"The dunes are ever moving, the desert is ever moving," the old man says, "you think it so opposite to the sea but it is not. Some says the seas will swallow us whole. On this world, are we not as small as a single grain of sand in the grand scheme of life?" The children pause from where they are crouched, some drawing swirls and shapes in coloured chalk on the ground, others playing with glass marbles, scuffed and worn and chipped but still prized treasures. The man seems as old as time to them with the deep grooves that line his face, weather-beaten, skin tough as old leather left out in the sun. "Who knows what one grain of sand will see, where it will go, what it will change."
They wait with bated breath but he says no more to them. They shrug. The game of marbles becomes the main event, a big blue and white creation at stake. They are too young to care for metaphors.
The old man smiles, raises a hand as hard as his face, looking out over the horizon, out to the high mountains that mark where the desert begins, shielding his eyes from the sun.
The wind howls through the desert at night, carrying with it the yips of the coyote, a lonely sound, animal calling out for pack. Night is cold, especially after the blistering scorch of the day, oppressive heat where even sweating was a trial, a torture. Day had winds that whipped at careful layers of clothing, sand scouring skin, blinding bite of it in the eyes, up the nose and down the throat. The air itself is arid; there is no promise of rain here the way there is in a village or town or at sea, not in this blinding monotony of golden expanses and dunes bleached white when the sun hits them. Even at night it is white from the moon a mockery. No escape. The odd scrubby bush or tree that somehow manage to cling on and the clusters of cacti, sharp needles, tough skins. People are too soft for the desert. People were not made to endure this and yet there is no other choice left. He must wander this wasteland in search of salvation and answers.
If he survives the night. He burrows deeper into the woven blankets he packed, bright colours, richly patterned, chosen for their warmth more than anything else but he cannot deny that he preferred something with colour to break up the monotony of it all. His clothes are beige, his small tent too, boots and pack brown – he looks as drab as the landscape, blending in, merely one more grain of wind beaten sand. He burrows deeper into the blankets, drawing them up over his nose, huffing out short, sharp breaths to feel some sort of warmth because the rest of him is freezing. He knew it would be cold in the desert at night, when the winds pick up and howl, the time when animals and other things can finally stand to creep out from their hiding places and he had to check carefully for scorpions and spiders before he crawled into his bedroll. He has already suffered a pinch from something when he donned his boots without thinking early in the morning, luckily there was no poison or he would be dead now. There is no one for miles to help him should something happen and he wonders, even though he should not, not with the storm raging, the winds buffeting the flimsy tent and creeping beneath where the fabric meets the sand, what would happen if he were to die out here. Would the beasts and roaming eagles or vultures have a chance to peck the flesh clean from his bones or would the wind and sand flay him alive until only a skeleton remained, perhaps a few scraps of cloth or bead clinging obstinately to his bones as they baked in the sun. The sand would swallow him eventually.
The dunes are ever moving.
A particularly hard gust of wind makes the fabric of the tent crack and snap, he goes stiff, sucking in a breath, ready to spring forth and hold the tent down if he must. He cannot lose it or he is done for. There is a quiet tearing noise, fear clutches his heart but then it passes and he feels the cold sweat all down his back, across his forehead. His hands are clammy and the front of the blanket is damp with condensation from his breath. A dull ache is blooming across his skull as if he's been struck, radiating out, a corona of hurt from tensing everything to force his weary way onward, that extra mile, hunched as the oldest of men. He spends all day frowning, tension in his jaw from clenching it, around his eyes, from squinting. He spends all night shivering and clutching tight, waking stiff and sore, joints popping and cracking.
No one will mourn him should he die out here, lost and alone. They all think him mad for leaving in the first place, seeking this great mystery, seeking salvation or answers of some sort. His mother very clearly asked him why he would go willing out into the desert to seek answers from something that does not exist outside of the oldest of books, the ones with cracked bindings and missing pages, the remainder dry, yellowed, brittle. His mother thought he would find his solace in them. She wept when he announced that yes, he intended to go, to move through the towns and to walk to the desert instead of taking to the seas at least, to go to the city if he was so dissatisfied.
