The Cilersinei Wars

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To Pretend Divine

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 1)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6052 Years Ago

4793 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

She stood above the dead and dying.

Under her tensed a horse bred for battle, before this land had even known such a thing as war. But she had known. It had been her fate, told to her the night her wiseblood came, and she shivered in a tent hung with bleached baryet skulls, wicked teeth jutting forward and dancing in the red glow from the wisewoman's fire, waiting to devour her as she hugged her knees to her chest and breathed heavy incense through an open mouth as the smoke burned her eyes. She had known, and in the knowing forgotten such trivialities as loyalty and family. Where she stood now, dripping sweat and breathing blood, was the end to a path of treachery long laid out before her birth, and she bathed in it as she would bathe at sunrise, ridding herself of the stink of carnage and madman's howls.

Here, in this land, fighting came in darkness. Sunlight bore too heavy a brand to allow any war during the day when sand dunes glowed against the sharp cuts of their shadows. All the stars in heaven heard their cries, and every ancestor nestled among them wept at the rend she had created from centuries of tightly woven camaraderie.

Men died miles below her with her name on their lips, the tender skin of their mouths cracking and bleeding from overexposure to the sun, something ecstatic and fearful in their wails before a gust of wind tore them away completely. Above them all, untouched by glory, she smiled, and prayed, wishing her champions a swift departure.

Versaisna Hinthialsec, daughter of Versaisna Milxpuia, daughter of Versaisna Cauthapulumxva, closed her eyes, but she could still see the torch that burned no bigger than a pinprick in the darkness, declaring where her enemy, her sister, also watched.

 

A Knot in the Weave

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 2)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6322 Years Ago

5063 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

"You are the beginning."

She couldn't breathe. Smoke clotted in her nose as huge wafts of it drizzled up from tiny mounds of incense, all glowing red from different corners of the tent. She tried opening her mouth to breathe as tears streamed down her cheeks, but found the smoke only pooled in the back of her throat and made her gag. Versaisna Amati was going to die on her sixteenth birthingday, and the wiseman fortelling her portents didn't even blink at the prospect.

She almost said something then, but his eerily distant gaze suddenly focused and he looked up at her, eyes gleaming younger in the folds of his wizened, leather-dark skin, and she forgot her dying. "The Beginning," he hissed, and grinned, teeth bloody from the firelight. Before she could ask what she was the beginning of, he stood and shuffled around his tiny fire, laying hands on her shoulders as he reached her and pulling her to her feet. She wanted to ask, but found herself silenced again when the elder placed his parchment hands on her face, cupping her cheeks as he kissed her forehead. His lips were strangely cool against the dampness of her sweating brow, and her questions fled when he pulled away and dropped his hands after a soft pat to her cheek.

"Go and celebrate, Amati. You have much to look forward to."

A curiosity glimmered in the back of her mind, but she turned and left the tent and stood outside a moment, suddenly disoriented. The musk and heat of the tent washed away from her with one gusting breeze that carried with it laughter, music, and the smell of food. With one rumble of her stomach, she forgot completely that slight nudge in her thoughts that begged an answer and went running into the middle of the camp's celebration. Her celebration.

"I am Versaisna Amati! And I am a woman!" She yelled in the middle of the camp and was met with roars of cheers, heckling, and laughter. Amati grinned back at them all and whooped when her father swept her up from behind into a dance that led to the edge of the encampment. His clean face grinned down at her as they whirled, and she giggled girlishly, still young despite her proclamation of womanhood.

When the music ended--because musicians got hungry, too--he let her go with a fierce hug and walked back into the middle of camp, leaving her with the milling people who had been dancing around them moments before. Voices drifted past in a blur of congratulations and she grinned at them all, hands planted firmly on skinny hips that also denied her claim to maturity.

She sank to the packed sand when they had all moved on, and flopped down onto her back, arms wide and chest heaving, a grin frozen in her cheeks as she closed her eyes. Amati breathed, simply feeling the air rush in and out of her lungs and the lingering warmth of trapped sun in sand as it seeped up through her body. When the cloying scent of the wiseman's incense suddenly suffocated her, she gasped and sat up quickly, eyes blinded by the glow of the camp.

"Are you all right?"

Amati yelped and scooted away from the low timbre at her right before looking up at a man who somehow seemed trapped in boyhood.

"I am going to guess you are fine," he laughed, "if your reflexes are anything to judge by." His grin was wide in a clean, smooth face--completely unlined, yet, from sun damage. "Here," he said, and stooped down to offer her a hand.

Amati found herself taking the hand and smiling back from instinct, only freezing after he pulled her to her feet and she saw the chain around his neck, with the symbol of a Trader dangling at the end. She ripped her hand from his as if she'd been stung and clasped it with her other at her chest, eyes wide a moment before she glared at him. "How dare you!" She stomped a foot in emphasis. "You are not priviledged enough to touch a Versaisna! You are just a-- a simple trader! You should be at your own camp!"

All joviality slipped from the man's face--she guessed him eighteen or so because of his confused facial hair, tufting in odd places since his shave earlier in the day--and he simply looked at her a long moment, expression unreadable this far from firelight. "This place is in neither camp," he replied calmly. "I have not overstepped any bounds." He suddenly grinned again. "But I would."

Before she could react, he had an arm around her waist and his mouth over hers. She squealed and twisted her face away from the kiss, flailing against him with all her limbs before he let her drop, hard, on her rear.

"My name is Arac, in case you want to remember who gave you your first kiss as a 'woman'." With a wink, he turned and strode off for the Trader's camp, where they also celebrated her first birthingday after wiseblood, but remained separate from her own camp. The Traders were of the same Tribes in the larger camp, her camp, but were not welcomed as family. The Traders were tainted with things from stationary cities, and the nomads despised the Traders for it.

But as she walked back to her own camp, she looked toward the Traders, and listened to a sweet boneflute being played in a melody more intoxicating than anyone in her own Tribe had skill to capture. In a break between the backs of men surrounding their own large fire, she saw Arac with the flute to his lips and a glint in his eye.

You are the Beginning.

The wiseman's words came back to her in a flood and she stopped, still in that area that belonged to neither camp. With a glance to the fire her own family sat around, she turned her steps away and approached the Trader's camp, consciously squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin, just to remind them whose kindred she was.

As the firelight finally picked her out, the music stopped, and men turned with raised eyebrows to watch the thin, new woman in their midst before they remembered to murmur their congratulations, but she only watched Arac, and when he stood, walked over to him.

This was her gift to her Tribe, to return to them all the favors they had bestowed upon her to keep her alive, nurture and feed her, comfort and love her. With this birthingday, the first of her womanhood, a daughter was expected to choose her first bedmate, and provide a new member for the Tribe, so the name would live on. Amati trembled only slightly when Arac turned away from her and walked across smaller campfires to his own tent, leading the way.

Music started up again behind her as if she had never interrupted it in the first place. This was her right to choose. She could honor any man with her gift tonight. Any man. The fact that it was forbidden to lay with any member of the Traders was what made her shiver, or so she thought.

Her certainty failed her when Arac allowed the flap to his tent to close behind her and he began to lace it closed.

You are the Beginning.

Her prophecy seemed to whisper past her ear a moment, but before she could turn her head to listen, it was Arac's voice she heard, murmuring against her earlobe as his hands pressed against the outsides of her thighs and raked upwards, fingers catching in her clothes.

"Your duty," Amati began breathlessly, "is to provide me with the gift for my family." She swallowed, shaking now under his warm hands as they caressed and massaged, waiting for her permission to remove her clothes.

"I will serve," Arac purred, his hands finally pausing beneath her ribs.

Amati laid her shaking hands over his, and stilled. It wasn't fear, but excitement she felt. This was part of becoming a woman, the mystery her mother and aunts had smiled secretly about when she had asked. This was more than duty, she realized. Women enjoyed this!

Amati suddenly laughed and squeezed Arac's hands, then led them to the first fastenings of her clothes. She was still laughing, softly, when Arac turned her toward him and kissed her, more gently than when he had before, outside both camps where they were neither Tribe, simply people, not Trader and Versaisna. And when he laid her down, she lost her voice in his hair.

 

Trying Tradition

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 3)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6286 Years Ago

5027 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

Pearls--polished, white, slick on skin--oppressed.

Delicate singly, woven together in masses they suffocated the breath with an unliftable weight against the chest and pressed down shoulders with heavy, illusory hands. Beads taken from dead things and draped over live things, clattering and clicking with just the struggle of a breath, looping below breasts and hanging between the knees, choking the throat in strands seven thick, rolling and shifting with a swallow.

Versaisna Thesan felt as if she slept thickly, someplace far from this ceremonial tent, rolled in her blankets and propped against a wall, all the heaviness of dreams trying to push her to lie on the ground. But there were no dreams. This was no dream.

And she could only feel the pearls.

More were fastened around her biceps, pretty arm cuffs that knocked against the scant bodice that barely cupped her chest, the fragile straps crawling over her shoulders and down beneath her shoulder blades only two strands wide apiece. Thesan feared the whole of it would snap off if she breathed deeply--if she were capable of breathing deeply.

She felt ill, light-headed, the pot of incense over which she stood, straddle-legged, overwhelming her with wisps of lavender and rosemary. Thesan moved a little to keep herself awake--or she thought she moved. Herself and everything around felt thick, and she could not tell if she had moved her feet, or if the leaded air around her had moved them for her.

"I am tired, ati. May I not rest?" Thesan asked wearily.

"No, sec," her mother answered. "It is almost time." Versaisna Sval fastened the last loop of pearls to her daughter's waist and stood.

"Time?" Thesan smiled ruefully. "For me to be tossed back into the sea?" Thesan lifted her arms mockingly, displaying her pearl-encrusted self.

Her mother made no comment, instead moving behind Thesan to smooth her elaborately pinned hair and press in pearl-tipped hairpins with quick, practiced movements.

