Rating: PG-13, for things unspeakable.
It was burning season in Rashid. Again.
Even in the shop, I could smell the smoke. Can you believe I used to like the smell of burning paper? With my eyes closed, I can still see pages glow red before they burst into flame and curl into ash until they crumble.
I clerked at a small sundries shop in Commercial. The owner was a Duchies woman, one hand peach-pale, the other brown as her shop counter. She had no love for the All-King, who had toppled her Grand Duchess, but you don’t need love to run a business, just enough money to buy mercy. After that expenditure, though, she couldn’t afford to hire a licensed Translator. Coincidentally, I couldn’t afford a license, so she paid me a little extra to quietly broker transactions from the non-Duchies customers and shippers she couldn’t understand.
I am an Omniloquist. Some say we’re a curse the last true Rashidan king put on his enemies before he died, so that we’ll never flounder helpless under a conqueror. More say we have no true power, just an uncanny ability to pick up foreign sounds quickly. Until the All-King came, I was inclined to think the latter. We were a skill with a guild, like any other. And then he came, with his Collectors. There’s nothing natural about them. Maybe there’s nothing natural about us.
I slouched on my stool, drawing shapes with my finger in the whorls of the counter’s grain when the shop bell clanked and an old man shuffled in. He stumbled on a catch in the wooden floor. Loose trousers showed his bony ankles and a dirty rag around his chin protected against the soot. His dark skin hung loose on thin limbs and gray dreadlocks hung down to his waist. My hand strayed self-consciously to my own head, covered in short, springy curls. I’d cut my dreadlocks to fit in with the new king’s aesthetic.
“Can I help you, sir?” I asked in the All-King’s tongue. He didn’t look like a thief, but he didn’t look like he had coin to spare.
He squinted and shook his head. “I can’t understand,” he said in Rashidan. “I can’t understand anything but this.”
There was no one else in the shop and my employer was counting money or signing for a shipment in the back. The setting sun ignited the copper and glass and polished wood of half the room, while dousing the other half in shadow.
He could have been a spy, hunting Omniloquists working off-market. Yet I trusted him. I think it was pity.
“What do you need?” I asked in Rashidan.
His eyes brightened. “You are an Omni, yes, miss? Do you know my granddaughter?” Everything about him seemed uncertain. The inflection of his voice, the delicate wringing of his fingers. He’d barely looked at the goods since he started talking to me.
“Sorry, sir. I — I’m not an Omni, I just know some Rashidan.” I started to back away and called over my shoulder. “Madam — ”
“My granddaughter isn’t an Omni, either; she’s a student. Kiroga is her name.”
Spoken aloud, the name was a slip-dagger reopening a wound I’d cauterized with fear. Even when the door opened again, bell jangling, I struggled for my voice.
“She said to look for you if I couldn’t find her.”
Another frisson of fear, another step back. This was her vengeance.
He was no relation to Kiroga. She was the daughter of a Grand Duchies duke. With her swagger and dueling blades and her penchant for the finer things, this shabby cast-off of a man couldn’t be the forebear of the woman I loved. And the Collectors didn’t need him to trick information about Kiroga out of me. I’d given them everything important.
I’d given them her.
“Madam — ”
“You know her!” he whispered.
“Saman!” The shopkeeper bustled from the back to snap in Duchy. “Do I pay you to babble your pidgin at slum dodgers or to help customers?” She jerked her head at an Islander who, at the very least, looked like he could afford a jar of preserves.
I ducked my head. “Yes, madam. He’s leaving now.” The man had cringed when the shopkeeper came out, like a beaten dog. “I don’t know who you’re talking about. I think it’s time to go.”
I led him to the door by the elbow.
“I just wondered if she left a book for me,” he muttered. “A book for me, a book for me.”
He hummed to himself, a bittersweet little tune. My heart gave a throb of recognition and filled in the words immediately. Hope is the last ember in the coals. Kiro always sang like it was the last thing she’d ever do; she picked songs to match. She had a high voice, like a little boy’s — you knew it could get deep, but it hadn’t.
A chill settled somewhere between my heart and stomach. He was one of Kiroga’s rabble-rousers against the All-King. I knew what book he wanted.
“Good day.” I turned my back on him and let the door slam shut behind me. I wanted to lock it, slide the bolt home, close the shutters and hide. Instead, I tried to lose myself in the lilt of the Islander customer’s request.
The Sea King and his Islander pirates killed the old Rashidan king about thirty years ago. History says we held them off for several years until they strangled our ports with water mines. Warships, merchant barges headed up river, even fishing boats: my professor at the university says — said — their deaths lit up the sky. It was Rashid’s first burning season.
