Outside parched, inside choked
by the ash and the smoke
of the world.
“I work for the Assembly,” begins Chiqu. “They hired me after my parents died. And there’s a problem in Sviros. There is a group of people who want things to…change.”
She seems to be stepping over her words carefully, and I find myself wondering how much she’s sharing with us.
“These people are extremists. They will do anything to get what they want. They have incited violence and spoken out against the Assembly, usually secretly.” She takes a deep breath. “My parents were part of them. That’s why…the Assembly had them executed.”
The skeleton from the pool flashes before my eyes, and suddenly I see a flash of a scene, just for a moment. A spear stabbed through the eye. Head cleaved open, spilling out the twisted insides. That pool was the Assembly’s execution site. That is where they take people to die.
“I lived on the streets for a long time, with my sister, Berzha,” Chiqu goes on, and I can hear her suppressing the tremble in her voice. “She…died. Poison.” She glances at me before lowering her eyes to the ground, where fire is flickering in the sand.
“My aunt worked for the Assembly. She was very respected. We never talked about her sister. My mother. I forgot them, and…that was fine.” Chiqu pauses, then gives her head a shake. “Anyway, I grew up with the Assembly. Taking the ship to Jagas…that was part of the work. They needed Epiran to collect information about Jagas, with all the refugees coming in.”
“Epiran was a spy?” I can’t believe what she’s saying. “Him? Why did they need him?”
Chiqu considers my words a moment before responding. “To collect information,” she repeats. “From what I can tell, he was brought to Jagas as a child. I don’t know the details of how he went back to the tribe, or how long he was there, but I was ordered to go back for him. Things have gotten worse, with the new refugees. They needed his information.”
“Fine, so he was important,” I say impatiently. “Why can’t we leave?”
“That’s the other part I have to tell you,” Chiqu says. “The Assembly told me to bring back Jagaser who needed to come across the sea. And you’re going to work for the Assembly, too.”
Her voice is cold and hard, and I can feel a chill shiver up my spine. “What if we don’t?” I snarl, muscles tensing. “Why should we agree to work for you?”
Chiqu cuts her eyes at me. “First of all, it’s not work. It’s payment. I rescued you. I helped you survive.”
“If I don’t like doing it, it’s work.”
“Actually, Luzile, I think you will like doing what they have for you to do. And I will tell you this: they don’t like Jagaser here. So I would recommend you do what I say if you want to stay alive.”
“Stopping the rebels from destroying Sviros,” growls Chiqu. “They are endangering the society the Assembly has built so carefully.”
“You’re keeping us alive because it benefits you. They pay you and give you protection if you bring them refugees, people to do their dirty work for them so they can get what they want without getting the blame that comes with it.” I laugh bitterly. “I made a mistake for a moment there. I thought you had done it because you cared about us.”
In truth, I never thought that. But I relish in the guilt that flashes across her face. But maybe even that is fake.
Sarofa breaks the silence. “I will not work for you,” she says slowly. “Mehild and I came here so we wouldn’t have to live in constant danger, under someone else’s rules. We will not work for you.”
“You would be in greater danger,” Chiqu replies, “if you walk away from this. The Assembly can keep you safe. They did for me.”
“Then why did you want to leave them?” I ask, and her head jerks up. “Juase told me,” I explain. “Well, it was probably because they were going to execute you, isn’t it? That’s what they do. Execute the people who don’t follow their rules? People who refuse to work for them?”
“I will bring you before them tomorrow,” Chiqu says, ignoring me. “Sarofa, this would be better for you and Mehild. Please, just…consider it. And come with me tomorrow morning.”
I catch a hint of desperation in her voice. Perhaps the Assembly promised to carry out their threat if Chiqu didn’t recruit us for their cause. I don’t really care. She lied to us, and now we’re trapped. If we refuse, we die.
And they promised to keep you safe.
Is that really what I want? To be kept safe?
It would be a nice change.
“Fine,” I say after a long time has passed. “I’ll go with you.”
Chiqu nods silently. I glance expectantly at Sarofa and Mehild, waiting to see what their decision will be.
Sarofa looks furious, but as I watch, Mehild makes several adamant motions with her hands, and the anger in Sarofa’s eyes fades. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “We’ll go, too,” she agrees finally, and Chiqu lets out a sigh of relief.
“Good,” she says. “They want us there by sunrise.”
The night is not long, and it seems like I only close my eyes for a few moments before the flashes of dawn strike the small room, pouring in through the open staircase. I’m still not accustomed to the gregarious sun and its abundance of light in daytime. It seems to pierce through the thin protection of my eyelids.
