Dawn of the Flame Sea (13 page)

“Keep us apprised of the Dai-Fae situation, and be careful with the cross-contamination of Fae and native cultures. Observe the effects of this world upon your expedition, and the halfbreed children, for at least forty more years. If nothing alarming happens in that time, you will continue on for the full one hundred. Beyond, that, we have no questions at this time. We look forward to your next report one month from now. May the light of a thousand stars shine gently upon you in your travels.”

“Of course. May they shine upon you, too,” she returned. It was a good benediction to give to someone. Except she wasn't traveling anywhere for a while, of course. The pantean was scheduled to remain here one hundred years under normal circumstances, and at least forty to see how these Dai-Fae children would turn out. With a murmur and a swirl of her fingers, she conjured the webwork of awareness she had spent time carefully creating.

Each life force she had examined as the settlement's healer was tied into a health-tracking spell. She knew now whenever anyone was injured, whenever they were starting to fall ill. Siffu's youngest little girl, a three-year-old, had fallen and skinned her knee earlier today. The injury was not serious and had not picked up an infection, because her mother had rinsed it at the main fountain quickly enough. One of Puna's hunters was suffering a cough and was staying near a pot of boiling water to help ease the tickle in her lungs. Other than that and a few old-age complaints among the seniormost of the natives, everyone was reasonably healthy.

Including the pregnant women. It occurred to Jintaya that if she didn't try accelerating her own pregnancy a little, she could very well be trapped in labor at the same time as most of the others. At least she could tell her fetus was healthy so far. Very healthy, which hopefully meant accelerated growth wouldn't harm the child too much. She would not accelerate the growth by much, just a handful of quarter-moons, a month at most. Of course, that would put her close to Rua's own birthing time, but that would be more manageable. The humans had herb-healers and midwife helpers, but she had to monitor each pregnancy for the pantean's records, and that included how birthing each Dai-Fae would affect each mother.

Patting her still-flat belly, Jintaya sighed and stared at the ceiling, wondering just what it was about this world that was so subtly weird in how it interacted with her race.

Chapter Eight

Year 0, Month 9, Day 13

Spring was a season with two faces: early, which meant warming up but still raining regularly; and late, growing even warmer, with the rains tapering off to rare showers that vanished with the coming of summer's heat. Each phase lasted about a month and a half, maybe a little longer, and it was round about the splitting point when Lutun—though the young man loved spring—found himself caught twice.

The unexpected flood wasn't bad, since the wadij was broad, but it did soak him to the hips before he could get out of it. His bowstring managed to stay dry, but the quiver got drenched, as did the hunting bag with the trio of desert hares he had shot earlier. The pouch with his travel cakes, he discovered when he settled onto a rock outcrop to spread everything out to dry, was ruined, too, along with the pouch with his tinder and striking stones for making a fire. The deluge did not spare the scabbard for his bronze knife, either, which would start turning green and dull if he didn't let the leather sheath dry thoroughly first.

Everything would have to be dried by the sun, not by sun and fire; he was no animadj, to be able to summon a wisp to make twigs and such burn. Unfortunately, with the clouds scudding by, the sunlight and its heat weren't as intense as they could have been. After spreading out his belongings, even his sandals and trousers, Lutun made a pillow out of his poncho top and settled back to rest. He had told Puna, the hunt mistress, what direction he had gone and how long he planned to stay out. So long as he kept his nap short, he should be able to return within the rough time span he'd given her. At least he was now on the right side of that muddy wadij to be able to get home without having to cross it a second time.

And what a home! Fancy cave-like homes that were so straight and clean and pristine, they couldn't be called caves and certainly were not huts. Entire rooms set aside for sleeping, for cooking, for bathing and excreting, and of course entertaining guests. The Fae had called them “ah-part-mints,” and they had by now made enough that every single person could have had three, though it seemed silly and Lutun couldn't imagine dragging his pallet and gear from bedchamber to bedchamber within just one of them, never mind three.

Population expansion was the excuse the Fae gave for the excess in housing, which was probably a good thing, because Zudu and Halek had introduced the Fae to the Laughing Feast, held at the end of five of the darkest, cloudiest, gloomiest days of winter. Even though the Fae did not partake of the palraca as before, the same free-flowing couplings happened again. The three sun-haired males had—according to Djin-taje-ul—managed to get seven more women pregnant.

He himself had been pulled into a tangle of bodies by the Fae Adan when he had finished drumming on his strange instrument. Adan had urged Lutun to help him make love to the ash blond woman, Fali, her stomach rounded, her hands talented, her lips . . .

