Wilds, 324 E.V., Centennial 20th - Present day
I wonder if this is how it is to be a newborn baby, so unfamiliar with how to interact with the world around me. Everything I have spent my meager existence trying to understand is gone, and now I have to become acquainted with the world again. I have to learn a new language. Each time one of the Cerani speaks to me, they accompany their discourse with touch. They shuffle their feet as they approach me, speak softly so they do not frighten me, and press their palms to my back to soothe me. I am an infant. They hunt food for me, cut it for me, and sometimes try to feed it to me when I am not strong enough to do it myself. We have been traveling for four days and they do not trust me to sit by the fire alone at night, in case I lean into the flames—as if I lost the ability to feel heat. I only feel heat.
All of my other senses are heightened, too; this is a noisy world. My healing bones are loud, creaking and whining as they repair themselves. The song of my body in pain is a marriage of a low hum and a high whine. Everything is much too loud, though Aron is sure that will cease once my head has healed.
The way other people move has become distinguishable to me, especially the noises their feet produce in the dirt. Riva’s movements are precise and planned, while Aron’s are erratic and short. Speaking of Aron, he smells like the air before a rainstorm, and sometimes sweat because it is so blisteringly hot. I force Aron to bathe each time we make camp. If I have to put up with him carrying me, I do not want to deal with him stinking like an animal. I smell like soap, if I can help it, but I am usually sweaty myself by mid-morning. Aron forces me to drink as much water as I can stand, to make up for how much I sweat out of my body. The moment he sets me down, my hands are occupied with a water pouch, and Aron refuses to move on until it is empty. It is tiring. I spent five years clawing to get out of a cell, and now that I am out, everything is overwhelming. It is less daunting with an ally, but I do not know how to know someone. I have not had any long-term acquaintances in my life. How do I get to know these people who have saved me? How do I trust people I do not know?
I am tired, on the whole. Tired of traveling, and of being carried places. I am not yet strong enough to stand by myself... will I recover if I do not practice? I must say something about this. I do not want to be ungrateful, but then again, it is thanks to Riva that I am sightless. I have not spoken to her in a few days. How do I speak to her about what happened on that plateau, or ask her what she did to me? How did she send me into the stars, and then to the deep pool beyond? What happened to me when the star exploded?
Strangest of all is my imaginary boy Aron, who is no longer imaginary, or boyish. I think about him constantly; who he was in my dreams, who he is now. I try so hard to form a picture of his face in my head, but I do not visualize anything anymore. I remember that his face is angular, and his eyes Cerani green, but I do not remember anything else. His appearance does not matter in the slightest, really. But not remembering bothers me. If I could remember how he looked in my second dream, the kindness in his features that reassured me, I might feel better on the whole. I know him as a being, but nothing about him as a person. It does not help that he is as changeable as the wind. Today, he is irritated. When we stopped for a rest about an hour ago, he deposited me on a rock and disappeared, as far as I know.
We have taken shelter beneath an overhanging outcropping of rocks; the heat exhausts us all, and many of the women are concerned about getting sick from it. If anyone else takes ill, it could push us back several days. I am enough of a burden for them. Aron has not said anything, but I know he tires of carrying me, and of hearing me whine when my injuries flare up. When he is gone, I am embarrassed to ask for assistance, but truly, I cannot untie the simple loops on my coat. I never realized how much I rely on my abdominal muscles to simply lift my arms. It is foolish. I wish I were not so helpless.
I know most of the women’s names now, and I identify them by how they greet me. Oris always announces her name and taps my shoulder. Pera kneels at my side and takes my hand. Emira and Neci both touch my back, so I cannot tell who is whom until they speak; Emira’s deep velvet voice is striking against Neci’s crystalline timbre. The rest make themselves known before touching me, which is much appreciated. Hali does not touch me at all, but she slaps her hands against her thighs as she walks so I hear her approach. A moment ago, I chose Pera to help me get comfortable when my ribs started to get sore. I am not sure where she has gone to; maybe Pera retreated to the safety of a neighboring rock, to watch over me until I need help again. It is a game now; they are all competing to take care of me. If I had to pick a winner, at least for most recognizable approach, I would select Aron, who, at this moment, drags his feet in the dirt and huffs like a child.
“Why have you moved?” he demands as he approaches me.
“I was uncomfortable,” I say, shifting against the rock.
“You could reopen your stomach wounds, Zafre.” Aron plops down beside me.
“Pera helped me. I did not do it by myself,” I say.
“She should not have! Nobody should. You are fragile—”
“I am not going to fall and break another bone. I am not going to cut open my face or bruise something or bleed to death,” I say. “I was not comfortable. That is it.”
