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Despite my exhaustion, I lay awake in bed long after the sounds of the rest of the house going to sleep faded into the chirping of crickets, the hum of night insects’ wings, and the cries of mockingbirds.
The sleeplessness reminds me of all the nights I laid awake in Elesekk and Nihae’s house after my parents died, listening to them, Savi, and Yorchan fall asleep. Elesekk and Nihae were always first. Laboring all day in the harsh Izyphorn sun sapped their strength. Usually Savi would be next, at least until he turned fourteen and was expected to work on the building project. Then he was sometimes first to sleep.
Yorchan was always last of all. I would listen to make sure she was all right. Sometimes, especially at first, she would start crying. Her tears were silent. The only way I knew was by her strangled breaths. Then I would crawl over to her and smooth my hand over her straw-pale hair, shining in the indree light coming through the open roof, until her breathing slowed in slumber.
Morning comes despite my difficulty sleeping. I would have been fine skipping my morning writing in favor of an extra hour of sleep today, but my body wakes up anyway. I don’t remember last night’s dreams specifically, but the lingering sense of my usual nightmare mixes with the vision of Maylani and Saviayr kissing. The combined effect makes me feel physically sick.
“I must stop,” I mutter, swinging out of bed. Dizziness briefly darkens my vision and makes me regret the sudden movement.
I need a distraction, and my work is the best option at the moment. Elesekk, Nihae, and Saviayr’s presence in the house makes me more self-conscious than normal—or maybe it is the turmoil inside me that needs order outside. Whatever the reason, I get dressed before leaving my room.
I want to look nice today, which is new. I haven’t really cared about my appearance for years. Is it appropriate to wear colors today? They are lovelier than my plain dresses, but today is not festive. It would seem ridiculous. With a sigh, I decide on my whitest every-day dress and tie over it a pale gray vest. Last night, I did not bother putting my hair in curlers, so today I brush it until it shines and work it into a fishtail braid, sticking a simple silver comb at the top of the braid. On go my sandals, tied at the side. I need no jewelry other than my chanavea. I cradle it on my palm, appreciating the smooth blue-gray fordue and the way the light shines through the translucent parts of the stone. The script spelling out “Mar” and “Aia” on either side of the stone is too thin for any human tools to forge, and it reminds me of who I am.
Fully dressed, I quietly finding my spot on the porch.
Ceramic pots of desert flowers hang from the roof and sit on the porch there, creating a living curtain around my weathered wooden desk and a large swing. The sight of the swing makes me draw up short. Nihae and Elesekk sit there together, holding hands and conversing in hushed tones. A wave of thanks rushes up inside me. I have never seen them so peaceful, so in love. Back in our slave village, they were always worn down from the work and from bearing the troubles of our fellow slaves, and in their fatigue their tempers were sometimes short. Whatever these past years have brought them through, they have borne it well.
Elesekk glances up. When he sees me, he pauses in the middle of his sentence and nods his greeting. Nihae follows his gaze and smiles at me. She scoots away from Elesekk and pats the space between them.
“Peace to you, Rai,” Elesekk waves me over, echoing Nihae’s invitation.
“May it also return to you,” I answer.
“Come, let us talk,” he urges.
I hesitate. “I don’t want to break the swing.”
“Nonsense,” Nihae chuckles. “A grain of sand is heavier than you are.”
I give in and sit between them, but my shoulders hunch and my eyes stay glued to my clasped hands. This once-familiar position between the two of them now feels incredibly strange. How can it be that what was once perfectly natural can become completely alien?
Elesekk clears his throat. “Raiballeon, Nihae and I have been talking. Will you tell us why you left all those years ago?”
I lift my eyes to the hillside below us, which is dotted with adobe houses. “Savi was sick that day,” I recall, “and there was a battle of the kaites.”
“We remember,” Elesekk agrees.
The memory takes over: It was hot, as always, but heavy moisture hung in the air, making the temperature more unbearable than normal. Savi tossed on his bed mat as he had since the day before. His cheeks were flushed against the pallor of his clammy skin. Yori mopped his brow with a warm, damp cloth while the rest of us worked. I would have taken over that evening, but the air held a familiar charge and my instinct told me a battle of the kaites was happening soon. As usual, the longing to be near my kaites, my aunts and uncles who had raised me, overwhelmed any healthy fear of aivenkaites.
