Cerani Encampment, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 32
Nothing is better than the first thing I behold as my eyes open. And it is wonderful because of what it means, and because I have yearned to see it since I first dreamed of it all those days ago. Aron’s face. His eyes are trained on mine with empty focus, as if, in his diligence to watch over me, his hopes for my recovery gave way to despair. From his perch on a short stool, he looks fragile. He holds my hand, desperately clinging to my pulse, which quickens as his thumb trails over my wrist. A spark of realization flickers deep inside those electric greens.
I am awake. His diligence has not been in vain.
The corners of his mouth turn up and he closes his eyes, pressing his forehead to my hand. A thankful, weighty breath escapes his lips. I cannot help but smile; his stoic pallor is stripped away. This is the Aron I have longed to see, the person who remains when all pretenses are gone. His temple rests against our clasped hands. How strange that anyone should be so relieved at my survival.
I have ached to remember his face as it was in my dreams, but this Aron, the true wild boy, is different than I saw him. He is angular, but softly featured. His hair is still a mess of black strands, but it is been lightened by the sun, and it is much longer than it was in either dream. It is course and thick, too, but also gently waved. Aron breathes deeply, as if trying to stave off tears. I graze my fingers along his crown. He looks up at me, eyes shining. I have seen nothing better than that light in Aron’s eyes. The rest of his face is haggard, drawn by many hours of worry on inadequate sleep. I could not be happier to see it.
The sights around me are overwhelming. Green canvas stretches overhead on a wooden frame, while the wax of globular candles melts outward onto the table beside my cot. I am dressed in a blue robe made of tightly woven linen. Vesper’s tunic was stained with Riva’s blood; I felt it stick against my stomach. I imagine someone must have changed me out of my grandmother’s clothing while I was unconscious, and it was probably Aron. It is unlikely he would have allowed another to care for me if he was able. A stream of light filters in through the canvas flap, casting a yellow beam on Aron’s sleeve. Aron is cloaked in a long sleeved jacket with a hood, which softens his angular face. He is younger than I thought he’d be, but no less fierce.
“You survived it,” he whispers. “No one has ever survived. Not Vesper, not anyone.”
“I do not want to speak of that just now,” I say. “There is something better.”
Aron kneels beside my cot, clutching my hand to his chest. “That man is dead.”
“I am glad of it, but that is not what I mean.” I smile. A worry line forms at his brow and I smooth it with my thumb, tracing around his temple to his cheek.
“I can see you, Aron.”
He leans close to my face, studying my eyes. “You can?”
“You look like you might pass out,” I say, brushing his cheek. “And like you have not slept in a few days.”
A smile fills his entire face and he closes his eyes in embarrassment. “I slept yesterday. I had to watch over you.”
“No, you did not,” I say. “But thank you.”
“I did not know what else to do. Besides, you took care of me after my lashing,” he says, removing my hand from his cheek and linking our fingers. “Truly, I was afraid that you would slip away and I would not be there when it happened. Of all my fears, that is, perhaps, the greatest.”
“A fear you will not face today,” I say.
“How is it possible that your sight has returned?” He asks, squeezing my hands.
I shake my head. “The lightning, the Decuriate, my mother... I do not know,” I say. “But by some power, I have some sight. Everything further than an arm’s length is blurry, however.”
“It might always be,” he says.
“But at least I see you,” I finish.
Aron pulls my hand to help me sit up and wraps his arms around me. I grip his shoulders, relishing the warm comfort of his care. Though I have questioned their methods from the start, the Cerani have taken care of me like family. Like one of them, especially Aron and Riva. The thought of Riva’s death steals my breath and I press my cheek to Aron’s chest, gasping deeply to keep from crying.
“Riva,” I whisper.
“I sent a burial party out with my mother’s body. She would have wished to be interred in the bay,” he says, and a gentle hand strokes my back. “We could have used those men—”
“No,” I say, cupping his cheek. “It is the way.”
“All are willing to fight, Z,” he says. “They have all woken up. They know what is at stake, and they will follow you into battle.”
“Will they follow you as well?” I ask.
