“Your life means nothing,” spat the tyrant. He lashed his reed, long and thin and strong and trailing braided parchment. His strike cracked open wounds not yet healed, and blood seeped over red-stained skin—a fresh coat to ensure the ever-presence of the pain and consequence of the tyrants, brutes empowered by the Authority of Zayeen.
The slave Diaden did not cry out, as doing so would only invite another blow. Instead, he pushed harder against the plank jutting out from the chariot that had until then been carrying a pair of important patricians—aristocrats with the added benefit of being a part of the Authority’s diplomatic service—along the road north to Yerushem, the capital city and home to the young imperator. The slave Joben pushed hard on the other side of the chariot even as he was whipped again. But despite Diaden’s and Joben’s exertions, the wheels of the chariot would not budge from the mud in which they had sunk. They were left to catch their breath and wipe the sweat from their brows. It was an especially hot day, even by summer standards—and it was always hot in Zayeen. When one asked how much hotter it may get, the answer was we’ll know when the Joona runs dry and the sands of Etial turn to glass.
“Useless,” said the tyrant Tolvar, and he punctuated his statement with another set of lashes, drawing more blood from scarred tissue. He then walked away to liaise with the patricians, who had become threatened with a walk along the road in their ornate leathers and heavy robes, ridiculous attire for a long journey with no shade. The occupants of several accompanying chariots looked upon the slaves with squinted eyes under furrowed brows, as if it was their fault. Though the other chariots were not stuck, none could abandon the safety of the procession, so in the mud they had found themselves nonetheless. Each chariot sported banners and awnings displaying the proud eagle of the Zayeen, and while each sheltered from the sun, they hung limp, moved by no wind, no breeze to tease away the sun’s vengeful kiss.
The slave Diaden noticed, too, so when he fell back into the mud, exhausted, he found it quite surprising to find the mud cool on his skin and quick to dry. To his knowledge, there was no mud to be found along this road—and had travelled many in his life before slavery, and during—for where was there any water in the middle of the country, so far from the coast, the Joona River, or the Gulel lake?
Covering his eyes to shield the rays of the blazing sun, he peered ahead to where Tolvar jabbered at the patricians and made heavy motions, his reed still hanging from his arm, braids flailing about in the dryness of the early afternoon. Despite his pleading, the soured faces of the patricians did not improve. Diaden strained to make out the conversation, but only heard a few words—important words.
“Summon… Magus...not far.”
Diaden looked over at Joben, who lay flat in the mud and caked his body with the substance, giggling to himself as he did. “Did he say Magus?”
“Sounded like it,” Joben replied with a lilt. The boy bled from his lip, and one of his eyes was swollen shut, but his mood stayed light, as always. Diaden nodded but said nothing more. He looked up into a cloudless sky, squinting in the shine. Perhaps if he blinded himself there would be no use for him. No, he thought. The tyrants would find something for him to do. And he still wanted to live to see the sun rise the next day, and the next. No one knew what the future held—so it was said by Nefari.
“What remains after the sun sets?” he recalled probing the tribe’s elder on a day he had found himself alone with the old woman. “If we knew, why would we close our eyes at night?” she had replied with all the wisdom she carried.
Tolvar returned from his parley. Diaden scampered to his feet, bringing himself to attention, and wiped dried mud from his limbs. He kicked dirt at Joben, and the boy, too, stood up and cleaned off. Flakes crumbled to the ground around them. They were pillars of ash amidst a scorched earth.
When Tolvar arrived, he eyed the pair with contempt as he passed by. Then he jumped into the chariot and laid back, kicking his feet up over the side and bracing his head with meaty paws. “Go,” he commanded. “We will need food and water for five.”
Joben winced as Diaden protested. “There is food in the stores,” said the slave Diaden. Joben did not enjoy the same relations with the tyrant as Diaden. The boy didn’t understand.
Diaden was right about the food, of course. The chariot was laden with supplies for the journey. They had travelled many leagues north from the southern city of Etial, jewel of the southern province, but had barely scratched the surface of the resources available. They could have travelled many more leagues if needed, and the abundance seemed a waste but for the aristocratic passengers, who demanded luxury at all times. In the end, Diaden’s rightness meant nothing, and he expected another lashing for the audacity of speaking without invitation.
