Joseph Robert Lewis
The Dragon and the Lotus
The Lotus Cave
A light rain fell on the forest, the tiny droplets pattering softly on the leaves far overhead. The drips collected in the grooves of the leaves and the wrinkles in the bark, worming their way down until they grew too large and too heavy, and they fell again, plummeting to the soft earth to land with heavy plops in the muddy puddles. Asha paused beside a tree to look up at the bright slivers and patches of the sky between the branches where the sun was burning brightly beyond the clouds, its light obscured by the thunderheads rumbling overhead.
Wet forest sounds rose and fell all around her. The applause of the falling water, the shaking of the leaves and slender branches, the distant cracking and keening of trees tearing free from the muddy earth and toppling over into their unsuspecting brothers and sisters.
It had been raining for three days. Sometimes more, sometimes less. In the middle of the day with the sun high overhead, Asha felt the warmth creeping back into the soil and the air, and the hours of walking along the narrow dirt path were almost pleasant. Her long black hair clung to her neck and face and back, and cold trickles of water snaked down her skin under her clothes, but she didn’t mind. Not during the day.
The nights were worse. When the sky grew too dark or her feet grew too sore, she would climb a small tree, sit on a sturdy branch, and tie her waist to the trunk. If she was lucky, she would fall asleep quickly and awaken at dawn with only a slight pain in her back and neck. If she wasn’t so fortunate she would sit awake on the branch, listening to the rain and shivering. She sometimes wrapped herself in a heavy wool blanket kept dry by her well-oiled bag, hoping that it would keep her warm long enough to fall asleep before it too was completely soaked.
But there was more to hear than just the rain. Huge green vines constricted around the trees and swung through the empty air between them. Brilliant white and yellow flowers huddled in small groups, no doubt where the sun had fallen through the canopy before the rains came. Thick bushes squatted everywhere, and huge ferns reached out their soft fronds to touch her legs and arms as she passed. Her left ear heard none of these things, but her right ear caught the strains of thousands of roots and stalks drinking and growing. They sounded like ropes twisting and bansuri flutes playing long, low notes on the wind.
Within the flora rustled smaller and faster creatures. Ants streamed through the undergrowth, heedless of the water washing away their scent trails. Earthworms wriggled in the muddy puddles in the path. High overhead, a dozen different monkey voices hooted and screamed while the birds huddled in their nests, fluttering their feathers and flapping their wings to shake off the relentless rain. Bright green lizards and yellow frogs skittered over the rocks and up the trees, searching for grubs and flies. At first the rain had driven them all into their homes, but hunger had driven them out again and only a truly brutal torrent would keep them from their hunts now.
Asha trudged up the slippery track to a low rise and looked down on a creek winding across the forest floor, and a short distance farther down she saw the village beside the water.
The village was smaller than she had expected, maybe three dozen houses all on stilts several feet above the ground. The stilts themselves were logs as thick as Asha’s arm was long, and at least one of the stilts supporting each house was not a log at all but a living tree still rooted to the earth and spreading its leafy branches above the roof. A fleet of battered canoes and rafts drifted on the swollen creek, each one tied to the supports of a different house. Farther back from the water and high above the muddy flood line stood a row of small huts on the grassy earth sheltered by several large stones looming up from the ground on three sides.
Upstream she found three fallen trees, one old and the other two so young that there was still mud clinging to their tangled roots. Asha crossed over the largest log and then followed the creek down to the village. There were no signs of life on the ground, not even footprints in the mud. But above her she saw flickering candlelight and thin traces of smoke rising from the stilt-houses.
She cleared her throat. “Hello!”
After a moment an old man emerged from the house on her left. “Hello to you.”
“I’m looking for someone named Kishan,” she said. “I was told he lives here.”
“He does, up there.” The old man pointed to the row of huts on the earthen ledge in the lee of the rocks above the creek. “Second one from the left.”
She climbed the slope and knocked on the doorframe of the second house. “Hello? Kishan?”
A woman pulled back the leaf curtain. “Kishan is my son. Who are you?”
“My name’s Asha. I’m an herbalist from up north. I was passing through a town a few days ago when I heard about a very unusual animal in this village. So I thought I would come see for myself.” She glanced over the woman’s shoulder at the hand-woven rugs, the crooked candles, and the rusted iron pot sitting on the red coals in the corner. “Is this the right village?”
“You came to see Jagdish!” A little boy leapt onto the woman’s back. He grinned as he kicked his feet in the air. “Come see!”
“Oh, that.” The mother nodded and pushed her hair behind her ear as the boy slid back down to the floor. “The squirrel. I suppose you can see it. Come inside.”
“Thanks.” Asha ducked inside the hut and knelt down on the rough rug. With the rain drumming on the roof, the sighing of the forest abruptly vanished and all she could hear was the pat-pat-pat of the heavy drops on the woven leaves above her head.
The boy Kishan sat in the corner with a ball of fur in his hands. “Here he is. Jagdish! I found him all alone in the forest and started feeding him myself. He’s the biggest, strongest, smartest squirrel in the world!”
Asha leaned forward to inspect the animal, and frowned. “This isn’t a squirrel, Kishan. It’s a baby mongoose. I’m surprised you’ve never seen them before. They’re pretty common.”
“Really? What’s a mongoose?” The boy wore a very serious face as he studied his pet.
Asha leaned back. “It’s what you’re holding. He’ll get bigger soon.”
“Bigger?” The mother shook her head. “Kishan, throw that thing out this minute.”
“Actually, a mongoose can be a very useful thing to have around.”
“I don’t care.” She coughed. “I want it out of my home.”
The boy pouted but did not argue. He stood and moved toward the door with Jagdish cradled in his arm.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll take him off your hands,” Asha said.
The boy smiled and thrust the animal at her. “You’ll take good care of him, won’t you?”
“Sure I will. After all, he’s used to being taken care of, isn’t he?” Asha peered into the mongoose’s eyes and poked at his teeth. “He’s very healthy. You did a good job raising him.”
Kishan plopped back into his seat in the corner, still smiling. “Do you know a lot about animals?”
“More than most,” Asha said. “I study them. Plants, too. I spend most of my time searching for things to make new medicines.”
“Have you ever seen an elephant?”
“What about a tiger?”
The boy chewed his lip. “What about a lotus demon?”
Before Asha could answer, the boy’s mother said, “Kishan!”
“Sorry.” The boy dropped his gaze to the floor.
Asha turned to the mother. “What did he mean? What’s a lotus demon?”
“It’s just a story.” She coughed again.
“You know, I think have something for your throat here. A little tea.” Asha dug into her bag and glanced toward the leaf curtain between them and the outside world where the rain was beginning to fall faster and harder. “And I think I have time for a story.”
The woman looked back at the door as a fresh peal of thunder rolled across the sky. “I suppose you do.”
“Two hundred years ago, they say the village was much larger.” The mother set the water to boil for the tea. “More than a hundred houses stood on the banks of the river, and the river itself flowed deep and clear, full of fish and prawns. The river was so bountiful that the men often carried baskets of their catches across the forest to sell to other villages. In those days, there were deep pools upstream and downstream, and they helped to control the swelling of the river during the rainy season and the houses by the water stood on much taller stilts. And every year as winter ended, a village elder would go to the spring at the head of the river to offer the mountain spirit a goat in thanks for its bounty.
“But then, one summer, the river shrank to a mere trickle and most of the fish and prawns disappeared. Animals stopped drinking from the river, and sometimes the people would get sick from drinking the water themselves. After several months of this, a few men went up into the forest to see what had happened to the river. Many days later, one of the men returned. His arm was broken and his leg was swollen with poison.
“He said the men had found the mountain bursting with life. Enormous trees towered overhead. Broad ferns bent so low that they carpeted the ground. And everywhere they looked they saw white lotus blossoms. They followed the stream up the mountain to a cave, lit their torches, and went inside. After that, the man couldn’t say exactly what happened. They lost their torches one by one, and in the darkness something attacked them. He heard their screams, and the crunching of their bones, and the slithering of a creature moving along the floor and walls. The demon bit his leg and hurled him to the ground, breaking his arm, but he managed to escape and stumble back down the mountain and through the forest to the village.
“A few hours later, that man died.” The mother turned to inspect the bubbles in the kettle.
Asha nodded. “But then something happened to his body, didn’t it?”
“Yes. It was raining too hard to cremate him then, so they buried his body at the top of a steep bank overlooking the river, but soon all the plants and trees nearby began to wither and die. The villagers dug up the body and found it bloated and rotting far faster than it should have, crumbling and falling apart, with little green shoots growing up through his leg where the demon bit him. So they built a pyre far back in the woods, sheltered from the rain, and burned the body there, and then they heaped earth and stones on the ashes. After that, the poison seemed to disappear from the earth and the plants and trees recovered, and for a brief season there were lotus blossoms in the woods, far from the water.
“But the river was still only a stream, and without the fish many of the villagers began to move away. Some went down the river, but most cut across the forest. They said they would never go near these waters again. The few who stayed in the village lived off the land, struggling to find fruit or hunt for frogs and birds. Those were lean years.
“Several years later, the story of the demon in the cave had spread as the people moved out and settled their families in other villages. All manners of travelers, soldiers, and priests began passing through the village to see the demon for themselves. Some of these people stayed in the village for a day or two, visited the survivor’s two grave sites, and then left. Others climbed the mountain in search of the cave. None of them returned.” She poured the steaming water over the crushed leaves and the aroma of the steeping tea filled the hut.
Asha stroked the mongoose in her lap. His thick fur was warm and soft, and he nestled against her, curling up tightly on her belly. “And this was all two hundred years ago?”
“Nearly two hundred, so they say. After a while, the travelers stopped coming. But then, about ten years after they burned the survivor’s body, a young woman came to the village. She was a nun from Kolkata. She wore a saffron robe, and despite her shaven head, she was very beautiful. At least, that’s how the story is told,” the mother said. “Women are always beautiful in stories.”
“Of course they are.” Asha smiled. “Most stories are told by men.”
The mother did not smile back. “The nun didn’t stay long in the village. She visited the two graves and then she went up the river.”
“Let me guess. She didn’t come back either?”
“No, she didn’t. But a few weeks later when the monsoons came, the river swelled and rose. The villagers began catching fish and prawns again, not as large as before but enough to sustain them. There was no more talk of leaving and the village has been here ever since just as you see it now.”
“I see.” Asha stared through the narrow gaps in the leaf curtain at the dark rain rushing down through the forest outside. “I’d like to stay here tonight, if that’s all right. I want to see the two graves before I leave in the morning. I think the rain will stop before sunrise.”
The mother sipped her tea. “How do you know?”
Asha watched the rain fall outside. “It sounds like it will stop soon.”
The next morning the sun rose over a silent forest and Asha stepped out of the hut to see the early morning light streaming through the leaves overhead to paint the earth in brilliant greens and rich browns. Water still dripped and pattered from the branches and fronds, but the all-consuming shushing of the falling rain was gone. Asha could hear the river gurgling around stones and roots, and she heard the frogs and lizards dashing through the undergrowth along its banks. Above her, the monkeys leapt and chattered, and the birds fluttered and flitted from branch to branch. The little mongoose called Jagdish wrapped itself around the back of Asha’s neck, huddled within the veil of her unbound hair, warming her skin. “It’s nice to be able to hear myself think again,” she said.
Kishan stepped out beside her, his bare feet slapping on the soft mud. “You want to see the graves, right? I’ll show you.”
They walked upstream, picking their way around the large stones at the water’s edge. The rocks were warm and smooth underfoot. Just as the village passed out of sight behind them, they came to a bend in the river and Kishan led the way up the bank to a grassy bluff overlooking the rippling waters.
“Here.” He pointed to a depression in the shadow of an old twisted tree. “This is where they buried him the first time.”
Asha knelt and dragged her fingertips across the soft soil, listening. The grass was sparse and yellow, the tree roots dry and frail. “Whatever happened here, it’s gone now. Everything’s gone now. Even the worms.”
Kishan shrugged and led her east away from the river. They descended a gentle slope and soon came to a clearing where several large flat rocks sat in a circle of tall grass.
“The pyre?” Asha paced across the rocks.
Kishan nodded. “They say it burned from dusk to dawn. And it stank.”
“Did it now?” she said softly. A monkey cried out in the distance and a second one answered. A warm breeze played through the leafy canopy and for a few moments all the trees in the forest sighed and whispered their secrets to one another. Jagdish shivered on her shoulder and clutched the folds of her sari in his claws.
Kishan leaned back against a green sapling that bowed under his weight. “So where will you go now? Back to the city?”
She wondered which city he meant. “Actually, I think I’ll wander up the river a bit farther and see what else there is to see.”
“You’re going to the cave, aren’t you?” He kicked a pebble with his toe.
“Well, I did come all this way to see a rare creature. I don’t mind going a little farther to find one.”
“You won’t see the demon. I heard there was a rockslide years ago. The cave is blocked. And besides, it would anger the mountain spirit. It might dry up the river again.”
Asha nodded. She reached into the small pouch on her belt and brought out a small sliver of ginger root, which she poked into the corner of her mouth. “Well, if I see any spirits, I’ll be sure to be very polite to them.” She winked at him, and he frowned at her.
For two days she hiked upstream following the winding river higher and higher into the forest hills. And for two days she only saw and heard more of the same forest all around her. The same fish and frogs in the water, the same birds and monkeys in the canopy. As the earth dried out, more subtle fragrances began to drift on the breeze. She could taste the sweet nectar of the flowers and the savory oils in the nuts as she walked beside the river.
On the third day she reached the foot of the mountain. Looking up, she could trace the path of the river tumbling down over the rocks from pool to pool, half-hidden by the trees.
“Maybe there are spirits here after all.”
The trees were like none she had ever seen before. She guessed that most were as thick as she was tall. As she stood there in the early morning light marveling at the towering trunks, she saw that there were no seedlings, no saplings, no small trees of any kind. Only giants stood on the mountain, pillars fit to hold up the heavens themselves.
Rough brown bark covered the trunks, wrinkled and pitted and folded so deep that she could slip her entire hand into the grooves of it all the way to her wrist. But looking up, it was not the brown of the trunks that colored the mountain wood but the dark green of the vines. The vines wound around and over every branch and limb and hung in countless slack arcs between them overhead. She saw no beginnings or endings to them at all, just the curving loops and lines and bands everywhere she looked.
As she stared up at the silent giants, Asha gently petted the tiny mongoose on her shoulder. “Is this what it feels like to be as small as you, I wonder?”
She started up the mountain path and soon had to stop looking at the trees altogether to stop the bouts of vertigo. Chewing her ginger slivers and keeping her eyes on the ground, she climbed slowly up the mountain.
The stream gurgled and gushed from ledge to pool to ledge, splashing over the rocks and carrying the odd leaf or twig downstream. After a time, Asha noticed that there were no sticks or branches lying on the ground anywhere. Nothing larger than her finger could be seen on the ground and she chanced a quick look up again. It was the vines. The vines had so thoroughly covered the tree limbs that even if a branch died or broke free, it would only dangle from the endless net of vines wrapped about it.
At noon she stopped to rest and soak her feet in a pool. Broad green leaves floated on the surface of the water around the edges where the current was slowest, and here and there among them she saw delicate white lotus blossoms standing above the rippling surface.
As evening fell, she circled yet another massive tree at the water’s edge and climbed up a rocky path beside a small waterfall to find an earthen ledge blessed by a small patch of sunlight piercing the canopy. A small white-haired langur stood on the ledge, twitching his tail. He had a black face and red eyes.
Jagdish squeaked in Asha’s ear.
“I know. I see him.” She stroked the mongoose’s head beside her ear. “But I don’t think he’s here to eat you.”
She stepped away from the tree, holding out one empty palm toward the small monkey. He scampered away up the slope beside the mountain stream, and Asha followed. At the next pool she found the langur sitting on a boulder beside the water, flicking his white tail back and forth across the rock. The sky above the canopy had faded to dusky violet and a cool wind blew through the leaves. The mountain trees shivered and sighed.
Asha looked past the monkey to the face of the mountainside. The stream went no farther. What little water flowed here emerged from a few cracks between the tumbled stones on the far side of the pool. “Looks like there really was a rockslide.”
At the edge of the stream seeping under the fallen stones, she knelt and stuck one of her ginger slivers in the muddy soil. “If there are any mountain spirits here, I hope they like ginger.”
She found a patch of soft grass in the lee of a stone to spread her wool blanket and she lay down in the deepening shadows with Jagdish murmuring in her ear.
The langur stretched out on top of his rock to sleep, and Asha closed her eyes.
When Asha woke in the morning, the langur was gone and a pile of stones had been pushed away from the mountainside toward the pool. The opening in the rock wall was just wide enough for her to enter if she ducked her head a bit. Inside she could see nothing, but she heard the trickling of the water echoing over and over again in the darkness.
“Are you coming?” Asha looked back at the langur, now sitting on a stone a few paces away that had been bare a moment earlier. The monkey blinked. Asha nodded. “Yeah, I don’t blame you.”
There was nothing lying close at hand to make a torch, so she squinted as she ducked inside the cave. The floor was carpeted in soft, bare earth and the stone walls on either side were lined and grooved with narrow ledges in which she could feel more warm soil with tiny, fragile sprigs growing in them. Mushrooms, she guessed.
The tunnel ran straight back into the mountain and every few seconds she stepped in the muddy edges of the stream that wound its way across the floor in deep channels of clay and sand. The water tinkled softly as it rolled over on itself in the corners of the channel, running swiftly through the dark. Behind her, the entrance to the cave was a bright blue disc in the blackness that shrank bit by bit with each step she took.
Her eyes adjusted and then adjusted again, picking out fainter and fainter lines and shapes in the deep shadows. But then her eyes failed her altogether and Asha was forced to slow her progress, tracing the tunnel wall with her hand and probing the floor ahead with her foot. The sounds of running and falling water echoed higher and deeper and longer here in the tunnel, hiding the source of the noises.
After half an hour, her outstretched foot felt smooth, cold stone. Two more steps carried her out of the tunnel and the wall at her side abruptly curved away. Her instinct was to follow the wall, but she could see something now, a faint glowing shape far ahead. Moving even slower than before, she continued toward the light.
Five more paces brought her to the edge of a cold pool. The stone and sand at the water’s edge sloped down gradually, so she lifted the bottom of her sari and waded out into the pool. The cold water stung her bare skin, but the bottom underfoot was soft and rippled gently with the contours of the mountain stone beneath.
Up ahead, the illuminated object became clearer. It was a mound rising above the surface of the pool in a rough conical shape, though its outline seemed to ruffle and bulge irregularly.
Something brushed Asha’s leg and she looked down at the pale lotus blossom perched above the water by her knee. Looking up again, she realized that all of the faint glimmers in the dark were lotuses standing silent watch over the dark pool.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed softly again and again, far out into the distance and even farther up overhead.
When she reached the mound, she found it was actually a pillar rising sharply from the floor of the pool that allowed her to walk up to its edge while still standing waist deep in the cold water. The lotus leaves and blossoms clustered thickest here around the pillar and the jumbled mound on its top.
Asha explored the shape of the mound with her fingers, her eyes still struggling to see by the faint streaks of light falling from a narrow crack in the cavern’s roof. She felt the thick vines curling around the pillar and over the mound. Her fingers encountered huge leaves on stiff stalks every so often and they rustled softly as she brushed against them. Here and there among the leaves she found more lotus blossoms, all open wide to display their golden seed heads.
Standing in the cold water, she could feel the heat coming from the vines, and even the leaves and flowers radiated a slight warmth. The stone pillar itself was warm to the touch.
Asha slipped her hands under and over the vines, poking blindly into the dark places underneath, trying to feel out what was forming the shape of the mound.
“Ah!” She jerked her hand back. She had felt something softer than stone, softer than the firm leathery vines, as soft as the lotus petals themselves. Asha reached out and parted the vines, and the pale light from the cavern’s roof fell on the face of a young woman.
Her eyes and mouth were closed in an expression of perfect serenity, and as far as Asha could see the woman was not breathing. A thick mass of black hair fell from her head to the stone pillar on which she sat, all twisted and intertwined with the heavy green vines. She sat with her legs crossed and her hands resting palm-up in her lap. Her right hand was closed.
The woman exhaled.
Asha stumbled back in the cold water, staring.
“Hello,” the woman said slowly. “Thank you.”
Asha blinked. “For what?”
“For this.” Her right hand opened to reveal a muddy sliver of ginger.
“Oh. You’re welcome.” Asha felt Jagdish trembling on her shoulder, his tiny claws digging into her skin. “You’re the nun, aren’t you? You came to see the demon in the cave two hundred years ago.”
“Yes.” Her words shuddered on her thin breaths as though the air was being gently forced through an old bellows. “My name is Priya.”
“I’m Asha.” She moved closer to the pillar again and peered at the nun’s face. Her skin was gray and smooth. “You’re not like any ghost I’ve ever seen before.”
“Ah. Perhaps because I’m still very much alive.”
“After two hundred years?” Frowning, Asha touched the woman’s wrist and after long moment of waiting, she felt a single weak heart beat. And several moments later, a second. “This is incredible. How is this possible?”
“I can tell you the whole story from the beginning, if you like.”
“Sure.” Asha crept up onto the stone pillar at the woman’s feet, and pulled her legs out of the cold water. “I’ve got time for another story.”
“I entered the monastery when I was very young,” Priya said. “I don’t remember my parents or where I lived before that. I studied and worked, mostly copying manuscripts. Life was good, except for some of the younger monks. They did not approve of women living in the monastery and they would find quiet ways to harass us. Dirtying our robes, spilling our food, and so on.”
Asha nodded. “I’ve heard stories like that before. Some monks still disapprove of nuns.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Priya. “Lord Buddha was reluctant at first to admit nuns into the sangha, but only to protect them from dangerous men. He thought some people would not accept the ordination of women. Obviously, he was wise to be so concerned.”
Asha shrugged. “You can’t expect too much of people. They’re only human, after all.”
The nun smiled, slowly spreading her lips against her stiff and smooth cheeks. “Truer words were never spoken. Eventually, the tensions between us and the young monks reached a breaking point. I awoke one night to find the house in flames and my sisters screaming. Those of us who escaped out into the night ran right into the waiting arms of several men. They were masked so I can’t be sure whether they were monks or outsiders. They beat us with sticks and chased us from the monastery through the city streets. For the first few minutes, I managed to keep a few steps ahead of them with two of my sisters by hiding in alleys under trash, dirty blankets, and rotting planks.”
“You must have been frightened.”
“The most frightened I had ever been. We ran and hid, ran and hid, all night long. Whenever we looked back, we saw the fire in the monastery and the smoke blotting out the stars. And then, sometime late in the night, I turned and discovered that I had lost my sisters, or they had lost me. It amounted to the same thing. I was alone.”
“What did you do?” Asha asked.
“I walked on. It was quieter then and I didn’t see the men again. I was very tired, but still so afraid. I kept walking all night, right out of the city into the hills. And the next day, I kept walking,” Priya said. “I survived on what charity was given to me. I had nowhere to go. I knew no one in the world except at the monastery, but I didn’t dare go back. I don’t know why I kept walking, but I did. Eventually I came to a small town where an elderly monk tended a shrine alone and he allowed me to stay with him for a while. He was a very kind man.”
“You were lucky. You could have died on the road.”
“Yes, I could have.” Priya’s fingers shuddered and her hands moved to her knees. She inhaled and exhaled slowly. “About a year later, a new family arrived in the town and they came to visit the shrine. They said they had been forced to flee their village because a demon had swallowed their river.”
“So you went to cleanse the demon?”
“No. There’s no such thing as demons,” the nun said softly. “But I did come to see the truth of the matter. It was the least I could do for those people. The monk at the shrine was too old for the journey, but I was still young and strong, and to be honest, I was feeling less than useful to him. So I set out for the village. I saw the graves of the man who returned from the mountain, and then I climbed the mountain and found this cave.”
“Did you see the creature that killed the men from the village?”
“No. When I entered this chamber, I found a small girl standing here on this stone altar.”
Asha glanced down at the pillar they were sitting on. “Altar?”
“Yes. This is where the village elders offered their goats to the mountain each spring.”
Asha winced. “What was she? The girl you saw?”
“She was a ghost. A real ghost. I had heard of such things, of course, but I had never seen one before. Here in the dark, in the cold still air, the aether was thick enough for her to be seen and heard. She told me that she was the daughter of one of the elders.”
“He killed her? A human sacrifice?” Asha asked, her hand curling into a fist.
“No, he did not kill her. During the winter, the girl fell ill and died quietly in her sleep. But her father didn’t cremate her. He preserved her body until the spring and then brought her here instead of the usual offering. Perhaps he didn’t think the mountain spirit would care what he left, as long as he left something. After all, the goat would feed his family for days. I’m sure it seemed very reasonable to him.”
Asha shook her head. “Some people don’t think at all.”
“Don’t judge them too harshly. Here in the wilderness, these sorts of traditions and rituals can give people great peace of mind, even if they seem fruitless or even senseless to others,” Priya said.
“I don’t mean that!” Asha rubbed her eyes. “Even out here in the middle of nowhere, people should know better than to abuse a body. He should have known what would happen to his daughter’s ghost if he didn’t burn or bury her properly.”
“You come from the north, don’t you?”
“Well, here in the south ghosts are rare. They aren’t seen. They aren’t spoken of. At the monastery, I don’t believe I ever heard a single story about ghosts, but tales of the local spirits and gods were common enough.”
“The difference being that ghosts are real. So what happened when you met the girl?”
Priya sighed and her whole body shifted, tugging at the vines wrapped around her and shaking the leaves and blossoms. “She told me how she awoke here in this cave, in the dark, all alone. She didn’t understand that she was dead because she was lying on this altar, with the sunlight streaming down from the roof of the cavern. But when she sat up, she saw her own body lying cold and still on the stone. It terrified her, and she ran away, ran all the way down the tunnel. But when she came to the exit, the heat and the light of the sun began tugging apart the aether of her ghostly form. There was a brief moment when she stood on the threshold, staring down at the pale outline of her fingers as the midday breeze teased them apart like spider silk or smoke. And then she ran back inside, into the darkness.”
“Poor girl,” Asha said. “If she’d risen from a proper grave, she would have understood. And if she’d been placed where it was warm, she never would have risen at all.”
Priya nodded, the white blossoms in her hair glowing softly in the dark. “She was filled with rage at her father, and terror at what she had become. She didn’t understand what had happened at all. I’m not even sure if she truly understood that she was dead. Perhaps she thought she’d been cursed or transformed into a demon. But her soul sank down into the earth here, into the roots, and her madness spread to all the living things on this mountain. She made the trees drink up the river to punish her father. That’s why they grew so tall.”
Asha nodded. “And what about the creature that killed the men from the village?”
“There is no creature. Not really,” Priya said. “When the men came, the girl lashed out with the only thing at hand. These lotus blossoms. The roots are extensive, filling this chamber and the tunnel, and covering half the mountainside. She twisted the lotus roots as she twisted the trees, and the flowers choked the life from the men. The one who escaped was stabbed with a seed that grew inside his body, killing him slowly from within.”
Asha tugged her right earlobe. “I see. And the ghost told you all this?”
“No. I learned this later. When I first arrived, all I knew was that there was a soul in this cave, tormented and terrified. So I came inside and sat on this stone, and began to meditate.” Priya reached up to gently caress the vines embracing her body. “When I awoke the next morning, these were wrapped around me, holding me up and keeping me warm. They even feed me, somehow. In the days and weeks that followed, I came to know the girl and her pain, and the missing pieces of her story. In return, I taught her peace and contentment. Together, we returned balance to the mountain and let the river flow once more.”
Asha reached out to touch a leaf near her hand. “Amazing.”
“Actually, I don’t really understand how it all happened,” the nun said. “I’d never heard of a ghost controlling plants like this. I thought they couldn’t affect the living world after they had passed on.”
“Well, all living things have a soul, including plants and animals. This ghost of yours must have been so angry and frightened that she was able to control the souls of the trees and the lotuses,” Asha said. “Especially here, where the aether is thick.”
Priya leaned forward. “How can you be so certain that plants have souls?”
“Because I can hear them,” Asha said.
“You hear them?” The nun tilted her head slightly. “How?”
“I was born in the city of Yen, though you may know it better as Kathmandu,” Asha said. “It’s an ancient city far to the north in the shadows of four great mountains where snow covers the ground for most of the year and eight rivers flow between the districts. In some ways, it’s like any other city. Huge, crowded, and dirty. But Kathmandu is the crossroads of the gods. Every street corner in the city has a shrine, monument, statue, monastery, pagoda, stupa, or temple to someone’s god. Brahma, Lakshmi, Buddha, Shiva, Ganesh, Ahura Mazda, and on and on.
“My father was a goldsmith who served the house of the king, as well as the wealthy temples, by making jewelry and golden inlays for statues and furniture. We were not wealthy ourselves, but my father was well-known and respected and we lived better than our neighbors. I had three brothers, and my mother’s sister also lived with us. I remember that we ate very well.”
The nun nodded. The sounds of dripping water echoed all around them.
“One day, a strange little man came to visit my father. He said he was a doctor from the Ming Empire who had come to pay his respects to the king of Yen and to see our kingdom. He claimed to speak a hundred languages, to know the secrets of the dead and the living, and to possess a cure for leprosy. My father, of course, was not interested in the man’s stories. My father was an artist who cared only for his tools and his work and his reputation. Eventually, the doctor came to the point. He commissioned my father to create a ring made of gold, silver, and iron, three bands intertwined with a strange design carved into its face, almost like a signet. My father was not happy about having to work with silver and iron, but the doctor offered to pay any price and that overcame my father’s objections. By the end of the month, the ring was ready.”
“Did you see it? Was it beautiful?”
“No, it was hideous,” Asha said. “But it was exactly what the doctor wanted. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want such a thing, so I followed my father when he delivered it to the doctor, and after my father left, I stayed to watch through a window. And that’s when I first saw it.”
“A dragon. A real dragon.” Asha gazed out over the black waters. “The doctor had a chest, and in the chest was a cage, and in the cage was a golden dragon no larger than a songbird. At first I thought it was a snake, but then I saw the tiny claws, the tall scales on its spine, and the long curling white whiskers around its mouth. The doctor slipped my father’s ring around the dragon’s neck and twisted the rings to tighten it about its throat. It was a collar to keep the dragon from eating too much and growing too large.”
“How terrible.” Priya lowered her head.
“I suppose it was,” Asha said. “At the time, though, I just stared at the dragon through the window and wondered what else was out there in the world. I went to the doctor’s door and asked to the see the dragon. He refused at first. But when I described it to him, he knew that I already knew his secret and he let me in. He placed the cage on the table and let me stand there and stare at it. After a while, I began asking him questions. Where did he get it? Why did he have it? How old was it? Were there more? Could I have one?” She smiled in the dark. “How arrogant was I then? To own a dragon?”
“You were a child.”
“I suppose.” Asha sighed. “I stayed at the doctor’s house all evening looking at the relics and creatures in his jars and boxes, but they were all common enough animals and plants. I came back to the dragon again and again to watch it pace around its cage. When it looked at me, I could swear it was about to speak, but it never did. The doctor practically had to throw me out that night, and I came back every day after that to stare at the dragon and hear the doctor’s stories about his travels all over the world.
“For a month, I spent my evenings in the doctor’s house, pestering him with questions and learning what you can do with a tiger’s whiskers and the bones of an eagle, the bark of the birch tree, or the skin of an eel. And all the while I stared at the dragon, pacing and pacing in its little cage on the table.”
Asha paused to stare down into the face of a white lotus blossom by her knee. “And then, one night, when the doctor stepped out of the room to get the tea, I opened the dragon’s cage. I wanted to touch it. I had always wanted to touch it. At first, the dragon did nothing. It only stared at me through the open door as I held out my hand to it. I thought it might sniff me like a cat or lick me like a lizard. It huddled down in the center of the cage, twitching its long white whiskers and wrapping its golden tail around its legs. And then it sprang at me. It happened so fast, I couldn’t even move. The dragon dashed up my arm, racing over and under, its tiny claws slicing long tears in my skin until it reached my shoulder, and then it struck. It sank its fangs into my earlobe, and it suddenly felt like my head was on fire. Its teeth were like needles, dozens of them, and all envenomed.”
“How did you survive?”
“I nearly didn’t. I collapsed. When I awoke, the doctor was sitting beside me, but everything else had changed. Instead of a house in Yen, we were in a temple in the Ming Empire and eight years had passed.”
“Yes. To save my life, the doctor was forced to carry me with his luggage all the way back to his homeland to a temple where the monks and other doctors could care for me. They said it was a miracle that I awoke at all. But I wasn’t the same. Not quite. The dragon’s poison had left behind a shred of its soul in my ear. Even tiny dragons hunt very large prey, and by leaving a drop of its soul in its victim, the dragon can track it anywhere it goes and then devour it, bit by bit, when the animal eventually dies from the venom.
“I spent the next few years in the temple with the doctors and the monks learning their craft, studying herbs, and making medicines. Eventually I returned home to Yen, but when I arrived I found that my father had died and my mother and brothers had all left the city. No one could tell me where they’d gone.”
“Did you search for them?”
“No. I didn’t feel any great need to see them again, and I wouldn’t have known where to look anyway. Instead, I carried on looking for new creatures and plants to make my own medicines and trying to help the people I met along the way.”
“I see.” Priya reached out one hand to touch Asha’s knee. “You said that you awoke changed. That you had a piece of the dragon’s soul inside you?”
Asha pulled back her hair, knowing what the nun would see. Her entire right ear was flecked with shining gold scales, her skin there smooth and hard, and very warm to the touch. But the nun did not open her eyes to look. Asha dropped her hair and said, “The dragon’s soul is still in my ear. Through it, I can hear the souls of other living creatures. People, mostly. Their souls are the most active and noisy, even after death. But I can also hear the souls of animals and plants if I listen carefully enough. Their souls are sleepy and childish, only thinking or feeling one thing at a time.”
“Animals and plants have souls, and you know it beyond faith?” The nun squeezed Asha’s hand. ”Can you hear the turning of the wheel of reincarnation?”
Asha smiled. “I wouldn’t go that far. I’m not even sure they’re the same as human souls, but they sound very similar.”
“What do they sound like?”
“Like humming, or singing, or rain falling, or the wind in the leaves. A hundred different things. Only I don’t hear it out there in the world. I hear it inside.” Asha tapped her right ear. “And I can tell them apart. It helps me to find the herbs I need for my medicines, and to avoid certain dangers.”
“So if this lotus has a soul, then the ghost of girl must be twisting that soul with her own anger and fear.”
“And love.” Asha gestured to the vines and blossoms embracing the nun.
Priya nodded. “And love, too. It’s astonishing. So many great scholars have spent their lives searching for a revelation like this. To hear the souls of animals and plants.”
Asha shrugged. “Does that change how you feel about being here, like this?”
“No. But what you’ve told me about the souls of all living things…” The nun trailed off as a faint wrinkle of thought creased her forehead. “This knowledge carries us beyond faith into a new age of possibilities and revelations. You must tell the world about this. Everyone must know what you’ve told me.”
Asha laughed. “Sorry, but I’m not much of a teacher. I’m just trying to find a better cure for dry elbows and snoring, not to set people on the path to enlightenment.”
“Ah. No, you’re right. It was wrong of me to ask. That task should be mine.”
Asha raised an eyebrow. “Really? You mean you want to leave the cave? Can you even do that?”
“I think I can, if you will help me.”
Asha knelt over the nun and inspected the lotus roots and vines again. The green shoots slipped under the woman’s skin in dozens of places on her arms, shoulders, and head. “Does this hurt?”
“It did at first, but now it feels like a part of my body.”
Ashe frowned as she tugged at the tendrils in the nun’s arm. “I can probably remove these, but it will take some time and I’ll need more light. I’ll have to cut away the vines right here, and then when we’re outside in the sunlight, I can try removing the rest.” She glanced around the dark expanse of the cave on every side of them. “I can’t hear anyone else in here with us. Is the ghost still with you, or did she move on?”
Priya frowned. “I don’t know. I haven’t felt her presence in a very long time. And I haven’t seen her since that first day when I arrived.”
“All right. Then maybe we’re alone here after all.” Asha produced a steel scalpel from her shoulder bag. “Hopefully, this won’t hurt you. I’ll try to be quick.” She lifted one of the green stalks away from the nun’s arm and sliced through the tender lotus flesh.
The nun shivered. “It doesn’t hurt, but it does feel strange. I feel colder.”
Asha nodded and continued peeling back the vines and cutting them away from Priya’s body. She left at least half a foot of each stalk where they were embedded so she would be able to see them and grasp them easily later when she removed them fully. Within a few minutes, she had trimmed all of the vines from the nun’s bare arms, which now wore a thin coat of slender green shoots. Priya slumped forward, placing her hands on the stone to hold herself up. “It’s so much colder now. I feel weak. Tired.”
“Here, chew this.” Asha pressed a piece of dried fruit to the nun’s lips. “You’ll feel better as soon as we get outside in the sunlight.”
She then began paring away the lotus roots and stalks around the woman’s head, working faster than before. She left several feet of the lotus including leaves and white blossoms still attached to Priya, not daring to cut any closer in the dark.
When the last of the plant had been cut away, Priya sat shivering on the stone, her arms wrapped around her belly, her breathing shallow and rapid. Asha put away her scalpel, gathered the frail woman in her arms, and lifted her off the altar.
A single deep boom echoed through the cave like the beat of an enormous drum.
Asha waded through the waist-deep water, straining to hurry as fast as the cold pool would allow. The woman in her arms felt so light, like a bundle of sticks in a silk bag. The leaves and blossoms clinging to Priya’s head bobbed and shuddered with each step.
Another deep boom echoed through the cave and Asha paused to listen. The water shushed quietly around her, the surface rippling, tiny waves slapping at the sides of the vast chamber. But there was another sound, a subtle sound underneath all the others. It was the sound of roots waking up and beginning to stretch and reach out through the silt.
Asha plunged ahead, willing her legs to run through the cold, sluggish water. But soon the sandy bottom angled up and the pool became shallower, making each step lighter and easier. She jogged to the edge of the tunnel where she could see a tiny disc of pale blue light in the center of the darkness ahead.
The tunnel walls groaned with the crumbling of old stone and dried earth. Dust trickled from the ceiling in steady streams, and larger clods and chunks of dirt began falling to the floor. The light at the mouth of the cave was much larger now, but the view was already partly obscured by tumbled stones and hanging roots.
Behind her, the entire the cavern hissed and slithered as the chamber amplified and echoed the sounds of the roots moving beneath the pool. The water shivered and the stone shook. Asha dashed down the tunnel, her bare feet sliding in the soft mud around the stream in the center of the floor. Something cold and wet snaked past her ankle. Then she stepped on a root that curled up sharply around her toes.
Asha tripped and fell. She crashed into the floor face-first, dropping the nun in front of her. A thick bundle of lotus tendrils whipped around her leg and yanked her back toward the pool. As she struggled to untwist the roots from her leg, Asha listened for something else behind the moaning, keening, crying of the roots. The lotus was frightened and confused, but beyond that she could hear a buzzing like the swarming of angry hornets. The sound of the ghost’s fury raced round and round the cavern, rising and falling, lashing out at everything and nothing in a whirlwind of terrified rage.
As a second and a third lotus tentacle tried to grip her arms, Asha felt the tiny claws of a young mongoose running down the length of her body and in the shadows she saw Jagdish gnaw at the roots around her leg. The roots snapped back into the darkness and Asha snatched up the little mongoose as she ran for the exit, pausing only to grab the nun under her arms and drag her the last few steps, squeezing through the narrow opening, and spilling out onto the sun-warmed grass outside.
Gasping for breath, Asha pulled the unconscious Priya to the wide stones by the water’s edge where the langur had slept the night before. From the safety of the stones, she watched the pale lotus roots creep out from the tunnel, slip around the loose rocks, and pull them back to seal the opening of the cave. The heavy thumps and crashes of falling earth and stone continued to reverberate through the ground long after the opening had been blocked and Asha sat listening to the wailing of the dead girl deep inside the mountain.
Then the voice in the cave fell silent and Asha frowned, straining to hear. For a time, there was nothing but the wind in the giant trees overhead. But then, softly, in the distant depths of the mountain, a gentle sighing rose from the stones. And then the earth wept.
It was like nothing Asha had ever heard before. It was the falling of winter snow, and the tumbling of a single leaf on an autumn breeze, and the sinking of an old stone into the soft mud. It was gentle and soft, the sound of something slowly dying unseen and unloved. It was so quiet that Asha could barely hear it, and so terrible that she felt guilty for hearing it at all.
And it went on for hours.
In her sleep, Priya’s breathing grew stronger as they rested in the warm afternoon sun. Asha inspected the thin green shoots in the nun’s arms and one by one she plucked them out. The gray woman shuddered and murmured softly. But when Asha began to tug on the longer lotus blooms on her head, Priya stiffened and gasped. Asha let go and held the woman’s hand. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Priya sat up. “Are we still in the cave?”
Asha shook her head. “No. Open your eyes and you’ll see the setting sun.”
The nun touched her face and gently massaged her eyes open until she could blink them normally. She swept her colorless irises across the ledge. “I can’t see anything.”
Asha touched her hand. “Your eyes. I’m sorry. They’re dead.”
Priya nodded slowly. “I suppose that’s the price of living for two centuries in the dark.”
“Maybe if I remove the rest of the lotus, it will help.” Asha moved behind her and carefully grasped one of the long tendrils.
Priya cried out, “Please, stop!”
Asha let go, frowning. She parted the nun’s hair to examine her scalp and saw that the lotus roots snaked under her skin in long white lines. “It’s in deep. I’m not sure how to remove it without hurting you, or even killing you.”
“It’s all right.” Priya reached up to stroke the leaves and blossoms in her hair. “It’s a small sacrifice for the freedom to go back out into the world and tell people the things I’ve learned.”
“I could cut away the plant above your skin at least.”
“No, thank you. I want to keep them as a memento of my time here.”
They spent the night on the grassy ledge sleeping back to back under Asha’s wool blanket. When morning came, she saw that the stream had dried up completely and only a little water still shimmered in the deep pools farther down the mountainside.
“She did it again. That poor girl,” Priya said. Tears fell from her sightless eyes. “I had hoped I had given her the peace she needed. I thought, after all this time, she had learned to accept herself and her place in the world.”
Slowly, hand in hand, they descended the steep path beside the dry river bed. The giant trees stood in silent watch over them, the heavy vines creaking quietly in the morning breeze. At the bottom of the mountain they found only a muddy track where the river had been.
It took three long days of slow walking to return to the village where they found the people sitting along the banks of what used to be the source of their livelihoods. Asha introduced Priya to them and let them marvel at the youthful nun crowned in flowing black hair festooned with white lotus blossoms.
“When will the river come back?” Kishan asked.
“It may not,” Asha said. “Priya’s sacrifice gave your village two hundred years of life here, but that’s over now. You’ll have to find new homes somewhere else, or learn a new way to live here if you choose to stay.”
For two weeks, Asha and Priya remained in the village. Priya slowly recovered her strength while learning to walk, dress, and feed herself without the aid of her eyes, and day by day the color returned to her ageless skin. Asha took the villagers deep into the forest to help them find edible plants and to teach them how to transplant the herbs to their gardens in the village.
Then one morning Asha awoke to a familiar shushing sound, the constant white noise of water rushing over stones and down gullies, pouring through channels and crashing into pools. She stood up, her blanket still wrapped around her shoulders against the pre-dawn chill in the air, and she walked down to the river running clear and deep through the middle of the village. Small brown birds bathed in the shallows and large silver fish floated serenely in the deep shadowed pockets at the bottom. Jagdish chittered under her hair, and her dragon’s ear heard two deer grazing downstream and a pack of dogs loping through the trees far to the east.
Priya, holding her bamboo walking stick and wearing a cloth tied across her eyes, came down to stand beside her.
“The river came back,” Asha said. “Higher and stronger than before. Your ghost gave it back.”
“Yes.” Priya nodded. “I suppose she just needed a little time to adjust to being alone. Or maybe she was just surprised when I left. Maybe I should have said good-bye. But in any case, I think she’s at peace now, truly.”
“Good for her.” Asha stuck a ginger sliver in the corner of her mouth and patted Jagdish on the head. “So what will you do now? Stay here in the village?”
“No. I’ve just learned that dragons exist and that trees have souls. I want to see what other wonders are running loose in the world.” Priya smiled. “Where will you go?”
“West, I think.”
“West sounds very nice. I’m ready to leave whenever you are.”
Asha raised an eyebrow at the little nun with her thick black hair full of soft white blossoms. “Well, all right. But no chanting.”
The Fever Mist
The bamboo forest stretched on and on in every direction, the trees growing so close and thick that Asha couldn’t see more than a few paces from the path. A hundred dark shades of emerald and jade painted the walls of the forest on every side, each segmented trunk and stalk leaning at its own unique angle as though too ancient and tired to stand up straight. The dead brown trees still stood as they had in life, leaning gently on their green neighbors as though unwilling to accept that death had already claimed them.
“It feels like walking through a long hallway,” Priya said. The nun swept the path ahead of her with her slender bamboo rod. The only scent in the forest came from the lotus blossoms on Priya’s head. Her saffron robe was faded, her woven sandals were powdered with dust, and the cloth covering her eyes was frayed. “The trees are so close they feel like walls.”
Asha chewed on the sliver of ginger in the corner of her mouth, listening.
There was nothing out there. No birds overhead, no deer moving through the trees, not even crickets hidden in the underbrush. There was no underbrush. Every spare inch of earth was riddled with bamboo roots and stalks. The forest was not merely silent, it was empty. Even now in the first month of spring, it was empty.
“I’ve been through here before,” Asha said. “I remember it being thick like this, but not so quiet. Something’s changed.”
“Is the forest dying? Have all the animals moved on?”
“Maybe.” Asha knelt down and touched the thin dusty soil of the path. She scratched at the ground and found a hard, dry root just beneath the surface. “But I don’t think so. Do you smell that?”
“I can only smell the lotuses,” said the nun. “What does it smell like to you?”
Asha moved farther up the trail and stared toward the north. All she could see was the dense wall of bamboo, and all she could hear was the forest standing perfectly still, but now, beyond and beneath the aroma of the lotus blossoms she could smell something dry and dead. Something charred. Something burnt. And as she tilted her head back, Asha saw the tops of the trees obscured by a thin white haze that shimmered faintly. In the silence, a soft hum tickled her right ear.
Aether. Lots of aether.
Asha sniffed again. “It smells a little like smoke.”
“A forest fire?”
“No. If there was a fire, I would hear it. This is something older. Much older.”
In the deep stillness, a single rustle of animal life appeared at the bottom of the trail. The little ball of brown fur stood up and bobbed its head.
“Jagdish.” Priya smiled and held out her hand, and the little mongoose darted up the path into her palm and onto her shoulder, huddling in the warm mass of dark hair and lotus vines around the nun’s neck.
“He was supposed to be my friend, you know.” Asha smiled. “You’re lucky I’m good at sharing.”
“You’re terrible at sharing.”
“Are you saying that I take too much?”
“No. That you take too little.”
“Hm.” Asha squinted down the path, straining to hear. “There might be something or someone down there. But it’s still a long way off.”
They continued down the path, their sandals padding softly on the earth. Through the slender bamboo leaves overhead, bright white clouds drifted across the deep blue sky. A chill hung in the morning air.
It was early in the afternoon when the trees began to thin out near the foot of a high ridge. Tall green grass swayed along the edges of the path and soon Asha could hear a handful of crickets chirping softly off to her left. A few moments later, she heard the trickle of water falling on stone. At the bottom of the path a large flat rock had been placed over a narrow stream and across this small bridge stood a house.
It was a very old house, built of the native bamboo and thatched in dried bamboo leaves. One corner of the house was supported by thick bamboo poles to hold the floor level where the ground sloped away, and the entire mass of dark brown walls leaned slightly to the south. Beyond the house Asha could see the forest thinning away, and in that grassy field there was a poorly tended garden half-ringed in stones and half-fenced in bamboo rods.
Asha glanced to the north, to the edge of the forest at the bottom of the meadow and saw the white mist drifting out of the trees where it dissolved and vanished in the sunlight.
“Can you hear him in there?” Priya smiled. “I can. My ears are almost as good as yours.”
Asha glanced at the old house. “When you say him, do you mean the father or the son?”
Priya pouted. “You’re cheating.”
“I’m not cheating. I just have an unfair advantage.”
“That’s an interesting perspective you have.”
“It’s not a perspective. It’s reality,” Asha said. “Are you hungry? Let’s introduce ourselves.”
Asha had only just knocked at the door when a man thrust his head out and pressed his finger to his lips. He slipped out, closed the door behind him, and herded the ladies away from the house. He was short and slender, with a thin beard on his wasted cheeks and wide darting eyes. He spoke softly, “Yes? Hello? Yes?”
“I’m Asha and this is Priya. We’re just passing through, but this is the first house we’ve seen in quite a while and we thought we might rest here, if it’s not an inconvenience.”
The man shoved his hand into the unkempt mass of wavy black hair on his head and stared at them with a pained expression. “I’m sorry. Of course, I’d like to let you rest here, but my son is very sick.”
“Sick?” Asha squinted at the house. She could hear the boy’s heart racing, a faint but quick patter in the hollow of her right ear. “He has a fever?”
“How did you know? Are you a doctor?” He looked at Priya, peering at the bright flowers in her long dark hair. “You’re dressed as a nun.”
“Yes. Nuns often do that.” The blind woman nodded. “And you are?”
“Chandra.” He glanced back at the house. “My son, Naveen, he was fine, just fine. But then one morning, he complained that the sun was too bright. He stood by the window, rubbing his eyes and squinting for a while, but then he went out and I thought he was fine. But the next morning it was worse, not better. He needed to shade his eyes with his hand all day and he stayed in the shadows of the trees. On the third day, he couldn’t go outside at all, and on the fourth day he draped his shirt over his head to cover his eyes, even inside the house.”
