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“Do something!” The sultan, minus his wheat crown, calls for our attention. He flicks a wrist toward the fire wall. “Speak to your divinity. Save us from this fire.”
The royals encircle him, standing this time. The statues of Api still stand inanimate under Yza’s flowing textiles, but the idols hold no one’s attention today. The scent of smoke is too strong. The amber flames sway, encapsulating the capital in heat, dividing it from the rest of the world.
It takes a moment to reclaim my voice. “As you wish. Aia, Father of all creation, please relent from Your anger and save us from this fire.” I lift my eyes to the specks of ierah visible between the textiles as I speak.
Unlike my declaration of Aia’s burning wrath, this time the effects are immediately visible. The flames fall to the ground like a snuffed candle. In a blink, no fire remains.
The sultan sends servants to inspect the city’s edge. “Find what has caused this terrible wonder,” he orders.
We wait in tense silence, no one moving from our places, until the servants return, running. One clutches something wrapped in the hem of her skirt. “There is no fire,” the servants exclaim. “The ground is even cool to touch! The only proof of the fire is this,” and a servant girl unwraps what she had hidden. Sunlight glints off of it as she hands it to the sultan.
“Marvelous,” he wonders, turning the shard over. “So clear and smooth. Where did you find this?”
The servant girl bows her head to the ground. “O our great Sultan, glass like this surrounds the whole city, where the heat from the fire melted the sand.”
The royals are quiet.
Savi says, “O our sultan and O our royals, you have seen the power of Aia-Thaies. Will you release Maraiah from slavery?”
Bathatyz, the woman who prompted the sultan to hear us out two nights ago, whispers in his ear. He frowns and gives a sharp nod at what she says, then in a loud voice orders, “Summon the court magicians. We shall compare their power to yours.”
The servants disappear into the palace, and the magicians emerge almost immediately. They bow before the sultan, glancing at each other nervously.
“You saw what these Maraians did,” the sultan says. “Can you replicate their sign?”
One of the magicians speaks with a shaking voice. “O our sultan, we will try to surpass their sign. We will bring fire out of water.”
The servants wheel out a bath of water, and my suspicions rise. They were planning their response before we were called out. Is this just a pretense?
The magicians circle the water, where they mutter together. Their voices rise, and their words become clearer. I recognize the name of Tivan Firebringer, but I also recognize something else. I grab Savi’s arm.
This is the first time I’ve heard the tongue of aivenkaites come from the mouths of living humans.
As they chant, the water in the bath sloshes back and forth. Their chanting grows. The water contorts. Fire flares up, blue at its core. The magicians roar aivenkaite words, raising their hands, and the flame also rises. It dances with hideous shapes from dark nightmares.
The magicians stop chanting. The flames linger for a horrible moment, living on their own.
Then they flicker out, and I loosen my grip on Saviayr.
The sultan crosses his arms. “See the power of Tivan Firebringer? Your Aia has failed to impress me. Can He bring fire from water?”
Anger and the compulsion to speak fill me. “Here is your second sign: You polluted the waters of this land with the bodies of Aia’s children. Now, Aia says, ‘All life within them will cease, and they will rot and stink with the foulness of death. Then you will know that I am greater than Havil Defender of Rivers.’
“You can prevent this,” I add in my own voice. All life in the rivers dead–that will be a terrible thing. In droughts or poor harvests, the river’s fish sustain us. “Free Aia’s people, and no more harm will come to you.”
“May your Aia be content with this: I will let you stay out of prison, at least for now,” the sultan declares. “I will never surrender my slaves.”
I open my mouth to protest, to proclaim the destruction his decision will bring, but Saviayr takes my hand. “Thank you.” Savi bows. “We will be outside the city if you need us. Come on, Drigo.”
We don’t speak until we lose sight of the palace. With each step, I expect heavy footsteps to chase us. I don’t believe the sultan’s word that he will let us go.
But no soldiers come to drag us back to prison. At least for now, the sultan honors his word.
When we reach the tents on the outskirts of the capital, packed with Feast celebrators whispering about the wall of fire, Drigo pulls on Savi and my elbows. “Okay, so explain to me what’s happening. You’re actually Champion-ing?” He spins to walk backward in front of us. “That wasn’t just a story?”
I brush by a man sweeping the rubbish gathered in front of his stall. He grunts and keeps on sweeping. No one here glances twice at us.
“Of course we’re actually being Champions,” I say. “Not all of us lie and betray our friends just for personal gain.”
“Ouch.” Drigo grimaces. “I didn’t know you had it in you, Rai.”
Savi looks sideways at me, but doesn’t say anything.
“It’s fair, though.” Drigo twists to walk face-forward again, dropping back beside me.
“How’d you get arrested?” Savi asks.
Drigo snorts. “Laen sold me and the treasure out for entrance into Altik’s crew.”
“Yep. But seriously, what’s the plan? What are you up to?”