"You would think he is trying to make me look like himself," Thesan said, and looked down, frowning at how much of her chestnut skin was hidden by the whiteness of the pearls. "Pale." She lifted her head with effort, her thick hair heavy, piled atop her head. "Who is he?"

"We do not know," Sval answered.

"Where is he from?"

"We do not know."

"Is he kind?"

Sval shrugged.

"I am being married to a nonexistent man," Thesan complained. "No name, no tribe, no home--"

"But wealthy."

"But a stranger!" Thesan retorted. "Have you ever seen skin as pale as his before? And his hair--" Pearls snickered against each other when she shuddered. "--yellow."

"He has provided good trade."

"But where does he take the things we trade him? So much one man cannot use, yet we never see more than him. We have traveled around this whole land and have never seen a place where he or others like him may live."

Her mother remained silent and adjusted a fold in the silk pants that ballooned around her daughter's thighs, matted in front and back by pearls that hung to Thesan's knees.

"Do I not have the right to choose if I marry or not?"

"No."

"Why? Ati nacna could choose."

"Because I provided an heir for the Name, Thesan," a thin voice suddenly answered.

Thesan had forgotten her grandmother was in the marriage tent, so drugged was she by the weight of her ridiculous dress and the incense. Turning her head proved an ordeal beyond her current abilities, Thesan realized, and instead allowed her chin to sag beneath the weight of pinned hair and pearls.

"I am sorry I failed to provide an heir. But please, do not make me marry this foreigner," Thesan begged.

"Had you borne a child, Thesan, you would be able to choose for yourself. As it is, your family chooses for you," her grandmother answered. "He seems a kind man, and he will provide more wealth for our Name, and so more strength. Do you not want your family to be strong?"

Thesan clenched her jaw and closed her kohled eyes, the gentle admonishment in her grandmother's words wounding her self-pride and reminding her of her first duty. To her family. Not to herself.

"But it is not allowed to marry outside our tribe." Thesan tried one last time.

Thesan could hear her grandmother move, and saw her mother move aside before her grandmother came into view. Though Thesan was taller than her grandmother, she felt small beneath the older woman's gaze. So proud. So predatory.

"You are saying I was wrong, granddaughter."

"No, ati nacna. I do not say that."

"But I married outside the tribe."

"You were not wrong." Thesan looked away, horrified she had accused her grandmother of a wrongful act, and ashamed to have dishonored her grandfather's memory by proclaiming him a foreigner.

"Then this is not wrong." Her grandmother suddenly smiled. "I know you are frightened, Thesan, but he will be a good husband. Despite his pale skin and yellow hair, he understands us, and this is what matters."

"Yes, ati nacna," Thesan answered, subdued.

Her grandmother shook her head. "No, dear. After today, you belong to him, and his people. You will have no right to address me so informally again." As she spoke, her grandmother sounded sad.

"But... what will I call you?" Thesan asked, frightened again that this should also be taken away from her.

Her grandmother smiled. "I am Versaisna Amati, Thesan." Strong, rough hands gently touched Thesan's chin. "And today... you are a woman."

 

The Fires of Passion

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 4)

 

Land Unknown
6277 Years Ago

5018 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

"Cinus temfis ipa." I am without fear.

"Temfis vetu." I forbid fear.

"Enu." I will flee.

"Is nekur ipa." I will kill him.

"Stop."

"Si."

"And speak so I can understand you."

"Yes."

Svår turned away from his wife, his head dipping again slightly so he could squint along the edge of his knife. Expressionless, he lowered the knife and ran a stone across the edge, continuing what his wife's babble had interrupted.

"What were you saying?" Svår asked, uninterested.

"A prayer."

He smiled, though she could not see it, his broad back a conclusive wall.

"To my gods? Or yours?"

"Meek. Uni."

Mine. Only.

"In my language!" Svår roared and slammed his knife down onto the table.

"Mine."

"We have discussed this."

"Yes."

"You pray to mine. You speak mine. You are mine."

"No."

Svår turned to look at his wife where she sat on the floor, dark head bowed over a torn piece of clothing, dark fingers mending nimbly, the whole of her meek and impassive, except for her word. He watched her a moment, confused.

"No?"

When she did not answer, he stood, the small stool on which he'd been sitting toppling over and rolling gently on a carpet. "What do you mean, 'no'?"

She continued to sew, fingers pinched near the point of the needle, pushing through, pulling out, elegantly, precisely, beautifully. So beautifully.

He had not given her permission to do it so beautifully.

"Answer!" Svår yelled again, this time stooping to slap her cheek with the back of his hand.

Her head whipped to the side and the needle flew from her fingers, but the cloth fell into her lap, mute, as she remained to be, and she did not turn her head to look back up at her husband. She watched, instead, her son, sitting behind and to the left of his father. Sitting where he had been the entire time, grinding petals to a pulp. She could smell the tang of cactus flower, a freshness in the stale air cluttering the walls, and saw how her son had stopped, and stared, fright in his eight-year old eyes, the pestle forgotten in his small hand, petal milk dripping from the end.

"Answer!" Svår's angry voice slapped her first before he did again, ripping her face away from the sight of her son. Her Naces. A son who, before her head was jerked aside, began to look angry.

She screamed as Svår dug his fingers into her thick hair and hauled her to her feet, and he smiled, happy to have broken her silence. He kept his hand wrapped in her black hair and circled his other arm around her waist, pressing her back to him.

"Answer," he breathed, before pulling her head roughly to one side and laying his lips to her neck.

"Answer," his voice grated this time when she remained silent, and he bit into the soft skin joining her shoulder and neck. She whimpered and he squeezed her body suffocatingly close before pushing her forward, forcing her to stumble and fall to her knees.

Svår kneeled immediately behind her and grabbed her thighs, pulling her closer, dragging her knees and palms across the carpet painfully. His wife cried out at the touch. His hands felt as if they were burning. She tried to crawl away when he threw her skirt up over her waist, and was surprised when she could; his fingers were no longer clamped around her thighs.

When she had crawled what she felt was a safe distance away, she turned, and was surprised at his face. Svår looked afraid.

She looked at his hands, as he was, and gasped when she saw them smoldering. Smoke wafted up from his fingertips and curled around his pale face, hung onto his yellow mustache. Svår watched his hands, confused, before he looked up at his wife.

"Thesan?" Svår asked, bewildered, before he screamed.

Thesan stood and leapt away from him when he suddenly lurched and fell forward, more smoke rising from his back, his heels, his hips, and even his yellow hair. His screams were worse than his angry shouts, more terrifying because this man who never showed fear, sounded afraid.

She watched her husband as he writhed on the carpet--one of the wedding gifts given so long ago by her grandmother--and suddenly, viciously smiled.

"Cinus temfis ipa." I am without fear.

Thesan suddenly remembered that she was in his home, not hers, and was afraid of the penalty his people would administer on a wife for hurting her husband, though she wasn't certain how she had hurt him. With desperation, she started to run around the walled home, trying to block out Svår's heightening screams as he thrashed on the floor, and grabbed a sackful of hasty supplies.

"Naces!" Thesan yelled and ran over to her son and crouched to hug him. The pestle he had still been holding frozen fell suddenly from his fingers, and when it clattered against the mortar, Svår's screams abruptly stopped.

Thesan lifted her face from her son's hair to look at her husband's body, still now, but still smoking. Realization that he was dead, must be dead, was slow to come, and swept over her gently, warmly, with all the comfort of her grandmother's arms. Smiling, she looked down at her son, and gasped.

The angry, pinched expression on his face vanished and he looked up at his mother with a sweet smile. Thesan looked at him, then at her husband's smoldering body, and back at him.

"Naces?" She asked, suddenly frightened where before she had sworn she had no fear. Neighboring voices were beginning to get louder. Thesan pulled her son to his feet gently, forgetting her suspicion of him in Svår's strange murder.

"Ati?"

Thesan smiled as her son used the familiar term for mother in her language, not Svår's.

"Yes, Naces?"

Her son paused, and Thesan began to get anxious, afraid Svår's people would arrive here soon and prevent her from leaving.

"Are we leaving?"

Thesan smiled and took her son's hand, gently leading him to the door. "Yes, Naces. We are going home. My home." She took the knife her husband had been sharpening from the table and tucked it, unsheathed, into her belt. "Our home."

 

The Truly Great

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 5)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6268 Years Ago

5009 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

"This--is for you."

Naces took the small stone and flinched at its chill. Cradling it gently in his palm, Naces brought the stone closer to his face to peer at it, half-admiring the way its black surface caught and reflected the dim light in some places and seemed to swallow it in others, refracting it within itself and remitting it as an inner glow. The stone did not look carved, but it must have been, its shape that of an eight-pointed star, each arm tapering into points thin enough to prick at his skin and threaten blood.

"What is it?" Naces asked.

When no answer immediately came, Naces looked up from his inspection of the star stone and saw the wiseman smiling broadly, teeth made bright by surrounding dark skin.

"Something that will help you discover who you are."

"But I know who I am," Naces replied, the confidence of his name and seventeen years of living making his voice strong without being insolent. "I am Versaisna Naces, son of Versaisna Thesan, daughter of Versaisna Sval, daughter of Versaisna Amati."

The old man nodded serenely as Naces recited his blood tree back three generations, eyes closed until Naces finished. When he opened them, the laughter was gone from the elder eyes.

"You know who made you. But now you must make yourself." He held up a hand before Naces could speak. "You know my family, yes, Versaisna Naces?"

Naces struggled to follow the elder's jumps in logic, not having expected a sudden informality among the serious speakings of his possible future.

"Yes."

Again the wiseman nodded. "Who are we?"

Naces frowned, confused. "You are Fizhis Eta, son of Fizhis Ere, son of--"

"No." Eta looked up, the whites of his eyes red from reflecting the fire. "Who are we? What is my family?"

"You... are the He Tum, the seers. Is that what you mean?"

