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Preparing for a barbecue later that night, I realize Saviayr and I will have to interact if I ever hope to spend time with Maylani after their wedding. With Anik likely to marry soon, Pitka growing up, and no prospects of marriage for myself, I’ll likely end up spending significant time with Mayli and Saviayr in the future.
I change into a pale green dress for the barbecue and put my shoulders back. Friendship with Savi. How hard can it be? He clearly is not attracted to me anymore, so that won’t keep us from re-forging our friendship. And he knew me before, when I used to talk, when I did not have to hide everything about myself. He won’t expect me to be a perfect, submissive Iranine woman. He of all people should be easiest to befriend.
After all, we began as friends. We ought to be able to end as friends.
Yet, all through dinner around the blazing fire in the warm night, I shrink back from initiating a conversation. Whenever our eyes meet—which I begin to suspect Saviayr actively avoids—his expression is distant, closed-off, even a bit hostile. Gone are the hints of warmth from earlier today. I duck my head. I pretend deep interested in my skewer of meat and vegetables, though my appetite is minuscule. Tonight’s food holds little flavor.
Dusk rises from the east, providing a veil of darkness behind which I can hide. I embrace the screen of shadows. It allows me to slip back and observe the gathered people. I settle on a fence far enough into the shadows that I can’t feel the bonfire’s heat.
Tatanda rises near the fire and claps his hands. “Good evening, friends. Yesterday, my daughter Maylani returned home from a year on the mainland. She brought with her this young man,” he pulls Saviayr to his feet, “as a suitor for her hand. I would like you all to bear witness that tonight, I give my blessing to the marriage of Maylani and Saviayr! Their wedding will take place on the third day from today.”
The group responds with applause and shouts. I add a couple soft claps before dropping my hands to my lap. Everyone begins to congratulate the young couple and offer bits of marriage advice.
I lift my face to the sky. My eyes idly seek out the familiar constellations that were my ceiling every night when I lived with the kaites. Half of my mind recites their names and the meanings behind them. The other half whispers and holds a distinct thought: I do not belong here.
Have I ever belonged? My years with the kaites were joyous and carefree, but I knew I was not one of them. I was too weak and too clearly mortal next to their strength and immortality. The five years I spent with the Maraians, first with my parents and then with Savi’s family, were beautiful, though brimming with hardship. I felt like I almost belonged with them. At the same time, I knew with undeniable certainty that we did not belong in Izyphor, did not belong as slaves. Here in Tatanda’s house, every day is marked by the subtle undertone that I do not belong. The clothes, the hair, the skin, all of it reminds me I’m a foreigner, and Tatanda’s constant rebukes prove that no effort or changed appearance on my part can make me belong on Ira.
My head sinks from the sky back to the gathering. Peals of laughter come from the girls around Anik. Pitka sits with another young girl, playing hand-clapping games. The crowd around Maylani and Saviayr has thinned. He bows out of a conversation and makes his way to the well for a drink.
Maybe it’s time for me to make myself belong somewhere. I can start with setting aside my restraint and talking with Saviayr. I meet him at the well with the biggest smile I can manage. “Congratulations.”
Savi glances at me. After a pause, he says, “Thanks.” Then he tilts his head and narrows his eyes.
“What is it?” I ask.
He laughs once, humorless, shakes his head, sets the dipper in the water bucket, and marches away.
“Rai,” Nihae’s soft voice comes from behind me. I don’t turn around.
Nihae’s hand rubs my shoulder. “Rai, don’t be mad at my boy,” she asks.
“He hates me.” It is the simplest truth. It is the worst truth.
Nihae sighs. “Rai,” she begins, but stops to lead me over to sit on a nearby rock. “Rai, dorni, you have to understand.”
“I understand,” I assure her. “He hates me. He won’t look at me, he avoids me, he ignores me. And Mama Nihae, the look on his face…” I can’t go on. The discord with what should be lodges in my throat.
Nihae nods and looks at the sky. “Right now he is angry. You would be, too, if you were him. Let me tell you our perspective?”
I’m trying not to watch Saviayr, which means that he is of course the only person I am watching. On the far side of the lawn, Elesekk joins him. I drag my eyes back to the thin woman next to me and nod.
“The morning after you went missing, the slave master showed us a royal’s torn mantle and your chanavea and told us that a wild animal had devoured you both.”
I scowl. “Of course he did.” I don’t know why I’ve never wondered how he explained my absence, but I shouldn’t be surprised.
Nihae pats my knee. “Yes. Well, Elesekk and I were devastated, but Saviayr….I’ve never seen someone so young that heartbroken. He gave up. Elesekk and I feared for him. Until one night he had a dream that you told him to continue what you had started. He had new purpose after that, taught everyone in our village your stories and talked constantly about how he could free us.”
