Freedom is a flash away
But with only ragged ash
and broken legs
He forgets how to run.
Chiqu breaks into a run. “We have to move!” she shouts. “A sandstorm is coming! Sviros is the only place we’ll be safe from it!”
It happened so quickly. Icestorms usually have some kind of warning before, whether a damp smell in the air or dark rolling clouds in the distance. Sandstorms, it seems, are more sudden.
But even through the roaring of the approaching storm, I can hear the sounds of life from the city ahead. Sounds I only heard once before, when Mara showed it to me.
To the left, I can see a placid lake stretching away to the left, peppered with countless merchant ships flying a dozen different flags. Several thin arms of sparkling water reach out far to the sea.
Just as it did when the ship approached the cliffs at Jagas, anticipation builds in my chest, only more intense. There will be so many people. So many faces trying to talk to me, to know my name and where I’m from. Maybe suspicious eyes, since I’m clearly from Jagas, and refugees were banned by the Assembly.
I can’t take my eyes off the spiraling staircases that wind up the spikes of clay, the immensity of the glistening towers in the distance, at the center of the town. The smaller buildings with flat roofs lay close and clustered. Some are ruddy and plain, but many have been decorated with bright fabric and flickering torches. The dusty streets are narrow and long, and there are so many of them spreading out from the wide center road I begin to wonder how big this place is.
“It’s the night of the Enlightenment Festival,” Juase explains to me, nearly shouting over the clamor. He doesn’t bother explaining why Sviros is celebrating.
Chiqu leads us up to a tall arch that stands in front of the square buildings of the city. I count ten guards standing beneath it, chattering and laughing amiably with each other. When they catch sight of us, their conversations fall silent. “What are you doing?” one of them barks, squinting from Chiqu to Juase to the rest of us. “No immigrants from Jagaser. The Assembly—”
“I know perfectly well what the Assembly ordered,” Chiqu interrupts smoothly. “I’m under their command to bring these Jagaser to the city. If you like, we can request a meeting with them.”
The guard looks nervous, shifting his feet and wringing his hands, them wiping the beading sweat from his brow. “I…erm…” he stutters, unable to come up with a retaliation and glancing back at the other guards. Chiqu arches her eyebrows smugly.
One of them steps forward to his aid. “No exceptions,” she informs us. “We can’t let you in unless you prove you’re not breaking the Assembly’s orders.” She eyes us suspiciously, as if expecting one of us to try to sneak past her.
“You’re trespassing if we let you in,” the first guard adds. “You need to leave, or we’ll have to…to….” He trailed off, perhaps forgetting what he was supposed to do with trespassers. The second guard scowls at him, then turns back to Chiqu, waiting for an answer.
“Fine,” Chiqu agrees, shrugging. “Let’s go. Take me to the Assembly, if they’re holding a meeting now.”
The guard begins to lead the way through the arch, then turns back sharply. “They can’t come,” she says, gesturing to Sarofa, Mehild and me. “They’ll have to wait outside until we get confirmation that they’re allowed in.”
Chiqu frowns. “The Assembly told me not to return unless I bring these Jagaser,” she says slowly. “Those were my orders. I’m not about to break them.”
Something about the way she says this makes me think she’s lying. And I haven’t forgotten what she told me about Epiran. The guard opens her mouth, about to reply, when I step forward. “Chiqu,” I hiss. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
She nods and steps aside with me. Once her back is turned, I hear Juase striking up a conversation with the guards, loudly informing them of the treacherous journey across the sea.
“You said the Assembly would kill you, if you returned,” I remind her quietly. She closes her eyes as if in pain and gives a slight nod. “So why do you want to see them?” I go on. “And what do you mean, they ordered you to bring—”
“Luzile—whatever your name is—I can’t explain all this to you now,” she growls, casting a nervous glance at the guard, who is looking rather annoyed at Juase’s boasting. “It’s complicated, but if we get in, I’ll try to tell you. Yes, the Assembly will probably have me executed, but I’m doing my best to get you all in before they find out I lost Epiran. And I’m not one to foster any false hope, but there’s a minuscule chance they might let me live if I can convince them it was an accident.” She gives me a pointed look that discourages any further questions I have.
“Fine,” I mutter. “If you’re sure this is the best idea—”
“It’s not,” Chiqu cuts in viciously, eyes flashing, “but it’s the best I have. They probably won’t even want to see me.”
