“I am glad you are staying,” I say. “And I will be thankful for your company.”
“Good.” Musa flashes me his brilliant smile, and for once, it is not mocking. “Because you still owe me a favor, Empress. And I plan to collect.”
My answering laugh is one of delight. Delight that I can feel a thrill when a man I care for makes me smile. That I can look forward to a story told by my friend. That I can find hope in the eyes of the little boy I hold in my arms.
That despite all I have survived, or perhaps because of it, there is still joy in my heart.
Mamie finds me in my wagon, pacing in the small space, muttering the Tale to myself. The moon is high outside, and the smell of cardamom and honey and tea fills the caravanserai.
“Laia, my love,” she says. “It is time.”
When I step out of the wagon, she straightens my dress, a traditional Scholar kurta and shalwar, the clothes we wore long ago, before the Martials came. The cloth of the kurta is the same warm ebony as the close-fitting pants beneath, and falls to my knees. It gleams with geometric embroidery in silver and green thread, to honor the Kehanni teaching me. The neckline is low and square, the K that Keris carved into me clearly visible.
“It stands,” I told Elias earlier, “for Kehanni.”
“Do you know the story you will tell?” Mamie asks me as we make our way to the Kehanni’s stage, where a massive crowd has gathered. Aubarit and Gibran spread blankets and rugs, while Spiro—who has made his home in Nur—helps Afya pass mugs of steaming tea from hand to hand.
“I know the story I wish to tell,” I say. “But—it’s not very fitting for the Moon Festival.”
“The tale chooses you, Laia of Serra,” Mamie says. “Why do you wish to tell this one?”
The crowd fades for a moment, and I hear the Meherya in my mind. Do not forget the story, Laia of Serra.
“This tale is the gibbet in the square,” I say. “The blood on the cobblestones. It is the K carved into a Scholar girl’s skin. The mother who waited thirty years for her child. The agony of a family destroyed. This tale is a warning. And it is a promise kept.”
“Then it must be told.” Mamie makes her way to her own spot in the packed crowd.
As I ascend the stage, the audience shushes itself. Elias leans against a wagon, his hair falling into his eyes, gaze far away. Helene sits near him with Musa, her guards close by, her attention given over to Zacharias, who bounces up and down in her lap.
I raise my hands and everyone falls suddenly, reverently quiet.
Do not be surprised at the silence, Mamie taught me. Demand it. For you offer them a gift they will carry with them forever. The gift of story.
“I awoke in the glow of a young world.” My voice carries to the farthest corners of the caravanserai. “When man knew of hunting but not tilling. Of stone but not steel. It smelled of rain and earth and life. It smelled of hope.”
I draw the story from deep within my soul, pouring my love into it, and my forgiveness, my anger and my empathy, my joy and my sadness.
The audience is rapt, their faces ever changing—going from shock to gladness to horror—as I take them through the unrelenting storms of the Meherya’s life.
They knew him only as a murderer and tormentor. Not as a king or father or husband. Not as a broken creature, forsaken by his creator.
I realize as I tell the tale that I have forgiven the Meherya for what he did to me. To my family. But I have no right to forgive what he did to this world. His crimes were too great—and only time will tell if we heal from them.
When I arrive at Rehmat’s mercy, at the Meherya’s end, even Zacharias is silent, his hand stuffed in his mouth as he stares, wide-eyed.
“In that moment, the wind ceased.” My voice drops, and everyone leans forward as one to hear. “All fell silent. All went still. For the Beloved who woke with the dawning of the world was no more. And for a single, anguished moment, the earth itself mourned him.”
My shoulders droop. The tale is over, and it has taken its toll. No one says a word after I finish, and I wonder, briefly, if I have made some sort of error in the telling.
Then the Tribes erupt, clapping, shouting, stamping their feet, crying, “Aara! Aara!”
In the long buildings that edge the caravanserai, figures shift in the shadows, sun eyes flashing. They disappear the moment I look at them—all but one. Beneath her hood, I catch a glimpse of dark blue eyes and white hair, a scarred face and a hand lifted to her heart.
After the fires have dimmed and festivalgoers have gone to their homes and wagons, I leave the caravanserai and make my way into the desert. It is the darkest hour of the night, when even ghosts take their rest. Nur gleams with thousands of lamps, a constellation in the heart of the sands.
I know her voice, but more than that, I know the feel of her, the comfort of her presence, the cinnamon scent of her hair.
“You did not have to come,” I say to her. “I know it’s hard to get away.”
“It was your first story.” She does not stutter anymore, and exudes a gravitas that reminds me of my father. She has begun to forgive herself. “I did not wish to miss it.”
“How are the jinn?”
“Grumpy,” Mother says. “A bit lost. But starting to find their way, even without the Meherya.” She squeezes my hand. “They liked your story.”
We walk in silence for a time, and then stop atop a large dune. The galaxy burns bright, and we watch the stars wheel above in their unknowable dance, letting ourselves appreciate their beauty. She puts her arm around me, and I sink into her, closing my eyes.
“I miss them,” I whisper.
“As do I,” she says. “But they’ll be there, little cricket, on the other side. Waiting for us when our time comes.” She says it with a longing I understand. “But not yet.” Mother nudges me pointedly. “We have much left to do in this world. I must go. The spirits call.” She nods over my shoulder. “And there’s someone waiting for you.”
Elias approaches after Mother has already windwalked away. “She’s about a thousand times better at soul catching than I ever was,” he says.
“You were excellent at it.” I turn for Nur and hook my arm into his, reveling in his solidity, his strength. “You just hated it.”
“And now that I’m free,” he says, “I was thinking I need to find something to do. I can’t very well loiter about the caravan while you’re hard at work becoming a Kehanni. I’d never hear the end of it.”