Chapter Twelve: Shining
After his third day of wandering through the desert with little water and less food, Talyn was less convinced that his plan on how to manage a long-term stay in Ryganaav had been a clever one.
He was also beginning to doubt the timetable which suggested that he ought to be reaching his town of choice any angle now, and wondering whether going on any farther would lose him his ability to call for a bailout from Leekath via Keo. If he passed out, how was he supposed to remember what to think to get help?
Why was the sun so blindingly bright?
Talyn was tanned almost as dark as a native from the times when he was too abominably hot to keep all his wraps on. His ears were shaped to match; it turned out that Leekath could hear everything she needed to do proxic workings on him by listening to the proxy. (She'd then kept it active for the next four angles, listening to it monologue about every feature of Talyn in utter fascination until he'd warned her that drain would hit to correspond with how long she'd left the connection.)
All he needed was to actually find a native to pretend at, sell his story, and go from there, keeping his devilish powers to a minimum apart from liberal reading of minds to supplement his acting skills.
He was so thirsty.
He looked like a human, he wasn't going to flash powers at anyone, maybe they would give him water? When he got there? Was that a town or an optical illusion?
Was it strictly necessary for there to be all of this sand?
It looked like a town. Talyn tried to ask it to please be a town, but the power of speech had abandoned him. His body was using its limited reserves of liquid for sweat, not spit. He swallowed his very last mouthful of water.
"Be a town," he rasped.
It was a town.
He got into the shade of a building and fell over.
"Papa, look," said a little girl's voice. "Papa, it's a man over there."
"Is he passed out drunk?" asked a boy. "Who is that? I don't recognize him."
"He has silly hair," said a different girl.
"The Setaarik have a boy that age," said a different boy.
"That's not him, though," the first boy said.
"Does he need help? Is he okay?" asked a third girl. "Too much sunshine?"
"I like sunshine," opined the first girl.
"I see him, I see him," said a man's voice. "Boy? Boy, are you awake?"
Talyn opened one eye and looked up into a bearded face with black eyes. "Water," he groaned.
"I like water, too," the first girl said.
"What happened to you?" the man asked.
"L-lion-devils," Talyn said. "Caravan. All dead. Water."
"Jisaal, your water," said the man, snapping his fingers. "We're almost home; you can spare it. Share Asfaan's if you need to."
"Here, Papa." It was the third girl's voice.
The mouth of a waterskin was held to Talyn's lips and he swallowed as much as he could, until it was gone. "Thank you," he gasped when he'd gotten the last drop down. He felt miles better. Still half-starved and he could definitely get down another gallon of water if someone offered, but better.
The man with the beard helped him sit up. Talyn leaned against the cool stone of the shady building. "I'm Azef Milner," he said. "Have you got a name?"
"Taalen," Talyn approximated; a direct transliteration would make his name sound like a girl's. "Kasten. Where - where am I?"
"Egalon," Azef said.
"Quite safe," Azef assured him. "Lion-devils don't touch this town. There are too many of us."
"Oh," said Talyn. "Good." He closed his eyes. "They're all dead. I was fetching water and when I came back they were all dead."
"Look, Taalen," said Azef. "Why don't you come home with us. Got a soft spot for you - lion-devils killed my brother - we'll get you patched up and maybe you can find work here, or at least we can keep you going until another caravan comes through for you to sign on with."
That was... actually significantly better than Talyn had hoped for. That was extremely nice.
"Yes," said Talyn, "thank you," and when Azef extended a hand to help him up, Talyn gave back the ten years he'd lopped off the end of the man's life.
Azef kept camels. Caravans in a hurry could trade him their tired camels for fresh ones, for a fee, and pass through without having to stop; he employed a vet who could patch up damaged animals; he bred them and sold them and stabled them on behalf of others. His house held him, two wives, and eleven children. The oldest two were boys, half-brothers close to Talyn's age, named Akar and Roles. They worked with the camels, and they were the ones to show Talyn the ropes of his new job.
