We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence or imminent destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own. Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky? So we twist every story to preserve our faith.
Djola thought to steer the Arkhysian Empire away from this terrible yet mundane fate. He was forty-three, handsome, and fearless—arrogant, even—the Master of Poisons and in the Arkhysian Empire, second only to Emperor Azizi. When poison desert appeared in the barbarian south and the free northland, didn’t he warn Azizi? For twenty years as it crept through river valleys and swallowed forests, Djola pleaded with Council and begged good Empire citizens to change their ways. As long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night wind, everybody promised to change—tomorrow or next week. Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust. Good citizens now feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible. Who could fight the wind?
This morning, despite being fearless and arrogant, Djola retreated into a cave overlooking the Salty Sea as half-brother Nuar calmed his warhorse, a gift from Djola. Samina, Djola’s pirate wife, had urged him to ride out with Chief Nuar and discuss his map for the future, since he’d refused to share secret plans with her. Sand swirled beyond the cliffs, a storm brewing, blunting the sunrise. Nuar wore pale cloud-silk robes over a lean muscled body, flimsy protection if the storm was fierce or poison, clothes for ceremony and celebration, not travel.
Mist got tangled in Nuar’s crown of gray hair then drizzled down craggy cheeks. He gestured at the rising sun with an eagle claw, an official exchange, not a brotherly farewell. “Your map to tomorrow won’t persuade Azizi’s Council,” Nuar shouted over the wind.
“You haven’t even read it.” Djola groaned. “You always imagine the worst.”
“You should too.”
“I do. My map is an escape route.” Djola stepped deeper into the shelter of the cave. Bats clung to the ceiling, clicking and chirping like drummers calling protective spirits.
Nuar stroked his dappled horse, who shied away from a mound of bat dung. “Council is weak men who can’t talk to rivers, read a poem in the dirt, or catch the rhythm of roots in their bones.” Nuar had been singing the same song for days.
“Council has me for that.” Djola forced a smile. “I seek ancient conjure that would guide us.”
“You’re a tame savage to them, an Anawanama who can’t tell what storm is coming till it smacks your face. Council won’t accept ancient conjure from you.” Nuar mounted the horse and nodded at cathedral trees clutching the south edge of the cliffs.
“Ancestors still smile on you here.” Frothy red crowns heralded new growth. Midnight berry bushes spilled purple blossoms over the edge. “Poison storms spare this cove and the canyons beyond.”
Djola pointed at a sand squall skipping in from a new inland desert.
Nuar grunted. “A bit of bluster and not poison. It won’t last.” The horse glared at Djola and strained against the reins, eager to trot off.
“No one has tamed me,” Djola declared.
“Azizi is a coward.” Nuar never liked the emperor, never understood how Djola could be a friend to their old enemies. “To preserve the Empire, Azizi and Council will sacrifice Anawanama, Zamanzi, and all the other northern tribes. They’ll sacrifice their own citizens, just like in Holy City.”
Djola spat. “High priest Hezram bleeds children for gate-conjure in Holy City. Azizi does nothing like this.”
“You’re a fool to trust any of these men.” The horse snorted agreement.
Djola stared at plump dark shadows swaying above them. He wanted to shout, but why disturb bats drumming themselves to sleep? “Of course I don’t trust them.”
“When we were young, you wanted to charm elephants and jackals, pull fire from the air, even ride behemoths and sink pirate ships.” Nuar’s voice cracked. “To protect our villages, like the heroes of old.”
“No shame in that.”
“Unless you’re the buffoon who betrays his own people.”
“A clown and a traitor? Is that how you think of me?” Djola hugged himself. Their mother had died when he was nine. He’d never met his father and grew up on the run, till half-brother Nuar found him. No People to hold him, just Nuar. “I chose a different path, brother, but am guided by the same spirit as you.”