Aron shifts, holding me away from his chest so he can look at my face. “What?”
“We must mount simultaneous attacks; a rescue party to Quarantine, and another to initiate the liberation of Arcis,” I say. “I want you to lead the rescue party.”
“I will help however I can,” he says, “but it must be you who rescues the Cerani in Quarantine. You have proved your mettle with the standing tribe, but those still imprisoned know nothing about you. I am sure some of them have heard your name whispered in a dream, or saw Vesper’s display at the least, but you have not given them a reason to follow you. If I liberate them, chances are good that they will not agree to help the Arci. It must come from you. You are the Spark Mother, now.”
“I am so many things,” I say, looking at my hands. My nails are clean. Someone also must have bathed me while I was unconscious. I’m sure Aron is to thank for that, but the thought makes my cheeks hot. I try to quell the rising embarrassment, hoping he won’t notice. If he does, he doesn’t say a word about it.
“You are alive and sighted to start,” Aron says.
“Thank the Decuriate for that.”
“I have.” He smiles. “I am not saying I am completely sold, but when I asked them to save you in a moment of desperation, I was not disappointed. I cannot ignore that sort of divine intervention.”
“You meditated for me?” I ask.
“I did not just meditate,” he says.
He is too much for me, and I am overwhelmed. Aron is wonderful. He is stubborn and sometimes rude and much too honest, but his virtues are too numerous to count. If I am ever parted from Aron, I may not survive. I do not know how to breathe without him. There is much to say.
“You told me a few days ago,” I begin, “that you had something to say to me. About needing me.”
“You told me to wait,” he says, smiling.
“I do not want you to wait any more.”
Aron raises an eyebrow and brushes my cheek with his fingers. “If that’s what you want,” he says. “I need you, Z.”
I smile. “That much I gathered.”
“Would you like me to elaborate?” He asks.
“Please,” I say, trying to squash the urge to laugh.
“All right,” he says. Aron clears his throat. “You are... infuriating. You make my crazy! I have never met anyone more stubborn than you—”
“You are worse!” I exclaim.
“Shhh,” he says, pressing a finger to my lips. “You may tell me what is wrong with me when I am finished.”
I roll my eyes and he grins.
“Go on,” I say.
“You are reckless. Every time I turn around, you are in a different mood.”
“You really like me, huh?” I ask, smiling. He looks down at his other hand where it rests beside my knee. He circles a finger on the cotton weave, just above my kneecap. When he speaks again, his voice wavers, and his face is stoic.
“The world bows to you, Z. And you do not ask it to, but the wind bends around you.” He looks up at me. “The night comes because you are tired, and the sun rises because you have plans to make.” Aron cups my cheek and I shiver under the intensity of his gaze. “My bones rattle when you are hurt. I bruise when you bruise. Even when you could not see me, you still looked me straight in the eye. You made me ashamed for kissing you that first time, and not because I should not have wanted to, but because you demanded my respect. I never want to let you down again, but I want to argue with you when I am wrong. I want to bear your worries. I want to protect you and be protected by you. You are Prima of my molecules.”
I wrinkle my nose at the last sentiment, in order to hide the flood of joy at his words.
“What?” he asks, face falling.
“The Prima bit was too far,” I say.
He chuckles, a full and deeply-rooted laugh that shakes us both. “Is that all you have to say?” Aron asks. I chase an errant hair from the stubble on his cheek. He captures my hand there, and I dance my thumb along his cheekbone. I don’t know how to reply to that kind of declaration.
“You put into words what I could not,” I manage.
“You opened the door,” he says.
“When you saved me from being killed, and you told Riva that I was your blood for the first time,” Aron says. “That statement alone was all I needed to hear, even if you would not admit it fully to me.”
“I had not made sense of it myself. I do not know how to... need someone else.”
“There is a Cerani saying for that,” he says.
“There always is,” I laugh.
“The unknown need,” I say.
“Exactly,” he says.
“And now it is known.”
“Indeed,” Aron says with a grin. He releases my hand from his cheek, but studies the raised veins on my wrist. He presses his lips to the tender skin. “Sanguine meo.”