That makes me smile. “Good. I’m glad.”
“A couple months after we lost you, the royal Yrin discovered Saviayr. He was visiting to appoint a new slave master.”
I interrupt. “What happened to the old one?”
“He died. No one really said how, but it seemed suspicious.”
It’s not possible. I could have gone back to Izyphor with Maylani? I could have gone back and found Saviayr years ago? I could have left this place without the promise of my people’s genocide? “He—he’s been dead? All this time?”
Nihae’s face twists in understanding. “If only we had known you were alive,” she wishes. “We would have found you.”
“It’s…we can’t change it now,” I tell her and myself. “Please, go on.”
“I…where was I?”
“The royal Yrin?” I prompt.
“Oh, yes. The royal Yrin hired my son. At first, Saviayr just wrote down the histories for his library. Then the royal made him an emissary to our elders and the other slave peoples. Savi always worked so hard, and he never, never loved anyone but you. Elesekk and I could never be sure, but we thought he kept your chanavea in a pocket by his heart.”
I touch the charm hanging around my neck.
“After three years, he was finally moderately happy. Then we met your cousin a few months ago,” Nihae continues. “She knew the histories. It was so strange, a foreigner who knew the truth. Aia told my Saviayr that he needed to get to know her, and so he did. Yrin wants him to get married, and Savi thought an alliance with Ira would help with freeing Maraiah.
“Then he discovered that, all those years while he was mourning you, you were alive, and you never tried to tell him you weren’t dead.”
I imagine what these past years would have been like if I had thought Saviayr was dead, and if yesterday I had found that he had been alive all this time but hadn’t cared enough to tell me. That would be the real betrayal. His silence is mild compared to what his reaction could be.
Across the yard, Saviayr shakes his head at whatever Elesekk was saying. Even from the distance, I can see the tension in his broad shoulders. He used to be so gangly as a boy. As a man, he’s even more attractive.
To Nihae, but really to them all, I say, “I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t put you through that.”
Someone dumps fuel on the bonfire. Its flames leap into the night. “I am sorry, too,” Nihae answers, “but I don’t blame you, dear. You were doing what you thought you had to. You could not have known differently. And now,” she pats my knee, “I must go talk with my husband.”
She joins Elesekk and Saviayr, and I scan for Maylani. It’s a reasonable time for me to go home. Mayli will worry, so I must say goodbye. She is near the fire when I find her, but Saviayr finds her first. I stop close enough that Mayli can see me, but not close enough to intrude on their conversation.
“Did you at least have fun talking with my friends?” Maylani asks Saviayr.
He chuckles shortly. “Sandat is such a pleasure. I love listening to persons who hate my people.”
“Well, maybe he is a bit hard to like until you get to know him,” Mayli concedes, “but Nadina’s not.”
“No, Nadina is—very cheerful.”
Maylani bites her lip, like she knows more than he’s saying, then looks past him to me. “Oh, Raiba, there you are! Is everything okay?”
I let her use me as a distraction. “I’m fine. I just wanted to let you know I’m tired, so I’m going home now.”
Mayli’s face brightens. “Perfect! Saviayr was just going home, too. You can go together.” It could be my imagination, but she seems to be watching us more intently than normal.
We protest at the same time. “No,” Savi begins.
“That’s okay,” I start to turn her down.
In the middle of our protest, we look at each other and pause. It’s just a walk to Tatanda’s house, hardly a quarter of a mile. We won’t even have to talk to each other.
“Okay,” Saviayr amends his answer to Maylani, apparently deciding he has disagreed with her enough for one night. “It makes sense.”
“Great! And would you mind taking Pitka home, too?” The younger girl looks up from a large slice of watermelon, juice dripping off her chin. “That way I won’t have to leave early with her. You’re the best!” She pecks Saviayr’s cheek and hugs me, then rejoins the neighbors with a whirl of rose-colored skirt.
Pitka wipes her chin with her arm. “Do I have to leave, Raiba?”
I smile and offer my hand. “Mayli thought you could come home with me and Saviayr,” I answer. “I’ll tell you a bed-time story and sing you a lullaby, since it will be just us at home.”
I can see Pitka weighing her desire to stay here with the temptation of my offer. Pipit casts a longing glance at Maylani, whose face is lifted in laughter, and her shoulders drop. She takes my hand and we head up the path. The bonfire’s sounds fade into the evening.
The silence between Saviayr and me is almost tangible. I risk peaking at him, hoping the twilight will hide my gaze. His eyes are on the ground. I can’t read his face, which only reminds me of our estrangement and my perceived fault. “So, you like Nadina?” I try to break the silence.