“Do his eyes look different?” Asha asked. “Lighter or darker? Bloodshot?”
“No, they look the same.” Chandra tugged at the short whiskers on his chin. “But that was just the beginning. Soon after, I found him curled up in the corner with his hands over his ears. He whispered that I was being too noisy. I couldn’t even speak without making him shake with pain. I had to lay blankets on the floor to muffle the creaks in the wood and silence my footsteps.”
“And the fever?”
“I don’t know. It started in the night. Sweating, shaking. He was delirious. At first I thought he was dreaming, but the things he was saying were so strange. Sometimes he sounded like an old man complaining about his wife, and sometimes like a baby babbling nonsense.” The man rubbed his eyes. “I can barely get him to eat or drink anything. He’s gotten so thin.”
“How long has he been like this?”
“I’m not sure. Five, maybe six weeks.”
“Weeks!” Priya grabbed the man’s arm with her groping, uncertain hand. “Why did you wait so long? Why haven’t you taken him to a doctor?”
Chandra shook his head. “I don’t know any doctors.”
“It’s all right, Priya. As long as the boy’s still alive, then there may be something I can do for him,” Asha said. “Wait here. I’ll take a look at him.”
The man nodded. “Please, be very quiet, doctor.”
“I will.” Asha went up to the door. “But I’m not a doctor.”
She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. The single room of the house was pitch black. Mud and grass had been pressed into the narrow cracks between the boards in the walls, but a few slender spears of sunlight crossed the room just inside the door. She stood and waited until her eyes adjusted.
The boy lay on a pile of blankets wearing only a thin cloth across his hips and another across his face. His bony chest fluttered up and down, his ribs shaking with the pounding of his heart. Asha could barely see him, but she could hear his whole body shivering. She knelt beside him and listened to him mutter and gasp.
“…should have been there for…didn’t you come to tell us…died in my arms…”
Asha frowned. “Who died?”
“Agh!” Naveen curled up into a ball and rolled onto his side with his hands pressed to his ears.
Asha nodded and chewed on her ginger for a moment. She pulled her bag off her shoulder and searched inside with her fingertips among the heavier things down at the bottom. The two rods had slipped down below everything else, and she pulled them out as quietly as she could. With one in each hand, she pressed the cool metal bars to the sides of the boy’s face. Instantly, his whole body relaxed. His breathing slowed and the murmuring stopped, but his heart still pounded against his chest.
After a moment, Naveen rolled onto his back and she moved with him, still holding the rods to the sides of his head. He opened his eyes, and although all she could see were two pinpricks of reflected light, she knew he was looking at her. She smiled. “Hello, Naveen.”
He smiled back. “Hello.”
“Your father says you’ve been very sick for a long time.”
He nodded. “I feel better. Am I all better now?”
“No, not yet. But I’m working on it. Can you tell me what you were doing before you got sick? Did you eat any strange plants? Or a frog? Or a mushroom?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Maybe you touched something. Some black moss on a stone, a sharp red thorn, or a gray vine with blue flowers?”
“Did you meet any strangers on the road?”
“Come on, kid, help me out here. Did you go anywhere special? Into a cave, maybe?”
“No. But I did go to the old village.”
“What old village?” Asha asked.
“The one at the bottom of the valley. It’s only an hour’s walk away.”
“Were you visiting your friends or running an errand for your father?”
“No one lives there,” he said. “It’s all gone now. Just some rocks where the houses were. The forest is starting to grow over it. It’ll be gone soon, father says.”
She frowned. “Do you go there often?”
“Sure, in the summer.”
“What about six weeks ago?”
“No, it’s been too cold. But I did go down to the stream once looking for frogs. Sometimes they get frozen under the ice.”
“And were you near the old village?”
He shrugged. “I guess so. I couldn’t see very much that day. The fog was too thick.”
Asha used the boy’s discarded belt to tie the two iron rods to the sides of his head, but she still made him promise to hold the rods with his hands and to remain on his bed. Then she stood and went back outside, leaving the door standing wide open. Chandra leapt forward to close it, but she stopped him and nodded back at the figure on the bed.
“He’s so quiet. The light doesn’t hurt his eyes?” The man clamped his hand over his mouth, and then slowly removed it. “And he can hear again? You cured him?”
“No, I just gave him something for the pain. Iron can conduct all sorts of harmful things away from the body, temporarily at least. But I’m not sure what’s going on here. Whatever it is, his heart is still racing and his life is still very much in danger.” Asha led the man away from the house. “Priya, why don’t you and Jagdish say hello to him? I think he’d like the company. Just keep him quiet and calm.”
The nun nodded and found her way inside with the aid of her bamboo stick.
“Naveen told me he goes to play in the old village at the bottom of the valley.”
Chandra frowned. “I’ve told him not to go there.”
The man blinked. “Because he shouldn’t. It’s not safe there.”
“Why? What happened to the village?”
Chandra exhaled. “Two years ago it was attacked by Persian soldiers.”
“It wasn’t an army. Just a dozen men or so. I’ve heard there was a battle somewhere far to the west in Rajasthan. Maybe these men were survivors or deserters who didn’t, or couldn’t, return home,” he said. “They found the village, killed everyone, took what they wanted, and moved on.”
“Did they burn the village?”
“They tried to. I saw the smoke myself. But the fire didn’t last. Most of the village was still standing when I went down to see for myself.” He swallowed. “I buried the people in their homes as best I could.”
Asha sighed. “I’m sorry. You were lucky that you and your son survived. Why didn’t you live in the village?”
“I did. I mean, I was born there. But there are weeds and grasses there that make my eyes itch and my head hurt so I moved up here to this old place when I married Naveen’s mother. It was hard, being alone up here, but at least I could breathe in my own home.”
“Allergies, huh?” Asha dug into her bag and pulled out two slender brown sticks. “If they ever flare up again, try burning this. The smoke should help.”
“Thank you.” He took them. “But what about my son? Can you help him?”
“I’m going to try, but first I need something from you.”
“The truth about the village. I can hear your heart pounding and the breath shaking in your lungs. I know you’re lying, or at least holding something back,” she said. “What is it?”
He took a step back. “How could you possibly hear my heart and my lungs?”
Asha swept the hair from the side of her face to reveal her right ear and the man gasped.
“Are those scales?”
She dropped her hair and nodded. “Dragon scales. It’s a side effect of the venom, just like being able to hear the blood in your veins, or in your son’s, or in the lizard near your left foot.”
The man looked down and jumped away as a soft rustling in the grass darted away toward the stream. He looked her in the eye. “You’re cursed!”
“In more ways than one.” Asha raised an eyebrow. “And I’m still waiting to hear about the village.”
Slowly, he nodded. “All right, I’ll tell you everything. But you have to promise not to tell Naveen.”
“Because it’s about his mother.”
“What about her?”
“How she died.” Chandra covered his eyes. “It’s my fault that she’s dead. It’s my fault that they’re all dead.” After a moment, he looked up though he avoided her eyes and he said, “My wife hated living here, so far from her family and friends. She was lonely, and sometimes scared being so close to the road like this. She was terrified of being robbed for some reason, even though we had nothing worth stealing. She pestered me for years to move back to the village. I don’t think she believed me that the grasses made me sick. Either that or she thought a man shouldn’t let such a thing force him out of his home. I refused to move, so she left and she took Naveen with her. He was still very small then. As he grew older, he started to come out here to help me with the house and garden. We hunted birds together, back when there were birds to hunt. Even when he was small, he was a good hunter. Sharp eyes and sharp ears. And he can be very quiet when he wants to.
“One day while we were in the forest, I found a man peeing on a rock. His clothes were ragged and filthy, but he had a sword on his belt and a helmet on his head. The soldier saw me before I could run, but I waved Naveen back and he hid in the trees behind me,” Chandra said. “At first I thought the soldier was going to kill me where I stood. He spoke Persian. I had no idea what he was saying, but I recognized the sound of the language from travelers I had met on the road. He came toward me, his hand on his sword. But then he spoke in Hindi, though not very well. He wanted to know if there were people nearby. He wanted food and water.”
“What did you say to him?”
Chandra shrugged, his eyes dull and lifeless. “I was going to say no, but then I thought of how terrified my wife would be at the sight of this man wandering through her precious little village. I thought it might change her mind, and that she and Naveen would come back home to me. So I said yes. I pointed the soldier toward the village and he nodded, but he went off in the wrong direction. So I stayed with Naveen in the trees to wait and be sure that he was gone before we went home. And then he returned, leading a whole troop back through the woods toward the village. We watched them go past. I didn’t know what to do. I told myself that it would be all right. They just wanted food and then they would be on their way. They didn’t kill me, after all. So I took Naveen home and waited.”
“And the village?”
He shook his head and covered his eyes again, his shoulders shaking, his voice cracking as he said, “An hour later, everyone was dead.”
Asha looked away to the north, to the edge of the bamboo forest where the aether mist was seeping out into the sunlight. “And Naveen doesn’t remember what happened?”
“No. And I couldn’t tell him. I just couldn’t. I can’t.”
“I believe you love your son,” she said. “So I won’t tell him the truth, and I won’t tell you to tell him the truth either. But it would be better for you both to leave this place and find a new home.”
Chandra nodded. “You’re right. But I can’t move him like this. He’s too sick.”
“He’s not sick,” Asha said. “He’s possessed.”
The man stared at her. “That’s ridiculous.”
“It’s not and he is. His high temperature, the racing pulse, the sensitivity to light and sound, and the strange things he’s saying. I’ve seen this before. He’s possessed.”
“By a ghost?” Chandra looked back at the house. “By a ghost of someone who died in the village?”
“No. By the ghosts of everyone who died in the village. All of them.” Asha sniffed. “I’ve never seen a heart rate like his, beating so fast you can barely hear the individual beats at all. If we don’t stop it soon, his heart will fail completely and he’ll die.”
“You have to help him! Isn’t there something you can do?”
Asha slipped another long sliver of ginger into the corner of her mouth. “Maybe. How do I find the village?”
It was a long hour’s walk along a seldom-used path through the forest down to the bottom of the valley. As Asha descended the trail she felt the air grow steadily cooler and the white mist swirling around her feet brushed her skin with a sharp chilling caress. The path itself was carpeted in brown bamboo leaves. Here and there a long slender branch lay across her way, and from time to time she found a young bamboo shoot in the center of the trail, some of them as high as her shoulder.
She walked softly, pausing every few steps to listen to the vast stillness around her.
Still no birds, no crickets, no anything.
Eventually the trees thinned and parted. Asha stepped out onto the edge of a grassy field dotted with large gray stones and ancient cracked stumps. Fifty paces away she saw the brown line of a dry stream bed running from east to north along the valley floor. And everywhere she looked stood the broken remains of bamboo homes.
The houses closest to her still bore the black marks from the aborted fire, but the wind and rain had torn off most of the roofs long ago and the wooden slats and poles of the walls were cracking, sliding, and hanging away from the buildings on their slow journey into decay and oblivion.
As she moved through the village, she saw through the doorways the irregular mounds of earth that she took to be the graves that Chandra had mentioned.
After a few minutes in the village, a sound seeped into her right ear that wasn’t the whisper of the wind or the rustle of the bamboo leaves. It was a deep, soft rumbling like distant thunder, only it had the regular ebb and flow of a tide, like breathing. Asha recognized it and she felt her own pulse quicken. She gripped the strap of her bag tightly in her sweating hands.
She eased around the corner of another collapsing house and found the bear sitting on the roof of a small shack chewing on a thin branch bearing a handful of pale yellow flowers.
“A sloth bear.” She grimaced. “Perfect.”
The animal was tall but thin, its long fur standing up at wild angles, its long slender muzzle licking and chewing on its stick. Against the pale blue sky, the bear’s black fur created a sharp silhouette high on the shack’s roof and the narrowness of the bright white chevron across its chest showed her all the more clearly how starved the animal was.
Asha stood very still and very quiet. The bear was facing her but she couldn’t be certain it had seen her yet, though it would only be a matter of moments before it smelled her. She knew that sloth bears ate fruit and insects and they hunted at night, normally. But she also knew that on rare occasion they were known to fight tigers, and to fight packs of dholes, and even to attack armed men. And sometimes they won.
When the bear dipped its head to bite a fresh part of its branch, Asha stepped back smoothly into the shadow of the house behind her, backing away faster and faster to put more distance between them. With two crumbling buildings between her and the bear and still no sign that she had been seen, she slowed down and breathed a long deep breath. Then she turned to circle back to the trail through the forest and stumbled over a pole that had fallen from a nearby wall. She fell to all fours with the pole snapping and cracking beneath her knees.
Behind her, the sloth bear snorted, grunted, and roared.
Asha ran. She didn’t dare make for the trail now. In the narrow corridor between the bamboo walls there would be no place to hide and she couldn’t hope to outrun the bear. Instead she bolted down the hillside, following the dry stream bed north along the edge of the village and down across a wide grassy field strewn with large round stones.
The bear grunted and growled from the top of the slope behind her.
At the bottom she found a second creek that merged with the first in a small depression, but this one held a meager thread of silver water running over the brown earth. The grass gave way to bare dirt and small stones, the result of some ancient landslide or perhaps a more recent monsoon that had carried only the smallest and lightest bits of the valley walls down through the thick bamboo forest.
Glancing over her shoulder, Asha saw the sloth bear loping down the hill straight toward her, its long jaws hanging open to reveal yellow teeth veined with dark brown rot.
She ran. She ran with every fiber of muscle in her legs, with every shred of strength in her feet. There was no pain, no weariness, nothing but the cold clear knowledge that she wouldn’t survive more than a few seconds if the bear caught her.
Along the bottom of the valley she dashed between and around larger and larger rocks. Some were boulders that had tumbled down from above, but many were jagged spears thrust up from the ground and she began to spy deep, dark cracks in and among the rocks. She looked for one that was narrow enough and deep enough.
A gnarled tree leaned across her path and she spotted the same yellow flowers that the bear had been stripping from its branch when she first found it. Reaching out, she snapped off a branch of her own and ran on.
The bear roared, the sound echoing down the valley through the rocky corridor of the stream bed, and the sounds of clattering pebbles and heavy paws splashing in the meager waters followed close behind the running woman.
Finally Asha spotted an opening in the rocks to her left and she veered inside. It was a narrow crack but also a low one and she had to dive on her side to squeeze through. As she squirmed and wriggled her body forward, she heard the sloth bear huffing and shambling close by her feet and she grabbed the stones around her head to haul her legs farther into the shadows. But she soon found it was far from dark in her little cave. A long thin crack ran the length of the space just above her head where the two rock walls did not quite meet, leaving a jagged white scar of daylight across the ceiling.
A little farther in she found enough space to sit up properly and she leaned against the wall to catch her breath and listen to the bear grunting and sniffing outside. The rock wall pressing against her back was dry but cold and soon a shiver ran through her arms and legs. She pulled her bag off her shoulder and gently tugged out her wool blanket to wrap around her shoulders.
The sounds of the bear faded, but Asha knew it was still nearby. She couldn’t hear it moving or breathing, but her right ear could still catch the beating of its heart, quick and desperate and angry. The bear was starving. It wasn’t going to leave any time soon.
Asha pulled her flowery tree branch closer into the light. She saw rough brown bark like dry cracked skin, green leaves the size and shape of her flattened hand, and pale yellow flowers. “Mahua. Well, that figures.”
Asha spun to see a faint white figure crouched in the back of the cave behind her. It looked like an elderly man with rounded shoulders, a hollowed out chest, and a hairless head, but it was a figure of shadows drawn in white misty lines. Out of the corner of her eye, he seemed almost human, almost solid. She felt certain he had a careworn face with sagging cheeks and a large nose. But when she turned to study him properly, all the details vanished behind the wavering, smoky lines of the aether. Had it been colder and darker, the man might have appeared more clearly. But given the circumstances, Asha was content that he didn’t.
She blinked. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“What figures? About the mahua?” The ghost nodded at the little branch in her hand.
“Oh. It’s just the bear. I thought that it was strange that the bear was staying here where there’s no food for it. But this explains it. The bear is eating the mahua flowers.”
“Yes.” The frail image of the man hunched down even smaller in the darkness. “When the bear came last year, I thought it was a gift from the gods sent to punish Chandra. But it never went up the trail. It just stays here, eating the flowers. Season after season. It never leaves.”
“To punish Chandra? So you know what he did?”
“What he did?” The man’s reedy voice shook with rage. “He did nothing! He stood up there, looking down on us, listening to us dying, watching the village burn. You think it was luck that he took his boy hunting on the same day the Persians came? He knew. He knew they were coming. Perhaps he heard of them from some travelers, or perhaps he saw them on the road. But instead of warning us, he took his boy into the forest and left us all here to die. He let the Persians butcher us just so he could get his boy back from his wife.”
Asha opened her bag again and carefully removed her old mortar and cracked pestle and then several thin copper tubes with cork stoppers in each end. “I don’t think you have the whole story. I think Chandra still loved his wife, even though they were apart, and I doubt he wanted her to die, let alone the whole village. But what do I know?” She began plucking the mahua flowers from the branch, gently tearing them apart, and placing them neatly in the bottom of her mortar.
“You know nothing.” The old ghost bared his hazy teeth.
“I know the ghosts of the villagers are clinging to that little boy right now. Dozens of them at least.”
“Why not? They still want to live. They want to feel and breathe and see and taste. It’s all so dim now. Living beyond death. Cold and dark and still. So little color, so little light. Everything that was rich and wonderful is lost to us now. So they’re angry.”
“You seem pretty angry yourself,” Asha said. “Why aren’t you with them?” She picked up her pestle and began to grind the mahua flowers, slowly turning and crushing them over and over in the mortar.
The man turned aside. “I lived my life. I’m done with this world.”
“If that were true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.” As the mahua powder and oil began to collect in the mortar, Asha lifted the mashed petals away.
The ghost shivered as a light breeze rippled through the cave, troubling the thin lines of aether around his face. “Where else can I go?”
Asha frowned up from her work. “You don’t need to go anywhere. You’re dead.”
“What would you know about it?”
“More than you, evidently.”
Asha sniffed the amber paste in her mortar. “I studied plants and medicines at a temple for several years. It was a very different place from the city where I was raised. Quieter, smaller, and cleaner. But it was also much colder. It felt like winter year round, even in the summer when the forests were green and the flowers were in bloom.
“The doctor who trained me often took me with him to visit patients. I think he wanted me to be a doctor like him, but I really didn’t have the talent for it. Or maybe I did, but I didn’t try very hard because I didn’t want to be like him. I don’t really remember now. I just liked picking the flowers and mixing the oils. I liked how they smelled,” Asha said.
“And?” The ghost scowled.
Asha resumed her work. She opened one of her copper vials and tapped out a few pale grains into the mahua extract. “One day I went with the doctor to visit an old man who lived on a mountain near the temple. His wife had died the year before and his children had moved away a long time ago, so it was just him alone in the house. He had a cough, I think. Or maybe a tremor or chest pains. I don’t remember. The doctor went inside to examine the old man while I wandered around outside looking for flowers.
“I followed an old path up the hill behind the house to a small garden where I found the wife’s grave. There were peonies there. Beautiful peonies. Huge dark pink blossoms, petals strewn across the ground, petals drifting on the wind around me. I sat there for a long time, just staring at the flowers and playing with the petals. I didn’t see or hear the snake until it was just a few paces away from me. It was very long, with a light brown body and dark brown spots down its back. And a wide triangular head.”
“A viper,” the old ghost whispered. “A very deadly one.”
Asha nodded. “I didn’t know what to do. Do you stay still? Do you run away? As I sat there, the viper crept toward me and curled its body into a handful of swirling loops, tighter and tighter. It hissed at me. It was so loud, louder than any snake I had ever heard before. I was staring straight at it when it struck. I saw its jaws open. I saw its fangs reaching out toward me, already gleaming with drops of venom, its tiny black eyes gazing up at me. And then it froze.
“It hung there in the air for a moment, mouth open, fangs dripping on the grass by my knee. Then it closed its jaws, lowered its head, and slithered away into the rocks.” Asha paused her grinding to pull out a large steel needle from her bag. She spat on the tip of the needle and began gently rolling its point through the mixture in the mortar. The dark coppery syrup clung to the cool metal, and when she lifted the needle up the liquid slid ever so slowly down toward her fingers. She tilted the needle back to keep the fluid from touching her. “After a moment, I stopped panicking and realized that I wasn’t going to die. So I stood up and turned to leave, and that’s when I saw the ghost. It wasn’t my first, but it still surprised me. It was hard to see her clearly. At first I thought there was smoke rising from the old woman’s grave, but then I saw her face, or the shape of a face in the aether.”
“It was the old man’s dead wife? Did she speak to you?”
“Yes.” Asha watched the syrup curing on her needle. The bright golden gleams in the fluid faded to blood red. “She pointed at the rocks where the viper had gone and said, ‘I never liked that snake, but it keeps the rats away from my peonies.’ Then she told me to take care going down the path and she disappeared.”
“She stopped a snake from biting you. That’s your story. Is that all?” The old man sighed.
“She saved my life. That seems like enough.” Asha shrugged. “What have you done since you died?”
“Done? Nothing! I’m dead.” The ghost scowled. “What about paradise? What about the next world? Or rebirth? What about me?”
“Can’t say. Never been there.” Asha sniffed the dark oil on her needle. “All I’m saying is that you have the choice to rest here, quietly, without a care in the world. Or you could watch over this place and help it to heal. And maybe you could even help someone passing through.”
The ghost laughed. “You want me to save you from the bear?”
Asha slipped her mortar and pestle into her bag, along with her copper vials and her wool blanket. “No, I’ve got this.” She held up the needle.
“What good is that against a raging sloth bear?”
The words were barely out of his mouth before the bear’s roar drowned them out completely and the splash of light at the mouth of the cave vanished in a blur of dirty black fur. Asha’s hand flashed through the shadows and a faint hiss followed the needle through the cold air. The bear snorted and stumbled back from the rocks, and the sunlight glanced off the hint of steel in his nose.
Snuffling and grunting, the huge animal shambled away out of sight. A moment later, Asha heard the heavy thud of the bear collapsing on the dry earth.
“It’s just a tranquilizer. He’ll wake up in a day or so,” Asha said. She rolled over and began crawling back out through the narrow gap in the rocks.
“What about the boy? What about Naveen?” the ghost called.
“Don’t worry. I have enough for him too.”
Asha carefully took her needle from the bear’s nose, lingering only long enough to feel the bear’s hot stinking breath on her hand and to hear the steady thundering of its heart, and then she left. The sun was sinking through the pale blue sky and the still air grew steadily warmer in the bamboo forest as she started up the narrow path, walled in between the leaning shoots and poles and branches.
At the top of the slope she crossed the sunny meadow, circled the fenced garden, and found Chandra sitting just outside the house, his eyes closed. She touched his shoulder and he jerked upright, blinking rapidly. “You’re back.”
“I’m back. You didn’t tell me about the bear.”
“The bear?” His frown snapped into wide-eyed shock. “The bear! I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I should have told you. You saw it? Did it hurt you?”
“No, it just gave me a little exercise. How’s Naveen?”
“Much better. He’s been talking to your friend this whole time. He really likes your little pet, too. They’ve been playing in there.”
“Playing?” Asha frowned. “He’s supposed to be resting. But I guess it’s all right.”
“What did you find in the village? Besides the bear, of course.”
“Not much. Just some old houses and some yellow flowers.”
The man’s face fell. “Then you didn’t find a cure.”
“I told you. Naveen isn’t sick.” Asha held up her mortar and the steel needle resting in the dark pool of syrup. “But I did find a cure. Sort of.”
They went inside. Naveen was sitting up, the two iron rods still bound to the sides of his face, but now there was a chittering mongoose in his lap and a laughing nun at his side. They both looked up and Priya said, “I was beginning to wonder if I needed to come fetch you.”
Asha raised an eyebrow. “And I thought nuns were patient.” She knelt down next to the boy and touched his forehead. He was burning up and the sound of his little heart rattling his rib cage echoed in her right ear. “Naveen, I need you to take a little nap right now, and when you wake up you’re going to be all better. All right?”
He nodded and handed Jagdish back to Priya. The little mongoose raced up the nun’s arm and crept into the dense veil of black hair and white lotus blossoms covering her head. Naveen lay back on the blankets and Asha took his hand.
Chandra squatted beside her. “What are you going to do?”
“The souls of the villagers are clinging to him because they still want to live, and because they’re angry at you both for surviving when they did not. But ghosts are pretty fragile things. We just need to shake them loose.” Asha held up the boy’s palm. “Naveen, close your eyes.”
He did. He tried to jerk his hand away when she pricked him with the needle, but it was already done. She set his hand on his chest as he closed his eyes and his breathing slowed. She held his wrist and listened to the boy’s heart slowing, and slowing, and slowing.
“What’s happening?” Chandra asked.
“He’s going to sleep.” She tugged her iron rods away from the boy’s head and instantly he was shuddering and sweating and mumbling to himself, just as he had been when she first found him. But as they sat watching him, Naveen quieted and stilled. His chest stopped fluttering, the throbbing vein in his neck subsided, and the last incoherent mutter died on his thin lips.
“Is it working?” the father asked.
“We’ll know in a minute.” Asha listened to the babble of souls huddled in the little boy. As his heartbeat stuttered and slowed, the voices fell away and she could feel the heat in his skin fading. “It’s working. They’re leaving. But here comes the tricky part.”
“What’s that?” Priya asked.
“When his heart stops.”
A last dry exhalation seeped out of the boy’s mouth and a tiny wisp of white vapor slithered out of the corner of his mouth.
“There.” Asha grabbed Naveen by the arms and flipped him over onto his chest. She placed both hands on his shoulder blades and began pressing down in quick, sharp thrusts.
“What are you doing?” Chandra grabbed her arm.
Asha shook him off. “He inhaled the aether when he was down in the village. It’s still in his lungs.”
“Yes, aether. The mist.” Asha eased off, massaging the boy’s back in longer, slower pushes to compress his chest.
“But you told me that aether needs to be cold or else it breaks up,” Priya said. “His fever is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
“Aether needs to be cold to collect and become visible. It doesn’t matter how hot or cold it is if it’s trapped in your lungs.” Asha kept her eyes on Naveen’s mouth. The trickle of mist was so faint and thin that she could barely see it, and it vanished utterly an instant after escaping his lips. “Normally, if you inhale aether, you just exhale it like regular air. But aether is the one thing that the souls of the dead can control, and they’ve been holding the aether inside Naveen’s lungs to give themselves an anchor in his body. We need to get it all out.”
“What about his heart?” Chandra hovered over her. “You said it might stop.”
Asha wiped the sweat from her eyes. “It already did.”
Chandra was yelling and wailing, Priya was asking urgent questions, and even Jagdish was squeaking shrilly.
“Shut up! All of you!” Asha couldn’t see any more aether oozing from Naveen’s mouth or nostrils, and she could no longer hear the whirlwind murmurs of the countless lost and angry souls around him. She rolled him over onto his back.
“He’s dead!” Chandra collapsed around his son’s head, cradling it in his lap.
“Not yet, he isn’t.” Asha pulled one of the copper tubes from her bag, opened the end, and slid a small golden needle out into her hand. There were three faint scratches on the needle. She placed her left hand on Naveen’s chest, feeling the ridges of his ribs under his thin flesh.
She plunged the needle into his chest up to the first thin scratch on its side. The boy’s eyes snapped open and he sat up straight, his shoulder clipping his father’s chin and sending Chandra tumbling backward. Naveen gasped and blinked at Asha, and then at Priya, and then at the golden needle still protruding from his chest.
“Breathe. Just breathe. Close your eyes and focus on breathing for me.” Asha plucked the needle from his skin and then she held his wrist to count the beats of his heart. She listened to his lungs and nodded slowly. “It’s over now.”
An hour later, Naveen sat outside in the grass drinking tea from a chipped cup and playing with Jagdish.
“It’s a miracle. It’s like nothing even happened,” Chandra said.
“Don’t fool yourself. Your son suffered an intense physical agony for weeks with his mind trapped in a nightmare that none of us could ever understand. And he very nearly died.” Asha slipped her bag over her shoulder. “You made a mistake once and a lot of innocent people died because of it. The least you can do now is learn from what’s happened here today. Pack your things, burn this house, and take your son somewhere else, somewhere where he’ll have friends and a normal life.”
Chandra nodded. “I will. Soon. When he’s stronger.”
“If you’re smart, you’ll do it today. Priya, we’re leaving.” Asha called to Jagdish and the mongoose leapt from the boy’s lap and scampered up Priya’s outstretched hand to her shoulder. Asha frowned. “Traitor.”
Priya smiled. “Oh stop. He likes you. He just likes me more.”
They set out on the path through the bamboo forest again, traveling through the deep shadows and the deep silence of the misty wood.
The nun cleared her throat. “I thought we were going to rest there and get something to eat. Are you going to tell me what happened in the village?”
“Nothing to tell,” said Asha. “I found some flowers and made some medicine.”
Asha glanced at her traveling companion. “And I gave some career advice to a dead man.”
“Oh.” A moment later, Priya said, “Why does it bother it you when people call you a doctor? Why do you always correct them?”
“Because I’m not a doctor. Doctors pretend to understand more than they do. They expect people to bow and scrape before them, and to pay them. And they fail as often as anyone else, the difference being that people tend to die in a doctor’s care.”
“Are you talking about the doctor who trained you?”
“I’m just talking.” Asha quickened her step, trying not to think about an untended garden of dark pink peonies at the top of a gravel path on a cold mountainside, a brown spotted viper hunting rats among the rocks, and two small graves lying side by side in the shadow of a little maple tree.
As the sun came to rest on the western edge of the world out beyond the bamboo leaves, painting the sky in dark shades of crimson and violet, they came to a crossroads and Asha paused. Priya stood beside her, the bamboo wand in her hand, the milky lotus blooms glowing softly in her hair. “Which way now?”
“Chandra said there was fighting somewhere to the west. The Persians may be in Rajasthan. And as far east as this valley, apparently. I’m not eager to stumble onto a battlefield any time soon.”
“Neither am I. But where there is a battlefield, there are usually people in need of help. Perhaps in need of medicine,” Priya said, petting the small mongoose. “After all, what’s the point of traveling across the country, of seeing all these places and learning about medicines, if not to help people?”
“I don’t know. It’s never as simple as just handing someone a cup of tea, is it?” Asha said. “We’ll go south for a while. Maybe we can find some place warm where people need help, at least for a season or two.” Asha started walking. “I’m tired of these mountains and ghosts. They’re depressing.”
The Shining Scales
Asha gazed out over the still surface of the vast blue waters. The lake stretched out to the horizon where only a thin black line marked the far bank. A warm breeze rushed across the wide open fields behind her, rippling through the endless rows of jute and beans and the distant mango orchards to gently push her toward the lake where the wind sent a thousand tiny wavelets to wrinkle out across the water.
“You like it here,” Priya said. The nun plucked the little mongoose from her shoulder and set him on the ground. “Jagdish likes it too.”
“Jagdish likes it wherever you are. I think he’s addicted to the smell of lotuses in bloom.”
Priya smiled. The dozen white lotus blossom nestled in her thick black hair were always in full bloom, always open and exhaling their unmistakable scent. The nun insisted that the roots in her scalp did not hurt her at all.
Enormous white clouds drifted serenely across the sky, riding the wind wherever it took them and casting enormous shadows on the face of the earth. Wide-winged and long-legged birds sailed overhead in the thousands, flocking in every direction at every height. They swooped down by the dozen to flutter and splash into the lake where they swept back their wings to float and bathe and fish.
To her left, Asha watched a crested grebe strut regally along the bank. It paused to consider her, displaying its proud white mask and black crown, and then it slipped into the water to join its companions. Asha stepped back onto the dirt road that followed the lake’s winding shore line and said, “There are worse places in the world. Much worse.”
For the next hour they strolled along the water’s edge and Asha described for Priya the birds gliding across the lake, the tall flowers on the shore, and the expanse of farmland to their right. Hundreds of tiny figures stooped in the fields, poking and weeding and prodding and snipping. Priya tapped the road lightly with her long bamboo rod, tracing the edge of the grass and nudging little pebbles out of her path.
In the distance, Asha saw a dark shape towering above the hills. The ancient temple rose sharp and sheer to a level roof, a rectilinear silhouette of black on sky blue. She wondered idly how many hundreds of statues, how many countless painted gods stood posed along the tiers of the temple walls, and which one presided over the region. Shiva, probably. She didn’t wonder very long. It never mattered unless there was a festival, and then it only barely mattered. At least, not to her.
She chewed on the sliver of ginger in the corner of her mouth. “There’s a town up ahead. We’ll probably get there by supper time if we keep up the pace.”
“But you don’t want to keep going this way, do you?”
Asha sniffed. “It’s a nice lake. I’d like to stay here a day or two and look at the frogs, and snails, and maybe the lilies. You never know when you might find something new.”
Priya sighed. “You know, I’ve been hoping to stay somewhere larger than a village, at least for a little while. I have so much to teach people. So much to tell them about the things we’ve seen and done. How big do you think this town is?”
Asha squinted at the massive temple rising high above the trees. “I’m guessing it’s pretty big.”
“All right then. We’ll stay by the lake for a few days and you can play in the mud, but when you’re done we are going to that town and we are going to talk to people. Real people. Lots of people. Deal?”
Asha rolled her eyes. “Deal.”
They continued along the edge of the lake and passed the turn in the road that led south toward the temple. As the sun blazed small and white overhead, Asha spotted a handful of houses nestled in a grove of slender trees crowned with fiery orange flowers. Asha smiled. “Palash.”
“A tree. A beautiful tree. It’s called the flame of the forest.”
“Why is it called that?” asked the nun.
“You’d know if you saw it.”
“Is it good for anything?”
“Skin cream,” Asha said. “But mostly I just like to look at it. I think I found a place for us to stay for the next few days.”
There were four houses together at the water’s edge and each one had a small floating dock jutting out into the shallows where fragile canoes bobbed on the waves. Two jute-string fishing nets hung from the trees.
Asha knocked at the first house and a smiling woman stepped out to welcome them. She introduced herself as Nisha and when they asked about staying with them, she regretfully admitted that three of the houses were quite full of the fishermen’s families. But there was room in the fourth house. Nisha winced and wrung her hands, and fell silent.
“What’s wrong?” Priya asked. “Who lives in the fourth house?”
Nisha led them closer to the water. They could see a handful of little boats far out on the lake and off to their left Asha saw more than a dozen small children wading and splashing and running through the shallows as they chased frogs and hunted for snails. Nisha pointed to the right around the edge of the last house and Asha saw a pair of legs dangling off the porch into the water, back in the shadows.
“Who is that?”
“Rama.” Nisha sat down on the grassy bank and motioned for them to join her. “Poor Rama.”
Asha tugged Priya’s sleeve and they sat down beside her. “Why poor?”
“He was just such a nice young man with a lovely young wife. He built that house himself. He wouldn’t let anyone help him.” Nisha smiled. “He has such a nice smile.”
Asha nodded. “But?”
“But she died.” Nisha sighed. “Vina, his wife. She took ill during the rainy season a few months after they built the house. Rama was devastated. He just sat there in his house and stared at the lake. He barely fed himself. I was so worried, we all were. And then he began taking off at strange hours. He would disappear for days and later we learned that he was going into town to sit in the temple and stare at the images of Lakshmi. Poor boy.”
“So he’s in mourning?” Priya asked. “Would our company be more helpful or harmful, do you think?”
“Oh, he’s not in mourning,” Nisha said. “Not anymore. About seven or eight months after Vina died, Rama was out on the lake fishing by himself. We heard him cry out. It was a strange cry. A bit of surprise, a bit of pain. It only lasted a moment, but after that he stayed out there all afternoon, just sitting there. Eventually my husband paddled out to check on him and found that Rama was blind.”
Priya leaned her head to one side. “How?”
“We don’t know. He says he was just sitting in his boat, working his nets, when suddenly everything went white and he couldn’t see anymore.” Nisha nodded over at the last house again. “But that’s when everything changed for him. Rama stopped spending all his time alone. He eats with us in the evenings, laughs, and tells stories from his home village to the east of here. And he still fishes by himself. He ties his boat to the dock with a long line so he can pull himself back again when he’s done.”
Asha frowned. “He was mourning his dead wife, but then he suddenly went blind and now he’s happy?”
Nisha shrugged. “It seems so.”
Priya touched Asha’s arm. “Is that bad?”
“I don’t know if it’s bad, but it is strange.” Asha picked up a pebble and slowly turned it over in her hands.
“Maybe there’s something you can do for him,” the nun urged. “I’m sure you know of something that could restore his vision at least.”
Nisha cleared her throat and raised an eyebrow. “If you can cure the blind, then why…?”
Priya smiled and touched the cloth covering her lifeless eyes. “I’m a bit of a special case. But Asha can do amazing things with a few twigs and leaves and seeds.”
“You’re a doctor?” Nisha asked. “Can you help him?”
Asha scowled and threw her pebble into the lake where it splashed down with a deep plop. “I’m an herbalist. But I’ll see what I can do.”
Asha approached the last house slowly, taking heavy steps in the thick grass to announce her presence to the man sitting with his feet in the water. He was tying knots in an old fishing net, weaving fresh jute strings among the old. His fingers paused in their little dance as he leaned his head toward her, just for a moment, and then he resumed his work. “Hello there. Nisha?”
“Hello yourself. I’m Asha. Nisha said to remind you that she’s baking catfish tonight.”
“I can smell the pepper already,” he said.
Asha smelled it too, though she suspected the pepper wind was blowing from the town to the south from some vast storehouse where soft hills of peppercorns and pepper grounds waited to be carted off to other cities. Though some small trace of the scent might have come from the sand ovens of the neighboring houses. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“Please.” He slid over to make more room on the narrow walkway at the water’s edge. Asha waded into the shallows and sat down on the warm wooden seat. The lake sparkled brightly as the westering sun glanced off the tiny waves, shining in brilliant silver and gold.
She took a small pouch from her bag. “Ginger?”
“No, thank you.”
She poked a tender sliver into the corner of her mouth and began to chew as she examined the man more closely. She had expected someone younger, or thinner, or older, perhaps with tufts of white hair on his shoulders or a spotty beard, a weak chin, or gnarled hands. She had no idea why she had thought he would have any of those things, but when she first saw the cluster of houses on the edge of the lake, she had not thought to find a man who looked like this.
Rama was tall and lean, and hard muscles rippled under his smooth skin as his hands worked. She didn’t see a hair on him except for the thick black waves hanging from his head to his shoulders, and the dark shadow on his chin. He wore mud-spattered cotton trousers and a colorless shirt of the same material lay at his side, pinned under a small stone. Instead of wearing a blindfold, Rama merely kept his eyes closed. Not squinting, not half-lidded. Just closed, as though he was only resting his eyes and at any moment he might opened them again.
She saw the long black lashes skirting his lidded eyes, and the sharp black brows stretching above them, and the sharp brown cheek bones below them. And his smooth cheeks, and his long straight nose, and his strong square jaw.
And his lips. Asha inhaled slowly, hoping to catch some of his scent, hoping to hear some quickening in his heart. Her eyes lingered on his lips.
His lips moved. “That’s a strange habit you have.”
Asha blinked and turned back to gaze at the lake. “What?”
“Chewing ginger. I haven’t heard of that.” He smiled, his face still angled down toward his nets, his fingers still dancing through their knots.
“Oh. Just something I picked up when I was younger. It’s good for a lot of things, which is important in my line of work.”
It was Asha’s turn to smile. “Yes, among other things. You’ve studied?”
“Me? No. No, I just listen. I listen to everyone, wherever I go. You learn to listen really well when you can’t see.”
“I know a little something about listening,” she said. “A dragon bit me once because I didn’t listen when I should have.”
“A dragon? Really?”
“Oh, yes.” She touched the scaly skin of her right ear. “I also have a blind friend with me who knows how to listen pretty well. Maybe later you two can trade techniques and secrets for eavesdropping on me.”
He smiled a little wider. “I’d be honored. So, are you on your way into town?”
“No. Well, maybe later. In a few days. I thought I might stay here and explore the lake for a while to see what’s growing around here. There might be something I can use.” She glanced up at the fiery tips of a palash tree reaching out toward the lake above them. “And if not, then at least I can enjoy these trees and the water for a few days. We’ve been in the hills for ages, or so my feet are telling me.”
Rama nodded. “Well, you’re welcome to stay here. There’s plenty of room. I live alone. And I don’t mind sleeping outside.”
“Thank you. We’d be honored to be your guests. But please stay inside. I wouldn’t dream of…” She trailed off.
“Of making a blind man sleep on the ground?” He shook his head. “It’s nothing, really. Although I suppose I’d rather not wake up outside, forget where I am, and begin walking the wrong way. It might be a very long time before I reach another lake and realize it’s not mine.”
Asha laughed. “You think you could tell one lake from another?”
“Of course,” Rama said with a mock seriousness. “This is my lake. My home. Everything I care about is here. My life is here, in these waters.”
Asha nodded to herself. “Nisha said you used to live in the east before you came here and built this house.”
“That’s right.” He carefully rolled up his nets and set them aside. “I was born in a very large village on the banks of a very large lake. I loved it there. There was more trouble than any boy has a right to get into in a place like that. Fishermen, merchants, foreigners, weavers, tinkers, farmers, herders, priests. And then the real fun, the water and the boats, the nets and fish and clams and frogs and birds. So much to see and do. So many people to push into the water.”
Asha smiled. “Really? That’s what you did for fun?”
“Well, we spent most of our time in the water anyway,” Rama said. “But we had to grow up eventually, and the village was becoming a town, bigger and noisier. And one day I looked around and realized it wasn’t home anymore. So when I heard about this place from a man selling pepper, we packed our things and came here.”
“Just like that?”
“Well, we didn’t have many things to pack.” He lifted his face toward her and smiled. It was a genuine smile, broad and beautiful. “Those were the best days.”
Asha felt guilty for breaking the spell of that moment, the spell of his smile, but she had to ask the question. “What happened after that?”
Rama’s smile contracted, his mouth tense, a faint wince around his lidded eyes. “My wife, Vina, died shortly after we arrived here.”
“Nisha told me. I’m sorry.” She reached over to squeeze his hand.
He didn’t seem to notice as he sat nodding slowly to himself. “These things happen.”
“I know. But it doesn’t make it any easier.”
“Have you ever lost someone?” he asked quietly.
“I lost everyone,” she said. “When I came home from my training, my father was dead and my mother and brothers had left the city. I never learned what happened to them. I suppose they might still be out there, somewhere.”
“Do you miss them?”
She shrugged. “I barely remember them now.”
Asha waited a few minutes for the melancholy shadow to pass. The wind rose, whipping the surface of the lake into a sparkling frenzy of sunbursts and water-jewels in the afternoon light. “Nisha also told me about how you lost your sight.”
Rama’s enigmatic smile returned. “She’s a little protective of me, I think.”
“Yes.” Asha dragged her toes back and forth through the cool water. “But I was hoping you might tell me what happened. There might be something I can do for you.”
“Ah. The herbalist wants to heal me. Well, I think you’re going to be disappointed. I didn’t eat a bad fish, or step on a nettle, or poke myself in the eye.”
Asha shrugged as she shifted a little closer to him. “Maybe not. But I’d still like to hear about it.”
Rama said, “It began like any other day. I woke up, washed up, ate a mango, and threw my nets in my boat. I paddled out to the southeast. There are some rocks out there that make a sort of shoal where I can usually find a catfish or two. The water is murky and there’s a lot of grass on the bottom around there. I cast my nets for a few hours, but didn’t catch anything worth keeping. I dove to the bottom a few times and spotted a few big ones, but I didn’t catch them. So I moved on. I think I paddled sort of northward, out toward the center of the lake. Somewhere that way.” He raised his arm to point out across the lake, though he didn’t turn his face to look where he pointed.
Asha noted the direction, but saw nothing out there beside the bright flashes on the waves.
“I threw my nets a few more times. I dove a few more times.” Rama sighed. “It was a lazy day. Hot. Still. All the birds were sitting in the shallows, in the shade. Even the children were lying on the banks. I was still mourning Vina then, I suppose. I felt so lost, and angry, and empty. I remember sitting out there on the water, staring at the nets in my hands, asking myself why I bothered to keep working. What was I working for? To feed myself? To stay alive? It all seemed so pointless.
“I tossed my nets in the water one more time and watched them sink down into the darkness. I stared at the line in my hand, debating with myself over whether I should bother to pull it back up or just let it stay down there and rot.” Rama reached up to ease his long fingers back through his thick hair. “But of course I didn’t. I felt a tug, a shudder in the line. I pulled up the net and it was full of fish. Full.”
“Full.” Asha nodded slowly. “Sounds like a good thing.”
Rama laughed. “I guess it would be, normally. But we’ve never pulled up a full net. None of us. Not ever. But my net was full. I almost fell into the water wrestling it all into the boat. Catfish, carp, loach, and trout. I just sat there for a minute, staring at all that life squirming and wriggling and flopping in my net. And then I rolled it over to dump them all out again into the water. The net snagged on something. Probably my own foot. So I sat there trying to shake myself free and get the fish out the boat and as I looked down, a flash of gold in the net caught my eye. I reached down into the net, into all those fish, and just for a second, I saw her.”
“Vina. I saw her face in a blaze of light, like fire, like the sun. I saw her,” Rama said, smiling. “She was alive, and happy, and waiting for me. She was so beautiful.”
Asha chewed her ginger. “But then you were blind.”
Rama nodded. “But then I was blind.”
“Any other symptoms?” Asha took a moment to look him over again. Perfect skin, straight white teeth, clean nails, and healthy lips. Such beautiful lips.
“You mean pain or something? No. No, I feel fine. I feel wonderful.”
“Good.” She looked down the floating dock at the two narrow canoes tied there. “Can I use one of your boats tomorrow?”
When Asha woke at dawn, Rama was already gone. She stepped outside and spotted the man far out on the lake, a slender line snaking out across the water from the dock to his boat. Priya stood in the doorway behind her holding Jagdish in the crook of her arm. The mongoose stood up and squeaked.
“So, do you think you can help him?” the nun asked.
“Maybe. What do you think about him?”
Priya smiled. “I think he’s a very nice person. And considering how happy and content he is after losing his wife and his sight, I’d say he has a remarkable soul.”
“Maybe.” Asha paced down the wobbling, floating dock and untied the remaining fishing boat. She sat down in the bottom of the boat and pushed away from shore.
“What are you looking for?” Priya called from the house.
“Actually, it’s something I’m hoping to not find.” Asha picked up the paddle and began drawing long slow strokes across the surface of the lake. The little boat glided swiftly into the rising sun that flashed and glared in her eyes. She shaded her eyes as she dragged her paddle and let the boat come to a stop above the wavering shadows on the lakebed below. Leaning over, Asha could make out the shapes of the rocks and the slithering tangles of the long grasses on the bottom. A dark fish drifted past.
She shuffled her feet and hips, trying to get comfortable. After a few minutes, a second dark fish drifted past. It might have been the same fish.
Asha closed her eyes and put her left hand over her left ear. In her right ear, the life of every fish in the lake, every bird in the rushes, and every blade of grass on the shore resonated through her head. She heard whispers and sighs, gurgles and bubbles, and the occasional high-pitched warble. Nothing she hadn’t heard before. Just grebes and carps and green things growing in the earth.
With her right hand idly sweeping through the water, she drifted wherever the wind and waves carried her. Listening.
That evening she paddled back to the dock with a mild sunburn and a growling stomach. Priya and Rama were steaming rice in a clay pot and cooking fish in grass bundles on a pile of coals in the sand. They were talking about their favorite shades of black and laughing.
Asha cleared her throat and plopped down on the warm grass beside them.
“Catch anything?” Rama asked as he handed her a cup of tea.
“No,” Asha said. “Nothing unusual out there at all. Just a beautiful lake.”
“Oh, never underestimate a lake,” he said. “Certainly not one like this.”
“What do you mean?” asked Priya.
“Well, I’ve only lived here a short time, but I know something about living on the water, and no matter how much you think you know about a place, there is always more to find. Everything is always moving, always changing. The fish find new places to hunt or hide. A shift in the seasons will wake up some poor creature that’s been sleeping in the mud for years and years. Things fall in and get lost. Things wash up and are found.” Rama smiled his beautiful smile. “A lake is a living thing.”
After supper, Priya took Jagdish to one of the neighboring houses to play with the children as the first pale stars began to appear in the blue-black sky. Asha and Rama went to sit on the little walkway around the edge of his dark house with their feet dangling in the cool water. A warm breeze spiced with pepper and sweetened with mangos blew across the water, and from the other houses the soft sounds of laughter and off-key singing mingled with the rustling of the fiery palash blossoms above them.
“So this is your life?” he said. “You travel the world listening to peoples’ stories and floating around in their boats?”
“Sometimes I climb mountains to find rare flowers, or cross deserts for strange fruits, or stalk through forests for strange beasts.” She smiled. “But mostly, yes, I float around in strangers’ boats to enjoy the sun. Speaking of which.” Asha reached back into the house to fumble through her shoulder bag in the dark. A moment later she leaned forward again with a small jar in her hand. “You’ve been alone here for a long time, haven’t you? I’ve been alone for a long time, too. It comes with the job, I suppose. I don’t mind it, usually. But sometimes, well…” She began gently spreading the lotion on her arms and face.
“That smells good.”
“It’s just aloe, but I mixed in some rose petals.”
He shifted closer. “Can I help you with that?”
“To rub the lotion on my skin?” Asha smiled. “We’re not that young anymore, Rama.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I don’t want to waste time going through the motions.” She reached over and pressed her lips to his. He tensed for a moment, and then kissed her back, slipping his hand through her hair to cradle her head and hold her close. Asha pulled her legs under her to kneel beside him, holding his face with both her hands. She led him through the kisses, pressing hard and pulling back, opening and closing her mouth to taste the traces of pepper and mango still clinging to his lips.