A scraping sound, sand against stone, snapped Lutun's eyes open. He groped for his bronze knife, set a short distance from his hand—and cried out with pain when an arrow pierced his third finger, cutting into the bone and slicing the littlest finger next to it. Rolling protectively toward the injury, he grabbed the knife in his other hand and struggled to his feet, only to stagger with another shriek when an arrow slammed into his calf.

Panting, kneeling awkwardly, he held himself very still. Only his eyes and his head moved a little as he tried to scan for where the attacks were coming from. Someone approached from his right, the direction of the sun. Squinting that way, Lutun made out a big fellow with a huge axe, its bronze head boasting two curved blades, and not the single one normally seen for chopping wood. A hand came down on his left shoulder, startling him with another cry of pain from his jostled wounds.

“I see you're willing to kneel before your new masters,” the man on his left stated. He was tall, lean but muscled, and bore a red-painted ring on his poncho. Circle Fire Tribe. His fingers dug in hard, provoking another cry from Lutun. “But let's see how cooperative you are in other ways. Such as telling your new masters where your tribe lives, and how many stand watch, and how well armed they might be.”

In a flash of insight, Lutun realized he had a choice. Either cooperate and hopefully live, or hold his tongue and most likely be tortured. He
wanted
to live, but he did
not
want to betray his tribe, or the Fae. The young man also did not know how much pain he could withstand before he
would
talk and betray them anyway. He was no coward, but neither was he the strongest-willed member of the tribe. Also, if he defied them hard enough, they could very well kill him, and he'd never see his new home again. He'd never be pulled into another mating-pile again.

A third choice opened up to him when the man shifted his weight and stepped on Lutun's calf, making the naked youth cry out in pain—he wanted to tell them
anything
to get the pain to stop! Anything . . . anything
could
include lies . . . couldn't it? Could he?

Licking his lips, he struggled to think, and think quickly. “We live to the southwest of here, at the southern end of the canyons!”

The man stomped, making Lutun scream. The bronze arrowhead had war-barbs, and they cut into his flesh cruelly. “Wrong answer! We know they went to the northwest. We know they still are living to the northwest. How many are left?”

“One . . . one hundred and fifty-three! The . . . the floods killed many,” Lutun panted. He could see others approaching now, a youngish man with a veritable forest of twigs in a bundle strapped to his back, and an older man carrying a torch. Its flames . . . were pointing contrary to the actual flow of the wind. Anima. They were using the anima to track his tribe? This was not good. Lutun altered his lie a little. “
My
group lives to the southwest. We . . . we spread out, some of us. There's not a lot of water to all live together, so . . . so we dug lots of catch-basins for water. The . . . the grazing land is to the northwest, and the farming land.”

The man holding him down stopped stepping on his calf. The release of pressure brought its own fresh wave of pain, but thankfully a bit less intense. “Koro, use your truth-flame spell on this one. I think he's trying to lie to us.” Lutun's captor turned back to him. “Koro is a master animadj,” he said, gesturing with his free hand while the one on Lutun's shoulder continued to hold him in a bruising grip. “He has a particular affinity for fire. If you tell the truth, his torch flames will stay upright and true, but if you tell a lie, they will reach toward your face. And with each lie you tell, we will bring those flames closer and closer to you.”

The man he gestured at held out his own hand toward the younger man with all the sticks, who was busy extracting one of them. It turned out to be a torch, covered in resin and oil-wrapped rags. As the animadj lit it, murmuring his spells to shape the magic, Lutun prayed he was close enough for the Fae to steal the . . . no. He wasn't close enough. He had roamed too far in his hunting for the anima to pull out of the animadj's hands and go flying toward the pantean.

Making up his mind to resist, to not tell them anything that could help the efforts of what had to be a scouting party for a great war band, Lutun squared his shoulders under his interrogator's grip. “I am Lutun of the mighty Flame Sea Tribe. I serve the Taje Djin-taje-ul, she who rules over all, and she will not be happy if you torture me. She will not be happy if you kill me. And she
will
send her servant, Death, to deal with you if you continue to harm me!”

“Your clan name and your threats are meaningless, little sheep.
I
am Kuruk, warrior of the Circle Fire, a name and a tribe you will learn to fear.
If
you live. We are strong, and you are not. Prepare yourself to serve us or be slaughtered.” Bringing his other hand down as well onto Lutun's shoulder, Kuruk held the grim, flinching youth firmly in place for the coming interrogation.

***

Zudu, the chief animadj, had appropriated a set of caves that went deep into the rocks, and had turned those caves into ornate chambers with the pantean's help. Like the Fae, Zudu had decided to plan for future generations, an expansion of the tribe's numbers, and hopefully an expansion in the number of animadjet to train and serve. Some of the best living quarters within the animadjet complex had been given balconies overlooking the valley not too far from the theater, and it was on one of those balconies that Jintaya now sat, having requested a moment of Zitta's time.

