Zafirah in the Wild

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Chapter 21

Cerani Encampment, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 31

The chanting is soft at first, like distantly rumbling thunder. Then it grows, riding the gusts of wind and swirling around the encampment so swiftly that no one voice stands apart from the rest. Instead, they meld together as one, resonant call, singing the cry that has become so much more than a prophecy.

“Se, verum oculus! Se, verum oculus! Se, verum oculus!” They chant as if keening at their own burial: solemn, and yet with conviction. I emerge from the tent to greet my thunder, and the sight astounds me. My entire tribe kneels before my tent, and all hair has been shorn from their heads. Hali clasps hands with the woman beside her, Marek perhaps. Aron steps to my left as the chanting ceases all at once. This is not just my tribe, this is a body of one, so in tune to our purpose that they breathe as one body.

They wait in silence for me to speak.

I wait for the right words.

“I never thought I would see all of you together like this,” I begin. “Some of my sight has returned to me, though I know not by what power.”

“The Decuriate is good!” a voice shouts, and others voice their agreement.

I smile and hold up my hands to silence them.

“Gratulari, friends,” I say. “But now we must consider our duty, and split into two forces. The Sparks will travel with me to Quarantine, to free the rest of our people. Aron will lead the rest to Arcis, to liberate the city. It is my hope that you all understand the necessity of freeing the Arci, but if you cannot support me in this matter, you may stay behind. I ask any such person to step forward now.”

Not one person stands, then.

“All of you will be in danger,” Aron says. “If you are unwilling to lay down your life, you may step forward now.”

Only one stands this time. Saga Idida.

“I beg your forgiveness, Antista,” she begins. “But who will watch over the children if all are gone?”

“Indeed, Saga Idida. Is it your wish to stay behind with the children?” I ask.

“With all my heart,” she says.

“You may step out of formation,” I say. She smiles at me and removes herself from the troupe before me.

“If any other person has a reason to remain with the camp,” I say, “it is your right. Stand now.”

The rest are still. I am so full with pride that I cannot do other than laugh.

“Sparks, take up your packs,” I command, and I am not disappointed when my troupe stands. There are only twenty Sparks, but after seeing them fall into formation with the rest of the tribe, I am certain they will be more than adequate. Each draws her hood over her shorn head (or his, in Darius’ case), and shoulders their own supplies.

Hali kisses Marek and leaves her behind to join my ranks, and I am struck by how foolish it is to worry about bidding Aron farewell. My Cerani bid their partners and cherished ones farewell with unashamed affection. Several of them are tearful, but none are ashamed.

“Antista, I have readied a pack for you,” Hali says, stepping forward. She is grasping a canvas pack not unlike her own. Aron touches my shoulder and I turn to him.

“Just do not die,” he says.

“Same to you,” I say, swallowing hard. He raises an eyebrow when I do not turn away. “I feel selfish,” I whisper. “I want you to come with me.”

“I will see you in a few days,” Aron says. “Do you think you can bear it?”

I cannot help but smile, but my cheeks are hot under the expectant eye of my Sparks. Pushing away the embarrassment, I grasp his lapels and push myself up onto my tiptoes. “Farewell,” I say, pressing my lips to his. When I pull back, his shining eyes crinkle.

“Farewell, Z.”

I step away from him, prepared to face twenty impatient Sparks. When I turn to my troupe, Hali covers her mouth to mask a smile, and several of them look down. I straighten and slide my hood over my head. It’s time to focus beyond myself, now. I step forward to meet Hali, impatient to get on the road. The sooner Q is liberated, the sooner I will meet Aron again at the gate of Arcis. Life will commence, then, once we pull the city to the ground.

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