Read Dawn of the Flame Sea Online

Authors: Jean Johnson

Dawn of the Flame Sea (9 page)

“It is there so that oil can be poured into it and set on fire for light,” Kaife stated. “Oil, rendered fat, even wax with wicks. In the cold of the night, the heat will rise and be absorbed by the roof, which will radiate it downward. The gap between lower and upper roof allows the heat of the day to rise, as well as any smoke. The trough is made from alabaster, grown out of the granite, and is thin enough that the light of the flames will shine through it, yet thick enough to still support the weight of oil and wick alike. Adan and I have built similar things in the past. He is my cousin.”

Halek nodded slowly. “Being able to see the water at night would be useful for those who are up late and are thirsty. The moon is not always available, and the stars not always sufficient. But we do not have anything to spare to burn, beyond a few torches.”

“We plan for the needs of future years, not just future days,” Parren explained. “There are olive trees growing not far from here. Low and stunted, Rua says,” she added, gesturing about rib high on her body, “but they do grow in this area. They can be cultivated, and the fruit pressed for lamp oil.”

Halek eyed her. “Trees take many years to grow.”

“We live long lives,” Adan said simply.

That made the taje frown. “How long?”

“Very long.” The words came from behind him. Djin-taje-ul had come up behind him without making a sound. Then again, the splashing water of the fountain would have concealed most small noises. She moved with fluid grace and smiled like moonlight, gentle and soft, a cool contrast to the rising heat of the day. “We have many magics, which ensure most illnesses and injuries are not fatal.”

“Taje Djin,” Halek greeted, giving her a nod of his head.

“Djin-taje,” she corrected lightly, and continued with her original topic. “We also have many customs of cleanliness for similar reasons, to promote good health and thus prolong our lives.” She hesitated a moment, giving Halek the impression that she was choosing her words carefully so as not to give insult. Behind her drifted a tall, black-haired shadow, never far from the tall, golden taje of these strangers. “Though there is something . . . surprisingly
good
in the way most of your people smell, it is still obvious you have not bathed thoroughly in quite some time.

“Our next public project will be to build a bathing center for your people, where you may wash yourselves and your belongings. We will show you our customs and expectations. They take time to follow, but I think you will enjoy how we bathe,” Djin-taje-ul added lightly. “We are also willing to reshape the other caves into more suitable living spaces in due time for you.”

That made Halek frown. “You would build our homes for us? What would you demand of us in return?”

“That you contribute to the community. Hunting, gathering, farming, whatever skills you have in crafting. That you add to our defenses, watching for strangers, welcoming those who are friendly, and helping to ward off those who are aggressive. That you observe the world around you, question what you see, learn from the answers you find, and share your knowledge and wisdom with others.” Djin-taje-ul held up her hand to forestall his next comment. “The value of a house can be determined through trade, via the materials and labor used to build it. So many lengths of wall for so many haunches of meat, or beads carved and strung in exchange for roofing materials, obviously.

“However, the value of a
home
is something that increases when all, neighbors and dwellers alike, contribute to its high standing. This is the way of the Fae, to make our living spaces better and more enjoyable for all, resident and guest, though we must keep our stronghold separate and private, as your people are not yet ready to understand our ways. The separation will help prevent confusion. Now, as we all have water and the day is starting to grow warm,” she continued, “I should like your people to consult with mine about hunting and gathering and finding the means to feed everyone. Water, we have in abundance. Everything else is limited still.”

“I will have Puna brought over to discuss such things, as she is the hunt leader for our tribe,” Halek stated, and after bowing, walked off—blessedly walked, rather than limped along with his crutch—in search of his hunt mistress. There were parts of him that continued to doubt the motives of these strangers, but so far all of their words and their deeds matched. That was the only truth he could swear to today.

Several paces away, however, an odd sight slowed Halek. The southern woman, Siffu, had dropped to her knees. Her three children were over by the fountain, playing with the water along with many other of the tribe's younglings, but the pregnant woman with the dirty blond curls had not joined them. Instead, she was staring at the Fae people with wide eyes and parted lips, her expression somewhere between scared and reverent. Moving to her side, Halek touched her shoulder.

“The water is safe to drink, Siffu,” he told her gently. Her past was different from most of the others, for she had been traded from tribe to tribe over the years, ever since her capture as a young girl. Her blond hair was a novelty, greatly prized by those tribes who kept slaves. White Sands did not, but they did welcome fellow refugees. She had blossomed under the free status of a member of his tribe, so this look of awe on a face that had learned to smile disturbed him. He tried to reassure her some more. “I drank it myself, and it is clear and sweet and cool. These Fae people are willing to be our friends.”