“Huh.” Nuar scratched a scar on his chin from a blade meant for Djola. An old wound, it shouldn’t itch. He’d always defended his younger half-brother against other chiefs, even when Djola joined the Empire’s warriors. “You’re no traitor, but…” Nuar gazed out. “They call this Pirate’s Cove now.” Water sparkled. Red rock-roses drank the mist and enchanted hummingbirds. Green and purple wings blurred as the birds dipped beaks into eager blossoms. Nuar sighed. “Anawanama and Zamanzi roamed here once, free.”
“A few rogues flaunt the law, but no one steals our children or locks us up with the emperor’s blessing. Peace for twenty years.” Djola had seen to that. “Your eyes are full of yesterdays. I look for our tomorrow. Lahesh conjure.”
“Lahesh? Who can trust tricksters and dream tinkerers?” Nuar closed his eyes and laid the eagle claw against his cheek. “My Empire crops whither and blow your way. Azizi’s promises are dust.”
Djola wanted to press Nuar to his heart, taste the morning together, and remember their mother and wild adventures from their youth—not argue. “I don’t need to trust them. I’ll persuade them. My map has something for everyone.”
Nuar’s cloud-silk robes snapped in a gust of sand. He spread his arms wide. He raked the air with the eagle’s claw. “I know the weather. Do you?”
“We are the weather. Your words, brother.” Djola’s voice reverberated in the cave. Startled bats chirped a warning he felt more than heard as they flew into darkness away from intruders. “We can’t leave Azizi and Council to map tomorrow alone.”
“No.” Nuar shuddered.
Djola squeezed his hand. “What chance do we have if I don’t risk everything?”
Nuar donned a turban, and draped fine mesh across his mouth. Storm protection for the bit of bluster? He made a crossroads sign with the claw over Djola’s heart, a blessing, then trotted off. Djola watched until a sand demon obscured man and horse. The orange whirl was more debris than bluster. Djola felt achy and jangly, as if he should have taken better care with his words. The wind might turn fierce, snatch older brother from his horse, and smash him on the rocks.
“Fatazz!” Djola cursed an orange sky. He should head home, but he wasn’t ready for another sandstorm—sweet or poison—or a fight with his pirate wife. He just wanted to kiss Samina’s purple-tinted lips, hold the deep curve of her waist, and taste the raintree scent on her skin one last time before heading to Council. Samina could fortify him for the battles ahead, if she had a mind to. The sand settled and the storm sputtered out. Djola squinted at shadows. Nuar had already vanished into the trees.
A good storm-sense didn’t mean older brother was right about everything.
When Awa was a twelve-year-old Garden Sprite, Green Elders declared Smokeland a true realm of vision and spirits. Awa and the other Sprites were not to fear or make fun of sacred space as most people did. Smokeland was a vast territory of possibilities and maybe-nots, but never very far from what was happening right now. Smoke-walkers were intrepid adventurers exploring the unknown, dream tinkerers who shifted the shape of the everyday.
Awa never told the Green Elders or anybody, but she’d become a Smokeland-believer at six. Whenever Mother’s spirit faded away like smoke on the wind, Awa held tight to Mother’s breath body, sometimes for hours. Awa sang, told herself stories, or talked to bees and wild dogs until Mother returned from Smokeland with herbs from nowhere in this world. Awa hugged cold from Mother’s thoughts, shook dead weight from Mother’s bones, and combed fearful snarls from her wiry hair. Watching over Mother’s breath body was a lot to ask of a young daughter who had snarls and sorrows of her own.
Awa’s older brothers would have felt duty-bound to report a smoke-walking witch woman to Father. Being a good Empire citizen, Father would have turned Mother in to the high priest in Holy City or killed her to avoid shame, so guarding her breath body during illicit adventures fell to Awa.
Mother and other smoke-walkers reported slogging through a border realm of enchanting freaks and monsters. Before entering Smokeland proper, they were harassed by lightning bolts and spears of fire. Jellyfish explosions and poison dust cyclones were also common. Worst was a cold, dark emptiness that seeped through skin, erasing thought, desire, and fear. To survive the border-void, smoke-walkers often drank a cathedral seed and cloud-silk potion to lift their minds above despair. This Lahesh potion eased the journey, but did not cause it. Even drugged, many people never made it through Smokeland’s border realms. Their spirit bodies got lost in the emptiness or stolen by high priest Hezram for his conjure. Their breath bodies withered to bone and then dust. Awa thought of it as poison desert in the mind.