When I open my eyes, Chiqu is already standing. She’s wearing new clothes, and her hair is damp. She must have decided to rinse the salt out while we were asleep. My clothes still reek of the sea.
Sarofa and Mehild have disappeared. “I gave them clean clothes,” Chiqu explains, as if reading my mind. “When they’re ready, we’ll go.”
She sits down, rubbing her neck. “Tell me,” she says after a moment. “Why did you agree to it?”
“Because they’d kill me if I didn’t,” I say. “Or send me back to Jagas. I don’t know. I don’t know the Assembly or what they do. But I don’t like things happening to me. If change is inevitable, I want to be the one who causes it.”
“That’s why you hate everyone?”
I shrug. “I hate most people,” I say. “They hate back. It’s easier to make people fear you than to make them trust you. That’s fine. I want them to hate me.”
“Hate. It’s as close to love as people like us can get,” Chiqu murmurs. “The world…is prone to loathing some people, specifically. The unlucky ones.”
“And I’ve never had much luck,” I mutter.
At that moment, Sarofa and Mehild emerge from the shadows through one of the doorways. “We’re ready,” Sarofa announces. Chiqu stands, holding out a hand to me. I take it, and she pulls me to my feet.
We follow her up the staircase and back to the sandstone citadel. The streets are packed full once more. I notice a thin layer of dust covering many of the trade stands, but other than that the city seems unaffected by the dust storm from the previous night.
Chiqu lifts the flag alerting the Assembly of our arrival, and we wait at the outer wall until a guard pulls back the curtain, gesturing for us to follow. I move forward, but Chiqu catches my arm. “Wait,” she says, pulling several gold threads out of her pocket. “You have to pull your hair back first.”
Sarofa frowns. “Why?” she asks.
“Only high-ranking representatives on the Assembly wear their hair down,” Chiqu explains quickly. “Common citizens—particularly if you’re from the farming regions—have to pull their hair back.”
“So why did you cut yours so short?” I mutter.
Chiqu shoots me a glare. “I’m a smuggler assassin,” she growls. “I don’t exactly conform to what is considered appropriate in society.”
We tie our hair back, then the guard leads us inside. Inside the citadel is cool, and many windows allow air to flow in and out easily, preventing humidity.
The guard leads us to a narrow staircase that spirals upwards. My hand finds a ridge protruding from the wall and glides above it, dust gathering in clumps beneath my fingers. I’ve never been afraid of heights, but this staircase is narrow and tall. I’m relieved when we reach the top, where a small platform is built beside a large window. In the doorway of one of the walls hangs a bright, swaying curtain.
“They are ready,” the guard tells Chiqu. I feel my heartbeat quicken inside my chest and force myself to breathe evenly. I can’t let them see I’m nervous. How is Chiqu so confident? When she knows they might change their minds and execute her anyway if they don’t like us?
It could all be an act. She’s good at pretending that way. Then again, I thought I was, too.
Chiqu glances back at us. Sarofa’s eyes are cold as stones, and her face is rigid. I can see even Mehild is trying to keep it together, though her hand trembles as it reaches for Sarofa’s.
Chiqu nods, takes a deep breath, and pulls the curtain aside.
The room is exactly as I remember it from the vision Mara showed me. Wide, circular, with strange sparkling objects dangling from the ceiling. Arched windows are carved into sandstone walls, letting the breeze flow inside, and elaborately woven tapestries cover the spaces between.
I count ten Svrioser sitting on colorful layers of blankets. Some are propped up on their arms, others leaning against heaps of cloth. All are wearing decorative robes and jewelry.
“I am here to speak with the Assembly,” Chiqu declares, her voice steady. “I request a conference regarding the Jagaser refugees.”
“Welcome, Chiqu Asramukhaba’atfiazalam,” the old woman from the previous night says. Today a green cloth is wrapped around her silver frizz of hair. I want to ask her to repeat what she just said. What did she call Chiqu? “We have discussed this matter at length already today, but we are interested in meeting the recruits. And they have agreed to the task?”
“I have not yet informed them of the mission, but they have consented to work for us,” Chiqu affirms. Mission. They already had work in mind for us.
“Very well,” the woman agrees. “Please introduce them.”
Chiqu steps back and gently prods Sarofa. “This,” she says, “is Sarofa. She is the granddaughter of a former tribe chief and has shown remarkable bravery throughout our journey.”
Sarofa is still and silent as the Assembly examines her, murmuring whispered conversations. An elderly man with a thin, chiseled face and hooded eyes grunts, “Can you fight?”
Sarofa nods curtly. The elderly man’s expression changes from skeptical to one of approval.