How did one tell the woman that birthed them that it wasn't about being dissatisfied? That it was about feeling as if they had been cast adrift, floating aimlessly with the winds or the ebb and flow of the tide? He had endeavoured though, because she was his mother, because she came with him when he left, not begging him to stay but her eyes had shone with tears, her fingers digging into his arms as she walked with him, pointing out all the little places. "You would always ask for sweets from that vendor just there," she had said and he had smiled, and said that yes, he remembered. "You used to say you would marry the girl in that last house, whatever happened there?" She married another person, she stayed his best friend for years and he is an uncle to her children and taught them how to make kites before their chubby, clumsy fingers could really tie a knot. His mother trembled when he kissed her goodbye before her grief and anguish turned to hate, shrieking at him, that his father was right, that he was not welcome anymore. It hadn't stung. It had been that final push, knowing that he was right as he shouldered his pack and set off, wrapping his scarf loosely as he began the long trek to a neighbouring village for supplies.
He asked about the temple that the books said resided in the heart of the desert at each stall as he bought supplies with the savings he had. After all, he was giving up all on this quest, this sacrifice to find a sense of belonging, to find his purpose when it felt as though he had spent his whole life within a dream. He had never been unhappy and yet there had always been something at the edge of his mind, a sense that something was lacking.
"You are a madman to willingly go into that desert," a man his own age had said, laughing alongside his friends as they played one of the popular board games, moving ornately carved figurines to different places, discussing strategy quietly with their partners as each sought to take the upper hand. "You will not come out. If we need to go to the walled city on the other side then we take the ship like sensible men, all that water and the cool breeze. But why would we want a city who shuns us and turns her back?" They had all laughed, he had smiled politely and had taken a bed at the temple for the night, sleeping in one of the many alcoves, cool stone and a soft blanket, a lantern framed in coloured glass casting a kaleidoscope on the ceiling as it swayed lazily. What he would give now for the bowl of icy water that he had liberally splashed across his face, letting it soak his hair and run down into his beard. To plunge his hands in for long enough to feel the cold seep into his blood and crawl up his arms back to his heart. This is a test of resolve. He could head back. His mother might even welcome him (he knows that she would, that she would scold and cry as his father tutted, a stern man, a granite man who had said 'let the great fool do as he wishes, he'll slink back like a cowardly hound') with open arms. But no. He needs to know. He will not turn back.
Outside all is quiet. This is the heart of the storm, he knows that from years of them blowing over the village when they had barred the doors and windows, stuffing rags and whatever else was at hand to fill all the gaps because his mother didn't want her house to be filthy but still the sand crept in and he was the one to promptly sweep it back out once it was over. Tentatively, he sits up and shakes the blanket out, inspects the tent with careful fingers and weighs up the risks of slipping outside to press the tent more securely into the sand but it is loose and fine this far in, no trace of hard caked mud that was once a riverbed or that once held crops. The crops lie the other way now, to the sea and out, far from the desert. He has been to those lush fertile places on few occasions – it is a long ride and an even longer walk but there was always a need of strong boys for the harvests or the planting seasons and he went out and spent as little coin as he could so he could bring it home for his family. Many of his childhood friends left the village for those climbs or boarded a ship to take them to the walled city and one or two sought their fortunes in far off lands he would see only as lines on a map. That was never for him. The closer to the desert he was, the more he felt at home.
Now, as he hurries back inside as the wind picks up again, he is revising that notion.
It is almost suicidally reckless to light a lantern with his tent so precarious, with the wind so strong but he cannot lie there all night, shivering and afraid, waiting to see if death rides the wind on some shadow horse, scythe in hand to claim him. So he lights the sturdy lantern and makes sure the hatch is shut securely as he gathers the blankets like a great cloak about him, fishing out one of the books he brought with him, all with descriptions of the temple.
Hark for I have seen it with mine own eyes! And when I saw it, this gleaming masterpiece, I fell to my knees and wept even though it surely could have killed me for my water had dried up more than a day ago as I soldiered on without companion, most of my supplies lost or simply left behind for I had not the strength to carry them. Many times had I thought I would perish on my lonely, weary road. My eyes do not see so well these days from the blinding light reflected upon those golden sands, the skin around them and across my nose is darker than the rest of me and for weeks did it peel. So many sores, the soles gone from my boots but I knew there would be a cost to reach something so magnificent.
