The curtain had closed and the audience was filing out of the gym. The storyteller groaned and spread out on the couch. Their sister and Gorty came up to them. Gorty licked the storyteller’s face.
“Gorty says you did a great job!”
The storyteller smiled, reaching out and patting Gorty’s head. He huffed in approval.
“Thank you.” The storyteller’s voice was raspy and raw.
As they gathered their things, they were stopped by two people; a light-skinned woman with wavy hair and perfect teeth and her tall, light-skinned male bodyguard with the perfect fade. The older sibling had seen their look before. They were the walking poster children for Miss Jackson and her play husband. They made their way through the South, passing out tickets to those wanting to flee. The older sibling wasn’t impressed with how they looked; Miss Jackson looked better than both of them.
“Hey, there! Miss Jackson has a ticket for you!” the woman said, handing the older sibling an envelope. She smiled and walked away with her bodyguard.
That night, the complex leaders stopped by to see the storyteller after the little one was tucked in. They sat in the living room, the storyteller passing out cups of tea.
“You did a fine job today. I cannot wait until what happens next week,” one of them said. The others nodded in agreement. The storyteller played with their cup of tea, staring at the unsweetened brown liquid.
“When Miss Jackson gives you a ticket, it’s only for one person, right? Is there an age where children get on free or no?” they asked loudly, over the others. The leaders blinked, looking at each other.
“My understanding is that, if they are under 3 they are able to get on with a guardian, otherwise they need a ticket. Why? Did Miss Jackson give you a ticket?”
“No. We saw someone else get one,” the storyteller lied with ease.
The next week, the sky decided it was a good day to dump weeks worth of rain on their Free Day. As everyone rushed into the gym, others were spreading blankets on the floor, pumping up air mattresses, hooking up space heaters to warm up the gym.
The storyteller sat behind the white sheet, thinking about that ticket. Gorty made their way between their feet. Their little sister crawled from under the couch, chasing after the puppy.
“You can’t be on stage!” she cried out, scooping up the dog. The pooch wiggled in her arms and licked at her face, making her laugh. The storyteller smiled, watching them get situated offstage.
The gym got quiet after a while. The storyteller took a deep breath.
“It’s so hoooot,” Aife whined, as she and Wyk traveled the sands of Slaanjo. Aife was 7 now, having be stopped and praised in towns in the plains since she proved herself in Lily’s Town. In one of the towns, the folk had made a giant bag just for Wyk to grow into it. It had pockets for Aife to put various items in, one pocket just for treats. The folk in the towns that lived on the border of Slaanjo had given her clothes to deal with the heat of the desert. She still wasn’t used to the heat, having grown up in the mountain’s cold.
Wyk barked at her tiredly, their big paws dragging along the sand.
Aife had on thin scarf wrapped around her face to keep the sun from blinding her and a thin cotton romper to keep her body cool. The flimsy sandals given to her had fallen apart weeks ago, so she had to resort to wearing her heavy, fur-lined boots. Her feet hated her.
At night, the sudden cold made Aife’s teeth chatter even in her sleep. But the nighttime was when Wyk could gain more distance since the sun wasn’t out.
In the middle of the day, they came across an abandoned town. Aife looked at the sandstone ruins, seeing one tattered banner blow in the dry breeze. She hopped off Wyk and made her way through the city, her companion following behind her.
The streets, even though they were empty, still had the feeling of life pulsing through it. The many voices of people running errands, talking with loved ones, enjoying their day, rang through the alleyways.
Aife suddenly looked back, feeling eyes on her.
There was no one there.
Aife continued walking through the streets, poking her head into buildings, rummaging through things that were forever stuck in the past. She pocketed old coins, placed old fabrics in Wyk’s bag, held onto an old doll. When the sun had set, Aife and Wyk were in the middle of the city, building a fire. Aife sat by the fireside, making a makeshift bag out of the fabric she had found. Wyk and other eyes watched her in the darkness. She placed the old doll and coins into the bag and gently placed it into the flames. The fire shot into the air. Aife clapped her hands together and held them close to her chest.
“O blessed and ancient city
May your voice be heard in the future
May your light shine for ages
May you rest”
The fire pulsated once, the hot air disrupting the dirt and dust around her. She kept her hands and closed close as she stayed silent, the smoke rising high into the sky. Wky shifted when dark, ghostly figures started to walk past them. They slinked towards the fire, their hidden mouths chanting. They surrounded Aife and the fire.
Aife stood quietly before she clapped her hands together once more. The fire pulsated again, the warm blast causing the figures dark outer shell to slough off like dust.
The figures sighed, their brightly colored outfits on their beings made the bright fire seem dim in comparison. They bowed to each other, kissed each other, hugged each other, mourned each other, before stepping into the fire. One by one, young people, old people, children, even children younger than Aife, made their way through the city, just to step into the fire. With each person that stepped into the fire, the fire let out a pulse much bigger than the last. Aife stayed quiet; her little frame seemed to be stuck in time.
The horizon was starting to turn pink when the last figure stood next to the fire. Feeling eyes on her, Aife opened her eyes, staring at the figure in front of her. Her eyes started to get wet. The person smiled at her. They had Aife’s mother’s eyes, but they were masculine.
“You look just like her,” they said, before stepping into the fire.
“WAIT!” Aife cried out, before getting blown back by the last pulse. Her head hit one of the buildings, knocking her out. Wyk rushed to her side, nudging her with their nose, before trying to pull her onto their back.
