The Desert's Song
Her dark skin sparkled. Speckled with sand and sweating, Aselle Attete straightened her back, her hands folded over the handle of her shovel.
She looked into the cloudless, cyan abyss of the sky. Fine brushstrokes of deep, rich purples and blues accented the sight.
“The harbinger’s only at second position,” she said.
Alize stopped digging, too. He wiped away the sheet of sweat that’d soaked through the blue, patterned bandana on his forehead. “That it is. I pray you didn’t feel it was later.”
“I only wished it were.”
“At least you’ve got footwear.” He smirked, nodding at her feet. He lifted his blackened, calloused foot from the burning sands and wriggled its three toes at her.
With a smile, she said, “Put it away.”
With each step—and despite the black sandals that laced up both her shins—more hot sand rolled onto her calloused feet. She plunged her shovel into the sand, brought up as much of it as she could bear, and poured it into the sifting basket that sat near her.
Once she filled the basket, she chucked her shovel to the side and watched as its thin edge punctured the sand’s surface. Thumpf!
“Watch where you’re throwing that,” scowled Alize, the faintest whisper of humor in his tone. He was thirty years older than her, but they’d found each other each day for the last five years. Every sifter needed a friend. “Let’s see your bounty, now,” he said, gesturing at her basket.
Gripping the handles on both sides of the basket, she pushed and pulled so the sand sifted through the contraption and reunited with the desert. Sweat poured into the sand, darkening spots here and there.
“Dweller’s joy!” they said together.
Nine orbs remained in the sifter. Aselle scooped up three of them and took one between her thumb and forefinger. Its smooth, blue surface displayed her hazy reflection. As in the sky, radiant indigo and cobalt specks enriched the orb’s surface. From her pocket, she produced a loupe of essa, a clear, purple material, and, through the loupe, she examined the orb. The essa imposed a slight blur, but it didn’t hinder her.
“High grade,” she said.
“Why waste your seconds grading them here? Dig, sift, coat, and bag them. Elasea will strain his eyes for you.”
Ignoring him, she examined the other two orbs in her hand, which were faded, rougher, and blemished with tiny pits. White scratches littered their surfaces, reminding her of the white reeds along the banks of the Salos Ceia. She’d admired the sketches of the sea in Journeys many times, so she didn’t struggle to recall them.
“Middle grade.” She gave Alize a sardonic look.
In a compartment on the side of her sifting basket, there sat a large container of salve. Aselle set all nine sairo inside and rolled them, coating them well.
With care, she placed them in her sack, atop the few hundred orbs she’d already collected. The shells wouldn’t break, but she didn’t wish to add any more blemishes to them or wear away their protective salve before she returned to the city.
A breeze threw a stream of sand at Alize, who held up one hand to guard his eyes.
“The Milea turns,” he said.
She thought of the colossal aenti that carried every person—every Aerisian—on its back, the Milea. Had it ever felt the sifters digging into its sands? If it had, the creature had never complained.
“As it has every day since landing in the sea.” Didn’t he ever tire of saying that? The Milea turns….
“When you’ve sifted for thirty years like me, you’ll comment on even the shifting winds for a moment of levity.”
“You’ve needed a lot of levity these days, yes?”
He chuckled at her mockery. “Seven years. That’s all you’ve done, seedling. Seven years….” He went back to digging.
Seven years. The first time she’d come out to this part of the Granula Milea with her guardian, Sabell, he’d worn that tattered, dense cloak of his. It covered most of his face. He carried the sifter the entire way for her.
By the time they neared the edge of the desert, she was already drenched in sweat and winded. Perhaps a mile from them, the desert floor split, creating two cliffs. Each extended for miles before plunging hundreds of feet into the sea, the Cereo Ceia. Though she was far away, Aselle could see the tiny shapes of soldiers from the Isle’s Might lining each side of the divide. The harbinger’s heat beat down on her, and the faint, salty taste of the Cereo Ceia’s spray mixed with the gritty taste of the desert’s winds.
“Aselle,” said Sabell, “you are going to be a sifter. It is hard work, but it will make you strong.” He plunged his shovel into the Milea and dumped sand into the basket until he filled it. It quaked, clattering and clanking as he sifted all the sand back out of it until only a handful of orbs remained. Even at seven, Aselle had seen sairo many times, but to see where it came from…
“How’s the sairo get into the ground?”