“This is Mehild,” Chiqu continues, and Mehild, hearing her name, steps forward beside Sarofa. “She’s not skilled in fighting, but she is quick and can follow orders.”
I know what she’s doing. She’s trying to make us look good in front of the Assembly so they’ll accept us as recruits. What will she say about me? What have I shown her that might be valuable?
“And the last one?” The Assembly has finished their interrogation of Mehild. I step forward, waiting to hear Chiqu’s words.
She flashes a smile at me before turning to the council.
“He’s a liar and a thief who’d betray his own mother.”
I can feel my eyes grow wide as panic shoots ice into my heart, seeping into my veins, pausing the blood in its steady course. The room erupts into murmurs, and I try to hold my face as Sarofa did, unmoving and revealing nothing. Stone. Part of me knows this is what she was waiting for. This is Chiqu’s revenge.
“V-very well,” the old woman with silver hair stammers, taken aback by Chiqu’s cutting, blunt words. “Perhaps there are some aspects that would be suitable for—”
“Those are his virtues,” Chiqu interrupts, her tone pleasant and conversational.
Does she want me to die?
But several members of the Assembly are slowly nodding. “This may be a good thing,” one Sviroser with dark, shimmering robes reasons. “You can separate—personal opinions—from work, yes?”
I give a slight nod. “He’s proved that he can kill,” Chiqu tells them. “I’ve seen him do it.”
“Experience is useful,” the Sviroser agrees. “Very well. We will allow you and your recruits to prove yourselves useful in our work. Chiqu, we will assign you a target later today. You and your recruits are to complete this task by next morning. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Fietife,” Chiqu says. “I won’t disappoint you.”
“Good. You are dismissed.”
Chiqu quickly turns and begins the descent back down the stairs. We follow her closely, back to her underground hideout.
Chiqu turns to us. “You all need to stay here,” she tells us. “I will go receive the mission and explain what we’re going to have to do.”
“Wait,” I say. “What did that woman call you?”
Chiqu frowns. “Asra—something,” I explain.
Her eyes grow wide, then she nods and gives a short laugh. “Our second names,” she says. “It’s a poetic description of someone’s qualities. Or what their parents hope their qualities will be. Poetry is highly valued here. Juase’s is Yugniha’quamad. ‘Sings with spite and glory.’” She laughs. “Sometimes our parents get creative.”
“What’s yours?” Sarofa asks.
“Asramukhaba’atfiazalam,” says Chiqu. “It means, ‘Secrets hidden in the dark.’”
Her eyes suddenly ice over with cold. “I have to leave. They’ll be waiting for me.”
She goes back to the crowded streets above us, quickly disappearing into the light. We wait in the dark room for a long time. I can’t help wondering what could be down the passageways branching off from this room, but I’m not about to venture into them while Chiqu is gone. Probably just more empty rooms.
The only way I keep track of how much time passes is by the light slanting down into the room. By the fluttering slats of creased wood, behind the cold wall of sandstone that separates in from out, the sounds from the city are muffled and hollow, haunting in its dull, silent loudness. I watch the bright creatures that danced merrily in the corner, dappling the dust and slowly moving across the ground. Soon they fade as evening falls over the city. This is the time when it is most crowded.
The sound of heavy footsteps alerts me of Chiqu’s return. Her eyes are wild, and she’s clutching a small piece of paper in her hand.
“Here,” she says, handing the paper to Sarofa. “This is our first mission.”
Sarofa stares at the paper for a long time before speaking. “I can’t read this,” she mutters quietly.
“What?” Chiqu glances at her, jolted out of her thoughts.
“In Jagas, only the chief was taught to read,” I tell her quickly. “One more way they kept us from…power, I guess. A former chief would teach the new one to read.”
“Unless, of course, the old chief died before they could pass on any knowledge,” Sarofa says bitterly. “My grandmother used to be a chief. She lived, but her mind went before she could teach me anything. She forgot everything. Even me. No one in my tribe could read or write.”
“That sounds like a terrible system,” Chiqu says.
“Yes, well, Jagas was a terrible place to live,” I mutter. “It wasn’t very sophisticated, either, the writing.”
Sarofa turns to me. “How do you know that?” she demands. “Can you read?”
I don’t answer for a moment. “My mother taught me,” I say. “I don’t know how she learned.”
“Fine,” Chiqu says, halting the conversation abruptly. “We have a mission to do. It’s fine if you can’t read, Sarofa. I have to explain this to you anyway. The mission the Assembly has given us is to infiltrate one of the rebel leader’s buildings. And we’ll have to split up. I’m going to be getting some help because we’ll need more—”
“I’m going with Mehild,” Sarofa interrupts. “I’m the only one she can communicate with.”