Eta smiled. "Yes. The Fizhis line is known for producing children who can see what will come. We found our purpose early in our blood's life." He smiled again, something friendly, yet fierce in his eyes. "What is your purpose?"

"My... purpose?" Naces shook his head, now thoroughly confused. This part of the man-making ceremony was nothing like he'd been told.

"Yes. The Fizhis blood are He Tum." Eta sat back and opened both his hands, palm up, as if beseeching Naces for an answer. "What are the Versaisna?"

"What--we are... We are the Ryna Tribe, the King Tribe," Naces answered proudly, finally finding his answer and his voice.

"Yes, yes. But what are you?" Again Eta held up his hand before Naces could voice his confusion and frustration, and smiled that serene, knowledgeable smile again. "The Fizhis know. We have always known. We have been waiting for you, Naces."

"Waiting--?"

"Four generations ago, your great-grandmother was the Beginning for your blood. Versaisna Amati started the future we have been waiting for, and since her woman-making night, we have been waiting for you." Excitement leaked into Eta's calm, normally soothing voice. Naces frowned, and looked down at the star stone held loosely in his hand.

"Waiting for me. Me. Naces."

Eta chuckled. "Oh, not you as the person you are now. We knew no name, no gender, we did not know it would be a young boy named Naces," Eta leaned forward, "but we knew the individual who could change our tribe and bring revolution would come soon after Versaisna Amati." The wiseman spread his arms wide, embracing nothing. "And here you are!"

"Revolution? Change? What exactly do you expect me to do?"

"Ah. That is for you to discover, not for us to tell or demand. You can choose your destiny, Naces. Not all is preordained. But we have seen what one choice will bring, and hope it is what you will choose. This," Eta stretched an arm across the low fire between them and tapped the hand in which Naces held the star stone, "will make known to you the choices."

Naces looked down again at the smooth, black star in his hand, and shuddered. For a moment, it had seemed he held no stone, in fact, could hold nothing at all--because a small, star-shaped hole went through his hand. But instead of seeing the carpet beneath him through the hole, he saw stars; millions, all congealed and compacted into the small hole in his hand.

Naces gasped and threw his head back, tearing his eyes away from the illusion. Eta was staring at him intently, withered lips parted slightly in fervent ecstasy and expectation.

"I decide my own life!" Naces suddenly shouted, and stood, gripping the star stone in a hard fist, intent on shattering it, but for all its delicate appearance, it did not shatter. It, instead, stabbed eight tiny holes into his palm.

Naces gasped and opened his hand, watching as the dots of blood made an oblong circle when his palm stretched.

"Go."

Eta's voice was soft, but it startled Naces all the same, and he nearly dropped the star stone, but found he had already closed his hand protectively around it. With a confused look between Eta and his softly closed hand, he started to speak.

"Go, Naces," Eta interrupted. "Now the journey of your man-making begins. Supplies will be waiting for you at the edge of camp. Travel safe."

Eta stood and moved deeper into his dimly lit tent, shadows hiding him even as Naces squinted to try to keep him in sight. When nothing further happened, Naces sighed, pocketed the star stone, and walked out into the evening air. Now the true test of his manhood began. He would have to travel across the sands, alone, and survive only with what was given him today and what he might find. Truly great men returned with brand new discoveries to share with and enrich the tribe. Most men merely survived.

Naces trekked across the large encampment with only silence and the stars above to accompany him. A man must start alone. With no farewells.

* * *

Fizhis Eta emerged from his tent to watch Naces' retreating back, his withered, sun-dark hand trembling where it held the door flap aside.

"Go, Naces," he whispered as the boy stopped near his mother's tent. "Go, and become what you are."

Eta allowed the tent flap to close and returned to his small fire on the floor, then sat. He held his hands to the warmth as if they were cold, and stared through his fingers.

After countless breaths, he laid his hands in his lap and bowed his head, strings of grey-white hair falling to fray near his cheeks.

"Naces, for our hopes, become a truly great man," Eta whispered.

 

Unmarked

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 6)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6216 Years Ago

4957 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

"What is your name?"

"Where did you come from?"

"Are you my age?"

"What are your people like?"

"Do you sing?"

"Do you like psol?"

"Do they let you play?"

Eteri Lautni giggled under the barrage of questions, hiding her face with a tip of her chin behind a dark blanket of hair which tickled her elbows. Cheeks glowed pink below a gold tan, making her a spark surrounded by a sea of darker arms and faces, giggling constantly without opening her teeth or unclenching her twisting fingers. Her lips stretched back in what could be a delighted or horrified grin, frozen in either instance as strange fingers tugged at her clothes and petted her hair like a stray camel recently arrived at camp.

"Lautni," she managed, her voice higher and sweeter than those of the children around her, and as one, they breathed in, startled she had suddenly spoken, then exhaled in another round of curiosity.

"What did she say?"

"Her name."

"What?"

"She said her name!"

"What is it?"

"Lautni."

"Lot-nee?"

"Lautni!"

"Lautni," she repeated, quietly, and lifted her chin.

At once the squirming bodies encircling her stopped. Dark eyes swivled and lips thinned. Lautni held her breath, fearing she had broken a rule as yet unknown to her. The Versaisna had been expanding their camp, taking in other tribes that wished to join, and her tribe was the newest to arrive. Behave, her mother had said. The Versaisna are a touchy people. You do wrong and we will have to leave.

Lautni almost sobbed, afraid she had done wrong.

But the stony faces glared not at her, but beyond, and she slowly turned, looking through a space between shoulders and heads surrounding her.

Skirting around the bustle of the newly arrived Eteri tribe walked a boy, no younger or older than the ones around her, or even herself, but he looked heavy with age. His shoulders stooped and his head hung, unaware or simply ignoring as each Eteri paused in their work to stare ar his passing.

"Who is that?" Lautni asked, her voice a soft breath.

"Ziva," a girl hissed.

Lautni gasped. "Dead?" Despite the sand baking her bare feet from beneath, Lautni shivered and stared at the boy.

Another boy--Thevru was his name, she remembered--chuckled and kicked at the sand, sending a puff of dust drifting after the cowed boy. "His name is Cala. The perfect grandson of Versaisna Naces," Thevru sneered. "But not so perfect now, eh?" He elbowed the boy standing next to him, knocking him off balance, but the boy giggled anyway, almost nervously.

"What happened?" Lautni asked.

"Naces has power," Thevru said exictedly. "He can light things on fire without even touching them! At first we wouldn't take him back, because his mother brought dishonor to our name." Thevru turned around to grin at Lautni, speaking with the knowledge of one who had been alive during the events, but impossibly young to have witnessed it "She killed her husband and ran away from his tribe. But we decided Naces should not have dishonor simply by being her son, but then he began to have... power."

He heaved a breath, fairly panting in his excitement. "No one would speak to Naces, but his power was so helpful. We could get the camping grounds we wanted, with no fight with another tribe. He would just burn their homes by looking at them!

"And all the women wanted to marry him. So he made his pick, had a daughter and she had Cala.

"Cala," Thevru continued, his black eyes feverish, "wanted to be like Naces and did not want to learn the way Naces would teach. So he tried to use the power he got from Naces and... and... burned his whole body."

"Thev!" A girl shoved him and Thevru blinked, the spell of his story broken. He shrugged and smirked at Lautni. The girl looked at Lautni with a smile, calm where Thevru had not been. "He only burned half his body. His right arm and leg and face are all scarred," she said, making a face of disgust.

Lautni, terrified by Thevru's passion and his lingering stare, looked beyond the ring of children around her at Cala.

He looks lonely, she thought.

She snapped her chin up and and hardened her shoulders, then pushed out of the ring between Thevru and the girl who had corrected him.

Thevru gripped her arm after she squeezed through.

"He is ziva," he hissed at her.

Lautni frowned and then slapped his hand away.

"He looks alive to me."

 

Branded

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 7)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6204 Yeas Ago

4945 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

"But he is an abomination! I won't! I won't! I won't!"

The crowd had started small and grown quickly, shoulders packed together despite the heat, sweat mingling and slipping between dark skins. All eyes watched -- some aghast, some amused, but all riveted to the tyrant screeching in the middle of their camp.

All winced as the crack of knuckles across a cheek reverberated past their ears to the dunes witnessing silently beyond.

"You ungrateful little shrew. He is a Versaisna. He brings honor on our family." While the nails-and-metal grit had been harsh and hot on the skin, this voice passed a chill through the throng, arms trembling against each other in a wave that swooned around the crowd.

Lautni used her height to shove through the chain link of skin, her limbs sneaking between elbows and parting pressed bodies, slinking through with the grace that had come to her with age. She slipped through the front of the crowd in time to see Isiis stumble back to her feet, the back of her hand pressed against her mouth and eyes glaring darkly at her mother.

Isiis spat, a gobbet of blood sizzling on the packed dirt. "I will not marry that thing. He is ziva!"

He is ziva.

Thevru's words rushed back to Lautni, pooling in her mind and reddening her cheeks. She whipped her eyes away from Isiis and her mother and searched for Cala, finding him with frantic quickness standing apart from the mother and daughter but within the circle, almost cowering behind his grandfather.

Naces stood rigid, eyes snapping, and the rest of the crowd suddenly seemed to notice the old man's anger -- as they all stepped back as one, waiting for a spout of fire.

"You will marry him, you wretch. Your family orders it."

"No!"

Heads suddenly turned, and Naces' mouth hung open, ready to speak, but the protest hadn't come from Isiis, though her mouth was wide in a what could have been the start of a howl, silenced.

Lautni broke from the pack of the Tribe, striding with long purpose toward Cala.

"No," Lautni repeated, her voice softening as Cala raised his chin, turning so both the perfect and the scarred halves of his face stared at Lautni in depressed acceptance.

She stopped when their eyes met, suddenly seeing in him the boy he had been when they had both snuck out to the oasis years ago. Then he had reassured her the Versaisnas always won, and there was nothing to fear with Naces alive, but where his face had been young with trust then, now it hung with betrayal, disbelief. Not even his grandfather could protect him from the sharp tongue of Isiis.

