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“Umph,” Nhardah grunts. “I’m glad to see you, too, Raiballeon.”
“You have no idea how much we’ve been through,” I mumble into his shoulder.
Nhardah gives me a squeeze and pats my back. “Daughter, you and young Saviayr handled it admirably, I’ve been told.”
I pull back and frown at the Firstborn. “Admirably? We nearly drowned, and Savi almost fell to his death, and then we were trapped–and bats attacked us! And this sword.” I loose Luemikaroeth from my sash and hold it up to Nhardah. “Did you know this sword could glow? Why didn’t you tell me? What took you so long to find us?”
“Peace to you,” Savi says behind me, really smiling for the first time since Yrin’s dungeon. Nhardah beams at him, and the two embrace. “We’re glad you’re back. A lot’s happened since we parted. The baby?”
Nhardah inclines his head. “It took more finagling than I anticipated to return the child to her family, but she is well and on her way to the coast now. Evidently her village was one of the last Maraian groups waiting to join the work projects along the shore.”
Savi taps my shoulder with the back of his finger. “That’s where Yrin said Yori was, with the clans on the coast.”
I rest my hand over my heart. Aia, may we find my sister, after all of this is done. I remember Nhardah took the baby because he wanted to be more active in the world. “How do you feel about that?” I ask.
“It feels good to do good,” Nhardah says. “Now, tell me of your adventures.”
Forziel groans. “This is gonna take a while. Liwin and I are gonna go exploring, if that’s okay with you, Hoenna. Don’t start on the good stuff till we’re back.”
Hoenna agrees, so the boys leave. I’m glad Forziel has gotten past whatever his problem was with Hoenna.
Savi and I take turns telling Nhardah of our adventures, with Hoenna and Drigo filling in details we forgot. I want to pass off the responsibility of telling Nhardah of Aia’s new definition of his descendents. When I hesitate, though, Savi nudges me.
I wrinkle my nose at him but say, “Nhardah, the next bit was…a little crazy, and I understand if you’re upset by it–we all do.” Savi, Hoenna, and Drigo nod, while Nihae looks at us and follows our lead. “But it wasn’t my intention. I didn’t plan to⎼”
Savi takes my hand, successfully cutting off my ramble. Drigo says, “She did that thing where her voice changes and it sounds like she’s hundreds of people at once.”
Nhardah smiles. “What did you say with the Voice of a Multitude?”
I can’t meet his eyes. “I said, ‘All who follow Aia-Thaies and seek to know Him are Maraians.’ At least, I think that’s what I said.”
“That’s it, word-for-word,” Hoenna confirms. “It’s engraved in my memory.”
We all still, watching Nhardah for his reaction. He rests his chin in the gap between his thumb and index fingers and looks at the ground, then looks at the sky. When he looks at us, I hold my breath and expect disappointment.
Instead, he speaks in a calm voice. “Do you know what tongue we spoke in Elcedon?”
The others look at me. “N…no?”
Nhardah nods slowly. “It was the first language, the perfect language, in which we could–but I won’t bore you with lessons in linguistics. This is what you should know: Nowhere is that tongue still spoken. The kaites remember, but do not speak it out of grief for what happened in the Rending. I remember, but with whom should I speak in the language that died with the last of my peers? It was in that tongue that Aia spoke His promise to me beside the clear Lake of Living Water, and I have translated it as best as I could. But that word that I translated as ‘descendents,’ it has more meaning than just those who carry my blood in their veins. It has an idea of everything that passes on after you, the impact your life has on the course of Orrock’s history and future. Perhaps a more apt translation would have been ‘legacy.’”
The Firstborn looks straight into my eyes. “I am not mad, Raiballeon. I was too limited in my interpretation of Aia’s promise, and He has kindly opened all of our eyes to the wideness of His plans for hope. It is only right that He claim whoever He will as His people.”
After that, I’m able to relax more for the remainder of our recounting. I still chastise Nhardah for hiding Luemikaroeth’s power from me when we tell about escaping in the Ruined City.
Nhardah just smirks and looks at Savi. “Did you find anything interesting about Elgarnoseth?”
Savi stares at Nhardah. “No. Should I have?”
The Firstborn doesn’t answer, but Savi watches him closely for any clues. “Please, continue,” Nhardah says.
While we do, I notice Savi surreptitiously run his fingers over his sword. Nothing changes about Elgarnoseth, at least not that I can see.
We just finish telling about our last encounter with the sultan when Forziel and Liwin skid back into camp. Liwin doubles over, panting, and Forziel clutches his stomach. Hoenna frowns at them. “Boys, is this really the time and place for competition?”
“We weren’t,” Liwin protests.
“You gotta come see this,” Forziel says. He points behind him. “The water…”
Instantly, Savi meets my eyes. “The second sign,” he says, and we break into a jog.
I smell it before I see it: Sharp and scarlet rot, a stomach-turning stench all too familiar for anyone who has lived near a Maraian village. My memory of this smell clips my pace, and it takes all my effort to keep moving forward.
The water wheel rises against the sky, and the odor is stronger than ever. Savi staggers and falls to his knees.
“The water–it was just full of dead fish all of a sudden, and the reeds there turned limp and sludgy,” Forziel rambles. “Everything in it is dead.”
I pinch my nose and suck shallow breaths through clenched teeth, and kneel next to Savi. His face is white like sun-bleached cotton. His eyes stare blindly at the hard ground. “Savi?” I rub his shaking shoulder.
He grips the frayed hem of what used to be my dress but is now little more than a short tunic. “It’s just like that day,” Savi chokes out.
“Hey, we don’t need to go any closer.” I pull him up. With Savi leaning heavily on my shoulder, we stumble away from the flow of water. Only when the smell and Savi’s gasps diminish do I ask if he wants to talk about it.
“I…did I ever tell you my first memory?” He is still shaking, and his voice quivers, too.
“I don’t know. Start telling me about it, and I’ll let you know if you have.”
He rubs the heel of his hand over the sheen of sweat on his forehead. “It was when I was four. Mama sent me to the river for water, and I always went to a special gap in the reeds, just big enough for my pail. That’s what they tell me, at least. That day, something was different. It smelled…well, I waded into the river and found a box.”
I know what’s coming before he finishes, and it makes my stomach more upset than the smell did. I hold him tighter, wishing that could change the past.
“It was a box, with a dead baby in it. A Maraian baby who suffered alone in its too-short life, because of the cursed Izyphorns.”
Drigo swears. The others huddle close around us. “That’s rot,” Drigo says. “No way should that be anyone’s first memory.”
A wet trail shines on Nhardah’s dark cheek. “Aia, bring justice,” he whispers more to himself than to any of us.
“They should suffer,” Liwin declares. “They gotta know just how bad they treated us.”
I think of the kaites, who spoke of forgiveness and trusting Aia to mete out vengeance, and close my eyes. The breeze wafts a fresh wave of vile fetor over us, and my stomach protests. Like Liwin, I crave vengeance, but my deepest training warns adamantly against it. I don’t know what to say.
“Then it’s a good thing they’re not letting us go right away,” Savi grunts. “From what Rai has prophesied, their reluctance will bring them suffering.”
“Then I guess we’d better get back to the palace,” I say. “Now that Aia’s shown Himself greater than Havil, the sultan and royals will be waiting for us.”