I am overjoyed by the intimate gesture. “What shall I call you now that it is known?”
“You do not wish to use my given name?” he asks, amused.
“I wish to call you something only I may use,” I say.
“A familiar title?”
“I do not have one,” he says.
“Think of something,” I insist.
“You could call me servus.”
“Servant?” I guess. He grins. “I think not.”
“I will remember that,” Aron says. “I do not know, Z. You will have to choose for me.”
“I could call you what you called me in that terrible dream.”
“What did I—oh. Sweetling?” He wrinkles his nose. “I beg you, anything but sweetling.”
I laugh. “It is hard to put a name to it. And though it is true, calling you my blood is...”
“Gruesome?” he offers.
“Yes.” I smile. “I suppose shall call you Aron, then.”
“Zafirah,” he says. He pulls my hand to his lips. Despite the exhausted red of his eyes, I do not remember having seen such a look of peace in them. He brushes the side of my head. The hairs prickle and the sensation makes me shiver. It is been a long time since Idida took care of my ragged hair; it is grown out into a tickly shadow.
“After all you have done for me, especially what I suspect you did while I was unconscious, may I ask one more thing?” I ask.
“My hair is too long.” I say.
“Would you like me to cut it for you?” he asks.
“If it is not too much trouble.”
“Certainly I will,” Aron says. “If you trust me.”
“I trust you.” I tilt my chin up to reassure him. His shoulders are humbly slumped; I know how tired he must be. I shift to my knees to smooth the vein that runs down his forehead. A new tension grips him; his jaw is set. He stops my hand at his temple and leans into it.
Aron is spent. For weeks, he has ignored his own needs, and I know that. Perhaps the only time he has thought of himself in a long time was when he decided to seek me out. He has given me all of his strength; I cannot be sure that he would have eaten on our journey if we had not taken our meals together. He must have sacrificed sleep as well. I have asked yet another task of him, and he is weighed down by it, whether or not he knows it.
“What do you need?” I whisper.
He shakes his head and smiles. “Nothing.”
“Yes, there is something, I know it,” I say.
“No,” he says. “Just Z.”
“Here I am.” I grasp his cheeks between my hands. He looks at me with a coloring of humor behind his eyes.
“And now you see me,” he says, as if no one ever has. Maybe it is true; when he killed his father, the Cerani saw Aron through a pitying glass, and then through Riva’s torment, and last, perhaps the truest view of all, they saw him through my need. It is true, he is everything that I have drilled into the Cerani’s heads: honorable, loyal, and wise. He’s also grieving. I too grieve for Riva, but I cannot experience what he feels. I can only hold him, as I have wanted to do since I first learned of his parentage, when I realized that he is not like his savage dream self. This Cerani boy is still unknown to me in many ways, but at least he too has troubles. I do not know why that is comforting. Perhaps we have so strong a bond because he too understands the pain of betrayal. Humans who know pain recognize suffering in others. He is suffering, though too stubborn to say. He has eased my worries, and now I must share in his.
His bottom lip disappears behind his teeth; another worried tick. I want to take that worry away, if I can. He breathing becomes shallow as he watches me watch his lips.
“May I?” I say, flicking my gaze up to his eyes. He nods, releasing his bottom lip.
I fit my lips to his. Sliding into his kiss is electric like no spark I have ever felt. My lips have touched his before, but this is the culmination of his worry and my relief—a shared healing. He matches my vigor, eclipsing that desperate peck from our first days and burning it out of my memory. I am breathless. My hands cannot decide if they want to cling to his shirt or grasp his cheeks for fear he should pull back. He cradles my head instead, holding me against his chest with his other arm as he stands up, only to match my kneeling position on the cot. Aron’s lips meet mine in... gratitude. I feel honored, not as the One, True Eye, but as his blood. There is no word for the solace of his upturned mouth as he smiles against my lips. He sits back on his heels and I rise up on my knees to stay connected. His hair is the anchor for my desperate fingers. Stay close, stay close, stay close, they urge. I do not want to stop, but I must breathe. I pull away from his lips enough to speak.
