No preamble today, folks. Life’s crazy, and I hope you are well. Here’s Chapter 32:
Eight people already fill the cell that is barely twice as long and wide as I am tall. A pot full of stinking human excrement occupies a corner. When the guards shove us inside, they remove a bowl containing the last remnant of slop that was probably the prisoners’ meal. The two smallest and thinnest inmates cast dark looks at the rest. I guess the dining etiquette here is strongest eat, weakest watch.
The door clangs. The only light comes from a small window at the top of the door.
Our new roommates stare at us with calculating expressions. Savi’s arm wraps around my shoulder, and I try to look as intimidating as possible.
“What’s your crime?” asks a burly man, probably Carinite by his nose and cheek structure.
“We want Maraiah freed,” Savi answers.
“So does all your kin,” our interrogator says. “What makes you different?”
“We threatened them with signs from Aia our God,” I say.
An Umwian, whose rough beard almost hides his tattoos, sneers. “So you’re crazy. Easy pickin’s.” He starts toward us.
I bump against the closed door.
“No.” Our Carinite interrogator plants himself between us and the Umwian. “I know the Maraians, lived in one of their villages. Their Aia–you don’t mess with Him. No one touches these two, you hear?”
Dark grumbles answer him, but no one challenges him.
“And you,” he points at Savi and me, “stay away from us.”
That’s fine with me.
“As you say,” Savi agrees. We sink down next to the door, and the other prisoners return to their lives. Most sit or lay on the filthy ground, using their elbows when someone gets too close. Two carry on a conversation that rises and falls. It almost escalates to a physical fight before dying down, only to start to rise again.
“What comes next?” Savi asks, low enough that only I hear him.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know what Aia is doing?”
I shift to look at him. “How would I know?”
Savi pulls his arm off of my shoulder. “I don’t know. He’s been telling you what to say, I thought maybe He’d told you more.”
“Savi, it’s not like–He doesn’t really give me advanced warning. I mostly don’t know what I’ll say till the words are coming out of my mouth.” I chew my lip, which is growing sore from all the abuse I’ve been giving it. “I mean, I didn’t plan to say, ‘Here’s your big sign: Aia’s angry at you and stronger than your lowest divinity.’ And it wasn’t like I heard him. It was…it wasn’t a voice, I just knew what to say.”
He relaxes a little beside me. “Yeah?”
Savi sighs. “I’m sorry for getting agitated about it.”
“I can understand that, though,” I assure him. “It would be really nice to know what Aia’s planning.”
“Well, He’ll get us out of here,” Savi says. It’s hard read his face in the dim light, but his voice is more caustic than I expect.
“Don’t you think so?” he asks.
I frown. “I guess. That’s what He’s been doing, getting us to the places we need to be. He always seems to come through,” I say slowly.
“Not always.” His voice is small.
I don’t know what to say. I find his hand and lean my head on Savi’s shoulder.
“Rai, I don’t know what to think,” Savi admits. “It’s always seemed like Aia was there for us, leading us, if not in the most convenient ways. He even used Maylani to bring us back together. But…why didn’t He protect my dad?” Saviayr’s shoulder twitches. His breaths are shallow.
The arguing prisoners finally break into a fight. Our other companions shout at them and wrench them apart. “Get over it,” they rebuke the pair.
“What if Aia’s given up on us?” Savi whispers, ignoring the altercation. “I’m scared, Rai. I’m so angry, and I think it’s at Aia, and I don’t know what to do.”
He shudders. Acting on impulse, I wrap him in a hug and pull him close.
“I hate that,” Savi chokes. “I’m terrified. What if Aia gives up on us because I’m angry a Him?”
I rub his back. “Savi,” I murmur, “I don’t know why what happened to Elesekk happened. I do know that Aia won’t reject us because you’re hurting.”
“I don’t know,” he cries.