It rose from the desert as if it had been planted, allowed to bloom and blossom and grow. Surely, for there were deep rooms down many flights of stairs and my regret is that I could not explore it all and it shall forever be my sorrow that I cannot recount its splendour, that despite all my long years as a scholar that all words and descriptors fall short, utterly inadequate but I will say that it is not the opulence of a rich man's home or a royal villa or palace. It is breathtaking, it is truly a great marvel. How it shimmers! How natural it seems too! They would not reveal the secrets when I asked and it could have been made by some divine; they will shun me already for these words, my brothers who say they found me when I returned, delirious. They call me addled, say the sun cooked my wits and that I drank the water of the cactus and that the substances within contributed to it. But I know what I saw with my own two eyes.
More, I know what I felt. Peace washed over me, I was reborn. I was not as old then as I am now but I felt old. I had hunched over a writing desk, quill in hand, ink at my elbow, slaving over parchment to produce much more elaborate things than this (for I am certain that it needs no gilding) and if I made a mistake I would need to start over once more. I felt I had wasted. That I had shrivelled. Then it was as if I were alive once more, a young boy giddy with joy and an elation I had not felt as I walked through the halls, running my fingers along as if to confirm that this was not a dream, that this was all around me and that I had finally made it, my quest ended.
Some will ask why I sought this temple that is consigned to myth but is it not the nature of man to question and to explore? Are we not all pilgrims seeking to find our way or to unburden ourselves?
Alas, I did not see the fabled priestess. She was there, the robed figures said, all lovely young ladies in clothes made for the desert although I knew not what they did all day although they said they went looking for those who needed them, helped them to find their way, gave supplies when they needed to. I asked if I might be granted the honour of an audience with the priestess of the temple but all attempts were rebuffed so very gently I could not bring myself to feel slighted; I hasten to add that I do not at all feel as though I were cheated even once. They said that if I had need to see her, she would know, she would surely come.
There is more to say but I will save those for the documents I will write when I am nearing the very end, those last things I keep to myself in hopes that I will meet another one day who believes or who will have seen it to. I hope I will have the words then to write or to dictate to a scribe should sight or body fail me. But I have seen it. It is there.
He rubs a hand across his face, itching at his beard. He should shave before long, the sand gets in and the sweat has caked it and it is bristly, uncomfortable. The words end there, the author going on to talk of other things such as the village, the walled city but they wanted to throw it away and so he bought it and tucked it into his pack. Exhaustion makes him sway and his head lolls forward for a moment but the wind is quick to have him alert and with the light of the lamp brightening the tent he can see the thick plumes of sand rushing past. He might lose the way he scouted out before he made camp, half-crawling up the rise of a sand dune to stare and ponder what the best direction to take might be, watching the shadows that were cast to predict where it might be coolest. Hardly an exact science and he can't skirt the edges forever, he will die and never accomplish his goal if he does so but there is not a single map of the desert itself and the maps merely paint a sprawling waste with no significant markers save the boundaries; the edges of the villages and the great walled city, the mountains, where it slowly becomes cooler and changes to green on the map where there are fields. Still, he has a map. He would feel foolish without one.
Sighing, he looks for another book in his pack and risks a sip of water, just enough to dampen his mouth. This book is more philosophical, not about the temple and he found it under the bed of where he had stayed prior to his travels and had tried to return it but the young woman he had spoken to had laughed, pressed the book to his chest and had said that sometimes books just turned up when you needed them and that if it had gone so long with no one missing it, well then, it wouldn't be missed if he took it with him.
It is the nature of man to explore and to wish to broaden his horizons, it is why we have men of science and men of faith who ponder the deeper mysteries of this world and who might be locked in eternal conflict as they explain away how we came to be along with the world around us. A man can be content with what we deem an ordinary life and there is nothing wrong with a man who has either no questions to ask or no desire to ask in the first place even if he does. In much the same way, there is nothing wrong with a man who questions and who wants to find a satisfactory answer through his own study or search. We indulge the child – although heave knows they can be a source of great frustration with their insistence on 'why' – when they seek to learn about the world they live in but why is it that we expect this to come to an end upon reaching a certain milestone in life? With a wry grin, he thinks that if he survives this, if he makes it to the temple and back, that he might send this book to his mother. It feels insolent but it might do her good to read it. If we accept that some divine being reached down from the cosmos and made us, he would not give us the capacity to think or free will for us to do naught with them. I will not go into that matter further else I find myself bogged down in an argument that has rambled on since before my birth and that has no resolution in sight save agreeing to disagree. My own area of study lies with the stars, the shapes they make in the sky above us and what they mean, the names they are given by those who look up. We do not know what these stars are. Oh we have speculated but we will never know. They are impossible to study. When I dream, I dream that I might touch them and know how they feel, if they are some strange beast stuck up there, if they are their own little suns for other world.
