Scions of Death - Sample

"Destroy a thing to know it perfectly."
-Merohkan, 13th Valmas Anxul.
Chapter 1

Empty nooses swayed from the charred gallows.

The red-robed monks of Vetru had pronounced the wood sufficiently pure. They kept a fire burning day and night in the Field of Peace where the northern revolution had begun. Thousands had died there, and the wood scorched by those sacred flames traveled the land, purging and purifying.

Feroh, a Dyers Guild apprentice, made his way through the crowded plaza toward a stone wall from which he could look out over the crowd. A woman hissed at him when he brushed her arm, rubbing it as if he’d pricked her. Her face contorted, and she rattled off a series of curses. He pulled his hood closer around his face.

He clambered atop the retaining wall, which supported the shops on the north side of the plaza. Two other men were already there. They inched further down the ledge to make room for him. Behind them was an olive oil shop, and the pungent scent filtered out through the latticed wall. Other young men followed Feroh’s example and joined him on the thin ledge. From this vantage point, they could see the entire plaza.

Gentle hills blanketed by rows of olive trees tumbled down around the town to a sandy beach. Fig trees heavy with young fruit, a local fertility symbol, lined the new plaza, too grand for a backwater town like Bokhal. Canvas tarps strung up on poles hid the unfinished Hall of Truth and the other administrative buildings erected for their new magistrates and the empire’s representatives, the masters they’d chosen for themselves. The largest building in the plaza was the district council seat, a marble building with two massive columns representing the twin virtues of the Azhal: truth and justice. In front of it was the platform erected for the occasion. Atop it sat a row of sacred gallows, dark against the brilliant white marble.

Behind the marble buildings, the Silt Sea shone like beaten bronze in the noon sun. This time of year, the skies were clear, blue, and hot. The dense air, the close bodies, all conspired to make Feroh sweat.

At least he’d shaved his hair recently. Sweat trickled down his body beneath cool layers of Kolas cotton. Some people in the crowd wore traditional linens. No one was certain what Azhal thought of the Kolas since their league had made a tentative cease-fire with Ithka, the ancient overlord, only a month ago. The Azhal Empire’s war with Ithka had not ceased. The magistrates could interpret the smallest action as a sign of support for the evil Ithka perpetrated on the people of the Dragonlands.

Feroh wore the cotton because it was the best tunic he had.

He had more pressing worries than what the cloth he wore said about him. He’d not put the tincture in his breakfast porridge. It didn’t take more than half a day for his corn silk colored hair, or his pale green eyes, to break out of the brown the tincture tried to impose. The more he ate, the less it did. He’d also not shaved for days, and his sandy stubble drew attention. He shouldn’t even be at the event at all—his father had forbidden it—but he had to see for himself. It was a once in a lifetime event. Someday he’d tell his children and grandchildren that he’d seen the Hero of the Karal, the Consul of Azhal, the bearer of the Sword of Truth.

The people of Bokhal, folk from surrounding villages, trading posts, and plantations had all come for that same purpose. Feroh teemed with excitement, thrilled to see for himself the young man tasked with joining their town and the surrounding region to the Azhal Empire, the beacon of freedom for all Ithka’s enslaved peoples. Feroh had dreamed of this day, of seeing the hero who’d conquered Karal, the city-bridge between Azhal and Kopis. Because of this victory, Kopis was more inclined to side with Azhal, and the word was it would soon declare itself free from Ithka. The Consul was the youngest to preside over the senate—not that it was a very great feat to be so young. Azhal had only gained its independence thirty years ago, and its elders had died in the war of independence. It was not just a young empire, but also an empire of the young.

The crowd cheered as high-pitched, silver trumpets blared.

Feroh beamed at all those around him. He baked in the heat as the sun continued its rise. The people in the plaza covered their heads and fanned themselves. All around, people laid down mats on the hot tile roofs to watch from a distance. Feroh grinned so hard his face ached. He couldn’t help it, and didn’t want to.

Even though they’d not offer him citizenship initially, he hoped that someday, if he did all the right things, if he proved himself an exemplary member of the empire, Azhal might make him a citizen.

Below him, level with his knees, a woman with one child in her arms and two others grasping her skirt, turned and muttered something to him. She patted the child’s head as it held in a cry.