"It's pretty simple, really," Akar said. "Camel dung goes in the cart. Shovels are kept over there. When someone's carting it away and the cart's not here - that's Roles's job -"
"Between fetching water and checking sums," Roles put in.
"Then you don't shovel, you comb," Akar went on. "People want to buy clean-looking camels. They don't have to be pretty enough to raise our taxes, mind, just get the snarls out. If you see a sore or a cut or anything on a camel, you tell the vet."
"Don't let them kick you or bite you," Roles added.
"And just comb our camels, not the boarding camels," said Akar. "Unless you're off shift and they pay you to and you want to make the extra money. That's allowed."
"If you find a sore on one of those, you don't have to tell the vet, either," said Roles. "But you can tell the customer and tell 'em we have good rates on patching up that kind of thing."
Talyn knew a few things about working with animals, from wild kamai studies and from his next-oldest sister being in training to become a vet herself. That, and mind kamai, let him follow the instructions about as well as everyone expected a former caravanser to.
It was boring, but the minds around him weren't.
Roles carted away the dung (to be sold, as fertilizer or fuel), carted in water, and was learning to take over for the accountant. He thought about saving money, because when Azef died, Akar, slightly older, would inherit everything except for Roles's mother. Roles thought that this would threaten his closeness with his brother, if their finances differed that sharply that suddenly, and sought independent wealth more because he wanted to be Akar's equal than because he wanted to buy things with it, although he did like the look of a neighbor girl. (Talyn took two days to stop wanting to shudder when someone thought about buying or selling a woman. He took three days after that to stop wanting to shudder when he thought about how it no longer sounded weird to him.)
Akar kept track of all the camels and maintained the camel-related gear; he handled customers, when the place was busy and his father was occupied; he shadowed the vet and knew a handful of the relevant herbs and surgeries and ways to keep an angry camel from biting a chunk out of one's arm. He thought about his sisters and half-sisters, because when Azef died, he would inherit all five of them. He could give his two half-sisters to their full brother Roles, perhaps, without causing insult, and then those two could be taken care of and out of his hands, but he didn't know how to run a household, even if he felt like he could probably step into place in the business without causing a disaster. He didn't even want to think about getting married.
Talyn boarded in a tent by the camel ranch with some of the other employees. It was near enough Azef's house that he could listen to the family's thoughts at night. These were more worth eavesdropping on than the concerns of his other co-workers, most of whom were resentfully poor single men, often drunk, concocting elaborate fantasies about the girls they'd buy if they could or getting into fights with each other about nothing.
Azef's family was happy. His wives loved him and got along with each other and doted on their children. His sons looked up to him as a paragon. His daughters practically worshipped him, even his eldest Jisaal, who was already the subject of a small bidding war.
Talyn left the Milner family's lifespans alone, although he did find opportunities to take all of their CCs.
He was less restrained about the people he encountered in town, when he swapped his pay for meals twice daily, or attended temple services every three days.
All it took was patting a child on the head, shaking a man's hand, tapping someone on the arm to ask them if they'd dropped a coin he'd been holding all along, and he could have one more decade and a couple hundred more units of channeling capacity.
Temple services were the worst part of his little adventure. Morbidly fascinating, yes, but they revolved around overwhelming amounts of hatred and self-righteous venom to convey even the pleasantest parts of the message. Talyn had to fake trauma flashbacks as aftermath from his cover story to hide his disgust. Everything revolved around building a strong and cooperative society to rise up and overwhelm the devils, eradicate devil-powers, and reattain the favor of the gods. There were five gods - Makas, Sinhar, Isir, Lal, and Edantas - and all of them were apparently agreed that the best reason for their worshippers to do anything was to be more effective at killing devils.
Don't cheat your neighbor; he's a human, and your ally in the great fight! Work hard and long; we'll need the products of your labor to feed the army of the faithful! Don't hoard your daughters rather than sell them; they are needed to bear and raise righteous children! Come to temple every time it meets; chase out doubts and corrupting influences that could hurt the cause! Don't hide a child who manifests devil-powers; they're agents of Koraalin the Corrupter and will spread their poison to their family and neighbors - better to kill them right away! But don't kill humans you just happen to dislike; what if devils attack next week and you need one more man at your side? Pay your taxes honestly to support the temple; keep the messages of truth alive! Don't waste water or food; these are important wartime resources!
