This is the beginning of Part 3. Find previous chapter links here.
Soon after I arrived on Ira, the island held a great festival to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the spirits uniting and creating the Iranines from their thoughts–at least, according to their traditions. On that night, Tatanda’s wife pulled a locked chest from under their bed and drew out of it a vest of the softest and darkest fabric I had ever seen.
Black velvet, they called it, cloth so rare few but Izyphorn sultans and royals could afford it.
While we feasted, Anik scaled a wall holding a glass of sweet rice water. Promptly upon reaching the top, Anik teetered and tumbled down. The drink sprayed his mother’s vest with white specks, and he hobbled on a broken leg for months after.
The sky tonight reminds me of that vest–deeply dark, sprinkled in vibrant white, and warm. If only the axex could fly high enough for me to touch it, I’m certain the sky would be as soft as velvet.
Heat hangs in the air. When one of us shifts, it sparks against the axex feathers. That never happened when the kaites used to carry me high over Orrock. Most of the time, the kaites just held the air together enough to support my weight. That was floating on an invisible bed as soft as feather down; this is clutching to a body that rocks and shakes with every air current. The kaites would never let me go; the axex requires all of my strength focused on staying aloft.
But the dust-dry air whips stringy, sweat-stiffened hair in and out of my eyes as we speed toward the capital, and that is just as I remember. Hills and dry canyons below, indree singing in ierah above⎼
For a moment, I let go of fatigue, fear, and grief, throw my head back, spread my arms, and laugh.
Savi, to my left, clings to his axex. “Rai, you’re going to fall!” he yells, eyes wide with terror.
The creature hits a patch of wind. I weave one hand into its strange mixture of feathers and fur. “Relax,” I call to Savi. “I’m fine.”
Forziel, ahead of us, darts back and forth on his axex. He whoops when the creature loops.
“Is there anything better than this?” I yell up to Forziel.
He grins and shakes his head, but Savi says, “I think I miss the flash flood.”
A glow warms the horizon, though we haven’t seen in the air long enough for morning’s arrival. We fly steadily toward the light. Soon the glow illuminates the top of a massive mesa.
We are at the capital, and it’s in the throes of celebrating the beginning of the Feast of Wheat.
“We made it,” Forziel says.
We dismount from the axex in a sheltered curve at the mesa’s base. “We actually made it,” Savi marvels, collapsing against the rock wall.
Liwin slides off of his axex and lands on shaking hands and knees. “I don’t know how you’re so calm, Forziel,” he says.
Our guide grins. “Wasn’t it exhilarating?”
“That’s one way to put it,” Savi says.
I crane my neck. The mesa disappears into the night sky, the glow of revelry blocked from this angle. The joy of flight fades into the fear that the hardest part of our journey is still ahead.
“Do we go now, or wait?” Hoenna asks, coming to stand next to me.
I tap my foot. “I don’t see the point in waiting. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
“Yeah,” Forziel agrees. “I couldn’t, either, not now that we’re here.”
My insides fizz. I wring my hands and breathe slowly.
This is it.
This is the moment I’ve been longing for my whole life.
No one moves to find the ramp up to the capital. Instead, Savi clears his throat. “Should we pray?”
I nod. “Yes. Please.”
Hoenna and Liwin hang back while Savi, Nihae, Forziel, and I stand in a circle. “Come on.” Savi waves for them. “You’re Maraian, too.”
They come, watching and mimicking us.
I look up at the sky, where the indree sing and dance over us. They can see us and want the best for us, want us to know Aia, regardless of what the aivenkaites and sultan want.
“Aia,” I start, and then have to pause while I try to find words. “Um, we’re here, at the capital. I’ve been looking forward to this day my whole life, but now I’m just…scared. Please, Aia. You care about Your people. You chose me to free them, and Savi to help me. Come with us. Give us courage and the right words to say. Do what You have promised: Free Your people.”
“May it be so,” Savi and Nihae chorus. The others echo them.
I take a deep breath, swallow, and square my shoulders. I’m still terrified, but I have to keep going forward, anyways. “Okay. Let’s go.”
“Wait.” Savi grabs my hand. “What’s our plan?”
