Zafirah in the Wild

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Chapter 15

Cerani Encampment, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 25 - Present day

“Antista?” a deep male voice asks, pulling me out of sleep. “I have brought you your morning meal.” A metal dish plinks against my wooden table.

“Where is Aron?” I ask, yawning.

“We are celebrating today, Antista,” the man says.

“Why is that?”

“Eat your meal, and come and see.” The flap of my tent slaps closed and I am alone again.

I do not remember falling asleep, let alone coming back to my tent. Last time I was conscious, Aron was snoring a foot away from me. Speaking of Aron... He is resting. Still, it is strange waking up to someone else’s voice. I am not sure who brought me my meal; when we arrived in the camp, there were not any men—Riva said so. Perhaps he did not realize that I cannot see him, but I have not met him anyway, so that would not matter. I pinch the bridge of my nose. The men must have returned from their expedition. I have a feeling that is what we are celebrating today, after the Antista eats her food.

My meals are hearty here in the camp. I have developed a tissue reserve, which helps me maintain my strength all day. I did not know I could be this strong! Today’s meal is savory and filled with leafy plants. Eating like a Cerani is strange, but there is no arguing against the results. I have all but recovered from starvation; even my appetite has grown. My worldly appetite is insatiable, however. The more I learn of the world outside of Q, the more I want to explore it. I am jealous of these people who spend their whole lives travelling and living off the land, for which they hold such reverence. They are in tune with every blade of grass and every leafy vein. Even their tents are ingenious. Built to follow the wind currents, they do not move an inch when a strong gust blows. Cerani live their lives as if wind does not exist. That says a lot about their strong will to me. They do not respond to force. I like that.

When I exit my tent, a calloused hand touches my elbow. “Antista, I am sorry for not announcing my presence earlier. I was made aware of the proper way to greet you once I left your tent,” the male voice says. It is the man who brought me breakfast.

“All is well,” I reply, pulling my arm out of his hand. “What may I call you?”

“Edrus, Antista.”

“Edrus. What are we celebrating?” I ask.

“A great conquest. We men have returned with a gift for the one, true Eye,” he says.

“And what is that?”

“Let me take you, Antista.” Edrus touches my elbow again to guide me forward, so I walk with him. I wish to check on Aron, but I do not know how I will escape this celebration, whatever it is. Being the guest of honor entitles me to zero privacy, and zero opportunities to slip away unnoticed. Aron will have to wait.

“It is a matter of debate between us, Antista, what to do with our conquest.” Edrus does not bother to tell me where he has taken me; we are gathered in the place where I saved Aron from a deadly lashing. The air is electric with Cerani anxiety, so I can just make out the shape of a slim man kneeling on the platform. I am relieved; even when he skips a meal, Aron is a mass of muscle, so I know the slim man is not my missing chaperone. He is stock still, and I admire him for it, whoever he is.

“What is this?” I ask Edrus, but he steps away from my elbow, allowing another’s hand to close around it.

“I am Neci, Antista,” the woman peeps. “Our men have returned with a captive from Arcis. There is disagreement about what to do, so we are entrusting the decision to you.”

Entrusting—I must be their diviner and their judge? I cannot decide any man’s fate. Though, it is not the responsibility that bothers me the most. I had thought I was free of all involvement in Arcis and I have no wish to align myself with that place again. I stopped missing the city a long time ago, and I doubt I know him, but still: his presence here in my new life is unsettling.

“Who is it?” I ask.

“Kasimir Achad,” Neci says.

“That name does not mean anything to me,” I say.

“He does not use it in Arcis,” Riva says, from behind me. Her voice is terse, but she speaks quietly. I turn towards her. “He is the reason we were taken to Quarantine, and he is the one who took you from your father’s house when you were a child.”

“Doctor Skah,” I breathe. My stomach rolls. “How do you know?”

“He remembers you,” Riva says.

“But they took hundreds of children like me to Quarantine—”

“Only you,” a pained male voice croaks. “Only you, Zafirah Adrau.” The man’s pain is voiced as a whistled wheeze over a low growl, a clash of opposing tones, which grates as if spoken from two throats. Still, even masked with pain, I know that voice.

A quiet, white heat builds under my ribs. “What does he mean, Riva?” I ask, curling my nails into my palms.

“You are the only child from Arcis to survive in Quarantine,” she explains.

“All my friends?”

“Hospital,” Achad says. His voice is quiet, but he has expelled all pain from it. “And then six feet under the soil in front of their parents’ houses. You should see Arcis. Every home has its own set of white stone markers. If you didn’t know they were graves, you might think they were part of the land from the start—”

“Stop!” I insist. The skin of my palms prickles sharply so I let my hands fall open at my sides, though I want to clench my fists.

“You still have your humanity after five years in Quarantine? I’m impressed,” he says with a laugh. “I would’ve been numb.”

“You have not heard?” I say, fighting to reign in the charge around my body. “I am the one, true Eye.” I realize this is the first time I have ever said it with authority. It feels true.

“A false idol,” he breathes.

“The eleventh star,” I spit.