The men on the ledge stared at him, frowning. Feroh bobbed his head apologetically. He plucked at a strip of striped linen about his neck—a sign of his apprenticeship to a local guild. He withered under their gaze, but they turned away as the trumpets blared again. The crowd surged toward the platform and more people entered the plaza to fill the vacancy. With each blast, the people roared. Between the heat and excitement, they quickly reached a fevered state.

Feroh let out a deep, anxious breath. “Vetru, let him come,” he whispered to the Azhalite spirit of justice and truth.

“He’ll come,” said another woman below him. Her face was ecstatic, her hands clasped firmly to her breast. Her two small children hugged her thighs like she’d fly away.

Wind disturbed the nooses, and they swayed. The crowd roared their approval. Surely it was a sign of favor.

“Yes!” Feroh cried out, shaking his fists in the air.

Folk nearby glanced at him, but then turned back to the stage.

Vitreyin zhal!” cried a lone, shrieking voice. The spirit wills it.

Voices called out until they united, rising like the ocean waves battering the outer islands.

“The spirit wills it,” Feroh yelled. “Yes, he wills it.”

The woman below glanced at him, shielding her eyes. Did she see something in him? She turned away, and he shivered. He didn’t know if any spirit or god willed it, but the energy of the crowd was too much, and he wanted to be counted a good Azhalite citizen even though he was just a migrant like so many in Bokhal, not the member of a clan invited to make the oath of citizenship. Not yet.

A flurry of movement at the far side of the plaza set aside any doubt about the consul’s coming. Large banners appeared, their long tails snaking through the wind, carried lazily over the crowd as elite guards marched through them, forcing them to split to either side.

Cheers rose again, screams of delight. All seemed enraptured. They wept.

Feroh touched his eyes and smeared his own tears on his cheeks. He’d never felt so much in so little time, and he’d not even seen him yet.

A stream of maidens dressed in white gowns, their bare arms twined with jasmine, tossed petals to the ground. The crowd fell silent.

Two red-robed monks, one each for Vetru’s faces, flung censors at their sides. A strange smell wafted to Feroh. The censors held the ashes of their fallen soldiers. The Azhal no longer buried their dead in the mountain tombs awaiting the Day of Ash.

He bowed his head and whispered the only prayer for the dead he knew. They were the secret words of his own clan.

“An’ka’ish suralim,” he whispered, with all the feeling trapped in his chest. I clothe myself in life. The prayer meant little to him, and when he opened his eyes, the child below him was staring at him. A toddler only, but frowning as if Feroh had uttered a curse. Feroh feigned not seeing the boy and looked out over the crowd to the sea.

The trumpets blared again. Hands rose, palms facing where the young Consul must be standing.

Sparks of gold flashed between arms and banners.

Then he appeared, and Feroh held his breath.

The Consul mounted the platform, standing at the edge, dressed in nothing but a simple apricot-colored toga and knee-length britches. Gold flaked laurel crowned his glossy, black-curled head, rising from his temples like eagle’s wings, pointed to the heavens, to his father, the sun.

Sunlight makes all things clean, was the saying. And fire.

A band of gold paste ran down the center of his face, over the bridge of his nose and full lips, down his chin and neck to his breastbone, where, like a lance, it pierced his bare chest, bursting like a sun into beams of light rather than blood. He was tall for an Azhal, slim and muscular. His dark eyes did not smile, but looked over the crowd in judgment.

Because that was why he’d come. The crowd was there to pay homage to the one virtue none dared deny: justice. The Disciples of Vetru must redress the wrongs perpetrated on the people of the empire. Every threat, every ancient heresy, every foreign power, every form of witchcraft, must be expunged if the empire was to have any chance against the might of Ithka. Enemies surrounded Azhal. They pressed on it, challenged it, stole from it the hard-won bounty of its abundant lands.

Migrants in the crowd beat their left shoulders with a braided twine cord, punishing themselves for whatever wrongs they’d committed.

Feroh should do the same.

Two young Bokhal men, apprentices of two guilds, stood beside the Consul, one bearing a glass jar filled with lime-green olive oil, and the other bearing a bundle of various fruiting branches. At their feet were baskets with fish and shells and other produce. This was the wealth of the empire. They proudly displayed their vetru-red citizens ribbons over their right breast. How he longed to be one of them!