Aron does not say anything; he is angry. He insists upon helping me at all times. I want to speak to him about it alone, but we are surrounded by the women and unlikely to leave anytime soon. I do not want to insult him by talking about it in front of his people. These are the only allies I have, Aron most of all. It is strange not to fear the people around me. The absence of fear in my head is alarming, and I often wonder if I should not be more distrusting of them. Then again, they liberated me from Q. One of them gave me a knife and a sheath to hold it in, which I was able to lash around my right calf, with some assistance. No matter what sort of people they turn out to be, I have them to thank for my survival, and for providing me with food and shelter, as we travel to meet up with the rest of the tribe. Tonight, Riva decides we will spend the night under the outcropping.
I spend a lot of time lonely at night, whether or not I am truly by myself. I hate being vulnerable. I hate that they think I am incapable of things I have done instinctively my whole life. Sure, I grew up in Arcis, but I can put spoon to mouth, and I can kill. I can be strong—no, I am strong. I do not know why I am the prodigal daughter, or what they expect of me, but I know how to be strong.
“You have put meat on your bones,” Aron says, several hours after his fit. We sit near the fire, so the night breeze does not make me shiver. Shivering is the worst for healing wounds.
“Our Cerani cooking is doing wonders for you,” he continues. “You look healthier, like your bones are finally being protected. And you are red from the sun, but the color is good for you.” Aron is trying to make conversation because I have been uncharacteristically quiet in the past few hours. I am trying to get more civility out of him. It is almost working.
“I feel better,” I reply. My appetite is small, but I am still managing to get through most of my meals. Tonight dinner consisted of two courses and my stomach is plump from the nourishment.
The Cerani are adept hunters, and we have eaten heartily these three nights. I keep meaning to ask what sort of meat I am being fed, but at the risk of thinking about what I am eating and being disgusted by the answer, I keep my mouth shut. As long as it is not human, I am sated.
“Do your ribs still hurt?” Aron asks.
“It is fair to say that if it is attached to bone, it hurts,” I say. He shifts beside me, leaning against me. I have learned that I have to verify everything out loud; assumption is dangerous when I cannot see what is happening.
“Are you touching me?” I ask. It bothers me, and I do not know why.
“Is that acceptable?” he asks with a lilt in his voice. He breathes shallowly, allowing his words to catch on each breath. A new tactic.
“It is acceptable if you tell me you are going to do so.”
“What if I want to hold you?” He presses closer to me. Heat rises in my cheeks. Always the heat.
“You have to ask,” I say. “Is there anyone else around?”
“No, everyone else is asleep or scouting ahead for food. Are you embarrassed?”
“I have never been embarrassed in my life,” I say, edging away from him. I cannot breathe when he sits so close to me. It is difficult enough with cracked ribs, let alone this... boy. He teases me. I do not like being teased.
“You are embarrassed,” he says, scooting against me again.
“Are you touching me again?” I ask.
“Yes, I am.”
“You did not ask,” I say, folding my arms over my stomach.
“May I please sit beside you, so my arm touches your arm?” He asks, mockingly.
“No,” I reply. “You may not.”
“Very well.” He scoots away from me and says little else.
Aron is different than the boy I met in my dreams. He is neither the tumultuous savage nor the gentle teacher. He is pushy. He is arrogant. His voice has a soothing effect on me, but then he ruins it by mocking me. He carries me, cares for me, and then berates me. We have truly been in each other’s presence for only four days and he acts as if we are lifelong acquaintances. Sometimes he patiently speaks to me, entrusting me with his moment-to-moment observations about the lands we are travelling. Other times, he barks orders at me. He makes my skin electric and hot in a way that is not unpleasant, but sometimes he makes me feel like a pebble under his foot. One moment he is angry with me, the next he is proud of me for how much I have healed. I do not know why he does this, why he sits in silence now, or why he pushed me about the touch issue. He is not supposed to be like this.
I rest my head on the rock behind me; the bandage cushions it somewhat, but my head still aches. It is too heavy for my neck. Aron says it is because the muscles in my torso are healing and once they are strong again, they will support my back, which will support my neck and head. I wish they would heal overnight; I am tired of being an invalid.
“Zafre?” Aron asks. I wish I could read his eyes so I could better understand him. It is unfair that he sees mine; nothing is hidden when you see in someone’s eyes.
I do not reply. I do not want to. I am a bit tactless since losing my eyesight, but I do not know how I will properly communicate with someone who is not honest with me. His energy is strange, almost nervous. Not that nervous people are not trustworthy, but perhaps Aron is not trustworthy when he is nervous.
I am close to sleep when it happens. I freeze, and then—Aron presses his lips to mine. I panic and adrenaline powers through me. I twist, shove him against the rock with my forearm to his neck, yank my knife from the sheath on my calf, and press the flat edge to his throat. Prickles of pain shoot through my stomach, but I ignore them.
“There are many things you may have without asking. Death is one,” I seethe, pressing the serrated blade against his major vein. He does not flinch.