I stop and squint at him. “Drigo, do you honestly expect us to tell you that? When you abandoned us without supplies?” I need to know, before we show him to our camp.
“Hey, I’m with you now. Can’t blame a bandit for being, well, a bandit, can you?” Then he sobers. “I don’t have any better options than sticking with you. If you’re actually being suicidal and trying to get your people free…Heck, I saw what happened back in the canyon, with the crazy storm and your glowing sword. I saw that fire with my own two eyes just now. I’m betting you were responsible for that?” He raises an eyebrow.
I look at Savi. “Aia was responsible,” he corrects.
Drigo rolls his eyes. “Yeah, but He wasn’t doing anything like that till you two came along, right?”
I shrug in answer.
“So, you’ve got a real chance, best as I figure. I stick with you and it’ll be a ride, that’s for sure. I’ll either end up dead or free. Either way, I’ll see the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen,” Drigo finishes. “Besides, if I run into Altik again, I’m a dead man.”
I sigh and start walking again. “Fine. I don’t trust you, but we’ll play along. We’re demanding Maraiah’s freedom from the sultan and royals. Since they’ve refused, Aia is…how would you explain it, Savi?”
Savi’s lips twitch up. “Aia’s introducing Himself to the Izyphorns by discrediting their divinities.”
“No kidding?” Drigo says. “Well, this should be interesting. Hey wait, where are we going?”
We started descending the great ramp around the capital while talking. Part way down, we pass beside a gigantic wooden wheel, striking in the day where we passed it by unnoticed in the night. Buckets dangle from the outside of the wheel, which hangs by spokes on a pole driven into the mesa’s side below us. I crane my neck and see a bucket tip as it reaches the wheel’s zenith, no doubt pouring its contents into the vat at the top of a water trough. I edge as close to the side of the ramp as I dare and peer down, where the buckets disappear under a trench running with water from the mighty Havilim.
So that’s how they provide water for the largest city on Orrock.
“We’re going to the camp,” Savi answers Drigo. “Hopefully everyone else is there safe.”
“Hoenna said he’d take care of Nihae,” I tell Savi.
“That’s good. I hoped he was.” Savi lets out a breath.
The ramp levels out at the base of the mesa, and we follow it to the south. The hawk-like kak-kak-kak of the axex warns we’re near the camp. “What the…” Drigo frowns.
Savi smirks. “Just wait till you see this.”
No sooner has he said that than a large axex, Forziel’s friend, swoops toward us, screeching. Just before it reaches us, the axex flares its wings and lands.
Drigo screams and flinches back. Savi and I burst into laughter.
“Lightning,” Forziel calls. “What’re you getting up to?” He appears at a jog and breaks into a grin when he sees us. “You’re back!”
Drigo hides behind us, pointing at the creature. “What–what is that thing?”
Forziel plants his fists on his hips. “That is no thing. That’s Lightning, my axex.”
Liwin, never far behind Forziel, comes around the bend. “Hiyya, Rai, Savi,” he says. “Drigo, you’re back?”
Drigo won’t take his eyes off the axex. He grunts. “Does it eat people?”
“I mean, not if they don’t make it angry,” Forziel answers. “Or not if they aren’t dead. Now that I think about it, they might be scavengers.”
“You wanna hear my joke?” Liwin asks. “What do you get when a lion marries a hawk?”
Forziel intones, “Gee, I don’t know. What do you get?”
Liwin starts laughing before he finishes saying, “I don’t know, why don’t you axex them yourself?”
Forziel laughs along with Liwin. “It’s not true,” he explains. “The axex don’t come from lions or hawks, but it’s funny every time.”
“Are you still telling that joke?” Hoenna calls. “Let the Champions be.”
Liwin grins at us. “Dad’s just teasing. He thinks it’s hilarious. But come on, what are you waiting over here for?” With a wave, he leads us over the short distance left to camp.
“So, how’d you get out of prison?” Forziel asks. “And did you see that crazy fire earlier? And where’d you find Drigo?”
Savi pats his back. “Let’s wait until we’re all together, so we only have to tell the story once,” he suggests.
Drigo gives Forziel’s axex a wide berth. When the camp comes into sight, the rest of the axex rove around between us and our friends. The Kedi mumbles and sidesteps them with great care.
“Welcome back,” Hoenna says. Then he sees Drigo. In a blink, Hoenna covers the distance between them and slams his fist into Drigo’s face.
Drigo shouts and clutches his eye. “What was that for?”
“That’s for stealing from us, your crew,” Hoenna scowls. Then he smacks Drigo’s back. “But it’s good to see you again. Glad you weren’t killed by salamanders or Altik’s crew.”
Meanwhile, Nihae hurries to hug Savi. “Where have you been?” she scolds.
He squeezes her back. “We had a bit of trouble, but we’re okay now. How are you, Mama?”
While they talk, I scan the gathered faces, relieved to see everyone safe and sound. Then my eyes light on someone else. Leaning in the corner, lazy grin on his face, is Nhardah.