She turns back to the guard. “I’m ready,” she announces. The guard nods curtly, and we follow her into the city. We wade our way through the crowds of people, packed tightly together between buildings. The smells of the city are alien to me, and their chaotic fragrance, mingling with the cacophony of noises, sets me on edge.
But, despite how claustrophobic the place feels, I can’t help my amazement at the variety of strange items stuffed into little carts, behind which people stand calling out things I can’t make out. Some voices rise above the others, and from what I can tell, these people are trying to give away their goods. I remember what Juase said, about Sviros being based on trade. These are merchants.
I can’t see where we’re going, and I’m desperately trying to follow close behind Chiqu so I won’t get lost in the crowd. We push through the streets, bumping into countless people who don’t seem to mind. They must be used to this kind of lifestyle. Many of them wear simple wrapped clothes in desert colors: pale grey, tan, orange, red, and blue. Some wear more colorful and elaborate robes, but those are very few in the crowd. I catch several staring at me with suspicion in their eyes, secretive whispers hidden behind hands.
At some point, the crowd seems to part, and before us stands a tall sandstone citadel. The central tower is thin and sloping upwards at the base, to a large spherical structure at the top. Little openings are carved into the globe, probably to let in light, and countless colorful flags flutter from poles protruding from the top of the building. I can see several other globe-like structures branching off from the center, and around the base of these stands a thick wall. This is, by far, the largest building here, and I can only guess this is where the Assembly holds their meetings.
I sink against the cool, smooth sandstone wall, relieved to be out of the crowd of people. The guard steps forward and pulls on a loop of rope, raising a large orange flag at the top of the wall. “Ahlaemu Quatalfi’allayl, guard of the Outer Gate!” she shouts. “I request a conference with the Assembly!”
We wait a few moments, then I see a curtain rolled back from the base of the building, revealing a tall doorway. A figure steps out of the shadows, a Sviroser with dark, wavy hair tied back and piercing green eyes. He is wearing elaborate robes adorned with swirling patterns, multiple gold necklaces draped around his neck, and several jewels set in his ears. A wide belt embroidered with gold thread sits above billowing pants and thick scaled boots. As he approaches closer, I can hear him whistling a lively tune.
“Ahlaemu! To what do I owe the pleasure?” He leans against the wall, glancing at each of us in turn. I realize how we must stick out in this prosperous city. Worn, sandy clothes, matted hair, and then there’s the fact that we’re Jagaser.
“This…merchant wants to bring Jagaser immigrants into the city,” Ahlaemu tells him, jerking her head at Chiqu. “She says she’s under orders from the Assembly and is demanding to speak with them in the Central Citadel.”
The Sviroser considers Chiqu for a moment before shaking his head. “They’re having a meeting,” he says regretfully. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait if you want to see them. In fact, I’m not sure if they’ll be taking visitors soon.”
“I’m not a visitor, I work for them,” Chiqu snarls. “And you know that, Nazka. Don’t act innocent with me.”
The Sviroser, Nazka, widens his eyes in exaggerated mock surprise. “Oh, no, that’s unfortunate,” he says, smirking. “You know what, Chiqu? I think I’ll have to tell you to leave these Jagaser out of the city. Otherwise, you’ll be breaking the law, and then we’d have to imprison you. Or even better, exile you, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?” He smirks contemptuously as Chiqu fumes.
“You don’t have the power to do that, Nazka,” she growls. “Your mother may be on the Assembly, but you’re not.”
He smiles and opens his mouth, about to deliver some impudent retort when a bellow from behind the curtain interrupts him. “Nazka!”
He spins around, and I see another Sviroser appear from the doorway, looking somewhat frazzled. She is also wearing extravagant robes, though hers are considerably simpler than Nazka’s. Her hair is threaded with silver, and she shares his unusual green eyes.
“Nazka, what did we say about visitors?” she reprimands, grinning playfully. “You aren’t supposed to turn them away until you know their business!” Her accent, though typical of a native Sviroser, is so thick I can barely understand her words.
“They aren’t welcome here,” Nazka replies, frowning at Chiqu. “I—”
“And what’s that you were saying about a meeting?” she continues, ignoring his protests. “The Assembly met two days ago, and you know that! Now, who…” She falls short as her eyes land on Chiqu. “Chiqu! You’ve returned! Excellent, and where is…?”
Her eyes flick back and forth, clearly searching for someone. She seems to wilt a little when she doesn’t see her intended target.