"Lautni," Cala began.

"See? Even she knows he isn't worth marrying! She agrees with me, ati."

"No," Lautni said again, looking at Naces before lowering her chin slightly in deference.

Now what? She would not see her childhood friend roped to that witch of a woman and made miserable his whole life. Not Cala. He did not deserve that, no matter what mistake he had made in youth.

"I have already paid, Eteri Lautni," Naces said calmly, voice reedy but strong, with no hint of the anger that had sharpened his black eyes moment ago. "It is the duty of Kaal Isiis to marry if a family has paid her wife wage."

"No," Lautni repeated, looking up at him, brain burning behind her eyes as she struggled for a solution, lips incapable of forming more than that one syllable.

Naces' white brows lifted slightly. "What would you have us do, Eteri? Cala must have an heir." And unspoken was the fact no woman would choose him for her woman-making night. Marriage was the only chance Cala had, and the Versaisnas could afford any woman they wanted.

Kaal Isiis was ideal in all but obeisance.

"Versaisna Naces, please," Lautni started, trying to remain reverent to the man respected by most of the Tribe as more than a god, but she could not find anything properly humble to continue. "He will be miserable!" she exclaimed. "You must see that."

"A bought marriage has nothing to do with feeling, my dear."

Lautni bit her lip as his brow furrowed. Everyone knew about his mother, Thesan. The story had been told even to her when first she came. Sold to a foreigner she didn't want, and killed by her own family for dishonoring them with her husband's murder. A bought wife did not abandon the family into which she was sold.

Eteri Lautni looked at Cala again, who smiled for her, the scars on the right side of his face bunching as they had always done, his eyes seeming to whisper what he had himself told her so many years ago when the Versaisnas had been on the brink of war.

Do not worry, my friend. The Versaisnas always win. There will be no fight.

Tears flooded her eyes as Cala looked away and she balled her fingers into fists, suddenly the little girl again, surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar faces.

"I will marry him." Lautni choked the words out and swiped the tears away from her eyes.

Cala's head shot up almost as quickly as Naces' brows, and she could almost feel the breeze from the astonished whispers that spread behind and around her. She looked at Naces, unable to handle the quavering relief and hope Cala's face held.

"Lautni!" she heard her mother shout from somewhere in the crowd, and then fall silent, probably realizing her daughter would marry a Versaisna. The Versaisna.

Naces walked over to Lautni slowly, leaning on an old stick as gnarled but firm as he, that strange, black stone in the shape of a star embedded near the top of it. He took her chin in his rough fingers, turning it left and right, then slid his palm over her right shoulder and down her arm, squeezing, pinching and pulling at the muscle there. He stooped with great care to run the same hand up her flank and across her abdomen, lips moving silently as he measured from hip to hip.

Lautni gritted her teeth, jaw jutting out, indignant. The Versaisna may have accepted her family into the Tribe, but there were some traditions the Versaisnas could not force upon their followers.

"You have too much muscle, but wide hips." He slipped the tip of his walking stick beneath the hem of her skirt and lifted, peering at her legs. "Strong legs. No illness." Naces glanced over at Isiis and back to Lautni, then walked behind her, kneading at her lower back. "Less curve. Good support."

Nodding, he walked toward Isiis' mother. "She will breed better, Kaal Satu. I expect repayment in full."

Satu croaked an indignant sound while Isiis grinned, then whirled and grabbed her daughter by the hair, dragging her back to their tent as Isiis shrieked and clawed at her mother's hands.

"Eteri and Versaisna are now one family. Joy to Versaisna Lautni and her children," Naces intoned.

"No! No! She is mine! Lautni is mine!" Thevru broke from the men who had been restraining him, nostrils flaring as he ran to Lautni, thick arms wrapping hastily around her shoulders and waist, clutching her madly as he tried to kiss her cheek. "She is to be my wife."

Lautni froze as he pawed her, cringing as his sweat dripped onto her neck where his overly moist lips were hungrily kissing, straining forward to try to catch her cheek, pressing his hand to her face to try to force her mouth to his.

"My wife," he murmured, dragging her backward with him even as she began to struggle.

Thevru had grown into a bull of a man, his neck thicker than most men's thighs, and he squeezed her with cracking strength, clinging so that none could insert a hand or foot with which to pry her away.

"No. She is my wife," Cala suddenly whispered from behind them.

Lautni tried to crane her neck to see, but Thevru sprawled his hand awkwardly over her face, immobilizing her head. She could barely see -- between his fingers -- Naces standing rigid with his walking stick half-raised, as if he had forgotten what he was about to do.

And then Thevru froze, his fingers suddenly shaking against her mouth, her cheeks, her eyes. Air rushed in around her in a cool wave as Thevru's arms were suddenly gone, and she lurched around as he wailed, stumbling backward in her strange new freedom.

Cala stood blocked by Thevru's width, but smiled grimly down at the shorter man's sudden babbling.

Smoke rose up between them, curling up around Thevru's shoulders and sniffing at his spiked hair.

"Everyone learns from their mistakes," Cala murmured, and stepped back.

Thevru collapsed to the ground on his stomach, whimpering and stretching a last, desperate hand toward Lautni's ankle. She skittered out of his reach, gasping as she stared down at Thevru, uncomprehending.

Her eyes shot upward and found Cala staring at her, anger still clinging to his eyes but sorrow hanging on his mouth.

"Lautni," he whispered, her name wrought with apology.

She stared at him a moment before looking back down at Thevru, his arm still outstretched but limp on the sand, breath shallow. Lautni stooped and reached a tentative hand to the scorched part of Thevru's shirt, pulling up the hem cautiously, keeping in mind a prone Thevru did not mean a non-dangerous one.

When the cloth cleared his lower back, Lautni gasped and stood, eyes again flying up to Cala's face, regret now pooling in his eyes.

But between them glared a hint of what Cala possessed, and what he could do with it.

A handprint, glaring red and bubbling with blisters, burned bright against the deep tan of Thevru's lower back. And the hand that made it reached beseechingly out to Lautni, forgiveness begged with every line and curl of finger.

In all the years she had known Cala, she had trusted him implicitly, befriended him when no one else would and confided in him all her secret fears and hopes. But never had she feared him.

Until now.

"Lautni," Cala whispered again, then clenched his begging hand into a fist when she remained rigid. "My ... wife."

The words shivered through her and she bowed her head, mind racing over every step, breath and heartbeat that had brought her to this exact moment, when the world she had thought she'd learned again tip-tilted to the side and flung her off her feet.

"Yes, Cala," Lautni replied, chin lifting more out of habit than true confidence, her emotions still struggling to piece together her life-long friend and the man who wielded unknown, foreign power -- power enough to scorch skin with a mere touch. But now he stood as the shy, frightened, lonely boy she had first seen trudging alone across the camp years ago, when first her family had been embraced by the Versaisna clan. And she could not fear him.

"My husband," she said, tasting the strange words, unable to pair them with Cala in her heart.

She reached out and wrapped his fist in her hand, flinching at the contact, half-expecting his hand to still be warm with foreign heat. Lautni watched his face fall as he saw her flinch, and she sighed.

"I did this to save you, Cala. What more can you ask of me?" Her question was low as she became aware the crowd around them had not dissipated.

"Nothing," he answered, looking up at her again and smiling. "Just do not forget that I am Cala, your friend."

"My husband," Lautni corrected, though intoned exactly as he said "friend." "And I do not forget who you are."

Her eyes dragged back to the handprint on Thevru's spine before Cala gently guided her away, parting the crowd with no more than a bowed head and a shame-faced expression.

 

Future Recollection

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 8)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6134 Years Ago

4875 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

No one remembered Lautni anymore -- the shy, proud girl swept in with the Eteri tribe and swallowed by the Versaisna.

No one recalled the day she, a grown woman, clawed at propriety and offered herself as a property wife to save her friend, Cala.

Cala was also forgotten -- the foolhardy boy who thought fire was a game to be won and and mastered, and who carried the scars of his failure forever on half his body. And no one remembered the years of marriage he had shared with Lautni, the love that eventually grew between them, the child they had borne and Cala had raised alone.

No one, except Naces.

Generations had passed him by. Even his own grandson, that stubborn-headed boy Cala, had found death before him. Found peace before him. Found escape.

Naces lived on with memory: faces of those who died before, laughter ghosting across the sand, sobs of war yet to come.

He could not see the blood-soaked grains coagulating as the He Tum did -- that Tribe of seers that haunted the edge of the camp and continued to reproduce, though never a woman-making night was celebrated among them -- but he could hear it, the promise of war.

With a breath, Naces opened his eyes and stared across the camp, gaze flitting from fire to fire, family to family, all gathered for their evening meal and smiling with each other. But beyond the heat of familiar and musk of mundane, the He Tum tents sat dark, no fires lit upon the sands.

Fizhis Eta was also long dead, but Naces remembered him. Could not -- for all his will -- forget him.

Even Naces, living beyond a century, had once gone through the man-making ceremony, beginning in a Fizhis tent cluttered with candles, incense and hollow-mourned skulls. He could recall the cloying smoke now as he breathed, and coughed -- and smiled.

"We have been waiting for you, Naces."

He could even remember the words.

"Waiting --?"

"Four generations ago, your great-grandmother was the Beginning for your blood. Versaisna Amati started the future we have been waiting for, and since her woman-making night, we have been waiting for you."

"Waiting for me. Me. Naces."

"Oh, not you as the person you are now. We knew no name, no gender, we did not know it would be a young boy named Naces, but we knew the individual who could change our tribe and bring revolution would come soon after Versaisna Amati. And here you are!"

"Revolution? Change? What exactly do you expect me to do?"

"Ah. That is for you to discover, not for us to tell or demand. You can choose your destiny, Naces. Not all is preordained. But we have seen what one choice will bring, and hope it is what you will choose. This will make known to you the choices."