It is in our nature to look for a place of belonging. Man is a social animal. We have made settlements, we define ourselves by those who we are with: this is my tribe, we say, they believe in the same things as I do. Look at the pet we are closest to, the noble, loyal hound. What we attribute to it, how we would trust that beast with the deepest parts of ourselves and how we swear we can see emotions in their eyes that we do not find in any other animal. I do not know what reasons you might have for picking up this volume, a collective effort of men in this sanctuary of learning to put their thoughts together on many matters. The philosophers will talk far better on these matters of self but I know that I will never find satisfaction unless there are advances to allow me to know more of the great beyond above us.
Then the wind picks up and screams and he jerks so hard that he knocks the lantern over, the flame guttering until he hurries to right it, checking for cracks before he makes a decision to snuff it out now. The book is put away one more and he thinks, do not let me die when I have not found what I need, when I want to know the great beyond of this desert. He is religious from a lifetime of being taken to the temple with his mother and father, kneeling for long hours, reciting scripture, observing feast days and celebrations and he knelt then, the tent and the sand below softer on the knees than stone and marble floors as he bent his head, his hands bowed. Watch over me. Watch over mother and father. Do not let this be my end this night when my journey has barely begun, when I still have many days ahead of me. Test me, test my resolve so I might better know myself. Let me look upon this with my own eyes and find the peace I dearly need to carry on.
Perhaps the wind drowns out his prayer. Perhaps there is no one out there to hear him. There are many other reasons but the tent rips and he lunges forward, foot tangling in his blankets, sand filling his mouth to choke him, scouring the inside of his nose and rendering him blind. He swears, something he rarely does but this is a disaster. He needs a place to bed down in the night and without the tent he will surely die because of how cold it gets. He was not meant for the desert. Even in the midst of the storm, even knowing that if he can just hold on that moment longer and longer again that it will pass as so many other things, he feels despair. He feels doubt. What if all he needs is a wife and a child on the way and a day of honest, hard labour as his father said? What if he reaches this temple and still does not find it? What if there is nothing? What if he goes through this with nothing to show for it but an uncomfortable memory and not inner peace? I must be strong, but oh he is so tired, his fingers growing numb, dropping his head down to cough and choke, his eyes dry. They might be bleeding, or trying to, too much sand in them to stop it as the storm batters him. He wants to rub them but that would make them worse and he has one hand clutching his pack at least although it is too heavy to be blown away but it might be buried and he would have no idea where to look and the other clings doggedly to his tent to try to keep it intact so that he might salvage it when this is over. It cannot be long. Not that there is a way to tell. He has always been able to dream for hours, lost within his own mind. This is a test and there are two answers: pass or fail, live or die.
He chances a look up, to see if there is hope for an end but he breathes sand and begins to cough so hard his stomach protests, clenching in agony from the force of it. Blackness encroaches on his vision and the last thing he sees is a great wave, a shifting, rolling thing of darkness. He drops his head and tries to breathe.
Before the sun rises, his tent is a shredded mess, one pole remaining, scraps of fabric fluttering like a flag or a garish grave marker.
The wall is a marvel. Men and women flock to see it, this great tall thing that makes life in the city bearable, one thousand feet high and that alone is a testament to the achievements of mankind surely. And yet, that is not the crowning glory. No. The wall curves down, a gentle incline, casting long shadows over this city built at the edge of nowhere, the far side of the desert, taking in the natural oasis that marks the centre of the city. When it rains, the water runs along and down to be collected for the city. The wall is painted too with all manner of fanciful beasts all edged in gold.
They say they have built a desert-proof city, a place it cannot reclaim.
But the sand still piles up higher and higher, the dunes ever moving. No one sees the other side of the wall where it touches the desert; no one sees how the desert will spin in, a great wave to drown them all.
The Crippled Thief
The air is utterly still, hot with a damp heat, pressing in on her from all sides and if she could sweat, she would but that is impossible leaving her irritated and miserable. Even here in the shade with her back pressed to the stone wall so that the cold might leach into her skin, she longs for at least a breeze to ease her suffering. This is the second week of oppressive, muggy weather with no end in sight, nothing to ease the tension. Closing her eyes, she pictures a thunderstorm, some great, rolling thing, bellowing its fury across the land, thick grey clouds bringing the promise of rain, perhaps even a howling wind. She swallows around a parched mouth, imagining counting the seconds between booms of thunder and cracks of forked lightning that brighten the sky for brief seconds to the pounding beat of her heart. It is wishful thinking; even in the shade, the glare of the sun on tiled rooftops turns the world behind her eyelids red. With a sigh that does nothing save stirring hot air, she plucks irritably at her clothing where it sticks to her skin. That, at least, does something to cool her so she raises the back of her shirt as much as she can with one arm before she scoots over to press herself to a new patch of wall.
