Wed 1 Jan 2014
by Rachel Sobel
Nurzanah found him in the dust-eaten ruins of the library, seated before a broken writing desk. He was thinner than she’d ever seen him, the bones in his wrist showing clearly under the long sleeves of his kurta, and as she hesitated in the doorway he set his head against his hands, fingers pressed into his hair.
“Seda,” she said, and he startled, hand going to the place in his sash where she knew he kept a pistol and then stilling as he saw her. He closed his eyes for a moment.
“Captain,” he said. His voice was very quiet and nearly gentle, and had she been less angry, she might have felt for him, kneeling in the ruins of his boyhood home, his face smudged with ash and his soul showing at the edges of his eyes.
The wall behind him was blackened with tracks of fire in coarse fernlike patterns that reminded her unnervingly of the light that followed Asamerid’s ghost, and she swallowed back memory and despair and lifted her head to meet his gaze. He looked back at her without much emotion in his face, but there was a bruised quality to his expression that told her he didn’t believe in their easy friendship anymore either.
“You stupid son of a bitch,” she said softly, and shoved her rifle back. Seda rose as she came toward him, stumbling a little but not taking his wary gaze from her face; if he had not risen on his own, she thought she would have dragged him to his feet. She could not look away from him; she wanted to be able to hate him for what he’d done, she thought, for what he had taken her from, but the horror of her knowledge was too raw in her even for that. The color rose in his cheeks as he looked back at her, his eyes steady even though his mouth was drawn tight with lines of strain.
“There’s nothing here,” he said at last, very low, and Nurzanah’s hand closed into a fist at her side. It felt as if her mouth were choked with broken glass and soot, as if whatever words she spoke should come out in blood and the shrieks of wild birds rather than any human sounds. She could not forget the last retreat, falling back and back before the Hedi artillery as men and horses screamed around her, the weight of despair settling onto her shoulders like a mantle of dusty and implacable iron. If this was what their fallen star had shielded them from, she’d thought, no wonder they’d lost when she died.
“There’s nothing anywhere,” she said, and at his look of bleak incredulity, she said again, “Seda.” He did not look away, this time. “When I left them,” she said, “they were being forced into the Karossim in retreat.”
It was the end of autumn, and even here in the lowlands, the leaves were shredded and dull with age. In the mountains, there would be no hope of food to support an army, even supposing that the mountain lords would hold faith with the oaths they had sworn. She saw that knowledge slide across Seda’s gaze in the moment before he turned his face away. She gave him his silence, counting it out in the slow beats of her heart and the deeper silence of the mountain, and watched the crows over his shoulder, squabbling in the burnt ruins of trees in what had once been a garden courtyard.
“We should go,” he said at last, and Nurzanah nodded, and helped him gather together his few possessions without a word.
It was not far to Iskerim, but the road was old and had been left untended in the war since the great villa had burnt, nearly seven years ago. It was unlikely that they would make it into town before dusk fell, and Nurzanah did not let herself think of what he might see then. She knew too well the cost of hope.
The slope pulled at her bad knee, and she fell back a little with that pressure, letting him take the lead. It had been most of two months since she’d seen him, and though her anger nestled with dull familiarity in the corners of her heart, she found herself studying him as if he were a stranger to her. It would have been easier, she thought, if she could blame his failures on some new fatigue, some weakness she had never seen before; but she had always known him for what he was.
She had been sixteen when they’d met, already more the young soldier than the stocky silent girl she’d been, already carrying the fury of a childhood steeped in poverty and humiliation; not yet Yuta’s right hand, but very close to it for a city-born peasant girl of no particular clan. Stationed to guard the door of her lord’s illegal meeting, she had listened to the quick chatter of the city insurgents punctuated by Yuta’s quiet answers, finding with surprise that in her two years of service she had grown accustomed to the slower speech of the mountains.
After a while, Seda had come out to stand in the doorway behind her, a striking young man with the hawk features and dark skin of a hill lord. She glanced at him, assessing whether he meant her harm and then discarding the possibility, but even so she was surprised by the light in his face.
“I had thought we could not do it,” he said, and smiled with an unselfconscious sweetness. She wondered what Yuta had wanted him for. He was unarmed, and barely older than she herself, too threadbare to possibly hold any money or estate of his own, but tonight Yuta had invited only those he thought could be most useful to his cause.
“And he likes my satires,” Seda said, and Nurzanah realized with a little shock who he was. She stared at him. Even before she had gone to the mountains, people had not come to her to speak, and she had learned to expect their silence. He turned that sweet smile on her, this time putting a fraction more intent behind it. She wondered how many girls had fallen for it, and was surprised, too, at the cool certainty in herself that she would not be one of them.
“He likes the spirit in them,” she said, and watched him beam helplessly up at the heavens, by now beginning to mist over with high cold clouds. The pole-star had been just visible then, nested between her two guardians, and Nurzanah had looked at the too-familiar symbol and felt her mouth twist. The Hedi had for many years adopted the three stars to fill the banners of their southern provinces, settled easily into their winter positions beneath the great egret crest of the empire, and there was no one in the country who did not understand this symbolism.