“I request a meeting with the Assembly,” Chiqu says stiffly. “May I come with you?”
“Yes, yes, of course you may, I’ll just gather the Assembly,” the Sviroser says, waving her hand and inviting Chiqu to join her. “Watch them,” I hear her mutter to Nazka, who nods, though I see something flash across his face as Chiqu disappears into the citadel. Fear, perhaps, or panic.
I recall the Sviroser’s words, about the Assembly meeting two days ago. Why would he lie? Maybe he’s fostering some grudge against Chiqu, or a longstanding family feud. Chiqu’s never mentioned anything about the history of her family before, other than living with her aunt and uncle. Where did her parents go? I muse, wondering why I never asked her.
I lose track of how much time passes while we wait outside the citadel. A chill falls in the air, and I can hear a roaring sound in the distance. When I look up, I notice the sky has faded into opaque blackness, with no sign of the stars. Perhaps it’s the dust storm. I hope that’s all it is.
We do our best to stay comfortable. The few cremates left from the ship have long since disappeared into the crowd, and Juase has slipped away too, but something tells me he’ll be back. Sarofa and Mehild sit on the sandy ground, their backs against the wall. By the time Chiqu reemerges from the citadel, Mehild has fallen asleep on Sarofa’s shoulder. I can feel fatigue tugging at my eyelids, but I force myself to stay awake. I’ve had a lot of practice.
Chiqu looks as exhausted as I feel, but it’s a victory just to see her still alive. She sighs as she passes Nazka, who watches her, resent simmering in the green pools of his eyes. “What happened?” I murmur as she leans against the wall beside me.
“I did a lot of talking,” she says wearily. “Explained what happened to Epiran, told them about you and Sarofa and Mehild…eventually they agreed to let me live. They were angry, though. But I gave them some good reasons.”
“Did they promise?”
“To let me live?” Chiqu scoffs. “The Assembly doesn’t promise anything.”
“Juase told me about them,” I say. “He made it sound…better.”
“Of course he did, that’s all he ever does, make things better than they actually are,” she sighs. “I’ve told him countless times, it won’t help to ignore the problems. That just gives them time to get bigger and uglier. But he never listens.”
She glances down at Mehild and Sarofa. “Let’s go,” she murmurs. “I have a place we can stay.”
We slink through the streets, which have cleared considerably since we first arrived. Everyone has taken shelter from the storm. I can feel sand raining down on us every so often. I’m covered in it already, so it doesn’t make much of a difference.
Chiqu leads us to a small raised platform in the center of a narrow path, surrounded on all but one side by sandstone huts. She checks to make sure no one is around, then slides the platform away to reveal a steep staircase, sloping into the ground. She takes a hazy, flickering torch from the wall and climbs down.
I follow her into the darkness below, where the air is thick and fibrous. Chiqu sets the torch in a small loop, set deep into the wall, and the light continues to spin its warmth into the porous darkness. I can see this room is small, though two doorways stand gaping beside me. The underground is, though humid, at least a little cooler than the land above, and that is a relief.
Blankets are strewn on the hard ground, several clumped in a corner. Chiqu lowers herself stiffly onto the pile and raises her eyebrows. “Sit,” she says to us, more of an order than a suggestion as she gestures at the blankets.
Sarofa and Mehild obey, making themselves comfortable in the thin blankets. I choose to instead lean against the wall. “Well?” I demand.
“Well, what?” Chiqu’s tone is disinterested as she removes her outer coat and gives it a shake, releasing a spray of sand.
“Aren’t you going to explain everything? Epiran? What you said to the Assembly that changed their minds?”
She pauses and gives me a long look, remaining silent.
“You don’t have to say,” I say, shrugging. “I’ll be leaving in the morning anyway.”
Chiqu laughs, and I give her a curious look. “What?”
“Leave?” she chuckles. “You can’t leave.”
“I didn’t mean leave Sviros,” I say, ignoring the spark of panic her words light in my chest. “But now that we’re here, we don’t need to stay together anymore.”
“I was going to say the same thing,” Sarofa adds, glaring at me. “Mehild and I are going to try to start a life here. Better than what we had in Jagas.” She smiles slightly, and I see a flash of happiness in Mehild’s tired face as she leans against Sarofa’s shoulder.
Chiqu doesn’t say anything for a long time. I can’t see her expression clearly as the light dances merrily across her face like bright creatures. “I suppose it’s time,” she murmurs to herself, then looks up at us. “I need to explain some things.”