Dawn of the Flame Sea (12 page)

Such adult reasoning out of the mouth of a girl barely old enough to be called a young lady plucked at the corners of Ban's mouth. “I see. If you are too young to participate, should you not be sleeping with the others? Or at least minding the younger ones while they sleep, as older children often do?”

“The elders, the ones who are too old to enjoy the effects of palraca, are tending them tonight.
I
am supposed to watch the celebration so that I learn how pleasuring is done,” she countered. “But I have already watched it before, and the Fae do nothing that is different, so I do not think I would learn anything new.”

Her answer was so serious, yet so cheeky, Ban actually laughed. The sound startled him, and he laughed harder for a moment, then let it fade with a sigh. A sigh, and a smile. Zuki tipped her head, studying him. “You do not laugh or smile very often . . . but it suits you. You should do that more often, Ban.”

“I have not had much to laugh or smile about. Thank you for reminding me I still can, but please do not try again,” he murmured, and headed up the tunnel toward the outside.

As he suspected, his warning had little effect. She skipped a little to catch up with him, then tried to stroll at his side. Given his foreign height versus her half-grown frame, she had to take three and four steps for every two of his. She eyed him, curls bouncing and frizzing a bit in the humidity of the evening. “Ban, why do you not wish to laugh, or make love, or celebrate joy? They call you Shae, not Fae, but does that not make you human like us?”

“Human, but not like you,” he corrected.

“How so?” she asked. Kaife had crafted benches along the sheltered outer walkways. Zuki gestured toward one, as if she were a hostess and he her guest. “You are taller, your skin is painted permanently with many colors, as if by magic . . . yet you have round ears, brown eyes, and brown skin, and you look very similar to us. How are you not like us? Other than that you are very tall, and your face shape is more round than long?”

“How many days are in a year?” Ban countered her questions.

“Three hundred and sixty. We think,” Zuki added. “Zudu is unsure how to measure it exactly.”

“Well, little one, those are merely the number of days in a year,” Ban said. He looked out at the rain, or as much of it was illuminated by the oil lamps in the theater's external alcoves. Night had fallen in full, leaving them in silver-streaked darkness thanks to the thick cloud cover. “I have lived a number of years that are ten times that many, and more. That is one of the ways I am very different from you.”

She blinked at him. “You have lived thousands of years? But even Elder Tanuki is only seventy-three years old, not seven
hundred
and three. How can this be? Are you lying to me?”

“I am not from this world.” There. He'd said it. What the Fae did not want to have said, because these people were still primitive in many ways. Primitive, and superstitious. In his opinion, however . . .

“That . . . does not make sense, and yet it does,” Zuki stated, frowning as she thought about it. As Ban had known she would. “The world is the world. It is everything. What can lie beyond it?”

“Have you seen the stars at night?” he asked her.

“Yes, of course.”

“And the sun by day?”

“Of course,” she repeated, rolling her eyes a little.

“Each star is a sun, only it is so far away, beyond the clouds, the air, the sky, that it would take many lifetimes to build a bridge—even by using all the anima you could gather—to travel to those suns to find the worlds that they give heat and light to,” Ban explained to her. “There is another way to travel as well, and it is like simply opening a door and stepping into another person's home, rather than building a bridge to it. But these doors are very carefully concealed and can only be opened in specific ways.

“I have come through such a door . . . and the door I stepped through was a cursed door.” He stopped for a long moment, remembering that day long, long ago. A deep breath eased some of Ban's tension, though. “I can only die on my world. Every other one I have visited since . . . I neither age nor perish.”

“That's . . . I don't know the word for it,” Zuki told him, touching his forearm gently. “That someone named Death cannot die. It is funny and sad and strange.”

He thought a moment, concentrating on her language, then nodded. “It's called irony. You find it ironic that I am Death but cannot die.”

“Are you really Death?” Zuki asked him. “Or are you just pretending?”

“I am what I am,” he replied, shrugging. “And I will also be whatever Jintaya needs me to be.”

“Do you love her?” Zuki asked.