The Consul raised his right hand to the people, like a father to his family, to bless them, but more than anything to proclaim his dominion over them. The crowd swelled and swooned with each gesture.

Feroh’s breath and heart and guts crammed into his throat. He croaked and tears streamed down his face. People around him wept for joy. It was like nothing he’d ever known. Love for the Consul filled him. Love for the empire. Love for all they tried to achieve. Feroh wanted to scream it, to let all know, but before he could open his mouth to release it, a man a few rows ahead screamed it. The man fainted, and the people carried him over the heads to the plaza's edge.

Feroh’s own scream swelled in his chest, and he squashed his eyes closed. Fierce tears poured down his face, and why not? The Consul was everything an Azhalite should be to face the wickedness of the age.

Feroh considered his own failings and let out an irresistible, gasping cry. He wanted nothing more than to declare the many truths he knew. The many secrets.

The Consul raised his hand higher, and the crowd quieted.

“Today,” he said. His voice boomed effortlessly across the plaza, like he was just speaking to himself. “I bring you justice.”

The words struck Feroh like a lance.

Two soldiers approached the Consul and stood behind him to the right and left. The one to his right bore a gold sword with a milk-white blade. The other bore a bright-shining buckler, all gold with inlay of the white metal. They were both relics recovered from the many ruins dotting the Silt Sea.

Fifty years ago, during an extreme tide, the waters of the bay had receded, revealing ancient structures. Within one of them, peasants found weapons, armors, and relics. In Azhal, the statue of a two-faced head took on more importance than any other. The relic spoke to them, teaching them the way to freedom. He called himself Vetru. They also found weapons and armor. With these artifacts and Vetru’s teaching, the peasants of Azhal threw off the shackles of Ithka and founded their own empire.

“I will not use these weapons,” the Consul said, “which so recently defeated our enemies.”

The crowd bubbled with the occasional shout.

“No, today the power on display is yours,” he said, sounding almost motherly. “Today, I will exact the justice you demand of me.”

He lowered his right hand and raised his chin, his left hand opened at his side like a beggar. Lovely, like the rising sun, he was majesty incarnate. The crowd dissolved into cheers, cries, and tears. He was magnificent. Feroh could barely breathe. He sobbed into the crook of his arm. A low roar made him look up.

Soldiers led a train of criminals, enemies of the empire, to the gallows. The criminals all had shaved heads and burlap tunics so that from a distance, he could not tell them apart.

“Guilty!” cried a voice. A hush fell over them all until another voice concurred. Soon they were all yelling it. Feroh clamped his mouth shut tight.

“These people are guilty of something weapons cannot defeat,” the Consul said. “No matter how ancient or powerful they are.” His eyes widened, the whites blazing in his dark face. They drew Feroh in.

A magistrate wearing a vetru-red sash across his chest stepped forward and read aloud the criminals’ names along with their crimes. The crowd roared in response to each transgression.

Feroh could not hear the charges from where he stood. In his heart, he feared to, lest he find the same crime in himself.

A man near the stage screamed and the people near him moved away.

The Consul smiled tenderly, and he nodded toward the man. Soldiers pushed through the crowd to seize the newly confessed criminal.

“You see?” the Consul asked the crowd. His voice carried over the din, suppressing it. “Truth will free us all.”

The soldiers hauled the man up to the stage and a mob of monks held him down, stripped him, and, with a curved knife, shaved his head. Feroh shivered as they sliced his scalp. Then they presented the man to the crowd.

Like a field bursting with buds, others cried out, proclaiming their sins.

“Suck out the wickedness,” said the woman below Feroh. Again, she glanced at him, and he cringed.

Men wearing masks shaped like vulture heads and black feathered mantles arranged the criminals, both new and previously judged.

Five veiled women, the Daughters of Nur, all widows of fallen soldiers, appeared, bearing bowls of sacrificial blood which they offered to the Consul. Nur was an ancient spirit of the hearth, and the people of Azhal hadn’t been able to set her aside. They called her Vetru’s wife.

The Consul dipped each finger of his right hand into each bowl and held up his blood-stained skin to the crowd. “I will bear the burden.”

The crowd sighed as more of their number proclaimed their sins and soldiers hauled them away.