Eventually, the rest of the meeting had spilled out of the building in twos and threes, and they’d gone off talking and laughing together into the brisk spring night while she’d waited. When she’d felt Yuta’s presence at her side, she’d turned in time to catch his fleeting, weary smile.
“We did well tonight,” he’d told her, and she had felt herself warm with his approval.
She had never until now fled danger and left him to it, she thought, and the bitterness stung at her like thorns. Yuta had sent her, now as ever, but it was Seda’s failure that had driven her here, and she did not think she could forgive him for it.
And she could not, even now, make herself stop remembering. He had been the only man behind the traitor, the only one in the whole suddenly frozen hall who could’ve done something. It should have been an easy shot from his place behind the doorway, but he had hesitated too long, his hands clumsy on the unfamiliar weapon.
It had all happened so quickly; fast enough that she had thought, at first, that the traitor had missed his mark after all. It wasn’t until she’d seen the blood flowering against Asamerid’s breast that she’d realized that Asamerid must have thrown herself between Yuta and the gun, faster than anyone human could have.
A good thing, then, that Asamerid had never been human, no matter what pretense they’d all clung to.
Seda was walking a little ahead of her in the gathering twilight, his back very straight, and Nurzanah wondered how he had borne the silence that must have filled his days since he’d fled Yuta’s camp so many weeks ago. She had never felt the same need he had, to fill all the world around her with words and grandiloquent speeches, and even so, even despite Asamerid’s quiet night-time company, she had felt the drowning pull of loneliness upon her soul. She was a little surprised to have found him alive, having so carefully tracked him by the rumors of his presence; she had not thought, precisely, that he would kill himself, but like the many academics who had ever been his companions, he had often been injudicious with his health. He had so much more reason to be so now.
The sun was nearly down; they would not reach the town before it set. Nurzanah wondered if she should have warned him. It seemed unlikely that he would see anything at all, and it was easier to hold her silence now and apologize later, if she must. Even so, she found herself holding her breath for long enough spans of time that she called a halt beside the road, handing Seda her canteen without a word. He smiled thanks at her, brief and strained, and while he drank she turned away to look out across the sharp valley to their left.
As the sun sank beneath the long distant ridge of the mountains, it seemed as if the whole world shivered in the vanishing twilight and then was still; and then, very slowly, the light of the dead star opened out around them like some strange night flower putting forth its petals, sliding brassy and dappled across the uneven surface of the road. Nurzanah waited for the sound of Seda’s sharp breath, for him to say her name with a trembling uncertainty or catch her arm and draw her back, but there was nothing. After a moment she turned around.
“So,” said Asamerid, her face lit by her own strange and shifting light. “You found him.” She was looking at Nurzanah with cool dark eyes that showed nothing of her emotion, while beside her Seda capped the canteen and held it out to Nurzanah. If it had been the first time Nurzanah had watched Asamerid beside people who did not see her, she might have made some error in her deceit, but instead she simply took the water from Seda and drank.
Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, she slung the bottle back into its place. She did not want to admit to herself how much she’d hoped that Seda would see truth standing beside him; tried not to watch the dead star pacing slowly around him, like nothing so much as some giant hunting animal around its prey. She didn’t want to remember the way they had looked in the first years of the war, radiant just to be around each other. She didn’t want to remember, either, the way Seda had looked when he kissed Asamerid, as if all the terror that held him rigid in the ordinary course of things had slipped away from him.
“We should go on,” she said stiffly, and Seda dropped his eyes to the ground and nodded. They went on, Asamerid’s light casting changing shadows onto the ground before them, and in the growing darkness Nurzanah watched Seda stumbling over the potholes and overturned rocks, and did not let herself wish for anything at all.
It was not long before they reached Iskerim, where a few thousand people clustered together under the great looming shadow of the cliffs. In the days before the war it had been a thriving merchant stop, one of the major breaks in the road from Puriyat. The mosque beside the river with its bright mosaics had been a destination for highland pilgrims for three hundred years and more.
Of course, the bridge across the gorge had been blown out five years ago, and now Iskerim was a stranded and pitiful thing, all half-burnt buildings and crippled deserters. Nurzanah did not look too closely into the corners of the sole surviving inn as she bargained with the innkeeper their night’s lodging, not wanting to see which of the other patrons sported the missing limbs and scarred faces of veterans, much less to know if any of them were broken enough to see Asamerid before them.
To her relief, Asamerid chose to leave the room, heading for the stairs to what the innkeeper had told them was their room for the night, leaving her free to guide Seda to a table. Even here, so close to the mountains, she knew there could be Hedi agents. They had all lately suffered very badly from assuming otherwise; but then, she thought, Seda had never before been forced to recognize such a personal price of war, never forced to see treason in those he loved. She did not think he’d make that mistake again.
The lamb was overcooked, when it came to the table at last, nestled in plain rice with a parsimonious spoonful of yogurt, but she was so hungry she scarcely cared, and Seda for his part tore into it as if he’d been starving for a month – which was, perhaps, not entirely improbable. They were nearly finished when the door banged open against the wall.
