Wilds, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 24
“Zafre, wake up,” Aron whispers in my ear.
“Hmm?” I ask, groggily. I roll over and a pebble digs into my shoulder. Sleep brought shivering fits, but no dreams. Just chills. Hours of being colder than I ought to be. Though Aron built a lean-to to shield me from the wind, the breeze still slipped through the cracks and into my bones.
“There is a welcoming party waiting to escort us into camp and they are all anxious to get a glimpse of you,” he says. He is amused that I am a novelty, but I am exhausted by it.
“Welcoming party? I had hoped there would not be a fuss.” I sit up and rub my eyes.
“Antista Zafirah, they would not let you in without a fuss. You are the prodigal daughter.”
“I am tired,” I say, yawning.
“Come on, Z. Better to go before they come in looking for you.”
Aron grasps my hand, helping me to my feet to hunch beneath the lean-to. My knees wobble, so I grip his hand. I know he does not mind.
“Do I look all right?” I ask.
“It does not matter how you look; they will be amazed by what you are,” he says.
My cheeks grow hot. “That is all very well, but I do not want to embarrass myself. If I am the prodigal daughter, that is slightly important. At least tell me I do not look like a limp noodle.”
“You do not look like a limp noodle,” Aron chuckles. “Whatever that is. Come on.”
Aron tugs me and I reluctantly follow him out into the heat.
“You have never had noodles?” I whisper.
“Arci food? No. And gratulari, but I would rather not,” he says.
“Some of it is delicious.”
“So is Cerani food,” Aron says. He links my arm with his so I can lean on him. My legs are weak, mostly from nervousness.
“I like Cerani food—mostly,” I say. “As long as it has no more than four legs. And please make sure I never eat any organs. I am counting on you.”
“Perhaps I should not tell you what we have been eating for the past ten days, then.”
“Perhaps not,” I agree.
“Antista Zafirah!” a high voice calls. A herd of footsteps scuttle towards me. Hands grip my arms and pull me away from Aron, who I imagine is amused by the whole thing. My escorts lead me and I do everything in my power not to stumble.
“Antista,” Riva speaks, as we approach. “The women have brought a cart for you to rest in as we make the final journey into camp.”
“Oh,” I say. I am embarrassed that they have gone through so much trouble for me. “That is kind, but I am capable of walking.”
“It is tradition for an honored guest,” Riva says.
“I would rather walk,” I say.
She says nothing, and the hands release my arms. I am relieved; it is too often that guiding hands feel like captive ones. I may be the Antista, but I am still a captive of my blindness, and at their mercy. Whatever I can do to control my body—I will do it.
“It is my express wish to walk alongside my Cerani hosts,” I say, with every fragment of authority I can muster. “Not to be carried by them.”
“That is your right,” Riva says.
“It is my will,” I reply.
“As you say.” I do not amuse Riva. Despite her tenderness at learning my parentage, she continues to speak to me as if I am the enemy. It is I who should see the Cerani as my enemy, for all that has happened since our escape from Q. But I do not see them that way, and I do not appreciate being treated as such. If I am afforded any time with Riva, I will mention it to her. I am not so cruel as to embarrass her in front of the welcoming party, to do to her what she does to me. At least, I hope I have not done so. These days, I hardly consider my thoughts before I speak, and it could spell trouble, where Riva is concerned.
“I wish for Aron to walk with me, as well,” I say.
“It is your will,” Riva says, and footsteps shuffle away. Many others follow, but one approaches.
“You would think you were Prima, the way you put her in her place,” Aron says.
“Prima?” I ask. He links our arms once more.
“Chief. We have not had one in many years; the title tends to corrupt the bearer.”
“I hope they are not posturing me for Prima,” I say.
“Perhaps you would endure it well. You endure everything well.”
I say nothing in reply. He urges me forward, to begin our final walk. My endurance is questionable. I endure only what I must, but given the choice to lead a tribe or merely join it for refuge, what would I prefer? I do not know if I will be given a choice. My path has been laid for me. Perhaps the best candidate for leadership is someone who does not want it.
The day’s journey is much shorter than in previous days, and I am glad of it. As we draw close to the encampment, Aron unlinks our arms.
