Hello, good readers! If you are just joining us or need a refresher, you can find Chapter 1 here. Otherwise, enjoy today’s chapter!
Iranine custom dictates that, when a resident of a house returns after a journey or when foreign guests visit, someone in the family must meet them at the door to wash their feet and offer water to drink. Uncle Tatanda, Anik, and Pitka were eager to meet Maylani at the docks, so I volunteered for the task.
I await their return at any minute, holding a pitcher of cool water flavored with lemon slices and standing just inside the door. The servants threw the top of the door open this morning and it will remain so until mosquitoes and other night insects emerge. My eyes eagerly search the calm dirt road through the opening in the door.
At first, I do not realize that I see them when they appear. I recognize all of my family, but there are three people with them who I cannot place. I lean forward in curiosity. All I can tell is that they seem too pale in the bright morning sun to be Iranine, so it cannot be Maylani’s friends. Something inside me stirs like I am struggling to wake up.
At the front of the group, Maylani takes hold of the stranger’s arm, and he nods to something she says. They are close now, close enough for me to see that Maylani’s stranger is tall with light brown hair—and the sun glints off a charm he wears around his neck. I instinctively know it is a chanavea, the charm all Maraians wear. The way he holds himself triggers memories.
It has been three years. The last time I saw him, he was only eighteen, but I would know him anywhere. My eyes twitch to the other two strangers, and I recognize them as Nihae and Elesekk, his parents.
Maylani is walking arm-in-arm with my Saviayr.
My hands spasm and grasp at the door frame. The pitcher of water knocks against the door and drenches my dress.
Maylani detaches from him and skips up the walkway to the door. “Raiba!” she exclaims. In a daze, I open the bottom half of the door. It barely registers when she throws her arms around me in a magnanimous hug, chattering all the while. “Eck, you’re wet! Oh, Raiba, I missed you so much. This dress looks so well on you! Did you make it yourself? And guess what? I’ve the biggest surprise ever! I’m getting married!”
Saviayr really looks at me for the first time in the middle of Maylani’s hug. He stops so abruptly, Anik runs into him.
“That is,” Maylani continues, “if Tatanda says yes, of course. Let me introduce you to him.”
I must have stopped breathing, because I know when I start again, in a gasp that is almost a sob, and I have to make an effort to continue breathing. My legs carry me forward a couple steps.
That’s funny. I don’t remember deciding to move.
Everyone stops walking, wondering what is going on. Nihae and Elesekk know, though. They come forward to stand behind their son. He stares at me. At least he is just as surprised as I am. That makes this…easier?
Maylani is the only one unaware of the quiet. I meet his eyes. I have to find some way to break this smothering silence. “Peace to you, Savi.” My voice sounds like it comes from someone else.
“Rai,” Savi breathes. The blood has left his face.
I force my gaze to his mother and father behind him. Their faces are as pale as his. “Peace to you, Mama Nihae, Papa Elesekk.”
“May it also return to you,” they automatically reply. Then Nihae breaks out of her shock and closes the distance between us, wrapping me in a hug. Her long hair, which used to be dull blonde, is now mostly white. She smells just like she used to, fresh and clean with a hint of sweetness, like a wildflower. I squeeze her back, suddenly fighting tears, and find that she is crying. She does not say anything, but she does not need to. In a heartbeat, three long years wash away and I am a fifteen-year-old back in the arms of my only remaining mother figure.
“Where’s Yorchan?” I ask about my adopted sister. My head rests on Nihae’s shoulder.
“She couldn’t come.” Elesekk takes a step toward Nihae and me. “Saviayr hasn’t earned her freedom yet.”
“Wait,” Maylani opens her mouth wide in amazement. “You know each other? Saviayr, you never told me when I talked about her!” She sticks her lip out in a pout.
Nihae steps back, but she keeps a hand on my shoulder.
“I…” Savi blinks and looks away from me. I feel…I do not know what I feel. I feel too much, and nothing at all, and I can hardly breathe, and surely I am still asleep because how can he be here? “I didn’t know you were talking about her,” he replies.
“I talked about her all the time,” Maylani protests.