Nurzanah blinked into the light that filled the doorway, and found herself on her feet with her pistol in her hand, wondering through the inner thunder of her heartbeat if she were going to have to fight her way out of this on her own and half dead with fatigue. She took a careful step away from the table, pistol raised warily, and relaxed minutely only when it became clear that the torch did not belong to the beginning of a mob, but rather to a very young man with the scarf of a courier around his neck. The interior of the inn was silent with expectation.
“The news,” said the courier, and he swallowed, and put one hand up to touch the crest on his scarf, as if for reassurance. Nurzanah felt as if she were stretched between the words, nothing but a great arc of frozen dread, and she closed her hand hard around the grip of the pistol as the young courier looked around the room. Then he said, quietly, “Prince Yuta has surrendered at Hesirat.”
A woman swore, loudly and with great feeling, and Nurzanah was aware of a feeling like falling, as if she had stepped from the edge of a cliff without thought. She thought that Seda might have gotten up, but in the sudden hollowness inside her chest she lost him, and when she thought to look for him again, he was gone.
She would have gone after him, then, if the courier had not caught sight of her and blinked in obvious astonishment. “Sir,” he said loudly, shaking free of the people asking hurried muddled questions he could not possibly know the answer to. “Aren’t you Nurzanah Hazi Dahar?”
“Yes,” she said, against her better judgement, and found herself trapped in a maelstrom of questions, all the petty little people of the ruined city surrounding her at once. How had she come here, so far from her lord? Had he sent her away? Was she the center of some plan of restoration?
She answered the questions as brusquely as she could, resorting to direct lies only when she had to. She was afraid, now, that they might think to ask after the identity of her companion, and though they might not know yet the details of Asamerid’s death, she was sure they must have heard something of it.
The thought of Seda pricked her numbness with irrational worry, and she struggled to extricate herself from their questions. It was a long time before she managed to escape, and when she reached the room she had hired she wanted nothing so much as to sleep without dreams, but as she opened the door she came to a stop and stared, appalled.
There was blood sliding down Seda’s hand to pool onto the table among the shards of broken glass, and in the burnished and uncertain light from Asamerid’s ghost it shone with a dull honey-colored liquidity strange enough that Nurzanah did not at first recognize what he had done. He was not crying, and she stood in the doorway and looked at him; at the uncorked bottle of wine on the table and the ruins of the wine-glass, and at the injury he had done himself with it.
“Do you think that you’ll amend your sins so easily?” she said eventually, and her voice was level, without inflection. She felt a distant anger uncoiling in her stomach, and did not try to rein it in. She knew what he was doing, and when she glanced at Asamerid through the peculiar light rippling around her, she thought that she saw that recognition in the dead star’s face as well.
“It’s not that,” Seda said, very low, and his eyes flicked up to her face, hesitant and dazed enough that she wondered how long he had been sitting there. The uneven table was limned with bloody handprints where he had smudged at it.
“I didn’t think it was,” she said, and didn’t bother to point out that it hardly mattered whether he had crippled himself in an attempt to break the skill that had spared him from the brunt of the war, or merely to satisfy his self-loathing; in either case he could not be any use to her. She wasn’t sure he’d realized yet that they were running from something other than his own despair. “But I’m not sure you’ll be able to shoot any straighter if you can’t use your hands.”
She saw from his flinch that she had hurt him, and was fiercely glad of it, but she could not stand there and look at him. She turned and left the room, letting the door swing heavily closed behind her, and it was not until she was halfway down the stairs that she saw that Asamerid had followed her.
Standing in the yellow light of the candles on the landing, she was harder to see than she had been in the little dark room above. Here, she looked nearly human again, a slender brown woman leaning against the corner of the stairwell, her hair loose about her shoulders, and so Nurzanah found it much easier to look at her without judgement.
“Yuta’s dead, isn’t he,” said Asamerid. There was something wrong with her voice, a distance that had not been there before, and even under the raw yellow light, Nurzanah found it hard to believe that she had ever forgotten the star’s inhumanity during the war.
“He will be,” she said, and she could hear the flat callousness in her own voice even as she had to force herself to stand still and not turn and run. She knew that once she had looked at Asamerid as everyone else did, seeing in her the radiant love Seda had written into every word of his poem; had seen her as the literal embodiment of their country, a miracle in human form and their only savior.
Now she seemed little more than any of the other soldiers: stained and filthy with the grinding misery of the war, with what she had done and seen and failed to stop, and worse than all of them for her dreadful courage in the end. Nurzanah could scarcely bear to look at her.
She wanted to ask Asamerid why she’d done it, but forced herself instead to go find the innkeeper and a roll of bandages. Asamerid made no move to stop her as she went back into the room.
Picking glass out of Seda’s palms under the uneven candlelight, she wondered if she should have stopped him, if she should’ve known. Asamerid had gone out into the hall to pace or stand or whatever it was that the ghost of a dead star did when she was alone, and from time to time the shivering light of her passage would slide under the door. There were people shouting in the streets, their voices indistinct.
