The Obsidian Temple: Chapter 1
Endless dreams, Sulis thought, aimlessly stroking Djinn's head as the big cat lay upside down on her lap. That's what her life was made of now. Dreams of swords and pain and people she loved being murdered. Waking up and knowing that those dreams were true. Her grandmother told her to use the meditation she’d learned at the Temple to clear her mind, to banish the dreams. But when she closed her eyes, all she saw was the silver glint of a steel sword, cutting into Djinn, and then slicing Sulis open. Meditation was useless.
“Useless only if you choose not to use it,” her grandmother told her sternly when she complained. “You have all the time in the world to master this. Put the past in the past where it belongs. Focus on this moment and know it is a good one.”
Sulis would have preferred that the nightmares just go away. She would have preferred that she still feel called to something; like the urge she’d had after her mother’s death to go to Illian and pledge at the Temple. She was empty of that calling now. Now, eight years after she first felt the One’s summons, she felt nothing. The One had used her as a tool—a catalyst to upend the pledging system—and needed her no longer. Whatever had been inside her, whatever had driven her, was gone, and the space it had left was cavernous. She didn't know how to fill it, how to fill her life.
Djinn reached a great paw up and touched her cheek to remind her she'd stopped stroking his head. She looked down at him, scratching behind his ears. He was still terribly thin, every rib showing under his tawny coat. His insides had been as torn as hers. Though the One had partially healed both of them, it had been a painful recovery. For Sulis, the pain had only become tolerable when Djinn had found his way back to her, after three moons of believing he was dead. She'd dreamed he was making his way to her in those months but hadn’t trusted herself to hope.
“And here you are again.” Her grandmother’s mocking voice shattered Sulis’s reverie. “Hunched over the cat, feeling sorry for yourself.”
Sulis frowned and glared up at her grandmother, whose tall, rangy form was silhouetted by the sun. “I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself,” she muttered.
Her grandmother dropped to sit cross-legged in the shade beside Sulis. “No?” she asked. “You weren’t sitting here thinking ‘Poor Sulis—no calling, used by the One, unfilled, unneeded?’ I must have been mistaken then.”
Sulis stared at her grandmother. She’d suspected for years that her grandmother could read people’s thoughts, but this was the first time her grandmother had confirmed it. The older lady smiled ironically and tipped her head to the side, telling Sulis she was on the right line of thought.
“You worry too much about what has been when the future is upon us,” Grandmother said cryptically, and Sulis sighed, tired of puzzles.
“In other words, you are an aunt now. Grow up, quit feeling sorry for yourself, and become a good example of what a desert woman should be like,” Grandmother said acerbically. “Little Datura will need that with all the changes that are coming.”
“Datura? Wait, did we get a message from Kadar?” Sulis stuttered. Her twin Kadar couldn’t be back in Illian yet, it was too soon after he had left. “How do you know her name? Why didn’t you tell Kadar that you knew it?”
The old lady shrugged. “Life unfolds in its own measure. Datura is her name. It is the right name for her, and she will grow into it and become who she needs to be.”
Sulis studied her grandmother, meeting her deep brown eyes.
No one knew exactly how old Grandmother Hasifel was. Sulis wasn’t even certain of her first name—everyone just called her Grandmother Hasifel (or “your grandmother” if they were talking to the twins). Her spare, tall frame was still upright as a stick, but Sulis had seen Grandmother twist herself into impossible shapes while in moving meditation. Her skin was a burnished copper, her high cheekbones speckled with age spots and wrinkles. She radiated a restless energy, as though there was a raging river just barely contained under a thin layer of humanity. Her salt-and-pepper hair was oiled and pulled back in a tight bun now, but Sulis had seen it wild in an aura when Grandmother danced with the moon.
Grandmother’s face morphed suddenly and became Sulis’s own. Sulis’s eyes widened as she stared into what seemed like her own reflection. As Sulis watched, that face wrinkled and became sad, with bitter lines about the mouth as though it grimaced often and rarely smiled. The mock Sulis’s eyes were dull, and her shoulders sagged. Her entire figure became hunched, her white hair was cropped close to her head and her motions furtive. Despairing, bitter, and angry, this older Sulis seemed to have found only disappointment and faded into obscurity.