When his hands began to roam down her neck and chest, she wrapped her fingers around his and pulled him up to his feet and led him into the dark house. They stood together on the tangled blankets, slowly undressing each other. She untied his trousers. He unwound her sari. Their clothes fell silently to the floor and she pushed him gently down onto his back. Kneeling over him, she eased down against his warm flesh, and felt his hands exploring her hips and belly and breasts.
His hands continued to rove across her shoulders and neck and face, but only when his fingers grazed her right ear did she move his hand back down to her chest. They rocked gently together in the darkness, in the silence. Asha closed her eyes and listened to the crickets chirping and frogs croaking and the children singing just down the shore. Rama’s breathing was long and deep, his hands hot and strong holding her tightly against him as he quickened and moaned in the dark.
She held him tightly, still rocking and gliding her hips until she shuddered, and exhaled.
For a moment she sat very still, letting the night breeze caress her body and carry away the heat in her skin. Then she lay down beside him, wrapped herself up in his long arms, and closed her eyes.
“Would you stay here with me, if I asked you to?”
She listened to the rhythm of her heart beating and his heart beating, and to the world outside laughing and sighing and gathering in to rest for the night. “You barely know me.”
“I know. But life is so short, and joy can be so rare.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about staying anywhere in a long time.” She sighed in the dark. “I take what little joy I can find, but I’m not looking for more than that. Not now, anyway.”
“Oh. I see.” There was a hint of disappointment in his voice, but his warm arm didn’t move from her belly, and she put her hand on his to keep it there.
Asha had almost fallen asleep when she heard a soft trilling in the distance like tiny bells ringing in a faraway shrine. But she could only hear it in her right ear.
Asha opened her eyes and saw the soft dawn’s light on the wall. Rama was gone and his boat was gone with its line stretched out far across the lake. She sat up and saw Priya sitting just outside the door.
The nun stroked her mongoose’s head and smiled. “That was fast.”
Asha shrugged and stretched. “Life is short, or so I’m told.”
“For some more than others.” Priya offered her a cool cup of tea. “Will we be staying a while longer to study the local wildlife, or will we be moving on to a certain nearby temple?”
“Not yet,” Asha said. “There’s something I need to do, something I need to check. I’m going out on the lake again.”
“I thought you already looked. Or listened, as it were.”
“Maybe not enough.” Asha untied the second boat and paddled out across the sparkling waters of the lake. She leaned down to place her right ear near the water and closed her eyes, but this time she went on paddling, driving the boat back and forth across the lake again and again all day long. But the lake was massive. It took nearly an hour to cross once and return, and she knew that anything swimming in the deep might easily slip past her on her long trips here and there and back again.
Still she paddled and listened. She heard the fish and the grass and the birds and the trees, and as the hours passed she began to wonder if she had really heard the soft bells the night before. It was early in the afternoon when Asha put the paddle down and she lay back in the narrow boat to rest her arms. Cradled in the rocking boat and warmed by the sun, she was slipping into a welcome nap when she heard the bells again. And again, she only heard them in her right ear.
Asha leaned over the side of the boat, staring down into the water at the rocks and sand, at the grass and weeds.
A thin black shape darted past and the bells tinkled louder. Asha grabbed her paddle and propelled the boat forward with a few rough strokes and then leaned down with her nose just touching the water, watching and waiting. The muddy bottom of the lake was very close here with the reeds and trees standing at the water’s edge only a stone’s throw away.
The black shape darted past again and Asha struck. Her hand stabbed down into the lake, her fingers closed, and she drew the snake up out of the water. She held it gently, pressing only as much as she needed to keep it from escaping. With one hand around its throat behind the jaw and the other hand around the end of its tail, she drew it out straight in the glaring sunlight.
It was a scaled snake and not an eel, only a half dozen hand spans long with a narrow head. And it was black. Jet black all over. It glistened as the water ran off its body and every few moments it would give a sharp jerk, trying to whip its tail free.
Asha studied the snake’s head and eyes for a moment, and then shut her own eyes to listen to the bells, the delicate tinkling bells that seemed to be ringing from each and every one of the snake’s scales. With a lump in her throat, she turned her head so she couldn’t see the snake at all and then gave it a sharp squeeze. From the corner of her eye, she saw the bright flash of golden light on the side of the boat and the surface of the water.
She slumped in the bottom of the boat, still holding the snake tightly in both hands. Taking a deep breath, Asha snapped the snake’s neck and tossed the limp body into the front of the boat. For the next hour she sat there, letting the wind and waves carry her back out to the center of the lake while she stared at her hands and feet and did nothing.
Eventually she picked up her paddle and went back to the shore.
“It’s a sunsnake,” she said.
Priya and Rama nodded, neither one facing the black shape coiled on the floor in front of them. Asha picked it up again and ran her fingers over its cold scales. “It looks like an ordinary grass snake, but it lives in fresh water. And it’s black, except when it’s scared.”
“It changes color?” Priya asked.
“No. It blinds its enemies with a flash of light, like a lightning bug. Or ten thousand lightning bugs. Or really, like a bolt of lightning.”
Rama nodded. “And the blindness is permanent.”
“No, it isn’t.” Asha watched the tin kettle bubbling on the fire. “It’s just a flash, just like regular lightning. It blinds the predator for a moment, but only a moment, so the sunsnake can escape. But the light does more than blind the eyes. It triggers a reaction in the brain that causes euphoria, even hallucinations.”
Rama covered his sightless eyes with his hand, his lips pressed tightly together.
Priya touched his knee. “You said you saw your wife when you lost your sight that day.”
He nodded quickly.
“But Asha, why hasn’t his sight returned?”
“It did return, didn’t it, Rama?” Asha asked. “But after that first time, you went out looking for the sunsnake again, didn’t you?”
He nodded again. “I just wanted to see my Vina again. I just wanted that moment again. That happiness. That lightness.”
Asha looked down at the little black snake. “How many times?”
“I don’t know. Every day for months. Dozens of times, I suppose. And each time it took longer for my eyes to recover. And then one day, they didn’t.” He took his hand from his face to reveal a serene smile. “But it was all right. I didn’t mind.”
“Because you can still see her, can’t you?” asked Asha. “You have the visions all the time now, don’t you?” She hesitated, and then whispered, “You’re always looking at her.”
Rama nodded. “I’m sorry. I know I was weak. And selfish. And lonely. But that light, that golden light, it gave me everything I wanted. It gave me back my Vina.”
“No, it just gave you a dream to dull the pain.” Asha poured a cup of hot water and then scraped some of the scales and skin from the snake into the cup. “But I can bring you back to the real world, Rama. If that’s what you want. All you have to do is drink this.” She pressed the warm cup into his hand. “Drink this and your eyes will heal and the visions will end and you can come back to live in the real world again.”
He held the cup in his lap, turning it slowly between his hands. “I do want that. I want a real life. I want more nights like last night.” He reached out to her, but Asha did not take his hand. “And I want children. I want to wake up. I do. That’s what I want.” He drank from the cup slowly, sipping the steaming water until it was all gone.
“It will take a little time,” Asha said. “You should probably go to sleep and let the drink work. I think by morning you’ll feel very differently.”
Rama nodded. “Will you stay with me?”
Asha paused. “Yes.”
Asha woke before dawn in a gray twilight world. Everything was cold. The air, the blankets, the floor. Slowly, she recalled the rest of the prior evening.
Supper. Talking by the water. Talking about the future.
Priya had excused herself again to visit the children with Jagdish, and Asha had gone to bed early, and alone.
But when Rama lay down beside her and gently wrapped his arm around her waist, she did not push him away. She rested her hand on his and prayed for sleep to come quickly.
Asha sat up and saw Priya still asleep across the room. The mongoose lay balled up in the nun’s hair, his nose resting in one of the pale lotus blossoms on her head. Asha stood and padded across the room to the door. In the shadows, she stumbled over her bag on the floor and heard some of her tools and jars and vials clink and clack in the dark. She stepped over them and out onto the cool grass soaked with the morning dew.
Rama was sitting by the water, hunched forward with his knees pulled up to his chest, his arms folded across his knees.
Asha sat down beside him. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” he whispered. His eyes were open.
“How do you feel?”
“Different,” he said. “I’m waiting for the sun.”
“Tell me what you see now.”
He shook his head a little. “Not much. Light gray, dark gray. Sky, water, trees. Maybe.”
“That’s good. Just take it slowly.” She leaned closer to him, but he did not look at her.
The eastern sky grew lighter, gray transforming into soft golds and pinks as the ragged lines of the clouds emerged from the gloom.
“Do you see it?” she asked.
He nodded. “I see it.”
The edge of the sun crept above the edge of the world and the lake flashed with the first bright glares of pink and gold as the clouds blazed softly like frozen fire across the sky.
“I can see the sun,” Rama said softly. “I can see the trees and the water.” He turned his head toward her and a faint smile curled the corner of his mouth. “I can see you, too. You have beautiful eyes.”
Asha smiled at him, but he turned away again to stare at the lake.
“But I can’t see Vina anymore. She’s gone. She’s gone forever now, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is. But she’s been gone for a long time now, Rama. You’ve been holding on to a memory, to a dream. But this is a new day. A whole new life for you.” She held out her hand to him.
His lip trembled. “But she… I can’t… I can’t live this life anymore, not without her. I’m sorry.” He unfolded his arms to free his hand and she saw the glint of sunlight on the tiny blade as he thrust it into his neck.
Asha watched him fall back into the grass. Rama shivered and sputtered as the blood flowed from his throat and mouth, his wide eyes searching the dawn-streaked skies while his hands pawed at the ground. She leapt up and clasped her hands over the wound, squeezing and pressing with all her weight, shouting over and over, “No! Rama, no!”
The sun was high in the late morning sky when Priya finally said good-bye to the families who lived by the lake. It had only taken Rama a few seconds to die, and it had only taken a few moments longer for everyone to come running out to see what was happening. Asha tried to remember exactly what had happened, and how, and why, but the thoughts refused to come together in her mind. The only image that materialized was the shape of the little blade. The shape of a steel scalpel.
My scalpel in his hand.
And then there had been the long, cold hours of standing beside the palash tree and watching the women tend to the body, watching the men burn the body, listening to Priya chanting softly, her voice echoing across the cold waters. Asha leaned against the tree and stared up at the fiery orange flowers.
Priya stood beside Asha with Jagdish on her shoulder and her bamboo rod in her hand. “We don’t have to leave right this minute if you’re not ready.”
Asha looked out across the lake at the grebes gliding across the water. “I’m ready now.”
The nun touched Asha’s arm. “It’s all right to grieve.”
“Why would I grieve? He wasn’t mine, not even when we slept together. He was always hers. I didn’t have him before, and I don’t have him now. So his death doesn’t change anything.” Asha began walking away. “It doesn’t change anything at all.”
The Bitter Fruit
Asha strode along the mountain path, only rarely pointing out the odd tree root or rock underfoot. Priya followed a few paces behind with her bamboo rod in hand and the little mongoose Jagdish perched on her shoulder. The blind woman never stumbled and never once complained about the pace or the path.
“How much daylight is left?” the nun asked.
“Too little.” Asha poked a sliver of ginger into the corner of her mouth and began chewing. “We may not reach the next village before nightfall. I’ll try to find someplace sheltered from the wind for us to sleep.”
They walked on. Asha minded the setting sun as she followed the path down the rocky hillside into the forest. Brittle brown leaves crunched softly underfoot as the fading daylight filtered through the yellow and crimson leaves overhead. Few scents remained to tell of the summer bounty and now the forest smelled only faintly of earth and decay, laced with the light fragrance of the white lotuses blooming in Priya’s hair.
“Asha?” The nun petted the mongoose on her shoulder as she swept the path ahead with her bamboo rod. “If you had a glass of water, and the level of the water was half the height of the glass, how would you describe the glass?”
“Half empty.” The herbalist glanced back. “Is that supposed to tell you something about me? That I only see the negative, the void, the failing, the disappointments in life?”
The nun nodded. “When we ask that question of children, yes. But I already know that you are a pessimist. I asked the question for a different reason. I wanted to point out to you the great deception of the mind, the deception of western philosophy.”
“And what deception is that?”
“The illusion of duality,” Priya said. “It’s a natural error, but the rise of the Ahura Mazdan Temple in the west has spread it far and wide, as far as my temple in Kolkata and probably your family’s home in Kathmandu. The Mazdans see the world in terms of opposites. Creator and destroyer, light and darkness, good and evil. They’ve been teaching this philosophy since I was young, and now it is common for people everywhere to see the world in such terms. Large and small, hot and cold, young and old. Everything must be labeled such, everything must choose a side, as though the entire universe were preparing for a great war.”
“Your point?” Asha continued down the path, deeper into the forest, deeper into the shadows. The air grew steadily cooler.
“My point is that there is another way to see the world. A better way.”
“Then how do you answer the question? If the glass is not half empty or half full, then what is it?”
Priya smiled. “The glass is larger than amount of water it holds.”
Asha sighed. “It’s the same thing.”
“No, it isn’t. When you say that the glass is half empty, as you did, you are focusing on the half without water and ignoring the half that is full. But if you say the glass is half full, you make the same error, ignoring the half that is empty. If you are to see the world as it truly is, then you must see both halves of the glass at the same time, both empty and full. Thus, to describe the glass properly, you must describe all of it at once, which is to say that the glass is larger than its contents. Do you see the difference?”
Asha ducked under a tree branch. “Is that really better? I mean, who cares about the glass? The whole point of the glass is the water. Without any water, the glass is useless.”
Priya stopped abruptly, frowning. Then she ducked under the tree branch and continued on. “I’m just offering you another way to look at the world. A way that isn’t tied to your own feelings, a way of thinking outside the self. Dispassionate. Open-minded. I worry about you. If you spend your life only seeing the darkness, you may come to believe that darkness is all that exists.”
Asha pushed through a curtain of leaves hanging across the trail and saw two small houses in the distance, two little mud and wood shacks leaning into the shadows by the side of the path.
“Houses,” she said softly.
The left shack’s window and door gaped dark and vacant. One wall had lost several planks and the thatching on the roof was perilously thin, revealing the timbers. The right one stood in better repair, though still crumbling from neglect, and it had a tattered cloth hanging across the window and the doorway as well.
“Can you describe these houses?” the nun asked.
Asha heard a dry cough inside the house on the right. She heard nothing from the house on the left. She shrugged and said, “Half empty.”
Asha approached the curtained doorway slowly, calling out, “Hello? Is there someone here?” No one answered. She looked around the path and the empty house across the way, but there was no sign of anyone else around. Priya shook her head. “I don’t hear anything.”
Asha cocked her head and closed her eyes. She listened with her right ear, listening to the soft music of all living things, the harmonies of plant and animal and human souls. She heard the shushing and sighing of the trees and the frenetic buzzing of the forest’s ants and beetles, and even a few birds and snakes, some of them far away. And from inside the house she heard the beating of human hearts, the gentle tides of warm blood flowing through aged bodies, the faint humming of human souls only barely alive and barely aware.
“Someone’s here.” Asha drew back the curtain in the doorway and leaned inside. She saw six bodies lying on the floor, all resting peacefully on their backs or sides, eyes closed, chests rising and falling with an almost invisible rhythm.
“How many?” Priya asked.
“Six. All alive, but…” Asha stepped inside and knelt beside the first person, an old man with skin so dry and shriveled it felt like tree bark. He was cool to the touch. Moving on, she found them all the same. All elderly, frail, rough, and cool.
“Are they dying? Is it a disease?” the nun asked.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Asha said as she inspected the last body. “They don’t seem ill, just very old. Close to death, really.” She set her bag on the floor and rummaged through it for her tools. She pulled out a small mirror and held it over a woman’s mouth and watched the tiny plume of fog form on the glass. “Barely breathing, but the lungs are dry. Weak pulses, but steady. They may not be able to wake up. Too weak to move, no way to feed themselves. They’ll die soon.”
“How strange. Is there no one caring for them?”
Asha looked around the shadowed room. She saw six bodies in tattered clothes, each one covered by a moth-eaten blanket, each of their heads near the center of the room where a cracked and stained wooden bowl sat. The bowl was empty. “I don’t know. Maybe someone else lives here, someone younger who takes care of them. A nurse or a monk or a child. Maybe they’ve gone out for food.”
“What should we do?”
Asha glanced out the window. “It’s late. We’ll stay the night here and look after these people. Hopefully their caretaker will come back soon and then we can ask about their condition. Maybe I can help. Maybe not.”
They shared an apple for supper and then the two women and their little mongoose curled up in the corner of the room and fell asleep.
From a dreamless oblivion, Asha awoke. She lay very still, peering into the darkness. There had been a sound, but she was not sure if it had been a true sound in her left ear or something stranger in her right ear. The dragon scales itched but she did not touch them. She sat up and looked around the room. Priya lay snoring on her back with the little mongoose Jagdish curled up in her hair. The six elderly sleepers appeared unchanged, all lying at different angles to fill the floor space according to their heights with their heads all clustered in the center of the room and their legs spiraling crookedly out to the walls.
A soft thump drew Asha’s gaze to the center of the room where the bowl made a black circle in the shadows. Beside the bowl a small black shape rested on the floor. Round but lumpy, the thing teetered and rocked for a moment before coming to a stop. She looked up and saw several holes in the roof thatching all large enough that she might put her whole arm through them. Outside a light breeze troubled the trees and the leaves shushed and sighed like a wave crashing over a beach and a second thump sounded in the center of the room. Asha peered into the shadows and saw another little black shape rolling inside the bowl with a third one next to it.
She crept to the bowl and picked up one of the little black objects and found it was a fruit, though not one she recognized. It had a rough, wrinkled, leathery skin covered in prickly little hairs. Asha held the fruit to her ear, listening for the telltale thrum of life, the sound of the seed’s tiny, unborn plant soul. After a moment she heard it. The fruit rang like a silver coin flung into the air to spin on the wind.
Asha stumbled away from the bowl and tripped over someone’s legs, falling back hard on her rear with the fruit clutched in her fist. “Who? Who’s there?”
Silence. Asha stared around the room. Priya was still sleeping soundly in the corner. And when Asha turned her right ear from side to side, she heard only the aetheric hums and whines and booms of the forest, the insects, the birds, and the six old people lying on the floor. Souls everywhere, but none of them new.
Asha looked down and saw a wrinkled face with yellowing eyes staring up at her. The old woman was drawn and thin, weathered and withered like an old tree desiccated by the sun and the wind in some dry and thirsty land.
“You’re awake.” Asha knelt beside the woman and cradled her fragile head in her hands. “Why are you all alone here? Who is taking care of you?”
“Fruit.” The woman shook her clawing fingers at the morsel in Asha’s hand.
Asha gave the rough little fruit to the woman, who gently pressed it whole between her lips. After a moment of awkward jawing and grunting, she swallowed it. The woman smiled. “Thank you.”
Asha leaned down close to the woman’s face, trying to inspect her eyes and mouth in the darkness. “Is there someone coming to care for you?”
“No,” the woman whispered. “We’re alone.”
“But you’re dying.”
“No. Not dying.”
Asha frowned. “Go back to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”
The woman closed her eyes.
When the sun’s first pale pinks and yellows streaked the sky, Asha was still awake. She sat in the corner with her back against the wall, staring out across the room. Priya yawned and sat up. Jagdish rolled out of her hair, shook himself from whiskers to tail, and then squeaked for his breakfast. Priya nudged the little mongoose away and he scampered out the door in search of his own food.
“Did you sleep well?” the nun asked.
“I spoke to that woman.” Asha pointed at one of the motionless figures. Then she pressed one of the rough fruits into her friend’s hand. “I heard these falling through the roof. Eight of them fell into the room during the night.”
Priya rolled the tiny fruit in her palm. “What is it?”
“It looks like a gurbir, almost like a strawberry. But different. Darker and rougher.” Asha took the fruit back. “Don’t eat them.”
“Are they poisonous?”
“I don’t know. But during the night, I watched each of our friends here wake up just long enough to eat one or two of them and then fall back asleep. They swallowed them whole.”
Priya sat very still with her hands resting in her lap and her face pointed out across the room as though she could see the people on the floor. “Then are these people starving to death? They must be if they’re only eating a single berry each day.”
“Maybe.” Asha frowned. “But why would six people all lie down to die in this house, which just happens to be providing enough food to keep them alive? There’s something wrong with these fruits.”
“No,” whispered the woman on the floor. It was same woman Asha had spoken to during the night, and though her eyes were not open, her lips were moving slightly.
Asha crept forward and leaned her left ear down to the woman’s mouth. “My name is Asha. I’m an herbalist. What’s your name?”
“Hasika, how did you come to be here like this? Are you sick? Where are you from? And who are these other people?”
“My family,” Hasika whispered. “Father, mother, sisters, brother.”
“Is this house your home?” Priya asked.
Asha held up one of the dark fruits. “What are these? I’ve never seen them before.”
“I don’t know.” Hasika’s voice sounded like dry leaves on the wind. “We never noticed them either, until one day when we found one had fallen through a hole in the roof. We didn’t have much food, so we started eating those berries.”
“How do they taste?” Asha sniffed the one in her hand.
“Terrible. They sting and burn your throat and nostrils, but only if you bite into them.”
Asha nodded. “So that’s why you swallow them whole. You know, bad tastes are nature’s way of telling you not to eat something, right? How long have you been eating these things?”
“I don’t know. It must have been soon after the little prince was born. Prince Pratap.”
Asha glanced back at Priya before remembering that the nun knew nothing of recent politics and the name meant nothing to her. “Prince Pratap is now Lord Pratap Singh. He was born over thirty years ago.”
The shriveled old woman blinked. “Oh my.”
“I don’t understand,” Asha said. “There’s no way that you could all live so long just eating these little fruits.”
Hasika smiled. “Well, we don’t move about much.”
Asha looked around sharply. “Then who cleans up after you?”
“No one. No need.”
Asha frowned. “That doesn’t seem healthy.”
“It’s healthy. Unless you stop eating them.”
Asha quickly set the fruit down in the bowl and wiped her hand on her sari. “What happens if you stop eating them?”
“When I was old enough, I married a young man named Niraj from the village at the bottom of the road,” Hasika said. “He was a very good tracker and trapper, and he was very good at building and fixing things. So when we married, he came to live here with my family instead of having me live with him in the village. Here, he could build his own house and help my father, and be closer to the game trails. And by living away from the village, he said he could keep the smells of people off his clothing, which made it easier for him to go hunting.
“The first year was very nice. We built this house and he was able to catch more than enough food for our table and to sell in the village. But then we had a very dry summer, and there were fires, and Niraj would come home empty-handed more often than not. We were all very worried. We asked everyone for advice, even travelers on the road. There was talk about moving on over the mountains to another village closer to the sea. But one little old man said we should wait a bit longer, so we did. It was easier to wait than to go. And then one night the first of these strange fruits fell through the roof. They tasted terrible, as I said, but we were worried about starving, so we tried boiling them and baking them, and eventually we just swallowed them whole.
“Days went by and Niraj was still unable to find any food in the forest and soon we were all living only on the fruits.” Hasika sighed. “We grew weaker, of course. We knew we were starving, so one night we discussed the matter and decided to leave the next morning for the villages beyond the mountains.
“But that night, something strange happened. We dreamed. We all dreamed about this house and this forest. But the house was huge and beautiful, with rooms for each of us, and more food than we could eat, and the forest was warm and every branch and vine was drooping with bright flowers and delicious berries.” Hasika swallowed. “In the morning we talked and found we had all dreamed the same dream. My parents thought the dream might be a vision of the future, a message from Vishnu, a promise of wealth and happiness if we stayed in this house. So we stayed a little longer. Every day we ate the little fruits that fell through the roof and every night we dreamed of living in another world, a better world. And day by day, we all wasted away until we were too weak to move.”
Priya reached out to touch Asha’s knee. The nun said, “Could this fruit be cursed? Could the tree that drops it be possessed by some restless ghost? What sort of spirit would want to trap these poor people in a living death like this?”
Asha shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.” She brushed her long black hair behind her right ear, tugging free the few strands that snagged on the rough dragon scales on her skin. “We’ve been here half a day and I haven’t heard anything like that nearby.”
“Heard?” Hasika frowned.
Asha tilted her head down to show her scaled ear. “I can hear things, living and otherwise. I can hear you and your family, the forest, the animals, even the tree leaning over your house. But I don’t hear any spirits.”
“What happened to Niraj?” Priya asked. “You said the other people here now were your parents and siblings, but not your husband. Where is he?”
Hasika nodded. “After many months of living like this, lying on the floor, drifting in and out of our blissful dreams, Niraj said he couldn’t go on. He was ashamed of what had become of us. He said he would rather die outside than lie on the floor like a corpse, so he stopped eating the fruit.”
Asha glanced around the room. “What happened to his body?”
Hasika shook her head. “Niraj didn’t die. After two days without the fruit, he found he could sit up. He was still very weak, of course, but his skin was soft and he could breathe easy. He crawled outside and drank from the stream at the bottom of the hill. The next day he crawled back inside with half a mango he found on the ground. Day by day, he grew stronger eating the mangos and drinking from the stream until soon he could stand and walk, and he looked like his old self again. With only one mouth to feed instead of seven, it was easy for him live off the land here.”
“And then he left you,” Asha said.
“No. He stayed. He repaired the house, all but the roof so we could have our fruits,” Hasika said. “Niraj begged us all to stop eating the fruits. He still wanted to cross the mountains and find a new home. And I remember he wanted children.”
“But?” Priya petted her little mongoose.
“But I couldn’t give up the fruits. None of us could. The dreams are so vivid, so real. Sometimes I wonder if the dreams are the real world and this dark, dirty room is just a nightmare I sometimes fall into.” Hasika closed her eyes.
“If Niraj didn’t starve and he didn’t leave, then where is he?” Asha touched the woman’s cheek. “Where is your husband?”
Hasika sighed. “He stayed a year. For a whole year, he stayed here, watching over us, talking to us. I would wake to eat my fruit and hear him whispering to us in the dark, and then I would go back to my dreams. I didn’t even listen to him. But one night, I woke and saw him sitting in the doorway, silhouetted against the starlight. He was gasping for breath. The next night, he was lying on the floor by the door, as though he’d just fallen over the night before. And the night after that he was dead. His flesh shriveled and hardened, just like ours, just like before. He lay there for days, and then one night I awoke and his body was gone. Just gone.”
Asha nodded. “Scavengers. Dogs or dholes, probably.”
“So you see,” Hasika said. “If we stop eating the fruit, we’ll live only a year or so, and then we’ll die. So we continue to eat the fruit, and we dream.” She shivered. “I’m so tired.”
“Sleep now.” Asha eased the woman’s head back down to the floor. “We’ll talk again later.”
“We’ve seen something like this before,” Priya said gently. “Addiction. Hallucination. Dependence.”
“No. Not like this. Nothing like this.” Asha stared at the withered lines of Hasika’s face. “Desiccated. Starved. At death’s door. If they stop eating the fruit, they recover. Then they die a year later. This is different. This is new.”
The sun hung well above the eastern trees, but its light was still pale and the sky was still dark slate in the west, and the breeze blew quite cool through the open windows.
“Can you help them?” the nun asked.
“I have no idea.” Asha began to chew on a fresh sliver of ginger. “But I’ll try.”
“What can I do to help?”
Asha shrugged. “Play with Jagdish. Tell stories. Criticize my outlook on life. You know, the usual.” The herbalist opened her bag and drew out her tools one by one. Glasses, vials, needles, lenses, mortar and pestle, paper packets, cloth bags, silk thread, and clay jars. Musty, earthen aromas hung in the air, lingering close to the woman’s clothes and hands, until the morning breeze rose up and swept them all away.
She inspected each of the motionless dreamers in turn, peering into their yellowed eyes and their pale mouths. She passed scented vials under their noses, rubbed ointments on their skin, pricked their fingers and toes with her needles, and passed her scaled ear over the length of their bodies, listening. She found nothing but brittle limbs wrapped in papery flesh, weak lungs and hearts, and restless minds lost in fantasy.
Priya said, “I’m trying to decide whether these people have succumbed to their desire to escape their suffering, or whether they may have unwittingly found a loophole in the cycle of life and death. I was taught that life is suffering and suffering comes from desire, thus to escape suffering you must free yourself from desire. But these people… They seem to have escaped their suffering by embracing their desire completely. And at the same time, they have escaped death itself. They live forever in perfect bliss in a dream world. And who am I to say their dream world is any better or worse than Lord Buddha’s nirvana?”
Asha hovered over Hasika. “Are you serious? You wouldn’t say that if you could see them. They’re a bunch of delusional vegetables. But if you really think this is paradise, then I can give you some of their little fruits to eat.”
Priya smiled her mysterious smile. “Not today.”
“No,” the nun said. “But if I went to sleep here, who would take care of Jagdish?” The little mongoose chattered on her shoulder.
“I’d be happy to let him sit on my shoulder.” Asha began her inspection of Hasika’s body at the feet and worked her way up. “I might even feed him.”
“Ah, but then who would take care of you?”
Asha smiled wryly. “I managed on my own just fine before I met you.”
“Really? You never talk about those days. Tell me a story about how you managed just fine without me.” Priya smiled a bit wider.
Asha paused at Hasika’s knees. “Several years ago I was in Delhi studying the rats. I’d heard a rumor that some people bitten by these rats had been miraculously healed. Arthritis, deafness, blindness. Other people had died instantly, as though they’d been poisoned.”
Priya nodded. “I think I’ve heard of the rats of Delhi. What did you find?”
“Nothing. Nothing but common rats and common lies. I get that a lot, actually.” Asha rubbed gently at the rough, wrinkled skin of Hasika’s leg. “I went to sleep in a nunnery, and in the night I was attacked by one of the men I had spoken with about the rats. He must have followed me there.”
Priya’s smile vanished.
“I woke with a hand on my mouth and a knee on my leg, holding me down. He stank of urine.” Asha spoke softly, her eyes fixed on her patient. “I remember the way my heart pounded in my chest. I was gasping for breath, choking on the stink of him. I felt my bag at my side. I shoved my hand inside the bag and when he leaned down closer, I stabbed him through the ear with one of my needles.”
She paused to glance at her bag where the needle in question lay wrapped in silk.
“You killed him?” Priya asked. “You killed that man?”
“I did. It wasn’t the first time, and it wasn’t the last time. And if given the choice, I would do it again exactly the same.” Asha sniffed. “Maybe a little faster.”
“But killing is…evil.”
“No, murder is evil. Rape is evil. But killing an animal in self defense is simply nature’s way.” Asha leaned down to listen to Hasika’s body. She heard the blood flowing thick and sluggish in the veins, the air drifting lazily in the lungs. “Everything that lives must die. Sometimes naturally, sometimes violently. Sometimes for good reasons or bad reasons or no reason at all. Everyone dies. Except for these people, it seems.”
Priya shivered in her corner of the room. “I was taught not to fear death. I was taught… I was told that it…”
“Yeah, I know.” Asha glanced back at the tiny nun hunched in the shadows. “We’re all taught things. And then we go out into the world and start to learn for the first time.”
The herbalist rubbed her eyes a moment and then leaned back down to listen to the rhythms of life in Hasika’s feeble body one last time. The soft heart beat, the faint flutter of breath. And…
Asha frowned. “Unbelievable.”
“Hasika? Hasika?” Asha stroked the woman’s cheek. She didn’t dare shake the woman’s brittle shoulder.
It was late. The sun had set hours ago and Asha had sat there all the while, watching and waiting as the shadows grew longer and deeper. Outside the wind whispered through the leaves and the cicadas creaked and droned in the distance.
Three fruits had fallen so far, thumping softly into the bowl in the center of the room. And three hands had crept over the edge of the bowl to claim the fruits and deliver them whole into waiting mouths. But not Hasika. Not yet.
The frail old woman opened her eyes halfway. “You.”
Asha smiled. “Me.”
“I thought I had dreamed you. But you’re real. You’re here, in the dark house.”
“It’s only dark at night,” Priya said. “It’s quite bright during the day. Or so I imagine.”
“Hasika, listen to me.” Asha took the woman’s hand. It felt like a bundle of twigs wrapped in old paper. “I have something important to tell you.”
The words hung in the air. The wind blew, the leaves shivered, the cicadas chirped, and Jagdish squeaked in the dark folds of Priya’s hair.
“That’s impossible,” Hasika said.
“It’s not only possible, it’s true.” Asha rested the woman’s hand on her belly. “You must have been two or three months along when you started eating the fruits and the pregnancy was frozen along with the rest of your body. But the baby seems to be fine. I can hear its heart beating.”
Hasika whispered, “Niraj.”
“Yes. A part of him is still alive inside you.” Asha leaned back. “If you stop eating the fruits, you could recover the same way Niraj did, and the pregnancy should resume as before.”
“But I’ll die,” Hasika said. “Just like Niraj did. And the baby will be alone. He’ll die too.”
Asha arched an eyebrow. “You might die like Niraj did. You might not. But it’s the only way to let the child live. And I never said it was a boy. Sometimes they come out as girls, you know.”
“But I don’t want to die.”
“Most people don’t, but everything dies.” Asha frowned. “You told me that Niraj wanted a normal life with children. He wanted them so much that he stopped eating the fruits, but he didn’t leave you. He stayed here with you, Hasika, waiting for you because he loved you. He could have left, but he didn’t because he wanted to have his children with you.”
“How do you know?” Hasika asked. “How could you possibly know that he loved me so much?”
“Because he stopped eating the fruits. Because he gave up his dreams for you. And he waited for you.” Asha sat back and let her hair fall forward around her face, covering her ears. “So give up the fruits. Have the baby. I’ll help you.”
“But I’ll die!”
“Maybe.” Asha frowned. “But you’re barely alive now as it is. Maybe you’ll die, and maybe not. Maybe the fruits will kill you eventually, too. I don’t know. But Niraj deserves more. Your husband gave up his dreams for you, and you abandoned him. So he lost his dreams, his wife, and his child all at once. You took everything from him.”
“But who would raise the baby when I die? Tell me that!”
“You have a room full of family here,” Asha said. “There’s a village just down the hill, and more villages just a few days’ walk from here. You’re not alone.”
“I am alone, at least here in the dark world. But in the dream, everything is better. The dream is what I want, and it’s my life to live. My life.”
“What life?” Asha swept her hand across the room. “If you were living some sort of life then I might understand you, but look at yourself! Look at your parents and your sisters and your brother. You’ve been lying on a floor for thirty years, alone, in silence. There’s no love here, no joy or laughter, no singing or dancing, no stories around the supper table, no festivals or weddings, no homes, no hugs or kisses, not even a damned sunrise! Just six corpses too selfish to die. That’s the life you want? That’s the life your husband died for? That’s a life more precious than your own child?”
A fresh breeze troubled the trees and a wrinkled fruit thumped into the bowl in the center of the room. Hasika’s yellow eyes darted toward the sound and her hand pawed weakly at the floor. “The fruit. Oh please, help me reach it.”
Asha glared at her. “Help yourself.” She reached across the bodies and turned the bowl upside-down. The wide brim clattered on the floorboards. Again the wind played through the trees overhead and a fruit fell through the hole in the roof. It struck the round bottom of the overturned bowl and bounced away toward the open doorway.
“No,” Hasika whispered. “Please don’t. My dreams!”
Priya reached out. “Asha? Let’s not be hasty. We can talk about this. This is an important decision. She shouldn’t be rushed or pressured. We’re talking about her life here.”
“What life?” Asha packed away her tools and herbs and slung her bag over her shoulder. “We’ll stay in the other house tonight, and we’ll leave in the morning.”
The nun stood. “Maybe we should all get some sleep and discuss this again in the morning. There’s no need to be rash. You should study the tree, study the fruits. Maybe try some different herbs to help them give up the fruits. Perhaps you could make a medicine to prevent them from dying after giving up the fruit. We have all the time in the world to find the best path for everyone.”
“No, we don’t. I barely have enough time to help the people who actually want my help. I won’t waste another day on someone who refuses to listen.” Asha stood and helped Priya to her feet, and then firmly steered her companion outside and into the crumbling remains of the other house. The floor was bare earth, soft and cool. The herbalist spread out her wool blanket, lay down, and slept a dreamless sleep.
When morning came, they went south.
Two years later.
“All I’m saying is that going off to fight a man-eating tiger with just your tweezers and a bottle of smelling-salts probably wasn’t the best idea you’ve ever had,” Priya said.
“It seemed to work out just fine,” said Asha. “It certainly worked out better than that night you tried to free those prostitutes from their wrangler by chanting at him.”
“We got them all out,” the nun reminded her. “Eventually.” They walked a little farther up the path and Priya asked, “Are we lost?”
“No, we’re not lost,” Asha said. “In fact, we’ve been here before. I recognize those mountain peaks.” The rocky ridge drew a stark gray line against the pale blue sky.
“But you’ve been hurrying us along awfully quickly over the last hour. You always hurry when you’re lost,” Priya said. “I don’t see what the matter is, really. One place is as good as another, as long as you don’t wake up with a tiger nibbling your leg.”
“We’re not lost.”
“Then why have you been rushing?”
“Because we’re about to pass the fruit house,” Asha said.
“The dried up dreamers. Hasika, the pregnant woman. The family eating the strange little fruits that kept them barely alive. Don’t you remember them?”
The nun nodded. “I remember now. You know, I still don’t agree with what you did there. I can barely understand why you did it, to be honest. It seemed almost cruel.”
“It was cruel,” Asha said softly. “It was a cruel place, a cruel dilemma. The fruits. The fear of dying. I don’t think people are really meant to ever deal with that sort of cruelty. We’re meant for simple problems, like how to cross a river or how to grow rice. But choosing between life and death? Between a mother and child? I don’t think we’re wise enough to unravel those sorts of knots. Or calm enough.”
“You were a little angry.”
“I was very angry. And it didn’t help, did it?” Asha paused. “You were right, back then. I should have listened to you. I should have tried to find another way. There must have been a third way, if I had just taken the time to find it.”
Priya touched her arm. “It’s all right. And I won’t ask you to stop there, but when we reach the house, please give me a moment to check on them. Just for a minute.”
They came around the bend in the trail and Asha saw the house by the side of the road. Just the one. A patch of bright green grass stood where the second, rotting house had been. The remaining house had several fresh planks lashed to the walls, and fresh thatching on the roof, and a small garden beside it full of turnips, beetroots, and yams.
“Something has changed.” Asha continued forward, slower than before. “Hello?”
A child babbled inside the house.
Asha froze and glanced back at Priya, who merely arched an eyebrow above her blindfold. The herbalist walked toward the doorway where a clean new curtain hung across the opening. “Hello?”
“Hello?” A hand pulled back the curtain to reveal a young woman cradling a fat-cheeked little boy in the crook of her arm.
Asha stared at the woman’s face, her bright eyes and smooth cheeks, her shining black hair and strong arms. “Hasika?”
A sorrowful cloud passed over the woman’s face. “No, I’m her sister. Hasika passed away last spring.”
Asha paused. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. But the child is hers, isn’t it?”
The sister frowned and nodded. “It is. How did you know? Who are you?”
“My name’s Asha. I’m an herbalist. I passed through here two years ago and stayed in this house for two nights. I spoke with Hasika. I told her she was pregnant.”
The sister’s eyes widened. “That was you? Come in, come in.”
Asha and Priya followed the woman inside and found the single room bright and airy. The wind rustled through the clean curtains and the scent of jasmine hung in the air. On one side of the room there was a low bed of blankets, and beside it along the wall were several shiny new pots and cups and bowls. On the opposite side of the room lay four bodies, shoulder to shoulder, all neatly tucked under a single clean blanket.
“What happened?” Asha nodded at the four dreamers. “How did it happen?”
“One night, I woke from my dreams and heard Hasika talking to the others. Hasika wanted to have the child, but she was afraid of dying like Niraj and leaving the baby all alone. So we all discussed it, and eventually we all agreed that when Hasika died, one of us would take her place, caring for the baby. And when that person died, another would take her place.” The sister gently sat the little boy up in her lap. He yawned and stretched and flopped back against her belly with a single-toothed grin. She smiled down at him. “I have six more months with him before my mother will wake up and play with her grandson.”
“What’s his name?” Priya asked.
“Niraj, just like his father,” the sister answered.
Asha frowned at the four sleepers. “And what happens five years from now?”
“My father has family over the mountains. Hasika sent a letter to them last year and they agreed to take in Niraj when he is older. My father will be the last to wake up, and he will take Niraj over the mountains to his new home when the time comes.”
Asha continued to stare at the still and withered bodies of Hasika’s family. “Was it difficult, giving up your dreams? Do you regret it?”
“It was difficult, but no, I don’t regret it. How could I? Just look at him.” The sister kissed little Niraj on the head. “I spent thirty years alone with my dreams. I dreamed of a family for myself, too. But with only one year to live, how could I hope to ever bring that dream to life? My nephew here is more than I’d ever hoped to have.”
Asha and Priya stayed another hour in the house, listening to Hasika’s sister talk and watching Hasika’s son chew on his blanket. Eventually they said their goodbyes and set out on the road again. Priya strode along at Asha’s side, probing the path ahead with her bamboo stick and gently petting the little mongoose on her shoulder. “How sad for them. Such an incredible sacrifice, an entire family for one child. And how wonderful for them, too. Especially for Niraj.”
“Do you mean the father or the son?”
“Both,” Priya said. “I suppose they came to see things your way, eventually. Does that make you feel better?”
“Not really, no. They seem happy though. I guess that’s better than whatever they were before.” Asha looked up. “And at least I know that it was what Hasika really wanted. If you count up the months, she must have kept eating the fruits another half a year after we left. So she didn’t stop because I turned over the bowl. She stopped when she was ready. Good for her.”
They walked on a little farther before Priya smiled a little and said, “So, Asha, how would you describe that house now? Is it half empty or half full?”
“Neither. Or both. Whatever.” Asha poked a sliver of ginger into the corner of her mouth and began to chew. Far behind them at the top of the path, they heard a young woman’s laughter and a baby’s squeal of delight. “Well, if I had to say something, I guess I’d say that house is noisier than it used to be.”
The Silent Sage
It was raining again.
But it was a light rain, a misty rain. And while it left any traveler soaked within minutes, it somehow did not feel oppressive or threatening. Not a storm, certainly. In fact the sky often looked bright and clear between the pale gray clouds. No thunder, no lightning, no raging winds. Merely water falling from the sky. So Asha and Priya finished their meager midday meal of seeds and dried fruit and continued on their way.
The road was wide and no doubt dusty when dry, but now it was a soft carpet of mud dotted with shining puddles. Asha kept to the side where the slick grass offered a firmer path. Priya followed a few paces behind, tapping here and there with her bamboo rod, unconcerned by the treacherous footing. And in her thick black hair among the lotus leaves and blossoms, a mongoose curled warm and dry around her neck, asleep.
“It wasn’t always called Rajasthan,” Priya said.
“What?” Asha didn’t pause or look back.
“It used to be called Gurjaratra, but the Rajputs renamed it when they conquered it, centuries ago.” Priya sniffed, then sneezed. “Maps and signs.”
“What about maps and signs?”
“They’re important. Very important. If you change all the maps and signs, then people are forced to use the new names, otherwise they can’t read the signs and can’t find where to go. Of course, this only works where people can read. So it is strangely unfortunate that the Gurjars were so literate during the invasion, which is why they call themselves Rajputs now. Had they been illiterate, they might still have some part of their heritage intact.”
“If you say so.” Asha kept her eyes on the road ahead, peering through the silvery veils of rain, squinting against the bright glare of the sky reflected in the swampy highway.
They were passing through farmland again, flat and featureless fields stretching away in every direction as far as they could see, over the hills and vanishing into the valleys. Fields of wheat, sugarcane, oilseeds, and poppies, always the same, day after long day on the road. The spectacular vistas of the mountain roads had been ruined by the woods, but there had been a certain intimacy with the trees leaning over them, as though they walked through the endless corridors of a forest god’s house. Not like here. Here they walked on the naked face of the earth, shuffling between clouds and mud.
Somewhere behind them was a village called Mandana where they had found few people in need of an herbalist’s healing arts and no one interested in a nun’s teachings. Somewhere ahead of them was a village called Kasar where they expected more of the same.
There were other people on the road, other rain-soaked travelers clutching hats and scarves over their dripping heads. Some darted and dashed around the muddy puddles of the road but most plodded straight through them.
Asha spotted a young man in the distance striding toward her. He too was walking along the edge of the road in the thick grass, but the shoulder of the road was narrow, sloping away sharply into a low field of oilseed stalks. She frowned for the rest of the quarter hour that it took for them to come together. She dreaded the inevitable awkward moment when they would try to pass around each other without having to step down into the ankle-deep mud. She prayed to Shiva that the man would not try to speak to her, and then she prayed to Buddha on Priya’s behalf just to be certain.
The moment arrived. The young man was only a few paces away. Asha sighed and stepped to the right edge of the grassy shoulder, but to her surprise the young man stepped off the shoulder entirely, splashing down lightly into the muddy road. He smiled and performed a small bow, gesturing for them to continue on their way.
“Thank you,” Asha muttered.
“You’re most welcome on this beautiful day.”
“It is a beautiful day, indeed,” Priya answered. The nun paused. “I may not have seen the faces of the other people on the road, but I could feel their misery as they passed us by. But you, you are light and free.”
“I am indeed.”
Asha stopped walking several dozen paces away, just at the edge of being able to hear the conversation over the soft, unceasing sound of the rain.
“Have you always been so appreciative of the world, or have you been more recently enlightened?” Priya asked.
“Oh, recently, very recently,” the young man said, nodding and smiling. “Just this morning, as a matter of fact.”
“Really! Tell me all about it.”
Asha rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Well, I was only passing through Kasar on my way to visit my father when I heard about the boy, so I went to see if the story was true, and there he was.”
“What boy?” Priya asked.
“You haven’t heard? The living Buddha! Lord Buddha reborn, they say. Oh sister, you have to go and see him for yourself. It will change your life.”
“How so? What did this boy say to you?”
“Oh nothing, nothing at all. He never speaks and never moves. They say he’s never even eaten a single bite of food!”
Asha groaned and rolled her eyes again.
“He just sits there under the tree, meditating,” the young man continued. “And everyone says that one day soon he will open his eyes and reveal the secrets of the universe to us all. I spent an hour sitting near him with the others, just watching him sit there as still as a stone. No pain, no fear, no worry, nothing but serenity! I wish I could have stayed longer, but I really have to see my father. But I will be back as soon as I can, I promise you that.”
“Amazing.” Priya smiled and bowed her head. “Thank you for sharing your experience with me. I shall go and see this young sage for myself.” She touched the cloth that she wore over her sightless eyes. “So to speak.”
“Take care, sister!” The young man climbed back up onto the grassy shoulder of the road behind them and continued on his way.
Asha waited for Priya to catch up and then resumed her own brisk march along the shoulder. “So we’ll be stopping in Kasar, then?”
“We were going to stop in Kasar anyway.”
“Not on purpose. Only because it’s there.”
“Ah. Well, now we have a purpose.”
Asha grimaced. She pulled a sliver of ginger root from her shoulder bag and poked the little green-white spear into the corner of her mouth. She chewed. “Let’s try to keep the purpose short, if we can. There’s still a long road ahead.”
The village of Kasar sprawled across the intersection of the main highway and a smaller country road running off east and west into the fields. The village was little more than a collection of empty market stalls, neglected shrines, and a single ox-turned mill that smelled of rotting grain. There were a few houses scattered around the intersection, but nothing else. No shops, no indication of any craftsmen of any sort. No smithy or forge or tinker, no tailor or weaver, no potter or glassblower, or stone carver, or anything.
Evening was coming on quickly. As the sun retreated into the west, the sky faded to dusky violet and slate blue. The rain lessened, which did nothing for how soaked the travelers were or how dangerous the muddy highway was underfoot, but the noise of the falling water dropped considerably. Asha welcomed the quiet. Even here in this pitiful village, there was life to see and hear. Rows of crops, huddled flowers, and even trampled weeds.
She pulled her long, sodden hair back to uncover her right ear. The dragon’s venom seemed to burn a little more these days, and the hard scales on her skin itched and chafed, but Asha ignored the irritations. Instead, she focused on the sounds of living things, the hums and titters and songs of souls. Some were human souls, ringing out loud and clear with emotion and life and intention, while others were animal souls, muddled and vague with primitive desires and impulses, and lastly were the plant souls, dimmest and strangest of all, singing their mysterious notes that told her almost nothing except, “Here I am. I live, I grow. And I carry a seed, or a fruit, or a root that you might want.”
Asha paused at the edge of the intersection of the highway and the farmers’ lane. To the north and south she saw and heard little of interest. There were only a few more travelers on their way to wherever travelers go. Other souls rang out inside the houses and stalls, the souls of tired people with little on their minds but supper. She heard the animals and plants among them, rodents and vermin and weeds, sounds she knew all too well. Nothing new. Nothing she needed. The one thing that sang a bit louder and a bit finer than all the others was a lone almond tree near the pilgrims, but even that lovely tree couldn’t tempt her to stand about in the wet, dark road.
Satisfied that there were no other healing gems hidden in the rough of Kasar, she turned her attention to the crowd at the west end of the village. She needed no cursed ear to hear the gathering there. At least a hundred men, women, and children stood and sat in the muddy grass beside the road, all clustered around a gnarled little tree, its branches drooping with shining wet leaves.
“I hear them,” Priya said. The nun smiled and petted the mongoose on her shoulder. “Such soft voices, so full of reverence and expectation. So much joy and eagerness. Like a single great breath being held, awaiting a beautiful sunrise.”
Asha only saw a hundred homeless people with slouching shoulders, dripping hair, and wet clothing plastered to their thin frames. They looked tired. They looked hungry. “I suppose you want to visit this living Buddha right now?”
“No time like the present.”
Asha frowned up at the darkening, overcast sky. It was exactly the same as last evening, and the one before. Recently the days had been a blur of sameness, of routine. “If you say so.”