Saviayr glances at me, and his eyes stay on mine for a moment. Despite the years we’ve been apart, I can tell he is not going to tell her the real reason for his astonishment. I just wish I could read that answer in his face, too. “‘Raiba’ is a very Iranine name.” He looks back to her. “She was Maraian when I knew her.”
Maylani tilts her head with her face twisted like she cannot understand what language Saviayr is speaking. “You’re teasing. Raiba is our cousin from the mainland. She’s not Maraian.” She gives an uncertain chuckle and pastes a smile over her confusion. “See, Anik, I told you Saviayr is funny.”
Anik lifts an eyebrow. “Oh, he’s hilarious,” he drawls. “He’s going to replace me as family jester.”
I look to Tatanda, wondering if he will tell them the truth. I find him staring at me like he has never seen me before. When he found me hiding under a bush and took me in, I told no one, not even him, that I was Maraian. Revulsion and betrayal slowly slide over his expression as he begins to understand the truth. All these years, I’ve lied to the man who took me in and made me part of his family. Guilt joins the other emotions swirling through me.
Meanwhile, Maylani switches to a different subject. “I’m so excited for you to get to know my friends this week, Saviayr!” She impulsively jumps on her tiptoes and kisses him.
A knife in my stomach knocks the air out of me. A memory flashes through my mind’s eye:
“Rai, why are you mad?” my best friend begged, jogging to keep up with me.
“As if you don’t know!”
“I don’t, though.”
“Why don’t you go ask Lanathais?!”
I spun around to face him. “Turpeth told me. He told me you kissed her,” I accused. I’d seen him talking to her more often recently. I believed Turpeth. “Just go and be with your new best friend and leave me alone!”
He looked at me like I was missing something obvious. “I didn’t.”
“You want me to believe you didn’t kiss her? Why not? Everyone knows Lanathais is the prettiest girl in the village. Marry her and forget all about me. She’s not a freak who was raised by embodied spirits for a decade. She’s normal and neat and smart,” I challenged. What boy wouldn’t like her? She just didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. I hated feeling that she was stealing my best friend away.
“I wouldn’t waste my first kiss on her,” Saviayr answered.
“I want it to be special,” he insisted.
“It’s a first kiss,” I said. “It’s naturally special.” At least, that was my theory, having never kissed anyone myself.
“Yeah, but the person matters.”
Who did he think he was? If Lanathais wasn’t good enough for him, no one else could possibly meet his high expectations. “Well, forgive me for not knowing your impossibly high standards,” I shot at him, whirling to storm away.
“Rai, wait.” He grabbed my arm.
“Why? Don’t you want to get rid of the town’s biggest embarrassment? After all, if Lanathais isn’t good enough for you, why would you want to be friends with me,” I spat out.
He shook his head but kept holding my arm. “It’s you, Rai. I’m saving my first kiss for you.”
It’s bad enough that Maylani is kissing him. That would hurt even if he wasn’t kissing her back. It would hurt even if they hadn’t clearly kissed before. I whirl away, hiding my eyes, and the memory slows as it draws to its end.
My anger evaporated faster than morning mist in the middle of an Izyphorn summer. My love for him had grown steadily since I first saw him on my tenth birthday—the first human I had seen since I was a month old, tramping down the creek toward me when I was drenched from falling in, and then helping me find my parents. “Savi—do you mean it?” I could hardly breathe.
His eyes twinkled, and he nodded.
“Then…then we promise, right now?” I asked.
He nodded again, taking my hands.
There, we swore to each other the first of many vows in the next two years, the years my parents died and his family took me in. We swore to save our first kiss for our wedding, and we swore that when we were married we would lead Maraiah out of slavery.
When my treacherous eyes glance to see if the betrayal is still happening, my cousin and her fiancé are joined only by their hands. But now Savi will not look at me.
Tatanda orders, “Raiballeon, why don’t you welcome our daughter and guests into our house.” I dip my head in acquiescence and hurry back to the door. My cheeks burn. Tears sting my eyes. I have dishonored my uncle by neglecting my duty. I have wasted water by spilling it on myself. I am revealed as a traitor to my people here in front of Elesekk, Nihae, and Saviayr. Everything is wrong.
And Saviayr still will not look at me.