He handed her the shovel. “When the aereo near death,” he said, “they burrow into the ceiling of their cavern and keep digging until they are free from the Milea. They remain still on the surface until the harbinger’s light hits them. Once it does, the aereo die and leave behind their shells, and sifters gather them and call them sairo. The majority of them burrow into their cavern’s ceiling after about a week of being alive. Some wait as long as two years. Then one must consider the eldest….”
With an abrupt turn, Sabell pointed at the great divide.
“Inside this divide, at the base of its two cliffs, is the entrance to the cavern where the aereo live. The Sifter’s Law states that the Isle’s Voice will exile any sifter who attempts to enter the cavern. Stay away from it, or else you might get yourself killed.”
That had been seven years ago. Now, Sabell stayed home to grade the sairo, and Aselle carried the sifting basket to the edge of the desert herself.
Wiping her brow, she glanced back toward her city. Aurora’s outer districts were peppered with white, square buildings that towered over the streets, submerging them all in shadows. The shapers who’d built the city had left almost no space between each building, so every neighborhood looked as though stone giants standing shoulder-to-shoulder had crowded into it. The Gessa District—where Aselle would soon return—was equally as hard to distinguish from the rest of Aurora’s outer limits. Her eyes captured neither curve nor color there.
Small points of light twinkled around the city’s outskirts at every one of its alleys’ entrances. These were the metal traps the Isle’s Voice hoped would thwart the vayle from getting in if Aurora’s scholar ever failed the city—if the city’s lamps ever blackened during the harbinger’s absence.
In the center of Aurora, Elis Tower, the centerpiece of the Asaire District, stood shimmering as the harbinger’s light danced along its smooth surface.
The Cereo Ceia roared, calling to her.
“I’m heading closer to the divide, Alize.”
“Why?” He rammed his shovel into the sands. “Why do you always go out so far? There’s plenty of sairo over here.”
“There’s more over there.” But that was only part of it. In truth, she loved the way her heart moved when she stood near the edge of the divide.
“I’ll keep my distance from the aereo and the Isle’s Might. Maybe I’d go with you if I were fourteen again.”
“I won’t stay out that far for too long, so don’t mope.”
He huffed, then picked up his shovel again, turning his back to her, moping all the same.
She took a few steps toward the divide. You might get yourself killed. As they had seven years before, guards still lined both sides of the divide. One of them—a man, judging by his shape—eyed her. He was too far away for Aselle to see his expression well, but he looked concerned; she was getting far closer to the divide than other sifters ever did. She waited and watched, but the guard didn’t move from his post, nor did he yell out for her to back away. If she began descending the cliffs, however, he’d probably say something.
Maybe she’d go even farther today.
With a few more steps, she could peer into the waters below. The base of each cliff met with crashing waves. Even though she was this far up, the faintest hint of the water’s spray stung her tongue the way it had on her first day sifting. She scanned the sides of the cliffs on either side of her. Finally, she caught a glimpse of the rocky maw stationed above the water. The cavern’s entrance was still and unimpressive.
“You left your lunch.”
She jumped. “Alize—thanks.” She took her lunch bag from him.
“What are you doing, Bessea?” All the humor that normally resided in Alize’s eyes had departed. He eyed the guards, visibly uneasy. “I didn’t know you were going to stand on the edge like this. I mean, I’ve seen you come close before, but…”
“Alright,” she said, injecting more poison into her voice than she’d meant to. “Let’s go back a bit.”
They went back some—farther than Aselle wanted, but not nearly as far as Alize wanted.
Alize had brought his lunch, too. “In thirty years, I’ve never stood on this cliff’s edge like that.” The disgust in his voice surprised her. “One would think you’ve never read the Dweller’s Pages, child, and I know better.” She’d brought her worn copy of the holy book out before, and she’d read to Alize just as the orators had.
Wordlessly, she removed a fruit from her bag. The antelia. It was a vibrant cerulean color with white hairs all over its oval-shaped body. Its seeds poked through its skin in evenly spaced stripes. She peeled the fruit and threw the rinds into the sands.
“That fruit’s skin might nourish the vayle,” said Alize.
