Cerani Encampment, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 24 - Present day
I return to consciousness with a violent jolt. Outside the tent, I hear rigorous chanting from a large group and loudest of all, Aron’s pained screams. A whip cracks. I burst through the tent’s opening and immediately collide with several bodies. Hands shove me back.
“This is not your concern,” a voice growls at me. Saga Idida.
“Yes it is,” I protest, pushing against her.
The votaress’ hands are iron vices around my wrist. I snap my free hand out and grip the votaress by the throat. She shrieks, and all chanting ceases. Even the whip stops lashing. Only Aron’s voice continues, breathing my name as he exhales. Idida drops my wrist and whimpers.
I shove the votaress away from me and focus on the last place I heard Aron’s voice. I hold my hand out before me; without Aron to lead me, I have to find my way alone. I remember the way I sensed Aron with the electrical currents, and I focus on stirring up a buzz. It is not difficult with how angry I am, and soon, I am able to create a basic map for myself out of the electricity in the air. I sense him several paces away, huddled on the ground. The clumps of people part before me as I make my way to him. I listen for the rhythm of his breath, the shallow bursts that usually indicate his constant readiness, but it is his voice I hear, a mere whistle of breath over teeth.
“Zafre,” he gasps very close to me. I crouch down and outstretch my hand to find him. My fingers find his cheek as he leans towards me.
“What did they do?” I ask. I trace his jaw and along his cheek, but my fingers are met with congealed blood, an all too familiar feeling. He winces as my fingers near his eye.
“Nothing,” he exhales, “which I did not deserve.”
“You do not deserve to be killed!” I exclaim, gripping his shoulder. “Who did this?” I stand, raising my voice above the low hum of my audience.
“Antista, this is none of your concern,” Riva says from behind me.
I turn towards her voice. Her breaths are deep and even. Her composure is infuriating, but I know I am in no danger. She needs me. She will not harm me.
“He is your son, Riva,” I seethe through gritted teeth. “If you kill him, you will be no better than the officers who imprisoned us. If you kill your own blood, you are savage! You prove them right.”
“He is my bone. I bore him into this world, and I may take him from it,” Riva says. She steps close to me and I read her prickling anger.
“Not unless you take me too,” I whisper.
The silence is deafening. None of the Cerani speak and most of them hold their breath. Aron’s labored breathing is the only constant sound.
“It is the way,” Aron says.
“No. I am the way,” I say. I crouch down to Aron again. “Put your arm around my shoulder,” I instruct. He does so gently. He will not defy me. I grasp his wrist in one hand and wrap my arm behind his back. “Can you stand?”
“I can,” he says.
“All right. I will bear your weight if you get your feet under you,” I say.
“You are disrespecting our law—”
“Aron is your bone, Riva? Well, he is my blood,” I say, rocking back onto my heels to prepare for Aron’s weight. He leans forward with me but a violet shudder betrays his struggle.
“Without law, we truly are savages,” Riva protests, but her shortened breaths betray her. She has lost.
“Law has no place where blood is concerned. If you truly want to be better than the Arci, do not kill your own. Make your law forgiveness,” I say. I have insulted them, and I do not care. I will not have them killing each other. If I am in control of anything anymore, that is it.
“I am ready,” Aron says. He sounds stronger, like some of his breath has returned. He leans most of his weight against me, but I am able to bear it as he finds his footing. We stand up together. “Your wounds,” he protests.
“Healed,” I reply. “Which way?”
“Straight ahead,” he breathes. “I do not think I can walk.”
“I have you,” I say. His breath catches in the way it does when he is amused. An impressive feat, considering his condition. I match his weight with mine as best as I can, and help him move forward.
“I am touching you,” Aron whispers as we make our way through the crowd.
“Forgiven,” I reply. His hand closes on my shoulder and he squeezes gently.
Our height difference is cumbersome as he leans his weight on me, so I am glad for the new bulk on my frame. I am able to hold onto muscle now, rather than fight against the loss of it. I am stronger, stronger even than Aron at this moment.
“Why did you save me?” he asks.
“Because if you die—” An unnamed emotion catches in my chest. It is an unbearable thought. “I will turn to dust.”