Naces turned the staff that lay across his lap until he could see the star stone embedded at one end, the black surface glittering at him with sentient expectation -- almost waiting, curled and patient, as a god before it devoured worlds.

"My choice," he murmured, his voice finally beginning to yellow with age.

"Papa?"

Naces roused from his intoxicating lull of memories and looked up, his own campfire picking out a young woman's face in bas-relief.

"Cautha," Naces said, and smiled. His great-great-great granddaughter returned the smile, though worriedly. "Cauthapulumxva," he murmured. Sun and stars, her name meant, and in the firelight she dazzled more than both together.

"Yes, Papa," she said, worry carrying over into her voice.

"I am not dead yet -- do not look at me so," he chided. "What have you brought for dinner?"

As she began to prattle, relieved, about what she had cooked and knelt to lay it all out before him, he watched her through half-lidded eyes, observing the curve of her shoulder, the sweep of her black hair over it and the healthy bronze in her cheeks.

She would make a good wife, when grown, should she choose that path, or fail to provide an heir -- though he knew she would not. The He Tum had seen.

He anxiously awaited her first wiseblood, eager to see what man she would choose. For it was not with her the revolution would come, but soon after. Perhaps her daughter or son, as he hoped, for then he might live to see the war, to know the outcome.

"Papa?" Cautha was holding out a dish for him, concern again creeping over her face.

"Stop it, child. I will not die without telling you first," he said, taking the plate of food from her with a smile, and was rewarded with another smile of her own, as beautiful and blinding as her name would imply.

Let it be very soon, Naces thought as he chewed, watching his granddaughter as she prepared herself a plate.

And almost as an answer, his staff trembled in his lap, rolling gently toward his waist until the star stone glared darkly at Cautha, firelight glinting over its surface so it winked as old men do to young women, eager and hungry and teasing ... waiting.

 

Ascension

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 9)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6118 Years Ago

4859 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

Hunger gnawed her brain as starvation would the stomach, and Milxpuia glared across the camp at her grandfather, willing him through clenched teeth to die.

He was useless. He did nothing. Simply sat and drowsed and mumbled nonsense about "revolution" and "war."

Power raked eager nails over her heart, picking her ribcage clean and laying bare her desire to rule for all the camp to see.

But no one saw.

Or they wisely chose not to.

Milxpuia opened her mouth ravenously wide, and a plague of fire spewed forth.

* * *

Cauthapulumxva awoke with a start, eyes riveted to her daughter.

Milxpuia slept softly, fingers curled in the blankets, face slack with dream, lips parted with breath. Innocent. Unwary. Powerful.

Cautha pushed sweat-heavy strands of black hair away from her face -- still beautiful after years of motherhood, her grandfather would tell her.

The simple thought of him calmed her breath and she gently rose from her nest of blankets, one eye still on her daughter to see she did not wake her, and wrapped one blanket around her shoulders before departing her tent, crossing the short distance to her grandfather's tent.

Naces would ease her worries about the nightmare.

* * *

Milxpuia's eyes opened once the flap to her tent closed, but she did not stir.

She kept her breath soft, body untaut, waiting to see if her mother had gone to empty her bladder or had left for less mundane things.

When Cautha did not return after 90 breaths, Milxpuia rose from her own bedding and crept out after her mother, following the footsteps in the sand.

* * *

"The revolution," Naces murmured, head bobbing drowsily above his neck as he tried to focus on his great-great-great granddaughter, skin hanging in flaps from his bones as he continued to nod.

"But she was ... Papa, she looked evil. This cannot be what the He Tum meant. Not my daughter," Cautha pleaded.

"Soon," Naces hissed, chin lifting as he stared at his granddaughter where she sat, beautifully frightened.

"Soon."

* * *

She listened for a moment to the murmurings of her mother and great-great-great-great grandfather through the walls of the tent, and smiled.

"Now, grandfather," Milxpuia whispered. "I bring your precious revolution."

* * *

By dawn, the camp writhed with confused mourners. Their wails filled the sky. They cried for leadership.

Even Milxpuia wept as she walked through the smoking ashes of what had once been Naces' tent -- what had once been Naces, and once been her mother, Cautha.

The heat should have burnt her soles, but still she walked, head bent, lips mewling, tears streaking down her cheeks.

And all raised their hands to her, beseeching, praying.

Demanding.

In her moment of victory, Milxpuia suddenly forgot to weep, the whole of her body jerking downward and sending up plumes of ash as she frantically began to dig, scratching at the charcoaled remains of cloth and wood and skin.

Her sharp cry lost itself with all the others as she yanked her hands from the ash, fingers scrubbing frantically at her discovery, cleaning it to be certain.

There could be no mistakes.

The pad of her thumb squeaked across a clean streak, and she whimpered. Blackness glared at her within a frame of grey, a void that had not been cleaned, but had simply sucked the ash into its depths.

Milxpuia wrapped her hands around it and stood, dirtied, coughing smoke from her lungs even as she tried to laugh.

She thrust her hand into the air, ash-coated fingers gripping an eerie blackness unscarred by fire and unsullied by smoke.

Milxpuia held the star stone in the air and pretended she didn't feel it writhe in her grasp as she stared triumphantly across the mass of bewildered Tribes.

"I am Versaisna Milxpuia! Daughter of Versaisna Cauthapulumxva, granddaughter of Versaisna Naces!"

Thousands of sorrowful eyes turned toward her voice, fear rippling off their shoulders as they saw an ash-drenched twelve-year-old standing in the middle of charred history.

"And I rule this camp!"

 

Retribution

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 10)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6076 Years Ago

4817 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

"Why are you crying?"

"I'm not."

"You are. Don't lie."

A few muted sniffs subsided behind her.

"Ati, she --"

"-- hit you again." She sighed. "If you'd just --"

"-- talk back to her? Like you? She would never --"

"-- take it from you, I know. But still, it's --"

"-- wrong. I know." The voice trembled. "I hate her. I wish --"

"Don't say it!" She turned, eyes wide. "If she hears --"

"I know."

Silence crept into the tent and nestled between them, purring like a glutton as it fed on their lack of words.

"But what if --"

"-- she were? Oh, it's too nasty to --"

"-- think about, yes. But ..."

"She did it."

"She did."

"It'd serve her right to have it done to her."

"Yes."

"Everybody already hates us."

"They do."

"They'd thank us, don't you think? If we did?"

"If they didn't, we could make them."

"Hinthi!"

"We could."

Silence stood and pawed around in a lazy circle after its disturbance, settling down with its tail tucked around its nose sleepily.

They stared, neat little reflections of each other, if you ignored a bit of blood on the chin.

Versaisna Hinthialsec watched Versaisna Anthasec where she huddled with a split lip and knees hugged to her chest. But she saw in her sister's eyes what she knew was in her own.

Power.

"We could," Hinthi repeated.

* * *

"Hinthi. Anthi." She greeted both girls as they sat in their appropriate places around the cookfire. "Feeling better?"

"Yes, ati," Anthi lied, eyes downcast.

"Good. You're late."

Neither girl spoke.

"Forgiven. I can see you took special care to clean yourself up, Anthi, which must have taken extra time. Your effort is appreciated."

"Yes, ati," Anthi murmured.

Milxpuia leaned forward to help herself first to the broth, dipping a wood bowl into the pot.

Blackness escaped her shirt and twisted on a gold chain, winking and squirming in the firelight as she moved. The twins watched, mesmerized.

Time.

Hinthi and Anthi blinked, casting furtive glances at each other to see if the other had spoken.

"Do anything interesting today?" Milxpuia asked as she leaned back again, blowing gently on the soup and swirling it idly in its bowl.

"Like what, ati?" Hinthi asked bitterly.

Milxpuia paused.

"There's no cause for that tone of voice, young lady."

"And why not?" Hinthi looked up at her mother, anger mutilating her expression. "What would we do, ati? Everywhere we go, people leave. Children won't play with us --"

"Then I shall tell them to. Really, Hinthi, just because you don't have any playmates is no reason to --"

"It is!" Hinthi bolted to her feet.

"Hinthi," Anthi whispered, watching her sister nervously.

"No, Anthi!" She looked back at her mother. "They won't play with us because of you. Everybody hates us because of you. Because of what you did." Her hands curled into fists.

Milxpuia watched her daughter impassively, soup bowl still paused before her face, steaming.

"And what did I do, Hinthi?"

"You killed them," Hinthi whispered. "I know you did. Everybody knows you did. You killed my grandmother! You made everybody hate us!"

"Hinthi," Anthi whispered again.

"Anthi! No! She hit you! She's wrong! She's ... she's ..."

Hinthi looked again at her mother, who was watching her with an amused expression.

"She's evil, Anthi. Don't you see it?" She stared hopelessly at her sister, her flashpan anger sizzling down. "Anthi?"

"Sit down, Hinthi. People are staring," Milxpuia said as she swirled her soup again, sipped.

Time.

Anthi looked up at Hinthi's sagging face, then reached up and took her sister's hand, standing beside her.

"She's right, ati. You're wrong," Anthi said.

"What are you doing? Sit down. Both of you."

"No," they answered in unison.

"No?" Milxpuia blinked, then frowned. "I am your mother. You will do as you're told."

"No," they answered again, fingers intertwining as they grasped each other's hands more firmly.

"What are you doing?" Milxpuia asked again, this time with suspicion slinking about her voice. She lowered her bowl, staring at them.

"What you deserve, ati."

"Nobody likes you anymore."

"Nobody ever liked you."

"We never liked you."

"And I'm tired of you hitting me."

Milxpuia gasped and stood quickly, sweat suddenly beading on her brow.

"You wouldn't dare. You ungrateful little brats! I gave you that power! You have it because of me! Without me you wouldn't even exist!"

"But we do exist, ati."

"And we still will."

"Even when you don't."

Milxpuia threw her soup at them and grappled for the stone around her neck.

Anthi cried out as part of the hot broth splashed across her face and Hinthi whimpered as her sister gripped her hand even tighter.