One corner of his mouth turns up. “I’ve always wondered why people say girls giggle a lot. None of the girls I’ve known giggle much at all. Nadina giggles enough for a hundred girls.”
“She’s light-hearted,” I protest weekly. I’ve been annoyed by the same thing.
Saviayr shrugs. “Some topics aren’t. Sometimes life is serious, and she doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference.”
I hum, but don’t know how to respond. Instead, I turn to the little girl whose sticky hand warms mine. “Pipit, what has you so quiet?”
She kicks at an imaginary rock in our path. “Nothing.”
That doesn’t seem likely, but when Pitka doesn’t want to talk about something, nothing can pry it out of her. I glance up at the sky, hoping for inspiration, and remember a story she hasn’t heard yet. “Would you like to hear a story about a girl named Landureed?”
Her big brown eyes lift from the path. “Is it a good story?”
“A very good story,” I promise.
“Okay. Who is she?” Pitka asks with a bounce in her steps.
“Landureed was the youngest daughter of Ilekk, the second son of Lacashain, so she was Vander-Maraiah’s great-granddaughter.”
Pitka’s forehead scrunches as she works out the genealogy in her head, then she nods.
“Ever since she was a young child,” I continue, “Landureed’s favorite time of day was the night. She loved to wander through the dark trees in the forests around her home. She loved the cool dew on the grass between her toes. She loved how loud the animals’ sounds seemed when all the people were quiet and asleep. Mostly, though, she loved to look at the stars.”
Pitka tugs on my hand and points to the sky. “Her stars—are they the indree, like you told Tatanda yesterday?”
I follow her finger and nod. “They are. Landureed’s favorite sight in the whole world was the indree. She watched them so much, she found patterns in them. Landureed named the constellations and taught them to her friends. They could only remember a little about the night sky, but Landureed herself started trying to name every star.”
“That’s a lot of names,” Pitka observes.
I nod. “One star was her particular favorite. It was on the point of the arrow of the constellation she called the Guardian. It took Landureed many, many nights to find just the right name for that indree. Every night for a month, she laid on her back and stared at it, until her eyes began to focus and she could almost see its true form, which was like the most beautiful man she could imagine. Love grew in her heart for the star. Then finally Landureed discovered the perfect name for it.
“‘Shadarass,’ she whispered the name she gave it.
“No sooner had she spoken than the indree Shadarass grew brighter. She sat up in wonder, and it kept growing brighter still. She could not imagine why, until she realized that it was not actually getting brighter, it was getting closer.”
Pitka giggles. “It was a shooting star, right?”
“Right! All Landureed had time to do was jump to her feet and stumble backward out of its way.
“Then the indree landed with a thud so great, the trees around them lost all their leaves. Heat rolled over Landureed, but she was not burned. Her eyes could see nothing but white light at first. When she recovered, Landureed saw before her the same indree she had just named, glowing from within with liquid light.
“‘At last,’ Shadarass the indree said. His voice was loud at first, but when she jumped and covered her ears, he grew quieter. ‘Forgive me. I usually have to shout to be heard even by my brothers and sisters. But at last, here I am.’
“‘You—you’re Shadarass?’ she asked.
“‘Yes. And as you named me, so I am here now,’ he answered. ‘Landureed, long have I loved you and wished to enter your presence.’
“‘Shadarass,’ Landureed answered, ‘can it be? For I have loved you, too, though I did not know you.’
“‘Surely this love is given to us by our Maker for a blessed purpose,’ the indree said.
“It was true. So the two were married, the human and the star, and together had twin sons. Yet too soon, as humans do, Landureed grew old and her spirit left her body. As she died, Shadarass left Orrock and returned to his place in the sky.”
Pitka frowns. “That’s so sad.”
I squeeze her hand. “Yes. But it’s part of being human. And their grandchildren live now among the Maraians as slaves, but it is said that, when the Maraians come into their promised homeland, Landureed and Shadarass’s descendants will come into their inheritance. Like Landureed, they shall walk the world at night, under the gaze of the indree; and like Shadarass, they shall be guardians of the life there.”
We pass through the gate to the house just as the story ends. Pitka stops on the path and looks up. “Will you show me which one he is?”
I kneel down and notice Saviayr stop to look at the sky with us. “If you can imagine,” I point upward, connecting the stars with my finger as I speak. “See, these indree form an archer’s bow, and there at its center those ones line up. They’re the arrow, and at its point, right there, do you see that one?”
Pitka chews her lip, face puckered in concentration, then gasps when she figures out where I am pointing. “I see it! It’s that one!”
She looks over at me, but my eyes stay on the sky for a moment more, which is why I see what she does not.
A star just fell from the sky.