“I wanted to go back to the place the kaites left me. I thought they might have stayed there for me to feel close to them. Savi couldn’t come with me, so I decided to go alone. When I was halfway there, I heard a scream.” The next words refuse to come. My hands grip the edge of the swing so tightly, splinters break off. With all of my might, I have tried to forget this memory, but it will not go away. I have never told this story to anyone, never even written it down.
Nihae covers my hand with her cool one. “You heard screams?”
“I…I heard a scream, so I went to…help…whoever was in trouble. I wish I hadn’t, but I couldn’t know then….From the top of a hill, I witnessed the slave master ki-killing a visiting royal. I heard his scream. He killed him—and then he saw me.
“I tried to run, but he caught me and choked me. He said I could run away—leave Izyphor and swear never to tell anyone—or…” I shudder. My nightmare almost strangles me. All I can see is red. Blood. I squeeze my eyes shut. “Or he would kill you, Savi, Yori, and all of the Maraians and make me watch.”
Quiet ensues. I haven’t the strength to say anything else. The effort it took to relive the past sapped my strength, and the slave master’s threat weighs heavily on my spirit. Father, I can’t carry this weight anymore. I am so tired.
“So you ran.” Elesekk’s voice is strained. I look up to find a tear dripping from his gray eyes. “Rai, my child.” His arms encompass me, pulling me close against the soft cotton of his tunic. “Forgive me,” he murmurs, his chin on the top of my head. “When I saw you were alive, I hated you for the pain you caused my son when you left. Now I see I was wrong.”
His unexpected tenderness touches something forgotten inside my heart. “Oh, Papa Elesekk,” I start, but then I am crying. “There’s nothing to forgive.”
He holds me and Nihae rubs my back while I cry.
When I manage to collect myself, she gently prompts, “What happened after you ran?”
“I found a way here. Tatanda discovered me and took me into his family, even though he could have lost everything for sheltering a runaway slave. A plague struck the island a few months later. His wife and a young son died, and I almost did. And then last year Maylani went to stay in Izyphor, but I obviously couldn’t go with her.”
“Hæ-Aia that you survived,” Nihae thanks the Creator.
Elesekk frowns and touches an index finger to his lips. “Rai, have you ever…It’s been three years, after all, and you thought you’d never see your people again. Do you…I mean, is there anyone—I ask solely for my son’s sake.” My treacherous, sinful heart somersaults at the mention of Saviayr. “Have you ever, well, had an understanding—or feelings—with…someone else?”
“No. I made a vow.”
“What about Maylani’s friend, Sandat? He couldn’t stop looking at you last night at dinner.”
Nihae answers for me. “Definitely not Sandat! Dear, he is a complete bore, a total bigot. Did you hear what he said when we were talking about yesterday’s battle?” Her grimace makes me laugh. “I have a different question.” She peers at me. Her eyes, the color of the sky, stare deep into mine. “You’ve been through a lot, that’s certain, but it doesn’t seem like enough–Rai, what happened to change you so much?”
That startles me. “Am I so different?” I try to remember what I was like when I lived with them.
Elesekk and Nihae exchange a look over my head. “Well,” Elesekk said slowly, “when we knew you, you would have jumped at a chance to tell a story about the Thaliel and aivenkaites.”
“And when Tatanda…well, you never allowed anyone to rebuke you for something good. And you used to take correction with a smile,” Nihae added.
Pitka’s appearance interrupts us before I can answer, but their comments don’t leave my mind. Pipit pulls up short at the sight of my companions, shy in the presence of near-strangers.
“Pipit,” I smile. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” she says. Her bare toes trace a gap between some boards on the porch floor, but she comes no closer.
“You remember Elesekk and Nihae from yesterday?” I ask, knowing she does.
“Peace to you, Pitka,” Nihae smiles at the girl, holding her hand out as an invitation to join us.
Pitka shuffles forward a few steps and looks at me. “Why do they say that?” She tilts her head to the side. “Why don’t they say good-morning like everyone else?”
“Story time?” I answer, leaving the swing and moving to my desk chair. Pitka’s face lights up. She scurries forward, now that I am not between strangers, and sits on my lap. “I just told you about Aia’s promise to Nhardah the Firstborn a few days ago. It has to do with that, and also with another prophesy. Do you remember the name of Nhardah’s great great great grandson?”
