The first sign Bas’hai sees is a break in the shimmer. There is something wrong on the horizon between the dunes; a shift invisible to less piercing eyes. But Bas’hai has been standing here, on this cliff, for two years, the first of four lookouts strung along the edge, and that is no mistake: she is one of the best Shashti, so she gets the post on the bluff. It is she who must make out the first speckles of dust the bedri’s hooves are bound to throw as their riders reach the farthest dune; she who must count how many mounts, how many riders, how many weapons; she who must send the signs to the next lookout and he to the next; and at the end of the relay is the spot where the Lashti stands and can be heard across all of Shahanan. Lashti, the Voice; Shashti, the Sight. You cannot be one and the other.
But today neither will be needed. Bas’hai squints into the hot air, the treacherous air that offers most Shahan only lies and delusions. It never lies to her. A minute passes, then another. Her sweat gathers at the roots of her short-cropped hair, wets her temples, and she tastes the salt in her mouth. No use. The horizon is still again, moved only in waves by the bleak light of the Suns. The air does not lie to her, but it jests. The long wait will not end yet.
Still, she resumes her watch, her attention redoubled. In the distance, the glistening heat blurs the horizon and welds together the ground and the sky. It is like a brushstroke, if you could paint with colors: the red sand turning yellow as you look away from Shahanan, the burnt green shrubs scattered across the dunes, and the pale bleached sky, a light blue like Mele’san’s eyes. They say each time the riders come, the ground bleeds into the sky and turns it red, the sand redder. The thought sends a shiver down Bas’hai’s spine—not in dread but in anticipation. The wait has been grinding her patience. The memory of war cries pulls on her blood.
When she ends her shift and makes her way back to the city, the heat is unbearable. Her eyes are starting to hurt, and her breath catches in her throat. A few moments longer and she might find the city locked down; she is cutting it close, and she knows it. The riders would never appear after the Suns have passed the third dune; it would be as deadly to them as it is to her, the scholars say. But she is wary. The scholars know much, but even they have no knowledge first-hand; not a living Shahan does. So she stays until she knows she can stay no longer, until even the bedri have crawled inside their large carapaces and gone to sleep. As she, the last of the lookouts, enters the city, the guard salutes her from the door of his cavern and she smiles back. Then the massive clay gates slam shut behind her
Before the air becomes unbreatheable from the heat, Bas’hai seeks out the general. The horizon turned still again, but the disturbance was there, clear and noticeable, for the first time since Bas’hai has started her mission. It is bound to have meaning, and it deserves reporting. Bas’hai takes pride in being a good soldier; her gift has rescued her from a despicable life, and every time she uses it for the benefit of her people, she feels a rush of pride.
The general sits in his day house, a man of many years, stern of face and kind of gaze. Although he wields immense power, with every Shahan ready to answer his commands, nothing in his clothing or his demeanor distinguishes him from other elders. His garb is simple and grey, devised for one purpose only: to conceal him against the stone and the sand. Within the city’s sturdy walls, subject to the same rules as any Shahan, he carries no weapons.
Bas’hai can barely speak above a murmur, and using her voice hurts her throat, so most of the time, she signs. He watches her now with patience, his hand bringing here and there a date to his mouth. When she is finished, he sits back and takes a reassuring tone.
“It’s probably nothing. The heat is high today, and you were on duty for many hours. They haven’t been spotted in centuries. If they do come, they won’t announce themselves. You’ll see the whole army, or none of it.”
Bas’hai lingers, considering whether to insist. Complacency is not permitted to her people; the general knows that and must be above such feelings. It is on her, then, to weigh her thoughts and convey her hunch with clarity.
“Still, perhaps the army could be gathering—”
But already he adds: “Good job, soldier. You can rest easy,” then he bites on another date and returns to the papers laid out before him.
Bas’hai should feel frustration at being dismissed, but instead, she is filled with quiet satisfaction. It is rare to receive such direct praise. She gives a shallow bow and makes her way out.
Bas’hai’s voice, like that of all the Shahan gifted with the Sight, is hoarse and broken. Mele’san, on the other hand, can barely make out shapes if they are at the farther end of the table. But that does not matter; Bas’hai is the one who guides them through the pale narrow streets, and when they are together, they require no words.