She knows why she's the one to keep watch but she hates it, a reminder of her new status since she lost her right arm. She would have been crouched somewhere high before, her bow and quiver strapped to her back, arrows rattling when she moved but now she keeps lookout, armed with knives and a bomb pouch as well as the flares should it all go awry. She looks over to where her right arm once was and turns away. She still can't look at it without a wave of disgust roiling in her belly. Her aim with knives is still little better than piss poor and her sense of balance is off but she was not content with the idea of leaving, of walking away to an easier life so she has been pushing herself to recover, regain what she can, be of use. She will not be a watcher forever. Moreover she will not let herself wallow in self-pity the same way she will not allow others to feel pity for her, snapping at them when they do so, eyes flashing.
It's why she still has a place. Even if she's only signal girl at the moment. Day gives way to evening with nothing worthy of note on her end but the heat abates enough that she can breathe more easily, the occasional shiver running through her body. It reminds her of days and nights of feverish shock induced by sickness in her now missing limb and then by blood loss before it gave way simply to loss once she could understand just what had happened to her, right arm gone, leaving a ghostly echo that itched and burned and stang and hurt. She moves into a patch of wall and dirt baked by the sun all day, stealing the last of the heat from it until someone approached, leather boots scuffing deliberately to announce their presence. Looking up to a dark, grinning face, she attempts to raise her right arm only to remember it is gone, offering her left instead.
"It all went well. At the villa," her new companion explains, pulling her to her feet, allowing for a moment where she stretches her legs before they start walking, "we're to head back, we'll discuss the next move in the morning."
"Do you know how it went?"
"Bloodless," he sounds disappointed for all of a moment before recovering, "he went alone, sent his guards off so he was pulled in. They will think he fell and drowned." She nods, folds her arms across her chest and plucks her wrapped sleeve, making note to go to the healer to have him check that the burn is healing well, no sign of infection. All this time and still she is not out of the woods. She can feel her companion staring so she catches him in the act but his skin is too dark for her to tell if he is embarrassed or not. Their silence is no longer comfortable; she is unsurprised when he clears his throat and speaks once more. "You were not always a watcher, I can tell in how you carry yourself even if I am new to this company. What did you do before?"
"I was an archer," she replies, that pang of loss still piercing her heart as surely as any arrow she ever loosed, "I had been since I was a girl, carrying my father's bow."
"Knifed. Such a silly thing. A thug's blade is always filthy, either from dirt or poison, it doesn't matter. Maybe it was some snake venom or just an unlucky infection but it spread. I sweated and shook. When I woke, they had taken my arm. I had to lose it or lose my life," her lips twist in a pained smile, fingers feeling the thick layer of cloth and bandage protecting pink, healing skin, "still feels like I lost both."
She cuts him off before he can finish. "Don't!" Her voice is loud enough to draw curious eyes from passersby, her hand dropping to her side where it rests on the leather-bound hilt of her dagger. "Don't say you're sorry and if you look at me with pity then I'll take your eyes right here in the street." His acquiescing nod is startled. Her head hurts, all of a sudden, pounding pain blooming inward from the base of her skull.
The silence grows between them even as they enter the bazaar, a riot of vendors and shoppers, colours and smells combining to make her head spin. Once she might have bought her dinner from a stall, eating it as she walked back to the base, all fire and spice but it is too difficult to juggle like that now. Now she must sit or have something easy to consume with one hand. She takes her meals alone. Cutting her meat is too embarrassing. Her left hand is still too clumsy for delicate work. She allows herself to listen to the talk of stallholders - they often know a thing or two worth hearing, she flips a shiny silver to an urchin boy and runs fingertips over draped lengths of fabric of all colours and patterns. She knows where not to look. There is a stall here where she bought arrows and strings. She will not torture herself; there is self-flagellation enough after every lesson of trying to force her left side into doing what she wants. There are ten year olds in the practice yards who can hit the centres of targets with throwing knives more than she can and children just learning to write who have a smoother, neater hand than hers. There is a writing lesson tonight too. She will have to eat with her teacher as well who makes her eat things that must be cut, claiming it to be good exercise, a fat man, once a merchant with a balding head, ruddy cheeks and three chins who laughed in her face when she threatened him in a fit of temper. The humiliation of it still scalds what is left of her dignity and her pride.