Ban considered the question as the rain continued to fall. Back inside the theater, the musicians brought their current performance to an end. Someone played a few more notes, a new melody, but the others didn't pick up the thread.

“Do you love Djin-taje-ul?” the girl repeated.

“Probably,” he finally admitted. Ban didn't know why, but it was easier to talk to her about these things than to anyone else. Even Jintaya herself. “But I have had more than three thousand years of life, most of it unhappy. If love exists, then I am still trying to relearn what it means.”

“That is not ironic, I think,” Zuki offered. “That would be sad. I hope you do relearn it.” She hesitated, then said cautiously, “At times, you seem angry without a cause I can see, and sad without a cause I can see. I am supposed to learn how to help heal minds and bodies. It is very clear to me that you are injured, Ban, but you do not speak of your inner wounds. I want to be your friend, and friends help each other, even if it is just by listening and learning.”

“You cannot fix what I went through,” Ban dismissed.

“I know. We are taught that, as animadjet,” Zuki told him. At his blink and frown, she explained, gesturing at the rain. “We are taught that we cannot stop the rain. It comes when it wishes, and leaves when it wishes. Rain can also be summoned by magic, or held off for a little while, but it is difficult to repair the land when a flood has carved deep changes in it. Yet it is important to learn about the changes, for sometimes good things can be found in the mud. Things which might not be noticed or realized for years.”

“You are older than your age,” the tall, tattooed human murmured.

“And wiser than my age. And I know that you need to talk,” Zuki said, her persistence implacable. “It is not just that you have lived many years, Ban. You are sad and hard because of what happened in those years. You carry the injury like a pebble between your foot and your sandal, yet you never pause to take off your shoe. Perhaps you should pause and do so?”

Sighing, he gestured at a nearby stone bench. “Sit.”

Zuki crossed to it and sat on one end, leaving him room to settle a double hand-span away. Ban adjusted his kilt, breathed deep, and organized his thoughts.

“A very long time ago . . . there were three of us. My brothers and I. Our father, hard and stern, set us a difficult task. We failed. We were punished.”

“I'm sorry you were punished,” she offered. “Did it hurt?”

Ban slanted a look at her. No one had asked that before. Not that he could remember. “It did,” he confessed. “One of the three brothers was . . . changed by his experiences, before and after. The other two brothers were very angry. They began listening to the wrong people. Bad things began to happen as a result of choices they made. Their brother tried to reason with them, and when that failed, had to oppose them. Of the other two, one became angrier and angrier. The other followed out of anger and loyalty, but grew more conflicted inside. In the end, one of the three brothers tried to betray humans to very bad beings called demons, and the other had to fight to save his fellow humans from the demons.”

“And the third brother?” Zuki asked. A moment later, her hazel eyes narrowed speculatively. “What happened to
you
, when your brothers fought?”

Her perception pierced his reserve. Ban looked away, staring at the stone wall across from their bench for a long moment before glancing her way again. “As I said, there was a door. It was cursed with powerful animadjic. The demons wanted to bring a taje of their people through that door to
our
world, to rule it in cruelty and war far worse than what your tribe has seen.”

Zuki studied him, her young face somber. “Was the curse you spoke of, the one that prevents you from dying, on the door that they wanted to bring this taje demon through?”

He held her gaze steadily. “It was. Had the taje demon stepped through, it would have been unstoppable.”

Her gaze dropped to the ground, and her toes scrunched on the smooth granite floor. The young animadj breathed deeply, let it out, and finally said, “I'm sorry you suffered so much. But I am not sorry you walked through that door.”

Ban frowned, confused.

She peeked up at him. “If you had not, then my people could have died of thirst and hunger by now, trying to find a home across the desert. We would have needed to scatter widely across all of this wadijt, trying to find enough water in the heat of high summer to survive. We would have been caught in flash floods and drowned. We would have been vulnerable to jackals and worse. But you walked through that door. You met the Fae. They brought you with them when they came here. You have had a say in giving us water and shelter and ways to find enough food. Things would have turned out differently, had you not been there and participated in everything.”

That twisted his mouth in distaste for her hero-worship. Bluntly, Ban told her the truth. “I told Jintaya when I first saw your tribe that it would be wiser to kill all of you, to keep the pantean's existence a secret.”