They sit in one of the sleep caverns, facing each other, their hands almost touching but not quite. There is very little light; if it could seep through the cracks, so could the heat, and they would all be dead in minutes. For Bas’hai, that makes sleep caverns the perfect refuge. The last of the luminous bees flies away and plunges them into darkness. Bas’hai extends her hand and finds Mele’san’s fingers open, waiting. She pulls them to her until Mele’san’s whole body is breathing against her, and her silent lips seek out Mele’san’s.
They fall asleep entangled on the cavern floor, Bas’hai’s head resting on Mele’san’s hair like a cushion.
Usually, when Bas’hai closes her eyes, exhausted by the day’s heat, all she sees is a comforting black. But tonight, a harsh light invades her rest, and there she is, standing in the desert again. Sand extends in front of her, heat presses on her temples, and the horizon trembles like it did earlier, but now the tremor only gets stronger. Before she can even squint, it grows before her: the dark cloud of the riders bearing down upon them.
But that is all she can make out—a cloud. There are no details there, no features, and no matter how long she stares under the crushing heat, with her body welded to the rock, she cannot see what is truly there. She is blind like a little child, like she was before the Sight came to her, and she screams, but no sound comes out, for she has no voice. And there she stays, a traitor to her duty, as her life flows back to the desert like so many others before it. Then she wakes.
The cavern is pitch-black around her, the only sound the low purr of Mele’san’s rest. Bas’hai extends a hand to caress Mele’san’s hair, just a light touch, a familiar reassurance, but Mele’san stirs awake at once. “Is something wrong?”
Bas’hai feels her own heavy heartbeats resonate on the stone floor. Even in the dark, Mele’san’s pale eyes always glint a little, like a beacon of smooth glass.
“Earlier today, I saw something on the horizon, I’m sure of it. What if... what if they’re really coming...”
Mele’san stops her with a finger on her lips. “Breathe, my love. If you saw something, then it’s worth reporting. You should speak to the general.”
“I did. He says it’s nothing...”
Mele’san’s melodious voice hardens to a chuckle. “Of course he does... Bring it up to the Council, then?”
“What do you mean, of course he does?” Bas’hai is surprised at the doubt in Mele’san’s words. The general is a good leader, not someone she ever questioned.
“I only meant, if you saw something, then... I hope you were wrong, but you should still pursue it. That’s just what I think. Let’s go back to sleep now...” Already she trails off, and Bas’hai sees her pale irises disappear in the dark.
“You hope I’m wrong...? Why?” Bas’hai whispers, but no answer comes.
When the heat falls, it is what the Shahan call morning. You can feel it in your bones because the ground becomes cold as death, so cold no dream can hold its sway over it. As usual, when Bas’hai opens her eyes, Mele’san is long gone. Bas’hai dresses in a moment and makes her way to the surface, guided by the pure voices singing in the melon-scented air. She is the last one out. Everyone else is already kneeling before the choir, eyes closed in rapture, lost in their cherished connection to the gods; the trance that only a hundred Lashti singing together can induce. Bas’hai kneels as well, but she does not close her eyes. Instead, she seeks out Mele’san. Mele’san is standing at the front of the choir, the Voice leading all other Voices, and when her lips open to let out the high notes of the morning hymn, even though she cannot know where Bas’hai is kneeling, still she looks straight at her and sings only for her.
As soon as the Lashti song ends, the fast is broken around the large stone table laden with fruit and fresh bread. Today Bas’hai will not go to the cliff’s edge. Others will take her place; for her, it is a day of study and meditation. But neither will come easy: her dream has muddled the memory of the trembling horizon into uncertain confusion. She searches herself and wonders if she might have been mistaken, but she feels in her bones the truth of what she saw in the desert. In two years of watching, she never spotted that thickness in the air. They will come soon. What if they come today?
Mele’san was right. It needs reporting. But how? All she can do is seek Mele’san’s comfort, upon which she has grown so used to relying. She finds her a few steps away from the breakfast table, removed from the buzz of morning conversation, a shadow adept at hovering on the cusp of presence; so enticing yet inconspicuous—a talent that Bas’hai cherishes, as one cherishes the comfort of a haven closed to everyone but them. They exchange a glance, then slip away to Bas’hai’s daytime home; a moment of respite before their daily duties.