“Dry as it’ll be by the absence, it might choke one of them.”
He didn’t laugh.
While she ate, she fingered the ring that had hung from her neck on a piece of string for as long as she could remember. It was a dirty, tarnished strip of bessea, one of the cheapest materials on Aeris. Her father had once worn it, and Aselle had never lived a day without doing the same.
Alize, meanwhile, glanced at the guards every few seconds. He seemed to be sweating even more than normal.
“We ought to move back some more.”
“We’re fine right here.”
The Sifter’s Law keeps sifters—and all other citizens—from descending the cliffs and entering the cavern, but it is the Parable of Esathia that keeps the people so far from the divide. The aereo are mysterious creatures, and Aerisians revere them. What other sifters do not know is that more sairo will appear directly above the cavern than elsewhere. You may go nearer to the divide than others, but do not get dangerously close. Sabell’s words. Though her guardian never sought to charm, he shared his knowledge often. His frail, crackling, overly formal voice repeated those words in her head. The aereo are mysterious creatures.
As if the memory of his words had summoned something mysterious, a long, sonorous sound—like thousands of tones echoing in key with one another—crept out of the ocean’s roar behind her. Images of dancing lights, all of them blue, flashed across her mind as though she had fallen into the Cereo Cavern. A miasma of sapphire and cobalt washed over the dancing lights until nothing remained but the colors. She’d never heard such a marvelous assortment of notes before, had she? Perhaps the song did sound somewhat familiar.
“Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Alize’s mouth hung open.
Aselle turned. The soldiers from the Isle’s Might hadn’t moved, but the one who’d eyed her earlier was still staring in her direction. Did they hear it?
“There… there was a sound. I think it might’ve been the cereo.”
Alize blinked several times. “Perhaps you’ve upset them, getting this close.”
“Oh, the Milea downs that,” she cursed.
She and Alize returned to their work. For the rest of the day, she listened for the sound but heard nothing else like it.
When sixth position ended, she gathered her supplies, securing her sack with a tight knot. She slid her shovel into the rope tied around her waist and retrieved her sack of sairo. The sifting basket was a compact contraption, but it was dense and heavy. After placing her day’s collections inside the basket, Aselle squatted to pick it up with both hands.
“Heading home early today?”
“A little.” With the harbinger at seventh position, there were perhaps two hours of daylight left. Normally, she’d leave at the top of the last hour.
“Going to go repent for imposing on the cereo, are you?”
“Of course, I am,” she said smugly. “I’ll find some orators and do a good deal of bowing.”
“The Milea downs your bowing. Go home. Crush your dreams of ever getting that close to the divide again.” His face was stern now. “I’ll see you in two days.”
“We’ll see,” she joked.
Not long after, she entered the city, squeezing through the narrow opening between the stone of one building and the whetted metal of a gargantuan trap.
The Gessa District’s shadow fell on her. She’d been so hot. The sensation of the wind, which blew less forcibly now, sent a shock down the back of her exposed arms and neck. A sheen of sweat still covered her skin, and she couldn’t help but smile at the relief.
Not much farther ahead, two soldiers blocked the narrow alley.
“Name?” one asked, more out of duty than a lack of remembering. They’d seen each other hundreds of times before.
As he often had, the soldier regarded her with cold, callous eyes, as though she were a speck of dirt on one of his polished buttons.
“One moment,” he said, granting her mercy from his skeptical gaze. He skimmed his notes and found her name, made a note next to it, and let her back into the city.
The sky stretched above her, a thin line of teal like a gleaming road. The looming buildings obscured the rest of it. The darkened alleyways between the buildings were dismal and crawling with Aurora’s poorest citizens. Beggars, misfits, and every breed of criminal skulked about. Among them, laborers like Aselle walked the streets.
Frowns blended into blackened faces, and the surrounding stone absorbed sporadic bursts of hollow laughter. Nearby, a pregnant woman stared at her eldest son, who was watching his two brothers play a game in the dirt.
“You don’t want to make that move,” the middle-aged child taunted.
“We’ll see,” said the youngest brother. While eyeing the game a moment longer, he hummed a droning tune, and, though the noises of the alley all but swallowed the song, the mother’s hardly hidden grimace indicated the tune’s dissonance. “There! Your turn!”