Another coincidence: all of the Omnis are roughly thirty years old, too. Curse or no curse, my sister Liral and I learned to speak fast. Miraculously fast. Cooing with Islanders while our mother struggled to learn enough of their language to keep her job in Commercial.
War with Rashid and the cost of occupation weakened the Sea King’s regime, and then they — we — were at war again, this time with the Southern Empress. The eastern tribes tried to take a bite of us, too, our strategic location too ripe a berry to pass up, but they never managed a solid foothold.
They squabbled over us like jealous lovers, each trying to wipe the other from our memories, forbidding languages as if we didn’t speak to our families in the tongues we knew best when the doors were shut and windows latched. Still, it’s hard to thrive when the language of business and law makes you stutter or blush or blink stupidly in incomprehension. We developed the Omniloquist Guild. Any Omni could put their name in, verify their skills, and hire out as translators for businesses, trials, academic work. A service with a solid income, though some lived more solidly than others.
I was twenty when the Grand Duchess came with a gleaming militia from each duchy in her dominion. They were the closest thing to fair, the closest thing to stable I have known.
Kiroga came, too, with her dueling steels and her songs and her ideas.
When the All-King first occupied Rashid just a month ago and shut down the Omniloquist Guild, Kiro printed her first broadsides and told me to fight. When the All-King imposed his own licensure rules — too expensive for all but the most favored Omniloquists — she urged me to gather the other Omnis.
Some of us did fight. They met his worst weapons: the Collectors.
I closed up shop in the darkness after dusk, but the horizon was still edged with orange. The book pyres. For days, they had burned almost constantly, as if the All-King thought the blaze would produce compliance like some imaginary phlogiston. The squat storefronts in Commercial were too short to give shelter from the ash in the wind. My breath was cloying behind my mask.
Fires burned from every corner of the city — one outside of Residential, one near Industrial, one near Commercial, just a few streets over from my shop. The fire outside Slaughterhouse was a blessing, because it masked the stench of blood. Since my sister Liral started working with an All-King license, we finally had enough money from Translating to find a tenement farther from Slaughterhouse. From our old building, you could hear the pigs squealing, like tea kettles left on the boil. The low of cows. The cloying blood wormed into your nose and your mouth, too. Blood, soot, and ash for days. And if the smell didn’t kill you, disease might.
What else had Kiroga told the man about me?
“Get out of the damned way!” a young man snarled. He shoved a cart full of books in the blocky left-to-right letters of the Duchies’ tongue down the cobbled streets to the burning sites.
Someone yanked me out of his path by the back of my jacket.
Flushed with embarrassment, I turned. “Thank — ”
The old man held his arm braced against my back. He stepped away and nodded. “Saman.”
“I don’t know where she is.” I pulled away and walked. If I could have run without calling attention, I would have.
He caught up and grabbed my arm. His grip was stronger than he looked.
“Help us.” He was barely audible behind his rag. “We need her plans. I’m taking over.” His fluency shifted. He was surprisingly adept in Duchy.
“I can’t help you.” I looked around me for an escape as he shadowed me. The streets filled with commuters from Commercial to Residential, their heads down, trying to go unnoticed. We were a nation scrambling to get along under the All-King. Some scrambled too slowly and received none of the benefits. Some, like my sister, scrambled too quickly — what would they lose?
Not their heads, at least.
“She said you’d know the book. It’s got every language.”
“I don’t have it. Are you sure you’ve got the right person?”
“Said you by name, and a few other things besides.” A wryness in his voice made me want to blush and to break.
He’d caught me wrong-footed, but I was also afraid that, in any hesitation or unwillingness, he’d see that I had betrayed her. I considered trying to help him, giving him a word in the right direction, and then we passed the husk of the University. Where Kiro and I met.
We paused across from soot-blackened stone walls, just long enough for the hitch in my chest to release — this was the price of resisting the All-King. Professors who resisted curriculum changes were thrown on the pyres with their books, along with any students who stood with them. I fled, leaving behind the man who’d taught me everything I loved about history. Weeks later and the stench still roiled my stomach.
The last ember in the coals, indeed. Better Kiroga’s rebellion fall with her.
“Look. Whoever you are — ”
“Mahnu. My neighborhood is scheduled for pick up today. I have more important things to do than get harassed by some . . . rabble-rouser.” I shuddered to use my sister’s word for Kiroga and her friends. In Rashidan, it translated to a graver insult: peace breaker.