“But, you will not take advantage of me in any way. The fact that I cannot see you does not mean my will is meaningless,” I say. I lean closer to him, until I hear his short gasping breaths. “If you ever take something I am not willing to give, I will slit your throat.”
“Understood,” he breathes.
I sheath my knife and sit back against the rock. It is a relief to show my strength without spilling any blood, but I am disturbed that Aron is more similar to his first dream incarnation than I realized.
Minutes pass, and neither of us speak. I have nothing to say. I am proud of myself, but overwhelmed by the prospect of never being truly at ease around others. Unless I find a constant and trustworthy companion to detail every inch of my surroundings until the day I die, I may always teeter on the brink of betrayal. I will be at the mercy of other humans. Yes, I trust the Cerani, but Aron makes me uneasy.
I place my hands over my stomach bandage. I should not have lunged at him.
“I dreamed about you,” Aron says. The tone of his voice is uneven and pained. “We were in the wilds, before Arcis was ever built. You came to me that first time and I did not know what to make of you. You have those green eyes like Cerani, but you are lithe like someone who has been in captivity; you belong to both, or neither. You told me you needed a guide to the stars.” His voice is tortured.
“The next time, you were seeking a deep pool. Then, the moon. Every time you came to me you needed something more, and I was the only person who could help you. And then I began to go to you in my dreams, back to the wilds, but I was not myself. First I tested your strength, and then your memory. Last, I went to your cell, when the man tried to take your life, and by then I was so attuned to the rhythm of you that I realized I might not ever find peace if I did not seek you out. I left my tribe behind to search for the place you might be kept, and I did not know if you were real, or the best imagined companion I had ever dreamed of. I attached so much of my existence to yours that if you turned out to be a figment of my dreams, I would have turned to dust.” Aron pauses a long while.
He yearns for a connection with me, this I know. For me to remember those dreams of his, to say I needed to find him too. But I only remember two strange encounters, one of which made me long for closeness—while the other made me hope I would not encounter him. He is so attached to me, as if I have been his lifeline, instead of the confusing interactions I recall. And he is a stranger to me, more strange than true. He believes he must know me in order to live.
“Understand that I am conflicted to know you do exist,” he says, finally.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because you are different than I imagined you would be,” he says with a sigh. He shifts the way he is sitting but I cannot immediately tell how. Then, his voice comes closer to the ground. “And now that I have found you, I have to return to face judgment for my crimes, the least of which is desertion.”
“You did not desert them—”
“I left the day these women were taken to Quarantine. I thought maybe in the frenzy of the selection, nobody would notice I had gone,” he says, “But there was an altercation with a few of the officers and two Cerani men were killed. I deserted them. I pass that judgment on myself, but that is not half as bad as my worst offense.”
“What will they do to you?” I ask.
“If I am lucky, they will spare me for helping to find you.”
“If you are not?”
Aron shifts in the dirt again, which I expect means he is postured himself facing away from me. “I will be killed. Perhaps, if they are merciful, it will be you who carves my heart from my chest while I still live. If it means your face is the last one I see, so be it.”
My skin crawls at the thought of being the one to kill him. Yes, my knife was just at his throat, but threatening someone’s life and taking it are two different things. “I would not agree to kill you,” I say, clasping my fingers together to still my shaking hands.
“You would do it if you knew what I have done,” he says.
“You do not know me, then,” I say. “I am not an executioner.”
“So very different than I imagined,” he breathes, a thought I not sure I was meant to hear, and one I do not understand. I do not like knowing he has imagined me in such a way, that I could carve out his heart for deserting his tribe.
“You are different than I imagined as well,” I say.
“How so?” he asks.
“The first time I dreamed about you, you tried to kill me.”
“It was a test,” Aron replies. “And, as I recall, you passed. You almost killed me.”
“I enjoyed it a bit,” I say, but I instantly wish I had not said anything. I do not like him knowing so much of my inner thoughts. “Why do you know what I have dreamed?”
Aron shifts and I bristle. “I am going to sit up, but I will not touch you, all right?”
I nod. He sits up, shuffling so I know exactly where he is.
“I have Sight,” he explains. “I am not proficient, but I see a lot in my dreams. This has happened to me before—where I dream the same things as somebody else. I assume you also have Sight.”
“How could I have Sight? I am not Cerani,” I say.
“Maybe someone in your family was. It was not uncommon for Cerani to unite with people from Arcis, as recently as ten years ago. You could be part Cerani.”
“How do I find out?” I ask. As far as I know, my family has lived in Arcis for generations. I am the first to leave, even if I only made it to Quarantine. No—I escaped. I am no longer Arci, or a prisoner.
“If you are Cerani or if you have Sight?” Aron asks.