None came. Tolvar did not move from his relaxed posture, but his biceps bulged. “Do not speak again. Go find food.” Tolvar was never angry when most dangerous. It was the calm way in which he delivered his words Diaden had come to fear.
Joben looked at Diaden in his way, one green eye pleading, face turned down and chin pointing toward the field to the side of the road. No doubt he worried Diaden would continue to be defiant and earn them punishment. Joben was the weaker of the two, but Diaden could not allow himself to be reckless with another’s life. It was not the Nefari way.
So he stayed silent as he turned his back to the chariot and dragged mud-caked feet into the patchwork of grass dotting the rolling fields of the countryside. Joben hurried alongside, and they walked together with noses down, searching the parched earth beneath them for signs of berries. They saw several ground vermin scampering about, but Tolvar would not feed the patricians so poorly, nor allow the tortured pair to eat so well. Berries for the aristocratic passengers would be best, and if lucky the tyrant may allow water from the stores.
“Do you really think a Magus is coming to help us, Diaden?” Joben’s question bore a hint of wonder. Diaden considered long before answering—perhaps too long, as Joben began to shuffle his feet and wring his hands. The older of them took a deep breath and—
An ocean breeze?
A crisp wind had sprung up from nowhere, carrying memories Diaden could never forget. Had they wandered so far outland from the roadway they’d approached the coast? It would explain the presence of mud along roads showing a faint rust. Diaden remembered the orange affectations clearly. He had been shocked to see the road in disarray, unkempt and vegetation allowed to grow over the intricate and iron-lined bricks laid long ago.
Had the patricians this far east neglected to maintain their structures? Diaden could not imagine the architecture of Yerushem left to decay. No wonder rebellion had sprung in Solem, the western city at the cusp of the sea—or so he’d heard. Many things were said in the darkness of the pits, after the day’s labour, when lips were loose and minds weak—whether fact or fiction, Diaden could not say.
“The sky is blue, and the grass is green,” Diaden recalled saying. “How do you know?” had come the elder’s reply, accompanied by a wry smile. “I see it,” he had said. The elder had not accepted the obvious answer. “But do I?” she had asked. “You must!” he had exclaimed. “Why? Why must I?” They had spent the rest of their afternoon going back and forth in this way, until finally the elder had said only, “Live with one brow raised.” He had not understood. Many years later, Diaden realized the importance of scrutiny—the need to resist the sway of emotion and the moment. This paradigm had served Diaden well throughout his life, although it had done nothing to prevent a fate controlled by the tyrants.
“I don’t know,” Diaden answered Joben at last. “We could not break free the chariot, and the patricians will need to be getting places and attending to things in Yerushem. The tyrant cannot afford their ire. It might be true.”
Joben appeared enthused. “I’ve never seen one—a Magus. I’ve only heard stories.”
Diaden offered nothing in reply. Sometimes there was no value in speaking the truth—or in speaking words at all, for that matter. The elder had taught him as much, and so it was said by Nefari. Joben would not understand, and if he were to try he would never let Diaden be free of his questions and ponderings.
“Up ahead!” Joben exclaimed, breaking Diaden’s thoughts as the boy pointed to a prominent mound of grass tipped with bushes sporting different-coloured berries. It was a Fasha bush—rare, indeed. Diaden remember picking from them as a child to stock for the Nefari’s monthly moon festivals. The memory of the sweetness of the berries permeated his mouth, only to be masked by the desiccated reality of the arid landscape. While Joben ran to the bush, Diaden walked, suddenly saddened by circumstance.
When Joben arrived at the top of the mound, he did not immediately begin to scavenge, or risk filling his mouth with berries to let loose their flavourful juices. Instead he stood still as a flag with no wind to fly, and gazed east, beyond the mound on which he was erected. Diaden wanted to see what had captured his attention, and finally began to move his feet with haste, scrambling the last few steps up the hill.
And then he saw.
They stood at the crest of a valley, amidst the foothills stretching south from the Rocca mountains, whose snowy peaks could be seen far in the distance to the north, much further than Yerushem. They overlooked the sea, a vast pool of water stretching across the horizon and shimmering with the reflection of the sun. They looked down into the bottom of the valley, next to the coast, and the city of Solem.