Outside of temple, Talyn didn't pick up much prevailing sensation of being at war, but in the midst of a shouted litany of hate, everyone viewed themselves as a combatant or a supply line. Jisaal entertained lengthy fantasies of producing an entire platoon of sons who would drive leonines extinct once and for all and carpet her husband's house in their pelts. (She'd seen one leonine, once, from a great distance, and had been able to entertain neighbor girls for months with embellished stories.)
Akar watched the priests preach with fire in his eyes and thoughts of practicing with his knives more. Roles didn't hope to live to see the last devil executed, but he thought maybe his grandchildren would, and let himself imagine an idealized grandson put a long-eared monster that looked like no actual species to the sword.
Azef himself seemed to take only the better parts of the content home - he was moved to support his family as well as he did in part because he expected that one day they'd be under attack, like in the assault that had claimed his brother, but he didn't particularly want to start the war or occupy the front lines. In the moments when he thought in more detail, he wanted the devils to die out quietly, convicted of their wretchedness and the futility of standing against the gods. He wanted them to go to their assigned hells without bloodshed. He didn't expect them to do it, but he wished.
The littler children didn't have much sophisticated understanding of the content of the sermons. But they were caught in the frenzy. Azef's five-year-old girl, Oris, swung her legs where they dangled from the high seats in the temple and tried to imagine what devils looked like. In her head they were terribly ugly shapes skulking around in deep darkness and eating little children for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If she contemplated magic, it looked like black slime that emanated from the monsters and moved things around or changed them, leaving everything it touched warped and misshapen.
Sometimes after temple, Talyn was invited to supper with the family. He always went. Jisaal thought he wanted to buy her (he couldn't have afforded her even if he'd wanted to, and she knew it, scoffing at him privately), but mostly, he was there to talk to Akar and Roles.
They were becoming his friends.
That hadn't been part of the plan, but he had a hard time regretting it when Akar taught him a dice game ("don't they play this in your part of the country?") or Roles relayed a joke he'd overheard ("so a farmer and his wife travel to Pridetaal with six pots of ostrich meat...") or either one expressed genuine sympathy at Talyn's invented losses.
"Did you see the devils?" Roles asked once.
"I saw a dead one," Talyn said, setting the facts he made up to music so he could remember them. "Someone killed it in the fighting, I guess. I didn't see any live ones."
"Was your family in the caravan or were you signed on alone?" Akar asked.
"My whole family was there," Talyn said. He would be able to recall the story more easily if it borrowed more of his real life; he couldn't plausibly include all of his brothers and sisters, but he could include versions of the ones in his batch. "My father brought all of us everywhere."
"Do you think any of them are alive?" Akar asked. "Sometimes the lion-devils keep slaves instead of eating everyone. I heard in Lokyvan - that's the town east of here - there's a woman who was kept by them for six years, and then she escaped and found her brother who she belonged to. And then her brother got a bunch of men together to go where she said they were, and they killed them all and freed a bunch more people."
"No," said Talyn firmly. He couldn't have anyone encouraging him on a rescue mission. "They are definitely all dead. I didn't see any human footprints leaving the camp except for mine, but there were plenty of lion-devil tracks."
"I'm sorry," Akar said, frowning and patting Talyn's shoulder. "It's grotesque - humans aren't meant to be food or slaves."
Talyn didn't even have to suppress a retort about Akar's mother and her co-wife and all of his sisters.
He didn't think of it until he was going to sleep for the night, angles later.
One of Jisaal's suitors - the new owner-by-inheritance of a lemon orchard - finally, definitively won the bidding war. Azef used some of the money to send her to her new husband's home in style - there was a feast, and everyone who could conceivably share in the festivities was invited, including Talyn. Jisaal was pleased at the outcome herself - she liked the lemon farmer's turns of phrase and the way he laughed, and the fact that he was tall. Talyn wondered if Azef had actually consulted with her at any point or if it was just happy coincidence; he'd never caught either one thinking about such a conversation.