They turned off the highway and approached the crowd spreading out from the little tree in concentric semi-circles. As the two women moved among the faithful watchers, many hungry eyes shifted to the newcomers, and many empty hands were extended toward them. If Priya sensed the gestures, she made no sign of it. Asha simply ignored them. The fields and forests were full of food for anyone willing to make the effort, and she carried no money at all.
They stood before the little tree among the closest pilgrims and Asha studied the boy seated among the roots, and she described him to her companion. “He looks to be about ten or twelve. Thin. Middling skin. Shaved head. No eyebrows. Seated in the lotus position, completely naked. Clean fingernails. Eyes closed, mouth closed. I can’t see his chest rising as he breathes at all. Not even the slightest tremor or twitch in his hands or feet. No footprints or other marks on the ground around him. The falling rain has spattered a little bit of mud on his lower body. He’s been here a while, that’s for sure. He must be cold and hungry, whether he knows it or not. He won’t last long like this.”
“That is one possibility.”
“It’s the only possibility,” Asha said. “The human body has limits. I’ve seen this sort of thing before. I saw it growing up in Kathmandu. Sages, monks, priests, and other stunt artists. He won’t last, or he has someone secretly feeding him somehow. At best, he’s a fool. At worst, a fraud.”
“Always thinking in dualities,” Priya said. “There are always more than two possibilities.”
Asha sighed. “Yes, well he could be a god or a ghost or a donkey, I suppose. Listen, the sun has just set and I’d like to sleep someplace dry. Or dry-ish. Can we please go find an empty house or stall or something for the night?”
“Of course,” the nun said mildly. “No need to suffer unnecessarily.”
Asha led the way back toward the intersection, but stepped off the road when she found a small market stall with a solid roof. The ground smelled faintly of mangos. It’s always mangos, Asha mused. She spread her wool blanket on the damp earth and shared a handful of nuts and berries with Priya, and then they slept.
Asha dreamed of warm food.
She had no idea what the nun dreamed about.
The next morning Priya returned to the congregation at the foot of the little tree. The rain had faded away in the night somewhere over the eastern ridge and the sun rose bright and clear in a pale blue sky. Everything high dripped and everything low gurgled as the water slowly drained across the land toward the nearest river, which roared quietly off to the west beyond a low hill.
Asha was still picking her teeth when Priya set out unaided for the crowd of pilgrims and their young sage. The herbalist finished her teeth in her own good time, draped her hair over her right ear, and trudged carefully after her friend. The mud puddles lay thick and deep about her, and she could hear the worms wriggling in the murky water. She wasn’t afraid of them. She wasn’t afraid of any living creature. But the thought of stepping on a pile of wet worms was… unpleasant.
When she reached the crowd, the first thing Asha looked at was the tree. Not the little tree behind the boy but the other one across the road. The almond tree towered in its prime with leaves both long and broad, and tiny white flowers that would soon bear tiny red fruits, each with a single precious nut inside. Its shade fell across most of the road, though no one sat beneath it, and as she glanced around the hovels of Kasar she could easily pronounce the almond tree to be the most beautiful thing in sight. She had noted it before, but now she could appreciate it fully. Her right ear coursed with the sounds of flowers and unborn fruits, of the rich seeds and the dusky grey-gold wood locked away within the bark. It was a wonderful creature, that tree. Asha could think of a dozen ways to use its leaves and flowers to heal and sooth all manners of ailments, and she reminded herself to gather a few specimens before they left.
Then with a sigh she turned her attention back to the crowd, and the boy, and the miserable little sapling at his back. It was a twisted and gnarled little tree with feeble limbs and precious few leaves and Asha could barely hear the life of it in her scaled ear. She guessed it was a diseased old teak, and that its pathetic appearance in some way made the boy’s meditations all the more holy. Asha shook her head as she tucked a sliver of ginger into the corner of her mouth and waded through the crowd of muddy pilgrims still asleep in the middle of the road.
Priya sat on the grass beside the boy, and her saffron robes and bound eyes seemed to add a new layer of majesty and mystery to the setting because Asha noticed dozens of the filthy vagrants sitting up to take notice and make joyful wails and gasps. Asha only spared the boy a glance before turning her attention to the boggy field behind the tree to wonder what useful insects or grasses she might find down there.
She looked at Priya, who was frowning. Jagdish jumped down off the nun’s shoulder and began sniffing the tree’s roots. “What?”
“Could you please take a look at the boy? I’m afraid I cannot hear his breathing, even with my keen ears. I think your expertise is warranted. But please do not disturb him.”
Asha returned to the tree, aware of the countless eyes fixed on her every movement, and she knelt down beside the boy. He appeared unchanged from the night before. Still sitting in the lotus position, eyes and mouth closed, head perfectly hairless, and not the slightest tremor in his fingers or toes. Asha plucked a blade of grass and ran it lightly along the boy’s feet and palms. There was no reaction. She peered at his eyelids, but could see no darting impressions of his eyes to betray his thoughts or dreams. After watching his chest for several minutes, she could not say she had seen him draw a single breath and she pulled a small mirror from her bag to hold before his nose and mouth, but after several more minutes not even the smallest cloud of fog appeared on the glass.
Asha glanced nervously at Priya and then at the other pilgrims. “I’m going to touch his arm now. Just for a moment.” No one spoke, which she took to be silent permission, so she placed her fingertips on the boy’s inner wrist.
No pulse. His skin was smooth though fairly firm, and he was only slightly warmer than the earth he was sitting on.
“Some sort of comatose state, maybe,” she muttered.
“Like the family we found in the mountains?” Priya asked.
Asha winced and glanced up at the withered tree to check for strange fruits. There were none. “Similar, maybe. But not the same.” She reached up and placed her fingertips against the side of the boy’s throat and waited. Minutes passed, and minutes more. Finally her arm grew too tired to hold up any longer and she relented, leaning back to sit and rest and think. Still no pulse. Not even a very slow pulse. And yet he was slightly warm.
“Is something wrong?” asked an elderly woman behind them.
Asha didn’t turn to look at the woman. “Probably. He’s not breathing and he has no heart beat. How long has he been here like this? When was the last time anyone saw him eat? Or even just move?”
No one answered. The nearest pilgrims just shrugged and shook their heads.
“No one?” Asha grimaced. “How long have you been here?”
They answered one by one:
Seven days, at least. Asha sighed. The boy might have died just recently, just hours ago, perhaps even during the night while she slept nearby. If so, he would be cool in a few hours, and he would finally fall over.
“We need to move him,” she said softly. And then louder, “I’m sorry, but we need to move him. He’s not well.”
No one seemed to have heard her. No one stood or spoke, or even looked at her.
“You there, come help me, please.” She looked at two young men near the front who had glanced in her direction. One of them looked away but the other frowned and nodded and stood up. He came over to the boy and Asha directed him to stand across from her so that together they could lift him. The boy’s whole body was so firm, so stiff, that she hoped they could simply carry him away in his seated posture and avoid making a scene.
Together she and the young man bent down and took hold of the boy’s legs, and lifted. Nothing happened. Asha strained to the point of grunting out loud, but the boy did not move. She pulled up so hard that her feet began to sink down into the soft wet earth. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her assistant was faring no better so she let go and waved him back. After a moment’s rest, she directed the young man again, this time to dig their hands as far under the boy as possible. The earth was cold and a bit slimy, but they both reached under to form a platform with their arms and again they tried to lift him.
And again the boy did not move, did not even shudder or jostle. He remained perfectly still. Asha dismissed her confused assistant with a grateful look. A soft murmur ran through the gathered onlookers, but she ignored them.
“What happened?” Priya asked. “What’s wrong now?”
“We couldn’t lift him. It was like he’s nailed to the earth, or he weighs as much as an elephant. I can’t explain it.”
The nun smiled. “I don’t suppose you’d like to entertain the thought that this wise child can bend space and matter to make himself too heavy to lift?”
“Not just yet,” Asha said calmly. She chewed her ginger and studied the boy. Both she and the young man had reached far under the boy to lift him, shoving their hands through the muddy topsoil, but she hadn’t felt anything strange that might be holding the boy down. “What’s his name? Does anyone know?”
A few people shook their heads.
Asha stood and said to Priya, “I’m going to take a look around. I’ll be back soon.” She slipped around the edge of the pilgrims’ circle and paced slowly toward the center of the village, her arms folded across her belly, her brow creased in thought. For the rest of the morning, she wandered around each little house, each little market stall, and each little animal pen. She greeted the handful of people she found and asked each of them, “When did the boy first arrive?”
And they would answer, “About seven days ago.”
She would say, “Who is he? Where did he come from?”
And they would shrug and go about their business.
So on she went, studying the grasses and the ants and the flies, looking and listening for answers. Why is the boy too heavy to lift? How is he surviving without food or water? Where did he come from? And why did he come here, of all places?
The ants and flies couldn’t tell her.
Around noon Asha sat down at the eastern edge of the village to eat a dried date and watch three young girls playing in the muddy road. They chased each other, flinging little clumps of mud and laughing. Asha was about to get up to move farther from their range of fire when one of the girls ran straight over to her and squinted down at her. “Can you make him go away?” she asked.
“The living Buddha,” the girl said. “I saw you try to pick him up. Are you his mother?”
Asha grinned and shook her head. “No, I’m not. I’m an herbalist. I was just trying to help him. Why? Why do you want him to go away?”
“Because that’s where we used to play, in the grass. But our parents all said to stay away from those people, so now we have to play over here, in the mud.”
Asha looked over her shoulder across the village at the distant cluster of bodies in the road. “I guess it is a little nicer down that way. Plus you have the tree to climb.”
The girl shook her head. “That tree’s way too tall to climb. No one can reach the first branch!”
Asha smiled. “Not the almond tree. I meant the little teak tree. Surely you could climb that one.”
“The little one? No, that wasn’t there before.”
The girl started to turn back to her friends, but Asha caught her hand. “What do you mean, it wasn’t there before? Before when?”
“I don’t know. Before that boy showed up.”
“You mean seven days ago?”
Asha let her go and she ran back to her friends to resume the serious work of shouting, chasing, kicking, and tossing small globs of mud at each other. She stood and walked back toward the pilgrims, but stopped well outside their circle where she could see the gnarled tree clearly. It was no more than twice her own height, maybe less. By its size alone, she guessed it to be at least three years old, though from its miserable appearance it could have been much older. But not less. And not a mere seven days.
At the edge of the grass, Asha looked down the shallow slope at the wet field below and behind the stunted teak tree. Farther out she could see the rows of oilseed stalks waving gently in the breeze, but in the corner of the field closest to her, Asha saw where the oilseed plantings ended in a ragged line and a swamped, marshy patch of earth began. A few planted stalks poked up through the stagnant black water, but not many. Flies buzzed over slimy, wet mounds that glistened in the midday sun. Nothing so large as a frog seemed to be moving in the water. A thick oily film lay on the surface painting dark rainbows in perfect stillness.
Behind the little teak tree she saw a few pale roots twisting down through the mud into the oily water below. She drew back the hair from her right ear and cupped her hand there, listening. After a moment she heard the low humming of the oilseeds and the grasses and the almond tree, all softly resounding like bells rung long ago but not quite done echoing their final notes. Flies and hornets and butterflies danced across the fields alone and in swarms, all tinkling like broken glass in her cursed ear. But down in the dark muck, she heard nothing but a few sickly tufts of grass and the occasional bug skating over the oily pond.
Back in the center of the village, Asha found the ox-drawn mill crackling and grinding as the turning wheel crushed wheat into flour. Two men stood watching the ox shuffle in its little circle. Asha guessed the man in the shabby sandals to be the farmer, and the man with the shabby hat to be the miller.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Can either of you tell me about that little teak tree where the boy is sitting?”
The men gave her a tired glance, and then exchanged a tired glance of their own. The miller said, “That tree wasn’t there before. The boy must have brought it with him.”
Asha chose not to challenge the man’s conclusion. “And what about the oily pond behind it? Has that corner of the field always been flooded like that?”
The farmer shrugged. “More or less. It’s a little worse this year. Deeper, I mean.”
“Any reason for it? Was there a well there? Or maybe there used to be a tree down there, but it was uprooted in a storm? Anything?”
The men shrugged and returned their attention to the ox and the grindstone. The miller said, “Not that I remember.”
“No, the only thing down there are Kavi’s ashes,” the farmer said.
Asha blinked. “Ashes? You scattered someone’s ashes in the corner of a field, right there at the edge of town?”
“She didn’t mean to, of course,” the miller said. “His mother Sati, I mean. The boy was sick, so sick he could barely walk when she brought him into town to find help. But none of us could do anything for him. He sliced his hand on his father’s old axe, and the cut festered. He was feverish. The wound was ugly. Muscles all tightened up. Shaking.”
“Tetanus,” Asha said, nodding. “Then what happened to him?”
“It only lasted a few days.” The miller waved absently at the flies near his head. “Some fellow came along, right at the end, and tried to help. He gave the boy something to eat, but Kavi died anyway a few hours later. Sati couldn’t carry him back home, so we cremated the body right here. Well, over there a ways.” He pointed toward the little teak tree. “She meant to carry the ashes home, but a bit of a storm came through that evening and blew the boy’s ashes all over the corner of the field. So she gathered up what she could and left the next morning. Poor thing. Her husband died a while back, you know. She’s all alone now.”
“The man who tried to help, was he a healer? An herbalist like me?” Asha patted the bag on her shoulder. “Or just a passing friend? Did you know him?”
“Never seen him before,” the farmer said. “Seemed nice enough. Funny accent though. And short. He had a bag too, but a big leather one. Black.”
Asha gripped the strap of her old woven bag and pressed her lips tightly for a moment before saying, “Did he say he was a doctor?”
The miller nodded. “May have. This was half a year ago, you understand.”
“What did he give the boy to eat? Was it a seed or a nut?”
The miller nodded again. “Something like that. Why?”
Asha pointed at the boy sitting beneath the teak tree. “Do you recognize that boy? Does he look at all like Kavi, like the boy who died last year?”
The miller and farmer exchanged amused looks. “Maybe. A little. Other people’s children all look the same to me. I really can’t say.”
“Well, his mother can say. Where is she? Where is Sati?”
The farmer thumbed over his shoulder. “She lives near me. But she hasn’t been to town since Kavi died.”
“Can you ask her to come please?” Asha asked. “It’s very important. She needs to come and see this boy. I need to know if he looks like her son.”
The farmer shrugged and said he would ask Sati when he went home that evening.
Asha thanked them both and crossed the street back toward the crowd, but she didn’t come very close. Standing at the edge of the gathering, she watched Priya sitting beneath the tree, petting Jagdish, and talking quietly with the people sitting closest to her. The entire congregation sat quietly, some with heads bowed and eyes closed, some chanting or singing softly, but most just sitting and squinting at the sky as they dragged their fingers through the muddy road, waiting.
Asha and Priya left the pilgrims at sundown, retiring to their abandoned market stall to eat and sleep. Asha told her friend about her conversation with the miller, about Sati and her son, and the doctor. Priya nodded along until she finished.
“A doctor.” Priya spread her blanket on the ground and lay down. “You don’t use that word often.”
“Only when I need to.”
“Then I take it that you think this boy is not a boy, but some creature or spirit, or maybe a ghost made flesh through this doctor’s evil craft.”
“I think those people out there are fools for lying in the road, starving themselves, and waiting for a strange child to give some meaning to their sad little lives.”
“He’s already given some meaning to their lives,” Priya said. “He’s given them hope. Belief. Everyone hears stories about sages and monks and nuns, about gods and demons, miracles, and paradise. But they’re only stories. This boy is real. And whether or not he ever speaks, whether or not he ever reveals any wisdom to us, he is real. He’s sitting out there right now, surviving without consuming a single living thing, at perfect peace with the universe, and mystically bound to the earth. He’s a living miracle. He inspires these people. You should have heard them today. They were all vowing to go home and spread the boy’s teachings.”
“What teachings? He hasn’t said anything.”
“He’s said volumes.” The nun smiled. “He isn’t afraid of droughts or floods. He’s not arguing with his family or friends. He’s not laboring to level a forest or dam a river. He isn’t fighting with the world for his own survival. He’s just quietly, calmly, serenely coexisting with the universe. Effortlessly. Can you imagine an entire world of such people?”
“A world in which no one laughed or sang or played or loved? You can have it.” Asha lay down on her own blanket.
“Will you tell me about the doctors who trained you? Not now, but some day, when you’re ready?”
“Good night, Priya.”
It was several hours after sunrise when Asha saw the lone woman coming down the eastern road from the distant farms. Priya had gone back to the pilgrims long before and the scene around the teak tree looked just as it had the day before, and the day before that. Some faces in the crowd changed as new wanderers arrived and old ones left, but they sat and waited just the same.
The woman coming down the road was middle aged, with a few streaks of gray in her black hair, and quite a few lines around her eyes and mouth. Her faded green sari swayed sharply around her legs as she moved, but she walked calmly with her head held high and came straight up to Asha in the middle of the street. “Good morning. Are you the herbalist?”
“Yes. I’m Asha. You must be Sati.”
“Yes, and I know what you want me to do, or to see.” The woman paused, her face lined a bit more deeply with thought and worry. “Come along then.” Sati led Asha back toward the western end of the village, and did not display any particular reaction to the crowd sitting in the road. She only said, “I don’t remember that little tree being there.”
Asha nodded and waited for the woman to continue, and they walked together around the pilgrims to the tree where Priya sat next to the silent boy. Asha gestured to the seated figure and said, “Please, look closely. Take your time. I need you to be certain.”
Sati knelt down beside the boy and studied his face for a moment. Asha tried to imagine whether the boy Kavi would have looked very different with hair and eyebrows and eyelashes. Will she even be able to recognize him? After a moment, Sati reached out with a steady hand to touch the boy’s arm, and then to caress his cheek. And then she stood and backed away from him.
“I can’t be certain. Kavi had such thick hair,” she said quietly. “And he was thinner. His cheeks, I mean. But the nose is the same. Maybe. No, no, they’re not the same really. His hands, his chin. I’m trying to imagine this boy dirty and hairy and laughing. No, they’re not quite the same. But they are very similar.” Sati stared at the boy a bit longer and then turned away. “And no one knows his name or where he came from?”
Asha shook her head.
“I see. Then I wish you all well. I hope I was helpful.” Sati turned to leave.
“Wait.” Asha followed her. “Don’t you want to stay and see if he speaks?”
“No.” The woman shuddered. “I don’t.”
“One last question then,” Asha said. “Do you remember the doctor who came to help Kavi just before he died? Can you describe him to me?”
Sati nodded. “He was short. Maybe my age, maybe a little older. Thinning hair. Round face. He smiled a lot, even when he acted sad. I remember that. The smiling. I didn’t like it.”
Asha thanked her again and watched the woman walk away across the village and up the long road to the eastern farms. And then Asha spent the rest of the day wandering through the fields around the village, peering down at little weedy sprouts and black bugs wriggling through the rich earth, and trying not to think about the boy.
That night, after they ate the last of the dried fruit in Asha’s bag, she said to Priya, “It’s not a teak tree.”
“What is it then?” the nun asked.
Asha didn’t answer.
“Can we leave tomorrow? Are you ready to move on?”
“All right. I doubt our young Buddha will be revealing his wisdom any time soon. We can leave in the morning.”
When morning came, Asha slipped out of their shelter as quietly as she could and climbed down the muddy slope behind the gnarled tree. The sun had yet to rise and the whole world felt gray and cool, still clinging to the quiet of the night. She stopped just above the level of the oily water covering the corner of the field, and studied the dirt and grass at her feet. It took a moment in the feeble predawn light to find what she was looking for, but she did find it.
She reached down into the soft wet earth and pulled up a heavy tangle of pale roots. Asha took the steel scalpel from her bag, but hesitated as she saw the bright blade in her fingers, remembering that same blade in another’s fingers, painted red. But the moment passed and she quickly severed each of the roots, cutting some in two places just to be certain. When she was done, she tossed the lower half of the roots into the dark water and pushed the upper half of the roots back into the soil.
At the top of the slope she found a handful of pilgrims already awake, already staring at the boy under the tree. None of them looked at her. Back at the old market stall she found Priya sitting up and petting Jagdish. The nun asked, “Are you ready now?”
Asha nodded, more to herself than to her friend. “If you are.”
And they left the village.
Six months later.
Priya called out from behind, “Asha! I need to slow down. My knee hasn’t quite recovered yet from that night on the beach. It’s still aching a bit. Silly singing turtles. Are we in a hurry?”
“No, no hurry. Sorry. I forgot about your knee.” Asha stopped and let the nun catch up to her, and then they continued on down the road side by side. Jagdish lay long and fat on the blind woman’s shoulders, all the way around the back of her neck with his tail trailing down over her chest.
“Is there bad weather brewing? Or are we on a dangerous road?”
“No,” Asha said. “But we are on a familiar road.”
“Oh. Where are we?”
“About an hour west of Kasar. Do you remember it?”
Priya nodded and smiled. “We’re going to visit the little sage under the teak tree.”
“It wasn’t a teak tree.”
“I remember now, you said that before. What sort of tree was it?”
Asha said, “I have an idea, but it’s only a theory. I’ve heard about this sort of thing, but never seen it myself. I’ll know for sure when we get there. I’ll tell you then.”
“As you wish.”
An hour later they crossed the last stretch of road through the fields of freshly sown oilseeds. Ahead, Asha saw the familiar huddle of houses and market stalls, and even the flour mill drawn round and round by the same tired old ox. The almond tree stood straight and tall on the south side of the road. And on the grassy shoulder across from it, there was nothing at all.
Asha stopped on the grass where the little tree had been and Priya stopped beside her.
“Very quiet,” Priya observed.
“There’s no one here,” Asha said. “No pilgrims, I mean.”
“But there are voices. Listen.”
Asha heard a distant babble of high voices. Talking. Laughing. The sound drew closer and soon a knot of five young girls emerged from around a corner. They saw the two women by the side of the road and the girls stopped and fell quiet.
Asha smiled. “I think we’re in someone’s way. Come on.” She led Priya up the road into town and the girls continued on to the grassy strip where they sat in a convenient circle of shade cast by the almond tree across the way. Asha smiled a bit wider as the girls flopped down and began whispering to each other.
“So the young sage is gone?” Priya asked.
“Along with his tree, yes.” Asha kept walking. “Let’s find out what happened here.”
They found the miller sitting on a wobbly stool and watching his ox walking its circle as the grindstone crushed wheat into flour.
“Hello again,” Asha said. “I see business is…still going strong.”
The miller shrugged.
“Sorry, but we were here a few months ago and there was a strange boy sitting under a little tree just over there. We were wondering what happened to him. Can you tell us?”
The miller shook his head. “Strangest thing I’ve ever seen. One morning there’s all this shouting so I went over to see what was happening. The boy, he fell over.”
“Sort of. I mean yes. But he didn’t just fall down. He fell in. Inward. Collapsed. Like he was all skin with no insides.” The miller shuddered. “Smelled like the back end of this ox.”
“And the tree?”
“Died. Rotted. Some sort of disease. It turned all black and soggy. It stank too. So we burned it right there, not that it burned too well. Some of the boys hacked it up and dragged it off into the woods somewhere up east.” He waved to his right, which was vaguely east. “They said they were going to try burning it again, and then bury and salt it. I assume they did.”
Asha nodded. “Thanks.” She led the way back onto the main road where she turned north. The sun blazed high in the pale spring sky.
“So what was it?” Priya asked when they were well away from the village.
“A mandrake. Not the common mandrake. That’s just a little root. This was the swamp mandrake, which is related, but very different. It comes from the east.” Asha reached over to pet Jagdish on the nun’s shoulder. “The roots can drink up almost anything. If you feed one tea, they say it will grow blossoms and the crushed flowers can be used to treat all sorts of ailments. Feed it milk and it will grow little fruits good for curing even more diseases. But if you feed it blood…”
“What happens then?”
Asha sighed. “The mandrake will grow a polyp shaped like the creature whose blood it drank. The polyp isn’t good for anything. It’s full of rotted filth. The plant can’t digest blood, I suppose. The filth inside might even be poisonous.”
“Then all those people were praying to a giant pustule? They were waiting for wisdom from a boy-shaped cancer?” Priya frowned. “And so was I.”
“That’s why I couldn’t lift him. Somewhere underneath was the root connecting the boy to the rest of the tree. But it’s all right now. No one was hurt. It didn’t live long after I cut the roots. And from what the miller said, it sounds like they disposed of it thoroughly. No harm done.”
“You cut the roots? You killed it?”
“Yes. You said it yourself, it was just a big cyst full of toxic pus.”
The nun sighed. “You’re missing the point. Whatever it was, it fostered peace and hope and enlightenment among real people. Those people came for a miracle, and they saw a miracle, and they went home with that miracle in their hearts. Given time, such things can transform the world in powerful and wonderful ways.”
“Transform the world?” Asha glared at her. “It lured dozens of people away from their families and their obligations, and led them all to sit in the dirt, sweating under the sun, shivering in the rain, doing nothing, waiting for someone to tell them what to think, what to believe.”
“You take a very dim view of the search for wisdom.”
“It was a fake miracle. It was just a plant. It filled up a country road with tired bodies. But now those people are at home, living their lives, actually doing something with themselves. And where there was a pile of vagrants, now there’s a group of children playing in the shade. The world I helped to make is better, Priya. It’s better because it’s real.”
They walked along for an hour before either one spoke again.
“Why did he do it?” Priya asked softly. “Why did that doctor feed the mandrake seed to the sick boy? Did he think the seed would heal him?”
“No,” Asha said just as softly. “He knew the boy was going to die. He wasn’t feeding him the seed. He was planting the seed.”
“Why else?” Asha shoved a sliver of ginger into the corner of her mouth. “To see what would happen. You see, Priya? They care about the big picture. The long term. Knowledge for its own sake. They have so many high-minded ideals and goals, but they tend to overlook the people that get trampled along the way.”
“I see. I think I understand now. Thank you.”
“They used to tell me that it was all for saving more lives in the future.” Asha looked down at the road at her feet. “But they never seem to mind losing lives in the here and now.”
Priya nodded. “Well, at the very least, I suppose I’m glad those girls have their place to play again. It was nice to hear them laughing.”
The Deadly Gift
Asha lay awake, listening. She didn’t need her poisoned ear to track the souls of the men coming toward her hut. She could hear their boots crunching through the undergrowth, crashing along like mad elephants through the dry bracken.
She reached over to cover Priya’s mouth just as the nun woke up. Asha whispered, “Stay very calm. Do whatever they say. Let me do the talking.”
Priya nodded as Asha took her hand away. Both women sat up. Asha slung her bag of tools and herbs over her shoulder and Priya gathered up the long, lean form of Jagdish, their young mongoose who wasn’t so young anymore. Asha tried to remember how long they had been together. Has it really been three years?
They had slept in yet another abandoned house, the decaying remains of something that had once been a home to someone but was now just a rotting arrangement of boards and pegs and dry grass. It had seemed as good a place as any to rest outside the bustling city of Jaipur. Now, as she sat listening to the soldiers approach, Asha wasn’t so sure it had been the right decision. There was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
Footsteps circled the hut and shadows slid across the gaps in the walls. They moved toward the empty doorway, a gaping rectangle that offered her a view of a few trees and an unplowed field beyond. And then a man stepped into the doorway. He wore the blood-red armor of a Rajput soldier and carried a talwar saber sheathed at his side. His helmet fit close over his head, and his majestic black mustache swept out to each side in a manner that made him look as though he were smiling.
He was smiling.
The soldier asked, “Are you the herbalist Asha of Kathmandu?”
“I am,” she said.
“I have been sent by His Royal Highness, Maharana Pratap Singh, lord of all Rajasthan, to summon you to the royal palace on a most urgent and private matter.” The soldier bowed his head curtly.
Asha stood up and helped Priya to stand beside her. They both stepped outside the hut into the early morning light and found eight more men armed and armored outside in two lines of four. To buy a few spare moments to think, Asha said, “Pratap Singh? I’m sorry, but we’re from the distant east. We’re not familiar that name.”
The commanding soldier with the smiling mustache nodded. “Maharana Pratap is the grandson and heir of Maharana Sangram Singh, lord of Mewar. The wars with the Persians have brought us quite far from home. Through the vagaries of fortune and fate, our lord now finds himself master of all Rajasthan and the protector of our great nation against the foul Persians.”
Asha nodded politely, not caring at all about the vagaries of Rajput politics and hoping only to learn more about the man who had summoned her. How dangerous would it be to refuse? “And may I ask why Maharana Pratap wishes to see me?”
The soldier frowned for the first time, but not at her. He glanced away and cleared his throat. “It is a private matter.”
“A private matter to be addressed by a homeless herbalist from the east?” Asha glanced at the other men, but they all stared straight ahead at nothing, like dolls waiting for a command to return to life. She pitied them. “I suppose it must be serious.”
The commander nodded.
“A medical problem. One that the prince’s master physicians have already tried and failed to treat?”
He nodded again.
Asha reached into her bag for a fresh sliver of ginger. She chewed the soft root for a moment. “My friend must be welcome where I am welcome.”
“Of course, Mistress Asha.”
“And we must be free to come and go as we please.”
“As long as it pleases my lord, yes.”
Asha nodded. That’s probably the best offer we’re going to get. “All right then. I’ll come. Lead the way.”
The men formed ranks in front and behind the two ladies and they all set off down the narrow dirt path back to the main road with the commander in the van. Once out on the dusty highway again, Asha glanced back at the overgrown lane where their hut stood absolutely hidden from the main road, and she wondered how the men had found her.
Turning her attention back to the path ahead, Asha studied the outline of Jaipur, the city she had deliberately tried to avoid the night before by insisting that they sleep in the hut instead of finding shelter among the cottages crowding along the road. Farms and villages were one thing, but cities were quite another and it had taken her all night to prepare for the onslaught of noise.
Too many people, too many busy people bustling around and over and under one another. Asha could hear them all, all their noisy souls clambering with ideas and schemes, with needs and desires, with hungers and passions. All those thousands of souls roared through the herbalist’s poisoned ear like a maelstrom, churning and gushing, noise beyond comprehension, beyond purpose. Just noise. Endless, pounding noise.
Asha rubbed her forehead, and then her eyes, and then began digging through her bag for something, anything, that might be strong enough for the headache throbbing through her skull.
The city rose up around them in fits and starts. A few larger houses here, a sprawling marketplace there, first one temple and then twenty more just beyond it. The height of the city steadily increased as well, the rooflines rising to block out the forests, and then the distant mountains, and then the sky itself. Soon Asha and her entourage were marching down a vast canyon of Rajput temples and estates and palaces and fortresses, some ancient and some new, some broken and partly repaired, others gleaming in perfection. Red stone and white stone, towers and domes. And the endless processions of windows in level upon level rising above them, repeating over and over in their intricate design until the design lost all meaning.
“What’s it like?” Priya asked.
“It’s big,” Asha said. “Bigger than I expected.”
“Oh.” Priya touched her arm. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s all right.” Asha found a ginko leaf to chew. “I’ll just try to keep this visit brief.”
For most of an hour they strode through the streets of Jaipur. The commander rarely had to speak to clear a path through the crowds. Most people took one glance at the red Rajput armor and silently moved aside. Still, Asha found the journey all too slow and miserable for the press of bodies and faces and voices all around them. Several times she thought to ask the commander how much farther, how much longer, but she kept her peace and chewed her leaves and waited.
Eventually she noticed that the city was growing smaller and quieter again. The rooflines receded and the crowds thinned, and Asha began to wonder whether their destination was inside the city at all when the commander paused to point out a small palace just ahead.
“The Jal Mahal.”
Asha saw where the road ended and a vast lake began. The water lay quite low below the level of the street and rising above the surface of the lake was a wide bridge of many arches and small towers reaching out across the water to a small island.
The palace, the Jal Mahal, sat on a low rise of earth so that it seemed almost to float on the water itself. As a building it was not at all remarkable, merely a large square two levels high with small domed towers in each corner and a great many dark windows staring out at the world. But as a creation of man and nature, as an act of artistry and subtlety, it was one of the most beautiful places Asha had ever seen. The walls shone with sunlight dancing off the little waves of the lake, and the lake reflected the towers and the bridge to create the illusion that the palace drifted serenely in empty space. It was a pocket of calm after the torrent of the city, a pocket world utterly audacious not in its size or grandeur, but in its elegance.
“Where’s my patient?” Asha asked.
The commander led the group across the long bridge over the water, which shimmered silver and gold in the midmorning light. Tall pink flamingos stood in the shallows, gazing across the surface, while small brown ducks floated on the softly rippling waves in search of breakfast.
Asha followed her escorts through the main entrance of the palace and through several airy corridors to the inner square, which was filled with a garden of flowering fruit trees and long-limbed ferns that screened the ground from view. The garden was ringed by a short wall, and on the top of the short wall sat a tall man studying the brilliant verdure of the plants. At the sound of the soldiers’ approach the man stood up, straightened his red jacket, swept one hand carefully over his shining black mustache, and nodded curtly at the commander, who stepped aside.
The tall man said, “Mistress Asha?”
“Maharana Pratap.” Asha bowed her head. Priya copied the gesture without being prompted. Jagdish, the sleeping mongoose, did not acknowledge the prince at all. “I have come to offer my services to your house. Where am I needed?”
The prince nodded. “You’re very direct. Good. Come with me.” He led them around the edge of the walled garden. “I’m certain I can rely upon your discretion in this matter. No one is to know anything from you, either inside or outside the palace. Only one servant knows for certain that anything is amiss, though the others must all suspect something by now. I’ve only said that she is ill, nothing more.”
“You have my absolute discretion, Your Highness.” Asha followed him to a tall door flanked by a pair of armored men. The prince opened only the right door and led the women inside, and shut the door behind them.
Asha took in the room with a quick glance. Airy curtains rippled by the windows overlooking the lake. Silken pillows sat piled in the corners and around the bed. Lush Persian carpets covered the floor in red and brown and yellow patterns. Ming screens stood along one wall near the closet. In the center of the room was a shapeless bed, a mound of sheets and blankets and pillows that no doubt hid a square mattress of some sort, and atop the bedding lay a sleeping woman.
She was young and beautiful, and from Asha’s view by the door, the woman looked perfectly healthy. “Your wife?”
“Yes.” The prince nodded and led them closer.
Asha stopped at the edge of the sheets and gestured to the bed. “May I?”
“Yes, please.” The prince nodded.
Asha pulled her bag from her shoulder and crossed the tumbled blankets and pillows in her dusty shoes. She sat on the edge of the bed by the princess’s head and quickly inspected the woman’s eyes and mouth, gently probed her jaw and neck, and then listened to her breathing and heartbeat, which were slow and regular. “Can she speak?”
“Only with great effort, and great pain,” the prince said. “It all began several months ago, I believe. She used to be quite energetic. Athletic. Active. She rode her horses, visited the marketplaces, visited the shrines, and visited her friends outside the city. Always traveling, always very strong, very vital. Then she began slowing down. Sleeping longer. Leaving the palace less often. Excusing herself from dinners and affairs of state, claiming she was tired or ill. Then I began to notice the small pains when she moved, as though she had a stiff back or a bruised muscle. We tried making the bed softer, but it did not help. And now, she remains in bed, almost unable to move at all, and rarely speaking. Her maid helps her to eat her food, which must be ground into paste because she cannot chew it anymore. The maid also helps her with…other personal things. You understand.”
Asha pulled back the hair from the right side of her face. The prince gasped at the sight of the gold scales crusting over her ear, but she ignored him as she pressed her head to the princess’s chest to listen. For a moment the sound of the prince’s fear overwhelmed her senses, but Asha tuned him out and found the sound of the princess’s soul, a sound so soft and small it might have been lost like a grain of sand on the beach. It was a steady hum. Too steady. Asha heard no dreams, no fears, and no desires either fleshly or otherwise in the young woman at all. “She’s not in pain.”
“Oh good,” the prince exclaimed.
“No, that’s bad. She’s too weak, too disconnected to feel pain. Her body is shutting down, slowly and gradually. She’ll die very soon without treatment.”
“Can you help her?”
“Maybe. Were there other symptoms before? Fever, chills, dizziness, vomiting, skin rash?”
“No, none of that.”
“What sort of health is her mother in?”
“Her mother?” The prince frowned. “Strong as an ox, but only half as delightful.”
“Hm.” Asha brought a slender golden needle out of her bag. She stared at the three notches on the needle for a moment as she wiped the metal clean with a bit of cinnamon bark. Then she carefully placed the needle over the woman’s chest and slipped it under the skin to the first notch. And then the second. And then the third.
She pulled out the needle and wiped it clean again. “No reaction. She should have twitched at least a little.” Asha waved a series of salts and oils under the woman’s nose, also with no effect. Frowning, she reached down and struck the woman sharply just below the kneecap. “She’s completely unresponsive.”
“Well, of course. She’s been like this for some time,” the prince said.
“But she’s rigid. Here, feel her neck and shoulder, and arm. You can feel the stiffness in her muscles. That should be a sign that her mind is still sending commands to her body, even if they are the wrong commands. But no. This stiffness isn’t coming from her nerves.” Asha looked up at the prince. “It may be chemical. Something she was exposed to. A disease, a toxin, a poison. Even an exotic fruit, something she might be allergic to. Something that she has been exposed to in small doses over the past several months. Do you have any new animals in the palace? Maybe something new in the marketplace, or at one of her friends’ homes?”
He shook his head. “I have no idea about the market or her friends, but she has been confined to this room for the past six weeks and nothing strange has entered here in that time, I assure you. I’ve been quite careful to make certain that nothing could enter that might harm her. No visitors. No animals. The only people to enter this room have been myself, the maid, and four doctors.”
“What about an injury? A cut, a scratch. It could be something very small, just large enough to allow a splinter under the skin.”
“I don’t know. She never mentioned an injury.”
Asha nodded. “Fine. I’ll need to spend some time observing her here, and then later I’ll take a look around the house for anything suspicious. Have there been reports of anyone else with this condition?”
“Well, you should have your people go through the markets and to your wife’s friends. They need to ask if anyone else is sick, or if anything strange has come into the area recently. Any food, cloth, or wood. Any sort of strange insects.”
“I will.” The prince started for the door.
“One last question. The four doctors who treated your wife. Were any of them foreigners? From the east?”
“No, they were all from the city here. Why?”
“It’s not important. I’ll send you a report when I know more.”
The prince nodded and left, shutting the door securely behind him.
Priya sat down carefully in the center of a wide carpet and took Jagdish off her shoulder. “Any thoughts?”
“No. For a moment it looked like some sort of severe arthritis, but no. I’ll examine her body now for any splinters or cuts. It may take a while.”
The nun nodded as she petted the mongoose in her lap.
Asha spent the rest of the morning examining the princess. She studied the woman’s skin in detail, but found no punctures with infected motes floating beneath the surface. She studied the woman’s joints and muscles, and then her ears and nostrils, and with the door locked she looked everywhere else. But she found no cause for the princess’s strange condition.
At noon the maid entered to spoon-feed the princess a bit of colorless mash, which Asha laced with several herbs and spices. The maid cleaned her mistress’s hands and face with a damp cloth, and left.
Asha then spent the afternoon prowling through the palace, poking into jars and lamps, scratching at the cracks and holes in the mortar in the walls, sniffing the guards’ boots, and banging about in the kitchens in search of nests, hives, spores, and molds. She found several of each, but none that could harm a healthy young princess.
Guards, valets, and maids responded to her every question, her every request. Unlock this. Open that. When was this last cleaned? What is that? Where did this come from? Every question was answered and every answer led nowhere.
Her fruitless search brought her back to the walled garden in the inner courtyard. She sat on the wall and gazed blankly at the ferns and mangos and foxtail orchids. Her poisoned ear brought her the soft harmonies of the floral spirits. She heard the tinkling bells of the flowers, the muted gongs of the trees, and the windy whistling of the crickets. Nothing she hadn’t heard before.
But then she did hear something new. It was a high reedy note and Asha frowned as she tried to recognize what sort of soul made that sound when she realized one of the guards was staring at her.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing, madam. You just looked confused at the bird call.”
A bird call? It was a real sound, Asha realized. I’m starting to confuse what’s physical and what isn’t. “That’s right, I didn’t recognize the call. What sort of bird is it?”
The guard shrugged. “I’ve never seen it. But I hear it now and then. Just that one note, just like we heard a moment ago.”
Asha waited for the bird to call again, but it did not oblige. So she strained her right ear to track down the noise of the creature’s soul, but all she heard were the cranes far across the lake and a handful of fish deep in its waters.
The supper hour found Asha sitting by her patient’s bed, staring out the open windows at the sun setting across the lake, and muttering to herself about pollen and fleas. One of the guards knocked and politely invited her to join the prince at dinner, but Asha declined, insisting that she needed to remain with the princess. But Priya was more than happy to play the proper house guest and she followed the guard to the dining room.
The maid came with another bowl of colorless mash, which Asha laced with another mixture of herbs and spices. The maid cleaned her mistress’s hands and face with a damp cloth, and left.
Every half hour, Asha inspected her patient, carefully measuring out the shallow breaths and faint heartbeats, but she couldn’t tell if there was any change from that morning. Priya returned from dinner in a very good mood, but Asha ignored her recitation of the evening’s culinary and conversational delights. Eventually Priya fell asleep.
And eventually, so did Asha.
The click of the door woke the herbalist and she sat up slowly, wiping the saliva from the side of her face as the timid young maid entered with her small tray bearing the familiar bowl of mash for breakfast. But when the maid knelt by the princess, Asha saw a hint of yellow in the dish.
“Something new today?” Asha nodded at the bowl.
“New?” The maid blinked. “Oh no, nothing new. Just her eggs. She loved them so much. I thought I would keep adding them to her breakfast. I thought she would like that.”
“What sort of eggs?”
The maid hesitated, her eyes blank.
Asha sighed. “Don’t bother lying. Just tell me the truth. Where are the eggs from? If it’s not important to her condition, I won’t tell anyone.”
The maid swallowed and nodded. “Peacock. They’re peacock eggs. The prince bought the peacock last year for my lady. She loves that bird. Loves to look at it. She said it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. And she…”
“She wanted to eat the eggs to make herself more beautiful.” Asha rolled her eyes.
“It’s not the eggs, is it?” The maid’s hands trembled. “Did the eggs make her ill?”
“No. At least, probably not. I’ll take a look at the bird to make sure it’s healthy, but no, cooked peacock eggs are perfectly safe. If not silly. Still, it’s better than what they do to tigers in the east.”
“What do they do to tigers?”
Asha shook her head. “Never mind. After you finish up here, you can show me the peacock so I can make sure it’s healthy.”
It only took a few minutes for the maid to feed and wash her mistress and Asha followed her out to the kitchen. The maid set the tray and bowl aside and then led Asha back out to the walled garden in the central courtyard.
“It’s in there,” the girl whispered, pointing into the ferns. “I don’t see it often, but its nest is back here in the corner.” She parted the emerald fronds to reveal a small circle of twigs and leaves on the ground. “Every morning there is a single egg, which I collect for my lady’s breakfast.”
Asha frowned. She’d seen more than a few peacocks, and heard their calls, and heard their souls, too. She couldn’t hear one now. “Peacocks are pretty large birds. I’m surprised that one can hide in a garden this small.”
“Oh, it’s a very small peacock. Some sort of pet breed, I think.”
“A hybrid?” Asha frowned a little deeper. “Thank you for your help. If my friend asks for me, tell her I’m out working on the case.”
The maid bowed and scurried away.
Asha glanced around the courtyard at the four guards by the far doors. None of them were looking in her direction, so she leaned down and slipped over the low wall into the garden and lay down flat beneath the thick ferns where no one was likely to see her or her yellow sari. She backed away and arranged herself on the lumpy earth so she still had a clear view of the peacock’s nest, and settled down to wait.
She fell asleep four times. Each time she jerked awake to see that the nest was still empty and the sun had crossed a bit farther overhead. She tried chewing on a sliver of ginger, and then on a few old tea leaves, and she was wondering what else she had to spare when she fell asleep again.
Asha awoke in the dark. The stars winked down through the ferns, the cicadas creaked, and the palace was shadowed and silent. A foul odor hung in the sultry night air, clinging to her nostrils.
Did I really sleep all day? How late is it now?
She blinked and stretched, and froze. The nest was no longer empty.
A small plump bird sat there, prim and unconcerned with her new human companion. The bird blinked, turned its head, blinked, shivered, and blinked again. The starlight shone dimly off the bird’s blue and green feathers. A long folded fan of tail feathers rested on the ground behind it.
“Well, a miniature peacock,” Asha whispered. “That’s new.”
The peacock shivered again and stood up to reveal a pale little egg between its legs. With another shiver, it stepped carefully out of the nest and strutted away into the garden. Just as it passed out of view, it lifted its tail feathers to hide its body behind a green and blue screen.
Asha inhaled sharply. Beneath its tail feathers, the peacock had a second tail, a green scaled whip of a tail stretched out just above the ground.
And then the creature was gone.
Asha took a few stumbling steps out of the brush, waist deep in ferns, scanning for the little bird, but it was gone. Out of sight and out of hearing. And that was the most troubling part. Even when she had the tiny peacock right in front of her, Asha still had not been able to hear the animal’s soul. If anything, there had been a ripple in the background noise of the rest of the garden and palace, a warble in the sounds of vegetable, insect, and human souls singing together in accidental harmony.
When she finally stopped studying the ground and looked up, Asha saw the guards on the far side of the garden frowning at her. She smiled and retreated to the corner where she snatched up the still-warm egg and slipped over the wall onto the tiled walkway. The egg was a dark golden hue, glowing dimly with citrine blemishes like an orb of ancient amber. She considered the egg only for a minute before striding off in search of the prince.
The lone guard at the west end of the palace confirmed that she had found the prince’s bedchamber, but he refused to allow her to disturb his sleeping lord and master.
“This is important. I need to speak to him,” she insisted.
“I’m sorry, madam. I have my orders. No disturbances before dawn.”
“I don’t care about your orders.” She tried to push past him, but he blocked her way and gently but firmly pushed her back. She tried again, and again, but each time the armored man proved just a bit faster. She never came close to the prince’s door.
“All right.” Asha chewed her lip for a moment. “The moment that he comes out of there, you tell the prince to come see me. Immediately. Tell him I know what happened to his wife.” And she returned the princess’s chamber to check on her patient.
An hour later a few soft rustling sounds murmured under the door, and a few minutes later Pratap Singh burst into the princess’s room with his red sherwani jacket unbuttoned and flapping around his white silk shirt. He stared at her. “Mistress Asha, good morning. My man said you had some news for me.”
“Tell me about the peacock.” Asha held up the amber egg. She grit her teeth and glanced at the grim-faced guard behind the prince. “Please. Your Highness.”
The prince took the egg, studied it briefly, and returned it. “The peacock was a gift for my wife. I found it in the bazaar one day. A traveling menagerie. I’m sure you’ve seen such things. I certainly have. Usually just an assortment of common monkeys and snakes and beetles, but I found this little peacock among them. The seller claimed the miniature breed was quite popular in Maharashtra, and would never grow any larger, so I bought it for her. But that was over a year ago, long before she fell ill.”
“Did you know that your wife has been eating the peacock’s eggs?” Asha asked.
The prince frowned. “No. But such things are not unknown.”
“Don’t you find it odd that a male peacock is laying eggs at all?”
Now the prince blinked in surprise. “Male?”
“Only the male peacock has the beautiful tail feathers, for seducing his mate. The females are brown and much less impressive.”
The prince stared at the egg in her hand. “But how is that possible? How can a male peacock lay eggs at all?”
“It can’t. You don’t have a male peacock, Your Highness. You have a female cockatrice.” Asha took a clean rag from her shoulder bag and wrapped the egg in it. “Your peacock has a second tail, one that is green and scaled like a lizard’s tail. The cockatrice is an artificial cross between our native peacocks and a poisonous lizard from the far west, from a frozen land called Europa.”
“The eggs are poisonous!” The prince covered his mouth and backed away from the wrapped bundle in her hand.
“Quite poisonous, yes. The cockatrice’s venom is a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes the victim so severely that primitive people thought the victims had actually turned to stone. These unfertilized eggs don’t contain that same venom, of course. Instead, the egg contains a powerful anti-venom to protect the unborn young, but the anti-venom is only meant for the young cockatrice. In any other creature, including a human, the effect of the anti-venom is almost identical to the venom itself, only less dramatic. It probably also helped that the eggs were cooked before your wife ate them. That further reduced their potency. Still, daily exposure over several months has left the princess almost completely paralyzed. If I can’t reverse the effect of the poison quickly, it will seize the base of her brain and her heart will cease to beat.”
“Yes, yes, of course, please, save her!” the prince implored. “You should not have delayed to speak to me. Only her life matters.”
“Well, I need something and thought I should ask permission.” Asha pointed out the door toward the garden square. “To make a cure for this anti-venom, I’m going to need the cockatrice itself. Bring it to me as quickly as you can. Dead, not alive. And tell your men to be careful of its bite.” She paused. “Actually, you need to stay away from its mouth altogether. It exhales traces of a poisonous fume wherever it goes. If it wasn’t for all the ginger I eat, its breath might have killed me last night as I lay in the garden.” She wiped roughly at her nose.
As the prince hurried out of the room, Asha quickly examined the patient once more for changes. There were none that she could find, but the princess seemed as close to death as ever, and Asha busied herself by spreading her tools and supplies across the floor beside the woman’s bed. Priya sat by the window, gazing out across the lake as though her eyes were not covered by a heavy band of cloth. “Asha? Is everything going to be all right?”
“I have the cause. Cockatrice egg anti-venom. Now I just need the cure.”
“Is there a cure for such a thing?”
“Of course there is,” Asha said. “I just need to invent it. Quickly.”
After an hour of arranging and cleaning and rearranging her materials, Asha was still waiting beside the princess’s bed for the dead cockatrice. And it was approaching the second hour when she finally stood and marched back out into the central courtyard to see what was the matter.