He snorted. “A pick up. And what ‘unapproved text’ will they take from you? Memories? Dreams? Pride? You’re Rashidan.”
Anything that wasn’t in the All-King’s language could be Translated — for a fee. For approval, you had to watch them censor it page by page until you barely recognized the family history that you’d submitted.
“They’ll take what they take,” I said. “What good is pride to the dead?”
Still, I had hidden my most important books to Translate later.
“Kiroga wanted — ”
I rounded on Mahnu. He was close beside me. His dark eyes, one cloudy, had bags that matched my own, and they shifted, alert, watching, always, always for danger. To betray a love, to betray a powerful regime — it leaves the same scar on the mind, I think.
“If you know so well what she wanted, do it and keep me out of it. Let the Collectors extinguish your thoughts. If I wanted to help, don’t you think I would have?”
I jerked away from the intensity between us and realized too late that I hadn’t disguised my steps. Distracted, my feet carried me on the well-worn path home, out of Commercial, past rich Residential and into my neighborhood. The streets beneath my shoes were slick but it hadn’t rained. I tried not to inhale too deeply.
And up the road I saw the tell-tale cartboy followed by two bald heads gleaming in the scorched twilight.
My hand on the outer doorknob to my tenement. “Mahnu, please. I don’t have time for this. Later. I promise, we can talk . . . ”
“So you can slip away?” He pushed the door open himself. “Together.”
I could have argued him down, but I needed to check on my own contraband and make sure my offerings to the pyres were ready for the Collectors. I pushed past him and stomped up the stairs.
I made him take off his thin-soled shoes and closed the door behind us. He was a different man behind the closed door. Still thin, but upright, wiry instead of hollow; one eye was still cloudy, but the other focused on me. This Mahnu looked like he could be Kiroga’s successor. Or as if he’d been pulling the strings to her rebellion all along.
“It’s here?” he asked.
“I told you, I don’t have it.” And I had no intention of taking him to her warehouse, where the Collectors had . . . collected her.
A large box of my books rested in the middle of the room and the floor had been swept. Loose papers, pens, any pamphlets scattered about when I’d left this morning were gone.
“Liral?” I yelled, panic sparking in my voice as I dove for the box.
She came out of the water closet a moment later. She narrowed honey-colored eyes at Mahnu. “Is he another one of your malcontents?” she spat. “Have you learned nothing?”
Liral had been one of the quickest in the Omni Guild to buy one of the All-King’s licenses, burning through our savings to do it.
“Where are all of . . . my things?” I asked. “My letters?”
Liral crossed her arms under her breasts.
“I burned them. And these are for the Collectors.” She kicked the box with a toe.
Which meant I had nothing left of Kiro’s. It surprised me how much that hurt.
Liral glared at Mahnu. “I’ll be damned if I’m letting the Collectors sear my mind out of my head and leave me a half-conscious wreck. Not for you, and not for peace breakers like him. Or her.”
I knelt by the box. Books from my time at the University, or literature I’d hoped to emulate. Things I’d thought safe beneath floorboards or in hollow shelves. I gaped, my copy of our family’s story in my hand.
I spoke in as measured a tone as I could. My hands shook on the edges of the box. “You had no right to pull these out.”
“I had every right.”
“I only want the book she left,” the man interrupted in Rashidan. He’d been staring between us with a look of awe, or maybe confusion. We must have been speaking one of the older languages.
My hands clenched tight, and I barely felt the rip into my fingers. “I told you, it’s not here. Go look at her warehouse in Industrial with her thrice-damned printing press.” I stood. “Leave us alone.”
He growled low in his throat, as if I had something to do with it. Which I suppose I did. But I would not — could not — go back there. I didn’t want to remember how my name sounded in her mouth as she shouted for my help as they dragged her away.
Mahnu swept Liral into his anger, and she shrugged with contempt.
“And where, then, is her warehouse?”
The door rattled under a vicious knock. I dropped my history back into the box, Liral straightened into even more of a model citizen, and the old man hunched, pitiful again. Liral jerked her chin at me. I shook my head. She sniffed sharply and marched across the room, her bare heels thudding on the wood.
“Coming,” she said, her voice clarion-clear in the All-King’s language. She bowed at the two Collectors outside and ushered them in. “Please. Everything is in order.”
A young man followed them in, similar enough to the cartboy who had nearly run me over earlier as to be indistinguishable. The same dirty dreadlocks, the same snarled lip like a crooked back.
