There was always fire burning in the big pit in the middle of the rei’sumae, no matter how hot it was outside. Even if it was a simple bed of coals, buried under a fine layer of ash, the fire was never allowed to completely burn out.
He sat before the pit, little face screwed up in concentration. He could feel the fire beneath the ashes, but he had no idea how to call it. It was fire. It didn’t listen. It didn’t come bounding gleefully into the room when you whistled, didn’t alight on an arm held out to the sky, didn’t beg for fish scraps when it followed you to the river. It was fire.
And yet, his mother said this was his lesson for the day. Call the fire. She sat at the far end of the long room, calmly working at her loom, seeming to ignore him. He knew better—den’Shelena saw everything. Like the great eye of Dareiya herself, mother’s namesake, the moon saw day and night alike, in darkness and light. Nothing was hidden from her.
But the fire remained hidden from him. He wanted to cry. Wanted to yell at the fire, to kick and rage and command it to rise, as he’d learned to command his scales. Was that the trick to it? Did he need to touch his serpent self?
Tentatively, he let a ripple of pale scales slide over his hand. His mother coughed, and he jerked back, tucking his hand guiltily behind him. But she kept weaving, picking up a shuttle of crimson thread, and he turned back to the fire. His hand was sheathed in red scales now, and when his mother remained silent, he reached out and brushed the ashes from the coals.
Mother had taught him to be very, very careful of his manners.
All growing up, hours in the long house had been spent practicing greetings and gestures, the languages of their neighbors, along with the dances and magics and stories of their own people. He felt confident he could handle anything, even with his adult’s wrappings still unfinished on his mother’s loom. Surely it was long enough by now?
But even without the ceremonial garment, his parents had agreed that he should travel with his father’s group to the h’somu Danhkkhna. It was probably better this way, actually, because dressed in the wrappings of a child, his mistakes could be more easily forgiven—Oh yes, overhearing that little bit of conversation had done wonders for his meditation, practicing to clamp his aura down tight so as not to offend their avian neighbors with his emotions.
And what of their offense to him, hmm? Why should he have to pretend to be something he was not, cut away a part of him so precious, so as not to be seen as improper? What exactly was proper about pretending not to be moved by the world around him? Mother said it would be a different story if they were coming to the longhouse—but of course, that would never happen. If a leh’Danhkkhna’ra came here, it would be a serpent member of their ranks. And even that was unlikely—why visit a small village on the borders of leshkan and lefu holdings, instead of visiting their respective strongholds?
And yet lah’Seth was expected to make the journey to the h’somu. And his son was expected to come with him.
But we don’t even want to be a kingdom, he’d complained to this mother. Why do we have to act like one?
Because we want the right not to be a kingdom, she’d answered, and left the longhouse without another word.
She wouldn’t return for another three days. And by then, he was finally emptied of everything.
Hannah was a piece of the sunlight itself.
Her mother, h’eija of the priesthood was even more radiant, shining with a light that came from within, but Hannah was still young enough that she merely glowed with power, rather than blazed.
Her golden wings had been the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
Standing behind her mother’s seat, an intricately carved stool with no back that let her wings spread wide behind her, Hannah was almost lost in the golden haze. She held herself so perfectly straight and still, he had wondered if she were part of the carvings. Though, honestly, he’d wondered that about everyone in the room. They could be standing in audience before an assembly of statues, cold jewels and precious metals wrought into the image of living beings, but completely devoid of life.
Then Hannah had shifted, ever so slightly, to get a better look at their party.
He wouldn’t have noticed it, except for the small flash of light as her mother’s blaze reflected off a razor-edged feather in Hannah’s wing. He told her this as they lunched on the balcony, after the formal introductions were over. She’d been dying to know what had draw his attention to her, over all the glittering throng of the priesthood. She’d stood perfectly patient throughout the rest of the audience, and even kept up the image of polite but detached interest through most of lunch. But finally, her curiosity got the better of her, and it had colored her aura with the slightest of tint. In a serpent, it would have gone completely unnoticed. But it was the first inkling of emotion he’d gotten off of any of these cold, beautiful people, and he’d pounced on it without a thought.
He’d apologized profusely, but that slip had allowed Hannah to finally breathe, and for the rest of the afternoon, they’d talked quietly and still politely about each others peoples, but he had finally felt like he was talking to another living person, and it had done much to put him at ease.
He thought of the little golden girl for weeks afterwards, a million questions he’d wished he’d been brave enough ask niggling at him in the night. Don’t you get lonely, locked in your own skin like that? What’s it like, being groomed to rule but not knowing for a certainty that it will be your duty? How do you work so closely with serpents and not laugh or cry or yell like they do? Why had our parents talked of allegiances, and fealties, and duties?
