Hours later, exhausted and happy to her bones, Ari Ara slipped through the side gate of the House of Marin with Emir. Her feet hurt from dancing. Her cheeks ached from laughing. The sound of the fiddle hummed in her limbs. The melodies of the music jumbled into a medley in her mind, along with two words shouted over and over by the urchins and orphans: Happy birthday!
The first well-wisher had been Rill, hollering it loud enough to cut through the cheers and turn them into a chorus of chanting. The fiddlers wove the raucous chants into a song as she struggled to hold back tears of emotion, overwhelmed. The Fanten didn’t celebrate birthdays for the child, but rather birthing days for the mother. At the monastery, no one had asked about her birthday . . . and she wouldn’t have known what to tell them anyway since she’d never known the exact date of her birth. Even earlier this day, her duties as potential heir had dampened the fun she might have felt on her first birthday celebration.
“Thank you for everything, Emir,” she breathed fervently.
“You’re welcome,” he answered. “We apprentices of Shulen have to look out for each other.”
The black-haired youth smiled and hugged her shoulders. A chill slip of wind ran through the empty courtyard. Ari Ara tugged the edges of her black Fanten cloak tighter around her frame. The sliver of moon emerged like a silver scythe between the autumn clouds. At the door of the House of Marin, a member of the guard nodded to them, his eyes sliding toward a glowing window near the training sands. Emir followed the man’s gaze.
“Shulen’s still awake,” he noted.
“Probably worrying,” Ari Ara sighed.
Emir shook his head.
“Don’t forget how much he lost on this night.”
Ari Ara flushed, chagrined to have forgotten. The heavy, mournful ceremonies earlier that day had focused on the death of Queen Alinore, but Shulen’s wife and child had been murdered on the same day by the mercenaries seeking the queen and unborn heir.
“I’ll stop by and let him know we’re back,” she promised, thanking Emir again and giving him a shove toward bed.
She crossed the flagstones toward the lit window. The shutters had been left open and the curtain flung back so Shulen could see them arrive. The glowing lamp illuminated his room while the black night cloaked her, so she peered in. Shulen’s quarters in the Capital were as sparse and tidy as at Monk’s Hand Monastery. His lacquered trunk sat in the corner. A row of books lined a small shelf. His battle armor hung on a wall next to a long painted scroll. A soft blue rug covered the polished wood floor. A propped-open door revealed a room with a sleeping mat. A fire blazed in the main room, and Shulen sat near it with –
Ari Ara blinked in surprise. The Desert Hawk Keeper and Shulen conversed in low tones, slouching in the manner of long-standing familiarity. The dark, angular man leaned forward on his elbows and shook his head at whatever Shulen had just suggested. The candlelight carved his bronzed features into a mask of intensity. He rose and, to her alarm, crossed to the window. She ducked down, leaning flat against the wall and holding her breath.
“I’m letting in some fresh air,” she heard Malak say above her.
“Just mind your words, the yard has ears,” Shulen cautioned.
“There’s no one out there,” Malak answered, his voice muffled as he returned to the table.
“There are enough rumors circulating this island already,” Shulen grumbled.
“Ah yes,” Malak agreed in a tone that rasped with dry irony, “I’ve heard that you’re putting an imposter on the throne and that the desert demons you’re in league with will be rising up any day.”
“Nonsense, all of it,” Shulen dismissed.
“Not all of it,” Malak answered with a chuckle, “but even without the rumors, I doubt those nobles will confirm her.”
Ari Ara blinked under the window, stung by the confession.
“It’s sheer obstinacy,” Shulen grumbled. “Everyone can see she’s the spitting image of Alinore and – “
” – Tahkan, yes,” Malak interrupted, “and that’s exactly why the nobles won’t confirm her. They’d never put his real daughter on the throne. That’s why we have to be prepared to get her out of Mariana.”
Ari Ara’s jaw dropped.
“You can’t just whisk her away,” Shulen cautioned in a hushed tone. “The Marianans will accuse you of kidnapping her.”
“She is ours!” Malak retorted hotly. “If Brinelle had listened to Tahkan’s message, she would be in the Desert now.”
“There’s no point in trying to catch the river once it’s past,” Shulen answered calmly.
“Maybe the water workers should put credence to those rumors and rise up . . . just to teach them a lesson,” the Hawk Keeper threatened.
“Don’t unravel all the work your people have done in Mariana all these years,” Shulen warned him. “If you must act, use the Way Between, not violence. Even if you take her to the Desert, she is still the daughter of Alinore as well.”
A stony silence met his words. Shulen sighed.
“It’s late,” he said to the Hawk Keeper. “You should rest.”
“Neither of us will shut an eye until she’s back,” Malak refuted, shrugging his wiry shoulders.
Shulen grunted in agreement.
“Let’s go up on the wall and keep watch for her,” he suggested.
Ari Ara heard the sound of a chair being shoved back. Before she could be caught eavesdropping, she rolled to standing and lunged to knock on the door. Her heart thundered in her chest and her mind spun with what she had just overheard . . . an uprising? The Desert People stealing her away? She scrubbed her face with her palms to wipe away the shocked expression hanging on her features.
Shulen answered the door with a worried scowl.
“I’m back,” she said, squinting in the light and trying to look like she’d only just arrived. “Emir said to stop by and tell you. Thank you for letting me go, and . . . is that Malak?”
She blinked in a show of innocent surprise as the man hovered behind Shulen’s shoulder.
“Let her in, Shulen. The light draws attention,” Malak suggested softly.
Ari Ara scooted through the doorway as they stepped back. Shulen shut the door and latched the window.
“What are you two doing?” she asked, hoping they’d include her in their confidences.
The two men exchanged long looks. Shulen shook his head slightly. Ari Ara bit back her groan. She knew that look; her mentor wouldn’t tell her anything.
