The following is from my novel-in-progress, Garden of the Stars.
Nahita: City of Sij, Va'at
The night Alaleh dragged me out to see the Empress's seedships streak over the Sea of Dust, it snowed in Sij for the first time in a century.
That was the same night Emad's men found me. The same night my life was torn in two.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Have you ever seen snow sparkling on sand dunes? Or swirling across desert plateaus? No? Then allow me to show you some beauty before I drag you down into the darkness with me.
“Father’s going to tan our hides.” I raced along the dusty street after Alaleh, sandals slapping against the packed sand. With one hand, I lifted the hem of my chari to keep it from dragging, with the other I steadied myself against the wall of a hydrologist’s shop, fingers tracing the grooves between the smooth stones. Charis were made for modesty, not running. I don’t know how Alaleh managed it. Worse, I couldn’t see more than a few steps ahead, even with my spectacles. It must have been well after midnight, and there were precious few alchemical lamps in this district.
Alaleh skidded to a stop at the next cross street and peered around the corner. I halted behind her, grateful for the chance to catch my breath. After satisfying herself that the Guard wasn’t about to grab us for being out past curfew, she turned to me, a wicked grin splitting her face. A lock of charcoal hair had slipped free of her rusari, and it bounced against her cheek. She didn’t even seem winded.
“Father’s a pushover. It’s Mother we need to worry about. But only if you go blabbing again.” She signed as she spoke, knowing I’d have a hard time reading her lips in the gloom. Say what you want about my sister, but she could be thoughtful when she wanted to. “Besides, I put a bit of valerian in her tea. Father’s, too. We’ll be back well before they wake.”
“You did what?”
She waved away my dismay. “I was careful with the dosage.”
“Flames, Alaleh.” I rubbed my arms, still breathing heavily, the night air burning my lungs. It was cold. Colder than it had a right to be, even at this hour.
“They’ll be fine,” she said. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“It’s not that. I just…” There was no point in asking her to turn back. Once she got it in her head to do a thing, she was like a pen with a bent nib—intractable, and guaranteed to make a mess. But she’d stumble into even more trouble without me along to mind her wilder impulses.
“It’s like one of your Sorush stories,” she said. “I thought you loved that cack.”
“I prefer reading about it,” I said. “And don’t curse.” I didn’t dare tell her it was my dream to write such stories.
She rolled her eyes. “You sound just like Mother. This might be the closest we ever come to sailing the stars, the closest we come to an actual khalicraft—not some drawing in a book—and you’re worried about a whipping?” Nevertheless, she tucked the loose lock of hair back into her rusari, as if the mere mention of Mother might summon her, switch and all.
She darted across the street and slipped into an alley between a glassmaker and a gunsmith, then turned a corner and disappeared again. I hurried after, glancing about for any sign of the Guard. You’d never know Alaleh had been born a full quarter hour before me. Most days she acted like she was five years my junior.
But for all that, she was right—I was curious.
I followed her down a dozen streets, twisting this way and that, the houses and shops growing more decrepit with every step, until we came to the great wall at the northern edge of the city. Without a word, Alaleh led me down a narrow alley to the back of an abandoned house and began prying a pair of boards off one of the windows. They looked like they’d been removed recently, and reattached haphazardly.
I tugged at her chari. She stopped what she was doing and fixed me with an irritated look.
What if someone sees us? I signed, afraid my voice might carry.
There’s no one here. This whole district has been deserted since the Conquest.
She turned back to the window, working on the second board. Above her head, carved into the lintel, the worn face of a roaring lion watched us, a few flecks of ebon paint still clinging to its whiskers. The black lion had been the emblem of the Va’ati royal family, back when such a thing still existed. This house must have been one of the oldest in the city, built in the days when our ancestors first scrabbled down from the mountains, long before the Empress set her sights on the stars.
How did Alaleh always find these places?
She leaned the boards carefully against the wall, then hoisted herself up onto the window ledge and offered me her hand. I hesitated, not wanting to tear my clothes, or dirty them more than I had already—Mother was sure to notice—but my curiosity got the better of me. I took her hand and let her haul me up beside her. My chari was going to look as patched and worn as hers by the end of this.
Now comes the part where we won’t be able to see, she signed.
You know I hate the dark.
I’ll guide you. She squeezed my shoulder, as if that would make it better. It will be worth it. Trust me. Then she disappeared into the building.
I swung my legs over the ledge and slid down after her.
It was as if I’d slipped into a pot of ink. The darkness was a living thing, wrapping its fingers around me and squeezing the air from my lungs. I closed my eyes—telling myself it would be light again once I opened them, pretending the darkness was my choice—and took slow, deep breaths. A strange draft tugged at my chari, bringing with it the smell of dust and age and something else I couldn’t place. It tickled my nostrils, and I had to remove my spectacles and pinch the bridge of my nose to keep from sneezing. Alaleh took firm hold of my arm and pulled me deeper into the house.