Are we going to be enemies some day?
Bird passed him another stone, and he hurled it violently into the river. It didn’t skip lightly, as all of Bird’s had, and he didn’t care. He hadn’t wanted to play this stupid game in the first place. Bird sighed and heaved to his feet, popping his back with a stretch.
“Alright, rei’shkan, let’s have it. You’ve taken enough of your rage out on the river. Time to talk.”
He scowled and thought about throwing himself in the river, but he knew Bird would never let him hear the end of it if he had to half-drown himself saving his best friend.
“I don’t want any of it, Bird. You know that.”
That man had no sympathy. And he had to admit, Bird was fully a man now. Sometime over the summer, when he had been in the mountains, his friend had grown up without him. Why he had had to go and Bird had been allowed to stay, he didn’t understand. Bird’s second form actually bore the mark of the king cobra. Who cared that he himself was technically closer to the royal line? Who cared about royalty this far out into the woods anyways? The fact that Bird still called him simply rei’shkan, cobra, was probably the only reason he hadn’t slipped his guard and cousin and went off to brood on his own. reijye Xane Kismeron lah’Seth’ra felt less like an actual name than it ever had, and more and more like the ropes he knew it to be. Whether harness or noose, he hadn’t yet decided.
Bird poked him in the back with the butt of his spear, earning his lanky cousin a growl. Bird only met it with a snort.
“Brooding’s done now, unless you want to go to be the h’somu and join the priesthood. I’m sure they could use another savage to watch over their little hatchlings.”
With the fluid grace and alarming speed of his animal form, he sprang from the ground and punched Bird firmly in the face.
“Don’t talk about Hannah!”
Bird looked up the dirt, crooked grin on his face, blood trickling down his chin.
“Finally, he speaks.”
He didn’t answer, fine tremors running through his limbs. If he spoke now, he would burn his cousin alive. Or pound his head into the dirt until his brains spilled out. Or both. His cobra temper had finally had enough.
Bird pushed himself into a sitting position, but otherwise didn’t move. He wouldn’t be the one to start this fight. Any more than he’d already done with his words.
“If she’s that important to you, do something about it.”
Apparently, Bird didn’t feel he’d said his piece yet. It was all he could do to calm his own anger, so he remained silent. Bird took that for an invitation to continue.
“You’re of royal blood, lah’Seth’ra. It may not count for much among our fathers, but the h’somu thought enough of it to invite you over me. You’re eligible for the priesthood, the real priesthood, and not just some glorified baby sitting job.” After a slight pause to taste the air, he added, “You could work together, as equals. H’il’li.”
Finally, he was calmed enough to speak.
“You know I can’t, Bird. I don’t have a twin, like my father. The line is completely dependent on me. My threads haven’t been on Fate’s shuttle for a long time. I’m already locked by weave and weft. And what has been woven can’t be unthreaded without tearing apart all else, the good and the bad.”
“And why must they be unraveled?” Bird said immediately, giving him no quarter. “It is you that hold to them, not the other way around. Let them go, and dance.”
It was so easy for his cousin. Bird would never be expected to lead, never be called on to sit on any serpent throne—the real one in Obsidian Castle or the just as heavy but never acknowledged one of his father’s people. Bird was the person who understood him the most, and even he couldn’t grasp the impossibility of his suggestion, his devil-may-care dare to dance freely. He couldn’t. He could not, so that his people could have the choice to. He gave the freedom they held so very dear, so that at least someone could dance. So that they could take that freedom for granted.
Suddenly, he was very, very angry. His rage flickered across his skin, lines of fire racing up and down his bare limbs and middle, his face. The fire burned all along his body, because it had no where else to go. He couldn’t direct it outward, at any effigy of his imprisonment. He couldn’t flame and rage at the cage that held him. So he burned, brighter and brighter like a falling star, spending its all in one last desperate dive to the earth.
When he’d burned himself out, Bird covered him with a blanket against the growing chill of the night, and climbed a tree to keep watch over their camp.
The fire raged across the white desert, re-charring trees that had already stood empty and black. Only the large dark rock by the lake, and the man sleeping in the hollow of it’s lee, remained untouched. The little campfire at Seth’s side went out, starved for oxygen as the larger inferno blazed on, razing the already desolate landscape.
Seth’s lips dried and cracked in the heat, and whatever other words he’d been about to say died. What tenuous grasp on wakefulness he’d had was stolen away, as the fire stole his breath, and he collapsed again into unconsciousness.