“Stop it,” Sulis ordered, her voice harsh, suddenly furious with her grandmother for showing her the terrible woman she would become. Djinn yowled once, sensing Sulis’s anger, and sat up beside her, his tail twitching.
“Will become?” Her grandmother’s voice came out of the hunched figure. Suddenly the image was again Sulis, young as she was now. Sulis swallowed against the nausea the wavering form invoked.
Which again began to change, this time surrounded by smile lines. The woman had a tall spine and radiated as much power as Grandmother, her limbs free and easy as white hair smoothed down her back. This elder Sulis was still wrinkled and wizened, but she looked like she laughed, like she ran, like she enjoyed life. This Sulis looked like she ruled. Djinn purred beside Sulis and settled back down, leaning against her.
“Yes.” The eyes were Grandmother’s again. “How you find your path forward from pain and disappointment is a choice, not an inevitability. Living life without hesitation after failure is a choice. Loving after betrayal is a choice. Forgiving, even forgiving yourself, is a choice. It’s not an easy choice; no life changes are. A choice, nonetheless. Choose or be what you fear. Come to me when the choice is made. “
With that, her grandmother stood fluidly, her face her own once again. She nodded to someone behind Sulis and strode toward the village center without looking back.
Sulis glanced behind her to see Ava standing in the shadows, one hand over her mouth, her blue eyes wide. A scarf over her blond hair protected the sensitive lighter skin of her neck and shoulders. Ava was a Northern Territory transplant, a girl of the Forsaken caste from the Temple city of Illian. She had been sent to Shpeth to heal after being kidnapped and abused in her home city. Her sister was Kadar’s lover, Farrah—who was the mother of his newborn daughter.
Kadar had mentored the girl while he was at Shpeth, trying to make her comfortable in her new home. She’d been hovering around Sulis since Kadar left, but Sulis had made few attempts to befriend the young girl, not wanting to be responsible for yet another innocent life.
“So that really did happen?” Sulis asked in a conversational voice. “It wasn’t just some crazed vision?”
Ava nodded and plunked down beside Sulis. She set a pouch down in front of her.
“She looked just like you,” Ava said breathlessly, ruffling Djinn behind the ears when he leaned into her. “Then she changed. Twice. Into two different versions of old-person-you. I never knew anyone who could perform magic without a feli before I came here.”
Sulis grinned and tugged on Ava’s scarf. “You get used to her,” she said with a laugh. “After a while, you hardly even notice it.”
“You are used to her,” Ava said seriously. “You act like she’s just another person, like she isn’t the leader of the whole community and religious system. But the rest of the village treats her with respect.”
Sulis cocked her head to one side, thinking about it. This was the most she’d heard Ava talk yet. “They fear her?” she asked curiously.
Ava shook her head, looking thoughtful. “Not fear, no. My people back in Illian feared Voras and his soldiers, and it’s not like that. They respect her, and they’re wary because they know what she could do, but they aren’t scared of her because they know she won’t do something evil,” Ava said. “When she turns her attention to you, it gets really hard to breathe, because she’s so intense. And you really, really don’t want her to be disappointed in you. Not even the grown-ups want that.”
Sulis smiled at Ava as the girl opened her pouch and removed a half-finished drawing of Djinn and some pencils. Ava had recovered well from the abuse by her captors less than a year ago, partially because of that intense attention from Sulis’s grandmother. Sulis suspected that her grandmother had blocked some of the worst memories from Ava’s mind, or perhaps just dimmed them so the girl could heal and be free to enjoy the last of her childhood. She knew that her Grandmother had somehow put the common desert tongue of Sanisk in Ava’s mind because she now spoke it as fluently as any desert dweller. Even so, Ava was more reserved than the other desert children, more mature in many ways. Sometimes she seemed lighthearted, playing with the other kids. But she also had dark, changeable moods, and Kadar had sadly told Sulis about the little happy chatterbox she used to be before the attacks. Ava now spent hours bent over a paper with pencil or ink. She expressed herself through her drawings, capturing her new life with incredible realism.
“I know she was talking to me, too,” Ava said in a low voice, her eyes on her drawing, and her hands started sketching. “What she said about choices. She’s told me that a lot. I think she wants me to go back to Illian to help my sister.” Ava looked up into Sulis’s eyes. “But I’m not going back. I can’t change anything there. They’d say I was tainted even though being attacked wasn’t my fault, and ignore me because I’m Forsaken and a girl. They’d probably kill me. I’m not afraid to die anymore,” she said fiercely, “but I don’t want to die for no reason.”