They sit at the low clay table in the sparse room. The Gifted do not have much to their name. The only decoration is Bas’hai’s garb, hung cleanly on the wall: the same grey suit as the general’s, the red glove she uses to signal to the next lookout. Grey is the only color permitted to the Shahan. When you crush the red sand and mix it with water, it loses its tinge and becomes an ink identical in color to stone. The ink is used to write, and it is used to dye the suits that camouflage Shahanan’s soldiers. No one knows how the red gloves are made, although people mutter; rarely, children are taken to remote corners of the caverns and never seen again. They still live, that is for sure; all the Shahan would know if they did not. But the suspicion is that, deep under the cold ground, they cut their hands again and again on sharp rocks and let their blood soak the sand brought to them from the desert. They dye two gloves for each new Shashti—one to use, one spare. There can be no more, and dishonor awaits if both are lost. Other colors, they say, are not for humans to make. It would be blasphemy, and no one knows how, anyway.
Mele’san’s melodic voice breaks the silence. “You seem troubled. Are you still pondering what you saw yesterday?”
Bas’hai hesitates for a moment, then rasps her reply. “I think you were right. What I saw must hold meaning. But the general didn’t think it mattered... What if the desert is eating at my mind?”
“Tell me the details. What did you see, exactly?” Mele’san asks. Bas’hai describes for her the change in the shimmer, her dream of death, and every word uttered makes her certainty stronger, as if she was the vessel of a strange prophecy unfurling on the sand.
The silence stretches for a while after she falls quiet.
Finally Mele’san sighs. “I trust your eyes, and I trust you, to the end of the dunes and back. You have been watching the desert for years. If you saw a change, that warrants attention, at least. You should discuss it with the whole Council. You’ve never raised the alarm in vain, there must be something in this. However...”
There Mele’san stops and wavers. Bas’hai waits for her to continue, but Mele’san’s pale gaze does not rise to meet her eyes.
“However, is there a chance you were mistaken? We’re not prepared for this, and that makes me afraid.” When Mele’san looks up, at long last, sure enough there is worry in her, and part of Bas’hai’s heart goes out to her, but another part is irked by that sign of weakness; so unusual, and unwelcome.
“Here you go again. What do you mean by that? We’re readier that we’ve ever been. We’ve worked on our plan forever, Mele. They won’t kill us this time. We’ll trap them instead, and make them bleed out in the sand. The sooner the better.”
Mele’san’s face only grows darker. “But we don’t know anything. Who are these people? Why do they seek to kill us but not to raze us? Why do they wait so long, then come back anyway? They should have forgotten us, or they should have destroyed us—Suns know they have the might. There must be something behind it all, something beyond it all, beyond the legends and the dunes. Some sort of reason, and we’re not looking for it. We only burrow inside walls built by better people than us. We haven’t even seen any of those strange creatures that our ancestors sculpted on our gates. We don’t know who our enemies are. But worse still, we don’t know who we are.”
Bas’hai sits there, stunned. There is only one goal for an honorable Shahan: to dispatch the invaders once and for all, when they come back. Theirs is not the power to question, to wonder or to explore. She feels a jagged rift open between her and her lover, and her voice raises like a rockfall.
“We know enough! They are not people, they are devils, and devils do not reason. The only one cowering at this instant is you. You better take your post, while I go to the general.”
There is an insult in those words, and she regrets it the moment she utters them, but Mele’san only looks sad. “Yes, I must go,” she says. “I only hope when the sand settles, we don’t have regrets.” Then she kisses Bas’hai’s forehead and walks out, her warning hanging in the heat, pressing heavy on Bas’hai’s mind, stoking her anger and a rare doubt.
The love between them is a dangerous thing. That both of them are women makes their primary sin lesser; often enough it happens that two men or two women linked in close friendship overstep those bounds, and among the voices heard in the sleep caverns, sometimes two that breathe to the same rhythm also have the same pitch. Some shake their heads at those who would seek passion for its own sake, but after all, it gives no lasting offence or prejudice, and such discreet misbehavior slides off the city like sand off a dune.
