Janviar 11, 1543
Three months before the Dawngate opened
They’d been walking all night, over sands smoothed by the hands of the wind, rippled and glittering in the moonlight. Before the eastern sky began to blue, a wailing came out of the north, a sound like a young girl with a broken heart. It rolled over the curves of sand, reverberating back and filling the hollows between the dunes. Zeri walked closer to Renzo, peering out at vast darkness that surrounded them.
“It is a memory,” Renzo said, softly.
“What?” Zeri pulled herself up straighter, nonchalantly veering her path a bit farther away from him.
“The desert keeps the memories of those who pass through it. We leave footprints in the sand.” He paused, turned his head to discern the source of the sound, but the grief and loss were all around them now, circling, telling their tale. “Some go into the desert to lose their past. In the places the Spirits walk, the desert accepts their burdens.”
“Mother,” the wind wailed. “Mother, why?”
Zeri pulled in a sharp breath. “I did not just hear that.” Renzo glanced down at her. In the ghost-light of the falling moon, he could see the light, fine hairs of her arm standing straight.
“It is only a memory, Zeri.”
Her eyes had gone huge. “It’s not a nice one.”
“No,” Renzo agreed. “But it cannot harm us.”
They were silent for a time, shuffling through the soft, night-cool sand. The wailing swirled around them. The voice on the wind called for her father and brother, begged her mother for answers, and finally sobbed into silence.
“Did she live?” Zeri whispered into the shush of the wind.
“Who can say?” Renzo replied.
They continued east, nearly to the hills now. The shapes against the brightening sky were jagged, vertical, only their bases gently sloped. It was as if the flesh of mountains had collapsed into piles of ash, leaving only their hard, cold, flinty hearts.
Renzo swaggered up and down the dunes, setting a relentless pace. Zeri trudged and huffed behind him, the water skins slung from her neck and shoulders sloshing. “Why didn’t we bring horses? Camels? Maybe a small dog?” she asked.
“Zeri has asked Renzo that question six times,” Renzo said. “Though the dog is a new suggestion.”
“Zeri is still waiting for an answer,” she panted, adjusting one of the waterskin straps digging into her tanned shoulder.
“It is part of your training.”
“How is this improving my art?”
“This portion of Renzo’s training improves your health. Your endurance,” he said.
“For those times I need to do a marathon painting session in the middle of the desert.”
“A healthy body supports an active mind,” Renzo said, and flexed to make his bare pectorals perform a brief jig as proof. “The better Zeri feels, the more easily inspiration will flow!”
“I feel like crap, but I am imagining some very creative things right now. Mm-hm.”
“One day, Zeri’s chest will be as magnificent as Renzo’s!”
“I don’t even know where to start with that one.”
The horizon warmed to rose, copper, gold. Zeri glanced behind them, at the footprints disappearing into the empty distance. The sun would appear soon, bringing the flat, pounding heat of the day. The sands began to slither and snake around Renzo’s feet, fleeing the coming light. In the distance, a deep, clear tone began to echo out of the light-etched blades of rock.
Zeri started and looked back ahead of them. “That’s not – it’s not a memory, is it?” She looked around at the night-blue sands, the dry and withered little bushes that had begun to dot the flattening landscape.
“No,” Renzo replied. “That is why we are here. We must move faster.”
She made a strangled noise as he increased his pace and limped after him, wincing every time her right foot hit the ground. Renzo frowned. It obviously hurt. Why had she not told him about it? Renzo possessed the thickest arms, the strongest shoulders! There was more than enough Renzo to carry one small student.
“Zeri, Renzo has wondered something.”
“Why doesn’t Zeri live with her parents?”
“The best academies are in Nishi’an. Duh.”
“Also, Renzo is there.”
“Yes, and Renzo is here,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“You haven’t been home in at least a year. Renzo read this in the large stacks of parchment they make about you. Hateen is very thorough.”
“Hateen-za is very boring,” Zeri said. “He’s like being lectured by oatmeal.”
“He does lack a certain… texture,” Renzo nodded. “Zeri didn’t go home for solstice last month. Or for your canton’s festival week last summer. You haven’t gone home for any naming days. Not even your own.”
She stopped short and put her fists on her hips, glaring. “So? It’s a five-day caravan to Cirrokos. You don’t just, you know, do that. Like every month or whatever.”
“Renzo was merely making conversation,” he said, not slacking his pace.
“Renzo doesn’t say anything he doesn’t intend others to hear,” she told his back.
“Oh ho!” he chortled approvingly. “Once again, Renzo is impressed by Zeri’s eye for detail.”
Sand chuffed and hissed as she caught up to him. “What’s your point, pops?”
“Renzo is Renzo, not ‘pops.’” He frowned and brushed his moustache. “Zeri, you never speak of your family. Not once in the months Renzo has taught you. Do they even know you are Renzo’s apprentice?”
She rolled her eyes to the cloudless sky. “They wouldn’t care. They might know your name from the town crier, as someone important from Nishi’an. They wouldn’t know your art. They don’t care about stuff like that. They raise stallions. Train them to run with the wind, to dance.” She held her fists up in front of her chest, wrists angled down, and mimed the dressage of hooves in midair.