"I hate you!" Anthi screamed.

Milxpuia gripped the star stone desperately, throwing her thoughts about within to wrench her power up from its drowse, having sat unused since she was twelve, fear having proved a power that rendered the other unnecessary.

But it was necessary now.

"Hate you!"

"Anthi!"

"HATE you!"

And just as Milxpuia's hand spasmed against the star stone with reawakened power, the cookfire leapt for her, roaring as no beast had ever done in the desert, and clawed at her clothes, nails of fire digging into her skin, seeking, searching -- finding the power she had within.

Milxpuia and the cookfire erupted into a sudden pillar of flame that subsided as quickly as it surged, leaving afterimages on the backs of even gods' eyelids.

If they had eyelids.

Hinthi looked up at her sister, who still stood even though she had collapsed. Her fingers sat limp in Anthi's hand, but Anthi's grip did not loosen until she looked down and saw her sister's expression.

Anthi smiled.

"She's gone."

Hinthi looked over at the charred corpse lying black across from them, ignoring Tribe members as they began to approach cautiously, whispering among themselves.

She looked back up at Anthi and wriggled her fingers a little.

"Oh! Sorry," Anthi smiled shyly, blushing as she let Hinthi's hand go.

Hinthi rubbed her fingers as she stood again, still staring at Anthi.

She'd felt her. Inside. Right before the fire exploded.

It felt as if Anthi had reached down her throat and yanked out Hinthi's power to fuel her own.

She hadn't been able to breathe.

"Hinthi?"

She shook herself mentally and smiled at Anthi's worried expression.

"She's gone," Hinthi echoed, then reached out and hugged her sister as Anthi began to cry.

Around them several Tribes gathered, still whispering rumors of mothers and daughters, before they all fell silent and bowed their heads in deference.

The two ten-year-olds continued to hug each other tightly, Anthi gasping for breath as she wept, Hinthi watching the wave of leadership bend every neck around them.

She smiled.

Beyond the twins, nestled firmly into a still-smoking throat, the star stone gleamed sickly.

Slowly, without disturbing the blackened skin, char and soot seemed to sink into the stone's inky depths, leaving the surface clean, gleaming even though the cookfire had been snuffed.

Almost imperceptibly, it also seemed to grow.

But only by the barest fraction.

No one ever noticed.

 

Reflective Discord

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 11)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6052 Years Ago

4793 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

Blood turned sand black.

Battle cries died with their hosts.

Death screeched across the desert, chilling bodies even as slabs of skin tried to soak up heat lingering in the dunes.

Above it all, two separate pinpoints of light, stretched wide to give eyes to the horizon, blinked and listened impassively to the little rabbit screams of terror amplified through the bullhorn of humanity.

* * *

"For Hinthialsec!"

"For Anthasec!"

"For the true Versaisna!"

Crude weapons slammed together amid a dark battlefield, war lit briefly here and there by torches and human-sized bouts of flame.

"Death to treachery!"

"Let the fires of truth consume!"

"Kill the ghost witch --"

Another scream seared the air, pain puncturing the eardrum with whining precision, and was lost beneath a flood of fading replies.

"Father?"

A son stopped as melee throbbed around him and crumpled to the sand when his father ran him through.

"Death to the sun."

* * *

Versaisna Hinthialsec, the ghost daughter, inhaled the smell of baked sand and the putrid stench of sweat, blood and split bowels, and she exhaled slowly.

She squeezed her knees together in her excitement, thrilling as her horse danced in response to her tension and shivering as the night cooled swiftly, though it was unable to chase away the deeper chill glittering between her breasts, reflecting the stars peering down coldly from the sky.

Stripped of clothing in her confidence, her body sheared the blackness around her. Dried paint cracked in its intricate, swirled designs as she moved slightly, torchlight planted nearby picking out the crevices and curves the result of foreknowledge -- a body long prepared for battle even if her muscles never need be involved.

Long years she had anticipated this moment, and sat regal upon her steed, black hair pulled severely up off her neck and twisted expertly atop her head in a large rosette: a bodily crown.

Impatiently she glared across the little flickers of metal picked out by stuttering fires at the orange pupil of flame that stared back. The anguish of her followers crawled up her spine and closed around her neck, then seeped into her brain until her hair seemed to crackle as she breathed.

One hand slowly lifted the star stone from its nest of bare skin, and squeezed.

A wall of flame exploded on the dune across the way.

* * *

Her horse reared and stumbled back on its hind legs, whickering in fear before its forelegs thumped back to the sand.

Versaisna Anthasec, the sun daughter, yanked hard on its reins, turning it to the side and maneuvering it away from the sudden fire that sprang up before her -- and noticed it was spreading slowly, deliberately, around her in a ring.

She struggled to keep her horse from plunging through the narrowing escape, unprepared yet to risk such a close encounter with fire, even though her caution had kept her clothed in opposition to her sister's arrogance.

"You always were impatient, Hinthi," Anthasec murmured as her sister's breach of warfare slowly poked the ashes of her anger.

A globe of fire rose inside the closing ring and closed over Anthasec's head.

She yanked the reigns to pull her horse's head around, kicked her heels and slapped its flank, lowering her head as she urged the horse blindly, quickly forward.

* * *

Hinthialsec growled as a white globe exploded from the ring of fire she had formed around her sister and glared as the writhing ball dissipated in her sister's wake, trails of flame streaking behind and vanishing quickly so Anthasec's progress was soon lost in darkness.

With a roar, Hinthialsec tore her hands from the star stone and wrapped them in her horse's mane, then kicked her mount roughly.

Sand spewed as her horse launched forward and ran headlong down the dune.

* * *

War paused.

Months without victory had passed. Exhaustion and wavering belief were taking their toll.

When fire exploded atop one of the dunes hosting a leader, those who witnessed it flung themselves out of battle, staring upward as a white sphere charged downward toward them and evaporated.

Breathless moments were spent staring into the darkness that flooded into the brief light's wake.

Those unaware of what had transpired found themselves faced with immobile enemies and began to cut spines as farmers would corn stalks, harvesting victory as swiftly as they could.

When a battle cry too bloodthirsty--too chilling--to ignore exploded in the air, the harvesters also paused and turned toward the other dune, glimpsing a shadow as it dislodged itself from torchlight and plunged downward into darkness.

The first fireball sped sleekly above their heads and ended with a muffled thud as it slammed into sand, a brief, gritty shower sprinkling those nearest the affected dune.

By the time a second fireball streaked behind the first, men and women were bolting for the sidelines.

* * *

Hinthialsec threw fire blindly across the battlefield, trying to hit her sister who remained blanketed by blackness.

In her fire's glowing wake she could see bodies surging out of the way, knifing a path through the middle that widened in spurts.

She sped down the alley walled by grimy, faceless nomads-cum-warriors and peered forward.

The darkness suddenly belched her sister, who was still racing forward with her head bent near her horse's neck.

Hinthialsec tightened her fingers in her horse's mane and jerked it to a rearing stop.

* * *

Anthasec pulled up short, her horse dancing impatiently at being yanked back so soon from its free gallop.

"You never did play by the rules, Hinthi."

"There was never any point."

"Some, I think, would argue."

"Why?" Hinthi snarled. "Everyone knew the prophecy."

"Just because it's prophecy doesn't mean it should be fact."

Tension spread it little waves and snapped taut across the dunes, its epicenter midway between the sisters.

"No one ever complained about Mother."

"Yes, but what's the use in trading one tyrant for another?"

Hinthialsec lunged forward, teeth snapping as a guttural, predatory sound tore from her throat, claws out. But as her horse shifted with the unexpected movement, Hinthi locked her teeth together and sat back.

Anthasec was smiling faintly.

"Better me than a sniveling, camel-eared whore," Hinthi growled, too seething to realize insulting your identical twin's appearance worked two ways. "You never had the guts, Anthi."

"And you never had the power."

Hinthialsec's body twitched as if her spine had just been plucked by Sulevia, and then she seemed to sag astride her horse.

"No," Hinthi murmured. "No, I never had what you did." And suddenly she looked up, black eyes burning even as the rest of her went pale beneath her body paint. "But I found something better," she hissed.

Anthasec's horse nickered softly and stepped back on its own.

She shivered.

"Not better. Not better," she repeated as Hinthi opened her mouth again. "Only stronger."

Hinthialsec smiled, though it was more a baring of teeth on the outside.

"You will not fight me," Hinthi crowed.

"That is why we are at war."

"You will die."

"We'll see," Anthasec answered. "Are we through negotiating?"

"For now."

Anthasec nudged her horse around and rode calmly back to her dune, only half certain her sister would not kill her with Anthi's back turned.

She shuddered again when she was outside the range of torchlight, Hinthi's joyful barks hammering at her nerves even as they faded.

"Damn you, Mother," Anthasec whispered as her horse topped the dune. "I should have taken more than your life."

As she stared across the pinpricked battlefield, she would have sworn the star stone watched her back.

 

The Making of a Martyr

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 12)

 

Raithemdra Desert
6052 Years Ago

4793 Y.C.
(Year of Cina)

 

The howls recalled the madness.

"Anthi! What--what did you do? I felt--"

"We killed mother, Hinthi. We killed mother. Sulevia's wrath will haunt us. What have we done?"

Men were dying, continually dying, throwing up their heels and lying back against the ground, which lapped hungrily, desperately at the blood, cracked and parched and pounded by war as it was.

"What did you do, Anthi? You--I felt--"

Versaisna Hinthialsec had babbled with fear, even then, Anthasec remembered.

"What? What did you feel? Do you feel regret? Sorrow? Hinthi! Mother is dead!"

"I felt ... I feel ..."

"Hinthi!"

Hinthi had been walking, unaware, to the black corpse of their mother, Anthi suddenly recalled. Entranced. Yes, that was what she had been.

"Mother is dead. Anthi, we live! We rule!"