After his brother’s move, the middle brother moved the rocks he’d christened as his game pieces about squares drawn in the dust. Pink reo floated by the family. Aurora’s Voice had no doubt provided the creatures to ensure the mother’s pregnancy would flourish.
A young boy tugged on her shirt. His skin was dark and dirty. Callouses and cuts riddled his hands and feet, and worn rags clung to him. Aselle had a fleeting desire to shoo him away; he probably wanted to beg her for spare sairo or sell her some useless thing. She paused, remembered the pleasant sound from the desert, and found herself smiling at the child.
“Please?” he said at last. It might’ve been the only word he knew.
Aselle reached out and mussed the boy’s hair, which was thick with dirt, grease, and sweat. She set her basket down and made to open her sack of today’s collections. She stopped. Before anyone could use it, Sabell still needed to grade and stamp the sairo she’d found that day. Instead, she reached into her pocket and produced five pieces of sairo—these had been graded and stamped.
“This should get you a few meals,” she said. “Head down that alley, there—” she pointed to an alley pulsating with chatter and footfalls “—and walk until you see Garron’s. Everything he prepares is delicious. He has every kind of fruit you could want, and you always get a healthy portion.”
Without smiling again, the boy drifted away, leaving Aselle to wonder what would become of him. She hoped he wouldn’t meet the same end most orphans in the Gessa District did.
She made her way down the main alley and turned onto another. While moving through the city, she passed three more of the massive, jagged contraptions meant to capture the vayle.
After a short while, she came upon her home, which sat nestled alongside many neighbors on the corner of one of the gargantuan stone buildings. Next to every other tan, cracked home, it was indiscernible. When she entered, Sabell gave her a quick, startled look and returned to his work.
“Aselle… I didn’t expect you home for another hour.” He sat at his workstation. A flaming sconce hung on the wall near him. Its fire gifted to the small room a brilliant orange light that danced and flickered, causing the shadows it cast to bend with its movement. Though their home had windows—two of them, which was more than most souls could boast about—the great shadows of the buildings outside made it considerably dim, even during the day.
“You sound somewhat like Alize,” said Aselle, and she did so with a slurred, breathless tone. Even speaking tested her. She yawned. After setting her collections near Sabell and leaning her shovel against the wall, she made her way to her cot and plopped down, sinking into it. She lay her head back and shut her eyes. Her breathing slowed, her mouth hung open, and her muscles appeared to weigh twice what they always had. Sleep clawed at her, as vicious and hungry as her mind’s image of the vayle. “There was something in the desert today.”
Sabell didn’t move away from his work. In one hand, he held a loupe like the one in Aselle’s pocket. In his other hand, he held a piece of sairo, which he kept rolling in his fingertips. With his inkroot, he made some notes on a piece of paper before stamping the sairo with a device that wrapped around the shell and left a mark upon its surface. Only the stamps of sairo graders proved each shell’s value.
“It sure looks that way.”
“What?” she sat up. He gave a swift nod to the sack she’d placed next to him.
“Not the sairo,” she said, humoring him with a weak chuckle. “I heard something. A song.”
“A song? Perhaps the winds were taunting you.”
His high voice was quiet and benevolent. As he spoke, Sabell moved his newly graded sairo into a large, transparent container to his right. The sairo rolled into the bin and down a hole in its top tier. After sliding down the hole, it entered the next available tunnel in a series of tunnels carved into the bottom of the bin. Each tunnel held one hundred sairo. Sairo differed in size by mere millimeters, so graders, at the end of each session, could ascertain the count of graded sairo by counting the number of filled tunnels in the container. Sabell took an ungraded shell from a bin on the other side of the table and started working on it.
“No, not the winds, Sabell. I was far out, close to the divide—but not dangerously close.” She didn’t dare tell him how close she’d been. Fortunately, Alize didn’t know Sabell, and he didn’t know where they lived, either. Sabell paused. Perhaps he was debating whether he needed to question her about the divide. She gave him some time, but Sabell said nothing; it seemed she’d managed to escape his questions for now. “I heard… thousands of sounds at once, but every one of them complimented the other. Could it have been the cereo?”
Sabell’s shoulders tightened, and he set down his sairo and loupe.