But what the Ungifted do, those who carry on their shoulders the virtue of the people cannot afford. A story goes around of a Lashti and a Shashti falling in love ages ago, and of them producing offspring. They say the child was born misshapen and monstrous, dried up like a fig in the heat, with cruel eyes and nails like claws. They say the child was born evil, and that as it grew, it demonstrated magic never known in these parts; magic dark and nefarious and an offence to the Suns. They say the child’s tongue was cut out and it was sent to the desert to die, and its parents were condemned to a life deep underground where the cold is crushing even when the sleep caverns are warm. And something that is never said but only murmured under their breath by the elders: that the demon child did not die. Indeed, it thrived in the scorching heat, it crossed the desert to beyond the sand dunes, and there it founded its own people, the savage tribe who, ever since, ride the bedri to bring death to Shahanan.
Bas’hai dons her garb; her misgivings can wait, as can study and meditation. She has a more pressing duty now. If she is right, she will be needed today; everyone will be needed today. She inhales the heady air and feels it remove the wrinkles of discomfort from her tongue, her lungs, her heart. Then she steps out into the street.
Shahanan is not a noisy city. Sometimes a child will exclaim; sometimes a desert fox taken for a pet will cackle. But most of the time, people hold their breath. The heat is always there, and it muffles noise like a big handkerchief laid across your face. Yet there is more to this than quiet; indeed, there is a soft sound that never stops, that you can hear along walls, around tables, in the caverns, even when everyone is asleep; a sound that Lashti, Shashti, and Ungifted can all make out if they pause. It is the sound of waiting. On this day, Bas’hai feels, that sound may coalesce into a thousand screams, and the Suns alone know which voices will rise to Them when the battle is over.
A hunch is all she brings to the Council, and she fears that the general will dismiss her again. But her newfound conviction lends weight to her words; and under the glances of the other elders, who stand ready to judge the general’s decision, he has little choice left. She secures approval: the alert level will be raised, the centuries-long preparations will be tested. Soon she walks out of the city gates, an additional help in case the grain in the shimmer turns into an army.
As she walks by the low clay pen of the Lashti post, she takes in Mele’san’s tall body draped in the white robe of the priests, her long hair tousled by the desert wind, the sand on her smooth brow, the soft lines only just starting to show around her lips—and the pale blue eyes hidden behind a white veil to protect them from the light. The sight comforts her and clears all doubts away from her mind. Mele’san’s heart is soft and pure, compassionate and searching, and Bas’hai will protect it. She commits the sight of her lover to her memory, perfect in every detail, and thanks the Suns for making her Shashti, so she can always see Mele’san as clearly as if she was holding her in her embrace.
Before Bas’hai took her for hers, Mele’san was always sitting alone at the food table, not disdainful nor even shy but happily turned inwards. Bas’hai was singled out back then, because she was willful, obstinate and turbulent, a latecomer to the Gift from an Ungifted family. At the meals the Gifted shared, she got used to sitting next to this lonely Lashti with the lovely voice. They did not talk, but as the weeks went by, their silence became companionable.
One day, a boy Bas’hai had beaten up called to her: “With an ugly face like yours, no wonder you’re angry at everyone!” The insult stung. Bas’hai knew better than to fight before the masters, so she sat down, brooding, next to the girl she had not yet learned to call Mele’san, expecting nothing more than the quiet habit of her company. But for once, the girl spoke: “He is wrong, you know... I think you very beautiful.”
Bas’hai turned sharply, ready in an irate retort to make fun of this Lashti short-sight. But as she was opening her mouth to speak, she took in Mele’san’s face: her kind, honest smile, and the eyes which, although barely seeing, saw deeper than any Shashti she had ever met.
She shook her head. “I’m not beautiful, but it doesn’t matter—you are.” And so it began.
The horizon starts to tremble, the yellow of the dunes bleeding into the blue, and before Bas’hai even sees the first hoof, she knows. She was not mistaken, the air did not lie; it was a warning. The long wait is ending. They have come.
She raises her hand and gives the signal. She feels calm, calmer than any of the days when, for the past two years, she has been standing at her post of duty. Eight days of the ten that make a week, for the forty weeks that make a year; that is over six hundred days, her brain calculates despite her. Every one of those days, she has been waiting and waiting, and she knew she would not be waiting in vain.