And Hinthi had forgotten what she felt, had knelt, trembling, by Milxpuia's charred remains, fingers reaching, and yet hesitating, twitching with hunger for power even then. Even then.

"Hinthi! Stop! What are you doing?!"

"Taking what is mine, sister. I'm taking what is mine."

She should have taken it from her, Anthi realized now--too late.

No, that wasn't right.

She had realized then. As she watched her mother's black chest shudder and collapse, and as she smelled the noxious cloud of crackling flesh, Anthasec had known it was wrong. But she was weak, too weak, to stop her sister. Anthi had always been too weak.

But, no, that wasn't right either.

Hinthialsec may have forgotten what she felt that day, but Anthi never did.

I have the power.

She'd thought it then, after grabbing Hinthi's hand and facing her mother down. Oh, yes. She'd thought it. She thought it now.

Anthasec gasped as a new revelation hit her. Her horse whickered a complaint as she spasmed, jerking on the reins in her horror.

The star stone should have been mine.

Anthi sobbed suddenly, her weak cry buried in the havoc of war, and she covered her face with her hands, reins dripping against her chest.

No, no! The war is not over this. It cannot be over this! Hinthialsec is a tyrant. She should be stopped. This is right. This is the reason. My followers have died for this reason. They have!

She lowered her hands from her face, her mouth twisted in wretched memory, skin glistening with tears that reflected torchlight.

No. You are selfish and stupid. Admit it now, you coward. Your followers have died for your selfishness, your ignorance, your complete stupidity.

For a moment Anthasec paused in her horror--the thoughts too foreign, too harsh to have been her own. But whatever pushed her sealed up the moment of weakness, and she forgot the feeling altogether.

It is mine.

I am stronger.

She is too weak.

She is undeserving.

"I will take what is mine," Anthasec murmured dreamily.

"Mistress?" Anthasec's aide looked up, concerned, at his leader, having unquestioned her strange behavior until she spoke aloud and he thought she requested some action on his part.

She never heard his soft inquiry, nor his screams, as a pillar of flame belched from the sand beneath her horse and hurled itself high above her head.

* * *

Hinthialsec had no time to react as she saw fire roar up atop the dune that held her sister. She had just begun to turn her horse and lift her hand to the star stone when the pillar vanished--and founted anew right next to her.

Her horse screamed as fire licked its flesh and reared. Hinthi scrambled, bareback as she was, to bury her hands in its mane.

The horse fled even as she was still falling through the air to the ground.

Fire whirled madly as it was sucked into the sand, a hand shooting out from its burning tatters to grab at Hinthialsec as she indented the dune with her backside.

Even the torchlight snuffed its fire in shame, leaving the dune in chill blackness.

Soft panting was painfully audible as startled warriors below went silent with pause, staring at the void that swallowed their leaders.

"You sniveling whore. How dare you."

"I'm taking what is mine, Hinthi."

Hinthialsec paused, mid-crouch, at her sister's voice--deep with cold, and hollow.

She recovered quickly and stood, brushing what sand she could out of uncomfortable crevices. "And what is that, sister? Leadership? I'm the elder. It's my right to rule."

"No."

"No? I was born first. I lead the Tribe."

"No," Anthasec repeated, softly.

"Yes!"

"Not leadership."

"What?"

"The stone."

Hinthialsec froze, then her hand jerked up to grab the absent-warm comfort where it should have hung around her neck.

"I've come for the stone," Anthasec repeated, even as Hinthialsec howled at finding the star stone missing.

Anthasec remained mounted, her horse calm even after the fiery transport, and smiled at the sound of her sister snuffling around the sand on her hands and knees.

"It's my turn, Hinthi. It should have been mine from the start."

"No!" Hinthialsec wailed as she scrabbled around desperately, throwing up tufts of grit in her anxiety. "It chose me! It's mine!"

"Not now," Anthasec answered quietly.

A soft glow slowly effused the dune and Hinthialsec looked up from where she crouched wrist-deep in the sand, hair straggling from its crowning twist, paint cracking to reveal the dark, nude skin beneath--a craven dog waiting at its master's feet to be petted or be kicked.

Anthasec whipped the star stone around on its chain, grunting with satisfaction as the small, black, sharpened rays dug into Hinthialsec's cheek and ripped away blue-whorled skin.

"Now, it is mine," Anthasec hissed.

Hinthialsec launched herself upward, fire quick upon her fingers, and scraped her nails across Anthi's breeched leg.

Anthasec's mount skittered away from the heat with a shriek and Anthi struggled to keep it in check, cursing the effort and the pain.

But Hinthi was already preparing another attack. Anthi could see from the corner of her eye the fireball enveloping her sister's hand.

As Hinthialsec pitched the burning mass, Anthasec jerked her foot from the stirrup and rolled clumsily off her horse, using the animal as a shield.

Anthi lurched away and barely missed a hoof in her jaw as her horse bucked and reared with pain, then bolted, screaming, down the dune.

Hinthi was running at her now, hands glowing, the backlight bleeding over Hinthi's teeth as she snarled.

Anthasec threw up a hand to cover her face, and was surprised when the firewall sprang up between them as quickly as it did. She stared at the star stone as it writhed in front of her face, twisting on its chain where it dangled from her upthrown hand.

Hinthi's squeals of pain yanked Anthi back to the more immediate horror, and the firewall dropped, revealing Hinthi where she had crumpled to the ground, half her face and shoulder burned and bleeding from where she'd hit the firewall.

Hinthi whimpered as she writhed, panting between each anguished mewl from the effort of so much fire so fast.

Anthasec realized her breath was nowhere as ragged, though it should be worse, her two spells more taxing than Hinthi's fireball or burning hands.

Anthasec looked again at the star stone as she lowered her hand, then jerked her arm back to fling the treacherous thing off the dune.

"No!"

Hinthialsec leaped on Anthasec and pushed her back, snatching at the stone.

Anthi cried out as Hinthialsec pressed red-wreathed hands against her wrist and neck, then rammed a knee up hard between her sister's bare thighs in a rush of fear. She shoved Hinthi off as she crumpled in pain and surprise and rolled Hinthi under her weight.

Anthasec buried a knee into Hinthi's abdomen as she tried to get up, then pressed the rest of her weight hard upon her sister, encircling Hinthi's neck with both arms.

Hinthialsec raked scorching nails across Anthasec's back, leaving behind black flesh and blood--

--Anthasec jerked back and snapped her hands apart. Hinthi's fingers stuttered in their rapacious clutch, then clawed again with renewed fear.

The star stone gleamed against Hinthi's brown skin again as Anthasec strangled her with its chain, the black surface reflecting white streaks of light even as the dune went dark again without the sisters' personal war of fire.

But a glow grew unobtrusively behind Anthi's shoulder, gently lighting Hinthialsec's contorted face, catching each new, raw wound as Hinthi scratched at the chain around her neck and scraped her skin and Anthi's wrists to ribands.

Her lovely brown face grew purple beneath blue paint, her desperate scratching fading to feeble twitching as the chain went unrelenting--all lit calmly, almost lovingly, but unbidden, by the light.

Anthasec cried out and loosed her grip in sudden horror, and the light stuttered.

Hinthi gasped and fought for air in her sister's moment of weakness, then rallied up what fading strength she had to lift a hand and lay it, as if in caress, against Anthi's cheek and ear.

Anthi saw the white blaze of heat before she ever felt it. She recoiled with the pain and bit her tongue as she tried to scream and turn away at once. The slack chain snapped taut again between Anthi's fingers, now slick with blood as it dribbled down her wrists. She coiled the chain around her slippery skin to keep it firm and watched as Hinthi fell back again, glaring--black eyes bulging in their hatred from a mottled face. Anthasec watched, in the soft, effusing light, even as blood from the hand-shaped wound across her temple tried to blind her left eye.

Hinthi's eyes went wide, then red around the whites as capillaries burst.

And the ghost daughter became more so than in name.

Anthasec wept where she knelt upon her sister, fingers white where the skin peeked through the blood. Her body wracked with misery as tears and more blood dripped down her face, her will unable to unclench fingers from their sororicidal grasp.

It is mine.

Anthasec shrieked at the thought and flung herself off her sister's body, one hand still coiled inextricably in the star stone's chain. The stone's ragged edge tore at Hinthi's throat as Anthi jerked it from its collar, adding one more injustice to her sister's murder.

Mine.

"No!" Anthasec flung the black thing from her hand and scrambled away from where it landed, spitting up sand in malignant silence.

The glow that had so lovingly illumined Hinthi's death mask sputtered a reminder of its presence behind Anthi's shoulder, bouncing a spear of light off the stone's surface. She stared at it where it lay, unmoving.

But it moved in her mind.

She could feel a slip of something oily ooze subtly from one part of her brain to the other.

Mine.

With sick horror she knew she was not laying claim to the stone in the deeper, darker parts of her mind. It was laying claim to her. Anthasec screamed in terror and felt her power tighten in her stomach, boil up through her chest and envelop her body with heat. She shoved her hands out before her and struck the stone with a bolt of fire so white, so blinding, the troops below thought Sulevia reborn. They threw themselves to the ground in worship and fear, even as the stone shattered under the duress of heat.

A glittering, black shard streaked from the explosion and buried itself in Anthi's shoulder, startling her so badly the fire bolt flashed into nothingness. Darkness swallowed her thickly, and whole. Shuddering, trembling, gasping from the fear and effort, Anthi lifted unsteady fingers to grasp the shard and pull it out.

It came away easily, and she flung it away from herself in the darkness before it could sting her again. Still weeping, still pounded by grief and pain, Anthasec collapsed near her sister and fell into unfitful sleep.

When a few men from both sides braved the dune hours later--having waiting for dawn to leak over the horizon before daring the trek--they found Anthasec curled against her sister's cold body. One stepped forward cautiously and touched Anthasec gently on her wounded shoulder, though his eyes were fixed on Hinthialsec's blackening face.