From the look on his face, her request was not what he had expected.

“So . . . you don't want to raise your own children?” Zitta asked, furrowing his brow in confusion. Having been gauged both trained and skilled enough, Zudu had promoted him to fully-ranked animadj and put him to work helping the tribe settle disputes and questions related to housing and territorial claims for grazing and gathering. “You want me to find parents who do want them?”

Jintaya shook her head. “No, that is not what is meant by this request,” she corrected him. “We do raise our own children, and sometimes the children of others. All children are raised with love and care. Those who are fully Fae by blood are always taken back home . . . though usually we are very careful not to procreate when we are serving on a pantean in distant lands.

“It is simply that those who are Dai-Fae often find it far more comfortable to be raised in the same place as their Shae parent. Having watched the various adults of the tribe and how they interact with each other and especially with children, we four Fae ladies are requesting that certain couples among your people adopt our offspring to be raised by you.” She carefully did not mention the possibility that these half-native, half-Fae children could wind up being a danger to her homeland and would not be allowed to cross the Veil between worlds without solid proof that they were no threat to her kind. “In a way, it is an honor for us to ask someone to raise a child; it means we trust them to be a good parent. It is a compliment. And as you have fathered a child with Rua, she would like you to accept that child into your care when the boy is born.”

“Why would you not raise them yourselves?” Zitta pressed.

“Mostly, it is because we will not have the time to . . . to . . . spare . . .” Jintaya stopped, frowning. Something was wrong. Like hearing an out-of-tune harp string being plucked in the midst of an otherwise melodic, quiet performance. The animadj started to speak. She cut him off with a swift rise of her left hand. Swirling the right one, she murmured the trigger-words for her awareness spell.

Though he had seen parts of this spell before, Zitta still sucked in a sharp breath when scores of soft-shining sparks sprang up from her fingers and spread out. “So many,” he whispered. He looked at the golden-haired Fae. “What's wrong? What happened?”

“I do not yet know . . . but
someone
I have a tie to is in mortal pain. I can feel it,” she murmured, and pressed the edge of her first two fingers to her forehead while she concentrated for a moment. Most of the sparks were arrayed in an odd scribble with sparks poking off here and there, some higher than the others. She murmured another triggering phrase and brought up an illusion of the sandstone and granite canyons around them. Zitta's eyes widened at this show of magic, his attention flicking from spark to spark as they nestled into, and on top of, the three-dimensional illusion.

“What an amazing spell. Is that . . . ? Are those two sparks you and I?” he asked, pointing at the tiny curve of balcony shelf set to the left of the entrance to the animadjet halls.

“Three sparks, but the spell is not large enough at this size for you to see my child,” Jintaya dismissed. Using both hands, she spun the illusion, checking the various life forces it tracked. “No, no . . . it is not anyone close to the central valley, or I would know their name and their peril if it were that close. It must be one of the hunters.”

Choosing a direction, she shrank the valley down—the sparks remained more or less the same size, forming a bright golden squiggle—and scanned off to the north, then the northeast, to the east . . . The pain she sensed increased, and her hands started moving jerkily, rather than with their normal centuries of practiced grace. When she reached the zones to the south, Zitta reached through the spell and caught her trembling fingers.

“Easy, Djin-taje-ul,” he soothed her, stroking her hands with his. “Deep breaths. It is admittedly frightening to see
you
upset, but if you are upset, you cannot focus, and if you cannot focus . . .”

“I cannot master the magic, the anima,” she agreed, and managed a slight smile. Her pointed ears had twitched at the way he pronounced her name, infusing it with a different meaning than it should have borne, but it was a good reminder that she was in charge and had to remain calm, not agitated or frustrated. Drawing in the suggested deep breath, she centered herself, then grasped the thread, shifted, and examined. Just as she rotated the illusion from southwest to west, she stiffened. “Lutun! Lutun is in danger. In great pain, and . . . and it is increasing!”

“Increasing?” Zitta asked. “What could make it increase? A desert lion? A nest of scorpions? Hyenas?”

“No, I . . . I don't . . . Ah!” she exclaimed, fingers clutching at his. Though her digits were slender and not callused, there was a great deal of strength in her grip. “There are others there, other lives—sentient, thinking lives. I think they are . . . By the stars, they are
torturing
him! But . . .
why
?”

Zitta wasted a moment in gaping at her, but only a moment. Trained to see the world beyond what was within reach of his physical eyes, his physical hands, he pushed off the bench he was sharing with their leader and braced his hands on the balcony railing. If Lutun suffered from torture, that meant a warband wanted information on his tribe's vulnerabilities. Zitta drew in a deep breath, then hollered as strongly as he could, letting his voice echo off the stone wall behind him and out across the valley.

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