Sulis put an arm around Ava’s shoulders, a little shaken by her speech. This girl had gone through more than Sulis had, and with less blame for what had happened to her. And she had survived and was still fighting
They sat in comfortable silence a few minutes as Sulis watched Ava fill in her drawing, capturing Djinn’s essence with just a scrap of lead and paper. Sulis mulled over her grandmother’s words and what they meant to both of them. Grandmother had hinted that she had duties for Sulis, duties that Sulis had resisted while still trying to follow a past that was dead and gone.
“I think you’re wrong,” Sulis told Ava after the girl had finished and tucked the drawing back into her pouch. “Grandmother never willingly sends anyone to Illian if she can avoid it—she calls it a ‘stone pit of vipers.’ She was talking to both of us about choices, and I think she told both of us to see her when the choice is made.” Sulis smiled as Ava looked up at her. “You want to learn to make a difference, so you’ve made your choice. Guess I should heave my old bones up and go tell the old desert cat I’ve made mine as well. Want to come along?”
Ava scowled as Sulis got to her feet. “Not if you’re going to call her an old cat. I don’t want to be anywhere near the explosion that would cause.” She wiped her hands on her pants before grasping the hand Sulis held out to help her up. Djinn just rolled onto his side in the shade and heaved a big sigh.
As they walked to the community center, Ava added, “And you’re not old, Sulis. You are pretty bony though.” A smile lit her fair face at Sulis’s growl.
* * *
Illian. Kadar's heart sang with joy as they entered the southern gates of the city. He was returning to the woman he loved. He was meeting his little girl for the first time. Kadar frowned as the caravan stopped. He was also stuck in a slow crowd half a city away from both.
“What is it?” Kadar called to his uncle Aaron, who had left the lead wagon in the assistant driver’s hands and was calming the restless mules.
Uncle Aaron grimaced. “Soldiers searching wagons. Temple food stores were robbed overnight, and they’re looking for the thieves. We’ll not be stopped because our pass says we’re just in from the desert checkpoint, but it’s holding everyone up.”
Kadar nodded, trying to hide his impatience. Uncle Aaron had warned him there was unrest in Illian. Minor skirmishes were occurring between the Forsaken caste and the soldiers of the deity Voras. This created delays through the city as soldiers closed off neighborhoods searching for the perpetrators, who seemed to melt into the shadows as quickly as they arose to pelt soldiers with rotting vegetables and dung. The city guard usually protected Illian, but they’d been overwhelmed with this level of unrest. Instead, Voras’s soldiers, who served the entire Northern Territory, were called in to quell the uprising and keep order.
The delay was agony after the months of waiting to return to Illian. Kadar had spent the summer pacing the paths of his village in the desert, climbing the cliffs, worrying about his twin, Sulis. Though the One had brought her back from the brink of death after she’d been stabbed by the Voice of the deity Voras, Sulis’s wound had almost killed her.
Kadar had fled Illian with Sulis, knowing that his beloved, Farrah, would bear their child without him by her side. The twin bond he and Sulis shared had kept her alive until Sulis’s feli, Djinn, had returned to her, and she’d truly begun to heal in body and mind.
Kadar had waited impatiently as the days of summer cooled enough for caravans to travel through the desert once again, wanting to see the familiar colors of his family's banner on passing wagons. When Uncle Aaron finally returned with the autumn winds, he'd brought word of Farrah and Kadar's healthy little girl. Along with the good news, however, he brought word that Farrah's mother had been killed, trampled by soldier’s horses in the marketplace. Kadar had held Ava while she grieved and had wondered how Farrah was holding up under the strain of this death in addition to the care of their infant.
The caravan moved forward again, and they turned the string toward the merchant district and the family’s sales hall. Kadar heard a shout and saw his cousin Simon wave once before pelting back in the direction of the hall to spread the news that the caravan had arrived. They were met at the hall by Simon and his younger brothers Kile and Abram, who began unloading the mules as Kadar toyed with his horse’s reins impatiently.
“I sent Yanis to the house to let Da know you’re here,” Simon told them.
