oun Ei’dhar looked on as oun Nilja rolled around the dirt with kits. He bared his teeth and looked away.
He gave up the Sha’jeen People willingly for this. Why? He huffed and pulled his robes more closely around him. Why? He was a member of the ruling Council. A priest!
He leaned against the outer wall of the abandoned city, which the sk’oit-tu named Amal City, and snuck glimpses at oun Nilja. The oun Shi’ehl was rolling aroung the shores of the river, other adults close by, watching.
Really! He was behaving no better than a kit himself! The adults watching were laughing at the kits’ antics. At oun Nilja’s antics.
oun Ei’dhar huffed. He has made a home here, even if he behaves as a buffoon.
He turned away from oun Nilja and strode through the gates of the city. The sk’oit-tu were fixing the gate, pulling the old gate down. He made his way along the wall, keeping out of the way of others. Their bright chatter was distracting, confusing. Especially the expelling of air which meant they were laughing, showing their teeth and gums without meaning threat or insult. oun Ei’dhar shivered. So confusing and disconcerting.
He and oun Nilja had been given a small stone dwelling near the center of the city. It was made of black, gleaming stone. Even the roof. There were many windows to cool the house down. At the highpoint of the day, the house was uninhabitable from the heat. The inside of the dwellings had two or three rooms: a central living space with a cooking pit carved into the floor and one or two other rooms for sleeping, oun Ei’dhar supposed. He and oun Nilja had each been given a pallet with sheets upon which to sleep. oun Ei’dhar would have to learn to carve wooden bowls and mugs and chests for food storage. He sighed. There was much to do. He wanted to whitewash the dwelling, like others were doing. He had tried to discuss this with oun Nilja more than once, but the oun Shi’ehl hardly tolerated his presence in the dwelling.
The city had two main roads: to the west and to the east of the great pyramid. The roads were constructed of the same stone as the dwellings and connected the gate to the north with the southern wall, where a second gate stood. The dwellings had been built north to south in long, even rows. Perhaps it had been to maximize the space, for there was little creativity in the result. But the result was neat and tidy. Already the sk’oi-tu were planting gardens and hanging colorful sheets over the windows and doors. Others chose to hang stiff door covers made from woven grasses. There was no question that the sk’oit-tu would run out of space within one or two generations. Perhaps they would knock down the northern wall of the city and continue to build into the jungle.
Hunger made oun Ei’dhar lightheaded. No one had offered him food. He would have to go into the jungle and hunt for himself. He shook his head, vexed. Why did I kill oun Tamos? What purpose did it serve, other than to please me but for a fleeting moment?
He reached the dwelling he shared with oun Nilja. The fire he had built a few hours prior still crackled cheerfully. The dwelling smelled of smoke and the recent rain. He stopped to drop more wood onto the fire before heading to his room. The black walls were oppressive. He would have to beg for paint from aun Toyus.
The candles oun Nilja had lit still flickered in each room.
He sat down with his back to the wall and crossed his legs. It was quiet in this room, despite the small open window high up along the wall. Sunlight filtered through the window and fell onto the stone floor in a long golden rectangle.
He closed his eyes.
oun Ei’dhar stiffened and rose. He made his way to the main room of the dwelling and found the sk’oit-tu known as Ariahl standing just inside the door.
“Ah. oun Ei’dhar,” oun Ariahl said. “I would like to speak with you.” She made a gesture lost to him. “Come, walk with me.”
He wanted to refuse her, but he had no meat or paint or anything to live here. She could facilitate these things for him. So he bowed and went to join her.
oun Ariahl wrapped her arm around his and led him outside as if he were blind. It was an insult, but he took a breath and told himself it was ignorance on the sko’it-tu’s part.
The sun glared overhead in an unblemished sky. Even though it was still early morning, the temperatures were already soaring, the humidity making it difficult to breathe. He hated this continent.
“I have a favor to ask you, oun Ei’dhar,” oun Ariahl murmured.
He looked at her. Her cues confused him, as did the cues of all the sk’oit-tu. Perhaps he would get used to them in time.
“You need only ask,” he replied evenly.
“There are more Amalgamese stranded in North Torahn,” oun Ariahl told him. “The infection keeps producing more and more. We Sentinels are leaving here and returning to North Torahn to gather them and take them up north to the continent of Yllysia to live next to the Jilahn River.”
He listened impatiently. What was the purpose of telling him all this?
“What has this to do with me?” he growled.
She made the peculiar sound in her throat that meant she was laughing softly.
His tail puffed at the insult.
“We would like you to come with us,” she continued smoothly. “To help them acclimate to being part Sha’jeen. oun Nilja is committed to living here. Will you come? You can be a guide to them or part of the ruling Council or an advisor.”
He pulled his arm free and turned to face her.
“I murdered someone,” he huffed, sure she was mocking him. He wondered what her purpose was for mocking him so cruelly.
