Be careful whom you insult. You never know who might be family
or who might want deadly revenge—or both.
Tala: from The Weaver’s Scrolls
SUN OF THE DESERT
“The King’s horse is in the stable with the goats,” Sirka said with a slight smile. “Looks like it’ll rain all night.”
“Feels as though it might rain for another week,” Sirka’s mother said. This was apparently not a happy prospect. She passed Flayme a plate with a generous slice of the cheese pie. Flayme helped herself to greens and warm, dark bread.
“You don’t have children?” she asked.
Sirka’s expression turned wistful. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” she said sadly.
Flayme changed the subject, spoke of the rain, and the fruit buds.
“I’ve never seen chickens like yours before—they’re striking. Where do they come from?” Flayme asked.
Sirka didn’t look up. “From my mother’s country in the south.”
“You’re not from here?” Flayme asked the older woman, and realized she hadn’t been introduced by name, but only as Sirka’s mother.
“From Amirra, yes,” she replied. “From Highhold, no.” Her gaze lingered on Flayme’s face. The lean, hardened look around her eyes and mouth reminded Flayme of the riders of the Lion Guard—of men who’d faced their fears, seen death. Surprisingly, the woman was probably older than Flayme’s own father. Her skin was brown from sun, and weathered by wind; her short hair was metal gray with a single, longer braid that fell beside one ear and was tied with tiny, silver bells. The notion that these women weren’t Pure Folk occurred to her again. She wondered where “south” was. Flayme loosed her mind, let it flow beyond its boundaries so she might see behind the woman’s gray eyes, look into her mind and discover more of her identity or homeland. She caught at the thought of the chickens, and high cliffs and followed it.
Momentarily she glimpsed a vast stretch of red sand before she walked into Sharra’s light. Light from inside the woman’s mind seared Flayme’s vision. A many pointed dark star again floated in her flared retinas, like an after image. Across the table, she met the woman’s fierce, unflinching glare and she knew then the Block was intentional. Flayme blinked to clear the green glowing spots.
“How’d you do that?” she asked, unafraid.
“It’s a rather simple block.” The woman held Flayme’s gaze; the strength in her regard reminded Flayme of her father’s strength, or Thyme’s—honed, experienced, someone accustomed to being in charge. “The Block reflects a mental Probe back to the source, like a mirror. Uncomplicated. Useful. You should know it. Especially if you’re going to try a Probe without permission. It’s rude, even for a spoiled princess. I imagine your father would have more finesse at that trick. And probing a mind leaves you open for someone to do the same to you. You should know that.”
“Who are you?” Flayme asked without blinking or dropping her eyes. Definitely not Pure Folk. She assessed the woman again. There was no danger in her like there was in Cara, the serving girl at Highhold. Her tan tunic was well-spun—some lightweight wool so fine it could have been twill. The embroidery on the edges was beautifully executed and depicted a falcon used by the desert people for hunting and battle. A desert falcon.
Ahhhh. A puzzle piece of knowledge snicked into alignment. Flayme took a bite of the cheese pie. To her left, Sirka ate slowly and said nothing, as if supper table conversations of this sort were commonplace. Flayme waited.
“I’m a Kang clanswoman—a RhonnaSir, which means people of the sea.”
Flayme said simply, “I didn’t know there were sea people in the desert.”
“There are twelve clans of the SirKang that live near the coast of Kang and not in the deep desert.”
“Do they hate the King as much as the desert people?” she asked calmly. She took another bite of pie, and ruminated on the idea that she was sitting at the table with two people from a country that was one of Highhold’s bitterest enemies. The ghost of the black star swirled in her light-blinded eyes.
“Not quite as much, but almost.”
“The desert people—”
“The RhonnaSar—do they hate the king’s daughter too?”
“Some do.” The woman smiled. “But not all of them.”
Suddenly Flayme’s eyes flushed with gold and she grew hot. Sirka and her mother stared.
I suppose it is a bit disconcerting to see someone’s eyes go all gold and funny, Flayme thought. She was boiling.
“Would you like some beer?” Sirka asked her, holding up a pitcher. “We kegged a new batch this week.”
“Yes, please,” Flayme replied. Perhaps beer would calm the heat building in her. Sirka poured out a mug and passed it. Flayme sipped the pale brew—it tasted of grain, with a sweet aftertaste that was pleasing. Rain rattled on the roof.