Chiqu frowns. “I think it would work better if I went with Mehild, and you went with Luzile,” she argues. “Our job will be simple. Just to stand guard and make sure no one comes looking for you. Mehild will be safer with me.”
“Why can’t I do that part?” Sarofa challenges. “You’ve been working for the Assembly longer, and—”
“No,” Chiqu says, her eyes flashing. “I have spoken directly with the Assembly, and this is the way they want to do it. I don’t know all their reasons. But I know it’s not a wise choice to contradict them.”
Sarofa crosses the room and stands close to Chiqu. I can’t hear all of what she whispers, but her tone is threatening. I catch one piece of it.
“…protect her,” Sarofa mutters. “If anything happens…well, when you’ve lost so many people in your life, you tend to hold on tighter to the ones that are still around.”
Chiqu listens a few moments longer, then nods and puts her hand on Sarofa’s shoulder. She steps away and looks at me.
“What are we supposed to do, once we’re inside the building?” I ask.
“Your job,” says Chiqu, “will be easy. Kill the leader.” She smiles. “You’ve had plenty of experience with that, haven’t you?”
I watch as Mehild and Sarofa’s eyes grow wide at Chiqu’s words. But I’m not surprised.
“Tonight?” I ask, and Chiqu nods. “When do we leave?”
“Now,” says Chiqu.
The urgency in her voice tells us not to argue or ask any more questions. Sarofa and I are close behind Chiqu as she begins to ascend the stairs, but Mehild pauses. I can see doubt flicker across her face. She probably didn’t know she would become an assassin.
“You aren’t the one doing the killing,” I say to her. “Come on.”
She watches me with wide eyes, then nods quickly and follows us.
We make our way down the streets, where a steady downpour of rain began. I had forgotten it could rain in a desert. “It’ll be good for cover!” Chiqu assures us, shouting over the rumbling thunder.
We turn down a dimly lit street branching off several times from the main road. “Where is this place?” I hiss to Chiqu, but she waves her hand dismissively at me.
“We need to find another entrance,” she calls back.
The street grows narrower as we walk further into the darkness.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a flash of movement, something bright. Fiery black eyes, watching me from the shadows. I freeze, and it’s moving closer, eyes glowing, fingers beckoning. Panic courses through me as Mara grins wickedly, raising her hands to her face, fingernails clutching her cheeks and biting in little smiles. Then they slowly drag downwards, peeling off long ribbon strips of her grey skin and revealing the dark, rotting pulp and bone beneath—
Something jolts through me, and she’s gone. But I can feel the eyes fixed on me, waiting, watching.
I hurry onward, staring at the ground that flies beneath my feet. I nearly bump into Chiqu when she stops.
I look up. There’s a small doorway set in a large sandstone wall, where a weathered door hangs precariously in place. Near the top of the wall, I can see a small window. It’s the back of a building.
The sky is still leaking rain droplets, though the downpour has slowed to a light mist by now. I turn to Chiqu. “All right, what do we do?”
“Mehild and I are going to go in this door and see if anyone is inside,” Chiqu explains. “Sarofa is going to go with us, for now. If everything is clear, she’ll go up the stairs to guard the door. You’re going to have to climb into that window.”
I stare at the small opening. “Just…climb?”
Chiqu nods, as if it were an easy thing to do.
“Sarofa will go into the room and lower a rope down for you,” she instructs. “Then she’ll go back outside to watch the door. The leader will be sleeping. You know what to do from there. Got it?”
She watches each of us, and we nod.
“Good,” she says, her voice determined. “Let’s go.”
I’m left outside as they open the door and disappear into the building. I catch a glimpse of the inside. I don’t see any guards, which is odd. But I also don’t know how wealthy, or important, this rebel leader is.
I wait in the miserable weather, wet sand caking my boots as they slowly sink into the ground. It seems like a long time before a rope smacks me in the shoulder. I glance up. Sarofa is lowering the rope out of the window, then disappears inside.
I yank the rope a few times, making sure it will hold my weight. She must have tied it to something. Taking a deep breath, I slowly begin to pull myself up, bracing my feet against the wall. We climbed rocks all the time in Jagas, when we would hunt Vandrender in the mountains. This is different, though. The surface is completely smooth. And vertical.
When I reach the top, I grab onto the edge of the window and pull myself inside. The room is a bedroom, from what I can tell. Ornate tapestries cover the walls, and in the blank spaces, someone has painted decorations on the sandstone. The colors are vibrant, strong, chaotic, and everywhere. On a small raised platform, a heap of blankets is stacked beneath a frame of gold-streaked curtains.
He’s nearly hidden beneath the blankets, but I can see his face from here.