Anthasec woke slowly, and she stared up into the frightened eyes of a man who no longer knew how to see the terrible, except in terror. She covered her face with her hands and felt the blood where it had dried across her face and ear, coating her temple and cheek with flaky blackness, but she couldn't sob.

"Versaisna?" one of the men asked quietly.

Yes, that was who she was. A title. Anthasec had not murdered her sister; she had won a war. She had won a right.

And now she ruled.

Anthasec stood slowly.

One of the men had already run back down the dune to spread the news that war was ended--and Anthasec ruled.

Before she left the dune, Anthasec sought out every fragment of the star stone, plucking up the black shards where they glittered among the sand in dawnlight. She cradled them in her palm before a warrior gave her a small pouch in which he'd kept spare spearheads. Anthasec carefully dropped them into the pouch and closed it, her fingers folding around the camel leather tightly.

"Not mine. Not anyone's. Not ever," Anthasec vowed quietly as she descended toward a rising wave of ebullient cries. If any man heard her private thought, he kept it to himself, and dared not look at their bedraggled Tribe leader, spirit war-shorn and ragged.

"Not ever!" Anthasec shrieked.

But a thousand voices of joy erased her one objection, carrying it away as if it never had been uttered.

And such simple, small terrors may be eroded--given time.

 

Malice Long Aforethought

(The Cilersinei Wars, Pt. 13, finis)

 

Quintak Desert
112 Years Ago

1259 LT
(7287 Y.I. Year of Icner)

 

"Revolution.

"Naces had dreamed about it. I daresay they might have been wet-dreams, but we all have our perverse desires, don't we? You can tell me.

"But I suppose you want to know the rest. The whole story? Yes. You're the type who wants all the answers. I know.

"Versaisna Anthasec never walked the same, her back was so scarred from her sister's burning hands, and she lost sight in her left eye, that side of her face scarred over with a permanent imprint of Hinthialsec's palm. The right side of her face, I think I forgot to mention, had been scarred when she was ten, by the hot broth her mother had flung at her before Anthi killed Milxpuia. Anthi became a decrepit horror, something to frighten little children in their beds, but she was a good leader.

"But people began to forget.

"Suddenly Hinthi was no longer a terror. The ghost daughter had been kind, they said, and hadn't deserved what Anthi, the sun daughter--the true tyrant--had done.

"That was years later.

"First, the Tribe, the Versaisna, split.

"It was right after the war--the 'revolution.' Anthasec could hardly expect to be kind to the people who had fought for her sister, and those people could hardly be expected to love or follow the woman who had killed their leader. Hinthi's people left, or so they said, but, in truth, Anthasec ordered them into exile.

"Of course, you might imagine that a difficult thing to do to nomads--send them into exile, since they live an exiled lifestyle anyway. But she did, and they left.

"And they kept the Versaisna name.

"Anthasec, however, didn't.

"She was ashamed, the story goes. She was so ashamed of her actions, she even exiled herself...from her blood. From her ancestry.

"She remembered, you see, what had been done to her ancestor, Thesan, the unfortunate woman who had been sold to a yellow-haired man and given birth to Naces, the first truly great leader of the Versaisna.

"Thesan had been killed, if you recall, by her family for bringing them dishonor by killing her foreigner husband.

"You may ask, as I did, why then Milxpuia wasn't killed for murdering her mother and Naces. Or why the twins weren't punished for killing their mother.

"Surely it must be a greater crime to murder your own blood by birth than blood by marriage.

"But it's simple, really, when you think of how things must have been then.

"The He Tum saw Naces as their future leader. Thesan's son. Not Thesan.

"They saw Thesan as a conflict.

"In their visions, Naces chose a different path, the one without fire, without power, without revolution, if Thesan lived to rule.

"So they killed her. That simple.

"For revolution.

"We must be thankful, mustn't we, that things have now become so civilized?

"Where was I? Oh, yes. The Tribe split. Anthasec changed her heritage. And then she stole a city.

"Surely you're not surprised? Think of all the poor woman had been through--the life she had been forced to lead because an old man she never knew chose fire. She despised everything she had become, even being a nomad! She was positively wretched, if you must know.

"But the Traders--you recall them, yes? From the beginning of my story? Oh, surely you must! It was full of romance and danger and excitement! Young Amati lay with Arac--a man forbidden to her for being outside the Tribe, but one she married anyway. Yes, I can see you recall now. Shame on you for forgetting. I thought I told that bit remarkably well.

"The Traders knew the budding establishments, the new bundles of buildings that promised to grow into cities.

"Anthasec, very simply, took one.

"Of course there was fighting, but her followers had won a vicious war, and the city dwellers had never seen her kind of power. Most of the buildings that housed those too poor to afford stone walls were burned to the ground.

"But Anthasec rebuilt them. She became the 'founder.' Everyone forgot whoever had ruled the ramshackle buildings before. They'd lost. And history tends to forget the losers. The losers, it seems, almost never forget, though.

"And Anthasec ordained things, before she left--before she, herself, was exiled by the people she had 'saved.'

"She did not want her mistakes repeated. No.

"So she ruled that any of her Tribe, should they have siblings, would keep one and send the other to Hinthialsec's people--those who still called themselves Versaisna.

"And the Versaisna would do the same. They would send to Anthasec's people one sibling of two born to any family. So the peace would be kept. No more sibling rivalries.

"Most importantly, no more sororicide.

"It bothered her deeply, that she had killed her sister. I suppose it says something for Anthasec's character.

"Or that's how the story goes, anyway.

"But as time passed and Anthasec's people became accustomed to city life, to a constant oasis, they became lazy. Their memories became lazy.

"Anthasec's scarred, bent appearance didn't help matters much.

"It didn't take long before her people began to despise her, and chased her from the expanding streets of their new home.

"She left, almost happily, I think, taking almost nothing with her.

"Except the little camel-leather pouch that held the shards of the star stone.

"What happened to her and the broken stone afterward? History omits to tell us. Legends and rumors say she traversed the world, dropped the shards into the Peril before jumping in herself, buried them in the Badlands before being attacked by nasty, nameless things...

"But history, the annals, do tell us this: she did not take all the shards. Her conscience wouldn't allow it, perhaps.

"One sliver she left with her daughter.

"A second sliver she left with the Versaisna, to whoever ruled them at that time.

"Don't look so surprised! Legendary things may be forgotten, but they have a habit of never being lost. Of always being found again.

"Especially when people are sent off to search for them.

"What did you find in your books, hm? Did you find anything of what I've told you? No? Hardly surprising.

"The Versaisna--the ones that kept the name and remained nomads--remained luckless. Some of the He Tum stayed with them and spun out more prophecies (something you know a bit about, isn't it?), keeping up hopes that their time would come. Some day, there would be another revolution, another person to lead them, power returned.

"All that rubbish. Frustrating that people like that never seem to grow an imagination so they have to spout the same things over and over again. I mean, really, does it take so much to come up with an original prophecy? Does it?

"Pity, I rather thought you'd answer that.

"Time passed, as it tends to do, and the Versaisna were forgotten. Anthasec was forgotten. The city she stole grew, the people she stole it from--forgotten.

"Funny, though, the sibling swap never was forgotten. The tradition continued. The reason why it was done, of course, was forgotten.

"Ah, I can see you are worried about something, hm? Perhaps you wonder what weren't told before the rest of your family died? Perhaps? But I can tell you. Only if you want to hear it, of course.

"Do you?

"I will take your silence as acquiescence. Please, interrupt me if I'm mistaken. The family Anthasec left behind remained to rule the stolen city. The city continued to grow.

"--I'm sorry, I can tell you'd rather hear the present story now. My apologies. Your mother died in childbirth, I suppose you've been told. But did anyone ever tell you it was because of the second child? No, I can tell that bit was omitted. Of course, it would be.

"The second child was given away to a nomadic tribe. All very secretly. Your grandmother saw to that.

"Yes, yes, good! Get angry. Please do. It's always so flattering on you. You had a brother, you see. Or, more correctly, your mother had him and then died. He was given away to a tribe--care to guess which? Or why? No, I can see you're in no mood for guessing games. He was given to the Versaisna, the ones that kept the name all those centuries ago, and survived to see today. And do you know why? I can see you do--you're learning!--but I want to say it anyway. Because you, and he, were--are--part of that old line. Part of that old treatise. Anthasec's ancestors. The city she stole--and I hear a certain Prince is still very upset about that--is, yes, it is this one. Very good. You've got it all now, I see.

"Now, what is it I've forgotten to tell? The story's got to have a happy ending, doesn't it? Oh, yes! The He Tum. The prophecies. The new revolution. The new leader. Those poor Versaisna. Tsk. Centuries they've hung on to that dream. But who am I to chide them? I mean, really? Especially when their predictions come true. Your brother, I'm afraid, was exactly what they've been waiting for.

"And do you know what they hung on to for all that time? Please, guess. Please? No? My, but you're truly spoiling the fun in all this. That sliver of star stone, that little slip of power broken from the original and given to them by Anthasec--as repentance.

Where, do you suppose, your sliver has been hidden? Or do you care? No, I rather think you'd want the whole thing, all the shards. But where could one even begin to look? And how to get people to look for you, since you're too precious to risk going yourself?

"The Badlands, perhaps? Another prophecy? Oh, yes. I heard all about that. Any luck? There are other pieces I'm forgetting...I know I am. Forgive me while I collect my thoughts. Oh! Oh yes. I remember." The narrator smiled smoothly, treasuring the bloated silence before he pricked it, letting the truth run over like pus from the split boil of ignorance.

"I am Versaisna Lucair, adopted son of Versaisna Fashe, daughter of Versaisna Nesna," confessed the Ash Maker.

"Tell me, sister," he continued as he looked up into the burning eyes of Arch-Magess Shaftile Pyreslake, "care to guess what Versaisna Anthasec changed her Tribe name to?"

 

__________

Note: This manuscript was written by the player of 'Versaisna' (March 2001)

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