Aselle continued, “It sounded blue. As I heard it, I could see this… brilliant blue color in my mind. The color of the cereo.”
Though the Cereo Cavern was the one closest to Aurora, she’d seldom seen its cereo issued by the Isle’s Voice. She didn’t even know what the cereo did to help Aerisians.
Now he turned. The creak of his chair unnerved her. When he set his focus on something, so little could distract him. It’d been a long time since she’d stayed home during the workday to attempt distracting him, but she remembered his intense concentration all too well.
What unnerved her even further was the grave look on his face. His had never been a handsome face. His gray mustache hung like the whiskers of an aenti that swam in the sea, and his wrinkled skin had grown soft and pale in the dimness of their home. Worst of all, Sabell’s left eye was missing, and a grotesque scar ran from his forehead to his cheek, crossing the empty socket.
She’d once asked how he lost his eye, and he’d only said three words in a sullen tone that told her not to ask any more questions: “I was cut.” Now he set his remaining, golden eye on her, and the heaps of life in it twinkled.
“I believe what you are describing is what Genra Psette called a Flourish Response. You say you were near the divide and you heard this?”
“Yes—but not dangerously close,” she repeated.
“Psette described this as one of the most beautiful sounds an Aerisian can hear. If this is indeed what you heard, I envy you.”
He stood from his seat, his chair legs scraping the floor as he did so. Beads of sweat trembled on his forehead, and he gave a weak smile. His love of the aereo was no secret to Aselle, so she believed he envied her, but what else did he want to say?
He left the room and called to her from their kitchen, “You ought to eat.” He returned with four fruits and a handful of mauve-colored grass. Two of the fruits were antelia. The other two were secula: thick, green cubes coated with white hairs. The grass was onia, perhaps the most common, edible grass that came from the Milea. Aselle bit into the secula. Her tongue tingled at the tart taste, and she gulped the fruit’s plentiful juice.
“What is the Flourish Response? Why would I hear it from atop the cliffs?”
“The aereo do many wondrous things. I know not why they might have made the sound, but it is the only sound that might have been loud enough for you to hear.”
That sated her. She might’ve asked more, but her eyes were drooping. Besides, if Sabell didn’t want to share, he wouldn’t. He’d never shared more than he wanted. “I’m exhausted, Sabell.”
“Eat, then sleep.”
From her cot, she ate and watched him appraise the rest of their sairo. After Sabell filled the container, he emptied it into a sack. He tied and tagged the sack with a red label, on which he scribbled the words Aselle had seen him write thousands of times before: SEALED AND APPRAISED BY ELASEA TESETTE. He returned to grade the rest.
She’d once asked him why they used fake names, and he’d given only one word in response: “Necessity.” After that, he’d shared no more. And when she’d asked about her parents, he’d only said, “The illness of the Isle.”
Sleep consumed her within minutes. The glow of the cereo tinged her dreams. A disembodied man’s voice sang among many disjointed visions: floating lights, all blue; a man’s blurred face hovering above her; a scream; a ring of lamps lit with immersia. Underneath the sound and the sights, anger raged, flooding her whole being. Frustration sprouted from it, for she couldn’t move despite her great desire to. Stuck, Aselle could only watch as the ring of immersia lamps came closer.
“We will be okay,” said the face above her. “Worry not, child. We will be okay….”
Soon, she and the man whose face floated above her—he’s carrying me—passed through a doorway and entered a brown room. Other Aerisians awaited them, their voices filled with sorrow and shock. There were three in the room besides her and the man carrying her. Another face floated above her—a pale face.
“Help me!” called another. “He’s not got much time!”
The chattering grew louder and louder every moment, as though the few people in the room were multiplying, turning into a crowd of three hundred.
When she awoke, shadows blanketed the room. Another dream, she thought. These dreams had plagued her for years.
A deep orange glazed what little she could see. From her bedside window, the light of an immersia lamp flowed into the room.
Sabell sat on his cot on the other side of the room, a book in his hand. She couldn’t make out its title, but a colorful painting of plants and grasses graced its cover. It was a new book, or perhaps an old one her guardian had removed from his reservoir for the first time. He read by the light of the lamp outside his window.