The image below him was haunting.
Solem was a beautiful city, full with many tall structures of intricate designs, circled by a sculpted, curving wall at its base, tallest where the tide flowed inward. Gulls swooped overhead and called out to each other, and Diaden was calmed by the gentle crashing of waves over silk-white sand. He had not seen the sea for many years, but it had not changed, still majestic, a waving blanket of crystal blue. The breeze caressed his skin, refreshing his pores and invading his nostrils, and tears welled in his eyes. In all his travels with the Nefari around the small country of Zayeen, it was there in the east, at the precipice of the sea, where he had once found his peace. His love.
For a moment, however fleeting, he found it again. For a moment, sand squished between his toes and laughter rippled around him—innocent and joyful. For a moment, he ran on the beach, and she ran beside him, grabbing at his hand and pleading for him to slow down, only to surge ahead when he did. For a moment, he was happy.
The memory passed, and Diaden looked down on pillars of smoke rising from different locations within the city. No caravans or lines of traders filtered in and out, as he would have expected from a large metropolis. The streets of Yerushem, for instance, were filled with a constant stream to and from the gates, feeding the great markets and the grand establishments of the Zayeen Authority. But there, just below, Solem did not glitter with a flow of life. It was a skeleton—a fossil—serving to caution those who might seek its shelter or the fancy it might have offered. Diaden did not know what was taking place behind the high walls, but there was no emanating vibrancy—no spirit.
“Why is it burning?” asked Joben.
“Revolution,” said Diaden. He surprised himself with certainty.
“What does that mean?” The boy’s question was innocent, and the struggle to understand played across his face in a furrowed brow and narrowed eye.
“There are men and women like us, Joben, all over Zayeen. Even there,” Diaden pointed, “in Solem. They are resisting.”
“But aren’t there tyrants?” Joben asked.
“There are probably many.”
“Won’t they hurt them?” The boy was too young for this.
“They likely will.”
Joben scrunched his face. “I don’t understand,” he said.
Diaden rested his arm on the boy’s shoulders. Together they looked down upon Solem, but they saw different things. It was not Joben’s fault. He was born in the pits. His mind was not given time to grow, or to flourish.
“Sometimes,” said Diaden, “it makes sense to risk pain for the sake of an idea.” Despite his attempt, this only confused Joben more, but the boy hid it well. He nodded and continued to gaze into the bed of the valley.
A horn blew behind them, back from where they left the chariot in the mud. The tyrant had summoned their return.
“Quick,” Diaden said to Joben. “Gather as many berries as you can.” He obeyed, and each filled their pockets and sacks. Diaden whispered a silent farewell to the coastal vista, but kept the image in the forefront of his mind as he rushed back to the chariot with Joben, bending stalks of grass beneath his hurried tread. He allowed the memory of smoke and desolation to fade into a background of august delight, and chose instead to remember the beauty at the edge of the sea.
They were not long in their return to the chariot, and on arrival a new figure stood with the tyrant and the patricians, lightly dressed in a sleeveless white shirt and loose-fitting white pants, each billowing in the wind. Diaden could sense the subtle tinge of salt in the air he had missed until standing atop the mount and overlooking the city and the sea, and wondered if they smelled it, too. It is likely they always knew where they were, and how close they were to the open waters at Zayeen’s eastern border, so far from the central roadway connecting the four provinces of the country, and the great cities throughout.
“Bring it here,” said the tyrant, gesturing to the sacks they carried. They obliged, opening it to reveal the berries within. Tolvar reached in for a handful and stuffed them in his mouth, squishing them with his teeth until trickles of red and blue appeared at the corners of his lips, which he licked away.
“Delicious,” he said. “Herus, Daphnus, come—enjoy this feast while the Magus works.” He grabbed the sacks and brought them to the patricians. “You two,” he pointed, “take some water from the stores. Not too much. I will not have you dying on the way to Yerushem.”
“Thank you,” they replied together. The tyrant only scoffed as he began to feed the patricians. Joben moved to the back of the chariot to begin the search for water in the stores, but Diaden stood still, curious and wishing to ask the tyrant a question, even knowing to do so would invite repercussions.