Over the short wall she saw a dozen men with drawn swords peering down through the ferns and flowers, muttering to one another, and poking and prodding at the unseen ground. The prince was coordinating the disorganized search from atop the wall itself, pointing here and there, occasionally barking at one man to go this way, or another to dive that way.
Asha called out, “Where is the cockatrice?”
The prince glared. “It seems to be hiding. We’ve spotted it several times, but each time it runs to a new hiding place and we have to start all over again. It’s silent, absolutely silent. Once it hissed at one of the men and a blue miasma wafted out of its beak. The venom you spoke of, I assume. So the men are being very cautious.”
“How much longer?” Asha asked.
“As long as it takes,” the prince replied sharply.
“It’s already been too long.” Asha spun and marched back into the princess’s bedchamber. “Priya? Can you come out here to help us? These poor gentlemen are having trouble finding something. I thought you might be able to encourage them.”
The nun smiled as she came to the door, Jagdish on her shoulder, and her bamboo rod in her hand tapping on the tiled floor. “I can certainly try. Did you think my sharp ears would be of use to them?”
Asha led her companion over to the low wall at the edge of the garden. “No. Not exactly.” She snatched the mongoose from Priya’s shoulder and gently tossed him down into the undergrowth of the garden. Jagdish darted away into the greenery.
“What have you done?” Priya asked, her voice straining to maintain its usual calm.
“I’ve always said a mongoose is a useful thing to have around. It’s time for him to prove me right. Jagdish should be immune to the cockatrice’s venom, and I’m sure he can sniff out that creature, even if he can’t see it or hear it.” Asha stared at the ferns, searching for a flash of brown fur or blue feathers.
“ Should be immune?”
Asha’s mouth hardened into a straight line. “Should be.”
Whatever happened in the underbrush was very brief and very violent. The ferns shook, the mongoose squeaked, the cockatrice hissed, and then all was still. The guards converged on the source of the noise and folded back the ferns to reveal Jagdish carefully cleaning the blood from his whiskers and the cockatrice lying dead beside him.
One of the men picked up both animals and held them out to Asha. She took the dead cockatrice by the tail and held it at arm’s length, but Jagdish refused to go near her and instead scampered over to Priya, who picked him up and placed him on her shoulder, where he nestled into her hair and peered out at Asha with small accusing eyes.
“I hope that was absolutely necessary,” the nun said.
“It was.” Asha paused only a moment to stare at the creature in her hand before striding back into the princess’s bedroom and shutting the door behind her.
She knelt down and spread the feathered body on a thick leather sheet, massaged the neck briefly, and then sliced off the head completely. With her scalpel and pins and probes, she deftly slit the cockatrice’s throat open to reveal the venom sacs at the base of the skull, and these she removed and placed in a porcelain dish. Then she tossed the body across the floor, out of the way, and went to work.
After three hours, four spent candles, a dozen silver trays, two buckets of water, and more herbs than she cared to admit, Asha finally sat over a dish of pale red oil in a shallow silver bowl. In addition to the flesh of the venom sac, she had used the shell of the last cockatrice egg and more than a little of the creature’s blood, and now she studied the product of her labors.
Logically, it was right. It should work. She had done everything just as she had been taught to do it, and now all that was left to do was use it.
Still she hesitated. It wasn’t doubt that gnawed at her. It was distaste. Disgust. A true healer did not gamble with life carelessly. A true healer would test the new medicine in the dish first, and in an animal second, and only in a human last of all. But there wasn’t time. There wasn’t even enough of the red oil to use, even if there had been time.
Asha carried the dish to the princess and began dribbling the oil into the woman’s bloodless lips. Then she drew a small amount of the oil up into a needle of blue glass and injected it into the princess’s neck.
Through the evening and the long quiet night that followed, Asha sat by the princess and administered her medicine by every means she could think of. Priya came and sat by the windows overlooking the lake. The maid brought supper, tended her mistress, and left. And at some late hour, Asha fell asleep.
The next day the princess seemed to breathe a little easier. Asha continued to apply her red oil, answered the prince’s questions as briefly as possible, and slept very little.
Days passed. The princess slept easier, even murmuring in her sleep, but she did not wake.
Asha experimented with what little remained of the cockatrice, from the feathers to the beak to the liver, producing similar oils and powders. She tried them all. Some seemed to work better. Most didn’t. And all of them ran out all too soon. There simply wasn’t enough of the small animal’s body to create enough medicine.
After a week, the princess opened her eyes and spent a few precious minutes talking with her husband. Pratap Singh’s voice wavered as he sat beside her, stroking her cheek. But then she fell asleep again and couldn’t be roused.
A month passed.
Asha stayed beside the princess, rarely leaving her bedchamber, every day trying to coax some new secret from what little remained of the cockatrice until she was left scraping at its bones. But the princess slipped back into her rigid state, her muscles as hard as ironwood, her skin as firm as stone.
And then she died.
At the end, her body was so rigid that the servants couldn’t undress her or even untangle her from the sheets, and were forced to cut away the cloth. But the woman’s face was perfectly serene, unlined and unblemished, smooth and young and strong. Everyone agreed that she was the most beautiful corpse they had ever seen.
Asha and Priya stayed in Jaipur only as long as etiquette seemed to require. The heartbroken prince pressed them with gifts, left his palace open to them for all time, and gave them a place of honor in the funeral procession. But when it was over, they left.
Three months later.
Asha stood in the marketplace of Jaipur, haggling with an older woman over a fistful of ginger roots. After overpaying for her stock, Asha sauntered back toward Priya, who stood at the foot of the steps of a temple of Vishnu. The nun frowned. “I could be wrong, but I think someone is following us.”
“How can you tell?” Asha glanced around at the crowd quietly surging past them.
“Just a feeling.”
“Then let’s go.” Asha led the way through the market squares and market streets and found the way to the northern end of the city where the Jal Mahal appeared to float majestically on the surface of the lake. But the palace seemed dimmer and shabbier than she remembered it. Nothing had changed about it physically. It was just a sense. A feeling that this place had already seen its finest days and now was sinking into shadows and sad memories.
They walked on. “Are we still being followed?”
Priya nodded. “I’m certain of it now. A man with an uneven gait.”
Asha looked around again, but there were still too many people about and none of them looked like sinister killers with conspicuous limps. “Let’s just keep moving.”
They followed the main road north and soon came to the small shrine at the crossroads where the princess’s ashes had been placed only a few short months ago. Asha paused to stare at the little stone pillars and flickering braziers. Her memories of the long days and nights at the young woman’s bedside were still fresh. The long hours studying the dead cockatrice, the foul-smelling experiments, the ache in her arm from grinding and crushing one thing after another in her mortar.
“She was very beautiful,” a man said.
Asha looked sharply at the short fellow beside her. His limp black hair barely covered his scalp, and he squinted through filmy, cracked glasses. The shoes on his feet were Indian, but his dark blue robe was from Ming. She swallowed and turned back to the shrine. In a calm and even voice, she said, “Yes, she was.”
“But it wasn’t enough for her. It never is, for some people.” The man smiled. A black leather bag sat on the ground beside his foot.
“So you offered your services?”
“No, not this time,” the doctor said. “I merely sold the prince something that he thought he wanted. A wonderful creature. Very hard to breed, you know. A bird and a lizard. Tricky business. But then, I’m sure you appreciated all of that for yourself.”
“Not really. I was too busy trying to keep her alive.”
“Ah yes. A pity, to be sure,” he said. “I never thought she would eat the eggs.”
“Yes, you did.”
He smiled. “Well, maybe.”
“And the mandrake in Kasar? And the bitter fruits at the mountain hut? More of your little experiments, or were they just very bizarre coincidences?”
He nodded absently, his gaze still fixed on the shrine. Not once did he look at her. “The world is full of sad people looking for help, and the world is full of strange things that might help them. I am but a humble purveyor of miracles.” He chuckled. “As are you.”
“Your miracles kill people. And the ones who don’t die are hollowed out by false prophets and dreams. I’ve wasted more days than I can remember cleaning up your messes.”
The doctor clucked his tongue. “Now, now. We all have our roles to play. If not for me, we would not know that the prickled gurbir’s effects will disappear for exactly eleven and a half months before the patient dies, or that the swamp mandrake seed can survive cremation fires, or that the anti-venom of the cockatrice egg is nearly as dangerous as the mother’s venom itself. Such knowledge is more precious than gold.”
“Is such knowledge more precious than life?” Asha asked. She too kept her eyes fixed on the shrine, and on the dark red flames of the closest brazier in particular.
“Of course. Life is cheap. Toss a carcass to the ground and ten thousand creatures will feast and rut and grow strong upon it. Kill all those ten thousand, and a million more will rise in their place. Life is inescapable. It’s everywhere. And more often than not, it is squandered and wasted. Thus, where I pass, life is at least spent more profitably for the betterment of all men, for the deeper knowledge of life and death.”
Asha casually took a clear glass needle from her shoulder bag and shoved it into the man’s arm. He hissed and leapt away from her as he yanked the needle from his flesh and stared at the broken tip. “What was in that?”
“What was it?” he shouted.
“Qilin’s tears,” she said softly.
His eyes widened and he hurled the needle away into the tall grass behind the shrine. “You ungrateful bitch!”
“What’s the matter?” she asked quietly. “Surely a doctor like you has the antidote? The powdered horn?” She paused for him to answer, but he said nothing. “Oh, I see. You don’t have it, do you? No, you never were very good at keeping up your stocks of remedies and antidotes and cures. I suppose you got used to relying on me to do that for you.”
He glared at her. “But you must have it! Give it to me! Now!”
She held up a small paper envelope between two fingers. He reached for it but she flicked it through the air to land on the nearby brazier. The red flames quickly consumed the envelope and its contents.
The doctor gasped. “Murderer!”
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration. You don’t look very dead to me. I would think a doctor could tell the difference.” The corner of Asha’s mouth twitched. “The qilin’s tears are a very slow poison. Painful, but slow. You have several weeks to find more of the horn for yourself.”
“Weeks? But the horn of the qilin can only be found in Ming!”
“Then I suggest you start walking very soon, and very quickly.”
“After everything I did for you! I saved your life countless times between Yen and Ming. I raised you. I taught you. I gave you everything you have!”
“You used me.” She turned slowly to look him in the eye. “Didn’t you? Eight years in a coma from dragon’s venom. Eight years? It should have killed me inside a week, or not at all. Instead you kept me on your table for eight years, and when I woke up you said all the tiny scars were from keeping me alive. But they were really from keeping me asleep, and taking my blood, and skewering my soul. I admit, it took me a very long time to put the pieces together, but I did. After all, you’re the one who taught me to unravel these little mysteries, doctor.”
“So what if we did use you? We woke you up in the end and trained you in our noble profession.” The little doctor clamped his hand tightly over his arm where she had stabbed him with the needle. “We gave as much as we took. But it was all your fault to begin with. It was all because you tried to take my dragon!”
Asha shook her head slightly. “No. It was all because you left a little girl alone in a room with a temptation, and with the cage unlocked for the first and only time. It was all just one more experiment, wasn’t it?”
The doctor started toward her and Asha turned toward him with two more needles in her hand.
“I could kill you,” she said. “But I won’t. Instead I’m giving you the chance to live, as much as I’ve threatened to let you die. Giving as much as I took, as you put it. So I suggest that you take this chance and go, before I forget that I’m a healer and not a doctor, like you.”
The small man sneered at her a moment with a dark hatred burning in his eyes, but he backed away, grabbed his black bag, and left.
Asha put away her needles and the two women stood before the shrine for a few minutes before the nun said, “Did you really poison him?”
“Will he survive?”
“That depends on whether he can find the antidote.”
“And you destroyed the cure to torture him?”
Asha shook her head. “Of course not.” She held up another, identical paper envelope. “The real antidote is right here. What I burned was just a cure for baldness, which no one really needs, do they?”
“I heard you take the needle out of your bag. I almost stopped you,” Priya said. “I wanted to, but I didn’t. I trusted you. But now I’m not sure it was the right thing to do. You’re a healer, Asha, and you just poisoned a man.”
“He deserved it. And more,” Asha said quietly. She looked down at the shrine in front of them. “This woman, the princess, would be alive today if not for him. And Hasika’s family in the mountains, too. And who knows how many more?”
“I suppose.” Priya shivered against the cool breeze. “So is this why you left the temple in Ming? Because you figured out what they had done to you?”
“No, I didn’t figure that out until much later. No, I left because of something else.” The words stuck in her throat and Asha paused to swallow. The sudden tightness in her chest surprised her. After a moment she said, “When I was training at the temple, I met a boy from the nearby village. I suppose he was too old to call him a boy, really, but I always think of him that way. A boy. My boy. A carpenter’s apprentice. He was my first.” She paused to be sure the nun took her meaning. “One day he and his master came to the temple to repair the roof. The boy was up in the rafters where it was dark. He didn’t see what stung him, but it was so bad that he collapsed the moment he climbed down. He was gasping for breath. Shaking. Turning blue. I was there. I saw it.”
“What did you do?”
Asha shook her head. “I didn’t do anything. The doctors grabbed him up and took him to a room where they poked him and prodded him, and argued over him. They muttered about cutting him open, inserting tubes into his lungs, draining fluid, and pumping air into him with the fireplace bellows. I stood in the corridor, just outside, watching them. I could hear him gasping. He kept pounding on the table, struggling to breathe.
“Eventually they started to work on him. They cut him open. They inserted glass and rubber tubes. His blood ran down to the floor. And the boy screamed until he passed out. They worked on him for an hour or so.” Asha blinked. “And then they came out and told me that he was dead. My boy. My first. He was dead. I asked them why. What happened to him? A wasp sting, they said. Just a common wasp. I didn’t understand. I asked them, why didn’t they give him medicine? We had medicine for stings and allergies. I had made some of it myself. Why didn’t they give it to him? They said, because they wanted to see what would happen if they cut him open instead.”
Asha paused to breathe. “I remember how pleased they all were with themselves. Complimenting each other on their techniques. On their tools. On the measurements they took of him as he lay dying on their table. They were looking forward to examining his body again later.”
Asha felt the tears running down her cheeks, but she didn’t wipe them away. She didn’t shake or close her eyes, or cover her mouth, or move at all. She stood very still and felt the sick fire burning in her belly and her chest and her throat and her eyes. But she didn’t move.
“They were proud of themselves. They were proud of what they had learned,” she whispered. “But he died. He died in agony. For their pride. And I just stood there and watched it happen.”
Asha felt Priya take her hand. She gently but firmly pulled away. “That’s why I left.”
And then Asha stopped fighting. She let her face twist and squeeze together as the tears ran down and the sharp gasps burst out and she shook and sobbed, and sobbed. Eventually the pain and sorrow ran its course and she pushed her hair back, wiped her face, and cleared her throat. For many long moments, she just stood there, staring at the shrine, sighing and clearing her throat, and blinking her eyes dry.
“You can talk now,” Asha said.
“If you need to hear me say that they were wrong and you were right, then I’ll say it, because it’s true. But I know you don’t need me to say that. What do you need now?”
Asha shook her head slowly. “Nothing.” She blinked again. “I’m fine.” She heaved one last sigh and stood a little taller. “Really, I feel…better.”
“Let me do something, please.”
“Maybe a little sleep. I could use a little rest.”
“I think we can arrange that.” Priya took her by the arm and led her back toward the road, turning to the westward path. “And then some hot food and tea.”
Asha nodded. “You know, I thought if we went west far enough, then I could get away from them. But they were here. He was here. They’re everywhere.”
“Perhaps not quite everywhere,” Priya said. “Perhaps we simply didn’t go far enough. What would you say to a much longer journey into the west?”
“Yes, into Persia.” Priya patted her hand. “Though I’ve heard that they call it Eran now.”
Asha shrugged. “I really don’t care what it’s called.”
Priya smiled. “I didn’t think you would.”
Asha smiled back, just a little.
The Black Dragon
Asha paused at the top of the trail to look down on the valley below. The sun hung in a colorless sky, glaring down on high gray stone and low brown earth without a single glimmer of green in sight. She squinted back over her shoulder. There was a sound on the wind, something so faint and distant that it couldn’t be more than the last dying echo of some soul beyond the farthest horizon, and yet Asha heard it. A shudder in her ear. A thrum. “There’s something out there, somewhere.”
Priya shuffled up beside her, tapping the hard stone path with her bamboo rod in search of jagged cracks and loose gravel. Shaded within the folds of her flower-strewn hair, Jagdish slept on the nun’s shoulder twisted over onto his back in a precarious pose.
“Is it dark?” Priya asked.
“No. It’s noon, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky.”
“But it’s so cold.”
“I know. It’s these mountains. They remind me of home.”
Priya nodded. “You know, when I suggested that we journey into Persia, into the Empire of Eran, I was hoping to meet new people, to learn and teach and share with the strangers we would find. I don’t suppose you can see any strangers out here for us to find, can you?”
Asha sniffed. “No. But there is smoke rising from beyond the next ridge. Feel like walking a little farther?”
They descended the rocky path with the chill mountain wind whistling through the narrow ravines and crevasses gouged across the face of the slope. Small stones clattered down from time to time, but Asha never saw any other signs of life. No goats or sheep. No rabbits or mice. Only a lone vulture hovered high overhead.
“What if it isn’t real?” Priya asked.
“Eran. Maybe it’s just a myth. Maybe when we left Rajasthan, we stepped off the map into some no-place beyond the edge of the world.”
Asha shrugged. “Maybe. But there is a path. And there is smoke.”
Priya smiled. “If you say so.” She daintily adjusted the cloth that covered her eyes.
They crossed a dry stream bed at the bottom of the valley and began climbing the far slope. Once again at the top of the trail Asha paused to survey the land ahead. She said, “I think we’ve found the edge of Eran.”
At the bottom of the next valley stood a small city of dusty brown tents clustering around large fire circles. Long latrine pits ran along the north side of the camp, and long wooden houses stood along the south side. But through the center of the camp was a strange road made of stone, wood, and metal. The bed of crushed stone rose above the level of the earth, and heavy square-ended timbers lay at regular intervals on the stones, and twin steel beams rested on the timbers. The strange road ran as straight as an arrowshot from the foot of the mountain ridge where Asha and Priya stood all the way to the western horizon.
And sleeping on the steel road bed was a dragon.
It was long and black, scaled in iron, with dozens of carriages resting on hundreds of wheels, and a thin column of white steam rising lazily from the pipe on its nose.
“What do you see?” Priya asked.
Asha shook her head. “I’m not sure. But I don’t like it.”
They descended the path toward the camp. Below them, hundreds of men trudged back and forth from the ridge carrying or dragging sacks of small stones and sledges of large stones. The sounds of shovels and picks cracking away on the hard stone echoed across the camp with the steady rhythm of falling hail, and from time to time a man would shout in an angry voice.
At the bottom of the trail Asha moved carefully through the streams of men carrying heavy stones and empty sacks. Only a few of them bothered to cast a weary glance at the tall woman in the yellow sari or the small nun in the saffron robe.
“Asha?” Priya paused. “I don’t recognize some of the languages I’m hearing. Do you?”
“Yes. I speak some Eranian. Or Persian, as they called it when I was a girl. But a lot of these men are speaking something else. Afghani, I think.”
A fresh chorus of shouts drew their attention to the row of wooden houses along the south side of the work camp. A man wearing dark green robes stood on a raised platform barking orders at several grim-faced brutes carrying whips and clubs. The man in green pointed at the two women.
“Trouble,” Asha said. Her hand went into her bag, feeling past little clay jars of ointments and paper packets of ground seeds to the steely tools at the bottom. Her fingers closed around a small scalpel.
Two of the men with whips strode toward the women. They scowled and spat as they crossed the yard, and when they came closer the tall one said, “You there! No women! No prostitutes! No women in the camp! What are you doing here? Where did you come from? No women in the camp!”
Asha held up her empty hands and spoke slowly and loudly in her best Eranian, “We are not prostitutes. I am an herbalist. A healer. This is a nun. We come from India.”
The men exchanged a look and a few muttered words, and then the shorter one jogged back to the man in green. The remaining brute ran his hand through his short beard. “A healer? From India?”
“Why are you here?”
“We are traveling west to see the great Empire of Eran.”
The man frowned deeper. “You are on a pilgrimage?”
Asha glanced at Priya. “Yes. Yes, we are.”
The man nodded slowly. A moment later his short companion jogged back again and whispered in his ear. The bearded one nodded more emphatically. “The master says you must stay here and tend to our sick men.”
Asha raised an eyebrow. “We must?”
Priya touched her friend’s arm. “We would be happy to stay here a short while to offer what help we can to your men,” she said in Hindi.
The bearded man looked a bit confused but seemed to interpret her words to indicate compliance, so he pointed to the left and led the two women through the camp past smoldering cook fires, rotting food swarming with flies, and dusty tents that blew open from time to time to reveal the dusty blankets lying on the rocky earth. Finally they came to a cluster of tents at the western edge of the camp where their guide pointed at the ground. “Here.” And he walked away.
Asha pressed her lips together for a moment. “Here?”
There were eight tents around the last fire pit and all of their entrances were curtained to hide the men within them. But from nearly all of the tents came the soft coughing and retching of many sick bodies.
Priya nodded. “Here.”
Asha entered the first tent unannounced and found four men lying on the ground trying to share a pair of tattered blankets. They were all coughing almost without pause, sometimes grunting softly into their closed lips and sometimes roaring with congested barks and shouts, to be followed by exhausted groans, gasping, and spitting. Small specks of blood dotted the ground and the side of the tent flaps.
Nudging Priya back, Asha unslung her shoulder bag and knelt by the head of the closest man. He rolled his eyes up to focus on her for a moment, murmured something unintelligible, and resumed his coughing fit.
“Is it contagious?” the nun asked.
Asha leaned down to listen to the man’s wet and ragged breaths. Then she peered at his lips and nostrils and the small black flecks of blood on the blanket. “No. I’ve seen this before with coal miners. It’s the dust. It’s in their lungs. They should be wearing masks when they work.”
“Is there anything you can do for them?”
The herbalist shook her head. “I can’t. Once the dust is in the lungs, there is no way to remove it. They’ll continue to cough like this for the rest of their lives.”
“So they will live?”
“Maybe. If they haven’t inhaled too much dust, then maybe.”
Priya exhaled slowly. “Are you certain there isn’t something you might try? There may not be a treatment for this dust-cough yet, but that doesn’t mean that one cannot be created.”
“No,” Asha said. “Maybe with enough time and enough materials and tools, I might be able to find a way to make them more comfortable. But this is not a new or exotic condition. It’s been studied for years. There’s nothing I can do for them now, not without better supplies.”
“I see.” Priya nodded. “Then we must go to the men in command and tell them about the masks and other precautions to safeguard the workers’ lives. Yes?”
Asha frowned. “They didn’t strike me as the sort of men who cared too much for their workers’ well-being. I think we should wait for evening and then leave when no one is watching.”
“No.” Priya stroked the long mongoose on her shoulder. “Someone must speak for these men. Someone must help them.”
“I wish I could, but I told you, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Then it falls to me. I will do something.”
Asha narrowed her eyes. “Like what?”
“Take me to the man in command.”
“I don’t think that would be wise.”
“I understand that. Take me. Please.”
She almost said something else, but Asha simply pressed her lips together, shook her head, and led her friend briskly back through the camp toward the wooden houses at the southern edge of the field. One of the grim foremen noticed the women coming and he stepped inside one of the houses only to emerge a moment later with the man in the green robe.
“Is this your camp?” Asha asked.
“I sent you to tend to the sick men,” he said.
Priya touched Asha’s arm and the herbalist fell silent. The nun said, “Sir, we have been to see your men. They suffer from an incurable cough caused by the dust from the digging. There is nothing we or anyone else can do for them.” Asha translated her words into Eranian.
The man sighed. “That’s what I feared. Well, if they cannot work, then we’ll get rid of them and find others to take their place.”
After Asha translated his reply, Priya said, “Sir, these men will need your help to return to their homes, but even then they may not be able to work to support themselves and their families. Surely a man of your wealth and resources will want to help care for them?”
The man in green smirked and shook his head. “The railroad must be completed on schedule. I have no time or money to waste on men who can no longer work.”
He pointed at the black beast lying on the steel rails. “The Trans-Eranian Railway runs for thousands of leagues across Ifrica and Eran. Soon it will reach the countries of the Far East as well, and our steam trains will race across half the world.”
“Why?” Priya asked.
The man blinked. “Why?”
“Yes, why? What is it for?”
“To travel! To trade! To cross the breadth of the empire in mere days instead of weeks.”
“But what is it you hope to find in Rajasthan and India? What is there in the east that you so lack in the west that you need this railroad to reach it so quickly?”
The man stared at her in silence, his eyes narrowed and brows thrust furiously together with a sea of wrinkles on his forehead.
“My friend and I are journeying into the west,” the nun continued. “I suppose we might reach distant places sooner using your railroad, but then we might miss all of the places along the way. All of the people. All of the sounds and tastes. And if we miss our own journey, then what was the purpose of the journey at all? We might as well stay at home if we wished to see and hear and learn nothing new.”
The man’s glare faded into weary annoyance. “Obviously, you don’t understand.”
Priya smiled. “If I did, I wouldn’t have asked the question. But we have wandered far from our original purpose here. The men. The men who are sick will not recover, and the men who are still working are in danger of becoming sick as well. What will you do about this?”
“What would you suggest?”
“Masks,” Asha interjected, not waiting for Priya to answer. “A heavy strip of cloth to cover the nose and mouth, and to be soaked in water at least once an hour to keep the dust out of their lungs.”
The man squinted a bit. “This will keep them healthy enough to work?”
He nodded. “All right. It’ll mean more water, which is precious right now. I suppose I’ll think about it.”
Before Asha could reply, a deep crackling sound echoed up from the earth beneath their feet, and then a single titanic boom shook the ground. A pale brown plume of dust erupted from the work site at the eastern end of the camp, and the workers came running out of the dirty cloud.
“Damn,” the man in green grimaced. “What now?”
Asha and Priya followed the man into the brown haze as the workers streamed past them covered in dirt and blood, coughing and limping and clinging to one another.
“What happened?” demanded the man in green. He grabbed one of the workers. “What happened in there?”
“The tunnel collapsed.” The worker coughed. “More than half of it.”
“Why?” The man in green shook him. “Why?”
“A vein.” The worker coughed again. “A vein of silver, I think.”
The man in green shoved the worker aside.
“I can treat the injured,” Asha said. She pointed to a cleared space on the south side of the railroad tracks. “Bring the injured men to me over there.”
The man in green nodded. “Fine. What do I call you, healer?”
“I am Asha of Kathmandu. And this is Priya of Kolkata. And you?”
The man frowned at her. “I am Master Sebek.”
Asha led Priya through the crowd of men and the cloud of dust, calling out that all the injured men should follow her. A small knot of limping and bloody workers began moving toward her, and soon she had them sitting or lying in rows while she assessed their injuries. Sprains. Broken arms. Broken legs. Concussions. Cracked ribs.
When she reached the last man in the last row, Asha turned to survey the crowd. “I thought there would be more. Many more.”
“If there are,” Priya said, “then they must still be in the tunnel.”
For two hours, Asha tore sheets into bandages and smashed tent poles into splints. Several young men volunteered to help hold the injured men still while Asha wrenched their bones back into place, and so for two hours the air was filled with sharp cries and screams as bodies were slowly put back together.
When she was finished, Asha left Priya to administer what meager pain killers she had brought in her bag and went in search of the man in green. She found Master Sebek near the mouth of the tunnel interrogating two of his foremen, two squinting men covered in dust and scrapes. She stopped a dozen paces away to wait for him.
“You’re certain it was gold?” Sebek asked.
The men nodded.
“How long? How long did you know about it? A minute? An hour?”
“Only a few minutes,” the thin foreman said. “A man ran up to me with the rock in his hand. I was trying to look at it by torch light when the first timber snapped.”
“The timber snapped.” Sebek turned the tall foreman. “The timber snapped, and now my tunnel is only half a tunnel, the gold is buried, and the railroad is falling behind schedule. Because the timber snapped.”
The tall foreman swallowed. “Yes sir.”
Master Sebek drew his short sword and pressed the tip against the tall foreman’s shirt. The cloth blackened and began to smoke, and the man shuddered, his face pouring with sweat.
Asha squinted at the distant sword. It was shining with a bright golden light. She glanced up at the sun, only to see it hidden at that moment behind a thick white cloud. And yet the sword shone brightly.
The tall foreman began to babble in Eranian so quickly that Asha could not tell what he was saying. She started forward again, and was about to call out to the men when Sebek’s hand leapt, the shining sword darting into and out of the tall foreman’s belly in the briefest instant. A trail of black smoke followed the foreman as he fell to the ground. Sebek sheathed his sword and the empty space between him and the thin foreman instantly dimmed into shadow.
Asha froze. She had seen how shallow the thrust had been, and even a deep cut to the stomach could sometimes take hours to kill a man, and yet… the man on the ground was not moving. He was not even breathing.
“How long?” Sebek asked. “How long to recover the tunnel and reach the gold again?”
“Five days,” the foreman said calmly.
“Get it done. And place the timbers closer together this time.”
The man in green turned back toward his wooden houses but stopped when he saw Asha standing in the middle of the dusty field. “How are the men?”
“They’ll live,” she said softly, her eyes straying to the dead foreman. “Most will be able to work again in a few days or weeks.”
“What about the other men? The ones still in the tunnel?”
Sebek shrugged. “They’re dead.”
“Are you certain?”
“If they aren’t dead now, they will be by the time we unearth them. Don’t concern yourself with them. Worry about the living. I want every man on his feet as soon as possible. If you succeed, you’ll be well paid.” He began to walk away.
“I don’t need money. I just want to reach the next town to the west.”
He paused. “Fair enough. You can ride the train back to Herat when it goes back for supplies in two days’ time.”
“Thank you.” Asha nodded, her eyes once again returning to the dead foreman. “But two days is not much time. What if I cannot return any of the men to work?”
He followed her gaze to the body on the ground. “Then you and they will be free to continue on your way through the barren mountains. On foot.”
“Is Herat very far from here?”
“Seventy leagues, at least.” And he left.
Asha waited for him to disappear inside one of the wooden houses before she went over and knelt by the dead foreman. Touching his shirt, she found the fabric around the cut brittle and charred. Lifting the cloth, she saw the seared skin around the very small wound. There was no blood on his skin, or his clothes, or the ground.
She left the body as she found it and returned to the side of the railroad tracks where her new patients were resting in the midday sun, which offered some meager warmth and relief from the cold winds whipping down the mountainsides.
There were thirty-seven men sitting or lying in three long rows before her, and she counted their injuries carefully. The first third of them could probably leave within the hour. The second third of them would be able to work by the end of the week. But the last third would need more time. Much more.
“Did you learn anything?” Priya asked.
Asha blinked. “We need to heal these men. All of them. And quickly.”
The next morning, Asha dismissed fifteen of her patients. Their scrapes were minor, their cuts clean, and their bruises superficial. All day long, Asha divided her time between inspecting the bandages and splints of the remaining men and searching the surrounding hillsides for native herbs and insects. When she was far enough from the camp where no one could see her, she swept her long black hair away from her right ear to listen.
Here in the cold highlands, her right ear had begun to ache a bit more than usual. The dragon’s venom stung from the fatty earlobe right into the firm cartilage, and out to the hardened skin that resembled the shining gold scales of the beast that had bitten her so long ago.
She closed her eyes. Her left ear heard only the mournful sighing of the wind, but her right ear heard the deep-throated chorus of souls moaning in unison in the valley below, a chorus of human souls, very male, very tired, and very unhappy. There were the nervous trills of horse-souls and the gleeful yipping of dog-souls. And echoing across the pale autumn sky came the proud shrieks of hawk-souls.
But where there should have been the demure hums and tinkling of trees and shrubs and grasses, there was only silence. Again and again, Asha turned and walked and listened, but everywhere that she went over the hard Afghan hills she found no green growing things in the earth.
After an hour’s wandering she came back down into the camp, passing a scowling young man with a whip who had apparently followed her to ensure she was not attempting to leave. Evening was falling as she sat down beside Priya among the injured men and began the tedious duty of checking each one’s wounds for signs of infection. When she was done, she joined Priya beside a small fire pit where an old dented kettle sat in the coals and a pinch of tea leaves waited in two chipped cups.
“Did you find anything?” the nun asked.
“No. Nothing.” Asha glanced across the remaining patients. “Judging from the tents, it looks as though there are only two hundred men here. And with no nearby towns to recruit new workers, I understand why Sebek wants them all back to work as soon as possible. But it can’t be done. Over twenty injured men here, and more than that lying in the sick camp over there.” She nodded toward the tents of the men who could not stop coughing. “And more will be falling ill soon. There must be something else I can do.”
“Because Sebek isn’t going to keep feeding men who can’t work.”
“If the sick men cannot be healed, then they cannot be healed,” Priya said. “If the workers cannot stop breathing in the dust, then they will fall sick. And these men cannot mend their bones faster than nature allows. These are facts. No amount of worry or fear or anger will change them.”
Asha stared at the kettle as it began to whistle. “Don’t be so sure about that.”
“What do you mean? Is there some way to make these men heal faster? Or perhaps we can make better splints so they can work before their bones are mended?” There was genuine curiosity and eagerness in the young nun’s voice.
“No.” Asha peered off into the darkness toward the western edge of the camp. “But maybe we can cure the men with the coughing sickness.”
“But you said that was impossible, didn’t you?”
“Did I?” Asha shrugged. “Well, maybe it was impossible yesterday. But if the wind can wear down a mountain, then I should be able to clean out a man’s lungs.” She stood up and brushed the dust from her sari. “I have to go see about some supplies.”
She crossed the camp to the wooden houses and knocked on the first door she came to. The same scowling young man from earlier opened the door but behind him Asha could see Sebek sitting at a desk by the light of a small oil lamp. The man in green glanced up. “Ah, yes. How are your patients, doctor?”
Asha grimaced. “Just Asha will be fine. Fifteen of your men will be back to work tomorrow. Another four or five may be fit enough by the end of the week. But that leaves about seventeen severe fractures that may take more than a month to heal.”
Sebek nodded. “I suspected as much. I’ll have them moved to the west end of the camp with the other cripples where they’ll be out of the way. It probably won’t do any good to tell them to leave since there’s no place to go. We’ll simply have to wait for nature to take its course.”
Asha curled her fingers into a fist. “None of your men are dying. The injured will heal in just a few weeks. You don’t need to do anything except feed them.”
“No, that food will be needed for the new men we’ll have to hire in Herat. Food is my primary operating expense right now. Everything is at a premium since it has to be imported from so far away.” Sebek sighed. “Even if I did feed the injured, the sick would probably get jealous of that lavish treatment.”
“The men with dust-lung coughs aren’t dying.”
“And they aren’t working, either,” Sebek said loudly. “And you have done nothing but confirm my own suspicions. The injured and sick men cannot work. And since you cannot heal them, you and your blind friend are free to leave. Have a pleasant walk to Herat. If you follow the railroad, it should only take you six days to arrive, assuming you don’t die of thirst and hunger first. Good night.”
The young man by the door reached for her arm, but Asha stepped farther into the room, out of his reach. “I can heal the sick men.”
Sebek sighed again as he looked up from his papers. “And now you’ve resorted to lying to save yourself.”
“No, I can do it. At least, I think I can.” Asha frowned. “But I’ll need to use that big black steam machine of yours.”
“The train engine?”
“Whatever you call it. If I’m right, I can have all of the coughing men cured by noon tomorrow.”
“Really?” Sebek smiled. “If you do that, you and your friend can ride first class all the way to Herat.”
“Just promise you’ll keep feeding the injured men until they can work again.”
Sebek narrowed his gaze. “You’re confident you can cure them?”
“Very well. You have the engine, and you have until noon tomorrow.”
The sun rose small and yellow in a pink and blue haze as it crept above the eastern ridge. A steady breeze blew through the valley, drawing the smoke trails of the cook fires off to the south. A lone vulture circled high overhead. It looked very much like the same vulture from the day before.
Asha left Priya sleeping under the watchful eye of the scowling youth and went to speak to the yawning man shoveling coal at the back of the train engine. As she approached, she could just barely see the raging inferno through the little firebox door, and as she drew closer, the sheer number of gleaming iron pistons and rams and wheels and whistles and rails and plates left her staring and wondering what all of them were for. The man with the shovel paused to lean over the railing to peer at her. “So, are you her?”
“I’m Asha, the healer,” she said. “Master Sebek said you would help me to cure the men with the dust-lung cough.”
“Mm.” He nodded. “The master didn’t say how, though. What do you want me to do?”
“Just make steam. Lots of steam. It comes out there, right?” She pointed to the fat black funnel on the front of the boiler.
He squinted and nodded.
“Good. Then I’ll just need a ladder, a bellows, and a bucket.”
“I’ve all three of those, actually.” The engineer ducked down, and there was a brief clatter of metal on metal, and then he stood up again with a large steel bucket. The handles of the small bellows poked out above the rim. “Ladder’s on the back. Where do you need it?”
“Here, on the side, so the men can climb up to the steam.” Asha pointed.
The engineer nodded sagely. “You want them to breathe in the steam? So what do you need these for?” He swung the bucket and bellows on his finger.
Asha set her lips in a stern line. “For the hard part.”
Half an hour later, all of the sick men were lined up beside the engine and the ladder leading up to the funnel on top of the boiler. Asha balanced on top of the boiler with the bellows in her hand and the bucket sitting to one side.
The first man climbed the ladder and, following Asha’s instructions, placed his face over the funnel, deep into the bright white steam. Down below, the engineer kept the fires burning, though not too hot, and Asha stood counting the seconds. When she tapped her first patient on the shoulder, he turned to her, his face bright red and dripping with water. Asha placed the tip of the closed bellows in his mouth and said, “Exhale!” as she yanked the bellows open.
The man stumbled forward as the bellows popped out of his mouth and he fell to his knees, barely keeping his balance on the curved roof of the boiler. He fell straight down over the bucket and a small stream of black filth poured through his lips and into the bucket between his knees. For a moment he sat gasping and spitting and making quiet retching sounds, and then he exhaled and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. And then he looked up at Asha. He smiled a crooked smile.
He inhaled and exhaled. And again. And again. He did not cough. He waved down to the others and a soft cheer rose among them, followed by a fresh bout of hacking and coughing.
So for the next two hours, Asha stood on the hot boiler and violently yanked the black slime from the men’s lungs, slowly filling her bucket nearly to the brim. But each man stood up from the ordeal with a relieved smile and climbed down in good spirits. And an hour before noon, she was done.
As Asha climbed down the ladder, she saw Sebek striding across the yard toward her. He met her just as she set the bucket of black sludge down on the ground, and he said, “Well? I hear you’re done, and ahead of schedule.”
“I am. See for yourself. They’re all fine now.”
“Good. They’re all needed. That’s a clever trick of yours with the steam and the bellows. Who taught it to you?”
“No one. It was my idea.”
Sebek nodded. “I’d be willing to pay you a decent wage to stay here as our camp physician. I need someone like you to keep the men on their feet.”
Asha shook her head. “Thank you, but no. My friend and I need to be moving on when the train leaves for Herat.”
“Ah. Pity.” He began walking slowly back toward his office.
Asha followed. “May I ask about your sword? I saw you use it yesterday. The wound was so small and there was no blood, but that man died instantly. Why?”
Sebek smiled briefly and patted the blade on his hip. “Magic.”
“No, really. What is it?”
He stopped abruptly to frown down at her. “It’s something deadly. Something dangerous. Something you should ignore, lest I draw it out for another demonstration of its properties.”
Asha nodded slowly.
“You kept your end of the bargain,” Sebek said. “The injured men will be fed until they can work again. And you are welcome to ride the train back to Herat tomorrow. It will leave at noon. Be on time. It will not wait for you.”
“I understand. Thank you.” Asha watched the man in green return to his office and then she paced slowly back to sit beside Priya in the shade of their tent near the injured men.
“What’s wrong?” the nun asked.
“How do you know something is wrong?” Asha said.
“You breathe slower when something is wrong.”
“Oh.” Asha sighed. “Well, I’ll tell you. In my bag, there is a special needle-”
“The one with the three notches?”
Asha looked at her sharply. “How do you know that?”
“I went through your bag once and handled all of your tools.” Priya smiled.
“In case you were ever in trouble and needed me to hand you something. I thought it best to be prepared if there was such an emergency. And because I was curious.”
Asha shrugged. “Well, yes, the needle with the three notches. It’s an aether siphon. I insert it under the skin to draw out excess aether in the blood. When I was taught to use it, I was told that if I ever drove the needle in too deep, or left it in for more than a few seconds at a time, it would kill the patient.”
“Is the needle poisonous?”
“No. But it is made of a strange metal that looks like copper, or gold.” Asha reached into her bag for a sliver of ginger, which she poked into the corner of her mouth. “But now I’m beginning to wonder. What if the siphon can draw out more than just aether? After all, aether can move with or cling to a soul. So what if the needle could draw out a person’s soul? That would kill them instantly.”
“Sebek’s sword.” Asha frowned. “It gives off a strange light. And it kills instantly without making a fatal wound. What if his sword is one giant aether siphon? What if it’s made of the same metal?”
“That would be terrible. No one should have such a weapon. You should speak to him about it right away. He may not understand what he has.”
“No. He didn’t appreciate my curiosity just now. And I got the impression he understood just fine. So it might be better if I take a look on my own. Tonight.”
After a long afternoon of adjusting splints and changing bandages, and after a bland supper of flat bread and some sort of flavorless paste, Asha sat in her tent and waited for darkness. Priya stretched out on her blanket with little Jagdish on her stomach, and soon both the nun and mongoose were fast asleep. When the sky was black and the camp was silent, Asha stepped out into the pale starlight.
She made a wide circle around the camp, quietly hiking up the southern hillside to come around behind the wooden houses and offices. Sebek’s office had no windows, but the light of his lantern shone through the cracks in the walls. So Asha waited.
Eventually the lantern in the office dimmed and Asha saw Sebek emerge on the far side of the little buildings and make his way down the row to another identical house. Once inside, his lantern again shone through the cracks where the boards were warped and no longer fit together, but after only a few moments the light was extinguished and the house was dark.
Asha crept down the hillside, moving with excruciating care to prevent the loose dusty pebbles from rolling down the slope and revealing her presence. Her poisoned ear brought her the low hums of the souls of men scattered throughout the camp, but she focused on the one right in front of her. Sebek was alone.
When she reached the bottom of the slope, Asha sat down in the shadows against the back side of Sebek’s bunkhouse. She sat in the cold and the dark, listening to the man behind her as he undressed, moved about the room, lay down on the creaking bed, and then slowly, very slowly, fell asleep. Then Asha knelt and peered through the narrow cracks in the walls, willing her tired eyes to focus on the dim shapes inside the room. A bed, a trunk, a chair. She shifted to another crack and studied the room again, but she could not see the sword.
Easing down to the ground, her eye passed over a smaller crack and a black shape caught her attention. Peering through the tiny gap, she saw the outline of the sheathed sword lying on the floor beneath the bed.
The little house stood on four thick wooden blocks, leaving a narrow gap between the floor and the ground. Moving slowly and quietly, Asha crawled under the bunkhouse, squeezing through the small space between the freezing earth and the warped boards. Peering up through the dark cracks she saw the sword above her lying diagonally across the boards. With a pair of plain steel needles, she reached up through the gap and pushed the sword over until she could see the point where the scabbard ended and the hilt began. Then she pressed the tips of her needles into the gap and pulled them apart. The sword edged out from its scabbard by a hair, and then a hair more. And suddenly a warm golden light was shining down into her eyes.
Asha grabbed the hem of her sari and pressed it up over the gap in the boards to smother the light pouring down onto her face. Through the cloth in her hand, she felt a dry heat radiating from above.
With her sari in one hand and a needle in the other, she exposed a tiny section of the sword and carefully touched the bright blade. Instantly the needle grew hot in her fingers and her hand shook. The tip of the needle scratched her other thumb as she pushed the slender steel tool back up against blade.
Suddenly, a chorus of voices rose in her mind. She heard men and women muttering and whispering, perhaps to each other or perhaps to themselves. They spoke Eranian as well as two or three other languages that Asha did not know, but as she lay still trying to understand what she was hearing, an image appeared in her mind. She saw a city, an ancient city of huge stone fortresses and shining marble temples, wide avenues teeming with people and animals and carts, a long harbor full of sailing ships and heavy barges that belched steam just like the black train engine, and in the center of the harbor an enormous lighthouse towered above the sea, its powerful lantern sweeping the horizons with a blue-white light.
A voice rose up from the crowd, an old man’s voice speaking in Eranian, and he said, “…but when Master Omar returns with more sun-steel, then surely we will unravel the last riddle of the aether…”
Asha shuddered as the voice faded back into the crowd.
Her hand holding her sari up to smother the light felt cold. Very cold. Asha blinked and could barely open her eyes again. She felt herself sinking down, down, down into the cool black depths of her mind. Asha bit her lip, trying to shock herself back awake, but still she felt herself slipping away. Dimly she became aware of other people all around her. No one was moving. Everyone was standing very still and gazing up through the darkness at a small sliver of light overhead. Asha looked up at the light and saw two fingers holding a needle, and behind that a face. A woman’s face. Her own face, her eyes closed, her skin pale and ashen.
“No!” she screamed.
The hot needle’s tip softened into a rounded bulb, and the entire shaft began to curve and fold, breaking contact with the blade. Instantly the black space with its silent watchers vanished and Asha blinked up at her own hands and the floorboards and the shining sword.
Asha dropped the melted needle and looked at her left hand. A thin trail of blood was escaping the scratch on her thumb, but the blood wasn’t running down. It was running up. The blood had trickled up her finger and along the melted needle toward the glowing sliver of steel.
She shivered, staring at the blood.
After a moment’s pause, she picked up her other needle and scratched at the scabbard instead of the blade and was rewarded with a few thin scrapings of a rough material that felt like broken pottery.
Then she used her needle to push the exposed sword blade away from the crack in the floor, and with the light hidden she crawled back out from under the bunkhouse and carefully made her way back to her own tent. She crept into her blankets and lay very still, listening to the murmurs of the sleeping woman beside her.
The old man’s voice echoed in her mind as she replayed his words over and over again.
Asha looked at her thumb and watched the single drop of blood roll down her finger toward the ground. Then she licked her wound and went to sleep.
The next morning, Asha made a last round of checks among her patients, trying to give them simple instructions for caring for their own injuries. But soon she had no more patients and no more chores, so she led Priya to the small passenger car of the train directly behind the engine and its huge bin of coal. They stood together on a small platform where the warm sun battled with the cool breeze to create some small comfort for them. The engineer sauntered past, explaining briefly that the train would be returning to Herat backwards, with the engine pushing instead of pulling. And then they were alone.
“You’re very quiet this morning,” Priya said. “Did you find something interesting last night?”
“Something troubling.” Asha squinted eastward across the camp to watch the men breaking and hauling stone away from the collapsed tunnel in front of the train. “There were voices in that sword. And the scabbard was made of this.” She pressed the shavings into the nun’s hand.
“What is it?”
“Fired clay. The blade melted one of my needles when I touched it, so this must be some sort of ceramic that can withstand the heat of the blade.”
“But what does it all mean?”
“That I was right. Sebek’s sword is the same metal as my aether siphon, and it’s full of human souls trapped inside the blade. I scratched my finger on my needle by accident and the sword tried to drink my blood, or more likely the aether in my blood, and my soul along with it. If the needle hadn’t melted away, I might have been trapped in the blade, too.”
The nun froze, her lips parted in a soundless cry.
“I know.” Asha took her hand for a moment.
“We have to take it from him! We have to set those souls free!”
“I’d love to, but I don’t see how. It’s too dangerous. We need to learn more about it, and him. When we know more, then maybe we can do something for those poor souls.”
The train’s whistle blew. Hooooooot. Hoot-hoot.
Asha glanced up to see the sun approaching its zenith. When she lowered her gaze, she saw Master Sebek striding across the yard toward them. He was not hurrying, but there was a power and purpose in his step. He came up to the train and smiled at the women. “Good day. I see you are on time.”
“Yes,” Asha said. “Thank you again for your help on our journey.”
“My pleasure.” He smiled briefly. “Do you believe that dreams have any real meaning?”
“Neither do I. Which is good, I think. I had the strangest dream last night that someone had stolen my sword. My seireiken.” His hand rested on the pommel of the short sword at his side. “The dream was so vivid, so real, that when I awoke I immediately reached for my sword, and I was relieved to find it right where I left it.”
The locomotive’s whistle blew again and the engine shuddered, sending a rumbling vibration throughout the train. They began to roll very slowly, and Sebek began to walk alongside them.
“But it was the strangest thing,” he continued. “My sword had been drawn. Just a fraction, just a hair, but enough to expose the blade. Very strange, don’t you think?”
Asha nodded. “Very strange. You know, your sword reminds me of a story I once heard about a temple on the island of Nippon.”
“The story tells of a brotherhood of warriors with heavenly swords that can split a hair lengthwise, and that shine with the light of the sun even in the deepest darkness. Have you ever heard of such warriors?”
Sebek shook his head.
Asha shrugged. “I heard the story when I received one of my medical tools. A golden needle, also from Nippon. A needle with strange properties.”
The train picked up speed and Sebek strode faster to keep pace. His frown deepened.
“I’ve always wondered about this needle.” Asha patted the bag slung over her shoulder. “Perhaps one day I will go to Nippon and learn more about it. Unless, that is, someone in the west could also tell me about it. Do you know of anyone who might know about it, Master Sebek?”
“No.” He was jogging now, arms pumping and sword bouncing on his hip, and he was slowly falling behind.
The train whistled a third time and the chuffing of its pistons and wheels forced Asha to raise her voice. “Perhaps when I reach the heart of Eran, I will be able to unravel these riddles.”
Sebek’s eyes widened and he broke into a full sprint as the engine accelerated yet again. He had fallen back behind the passenger car, behind the coal car, and was now alongside the engine itself, and still falling farther behind.