“Go on ahead,” Uncle Aaron told Kadar, grinning at his impatience. “We’ve got it covered. Simon can help me stable the mules, and I’ll be up at the house for midmeal.”
“Thanks,” Kadar said. Turning his horse, he weaved his way through the traffic to the north side of town. As he approached his aunt and uncle’s house, a small crowd came out to greet him. He halted his horse and scanned the crowd for Farrah’s golden hair. He found the dark eyes of his aunt Raella, who shook her head slightly. Kadar swallowed his disappointment and dismounted. Farrah could not have known when in the day they would arrive. It was silly to be disappointed that she wasn’t waiting for him.
He turned away from his horse, handing the reins to Yanis, and Aunt Raella stepped forward to greet him, a small, almost shy smile on her face. For the first time he noticed the bundle she was holding, swathed in linens. It moved, and he gazed at the little face, then back at his aunt.
“Yes, she’s your daughter,” she said, laughing at his expression.
Kadar gently pushed back the blanket around his daughter’s face. Her skin was a warm brown, lighter than his own skin and silky soft to his touch. She wiggled and opened her wide blue eyes.
“Poor thing, she has my nose,” Kadar said softly, and startled when everyone laughed. For a few moments, he’d forgotten there was anyone but him and his daughter in the world.
“Here,” Aunt Raella said, holding the bundle out to him. “Hold her while I help Yanis settle your horse.”
“I don’t know …” Kadar fumbled a bit with his hands, worried he’d drop the fragile baby. Aunt Raella positioned his hands under his daughter’s head and neck and under her body. She was light, tiny, and he held her gingerly as Aunt Raella shooed him out of the sun and into the coolness of the front hall. He sat at the kitchen table and stared down at his little girl, cradling her against him. He and Farrah had never decided on a name. He wondered what Farrah called her—maybe named after her mother? He glanced up, and found an unfamiliar woman watching him.
She was clearly of desert stock like himself, with black hair and brown eyes, maybe a little older and jiggling a toddler on her hip. She smiled at him and the baby.
“You must be Kadar, then,” she said. “I’m Dana, the little tyke’s abda. Your family said you’d be getting into town the next few days. “
Kadar blinked, a little taken aback. He’d never thought of Farrah getting a wet nurse for their child. Northern women tended their own babies and seemed to look askance at the desert tradition of abdas. He hadn’t expected Farrah to be comfortable with the practice.
Kadar sighed. There were so many things he and Farrah never got to decide before he’d rushed off with Sulis. At least it seemed that his aunt and uncle had understood better than Kadar did what Farrah would need—they would have been the ones to find Dana and hire her since Farrah was a Forsaken, and Forsaken could not employ workers outside their own caste.
“Do you know what Farrah named her?” he asked, and flushed with embarrassment that he did not know his own daughter’s name. “Uncle Aaron said she hadn’t been named before he come to fetch me.”
Dana shrugged. “I don’t think she has an official name yet, but the family calls her Datura. Farrah said it was the father’s duty to name her.” She grinned, mischievously. “So I guess it’s up to you.”
Kadar looked back down into the blue eyes his daughter inherited from Farrah. Datura was a moonflower that grew in the more fertile parts of Shpeth and twined around poles and trees. A tenacious, strong vine that flexed with the wind without breaking, it thrived in the harshest soils and bloomed bright with the moon. It was the perfect name for a daughter of the desert. Kadar smiled and stroked Datura’s cheek gently with a finger, marveling at her tiny nose and rosebud mouth. She looked back at him and started making little smacking noises with her lips. She waved her tiny, chubby fingers in the air, curling them into fists.
“That’s my cue then,” Dana said. She set the toddler she was holding down on a blanket in the center of the room and gathered Datura into her arms as Kadar gently held her out. The toddler sat up and shoved his fist in his mouth, staring at Kadar as Datura was whisked out the room. Kadar stared back, bemused.
Aunt Raella and Uncle Tarik joined him as the family’s cook entered the room and plunked a cup of tash and a plate of meats in front of him.
“You met Dana then?” Raella asked, tickling the toddler. “A lovely girl. We were lucky to find her when Farrah’s milk didn’t come in. She needed a place in a household, and her son was the right age, so the timing was perfect for both of us.”
“Is Farrah running errands?” Kadar asked, finally voicing the thought foremost in his mind. “Will she be back soon?”