"This is where I take my leave," her companion announces when they exit the bazaar, the familiar sight of home looming, "I have other business to attend to. Have a good night."
"You as well," she replies, receiving a flash of white teeth when he grins, taking off with more bounce in his step. She knows where he's heading, to one of the taverns nearby, a popular haunt and a good place for the more furtive whispers they must listen for. Another place to be avoided. She does not like the eyes that crawl over her now. They make her want to run and hide.
At least amongst her fellows who live in the base, she is subject to fewer looks, now that they are more used to seeing her minus a limb although some of them have seen her with her stump unwrapped, in the baths or with the healers, their expressions horrified, disgusted, sympathetic and relieved they aren't her. Her stomach rumbles from emptiness as she crosses the courtyard, almost empty at this hour, the windows of the main hall open to carry the smell of dinner, something spiced but she cannot tell what kind of meat there is. She heads to her room though, up five flights of stairs, along the narrow hall and up another flight, reaching her room, the door kicked up so she can dump her bag and strip off dusty, stinking clothes, kicking them into a pile. Boots are easier to remove with one hand, she has found. A jug of water sits by a bowl, cloth and towel on the dresser, the lukewarm water a welcome relief as she gives herself a wipe over to remove the worst of the grim, the cloth thrown into the bowl with a splashing slop when she'd done. With her hand dry, she touched her bandages, pleased to note how little unpleasant wetness there is. It will not be pretty, when it heals, but there will be no foul oozing to contend with. Slipping on a loose tunic over her vest and trousers and sandals, she leaves again, back down the stairs, along the hall and down three flights to the healer's chambers.
The healer's chambers occupy most of the second floor lending it a hushed atmosphere more suited to a monastery save for the odd groan of pain or misery or an agonised yell. It smells of incense, light, maybe jasmine and candle wax, the hall torches burning at all times and of salves and balms, pungent herbal aromas. Her sandals slap against the stone floor, too loud, she thinks, for this floor where they all speak as quietly as possible, respectful. Or afraid. Her wound is still of enough concern that her care is entrusted to the head healer, his study located at the very end of the hall with a great huge window that always lies open to let in fresh air, vital, he insists, to get rid of any sickness lurking in the air. When she knocks and enters, he is staring out at the evening sky, a tall man for his age with close-cropped white hair and a little curling goatee on his chin, straight of back and strong of shoulder. He is older than he looks, she knows or rather she suspects. His wrinkles are few but his hair has been white for as long as she has known him, a little girl proudly showing off scraped hands and knees and blisters that later hardened into calluses.
"Good evening," he greets, turning at last, "Hop up on the table, remove your tunic and I shall begin." He turns away to locate the salve he always applies to her stump, she wriggling out of her tunic, careful not to unpin her folded sleeve, clad in just her thin vest. "How has it been?"
"Dry. Or it felt that way today," she answers, watching him advance with his scissors. "No itching."
"Any pain?" He bids her to hold out her left arm to hold a bowl for him as he begins to cut away at the old bandages, her nose wrinkling as she catches sight of the stains on them. The fluid is normal, a sign of healing but still it is unpleasant to look at. "Must I repeat my question?" It is said on a breezy sigh, making her look up, drawn out of her daze.
"No pain," she confirms, "but I still..." she chews her lip, uncertain on whether or not she can continue.
"You still have a phantom of the limb," he states and she nods, hissing as the cool breeze hits skin that is still too warm. "They will stop in time. Find something to do with your left - I will draw up exercises to improve your dexterity, come to me after you break your fast in the morning. We shall have you whole again." But I will never be whole again, she wants to spit but a gasp comes out instead as he applies a thick layer of the clear aloe vera salve to where they cauterised what remains of her arm, her back arching in a pointless attempt at escape, sounding like a cat suddenly finding itself in a body of water as she continues to hiss her breathes through clenched teeth, his movements slow and methodical, keeping her in place without struggle. "Sore?"