How odd. He hadn’t gone to sleep. The absence of his snoring jarred her, but the presence of the voices from her dream jarred her more. Sabell didn’t seem to hear them. He sat, unflinching as though the pages in front of him had entangled him. Words arose from the noise, but Aselle couldn’t make sense of all of them. Sand. Sairad. Sight. Snow. Many of the words came and went before she could capture them.
When she stirred, her guardian didn’t look her way. He read a while before shutting his book and setting it on his bedside stand. The absence was silent, so Sabell’s deep sigh filled the room. Is he relieved or anxious? wondered Aselle. As Sabell turned to stare at the lamp through his window, he brought his knee up so he had a place to rest his folded hands and his chin.
Somewhere in the bowels of their district, a group of drunks hollered in delight.
“Fools,” muttered Sabell to himself.
She said nothing of the voices. She’d never mentioned them before and had no intention of doing so this absence. Even if she did mention them, Sabell wouldn’t believe her. He’d tell her the voices were nothing more than the remnants of her sleep. After some time, the voices began to resemble the song from the desert—the tones resonated together, a harmony more divine than the hymns Aurora’s orators sung.
As sleep fell on her again, the music of the voices brought a grin to her face.
“We must go, child.”
The lamp outside her window was out now. The harbinger’s absence had passed, and the voices from her dream had fallen silent. Morning had come, and Sabell had dressed in his green cloak. It was made of cocilea, an itchy fabric that came from an aenti called the cilea. Its hood fell over most of his face, making it difficult to see his disfigured eye.
The bessea blade that had hung on their wall all her life had disappeared, and, though the wall boasted a few other decorations—a painting of the Dureas and a plaque on which a vendor had burned passages from the Dweller’s Pages—it seemed bare. She eyed the folds of Sabell’s cloak. The blade from the wall now hung from his hip. Were they leaving their home permanently?
“Go?” she asked, sitting up. “Go where?”
“We must take our week’s findings to the Asaire District to be deposited and validated.”
As they left their home, the harbinger hung at high position.
“What did you do all morning, Sabell? We normally leave by first position.” Why had he let her sleep so late?
He cleared his throat. “I had trouble sleeping in the absence. I slept late myself.”
Aselle peered up the alleyway, spying the family she’d seen yesterday. The two younger brothers continued playing games in the dirt. This time, their older brother judged. On top of the three stone stairs which led to the entrance of their home, the boys’ mother rested. The pink reo swirled around her still, sounding off smooth, arcuate tones for the alley’s bustle to devour.
“Sleeping away our day of rest… We could have spent the day reading.”
Sabell gave her a laugh. “If only I were as wise as you.”
On this day of the week, the purveyors—some of the many people Sabell called fortune seekers—earned most of their sairo. Thousands of the Gessa District’s weary laborers perused the streets for something to spend the last of their week’s earnings on. Nobody toiled today. Purveyors of cloths, texts, trinkets, weapons, food, drink, and all manner of possessions in between bellowed to passersby.
“Experience the greatest sleep you’ve ever known!” called the purveyor of blankets and feather-filled pillows.
A woman at another stand bellowed, “Behold! The greatest architects of Illumina forged these swords. You’ll never see their edges soften or chip!”
Other purveyors sat quietly and let their items speak for themselves.
Aselle and Sabell made their way west through the twisted district, sidestepping hundreds of hurried people going the opposite direction.
Not far from their home, a group of people had gathered around a metal, ornamented pole in the ground. A ceiren. Every great city and every town housed at least one, though most places boasted more. The Dweller could hear every person’s thoughts no matter where they were, but all the orators said the Dweller gave special attention to an Aerisian in the presence of a ceiren. The Dweller’s Pages told of the great ceiren the Old Aerisians had built, and the Isle’s Voice had since built two enormous ceirens on Asaire—one in the east and one in the west.
As they passed, Aselle watched the people. Some bowed their heads while others stared off into the sky. The jaws of both the former and the latter worked to produce silent prayers. A pair of hooded orators—clad in pristine white garments—each stood still with the Dweller’s Pages in hand.
“And Cronos, who, by the Dweller’s will, held the land in his palms, commanded the people, and he promised them rewards to make them whole for their sweat….”
The Parable of Cronos. She’d heard it for years, and she’d read it herself.
“Sabell, what do you think the people are praying for?”
Sabell shrugged. “Sairo, most likely.”