“And you—do you hate me?” Flayme asked; she hoped she knew the answer, hoped this wasn’t like a bad children’s story where the host fed you and then murdered you. Sirka didn’t seem the type to slash anyone’s throat while they slept. The other woman did have a dangerous look and feel to her, but the edginess didn’t seem focused on Flayme.
“Because I’m your grandmother.”
She gasped. She couldn’t think of a single thing to say. She couldn’t think at all. Flayme gazed at her plate to collect her thoughts. She wanted to stare at the woman—her grandmother—without stopping, and turn the whole, crazy moment around and around to observe it from every angle like a collector would study a sculpture. She resisted raising her eyes and concentrated on finishing her pie. Flayme buttered her bread slowly. Sarsa. Her grandmother’s name was Sarsa. She was the WarDancer of Kang, the leader of an entire country of a warlike people. Sarsa. Her grandmother. Her mother’s mother. That was the familiarity in this house, with these women. She took a bite of bread. It was tangy; batchbread then, fresh-baked and hot. Why was Sarsa in Highhold? Why was the WarDancer of Kang here at Sirka’s Smythcot’s cottage?
“Flayme, I—Would you like more pie or beer?” Sirka sounded uncertain.
Sirka. Flayme thought of something, finally.
“You’re my aunt?” she asked.
“I’d like some more beer, I think,” Flayme said. The burning was unbearable. She had to do something, to get it rid of the heat before she burned up. Rain battered the roof and the window. Tree branches scraped the glass. She reached for the branch with her eyes, raised her hand toward it, touched it with a thought, and let the heat flow out. Light flashed, followed by thunder that rocked the cottage. They were blinded and deafened as fire riveted the tree. The windowpane shattered; glass shards and rain sprayed the braided rug. Cool rain misted Flayme’s face and her inner heat evaporated. The luserods went out. No one moved or spoke for a long, long time.
“Can anyone see yet?” Sarsa asked.
Flayme’s ears rang but her vision had cleared. Next to her, Sirka rose from her chair and found a luserod. It refused to reignite. She fumbled around and found an oil lamp. She struck a flint and the small flame glowed in her cupped hands for a moment before the lamp caught the light and darkness fled the room. Sarsa left the table. She returned with a towel and stuffed it into the empty window socket where the glass was missing. Flayme retrieved a wastebasket and began picking up the broken glass, taking care not to cut a finger or step on a shard.
“I’m sorry,” she said, guiltily. She was headachy. Her limbs were heavy and she was more tired than she realized.
“You did that?” Sirka asked, handing her a brush and dustpan.
“I think so. I’m really sorry.” Flayme finished the cleanup and dumped the shards in the basket.
“Well. That’s something not too many people I know can do,” Sirka said. She sounded amused.
“I’m so sorry. Is anyone hurt?” Flayme felt foolish.
Sarsa began to laugh. In a moment, Sirka joined her. Flayme responded the only way someone could who felt as foolish as she did—she too began to laugh.
“I don’t know about the two of you, but I need more beer,” Sarsa said, tears running down her face.
When they finished the pie, the greens, the bread, and the pitcher of beer, Sirka got more beer. After they drank two more pitchers of beer, Flayme was exhausted but felt a little less foolish—the first thing she learned from her Kang WarDancer grandmother was sometimes it took a lot of beer to drown the fool—at least until the next morning.
Flayme woke on the floor in front of the fireplace; she was covered with a quilt, her head was on a pillow, and the fire was embers in the hearth. She opened one eye and closed it quickly, before anymore light got behind her eyelids to burrow where her head throbbed. She let her awareness drain into the sound of the rain, allowed the tightness in her temples to flow with each drop and rinse pain from her head until she became part of the smooth, gray dawn and she fell back to sleep. Later, when Sarsa slipped quietly into the kitchen to put on a pot of kaff, Flayme opened her eyes and the light didn’t hurt. She walked to the kitchen barefoot, sat at the table, and followed the Kang WarDancer with her eyes, wanting to know the woman who led a nation into war, and who was the mother of the mother Flayme never knew. Questions fluttered in her throat, winged needs crying to be freed—but she didn’t know which one to free first. She sorted through them, noticing the woman’s quick movements, the sinewy strength in her arms and calves; her feet and hands were laced with thin lines of white scars under the brown skin. She wore rings on four toes and all her fingers, silver and gold—none were set with jewels or stones but all were worked into woven designs or intricately engraved. She had earrings of diminishing sizes up both ears. Around her neck was a slender chain of geometrical gold and silver links. Her tunic today was leather the color of faded red clay and her leather leggings were sable. The tunic’s border was a brede of silver and gold threaded falcons. She was barefoot and unarmed, yet in the lean light that fell through the window she cast back no uneven shadow, made not a single graceless movement, even with such a simple task as setting the kaff to brew. Her presence was so contained, so precise, so keen that heat and Sharra’s light rose in her instead of the gray day outside, still wrapped in rain.