The pulse had rippled its way to the edge of the kingdom, causing the fine flatware to shake in the King’s castle. He, Sanjo and another rode to where the ripple came from on the road. Sanjo noticed the thin line of smoke that stood in the middle of the rising sun. As they came up to the sacked town, Sanjo tensed up.
“We’ve been here before,” he said, hopping off his komodo dragon. The King watched him from atop his cheetah.
“How do you mean?”
“We’ve sacked this place before. The air feels different here.” Sanjo walked through the streets, trying to find the source of the smoke. When he came up to the now burnt out fire pit, he noticed Wyk. Wyk watched Sanjo from a front store. Wyk growled at Sanjo. The King came up behind Sanjo and stared at Wyk.
“What kind of beast?” The King’s cheetah and Sanjo’s komodo dragon went up to Wyk, who barked angrily at the two other animals. The cheetah blinked, the dragon stuck out its tongue. The cheetah looked back at the King and yawned. The King raised an eyebrow and walked over to the animals. Wyx snarled at the King.
“Pipe down, you abomination,” The King said, shouldering past Wyk and going into the building. Sanjo followed close behind, peeking over the King’s shoulder.
Aife laid on an old bed, still unconscious. The King let out a loud laugh, scooping up the child and leaving the building.
“It seems that this is my child after all! Whatever happened in that church must have been something different from when I was a child!” He tossed Aife’s body onto his cheetah and stared at Wyk.
“I guess you can come. Come, brother!” The King called out, taking off toward the kingdom.
Sanjo stood in the dark. He clenched his fist and screamed, punching the wall. Fire wrapped around his hand, spreading out for a split second when his fist connected with the wall. He walked outside, hopping onto his komodo dragon and following after the King. He sat with his thoughts as he lagged behind. A smirk slowly grew across his face as the sun gained height in the sky.
He just needed time.
Aife woke up days later, the sound of waves crashing against the rocks beneath her waking her up out of her sleep. She laid on the bed, staring up at the white ceiling. Ocean spray came in from the windows across the room. A woman walked into the room, carrying a tray. It held a pot of hot water, a bowl of honey and a cup. Aife watched the woman make her way to her. She was taller than her mother and muscular. She wore a light yellow silk robe, a hood covering her head. She had 3 black dots under each of her eyes and a black line going down the middle of her face. She poured a spoonful of honey into the cup, then poured the hot water. She stirred another spoonful of honey into the sweet water, before turning her attention to Aife.
She dropped the cup when she noticed Aife was awake. She started to scream and ran out of the room.
“GHOST CHILD!” She hollered through tears, thoroughly terrified. Aife closed her eyes tightly, the scream making her brain throb in her head. She slowly opened her eyes, too exhausted to even sit up. She slowly tilted her head toward the tall, open windows. The ocean went until the end of the world to Aife. From the mountains, she was able to see everything. Here, it was flat and colder than any winter night. She watched as some water splashed onto the floor. The salty smell made her head throb even more.
The King and Sanjo walked into her room moments later.
“She’s awake!” The King said proudly, walking over to his seed. Aife watched him. He was dressed in a golden loose cotton shirt and a red linen skirt. His warrior hawk was braided to the back and was just as oiled as his skin. Rubies and emeralds adorned his braid. It rested on his shoulder and went to down to his knees. He sat at Aife’s side and stared at her face.
“Mm. Well, you certainly are my child in spirit. You look just like your mother. Will she be joining you later?”
“She’s dead,” Aife said flatly, staring at the King’s face. He stared back, not showing any change of emotion. He nodded and stood up, walking over to Sanjo.
Aife stared at Sanjo as he and the King talked. He was the King’s twin, that was true. He was just bald. He was dressed in a long black linen robe. He glanced over at Aife when the King turned his head. She glared at him. He looked away.
The King came back to Aife’s side.
“When you are back on your feet, I will have the Saanji Warriors train you in our way of combat. After I feel you have learned enough, I will teach you the ways of how to be a proper royal figure. Your mother taught you nothing.” Aife was quiet, but her cheeks felt hot. The King went back to the doorway, Sanjo still there.
“You will start your lessons while you are healing. I will not have my heir not know anything. Enjoy today; you won’t be resting after this.” The King left. Sanjo, however, stared at Aife. He slowly walked into the room, stopping at a distance far enough to where she could hear him.
“Your training will be brutal,” he started, holding his hands in front of himself. “You will be up 3 hours before dawn after getting only 5 hours of sleep. You will have to fast for a year. You will have every bone in your body broken. Your spirit will leave you and that will be left is an empty shell that is your body. Are you sure you want that life? No proper queen would ever–”
“I do not want to be queen,” Aife interrupted. Sanjo blinked.
“Little girl, watch your–”
“You watch your mouth, Sanjo. You and “father” seem to think I know nothing about the ritual of the Saanji Warrior. I had my mother read me the stories about them since I could talk. Before my mother was murdered, I wanted to be a Warrior for the discipline and integrity that the Warriors have. They are the true meaning of what it means to be a warrior; they are graceful on the battlefield with their spears and swords. They show no mercy for those who attack their borders and their king. I owe no allegiance to my father; I merely wish to learn the ways of the Saanji Warriors. I have no interest in being queen,” she said.
Sanjo smirked. “So you wish you be an empty shell of a woman?”
“Then what do you want to be?”