“I see you,” the Consul said, “and I am pleased. Vetru’s fire will purify us.”

The toddler, wriggling in his mother’s arms, was staring at Feroh. Feroh gripped the lattice as the urge to confess overwhelmed him. But what had he done, though? Was it a crime to take an herb to change his coloring to fit in better? Was it a crime to be from another place?

The crowd, wild with the desire for justice, grabbed a woman, and then a man holding a child, and forcibly carried them forward like a tide purging itself of rotted seaweed.

Feroh’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, throat dry, sweat beading his face and body. He inched away, swapping places with the young man next to him on the ledge. The surrounding folk turned to look at him, all with the same piercing eyes, like they could see through him.

His pale hair must be showing. He berated himself for not taking the tincture that morning and squinted to hide his green eyes. The people turned back to face the stage as, one by one, they hanged the criminals. Dropping from the ledge, he melted into the crowd.

A strangled cry gurgled in his throat as a heavy hand grabbed him and hauled him back through the crowd. It was his uncle, Joruh.

Fortunately, no one paid them any attention. The people were all too focused on what was happening on the stage. Their eyes were wide, awe-struck.

Feroh struggled to regain his balance. They continued in silence, pushing through to an alley, and then another, until they were alone. His uncle shoved him against the wall.

“Fool!” he yelled through gritted teeth. “Where are your plugs?”

Feroh fished them out of his tunic’s breast pocket. They were just bits of cotton sewn in a wad, but it was the special oil suffusing them that buffered his mind from the Consul’s magic, that kept him from being controlled. He looked down, embarrassed. He trembled as the power of the Consul’s voice, the call to confession, still found a home in him.

“I should box your ears to a pulp,” his uncle said, turning away. “Let’s get home. Your father will hear of this.”

Feroh retched, fell to all fours, and vomited. His legs trembled, and he felt weak, his strength leached away. He gripped the cobblestones, nails cracking painfully. The crowd roared as they executed another criminal.

The enchantment seeped out, freeing him to think for himself, to remember the man and his child plucked out of the crowd. They’d confessed nothing out loud. The crowd had chosen them. As his mind freed itself, he recalled two of the men on the stage with shaved heads and burlap sacks.

Those men he knew. Those had the pale green eyes his people tried so hard to hide, the pale-yellow, almost white hair. All traits they masked with dyes and herbal remedies.

The Consul’s voice surged in him again, like a powerful hand gripping his heart. A nonsensical confession burbled out of him. People walked past, and he panicked, scrambled to his feet, and chased after his uncle, stuffing his ears with the plugs as he ran.

But the damage was done.

A Dream

My mouth hangs open, sucking in a dust so dry and fine it grinds my insides to the bone. Every gaping gust tears at me like I’m not wanted there. Dust plasters me, layer upon layer. Piled upon me, a mountain moving slowly and denied.

A vast land, featureless and gray, slides beneath me.

I dig a fine line so deep, over and over, in huge loops, circling a scent like a hunting dog. I’m so deep the sun doesn’t reach me. What hope is there for nourishment? The skies are empty. The rivers are dry except for pockets of rebellion where trickles gather into pools and life erupts.

A faint, sweet—and wet—scent reaches me. Life is wet, damp with the energy of the living. I hunger for it.

The winds moan, frustrated.

Things take shape, as they do in dreams, but awkwardly, following the logic of dreams. This place is dust and hard ground, no matter how deep I plunge or how high I climb.

A new sensation fills me this time: guilt. Is it my own? I walk in another man’s shoes. A raging, tearful, gnashing, creaking guilt.

It bears me, mercilessly, searching, searching for even a morsel. A rivulet teaming with life; a raindrop even.

But it is dead as far as the eye can see, as far as my senses reach, even the deepest sense which hungers like a thousand raving beasts that can never die.

I shovel inert dust into my mouth like a worm.

This is all there is.

I have made it so.

Chapter 2

The scent of rosemary hung heavy in the air. Mother Tadra, Feroh’s stepmother, stirred the cauldron holding the clan’s porridge. A dense mix of milled wheat and olive oil, with goat’s cheese sprinkled on it, the porridge sustained them throughout the workday until the evening meal, which would not be much different.

As Feroh approached, she took a steaming bowl and added drops of the tincture the clan used to mask their traits. It held the essences of several plants, barks, roots, and the leaves of the sadu plant.

