she thought she saw flickers of flame around her feet, but then it was gone, along with the sensation.
She did not look at the shadow again, but instead sought the mountains once more. When she found them, she set out across the sand, still feeling weak, but with her purpose clear.
Above her, the shadow gathered together and roared. The sound rose and rose, until the whole desert danced with it, until the dunes flattened with it and the sky drew together in clouds overhead and thundered along. Lightning beat the desert all around, melting patches in the sand with its power, and whirlwinds lifted up a great fog of sand.
Ember kept walking, each step on firm ground.
As suddenly as it had come, the shadow was gone, and the day was clear and bright and hot again, and the sand stretched out before and behind and around her. She saw a few whirlwinds settling, but then those too were gone, and all was still again.
She continued, until the sun had set and the sands were so dark she could not see for the lack of a moon in the sky that night.
And then between one dip and the next she smelled it.
Her nose led her to the tiny pool, and she almost bumped her head on a tree getting to it. A tree and a few bushes, surrounding a tiny wet spot surrounded by rocks. Carefully placed rocks, making a circle.
She dug out the middle of the circle in the dark, and felt it fill with water.
She lowered her head and drank. Waited for the little pool to fill again, then drank more.
Drank until she was filled. Until her throat was no longer parched.
Then sang in the dark, a song of a prophet and a whore, and finally slept.
Her last thought before falling asleep was,
“But truly, Yahsaw, a daughter? What will I do?”