Guardians of the Desert
Leona R. Wisoker
Song filtered through the air of Scratha Fortress. Deiq lay on his back, watching dust particles drift through the air, and focused his attention on the chant. It came from the other end of the Fortress: Alyea’s hearing would probably never get sharp enough to hear that far, but for Deiq it was a simple matter of screening out all other noises along the way,
The song clarified: tenor and soprano voices, male and female, wove across a rattling beat from at least three different shabacas, and a piping cactus-flute warbled the main theme:
Iii-naa tarren . . . iii-nas lalien . . . iii-be salalae . . . .
The accents and inflections marked the singers as servants rather than nobles. Deiq smiled at the ceiling, reflecting that a thousand years ago there would have been only a jacau-drum beat behind the song, and the singers would have been the leading men of the tribe.
The chant had run very differently back then: Itna tarnen, itnas talien, itnabe shalla: We empty ourselves into the gods, the gods pour themselves into us, glory be to the gods. Time had changed both pronunciation and meaning; the modern understanding of the old paean was closer to We serve the gods, the gods smile on us, we survive under the glory of the gods.
Which said a lot about how much humanity had changed since the ha’reye first emerged from their seclusion . . . and how little humans still understood of what they had agreed to.
These were dangerous thoughts with a full ha’reye beneath the Fortress and a restless, newly bound desert lord pacing around. Deiq distracted himself for a few moments by focusing his vision narrowly enough to track a single dust mote dancing along its erratic path, then widened his vision to take in the entire room without moving his eyes.
Beside him, Alyea sighed deeply: he blinked back to human-normal vision in case she woke. She rolled closer; he moved an arm and let her tuck in against his side, his mouth quirking in a tired smile. Humans were so damn vulnerable . . . and so stupid at times. Even though he’d promised to protect and guide her, that left a lot of room for interpretation.
He wouldn’t take that leeway, of course; but Alyea didn’t even understand that it existed.
Not that she’d had much choice about his presence while she slept. She needed rest before the Conclave, and he wasn’t about to leave her alone again. Besides, the other options for companionship were as welcome as letting an asp-jacau chew his arm off.
He watched her sleep, reflecting how much more pleasant she was to look at than the grimly suspicious stares of the other desert lords. Her dark hair was half undone from the sensible top-knot that kept desert heat from soaking the back of one’s neck with a continual layer of sweat. Deiq had bound his own hair in a simple tail; perspiring rarely became an issue for him. Alyea’s light clothing, however, already sported several tell-tale dark patches. In true summer it wouldn’t have been so bad, but the weather had begun edging towards the rainy season, and the ambient humidity was climbing rapidly.
Deiq set his fingertips against Alyea’s temple and gently soothed her body temperature down until the rank sweat-smell faded. She sighed and rolled away again, one arm stretching up over her head and her lithe body twisting like a cat’s; his hands itched to touch her again, with much more than fingertip pressure this time.
How many times before this have you fallen in love? she’d asked earlier, not understanding at all; and he hadn’t been able to bring himself to explain. She’d looked so hopeful, her dark eyes lit with an intensity he’d seen before; she was still young enough to be romantic, in spite of her insistence that roses wouldn’t mean anything to her.
He sighed and kept his hands to himself. That would just complicate matters, at the moment. After the disaster her second blood trial had become, she needed extra time to heal–and not just physically.
So let Alyea think he was in love with her for now. Humans needed that kind of security, and it didn’t really matter. She’d figure it out eventually. Until then, it was pleasant to have her quiet, innocent trust resting against the edges of his mind.
He knew it wouldn’t last. It never did.
Eyes half-shut, he watched the dust of decades swirl through shafts of reflected sunlight and listened to the song being sung at the other end of the Fortress.
Joyfully accepting servitude to invisible forces: how could humans think that way? How could they not understand?
A sucking weariness passed through Deiq’s entire body for a moment, hazing his vision around the edges; then the haze turned golden, and he felt an immense presence thrust into his mind.
You fight what you are, the Scratha ha’rethe said. Why? Why do you spend so much time thinking about the humans? Why do you bother? At the least, you could have the dignity to focus on those who choose to serve, instead of the tharr.
The invisible ones, that meant: the commoners, the ordinary ones whose existence normally didn’t even register with the ha’reye. People like Alyea, before her trials; like Meer.
Deiq shut his eyes, grimacing, and blocked memory so quickly he barely knew he was doing it himself. The ha’rethe stirred restlessly, its golden stare intensifying.
Something troubles you.
Nothing important, Deiq said, infusing his reply with a deliberate boredom. Just remembering one of the more amusing tharr.
Not amusing at all; but he didn’t want the ha’rethe to pry.
You waste your time on this, the ha’rethe said, drawn in the direction he’d hoped for. Those who do not serve do not matter.
It was the old argument, and one he’d never resolved with any of the ha’reye or ha’ra’hain.
He repressed a sigh, and answered, Don’t they all serve, in the end?
You indulge in foolishness. The golden haze faded away with the suggestion of an annoyed head-shake. Deiq let out a long, quiet breath, feeling as though a dangerous precipice had just smoothed out into relatively stable terrain.
Brooding would only attract the ha’rethe’s attention again, and draw them into an argument Deiq preferred to avoid, so he gently nudged Alyea’s shoulder with a bent knuckle to wake her. She rolled towards him as she opened her eyes; the movement put her right up against him, her dark stare inches from his face. The moment hung and stretched; he stayed very still, as though to avoid startling a wild creature.
At last Alyea blinked, awareness dawning in her expression, and scooted hurriedly away from him. “How long have I–?”
“Almost time for Conclave,” he said, sitting up and looking away to give her some sense of privacy. Her withdrawal wasn’t surprising; it was a matter of instinct for any human to back away from close contact with a ha’ra’ha. Desert lords trained themselves to overcome that instinct, which only proved how damned stupid humans could be.
A faint burning ache passed across his chest.
He shut down that emotion-laden line of thought before he attracted the ha’rethe’s attention again. Foolishness, it had scolded; not the first time he’d been faced with that accusation, and it wouldn’t be the last.
He manufactured a pleasant expression for Alyea’s benefit and suggested, “Let’s go get some food before Conclave starts.”
That trivial normality relaxed her vague disquiet instantly. As he let her lead the way to the kitchens of Scratha Fortress, he held back a sigh at how simple maneuvering a human, even a desert lord, always was; and only then realized that he’d hoped Alyea, somehow, would be different.
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