Siffu shook her head, her eyes following the ones in the metal clothes. “They are
gods . . .”

Halek frowned. “They are people, not gods. They are people made of flesh, not people made of anima.”

That only made her shake her head. “They are
gods
of gods . . .”

Puzzled, Halek studied her. He knew she came from somewhere beyond the Frost Wall, the snowcapped mountains far to the south. Those who lived to the north of it believed sensible things about the anima, that it could be conjured, controlled, and used to harm or help. That it came from natural things, from movement and fire, and the life energies of plants and animals. Those who lived south of those mountains believed that the anima manifested itself as humanlike beings, sometimes with animal characteristics, who had special abilities above and beyond mere men and women. That they were immortal, that they were perfect compared to mere mortals, that they had special affinities for things like taming animals or crafting metal objects, or . . .

“They are
not
gods, Siffu,” Halek repeated, as much for his own sake as for hers. Yes, Djin-taje had cured his illnesses, and those of many others, all within a short span of time and without tiring as any normal animadj might. “They are strangers, and . . . their eyes and ears are different, but their hair is not too off from yours. You are not a god, no? There it is.

“They are like you, they are like me, and they are not gods.” He glanced back at Djin-taje, who was laughing at something that had just been said, and realized just how beautiful she was. Like a perfect beam of dawning sunshine. Shivering, he turned away. They were just fellow humans. With pointy ears, and desert-colored eyes, and . . .

They were
not
living beings created from pure anima.

***

“Tell me why we should let you live, strangers.”

The words came out of nowhere, unexpected and unwelcome. Kuruk, scout leader of the Circle Fire party sent to track and spy on the refugees, grabbed his weapon and whirled to face the noise. From the silhouettes against the night sky, there were at least as many in the group confronting them as he had brought in his scouting party.

“Tell me who you are, and why we shouldn't kill
you
,” he countered boldly, straining to pinpoint which human shape had spoken.

Behind him, Pak quickly huddled over the low coals of the fire, blowing gently and feeding the embers bits of twigs and scavenged dried dung. The acolyte knew his duty, which was to preserve the flames from which their chief animadj, Koro, could pull wisps as well as fiery weapons. It might have looked like he was trying to build up the fire so everyone could see, but Kuruk knew that was merely a side effect. If it came to a fight, few could resist the pain of being seared alive by anima-fire.

A fight, however, would be counterproductive to his mission.

“We are Water Spear, and this is
our
territory.” The voice was female, a low contralto filled with strength and confidence. “We outnumber you, and we will kill you if we do not like your answers. We can see you bear the symbols of the Circle Fire Tribe, but their territory is days from here. So why should we let you live?”

“There are only five of you,” Koro stated with the confidence of an animadj who could sense the energies of his fellow living beings. “There are also only five of us. We are equally matched, not outnumbered.”

“I suggest we talk, rather than fight,” Kuruk told the night-hidden speaker. “As for territorial claim . . . we are not near any oasis. No grazing lands worth speaking of, let alone fighting over. Only a fool would spill blood over a stretch of barren sand that trickles through the fingers. Are you a fool?”

Footsteps, the soft chuff chuff of someone striding over loose sand. A woman came into view, her hands gripping bow and string. She had nocked an arrow, but it was not yet drawn; indeed, the bronze point aimed toward the ground for the moment. “Do you think to scout our borders for an attack? Count the heads of our flocks? Size us up as slaves?”

Kuruk smiled slightly, free to speak the truth. “No. We are not traveling these sands in search of Water Spear slaves.” He thought for a moment, then added truthfully, “We were sent to see how far those so-called refugees from White Sands were going to flee.”

“And how far have they fled?” the woman asked. She was now close enough to the fire to be easily seen but still far enough away she could have gotten off a shot before Kuruk, as the nearest, could have lunged at her.

Her black hair had been parted into two braids that fell to the tops of her leather-bound breasts, and her skin was the heavy tan of someone accustomed to being in the sun all day, rather than seeking out the shade. Age-wise, she looked somewhere between fully adult and mature, with a few scars and enough muscles on her body to say yes, she not only knew how to wield a weapon, but she had also fought a few times and survived. It did not matter whether her opponents had survived; she had survived, and that was tough enough for anyone's measure.

“I am Kuruk. What is your name?” he asked her.

“Shuda. Answer my question. How far did those soft-skinned water gulpers flee?”