The first time she wandered to Smokeland was in the company of bees. It was the day before her twelfth birthday. She and oldest brother Kenu had opened an elephant corral left behind by thief-lord raiders and let the beasts run free. Angry villagers who wanted to sell the elephants chased after them, but the elephants escaped. Father was outraged. Awa ran away from him and Mother arguing over true love and some other man’s child.
Awa followed friend honeybees as they flew sideways into the woods. Which woods, she could never say. The forest surrounding Father’s lands was ancient cathedral trees whispering to one another up in the clouds. Bronze-colored bark was dappled with purple moss. Feathery needle-leaves started out red and turned green with age. Cathedral roots were as thick as Awa and oozed an oily scent that made her dizzy. In her childish memory, Smokeland-terrain got tangled with the everyday. This first time, Awa was disappointed not to find a border of fiends, exploding jellyfish, and void-smoke. She landed in a field of wildflowers by a cathedral tree grove. She moved at the speed of thought, spinning endlessly around a drop of water as it slid down a leaf. In a blink she raced from riverbank to valley to rocky peak.
A beehive the size of an elephant rested inside a tree trunk cavern. Swarms of workers buzzed about, stingers hot with venom. Dancing distress, they smelled like ripe bananas. Awa saw no reason for alarm. Trees and bushes were heavy with flowers. The ground was a mosaic of petals. Deep-throated blossoms bulged with fragrant nectar. Inside the hive, the queen pushed an egg from her abdomen into a cell every minute. Workers spit nectar into the queen’s mouth. A thousand nurses buzzed over a developing brood. Drones were fat and frisky. Bee paradise.
Sentinel bees clustered around Awa’s mouth. She was afraid they might sting her. Was she the danger? They spit honey and venom on her tongue, a bittersweet concoction. Night fell like a dark curtain. A cold scar moon hung overhead, a desperate lantern in deep dark. Sentinels wagged their butts and buzzed away from the giant hive. Awa flew among a thousand thousand bees toward Smokeland’s border, where flowers dissolved and cathedral trees crumbled into poison sand.
The slash of moon dripped blood. Confused bees flew into the ground. They ate their own wings and stung rocks. Faceted eyes clouded over and sparking hearts burned out. A thousand thousand wings flew ahead of Awa and turned to smoke. She choked. Confronted with the famed horror of the border realm, Awa tried to slow down, tried to turn back for bee paradise, but she no longer had the speed of thought. Her mind was sluggish terror and then blank as void-smoke enveloped her. A taste of the sentinels lingered in her mouth. A stinger caught in a tooth pricked her tongue. Venom flowed to her heart and she swooned.
Father and other good Empire citizens claimed there was no realm of imagination, no true land of visions and spirits. Smokeland was sleepwalking sickness, drunken dreams, or Green Elder nonsense. That explained tattoos, burnt hair, and the treasures folks brought back from their adventures. Smoke-walkers knowing what they shouldn’t or couldn’t was another matter. Father couldn’t explain that away. He just insisted Mother’s exotic herbs and concoctions were family secrets.
Southern thief-lords sold or burned any woman who knew too much. Northern savages sliced smoke-walkers from navel to chin to expel demons. Priests and witchdoctors poisoned their breath bodies and stole spirit-blood to power gate-spells or do other conjure. This was a living death. Good Empire citizens locked up smoke-walkers to train for priesthood if they were men or drain as transgressors if they were women. And a veson—what Anawanama northlanders called someone who was neither man nor woman—had to declare for one or another horrible fate: living as a man or dying as a woman. So …
Copyright © 2020 by Andrea Hairston
Interview copyright © 2020 by Daniel José Older and Andrea Hairston. Used with permission.