“I have been patient for five years,” I sigh. I never imagined life outside of Quarantine because I did not want to yearn for it. I did not want to hope for events I might not see, or dwell on something I cannot change. Now that I am out and having to experience everything through my fingertips, it is cruel that I can neither alter my luck nor see the lands around me.
“Wait—can I have Sight if I am blind?” I ask.
“I do not know,” Aron says.
“Maybe I did have Sight before, but I lost it along with my eyesight.” I am not sure why, but this saddens me greatly. The thought that I was capable of such abilities and I did not even know it... and now they are gone. I pinch the bridge of my nose. Wetness pearls at the corner of my eye and the beaded tear drops onto my cheek. I swipe under my eye with my finger. My cheek is uneven—scarred. I follow the indent from my cheekbone up to my forehead.
“Aron? What happened to my face?” I ask, turning towards him.
He is silent for a moment. “When you were struck, it scarred you.”
“What scarred me?”
“The lightning,” he says. “During the ritual.”
“I was not struck by lightning, I was hit by an exploding star, and it certainly did not hit my face,” I say.
“Zafre, what do you think happened to you?”
“I went up into the sky, and then... there was a pool with ten stars and I took one and it exploded, and then... I fell out of the sky, and all the stars exploded as I fell past them.”
“Ten stars... Zafre, you saw the Decuriate! I am sorry, I am going to take your hand,” he says.
“All right,” I say, but I am confused. Aron takes my hand and links his fingers with mine. “Does that mean I have Sight?”
“It means you are the person Riva believes you are,” he says. “Nobody sees the Decuriate. I mean, Vesper saw them, and some Cerani have seen them in the past, but if you saw them, you have considerable power.”
“The Decuriate... that is what I saw in the pool?”
“It sounds exactly like what Vesper described,” he says.
“Oh,” I breathe. My head is throbbing. I cannot think. I am one of two people alive who saw what I saw in the sky and apparently that means I am... I do not need to deal with this today. This is too much. “I am going to sleep.”
“No, Aron,” I say. “You may help me up and walk with me, but I can do it. No more carrying me.”
“All right,” he says.
I move to stand but Aron still holds my hand. “May I have my hand back?”
“Sorry.” He unlaces his fingers from mine and drops my hand. I lean forward, testing my body’s response. My ribs twinge, and my stomach too, but not unbearably so. I shift my feet beneath me.
“All right. Now you may help me stand,” I say.
Aron grasps my elbow and loops his arm behind my back. He lifts me, allowing me to place my feet on the ground and test them. I truly have not stood unaided in several days. Aron bears most of my weight.
“Down,” I instruct.
Reluctantly, he sets me on my feet. My knees shake but I stay up. My right leg aches.
“Where am I sleeping tonight?” I ask. Each night of our journey, Aron has created a makeshift cot for me. He told me Cerani journeys usually include tents and a plethora of supplies because they are nomadic people, but we have to make do with stolen cloaks from Q and whatever the women manage to find in our surroundings. Despite being without those supplies, these people are masters of the land.
“I have prepared a cot for you as far out of the wind as possible,” Aron says.
“Which way is it?” I ask.
“Take a half turn to the right and walk forward. I will walk beside you on your left, in case you need to lean on me.”
Walking is a new form of sight. One of the women gave me sandals, but I have no intention of wearing them. I will not be able to tell what is beneath my feet. Besides that, my legs are weak still, and my abdomen unhappy to bear my weight. I do not tell Aron; he will only worry. As Aron and I walk towards my cot, pebbles dig into my feet but I memorize the shape of the granules. Rounded stones mixed with soft dust. The stones are getting finer as we travel further from Q.
“Stop here,” Aron says. “Twelve paces from the campfire. It is right in front of you.”
“I completely forgot to count. Thank you,” I say. “Ah, I mean, gratulari.”
“Welcome,” he says.
“Most people would not stick around after someone’s held a knife to their throat,” I say. I am not apologizing, but still: the fact that he did not leave me is... interesting.
“You would be surprised how often that happens to me,” Aron says.
“Considering the fight you put me through in our first encounter, I am not surprised in the least.” I should not have said that. I am too hard on him, too defensive.
“I am nothing like that, Zafre,” he says, and I cringe.
“I know.” I crouch down until I grasp my usual cloak mattress.
“Hey... I am sorry about the... kiss. That was not right.”
I do not turn back towards him. “I know I am important to you in some way; I am not about to ignore the dreams. But we have much to learn about one another.”
“Agreed,” Aron says. “By the way, your scar is not that noticeable. It is fascinating, though.”
“Thanks,” I say, raising an eyebrow. “I think.”
I nod and lay on the cloak. It smells like Aron. And it is comforting, in a terrifying way. As his footsteps retreat, I let out a breath that I feel like I have been holding for hours. I have something new to meditate on as I fall asleep, and it has nothing to do with feral boys: ten extinguished stars at the bottom of the pool, and what they want with me.