“We’ve been catching up on old times and painful memories,” Malak answered when Shulen’s silence grew too long. “The Great Warrior and I knew each other before the war, in happier times. I joined him tonight to keep vigil for the lives lost on this night.”
She noticed the altar set on the mantle above the crackling fire. Bright autumn leaves had been laid out over a piece of fine desert silk. A portrait of two women leaned against the wall. A row of candles flickered in front of the frame. The wax pooled as the wicks burned low. Light flickered in gasps, sending the shadows darting about the room. Each one, Malak explained, had been lit in memory of the departed as he and Shulen passed the night.
“Is that my mother?” she asked, pointing to the painting.
“Yes, and Rhianne,” the men answered on the same breath.
The Fanten Grandmother’s daughter stood beside a tall young Alinore. Ari Ara realized that the beautiful white dress that fell to her ankles had been designed to reach her mother’s knees. Rhianne, sleek and black-haired like all the Fanten, reached only to her friend’s shoulder, petite as a child with a gleam of humor and secrets in her dark eyes. Alinore hovered on the verge of a smile. A long dark brown braid hung over her shoulder. The two stood on a ridge looking east and west with shaded eyes. A burning sunset lowered over dunes and black mountains.
“Looking forward, looking back,
two friends of the east,
came to the lands of the west.
There they met love and started life.
Where they walked,
the water flowed,
and green grass grew in their footsteps,” Malak sang.
For a moment, Ari Ara saw the women treading across the sands, flowers and birds following in their wake. Then a dry wind rode the desert man’s sorrow and swept the images away, leaving only the scouring sands. Tears stung her eyes.
“Come,” Shulen urged, “light a candle for your mother, and join us in remembering something beautiful or true about her.”
He handed Ari Ara a small wax candle.
“I don’t remember her,” she confessed in a quiet voice. “She slipped into the Black Ancestor River even as I rode its crosscurrents into this world. I’m sorry.”
She turned to give the candle back, but Shulen caught her hand.
“She loved you, even if she barely saw you – and the Fanten Grandmother says she did, holding you for a moment before she slipped away. Your coming was anticipated and celebrated by all of us: Tahkan Shirar, Alinore de Marin, Rhianne, and myself. We hoped for a girl who would be a friend for our daughter, but it was not to be.”
Shulen’s eyes deepened with sorrow. Ari Ara lit the wick from the flickering flame of the candle on the end of the row. The light blazed. The wax glowed. Another small gleam rose up to illuminate the portrait.
“Will you tell me the stories of these other candles?” she asked the two men.
They exchanged startled looks. Then Malak smiled.
“If not us, then who, Shulen?” he murmured before turning to Alinore’s daughter. “I will tell you what I know, and more than that, I will sing our desert songs about her so you will see through the eyes of our ballads.”
Shulen nodded. He pulled a third chair over and gestured for her to join them as he swung the blackened kettle over the fire for a fresh pot of tea. The embers on the hearth gleamed blue-black and hissing orange. Malak tossed a fresh log on. The wood crackled. A shower of sparks leapt up. The dark-bearded man stared at the hungry threads of flames. The steam entwined its pale fingers through the silver-gray smoke rising from the wood. Silence settled on the room like a frost, etched with unspoken words. Ari Ara shifted on the chair, sensing the ancestor spirits gathering on the chill edges of the night. The row of candles shivered. She thought she sensed the weightless touch of a spirit’s hand upon her head. Malak closed his eyes in his carved face and drew breath.
Malak began to sing a haunting and eerie tune. The scales of the desert songs wove in forgotten half-notes and chords the riverlands had ignored for centuries. The melodies played the harp strings of Ari Ara’s heart so evocatively, they snuck like thieves through the dark night and robbed the breath from her chest. She blinked as a shape moved on the air. Shulen noticed her widening eyes and nodded, pointing to an image that flickered in the corner as Malak sung the first words of a saga ballad and the shifting desert sands rose visible. Ari Ara gasped in startled wonder. The story in the songs came into sight, full of shifting colors like the embers of a dying fire. Figures strode out of the darkness for a flash of a second then dimmed as a new image emerged. Her mother rose, young and beautiful, on the day she had first met the Desert King. Ari Ara’s heart clenched in a tight knot as unnamable emotions swept through her wiry frame, rattling her to the bones.
One ballad threaded into the next in a never-ending saga, sung masterfully by Malak. He lifted the melodies with great humility and reverence, as if he felt blessed to have the songs play the instrument of his voice. Ari Ara stared at him, awed by the sweeping mastery of the Hawk Keeper’s singing. His voice was not the pitched perfection of the songstresses that performed at Brinelle’s evening receptions. It was an expressive, utterly human voice, laden with subtlety and humor, rich with emotion, captivatingly expressive, as if Malak had seen into the soul of humanity and drunk the water of life, itself.
By dawn, Ari Ara had seen visions of her mother journeying to the desert, falling in love, and marrying. She’d witnessed the beauty of her two peoples coming together in peace. She saw Shulen, too, whose hair had been as copper as hers, not gray as it was now, and Rhianne, strange and different in her Fanten ways amidst the nobility of Mariana and the fiercely proud Desert People. She saw Shulen’s child, the one who had died along with her mother at the Battle of Shulen’s Stand. The girl was laughing in the arms of her parents. Ari Ara’s shirt grew damp with tears, yet her heart rose with the sun. She understood, at long last, the beauty and the truth of their lives, not just the sorrow and grief of their loss.
“A person who is remembered in Desert Song is never lost,” Malak said quietly as they bid her farewell. “We of the Desert have little in the ways of the material world, but we have riches of the spirit few here can even imagine. Go now, Daughter of our King, sleep, and dream in the songs of your mother.”