“That’s their art. My brothers took to it the same. All I got from them is my name. I was the weird kid.” She froze in mid-step, just for a breath, then threw her shoulders back and continued, “Anyways, all my friends are here. In Nishi’an, I mean. And my work is there. The stuff I care about. There’s art and music and any kind of food you could want. All Cirrokos had was dust and manure.”
“And Zeri’s family,” Renzo said. “Renzo is certain they miss Zeri.”
“Yeah? Well, they haven’t come to see me either, have they?”
Ahead of them, the deep, droning tone was joined by higher notes, piping and fluting as the sky brightened and sand hissed and streamed around their ankles. The sound was everywhere, impossibly loud. They passed around the edge of one of the knife-blade mountains and looked into the valley beyond. Renzo halted and observed his student.
Zeri made a noise, but nothing like words. She took a few dazed steps forward.
Rank upon rank of hard-edged buttes and mesas lined the dusty valley. The wind sang through dozens of smooth-edged holes carved in each. The mountains were engraved with figures, men and women tall as buildings. They held the stones apart like curtains and acted out scenes from the old stories. Every mountain, completely carved into a tableau of myth.
Here was Linauri, Daughter of the Ocean, veiling the moon so none could see her bathing in the deep blue waters. There the thief Nyrii boldly proposed marriage to Overlord Tamaho, then stole his Regalia to revenge his insults. Beyond, a glimpse of the Bird-Men of Henj descending on the towers of Balakhan, their birraga twisting and weaving through a crooked forest of lightning-forks.
As the dawn wind rose, the valley filled with music. The mountains sounded like orchestras of birds, galleries of lost souls, acres of clay flutes and the deluge of oceans through holes in the world. It swelled and ebbed, thundered and trilled and sang and swayed as the golden sky breathed.
“Who did this?” Zeri said, her eyes glittering.
“A man named Seljust,” Renzo said. “His wife died in childbirth, and he turned to the desert in despair.”
“One person made all this?” She shook her head, throwing a drop of water to darken the sand. “No way. No way.”
“He spent seventy years carving his Wind-Stones. They were only discovered after he passed into the hands of the Spirits. All is possible with their blessings. He finished the work and laid down…” Renzo squinted and point at the tiny, distant cairn at the head of the valley, “…there. It was the music that brought travelers. Every dawn and every dusk, the valley sings.”
Zeri began to laugh, tears streaming from her eyes. She stretched out her arms and spun around, staggering sideways on her sore foot. She turned her head to the sky and released a whoop. “This isincredible!” she crowed.
“Renzo is a genius,” Renzo said, reverently, “but Renzo has just begun to learn. He is to Seljust as a child is to Renzo. Even in death, Seljust is more worthy of the Chair of Nishi’an.”
Zeri trotted down into the valley, listing every other step, the pain in her foot out of mind. “I want to see them close-up. And you should have told me!” she tossed over her shoulder, accusingly. “I would have brought a sketch pad and charcoal. At the least. If we had a horse, I could have brought a canvas and paint.”
“That is the seventh time you’ve complained about that.”
She spun on her heel, pulled her lower eyelid down, and stuck her tongue out, “Nyah!” Then she giggled and began to skip down into the golden, singing valley, gouts of sand exploding away from her feet.
Until she winced, staggered, and fell over into the sand, waterskins sloshing and rolling away. “Ow, damn it!” she hissed, clutching her ankle as Renzo strode over with his mightiest strides.
He scooped her from the sand. “I’m fine,” she protested. “Hey! I’m not a kid.”
“Of course not,” Renzo said, seating her on his shoulders as if she weighed nothing, legs dangling over his chest. “But Zeri will have a better view from the broad and manly shoulders of Renzo.”
“I don’t need help,” she grumped as he marched down towards the distant cairn. “I could have made it on my own.”
“Renzo and Zeri are not so different. Once Renzo’s parents were in the hands of the Spirits, Renzo also had to do things on his own. He devoted his life to his art, his moustache, his glistening chest. But Renzo is more than enough to keep Renzo company. There is so much Renzo,” he boomed, waving an arm in the air, setting her wobbling and clutching at his head for balance, “it spills off the world! An embarrassment of riches! How could Renzo not share the excess of himself with those who have less Renzo?”
She was silent a moment, resting her forearms on his gleaming white hair. “Maybe you’re not as tough as you make off, Renzo.”
“Preposterous. Ridiculous. Unpossible.”
“You’ve never taken an apprentice before.”
“Renzo had never met anyone worthy.”
“You’re full of crap,” she said, and flicked his ruddy earlobe with a fingertip.
“Tut tut,” he rumbled. “Such language towards your first mentor.”
“I want to see that one first,” she pointed at the thief-queen’s mountain. “I love Nyrii.”
Renzo altered his course. “Your parents gave you a good name,” he said, adjusting her weight on his shoulders.
“Wait, you know what it means? It’s Old Speech, yeah?”
“From the nomads who lived here long ago,” he nodded. “’Zeri’ was their word for an oasis in the wastelands. A spring. Where there was a zeri, there was life.”
“Aw.” She leaned forward, frizzy, blue pigtails dangling on either side of his head, and gave him a lopsided, upside-down smile. “You’re a sweet guy, pops,” she said, and slapped his broad back.
“For the last time, Zeri, don’t call Renzo ‘pops.’”