Asha shouted into the wind, “Perhaps Master Omar can tell me more about this sun-steel!”
Sebek whipped his sword from its scabbard and with its bright golden light falling on his face he shouted at the engineer, but his words were lost beneath the noise of the engine, and he stumbled to a halt as the train raced out of the valley.
Asha took Priya’s hand and helped her to step back through the narrow door into the passenger car and to sit down on the shaking, shuddering seat. The nun clutched her bamboo rod in one hand and Asha’s sleeve in the other. Jagdish clung to the saffron cloth of her robe. “Asha? What did you mean? Who is Master Omar? What is sun-steel?”
“That’s what they call it, this metal in my needle and his sword. And I think Master Omar may have the answers we need, whoever he is.”
“But why? Why did you taunt Sebek like that?”
Asha smiled as she slipped a fresh sliver of ginger into her mouth. “Because after we find Omar and learn how to free the souls in that sword, it would be a terrible inconvenience to have to find Sebek again. It’ll be much easier if Sebek is following us.”
Priya shook her head. “I’m afraid, Asha. This isn’t right. This is evil. These people. That sword. I’ve always thought that killing was the most vile and destructive thing possible. But to capture a soul? To enslave the very essence of life? I never dreamed there could be such evil in the world.” She stiffened suddenly. “What if there are more of them?”
Asha shrugged as she settled down into her seat. “Then we’ll just have to find them, too, won’t we?”
The nun nodded. “I’m sorry, Asha. We came west to get away from those cruel doctors, and we’ve actually stumbled onto something worse.”
“Much worse. A whole new kind of plague of men and metal.” Asha picked at her lip and stared out the window at the rocky hills rolling by. “I’m looking forward to curing it.”
The Silver Dragon
Cedars. Nothing but cedars. No firs, no oaks, no ferns, no fruit trees. Just cedars. They stood in sentinel rows up and down the mountainsides and across the valley floors. They leaned at agonizing angles, telling silent tales of landslides and flashfloods and lightning strikes. And they lay down as chewed and decayed piles of ruin on the cool earth.
Asha had never noticed the scent of cedars before. Now she couldn’t escape the strange sweetness of them. It was their fifth day hiking along the old dirt path beyond the ruins of a city the locals had called Tesiphon. And it was their third day alone in the cedar forest.
The herbalist glanced back. The nun stood at the bottom of the gentle slope leaning on her bamboo rod, her slender chest rising and falling visibly, the lotus blossoms in her hair shivering in the cool morning breeze.
Priya lifted her head. “Can we rest a moment?”
“All right.” Asha sat down in the middle of the path and leaned back against a mound of mossy earth. Her burning right ear brought her the sounds of the forest, its true sounds. The plant-souls of the cedars creaked like a sea of cicadas, droning softly in every direction. Ants and termites marched through the undergrowth, what little there was. And more than a few squirrels raced through the branches overhead. They were all unseen and far away from the two women on the path, and yet all perfectly clear to Asha’s golden ear.
After a moment, Priya said, “It doesn’t seem so very different from home.”
“I never thought it would be.” Asha glanced up. “Although I hadn’t expected so many cedars.”
“I’m serious.” The nun smiled. “At the monastery, I heard so many stories about the Ming Empire and Nippon, and the Isle of Lanka, the snow fields of Rus, and of course, Eran. Each of them always sounded so unique, so different from Kolkata. The weather, the food, the trees, and the flowers. I had always imagined that if I ever traveled the world, it would be an ever changing tapestry of shapes and smells and sounds.”
“But?” Asha felt through her bag for a sliver of ginger, but found none. She’d chewed the last of them over a week ago, but the habit kept her reaching for one more.
“But here we are, half way around the world, and it’s all still the same. The same earth and stones, the same trees and people and animals. Only the bread changes. And the music, sometimes.”
“We’re not half way around the world,” Asha said. “Not even close. Not yet.”
“I suppose there should be something comforting about the sameness. Everywhere you go, the world is still the same home you left behind. And yet, there is a corner of my heart that desires some newness, and is disappointed.”
Asha shook her head. “You should know better than to go desiring things. Suffering, and whatnot.”
“I know, I know.” Priya reached up to her shoulder and stroked the mongoose sleeping under her hair. “Sometimes I think little Jagdish here is the only person I’ve ever met who truly has the world figured out.”
Asha was about to agree with her when a sound drew her attention skyward. She scanned the leaves overhead. It was a distant sound, muted and faded by the winds and trees, but still a harsh and strident noise. A shout. A roar.
“I think I…” Asha trailed off as she stood up, straining to hear and wondering for a moment which ear she was hearing it in.
“I heard it too.” Priya stood up as well, her covered eyes directed at nothing in particular. “It sounded like the cry of someone in pain, someone in trouble.”
Asha stood very still, waiting to hear it again.
A high-pitched shriek split the silence as a small shard of metal plummeted out of the sky, sliced through the canopy, and impaled itself in the brown earth just a few paces from where Asha stood. The herbalist frowned and was about to go closer to it when a deep roar suddenly bellowed down from above, and she looked up again.
Through the leaves, she saw a huge shining beast race across the sky, gliding and falling and spewing black smoke in its wake. It passed from south to north, flashing across the dirt path where the two women stood and vanishing beyond the wall of cedars. A moment later, a new rumble of thunder echoed across the deep blue sky, followed by the cackling of stones tumbling down a mountainside.
“What was it?” Priya asked.
“A machine.” Asha grimaced. “Another machine, one that can fly. Or could fly. That didn’t sound like a gentle landing.”
“It fell out of the sky?” Priya frowned. “Which way? We should go, quickly. There may be people injured.”
Asha nodded silently. “Probably.”
Together they turned off the path and began climbing the steeper, rockier slopes through the cedar forest. Their progress was slow as Asha carefully picked their way around towering boulders and fallen trees, and often hiked along at Priya’s elbow, ready to catch the nun should the slope prove too steep or the earth too loose. The sun reached its zenith and began drifting into the west.
A thin scrawl of black smoke drew a faint line down from the heavens to a cleft in the mountainside above them. Asha watched the smoke twist and writhe in the wind, and listened to the low hums in her right ear that told her there were two human souls somewhere in that cleft. She paused once to look back down the mountain behind her. There was a third hum out in the forest, one faint and uneven.
“What is it?” Priya asked.
Asha shook her head. “Maybe a wolf.”
They pressed on and reached the mouth of the cleft in the mountainside just as the sun kissed the western edge of the world and the sky flushed orange and violet.
Asha paused to stare across a vast ledge of tumbled stone with the mountain peak rising to her left and the broken cliff wall of the cleft spearing up to her right.
“Are we there?” Priya asked. “Can you see the flying machine?”
Asha blinked. “Oh, I can see it all right.”
As they walked into the shadows of the cleft in the mountain, Asha described to Priya the object before them.
The bulk of the machine towered over them, an elegantly rounded mass of shining steel like an enormous silver melon so large and so high that they were soon walking in its shadow, though it was far too high above them to touch. Ahead, Asha could see the underbelly of the machine sloping down to meet the earth and where the two met another smaller steel object was lodged. Thin trails of black smoke snaked up from this smaller chamber, rising up both sides of the great steel mass above it.
Moments later they stood beside a small steel cabin with long glass windows and many steel rods bolting the chamber to the enormous melon. One of the windows had shattered and the smoke spilled upward from it. There was a metal door in the center of the cabin and Asha reached for the handle.
“I’d wait if I were you.”
Asha spun to see a man sitting back in a sheltered cave just behind her. He was young-faced and smiling with thin black hair hanging in his eyes, and when he stood he towered over Asha by more than a head. He wore dust-streaked tan trousers that plunged into bronze greaves over black leather boots. His brown jacket was open to reveal a wrinkled white shirt, but it was the device on his right arm that caught Asha’s eye. His jacket sleeve was rolled up to the elbow, where the device began and continued down to his wrist, wrapping his arm in bright brass plates and rods and wheels, with a wide flat box on the outside of his forearm. A thick leather glove covered his right hand.
“I saw this machine fall out of the sky,” Asha said. “Is it yours?”
“I don’t own it, but I was riding in it,” he said. “Have you ever seen an airship before?”
“No. My name is Asha, and this is Priya. I’m an herbalist. Are you injured?”
His smile was quickly replaced by a look of earnest concern. “No, but the pilot was. She’s back here. Can you help her?”
Asha nodded and followed him back into the cave, leaving Priya to find her own way with her bamboo rod. In the shadows there was a young woman lying on a level bed of dry earth and small stones with a bundle of cloth under her head. Asha set her bag aside and inspected her patient.
“I’m Gideon, by the way,” the young man said. “And she’s Kahina.”
“Mm.” Asha carefully moved from the woman’s eyes and mouth to her neck and chest and belly. “Bruises. No cuts. Strong pulse, dry breathing. She’s fine. Just unconscious. What happened to you?”
“No idea,” Gideon said. His Eranian was slow and clear, but he had an odd way of clipping his syllables off sharply. “One moment we were flying safely, and then suddenly there was all this noise and smoke. Kahina was too busy with the controls to tell me what was happening. And then we just crashed, and I’ve been waiting for her to wake up all afternoon.”
Priya came to sit beside Asha, and the nun said, “But you weren’t hurt at all?”
He shrugged. “If I was, it wasn’t serious.” A tiny bit of gold glinted on his chest and Asha saw a small egg-shaped pendant hanging from his neck.
“Still, I should take a look at you,” Asha said. “You could be bleeding inside, or have a cracked rib.” She stood up.
Gideon grinned and glanced away. “I doubt it, but you can look if you like.”
Asha did not smile. She pushed his jacket back off his shoulders roughly and examined his chest and belly with a series of sharp jabs and found him unharmed. She passed her right ear quickly over his chest, listening for a warble in the humming of his soul that might tell of some mortal injury that could not be seen. But instead of one hum, she heard two.
Frowning, she picked up the golden pendant on his chest between two fingers and found it quite warm against her skin, and one of the two hums rose half a note in her poisoned ear. “An egg?”
He smiled and gently took the golden bauble from her. “A heart, actually.”
Asha stepped back from him and sat down beside her patient. “And on your arm?”
Gideon glanced at the device on his right arm. “Just a little something I picked up in Marrakesh. Which is where this airship came from, originally. An old friend of mine in Damascus bought it for some ridiculous amount of money. Usually the Mazighs don’t sell such things to foreigners, but they made an exception because this one is so old. Which is probably why it fell out of the sky today.”
“Damascus?” Priya sat up a bit straighter. “Is that a city? Is it close?”
“It is a city, and it is very far away,” he said apologetically. “I spent a month begging my friend for the chance to fly in his airship, and when he finally agreed…” Gideon threw up his hands. “Here we are.”
Asha frowned. “It’s going to be cold tonight. Would you mind building a fire?”
The young man smiled. “My pleasure.” He strode out of the little cave into the last fading gleam of the evening light and his boots crunched on the gravel as he made his way down to the forest. A moment later he began whistling a jaunty little tune.
“He seems very pleasant,” Priya said.
Asha stroked the dark curls away from her patient’s face. “He does seem very pleasant,” she said softly. “Friendly. Helpful. Well-traveled. He also has two souls.”
“What?” Priya turned her covered eyes toward her friend. “Two souls? Do you mean he’s possessed by a ghost?”
“No.” Asha leaned back against a cold stone. “There’s one soul in his body, and there’s another soul in that little golden heart hanging around his neck. And both of the souls are most definitely his.”
An hour later, they shared a meager supper and they all went to sleep around a low fire that filled the cave with enough warmth that they could sleep comfortably. But Asha lay awake, watching the man across the fire. She watched him lie there for an hour, and then a second hour, and all the while she listened to his two souls murmur.
Gideon sat up quietly, his features lost in shadow. He reached across the smoldering coals, lifted Asha’s shoulder bag from the stone floor right in front of her lidded eyes, and silently set it down in his own lap. Asha slipped one hand along under her blanket to grab a sharp stone from the ground, and she held it close to her chest, watching and waiting.
The man picked through her bag, quietly nudging aside the clay jars and glass vials and leather pouches and paper envelopes. There was a soft clink of metal. His hand rose from the bag clutching several tools. The steel scalpels went back into the bag. The steel needles went back. The steel tweezers went back. The steel mirror went back. Only one object remained in his hand.
A small needle that gleamed faintly of gold.
Gideon ran his thumb up and down the needle for a moment and squinted at it.
Asha clutched her sharp stone a little tighter and placed her empty hand on the ground, ready to push herself up, ready to lunge at him, to catch him unaware.
But then Gideon set the needle back in her bag, and reached across the fire pit to deposit the bag where he found it. And then he lay back down, and soon he began to snore.
Asha set her stone on the ground and exhaled.
Dawn crept into the mountain cleft slowly, illuminating first the enormous silvery airship and then later the stone cradle in which it lay. Asha woke to find Gideon and Priya missing.
She leapt from her blanket and dashed out of the cave into the pale morning light where she saw the stranger guiding the blind nun into the airship’s glassy cabin. Asha strode over to them. “Good morning,” she said tersely.
“Good morning!” Gideon beamed at her. “I’m so glad you’re up. I was just about to show your friend how the airship works now that the smoke is all cleared and it’s safe again.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Asha followed them into the cabin, a small metal room with one chair bolted to the floor in front of a metal desk covered in levers and a small bench bolted to the floor behind it. At the opposite end of the cabin hunched a mound of pots and pipes and wires and struts that reminded her of the engine of the steam train they rode to Herat.
Gideon shrugged. “Pretty sure.”
“It’s all right,” Priya said. “I asked him to show me. How is the pilot?”
Asha grimaced. “I’ll check on her.” She strode back out into the cool morning air and when she entered the cave she found the woman Kahina sitting up and staring at the gray coals of their fire.
Kahina looked up, her thick curling hair bouncing with every movement of her head. “Hello? Who are you?”
“My name is Asha. My friend and I saw you crash yesterday and came to help. I’m an herbalist. You’re going to be just fine. You’re not hurt.” She lingered near the mouth of the cave where she could glance back out at the airship. She could just see the red of Priya’s robe through the cabin’s windows.
Kahina looked up sharply, then scrambled to her feet. “Gideon? Where’s Gideon?”
“He’s fine. Not a scratch on him. He’s showing the airship to my friend now.”
Kahina joined her at the mouth of the cave. “Oh. Good.”
“Tell me something,” Asha said. “Do you know this man Gideon well?”
“Not personally. But my employer in Damascus speaks highly of him.” Kahina’s spoke Eranian with an even stronger accent than the man, and she hesitated at times as though trying to remember the right word from time to time. “He’s well known in Syria. Some sort of mercenary, I think. Or maybe a bounty hunter. He’s been a perfect gentleman to me, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Asha shook her head. “Maybe it’s nothing.” They both stepped out into the light, walking slowly toward the airship. “So what happened yesterday? Why did you crash?”
“Oh, it’s this old bird.” Kahina sighed. “It should have been decommissioned a decade ago, or at least overhauled. We had a little oil fire, nothing serious. But at the same moment, one of the cables on the fins snapped and I lost control. Couldn’t pull up. I only barely managed to get us into this gap in the mountain. We could have sliced open the envelope on those rocks, and then, well, you know, instant retirement.” She flashed a brief and humorless grin at Asha.
The herbalist only raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask for any explanations. “So, can you fix it?”
“Probably. The fire was nothing. Just a little leak. I can seal that with putty for now. It’ll take a little longer to get the cable back in place, but it should only take an hour. Then we just need a little water for the boiler and we’ll be all set to fly.”
“I saw a stream on the east face of this mountain,” Asha said absently.
They entered the cabin and Gideon gave the pilot a quick but warm embrace as he greeted her. But as she set to work on the strange engine, the man seemed to forget all about her as he returned to Priya’s side. The nun sat in the single chair in front of the controls, running her hands lightly over the levers and glassy faces of the gauges and dials.
Asha watched them all for a moment. “I’ll go get some water,” she said to no one in particular.
“Oh, thanks.” Kahina handed her a bucket. “Just dump it in there.” She pointed to the small boiler beside her.
Asha glanced inside, guessed it would take twenty or thirty buckets to fill the void, and strode outside again. There was no clear path down the eastern face, but the slope was forgiving and the ground was firm and safe. Soon she was back down in the shaded corridors of the cedar forest, swaddled in the sounds of tree-souls and hungry squirrels and timid birds.
The stream emerged from a narrow gap in the mountain rock less than a quarter hour from the airship and Asha frowned as she realized it would take most of the day to bring up enough water to fill the boiler using a single bucket. She had just filled the bucket from the cold stream and straightened up to leave when a deep thrumming sound caught her attention. She swept her long black hair away from her right ear to better hear the aetheric echo, but it faded quickly into silence.
“Are you all right?”
Asha glanced up to see Gideon standing on the slope above her. He had a stick across his shoulder with three more buckets dangling off it, and he was staring at her. At her ear.
“I’m fine.” She dropped her hair over her ear and began trudging up the slope. “The water’s right around that stone there.” She pointed at the stream carelessly as she passed him.
“But, your ear? Is it all right?”
She kept walking.
“It’s just… I’ve only ever seen something like that once before and I was a little surprised and I just wanted to make certain you were all right.” He took a few steps up the path after her. “I mean, if it is the same condition, then maybe I can help, or maybe I know someone who can.”
Asha whirled about and stared down at him. “You’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“I haven’t?” He frowned, his eyes searching her face.
“No.” She turned and resumed climbing the slope. “You haven’t.”
By noon the boiler was full and Kahina had completed her repairs. The engine hissed and rumbled, the propellers droned, and the entire airship was shaking as though eager to be back home again in the Persian sky.
“Please let us help you on your way. It’s the least we can do,” Gideon asked. “Just to the nearest town.”
“It’s safe.” Kahina grinned. “More or less.”
Priya stood just outside the cabin with Jagdish curled up in her arms, his fur bristling at the growling machine. She nodded. “Asha? Shall we?”
Asha pressed her lips into a thin line. “How does it work?”
“The envelope is filled with a light gas. It floats in the air just like an air bubble floats in water,” Kahina said. “Don’t worry. Even in a disaster, even when damaged, it still sinks gently back to the ground again, just like it did yesterday. It’s safer than horses or trains, or so they say.”
“Horses don’t fall out of the sky.” The herbalist picked at her lip. “All right then. But only to the nearest town, and only because there isn’t much to eat in this forest.”
The two women stepped aboard and sat on the small bench in the center of the cabin behind Kahina. Gideon stood beside them, his right hand with its strange brass gauntlet gripping an overhead bar for balance. The engine at the rear of the cabin roared a little louder and the propellers droned at a higher pitch, and the entire cabin shivered at the airship rose gently into the cool mountain air. Asha stared out the window as the rock face slid down and down until the peak slipped out of sight, revealing the endless vista of the cedar forest stretching out to a distant ridge on the western horizon.
The ship turned slowly, the entire world below rotating in a flat circle, and then they accelerated west, the mountain peak gliding smoothly away behind them. Looking down, Asha saw the forest below as a wrinkled green cloth, dappled and shadowed, painted by sun and shade, and streaked here and there with brown or a flash of silver-blue. But the world of leaves and bark and insects and earth did not exist from her seat in the sky.
After a few minutes, she tried to describe what she was seeing to Priya, but she gave up a moment later. Gideon smiled and shrugged down at her. Asha kept her eyes on the horizon.
The sun had barely begun to shift down the westward sky when Asha noticed that they too were sinking toward the ground. The forest below thinned, giving way to a rippling sea of green grass and the patchwork plots of farms and orchards. And after only a quarter hour of cruising over these signs of civilization, Kahina announced that they were about to land. The airship slowed and Asha watched the earth sweep up to meet them, resolving quite suddenly into the ordinary world she had left behind on the mountainside.
The cabin banged slightly as they touched down and the engines sputtered into silence. Kahina stood up and gave Gideon a serious look. “Coal. Water. Food. Blankets. Anything we should have had on that mountain, we need now. All right?”
Gideon nodded. “Sure.”
Asha watched the pair open the metal door and step out onto the grass, and then she helped Priya to follow them. They stood on a flat grassy field just a stone’s throw from a wide dirt road. To their left the road plunged through an orchard and disappeared toward the cedar forest, but to their right the road wound around a narrow creek and up to a small cluster of farm houses near a tall wooden windmill.
As they walked up the road, Asha paused to stare back at the forest behind them.
“Something the matter?” Gideon asked.
“When we were in the forest, I thought I heard something following us. Something large.” Asha watched the tree line, seeing nothing but cedars.
“Oh, I doubt it. There’s nothing bigger than a hare in there.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Well.” He glanced away. “I’ve been here before. I know the area pretty well. I had to walk on the ground back then, of course. There is an old story about a giant man and a monster bull, but they only tell that story down south, and it’s a very old story. You probably just heard a falling tree in there.”
“Probably.” Asha narrowed her eyes and continued past him toward the village. “Then again, there are strange souls wandering the world these days.”
The small cluster of houses encircled a single covered well, and there were two old women sitting on a rough hewn bench beside it. They both looked up to watch the strangers approach, and Asha saw the sleepy apathy in their eyes transform into excitement and wonder. The two women rose up on unsteady legs, their hands clasped and their thin lips rising in crooked little smiles.
“Hello,” said Kahina. But the women looked right past the pilot.
“Hello,” said Gideon. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
The old ladies gasped and came forward. “Gideon? It is you, isn’t it? Gideon?”
The young man blushed. “Uh. Well, yes. Yes, it is me. I’m Gideon.”
“I knew it!” one of the women said. “I could never forget that face. Oh, it is so wonderful to see you again.” She glanced over at Priya and Asha. “I’m sorry to make a scene, but it has been so long.”
Asha shrugged. “It’s all right.” She looked up at him. “When were you last here?”
“Oh, a while ago,” he said.
“More than a while.” The old ladies chuckled. “We were barely more than children when he was last here.”
Asha frowned. “Really? This man?”
“Oh yes!” They nodded merrily. “But where is that magic sword of yours? The one you used to slay the Bull of Heaven?”
Gideon winced. He looked sideways at Asha. “It wasn’t the Bull of Heaven, I swear. It was just a big bull. A regular bull. Just very dangerous.”
“Ah. And you had a magic sword?” Asha glanced at his belt, but no weapons hung there.
His face wrinkled with awkward embarrassment. “Sort of. It’s not magic though, I can promise you that.”
“So what happened to it?”
“Well, I had it modified when I was in Marrakesh a few years ago.” He held up his right arm with the strange brass gauntlet. Then he yanked back a small lever on the side, there came a sharp click and hiss, and a shining white blade shot forward out of the flat box on the side of his arm. The blade extended two hand-lengths beyond his fist, protected by the thick leather glove.
The short sword had a triangular blade, rather wide at its base and narrowing quickly to its point, and the steel itself blazed with a pure white light.
Asha grabbed Priya and pulled her away from the man. “Get that thing away from us.”
Gideon’s eyes widened. “No, please, it’s fine, I’m sorry.” He pulled the little lever again and the blade shot back into the device on his arm. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” He held up his empty hands.
“It’s not fine,” Asha said, drawing a steel scalpel from her bag to point at him. “I’ve seen swords like that before. They don’t just kill, they steal souls!”
Gideon nodded, his sad eyes fixed on Asha as his hands sank slowly to his sides. “Yes, I know. But it’s all right. I’ve never used mine on a person. I swear.”
“Liar. It’s the souls that make the blade glow, and yours is glowing brighter than the sun.”
“Yes, but not from killing people. It’s from destroying other swords like it.”
Asha hesitated. “It is?”
Kahina nodded. “I’ve seen him do it once.”
The two old ladies nodded. “We saw him do it, too, when we were girls.”
“Gideon?” Priya spoke softly. “How old are you?”
“Ah.” He touched the little golden pendant hanging from his neck. “Well, that’s a bit of a long story.”
“Then tell it,” Asha said. “And if I don’t like what I hear, I won’t let you walk out of here to use that sword again.”
“All right, I’m happy to tell you.” He grinned again. “Although, I sort of doubt that you could stop me from leaving.”
Asha lifted her other hand out of her bag to display the scalpels and needles arrayed between her fingers like claws.
Gideon blinked. “Oh my. All right, let’s sit down.”
Gideon raised his eyebrows and inhaled slowly. He said, “I was born about two thousand years ago in the city of Damascus, although the city was already old at that time. I had a pretty unremarkable life. My father made bricks. My mother died when I was young. I played in the streets until I could work, and then I made bricks for a few years. When war broke out between Damascus and Tyre, I was summoned to fight. There were a few battles and I fought pretty well, so when we returned I was made a full-time guard in the king’s palace.”
Gideon sat on the ground fiddling with a blade of grass. The two old women sat on their bench, while Asha and Priya sat on the edge of the well. A pair of young boys ran out and sat near the old women, who shushed them.
“A few more years passed. Then a man came to visit the king. He was a scholar of great renown called Master Bashir. He had studied with the wisest men in Aegyptus and India and other places I had never heard of. But for all his wisdom and knowledge, he was still just a man. He counseled the king by day, but played dice and drank wine in the city at night. And one night there was a fight. I happened to be nearby and saved Bashir from a couple of gentleman with unpleasant intentions and very large swords.” Gideon grinned and shrugged. “So Bashir asked that I be assigned to be his personal bodyguard. For a few months, I followed him around and pulled him out of fights. One particular night he was so drunk that I actually had to carry him home. He was laughing, babbling that he didn’t really need me, that he couldn’t be killed, or that he wished someone would kill him. He kept babbling until he passed out.
“The next morning, he was so grim, so serious. I’d never seen him so miserable. And that’s when he told me that he was thousands of years old. I thought he was crazy, of course, but Bashir explained that he had found a strange metal that could control aether and human souls. And he had devised a way to make a person immortal,” Gideon said. “It was a hard life, he said. Living forever. Living alone. But he had made other people immortal too. An entire family in Aegyptus, for starters. And he had just returned from India where he had made a young prince immortal. Bashir said this prince was the paragon of every virtue, and he hoped to see what might happen if a kind ruler were to rule forever. But Bashir had not given this prince an immortal companion, and that little oversight was what had made him so sad when I met him. He felt guilty, you see.”
“How?” Asha asked. “How did Bashir make people immortal?”
Gideon lifted the golden pendant from his chest again. “He draws out a tiny portion of a person’s soul and traps it in the sun-steel. The steel never rusts, never weakens, never changes, and it transfers these qualities to the person whose soul is sealed inside. He had a pendant like this too. And he made this one for me.”
“This man, Bashir, divided your soul?” Asha asked.
“Yes. And not just mine. There were two others in Damascus, at about the same time. A nun and a courtesan.”
“Why you? Why them?” Priya asked.
Gideon shrugged and returned to bending and twisting his blade of grass. “I’m not really sure. Obviously I wasn’t a prince or a priest, and just barely a soldier. Just the sort of man who would run into a tavern to rescue a stranger from a fight. The nun cared for the sick and the poor. The courtesan… well, I don’t really know what he saw in her.” He winced and gazed out over the fields.
“Two thousand years?” Priya smiled. “And I thought I was old.”
“Why? How old are you?” asked Gideon.
“A little more than two hundred, I think.”
He grinned. “I bet you’ve got a great story to tell too.”
“Let’s stick to yours,” Asha said, folding her arms across her chest. “What have you been doing for two thousand years, and where did you get that sword?”
Gideon touched the brass gauntlet. “Bashir said that in the past he had given his knowledge of sun-steel and soul-breaking to others, but he had come to regret that decision. So he taught me a little about the steel, and he taught the courtesan a little about souls, and he taught the nun a little about aether and made us swear never to share our knowledge with each other. And we didn’t.
“I traveled the world, looking for something to do with myself. It didn’t take long for me to find that there were people who had forged swords of sun-steel that stole the souls of their victims. And that’s when I realized what I needed to do, what I wanted to do. I would set those captured souls free. So I found a man with a sun-steel sword that blazed brighter and hotter than any other, and I stole it. And now I use that sword to shatter the others.” Gideon shrugged. “Been doing it ever since.”
“And that sets the souls free?”
“Some of them.” Gideon nodded. “But some are always drawn into my own blade, as well. If I ever manage to destroy all the other sun-steel, then the final task will be to destroy my own sword, somehow. If there was any other way to do it, I would. But a sun-steel blade can only be broken by something hotter and harder than itself. And that means another, stronger sun-steel blade.”
Asha blinked. “So you’ve been fighting these people and freeing captured souls for two thousand years?”
He shrugged. “More or less.”
“Then, I’m sorry.” Asha gazed into his eyes. “I saw you go through my bag last night. And then when I saw that blade, I assumed you were like the others. We’ve seen another man with a sword like that.”
“In a green robe or a brown one?”
“Green. Why? What does that mean?”
Gideon shrugged at her. “Just that he came from the west, and not the east. You met an Osirian, one of the Sons of Osiris. Every few hundred years I burn down their temple, but they just keep coming back. It’s a little frustrating, actually.”
Two hours later they had loaded all of the supplies that Kahina wanted onto the airship. The pilot thanked Asha again and stepped aboard to start the engine. Gideon stood in the grass, gazing east at the cedar forest. “Are you two going to be all right? Eran can be a dangerous place.”
“We’ve heard that before,” Priya said. “I think we’ll manage.” She rubbed the head of the mongoose on her shoulder.
“And you.” Asha gave him a serious look. “Watch your back. Just because you’re immortal doesn’t mean you can’t be hurt, or buried in a cave, or sunk to the bottom of the sea. Take care.”
He smiled. “You too. That ear of yours-”
Asha jerked away to stare at the cedar forest. A deep thrum rose from the quiet voices of the trees, and it grew steadily louder. “Something’s coming.”
Gideon frowned and strode out onto the road facing the forest. His left hand strayed to the release lever on his gauntlet.
A figure emerged from the woods onto the road, the black shape of a horse and rider. They raced out of the trees and up the road, striking out quickly through the fields and orchards, snaking up toward the village on the hill. When he left the shadows for the sunlight, the rider’s cloak fluttered behind him. It was green.
“It’s Sebek,” Asha said. “The man with the burning sword, the one we met in the east.”
Gideon nodded. His white-hot blade shot down from his gauntlet and clicked into place. The air around it sizzled and rippled like boiling water. “I’ll take care of him.”
Asha took Priya inside the airship cabin, told Kahina what was happening, and then closed the door as she stepped back outside.
“You may not want to see this,” Gideon said. “It’s not like killing a man with a normal sword.”
“I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen this man Sebek use his sword.”
“I understand. But my blade is different. It’s much older. It’s, well, worse.”
“I’m fine,” Asha said. “You might even need my help.”
Gideon grinned. “It must be hard for you to believe I’m two thousand years old, or that I can’t be killed.”
“It’s hard for me to believe you’re twenty years old. And you wouldn’t be the first boy to think he was immortal.” Asha stood beside him in the road and pulled a single glass needle from her bag. A thin vein of red liquid rested in the slender reservoir. “But I’ve seen some strange and terrible things in this world, and I do believe your story, for what it’s worth.”
“Thanks. I don’t tell it very often.”
“I believe that too.”
As the horse and rider thundered up the last stretch of the road, Asha said, “I’m glad it’s him, actually. I was beginning to worry about the sound I was hearing. I thought that maybe your demon bull was really out there, following me.”
Gideon shook his head. “Nah, I killed that bull centuries ago. Now, please step back.” He raised his weapon.
“I said I can help.” Asha raised her needle.
Gideon glared, his handsome young face twisted and lined. “I said get back!”
Asha saw the furious iron in the man’s eyes, and she stepped aside out of the road, but kept her needle at the ready.
Sebek galloped up to Gideon and reined his horse in, but the animal kept dancing and snorting as the rider yanked his short sword from its scabbard. The blade gleamed with a pale golden hue. “I’ve come for the woman!” Sebek pointed his sword at Asha. “Stand aside!”
“No.” Gideon drew down in a low stance with his shining white blade extended behind him. “Throw down your sword and surrender.”
“Idiot!” Sebek kicked his mount into a fresh gallop, thundering toward the man standing in the middle of the road.
Gideon leapt aside and swung his blade up as the rider swung his sword down. The white gauntlet shattered the yellow sword and plunged on into the rider’s belly. From the instant of contact, a wave of white fire spread from Gideon’s blade, burning outward in a ring of flames that consumed Sebek’s green robes, and then a hideous roar drowned out the terrified cries of the horse as a red inferno swept over the man’s flesh. The rider screamed as the fire engulfed him.
Asha watched the horse slow to a trot, shivering and twitching, shaking its long brown head. In the saddle, a blackened skeleton was collapsing in upon itself, the arms and legs tumbling to the ground, the empty skull crashing down through the charred spine and ribs. The burnt bones smashed down into the road and shattered into dust.
Slowly, she let her gaze travel back along the road, past the melted gray remains of the once-golden sword, and up to Gideon. He stood with his back to her, his white blade still hissing and roaring in the empty air. And as she watched him, she thought she saw his shoulders shake and his left hand went up to his face.
But a moment later he pushed the lever and his blade vanished into the device on his arm. He turned, blinking, and smiled at her. “Are you all right?”
She nodded. “Are you?”
He nodded and cleared his throat loudly. He pointed at the riderless animal behind her. “Can I interest you in a free horse?”
A trickle of ash fell from the saddle.
They cleaned the saddle and put Priya up on it. The horse was still sweating and snorting from its long run through the cedar forest, but the nun was small and light, and Asha could see and hear that the animal was more than strong enough to go on.
“Well, good-bye, and good luck,” she said to Gideon.
“Asha.” He gestured toward her face. “Can I see your ear? Please?”
“It’s nothing. It’s fine.” Asha ran her hand over her hair to ensure it covered the flesh in question.
“It’s not fine. There’s something in it, isn’t there?” He stepped closer. “A soul, or a bit of one, I think.”
Asha nodded. “I was bitten when I was a girl. But it’s fine. It even helps me in my work. And I do check it regularly. It hasn’t changed, not ever. It never gets any worse. I’m fine. Really.”
Gideon frowned. “If you say so. But if you ever want any help with it, there are people who know about these things.”
“You mean your courtesan in Damascus?”
He grimaced. “Yes, but I was thinking of Bashir’s Aegyptian friends. I’ve met them a few times. Strange people, but decent and helpful. If you ever want help with that ear, go to Alexandria. They’re hard to find, but with that ear you shouldn’t have much trouble tracking them down.”
She nodded. “Good to know.”
He hesitated, a pained squint in his eyes, but then it passed and he smiled. “All right then. Take care of yourselves, ladies.” He waved and stepped inside the airship. The pilot waved as well. Then the engine roared and the propellers droned, and the great silvery machine rose gracefully into the sky and swept off into the eastern clouds.
Asha took the reins of the horse and began walking up the road. She sighed. “Well, at least all of that is behind us.”
“Oh?” Priya smiled. “It sounds like there’s more of it ahead of us, assuming we’re still going west. Damascus. Alexandria. Immortals. Flaming swords.”
“Not flaming,” Asha said. “More like shining or glowing.”
“No, I just meant I was glad to have that business with Sebek behind us. I’ve been hearing a strange soul-sound ever since we left Herat, and now we know it was that sword of his. I’m glad I won’t have to hear it anymore.”
“I see. Did Gideon’s sword make a similar sound?”
Asha frowned. “No. It didn’t. It didn’t make any sound at all.”
They passed through the village and continued west down the hill and through the fields, following the setting sun. The smell of the cedars faded, replaced by the aroma of dates. They were just about to cross a small stream when Asha stopped short and looked back over her shoulder. Slowly, she drew her hair back from her right ear.
A deep thrum echoed from the east.
The Golden Dragon
Asha stopped at a bend in the road and led the horse off into the tall grass overlooking the plain below. Up in the saddle, Priya stretched and yawned. “Why am I so tired? I was never this tired when I was walking all day.”
Asha shrugged. “If you prefer, I can ride and you can lead the horse across Syria.”
“Actually, I think we could both ride together. It’s not as though we have much baggage with us.”
Asha nodded and swung up into the saddle in front of her friend and took the reins. “We’re almost there, actually. I can see it.”
“What does it look like?”
The city of Damascus spread across the plain below, salting the earth with countless white houses and white temples and white palaces. In that sea of white there rose island after island of green, of towering trees studded with lemons, limes, grapefruits, and oranges. And spearing through the districts were long vineyards and arbors of grapes and olives, long reflecting pools between shining fountains, and broad avenues filled with market stalls beneath brightly colored awnings of red and blue and green.
The temples looked like marble forests, each one ringed by low walls and guarded by slender towers, and in their centers gleamed massive bronze domes. The castles stood here and there throughout the city, some squatting on low hilltops or looming over a bend in a river, some perfectly square and others drawing massive pointed stars through the surrounding neighborhoods with their shield walls.
And everywhere she looked, even from high on the road far away, Asha could see the great thronging masses of people streaming up and down the avenues inside the city, marching up and down the dusty highways leading into the city, and teeming across the verdant fields outside the city with their baskets and carts and animals.
Bells rang, echoing through the city streets, and a lone male voice rose in the distance, singing in low, mournful tones.
“Asha? What’s it like?”
“Oh, sorry. I was just trying to think of some way to describe it without incurring a lecture about something. It’s nice. The city looks nice.”
“Why would I lecture you?”
“I don’t know. Force of habit?”
Priya laughed. “I don’t mean to lecture you. I suppose that sometimes I just want to help you when I think you’re unhappy. And speaking of which, you’ve been very tense and terse over the last few weeks.” The nun’s tone grew as solemn as cold marble. “You’ve spoken rudely to many people on the road who have helped us. And let us not forget how you accused Gideon of being some sort of thief or assassin.”
“I apologized for that,” Asha said.
“Still. I had hoped that our journey into the west would carry you away from your past, away from the things that seem to hang over you like a storm cloud. But here we are, having crossed mountains and deserts and forests, across whole empires, and you don’t seem to have lightened your soul at all.”
“What do you want me to do? Count beads? Recite sutras? Ask Buddha for peace of mind, for the child-like apathy to ignore the monstrous evils that we’ve seen in the past, and that we’re no doubt going to see more of in the future?”
“If that will help, then yes.”
Asha sighed and nudged the horse onward and they rejoined the march of farmers and tradesmen heading down to the white oasis of civilization below.
But as they reached the edge of the plain level with the city itself, Asha saw a surge of people flooding toward the road from the south, pouring down from the hills carrying their children and sacks full of food. She nudged the horse again into a brisk trot and hurried down the road to the dusty intersection where the southerners were joining the rest of the traffic.
“What’s happened?” Asha called out.
The people continued past without sparing a single glance for the women on horseback.
“You, sir!” Asha leaned down to catch a man’s shoulder. He squinted up at her. “What’s happening? What’s wrong?”
His eyes widened for a moment as he looked at her, but then his expression dimmed and he shook his head. “The Damascena. Have you seen the Damascena? Has she passed through here yet? Have you seen her?”
Asha could only shake her head and the man vanished into the crowd.
“What do you suppose this Damascena is?” Priya asked in her ear.
Asha shrugged. “A woman from Damascus, I suppose.”
“A warlord? Could they be fleeing from this Damascena?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think so.” Asha leaned down and caught the attention of an older woman plodding along by herself. “Madam! Please tell us what’s happening.”
The woman squinted up at them. “Get to the city, quick as you can, my girls. It’s terrible, terrible! A golden beast, a giant serpent, coming down from the eastern mountains. It’s larger than anything I’ve ever seen, racing through the highlands and destroying everything in its path. Quickly, get into the city!” And she shuffled on.
“A golden beast?” Priya said.
“It could be another steam train,” Asha said. “Maybe one full of soldiers.”
“But don’t these people know about trains? Wouldn’t that woman have called it a train if it was one, instead of calling it a beast and a serpent?”
“Then maybe it’s some other sort of machine, something new, something these people haven’t seen yet.” Asha rode on into the crowd, shouting questions and straining to hear the answers, but it was all more of the same. More vague descriptions of a golden serpent, more calls for the Damascena, and several shouts for the army to come and save them.
“Perhaps we should go with them,” Priya said. “They could have wounded people with them that we can help, and we might be safer inside the city with them.”
“No.” Asha turned the horse about and drew it to a halt just off the road. “I want to wait here a bit and see what’s coming.”
“You’re not afraid?”
“Not yet.” Asha reached into her bag and pulled out a sprig of thyme, which she began to chew. “If there is anything to be afraid of, I’m sure I’ll hear it coming.”
The tide of refugees thinned as the sun crossed its zenith, and a mighty horn blast split the sky, ringing out three high notes in quick succession. Asha turned to watch the company of armed men on horseback ride out from the city. They wore pale blue tunics under leather breastplates studded with steel plates, and upon their heads were conical helmets wrapped with white cloth at their bases.
The company rode swiftly up the road and soon passed Asha and Priya at the crossroads as they turned south and headed up into the hills.
“Shall we?” Asha tapped the horse’s flanks with her heels and set out after the men.
They rode through fragrant fields and orchards higher and higher into the hills above Damascus beneath a sky on fire with rippling sheets of crimson and amber behind endless waves of paper-thin white clouds stretching from horizon to horizon.
“Vultures,” Asha observed. “Lots of them.”
The huge black birds appeared in the distance high above the next valley, swooping and gliding in tighter and tighter circles, hundreds of carrion eaters swirling in to form a maelstrom of dusty feathers and blood encrusted talons.
For a moment the company of riders ahead of them disappeared over a small rise in the road. To her right, Asha could still see the white walls of Damascus far below them on the plain painted pink and gold by the setting sun. But closer in, only half a league away, she saw a small village amidst a small jungle of olive trees. And despite the great exodus she had seen on the road that afternoon, she could still see a few people moving about in the village.
As she gazed down at the tiny houses and the tiny animals, Asha heard a deep bass note reverberate through the earth beneath their horse. The low thrum made her wince and turn her head aside sharply.
“What is it?” Priya asked. “What did you hear?”
“That sound, the one from before in the cedar forest.” Asha shook her head. “The animal we never saw. I think it’s here.”
They trotted up to the top of the rise in the road and looked down upon the valley on the far side. The road wound its way down through tall waving grasses and bright yellow flowers all bowing before the stiffening breeze. Halfway down, Asha saw the company from Damascus riding past stone markers and wooden signs toward a village nestled in the fallen boulders of the steep ridge. But beyond them the road flattened out at the bottom of the valley and she saw a thick column of black smoke rising from a grove of lemon trees. The smoke twisted and turned in the funnel of circling vultures.
“There’s smoke,” the herbalist said.
“But is there fire?” the nun asked, smiling.
Asha rolled her eyes and continued down the road. As they reached the first turn, the soldiers were trotting out across the valley floor bearing straight for the smoking dust cloud in the lemon trees.
A cry rose over the valley like the trumpeting of a hundred angry elephants. Asha reined up to watch the soldiers reform their column into a wall of riders fifty men wide and two men deep, all with spears raised, all facing the dust cloud in the trees.
“What was that sound?” Priya whispered.
“Sh.” Asha clutched the reins in both hands and felt the horse beneath her dancing nervously in place.
The soldiers advanced on the lemon grove, toward the wall of dust and smoke and leaves and feathers rushing by. Asha flinched as the front half of a camel flew out of the whirlwind, toppling two riders and their horses.
The cloud roared again, now like a hundred tigers about to devour the elephants who had trumpeted a minute earlier.
A shout went up among the men and they charged into the lemon grove, spears lowered, spears flying, swords raised, helmets gleaming dimly in the last red light of the setting sun. The cloud roared again and this time the men screamed back. A tidal wave of earth and grass and men exploded from the grove, bodies and dirt and rocks flying back across the valley floor. The corpses thumped on the ground like hail stones.
“What on earth?” Asha yanked the reins and started the horse trotting back up the road.
The second wave of men charged into the cloud, mingling the shouts of men and the screams of horses with the roaring of the cloud itself. Again the earth erupted with a wave of dirt and flesh and steel flying toward the ridge. The vultures dove out of the maelstrom above to rip and tear at the bits of men and horses scattered across the ground.
A warm breeze rushed over the top of the ridge sending the women’s hair flying in a tangle around their faces. The wind rushed down the slope, rippling through the grass in waves and crashing into the dark cloud in the lemon grove. The whistling wind tore the dust and smoke away from the trees in brown and black streams of filth to reveal the broken trunks, shredded leaves, and smashed lemons of the grove.
And in the center of the devastation coiled an enormous golden dragon.
The creature slithered like a viper, its body as thick as a horse’s, its flesh armored in golden scales, its back bristling with red spines, and it dashed over the earth on four powerful legs, each planted upon four crimson claws. Its head was twice the length of a horse’s with eyes flashing like rubies, its silvery fangs shining behind thick white whiskers, and its skull crowned with two long golden antlers tipped with bloody horns.
Asha’s eye traveled the length of the monster from its steaming nostrils to its flailing tail, following the curves of its body around shattered trees and over motionless bodies from one side of the grove to the other, the length of two dozen horses, at least.
The dragon nosed through the field of death, snorting and hissing as the black vultures swarmed around it. Two men were crawling away toward the grass and a lone horse was gasping and screaming as it lay on its side, kicking and thrashing. The golden beast slithered forward to crush the men beneath its claws and with its shining fangs it tore the head from the panicking horse. Then the dragon lifted its head and roared at the first pale stars in the night sky.
Asha lashed her horse into a frenzied gallop up the road to the top of the ridge, and all the while she watched the golden demon writhing through the splintered trees and crushed corpses as the faint scent of lemons filled the night air. At the top of the slope she paused to be certain the beast wasn’t following them, and then looked out across the darkened plain to the pale gray walls of Damascus. But before she set out, her gaze fell on the little village nearby among the olive trees.
“It wasn’t a machine, was it?” Priya clung to Asha’s waist.
“It’s a dragon. A real live dragon. A huge golden dragon.”Asha blinked. “We have to warn those people down there.”
The dragon roared again and Asha turned to see the serpentine demon gazing up at her, its bright ruby eyes glinting in the starlight. It coiled its tail beneath its lithe haunches, and then it sprang up the hillside.
“Hya!” Asha whipped the horse into a gallop and they dashed off of the road, racing along the peak of the ridge running south into the wilderness, away from Damascus and away from the village among the olives.
They had barely traveled a hundred paces before the dragon slithered up to the crest of the ridge and screamed as an eagle screams before it strikes. Over her shoulder Asha saw the beast gathering the length of its body, scrambling with its small clawed legs to climb up the road.
The deep thrumming sound in her right ear roared louder, a sound so penetrating and inescapable that she clutched her hand to the side of her head, pressing hard against her ear, hoping beyond reason to shield herself from the elemental vibration of the dragon’s soul. But it was everywhere. It shook the earth and hummed through the air and thundered in her skull.
For a moment the dragon gazed down on the flickering yellow lights of the village, and Asha felt a sharp pain seize her breath as she watched. “I’m sorry, Priya,” she whispered. She reined the horse in a circle and shouted, “I’m right here, you filthy snake!”
The dragon’s huge head spun to face her, its brilliant red eyes wide and staring.
“Here he comes!” Asha turned the terrified horse back around and raced off into the darkness along the hilltop ridge as the golden beast hissed and leapt after them. Its long scaled bulk slipped and slid as it surged along the sharp ridge crest, slowing its progress, but the horse had only a short lead and Asha could feel the dragon’s soul drawing closer with every beat of her heart.
The peak of the hilltop began to level out and slope down again, so Asha turned left through the tall grass and plunged into the darkness of the valley. Ahead she could see a field of boulders and a moment later she heard the crunch and clatter of gravel beneath her horse’s hooves.
And then the horse slipped.
Its rear hoof shot out from under them on the loose stones and the animal dropped to the ground. But even as it began to roll onto its side, whinnying and screaming with its other three legs thrashing the earth, Asha pulled her legs up, clasped her hand over Priya’s arms around her waist, and jumped. She lifted both of them free of the horse as it crashed and slid down the slick grass and loose pebbles, vanishing into the darkness. The women landed on the hard earth on a thin bed of grass, and instantly Asha was scrambling to stand up. Priya groaned and Jagdish squeaked in the darkness. And high on the ridge above them, silhouetted by the stars, rose the golden dragon’s head.
Asha yanked Priya to her feet and they ran together into the boulders, ducking and sliding and feeling through the shadows with outstretched hands to find their way in the dark. Shadows and starlight conspired to paint the world in grays and silvers, twisting the shapes and outlines of everything nearby. But Asha spotted a sliver of darkness deeper and blacker than the others and she pushed the nun into it.
“Is this a cave?” Priya scrambled forward on her hands and knees. “Maybe you should go first.”
“It’s a very dark cave, so you can see as well as I can in there.” Asha knelt at the entrance to the hole listening to her horse snorting and crying and kicking somewhere below them. But beneath those noises boomed the deeper sound of the dragon’s soul and the endless shushing noise of the dragon’s belly sliding down the hill after them.
When Priya had disappeared into the cave, Asha ducked in after her and crawled back along the cold earthen floor. She could hear the nun’s labored breathing echoing just ahead of her, and she occasionally encountered a well-worn sandal with her fingers.
“Asha, there’s an open space here,” Priya said. “I can stand up.”
The herbalist crawled down the last little bit of the tunnel and found Priya’s hands waiting for her. She stood up beside her friend in utter darkness and quickly explored their new shelter with her hands. It was a small chamber, but it appeared to be solid stone on all sides. “Good. Hopefully, we’ll be safe in here for a while.”
“Do you think the dragon will go back toward the city?”
“It might if it… Oh. Oh no. It’s not going anywhere.” Asha flattened out on the floor of the cave and squinted back up the tunnel, trying to spot a glimpse of the starry sky. “I’m sorry, Priya. I shouldn’t have come in here with you. I only just realized it.”
A violent shudder ran through the earth and the stone cavern crackled and groaned all around them.
“The dragon out there.” Asha pressed her hand to her right ear, but the booming and ringing carried on, filling her head with a terrible wet scratching sound that felt like a talon clawing at her brain. “That dragon is the same one that bit me when I was a girl. It’s no accident that it’s here now. It’s been following us, following me, hunting me all the way from Ming.”