The warriors of Shahanan, in full garb already, flow out of the city gates to take their posts. The trap has been well rehearsed. It was invented after the riders last came, because so many of them, the scholars say, managed to escape unscathed; and across the years it has been polished to perfection. The smaller canyons that lead to the city have been blocked, patiently, over decades, so it would look like natural erosion and not the work of man. There is only one path left from the expanse of the desert to the city gates, a large, welcoming gap that divides the cliff Bas’hai stands on from its sister on the other side. The metal-clad warriors will not wait there; they will stand at the city gates, protecting them and taunting the enemy. But another army will hide in nooks and recesses dug out in stone, and some especially trained will lie on the cliffs, archers crouching ready behind their backs, and when the invading army enters the canyon, the trap will spring. None of them, neither rider nor mount, will ever make it back, and the desert will eat their bodies.
Now the bedri are getting closer, and Bas’hai’s Sight allows her to make out the first rider clearly. She expected... she is not sure, there are so many tales that she didn’t know what the riders would be like. The only sure belief is that they are closer to demons than men; ugly, terrifying, and very unlike the Shahan.
But under the helmet, this distant man’s face looks like many faces she has seen, around the table, at prayer, in the caverns. She keeps looking as more riders emerge. All men and women, sitting astride the bedri, clothed in brown hide and a metal she has never seen before, a metal that gleams green, red, and blue, the fruit of their strange magic. Their weapons still sheathed, they look huge and powerful as they loom on the horizon, large enough now that anyone can see their line across the sand. Yet men and women only, and not a demon among them with fiery eyes or pointy teeth. Good, Bas’hai thinks. They are just human, and thus easier to kill.
The first notes of the Song of Welcome resound above the canyons, sung in Mele’san’s clear voice. That song is a greeting to foreign visitors, sung in a language that has no language, so that every listener can understand its meaning. It offers respect and acceptance, and asks whether they come in peace. The invaders are nearing the entrance to the path between the cliffs, and the first of them pull up to listen.
Slowly the whole army comes to a stop, like grain flowing to a dam. They look at each other and seem to hesitate, bewildered by the music—or is it worry that the army of the Shahan, for once, is already outside the gates, waiting? Bas’hai fears for a moment that they have seen the trap. But as she crawls closer to the city and peers into the crevices across the cliff, even she cannot spot her soldiers, cloaked in stone-colored cloth and decades of training.
The Song stops, and a tense silence follows. The warriors of Shahanan are standing still by the gates of the city, hands on their hilts, a wall of gleaming resolve. They wait. Not a noise from the armies; only the slow breathing of the bedri, like a soft roar coming from the sand.
Then the figure at the head of the foreign army raises her hands. She gestures something: a reply, or is it a threat, a provocation? Bas’hai follows the deft movements of the fingers and the wrists to the face of this leader—broad of shoulders, strong of expression, defiant yet calm, almost kind. In the unfamiliar signs Bas’hai can almost recognize a shapeless meaning, and she scrambles to get closer, but it brings no clarity.
The leader looks to her right, at her adjutant. After a second that feels like an hour, they nod in agreement, then the adjutant gestures to the army and they move forward again, the words of peace left unsaid.
Bas’hai should be excited to witness this: the result of centuries of planning and a hope to end the invasions once and for all. But a disquiet is nagging at her. The army moves fast but too slow; the bedri are walking, not cantering. The canyon is wide enough for the riders to charge, yet their weapons are still in their sheaths. On the faces she sees from afar, it is not lust for blood that is written but doubt, fear... and, could it be, hope?
The invaders are outnumbered two to one—they will all die, she knows, and only a few beats ago she would have welcomed it. But now it strikes her: how wrong it would be to let these strangers who look like them be taken by the desert, so far from their homes. Who would miss them? Who would mourn them? Who are they? She shivers with a strange foreboding, and the sand tugs at her soul; it remembers what the living have forgotten, and she almost feels the shape of that memory within her reach.
She needs more time. She needs to understand. Mele’san was right—the Shahan don’t know anything; neither her nor the general, so placid in his home, bent on keeping things as he wants them. She needs to delay the trap. She jumps on a tall rock and, in full view of the commanding table, raises her red-gloved hand and makes the urgent sign for pause—
But just at that moment, the last of the bedri crosses the line from light to shadow, and Mele’san’s Voice rises again. It grows deep and coarse as she intones the Song of War, the one meant both to frighten the enemies and to breathe courage into the warriors of Shahanan; a song so powerful, so bright, that as long as it keeps jumping from stone to stone across the canyons, Bas’hai would gladly go to her death if that means protecting her people.