“Convince the sultan and royals to free us.”
“Yes, but how?”
That stumps me. “Huh. I’ve never thought of that. Aia will let us know what to do, right?”
Savi tilts his head. “Maybe, but we should still have a plan.”
“I have no idea. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Well, we don’t have time to do what my plan was before I found out you were…not dead. I’d counted on using the royal Yrin’s influence with the other royals and the sultan. If Yrin’s even here, that may count against us now.”
“At least they’ll have to wait to kill us,” Forziel points out.
Hoenna snorts. “That’s not as comforting as you may think.”
“But it does guarantee that they’ll have to hear us out,” I say.
“If you can even get to them,” Forziel says. “These kinds of things are very crowded, and there are guards and things to keep common people from the sultan.”
“How do you know so much about this?” Hoenna asks. “Have you been to an Izyphorn Feast?”
“The point is,” Forziel says, “we need a way in.”
“I know how to request an audience,” Savi says. “That’s something I’ve learned as one of Yrin’s advisors. I can probably get us safely able to address the sultan and royals, then we can present our request.”
“Okay, then let’s do it.” I start away, looking for the ramp up to the mesa’s top.
“But Rai,” Savi warns, “we’ll have to follow the standard formalities of address. Let me speak first, and wait until I’m done to speak your part.”
I agree, and we all leave the camp.
The ramp up to the capital curls around the mesa. Chords of music drift down to us, clashing tunes uniting in a cacophonous theme of celebration. At one point, I imagine I feel water spray, but it’s probably just my mind playing tricks.
Then we reach the top and catch our first real glimpse of the city.
More people than I’ve ever seen fill every open space between crowded tents and stalls.
Savi meets my eyes and swallows. I look to Hoenna. “If anything happens to us, will you…” I glance at Nihae, then back at him.
Hoenna nods, and we delve into the capital. We squeeze, one at a time, past countless strangers enjoying treats, songs, and exhibits of unusual talents. Someone in a mask juggles knives from the top of stilts. A masked woman lowers a flaming torch down her throat and exhales a stream of fire, like the zindrumih of legend.
I feel cold when we pass her.
Nihae clings to my vest. I’m glad. It would be easy to lose our whole group in this crush.
Buildings replace tents. At first, people overflow from cramped huts, but the further in we go, the larger the buildings become.
Salty, greasy aromas mingle with the music in the air. My stomach growls.
When we pass a water fountain, we pause to join the line waiting for drinks. The water is dusty, pumped in somehow from the Havilim River, but it cleanses the dust from my throat. We drink as long as the fountain attendant allows, then move on.
The buildings stop, and we run into a line of dancers swaying and stomping to the music of a two-ended pipe flute. Through them, I glimpse an open courtyard, where all the assembled royals lounge under white textiles draped between the pillars of the faces of the dead. Two roaring fires flank them, sending up glowing embers and making their clothing shimmer.
In the center, ensconced in a cushioned throne, presides the sultan. A crown of wheat stalks woven into a braid towers over his head. Statues of a vole and a jack rabbit, the animal incarnations of Api Guardian of the Harvest, stand to his right and left.
There they are, the richest people in the world, pouring fermented drinks down their throats while they bask in the fruits of slave labor.
The dancers part, and court magicians leap into their place. The magicians launch into a display that is half-spectacle, half-competition. “They’re showing off whose connection to the divinities–you’d call it their powers of illusion–is greatest,” Forziel whispers in my ear. His chanavea hits the back of my arm.
The display speeds up, signs growing grander. Something inside me tells me this is my moment.
I squeeze between the magicians and stride toward the chiefs of the Izyphorns. “I’m here to speak with the sultan and royals!” I shout. Guards jump out in front of me.
One magician was creating a swirling maelstrom of green and purple sparks. At my outburst, he dropped his hands. Fire explodes in his face, singing his eyebrows and sending up a plume of violet smoke.
The sultan frowns.
A hand tugs mine. “Rai, what are you doing?” Savi whispers. “Remember what we planned?”
Oh, yeah. I squeeze his hand back and give a tiny nod. He can try his diplomacy first.
Savi drops to his knees and tugs me down beside him. “O our sultan and O our royals, we humbly request an audience with you on this day of Feast.”