“It still wants you? After all this time?”
Asha shook her head in the darkness. “It doesn’t want me. It wants the drop of its soul that it left in my ear.”
The cave walls and floor continued to rumble and quake from time to time, and gradually the air in the chamber warmed and stank of dead horse.
“It’s up there at the mouth of the cave,” Asha said. “It knows I’m here now. It must be lying out there, watching the exit, breathing its stench into the tunnel.”
“But it will have to leave eventually, won’t it? To eat? To drink?” Priya sat somewhere to Asha’s left. “Or perhaps when it falls asleep, we can escape past it. You must know something about dragons, don’t you?”
Asha shrugged. “I know they’re poisonous little lizards that need to be collared to keep them from growing too large. Obviously, this one’s collar wasn’t strong enough. Did I ever tell you that my father made its collar?”
“I think so. Maybe when we first met.” Priya sighed. “I suppose it was caged for a long time, and kept small. And then one day, somehow, it escaped. Or it was lost. Or stolen. Or sold to the wrong person.”
The cave shuddered and small chips of stone rained down from the ceiling.
Asha sighed. “Look, I-”
“No,” Priya said. “You’re not going out there. Then you’d be dead and the dragon would still be out there. It might go down to the city and kill thousands of people. And then who would lead me around and find fatty bits of meat for Jagdish?” The mongoose squeaked as though on cue.
“Well, what do you propose?”
The dragon roared and a fresh miasma of blood and lemons wafted into the cave.
“It’s a living creature and you have a bag full of medicines,” Priya said. “Perhaps a sleeping tonic? A very large dose, I think.”
Asha sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I could throw my whole bag down its throat and it probably wouldn’t feel a thing. You didn’t see it, how big it is, how long. It must weigh several tons.”
“Then you can trap it, or trick it. We’re smarter than it, right?”
“We’re smarter than the seas and the mountains combined,” Asha said. “That doesn’t mean we can move them.”
The ground shuddered and the dragon hissed. Asha winced, touching her ear. “It’s moving.” She looked up. “It’s moving away.” She hesitated a moment, then began scrambling back up the tunnel.
“Asha, no!” Priya’s cry echoed in the darkness.
“Stay here!” The herbalist moved carefully, crawling on all fours, feeling the rough sides of the cave scraping at her shoulders and hips. A patch of stars appeared and she moved faster. The dragon went on slithering and sliding around on the grass and gravel outside, still moving away to the west, down the slope into the valley below.
Asha crept out of her tunnel and stood up. The entire sward had been churned over and over into motionless waves of earth and grass and stone, and she found the ground slick beneath her thin sandals. Far below, she could see the dark wriggling shape of the dragon by the light of the stars. And beside the beast, there was a flash of steel.
Holding her bag close and silent, Asha slipped down the hillside, peering into the distance. The golden dragon hissed and roared and thrashed, but it did not advance, and Asha began to perceive the tiny black figure holding a sword near the monster’s head. The blade sang as it slashed back and forth at the dragon’s whiskers, and the dragon hissed as it reared back.
Asha perched on a stone to watch. She thought of Gideon for a moment, but this sword did not shine and seemed to be curved instead of straight.
The swordsman dashed forward and the beast drew back. The silver fangs struck, the golden tail whipped, and the red claws swiped, but each time the warrior ducked or dove or lunged and returned to his stance, sword at the ready. The warrior shouted, a long string of harsh words that were garbled by the wind, but Asha could hear the anger in them. Then the blade flashed, whirling in a vicious circle, spinning so fast that it almost appeared to be a solid disc of steel, and then the warrior struck. The dragon roared, coiled back, and leapt away, slithering and thrashing wildly as it raced off into the night.
The warrior dashed after the beast, but only a few steps. He stopped, sheathed his sword, and turned to trudge up the slope toward Asha. She stood up and waited, and when he came closer she raised one hand in greeting. He waved back, his armor clinking softly, and a moment later he stood just below Asha’s stone.
“Some night. Are you all right?”
Asha blinked at the voice. It was a woman. “Yes, we are. Are you?”
“Seem to be.” The stranger nodded and took a moment to catch her breath. “I barely scratched it though, just across the nose. It’ll be back, sooner or later.”
“I’m Asha,” the herbalist said. “I found a cave just up the hill that’s too narrow for the dragon to get near us. My friend is there now.”
“Then we need to get her out and get back to the city. We’ll need to raise an army to fight this monster, and that’s going to take time. Time we don’t have.” The stranger started up the hillside.
Asha followed. “No, I can’t. As long as I’m out here, the city should be safe. The dragon is here for me. Just me.”
The stranger grunted a short mirthless laugh. “Think a bit much of yourself, don’t you?”
“It’s true.” Asha caught the woman’s arm to stop her, and then she drew back her hair to reveal her right ear.
The stranger frowned and leaned in close to look at the scaled and discolored flesh. “Huh. I see. Bit you, did it? Maybe it does want you. All right, I can work with that. We’ll go back to your cave for now.” She turned and resumed walking.
Asha followed. “Are you alone out here?”
“I was until you showed up.”
“Are you a soldier?”
Asha frowned. “What’s your name?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“Sorry. I just wanted to know what to call you.”
She glanced back. “Nadira.”
They trudged up the broken slope, slipping here and there on the slick patches rubbed smooth by the dragon’s belly, and hiking over the little walls of churned up earth. Asha pointed out the entrance to the cave, a small triangular gap in the wrinkled rock face.
“We’ll stay out here,” Nadira said. “I want to keep an eye out for your admirer. We can always go inside later if we want to die like mice. Call out your friend, if you want.”
Asha nodded and asked Priya to join them. Then she straightened up beside the armored woman and exhaled. “I can’t believe you fought that dragon with just a sword.”
Nadira shrugged. “I fight most things with a sword. It didn’t seem like a good time to start trying something new.”
“Uhm, right. Well, we’re from India. I’m an herbalist,” Asha said. “I can look at your injuries, if you have any.”
Nadira shook her head. “No leeches for me, thanks.”
Priya emerged from the tunnel and stood up. “We have a new friend?”
“Her name is Nadira,” Asha said, turning to the stranger. “Although, I suspect you’re also known as the Damascena, aren’t you?”
The woman smiled in the moonlight. “So you’ve heard of me?”
“Only in passing. But a friend said we might meet you if we ever came to Damascus,” Asha said. “Which is how I know you’re two thousand years old, thanks to a man named Bashir.”
Nadira’s sword sang as it flew from its scabbard and pressed against Asha’s throat. “So now she’s sending assassins after me?” The woman’s voice was utterly calm, a perfectly flat monotone without a hint of anger or passion. “At least she’s getting more creative, I’ll give her that much. A dragon. Where did she get the damned thing? Not in Ifrica, surely. Hm. So, can you control this dragon? Or are you just the bait, sent to lead the beast here to kill me?”
“What?” Asha spoke softly, not daring to move her mouth too much and risk touching the blade at her neck. “I don’t know what you mean. We weren’t sent by anyone. We met a man like you. With this ear of mine, I could hear that he had two souls, and he told me that a man named Bashir made him immortal by sealing a drop of his soul in a golden egg that he wore around his neck. Him and two others in Damascus. And just now, I could hear that you also have two souls, so I’m guessing you also have a little golden egg with you somewhere.”
After a moment, the sword fell away and Nadira stepped back. She reached into her armored breastplate and lifted up a small pendant that shone in the starlight, and then she put it away again. “You met Gideon?”
Asha nodded. “He saved us from a man with a burning sword. An Osirian.”
Nadira slipped her saber back into its scabbard. “Well, that’s Gideon for you.” She sat down on a stone looking out over the valley floor below.
They sat down beside her and Priya said, “And you must be the courtesan he spoke of.”
Nadira laughed a long loud laugh, her shoulders shaking until the laughter faded into a few weary gasps. “Oh really? I must be the courtesan,” she repeated mockingly. “Am I so beautiful? Am I so courteous? Or maybe I smell like roses and jasmine?” She sniffed her armpit and grinned.
“But if you’re not the courtesan, then that means…” Priya hesitated. “You’re the nun?”
“I am. Or I was. I took the vows for life, but that was when I assumed I was going to die,” Nadira said. “It doesn’t really seem fair to hold me to that promise after all this time, does it?”
“I suppose not. I’ve never met a nun who wore armor and carried a sword,” Priya said. “Is this common in the west?”
The Damascena winked at her. “Not really, no.”
Asha cleared her throat. “Look, I don’t know how much time we have before the dragon returns, and I don’t know of any way to stop that thing from killing me and everyone else in the city. I suppose with a fast horse, I might be able to lead it away into the mountains or a desert where I could hope to starve it out, but that’s a plan based on hope and luck.”
“And a horse,” Priya added with a playful little smile.
Asha ignored her. “Nadira, I watched that animal kill a hundred soldiers this evening in just a few minutes, but tonight you held your ground against it. And you can’t be killed. So do you think you can defeat this dragon?”
“I wish I could. I wish I had,” Nadira said as she wormed her little finger into her ear to scratch an itch. “It took everything I had to just keep away from its claws and tail. And while this sword of mine can split a hair length-wise, it couldn’t break that creature’s armored skin. I was damned lucky to cut its snout. I doubt I’ll be so lucky again, not that it would do much good. Something that big isn’t going to die of a bloody nose.”
Asha opened her shoulder bag and pawed through the little clay jars and glass vials. “What if that was all we needed? I could put something on your sword, a narcotic maybe.”
“But you said you didn’t have enough for that to work,” Priya said.
“Not if the dragon ate it, no,” Asha said. “But if we could get the drug directly into the animal’s blood, then it might work, at least for a little while.”
“A narcotic?” Nadira asked. “You want to put it to sleep?”
The Damascena grinned and shook her head. “And then what? We should just walk home very quietly and try not to wake it?”
Asha frowned. “Once it’s asleep, you’ll have to kill it.”
“Those scales in your ear must make it hard to hear. I told you, my sword can’t break its armor. I tried. You were there, you saw. At best, I might stab out its eyes and hack out its tongue. I could make it bleed, and I could make it suffer. But I don’t think I can kill it, and I don’t want a blind rampaging dragon outside the walls of my city.”
Asha paused, staring at the powdered seeds and dried flower petals in her hands, and the scalpels and needles in the bottom of her bag. “Then maybe I can do it. But you’ll still need to subdue the dragon first. I’ll make an opiate paste to spread on your sword. You’ll have to cut it on the face again to get the drug into its blood. Can you do that?”
Nadira shrugged. “Sure. I’ve done it once, I can do it again.”
Asha sat down, took out her tools, and began grinding and mixing. A vast silence blanketed the valley as the moon rose in the southern sky and the constellations began their nightly trek across the heavens. The only sound in the world was the gentle breath of the wind playing through the grass.
“Sister Nadira?” Priya spoke softly. “Can you tell me what it’s like to be immortal? I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk in the world for so many lifetimes. To see the world growing and changing. Whole dynasties. Whole civilizations. I’m sure it has given you many profound insights into life and humanity.”
“Not really.” The Damascena chewed on her finger nail.
“Oh. I see.” The blind woman cleared her throat. “Could you tell me anything at all about your life? Please? I’d just like to try to understand what you’ve experienced. Please?”
Nadira sighed. “All right. Well, I entered the Mazdan Temple when I was young. I prayed, I fed the hungry, and I tended the sick. And then Bashir offered to make me immortal so I could help him. He taught me the laws of aether so I could study it, to find out whether the aether might be a path to understanding God and the meaning of life, or at least life beyond death. I was flattered and awed, so I agreed. I was so very stupid.”
She rested her hand on her sword and spat in the grass. “So Bashir moved on and I went to work. Over the years, I moved around the city, reinventing myself to avoid suspicion. I built schools and hospitals, and I trained other nuns. And I looked for the answers to Bashir’s questions. But then there would be a war, or a plague, or a fire. Sooner or later, everything I built was destroyed. My hospitals were looted. My schools were torn down. My students and friends died. Over and over again. Over, and over, and over.
“For five hundred miserable years, I stayed the course. I built and I taught and I studied, trying to find some answers, trying to understand the aether, trying to find God. But after five centuries of watching everything die and crumble into dust, after watching every stupid person make every stupid mistake again and again, after all those years of trying to save humanity from the darkness…I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Asha continued grinding her seeds. She didn’t look up.
“So I quit, little sister,” Nadira said. “I quit all of it.”
“You gave up on humanity?” Priya whispered.
The Damascena snorted. “Humanity gave up on itself. I just stopped caring. For a while I did nothing at all. I slept all day in the slums and wandered all night through the streets. And somewhere along the way, I picked up a sword and started killing the rats. Murderers, rapists, thieves. I don’t know why, really. I guess since I couldn’t ever make anything good, I wanted to try to destroy something evil instead.”
Nadira leaned back with her hands behind her head, staring up at the stars. “At first I killed them in their sleep, but eventually I learned to fight and I started killing them when they were awake. And for a while, I was happy. I was saving people. I was making a difference.” She chuckled softly. “Until one day I stood over the body of a murderer and I recognized him. Twenty years earlier I’d saved his life, when he was just a little boy. And that’s when I realized I still wasn’t making any difference at all.”
“That’s awful. I’m so sorry,” Priya said. “But obviously you didn’t give up the sword.”
“No. I left the city. I went to war. I cut my hair and dressed as a man, followed the soldiers at a distance, and then rushed onto the battlefield when no one would notice me.” Nadira gazed up at the moon. “I thought that maybe I could change the course of some battle, save a good prince’s life, or kill a bad one. Then maybe I could change the world. And I was right. From time to time, one soldier can change the course of history. I killed generals and messengers and princes and food tasters. And sometimes it would make Damascus a slightly better place.”
Priya nodded slowly. “Killing for gain or passion is a terrible evil. But killing can also be a solemn duty when it is done solely for the good of others, and not for one’s self. It’s a very hard path, but that’s a worthy calling too.”
Nadira scratched at her nose. “It’s less of a calling for me. More of a hobby, I’d say.”
“Oh.” Priya hesitated. “Well, I hope that one day you find what you’re looking for. Or at least, a better way to make a difference. Violence is not a path to peace or enlightenment.”
“Violence is the only path to peace, little sister,” Nadira said. “And that’s the only enlightenment I’ve ever found.”
The sun rose small and bright white in a pale blue sky streaked with pink and yellow clouds. The three women sat in the grass against the rock beside the cave and stared out over the valley. The trees shivered in the wind and the grass rippled as though it were a single living creature just beginning to stretch and wake up. Asha looked over at Nadira, seeing her clearly for the first time. She wore the same padded armor and blue tunic as the men who had ridden out the day before to face the dragon, and she held the same turbaned helmet in her lap.
Her thin black hair had been chopped short and it fluttered in the breeze around the edges of her face. Her eyes were dark and lidded, her mouth rested in a slight frown, and she slouched back against the rock with her legs splayed out crookedly in front of her. But she had long lashes and full lips and a graceful neck, and somewhere beneath all the dirt and the scowling Asha thought she could almost see the pretty young girl that the woman had once been. Almost.
Asha looked sharply to the west. “It’s coming.”
Nadira stood and drew her saber. The blade shone like silver in the morning light and Asha saw the fine lines swirling across the face of the steel like rippling water or spider silk twisting in the wind. A distant roar brought her gaze back to the far ridge and a dark undulating shape climbed into view. The dragon’s head rose up, framed by the fiery circle of the rising sun. It hissed, and then it dove down the slope to cross the valley.
“You might want to hide now, little sister,” Nadira muttered. Priya nodded and vanished into the dark hole in the earth.
“Here.” Asha scooped up her fresh opium paste with a flat wooden stick and smeared it liberally down both sides of the sword. “All right. This should do. Just cut it as deep as you can, and then get away from it. If we’re lucky, the dragon will collapse in a minute or so.”
“A minute can be a very long time on the battlefield,” Nadira said. “I’d rather not learn what it means to be disemboweled by a dragon, since it would be a memory I’d have to live with for a very long time.”
Asha nodded slowly. “That’s a good point. So, uhm, be careful, and good luck.”
“When the beast is down, then what?” Nadira asked.
“Then I’ll kill it.”
“With what? You have some poison? Some other sort of weapon?”
Asha stared at the monster slithering across the valley toward them. “I have something.” And then she knelt down and crawled backward into the tunnel, backing into the darkness just far enough to be well out of sight, but still able to see some portion of the field outside.
Nadira stood in front of the cave, her sword hanging at her side. “Hey, healer. Are you afraid of dying?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” Asha said, her voice echoing in the narrow cave. “Are you?”
“Always. Every day of my life.”
“Even after two thousand years? But you know you can’t die. Why be afraid?”
Nadira looked back over her shoulder. There was a nervous grin on her lips that flickered and died, and her mouth shook. Her eyes shivered and she said, “Because if I ever do die, then I’ll have to answer for everything I’ve done, for the sins of two thousand years. Tell me something. Do you believe in hell? Torment in the afterlife? Punishment after death?”
Nadira’s lip trembled. “I do.” She blinked and swallowed, and managed a smile. Then she cleared her throat very loudly and squared her shoulders to face the beast. “Now, let’s see if I can slay a dragon. That’s something I’ve never killed before.”
Asha stared at the woman’s back, wondering what she could possibly say in response. And she was still staring when the golden dragon erupted up the hillside and blotted out the sky. The beast roared as it crashed down onto its scarlet claws and it snapped its whiskered jaws at the armored woman, but it pulled back before it made contact. It hovered over her, sniffing and snorting.
Nadira crouched, waiting.
The dragon swiped a set of claws at her and she leapt aside. It swung again and she leapt back. A third time the claws slashed at the woman and she raised her sword to meet the blow. The impact sent her to her knees and Asha saw Nadira sinking into the soft earth as the dragon bore down on her, but the saber did not break and neither did the woman.
Nadira twisted and rolled aside, letting the red claws slide off her blade, sending the dragon stumbling a half step to the side. She straightened up and held her sword out to one side, and then her hand began to turn. She rolled her hand at the wrist, faster and faster, whirling her saber into a singing disc that flashed in the morning light.
The dragon stared down, its ruby eyes fixed on the pulsing light on the spinning blade. The beast leaned down to hiss at her and Nadira leapt up to slash across its snout. A thin spatter of red flew across the ground and Asha felt her heart race into her throat as the dragon snapped its head away, squealing like a frightened pig. But the squeal deepened into a bloody roar and the dragon turned on its side and swept the field with its tail. Nadira ran toward the coming wave of golden scales and leapt high, but the dragon sent a rippling wave through its spine and its tail curled up to catch the woman in midair. The crash of armor on scales shrieked through air.
Nadira flipped and slammed to the ground on her back, gasping for breath. Slowly, she rolled over onto her stomach and pushed herself up on her hands and knees, and then the dragon struck. Its massive head darted as quickly as a viper’s and snatched the woman up in its silver fangs as its own blood ran down its snout.
“No!” Asha scrambled out of the cave and waved her arms in the air. “Let her go! Let her go! I’m right here! Come and get me, you snake!”
The beast screamed, its jaws opening wide to let Nadira drop to the ground as the dragon lurched forward, its steaming maw driving straight at Asha.
The herbalist ran along the rock face and felt the earth shudder as the dragon crashed into the stone wall. She ran among the boulders, her entire body electrified with adrenaline and terror, her eyes casting around wildly for shelter, for anything that might shield her from the beast, but the rocks were all too small and too far apart. There was nothing but trampled grass and slick dirt where the dragon had thrashed its way down the hill the night before. Asha bolted across the slope, looking for something, anything, that could save her.
The dragon leapt after her and slammed into the ground just behind her, sending a shockwave through the earth that hurled her off her feet. Asha slipped and tumbled head over heels, rolling and rolling down the steep hillside out of control, her arms wrapped around her head as the world whirled round and round.
Her feet struck a rock and she curling into a ball, one hand clutching her ankle just as her back struck a mound of earth and her body abruptly stopped moving. Asha lay on the ground, shivering. Her lungs would barely let her inhale and her heart was pounding so hard and fast that she couldn’t tell one beat from the next.
She opened her eyes and the world spun viciously to the left, and she nearly vomited. But she pushed herself up, blinking to clear her mind and gasping for air. She turned her head toward the hillside and saw a blur of movement, a cascade of green and brown and gray and gold coming toward her.
With painful slowness and deliberation, she crawled forward over the mound of earth that had caught her and tumbled down a small incline onto some tall dew-soaked grass just as another deep reverberation shook the earth under her and the clatter of falling stones filled the air. Asha rolled over and looked at the small landslide just beyond her feet.
The dragon’s bloody snout lay just beside her own muddy shoe. The rest of the creature lay somewhere behind the head, over the earthen mound and out of sight. It was staring at her with one huge ruby eye, but its eye did not follow her as she stood up. It did not focus on her as she drew the small golden needle from her bag, which had tangled around her neck and nearly choked her as she fell.
And the eye did not react when she plunged the needle straight into the bloody wound on the dragon’s nose.
Instantly Asha felt the needle growing hotter in her hand, but still she held on, making certain that the tool stayed in place. A soft hiss filled the air like sound of a distant waterfall and Asha glimpsed a few stray wisps of aether as they poured out of the dragon’s blood and into the golden needle. Within a few moments, the beast’s shining scales grew duller and grayer, its bright red eyes becoming flatter and dimmer. The last hot gasp drifted out of the animal’s mouth and it lay absolutely still.
Asha shoved the hot needle deep into the dragon’s flesh and took her hand away painted in dark red blood. Her lungs burned, her ankle throbbed, and her head spun as Asha sat down on the muddy earth and leaned back against the beast’s jaw. She pressed her right ear against its armored flesh to listen, and found its heart quite silent and the deep thrum of its soul faint and growing fainter. She closed her eyes and exhaled.
A moment later she opened her eyes. The deep thrum of the dragon-soul was growing louder again. Asha stood and stumbled away from the body, searching it for signs of life but there were none. Not a breath, not a quiver. Still the dragon-soul rumbled louder and Asha turned and turned, trying to find the source of the sound. Finally she stopped and closed her eyes, trying to focus. And then she realized.
Opening her eyes, she saw that her right hand was no longer painted in blood. It was covered in golden scales. The transformation crept up her arm slowly, hardening her soft brown skin into bronze plates, filling her veins with fire, filling her chest with needling pain. She could see the crimson claws poking out from her fingers, and she could feel the two slender antlers trying to sprout from her head. The world around her faded into a red mist punctuated by a few white shapes. The white body of the dragon beside her. The white bodies of the two women running down the hillside toward her.
Asha fell to all fours, gasping and choking on the sultry vapors seething out of her lungs. Her teeth clicked and scraped in her mouth and the base of her spine throbbed as her body screamed out for a tail, a long and glorious tail to whip and slither behind her.
The two white shapes stumbled to halt in front of her and Asha could hear their voices, muffled and distorted as though she were under water. And her belly was rumbling with a sharp and burning hunger.
“Go!” she tried to say. “Run!”
The two white shapes kept shouting and Asha felt hands on her arms and head. Gripped with rage and terror, she lunged left and right, back and forth, throwing the women aside. In her right eye she saw a silvery blade raised against her and in her left eye she saw a figure sitting on the ground clutching a tiny creature to her chest. Then the tiny creature flew up at Asha’s neck and a fountain of sharp pain erupted in her flesh, and the woman on the ground leapt up to place both of her hands on Asha’s face.
The white figure whispered something, over and over and over.
And then the world went dark.
When Asha awoke the first thing she saw was her hand, a familiar brown hand with rough pink nails and little white scars around the knuckles. The air tasted cool and clean, and the world, no longer obscured by a red veil, was bright blue and green. She rose up on her elbow with a groan. She was sitting in the grass on a level patch of earth with Priya and Nadira sitting beside her and a small fire crackling in a circle of stones.
Jagdish sat on her hip, peering at her with his tiny black eyes.
“There’s the little traitor,” she said hoarsely to the mongoose. “You bit me.” She touched her neck and found a small bandage there.
“I’m sorry about that,” Priya said, turning toward her. “But I needed his help to distract you for a moment so I could reach you.”
Asha smiled wearily. “I’ve always said a mongoose is a useful thing to have around.”
“How do you feel?” Nadira asked.
Asha sat all the way up, sending Jagdish scampering back to Priya’s lap. She rubbed her face and took her own pulse and tried to listen to her own breathing, but the sound was masked by a deep bass hum in her chest. She looked at Priya and frowned. “It’s still here. It’s still inside me. The dragon’s soul.”
“I know.” Priya shifted and laid a hand on Asha’s knee with uncanny ease. “It is a wild and dangerous thing, but it can be controlled. You’re controlling it now.”
Asha stared at her hands. “How? How did you save me?”
Priya’s hand traveled up to Asha’s face where she gently massaged the herbalist’s forehead around her eye. Instantly she felt serene and sleepy, her eyes drifting closed as she leaned against her friend’s hand.
“Well, if you recall, I actually have a great deal of experience in caring for angry spirits,” the nun said with a smile. “I spent more than an hour chanting the tisarana into your ear before your body changed back to normal and you fell completely asleep. And when that seemed to soothe you, I spent the next several hours repeating the chant over and over again to you. The repetition helps to bury the words in your mind. It was a common practice at the monastery where I trained.”
“Then, am I healed now? Is it under control?”
“No,” Nadira said. She was staring at the foreigners from across the fire with her sword naked in her lap. “You really don’t understand what’s happened, do you?”
Asha frowned. “I tried to kill the dragon by draining its soul into my golden needle.”
“Obviously, the dragon’s soul was too big for your little needle,” the Damascena said. “It was almost too big for you too. And now you’ll have to live with it inside you every day for the rest of your very unnatural life.” She sighed and squinted at the sun. “And you know what will happen if you lose control of it. It’ll consume you. It’ll turn you into a monster.”
“That won’t happen,” Priya said quickly. “We’ve already learned how to control it. And with time and practice, I know that Asha will be able to master the dragon completely on her own.”
“I pray that she does. Or maybe you should pray for me.” Nadira scowled at the fire and slowly lifted her gaze to look at the herbalist. “I’d hate to have to kill you.”
“Fair enough,” Asha said. She took a moment just to breathe and listen and feel. The dragon’s soul was like a ball of fire in her belly, rolling and tumbling gently around and around, sometimes spinning faster and growling, but mostly rocking softly from side to side. Waiting. Asha closed her eyes and imagined tranquil meadows and quiet streams, clear skies and silent mountains. And the dragon fell quieter still, nestling down deep inside her. Asha opened her eyes. “I can do this.”
“And I’ll help you.” Priya turned to the warrior. “Will you join us? Will you come with us? This life of yours hasn’t brought you peace or happiness. Even I can see that. Come with us.”
“No.” Nadira sniffed and spat in the fire. “But thanks for the offer.”
Priya nodded. “Well, where will you go now? Back to Damascus?”
“For now. But there’s talk of another war coming, as always. If the army marches, then I’ll follow them, to Constantia or wherever it is. And you?”
Asha shrugged. “Gideon said there were other immortals in Alexandria. Maybe we’ll go there.”
Nadira nodded. “The Aegyptians may be able to help you. They’re very old, and they know a lot about souls. But keep an eye out for Lilith. She’s out there somewhere too, and she’ll be interested in you. Very.”
“Lilith? Is she the courtesan from Damascus?” Asha asked.
“Yeah. And she’s not your friend. She isn’t anyone’s friend.” Nadira stood up and slid her saber into its scabbard, which she rested across her shoulder. “Well, it seems you don’t need me anymore, so, you take care of each other.” She scratched between her legs, rearranged her trousers, and walked away.
“Wait! Please!” Priya called out. “Please don’t go yet, sister. You don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to walk this path anymore. Come with us to Alexandria, or we can come with you to Damascus. We’re all searching for some sort of peace or truth in life. We can search together. You don’t have to be alone.”
Nadira paused. “Yeah, I do.”
Asha and Priya sat and listened to the soft crush of grass as the woman walked away. The wind whipped through her old armor, making it click and clack softly as her short hair fluttered around her head.
“That poor woman,” Priya whispered. “Such a miserable, empty, dark life.”
“I know,” Asha said. “But I think she’ll be all right. Someday. Maybe she needs to be in a dark place for a while before she can find the light again. I spent eight years in a coma. You spent two centuries in a cave. But we woke up. And maybe someday she’ll wake up, too. Time is on her side, at least.”
They sat and listened to the wind playing through the tall grass. Asha glanced over her shoulder once at the distant shape of the dragon’s body lying at the bottom of the hill. “I should go find my needle, I suppose. We should burn the body too, but I doubt any campfire of ours will consume that creature.” Then she looked down at her hand. “I wonder.”
In her mind’s eye she conjured an image of fire and the sound of angry voices, the clash of swords, and the screaming of eagles. The smooth flesh of her hand rippled into golden scales and scarlet claws. But Asha held the violence in her mind in check, fencing it in to one small corner of her heart, keeping it focused and narrow, directing it only at the memories of a single act of cruelty, a single doctor’s face, a single tragedy from long ago. The transformation of her arm halted at the elbow.
Then she exhaled, banishing her rage and letting the calm meadows and empty skies fill her mind’s eye again, restoring her arm to its original shape and color.
Asha smiled. “This might not be so bad after all.” She turned to Priya. “So. What do you think? Should we go to Alexandria, or should we go somewhere else? Constantia, perhaps?”
Priya smiled and shrugged. “Whichever you prefer.”
The two women stood up and scattered their fire, shouldered a bag and a mongoose, and set out for the road.
They stood on the stone quay overlooking the water. Asha squinted across the sparkling harbor at the steamship as it chuffed toward the dock with two white cloudy columns rising from its two funnels and more than a hundred passengers congregating on its deck. Priya leaned on her new walking stick, an ash pole with a thick brass ring set into its top holding half a dozen smaller rings and bells that jangled and tinkled when she walked. But now it was silent and the sounds of the city of Tyre pressed down on the women from all sides. Merchants, dock workers, carts and wagons, camels and donkeys, birds, fish, and crabs, and machines of all sizes grunted and whined and shouted and clanked and barked, their voices echoing off the faces of the harbor-side buildings.
“I’ve never been on a boat before,” Priya said. “I think the idea of it is a little scary. Just a little. A wooden house floating on the water, all alone, far from help.”
Asha nodded. “I’ve been on lots of boats, and never had any trouble with them. But if you don’t like boats, then be grateful you can’t see the one we’re about to board.”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing’s wrong with it. Except that it’s made out of metal.”
“Oh.” Priya frowned. “How are you feeling today?”
“Fine. Calm. I slept well last night.”
An urgent shout drew their attention to the right where Asha saw two men high atop a stack of crates. They were struggling to lift the topmost box down, but the crates under their feet had shifted, sliding apart, creaking and crackling as the wooden planks began to splinter. The men balanced precariously as the crate under them rolled up at an angle as it tried to fall between two other crates below it. Both men were shouting at each other in some dialect that Asha didn’t recognize, but she recognized clearly enough that neither man was moving or doing anything at all to get out of harm’s way. The bottom crates slid apart a bit more, edging closer to the stones at the water’s edge.
Then Asha saw the two little boys sitting on the stones, their feet dangling over the water, their backs to the shifting pile of crates.
“Hey!” Asha jogged toward them, leaving Priya behind. “Hey, you! Boys! Hey! Get up! Get up! You! Yes, you! Get up, get away from there! Look out!”
One of the boys glanced in her direction, then slowly swiveled his head to see the rocking mountain of crates behind him. He cried out and scrambled to his feet and darted away, leaving his friend staring after him with a confused look on his face. Asha yelled at the straggler as she reached the loading area and had to slow down to get through the other men moving barrels and boxes near the stacked crates. None of them gave her or the boy a look.
The remaining boy twisted around to scowl at the crates, but he did pull his legs up and stand, pausing to wipe his hands on his dirty trousers. Just then one of the bottom crates snapped apart and collapsed, and everything teetering above it collapsed with it. Half a dozen huge wooden containers, a dozen small casks, and two angry men crashed down to the stone dock.
Asha shouted, her hand outstretched as though she might grab the boy from a dozen paces away to pull him to safety. But as the crates smashed down into the stones, the boy took two light running steps and dove gracefully into the harbor. Asha jogged to a halt at the edge of the wreckage where the broken containers still stood in a high pile, many cracked open to reveal bolts of cloth or earthenware jugs wrapped in straw. A moment later the boy’s head broke the surface of the water and he squinted up through the water streaming down over his face. Asha waved to him. He waved back with a grin.
The two angry dock workers staggered up on top of the mess, surveyed the destruction, and began shouting at each other anew. One of them took a swing at the other’s head, and the crates shifted again. A wave of splintered wood and broken pottery cascaded over the edge of the dock and plummeted into the harbor straight down onto the boy.
“No!” Asha dashed forward, scrambling over the ruined cargo to look down into the water, but all she could see were wooden panels and planks piled high on the surface of the water. She couldn’t see the boy anywhere.
Asha dropped her shoulder bag on the dock and jumped feet-first into the water. As she jumped, she curled her hands into fists and summoned up a burning rage in her breast. In a corner of her mind there was a gallery of evils, each one just a little worse than the one before, and each one known to bring forth a certain degree of her fury. Now she called up the faces of the doctors who had trained her, who had betrayed her, who had killed her first love. She kindled that rage in her heart, fanning the flames of it until her entire body was flush with adrenaline, with the urge to scream, with the urge to lash out at the entire world and crush it in her bare hands.
The dragon awoke.
From deep inside her belly, the soul of the golden dragon blazed to life, filling her veins with liquid fire and Asha felt the change come over her, sweeping across her body. Her skin rippled with golden scales, harder than steel and shining in the bright morning light. Her feet crashed down into the floating ruins of the crates, and the wood shattered beneath her, splintering into tiny shards that flew high in the air and far out over the water. The water was freezing cold, but Asha knew this only distantly. She could barely feel the water at all through her dragon skin.
As she reached out to lift and smash the planks aside, Asha listened carefully above the surface and below it. There were souls everywhere, people-souls thronging the dock above and crab-souls thronging the harbor floor beneath her feet, and all of them humming and ringing and clanging in her ears, but through the noise Asha focused on the water right in front of her and found the faint and fading murmur of one lone little boy.
She dove beneath the surface, driving her fists and feet through the flotsam surging up and down through the filthy harbor water. A red veil passed over her eyes, casting the world in warm crimson tones, but in that red world a dim white shape appeared. Asha kicked and clawed her way past the remains of two more crates, tearing through layers of cloth and smashing through jars and bottles that hung suspended in the water, neither rising nor falling. She found the boy just a few feet beneath the surface, spread-eagled and face-down with a small dark cloud near his head. He wasn’t moving.
For a brief moment, the sight of the boy refueled the anger in her heart and Asha felt the dragon stirring again, felt the throbbing in her temples where the spirit wanted its horns and the throbbing in her back where the spirit wanted its tail. In her mind, she repeated a few words of one of the chants that Priya had taught her and the dragon settled, a little.
Asha reached out and snaked her arm around the boy’s chest and surged toward the surface, dragging him upward. When she broke into the cool morning air and lifted the boy up beside her, a shout went up on the dock. She swam to the dock and glanced up at the sheer stone wall rising above the water. Then she reached up with one golden hand to grab at a crack in the wall, and hurled herself and the boy up onto the dock in a single motion.
She landed on her feet, but only just barely. Her ankles throbbed and she shivered as the water streamed down out of her thick black hair over her skin. The scales were gone, along with the anger and any thought of the doctors far away in the Ming Empire. Her only thought now was for the boy in her arms. A small crowd pressed in around her, arms reaching and hands pointing, voices muttering and clamoring. Asha wondered if anyone was going to go and fetch help. She doubted it.
The boy’s skin was cold and she couldn’t find his pulse or hear him breathing. Asha rolled him onto his stomach and roughly massaged his back to pump the water out of his lungs, and then rolled him back over. She struck his chest once, and then again. The boy stiffened and gasped, choking and coughing. She rolled him over again to let him spit out the foul harbor water on the stones. He looked up at her, eyes lidded and lips trembling. Asha nudged the dragon soul within her, just a bit, and then she exhaled gently over the boy’s face and neck and chest, and he stopped shivering as his lips regained a bit of color.
His eyes opened again and he said, “Your breath…”
“Hush. I know. It’s very hot.”
He shook his head. “Your breath stinks.”
A moment later three middle-aged women shouldered their way through the crowd of dock workers, shouting and slapping and swatting at the men to get out of their way. They encircled Asha and the boy with blankets and gentle caresses and wrinkled looks of concern, and Asha politely extracted herself and let them bundle up the boy and carry him off, away from the harbor.
After wringing out her hair, Asha picked up her shoulder bag and turned to walk back through the slowly dispersing crowd to find Priya when a harsh, rapid shouting drew her gaze back to the pile of broken crates. The two dock workers stood side by side, heads lowered, hats in their hands. The man doing the shouting was shorter than either of them, and heavier than both. He wore a dark green robe and belted at his considerable waist was a familiar short sword. The robed man stopped shouting for a moment, and one of the workers turned to point at Asha.
The man in green strode straight for Asha and began barking at her when he was still only half way to her. “You there! What did you think you were doing, smashing my wares, tearing my cloth? These are costly goods! They were worth a fortune!”
Asha slipped her left hand into her bag, feeling around for her scalpel. She inhaled slowly, reciting the tisarana in her mind as Priya had taught her.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
The words were meaningless to her and to her token devotion to Shiva, but it was the repetition that mattered, the act of clearing her mind, of calming both herself and the soul of the monster inside her. She said, “If your things were so valuable, then you should have hired more careful men to handle them. And you should have invested in stronger crates. The crates broke on their own, and your men fell into them.”
“But the jars and cloth might have been salvaged if you had not destroyed them!” He pointed at the water.
She looked down and saw that where there had been a pile of half-crates and bolts and jars in a small island there was now a vast sea of tiny splinters and shards and shreds. “Oh that. Well, I had to save the boy’s life. Next time you should be more careful.” She turned to leave.
The man grabbed her wrist. “Next time you’ll be dead.” He drew his sword and the blade smoldered with a dark amber light.
Asha forgot the tisarana utterly at the touch of the man’s hand on her body and her mind sank into a white-hot pool of rage. Rage at the knowledge that this man carried a sun-steel sword, rage for all the innocent souls he had imprisoned in its blade, rage at all the people like him who strode through the world trampling human lives for their own petty desires.
In her heart, the golden dragon roared.
She turned back to him, seeing only a white figure against a veil of crimson. The man hesitated at whatever he saw in her face, but then he drove his sword straight at Asha’s chest. Just before it touched her skin, she caught the blade with her bare hand, her bare hand armored in golden scales and ruby claws. Dimly she felt the heat radiating from the steel in her hand, but only dimly.
“What? What are you?” the man stammered.
She could barely hear his words over the hammering of his heart in his chest. Asha constricted her fingers and claws around the sword and felt it warping, curling, bending, and twisting. Steam rose from her hand. The man let go of his sword as the blade snapped in half, the two pieces of it clattering to the cobblestones at their feet, the metal now dark and cold as the aether mist spilled out of it.
They’re free. All of the souls are free.
Asha’s vision shifted. The sky became bright blue and the road became pale gray. She looked at the man in the green robe, who had taken several uncertain steps backward. For a moment she imagined impaling him on the broken shards of his own sword, of shredding his flesh with her claws, of throwing his mangled corpse into the sea. She held up her blood-red talons in a curled half-fist.
“Asha?” Priya’s voice was soft but clear, and very near.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
The golden scales on her hand melted back into her smooth brown skin, and the claws slipped back into her soft fingertips.
No, not the Buddha. Or Shiva, or any god. I take refuge in the forests. I take refuge in the mountains. I take refuge in the harmony of all living things. I take refuge in the wind and the water, and the sun and the stars.
The dragon’s spirit fell quiet, nestling back down deep inside her, returning to its own refuge within her soul. She shivered in her own skin, still dripping from the harbor. Asha exhaled and looked at the frightened man. “Go back to your masters in Alexandria. Tell them what I did here. Tell them to repent what they have done. And tell them that I am coming.”
“Why? What do you want? Who are you?” He stumbled back another step.
“I’m the woman hunting you. I’m the woman who isn’t afraid of you. And I’m the woman you can’t hurt.” She reached up to push her hair back behind her golden ear and said, “I am Asha of Kathmandu.”
Epilogue: The Crossroads
Nadira saw him sitting on the little stone pillar at the crossroads, his legs dangling back and forth above the dusty road. The same old bronze greaves flashed on his shins, but the rest of his clothing was new. Brown trousers and jacket, white shirt, and a bronze gauntlet on his right arm. But then, he was always changing, always traveling, always restless. And yet somehow, after two thousand years, he still looked so young, so bright, so new.
She took her time. Her padded clothes and heavy armor chafed her shoulders and hips, and sweat ran freely down the small of her back. The helmet felt like it was cooking her head.
Overhead, enormous white clouds sailed across the deep blue sky casting gigantic shadows across the face of the earth. Thick shrubs lined the road, many of them dotted with red berries. Large brown hares chased each other across the road, darting in and out of sight. Huge red hawks glided across the sky.
When she finally stepped into the intersection of the Damascus highway and the country lane, she saw Gideon was beaming at her. That same smile.
He hopped down off the marker and held out his arms. “It’s been so long. It’s so wonderful to see you again, Nadira. How are you?”
She stopped short of his arms and pulled off her helmet. “Hot and sweaty. What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you, of course. I heard about the siege at Constantia and I figured you’d be coming this way, sooner or later.” He glanced over his shoulder to the north. “The army passed by about four hours ago.”
Nadira nodded. She shuffled past him and sat down with her back against the little stone pillar he had been sitting on. It was slightly cooler there in the shadow of the bushes. “Why are you here, really?”
Gideon winked at her. “Can’t I just want to see you?”
She sighed and squinted up at him. “That? Again? Really?”
“Is it so wrong that I’m attracted to women my own age?”
He nodded slowly as the humor around his eyes faded away. “All right then. I wanted to warn you. I met a woman a short while ago. She had an Osirian following her, and I dealt with him. But this woman, Asha, is very special, and she may be coming your way one day.”
“She’s already come and gone.” Nadira spat in the bushes and pulled her flask from her belt.
“Oh.” Gideon frowned. “Already? I suppose I lost track of time. Sorry. So you met her?”
“Yeah, I did.” Nadira took a drink.
“And she’s doing all right?”
Nadira laughed. “We killed a dragon together.”
“Did you really?” He squatted down beside her with a bit of boyish glee in his eyes. “A big one?”
“The biggest. We did hit a snag, though.” Nadira sighed and wiped the sweat from her face. “It possessed her. Asha. And I don’t just mean that ear of hers. The whole damned snake got inside her.”
“Oh no,” Gideon whispered.
“Oh yes. And what the hell is that thing?” Nadira pointed at the brass gauntlet on his right arm.
“It’s my sword,” he muttered, his eyes wandering the ground aimlessly. “Possessed? Did she change? Did you have to kill her?”
“No. Her little friend helped her get the beast under control.” Nadira took another drink and offered the flask to him. “For now.”
He waved the flask away. “That poor girl. Where is she now?”
“No idea. I mentioned the Aegyptians to her, so she might be heading for Alexandria.”
“With a dragon inside her? What about Lilith?!”
She rolled her eyes at him. “I told her about Lilith.” Nadira belched.
Gideon sighed and sat down beside her. “Nadira.” He reached for her hand, but she pulled it back to scratch roughly under her breast. He sighed and took back his hand. “Nadira, please. It breaks my heart to see you like this. We were so happy once. Do you even remember that? Do you remember what it means to be happy?”
Nadira fell very still and quiet, her eyes fixed on the horizon. “Yes, I remember. I remember everything. Every day, every touch. Every damned second of it.”
“But you’re still angry,” he said slowly.
“No.” She shook her head. “No, I’m not angry.”
“But you still don’t want me.”
“No.” She turned to look at him. “I don’t want anyone. I don’t want anything. Why would I? Everything ends.”
“You don’t. I don’t. We’re forever, you and me.”
“But love isn’t forever. Happiness isn’t forever. And I don’t like losing things. I’m tired of watching things break and fall apart.”
He frowned and looked away. “So no more things? No more me? No more love?”
She snorted. “Shut up, Gideon.” Nadira stood up, slapping the dust from her trousers. She rested her hand on the pommel of her saber and turned to look up the long road to the north.
He stood up and rested his hand on her shoulder. “There must be something for you. Something more than haunting Damascus and wading across battlefields. It’s a big world out there.”
Nadira shrugged his hand off. “I did like the dragon. It scared me. I’d never seen anything like it before. And for a minute, I really thought it might kill me. It was terrifying. And I felt…”
“Alive,” Gideon said.
“Alive.” Nadira nodded. “Do you think there are more dragons out there?”
“Probably. And other things stranger than dragons. Who knows?”
“You’ve never been?”
He shrugged. “I’ve been as far east as Ming. But there’s a lot more out there. Hundreds of islands to the south and the east.”
“Where you’ve never been?”
Nadira smiled. She unhooked her sword from her belt and rested it on her shoulder. “Then maybe when this business in Constantia is over, I’ll take a little walk to the east and see if I can find some more dragons to slay.” She started walking away, and over her shoulder she said, “What about you?”
“I thought I might head back to Alexandria. It’s probably time for me to clean out that nest of vipers again anyway,” he said.
She paused. “You like her? Asha?” She looked back at him.
He grinned. “Take care of yourself, Nadira.”
She dragged her sleeve across her nose and sniffed. “You too, old man.” And she walked away, smiling.
The City of the Gods
Asha stood in the loud, dusty street and looked up at the strange temple of ancient stone and polished wood, and she wondered how long it would take her to destroy it. The sun hung low in the western sky above Alexandria and the spring breeze grew colder through her long, unfettered hair.
“You’re certain this is what you wish to do?” asked Priya.
Asha exhaled slowly and looked at her friend. “Yes.”
The little nun smiled and adjusted the red cloth tied across her eyes, and leaned on her tall staff with its jangling brass rings set into the top. “I admit that this will undoubtedly make the world a better place. These Osirian people are dangerous. Their weapons are unholy. Their acts, unforgivable.”
“I’m glad we still agree. Sometimes I think your compassion goes too far.” Asha looked back toward the doors of the temple, which were guarded by half a dozen men in green robes, each wearing two or three belts laden with knives and other, stranger weapons. As she studied them, she noticed a middle-aged gentleman and a very young woman crossing the street to approach the temple steps.
There was nothing remarkable about the man, but the girl had skin the color of snow and hair the color of blood. She wore a rustling dress of black silk with a black scarf tied over the top of her head, and her eyes were hidden by a pair of glasses with blue lenses.
“I’m not concerned for these Sons of Osiris,” Priya was saying. “And I don’t care about their godless temple. What I do care about is you. You’ve never done anything like this before. This is different from fighting a lone man or stopping a crime. This is violence on a much larger scale. You could lose control. You could lose yourself. I could lose you.”
Asha looked back at the nun. “I won’t let that happen. I promise.”
“I’m going to hold you to that promise,” Priya said. “Jagdish and I will be terribly sad and lonely if you become a monster.” The sleepy mongoose poked his whiskers out from behind the curtain of Priya’s flowing black hair as he clung to her shoulder. He squeaked, and then huddled back down against the nun’s neck. “And it doesn’t need to be now. We’ve only just arrived. We can wait and see what there is to be seen of this place and what goes on here. Learn more. Think more. Perhaps even find another way, if another way exists.”
“No. No waiting. We crossed an empire to find this place, to stop these men. I don’t want to know more about them. I don’t want to understand them,” Asha said, her gaze shifting back to the pale girl in the black dress on the temple steps. “They murder the innocent, and they enslave the souls of the dead. I don’t want to wait and let them hurt one more person while I stand by, doing nothing.”
The nun touched her shoulder. “It’s all right. I understand.”
“You shouldn’t be here when I do it. It won’t be safe,” Asha said. “I’ll take you back to the hotel.”
“No, I want to be here,” Priya said. “In case you need me.”
“Still.” The nun smiled and headed across the street, her staff jingling softly with each step, her long unbound hair festooned with white lotus blossoms fluttering in the cool Aegyptian breeze.
Asha watched her companion move gracefully through the foot traffic and the beasts of burden and the mechanical wagons spewing steam, and the nun reached the shadows of a sheltered alleyway without incident. The evening surge of merchants and porters, mercenaries and priests, mothers and children flowed around her, full of zebras and camels and huge spotted deer called sivatheras.
But the traffic slowly thinned as the sun went down, and the noise faded bit by bit. Asha turned back to the Temple of Osiris and she tried to look at it dispassionately, wondering how heavy and thick the stone walls of the lower fortress might be, and how strong the wooden beams of the upper pagoda might be.
How much power will it take to destroy something like this?
How much strength?
How much of the dragon?
There was no way to know, and no way to guess. But it had to be done.
All of it then.
She glanced one last time at the doors of the temple where the Aegyptian man and the strange girl in black were speaking to the guards.
I wonder. Could she be one of them? No, she doesn’t look anything like them. Then, could she be a prisoner? A slave? Are they taking her in there, never to let her leave? Well, she won’t be among them for much longer. She’ll be free soon.
Asha closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, preparing for the dragon, and searching for a memory to call it forth. She had so many memories to choose from. The doctor who tortured the people of India and Rajasthan, the foolish parents who neglected their children, the spouses who beat each other, the landowners who reduced their workers to starving slaves, the murderers, the thieves, and on and on. She kept a vast gallery of human monsters and atrocities in the back of her mind, each one bright and hideous, and each one able to inspire some degree of rage in her heart.
But now, she reached all the way back to the first evil, the very first vision of hateful cruelty in her mind. It was the image of a beautiful youth lying on a table, his chest carefully opened and his blood dripping slowly onto the floor. The surgical knives were arrayed nearby with the lenses, powders, and razors. The doctors were coming toward her, leaving the room, leaving the youth alone on the table, his face still contorted in his final moments of agony.