The quiet of peaceful things enveloped them—a house not yet awake, a day not yet begun, trees not yet in bloom, a commitment to journey or war not yet made—and in the weight of the quiet, Flayme felt the waiting of something unquiet. The suspended moment was like the dusty silence of the ninth level of Highhold; she wanted to stretch this speechless, peace forever.
“You look much like her, you know, but she was a shy, gentle girl.” Sarsa set a steaming mug on the table in front of Flayme’s folded hands and sat down across from her with her own kaff. “Not much hope she would have been a good candidate for WarDancer. You would make a WarDancer—you will I believe, before the end of all this. Sirflir loved your father, you know. She would not have gone to him otherwise.”
“Sirflir?” Flayme asked.
“You wear her ring. Seafire—your mother. Sirflir means sea fire in our desert tongue. Sirka is Sea spirit. And my name translates, literally, Sand Sun; you might say Desert Sun.”
“And Flayme? How would you say that in Kang?”
“You’re called Aflir; the fire.”
Aflir—like wind and fire together.
“Who calls me that?” she asked.
“There are those who don’t believe the King caused Sirflir’s death. Those people—myself included—keep track of the granddaughter of the Kang WarDancer.”
“I was told that the Kang WarDancer held the King responsible—that the last war was a result of my mother’s death.”
“Responsibility and intent are two different things. Your father indulged his wife and allowed that she was more capable a horsewoman than she really was. For that, I do hold him responsible.” Sarsa took a long, thoughtful pull of her kaff and set the cup on the table, wrapping both lean hands around it.
“My people—the Rhonna—see only the larger picture—the WarDancer’s daughter gone to the enemy as reparation for a war we lost. The S’Kais—the Council—did not sanction another war but people of the clans listened to an inflammatory voice. The second war was led by a seditionist guerilla, a rogue Clan Chief named Jhirralfag—Fang of the Jhirral—named after a wild and dangerous animal. The jhirral are desert jackals so fierce we don’t travel at night or alone and high walls surround our towns and residences. Our Hark dogs protect our towns and camps from packs of these beasts but nothing protected us from Jhirralfag’s hypnotic words. Jhirralfag was a transceptor for Mazzik Wikken’s spells.”
“Mazzik Wikken? You mean Massik?” she asked.
“Indeed. Massik. Grandson of the Gloomgloven of Ramald.”
“What happened to Jhirralfag?” Flayme asked.
“He died.” Her voice said ‘end of story.”
“And Sirka’s husband?”
“Gredden was an incidental casualty of a meaningless war. He was Pure Folk and loyal to the King and Amirra but he was not a warrior. Many more may die the same way if this Wikken isn’t taken seriously. Again, your father is being irresponsible. Your uncle understands the danger.”
“Thyme you mean?”
“Yes. The Seer of the Wheel. He stops here occasionally, with news.”
“For many years. He liked Gred—they argued about politics. He brought Sirka news to send me of my granddaughter.”
Flayme was silent, contemplating the idea that Thyme never mentioned her Kang grandmother.
“Do you come here often?” she asked Sarsa.
“Never before. The Wikken came to Kang—to SirZanna in the south. He made persuasive promises to the Vhell S’Kais and the desert Clan Chiefs—the SarTira—that unsettled them. The S’Kais brood on their response. I wanted to speak with Thyme about it. I’ve waited for months. He isn’t in Highhold, apparently.”
“No. He isn’t.”
“I thought to go to the Council of Ramald, if Thyme didn’t show up soon. Trouble is, there I could lose my head or be m’jiked before they stopped sword-clashing and spell-swapping long enough to listen.”
The porch door banged and Sirka bustled in, rainwater showering from her coat. She shook her head free of the hood and hung the coat on a peg. She placed a pail of milk in the sink and poured a cup of kaff.
“Such long, serious faces!” she commented, regarding them. “Must be weighty stuff you’re discussing on empty stomachs.” She collected things onto the cutting board—bread and palm-sized Moonplums. She peeled the white skin from the moonplums and sliced the red fruit into a bowl. She cut thick slices of bread to toast.
“I’ll go with you,” Sarsa suggested.
“To Queen Ara.”