“Here.” She spoke into my good ear as she pressed what felt like a rope into my hand. “It’s a ladder. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Alaleh…” The darkness squeezed tighter. I couldn’t keep pretending.
“We’re almost there, Nahita, I promise.”
I don’t know what alchemy she used to convince me to listen to her—maybe she’d slipped something into my tea as well—but it worked, as usual. “Fine.” I nodded, even though I knew she couldn’t see me. “But when we get back, you owe me a game of shatranj.”
“Two games,” she said. “And no complaining.”
I took another deep breath and began to climb. The wooden slats of the ladder scratched my bare hands, the rope chafed at my arms, the wall scraped against my back. I guessed we were in some kind of shaft—probably a wind tower. They were more common in the older parts of the city, keeping houses and shops cool even in the heat of high summer.
The ladder shook below me as Alaleh started to climb. I kept my eyes closed, tried not to think about the long fall beneath, just kept putting hand over hand over hand over hand…
I couldn’t do it. The walls were too close, the dark too constricting. I had to get out of there. Had to get back down, out onto the street, where I could breathe.
I started to descend, stepped on something that wasn’t wood, and heard a muffled curse. The ladder slammed against the wall, rough stone scraping my fingers. I might have let go, if I hadn’t already been gripping the ladder in stiff-knuckled fright.
“What are you doing?” The shaft amplified Alaleh’s voice.
“I…I can’t, ‘Laleh. I thought I could, but I can’t.”
“Easier to just keep going at this point,” she said. “We’re almost there. Look, you can see the top.”
I cracked an eye. Starlight slanted down through a series of vertical slits in the walls just above me—vents for pulling in the wind and channeling it down the shaft into the cellar, or cistern, or whatever needed cooling below. There was a larger gap where the crossbar between two of the vents had crumbled. The ends of the ropes were tied to the bars on either side. I hoisted myself up to the edge, squeezed through the gap with some difficulty, then lay on the wide, flat roof, panting and sucking my bloody knuckles. I stared up into the Khali, the stars a thousand tiny crystals twinkling in a vast puddle of ink.
Alaleh slipped through the gap much more easily. She’d always been thin as a whip, and just as fickle. All that time spent in Father’s shop, lugging chemicals back and forth. Or running around the city doing Radiance-knew-what. I can’t recall if I envied her. I’d like to think I didn’t, but I wasn’t as confident in those days.
“There’s no chance in all the stars I’m going back down that shaft,” I said. I readied more words of protest, expecting her to pull me to my feet before I’d even had a chance to catch my breath.
Instead, she lay down beside me. “We’ll find another way,” she said, into my good ear. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they? The stars, I mean. Father says they’re lesser gods. Wisps of the Sacred Radiance that wandered off.”
“Father says a lot of things.” Maybe that’s why he and Alaleh got along so well. They were both dreamers.
Alaleh made an irritated noise.
“The Ashari believe the stars were once other worlds,” I said. “Worlds their God found wanting. So he set them aflame. Condemned to burn for all eternity.”
“Been reading up on the butchers who took our city?”
“I find it interesting,” I said.
Alaleh muttered something that sounded suspiciously like cack.
The silence stretched.
“I wonder what it’s like to sail between them,” she said, after some time. “All that open space. All that freedom.”
“Me too,” I said, though, honestly, the thought terrified more than it intrigued.
“How about the next best thing?” Alaleh sprang to her feet.
I pushed myself up reluctantly and followed her to the edge of the roof. Someone—probably Alaleh—had laid a wide wooden plank across the gap between the house and the wall. It was only a few strides long, but the abyss beneath made it seem like a league. I couldn’t even see the street below.
Alaleh scampered across to the other side, as nimbly as a dune cat moving from one patch of shade to another, then beckoned me to follow.
What are you waiting for? she signed.
You can’t be serious.
It’s no different from walking along the top of the garden wall.
I could think of at least one important difference.
If I fall and break my neck, I signed, Mother’s never going to let you leave the house again.
I’m willing to take that risk. Come on, we’re going to miss it!
I couldn’t close my eyes this time. Couldn’t shut out the fear. I carefully set one foot on the plank, testing its weight. One foot, then the other, ignoring the board shaking beneath my feet, the wind whipping at my chari, the sand stinging my eyes. One foot in front of the other, and before I knew it, I was on the far side, Alaleh’s arms wrapped around me.
“I knew you could do it!”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to go back that way.”
“We can worry about that later.” She pulled me over to the parapet. “Look.”
The desert lay spread out below us, a jagged landscape of cliffs and dunes broken only by the occasional scrubby tree. Even this late, the array of hues and shades was breathtaking—umber and ochre, amber and saffron, gold and copper and bronze, and a dozen other colors I couldn’t name. A sea of sand and stone stretching to the horizon. Where desert met sky, the great veil of the Khali swept down to kiss the dunes, its black canopy vanishing as a reef of clouds rolled in. One by one, the stars began to disappear. The temperature dropped even further, and I hugged myself for warmth.