She had asked them, Why didn’t you save him?
And they had answered, Because we didn’t want to.
Asha felt her skin burning, her heart pounding, and her brains searing as the tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. She curled her hands into fists and clenched her teeth as her lips rippled in a silent snarl.
The dragon awoke.
The soul of the great golden dragon, which slept deep down within her own fragile spirit and flesh, opened its ruby eyes and opened its golden maw, and from within her own heart, the beast roared.
Asha opened her eyes and saw the change begin. Her smooth brown skin rippled with golden scales that shone in the late day sun. Her fingertips grew longer and thinner, becoming deadly scarlet claws. She felt the warm pulses running down her skin as she traded her human flesh for dragon armor. Her spine throbbed as her slender whip of a tail erupted from her back and began to coil and lash the dusty ground behind her, tossing her pale yellow sari left and right.
All around her, men and women cried out in fear and surprise and she could sense them running away. Horses and zebras whickered and screamed before racing down the road. A nearby sivathera drawing a stately little coach reared up on its hind legs, bellowing and snorting, and it too thundered off down the street.
Yes, run away. Run away, all of you. And keep running.
A terrible heat rose in her chest, scorching her throat as she exhaled, and she saw the air around her nostrils shimmering like a watery mirage on the horizon. Asha pressed her hands to her forehead, knowing what would come next, but still afraid. She’d never let it go this far before.
From her temples where the golden scales met her thick black hair, two small mounds rose, and rose, and went on rising. The dragon’s horns were angular and ridged, and they curved gently back and forth through the air before finally tightening into ruby-tipped points.
Asha straightened up and stretched her back and arms, feeling the mass of her golden armor and the power in her legs. Her horned skull weighed heavily on her neck, and her lashing tail tugged her hips left and right. It was all awkward and new, all so much stranger than just the scales and claws that she usually released, but now with the dragon awake and raging within her breast, the strangeness felt natural and right.
This is what is needed. This will consume the evil.
I will consume the evil.
I will… devour… everything…
She looked up at the temple again as a crimson veil passed over her eyes. The world became a flat landscape of dark reds and light reds, punctuated by the sharp white figures of people and animals.
But through it all, she held on to the image of the youth on the table, and the doctors who had laughed as they walked away from his dead body, and hadn’t cared whether their patient had lived or died.
He was mine. My first.
They killed him.
I stood by. I watched them do it. And I did nothing.
Asha dashed forward, ignoring the cries of the fleeing people and beasts all around her, and she sank her claws into the stone wall of the temple. The ancient blocks cracked apart and when she yanked her claws out the entire corner of the temple crashed down into the road, hurling up a massive cloud of dust that swallowed the street and everyone still in it.
She surged forward again and leapt high onto the side of the temple, and then leapt again all the way up to the top of the stone fortress where the grand wooden pagoda began. She had seen such buildings before in Ming, and while it did strike her as wholly out of place in this western city, it held no other fascination for her. She smashed the wooden columns, the panels, and the planks, driving her armored fists through beams as thick as ancient trees.
Asha ran back and forth, and climbed higher and higher, tearing, breaking, and rending everything in reach. She burst through walls and leapt straight up, exploding through ceilings and floors. From time to time she saw the flash of a frightened face or the bright light of a drawn seireiken, but they were all as slow as insects trapped in amber. She raced by them all, her mind bent only on the next thing she could drive her ruby claws into and tear to pieces.
Somewhere deep inside the temple, surrounded by splintered beams and collapsing walls, Asha stopped. The entire building was keening and moaning.
It’s dying. This place is dying. Soon it will fall and take all of its vermin with it. All of the killers and slave drivers. They’ll all be dead soon.
Asha ran back toward the outer wall, her tail lashing at the remains of the pillars, her claws shredding everything within reach. She burst through the last wall and leapt out into the cool evening air high above the city street, and fell. She crashed down onto the stone lip at the top of the lower fortress, and then slid down the sloping wall, smashing out the ancient blocks as she descended toward the street.
By the time her feet touched the ground, Asha was exhausted. Her arms and legs were aching, and her back was throbbing from the constant writhing of her tail. As she straightened up, she saw through the swirling clouds of dust to the slender white outline of a woman with the smaller white shape of a mongoose on her shoulder in the alley across the street.
The memory of the young man on the table faded away, and Asha lost her grip on the anger and the hate. She was tired, and suddenly she realized that she didn’t want to be there anymore, not in that city, not even in that part of world. Destroying the temple seemed petty and pointless now.
It’s just a building. They can always build another.
But the dragon’s soul within her raged on, and she could feel it wanting to destroy and devour, to lash out at the world and indulge in every tiny whim of her flesh. Asha exhaled slowly.
I take refuge in life.
I take refuge in the forests and the rivers, the mountains and the seas, and the deserts.
I take refuge in the trees and deer, and the tigers and the eagles.
I am not a dragon.
I am Asha.
She blinked and the reds and whites were gone, and her skin was her own again. The world was brown and gray and blue, and everything was moving so fast. People were running and animals were bolting, wagons and carts were overturning, and chunks of wood and stone were falling from the sky.
She blinked again. Priya was yelling at her.
She looked up at the temple and her heart nearly stopped. The entire wooden pagoda, all five stories of it, was toppling forward in her direction, its walls and roofs cracking apart as the entire structure collapsed. Asha ran.
She crossed the road in a flash of yellow and black, wrapped her arms around Priya, and carried the blind nun down the alley away from the collapsing temple. When the dust cloud caught up to them, Asha knelt down, wrapping her arms around Priya’s head.
I’m so stupid. What was I thinking? She shouldn’t have been here. She could have died. And then what would I…
The dust blew past them and Asha felt a few small splinters patter on her back and a few small pebbles rolled past her feet. When the noise died down, Asha looked up. As the dust cloud thinned away, she saw a ragged shape emerge into the last red rays of the setting sun. The pagoda was gone. Bits and pieces of it lay atop the rubble, but nothing larger than a man’s leg. The fortress had collapsed on two sides, falling in upon itself and then spilling out into the road.
I did that?
She looked down at Priya. “It’s over. Are you all right?”
“I think so,” the nun said. She opened her arms and revealed the huddled furry ball of Jagdish. “I think we’re both just fine. Was anyone else hurt?”
Asha looked back at the devastation of the street.
My gods. Why didn’t I wait? Just an hour or two. Just until sunset, when everyone would be home, out of the road, out of danger. It was that girl in the black dress. I was so afraid of standing by and letting her walk into danger, I didn’t even think…
“Stay here. I’m going to see if anyone needs help.”
Asha headed back down the alley and stepped out into the shadowed devastation. She heard the soft crackling of falling rocks, the grunts and cries of frightened animals, and the coughing of weary and battered people. One old mule was hawing and grunting, but all of the human voices were calm, though frightened and weary.
No one is screaming. Perhaps I waited long enough after all.
“Is anyone hurt?” she called out. “I’m an herbalist. Is anyone hurt?” She stood still for a moment, listening, trying to peer through the last traces of the dust. She wondered if her accent was making her Eranian difficult for the Aegyptians to understand her. “Anyone?”
Someone cried out. A woman, young and weak. She was speaking, but Asha couldn’t understand the language at all. She hurried over the rubble, nearly twisting her ankle twice, and found the young woman lying on the ground, half-covered in small bits of wood and stone, and lots of dust. But through the debris, Asha could see the young woman’s black dress and red hair.
Oh gods, what have I done?
Asha swept the boards and rocks away as fast as she could, and eased the pale girl onto her back. She leaned over her mouth and listened to her breathing, which was slow and dry. Then Asha gently pried the girl’s eyelids open, and discovered that she had golden eyes that contracted slightly in the fading light.
She’s alive. She’s going to be fine.
Asha’s gaze traveled up the girl’s freckled face to her curling red hair and the black scarf that had blown loose on the girl’s head. Asha gasped.
Standing high on the girl’s head, pushing up through her hair, were two tall triangular ears covered in red and white fur.
Fox ears? Who is this girl? What sort of city is this?
Asha cradled the girl’s head in her lap and stared at the two furry ears. Then she grabbed the black scarf and pulled it over the girl’s head again to hide them. She called over her shoulder, “Priya! I found someone who… needs help. I’m coming back to you now.”
She slipped her arms under the girl’s shoulders and knees, and picked her up. Asha needed no hint of the dragon’s strength for this, the girl was so slender and light. She turned and started back toward the alley, moving slowly and carefully over the unsteady rubble. But she had only taken a few steps when she heard the rocks shifting and tumbling softly behind her, and she looked back.
A dusty hand emerged from the rubble pushing aside the broken stones and bits of wood one by one until the entire arm was free, and then the man was able to shove a large beam aside and pull his head out into the clear air. He coughed violently and rubbed his eyes, and Asha recognized him as the Aegyptian man who had led the girl up to the temple doors.
If he was taking her in there, then he’s no friend of hers.
Asha continued toward the alley where she could see Priya waiting with her staff in one hand and Asha’s medicine bag in the other. Out of the corner of her eye she saw people approaching the ruined temple from the far end of the street. They were men in red shirts and steel breastplates, and they carried strange spears in their hands.
Soldiers. Good. They can help the other injured people.
“Wait!” the man in the rubble called out. “Please! Is she all right?”
Asha paused and glanced over her shoulder. The man had both arms free now and he finished hauling his legs out from under a piece of the fortress wall.
His legs must have been shattered.
The man got to his feet and proceeded to sweep the dust from his long blue coat.
He started toward her. “How is she? Is she all right?”
Asha noted the expression of genuine concern on his face.
But is he really worried about her for her own sake, or because he doesn’t want to lose his little servant?
“She’s alive,” Asha said. “I need to look at her. I’m an herbalist.”
“You’re from India,” the man said, with a curious look of surprise. He had thick, wavy black hair with a few faint streaks of gray, and a salt and pepper stubble along his jaw and thin cheeks.
“Yes.” She frowned.
“How wonderful. I myself studied with several Indian physicians when I was younger. You’re of the Ayurveda school, perhaps?”
“Yes.” She frowned a little less, and began walking again toward the alley with the man following beside her. “Where did you study?”
“Kolkata, mostly,” he said. He leaned over the pale girl’s face and gently swept her red hair back from her eyes and touched her cheek.
“Really?” Asha stepped into the alley beside the nun in red. “Priya, let’s move back from the road a little way.”
“Priya?” The man nodded earnestly. “A pleasure to meet you. Omar Bakhoum, at your service. I see you are of the Buddhist persuasion. Excellent. And I particularly like those lotuses in your hair. Very nice, very pretty.”
Priya smiled as she walked with them. “Thank you very much, Mister Bakhoum.”
Asha laid the unconscious girl on the ground and took her bag of supplies from Priya. From inside it she produced a wooden tube of waking salts, which she waved under the girl’s nose. A moment later the girl winced and blinked her eyes open.
“Shh, everything’s all right, Wren,” Omar said, taking her hand. “You’re going to be fine. Does anything hurt?”
The girl called Wren groaned and tried to sit up.
“Please, lie still,” Asha said.
“She may not understand you. She’s still learning Eranian,” Omar said. “Her first language is Rus.”
“Yslander, not Rus,” the girl muttered. “And I speak Eranian good enough.”
“ Well enough, dear,” Omar corrected her.
Wren sat up and coughed. She looked at Asha, and her tall furry ears twitched and turned from side to side, just like a nervous fox.
Asha stared at the ears. “They’re real? I thought they might be some sort of… They’re real?”
“Yes,” Omar said as he gently lifted the girl’s black scarf over her head again. “They are.”
Wren leaned forward as though she was about to stand up and Asha put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Sit still a moment, please. I want to be certain that you aren’t injured.”
Asha swept her hair back from her right ear, the golden scaled ear, the place where the dragon had bitten her as a child, and now the one part of her body that was forever clothed in dragon skin. She leaned close to the girl, listening.
Asha heard a riot of sounds tinkling and booming and thrumming from the city all around her. The souls of men and women, the half-souls of beasts large and small, even the fragile soul-stuff that lived inside the distant trees and gardens all crowded into her golden ear, but she tuned them all out to focus on the girl. Asha listened to the healthy, vital rhythms of the girl’s body, her heart, her lungs, and bones. But then she heard something else.
No, two somethings.
The first noise was the stranger of the two, a wild and hungry growling deep inside the girl’s body.
A second soul. An animal soul, just like the one inside me. But it’s not complete, not nearly. It’s only a tiny shred of the fox’s soul, just as I once had only a tiny shred of the dragon’s soul.
Asha held her breath, trying to focus a bit more, trying to hear through the wholesome song of the girl’s soul and past the agitated noise of the fox soul. And she found a steady hum.
There. It’s… another soul? A third soul? I’ve never seen this before. But it’s just another shred, a shred of a what? Gods, it’s human. It’s the soul of…
Asha leaned back and looked at the man called Omar. “What did you do to her? Why can I hear your soul in her body?”
Priya gasped. “Remarkable!”
“You can hear it?” Wren asked.
Omar’s eyes widened. “You are a healer of extraordinary talents. But it’s really nothing to concern yourself with. If you can hear my soul in her, then you must be able to hear the fox as well.”
“Well,” Omar hesitated. “I gave her a bit of my soul to keep the fox under control. Without me in there, the fox would do more than just give her those curious ears.”
Wren cleared her throat. “While we’re talking about ears.” She pointed at Asha.
Asha touched her golden ear, feeling the hard scales, and she let her hair fall back over it again. “When I was young, I was bitten by a creature. It did this to me, and now I can hear soul-sounds.” A small part of her felt guilty for not explaining more, but these were still strangers who were about to enter the Temple of Osiris of their own free will.
He could be lying about how she ended up this way, but it didn’t sound like he was trying to deceive us. In fact, he sounds like…
She tilted her head as she stared at him.
“Two souls?” Asha grabbed Priya’s arm, uncertain if she should be pleased or preparing to run. “You have a golden pendant around your neck with your soul inside it, don’t you? You’re one of the immortals!”
Omar’s jaw dropped. By way of answer, he tugged the little chain around his neck out of his shirt and displayed the heart-shaped lump of golden sun-steel. Then he dropped it back inside his shirt, saying, “How? How could you possibly know that?”
“I’ve met people like you before,” Asha said. “In Persia.”
“You mean Eran,” he corrected her.
“I know what I mean.” Asha glanced at Priya.
“Tell me everything, please,” he said. “Who did you meet? What happened to them?”
The nun smiled and reached up to pet the sleeping mongoose on her shoulder. “It would seem we have much to talk about. But first, should our duty not be to see to those who were in the street when the temple fell?”
Asha frowned and looked back down the alleyway. Out in the dusty street she could see the soldiers now, picking their way over the debris and helping a few coughing, limping people away from the ruin. “Normally I would agree with you, but help has come for the injured already. And I don’t want those soldiers to see this girl and her ears. They may not be as understanding as we are.”
“Ah.” Priya nodded sadly. “Then perhaps we might find a quiet place to continue our conversation, somewhere away from the street. Perhaps a place that serves tea?”
Omar smiled, but there was a strange exhaustion and sorrow in his eyes.
“What about the temple?” Wren asked. “What about the Osirians?”
Everyone looked at her, and then looked back down the alley at the mountain of broken stone and wood lying in the street in the gathering shadows.
“Shouldn’t we be worried about the Sons of Osiris?” the fox-eared girl asked.
“I rather think not,” Omar said. “I was only being poetic when I suggested that we raze the place to the ground. But it would appear that some sort of earthquake took my meaning more literally. I hardly see any need to go back there now. Do you?”
“But…” Wren frowned. “I guess not. You really think it was an earthquake? Because I-”
“I think I saw a place earlier where we can talk,” Asha said a bit loudly. “It isn’t far. Perhaps we should go there. If that’s all right with you.”
“Certainly, kind lady.” Omar helped Wren to her feet and they followed Asha and Priya to the back end of the alley and out into the quiet evening traffic. Most of the large animals and carts were gone now and the only people in the street were dusty laborers heading home and wealthy merchants heading to supper, with a few armed soldiers and book-laden scholars here and there among them. Many of them stood in the road, talking excitedly and pointing in the direction of the fallen temple, and several thin streams of people were jogging toward the corners and the alleys to investigate the disaster.
Several minutes later, the foursome sat down together around a small round table in the corner of a small cafe that Omar described as “a rather Mazigh” sort of establishment. A steaming teapot was placed on the table with four small cups, and they sat for several moments, sipping their tea and brushing the dust from their clothes and hair.
Asha stared into her cup at the dark liquid swirls.
I didn’t plan. I didn’t even think. I just walked up to the temple and pulled it down. I pulled it down on this girl, Wren, the girl I was trying to save.
I was lucky no one else in the street was hurt. But how many people inside the temple died? How many are trapped and dying still? And what if there were other slaves inside?
I didn’t think. The dragon came free and did what it always does, what it always wants. Death and devastation. And I let it happen.
Ash set down her cup and looked at the two strangers. “You asked about the immortals we met. In Babylonia, there was a man named Gideon.”
Omar looked up. “Gideon! Really? Everyone’s seeing Gideon these days. I haven’t seen that boy in ages. How is he?”
“He’s fine. Better than fine, he was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met,” she said. “We helped him in the mountains, and he helped us with a small problem of our own. We were only together a few hours.”
“Oh.” Omar nodded. “Well, it’s good to know he’s still doing well. I worry about him.”
“A few weeks later, we met an immortal woman named Nadira when we were passing through Damascus,” Asha continued.
Omar’s face was a mad blend of astonishment and amusement. “Nadira, too?”
“We spent the night together in the hills, dealing with a… local problem,” Asha said. “She seemed like a very sad person. I wanted to help her, but she left in the morning. I think she went north to some war.”
“She did,” Omar said. “I saw her in Constantia just over a month ago.”
“So she’s all right?”
Omar shrugged. “The last time I saw her, she had decided to give up being a soldier and to try doing something else with her life. But then she wandered off and I haven’t seen her since, and I don’t know if I ever will again.”
“I see.” Asha glanced at Wren. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, thanks.” The girl in black smiled nervously as she sipped her tea.
Out in the street the traffic was growing a bit heavier again, and it was all flowing back toward the temple. The words Osiris and Demon were on every tongue, and half the heads in the cafe were glancing nervously out at the road, and at the red-clad soldiers who strode by every few moments on their way to the temple
“You said something back in the alley,” Asha said. “About the temple. About razing it to the ground. But I saw you walking up to the doors. Tell me, what were you doing there? Do you have any idea what those Osirian people do?”
The girl in black glanced at the Aegyptian man.
Priya laid her hand on Asha’s in one of her unnerving displays of spatial awareness. “I think what Asha means to say is that we have some concerns about the Sons of Osiris, and we’re curious about why you were going to see them.”
Omar cleared his throat, but before he could say anything, Wren began to speak. “We came to Alexandria to find and destroy certain dangerous objects. Things made from a metal called sun-steel. This metal has the ability to-”
“Trap and enslave human souls,” Asha said. “Yes, I know about it. It’s what those little golden heart pendants of yours are made of, and the seireiken swords.”
The girl held up her gloved hands, displaying the eight silver bracelets on her wrists. A shallow groove ran around the center of each bracelet, and in each groove was a dark golden wire. Wren said, “In the north, we call the metal rinegold, and it’s used to preserve the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors. The wise-women, the valas, give their souls to the rinegold willingly.”
Asha frowned. “I suppose that’s the least offensive use for it that I’ve seen yet. But Gideon had the right idea. He has a sun-steel sword himself, but he uses it to destroy other such weapons, and when he has destroyed them all, he has vowed to destroy his own as well.”
“Good for him,” Omar said quietly with a faraway look in his eye.
“So it’s true?” Asha looked at him suspiciously. “You’re both sun-steel hunters like Gideon? How long have you been doing this?”
“Actually, we’ve only just started,” Wren said. “We decided to do this after the war in Constantia ended.”
“That’s very noble of you,” Priya said.
Wren blushed and smiled. “I guess. I just… I just don’t understand what happened back there at the temple. We have earthquakes in Ysland, my country, but they’re nothing like that. The ground didn’t even shake. It was like the temple just broke apart and collapsed on us.”
Asha sipped her tea and kept her eyes down. Had the topic of conversation been anything else, she would have looked her accuser in the eye and denied nothing, but the dragon was something else. Something she still could not fully control.
I should be stronger by now. I need to be, for Priya’s sake.
For everyone’s sake.
“No, I doubt it was an earthquake. I saw something back there just before it happened,” Omar said. “I saw a figure, like a person in armor, climbing the side of the temple. Someone did this intentionally. Whoever it was, we owe this person a debt for taking care of the temple for us.” He gave Asha a long, steady look.
Asha sat up straight and sighed. “Yes, I did it.”
Wren looked at her sharply in surprise. Omar sipped his tea calmly and let his eyes wander in the direction of their young waitress.
“How?” Wren asked. “How could you possibly destroy something so large all by yourself?”
Asha paused, and then said, “As I told you, when I was a little girl, something bit me. It was an infant dragon.”
“And it gave you that lovely ear?” Omar said, still looking at the waitress.
“Yes. And a short time ago near Damascus, I encountered that same dragon again, fully grown and strong enough to slaughter an army in just a few moments. Nadira and I killed the dragon, but its soul entered my body,” Asha said quietly. She glanced around the cafe, but no one was watching them. No one else was listening. No one else cared. “It can be difficult to control sometimes, but for the most part I command the dragon’s soul. I can unleash it when I want, to use its power, its strength. I’ve been using this soul to hunt down the Sons of Osiris and to destroy their seireikens.”
Omar nodded thoughtfully. “And to destroy their ancient temples.”
“It is a very powerful dragon, a very powerful soul,” Asha said. “Priya taught me to control it. If she hadn’t been there with me at Damascus, I would have been utterly lost. The dragon would have consumed me if not for her.”
Again the blind nun found her hand, and squeezed it. “It wasn’t so difficult.”
“Remarkable,” Omar said. “My congratulations to you both. You may be the first person to ever control such a soul by yourself.”
Asha looked down into her tea. “We’ve seen the Sons of Osiris throughout the Empire of Eran. They are slavers and murderers. So when I learned to control the dragon, I came here to do what no one else could do. Destroy their temple. Destroy their weapons. Destroy them.”
Omar nodded. “You tore down that huge building with your bare hands in just a few minutes. I’ve never heard of anything like it, and I’ve been around for a very long time.” He smiled.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?” Priya asked. “Nadira and Gideon said they were two thousand years old.”
“They are. I’m closer to forty-five hundred, myself.”
Asha froze, then blinked. “Over four thousand years old?”
“Yes.” Omar emptied his cup and refilled it from the steaming teapot.
“So that’s when Bashir made you immortal?” Priya asked.
Omar chuckled. “No, my dear. I made myself immortal, right here in Alexandria, as a matter of fact. I didn’t start calling myself Bashir until much later.”
“Yes.” He shrugged. “Among others, of course.”
Asha sat very still, contemplating her tea, wondering what to say to a man who was over four thousand years old. Some part of her refused to believe his claim, refused to believe that this very ordinary man with his fancy shirt and coat and belt… Asha frowned at his belt and the scabbard on it. “Is that a… You carry one of their swords? Like Gideon?”
“Yes, I do.” Omar looked up into her eyes. “But my seireiken, for the most part, contains the souls of scholars and artists who gave themselves to me willingly so that their knowledge and skills might be preserved. And I’m no swordsman. I don’t go around killing people, for souls or for anything else. I swear to you.”
“It’s true,” Wren said quickly. “I’ve held his seireiken, I’ve seen the souls in it, and I’ve talked to them. Doctors and singers and, well, good people who wanted to be there. They’re mostly really old, too, from a long time ago.”
Asha smiled at the girl’s earnestness. “I believe you.”
The noise in the cafe had been growing by small measures throughout their conversation, and from time to time Asha heard someone exclaim something about the temple, but every time she glanced around, she only saw excited city people chatting over their drinks. Now, as she looked over her shoulder, she heard a man shouting out in the street. He was shouting in Eranian, but his Aegyptian accent was strong and she had to focus to understand what he was saying.
Asha frowned and looked across the table at Omar, and saw him also frowning out at the street. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“I’m not certain,” he said. “Either the local constabulary is looking for the demon responsible for destroying the Temple of Osiris, or there is a rampaging creature with the head of an animal dancing on the rubble at this very moment. It’s hard to tell, really.”
Asha blinked. “Are you serious? Is that really possible?”
Priya’s smile had faded and Wren played nervously with her silver bracelets.
Omar stood up. “Let’s go find out.”
Asha stood up beside him and slipped her medicine bag over her shoulder. As they all turned to leave the cafe, they heard a bestial roar echo across the city.
Asha led the others out into the street where the milling pedestrians and the seated diners were quickly falling silent and every head was turning to look down the street toward the ruined temple. They listened together to the screams and roars echoing down the stone corridors of the city, broken here and there by the crunching or tumbling of heavy stones. A murmur ran through the crowd and Asha saw the nervous excitement in the faces around her, but she also saw the frightened people slipping out of the cafe and hurrying down the avenue away from the temple.
“Priya, I think you should wait here this time,” Asha said.
“And you, Wren.” Omar nodded. “Whatever is down there, it doesn’t sound pleasant.”
Wren held up her arms and jangled the silver bracelets on her wrists. “But I can help!”
“I know you can help. You can also die, whereas I cannot. So stay with the nun, please.” Omar rested his hand on the grip of his seireiken and stepped out into the street.
Asha strode out in front of him and started back toward the remains of the Temple of Osiris. She gently rolled her fingers into fists, and then let them fall slack again, working the blood into her extremities, trying to nudge the dragon within her just a bit, just enough to warm her muscles and make her strong enough and fast enough to get away if they should find trouble ahead.
No, I know better. Of course there is trouble ahead.
Asha walked up to the corner of the building across the street from the ruins, and peeked out. The street was mostly deserted. Everything with working wheels had been rolled away, and every animal that could walk or limp had been led away. All of the injured had been carried away, and the gawkers who had come were now gone, hurrying down dark alleys and along the shadowed edges of the boulevard, all rushing away from the bestial cries coming from the temple. The only life remaining now was a company of men in red shirts and steel armor, and they were slowly backing away from the rubble.
On the far side of the street the shattered remains of the temple rose from a thin scattering of pebbles and splinters in the middle of the road up to the massive pile of debris sitting on the broken foundations of the ancient fortress. And standing upon that pile were two figures.
The woman caught Asha’s eye first. She was tall and slender, and wore a simple white dress that left her arms bare, but over that she wore a queen’s ransom in golden necklaces hanging from her neck and thin chains around her waist. Her skin and hair were nearly identical to Asha’s in every way, and all of these details hovered in the back of Asha’s mind as she stared at the most incredible aspect of the Aegyptian woman.
She had wings.
They were magnificent white wings that hung from the woman’s arms like a cape of bright feathers, but they drooped far beyond the woman’s feathered hands and when she lowered her arms the feathers dragged along the dusty ground. The woman was stomping up and down the slopes of broken sandstone and shattered oak, and every time she swept one of her feathered arms, a blast of dust and splinters tore away into the air, and she would peer down into the gaps between the tumbled blocks and beams.
Asha reached back and pulled Omar forward to look around the corner beside her, and she asked, “Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
“A woman with strange animal features?” Omar smiled at her. “Once or twice.”
“I mean the wings,” Asha said. “Have you ever seen that before? Or her before?”
“I don’t recognize her,” he said. “Though I can’t see her terribly well. She is dressed in the old Aegyptian fashion, I think. But I’ve never seen a person with wings at all.”
Asha looked out again and saw the winged woman leap into the air several times and use her outstretched arms to glide across the rocky heap to another spot, where she resumed sweeping the dust and debris aside with her long, shining wings.
Then Asha turned her attention to the second figure, the one who was screaming and roaring. On the far side of the temple where she could barely see him at all stood a man wearing a black robe. His back was turned to her and all she could glimpse of him were the golden bracers on his forearms and the black sheen of his hair. The man was kicking and clawing at the fallen stones, lifting and hurling huge beams and mortared bricks aside as though they were nothing more than rotten apples, causing the soldiers to run left and right to avoid being crushed by the jagged missiles. And after several long moments of this violent tantrum, the robed man turned and moved in Asha’s direction.
She inhaled sharply.
For a moment, a very brief moment, she thought the man wore a black mask carved with the features of a deformed sort of dog, like the ceremonial masks she had seen as a child in Ming. But then she saw the way the light played over him, and the way the long muzzle moved, and the way the tall black ears twitched, and she knew.
“He has the head of a dog!” she hissed at Omar.
The man stuck out his head again to squint at the robed figure. “I think you’re right, though it’s no dog that I recognize. But the rest of him looks human enough.”
Asha looked again and saw that the dog-headed man did indeed have human hands at the ends of his arms and what appeared to be human legs striding about between the flaps of his robe. She also saw that the fine sheen of the black fur on the man’s face only fell as low as his throat, and from that point down he had the same smooth brown flesh as a normal man. “It’s only his head, just like Wren’s ears, isn’t it?”
“What are they doing? What do they want?”
“Well, if they’re digging in the rubble, I can only assume they want to find someone or something that was in the temple,” Omar said. “Something of value to them. But of course, that only raises more questions.”
They watched the strange pair leaping and digging at the ruined Temple of Osiris. When the soldiers approached the woman, she would shriek and blast them back with a sweep of her wings, and then glide away to another part of the ruins. No one approached the man in black. And gradually, the raging bellows from the dog-headed man receded into soft growls and the winged woman’s quick flitting about became a calmer procession of walking and gliding.
“I think they’re getting tired,” Asha said. “Should we do something? They seem crazed, and people could be hurt by all the rocks flying around. Should we go out there?”
“Are you joking? This is what I do, kind lady.” Omar grinned, straightened up, and strode out from the corner and waved to the two strangers, calling out, “Hello there!”
“Lunatic!” Asha grimaced and then followed Omar out, keeping him between herself and the two creatures, and wondering what sort of angry memory she should use to summon the dragon, should its power be needed. She saw the soldiers looking at her, but they held their ground and kept their weapons pointed at the monstrous looters.
Are they holding spears? They look very short and heavy for spears.
“Hello!” Omar called again, his right hand raised in greeting as his left hand rested on his sword. “My name is Omar. Can I help you?”
The winged woman and the dog-headed man both jerked up and peered at him, and then both of them screamed. The woman leapt into the air and man dashed across the street with his canine fangs snapping and dripping with white foam. Several of the soldiers’ weapons fired from every side, barking and echoing sharply off the walls.
“Good Lord!” Omar drew his seireiken and the blazing white sun-steel blade lit up the shadowy street, painting every stick and stone in milk white, charcoal grays, and deepest blacks. He waved the flashing sword over his head as the woman soared down at him, and at the last moment she bent her feathered arms and streaked up into the evening sky.
Asha squinted against the glare of the seireiken and saw the dog-headed man veer around Omar in a wide circle and come racing toward her instead. For a moment, a cold panic washed through her breast and she couldn’t think, couldn’t focus. But then she felt her own fingernails biting into her palm and she remembered what she had to do.
In a flash, she recalled a small house in the mountains of Rajasthan where she had argued with a young mother over the life of her child. Asha had been angry that day, and regretted it later, but now as she looked back on that day her anger wasn’t directed at the mother but at her younger self, at her own arrogance and close-mindedness.
It was a very specific sort of anger, and it woke the golden dragon in a very specific sort of way.
Asha felt the heat rippling down her arms as the golden scales armored her flesh from the elbows down to her fingers and her shining ruby claws. The hot scales formed over her neck and chest, protecting her vital points, and the last of the transformation was in her lower legs, armoring her with golden greaves and ruby talons to grip the earth at her feet. When the beast man finally reached her, she was rooted to the street and already swinging one of her armored fists at his head.
The black snout of the creature snapped aside as she struck it, and in that instant she saw it clearly, saw that it was no dog’s head at all, that it was some other animal entirely. The muzzle was too long and slender, and the ears were too tall and square. Whatever it was, it was hideous.
He stumbled, but only barely. The robed man swung back with his own bare fists and Asha shielded her face with her scaled arms. The first three punches glanced off with only a slight tremor, but then his open palm slammed into her chest just beneath her arms. Again the golden scales protected her, but the force of the blow threw her back several steps as her ruby talons tore free of the dusty road, and she fell back on her rear.
“Asha! Stay down!” a young female voice cried out as the soldiers’ weapons barked again in a haphazard pattering like hail on a metal roof, and many small white clouds of smoke appeared around the men.
Asha threw up her arms to shield her head again as the man in black rushed at her, his eyes a bright white haze unbroken by pupil or iris. It had the uncanny effect of making him appear blind, and of hiding where he was looking. But Asha’s only concern was his bare foot as he leapt at her, intending to stomp her into the earth.
A cold white wind ripped across the street and Asha felt herself being gently tugged and lifted, but she stayed right where she lay. And as she sat there, protecting her head with her golden gauntlets, she saw the white wind yank the robed man up into the air and hurl him back across the road onto the pile of broken bricks.
Asha hastily looked around for the source of the cry and the wind, and found both standing behind her at the corner of the building where she herself had hidden a moment ago. There, standing in a dust cloud, was the pale girl in black, Wren. She was just beginning to lower her arms and the silver bracelets rang out on her wrists. Priya stood just behind her, one little hand resting on the northern girl’s shoulder.
“What was that?” Asha asked.
“Look out!” Wren pointed at the temple.
Asha looked up just in time to see the robed man rush at her again, this time ducking low and scooping her up from the street with both arms to lift her up over his head. Asha twisted about in his grasp and reached down to grab his shoulder with her left claws and his throat with her right. She knew the intense heat of the dragon’s ruby talons would burn him and he would be forced to drop her.
But he didn’t.
The inhuman head screamed at her, its vicious white eyes stretched wide, and the man shook her body up over his head. Asha dangled above him, kicking and struggling, but she couldn’t twist free of him.
“Enough!” she yelled, and she felt the dragon soul in her chest unwinding, expanding, reaching up farther into her flesh. The scales swept outward to cover the rest of her arms and legs and back just as the robed man dropped her body down across his knee, smashing her spine across his leg.
Asha crashed to the ground, breathless. She blinked, and then felt her arms and legs moving.
I’m alive. And I’m not hurt. But this has to end, now.
But still she lay on the ground, her chest heaving as her lungs struggled to recover the wind that had been forced out of them as she struck the man’s bent leg.
Asha rolled over and looked up to see the blind nun running out into the street, her long black hair full of white lotus blossoms flying out behind her. From her shoulder, the mongoose Jagdish leapt to the ground in a bolt of light brown fur. She was running across the road, running out toward Asha, running straight toward the robed man with the beastly head.
The nun tried to stop, but she only stumbled into the robed man’s hand as it reach out to grab her by the throat, lift her off the ground, and hurl her back down into the dirt. Her head bounced sharply on the corner of a stone, and her arms splayed out to her sides.
“Priya!” Asha sat up and the world spun drunkenly to the side as she gasped for breath.
The nun did not move. Jagdish darted away. A light breeze lifted some of the dust and cast it over the still body.
“PRIYA!” Asha began to crawl toward her.
The nun lay still and silent.
“PRIYA!” Asha stopped and stared. Priya’s blindfold her torn free and now her beautiful face lay bare and as still as stone.
No, no, no, please get up, please, please, please get up, Priya…
Asha ceased to exist. The last thing she saw was Priya lying on the ground, her red robes wrinkled and dirty, her hair strewn out beside her, and the dark shadow standing over her. The next thing that Asha saw was a world painted red and scarlet and crimson. A white figure lay on the ground, and another white figure stood beside it.
As she got to her feet, Asha felt her tail lashing the earth behind her, and she felt her tall horns weighing heavily on her skull. The soldier’s strange weapons were firing but the sounds were only muted crackles in the distance and the metal pellets that struck her body felt as soft as snowflakes. She exploded into motion, dashing across the short span of empty road. She grabbed the beast-man by the throat and leg and lifted him up over her head. He flailed about, beating on her arms and skull, but she could barely feel it.
She couldn’t feel anything except the rage and the unquenchable thirst of the golden dragon for blood, the desire to take the entire world by the throat and crush the life out of it, and the yearning to plunge her talons into the very heart of the world, to feel its hot blood pouring over her claws, to tear the entire universe to pieces, and to see the very stars themselves trampled into dust beneath her feet.
Asha hurled the robed man down across her own knee and felt his spine cracking and grinding across her scaled leg. She lifted him again, and broke his body across her leg again. And then she lifted him up a third time, tilted him head-down, and smashed his head into the road, and dropped him.
Asha raised her fists over her head, fell to her knees, and smashed her curled claws down on the ground, punching two small craters in the earth and blasting dust up into the air. She punched the ground again, and again, and then leapt up, grabbed a huge section of the broken temple wall, and hurled the massive block of stone high over the wreckage, where it fell with a thunderous boom and started a small landslide of debris. She saw the white figures of the soldiers running like rabbits, vanishing down the side lanes one by one with their strange weapons. Some of them were screaming.
Asha spun around and saw the one white figure lying where she had thrown it, and the second white figure where it had fallen, but now there was a third white figure crouched by the second, and it was talking and it was touching HER.
Asha roared and ran at the crouching figure.
NO ONE TOUCHES HER.
She jumped high into the air, her tail writhing and whipping behind her, her blood-red claws raised to rend the intruder to bloody shreds, her jaw stretched wide to tear her prey open with her fangs.
DIE! EVERYTHING DIES! NOW!
As she fell upon the crouching figure, a blast of freezing mist struck her in the chest and threw her back against the pile of rubble. Her vision wavered, the red world blurring into a red mist, but she shook her head and rose to her feet with bits of stone and wood spilling off her shoulders and back.
NO ONE HURTS ME! I AM THE DESTROYER!
She ran at the crouching figure again, and the figure rose to its feet, and again a blast of cold white mist threw her back, sending her tumbling through the darkness into the ruins of the temple.
MUST… DESTROY… DEVOUR…
Asha struggled up, shoving a piece of a wall off of her, and took several loping, limping steps toward the white figure. This time, the white mist shoved her down to the ground and held her there. The white figure walked over to her, and knelt beside where she lay.
“Asha? Can you hear me? Asha?”
…oh gods, Priya…
Asha blinked, and blinked, and the world grew darker and dimmer as the reds faded to browns and grays. Wren knelt beside her, her small hands gently petting Asha’s hair as she whispered, “It’s going to be all right now. You’re all right now, it’s over. You’re back, and everything’s going to be all right.”
The strange girl in the black dress with the fox ears went on petting her hair and talking softly, and Asha lay face down in the dust, and wept. She cried and gasped and wailed, clutching at her own face and hair, clinging to Wren’s hands. Her body grieved, pouring out more pain and sorrow than Asha had ever known before.
Slowly, the tears ran thin and the gasps faded to sighs. Asha’s throat and chest ached, and she felt cold and hollow. After a moment, Wren helped her to sit up, and they sat together, their arms wrapped around each other, staring at the body of the nun. Asha shook and exhaled, and sagged against the girl.
“It’s my fault…”
“No, no, no,” Wren said. “You didn’t hurt her. You didn’t do anything wrong. That monster over there did it. It was him, and only him, not you. And you…”
The robed man with the hideous head moved. His arm jerked, and his fingers pawed at the dirt, and then he rolled his head up out of the hole in the ground that Asha had made with it. He pushed himself up to his hands and knees, shook the dust from his deformed snout and ears, and then stood up. He turned and stared intently at the two women huddled on the ground.
Wren lifted one arm, pointing her hand at the creature and making her bracelets clatter. The robed man snarled, turned, and ran off into the shadows and out of sight. Wren let her arm fall back into her lap and Asha rested her head on the girl’s shoulder, feeling fresh tears tumbling down her face sideways and pattering on the girl’s lap. Slowly, she sat up straight and sighed, and stood up. Asha walked over to the body, gently lifted the nun’s head, and let it rest in her own lap so she could brush Priya’s hair back from her face, and wipe the dust from her eyelashes and lips. Jagdish scampered over, sniffed at Priya’s foot, and then scurried up the red robes to the nun’s shoulder, where he curled up and whined.
“I know, Jagdish,” Asha whispered.
She heard dry footsteps scraping along beside her, and she wiped her eyes again before looking up at Wren. “Thank you.”
Wren nodded, but she didn’t look down. She was looking out across the street and up at the tumbled walls of the Temple of Osiris. After a moment of silence, she asked. “Where is Omar?”
Asha stood up with Priya cradled in her arms and Jagdish balled up in the nun’s lap. Wren stood beside her, surveying the street and the wreckage by the light of the evening stars.
The cry echoed down the road.
Wren jogged across the street, her black skirts swirling around her legs, and she scrambled up onto some of the smaller blocks and beams. “Omar!”
Again the girl’s voice echoed through the dusty streets, and went unanswered.
Asha looked down at Priya and saw how the little nun’s lip had been smashed and her cheek scraped, with her long hair twisted and dirtied. There was no hint of Priya’s serenity, no lingering trace of her endless good humor and mysterious joy, no final glimpse of the woman’s wisdom or bountiful spirit. All that was left was a dirty, battered body and a once-lovely face now bruised and bloody.
She’s gone. She’s just… gone.
Asha glanced up, looking all around herself for some wisp of aether, just a shred of the white vapor that might let her see Priya’s soul, let her see her friend’s smiling face one last time. But a cold wind was blowing and there was no aether drifting about her feet, and even if there had been, Asha realized, there was no reason to think Priya’s immortal spirit would awaken and take flight now, if ever. A ghost might sleep a thousand years before waking to walk in the living world again, or it might sleep forever, until the end of the world when all of creation returned to wherever it had come from.
Slowly and carefully, Asha crossed the street and laid Priya down upon a thick wooden beam that had tumbled down from the pagoda and now lay flat on the ground. She moved numbly, trying not to think about what she had to do, what was about to happen. She brushed Priya’s hair back and then she took the folds of the nun’s red robe and gently covered her face. Then she scooped up Jagdish and cradled him in her arm as she placed her other hand on the wooden beam. It took some effort to summon up the dragon again, but all she needed were the searing ruby claws, and only for a moment. She scraped the dusty wooden beam, and the scratches blacked, exhaled a white smoke, and flickered with yellow flame. The fire quickly spread down the beam and engulfed the robed figure.
Asha watched the red robes turn to black as bright cinders fluttered away from the fire, and Jagdish shivered against her chest as she held him tightly with both hands.
“Good bye,” she whispered. Again the tears came, and her breath caught in her throat, making her whole body ache.
After a few moments, she noticed the girl Wren standing beside her, her pale little hands clasped in front of her. “Thank you,” Asha said with a rasping voice.
“You brought me back.” Asha petted the mongoose on her arm. “If it hadn’t been for you, I might have been lost to the dragon completely. Priya was the one who taught me how to control it, how to control my anger, and when I saw her lying there…”
Wren nodded. “I’m so sorry. I wanted to wait at the cafe, but she said we should go after you. She said that even the weakest person can help, no matter how small or how blind. I should have stopped her, I should have said something instead of just going along with her. But she seemed so confident, so certain that it was the right thing to do, and I just… I just followed her.”
Asha nodded and smiled sadly. “That was Priya’s way.”
The fire crackled and the crumbling wooden beam began to break down, breaking apart here and there as the flames transformed it and the robed body into ash and dust.
“You found no sign of your friend?” Asha asked.
Wren shook her head. “I’m not too worried, I guess. I mean, he is immortal. But he can still get hurt, or trapped. If it was just regular people who took him, that would be one thing. But those creatures were something else. They were so strong, and vicious.”
“Yes, they were,” Asha whispered. “Will you look for him now?”
Wren glanced up at the dark sky overhead. “I guess so. I don’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t know anyone here. I only just arrived in Alexandria today. Omar was the only person with me, and now, I mean, I don’t exactly blend in, do I?” She lifted her black scarf a bit to reveal her pale freckled cheeks, her curling red hair, and her tall fox ears. “Omar said I would be safe as long as I was with him. So much for that plan.”
“Don’t worry,” Asha said softly. “You’ll be safe as long as you’re with me.”
Wren smiled. “Are you sure it isn’t the other way around?”
Asha stared blankly into the fire as it began to die down, burning redder and lower. “I don’t know anyone else here myself, and I’ve only just arrived. I don’t know the city at all. But I will help you. Priya would want me to. And I want to.”
“Thank you.” Wren nodded. “I suppose we can ask people if they saw a woman with wings flying overhead. Or a dog-man running by.”
“Perhaps. But we should be discrete.” Asha rubbed her finger over Jagdish’s head as she forced herself to focus on the task of finding the missing man. “The soldiers here carry dangerous weapons. No doubt other people here do as well. It may be safest to try to track the dog-man ourselves, with Jagdish’s help. A mongoose has a very fine sense of smell.”
She picked up her medicine bag from where she had dropped it, and settled it on her shoulder. And then with Jagdish still cradled in her arms and Wren following close beside her, Asha set out into the dark streets of the ancient city and left the darkening ashes of the blind nun to settle into the shadows for the night.
Asha looked back once before turning the corner and she tried to remember that moment, the sight of Priya’s makeshift pyre in a foreign land at the foot a mountain of broken walls. But already her heart was closing in, becoming colder, becoming harder. A part of her didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to carry the pain of that day. It was too awful, too impossible, too sudden. A part of her simply wanted to keep moving, to be somewhere else, to think about something else. And she hated herself for it as she turned and walked away.
They started out in the direction that they had seen the dog-man running, and Asha began nudging and whispering to Jagdish, and leaning down to have him smell the ground, and eventually the furry mongoose began squeaking and leaning out, sniffing the air, and even pawing at whatever it was he was smelling. And so with little else to follow, Asha followed Jagdish’s nose.
They paused from time to time at a corner to ask a waiter at a cafe or an old gentleman on a bench whether they had seen a strange man run past with the head of a great black beast, but the only answer they ever received was a shrug and a blank look.
Jagdish went on sniffing and squeaking, and on several occasions he leapt across Asha’s arms and pawed at a turn in the road, and they would turn, and he would settle down, and this encouraged both of the women to think that he might actually be leading them somewhere.
More than once Asha tried to focus on the cacophony of soul-sounds bombarding her scaled ear, searching through the noise of people and animals for something new, something strange, something that might be a winged woman or an immortal wearing a sun-steel pendant. But the city was so crowded and lively that she could barely even focus on the soft chitter of Jagdish’s soul or the exotic harmony of Wren’s soul intertwined with the fox-soul and man-soul within her.
“You know,” Wren said softly, “About a year ago, a friend of mine died-”
“Hush, please.” Asha shook her head.
Not yet, please. And maybe not ever.
The city stretched on and on, and the two women walked side by side in the deepening darkness as the streets continued to empty of people and animals, of noises and smells. An hour of walking carried them through market squares all shuttered for the evening, and neighborhoods full of foreigners all babbling in strange languages in their tiny houses, and past several huge temples with wide stairs leading up to huge stone images of men and women that gazed out upon the city in immortal silence.
I should have… If I had only…
She swallowed and glanced at the strange girl at her side, but Wren merely paced along in contented silence, her arms crossed to hold her many silver bracelets quiet as she moved.
Priya should have lived, and I should have died. I should have died saving her. Priya had so much to teach, so much to share to make the world into the paradise we both wanted. And now she’s gone. Completely gone. I don’t even have her soul to talk to.
All that’s left is me, and I can barely remember a fraction of what she taught me. About life. About balance. About peace. All I have is a power I can barely control, a power that’s wild and vicious. I’m as dangerous as all the doctors in Ming and all the Sons of Osiris combined.
But Priya’s dead, and I’m still alive.
What do I do now?
Where do I go?
What am I for?
“I think he smells something,” Wren said, touching her arm.
Asha looked down at the small hand on her arm and then up into the girl’s dark golden eyes. “He… Jagdish.” She looked down at the wriggling mongoose, which was leaning out over her left elbow and sniffing loudly.
They turned to look down the darkened street and saw a dead end. The road continued past the intersection for a hundred paces to a dusty old fountain, and then simply stopped. The walls rising around the fountain looked a bit newer than the ancient stones of the temples, markets, and obelisks they had seen during their long walk, but these new walls left no way out of the street. No alleys, no doors, not even a grate in the ground for waste water to escape.
Frowning, Asha walked down the dark road toward the fountain and stroked Jagdish’s fur. The mongoose huddled lower in her arms and by the time she reached the end of the street, he was no longer sniffing the air at all. He was shivering.
Asha circled the fountain. It was wide and round, all made of rough red stone that had chipped and cracked in a thousand places. The bottom of the basin had been tiled once, but now only a grid-work of crumbling mortar and a few porcelain squares remained of whatever pattern or mosaic had been there. In the center stood a wide stone dais supporting a gray statue of a fish, its body arched as it leapt into the air. A small metal pipe where the water had once emerged was visible in the fish’s mouth.
Looking away from the fountain, Asha saw only piles of trash, bits of paper, and shreds of cloth that had blown down the lane and been stranded in the corners and shadows of the dead end. She glanced at Wren, who shrugged, and then she looked down at Jagdish and found him sleeping.
“Thus ends our search,” Asha said. “I’m sorry, Wren. I don’t think we’ll be finding your friend tonight.”
Wren nodded. “I thought it might be a long shot since we were relying completely on your little friend’s nose.” She smiled briefly.
“We should find a place to sleep for the night,” Asha said.
“Yeah.” Wren looked up at her and Asha saw a rather different girl for a moment, one who was very young and uncertain and lost.
“Don’t worry,” Asha said, forcing a smile. “I have some money and the place we stayed at last night seemed safe enough. Everything will be fine. I promise.”
Wren nodded and sighed. “All right. I just… I’m about a thousand leagues from home, and I can barely speak the language, and I’m not sure…”
Asha put her arm around the girl and they leaned together.
“I’m sorry,” Wren said, looking up. “You just lost your friend. I should be… I should be helping you, and not… Sorry.”
“It’s fine. And you speak Eranian just fine. Better than I do. It’s not my first language either.” Asha patted her back, and stepped away. “Let’s go. It’s late. Are you hungry?”