“The unfortunate daughter of a wild animal,” Achad says, condescendingly. “I saw what your mother did the day you were born. She was as feral as these pets you have acquired—” Something thumps and Achad cries out.

“What was that?” I ask.

“I hit him,” Riva pants.

“Good,” I say. I do not agree with her on much, but on this we are united.

“I knew what they’d do for you,” Achad says to me, breathing labored.

“Is my father still alive?” I ask. I know the answer before he says it.

“No,” he whispers. “He took a walk on the edge of my knife.”

I knew he could not be alive. That would have been too fortunate, and fortune does not favor me. Fortune favors those who death takes early. I am the last Adrau.

“Antista,” Riva warns, setting her hand on my shoulder. “You are radiating—”

“Step away, Riva,” I breathe, clasping my hands together to still them.

“Oh good,” Achad chuckles. “Are we going to have a demonstration?”

“You have no right to me, Skah—Achad,” I whisper, as my whole body shakes. “No right to take pleasure in the form I take before you. If I burst into flames or hurtle into the sky, you may take no pleasure.”

“But I created you, you pathetic thing,” he seethes.

“You broke me. It is my turn, now.”

“You aren’t capable of it,” He dares me.

“Edrus?” I call. The man steps up beside me.

“Antista?” Edrus asks.

“What was the debate over this man’s fate?” I ask.

“Some of the men think he ought to be killed outright, while others want him to be turned out into the wilds,” Edrus says.

“And which solution will make him suffer the longest?”

“Either way, he will die, but he will die slower in the wilds,” Edrus says.

“Does he deserve a slow death?” I ask.

“It is not for me to say, Antista—”

“I am asking you. Should I kill him now, or should I turn him out into the wilds?”

A firm hand grips my shoulder. “Do better than he did to you, Antista,” Edrus whispers.

I clasp my hand over Edrus’. “Well said.”

“Gratulari, Antista,” he says, embarrassed. He withdraws his hand and steps back.

I have no idea what to choose. I want to kill Achad, but that would make me no better than him. He killed my father and countless others; I will gain nothing from his execution except the peace of mind that he is dead. But if I turn him out into the wilds and sentence him to a slow death, I am acting on the very principle for which I was imprisoned: slow deterioration, followed by a gentle madness, culminating in death. I will be like him, whether I take his life or banish him. The only choice that will absolve me of a comparison would be to keep him alive. But I do not have to keep him whole.

“Riva? Have you ever cut out a man’s tongue?” I ask.

“Edrus has,” she says.

“Edrus?”

“I have, Antista,” Edrus says.

“Excellent,” I say. I step towards Achad. “Kasimir Achad, you will remain a prisoner of the Cerani people and you will be silent. Edrus will be your watcher, and if you speak one word before your last breath on this planet, Edrus will cut your tongue from your mouth. If you speak in your sleep, you will lose your tongue. If you forget yourself and mumble under your breath, you will lose your tongue. And you will not know death until the Decuriate ordains it.” Part of me wishes I could see his face, but it is easier to pass judgment based solely on his words and actions if I cannot see into his heart.

“Antista?” Riva steps close to me and whispers. “Why do you spare him?”

“I do not wish to kill a man who kills,” I say. “Surely making him live is a harsher punishment. He craves death like the soil craves water; the event of death is his greatest addiction, second only to instilling fear in others, and I will not allow him to do either. Imagine how much he will suffer, forced into silence to live out his life with the people he believes are feral.”

Riva says nothing. Two fingers graze my forehead and with that, Riva’s loyalty to me is confirmed. She is devoted to my word as Antista, but also to my word as Zafre, the little Arci waif-ling.

“Edrus, this man is your ward. You will not address him, taunt him, or speak of him while you are in his presence. Do not call him by name. In fact,” I turn from Achad to face the surrounding crowd. “I want you all to banish his name from your tongues,” I shout.

“Yes, Antista!” various voices shout.

“There, now,” I say, turning back towards Riva. “I have taken his voice and his name. I have even taken death from him, for now. Can you not see how much greater this punishment is than death?”

“I know when I am in the wrong,” Riva says. “There is something I must discuss with you, Antista, and it is urgent.”

“In a moment,” I reply. “Edrus, escort your ward to the tent that lays the furthest from the center of camp. To whom does that tent belong?”

“No one who would not be willing to give it up,” Edrus says.

“Good. Riva, what was it you wanted to speak with me about?” I ask.

“Not here. Come with me.” She takes my elbow and leads me away from the center of camp. Waves of chatter fade from the gathered Cerani as we move outwards.

“What is it?” I ask. Riva releases my arm.

“I have done wrong twice since we arrived at the camp,” she breathes. “First, by beating the child I bore for seeking you out. And second, by believing you to be a coward for not killing Achad. I am sorry I doubted you.”

“It is nothing. How is Aron?” I whisper.

Riva falls to her knees and clutches my ankles in shame. “Alive, Paria be praised. Asleep mostly, but I am ashamed that he is not here with us. He would have known what to do with Achad. Not that I do not agree with your decision, Antista, but his word would have been just.”