“Any minute now…” Alaleh scanned the sky. “There!”
I couldn’t tell what she was pointing at, but I began to hear a distant whine, like the cry of a vulture circling an ossuary. It grew louder—unbearably loud—and I clamped a hand over my good ear. I turned to Alaleh to see if she’d done the same, but she stood transfixed. I followed her gaze. All at once, I saw them. Six small ships in a spearhead dipping in and out of the clouds. From this distance, they looked like a flock of starlings evading a hawk. But up close I knew they’d be as large as a room—or even a house.
Alaleh tapped my shoulder. They’re seeding the clouds, she signed, like you’d seed a garden. Amna says it’s supposed to make them rain. Her father works for one of the Empress’s astralchemists. She says they’re going to turn Va’at into a paradise. She grinned.
I thought Va’at was lovely just as it was, but I smiled back all the same. It was nice to see Alaleh happy for a change. In the house, under Mother’s thumb, she always seemed so angry. That was half the reason I tagged along that night. I knew how much it meant to her. She’d worked out the exact time the ships would be visible from the wall. Calculated the specific window, the perfect spot. She was smart, when she wanted to be.
The ships moved away from us, out across the desert, and the whine began to die. As Alaleh watched them go, a single snow crystal landed on her nose, dissolving instantly. She blinked.
I looked up. Fat flakes floated down around us—like rain, only slower and softer. I held out my hand, letting them settle on my bare palm, watching them melt. They were cool, tickling my skin.
“What…what is this?” Alaleh asked.
“I think it’s snow,” I said. I’d read about it, but I could hardly believe I was seeing it with my own eyes. Sij never had more than a few days of precipitation a year, and the temperature rarely dropped below freezing, even in winter. “Are the astralchemists making it colder, too?”
“Amna didn’t say.”
I decided I could look it up later. I didn’t want to tarnish the moment with talk.
Long after the ships had vanished from sight, we stood in silence, watching the snow accumulate on the dunes. Alaleh had been right. It was worth the trouble.
I won’t burden you with the story of my journey to the Empress’s palace in Sharsahra in the custody of Emad’s men. Of the long days spent in a dark, cramped cabin on a cold ship, clawing the walls, screaming my throat raw. Those moments don’t matter. All that matters are the last moments I spent with my sister.
To her credit, Alaleh didn’t ask me to return through the wind tower. Instead, she brought me to the northern gate, where the Empress had laid siege to the city for seventy days, back when Mother and Father were our age. The day she finally broke through, the flame in the great Radiant Temple—which had burned for nearly two thousand years—was quenched, never to be kindled again. The gate had since been rebuilt, with large towers on either side housing staircases leading down to the street—though you could tell the Empress’s architects hadn’t cared about matching the style or stone to those our ancestors had chosen.
Won’t there be Guards? I signed.
They change shifts just before dawn, Alaleh replied. She was quivering from the cold—though she tried to hide it—her chari stained with snowmelt. So long as we’re quick, we should be able to get down and out without them suspecting anything.
If they caught us, we’d certainly be whipped, and our parents fined. But I’d take that over falling to my death. I stood near the door to the western staircase while Alaleh peered over the inner edge of the wall, one hand raised in the sign for wait.
A minute passed. Two. Then she was gesturing emphatically. Go, go, go!
I hurried down the winding steps, slipping in the slush, nearly tripping over my chari, trying not to make a sound. Alchemical lamps kept the shadows far enough at bay that I could at least see the way down. I hoped Alaleh was right behind me, but I didn’t dare look, for fear I might lose my footing. I reached the bottom of the stairs, crossed the guardroom, and darted out the door.
I was two streets away before I even thought to glance back. Alaleh crouched just inside the gate, waiting for a guard to pass. I ducked into an alley to catch my breath while I waited for her…
…and slammed into a wall of a man.
Before I could scream, I felt the prick of a blade at the base of my spine.
“Utter so much as a grunt, and I’ll start cutting.”
Firm hands grabbed my arms and legs. The man threw some sort of sack over my head. I couldn’t move, could barely breathe, the stench of sweat and burlap clogging my nostrils.
“Will this one do?”
More voices, somewhat muffled, but close enough that I could mostly make out what they were saying.
“What about the other one?”
“Too skinny. You know how he likes them.”
“Let’s get out of here before someone sees.”
The hands hoisted me roughly into the air, threw me over someone’s shoulder. I had no idea where these men were taking me, but I knew it couldn’t be anywhere good. I kicked, punched, bit, spat, whatever I could do to loosen their grip, but they were too strong.
From far away, as if she were on the other side of the world, I could hear my sister calling for me. “Nahita? NAHITA!”
“ALALEH!” I managed to belt her name out once before blinding pain lit the back of my skull.
Then everything was darkness.