She frowns, and her lips move as she counts the generations. “Was he…Maraiah?” she guesses.
“Yes! But he wasn’t called that yet,” I clarify. “When this story happened, he was named ‘Vander,” which means ‘Follower.’
“Well, Vander was the youngest of his one brother and three sisters, like you are the youngest. When he was born, a kaite prophesied that he was destined for a great legacy. Ever since then, his siblings—especially his brother—were jealous of him.
“When he was old enough, Vander married Maesie, his betrothed. They lived on a farm near Maesie’s family and in a few years, they had two sons and a daughter. Then neighboring Coarnomites attacked her father’s family. Only Vander and his family escaped alive.”
Pitka shudders on my lap. “That’s horrible!”
I hugged her. “It is. When they survived, Vander took his wife and child to live near his siblings. Their proximity rekindled his siblings’ old anger toward him. Until then, the kaite’s prophecy had been pushed to the back of their minds. Now that Vander was living with them, they remembered.
“His older brother, crazed with jealousy, plotted to murder Maesie and the children.” “No!” Pitka jumped off my lap. “He couldn’t! That’s a very bad big brother. Raiba, say that he didn’t.”
I hush her and draw her back to my side. “By the will of Thaies, Vander learned of his intent beforehand. He, Maesie, and the children fled in the dark of the night.”
“Good,” Pitka declared. She relaxed back against me. “What happened next?”
“For days they traveled, seeking shelter in caves and hollows. They would have gone further still, but then Maesie was pregnant and went into labor.
“All of a sudden, there was a blinding light. Vander turned, ready to defend his wife and child, and his eyes met the eyes of an indree, a star that had just fallen from the sky.” Pitka asks if it was a shooting star, and I nod. “The indree looked deep into Vander’s soul, and there they entered a contest, a wrestling match of minds, to see who would prove strongest. Vander struggled until sweat rolled down his face in streams and his heart almost gave out. He would have failed the contest, had not Maesie cried out in pain. Her cry strengthened Vander. He reached out his hand and took hold of the indree, and that is how Vander won.
“As he held onto the indree, Vander saw that Maesie was near the point of death. He said to the indree, ‘I have bested you here; give me a blessing. Save my wife and our child.’
“The indree answered Vander, ‘Here is your new name: You will be called “Maraiah,” for Aia our Thaies has chosen you from among your siblings. Your descendants will become a nation set apart for Him. One day you will possess this land in peace, and the peace of Aia will guard you. As for your wife and son, they will live and grow strong.’ Then the indree vanished from sight.
“True to his word, Maesie was healed, and their fourth child was born, a son. They named him Shainoniman, which means, ‘Son of my Hand,’ because it was with his hand that Vander triumphed over the indree and saved his son’s life.
“So, when Maraians say, ‘Peace to you,’ it is a greeting with a wish and a reminder. A reminder of the promise that one day we’ll have our own land and Aia’s peace will guard us, and a wish that we will see that day with our own eyes,” I finish.
Pitka tilts her head to the side. “I don’t understand. Why do they want land so much?”
“If Iranines didn’t live on this island, if they had no home, and if other people were very mean to them and their babies, how would you feel?” I ask her.
She barely has to think before she answers, “I think I would want a home where I could be away from the mean people.”
“That is why we want our own land,” Elesekk says.
A servant rings a bell by the front door, calling us to breakfast. “It’s time to eat!” Pitka cheers. She slides off my lap and hurries ahead of us into the house.
“So you are still telling your stories.” Nihae threads an arm through mine.
“Of course I am. It’s my purpose in life,” slides off my tongue like the most natural thing in the world.
Behind us, Elesekk lets out a sound of surprise. “That’s different. Weren’t you and Saviayr—”
“That changed long ago,” I interrupt. I dealt with losing those hopes years ago; I do not need to repeat that now. “I misinterpreted Taikah’s prophesy. My role is clearly just to record the histories.”
We draw near to the dining room, so there is only time for Nihae to tilt her head and say, “I wonder…” Then Maylani’s stream of chatter overshadows draws us away from any other conversation and we wait for Tatanda’s entrance to begin the meal.
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think down in the comments. What do you like? What do you wish will happen?
Chapter 6 will be up in a week!