“She shouldn’t have done it,” Nurzanah said, looking at the glass dust shimmering on the table. His left hand was long and fine-boned, bloodstained but otherwise undamaged, but the right hand lay torn and swollen on the table, sliced open wherever the glass had pushed into him. She could see him shaking with the effort it took to keep from flinching away as she tied off the bandages.
“I shouldn’t have missed,” he said, and she knew that if only for the sake of practicality she should tell him that it wasn’t his fault, that anyone could have missed, but she would not lie. He had hesitated when he could not afford to, and she wanted to ask him how he could have faltered when he did; if it’d been only stupid clumsiness, or if he really could have had such trouble choosing between Yuta and some half-mad playwright he’d gone to school with a dozen years ago. Asamerid’s blood had been red as she lay dying in his arms, shockingly so, running against his coat and seeping onto his fingertips, and he’d left bright stains streaked across his cheekbones as he wept into his hands afterward.
Nurzanah shook her head to clear it. “The boy who brought the news recognized me,” she said. She felt tired enough that she didn’t want to think of how. “I’ve no idea how you expect to be well enough to walk with your hand like that, but if we stay here it won’t be long before someone makes a lot of reward money off of us.”
There was a faint tremor in his shoulders, but he tried to smile at her, even with his face lined with weariness and shadows. “I don’t think they’re after you, particularly,” he said, and Nurzanah wanted to strike him for the suggestion that he was too much of a coward to really make, or maybe for the temptation of it.
“That’s right,” she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “I could even sell you myself, and make a profit out of it.”
“You could,” said Seda, looking about as tired as she felt, and Nurzanah shrugged and pushed back from the table to stand up.
“Make my life any more difficult and I’ll shoot you myself,” she said, and left him there, sitting at the table with his own blood streaked over everything. She knew that it would’ve been wiser to sleep, considering how early they would have to leave in the morning, but just then she couldn’t face the idea of staying in the room with him any longer.
“He’s an idiot,” said Asamerid behind her, as she let the door swing closed. Nurzanah turned with exaggerated patience.
“You’re one to talk,” she said, her temper fraying. “If you hadn’t–”
“Yes,” Asamerid agreed. “If I hadn’t. But I did.” She did not give any sign of understanding that she should feel anything so small and human as guilt, and if Nurzanah had not known her so well, she might have believed it
“Why?” Nurzanah said, and she could hear the bitterness in her own voice. It was the question that had haunted her since she’d left Yuta; since she had first known that they were lost, watching Seda clutch Asamerid’s corpse to him. She’d wanted to ask since the night she’d awakened to find Asamerid curled up beside her, shining with a shattered light like fire seen through green glass, shaking so hard she couldn’t speak.
Asamerid looked at her for a long time without speaking, her eyes black as river stones. “Because he didn’t understand that we had already lost,” she said, and drew a careful shivering breath, the corner of her mouth curling up with more irony than humor. “It was better to end it,” she said, but her face was bleak.
They set out into the foothills the next day, keeping to goat-paths and rocky divulges to avoid running into anyone who could report their presence later. She pushed them both a little harder than was wise, considering Seda’s condition; he had kept his hand bandaged overnight, but he was weakening already, and she didn’t think he’d slept. Knowing what awaited them if they were caught, she could not let them falter or even rest.
She had been here once before, as a girl first in Yuta’s company. It had been winter, then, bitterly cold and snowing hard enough that they’d lost their way through the mountains despite all the accumulated knowledge of Yuta’s companions, and they’d only stumbled upon the village by chance. She did not think that it would be easy for anyone else to find.
It was warmer now, though breathy with the chill end of autumn, and as they came up the shallow road into the village, she saw the children shepherds watching them from the hilltops, curious and afraid at once. The village headman reached them as they made it to the edge of the dirt-paved central square, and out of sheer stupid habit Nurzanah moved as if to draw back and let Seda make the careful ritual greeting for her before she realized the strength and foolishness of her assumptions. Seda was stumbling with exhaustion, and though he was the son and brother of lords, she did not think he was liable to be very good at the business of courtesy. She had spent too many years as Yuta’s shadow to be comfortable in this, but she was no one’s soldier, now, and so in the end she did it herself, bowing her head when she gave her name to hide her shakiness.
The entire scene was so familiar that she did not trust herself to speak beyond what was required of her, and in the end she was grateful to be led to the headman’s three-room guest quarters and given food – only naan and rice cooked with onions, for the people here were very poor – and then a place in warmth to sleep. And for the first night in a very long time, she did not dream.
The next day, the headman apologetically left them in the care of his oldest daughter; he had other business to attend to, but his sense of propriety was offended by his neglect of his guests, and before he would leave them Nurzanah had to assure him several times over that she did not mind at all. Despite the scarcity of his followers, the solicitous care of her opinions reminded her very strongly of mountain lords that she had known.
She swallowed back the sorrow that threatened to choke her, and went to see about breakfast.