The Collectors were a man and a woman, heads shaved, wide-barreled pistols and thin swords on their belts. They watched with bored but unwavering eyes. I have heard that the Collectors gave up their hair and their souls to become the All-King’s inhuman soldiers . . . police . . . hunters. If you weren’t an Omni, they just . . . obliterated your mind. If you were, they stole the very capacity for language from you, leaving you isolated, staring at the world and unable to reach out or pull in someone’s words, everything incomprehensible.
It’s like the Collectors were made for Omniloquists.
“You are all residents here?” the woman asked.
I said, “Yes,” as Liral said, “No.”
The female Collector’s heavily lidded eyes drifted between the three of us.
“Mahnu is just a friend,” I said. “But he’s staying with us.”
The woman cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, waiting for a better answer. I had none.
“Close the door,” she told her companion. He slammed it. “We’ll perform a thorough search.”
The woman picked up the few books remaining on our shelves and leafed through them, making sure the script curled the right way. The other had less decorum. He shoved the chairs and bed mat around the small room. He upended the table and stomped his boots on the floorboards, prying up anything loose. Nothing.
I blessed Liral for the thoroughness I had just cursed her for.
“All right. Now you,” the woman said. “Identification papers.” We handed them to her, even Mahnu, whose hand was shaky with fake palsy.
“Arms out,” the male Collector told me. I startled. His All-King was accented — like a Rashidan. He’d found a way to get along. He smelled like char and he was so close that his body heat hit me in waves. He rubbed my arms and torso before groping my chest. He lingered there. I clamped my teeth together, helpless. The other Collector cleared her throat roughly, her bearing stiff as an iron bar. The man showed emotion for the first time: a sarcastic hint of a smile for his companion that only we could see. The woman became my ally in that moment. When he moved on to Liral, I finally exhaled.
“Boy, take these books downstairs,” the woman said.
The young man had stood in silence the entire time and didn’t speak to acknowledge the order. He only hoisted the box up, back rigid. His footsteps down the stairs echoed to our room.
When he was gone and my life with him, the woman turned back to the three of us. She held her hand out to Mahnu. “You have no address listed on your documents. We’ll take you to a hostelry where you’ll be adequately cared for.”
I held my hand in front of the old man to shield him. The All-King’s hostels were like a dying pen for the old and perceived “infirm” — victims of the Collectors.
Part of me wanted to ask him about Kiroga. To have someone to talk to about her. Someone else who loved her.
The Collector surveyed me coolly. “Three Rashidans, one licensed Translator, one unlicensed, two young people and an unrelated, homeless . . .old man.”
I swallowed. She reminded me very much of another Collector I’d met in an alley. The same brown eyes, the same hard jaw. She was a beautiful woman — if venomous snakes in a barrel beneath your feet could be admired for the patterns of their scales.
“I don’t practice. We’re saving money so I can buy my license. He really is just a friend. I wanted to keep him off the streets.” I held onto Mahnu’s arm.
The Collector pursed her thin lips and exhaled sharply through her nostrils. “Don’t trouble yourself.” Gone was the ally, her iron turned against me. “The All-King will be pleased to have such caring citizens under his dominion, however.” Her smile might as well have been a pat on the head.
The Collectors led Mahnu out. I waited for him to do anything, to break character and fight, but he shuffled and cringed until I couldn’t see him anymore. I listened to him feign struggle down the stairs.
We breathed. Liral’s red-brown skin was drained and sallow.
“So you haven’t joined the peace breakers, then?” Liral asked.
Outside, a woman shouted . . . and Mahnu. I rushed to the window, but a pistol shot rang out, so close that Liral and I ducked to the floor. I peered over the sill and wished I hadn’t.
Mahnu clutched his leg across the street. The male Collector strode after him and dragged Mahnu upright, locking him by the arms. The female Collector tilted Mahnu’s chin up. All I could see was the back of her head. Then Mahnu screamed like she held his feet to flame.
I shut my eyes to the sound, and when it stopped I watched them toss him over the cartboy’s books.
I slid down the wall and sat, arms coiled around my knees. My teeth chattered.
“Maybe I should.” I finally answered Liral, many minutes later. “You heard that. You saw. Him. Them. What kind of person lets that happen on their doorstep and does nothing?” Even as I spoke, I hadn’t convinced myself. It felt like hollow bravado, something Kiroga would spout, one hand on her dueling steel and the other waving through the air.
“The kind who stays alive. Who stays . . . whole.”