Under the watchful eyes of my uncle, I go through the motions of offering a drink and washing the feet of Maylani, Nihae, Elesekk, and Saviayr. Maylani chatters on about her trip as I work. Nihae thanks me. She looks like she wants to say more, but Maylani is looking on with a frown. I don’t want to upset my cousin, so I turn to Elesekk. He lays his hand on my shoulder and searches my eyes. After a life of toil under the Izyphorn sun, deep wrinkles from squinting line his eyes, and his short body, thick with weary muscles, contrasts sharply with Tatanda’s tall stature and slightly-bulging waist. “We will talk,” he promises, before following Tatanda out of the room.
Saviayr walks right past me.
We convene in the parlor, where the servants place refreshments. Today and most days, the fireplace is unlit, so a window and a dozen candles illuminate the boxy furniture and small mosaics, all imported from Izyphor. Pitka hovers beside Maylani. The older girl exclaims over things she missed and babbling comparisons to what she saw in Izyphor. She keeps glancing at Tatanda, who stares at Saviayr. I recognize her rambling as a strategy to put off hearing Tatanda’s displeasure. I wait by the door, hoping no one takes my usual seat, a rocking chair beside an upholstered couch, the furthest seat from the fireplace. No one sits there, but Saviayr takes a seat on the couch directly next to my chair.
He still does not look at me.
It’s too much. I have to get out of the room, away from him, or I will not be able to breathe. I may even lose my sanity. “Tatanda,” I ask, before he can begin interrogating Saviayr about his situation and about why the son of an enslaved people would consider himself worthy of his daughter. “May I dry off?” Spilling water on myself has one benefit: It is a perfect excuse to leave.
Tatanda just barely nods, but that is permission enough. In a second, I am on the other side of the door curtain. I press my back against the wall and cradle my head in my hands. Breathe. Inhale, exhale. Nothing makes sense anymore. I feel like the smallest breeze could blow me apart and scatter the pieces all over Orrock, all over the world. I just have to shut everything else out and focus on breathing. In, out.
I jump when a motion beside me breaks my rhythm. Saviayr leaves the parlor, moving at a quick pace. He stops abruptly when he sees me.
He is looking at me now, but under the intensity of his gaze, I almost wish he would ignore me again.
“I—I should go,” I blurt out.
He jumps forward and grabs my arm to stop my flight. “Wait!” His voice is urgent.
My breath catches in my throat. I freeze, waiting for him to continue.
“Wait,” he repeats, more composedly. “I—I just wanted to say…happy birthday.”
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. He is right. It is my birthday. How did he remember, when even I forgot what day it is?
“We’re making a habit of meeting like this,” I joke in a strangled voice. “Me drenched on my birthday.”
He gives a funny chuckle that sounds like pain. Silence grows. I have to get away. My nightmare flashes before me, fueling the panic that grips my lungs. He should not be here with me. He is my past, and I can never get him back.
I can hardly breathe. “I…” My voice fizzles out when he steps still closer to me.
“Rai.” He searches my eyes like there is so much he wants to say. Instead, he pulls something that tinkles from his tunic pocket and holds it out to me. “Here,” he offers.
I hold out my hand, and he drops it gently. Metal, warm from being near his body, clinks into my open palm. My breath catches again, and my lips quiver as tears trail down my cheek. It is my chanavea. I thought it was lost, but now here—“You kept it?” I whisper. “All this time?”
Savi tilts his head to the side and smiles sadly. “I would have kept it forever.”
He disappears back through the curtain. I run my fingers over my chanavea. It is made of fordue, the strongest metal on Orrock, which only the kaites have the skill to work. I press the ridges on the horizontal leaves where “Mar” is engraved on the left and “Aia” on the right. “Maraiah,” the People of the One. In the center is my stone, flecks of brown scattered through translucent white stone. “It is the hues of ierah and Orrock combined,” Faialine the kaite used to tell me, “because your life is mixed between the two worlds, the heavens and earth.”
With trembling hands, I unclasp the empty chain around my neck and slip the chanavea onto it. The charm’s weight settles over my chemise, just above the neckline of the vest. For years I have missed its pressure. Now, with it again over my heart, I have reclaimed part of myself that I had to abandon when fleeing from the slave master.
I am Maraian.