“Yet Djin-taje-ul decreed we should be friends. In resisting your worst impulses, she insists on everyone following the best ones.” Zuki tapped the side of her head by one eye. “I have watched all of you carefully. All voices need to be heard, all opinions considered. If everything is darkness, we have no path to follow, and we will stumble and fall, hurting outselves. If everything is too bright, our eyes water and we grow blind from too much light—we learned this long ago in the brightness of high summer when trying to harvest the white sands for making fajenz. It became forbidden to go to the digging pits to work when the sun is too strong. Only in the contrasts found between shadow and light, strong ones and subtle ones, can we see a clear path.”

He eyed her short, slender form. “Are you certain you are not an elder of the tribe?”

That provoked a big heaving sigh out of her. “My mother and father say I think too much.
I
say that I am burdened with the oldest of anima in my bones. Older than stones.”

Chapter Seven

A sound squeezed out of him, staccato and odd. It also made his face ache. Only when she stared at him, mouth hanging slack, did Ban realize he was chuckling. Twice in one evening—twice in one conversation, she had him laughing. “No wonder you are drawn to me. We are both too old inside for anyone else to tolerate.”

She scrunched her sun-brown nose, but grinned and kicked her feet a little. “That could be. So how long was it, between going through that door, and bringing the others here? You mentioned a number, but I cannot grasp it.”

Ban considered the question. Tried to figure out how to explain it to her in a way she could understand. “How many years have you lived?”

“Fourteen years,” she admitted. “It will be fifteen, soon. Three hands' worth of years.”

Concentrating, Ban murmured. A green dot appeared on the wall across from them, no bigger than a thumbprint, but visible in the dancing light of the torches lining the colonnade of the theater. “That is one year,” he told her, and added thirteen more. “That is how old you are.”

Slowly nodding, Zuki braced her palms on the stone bench. “And how many more are you?”

Ban concentrated, shaping his magics. A box encircled the fourteen dots . . . and then the box-and-dots replicated themselves four more times, for a total of five. “That is how many years one of the oldest elders of your tribe has lived. On my own world, that would be the same average age for my people. The span of years I should have lived.”

“And you, once you walked through that door? Or Taje Djin-taje-ul?” his companion asked, curious. “She says she is many times older than I am, for all she looks only twice my age.”

The boxes marched up and down the wall until there were forty-five stacked in a column, not five. He added a few more dots, though not enough to make a full box. “That is approximately six hundred thirty-two years. Jintaya says she has lived that long. Her people expect to live
this
long, however.” The column duplicated itself once to either side, forming three of them.

Zuki blinked, awed. “How many is that? You taught us big counting numbers, so how many is that?”

“Around one thousand eight hundred. I have lived not quite
this
many.” Those three columns became five. “Over three thousand years. Most places I lived were not nice places. Most of the people I met were not kind people.”

Zuki stared at the dots for a long while. Eventually, Ban dismissed them. She breathed deep, still thinking, then looked at him. “The place that the door went
into
, the cursed door, was that where the taje demon thing came from? Its home? Like a mountain pass dividing one tribe's lands from the next?”

“Yes.”

“And they were a very mean tribe?”

“One of the meanest I've ever met . . . and I have met many. Their realm, my people called a Netherhell, a place of nothing but suffering and cruelty.”

“How long did it take you to cross their territory?” she asked.

Dots reappeared. So did the boxes. Forty or so of them. “I found other doors, but it took several tries before I could actually escape through one.”

She stared until they faded, then said simply, “I'm sorry it took so long for you to get away from the bad tribe.”

Once, he would have sunk back into deep anger at the briefest memory of those years. Now, however, he simply said, “I learned how to fight, crossing their territory to that door. I did terrible things to survive. I had to keep doing terrible things, as I traveled from door to door. As you said, your people would be scattered and possibly dead, if we had not come here. But I did terrible things in traveling from there to here. Are you still not sorry I am here?”