“Beyond easy reach. The season of high summer is drawing near,” he reminded her. “And after that, the season of rains. If they stop somewhere to stay, it will be up to their luck and their animadjet to help them survive. But as it is nearly high summer, we are returning home,” Kuruk stated, gesturing at himself and the other four men.

Shuda eyed them, then lifted her chin peremptorily. “Rest tonight, but be on your way in the first light of morning. Circle Fire is not welcome near Water Spear.”

“That was already our intention, to avoid you and be on our way when rested,” Kuruk agreed mildly. He itched to take her down, take her as a slave, but for the moment the Water Spears had the advantage on his group. “In turn, you will go off and not bother us this night. It would be bad for both sides if we had to fight off any night-killers.”

“Same for you,” Shuda retorted. “Bad for
you
if you tried.”

Dipping his head, Kuruk waited for her to retreat. After a long, hard look at the other four men, she did so. Kuruk murmured to the others to keep watch in pairs and moved to unroll his pallet and stretch out on it so that he could have the onerous task of middlemost watch, the position that received only a little sleep at the start and the end of each night.

Such courtesies in a leader made others more willing to follow him, usually. Then again, none of them would be getting much sleep until they were back in their own territory. Water Spear's scouts would follow them all the way to the border of Circle Fire's lands; of that, Kuruk had no doubt.

Chapter Five

Year 0, Month 2, Day 17

The season of high summer

Jintaya shaded her sun gold eyes against the twin golden glares of sun and sandstone. She wore a very broad-brimmed hat, but the glare was intense even with it. Heat waves rolled up from the landscape, dust-dry and blistering hot. Ban had woven broad, shallow, conical things, sort of like upside-down baskets with chin straps to help stave off sunburn, but it was clear her delicate, golden Fae skin would start to redden soon if he couldn't coax her back into true shade soon.

She'd let him coax her, of course, but Jintaya had needed to see the phenomenon for herself. Three days of high summer heat, and already it was brutal at midday. In a few more hours, the height of the heat would ensure nothing but the bravest of insects would care to crawl around or make any noise. Most of the native humans stayed deep in the caves hollowed out for the tribe's use, where Parren had run water in a series of bathing pools to help cool everyone down.

Up here, the only movement that Jintaya could see came from heat-based mirages. “It really does look like an ocean, despite the fact this is a desert. Everywhere I look, a heat mirage rippling like the waves of a sea.”

Ban grunted. His dark eyes flicked this way and that, constantly on alert for any danger to her. It was too hot even for desert scorpions, though. He glanced at her and spoke. “Halek wants to find a good name for this settlement. He says ‘White Sands' is no longer appropriate. Wadijt Tribe does not roll off the tongue easily, though, and Canyons Tribe is equally bland.”

“I am also told this place is hotter than anywhere they ever lived before,” Jintaya observed, still staring out at the horizon. The air was clear enough at the moment that she could see the great dunes in the distance as a low, dull, beige line on the horizon. There was some dust, though. “It is like living in a fire, to me. But those mirages make it seem like we live in the midst of a great ocean at the same time. An ocean, a lake, a fiery sea . . .”

“I have seen a sea filled with flames,” Ban admitted quietly.

Jintaya glanced at him. He had lived a very long time, had seen many, many things. She still didn't know all that he had seen and done, but then getting him to talk was like trying to peel a garlic clove. There were certain tricks to speed up the process, but they didn't always work.

Sometimes the direct approach worked. Cautious, she chose an indirect question. “Did it look anything like this?”

“No . . . but it
was
this hot. Or so it feels,” he added, shrugging. “A sea of flame and sand, dry and hot, yet rippling with nothing but illusion for its waves.”

A nonanswer, but he had something. “A sea of flame . . . a flame sea . . . I like it,” she told Ban. “We could easily call this land the Flame Sea, for we are surrounded by fiery heat, yet we can float on all the water we want in the very heart of it. What do you think?” she asked him.

“I think your skin is starting to burn,” he warned her. His hide was darker, more suited to a tropical zone than this semitropical one. Hands raised to help, Ban lifted her down from the rock outcrop she had chosen as her watchtower. Together they started picking their way back down the rugged ravine that had led them up to the top of the low, cliff-riddled rise that outlined their new home. “As for calling the region the Flame Sea, you should ask the others what they think . . . but
I
will call it that for as long as I live, in your memory's sake.”

