Zafirah in the Wild

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Chapter 18

Cerani Encampment, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 28

When I first came to the Cerani camp, I expected these people to be mystic warriors, so attuned to the rhythms of their bodies that clouds form at their beck and call, but after three days of training with Riva, most of them cannot even summon a little electric buzz. We have much to do if we are going to be a formidable force. I do not have a handle on my own gifts, let alone the gifts of fifty Cerani. How do I teach a tribe to shock and triumph if I cannot do it myself? I will give them this much, though: their vigor makes them dangerous, and it is their vigor that will see us through.

Two and a half weeks have passed since we left Q, since I was reborn into a new life, but I am no happier here than I was in my cell. Aron is still fragile, and every day I struggle to figure out who I am supposed to be and how to prove it. Few Cerani men are interested to know me, let alone take me seriously. Aron’s outspoken support helps, but it does not solve the problem. Some of these men have witnessed wars longer than the time I spent in Q; what could I possibly teach them?

The tribe does not have a clear leader, someone who they all turn to for guidance. The women look to me, and Edrus obeys me, but I do not have any sway with the men. Riva’s pull only goes so far; how has the tribe survived this long with such internal discord? On this, my fourth day in the encampment, I find myself sitting alone for the midday meal, far from the center of camp on a bench, after a morning of trying to wrangle fifty Cerani and a night full of dreams in which I called out for Aron and he did not answer.

I have a heightened understanding of the Decuriate lately, something I hope will continue to expand. When I meditate on Paria, my awareness of my body is heightened, so much so that I can feel every fatigued muscle being repaired. Mors, the second star, concerns the ending of life, and Saga Idida believes I have been in communion with him since the ritual that blinded me. I experienced all but the final act of death, according to Cerani: revelation, separation from the bodily form, and I touched the deep pool in the sky. But I came back to the land of the living, and Idida believes my survival has to do with my connection to Ignis, the one responsible for fire. I was struck by lightning, which dropped me out of the sky and returned me to my body on the ground... truthfully, if I were not experiencing it, I would not believe it. I do not know if I have the capacity to understand this ten-fold god, but I am trying. I make observations about my experiences while meditating, and Idida translates them into explanations. I suppose it is possible she is suggesting meanings that do not exist, but I do know there is some truth in what she says.

I saw the pool. I touched Ignis, held the star to my chest, and felt it fracture.

I suppose Ignis is the one I should meditate on if I want the Cerani to tap into their electric gifts. Idida says it is my Sight which allows me to communicate with the Decuriate, but I think it might be best if I have all electrically capable Cerani meditate on Ignis, sighted or not. I am missing the most important part of the equation: the How. How do we pull the electricity into bolts? How do we aim them and strike where we intend? How do we do it without killing each other in the process? Unable to stomach food and ambiguity, I do not eat my entire meal.

“Antista?” Slim fingers graze my forearm. “It is Hali.”

“What is it, Hali?” I ask gently, though I am a bit annoyed to be bothered.

“Would you do something for me and someone who is dear to me?” she asks.

“That depends, what do you need?”

She clears her throat and sits beside me on the bench. “Marek and I want to be... bound together,” she says, “like people are bound in Arcis. Will you do that for us?”

“Oh... I do not know what that entails, Hali,” I say.

“Did you not live there for most of your life?” she asks.

“Yes, but it is not a public thing in Arcis. Couples who elect to be bound do so in the privacy of the court,” I explain. “Some people do not see their families again after they are bound. Arci are not a body of like-minded people; every family is a small unit, and only children make friends with other Arci. I did not know anyone who was bound, except my own parents. Why do you want to be bound?”

“We do not wish to be with anyone but each other,” Hali says.

“So do not,” I say. “A binding ceremony will not prevent that; you must both be devoted to one another. If you want to be with Marek and only Marek, that is all you need to do.”

“I do,” she says, linking her arm through mine. I smile and pat her hand.

“Hali, you are lucky to have found someone who feels the way you do,” I say. “From my conversations with others, it appears to be a rare thing among Cerani.”

“You spoke to Riva?”

“Yes,” I admit.

“That is the saddest tale of all,” Hali says. “Nobody denied his right to leave her, according to our customs, but he tore her apart.”

“He beat her?” I ask.

