The Battle Drum
The Marion Sea is so named by the natives of the Drylands after the Eastern Star, “Marion.” Those who follow the star will find themselves at the shores of the mainland in three weeks. Celestial navigation appears to be the main form of wayfaring for the clear-bloods in the west who have made it to the continent. It is why we have struggled to map their land as precisely as I would have liked.
—Head Cartographer of the Zwina Academy, year 238 B.W.
The world bled blue. Sylah wasn’t sure why she hadn’t realized that before—the earth was a Duster.
Her toes clung to the sand, clenching and releasing the particles of dirt. Something swirled among the waves. She recognized the movement of it, the dips and twirls of the current. The laugh of a splash that she knew, she knew. Her feet left the ground, leading her toward the laughter.
Has she found me? Here at the edge of the world?
The Marion Sea curved across the horizon like an endless smile as it beckoned her closer. She waded in until her pantaloons were sodden to the waist and looked for the woman she loved between the eddies of the water.
Something sparkled beneath her, and as she bent to grab it the current became more urgent. The waves that had once been frothy as lace dissipated into a foam like fresh spittle. The sea picked and pulled at her clothes, and the smile on the horizon became a gaping wound bleeding into the oncoming sunset.
“Sylah, what the f*** are you doing?” Jond was shrieking like an eru in heat. She could hear the worried pitter-patter of his sandals at the edge of the shore twenty handspans away.
Her mouth twisted into a scowl at the sound of her friend’s voice. Former friend. Friends don’t try to kill each other.
Sylah didn’t indicate she’d heard him. She lifted up the shell she had found and watched the water trickle away. The water was not blue after all but colorless. Transparent.
“Of course, you’re a Ghosting,” she mused to the ocean. It seemed to tug back at her in confirmation.
The land she stood on belonged to the Ghostings: every grain of sand, every droplet of water. It was their world that the founding wardens had invaded. To silence the truth the Embers had taken the Ghostings’ tongues and hands. For more than four hundred years the wardens told the lie that the Ghostings were serving a penance for a rebellion. A rebellion that never happened. All they were trying to do was defend their own home.
Sylah had also had her life stolen. She had thought it was Anoor who had taken it, living the life Sylah should have had. But no, that was a lie too. Anoor was exactly where she should be.
A Duster as a disciple and they don’t even know it. The bitterness of her thoughts faded as the sweetness of Anoor’s face filled her mind.
Oh, how she missed her.
She looked at the piece of shell in her hand. The conch was pearlescent green, vibrant, happy-looking like the opulent dresses Anoor wore. Each shade of dress had a name, like “emerald” or “aquamarine.” Fancier names than “puke” and “mold” like Sylah had suggested.
A swift wave struck Sylah hard, and she found herself struggling to regain balance. The shell in her hand came loose, and for a panicked moment she lost it. Lost her, all over again.
“No, no, no.”
Her inkwell flashed silver under the water as she tried in vain to part the waves. It was embossed with a sprawling cascade of poison ivy. A reminder of the Warden of Crime who had procured it for her. Though Sylah couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a true reflection of her nature; she had poisoned every relationship she’d ever had.
A glimmer of turquoise.
Sylah lunged for the shell, pulling it from the clutches of the ocean. She clasped it against her chest.
“Maiden’s tits,” she hissed.
In her eagerness she had squeezed the shell too tightly and the edge had sliced a fine line through her palm. The salt water prickled as it sated itself on her red blood.
Just like Anoor, the shell has bite.
Smiling wryly, Sylah reached for the sword that hung from her waist. It was sheathed in a scabbard that still smelled of Anoor. Sandalwood. As she withdrew it, the sunset illuminated the embossed gold of the hilt.
—Yellow arterial blood sprayed like warm honey.—
She winced at the memory. Not because of Loot’s severed head that she held in her mind’s eye, but because of the impossibility of it. Loot had been the leader of the Sandstorm, but no one Sylah had ever met had yellow blood.
Sylah looked up to the sky.
“Lies upon lies upon lies,” she whispered in anguish to the God the Abosom priests said lived behind the clouds. Sylah wasn’t so sure.
She thrust the tip of the blade through the outer shell, chipping away some of the color. The Anoor-shell would be braided in later. Another piece of Sylah found.
“Sylah?” Splash, splash. Jond really was worried if he’d got his feet wet. The sandals he’d been wearing were threadbare enough without sea salt getting into the leather.
“What are you doing?” His voice careened into another octave.
“Waiting,” Sylah called back without turning her head. She stole another look at the horizon, wondering if the truth lay somewhere beyond it.
I don’t know.
She sighed and began to wade back toward the shore where Jond was standing. “Just waiting for you to start the dance.”
Jond’s eyes narrowed in anticipation of the insult that he hadn’t yet grasped. “What?”
“I heard male erus shake their balls during the mating dance. If you’re expecting to attract Boey, you’ve got to try a little harder. The shrill was pretty good, though, right, Boey? Maybe on the high side?”
The giant lizard settled herself deeper into the blue sand, her third eyelid closed as if blocking out the sight of them could drown out their incessant bickering. Jond’s face screwed up in disgust, and he turned toward the carriage hooked onto Boey’s haunches. His own pantaloons were wet and clinging to his muscular legs. Sylah tilted her head and surveyed him.
Jond hadn’t weathered the four weeks of travel well. Although they never spoke of the injury he had sustained in the rune bomb, he held his left shoulder closer to his chest. Sylah had seen him wince more than once. His tight curls, usually kept tall on the top of his head, had matted together with sweat and grime.
Sylah’s own black curls had grown just long enough to braid again. The plaits hung limp over her large brow. Every time they had found a source of fresh water Sylah had diligently washed her hair and rebraided in the piece of bone from the Sanctuary and the spider brooch she had taken from Loot’s corpse. Now she had another token to add to the collection.
A gale laced with salt brought tears to her eyes.
“We need to find shelter.” Jond’s words cut through her thoughts.
He was right, the tidewind was coming.
“Ood-Rahabe isn’t far from here. The Ghosting settlement is meant to be in the caves just beyond it.” Sylah reached past Jond to retrieve the map that was never far from her sight. She unraveled it on the ground and carefully avoided looking at the bottom corner, though the shape of the word “Nar-Ruta” seared into her peripheral vision. She didn’t want to see how far they had come, how far away they were from the capital. From Anoor. All she wanted to do was go back to her. But Anoor had tasked her with bringing back aid to help stop the tidewind, and Sylah wouldn’t let her down.
“How long?” Jond asked.
“Half a strike, maybe less.” Ood-Rahabe was a dot of ink on the map, smaller than a coin among the towns and cities of the Wardens’ Empire, but it was a mere grain of sand in the wider world. Sylah’s hand splayed across the new world where they were headed. It could have swallowed the Wardens’ Empire ten times over.
“The tidewind will be here before then. We need to go,” Jond said.
Sylah nodded and rolled away the map, slapping Boey’s rump with the tube.
“Stop sleeping, you’ve got to get us to Ood-Rahabe in under half a strike and according to Hassa, there will be someone to greet us and lead us to the Ghosting Settlement.”
Boey huffed through her nostrils but didn’t move. Sylah ground her teeth.
“Want me to drive?” Jond asked.
“Get in the carriage.” Truly, Sylah was sick of driving, but she couldn’t trust him not to turn Boey around at the first opportunity.
“Can I get some help?” The words were cruelly twisted, as if Jond’s mouth spat them out without his mind wanting them to.