Jintaya hated it when he said things like that. “I will live for a thousand years or more, Pou-hann,” she enunciated carefully. From the wry twist of a smile at the corner of his mouth, she knew she still hadn't gotten it quite right. The myjiin potion never translated names perfectly, and calling him Ban hopefully helped distance him from his previous, painful existence. “In a thousand years, a place-name can change many times. But you are right. We shall ask the others what they think. After I have soaked in cool water and healed my skin of the encroaching sunburn. I will check you for a burn, too.”

“Of course, my lady.” His slight smile did not vanish. In fact, it remained, however lopsided, until they entered the caverns leading to the bathing caverns. That was when they heard noises. And a feminine voice. A familiar voice, breathless and rhythmic.

“Is that . . . Rua?” Jintaya asked. She listened to the husky cries and moans and blushed. “Stars, it
is
Rua! But who is she with?”

Ban listened to the masculine grunts and groans for a few moments, then shrugged. “It sounds like Zitta, the chief animadj apprentice.”

“She didn't even consult with me about the wisdom of coupling with these people,” Jintaya muttered, sighing in exasperation. Giving it a bit of thought, she finally shrugged. “Not that I can blame her. There is
something
about the way these men smell that is just . . . alluring! I've heard Éfan saying the same about the women, and the others agree. Do they affect your senses like a fine wine? Or is it just a Fae thing?”

“I think it is mostly a Fae thing,” Ban demurred. “Though once they cleaned up, they started smelling a lot more appealing even to my nose.”

“Even to yours?” Jintaya repeated, brows raising.

“It is a picky nose,” he reminded her, and smiled a little when she grinned and laughed. Quietly, Ban added, “You have always smelled wonderful to me, Jintaya. Always.”

Blushing, Jintaya headed deeper into the caves, which were now smooth, if winding, tunnels etched with graceful intertwined lines and stylized plants and animals. “We have things to do. Get out of this heat, get some water, some food . . . and I must prepare a way to ask if I can examine Rua when she is done. Tactfully, of course. The begetting of Dai-Fae is not forbidden, but while these humans may seem similar to us, they may have potentially dangerous differences hidden in their biology. She should have consulted me first.”

“Yes, my lady.” He paced in her wake, unperturbed by the currents rippling between them. A thousand years was but a fraction of his life, if a large chunk of a Fae's life span. They had only been on this world a few months, however, so they had plenty of time to let things unfold. If they ever would.

Jintaya knew this. She also knew he had suffered too much, even just in the years shortly before finding and freeing him from a grim existence of killing to survive, but having no actual purpose to his life. Ban needed time to relearn how to trust. Time which a friendship with a human-sized life probably could not earn. Not easily. Over the course of a long-lived Fae's life, she believed
she
could earn his full trust. Maybe even more, maybe a relationship with him. It was strange how a male so closely tied to violence for so long could draw her gentle-minded self.

Right now, however, she had to think about the concerns of what the long-term effects might be regarding Rua's current activity.

***

Year 0, Month 2, Day 18

“And he was just so . . .
vigorous
,” Rua sighed. She smiled and stretched as she lay on the padded table in Jintaya's healing suite. “Uninhibited.”

“Mm,” Jintaya muttered, her attention more on the rune-carved crystals and their proper placement for the exam than on what the lusty agricultural expert said.

“Not exactly the most inventive of lovers, but so very passionate . . . so very
focused
. It was like I was the center of his existence. Like I was being worshipped!”

That snapped Jintaya's head up and her attention off her diagnostic aids. “What? Rua, you know it is
forbidden
for the Fae Rii to set ourselves up as deities on any world we approach! We are
not
gods—”

“I meant in a
lover
sense,” Rua asserted, cutting off her leader. She rolled her goldenrod eyes and huffed a sigh. “We've been talking plant magics, and animal magics, and how to use the local anima to increase health and vitality, and it just . . . sort of . . . led to increasing our own health and vitality. And yes, vigorous sex can raise magic. We managed it on the third time, though of course it went straight into me. I could feel it, though.”


Third
time?” Jintaya demanded. “Just how many times have you lain with this native?”

“Five?” Rua offered. She looked at the vaulted ceiling, at the vine-carved ribs of the arches supporting the weight of all the rock above the layers of the pantean stronghold, and counted. “Yes, five.”

Sighing heavily, Jintaya resumed adjusting the poles and clamps supporting the crystals. Aiming them carefully at the other woman, she pulsed a spell through the first, then moved to the second, then the third. Sparks swirled through the shafts, intensifying until three rays of light shot out and landed on Rua's lower torso. Within seconds, runes swirled up in hues of blue, red, and green.

