The taste of honey lingers on my lips as I stumbled from the bar, Benu bashing me on the back with a roar of laughter. I didn’t hear what he said, but I laugh along out of old habit. I’d say I’m drunk, but I only had one cup. It was the dancing girl’s eyes, rounds of copper sprinkled with gold flecks, ebony pupils dark as night. She tingles in my mind, effervescent. I will have her. I decided that the moment I laid eyes on her, wrapped in layers of fabric and a soft, supple mask almost as dark as her eyes. Her arms twisting above her head, her hips gyrating, her name… well, her name. I didn’t catch it before she disappeared into the crowd and my friends began pulling on my arm to leave.
I can’t sleep for thoughts of her. Food tastes of sand. I must find her again. I stumble through every drinking hole and gambling den, looking for her. Just when I began to think I’d imagined her, I spot her in the market.
I knew in an instant it was her. Even though her clothes are proper and demure, perhaps even too chaste for the weather. Even though her hair’s tied tightly beneath a scarf that hid more than it needed. But her eyes gave it away, glancing up at me only long enough to widen in surprise and recognition before darting back to the wares displayed on the booth’s table. I take my time, lingering as long as I dared, inspecting an amulet with Tesha, the goddess of hearth and home graven on it.
“How much is this one?” I ask her, hardly believing my daring.
“Twelve shians, diat.” Her voice is hardly louder than the desert wind blowing around us.
I hesitate. If I don’t at least bargain, she’ll know my intentions are false. Her starting price is far too high for this trinket. “Mian! It’s only ivory, not gold. It’s hardly worth six.”
A flash of fire in her amber eyes, in the sudden set of her jaw. “Ten, diat. it’s the finest ivory in the Shakarian province, engraved by the newest methods.”
“Eight, and not a chian more. Unless, of course, you’re the one who engraved it, mian-sa.” I shouldn’t add the superlative, I know, but I couldn’t resist.
One eyebrow twitches, and I know I’ve caught her out.
“So, not only do you dance, but you carve as well. What other talents do you hide?”
Her face goes moon pale. “I… I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. I merely sell the charms my mother makes.”
“Surely such charms could only be made by one with a steady hand gifted by Tuop and a clear eye gifted by Sial.”
“You overreach, diat-sa. Enough, lest the gods strike you for blasphemy.” She holds up a hand, as if to make a warding gesture.
I take her hand.
For a moment, the market banners and colors and smells and noises all fading away, lost in her eyes. For a breath, there is nothing but the two of us in a world gone silent and flat.
A single shout breaks our world into shattered glass.
I pull her hand towards the barriers, towards safety. Her hand goes stiff in mine, but she stumbles along behind me. We plunge into the barriers just as the wind crests the breakers, lashing behind us like a wall tumbling down.
Then there is nothing but sand and wind and the screaming of demons in the day gone night. Words whisper in the shrieking wildness, murmuring of power and of control.
Then a laugh, haughty and certain.
“You think you could upset my day, do you? I’ll have you know, I had plans this afternoon that didn’t involve you, so if you’ll kindly get on your way, that’d be perfect.”
I risk a glance at the woman who would cast aspersions on a sandstorm so fierce. She’s smaller than I thought she’d be, hardly larger than a half grown child. But the tumble of white hair tells me she’s no child at all. There’s only one woman that small in our village; The witch.
The witch shouts words in a guttural tongue I don’t understand at the sandstorm, and it demurs to her, sliding softly into nothingness.
She glances around, and her eyes focus on me.
No. Not me.
On the girl.
“Come Arista. It is safe now, and I will need your help to set things aright,” the witch says, gesturing at the girl, not noticing me at all.
Her hand lingers in mine for a moment, before falling away. “Yes mother.”
I would have been safer in the sandstorm.
Still, my money-purse grows thin with my purchases. Soon, our banter is more talk than haggling, and her laugh becomes my favorite sound. There are fewer storms this season than any I remember before, and it feels like the summer will never end. All the water I need is in her smile. All the fruit I can take is in her eyes glinting in the sunlight. All my world is in the nights where her mask disguises her from the world, and she dances in the shade of the daruian trees for me alone.
Until one day, Arista’s stand is not there.
I know where the witch lives. Everyone does. The tent set apart from the others, the tent with the impossible garden behind it. Now, I suspect why the garden is there, surrounded by barrier fences, mud daubed walls – not to keep out the shredding sands, but to imprison the loveliest flower of them all.
It’s simple to slip over the walls. It’s simple to step silently in the darkness, willing Arista to hear me.
It’s simple to stop when I see the witch, holding Arista chained and bent down. “Honored Akta-Sa…” I begin, my mouth going dry as the deserts surrounding us.
“Save your honeyed tongue for my disobedient daughter,” the witch spits. “I will have none of it. She is not for the likes of you to trifle with.”
“Mother, I love him! Don’t do this!” Arista cries out, a slap resounding as the witch turns her attention back to her daughter.
“Fine. If that’s the way you want it, then you will stay together, and to the desert with you!” The witch shouts, a whirlwind blowing from nowhere.
If I’d thought the sandstorm was bad, it was but a spring breeze in comparison to the gale blasting me now. Arista’s screams fill my ears, mingling with my own, and for a moment, there is nothing but pain as I fall to the ground. I force myself up, pushing to try to reach her, but my muscles freeze halfway. I’d scream if my throat worked, but instead the screaming stays in my head.
“I love you, Kerat!” she shouts.
The world blurs, and all I can see is her eyes, golden and beautiful and calling my name. Her skin is ivory, not just in metaphor now, but firm around her. My own half outstretched hand blends into the night. Flowers blossom in the desert around us, flaming sentinels in the shifting sands.