“Take this to the old man,” she said, pushing the bowl toward him.

Feroh’s father forbade him to meet with Lonneh, an elder sequestered in one of the compound’s inner chambers. Certainly not as often as Mother Tadra was sending Feroh to deliver his morning meal. The tincture made a dark brown whorl in the porridge.

“Yes, mother,” he said with a dutiful bow. Feroh prided himself on being obedient. There was nothing in him that was rebellious, even since he was a boy, and now seven years into manhood. How else should a citizen of the empire of truth and justice be?

He scooped up the bowl and grabbed a wooden spoon from a stack of utensils. While no one was watching, he deftly emptied the bowl through the drainage grate. Then he swapped the empty bowl for another she’d just filled. It troubled him to deceive her. Still, he did it. He didn’t consider it disobedience. Lonneh refused the extra tincture Mother Tadra tried to feed him. Feroh thought it a worse injustice to deny the old man his food.

Lonneh sat cross-legged on a mat in a small chamber into which daylight filtered in through slits where the wall met the roof. Incense granules burned in a small bronze cup. Smoke threads twined upward and dispersed, creating a cloudy veil above his head. A sadu plant sat before him. Its broad, velvety leaves curled and unfurled with each of his breaths.

“Leave it there,” he whispered without opening his eyes.

Feroh cupped the bowl, unwilling to leave just yet. Usually Lonneh was in one of his trances, so he’d leave the bowl at the door.

Lonneh popped one eye open. “Well? Sit if you must, but give me my food.” He held out a long-fingered hand, stained dark green at the fingertips, and took the bowl. He sniffed the porridge. “Not that I don’t trust you… but I don’t trust—”

“Anyone?” Feroh asked, smiling.

They chuckled, enjoying their shared joke.

Lonneh’s eyes were like a cat’s, solid pale green with flecks of sparkling white. His hair was the color of corn silk. Lonneh only seemed old, though, like one of those plants Mother Tadra stored in a jar, floating in embalming fluid. Lonneh had a mat and a basin and only left the room to use the latrine and bathhouse, but never left the clan’s compound. Most striking of all was the bright green symbol caked on his forehead and reaching back over his bald head, tracing the bumps and ridges of his skull. From the potency emanating from the still living ingredients, Feroh deduced Lonneh had made the paste from sadu stems.

If he didn’t know better, he would call the paste a poison. It could harm in large doses, but in smaller ones it elevated the spirit, taking it places it could not go otherwise. His father often secreted it out of the greenhouse and chewed it when he performed his rituals. It seemed the only time he was at peace with himself.

Lonneh sniffed the bowl again. “You know they put it in this also, for the rest of you. Just weaker. Won’t do anything to me. It shouldn’t be like that, you know. It’s a delicate plant with a delicate purpose. They’ve twisted it to their own purpose.”

He meant the sadu. “Can you tell me?” Feroh asked.

“Your father hasn’t explained?”

Feroh shrugged. He and his father hadn’t said more than a few words to each other in years.

“You’re old enough to know,” Lonneh said.

Feroh shrugged again, and Lonneh sighed.

“Well, the most I’ll tell you is that it’s not for hiding your hair’s color… or any other nonsense.” He chewed on the next words, eyes blinking rapidly, as if he held back a torrent of thought. “And it will kill,” he said. “Ah! You knew that part already.”

“It’s killing my father,” Feroh said. “I don’t understand why they try to feed it to you when you never leave here.”

Lonneh’s eyes narrowed, studying Feroh. “Not working for you, is it? Doing other things to you?”

“You could say that.” Feroh ran his hand through the half inch of stubble on the crown of his head. Shaving one’s head was a sure sign of guilt in Azhal. Only criminals had their heads shaved. Criminals and monks… a strange dichotomy. He’d always thought his people were more like monks than criminals, but he wasn’t so sure anymore.

“You should just let it grow, lad. Let it all show.” Lonneh stared at him, waiting for his reaction.

Feroh shook his head. “I try to obey the clan elders.”

“But not me?”

Feroh wanted to. Wanted to know the freedom Lonneh experienced. He seemed so at ease, even trapped in this cell.

“You could learn from me,” Lonneh said, grinning.