“Were you not afraid we would abscond?” he asked. Joben cowered.
Tolvar looked at Diaden with a deadly gaze, and were it not for the feast of fruit affecting his mood, he might have struck his reed. He did not, though; instead, he allowed contempt to drip from his voice as he responded slowly.
“Where would you have absconded?” asked the tyrant.
“We are very near the sea,” he continued unafraid, like a true Nefari. “Can you smell the salt air? It’s there, even if just a hint. And Solem is not far—just over those mounds and down to the coast. I saw it with my own eyes.” He pointed to where they had been.
Tolvar considered. His jaw clenched at an angle and his nostrils flared. But his eyes stayed cool and steady, as did the tenor of his voice and cadence of his speech. “You imagine escaping to the lost city?” he said at last.
Ah. The tyrant confirmed rebellion in Solem, though Diaden found it curious to consider the city lost. Even he, a tyrant, appeared to have heard the rumours. No doubt the aristocracy had concerned themselves with the plight of Solem’s governance. How long would they allow the city to fend for itself? Diaden caught himself before thinking too deeply, pursuing a rabbit down a hole when a wolf waited nearby.
“I do not imagine escaping,” Diaden said, careful in the tyrant’s presence. Even then he began to doubt the limits he had pushed. “I only ask for your concern.”
“It is not your place to wonder about my concern,” the tyrant snapped, but did not strike. Tolvar only gave Diaden half his attention, too focused on the patricians who gleefully gourded themselves on berries. “There is nowhere for you to go. The Zayeen Authority is particular about those who stray from the roads, or who roam without purpose or permission.” His next words were accompanied by a carnivorous glare from hateful eyes. “You must remember, Nefari.”
The words sliced. Diaden did remember; all Nefari remembered their expulsion from their home, which was once everywhere, now nowhere.
“You’ve no food and no water except what I provide you,” the tyrant continued. “You would not last one evening alone, and you would not make it to Solem.” Tolvar spoke in his calm manner, delivering facts Diaden could not dispute. “So, no, I was not, and am not, afraid you would abscond. Now go get water and be silent. Ensure you are rested and ready for the remainder of the journey home.” For a moment, Diaden was relieved, but the tyrant was not finished. “If I hear from you again, I will string up your corpse near the gates of Yerushem for the vultures.”
Diaden did not doubt the tyrant for a second, so he did not linger in the tyrant’s presence. He hurried to join Joben at the back of the chariot, where the new arrival clothed in white stood assessing the chariot.
He was a Magus, thought Diaden, who knew it as surely as the taste of the freedom he lost so long ago. The Nefari often dealt with the Magi—trade, mostly—and offered beds in which to sleep when nights grew long. In turn, the Magi conjured tricks for children and entertained the tribespeople with stories written in the gaps between every flicker of flame from the evening fires. Diaden could still imagine the light-dances in the night sky.
“Who are they, elder? He had been just a boy—maybe Joben’s age. Perhaps he forgave Joben’s incessant questioning because he had been the same. “Wanderers, Diaden, who look after themselves above all, who carry wisdom and lore and pass it from one generation to the next.” He recalled being fearful, at first. “Should we not fear them? What do we know about them?” The elder had been kind, in her way, but firm. “We may not know much, child, and they may be secretive, but it is for no great mischief. We share the desert with them, and from time to time a story, or a bed. There is nothing to fear.” He had not been convinced. “But what of the rumours, elder?” She had said nothing, and he had pressed. “Magic is evil,” he had said. The elder had only reverted to Nefari tenets. “If you do not know a thing, you cannot judge a thing.”
Diaden avoided Joben’s awestruck glances as the Magus worked feet away, instead focusing on his search of the stores. The search ended quickly as Diaden’s fingers closed around a pouch of water. He grabbed it, pulled it out, then squeezed it until it released cool fluid, filling his mouth, careful not to drip any to the earth, or to drink too much. He did, though, drink enough to be refreshed before passing the pouch to Joben. The boy seized it and drank heavily. He let out a gasp and raked an arm across his mouth, smearing dirt and dried blood as he did. Then he smiled, a rare sight.