“Djin-taje-ul thrives on kindness like a bush thrives on the water in an oasis,” she answered obliquely. “The others are also very kind. When other tribes come to steal our water—as they will—she will be too gentle, and they will not be kind. They will try to kill us, or enslave us. It may be the animadjic of the Fae that gave us the water we need to live, but I think it will be the skills you learned when you could no longer die that will keep us alive.” Zuki gave him a sidelong look. “I do not mean to say we will
use
you, like an arrow shot from a bow over and over, without regard for how soon the shaft might break, but that I think you should teach us some of what you learned, so that
we
can fight, and survive.”

“I could do that. But Jintaya would have to approve,” he warned her.

“She loves you,” the young girl countered. “Because of that love, she wants you to have a purpose in life beyond just surviving. She thinks—and I think—that you need to learn how to live. Teaching others could give you a purpose. When you are not traveling everywhere, looking at everything for her, you can teach us how to protect ourselves, and thus help protect her.”

“I will consider it,” Ban stated. “But the pantean has rules. They will want to bring in one of their own teachers for such things.”

“Well, until they do, we will just have to settle for
you
,” she retorted sarcastically, and grinned when he frowned at her admonition. Zuki reached over and patted him on the hand resting on his thigh. “We are coming to love your Djin-taje as much as you do. It will be good for you to teach us how to protect her, too. You should also consider what more you want to do with her than just protect her. I think she would want to do more with you, too.”

Patting him again on the arm, she rose and headed for one of the side rooms to rejoin the children.

Ban let her go. In the distance, a faint rumble of thunder could be heard, though there was no flicker of light that he noticed. He carefully focused on the cool, damp air, the spattering, pattering rain, that faint, fading rumble, and a touch of thirst making his mouth dry. Now was not the time to recall any more details from his rather long, unpleasant past. Or to think about what, if anything, he truly wanted from the inebriated pantean leader who was no doubt still enjoying the company of the local men.

That was her choice, after all. Their choice. So long as they did not hurt her, he would respect it. He would never make such demands of anyone else. Not when far worse had been taken from him, time and again, in a past he refused to revisit tonight.

***

Year 0, Month 5, Day 15

The Veil cavern had been turned into an artificial garden, terraced with illusionary plants, lighting that imitated a sky, and trickling fountains—the fountains were very real, lending a cool moisture to the air this deep in the rock. Jintaya had claimed one of the divans for her call to her superiors back home and lounged on it while she gave her report. The Fae Gh'vin had to know the potential dangers of this world so that access to it could be restricted. The problem was convincing them this world
was
dangerous and thus needed to be restricted, but not so dangerous that it had to be abandoned.

The Veilway, reduced to a thin line of scintillating golden white, shimmered and rippled as one of the others spoke. Jintaya heard it through her earring, though. The voice was male, but the long, hair-thin opening distorted the transmission; he could have been her own father and she would not have known. Still, anyone with access to the Veilway had clearance to hear her report, ask questions, and offer suggestions, if not give outright orders.

“The agriculture reports Rua compiled suggests most foods, both plant and animal, will be very compatible with Fae digestion and nutrition needs. You state that there are only the usual sorts of poisonous creatures for a desert environment, scorpions, snakes, spiders, and such, and the aether itself is reported to be unusually compatible with Fae magics. Yet you say that this world is dangerous. How so?”

“It isn't the nonmagical environment that renders this world a candidate for restricted-access status,” Jintaya replied firmly. “The aether is too compatible and thus dangerous, because we as yet do not know how this anima-magic's supercompatibility will affect Fae lives in the long term. We live ten to twelve times as long as the local humanoids do, so whatever effects it may have on them may be too subtle over their shorter life spans compared to how it will affect our own in the long term.

“On top of that,” she forced herself to continue, staring at the illusion of clouds slowly scudding across the “sky” of the cavern roof, “there is one more problem, which may be an even bigger problem than the aether itself.”

“And what problem would that be?”

Jintaya sighed. “I'm pregnant.”

“Congratulations. So?”

“I am pregnant with a Dai-Fae. As is Rua—which I mentioned in a previous report—but it's more than just the two of us. So is Parren. So is Fali. And so are
several
human females with offspring sired by Éfan, Adan, and Kaife.”