Aunt Raella grimaced and sat down. “Farrah is living back in her family home in the Forsaken district, taking care of her younger siblings and running her mother’s wash business. She’ll be by later to see you and the baby.”
Kadar was silent a moment.
“She doesn’t live here with the baby?” he asked.
Aunt Raella shook her head. “The stress of her mother’s death made the baby come early. She didn’t have enough milk for Datura; it sometimes happens when the mother’s grieving or sick in some way. Then when she came off the birthing bed, she had her two brothers and a little sister to care for.”
“We took care of them here at the house while she was recovering,” Uncle Tarik said. “But soldiers have been watching us since Sulis … and Farrah was afraid we’d be penalized if Voras decided we were sheltering Forsaken. Farrah wanted to protect Datura and took her siblings home.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Kadar said, looking between them. They didn’t meet his eyes. “Why would Voras care who we sheltered? What aren’t you telling me?”
Uncle Tarik frowned and looked down at the table. Aunt Raella watched him a moment then looked directly at Kadar.
“I think she left because it was too hard to be here while we took care of her daughter,” she said “Datura couldn’t nurse, and Farrah felt pushed out by the abda. Farrah was in no shape after the birth to do much, and she was too emotional over her mother’s death to bond with her baby.” Raella softened her tone. “Farrah barely pulled her little sister to safety before her mother was trampled. She was weeping over her mother’s body when her water broke. If the viceroy’s son hadn’t seen her distress and helped her come here, we might have lost Farrah and her baby.”
“Farrah stops in to hold Datura whenever she can. She clearly loves her little girl,” Uncle Tarik said. “But you have to understand, Kadar. Farrah didn’t cry over her mother’s death. She went cold, angry. The Forsaken have used that death as an excuse to start harassing soldiers. It’s only gotten worse since Farrah returned to her home in the Forsaken district. I think Farrah might be involved in the unrest, but she wanted her daughter safe, so she left her here.”
Kadar stared down at his cup, his emotions swirling. Farrah had left their child. It was hard to believe. But he knew she despised soldiers and would want to exact revenge for her mother’s death. His aunt and uncle didn’t know Farrah was leader of the Forsaken movement, along with Kadar and Ashraf.
Aunt Raella reached across and patted his hand. “Don’t be so worried, Kadar. We were glad to care for Datura,” she assured him, misinterpreting his frown. “I love babies, and having two in the house makes me feel young again.”
Uncle Tarik chuckled. “You should hear your aunt, Kadar. I haven’t heard her sing so much since our boys were babies. Little Datura is lucky if she gets to sleep in her basket at all between Dana and Raella fussing over her.”
“A little girl,” Aunt Raella sighed. She lightly smacked Uncle Tarik’s shoulder. “Something you were never able to give me.”
Uncle Tarik smiled. “Your world will never be the same, with that little darling twining her way around your heart. More responsibility, more work, but that little girl will make everything worth working for. “
“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” Kadar breathed, thinking about his daughter’s tiny little nose. “Datura suits her. And she has her mother’s eyes.”
“Don’t get too attached to the blue,” Aunt Raella warned. “They’ll probably settle to a darker hazel or brown after a year. “
“I don’t care,” Kadar said. “She’s perfect. She’ll probably end up ruling the universe, with her great-grandmother and aunt being who they are.” He smiled, thinking about a little tyrant ordering Aunt Sulis about. It would be good for Sulis not to be the only girl getting away with everything. “I’ll let Farrah know I like the name. I’m surprised she didn’t name her after her mother.”
Aunt Raella looked uneasy. “The name came from your grandmother,” she said. “She sent a message right before the birth. Who knows how she knew it would be a girl. We thought it would be her usename and Farrah would give her a formal name, but Farrah said it was the father’s privilege to name the baby and wouldn’t give one.”
“I’ll talk to her about it and see what she really wants,” Kadar said. “We never got a chance to talk before I left.”
“Is anyone going to help an old man out?” Uncle Aaron called from outside. Kadar hastily gulped the rest of his meat and cheese and went out to help carry in the family goods. He glanced at the doorway Dana had disappeared through, hearing a soft lullaby, and smiled as he went about his work. He had all the time in the world to spend with his little girl now. He would make sure his reunion with her mother was memorable as well.