“Your eyes,” Illaan said to her, before the sun rose. “Your eyes are made from fire.”
At the edge of sleep, tangled in their sheets and shaken by his rough hands, a deep fear was awoken again in Ayae. It took her back to the age of five, a month after her arrival in Mireea, when the matron of the orphanage said that rooms were warmer when she was in them. The large, red-faced woman had died days later when the oil lamp in her room overturned and, with a child’s logic, Ayae had blamed herself for her death. For years she feared she would awake surrounded by flames or suffocating in smoke, the cause igniting from her own skin. Such an offhand comment that had resulted in years of paranoia. She had never forgiven the unfortunate matron her ill-timed words. Life was hard enough without thinking you were a freak: she was small, brown-skinned and black-haired, born in Sooia and a minority among the tall, mountain whites who lived and traded in Mireea. Her dark brown eyes were a map of hardships that only a child from a continent torn apart by war could carry.
A child, now an adult, who was seeing war again.
Mireea was being raided. Villages were gutted by flame and sword, an event unforeseen by anyone. To a degree, it was unfathomable. Strewn across the mountain range that was referred to as the Spine of Ger, Mireea was the city that had begun as a trading post before turning into the capital of a borderless trade empire. In the North, where the Kingdoms of Faaisha sprawled, Mireea was the gate by which half their wealth emerged; in the East, the Tribes of the Plateau had for generations been pacifists and rarely traveled over the Spine of Ger, stopping there instead to buy and sell; everything they wanted they purchased in the stalls and fairs that ran in all but the wettest days; while in the South, the Floating Cities of Yeflam and the home of the Keepers Enclave claimed a quarter of their wealth came from trade with the Spine; and in the West, in Leera, the wooden kingdom of vine-covered fortresses and hot, steaming marsh, Mireea had funded the birth of the nation after war-torn refugees from icy mountain ridges had been forced across the world, to a new climate, and a new life.
But it was from Leera that the raiders came.
At first, Ayae believed that the attacks were minor, nothing more than robberies on the roads. There had always been bandits, she knew. Others had thought the same and there was reassurance in each others’ denial of the truth. But then trade stopped, letters between cities went unanswered, and the stories of priests, of churches, began to circulate.
The aging Lord of the Spine, Elan Wagan, moved to stop the raids—by treaty first, and then force; but his ride into the sweating swamps had left Mireea’s small army decimated by the enemy and he had returned haunted and blind. His wife, Muriel, petitioned for aid from the Enclave, from the body of men and women who were thousands of years old, who claimed to be in ascendancy to immortality and godhood, but who in the meantime were the most powerful of Mireea’s allies. In response, they sent two Keepers of the Divine, Fo and Bau, one old and one new. If any but the Lady Wagan had seen the pair since their arrival Ayae had not heard of it, but as Lady Wagan had begun to build huge gates around the city while also hiring mercenary armies to supplement her own, Ayae suspected that the Lady had been told to expect the worst from her visitors.
Composing herself in the warm quiet of the night, Ayae whispered to Illaan that he had only dreamed, that the horrors he had seen the day before had dug into his subconscious.
It was one of the last raids that had seen Illaan return to her, the shadow in his already dark gaze haunted with memories. He was a soldier who—though Ayae would never tell him—was best suited to the mundane: organizing those under him and training new recruits, and then coming home to children and dinner. He was not a man who led soldiers to pick their way through charred buildings and the bodies of men and women he knew, one of whom was no more than a child. On his first night back, he sat in the stuffed cushions on the floor of her tiny house, silent, his long fingers flicking periodically at nothing. Now he’d woken her with a harsh whisper about her burning eyes.
“It was just a dream,” she told him, stroking his shoulders as he shuddered. “Nothing but a dream.”
When he slept, he was cold to her touch.
In the morning she awoke to an empty bed, the sight of the rumpled sheets bothering her. It felt as if Illaan was barely in her life lately, a crease in sheets that could be straightened. Rising, she found him with his long body bent over the fire that stifled the room, turning iron tongs as he cooked the last of her bread. It didn’t need to be cooked, but Ayae bit back her words and dropped her hand to his still cool shoulder. He smiled, but it was narrow and did not touch the rest of his pale face.
“There are mercenaries arriving in the city. They meet where the markets were held,” he said. “They sell swords instead of cloth, blood instead of corn.”
“Are they not employed, then?”
“They will be. We are expecting a new group called Dark. Lady Wagan has hired them, though she won’t tell us if they number a dozen, or a hundred.” Brown cloth wrapped around his long fingers, Illaan turned the tongs. His voice, when he spoke, was heavy. “Do you know what kind of people sell their swords from one war to another for money?”
“They’re just the kind of—”
“People we don’t want,” he finished. “They’re not their stories.”
She squeezed his arm, said nothing for fear that the spark of anger in her would work its way out. What he had seen had been terrible, but she also knew that once the memory of it started to fade, his cynicism would follow. Ayae would not be the first person to welcome another company of men and women who arrived road weary, with glints of metal in boiled leather. But she was not the last person to acknowledge their importance, either: without them, the raids from Leera would have escalated into a full-fledged attack, and the city would have already been under siege.
Illaan pulled out the toast, smoke trailing from the burned edges. With a rueful smile, he said, “I was going to surprise you, to apologize for last night.”
She ruffled his hair, made her way to the tiny kitchen. Beneath the floorboards was a small chute of hard ice, where she kept juice, milk, butter and occasionally meat. They froze on the edges when the rainy season came, but mostly they were kept only chill.
“Maybe we should go out for dinner tonight?”
He dropped the burned toast on the board before her. “Tonight?”
“Just…” He poked at the burned edge. “I was thinking I might go home tonight.”
“You’re not still thinking of this morning?”
“Yeah.” Illaan shrugged, rubbed at his narrow face. “I’m sorry. I’m trying, but it was just so vivid. Your eyes. I swear the iris was alive. I could see each line in it, burning.”
An angry reply was on her lips, but she pursed them together.
“I’m sure you’re right, though,” he continued. “It wasn’t—the bodies. I mean, I knew—one of them was only sixteen. They cooked him after they killed him. After they killed all of his squad. I just need some time to get it out of my head. That’s all.”
“You’ve been gone two weeks,” Ayae said, softly. I missed you.”
“I just need some time to myself.” He did not meet her gaze. “That’s all. Just a night. A night so I can wash out what I saw from my head, get away from burned bodies and Keeper talk.”
“They hide in rooms all day for fear that we will see them and have hope.” Illaan picked a burned edge from the toast, held it between his fingers. “In Yeflam they’re no different. They sit inside that giant white monstrosity they call the Enclave and rule by their so-called power, by their curse that makes the rest of us nothing but animals. They are not here to rescue the animals.”
“Was one there with you?”
She smiled to take the sting out of her words. “Then you shouldn’t let talk bother you.”
Illaan shrugged, crushing the burned remains between his fingers. “Sometimes,” he said quietly, “talk is true.”
Copyright © 2014 by Ben Peek
BEN PEEK’s previous works include the autobiography Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, the dystopian novel Black Sheep, and the flip novel, Above/Below, co-written with Stephanie Campisi, which was nominated for a Ditmar Award. His short story collection, Dead Americans, will be released in early 2014, and will comprise of fiction published in anthologies and magazines such as Polyphony, Clarkesworld, and various Year's Best collections. He lives with his partner, and their cat, in Sydney, Australia.