“Is he in pain?” I ask.

“Not overly so,” she says; a teary catch in her voice betrays her. “My son, my Aron.”

I kneel down to her. “Who is attending him?” I ask, noting the way my own eyes burn with threatening tears.

“Idida, though she still thinks him a traitor,” she says. “I do not know how to set things right.” She sobs into the dirt at my feet.

“Is he in danger?” I breathe.

“No. But I may have lost him forever.”

“I will speak to Idida about assuming his care,” I say. “No matter how she feels about him, Aron is vital to both of us. The more diligent his nurse, the quicker he will heal.”

“Yes, Antista. No better for that post than you.”

I hold my hand out to Riva and she grasps it in gratitude. She stands and presses her forehead to mine. A lump rises in my throat. Respect.

“Riva?” I ask.

“Antista?” she whimpers.

“He will get better.”

She clasps my hand. “He will.”

“What you did to him—you also did it to me. I will forgive you, in time.”

“I am not worthy of your forgiveness, Antista, and if you wish it, I will keep to myself.”

“No, I need you to help me reign in my new gift. I must not lose control when I am upset,” I say, squeezing her hand. “What of Aron’s father?”

“Gone,” Riva says.

“Dead?”

She nods. “Aron took his father’s life when he was a young man.”

“Why?” I breathe.

“For taking up with another woman,” she breathes. “We do not unite for a lifetime the way Arci people do; we have children together, but that is all that binds us. Aron did not understand. And I could not console him because I was heartbroken too.”

“Perhaps that is why he is so loyal to me,” I say. “He saw what his father did to you, and he did not want to repeat it.” Riva pats my hand.

“He is loyal to you because he believes in you,” she says. “Aron has never followed our Decuriate, but he believes in the Eleventh Star.”

My chest tightens, and my whole self reaches out for him. “Riva, I understand what ‘se, verum oculus’ means, now,” I say. “I am the one who sees the truth, even when the Cerani do not. I understand the way of life for people of Arcis and those outside of it. I see without eyes. I am the Eleventh Star in the eleventh hour, the last, best hope for Cerani and Arci people to coexist, instead of whatever destructive existence Achad fights for.”

“It means ‘the one, true Eye’ in Cerani,” Riva chuckles. “But your definition is also acceptable.”

“Gather trustworthy men to scan the skies for air ships,” I instruct. “We have much to do. We have the man who gives orders to the Arci officers. What would you do if I was taken?”

“Search for you.”

“Exactly. We had better be ready because the Arci officers will come for him—” I stop.

An idea has dawned on me, a way to save the remaining Cerani from Quarantine and protect the tribe from the officers. “Riva, I know how to get the rest of our people out of Q.”

“How, Antista? We will be fighting the officers here.”

“Precisely. We will draw them here to retrieve their leader, but we will be long gone by the time they get here. Do you remember how they took you all into Q?” I ask. “It is been too long for me. I do not remember how to get in.”

“Yes, I suppose I do.”

“Good. How many Cerani tend towards electric gifts?”

“Half of us have the potential for it, though most are untried,” Riva says.

“We will train all of them. Is there a name for those people, like Idida’s title?”

“A long time ago we were called scintillae—sparks.”

“I want all Sparks gathered in the center of camp,” I say, releasing her hands. “Anyone who has ever experienced even the slightest static charge of their own creation. You will teach them—us—what you know.”

“I am not the most capable one, Antista. Idida is far more powerful.”

“That may be so. But you created me, Riva. You sent me to the stars. Train our people to do the same.” They are my people, are they not? Or they will be, when they have finally banded together, and they must band together. With Riva’s help, I have a much better chance of bringing the Cerani together.

“And the rest, the ones who do not spark? What shall they do?” Riva asks.

“Whatever needs to be done in order for us to defend ourselves.” I say. “I admit that I haven’t thought it through that far, but I trust your judgment. Supply preparation might be smart, for a start.”

“You have given me many tasks, Antista,” Riva says. “I do not understand why you put such trust in me after what I have done.”

I hold out my hands to her and she grasps them. “You must forgive yourself. I need you to be my emissary. I cannot train them to spark because I am not yet capable of it myself. I do not have a rapport with the men, so I cannot ask them to patrol. I have not yet earned their trust, which may take some time to build. But I have earned yours, have I not?”

“For all time, Antista.”

“Good. Do you have a title?” I ask. “I have observed the way the women come to you for guidance and I wonder if they have honored you with a title like you have honored me?”

She is quiet for a moment. “Materna.”

“Mother,” I interpret.

“Yes.”

“Materna Riva. The Spark mother.”

“You are too gracious, Antista.”

“Go now,” I urge gently. “We have much to prepare.”

“Yes, of course. Do you know the way to your tent?” Riva asks.

“I will find it.”

“Se, verum oculus,” Riva says.

“Se, verum oculus. Go.”

Her footsteps shuffle away. I rub my temples. I need Aron. I need him to hold me up while I try to help his people—while I reshape them.

They need a leader, someone to say “enough.” Someone to keep them humane.

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