The Magus paused from his observations of the stuck chariot wheels to watch their revelry. Diaden could not tell his thoughts, so stone-like was his face. There was no movement in his square jaw, nor flicker in grey eyes under heavy brows. Only the bristles of his short, brown hair moved with the wind, but even then just barely. His arms were crossed, and perhaps they were thicker than the tyrant’s. If he never spoke a word, Diaden believed he could come to understand this man, this Magus.
When Joben finished with the water, he handed the pouch back to Diaden, who placed it back in the stores as gently as he would cradle a baby. The Magus continued to watch them. Did the Magi support this oppression, Diaden wondered? He realized for this question he had no answer, despite all his dealings with the Magi in his life long ago. What must he have thought looking upon this display of the Zayeen Authority, this tyranny, where the lives of too many were subjected to the whims of the few who believed themselves superior for reason of birth alone.
“You are Nefari,” said the Magus, finally. It was a statement, not a question. His voice was deep, like the ring of a mourner’s bell.
“Yes,” said Diaden, but nothing else. Silence lingered in the air between them, the only sound the rustling of grass. The gulls from the coast did not fly inward that far, nor did any other birds take flight along the road connecting the great cities of Zayeen. The patricians and the tyrant were busy filling their guts with Fasha berries.
After a time, the Magus simply nodded and returned to the task of freeing the chariot. Joben looked at Diaden as if to ask a question, but he shrugged before the boy could. Diaden did not know the meaning behind the Magus’s statement, if he meant anything. It was not hard to tell he was Nefari. Even more than their physical appearance, their traits were infamous, and none more so than the tendency to defy—to question—to rebel. Nefari did not accept what was freely offered. All must be earned.
With the Magus indisposed and the tyrant feasting, Joben and Diaden had nothing to do but wait and watch. Fortunately, they neither waited nor watched for too long. The Magus grasped a wheel, then stretched out to grasp the other. He whispered to himself—murmurs Diaden could not understand—and closed his eyes. And then the chariot moved. It rose, straight up, as if guided, not lifted, by the Magus. The wheels freed themselves from the mud with a pop of suction, and then the Magus released the hint of a grunt as the chariot shifted to the side and set down on the road, liberated from its earthly prison.
Joben emitted a sound of amazement. His one good eye was wide open, and his jaw hung. It was a little feat of magic from the Magus. Diaden knew this; he’d seen it. But it was still impressive, as all unnatural things might be. Respect what you do not understand. So it was said by Nefari.
Herus and Daphnus, the patricians—husband and wife no doubt—clapped and rejoiced. Their lips and fingers were stained with the juices from berries, and they had in their glee accidentally rubbed their hands dry on garments more expensive than Diaden could afford in many lifetimes. He fixated on the streaks of red and blue lighting up their robes as they hopped into the chariot, followed by the tyrant.
“Here,” said Tolvar, and he flipped a coin to the Magus. “For your troubles.” The Magus caught the coin but said nothing, and his face remained hard and without expression. “Come now,” said the tyrant, beckoning to Diaden and Joben. His command was loud. He was in a good mood, and he did not lash his reed.
They had no choice but to obey. Diaden stepped onto the plank affixed to the left side of the chariot and grasped on to a handle on the chariot’s side. As he did, the Magus swiftly reached out and dropped the coin in his pocket. His movement was so fast Diaden had barely the time to register its occurrence, but he knew it to have happened. He doubted anyone else would have seen. The Magus also whispered to him in a voice no one could possibly hear, but somehow it was louder than any direction Tolvar had ever given. By that time Diaden had glanced at the Magus, dumbfounded by the display. The Magus’s lips did not move as he spoke.
“I will find you in Yerushem,” he said.
Then he turned toward his horse, also white, which frolicked in the fields not far away, and walked to join with the beast. At the same time, the tyrant jostled the reins and spurred the chariot’s horses, and they began to trot down the road, pulling behind them the chariot, resuming the journey to Yerushem, the capital city of Zayeen. The Magus faded into the distance as he began to ride west and away from their path.
The day was hotter than before, and Diaden was unprotected from the sun, and soon he was laced with sweat and caked with dirt. It was uncomfortable, to be sure, but so were all the days of his life. In that space, though, in that time, his mind was somewhere far away.