I squeeze him, trying to lend strength and share his pain. “Think of Nhardah, yeah? He heartbroken when his family died and Neemech tried to kill him. When Nhardah ran away, he thought Aia had forsaken him and yelled to ierah. But Aia still chose him. Aia sent Mithrida to comfort Nhardah, and reaffirmed His promise to redeem creation through his descendents. Aia is certainly okay with you grieving your father.”
Savi eventually lifts his head. When he does, I cup his cheek. Tears dampen the week-old beard on his chin. I like his beard. It’s physical evidence of our time together. The faintly ruddy hairs grow in an even line around his lips, except where they avoid a fingernail-crescent scar under his lip.
The day he got that scar, we were watching the village children while the adults worked. At fourteen and eleven, we were too young to be forced into labor, but old enough for responsibility. That particular day began with a warning passed from mouth to mouth: “Atia took care of a rabid hare this morning. Be on your guard.”
We were especially alert by the creek, which is how we noticed the jackal weaving a crooked path toward water. “Get into a hut! Quick!” Savi shouted. We scooped up the smallest children and the other big kids did the same, then we ran as fast as our legs would carry us.
I was two steps behind Savi and barely saw it happen. A rock caught his foot. As he hurtled toward the ground, he twisted to protect the baby in his arms. His right side slammed into the ground. Faster than I could blink, he was back up and running. We were safely inside with all of our charges accounted for before we realized his lip was split.
“Aia has not abandoned us,” I promise Savi now.
He slumps back against the wall and pulls me to his chest.
I jump when the door slams into me, and only then realize that I’d fallen asleep. Savi’s grip on me tightens, his eyes wide and startled.
The other prisoners start exclaiming at once. The voice of the Umwian rises over the rest. “There’s no more room! You can’t cram us in like hay!”
The guards ignore them and throw another person into the cell.
When the door clangs shut, the newest inmate picks himself off the ground. He’s Kedi, from the bones strung from his neck. “I never should have left Onili,” he grumbles.
“Drigo?” Savi and I ask at the same time.
The Kedi whips his head around and grins. “Champions? That really you?”
Drigo abandoned us and stole our things, but I still find myself rising and hugging him.
He chuckles. “I’d’a thought you’d run me through if we ever met again. You’re always a bundle of surprises. How’d you get them to let you keep the swords?”
The other prisoners perk up. “Swords?”
I blink and feel at my waist. Sure enough, Luemikaroeth is still there. How on Orrock did I not realize that? How did we get them past the guards?
“That’s a great question,” Savi says, clearly as perplexed as I am.
“Well, great,” Drigo says. “Then we can use them to get out, yeah?”
I raise an eyebrow. “Did we use them to get free from you bandits?”
He rolls his eyes and groans. “I know, I know, they’re for aivenkaites, not humans. But you could make an exception for⎼”
The door bangs open again, with two guards silhouetted in it. “You two,” one of them barks at Savi and me. “Come with us.”
Savi holds an arm in front of me. “But you can’t execute us till the Feast is over.”
“Obviously. The sultan wants you.”
Drigo grabs our arms. “Take me with you,” he hisses. “Don’t leave me to die here.”
“Drigo, you betrayed us,” Savi reminds him.
“Betray’s a little harsh. I’d say I abandoned you, not quite the same thing,” Drigo argues.
And he could very well do it again. But despite that, I still like Drigo. Against my better judgment, I tell the guards, “We’ll go with you, but this man is one of ours. He comes, too.”
“Thank you,” Drigo breathes.
I expect the guards to refuse. When they agree and hurry us out of the cell, my misgivings grow. What is so urgent that they’re not bothered by unnecessarily freeing a prisoner?
When they lead us up into the courtyard guarded by the faces of the dead, I understand.
The pungent fumes of fire fill the air. Surrounding the capital is a wall of flame three times higher than any building I’ve ever seen.
“‘His anger burns against you,’” Savi quotes in a whisper.
So this is what Aia meant.