“You must take the final walk on your own,” he says. “Straight ahead.”
“Where will you be?” I ask.
“I will follow with the rest.”
“I wish you would not leave me alone,” I whisper.
“I am sorry. This will be over soon, Z.”
“Forgiven,” I say.
Aron presses his forehead to mine. “Teach them how to burn,” he says.
His footsteps walk away from me slowly, and then behind me. The walk is vast, made longer by the unshakable darkness in my eyes. The rest of the walk is mine to take. My decision. How long has to been since I have had the opportunity? I could stand here forever and turn to dust as the whipping breeze pulls me apart. But I do not. I step forward, towards people who have adopted me and a new life among my mother’s tribe. I shed the last bit of me that identifies with the Arci, and into my future as Antista. I am Cerani, now. No more will my life be decided for me, because I have made the choice to move forward. The pebbles are smooth and fine and the heat cannot touch me.
“Welcome to our home,” a quiet voice says beside me. Hali.
Hands are laid upon me again, and I allow them to guide me through a crowd of people, all clamoring to catch a glimpse of me. A baby is placed in my arms, and then removed again after a few steps. My hands are placed on heads and shoulders. No words are said to me, though much is said about me as I pass. Nothing sticks in my ears except one observation from a young girl:
“She is powerful. You can see it in her eyes.”
I blink back a flurry of tears and occupy my thoughts instead with where my escorts are taking me.
“Come inside,” Hali says as my escorts stop walking. Her hands lead me forward. Rough canvas brushes my forehead and I duck to avoid it.
“Where am I?” I ask.
“Inside a tent,” she says. “There are a few elders who wish to speak to you before you are fed. You may wait for them here, Antista.”
“Gratulari, Hali,” I say.
“There is a stool here for you to sit on.” She drags something close to me until it brushes my leg. I sit and the fatigue of ten days of travel drops through my shoulders and down my legs, until my feet ache. I am exhausted.
“Would you find Aron for me?” I ask.
“Wait here, Antista,” she says. Her footsteps crunch in the gravel and the canvas flap brushes closed.
Alone. I am alone for the first time in days. The tent smells of smoke and dampness, which is not revolting, but it is unsettling and frankly humid. It is no less hot, either.
Footsteps enter the tent.
“Hello?” I say.
“What is your name?” a gruff woman asks.
Scribbles against paper scratch as the woman notes my answers. “Where were you born?”
“Arcis,” I say.
“How old are you?” she asks.
“What are your parents’ names?”
“Dabir and Lia Adrau,” I say. “Antista Lia, so I am told.”
“Sit up straight,” the woman orders. She grasps my cheek in one hand and pries my eyes open wider to examine them. I try not to flinch or pull away, though my instincts tell me to.
“Cataracts,” I say.
She does not reply. Several more scratches are made on the paper. My head is examined next, hair parted, and wound examined. More scratches. Her hand goes to the hem of my shirt and I stop her.
“To examine your wound,” she insists.
I grasp the hem myself and raise it so she may inspect Riva’s handiwork. She pushes my hands down when she is finished and makes more notes. It is as if the woman is checking me for weaknesses, of which I have many, and all of them obvious. Have they had a false prophecy before? I also wonder if she is making note of the easiest way to kill me if I turn out to be the wrong person. This is the first time I have detected any trace of malice in the Cerani.
The woman confiscates my cloak and what is left of my clothing. She leaves me unclothed and alone in the tent. I am terrified of what could happen to me without a covering. Why is that so frightening? We are born into this world bare, but then we cover up, as if we are ashamed of our natural selves. I suppose I am most myself when uncovered, but here, in the tent that might as well be the white room in Q. I curl into my body, protecting myself from whatever might join me in the tent.
“So,” a kind, older voice says. “You are Vesper’s granddaughter.” A linen robe is placed over my shoulders. I slip my arms through the sleeves and gentle hands fasten metal clasps down the front of the robe. I did not hear her come in. The woman places a pair of trousers in my hands that are made of the same soft linen, and I turn away from her to pull them on.