Then the world comes crashing down on the riders.
From the recesses in the cliffs, like a dune collapsing, pour the Shahan soldiers, galvanized by the Song of War. At the rear of the enemy army, grey cloak after grey cloak jump on the bedri’s backs; a mere shimmer when they slip along the stone, then a gleaming blade. The first white swords pierce iridescent amour. Mele’san’s singing falters for a heartbeat, only long enough for Bas’hai to notice, then recovers.
The first arrows fly, and their bright tips catch the light as they travel through the air, so slow, so fast, so beautiful. Then they find their target, lodge in a neck, a heart, a thigh. Riders slip off their mounts. The strangers are surprised but not only at the trap; they are not disgusted like an army who senses defeat but like visitors who are expecting another sort of welcome. Their weapons are still sheathed and their shocked faces show nothing but betrayal.
Then the grey line of the Shahan forces steps forth from the gate and marches grimly to meet the strangers’ army. It has been an instant—it has been but a change in the desert air—but it has been enough. The Song of War takes on a harsher tone, and every Shahan feels it pull on their blood, a call to fight with no mercy. With a terrible tremor, the red blades leave their sheaths and meet the white ones. The blue bows tense in the riders’ hands. And the true bloodshed begins.
For a while, the air becomes too thick to breathe. Every gasp is saturated with the smell of dirty blood curling on the hot sand. Little by little, the mass of the foreign army seems to shrink inside the pincers designed by Shahanan, yet her people are not left unscathed. Many of the silver-grey amours now lie empty on the sand, the Suns reflecting off them, beautiful and terrible like a well turned a dark, unnatural red. Bas’hai sees everything, but she understands nothing. For the first time in years, her eyes cannot look beyond the surface of the world. The sight of blood has made her blind.
She is afraid. She thought she had felt fear before, of a master and his cruel eyes, of her bullies when they came in packs. But that was not fear; that was merely a grain of sand in her shoe. Fear is a beast, and it seizes her whole, envelops her in its grip, shackles her in a cage where she stands transfixed; not quite alive, not yet dead. The only thread that keeps her sane is Mele’san’s song.
Breathless, eyes half-closed, she staggers toward Mele’san’s post, seeking resolve in Mele’san’s familiar voice, letting it wrap around her like it always does: a ward against despair, a gift without price to the ugly girl with the Sight. But as she draws nearer, Mele’san recognizes her and stops. “Bas’hai... The echo... something’s not right.”
That snaps Bas’hai out of her panic. Her eyes focus on the faces of the enemy warriors, just as her ears catch what Mele’san caught long ago. She runs to the edge of the cliff. And because her Sight and Mele’san’s Voice are united in that moment, Lashti and Shashti come together in spite of edicts; because the Suns value courage and offer truth to those who seek it, and perhaps to ask forgiveness for what is to come, they show her what no one else was shown: in the gaping mouth of the foreign rider fighting to the death below her, there is no tongue, and in his heart, there is no hatred. She looks around, and sure enough, where the foreign tribe hisses and pants, still no sound is made, because their mouths are empty.
The sand she grips in her hand has stopped flowing. What she sees now is but a ripple of a thousand memories scattered across time; an ugly feud, an unforgivable waste, a fight of siblings gone horribly wrong.
For that is all there is to it: the riders from beyond the dunes are the children of the monstrous child, the children of the child of love, the child without a tongue, riding to them without a voice, seeking to meet them but ever unable to answer the Song of Welcome; yet ever hoping the Shahan see, understand, and greet them as brethren; but always greeted by arrows instead, by mighty warriors, and defending themselves only until they can free their mounts to go back beyond the dunes and bring their people the news that there is no hope, that they need to stop coming to Shahanan.
And so they do, for ages, until the memory has blurred across their city and someone signs the question: “Shall we try again?”
Bas’hai finds the general standing before the command table, looking glumly at the field where a people who do not look like demons kill his family and friends. Before him are spread the Lists of the Shahan, on which the name of every Shahan is inscribed when they are born, in the stone-grey ink made of sand, which disappears of its own accord when they die. On many pages, there are gaps where there were none this morning. He looks as the strangers are driven back to their mounts, while men and women fall on both sides and their bodies melt into the sand, and his shoulders slump ever more as the pages grow emptier.