Talyn wondered if Jisaal would be happier free.
He thought she might not - he wasn't sure, but she might not - but decided that it didn't make it right, and anyway, he was reasonably sure she had it better than a lot of her peers. It was unfashionable to bruise one's wife visibly. That advertised to everyone who saw her that one had been unable to control her otherwise. But Talyn could tell when they were in pain even if they didn't limp or sport black eyes.
There had been a few purposes to his trip to Ryganaav. He'd managed to brush the hand of everyone in town. He didn't know what his lifespan had gotten up to, but he was probably at least competitively tasty relative to a dragon. He was certain he had the highest channeling capacity of anyone in the world unless Kaylo or Korulen or Leekath had been up to a lot of transactions. (He missed Leekath like a burn on his skin. He wanted to hold her all cool and contented against him. He realized with not a little dissonance that if she showed up to visit him she'd be murdered by the nearest force of people large enough to kill her.)
With that all done, he ought to have been seeing about getting home.
He didn't know what he was waiting for. He didn't exactly like shoveling camel dung, and the thoughts around him had gotten samey to the point where his passengers were starting to act up in quiet moments. He was pretty sure he wasn't going to think of a miraculously simple change that Keo could make at her leisure to transform the half-sane, half-abhorrent culture into something acceptable to better sensibilities.
But he waited, because he'd told Leekath "a month, tops" and he'd been there only four weeks, so he could afford to see what was holding him back, even if he did desperately want to see her again. Because she'd still only have a couple of angles in a day, and he would have to think of something to fill the others, and he didn't know what to fill them with.
He wasn't sure whether it was a cause of his dawdling or not, but he found something worth having waited for when he'd been in Ryganaav for four and a half weeks.
It was evening, and Oris, the five-year-old, was loitering around the camel yards trying to convince one to eat a weed while she waited for Akar to finish his work and come play with her. The camels disdained the weed, and so she carefully placed it in a feed bin and started following Talyn around instead as he wheeled the cart around.
"You smell like camels," she said.
"You would too, if you were around camels all day," Talyn said.
Oris giggled. "It's dark," she observed.
"That's what happens when the sun goes down."
"I like the sun to be up," she said. "It's pretty."
"You know you shouldn't look right at the sun. It'll hurt your eyes."
"Nuh-uh, the sun is nice." Oris watched the fading rays in the west. "It's pretty."
"It's useful. Helps us see," Talyn said.
"You have to see to do camel stuff," Oris realized aloud.
"I'll make a pretty and you can see," Oris announced as he pushed the cart into the camel stable. It was deserted; one of the camels was giving birth and a lot of labor was going into helping her with that.
"Are you going to get me a torch or som-" Talyn stopped short.
Oris was cupping her hands and holding up a little, sparkling ball of green light.
"Stop that," he snapped as quietly as he could. "Stop that right now."
She dropped her hands, startled, but frowned at him. "It's a pretty," she said. "And I don't belong to you even a little. I don't have to do what you say."
"Don't do that," he said, switching from sharpness to pleading. "Don't ever. Do you understand? It's - it will get you in very deep trouble."
"It's so pretty," objected Oris. "It's green. And sunshiney."
"You mustn't," Talyn said. "Don't. I'll - I'll buy you a bag of date candies if you don't do it any more, understand?"
"Oh. Okay," said Oris. But Talyn knew that wouldn't hold her long, not when the light was so pretty.
He had to get her out.
But Oris was older than Path and Naarin. She'd wake up if someone lifted her out of bed at night; she'd understand what was going on; she'd kick and scream; she'd draw attention to herself and then Talyn would have to do something drastic to get her out. In Esmaar, she had no family waiting for her. This was not something he could do by turning invisible and waiting for night.
