As I write this, fire pops and crackles on a hearth that is older than time itself. Navid tells me that such a thing isn’t possible but that doesn’t change the appearance of the stone. It is pocked with time, worn smooth in spots where someone’s knees created divots for placing wood and coal. No amount of scrubbing will remove the blackness on the inside anymore, each lick of smoke adding another layer to the perma-soot staining the otherwise light gray stone.
The fire does very little to take the edge off the sting of ice on the air. Winters in Asphondel used to be cold; winters in Yama are worse. It does not actually snow or rain overtly much, but the desert temperatures froze the glittering sand in giant clumps that crunch beneath your feet. I hate it. Yama is not my home but it is where ‘home’ has settled after the Fall of Asphondel. Once, we wanted for nothing; now, we beg for everything. Navid says it will get better; he says there is a purpose to all things; he’s full of crap.
Five years I have waited – we all have – for things to “get better” but nothing ever actually changes. Instead, I share a single room with my sisters and cousins praying that, today, things will be different; today there will be a larger loaf of unleavened bread; today someone will take pity on us and throw coin instead of spit while I play for a mass of ungrateful heathens with copper skin.
I hear my sister whisper to me and turn to face her. She is maturing in a place that only sees her for her parts, for the milky white skin that is so different from that of the people in Yama, for her innocence and purity.
“What do you think he’s doing right now?” Eila whispers. She asks the same question every night. I help her imagine what our uncle might be doing, what would drag him away from us and keep him absent for so long.
“Drinking,” I answer, head pillowed on my arms as I stare up at the broken thatch above us. “With a bowl of untouched stew sitting in front of him.”
She giggles because it is easy to imagine our uncle doing exactly that. Our uncle was never really a fan of stew but could down ten pints of ale in under a minute. It was some record that he was always very proud of.
“I’m going to find him, Eila,” I tell her just like I do every night.
“I know you will,” she replies, curling up closer for warmth. Only, this time, she doesn’t realize that I actually mean what I say. Everything is set and ready, waiting patiently for everyone to fall asleep. It is Navid I have to concern myself over. The centaur has ears like an oliphant and a nose like a bloodhound. He’s worse than a mother hen, too, hovering over each of us with imaginary feathers blustering in agitation anytime we are not within eyesight of where he sits or stands.
My stomach twists into knots as I wait, listening to the song of the night creatures that roam the desert sands. Even in the winter, they wander about in the starless night, hunting when the sun is not so unforgiving as it is during the day. Eventually, I gather the courage to roll away from my sister and move to a crouch beside her sleeping form. Rielle sleeps just the other side of Eila and my cousins Dayo and Idris near to them. Navid snores into his chest, a sentinel at the cracked wood boards lashed together to make a door. I avoid that entrance entirely and climb through the only window in the single-room shack we all share, pulling my bag through once my feet have hit the ice-cold sand.
I take one last look at my very small family, reminding myself that what I do is the right thing to do, and turn my back on the rickety shack. There is enough of a breeze to give some push back as I walk, forcing me to hold the hood over my head closed lest it be blown off entirely. By morning, the sun would turn the dangerous chill into a near-inferno just by being so unrelenting. The sands in Yama are black like the beaches of Asphondel, spotted in white and crystal grains that make it look like a sea of stars. I walk in silence, letting my mind wander until reaching the docks at Paanee just as the sun begins its ascent into the sky.
The port city is one of two in all of Yama. Everything else is unrelenting desert or cracked mountains that dropped into frothing oceans that eat away at the limestone bit by bit over time. Poles hold up swatches of silk or woven linens to keep the sun at bay and the heat within the confines of mud-brick buildings. Everyone walks through with wrapped faces or shawls, hoods up and scarves in place. Trust absolutely does not exist anywhere in Paanee.
“Eila?!” I nearly bark when I hear my sister’s voice. She pursed her lips at me, hands on hips and toe tapping inside the leather straps of her sandals. My cousin Dayo stands beside her, arms folded across small breasts. They wear head scarves that cover their hair and light cloaks that keep them warm or, for Dayo’s part, hide large feathered wings.
“What- what are you two doing here??”
“Following you, idiot,” Eila snaps. “Did you really think you could just slip away on your own and get away with it? You’re lucky Navid didn’t catch you! You make more noise than a rampaging nebit!”
I gape at her; at both of them. Nebits did not make that much noise, honestly; not really.
“You need us,” Dayo says with a finality to her statement that will not allow argument. Her voice has a husky undertone to it so that she always seemed to be whispering even when she was not. It worked to give the impression of scolding someone as well. “You won’t find him on your own.”
“I’m not – – how did you know – – I mean, I’m not going – -”
“Just stop, Aeron,” Eila sighs. “Honestly, where else would you be going? We’re coming with you.”
“No you’re not,” I command but it only makes her arch her brow at me. My sister, eight years my junior, staring me down as if she were our mother instead. I can’t really argue with her or she’ll make a scene and if she doesn’t, Dayo will. Plus, if Eila is around, Rielle would not be far behind which meant Navid would soon follow.
“Fine,” I relent through a growl. “But I’m in charge and we go where I say.”
“Fine,” the girls say over top of each other. Already people stare at us, glaring with suspicious eyes. We’ve overstayed our welcome. I grab each of them by an arm and make my way to the rickety docks. I note how different they are from one another as I drag them along dirt streets and narrow paths – Dayo of aurum and fae descent, her deep olive skin glittering in the sunlight while Eila, like me, was pale and fair of skin, her pointed ears tipped with pink from the heat. The way they move, however, glaring at me for being such a man – words I could practically hear leaping from their minds – they might as well be identical twins. The fact that Eila is a twin just makes it worse. All three of them together are a maelstrom upon mortal kind.
“Why Paanee?” Dayo asks.
“There are boats in Paanee,” I answer. “He’s not in Yama anymore, Dayo. We’d have found him if he was; we’d have heard something – anything. It isn’t hard to hear rumor about a crazy tirsai man with a phoenix on his shoulder.”
“So, then, where is he?” Eila prods.
“I don’t know but there’s been a lot of talk recently about a bard from the Floating City of Avir that sounds an awful lot like uncle.”
“Avir? You’re crazy, we’ll be plucked off a boat and sold for certain if we got there!”
“That isn’t our only option,” I tell them, stopping near the two ships I’d already staked out as options for travel away from Yama. Both had crews that shouted in preparation to cast off. Our time ran short even as we stood there. “Pick one – red sail with black skull or green sail with dragon wing.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Eila sneered. Neither ship looks particularly seaworthy. Barnacles stick to the hull and the sails are so patched they are practically a different color than what they were intended to be.
“No,” I say seriously. “Red or green; hurry up – of course, you could always stay here.”
“Where are they going?” Dayo asks, practical and critical all at once.
“Avir,” I say, pointing to the red-sailed ship and then move my arm to the green-sailed vessel. “Or Kalaeh.”
Both girls look at each other with concern on their faces when there is a commotion nearby. We all turn to see the twitching ears of a centaur – a beast not commonly liked among the people of Paanee – and know our time is up.
“Wonderful, mother hen followed you,” I grumble as I hoist my pack and grab both their wrists. “Pick!”
The girls squeal at me as I drag them further along towards the docks. We knock shoulders and earn more shouts but we ignore them entirely. We have to pick and we have to do it quickly…
Where will they go? Where will their paths take them next… East, or South? You decide!! Leave a comment and let me know: East or South!