The sultan stares at us. The magicians have stilled. Everyone’s eyes are on us.
My cheeks heat.
Something must happen while I was focused on my embarrassment, because Savi is introducing us. “And this is my wife Raiballeon, daughter of Khorfai and Karoecharn, raised by the kaites, of the people Maraiah.”
“What reason have you to request an audience with us?” the sultan asks. The voice of my enemy is carefully modulated. He’s had to speak carefully his whole life.
What will he say when I am done?
“My wife has a story and a request for you.”
I’ve shared this story countless times since the kaites returned me to my family. I have to change it, though, since Aia broadened what it means to be Maraian.
“Everything was created by Aia, who is the only Thaies,” I begin, and the natural rhythm of storytelling loosens my tongue. I tell about Elcedon, the Pond of Separation, Nhardah-Lev, the choosing of Vander-Maraiah, and our coming to Izyphor. I remind them of how they enslaved the Maraians, of their fear and their decision to cast our infants into rivers.
“But Aia has not abandoned us,” I conclude. “He is faithful to all who follow Him. And now, Aia has heard our cries for relief and is acting on His promise of freedom.
“Sultan and royals, will you choose this day to follow your Creator and release His people from slavery?”
Rustling whispers fill the air as the royals turn to each other.
The sultan chuckles. “Our annual entertainment,” he says to his companions. They laugh with him. “Take these ones to the dungeon. Deal with them when the Feast is over.”
Guards, hidden in the shadows until now, start toward Savi and me.
It can’t be over this quickly! I’ve suffered too much to surrender now, when we’ve barely had a chance. I jump to my feet. Savi tugs for me to kneel again, but I stay standing. “Before you do, know this: If you release us, Izyphor will be blessed. If you refuse, Aia will make Himself known to you by great and terrible signs. To you, sultan and royals, Aia says this.” I feel power come over me and hear my voice change. “‘Release My people.’”
This time, the whispers sound like buzzing insects. The sultan is first to overcome his shock. Deep anger carves itself in lines on his face. “How dare you approach us with your evil witchcraft? This is a Feast day! Would you speak rebellion even in the heart of our power?”
“I do,” I say, in my regular voice. “The One I follow could crush your power in an instant. He has chosen this Feast day to make Himself known, and He is far greater than any of the fake divinities who give you power.”
“We will have you executed!” the sultan shouts. He trembles in his seat, face turning crimson.
A squat woman with curly black hair bows beside the sultan. “O your most excellent sultanship, and you worthy royals,” she says, “may I suggest another course?”
“What is it, Bathatyz?” a middle-aged royal in poofy pants asks.
She says, “The girl maintains her divinity will do great deeds. If we kill her now and her god is real, we will call down great wrath on ourselves. Perhaps it is wise to test her claims first. If he does not act, she will be revealed as a wicked insurgent and a liar. If he does act, then we will know she tells the truth. Either way, your fairness and justice will be proclaimed everywhere.”
Savi whispers to me, “You’re sure Aia will do signs?”
“Okay.” Savi takes a deep breath and speaks out. “O our sultan and O our royals, we agree with the excellent Bathatyz. We entreat you to permit Aia to demonstrate His power and nature.”
A royal, so alike to the sultan that they could be twins, declares, “Bathatyz speaks well. Brother, shall you accept her advice?”
The sultan squints and settles deeper into his seat. “We will hear your signs. What proof have you of your claims?”
The answer pours off my tongue with little thought of my own. “Aia will give you seven signs, but you will not believe until the end. At the end of the seven signs, you will willingly give Maraiah your wealth and send her to freedom, even as you stole her wealth and enslaved her.”
Most of the royals laugh. The poofy-pant royal indulges in a lopsided smile.
“Remember my words,” I warn. “Now the first sign is here: Aia has heard the cries of His people Maraiah, and His anger burns against their oppressors. Then you will know that He is greater than Tivan Firebringer.”
The whole crowd hushes. I wait.
Murmurs begin. They grow into raucous laughter.
“Throw them in prison,” the sultan orders. “Their lives will be forfeit when the Feast of Api ends.”
I groan. Not this again.