Choking noises came through the shimmering line. “
They're what?
” someone finally demanded. “
Weren't you all using contraceptive spells? How could you forget such a basic pantean protocol?

“We didn't!
That
is my point. There is something about this world, its humans, its aether, that
negates
such protections. I've examined everyone who cross-indulged a month ago, and every last one of the females involved is gravid with a half-bred child. It isn't a matter which I can explain, either, for I myself was protected by
two
layers, a potion and a contraceptive spell,” she added firmly. Part of her wondered if it was that fermented drink, palraca . . . but that would not explain Rua's contraceptive spell failing. Unlike herself, Rua had coupled without the liquor. “It's not just magic, and it's not just chemistry. It's something else. Of course, the drink they served definitely loosened inhibitions for everyone, more so than I realized it would, but Rua did not drink it when she became pregnant. Neither did their chief mage.”

“No one questions your abilities in such matters,
” another voice, this one male, reassured her. “
If this is as you say, then . . . yes, this particular Veilway will have to be restricted in access. Such things, excessively easy magic, excessively easy impregnation, they seem minor concerns, but they could become major ones. Are you and your pantean team prepared to spend several more years there, examining and recording the situations? Or do you think you should terminate the pregnancies and remove yourselves from this world?”

Jintaya craned her neck and looked at one of the nearby trees. Artificial, but reminiscent of home with its delicate, lacy leaves. Very different from the often dry-looking, thorny versions found locally. As much as she enjoyed the forests of her home region on Faelan, there was beauty in the stark desert landscape of this world. “I don't think it's
that
dangerous. If nothing else, we know the risks are there with every world we visit.

“The locals themselves are not all that dangerous—their ability to wield magic is primitive compared to ours, their fighting skills are laughable in comparison, so on and so forth—but it would be a shame to seal the Veilway without at least running two decades' worth of observations. I'd consider advocating for the full hundred it normally takes to declare a world open for full trade, but I'd restrict the influx of more Fae until we've run a good four or five decades' worth of observations on the initial expedition members. And our Dai-Fae offspring.”

“If any of these Dai-Fae prove to be . . . problematic, beyond the pantean's ability to control them, you will secure the safety of Faelan by removing them from existence. No arguments, Jintaya. This is standard procedure, and you will follow it through by eliminating all threats to the home universe.”

She sighed heavily at that. Her personal preference was to give someone help in turning themselves around, counseling, and a second, even a third or more chance. She was also old enough to know that such things did not always work with certain kinds. “I know, I know . . . I'll have Ban do it.
If
it becomes necessary. Hopefully, it will not. Anything else you want to know?”

A feminine voice spoke this time. “
You did not list the Shae, Ban, among those who sired children. Did he not participate in this . . . drink-fueled orgy?

“Ahhh . . . I think not. I was a bit distracted,” she admitted. Jintaya thought about it, then shook her head. “No, he did not; Rua noticed he didn't, and commented on it in passing. Certainly, he isn't any of the fathers. I've already spell-checked for those, and the paternity of everyone is accounted for.”

The same female spoke after a pause. “
Some are curious to know if the Wandering One can reproduce at all. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Jintaya was very glad no one had bothered to widen the Veil enough for them to see her face, since it grew rather hot at that question. Her voice was steady, however. “I suppose it can be tested, but only if he is amenable. I could ask, but I would rather it was a freely thought idea, not one imposed upon him.”

“Continue to keep him thinking favorably of the Fae, Jintaya. Such a powerful being should not wander unchecked.”

“You make him sound like a tornado, or a typhoon,” she quipped.

“He responds to you. He is therefore your charge, and it is up to you to determine if he is a man or a monster.”

She wanted to reply “man,” but . . . she had seen the world she had rescued him from, and what he had done to survive.
And that was not the worst of the worlds he has suffered through
, she silently acknowledged. “At least he seems to be enjoying the desert environment here, though personally I find it a bit hot. It will take a bit longer for us to acclimate . . . Back to the report. Is there anything else at this time that you need to know?”

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