She bobbed her head up and down in agreement. “Yes. The leaders of this colony will know you are a murderer. They may accept you; they may not. Do you not want a second chance? Do you not want to start anew? If you are accepted there, you will remain with the people there. If not, we will bring you back here.”
He studied her features carefully. It was hard to decipher the complex emotions in her eyes and the curving of her mouth.
After a few minutes, he convinced himself that he did not perceive any deception in her demeanor.
His heart began to clamor in his chest. He struggled to catch his breath. This is a gift. This is a gift.
“I will do this,” he told her.
She showed him her teeth, which was intimidating until he recalled it was not meant as a threat.
“Good, good,” she said. “We leave tomorrow morning, at sunrise. Come to the shuttle then.”
He bowed. “Ye. I thank you.”
aun Sjir’phal rose from his pallet and made his way to the door. He pushed aside the flap and leaned against the doorjamb. Rain fell beyond the door in gray sheets. The People were all inside. No work would be done this day. It had been days since he had seen oun D’jir or his friends. He did not recognize the emotion that wove through his thoughts. He leaned his right temple against the doorjamb and sighed. He understood that aun P’ata’lyh and aun Pasia’h were now mated and had lives of thier own, but it wounded him that they had not come in a few days to see how he recovered. oun D’jir was angry with him still and sent one of his priests with food and water.
He was still weak from his wound. He reached up his right hand to cup his left shoulder. There was pain still, but the wound smelled clean.
Then he recalled oun Ei’dhar and wondered if he had perished in the jungle.
He shuddered. It had been the first task at which he had failed. He swallowed and closed his eyes against the wave of shame. One little oun Shi’ehl and he had melted like a ghost into the jungle. Even with three sturdy and capable aun Deuili chasing him.
“It’s the will of the Goddess,” he murmured and let go the shame.
He opened his eyes again and continued to watch the rain. Would he have a home with oun D’jir or would the High Priest always remain at arm’s length? He imagined himself as a sire to the current kits, advising and guiding them, balancing out oun D’jir’s more stringent teachings. He and oun D’jir fit well, he thought, they balanced each other. He huffed a mirthless laugh. But it wasn’t up to him, was it?
Turning and dropping the door flap, he walked slowly back to his pallet and lay down. He really should be getting better. Unease prickled over him.
Throwing his arm over his eyes, he allowed his body and mind to relax. If I get any weaker, I will take my own life. Instantly, he felt the unease dissipate.
He fell into a dreamless sleep and awoke an indefinite time later.
“Ah, you wake.”
aun Sjir’phal turned his head. oun E’freit, oun D’jir’s personal assistant, sat cross legged near his pallet. Before him was a covered bowl. aun Sjir’phal could smell the sweet fresh meat.
“Sit up and drink and eat.”
aun Sjir’phal did as he was asked.
The meat had a strange flavor and odor underneath the smell of blood. He chalked it up to the fact that they were eating food grown on another planet.
The priest’s sharp eyes watched him as he forced himself to eat.
“Here is water,” the priest said and handed aun Sjir’phal a mug.
He drank the water.
oun E’freit bowed. “The High Priest will come to visit you today.”
He rose smoothly, gathering the bowl and mug and left without another word.
A few minutes later, aun Sjir’phal experienced a strange surge of anxiety he could not explain. He rose and his legs gave out under him. He cried out as he fell. His legs refused to work. His entire body shook. He felt as weak as a newborn.
This was all terribly familiar.
“Poison,” he whispered. “It has to be. Why?”
He crawled towards the door but was only able to make it halfway there. His eyesight was dimming. Now he wished to make it back to the pallet. He huffed at the irony.
He heard a rustle and then a cry. “aun Sjir’phal!”
oun D’jir knelt next to him. “What has happened?”
“Poison,” aun Sjir’phal replied, tasting blood and something bitter.
“Help me carry him to his pallet,” oun D’jir commanded.
aun Sjir’phal did not even feel when they moved him.
oun D’jir sat at the pallet’s edge and held one of aun Sjir’phal’s hands. He turned to his priests and commanded something too quick for aun Sjir’phal to understand.
aun Sjir’phal drifted in and out of consciousness. They made him drink something salty followed by a cup of plain water.
Then came a long darkness that embraced him. Within it he hung suspended, feeling nothing. It felt to him as if millennia passed. He had a dream that he was on a ship traveling the cosmos. He stood by a window that curved outward and he watched the absolute darkness hurl past. He wore a strange uniform with many metals. He found a mirror and looked at himself, taken aback by the strange appearance of his face. He touched the smooth, pale features. He studied the round pupils. The body had wide shoulders and strong arms. He was a warrior, as he always was. But what was he?
A sharp pain in his stomach made him cry out and lean against the curved wall of the ship. He looked down upon himself. He touched his stomach, and his hand came away wet with blood.