“Not only that, but Aron too,” Hali says, and my stomach rolls as it does when Aron comes up.

“Nobody speaks of it when she is around,” Hali goes on, “but there is a reason the men stay away for so long. Marek’s brother says they made a pact: if one of them beats a woman, they all punish him while they are on expedition. That is why they wanted to punish Aron.”

“Wait,” I say. “I thought he was considered a traitor for leaving to find me, after all of you were taken to Quarantine.”

“That is only half of it,” Hali whispers. Somebody must be close by.

“What happened, Hali?” I ask, gripping her hand. She does not say anything for a moment, just lets out a long sigh.

“I do not think he meant to do it, but Aron struck Riva that day,” she says, lips close to my ear. “Riva would not speak of it except to Saga Idida. I know he was—and is—sorry for what happened, but he betrayed her. He left a few hours before the officers came for us.”

Aron struck Riva. It does not seem like something he would do. Even at his darkest, I do not see him harming her. The fact that he killed his father is strangely easier for me to swallow. That must be why he said Riva knew what he was made of. This family—these people—must stop striking one another.

I do not know him at all, do I? I am compelled to be in his presence, and have been since he first appeared in my dreams, but I have no idea how he came to be the wandering guard who refused to leave my side. I do not know what he likes, or hates, or what he wants most from life. Will I ever see his darkest self, the person he is when reason and morality flee, and all that is left is instinct? Will I know him when his joy lifts him off the ground?

But I do know Aron, in other ways. I have felt the stoic kindness of Aron as nursemaid, the perplexing tease of Aron as a boy, and the meticulous explanations of Aron as guide. The way he breathes and the timbre of his voice are imprinted in my ear. My hands know the scars on his palms. My cheek knows the hollow beneath his shoulder. In truth, I am unsure whether it is better to know someone’s rhythms or their urges. In one way at least, I understand him better than anyone: he is my blood. He has become one of my instincts. How will I be able to move forward with strength if he does not recover? I hate myself for thinking that way but I have to be realistic. If he never gets well, I have to move forward. I cannot cease to function, however tempting. I am the only strength I need. I will lead these people alone.

“Hali, please tell Riva the midday break is over,” I say, unlinking her arm from mine. “I want the most capable Sparks waiting for me in the center of camp. Anyone who does not feel ready to attempt the exercises again may sit out. Everyone else should practice by themselves.”

“Yes, Antista.” Hali squeezes my shoulder and leaves me.

I do not know this person I have become. Solutions come to me too easily, a situation I do not trust. With Achad, keeping him alive was logical. Saving Aron’s life was obvious, and setting up scouts to search for ships was the only course of action. Drawing the Arci officers to us is necessary. And yet I am uneasy, dreaming every night of the horrors we may face, and losing weight again from worrying too much. The answers come, but comfort eludes me.

The Cerani are becoming complacent, on the other hand, and that is a dangerous state of mind. With the exception of Riva, the women have become lax, as if there is no work to be done. Try as she might, Riva cannot convince the men to put their energy into training. Instead, they stoke a fire and talk of moving the encampment. I will not let them sit idly by while their women train rigorously. If they do not train together, they do not survive together.

“You know the Decuriate better than I,” I say, once my Sparks are gathered in the square once more. Riva and Hali flank me, prepared to put any Spark in line who dares to shirk their training. “Each pillar of the ten gods—each star—represents an essential part of ourselves. Just as your life essence is linked to Paria, Ignis is linked to your spark.”

“Ignis is the key,” Riva says. “You must put your trust in Ignis if you wish to strengthen your power. It will not fix any doubts you might have in your own strength, but it will insure that the power is available to you.”

“Hali and Riva have assessed all who claim to have a gift and deem you to be the most capable Sparks. You stand before me because they believe you have the strength to fight, not just spark. Prove them right, and we have a chance at saving the Cerani imprisoned in Quarantine. You are essential. I need you. I myself am not yet capable of controlling a spark. But I am the Eleventh Star. If you do not believe in yourself, at least believe in me when I tell you that you are capable of igniting the world.”

Riva squeezes my hand. “You need not try to inspire them,” she whispers. “I will insure their belief in every trembling atom.”

“Spark Mother,” I say, smiling. “Your pupils.”