"It still stings," she admits as she has nothing to gain from lying, "it's cold too." Her squirming is more from shock than anything else. He gives a smile then before he starts to wrap her arm once more with ease. Envy rises like bile, hot and bitter.
"You will need to learn to wrap this yourself," he says conversationally, securing the ends for her before wiping his hands clean on a towel. "And you will need to let the air at it too. Outdoors. The gardens would be good so long as it is kept clean."
"No," she croaks, shaking her head.
"No?" He repeats incredulously, bushy eyebrows rising to his hairline. "Do you presume to tell me what is best for your health?"
"People will see!"
"They already see child."
"They will see all of it!"
"It is no different to any other wound - would you have it control you for the rest of your days?" She looks away, sullen, bordering on petulant, her heart racing as she tries to calm herself lest she say something stupid or worse, start to cry at how much she hates every miserable inch of this. "Young lady," he starts, folding his arms as he walks away, back to looking out his window as she struggles with her shirt, "I helped to bring you into this world and I have tended many of your wounds. To be one of us is to be a fighter, to never allow yourself to be defeated and yet this is how you carry yourself, tail tucked firmly between your legs. You are your own obstacle to recovery." He lets out an annoyed grunt, smacking the window ledge with open palms. "Begone, you vex me with this carry on. Come again in the morning and lose your attitude. It does you no favours."
She tells herself it is the wind that causes the door to close so forcibly behind her, disturbing this almost hallowed hall as she stalks out and down the stairs once more, crossing the courtyard where others are laughing and joking, the rattle of dice in metal cups audible over it all. There are private quarters housed in another building, one close to both the gardens and the bath house (the private bath house, for them and for guests) and this is where her ex-merchant tutor conducts his lessons. By day he teaches the children in the main building or conducts his accounting work that keeps their home well-supplied but by night he retires his quarters. They are more opulent than any of the rooms in the main buildings, even the studies of the masters, with low tables and embroidered silk cushions, beautiful glass lamps with coloured panels and engraved patterns that cast more hued patterns than real light. There are oil burners alongside scented candles and thick plumes of smoky incense that make her eyes itch; after her first lesson, still unwell, she had wanted to throw up, scarcely able to breathe.
Respectfully, she knocks, waiting for him to call her in where she takes her customary seat acing the door, crossing her legs and settling onto the cushions as he bustles through with a tray bearing two steaming plates, spice warring with incense.
"The little pigeon looks more drab than usual," he complains, calling her by his nickname, "I hope she is hungry."
"I am not," she retorts. The healer's rebuke saw to her appetite. The tray is set down, a plate set before her and a bejewelled finger points.
"The little pigeon will eat when it is told and count itself lucky it is fed such fine cuts." She glares at her plate but takes up a fork, poking at the food as a test of how difficult they'll prove to handle. There is a fillet of fish, smothered in a red sauce and roasted nuts but pressing with the side of her fork, the flesh falls apart easily. There is a stuffed pepper, already cut in half, filled with yellow rice with mixed vegetables cut through it and grains of spices - the peppers beneath the rice are firm. She will not get away with leaving them either. He pours a glass of wine for himself, offering some to her but she opts to pour herself juice from the earthen pitcher, arm trembling from hefting the weight of it but more from the effort of pouring it in a controlled manner so it doesn't spill all over the table.
"Good," he says when she sits it down with a thump, starting in on her dinner. As soon as the first bite of flaking fish is in her mouth, her forgotten hunger returns with a vengeance and she tucks in happily, enjoying the different textures along with the mild spices even if she still hungers for the fiery burn of the bazaar stall food. "How has your day been pigeon?"
"Long," she replies, after a gulp of the juice, unsure of what fruit it was made from but she enjoys it anyway, "A lot of sitting and watching."
"Is that not what a pigeon does?"
"I am not a pigeon," she mutters, but she is grumpy only for appearance's sake. It is hard to stay truly angry when she is eating and she can appreciate any sort of joke after seeing the healer.
"Perhaps. If you manage both halves of the pepper then you will not be a pigeon for these eyes have seen many things but they have not seen a pigeon eating a pepper." She does not point out that she has seen pigeons eating dropped peppers in the streets. His beady eyes are on her as she examines all that is left of her dinner, the aforementioned two halves of the stuffed pepper her rice was cooked in. Again, she tests with her fork but it is too clumsy so she sets it down, takes a drink, then goes for her knife. She prepares herself for humiliation as she holds the utensil aloft, pressing down carefully. By some miracle the pepper does not budge. Relieved, she presses down with intent, cutting it into chunks she can nibble with looking unseemly although she only worries about her table manners here because he is used to dining in a more proper fashion. In the main hall there is much eating with fingers and gesturing with cutlery. Although they do not need to worry about errant food flying from clumsy cutting like she does - her first attempt at cutting a steak ended badly leading to her eating her meals alone or here before her lessons.
