Sweltering heat hit me like the sudden leap of a bonfire when I traded the protection of the mule-drawn cart’s tarp for burning sand. I clutched my satchel, squinting against the dying sun. Heat waves created illusions of life out on the sand. Sometimes they came as ripples on a pool of water. Others, a snake looking to escape under a rock. Or an Afar caravan carting slabs of salt cut from the desert’s floor to be sold in the market.
They were all just the desert’s cruel trick. There was nothing out here. Nothing but me, the merchant I’d caught a ride with in town, and that towering mass of structured stone in the distance that was to be my new home.
My frizzy curls stuck to my temples and the back of my neck as I fished a sweaty bill from my pocket, but the merchant held up his hand against it like I was offering him a spider. “No charge.”
“To show my appreciation,” I insisted.
I should’ve just kept my mouth shut. The cart had been a godsend after six others had vehemently refused. A simple sheet of wood raised between two sturdy wheels on the back end and a sweating mule hitched to the front. Plenty of room for me to curl up and rest, even if I had to share the space with the merchant and his clay pots of spices. And it had a tarp to lie under for shade. A tarp. Even so, it was my last bit of money, at least until this new job paid. Besides, if I was going to pay him, the least he could do was drop me closer to the door.
But, God bless him, the merchant insisted more frantically, his raised hand turning into an aggressive shooing motion. “God have mercy on your soul,” he said, and smacked the mule into a sudden run, kicking sand into the air as the cart circled back the way we came to take the long way through the desert.
The cloud of dust left behind stuck to every sweaty inch of me. I licked the salt from my lips and crunched on it.
Sand didn’t bother me. My insides were so coated with it, at this point I was immune. But I wasn’t so sure my employer would appreciate my appearance.
Hopefully he’d be forgiving. I needed this job. Badly. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten a proper meal. I mostly relied on the sand to coat my stomach, to trick my mind into thinking I was full. This job supplied a room and food. And a future patronage, which would ensure work for the rest of my life.
But one step at a time.
I waited until I was sure the merchant wasn’t coming back, then held the collar of my dress open to pull my amulet out from where it was hiding, holding it up to examine it for damage. The thin, pure silver, carved by the heat of my welding pen into the shape of a Coptic cross, was wrapped along the edges with various colors of thread. Each welded line and curve, each row of color, built up protection against Manifestations of the Evil Eye. Any imperfection could throw off the design and ruin the effectiveness of the shield. It was the first real amulet I’d ever made—the only one I’d ever made, since there’s no way Jember would’ve ever let me waste something as precious as silver for multiple tries.
Not to mention that this much silver could feed someone for a month, longer if they were frugal.
I hid my amulet under my dress again, adjusting the collar so the metal chain wouldn’t show.
It was a survival habit Jember had taught me to live by since the age of five: Protect your amulet better than it protects you.
I spent part of the three-mile walk to Thorne Manor dusting myself off with one of my clean dresses, and the rest of it gaping at the castle itself. It looked like something from a fairy tale—brown stone ground down unevenly and undefined by dust storms, parapets where ancient emperors might have stood, carved-out windows with glass added to them. There were castles like that in grassier lands, I knew, but here? Who would want to be emperor of the hottest desert on the planet?
Some foreign travelers called it “exotic.” Others called it “hell.” The second was accurate, heat-wise. But to look at it? Heaven. Salt and iron crusted the land in yellow and rust, making the desert look alive with magic. But even a wonder like that wasn’t enough to get travelers to pass this way, not anymore.
The Evil Eye had made sure of that.
It’s said the Evil Eye was the first Manifestation of sin—namely jealousy and greed. In a constant state of longing, it latches on to any human who desires the same thing it does. Thriving crops, a random string of good luck, even receiving too many compliments could draw unwanted attention.
But material possessions, especially too much money, seemed to be the worst offender. Most of the clients Jember and I saw were people who insisted on having too many nice things in their house. Or, in the case of the man I was on my way to see, more money than any one human should be allowed to possess.
It didn’t matter that the curse was confined to the walls of the castle, that the desert was perfectly safe if you knew how to traverse it. When it came to the Evil Eye, it was better to be safe rather than sorry.
Evening was settling, the sun peeking over the horizon before it said good night, when I finally made it to the castle. I lifted my fist to knock, then went for the sand-crusted rope hanging beside the door instead. Inside, an ominous bell echoed my arrival.
I waited, maybe thirty seconds, probably less—I don’t know, my aching feet were impatient to get off the ground and into a proper bed. Only the sound of footsteps stopped me from pulling it again. The door opened, splashing me with a gust of cold air like a pail of icy water. I shivered and clutched at the amulet around my neck, nearly second-guessing its power to protect me from what was inside.
A white woman with greying hair and a sagging frown scrutinized me from behind small wire-framed glasses. She wore a wool sweater and a long, heavy skirt—an odd outfit for inside, let alone in the desert. Her pale face and hands stuck out like chipped spots on a dark painted wall against her grey clothes and the stone foyer behind her.
She raised her eyebrows, her gaze lingering too long on my face, but not looking me in the eye. My scar. I rubbed my cheek like I was soothing a sudden itch, wishing I could take the long mark on my skin with it. I always forgot it was there until I met someone new, and they stared at it like I’d grown a third eye.
“Andromeda, I take it?”
With just those few words I could tell she wasn’t from around here. Amharic didn’t leave her mouth comfortably—it stuck in all the wrong places.
That is, unless she’d intended to spit the words at me like a curse.
I bowed slightly, trying not to wobble on my exhausted feet. “Yes.”
Exorcist. I forced myself not to roll my eyes at the word. It was vague, limited. We debtera led the worship services with hymns and chants, as well as performed all the duties of the priests, without benefiting from being ordained or esteemed. We were healers. Artisans. Trained to attune ourselves to the spirit world deeper than anyone else would dare to. But, I supposed, for the purpose of my employer … “That’s correct. The exorcist.”
The woman bit her lip. “You look awful young.”
“I look it,” I agreed, but left it there.
“This is not a job for a child.”
Copyright © 2021 by Lauren Blackwood