The headman’s daughter was named Mehri, and she would not let Nurzanah help her, but rather gave her a guest’s seat beside the iron stove and talked, in a light and inconsequential way, of the troubles of the village and of her herds, occasionally catching Nurzanah’s gaze in a quick bright smile. In other times, she might have found the conversation dull, but Mehri had a gentle good humor that made her a very pleasant companion, and by the time the tea was ready, she found herself smiling a little despite everything. There were pieces of almond and dried apricot chopped up in the rice this time, and the first time she found one it was as if a little window of sunlight had opened up inside of her.
As they were finishing, a little girl wandered into the room sleepily and came to a sudden halt as she saw Nurzanah. The child stared unabashedly for a moment before accepting the bowl of rice Mehri handed her.
Her kinky hair was coiled about her face in great disarray, the odd pale wheat color more suited to a Hedi foot-soldier than to a little girl.
“My daughter, Badria,” said Mehri, her tone suddenly very cool, and Nurzanah turned to meet her immovable gaze, accepting the wariness in it as deserved. She struggled to find something to say, but there was nothing in her, all words stolen as breath by the wind; she found it painful even to look at the child, with her heritage marked so clearly on her face. At last, Mehri gave her a wry look and let her go.
Finding Seda still asleep, Nurzanah walked out alone into the village, very conscious of the curious eyes of the villagers. Despite the season, the sun was out, bright and clear in the sky, and the wind had died to a low whisper in the corners of the divulge. She spent the day as if in a dream, walking the brown-green hills of their pasture and talking at quiet intervals with the people of the village. Very late in the morning, Seda rose from his bed and went out, but he did not speak to her, and she made no effort to force him to.
At dinner that night, talking with Mehri and a young house guard, she learned that early in the war, many of the youngest villagers had been sent to Korae up the mountain, larger and more heavily guarded and therefore, they had thought, somehow safer. It had been overrun twice before they had come home.
“Those of us left the second time were too stubborn for them, I suppose,” said Mehri, and smiled, more painfully than she might have, and it was the unwilling honesty in that expression that spurred Nurzanah to speak haltingly of the end of the war in the lowlands. She would not lie, but the news brought her no pleasure, and it seemed from their reactions that it came as a terrible surprise to them. Her eyes caught at Seda’s as she spoke, but she did not tell them of what had passed in the end, only listened to their incredulity and answered what they asked her.
Mehri alone seemed unsurprised. “He fought hard for us,” she said, and nothing more.
The days passed without any great separation marking off the time between them, as if they were no more than ripples on the surface of her life. Nurzanah had thought, at first, to go on as soon as Seda seemed capable of it, but he was so distant from her that she could not think how to judge his health. She knew that she ought to confront him, so that they could say their farewells and move on, but there was something strangely reassuring about the measured poverty of the village.
They lived very hard lives, she knew, from the peasant soldiers she had commanded and the villages she had encamped in; yet even so, there was a horrible, crawling relief in it. She would not have to watch them killed, she thought, watching Badria go tearing across the hills after one of her cousins.
At dinner she more than once caught Mehri’s gaze lingering on whatever corner Asamerid occupied, a faint frown on her face. Nurzanah did not know of it if they spoke, but she was certain of Mehri’s vision.
She often found her own gaze following Asamerid, even when in conversation; it was so hard to look away, and harder still to remember the black-eyed woman who had stood so silent and so still at first, until she learned to laugh and then to cry; harder, if anything, to recall the girl with such steady hands whom she had slowly become. And it was for this that Seda confronted her, in the end, catching her shoulder to drag her into a deserted corner. The heat and shadow of the bonfire danced against their backs.
“I know you talk to her,” he said, and the level fury in his gaze caught and held her. He was as charismatic as he’d ever been, even as angry as this. “I know she’s here.”
“She’s dead,” Nurzanah pointed out, but she was shaking, and she didn’t think the lie was going to convince him.
“Her ghost, then,” he said. He was ashen beneath the dark of his skin.
“You might as well tell him,” said Asamerid calmly. “It won’t change anything.” She shifted, sending light rippling around her. “Knowledge so rarely does.”
“You saw her die,” said Nurzanah instead. “Surely even you remember that.” She looked at him flatly, the dumb brute soldier look she sometimes used to intimidate Yuta’s scholars into doing what she told them, but he knew her better than that and would not bend.
“Nurzanah,” he insisted, his eyes not leaving her face. He looked hungry and exhausted, dark shadows lingering under his bones and the hint of stubble ragged along his jaw, and Nurzanah wanted him to stop pushing at her, to let it sit and let it be and not make things any worse than they were already. She didn’t know what to do.
“Tell him,” said Asamerid. Her voice was implacable, and Nurzanah glanced at her before she remembered. Seda’s face shifted into grief as she looked back at him, and she saw then that she had given herself away.
“She doesn’t want to see me,” he said, and Nurzanah didn’t know what to say to that. She wasn’t sure that was the whole truth of it, but it wasn’t wrong. She’d seen the way Asamerid looked at him, her face drawn with exhaustion and her shoulders tense. She didn’t think it would help him to hear it.
“It isn’t like that,” she said, and she could hear the lie in her voice as she spoke. She watched his weariness write itself across his face, and felt so sorry for him.
“It’s all right,” he said, and even though they both knew it wasn’t, there was nothing to be done. “It’s all right.”