I have been the kind of person who stays alive. I stayed alive the night that other Collector caught me handing off documents explicitly detailing my client’s father’s role in the initial All-King onslaught. She incinerated my client’s mind on the spot. Another ear-blistering scream. With her hand cupping my cheek, as if she would kiss me, I begged, eying the dull glint of cuffs on her belt and hoping she’d arrest me instead.
I offered her the protestors and the pamphleteers. I told her about Kiroga. Not two days later, they barged into Kiro’s warehouse where she and I lay naked on a pallet, and took her.
I avoided the warehouse after that and hoped never to be so close to a Collector again. I clerked at the sundries shop, kept my head down. I’d stayed alive.
“Aish. Why does it matter anyway?” Liral refused to look out the window, but her eyes flicked in that direction. “Kiroga is gone. You never cared about this nonsense when the others fell, the Sea King, the Empress. She only cared because she’s the one knocked down. You can’t fight your conquerors with a few pamphlets and a newsboy satchel, or Rashid would never have fallen in the first place.”
“She’s gone because of me.”
My words pulled Liral’s tirade up short and her voice became curious, almost pleasant. “How do you mean?” She knelt beside me.
I hadn’t intended to confess. I intended to take that secret to my grave and bury it there, however soon I arrived. But maybe it’s enough of an excuse to say I was heartsick, to say that I couldn’t bear to be alone with it anymore. They say that two can keep a secret if one of them is dead — but no single person can keep a secret without hearing its echo around them, like a second heart.
So it spilled out. Liral held me and rocked, murmuring reassurance. I didn’t feel safe enough to cry, and I felt no catharsis in her arms.
“You did the right thing.” She squeezed my fingers. “Kiroga was impossible and foolish to say the least. I’m only surprised no one turned her in earlier — ”
“Stop.” I pulled myself out of her embrace and huddled over my own knees again.
Then I stood, restless. Through the single small window, the sky had gone dark. We hadn’t lit the candles. The table still lay on its side. My whole body thrummed, as if I’d been chewing coffee beans. I grabbed my satchel and left Liral in the darkness.
I peeked outside the doorway of the tenements, but the Collectors were long gone. The only people were those coming from or going to Industrial or Slaughterhouse for a night shift, traveling by flickering lamplight. No glimpse of starlight above, only smog and streaks of ash cloud. There was a dark stain in the middle of the street. My stomach lurched. I would have killed for a starlit night or a breath of fresh air.
I trekked to Industrial.
I remember the last time — rather, the second to last time — we were at the press warehouse.
Kiroga sprawled against my chest, tickling my stomach with her fingernails. The natural skin of her back was a patchwork of brown and peach, like most people from the Duchies. She sang to herself.
“Hope is the last ember in the coals, the breath of respite on the shoals. I’d have my true love here with me, until the last bell tolls.”
“Duchies music is depressing,” I said. The song was in a minor key that changed lines of hope to something desperate and doomed. She ignored my jibe.
“Have you thought any more about Translating?” she asked. We spoke Duchies, the only language she knew. The words were river water over smooth rock. “You and the other Omnis — you could give the people hope.”
“I do Translate.”
“Help me Translate the poems, the songs. You know what I mean. And teaching?”
I shrugged uncomfortably underneath Kiroga’s head.
“Not yet?” I lied. I had thought about it. I didn’t want to teach. It would take time away from paying clients and I wasn’t meant for teaching. I wasn’t going to paint the picture so clearly for Kiro. She’d throw a fit. I didn’t want the histrionics; I just wanted to lie here with her, warm body against warm body.
“You said you would, Saman. If you and the other Omnis won’t advocate for the people, at least teach them so they can speak for themselves.”
“And I will think about it. I’ve been busy.”
“With working. That thing some of us do so we can keep ourselves as far from Slaughterhouse as possible. Liral just bought a license and things are tight now.”
Kiroga sat up when she heard the bite in my voice.
“I’d hate to be a burden . . . ”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re not a burden. I just don’t need you telling me how to make a living.”
“You needn’t be like that.”
“Be like what?”
“So testy. I swear. You seem so sour at me lately. Is something going on? Did Liral say something?”
I sat up, too. “Like what?”
“Nothing. She doesn’t like me. She’d turn you against me if she could.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Let me see this book.”
She jumped to fetch it, eager as a stray on a bone. She held it out, opened to a page of Duchies script. Her awful, tear-tugging song. “And here,” she flipped through to a page with the first line of the song in Rashidan. A fair translation, but a lonely one.