Talyn evaluated his options as quickly as he could, shoveling mechanically and making sure Oris didn't wander away. He could do magic to her, to keep her power under wraps. Personality revision like she was a criminal. He ruled that out, not just because it was repulsive. Lights didn't just make lights, they liked light, they could go without eating solid food at all if they got enough sun - Oris was already paler than her siblings, she didn't tan, only soaked up the sun and smiled and remarked on how she liked sunshine. It would be enough to make them suspicious of her eventually even if she'd escaped detection so far. And he didn't know how to take that power from her. He couldn't implant an aversion to sunlight to cover it, either. For all he knew that would actually kill a light, and anyway she'd be obliged to go out of doors sometimes.
He had to get her out.
He had to kidnap her from her loving family to make sure that they wouldn't rally their neighbors and pelt her with stones until she died.
Talyn cast out his mental ears as far as they'd go. Maybe her parents and the other wife and her siblings would all be like Sarid. Maybe they would all listen to him, maybe he could get the entire family to move.
He listened harder than he had been, seeking not just what the family was thinking at the moment, but what they would think if Oris earnestly cupped her hands and showed them a globe of healing green.
"Will I get my candy soon?" Oris asked plaintively. "I like dates."
"As soon as I'm done," Talyn said. "Wait patiently, okay?"
He finished mucking out the stalls, having read enough minds to know that his optimism about the family was misplaced.
Azef wouldn't personally stone his daughter. But he'd let others do it, if he saw.
Oris's mother - Talyn took a moment to remember which wife she belonged to - Cheris. Cheris would want her daughter to live, if that were possible, but had other children to think about. She'd sacrifice Oris rather than leave Akar and Laalem and Miraan and Lishen and Miris all motherless trying to intervene and revealing her own "unrighteousness" in the process.
Talyn thought, though, that it might be possible to get Oris out without her kicking and screaming.
"Hey, Oris, let's go see your mama," he said. "And make sure there aren't already date candies in the house. If there are already date candies you might want me to get you a different kind, right?"
"Ooh. You're smart," said Oris.
He walked her back to the limestone structure.
"I like sugar limes too," Oris said. "Sugar limes are green. I like green."
"Green is nice," Talyn agreed hollowly.
"It's pretty," clarified Oris.
They entered the house. Cheris was cradling her baby girl Miris, trying to calm the infant down so she'd stop wailing. Talyn was quietly glad that the baby was screaming so much. No one else would be able to hear them talking.
"Tetal tis Azef," he said quietly. Her co-wife wasn't present to make the address ambiguous. "I have bad news."
Cheris's eyes went wide even as she kept rocking Miris in her arms. "What? What is it? Is someone hurt?"
"No," Talyn said. "Er, but - it's Oris."
"You said you'd get me candy," said Oris. "Mama, do we have date candy?"
"No," murmured Cheris, still looking at Talyn. "Oris looks fine, Taalen."
"Show your mama, Oris," Talyn said.
"You said I got candy for not," Oris said mulishly.
"I will buy you all the candy you can eat if you will just do what I say," said Talyn desperately. "Every kind of candy there is. Just show her."
Oris regarded him skeptically, then turned to Cheris, cupped her hands, and made the green light.
Cheris almost dropped Miris, which only made the baby cry harder. "Gods above," she whispered. "Oris, no, my baby, Oris, no -" Oris dropped her hands and looked puzzled.
"I've seen too many dead people," Talyn said. True, even if he was letting Cheris take the wrong idea from it. "I don't want to see any more. I'll run away with her if you let me and get her somewhere - else. You can pretend I took her without asking and scream and send everyone after me and no one will think you were involved. Will you let me save her?"
Cheris clutched at her infant, who was still screaming at the top of her lungs. "Where will you go?"
"A border," Talyn said.
"I don't understand," Oris said, her voice starting to tremble.
"You know what's beyond borders?" Cheris asked.
"Devils, who'll let her live," Talyn said. "She can grow up there. I promise you."
Cheris bit her hand and squinted her eyes shut, but finally said, "Go. I'll give you a head start and then I'm pretending you just picked her up and ran and I noticed her gone. If they catch you I can't protect you, do you understand? Run fast."
Talyn didn't have to be told twice.
He picked up Oris and ran.