He spent a long time the next day walking the hills alone despite the chill grey clouds that gathered overhead, and when he returned there was a queer look in his eyes, and he would not speak to her. She sat in the kitchen with Mehri beside the warm stove and looked into the fire, as if she could find some kind of answer there; but nothing came.
The headman returned with his soldiers that evening, and almost as soon as he had settled his horse and greeted his children, he came to pull her aside. It was scarcely a surprise, and she listened to his description of the chaos in Korae without much emotion. They wanted the poet who had raised the countryside to defiance, he said, so carefully not mentioning any names that she thought he must know already; they wanted the man who had written the star Asamerid down from the sky, who had not been with Yuta when he was captured, and –
“Yes,” said Nurzanah, quite calmly. “He wrote it.”
She knew perfectly well what the Hedi would do to the villagers, if they found him here. It had been a pretty lie, to imagine that they could stay here.
“We’ll have to leave,” she told Seda, meeting him back in their room, and he smiled a bit as if he’d known.
“Of course,” he said, and she felt herself shiver at the look on his face. “We wouldn’t have much luck raising an army here.”
They reached Aseti just before dusk the next day, and as they made the long greeting at the fortress gates, Nurzanah caught the first glimmer of Asamerid blossoming into existence out of the corner of her eye. She did not turn to look, but simply stood, watching Seda ask after the health of their host, who assured them that he was well, his house blessed by gods and saints alike, his daughters brave and his sons virtuous.
Seda, for his part, made the required replies, courteous and funny by turn; and for all that, he looked like a man terribly ill, the bones of his face too prominent and his free hand shaking when he let it rest. Their host’s sharp gaze rested for a moment on the hand bound up in his protective sling before sliding back up.
“Be welcome to my house,” he said, taking Nurzanah’s hand to bow over it, and he led them into the guest room, Asamerid following behind and casting strange shadows across the room. Nurzanah was certain that the lord of the house could not see her following behind, but she caught several of the younger men glancing across the room with troubled expressions. They were close enough to her age that she thought they must have fought in the war themselves, and their wariness betrayed their understanding of its cost.
After dinner, Seda took the senior position in the guest room, looking as uncomfortable in it as if he were wearing borrowed clothes; he might have done better to defer to his host, in this, Nurana thought, but she seated herself at the far end of the room next to a stocky young woman with the muscles of a house guard and refrained from question.
“I am very grateful for your hospitality,” said Seda, quietly, and his gaze caught hers for a moment; his eyes were brilliant with some internal fire. He listened without particular expression to the lord’s easy and casual dismissal of his thanks, the impatience of a man whose guests should know the laws he is bound by, and when their host had finished, he held up one hand, the gesture curiously arresting. The lord blinked at him, and Nurzanah bit down hard on her lip as she realized what he was doing.
“You know me, I think, more by reputation than face,” said Seda, “but even so, I salute you for the risk you’ve taken for me.”
“And what risk is that?” said the lord of the house, not very loudly. In the years of the war, Nurzanah knew, he must have grown used to having dangerous men and women in his house, protected by his law, but he could not like it any more than anyone else, and she saw in his face the worry for his children for a moment before he shuttered it away behind impassive calm.
Seda looked at him without speaking for a long, quiet moment, and then, with the curious resonance of a man reciting familiar poetry, he said:
We are the children of the land of lions,
The heirs to wind and rock and ragged cliff,
The tall descendants of the mountain kings;
The rough-cut rock that breaks their wings.
The room was silent as he spoke, a wary, listening silence that spread and drew in the rolling stanzas of the poem, drowning out the brightness of the words with their fear. She could see in the set of Seda’s mouth that he knew what he was facing, and yet when he had finished telling them who and what he was, he went on, speaking as lightly as if he were asking them only a trivial favor, of Yuta’s capture and the brutal indignities of their Hedi overlords, of the need to fight on for whatever vengeance they could force from the end of hope. He spoke of Yuta walking barefoot in the snow with his soldiers, of their first fierce struggle for justice and freedom; of Asamerid’s birth first in fire and glory in the heavens and second in the blotted grey ink of a starving satirist in his garret, writing the only true poem he had ever written as if one cold and distant star could hold all the hopes of their people, all the strength and courage that had nearly been crushed out of them by the dreadful weight of the occupation, painted as the bright living heart of the mountains.
But he was helpless against the long years of the war that they had already suffered, and it was as if she could see them slipping slowly further and further into disillusionment and despair. Like any house, they had lost their children to the war; and like any house, they would not forgive the perpetrators. Nurzanah did not think that she would like to strain the guest-laws any further than a single day of their company, and resigned herself to leaving the next day.
“We will not go,” said the lord, and the rest of the men went quiet, though the women talked a bit longer–to establish that they would not either, Nurzanah supposed, and wished they hadn’t bothered.
To her surprise, Seda treated them very politely, with the sort of delicate feudal courtesy that she had come to expect from Yuta and not from him, and it was only when they returned to their room that he vented his anger at her, pacing back and forth until he was stumbling. Asamerid stood to the side and watched him with the look of a woman going to her execution, and for the first time, Nurzanah was glad that he couldn’t see her.