“Your worries are mine,” I say.
Aron looks up at me. Nothing more need be said between us now; what was left has been said wordlessly. He smiles as a boy, looking at once younger and livelier than I have ever seen him. I delight in the crinkling skin beside his eyes, touching my lips to his temple. Aron’s arms wind around my waist and his cheek finds a home beneath my collarbone. This is our new language: touch.
“How about that haircut?” he asks, voice muffled by my tunic.
“Yes,” I laugh. “I nearly forgot.”
“Sit. I will be careful.”
“I trust you,” I say, for the tenth time, though I no longer have to prove it.
He disentangles his limbs from mine and positions me so I am sitting on the edge of the cot. I realize then that he is barefoot, which is odd for him. I can usually hear him coming a mile away because of his boots. Another construct of his worry, I suppose. It is as if worry pulled him apart and scattered his sense of self. The artifice of the protector is gone. All that is left is his true identity, and that person is wholly giving.
Aron sits on his stool. He pours water from my water pouch into his palm and drips it on my scalp, water sliding through the errant shadow and trickling onto my neck. I shiver and wipe it with my sleeve. With a flick, he unsheathes his knife from its lashing around his thigh. The blade glints in the light from the candles, and though I once would have shied away, I bow my head for him. The process takes him much longer than it took Idida, but he is thorough. I trust his knife and his fingers that do not shake. The sharp tool glides across my skin, and when it comes time to trim around my branching scar, Aron kneels before me.
“You do not have to cut one hair at a time,” I laugh.
“Just being careful,” he says with a smile, concentrating on the edge of my hairline.
“Aron?” A timid voice calls from outside the tent. “Is she awake?”
“Come and see,” he replies.
A petite woman enters the tent wearing similar garments to Aron. Her head is also shaved to the skin. She smiles towards me but does not look me in the eye. She thinks I am still blind.
“It is Hali, Antista,” she says.
“Hali, of course!” I say, stretching out a hand to her.
“Sit still for a few more moments,” Aron warns, holding his knife away from my head.
“Sorry,” I say. He shakes his head as Hali sits beside me.
Aron finishes the last of his shearing, sheathes his knife, and wipes an errant water droplet from my cheek. I want his hand to linger but he stands and I remember that there is still an entire tribe to consider. We did not discuss what we ought to do around other Cerani. I do not see the harm in showing affection, but I also have no idea what is acceptable. Wait—I am the Antista! I may show affection to whomever I please, and I can make rules about it. No, that is too extreme, but I can take Aron’s hand if I want to, and I do. His back is mostly to Hali when my fingers slide into his and he smiles, raising an eyebrow. He squeezes my hand once and releases it again. One nod to Hali from him and I realize that I have been inconsiderate. I give her my attention.
“Hali, was there something you wanted to say?” I ask, placing my hand on her arm. Perhaps they would not regard my being affectionate with Aron if I embrace everyone more often. I must remember to do that.
“We are ready for you out there, Antista,” Hali says. “If you are prepared to travel so soon after awaking, your tribe will follow you.”
“To travel?” I ask, looking up at Aron.
“Your tribe was busy while you were asleep,” he says. “Every able-bodied Cerani has been training. I hope you do not mind that I made the call without you, but I wanted to be prepared to start our attack the moment you awoke.”
“I do not mind,” I say, shocked. “I am impressed. When do we leave?”
“As soon as you address the tribe, and explain the plan we discussed,” Aron says.
“And travel supplies?” I ask, glancing from Hali to Aron.
“Sparse supplies have been prepared,” Hali says. “Each committed traveler has been instructed to pack only what they can carry on their back.”
“We are going to see combat,” Aron says, “so we do not want to be lugging the entire encampment with us.”
“We can likely make Quarantine in six days if we cut through the gorge,” Hali says, “but we will not be able to pitch tents on the rock. Everyone will merely use a bedroll, which means less to carry.”