“I apologize that Agar left you unclothed without explanation,” she continues, walking around me to observe my dress. “But we could not clothe Vesper’s blood in anything other than her garments. They were blessed after you arrived, and it would have taken even longer if I had not hurried them along. You poor girl; you must have been freezing!”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. The fabric is light, but of superior quality than the shirt and trousers taken from me. It moves with me, but does not cling. My grandmother’s clothes. How strange! I sit on the stool again, at once feeling timid and alone.
“What is your name? Riva insisted I call you Antista, but I do not stand upon ceremony with anybody, as she should be well aware by now,” the woman says, sitting nears to me.
I turn towards her. “Zafirah Adrau.”
“Ah. Zafirah! Much too fierce a name, and a girl, to be locked up forever.”
My cheeks grow hot. “Gratulari,” I say. “And you?”
“Saga Idida,” she says. “You may call me whatever you remember. The children call me Saga, which is a title of respect for a votaress, but you are not a child, so you may decide.”
“Idida, then,” I say.
“Idida, why is it so significant that I am Vesper’s granddaughter?” I ask.
“We have been taken hostage by the Arci for over ten years; a significant portion of our people live in Quarantine, and once the next round of officers take their pick, most of our able-bodied women will be gone. We are desperate to save our people from death in that prison,” she says. “We will not survive without them. But Vesper knew someone would come along, a girl strong enough to get our people out, someone who had lived there herself. The fact that you are her blood relation is further proof of your potential. I do not know if she forsaw her own granddaughter as our liberator, but it is a revelation, to be sure.”
“Your liberator?” I ask.
“We need you to lead an army of Cerani to Quarantine, so we may save our people.”
“Even if I could, it is no guarantee that the Arci will stop taking Cerani,” I say. “It is only a matter of time before they have built a new Quarantine, with higher walls.”
“True. But if we do nothing, we will disappear. We are not that sort of people,” she says.
“No,” I agree, “I have seen what one determined Cerani can do.”
“Yes. Brilliant, is not it? Now, then, Zafirah. I have something I would like to try, with your permission,” Idida says. She stands, walking away from me to retrieve something.
“What is it?”
“I may be able to return your sight,” she says, though her voice is muffled. I sit up straighter and cross my arms.
“Truly?” I ask.
“If the Decuriate ordained it, yes,” she says, returning to my side. “Sometimes they give us a gift in the clothing of a curse. I thought they gave me the crick in my back, but after many failed rituals, it turns out I am simply old. What do you say?”
I have nothing to lose that is not already lost. “Yes.”
“Excellent. Come with me to my tent and we will give it a try.”
Idida takes my elbow and I stand, walking with her out of the tent I assume belongs to Agar, the woman who inspected me. The encampment is as lively as it was on our arrival. A crowd of Cerani has been waiting outside Agar’s tent to catch a glimpse of me, and they murmur as Idida and I pass by. Some of them approach me, touching my hand or my arm, as if something will rub off on them. They do not speak to me. They merely graze their fingers across my skin. By the time we reach Idida’s tent, I have been welcomed in the way a god might be welcomed—adored for what she represents, and feared for what she is capable of.
Stranger still, there are no men in the camp. Riva told me when we arrived that the men are on an expedition to search for new locations for the encampment, as well as to gather materials for the tents, but it is strange to me that they would be gone when the Cerani are so desperate for my help. It would be in their best interest to stay with their struggling people, instead of leaving them to their own devices while they explore. Not to mention the fact that Aron is considered a traitor for leaving the camp on an expedition of his own. Where is he? Idida does not give me a chance to worry about it, however; I am seated on a low cot and instructed to lie down.
“Relax as if you are going to sleep, Zafirah,” she says.
I close my eyes and clasp my hands over my stomach. I am not relaxed, but it suits Idida. She lays a strip of linen across my eyelids. She steps away from me and a few seconds later, I smell a musky smoke. She digs in a bag for something, clinking metal against glass. She returns to my side. Whatever she is brought over stinks, like nothing I have ever smelled, and it is all I can do not to pull a face. She does the worst possible thing for my nose next and drops two helpings of the smelly goo onto the blindfold, directly over my eyes. They immediately water, and then tingle.