At last he fell asleep, and she could leave him curled on the low camp-bed their hosts had put up for him, their only real concession to his injury. Under other circumstances, Nurzanah might have been offended on his behalf; as it was, she shrugged, and took their canteen down to the makeshift kitchen across the courtyard to bring up some tea. On the way back, she was accosted by a slender young man she vaguely recognized; some minor relative of the lord of the house, she thought.
“Who is she?” the young man demanded. He had caught her arm and held it, and she looked down at it and then up at him, raising an eyebrow. He flushed and stepped back, but did not turn away. “The woman with you. She looks like–” And he hesitated.
“She’s not a god,” said Nurzanah, before she’d thought. Perhaps she should have lied, tried to claim themselves the emissaries of gods, but she was not sure at the back of her mind that it would have been a lie, so far as Asamerid was concerned, and she didn’t want to think about that.
“Then what is she?” he whispered. He was very young, but even so there was a scar down one cheek and across his lip. She wondered if he’d gotten it in the war, or only in some ordinary way as peasants did. He didn’t need to know.
“She’ll be gone in the morning,” she said. “It isn’t anything to do with you.”
She saw in the shape his mouth formed all the truth that she had been pretending not to understand, and she wished she had said nothing.
When she returned, Seda was still asleep, his coat bundled up under his head. Asamerid was sitting on the bed beside him, one knee pulled up to her chest, and the quiet grief in her face stopped Nurzanah in the doorway. As she stood stricken, Asamerid bent to brush his hair back from his face, her hand lingering at his brow, and the intimacy in the gesture was painful. It would have been less private if she’d kissed him.
As quietly as she could, Nurzanah retreated from the room, canteen swinging from her hands, and at the end of the crumbling hallway she turned and walked back, letting herself make the noises that ordinary people in a hurry do, scraping the ground with her boots and banging the canteen against the wall. By the time she reached the door and turned to look at them, Asamerid was standing at the window, her back so straight she might have been there forever.
“How is he?” said Nurzanah, and Asamerid turned to look at her. The light of her presence rippled, leaving dappled shadows streaked across the walls.
“Tired, I should think,” said Asamerid, and the corner of her mouth quirked up in that odd gesture she had picked up from Yuta. It hurt, seeing it on her face and having to know that he was dying somewhere far away, and Nurzanah swallowed and looked away.
“I should imagine so,” she said, and she did not press any further, but as she hesitated in the doorway, something changed in the quality of the dim golden light, washing across the walls of the room like waves. She looked back at Asamerid, waiting.
“I have spent all the years of my waking life watching men walk into pits,” said the fallen star precisely, her gaze resting light and unseeing on Nurzanah’s face, and Nurzanah took a sharp breath, feeling the pain like a knife under her breastbone.
“I know,” she said, very low. If she had been someone else, cleverer with words or less rough-edged, she might have been able to say something more, but she had never had any talent for kindness.
Asamerid’s straight dark brows drew together as she looked at Seda, until she could not do it any longer and had to look away. She put one hand on the wall beside her as if for support, and the filthy mottled stone shone beneath her touch. “I used to sit with Yuta in the night,” she said, “when it seemed like all the world was asleep, watching him go over the supply lines until I thought he would go mad.” She looked at Nurzanah, her eyes clear and dark and endless. “He never told me what he was so afraid of,” she said.
Nurzanah thought of training the iron habits of survival into her soldiers, of watching them go forward into the dark without her, the war opening like a chasm around them until they emerged utterly changed or not at all, and she swallowed.
“Why are you following me?” she said. “I’m not the one who called you out of the sky. I’m not in love with you.”
“You know me,” said Asamerid. She was silent for a moment, and if Nurzanah had been more certain of her, she would have guessed she was struggling with the answer. At last, Asamerid said, “He thinks I’m still what he wanted, the one he saw, when he began writing to me. He doesn’t know she’s dead.”
“You’re dead,” Nurzanah pointed out, clinging to logic as if it would save her from understanding. “I’m fairly certain he caught that one.”
“The girl he wants has been dead for five years,” said Asamerid. Her voice was brutally calm as she spoke, as if there were nothing in all the past years of misery that could hurt her anymore. “She began to falter watching soldiers blown to pieces, and she felt herself failing when she sent children into battle armed with knives when their opponents were carrying machine guns. It was not so long before she died of it.” Her unreadable eyes did not leave Nurzanah’s face.
“What you must think of us,” said Nurzanah, feeling unbearably tired, and Asamerid said nothing.
The day they got the news of Yuta’s death, they were in Osirae, high in the mountains. He’d been injured in the skirmish before the surrender, an unnecessary piece of nastiness caused mostly by a misunderstanding, and they’d had to tie him to a chair before the firing squad: an ugly death, without any honor. He had faced it as bravely as anyone, the northern courier told her; he had not fought back or wept, in the end, only sat with his back straight and flinched convulsively as one man’s rifle went off before the rest, hitting the wall beside him and not him at all. He had been dead for a month and a half now.