“And we have some weapons that were stolen off the air ship, so several people who do not have the advantage of being Sparks will be carrying those as well, to be used only under direct orders from me,” Aron says. “On top of all that, I have blueprints of Arcis and surrounding land that show multiple entrances. The central gate is not the only way to get into the city. There are drainage canals and an extensive sewer system, as well as several side gates that are meant to be used for emergency evacuation.” Aron smiles. “We are prepared.”
“How did you obtain blueprints?” I ask, stunned.
“Stole them. From the ship, when it landed outside the camp. That is why I was not in the square when—” He stops and swallows hard. I nod.
“What will we do for food?” I ask Hali.
“We will catch it on the road,” she says.
“Those of us going to Arcis directly have packed dried foods for the deserted portion of the journey, as well as water pouches,” Aron says.
“Who is going to Arcis directly?” Hali asks. I am reminded that the tribe does not yet know of my grand plan to liberate the city.
“Anyone who does not identify as a Spark,” I say. She appears pleased that her place beside me is firm, and I am relieved to have allies.
“All will be revealed when Zafre addresses the tribe,” Aron says, and Hali nods.
“I will leave you, then.” Hali clasps my shoulder and stands.
“Gratulari, Hali,” I say. She smiles and exits the tent. I watch the tent flap swing closed and relish the marriage of the sound I have memorized with the visual. Never again will I take my sight for granted. When I turn back to Aron, he is pouring water over his own head.
“Did you forget to bathe while I was asleep?” I laugh.
He sits up and shakes his head, flicking me with water. “I did not forget. It is my turn to be shorn, Prima Zafirah.” Aron grins as he turns the handle of his knife towards me.
“Do not call me that,” I say, grasping the knife. “They will think I want it.”
“You are my Prima,” he says, kneeling between my feet. He braces his elbows on my legs and bows his head.
“All right,” I say, smiling at his bowed head.
I do not remember so intimate a gesture as shearing another being’s head. The blade at the end of my fingers could end his life if the wrong side kisses the skin. Each curve of the knife must be meticulous and calculated, but also gentle, following all the strange hills and ridges that form the skull. Aron’s brown hairs fall through my fingers and dance along the dirt to the swaying movement of the breeze. I turn his head to one side to reach along his nape and behind his ear, and then the other side follows. His hair is difficult to shear at the crown, where it swirls in a deceptively gentle coil; deceptive, because his hair is coarse and thick, and just the sort of hair that ought not to be gentle. But it is, and he is, and when I am finished, his head is as bare as my own.
“Done,” I say, placing his knife on the table beside the cot.
Aron stands and holds out his hands to me. I grasp his outstretched palms and stand slowly, allowing my legs to remember my weight again. I am strong, and not because I see again or because of Aron.
“I am meant to be here,” I say.
“You are.” Aron cups my cheeks. “Are you ready to meet your tribe?”
“I know them.”
“Not like this,” he says, smiling.
“Aron, for the sake of parting ways, we ought to say goodbye now,” I say, swallowing the lump in my throat. “I do not want us to be under scrutiny out there, to draw focus from the goal.”
“A better life is our goal, Zafre. A show of tenderness will not distract anyone,” he says.
I grasp the front of his coat and pull him close. “I do not know if I will keep my composure in front of the tribe. This could be the last time I ever see you—”
“You do not know that.”
“We must say it now, when nobody is watching, when it is only us to hear it,” I say.
Aron closes his hands over mine. “Vale, Zafirah. Farewell. Sleep under the stars that ordained you for this purpose, and when you must fight, fight for this.” He presses his lips to my forehead and I want to cry. “I will meet you at the gate of Arcis with every citizen at my back waiting to welcome you, Prima of both races.”
“Just do not die,” I whisper.
“Do not laugh about this, Aron!”
“I am sorry,” he says, twisting his face to keep from smiling. “You are serious, and I know that. But I am too full of joy to be serious, Z.” He grazes his thumb across my bottom lip.
“Forgiven,” I say.
This time, Aron is the first to lean in. I happily meet his lips once more and he steps backwards to steady himself. Aron’s arms fit behind my back like they were made to hold me and the curves of his lips make me whole. He is the first, the only.