I find his tent, a feat I am proud of considering that Aron provided me no verbal clues. We merely walked in step. We have switched roles. For now, I am his crutch.
When he is settled on his cot, I sit beside it on the ground. “I am all right,” he breathes.
“What must they all think of me?” I wonder aloud, rubbing my eyes. It has become a habit when I am tired.
“You should not have interfered,” he says.
“It is not right to take someone’s life,” I say.
“The man... who I saw in your cell?” He works to get his strength back.
“Yes,” I say. “Even him. He might have meant something to someone.”
“As I am your blood?” Aron whispers.
I nod. “The second I said it, I knew it was true.”
We are both silent for a few minutes. Aron seems to have regained some of his strength, or at least he is putting on a brave face, and his breathing pattern has returned to normal. Mine, on the other hand, is clipped and shallow. I have an unshakable heaviness ruminating in my chest. I have not thought about my near-death in Q mere days ago. If I had let the man inject poison into my veins, I would not be here, fighting for Aron’s life. I would not be the last hope of a struggling tribe. I would not have seen the legacy of Vesper, my grandmother, the Antista whose burden I have inherited. I simply would have been gone.
“Would it have been so bad to let him kill me?” I breathe.
Aron props himself up on his elbow and wraps his arm around my shoulders. I lean forward, resting my forehead against his chest. “You are nobody’s to kill,” he whispers. He is in an extraordinary amount of pain and using everything he has to sit up, but I selfishly relish his embrace.
“I do not want to be the one, true Eye,” I admit into his shirt. “Or the Antista, or whatever. I am so tired, Aron. I do not want to, I do not.”
“Nobody can force you.”
I pull out of Aron’s arms, and I do not notice that I am crying until he brushes a teardrop off my cheek. “If I do not help, all those women will die,” I say. “Even though I do not want to do it, I must. Whoever heard of a blind girl leading an army?” I ask, trying to brighten my spirits.
“Or a girl from Arcis saving a Cerani boy?” Aron adds and his fingers find my cheek. I do not mind so much.
“Or a blind girl—”
“Zafre,” Aron stops me. “Blind’ is not your identity.” He breathes out sharply.
“Are you all right?” I ask, sitting on my knees.
“I have been better,” he admits. He lies back on the cot, but touches my elbow in silent request for my hand. I oblige him. I do not know why I am so comforted to link my fingers with his, but I am.
“What did she do to you?” I ask.
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“No. Tell me anyway.”
Aron holds our linked hands against his chest. “She whipped me, rather mercilessly, with an instrument not unlike the one you used on me in your first dream.”
My stomach drops. I have held that whip in my hand. Even if it was in a dream, I know what it can do. What it did do, to Aron. “I am cut from toe to brow,” he says, as if informing me the weather is mild.
“And yet, here I sit, complaining to you! I am so sorry,” I gasp, pulling my hand from his and laying it on his chest. His shirt is cut in ribbons. He winces again. “Take this off,” I demand, pulling on his shirt.
“Never thought I would hear you say that,” he says, pained, but he complies.
I am thankful I cannot see him remove his bloody shirt, and I occupy myself with finding his washbasin. I drag the table closer to the cot and the water sloshes in the bowl.
“Zafre,” he says, reaching for my arm. “I can wash my own wounds. They are only superficial. Call it my last, best punishment—stopping you when you would have cared for me.”
“Do not punish yourself,” I say, fumbling for the washcloth.
“Stop,” he says. Aron grabs my shoulders and turns me towards him. “The more you make me sit up, the longer it will take me to recover. You of all people should know that.”
“Sorry,” I say, sheepishly.
“Forgiven,” he says, brushing a finger against my cheekbone.
“I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I am not making you,” Aron says.
“Good,” I reply.
“Tell me about your council with Saga Idida,” he says, laying back.
I tell him little about the votaress’ failed attempt to heal my vision; that is a story for another time, when I have not just insulted an entire tribe. He is pleased I am healed, and as he falls asleep, I consider how strange it is to be the watcher instead of the watched. For once, I am the strength, the whole. I am the guide, until he is healthy. Aron and I are taking turns as the injured party, a pattern I hope will end here.