The way she lit up, then . . . I’m not the first to fall for a twitch of incandescent hope in a gorgeous smile. Not the hope that she could win, that the city would overthrow the new tyrant; I still didn’t think that was a dream worth dreaming. No.
It was the hope in her eyes that I was something I wasn’t. Something good. Someone brave.
“Truly, it could work. I picked the songs especially. A range of vocabulary, every letter — this book would be a key! You could unlock any language. People can learn from it, learn to translate, even. Not like you, but . . . ”
I wanted her to look at me like that, the way our friends at University had looked at her. I wanted it to be true, even though I knew I was a coward at heart.
With a blanket around my shoulders, I carried the book to her desk and took up a pen. I closed my eyes. “Sing it again.”
Her words filtered into me like breath, curled up inside me, and, easy as exhaling, I found the perfect words to translate lovesickness from her tongue to mine.
When it was done, Kiroga stared at it over my shoulder, eyes glistening in the brazier light like the still-wet ink on the page.
“You are a marvel.” She traced the edge of the page with a finger, then traced a hand from my right eye, down my cheek, over my lips. As if I and the book were one and the same. Saviors.
I leaned into her stomach and her arms closed around me, though it wasn’t the comforting embrace it had been. It kept her from seeing the conflict in my face. The thrill of Translation was already dulling. If I did this for her, the city would never settle. The All-King would tighten the restrictions on Omnis and Rashidans would suffer the most for it. Kiroga and our friends would disappear from the streets one by one, or worse: in great conflagrations set as examples. Without Omnis, illiterate Rashidans would hang on the All-King’s mercy. Better small steps.
“Liral thinks you’re a rabble-rouser and you are,” I murmured. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
“No, I’m not. If she’s too blind to see that the so-called All-King is the worst thing to happen to Rashid . . . ”
“Oh? Worse than the other three conquerors? Worse than your beloved Grand Duchess?”
That silenced Kiroga for only a moment. “The All-King is worse than any of us. Look what they’ve already done. It’s not only the books. If the Grand Duchess, rest her soul, burned books it was a token, for show. Look at the All-King’s hostels. Look at the University.”
“Exactly,” I whispered into her belly button. “Look at the University.”
I thought my fear for her was greater than anything.
Kiroga’s warehouse was quiet and dark. I crept up to the floor with the press. The wooden stairs creaked and my heart thundered in my ears. It smelled of mechanic’s grease, ink, and paper.
The Collectors had not left Kiroga’s belongings in peace. Of course not. She was a seditionist and these were her tools. Whole sheaves of blank paper were shredded and ink bottles smashed and spilled.
I rifled through Kiro’s desk, hoping against hope. No books there. Nor any in the trash bin. I tapped the floor with my shoe. The sound echoed off the walls. I held my breath — would someone alert the Collectors? There were no hollow spots. I pulled at my curls and swore. I searched through a tray of printing tiles. What else? Where else?
Hope is the last ember in the coals.
I stopped, a tray of tiles in my hands, and took in the entire studio: the destroyed printing press and its abandoned tiles waiting for the print master to return; the desk, too, waited patiently, though it had been disturbed, presumably by the Collectors’ frenzy before my own; the corner with the pallet Kiroga and I had lain on while making love or casting dreams; the shreds of discarded pamphlets and renovated broadsides that had gotten Kiroga in trouble at the very beginning — broadsides that I had read carefully, then dismissed as a hot-headed noble’s vengeance; and two braziers whose flames made an admirable effort to warm the wide, drafty space but were now guttered out cold and had been for weeks now. They were the only places I had ever seen a fire around Kiroga’s precious press.
I almost ran to the brazier nearest the desk, tiles forgotten in my hand, but I caught myself. Set the tray down. Lunged. The coals were deep. Some crumbled immediately at my touch, coating my hands black. Underneath the ash, I felt a book’s solidity.
Within the expensive leather wrapping, it was bound solidly in cheap heavy board. The first page was in the All-King’s language, just one line. That line. On the next page, in the Duchies’ tongue, the whole song was written out in Kiroga’s elegant hand. And on the next page, the single line again in the Empress, the Sea King, and finally the Old King. Rashidan. My slanted, fugue-born script. And then it started again, with another song, waiting for me to fill in the blank pages with my Translations.
It kindled in me a longing for her to look at me again, not with horror like she did at the last, but as she had before. Like she was stumbling in the dark and I was her last match.
“The last ember,” I whispered. But I shook my head, no. It wasn’t. I was. We all were.
For a time, we burned.
About the Author
Cherae graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world with her partner. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH and Uncanny.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.