“But then I could never leave.”

Lonneh chuckled. “That is true. It’s for the best. I’ve not taught anyone so new to the practice for a long time… wouldn’t know where to start. I’d start by feeding you untainted food.” He laughed at this, but his eyes were cold. “A travesty, I tell you. This is our world!”

Lonneh mumbled something, fanning his hand over the plant. Then he looked up. “What did he say to you?”

Lonneh’s words startled Feroh. “Elder?”

“The young Consul. What did he say to you?”

Feroh blushed. “How do you know?”

“You have the look of the guilty.”

Feroh shook his head.

The elder’s eyes narrowed. “You still hear him calling to you?”

“Yes, elder,” Feroh said, head bowed.

“Come, sit with me.”

Feroh obeyed and sat cross-legged across from the elder.

“Your seeds never sprout,” Lonneh said.

“Why would they?”

The elder chuckled softly. A breath wracked by disease crackled in his chest. “Indeed.”

They sat in silence until Feroh found his courage.

“I don’t hear him, elder. I hear myself. I want to tell him how guilty I am.”

The elder’s brows lifted. “Guilty of what?”

“I don’t know. I’ve thought hard on the matter since that day.”

“What could a man like you need with guilt?”

Feroh frowned, but the old man only brightened.

“Did you see Haleh?” Lonneh asked, his thin eyebrows arching upward. “Now he could make a seed sprout!”

Feroh shook his head, confused.

The elder’s brows furrowed. “One of those they hanged, boy.”

A lightness washed over Feroh from head to toe.

“Ah, yes, you remember,” Lonneh said.

“But the consul came to bring justice!”

“Justice!” the elder seethed. “He’s come to purge us and others who possess gifts opposed to his vision.”

Dread filled Feroh. “Is that why the clan fled Salitoh?”

The elder nodded. “You know, Azhal didn’t seem interested in this area, but the hill raiders gave them an excuse… to enact their justice.”

“Maybe we need this justice?”

“We? We?” Lonneh grumbled to himself. “There is no ‘we’ for us… not with these people. We are not of their kind.”

Feroh couldn’t imagine the young consul doing any evil, not even the smallest offense. Every time he thought on the consul, a glimmering, untouchable image presented itself to his mind, fine as blown glass but hard as steel. Perfect in every way.

“Boy!” Lonneh exclaimed.

Feroh’s stomach turned, a nausea running up his throat as he tried to bring his mind to the moment.

“He still has you in his grip, I see.”

Feroh wanted to protest, but the elder was right. As much as he tried, he couldn’t think ill of the consul or Azhal, even though it persecuted and killed his people.

“How did they find them?” he asked.

“Betrayed,” the elder said.

“Who did it?”

“Their own landlords. Reported them even though they’d worked peaceably for them for nearly twenty years.”

“But why?”

“One man’s hero is another man’s villain.”

Feroh frowned.

“Is it evil to grow a better crop?” Lonneh asked. “Breed a better rooster or ox? A faster horse… a stronger…” His voice trailed off as if he’d trespassed into a forbidden place and had to backtrack out of it.

Feroh had the distinct impression that this elder, so sacred they never let him out into the open, must know more than anyone of their clan, even his own father, who was their leader.

“His landlords wanted his power,” Lonneh said. “Believe that. They always want it when it doesn’t cause them trouble, but when Azhal came marching, they turned them in.”

Feroh felt a different guilt then.

“What is it?” Lonneh asked.

“I cheered, elder.”

The elder looked at him questioningly.

“When they were hanged.”

“Ah, don’t mind that. You were under the consul’s spell. Even I would have cheered. Best to plug your ears as soon as you feel it calling.”

“Feel what? I don’t recall feeling anything. Just elation.”

“The gentle tug that leads you away from your own thinking and feeling. Sweet, wasn’t it, to be there with that crowd, all agreeing?”

“Yes, I remember now.”

“Just remember what I said. To a certain kind, this consul is a hero. But not for us.”

“Was Haleh a hero?”

Elder looked away wistfully. “He could make the trees sing. And then there was Bethrun. Did you see him?”

Feroh shook his head. He regretted not paying more attention to the men on the gallows.

“He could always find the smartest pup in a litter, the strongest colt. Or the most fertile yak. Invaluable skill, that. Made his landlord rich.”