“O clemens decem, qui regat astra,” Idida says, growling from the depths of her throat. She speaks in the Cerani tongue. “Revertetur lumen ad Zafirah oculis.”
My eyes get hot rapidly, and I arc up in pain. Idida grasps my wrists to prevent me from pulling off the blindfold.
“Docere quam uri,” she continues. “Iter patet. Si autem nolueris reddere visus ostendit viam ad astra. Ad undecimum eam deam, peto ut ducat eam quaerimus.”
The charging air is thick. My eyes continue to burn, but the heat spreads throughout my body, passing over all of my healing wounds. At once, a tugging starts in my chest, urging me upwards, but something anchors me. Idida leans in close to my ear and whispers.
“Quae est in undecimo stellam. Se, verum oculus.”
The last anchor inside my body breaks and I soar upwards, as I felt the night I lost my sight. When I stop moving, my whole body is weightless. I hear Idida’s voice in the distance far below me, and this time she speaks Arci.
“Paria, to whom our birth is owed,” she says. Heat expands through my chest, where my ribs were broken. “Mors, to whom our lives are given.”
Warmth filters out from my heart through my veins, warming outwards as my blood flows. Idida goes on. “Coelus, who spins our planet. Lunea, who watches over the night.”
My abdomen tingles as the warmth reaches my wound. The heat focuses there for a moment, and then moves on.
“Humi of the soil, Amna of the water, Aether of the air,” Idida chants. My head is hot now as the fingers of warmth travel up the base of my skull to the crown. “Ignis of the fire, which flows through our veins.” She is not kidding. My blood might be boiling.
“Visus, who opens our hearts to worldly visions,” she says, as the heat reaches my toes. “And most of all, Somni, the one to whom our sight is owed.”
Again, my eyes tingle. For the first time since the escape from Q, light creeps between my eyelids. Not much light, but pinpricks, at least. All the heat in my body surges into my head, as I focus on making one of the tiny points expand. I cannot open my eyelids with the blindfold on, so I rip it off. White light overwhelms my vision; a bolt of electricity zips into my forehead and down my spine. The flash forces me from the sky, just as the exploding star had, and I fall back to the earth.
“Zafirah!” Idida whispers and I snap into reality. My vision is dark. I am not with the Decuriate in the pool, or flying beyond the stars. Saga Idida failed me.
“It did not work,” I breathe, pressing my palms over my eyes. Tears spring up and I curl away from the votaress.
“It did not return your sight,” she concedes, “But it did heal your injuries.”
I wipe the wetness on my cheeks and touch my fingers to my stomach. Sure enough, my skin is taught again, save a scar. The ribs too are healed, and my skull. The wounds I knew would heal by themselves, eventually. Thanks so much, Decuriate, gratulari for all your infinite blessings. I sit up, frustrated and desperate to be alone. I have not been alone in days.
The votaress lays her hand on my shoulder, but the gesture is patronizing. There, there, little girl. Poor blind thing. I shrug the hand off my shoulder and stand, knocking into her with my arm.
“I am sorry—”
“Do not apologize to me for what you failed to do.” I bite into my cheek as I speak. I wish to find Aron and hear his kind words, for whatever they are worth, and I wish Idida would leave me, then, but she does not. She takes my hand and tugs me back to my seat.
“I did not mean to condescend, Zafirah,” Idida says. “I meant to apologize for the gesture. I should have touched my forehead to yours as a sign of respect, but I did not. I clasped you on the shoulder, like I would my teacher. When I touched your shoulder, I meant it as a pupil to a master. I am not wrong in thinking you will teach us much; you are the Antista.”
She grasps my cheeks in her hands, then, and touches her forehead to mine. She steps away and crouches before me.
“There. Now, I will not apologize that my ritual failed; if your sight had returned, it would have told me the Decuriate ordained your blindness, as I said. Since it did not, your vision must be linked solely to your connection with your mother, who blessed you with the lightning the day you were born. That is power I cannot touch. Even Somni cannot brighten the eyes of one so closely linked by blood. You are not a votaress, Zafirah. You are not a witch, or a prophet, or a god. You are Vesper’s arrow. I will not apologize for that.” She clasps my shoulder again. “Tell me, now, Zafirah. What would you have me do?”