Bas’hai has to stand right before him to get his attention, but when she does, she half-signs, half-rasps what she has seen: the empty mouths, the absent tongues, the eyes astonished, disappointed of the people from beyond the dunes. And as he listens, the general knows it all rings true, but he also knows, just by looking at the pages, it will take more than this knowledge to erase the memory of loss, the memory of hate and the blood-red color of the sand before Shahanan’s doors. Nevertheless, he sends the signal to the Shashti standing next to Mele’san, for Mele’san to chant the Song of Retreat, the one that calls for the soldiers to come home.
Soon her Voice rises again, and alone it covers the noise of the battle, the clatter of swords, the sickening pang of the bows. She sings, healing, coaxing, appeasing, and the warriors flow back to the gates, setting free the riders, who take refuge between the powerful legs of their mounts, surprised, relieved, and soon ready to flee. The last weapon is sheathed, the last arrow flies past Bas’hai’s head. It flies, and Mele’san’s song stops.
In that moment, Bas’hai knows. She knows why Mele’san’s voice has gone mute, and a cold horror spreads through her chest. Still, she seeks confirmation. She frantically searches the Lists for Mele’san. But for them, there will be no other miracle. Mele’san’s name, in the corner of a page, is losing its shape. The dark lines that it is made of are not held by the thread anymore. They are drifting apart on the leathery surface. Then, as Bas’hai watches, a gust of desert wind kisses the page and sweeps away the last of the ink that made out Mele’san’s life.
Bas’hai shrieks, a low, guttural sound that hurts her throat and her tongue. She runs to the Lashti post. She knows there is no point, she knows the desert takes back what the desert has given and that she will find no body, because the magic will return to the sand and leave no trace, just like the name that is now gone and she cannot conjure it in her mind anymore, the name of the woman she loved. Yet still she runs, and she throws herself on the sand inside the small enclosure, digging with her elbows, her nails, her forehead, as if she could find Mele’san right there, under the surface, waiting, looking at her with the soft gaze of those who cannot see.
Hours have gone by. The Suns will soon reach the third dune, and the bedri make their rumbling cry as they canter back, far across the horizon. Impossible to say how many dead among their riders, but certainly the desert looks thicker, the sand darker; gorged with the blood of both tribes. Bas’hai sits huddled in the lookout, waiting for the Shahan warriors to come and take her away, put her deep underground in the cold passageways, a punishment for the love and the grief she so clearly let show.
But no one comes. And Bas’hai understands now: that she remembers what no one else will; that with the name, the memory is gone too; and the weight of her loss, she is the only one to fathom and carry.
The Lashti, hidden behind the high walls, let out the prayer of the dead, a shapeless cry for each name erased from the page, and many a Shahan mourns the absence of love and warmth, the source of which they no longer recall. There is one cry the Lashti make that lasts longer and sounds truer, and Bas’hai thinks she can almost recognize her name in it. The moment passes and will not present itself again, but no matter: Bas’hai is Shashti. Who has no name can still be, if you keep vivid the image of her long hair, the light lines on her skin, and her blue eyes sheltered by a white veil.
She shakes off her grief and focuses on what is in front of her: the sand at her feet shimmering in shades of reds, yellows and blues, the colors of the desert and so much more, a promise of places beyond the dunes where dwell strange beasts and a silent people clad in fabrics of infinite hues. It might be the lost magic tinting the grains. It might be the lost love. Whatever it was, it is hers now.
So she gathers the sand and fills with it her pockets, her sleeves, the sheath of her knife. Tonight, when everyone sleeps in the caverns, she will go to the bees’ refuge. Under their light, she will mix the sand with water, and it will not fade. Then she will kneel and paint with the forbidden colors, paint her memory vivid and bright on the stony ground, to remain there forever; defying oblivion, like a spit into the face of the Suns.
Tomorrow, for the first time in her life, she will circumvent permission. She will go to those Lashti she trusts, she will take one of them with her, and together they will set out on a journey that was only attempted once before: they will cross on foot the desert to beyond the dunes, until they reach the city of the voiceless and make their people one again.