He woke moaning.
“Drink this,” oun D’jir told him, lifting his head.
Again, the salty drink followed by plain water.
oun D’jir leaned closer. “How do you feel?”
aun Sjir’phal reached out and grabbed the High Priest’s hand. “Listen to me.”
He looked around the hut, but there was no one else there.
“What is it?” oun D’jir demanded.
“One of you priests has poisoned me,” he told the priest.
oun D’jir gasped. “You lie!”
“Why would I?” aun Sjir’phal challenged. “Listen to me. One priest always brings the food and water, always makes sure I eat it…no other priest comes to me.”
oun D’jir rose quickly. “You lie!”
“Then kill me,” aun Sjir’phal hissed. “Think, oun D’jir! Only your priests have access to your medicines and poisons. Only the five priests! For your kits’ sake! Think!”
oun D’jir whirled and ran out of the hut.
aun Sjir’phal reached under his pallet and found the dagger he had hidden there. He brought it out and hid it under the bedclothes.
An hour or so later, oun E’freit returned with food and water. He made himself appear pleasant.
aun Sjir’phal watched him carefully.
“You must eat and drink,” the priest said. “I will feed you.”
Under the bedclothes, aun Sjir’phal’s hand curled around the handle of the dagger. He waited until oun E’freit bent close and lifted his head his head to feed him before he plunged the dagger into the priest’s neck and pulled it out. The act of pulling out pushed the priest onto his back on the floor. The bowl of meat clattered to the floor and the meat spilled everywhere. oun E’freit gasped, bringing both hands to his throat.
There was a commotion outside the hut and then several Sha’jeen hurried inside, gasping in disbelief.
oun D’jir knelt beside oun E’freit.
oun E’freit held his hand out nad oun D’jir took it.
“How?” oun E’freit gasped. “How…did…he…know?”
oun E’friet moaned, his eyes wide. He gasped for air. He bled out in minutes.
oun D’jir held him tenderly, petting him and murmuring endearments. When he breathed his last, oun D’jir lifted him to his chest.
“Murderer!” one of the priests cried.
“Shut. Up,” oun D’jir snarled.
He lay oun E’freit down and turned to the meat scattered near aun Sjir’phal’s pallet. He picked up a piece of the meat and sniffed it delicately.
“This meat is poisoned,” he announced tonelessly.
The priests started talking as one.
oun D’jir rose. The hem of his robes was soaked in blood. He turned to the priests.
“I will speak to each of you individually. Send ieh boueli to clean this mess and bury the body. At once.”
The priests scrambled to obey.
oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal. “Do you suspect another?”
“I did not even suspect the one, until I got worse.” He swallowed past the soreness in his throat. “I just seemed to be getting worse each time I fed.”
oun D’jir clasped his hands before him. “I’m sorry, aun Sjir’phal.”
“It isn’t your fault.”
“Yes, it is,” he said. “I always complained about you. I think he thought he was doing me a favor.”
“Maybe he was.”
oun D’jir shook his head. “I will put a guard at your door until I conclude my investigation.”
“Ask aun P’ata’lyh for help,” aun Sjir’phal suggested.
oun D’jir bowed. “I will. Thank you.”
Two guards stood posted just inside the door of aun Sjir’phal’s hut. aun Sjir’phal did not recognize them, but they had been chosen by aun P’ata’lyh. aun Sjir’phal trusted his friend.
aun P’ata’lyh was busy with the investigation, but aun Pasia’h came to visit him the day after aun Sjir’phal killed oun E’freit.
aun Sjir’phal was too weak to sit up, so he watched as his friend took a seat at the edge of the pallet.
“I’m sorry, my friend,” aun Pasia’h murmured. “Things have not been easy for you.”
aun Sjir’phal waved away the apology. “It is how things are amongst the People.”
“Ye. You speak truth.” He shook his head. “My kits will be born soon. I fear for them.”
“There must be much anxiety among the Sha’jeen.”
“There is. The High Priest is turning every stone and uprooting every tree to get to the bottom of this. It is impressive.”
aun Sjir’phal hissed with amusement. “I have always admired him.”
“Is that what you are calling it?” aun Pasia’h stated dryly.
aun Sjir’phal hissed again.
The friends shared an amused glance.
“How is your mate?” aun Sjir’phal asked.
“He is strong.” aun Pasia’h puffed up. “I have no complaints.”
“That is good, my friend.” He rubbed his chest, feeling a tightness there. “How many kits are you expecting?”
“Five!” aun Pasia’h pronounced, preening.
aun Sjir’phal nodded. Weariness threaded through his limbs and muscles. He yawned.
“Forgive me, my friend,” he heard himself say. “I must rest.”
“Of course!” aun Pasia’h assured him. “I will come back tomorrow.”
aun Sjir’phal had already slipped into sleep.