She could feel herself beginning to tremble, but she didn’t think there was anything on her face. She wanted to run away, hide in a corner and never look at anyone again. She managed to thank the messenger for his news before turning and walking into the shadowed hall behind her.
There were no candles, here; they were too poor to afford them for the daytime, and so the building stood filled with shadows in the afternoon. It had been a great caravanserai, once, its rooms full of jade and precious stones carved out of the mountains, but now it was an empty shell, housing half a hundred peasants and their goats, and she made it into an unused and crumbling room to wait for Asamerid. She could not bear the idea of telling Seda herself.
He found her, of course, having managed to track down the northerner on his own, and from the look on his face, she wished she had told him after all. It could scarcely have been worse than this.
She stood to greet him, not sure she was capable of words, and it was only then that she saw the pistol in his hand, glinting with the little light from the doorway. He lifted it slowly, hands trembling, to point at her breast.
She felt numb, as if the news had blasted her clean and empty inside, and she knew that there was nothing that would fill her again. It hardly seemed to matter if he shot her, and she would have let him but she was afraid for Asamerid, and for him; she could not see them surviving her death very well, if survival was the right word for this ruin. She was not sure it mattered very much anymore.
“Seda,” she said, and then she had nothing else.
He stood there shaking, the pistol pointed at her. His shattered right hand was wrapped around it over his left, though it still could not close all the way, and his face was filled to brimming with despair.
“We can’t,” he said, and his voice was low and frankly terrified. “Nurzanah. He wouldn’t have wanted us to. He would have had us fight, he would have–”
She took a step forward and caught at his right wrist roughly enough that he cried out and let go of the gun. It was a heavy, stupid thing, worn down by time and pitted by powder, and she took it by the business end and struck him hard across the face with the grip of it. He staggered back.
“We would die,” she said, not much louder, and she realized that she was shaking too. “We can’t win it. The best we can hope for is to get ourselves killed.”
“It would be better,” he whispered. “This–”
“It would be stupid,” said Nurzanah. She didn’t want to think about it, because it couldn’t help; she wanted nothing so much as to turn north, to hunt down Yuta’s murderers and kill them. But there was no chance of anything but failure, and she could not think that that would be better.
“I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t be,” said Seda. There was a brightness in his eyes that should not have been there.
Yuta had told her to bring Seda back, in that little room he kept for himself behind the wide command quarters, but they’d both known it wasn’t what he’d meant. There was nothing for any of them to return to, there, and he had always wanted very badly for them to live, even after Asamerid’s death. Even knowing it could have been averted.
She had wanted him to live as well, and standing there they had both known that he would die. She could see it in the set of his face, the fine tremor in his hands as he moved his papers and maps around casually, but he would not speak of it to her. He had never been a man to put his own emotions to voice.
“He killed her,” she said. “Or as good as.”
Yuta smiled, a little, that same wry and tired look that made her love him first, and shrugged one shoulder, rubbing at the scars across his knuckles. “I was careless,” he said. And that was all he would say of it when he sent her away, and now she was standing in a dingy little caravanserai room watching Seda come to pieces at last and wondering how Yuta had looked as he died.
At last she reached out to touch Seda’s shoulder, letting her hand rest very lightly on the sharp edge of his collarbone. He was so still beneath her hand that she could feel the little hitch of his breath in his throat, and she looked at the expression in his face and took in a quiet, careful breath of her own before she pulled away.
“We’ll go in the morning,” she said, and strode out past him.
She lay awake all that night, face buried in her blankets, wishing she could cry and finding herself unable to. Asamerid did not return until just before dawn, casting tawny golden light before her, and until then Nurzanah kept her rifle close to hand, her pistol even closer. She had very little ammunition for either.
They ate naan for breakfast, steaming hot and very good even without anything else, and then, having bid farewell to their hosts with as much courtesy as either of them could manage, they went on higher into the mountains as the wind snapped and tore at their clothing.
It was cold, and hard going, walking up the long slope with the wind before them. There was a village beyond, the lord’s nephew at Osirae had told them, less than a day’s walk out, and so they kept on, striding into the young winter. Seda was tired, his hand hurting him, and kept stumbling on the clumps of dead and wilted grasses along the path, his pace slowing each time. It was getting on toward dark and they still had not come within sight of the next village.
She was so tired she wanted to fall down and die rather than endure anything further, but she kept walking and kept her grief penned in. She felt that it could not matter very much if they died now, alone up in the hills; she did not see that anything did, very much.
At last she called a halt. She could not see the village in the dimming light, and she didn’t think they’d find it now; they would have to make their camp here against the cliff wall. She was still considering the available outcroppings when the sun sank behind the mountains.
The clearing filled with the familiar brassy light, and Nurzanah turned around tiredly, to find Seda standing as one transfixed, his eyes wide with shock and his face strange in the dead star’s light. The bruise on his cheek stood out like blood.
“O God,” he whispered, and she saw that he was looking at Asamerid. He had gone very still, and Nurzanah wanted to cry at the expression on his face. Instead she looked away, blinking into the bitter wind.
It was very cold.
Copyright 2014 Rachel Sobel