The peppers are polished off along with the juice, the dishes cleared away in preparation for what is to come. "So you are not a pigeon," he puts on a false note of mourning, "whatever shall I call you now then?"
"The cripple," she suggests, drumming her fingers on the table.
"I think not," he retorts, setting down parchment, quill and ink for her to use. "Is that what you are?"
"It's how I look."
"Ah, but you also looked like a pigeon and proved you are not," he replies, smiling mysteriously as she takes hold of the quill, dipping it in the ink in preparation. She always has to concentrate on how she moves her hand when she writes now, has to picture the letter in her head and she goes to bed each night after her lessons in a foul mood, kicking her door shut and throwing her sandals at the wall with her awful aim. "You are quiet tonight my little bird, are you playing coy with me? Do you think that if you treat me to your awful silences that I will beg your forgiveness?"
Her lips twitch despite herself and her hand shakes from holding in the giggle. She doesn't want to laugh at him. She doesn't want to smile. She wants to scream and rip the parchment apart and stab the quill into the fine wood of his table. He makes such ridiculous faces and she would like him, she thinks, were he not her writing master, if he were not another reminder of how her life is not hers as he twists his lips into an exaggerated pout. As it is, her grasp of the quill becomes shaky, her fingers jerk and the almost passably neat letter is a scribble and she curses angrily. Embarrassment burns her, sets her cheeks alight.
Again, she thinks she might cry.
His hand covers her, plucking the quill from it and she doesn't fight it and lets him mutter nonsense, drawing her to her fight and outside where she shivers, the wall a great hulking shadow in the distance as she follows him, shivering. It's hard to chafe the warmth into herself with only one arm, wondering why he's taking her outside, why he suddenly seems to care about her emotional state now of all times when she was about to laugh, when she was as close to her old self as she has been since the accident. There is music coming from somewhere, the twanging tones of a sitar and two voices, one soft and high, fluttering like a leaf caught in the breeze over the other, deeper, more melancholy, a gentle drumbeat keeping the pace and she wants to stop and listen, to peek in through the gauzy curtains and metal grates but the merchant shows no signs of stopping. When she calls his name, he ignores her and she thinks about turning back but then he would call her a pigeon or worse and she has had enough of his idiotic names. She will endure whatever this is and if she is no longer satisfied then she will stop going to lessons, find a quill and ink and parchment of her own and write long into the night by lantern light until her eyes burn. Maybe it will help her sleep better than lying awake and staring at the ceiling, wanting to rail at the injustice of it all.
"I was married once, my little pigeon," the merchant begins abruptly.
"I'm not a pigeon," she replies, half-hearted, no heat or spite in her words, only an echo, a token protest.
"I was married several times in fact," he continues, waving her words off as he weaves his way through the quiet streets. She remembers other nights, she and the rest of them all creeping about, working the shadows to their advantage to sneak in and out, to steal what they need and sometimes just what they wanted, just because they could, the thieves guild. That was before she was the rooftop girl with her bow who could see better in the dark than the rest of them. The one who shot down the guards, her arrows whistling through the night air, sometimes to wound, sometimes to kill. They never got caught when she was on archer duty, not a single one of them. She should ask if her replacement is as good, might is she is feeling vindictive and petty any time soon. "But my first wife, oh, she was a treasure. I think I have been looking for love like that ever since but I shall never know it again."
"What happened to her?" She asks, thinking of her own mother who died ten years ago after some sickness that spread through the city, sparking fears that the very oasis that gave them all life had been corrupted by some horrible taint only for them to find the source to be some poison powders that had been mixed into the wrong containers.
"My wife was from the desert."
She stops and frowns at his back for a long moment before she continues to walk after him, catching up the last few steps to walk side by side with him. "No one is from the desert."
He smiles at that, the kind of smile she has never seen before on any face so she does not know what sort of smile she should call it as he turns to face her, suddenly huge, a hulking monolith.
"Let me tell you about the desert."
Come morning she is armed with her pack and supplies, hood drawn over her face, her first time outside the wall.