I am astonished. I am a speck of dust on the wind. I do not know the cot beneath me or the ground beneath it. I cannot feel my hands for all the blood thundering through my veins. My breath comes in short succession, filling my lungs enough to voice a noise I have not made before. It comes in a burst, and I cover my mouth with my trembling hands. The sound barks from between my lips to spite my hands, a bright and tremulous—no, euphoric shout. I am filled with elation, past all sense.
“Wh-what is the m-m-matter with me-e?” I sputter, wiping my eyes as they moisten.
“You... you are laughing, Zafre,” Idida says, brightness coloring her voice.
“I do not know what that means,” I manage seriously. Seconds later, the manic bursts rise in my chest again and I cannot think or speak for lack of air.
“You are in disbelief,” the votaress says, joining in.
“No, I do not th-think that is it,” I say. “Or maybe it is, but I—” I chortle in heaving fits and fight to regain my breath. “I cannot think. I cannot think, Saga Idida. I am tired.” My fitful outburst continues in an irregular frenzy, petering out and leaving me with an aching stomach, which for once has nothing to do with an injury.
“Is laughing always this disruptive?” I ask, trying to force my lungs to inflate and empty without convulsing into rolling lurches again.
“It is easier with practice,” Idida says. She takes my hand and places it on top of something semi-spherical, which I ascertain is her head, upon patting the coarse hair covering the surface. She has much in the way of hair and it all is pulled towards the back of her head and wound in a circle, fixed there with a hooked needle.
“Now that you have survived your first laugh,” she says, “what will you have me do? I cannot give you my remedies, but I will do whatever you wish, within my power.”
I withdraw my hand from her head and grasp the stubby growth on the top of my own. My hair is brittle, but longer than it has been in five years. It pokes the tops of my ears now, and a circular growth pattern at the crown of my head forces the hair to stick straight up. I can only imagine how I must appear to the votaress.
“Cut my hair.”
“Oh, I must not do so. A great leader –”
“But I am not a leader. I am the Antista. I am Vesper’s arrow. You said so. I wish for you to cut all the hair from my head until there is nothing left to cover the arrow’s point. After all, you cannot hit a target with a ribbon. Come, Idida. Do not make me laugh again,” I say, tipping my chin to meet with my sternum. “Shave the hair from my head like the Arci did. They will see what they have created.”
Without further question, Idida does so. Her knife glances off my scar, and I flinch. She is gentle, if not especially skilled. When she is finished, my fingers relish my bare skull. It is comforting in a way that unsettles my delicate sensibilities; this thing from my horror in Q should not comfort me, but it does. To counteract the cold chill on my arms, I rub them vigorously. I do not want to be back there, slurping cabbage broth and fighting for my sanity. Still, with my head bare again, I am home. It is a type of home, I suppose, to be familiar with yourself. The Me of countless days ago, locked up in a cell—she would not believe this Me was her future. A Me that an entire tribe accepts as their guide, who has the power to harness the lightning, the Me who laughs. Still, I am in need of a bit of solitude. Only in that respect was I at an advantage in Q.
“May I use your tent to meditate?” I ask, folding my hands in my lap.
“I would be honored if you did,” Idida says. She stands. “I will leave you.”
“Gratulari, Saga Idida.”
“It is my honor, Antista Zafirah.” Idida touches my shoulder and retreats from her tent, leaving me alone.
I scoot off the cot and sit on the ground. Even with the pebbles digging into my skin, it is softer than the concrete on which I once meditated. My legs fold beneath me, my hands settle in my lap, and my thoughts turn to my mother’s gift. It is much easier to accept the new power that way, when it is the last will of the woman who bore me. I imagine myself at the bottom of the pool beyond the stars, swimming with her. The water cradles me like my mother’s arms should have. I kick to the bottom to find the stars, but the pool is just a pool. From the bottom of the pool, I hear my name. The water ripples with the wail. I push off the bottom and kick like mad to reach the surface. When I burst out of the water, I hear it clearly, and it chills me to the bone.
Screaming for me.