She’d heard rumors the Dweller would grant the wish of any soul brave enough to venture to Vai—the Isle, as most knew it—but the orators rarely spoke of that. If asked, they’d say those rumors were false, and the rumors of the deadly vilesa that roamed Usaire and Vai were false, too.
At the end of the alley that fed people into the Asaire District, they came upon two soldiers, both clad in the Might’s blue uniforms. Each button on the soldiers’ vests and pants was emblazoned with Aurora’s emblem: a swirling spell representing immersia. The buttons were myrra, the most valuable metal on Aeris. Blades of pliable erra sat in sheaths hung from each soldier’s belt.
Sabell’s cloak had many hidden pockets. From one of these, he produced his livelihood ledger. Aselle brought out her own.
“We are here to drop off our week’s graded sairo. Bessea—” Sabell jutted his thumb in Aselle’s direction “—is the sifter who brought me the sairo. She will be taking her pay from these findings, as well.”
The soldier took the ledgers in one hand and inspected the seal on each of them.
“Seal is good,” he said. From his pocket, the soldier removed a book. With inkroot, he scribbled something in its pages. “Return from your business through this alleyway. Speak to me directly. Should another soldier take my place, he or she will know your names and business.”
“Thank you,” said Sabell, pressing ahead.
Though she’d come to the Asaire District every week for as long as she could remember, the sight of the place still captivated Aselle. The wealthiest souls on Aeris lived here. Homes and square buildings surrounded an enormous, lively plaza. In its center, Elis Tower jutted far into the sky, shining like a torch. Many of the district’s buildings were a pristine white, traced with pink erra and white myrra. Here, windows were not circular holes in walls but portals of polished essa as clear as the Cereo Ceia when the winds were calm. Savory and sweet smells wafted on the air as some of Aeris’s best chefs prepared delectable, expensive meals for the many diplomats who visited Aurora’s heart.
The sairo office—a stout cube of a building with one window and one door—stood adjacent to the Asaire District’s bank, with which it shared an underground vault. Aerisians waited in line in front of Aselle and Sabell, and not long after the duo arrived, Aerisians began queuing behind them.
Their turn came, and Sabell handed over the sack containing all the sairo he’d graded. The soldier inside the office was a glowering woman who fed the sairo through a clear bin like the one Sabell used at home. While mumbling to herself, the woman counted the filled tunnels inside the bin and made a note of the number. She removed a few pieces from the bin and, with a loupe far finer than any Sabell or Aselle possessed, ensured the grades stamped on them were precise. Finally, the woman pulled a lever. All the sairo rolled into the floor, disappearing into the vault below.
“Here,” said the woman, handing over a stamped ticket. As though she was reading from a prompt, she added, “May all the Dweller’s blessings rain on you.”
The trip to the bank had always bored Aselle. Today, it did the same. When they finished their business inside and emerged into the square again, Sabell handed Aselle’s pay to her in a small bag. She fastened it to the front of the rope tied around her waist.
“Can we stop at Marion’s?” asked Aselle. “I want to purchase the next Journeys. It’s probably in by now. Perhaps you could buy a book, too.”
She wanted to tell him she’d seen him awake and reading late in the absence, but paused. No, it was better to leave it alone; if she didn’t, he would ask why she’d been awake, and what would she say then?
“We may visit Marion’s,” said Sabell, “but I will remain outside.”
Another oddity. Her guardian rarely declined a trip into Marion’s. The week before, he’d left the bookstore with two new titles.
“Why not come inside and pick up a book?”
“Not today, Aselle. I have plenty of books at home.” Words he’d never said before.
Marion’s was next to an eatery in which a chef must’ve been preparing some exotic food. Aselle had seldom smelled anything so savory. Before going into the bookstore, she examined the sign hanging from the eatery’s awning. The sign was handwritten, and she read it aloud to herself: “A Dweller’s blessing. We imported a colossal ethia.” The ethia. She didn’t know the creature. They were cooking an aenti. Though she’d never eaten any of the creatures herself, if its smell at all indicated its taste, she might like to try this one.
When the door to the bookshop opened, the chatter of the store died. Eyes fell on Aselle. Scoffs broke free.
“Look at the rag-wearer, thinking she can read,” said one man.
