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From This River of Song

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On the road to Kenniliar
“Parda. Masha.” Khat closed his eyes in attempt to better recall the names. “Bosh. Karrel. Tamsin.”

Miram sighed. “Kash. Beril.”

“How many nieces could you possibly have?” Khat said as he opened his eyes. He reached out to try to snag one of the rolls she was toasting above the fire. Miram, possibly in jest, jabbed the pointy stick towards him. “Hey!”

Sagai chuckled. “While they may grudgingly accept me as a full scholar,” he said, brushing his lips over Miram’s ears as she offered him one of the rolls, “they’re under no obligation to welcome a reprobate like yourself.”

“Well.” Khat grumbled as he finally snagged one of the rolls--the slightly-burned one. “Who says I have to meet them, let alone know how to tell them apart?”

“And we pretend we’re hiding our legitimate business partner?” Sagai asked, his eyes widening enough to underline the mockery.

Miram tossed Khat an empty skewer, and he slid on the slices of spider mite he’d been preparing. “They’re family,” she said simply. “You’re family.”

Khat froze for a long three seconds, then risked a glance at her.

“Yes,” Sagai said, his eyes cast up towards the sky. “She means it.”

Khat nodded and handed the skewer to Miram, and retreated.

*

When Khat caught up with the caravan again, two days later, Miram snorted and ordered him back out to forage for firewood. She also handed him a long strip of mostly-clean cloth, which he quickly tied over the gash on his upper arm.

Sagai accompanied Khat back out into the wastes. “Rock demon?”

Khat grunted, his feet slipping as they made their way downhill.

“Overlarge lizard? With extremely precise incisors.” Sagai suggested. “A bone collector with a very specific audience?”

Khat spotted a likely piece of kindling. “If I ignore you long enough, will you stop?”

Sagai caught the branch as Khat tossed it in his direction. “Thousand-year-old untalented barber?”

Khat sighed.

 

Closer to the Kris enclave than Khat would really prefer
Out of the forty-one lineages of the Kris, the Amaher was only one. Out of the Amaher lineage, however, there was only Khat. Or, close enough to be difficult to contemplate. Khat tried to avoid contemplating that fact as much as possible.

That aversion had contributed, unfortunately, to Khat in this moment: Trapped in a trader’s wagon with his cousin, Rhan, pretending that he was offended at his cousin’s attitude about his profession, rather than guilty about his informal refusal to procreate.

Yerga, the trader in question, had diplomatically faded against wood of the wagon, paying steadfast attention to the beads encircling her wrist as Khat made a show of ignoring Rhan. For a moment, Khat contemplated grabbing the rather offensive, if definitely-not-Kris, knucklebones from the fortune-teller’s kit tilted against a stack of definitely-not-real relics and starting up an impromptu dice game with Sagai.

Sagai, who seemed to be taking an unseemly delight in Khat’s discomfort.

“Khat?” Rhan finally paused in his diatribe. “Are you listening to me?”

“No,” Khat said. “Assume I’m not even here.” He crossed his arms and attempted to lean nonchalantly against the wagon’s wall, but was somewhat thwarted when a splinter poked against his shoulder.

Rhan rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He picked up the fortune-teller’s kit himself. “Could you, at least, look into this?” Khat studied his own palm, and Rhan snorted. “In your capacity as a relic-hunters.”

Sagai cleared his throat.

“Scholars,” Rhan corrected.

“With a keen eye for authenticity,” Sagai added. “And an admirable sense of justice.”

“And we’ll pay you for your time,” Rhan conceded.

Khat made sure his teeth showed as he smiled. “In that case.”

But as Khat moved to exit the wagon, Rhan caught him by the elbow. "Khat," he said, and his voice had lowered enough that Khat couldn't help but pay attention. "If it turns out to be true--"

Khat managed not to shiver, and Sagai stepped forward to stand alongside them. "If it's true," Sagai said, "we'll do everything we must."

Because he was looking at Rhan, Khat caught the flicker of surprise, as well as the bloodthirsty approval. Rhan looked to Khat, and Khat let his silence provide the answer that was sought.

 

In the den of a fortune-teller in Kenniliar
Yerga led them to the black market dealer who claimed to be selling authentic Kris bones (or possibly ancestral bones, depending on the shifts in the market, and the vendor’s ability to spell). After they had determined the number of Kris bones that were, in actuality, Kris bones, the vendor pointed them towards a cellar nominally owned by the sunset cult, and the nominal owner directed them to the cult member who took the “death” portion of “ritual death” rather literally.

And now they were here, Khat standing in the wreckage of an antique collection no longer recognizable, and Sagai looming over the unconscious body of a fortune-teller who took entirely too much pleasure in thrilling his customers with hints of the excessively macabre.

Until he heard the rattle of the bones tumbling against each other, Khat didn’t realize his hands were shaking. Until Sagai clapped a hand against his shoulder, Khat didn’t realize he had tears in his eyes.

“Should we,” Khat said, his voice faint even to his own ears. “What about.” He gestured at the fortune-teller, unsure of what words he wanted to use.

“Leave that to your cousins,” Sagai said. He took the box from Khat’s hands, reverent. “Leave that,” and he spat toward the fortune-teller, “to whatever will come next.”

Rather than slip out the second-story window through which they’d entered, they walked out the front door and back onto the marble palisade only the truly wealthy usually walked upon. The sun was setting, and the sky was streaked with the color of dried blood.

The Kris enclave
No less than this memorial would have brought Khat back to the enclave, or led him to step inside his family’s empty quarters. The quiet still unnerved him.

Sagai was waiting on the road for Khat, which they hadn’t planned but, Khat realized, he had expected. Sagai offered Khat a skin filled with water, and Khat took a swig of it with the solemnity of ritual.

“How did you know to wait for me here,” he asked, idly.

“I didn’t,” Sagai replied. And they began the journey back to Kenniliar.