“Oh, stars,” Jintaya groaned, reading them. “Rua . . . Rua . . . you shouldn't have lain with him.”

“What? Am I diseased by him?” the younger Fae demanded. She lifted her head, craning to see the runes for herself though she hadn't the training to read them. “What's wrong with me?”

“You're pregnant,” Jintaya told her flatly.

Rua half smiled in skepticism. “
No
. No, I cannot be.”

“You are,” the pantean leader confirmed.

“No, I
cannot
be. I'm wearing a contraceptive amulet,” Rua told her. “Right ankle, and I never take it off. No matter how attractive he was, I wouldn't . . . that is . . . well, I'd
hope
I wouldn't have leaped into his arms without one,” she amended hesitantly, lying back down again. Her goldenrod eyebrows quirked, and she frowned. “He
is
rather alluring . . . and he's not the only native man to appeal to me.”

Frowning herself, Jintaya shifted the crystals so that they shone on Rua's calf and foot. The runes that shimmered upward after a few seconds only deepened her frown in pure confusion. “It's still active? How can it still be active if you are now pregnant? Either they work, or they fail. They don't stop working, then start up again.”

“Maybe it's acting oddly around the anima?” Rua offered.

“I'll take it off and check it—and you—for anomalies,” Jintaya told her. She moved to ease off Rua's boot in order to access the amulet. “And I will need to examine Zitta, too. Interbreeding is not forbidden, but it usually takes place under more controlled circumstances.”

“Hmm . . . perhaps you should speak with Éfan as well,” Rua offered.

Jintaya looked up from her knot-picking efforts. “Éfan? Why? What is he doing?”

“Spending a lot of time talking with Zudu, their chief mage, and the two of them have been exchanging warm looks of late,” Rua told her.

Reminding herself not to clench her jaw, Jintaya went back to picking off the amulet. A rearrangement of the beams showed that Rua was still pregnant. The zygote was tiny but healthy. So was its mother. This presented a new dilemma for the pantean leader, the choice of whether to keep or terminate the pregnancy, and if keep, whether to let Rua bear the child naturally or see if a Dai-Fae could be brought to term via external magics. She double-checked all readings, including a head-to-foot shifting of the three beams, examining all of Rua, not just her reproductive region.

“I can see no health hazards at this time,” Jintaya finally stated. “Do you wish to support the fetus to term personally, or do you withdraw your body rights?”

Rua thought about it for a few moments. Finally, she breathed deep, sighed, and said, “It is better with a new half-breed species if the mother bears the fetus to full term. That would help calibrate any womb-spells that might be needed, should one of us decide to withdraw body rights and not carry a fetus personally. I will carry it to term myself, though if anything should go wrong, I expect you to have a sac ready.”

“I will be monitoring you daily,” Jintaya warned her. “Every morning before breakfast. Sometimes in the afternoon or evening as well.”

Nodding, Rua stared at the ceiling. After a few moments, she asked, “Do you think he or she will have properly pointed ears? Or round ones like these humans?”

“How would I know?” Jintaya retorted lightly. She moved to the workbench that had her notebook. “We've never had any Dai-Fae born from this world before.”

Rua chuckled. “True. Well, I'm sure we'll soon find out.”

“You will have to tell him, you know,” Jintaya said, writing out her observations so far. “These natives do have a mild concept of bastardy, but only as it applies to an inheritance; if the couple are not formally mated, and the parentage is not easily proven, then the burden falls upon the mother and her family . . . and the Dai-Fae born to certain worlds have been judged too dangerous or unstable to be allowed to go to Faelan. It is not known yet if this will happen to your child, but it is a possibility. For that matter, some Dai-Fae end up too dangerous to the local world and must be evacuated to Faelan, or to a foster world . . . or in those few cases where the crossbreeding proves too dangerous, they will have to be removed from life.”

“I know,” Rua stated quietly. Soberly. She stared up at the granite ceiling, as if searching for a better answer to a sometimes-ugly ethical problem. The problem was, the Fae had searched for centuries, only to throw up their hands in defeat and admit that, sometimes, death was the only way to stop a major problem. “I know.”

***

Year 0, Month 2, Day 22

“These anima-lights, they will not hurt me?” Zudu asked, lowering herself to the pallet laid on the floor of her stone-shaped quarters. All of the refugees had homes now, all of them housed in multiple chambers set in stout, cool granite. Relatively cool, given it was still high summer.

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