“It’s good for them to see these tomes,” said another man, defending Aselle. “No soul can seek a fortune without curiosity.” This man smiled at her—though it felt, somehow, that the expression had passed through her—and she returned a weak grin.
The Isle’s Voice didn’t prohibit the poor from entering the Asaire District’s shops, but few of Aurora’s citizens were literate unless they lived in the Asaire District. Rag-wearers scarcely entered Marion’s, and Aselle had had to contend with glares and sneers every time she entered the bookstore before.
She located the newest edition of Journeys—the eighth book of Ezra Cabal’s, and she had no intention of learning how to seek her fortune.
The first page boasted Cabal’s ever-evolving map of Aeris and his swirling signature. The map alone made the book a treasure. Here was Aurora, and next to it, at the opening of the Granula Milea’s great divide, Cabal had marked the Cereo Cavern. To Aselle, it resembled an aenti opening its beak to drink the Cereo Ceia.
She flipped through. The pages spoke of Aerisians from every town and every great city, and they detailed encounters with various aenti. Cabal, on yet another series of pages, had listed the tastes, textures, and uses of different fruits, grasses, plants, and trees. The book spoke of some of the Milea’s many valleys, mountains, deserts, and plains. One section detailed the annual ritual performed by the people of Salos on the rivulet of the Salos Ceia. Another section described the migration of a group of fareis from Milea’s Plain to the Myrra Milea. Yet another section brought a smile to her face. Cabal had seen fit to cover—for the first time—the attributes of the gargantuan ethia. I’ll have to read this section first, she thought.
For now, she took a second to trace her fingers over the fine lines of the copied sketch, admiring both Cabal’s original work and the work of whichever Aerisian had mirrored his drawings so dutifully. The ethia was indeed colossal. The four-legged giant had blue, rough skin everywhere except its face. There, its skin lightened, turning nearly white. Limp, round ears hung from its head, which, in turn, hung from its arched body.
She’d read some entries from the seventh volume to Alize.
“Why bother reading about all these things?” he’d said. “It’s not as though you’ll ever have the money to travel where Cabal has gone.”
“I don’t need money. I’ll sneak away, or I’ll make them exile me, and I’ll live as an outlaw.”
“Sounds like you’re curious about the vayle’s teeth.”
“I’m curious,” said Aselle, “about our world. Haven’t you ever wondered what’s beyond these sands?”
Alize didn’t answer that. “You’d leave Elasea behind?”
Those words had bested her. “Well… I suppose I wouldn’t want to leave the old man, but I know he’d never join me on such an adventure.”
“He has sense, then.”
“Just imagine it: visiting Aeris’s most fascinating places and studying its aenti by the light of the harbinger; camping each absence with only the light of a myrra lantern to fend off the vayle…”
Aselle had shaken her head at that; she’d known then that she couldn’t change Alize’s mind.
But he hadn’t changed hers.
A golden-eyed woman in a clean, delicate tunic took Aselle’s sairo from her. “All the Dweller’s blessings,” she said. The woman was new to Marion’s. Her clean clothes flaunted her wealth. As Aselle turned away from the woman, she caught a glint of disgust in the woman’s eyes. Rush back to your mess of stone and dust, her eyes said.
When she emerged from Marion’s, Aselle clutched her new book as if to let it know she’d enjoy it later. She placed it inside a second sack hanging from her waist.
As they made their way back, she muttered something about the woman in Marion’s. “I wish the wealthy wouldn’t look at us in such a way.”
“In what way do they look at us?”
“As though we’re poor.”
Sabell’s moment of silence let her know a lecture was coming. “Are we wealthy?”
“No,” she said, hoping to quell a lecture.
“Aselle, it is of no consequence what we would wish for them to do. They do what is in their control, and what is in their control is beyond both our control and our influence.” She hadn’t quelled the lecture. He made a familiar sound with his whiskers, mouth, and nose which Aselle still didn’t understand the origins of. Tch-tch. “Is what you see in their eyes more likely a reflection of their thoughts or yours?”
They moved deeper into the Gessa District, and Aselle reflected on her guardian’s words. She supposed he was right; she didn’t have the power to control others, so perhaps she shouldn’t concern herself with what she wished they’d do.
As for his question, maybe the woman had thought something else altogether.