Feroh thought of his inert pot with its dormant seed.

“You could do it,” Lonneh said. “If you tried.”

“I do.”

Elder raised a hand. “You don’t. Our practice is a way of life, not the minutes you spend staring at a buried seed, mumbling words you don’t understand. It must consume you, become everything. You are no longer a child, as much as your parents try to keep you bottled up.”

“But then I would be a danger.”

“They will despise you either way… for what you are or what you could become. Until the end of time and the gates open.”

“But why?”

“Because we know too much.”

Feroh knew nothing, though.

“If you don’t try, then you should march back to the square and turn yourself in. End it now. Spare us all your anguish.”

Feroh chewed his lower lip. “I would be content for the seed to greet me some day.”

Lonneh scoffed. “Such small ambitions. Did you know we were once counselors to emperors, queens, magi, and great folk up and down these lands before the Silt Sea?”

Feroh felt ashamed. Elder was right. His ambitions seemed so small now. Ah, Azhal, with its right order, its virtue!

“That’s your father speaking, you know,” Lonneh said, grimacing with disgust. “So afraid. He’s dying of fear.”

He was dying because the root and herb they took to hide themselves was eating him from the inside out. Feroh didn’t like the elder criticizing his father, but he knew it to be true.

“Fear keeps us safe,” he said.

“Does it? If you ever hope to see green in that pot, you’ll need to be brave and take risks…”

Feroh leaned forward and exclaimed, “Everything!”

Elder opened his arms, his hands, exposing his emaciated chest as if expecting an Azhalite lance to pierce him. His eyes bulged more than usual, throbbing, pulsing with the plant-life around him.

“We are not masters of lands and people, Feroh. Our knowledge, our power, exceeds such trivial things. No, we are masters of life itself, of… of… I will die here. I am not a man. I am… am a monster. And so are you. Abominations… and yet… and yet. We are a new thing, battling to live, to be as we are… the world will yield… it must. To be shaped anew. And then what? Abominations? Or… or… gods?”

He snickered, eyeballing Feroh like a crazed yuufa addict.

“We are the ones planted,” Lonneh continued, “planted among millions to bring about change. Too many of us together is a dangerous thing… too close to each other… I used to guide it, you know. Then they stuck me in here with my guards.” He gestured at the engravings in the stone bricks scattered throughout the walls. “They have ancient magic meant to defy the advance of certain powers. Ward stones, they call them. Jail stones, I call them!” He frowned sadly, then turned mischievous. “So now I just dream in tiny circles… here with my friends.” He glanced at the many potted plants hedging him into the chamber’s center.

“Feroh!” Uncle Joruh boomed from the courtyard. His steps scraped across the rough stone pavers.

“Someday,” Lonneh said, wagging a long, gnarled finger, “who you are will catch up with who you are trying to be. It will be a war.” The old man chuckled, then his eyes crinkled as if he were about to cry. “Everyone is tested… everyone put through a sieve. Not all grow, though. Growing is painful. Ask them,” he said, pointing to a tiny shoot. “It doesn’t ask if it should, it just does.”

Feroh turned and stood.

His Uncle Joruh stood at the door, glaring at the elder. “You’ll get us all killed, old man.”

“And? What then?” Lonneh barked. “We can never truly die. Well, maybe you can.”

“Curse you!” The words came out of his uncle Joruh pained and full of fear.

Elder just chuckled. “Hold your pot, Feroh. Sing to it. Cry over it. Weep and beg… someday it may give you what you want.”

The elder’s eyes narrowed to slits, and he assumed a meditative posture.

Did the elder dream as Feroh did? Did he see grey places and feel the prick of undying hunger?

“Stop filling his head with lies,” Uncle Joruh said, grabbing Feroh by the arm. “The days of grand gestures are gone.” His uncle hissed in Feroh’s ear, tightening his grip. “Set your path right or you’ll get us all killed.”

He smacked Feroh’s head and shoved him into the courtyard where the rest of the clan, hard at work, looked up. His auntie Ethali, stirring the evening potage, squinted disapprovingly at him.

Accusation thundered through him as he slumped down beside one of his cousins. He grabbed a basket holding seeds used for making the traditional apricot colored dye. Their life-force sparkled like a clear night sky.