Riva clasps my hand. “Join hands in a circle, all of you,” she says. Hali takes my other hand and nothing is said as the others join hands. “This morning all of us were concerned with what we are unable to do. I do not care about that. What can you do? What is your fire?”

A bolt flashes, striking in the center of the circle. Its energy resonates against my skin like rippling water. Several Cerani gasp.

“Do not shy away from it!” Riva demands. “Take example from the Antista.”

I smile. “But I cannot see it!”

“Nevertheless,” Riva says. “It should be felt. Each bolt will be bright. You must not be afraid of your own spark!”

“But what if we strike ourselves?” Someone asks.

“Oris, you must not fear it. Besides, your aim cannot possibly be that precise,” Riva says with amusement coloring her tone. “You will learn. It is much easier to spark a specific point once you are capable of reading the energy surrounding it. If you wish to bring down a spark on yourself, you have to be so attuned to your own rhythms that you spear a bolt through your own heart. Let us hope that desperation will never require that of you.”

“Like it did Vesper,” I say. “Riva, I have an idea. I have learned to navigate my surroundings by using the electric charge around me. What if the others could not use their eyes?”

“You wish me to blindfold them?” Riva asks.

“I wish them to see with something other than their doubts,” I say.

Riva squeezes my hand and releases it. “Hali, please retrieve my blue scrap muslin bag from my tent. It should be under my cot.”

“At one, Spark Mother,” Hali says. Her footsteps trail to Riva’s tent, which sits only a few yards away. Those with a higher status have tents in the inner circle of camp, something I learned from Idida. Hali returns to my side.

“Tie a strip of fabric over your eyes,” Riva says, making her way around the circle. “Not to prevent you from seeing, but to remind you to keep your eyes shut. As the Antista says: I want you to see beyond your doubts. Sense your surroundings with the charged air.”

Though I have been doing that for weeks now, I meditate on the vital signatures of each Spark. Twenty-one of us stand encircled, each with a unique charge pattern. Riva’s is the strongest, an unwavering buzz that envelopes me like a mother’s embrace. Hali’s charge is vibratory and excited, but not smooth like Riva’s signature. The rest are faint; dim inclinations of their dormant chaos. What does my signature feel like?

I focus on my own rhythms. My breathing is shallow; I have not taken a deep breath since before Quarantine. In Q, I learned to be ready for the worst, to jump at a moment’s notice and flee. My body still operates on full blast, but my patterns are new. Here among these frantic hearts, I am softer, golden, and fluid. My bones sing of power. I listen to the rhythm of my heart, pumping whether I urge it to or not. I search for the same vital markers inside my body that I read in others. The spark is inside me, but then, so is the conductor. I create it. I am the fuel it needs to burn. To send up a spark, I must find its origin.

The prickle on my skin is the start, an electric current that runs across the surface and tickles the finite hairs. Deeper still is the blood dance, moving fuel through my organs to make them perform their duties. Inside the blood, cells move together, bumping and colliding, combating invasive bacteria. That endless, frantic movement, that friction and minute power builds through my veins. I focus on drawing that energy into my hands, filling my palms inside and out. My skin prickles and my veins throb. I press my second finger and my thumb together, they way Riva showed me to position my hands for her fire-starting rings. I think of something around me—the pebble Riva’s bolt struck. It is still warm and radiating more than the stones that surround it by the tiniest fraction, but I can feel it.

“Ignis,” I breathe, calling on my companion and friend and drawing energy through a sharp snap of the fingers. A bolt crackles through the humid air, small, but its energy trail is distinct. I did it. I sparked.

“Antista, that was very precise,” Riva says.

“Gratulari,” I say. My hands are numb, but I’m proud of myself. “I would be honored to help others individually, if they wish it.” The words barely leave my lips before several voices speak up.

The rest of the afternoon is full of epiphanies. There is so much joy between all of us as we each find what makes us spark. Not one person walks away from training without showing substantial growth. The most surprising of all is our one male Spark, Darius. He can gather a charge around him strong enough for three women to spark from. It’s amazing to me how vital each person’s strength is. Hali has brilliant aim, just for one. We may have a real shot at saving the imprisoned Cerani, not just my crazed ideas about what we ought to be doing. If all Sparks practice their skill, we will be heard. We will triumph.

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