Disclaimer: Salandrine is still a work in progress and this chapter will be subject to final revisions!
It’s now or never.
Salandrine watched the procession around her linger in stillness. Drought and the desert sun could not keep the tears from the people’s eyes. A sniffle here. One wiping their cheeks with a sleeve there. She could not see their tears, or any details of their faces. Due to her sensory processing difficulties the world of blurs around her sharpened only after seconds of delay and extensive demands on her concentration. Their faces remained a smear of colour, but she could sense the breaking of their hearts in the beating of hers.
Death could catch a soul and with a forceful tug pull it from the world, but it was much gentler to those left behind. A softer, yet vicious kind of touch that ensnares you until you found it would not let go. If aware, one could heal the wound it pressed into your skin, but it was known to leave scars.
Pain can be soothed. Wounds can be healed. Scars would mean something, but their hearts beat with something more than the ache of death.
In the heat of the relentless desert sun, the people’s souls grew cold with hopelessness.
Several feet away, at the front of the procession, Aeon’s priests turned towards their followers. Clad like royalty, their white robes were pristine and highly contrasted the dark dragon scale and horn jewellery adorning their bodies. Rocky mountains rose up in the background from behind the hills of sand, dark brown in hue even without the fading light to brighten its stone. The shape of a building chiselled into its side opened up to a massive court yard, once filled with palms, succulents and an elongated pond by the foot of the mountain. Now, some lone cacti, pebbles and dust remained standing.
They had arrived and the ritual could begin.
A line of Mnala tortoises carrying the dead split the procession through its centre. Dozens of the hallowed beasts waited patiently, their shells piled with pillows to cushion the coffins—three to five per beast.
Salandrine focused on the creature closest to her. The tortoise was massive, like a walking fortress, yet it carried but one body: that of the Shaper, the mage that stood centre to every aspect of their country. A death that was tearing the fabric of their civilization apart.
Water sloshed as the tortoise shifted its weight between its legs. Like all their dead, the body lay suspended in water, and was honoured by the last of the ever blooming temple’s flowers.
The water should have been completely frozen, and would be, if they had the magic to spare. With the mysterious depletion of magical energies in suffered by their country, frivolous casting of magic had been outlawed. Even in the performance of traditional magics, only the bare necessities were permitted.
As she tripped over her own feet, two hands caught her by her lower arms.
Two strong arms belonging to the black young man, skin as dark as hers, and covered in the white, maroon and gold of his kaftan. His close cropped coils were covered by a square scarf.
The young man hooked one arm around hers, leaving both hands free to sign.
With the potential of magic that a voice carried, one was bound by rules and customs wherever mages resided—with some more practical, while others carried more of a social purpose. The most important of them all: one is not to use their voice in presence of a higher caste. Their elders, priests, even the Shaper in death, but none compared to the one they were to visit.
He moved his hands close to her face so she could see his words. “As much as I love your acrobatics, you’d do well to keep both feet on the ground, dearest sister.”
Kasim waved his hand over hers to stop her signing. “I’m joking.”
“Next time make one which is actually funny,” she signed back.
Salandrine kept her arm intertwined with his, and turned to watch the people crowd on either side of the priests. They stood first in line with the rest of the royal family.
From the folds of their robes and the bags slung around their shoulders, they took their flutes, chimes and drums, and performed the base for their spell. As their music built, the head priestess started to sing. Her voice cut cleanly through the rustling of sand.
Startled by the sudden volume, Salandrine covered her ears with her hands.
Something smacked against the back of her head, causing her to lose her balance again.
“Dragon’s breath,” someone whispered. “What’s wrong with you now?”
Kasim shushed them, making Salandrine put her hands to her ears again.
She turned around.
Sephora, one of her mother’s wives.
“And stop that weird thing you do with your head. Just hold it still,” she said, disgusted.
Salandrine caught most of her Kasim’s signing and pieced together what he was saying, but they did not leave her with the time and attention to keep up with the rest of their conversation.
“You may be above me, but you certainly are not above The Dragon,” Kasim had signed, politely telling her to sign. Even if Aeon had not arrived yet, they still needed to pay their respects to their priests.
After a flurry of hand movements between the two of them Sephora signed “She needs discipline.”
The comment stung, spreading its poison as the resurfacing of her self-doubt, but she recognized it for what it was. Along with the discomfort of her mother’s jab, she knew it for the lie it was.
I am disciplined, even if you don’t recognize it. You just don’t know me as well as you think you do.
But the feeling remained, rooted deep in her subconscious, too deep to listen to reason.
Annoyed by the senselessness of her own feelings, she sought for a means to feel in control, and decided ignoring Sephora would bring just that.
To show her displeasure, she turned to the side and simply allowed her eyes to dwell towards the sun behind the woman. The sun may hurt my eyes, but at least it has its beauty, she thought, willing herself to forget about the woman’s foul words.
If there’s anyone disciplined, it’s me. How can you tell such lies?
She could still see the outlines of Sephora’s chitenge dress in the corner of her eyes. As much as she wanted to prove to herself she could stand up for herself, she dared not turn her back completely on one of her mother’s spouses.
Until Kasim did it for her, pushing her towards the tortoise.
“Just forget about her,” he signed.
A dull throb awakened in the back of her head. All the effort of processing their conversations, from trying to put meaning to the shapes brought before her eyes, from trying to make sense of her own feelings and still her heart wore her mind down. People’s breathing, the sound of shifting sand, the creaking of caskets as they were crushed together all aggravated her overloaded senses.
She pressed her hands to her ears as the crowd’s mumbling increased, witnessing the priests spell take effect. There was nothing worse than a multitude of voices forming multiple conversations.
The grounds had started to stir. Sand swirled upwards, growing denser and hotter until it formed a glass pedestal as broad as three tortoises.
As the glass cooled and became translucent, the priests stopped their song.
“Let us present the dead to Aeon,” the head priestess spoke, as only one of The Dragon’s servants was allowed.
Servants of the priests parted from the crowd and scurried towards the beasts. They took the caskets and carried them to the pedestal, piling them on top of each other for the lack of space.
Tension gripped Salandrine’s chest as two priests approached the beast holding the Shaper’s body.
It’s now or never.
But she couldn’t move. Every possible doom scenario raced through her mind.
I could never get close to her. Not with Kasim still holding my arm. And what am I supposed to do? I’ll just fall like I always do. I’ll be found out. They’ll punish me like I surely deserve.
Still, I need to. For the sake of our country.
“You should have someone take you home if you’re unwell,” Kasim signed.
“Duty. My duty,” she signed with trembling hands.
“Be warned, Salandrine. Duty will kill you if you let it.”
She frowned, she couldn’t process what he was saying.
“Loyalty to your duties is commendable, but you have a duty to yourself as well,” Kasim whispered in her ear. “Do not forget: as the Shaper once used to say—may Aeon bring her peace—there is duty in living a fulfilling life as well.”
Explaining more doesn’t always mean I’ll understand better, Kasim. I know you mean well, but I’m just… My head feels like it’s going to explode.
Too overwhelmed to reply, but too worried with what she had to do, she fixated on the sunshine spilling off the icy exterior of the coffins.
The fractured light formed spheres of colours. She let them distract her. Their softness clouded her cluttered mind and nerves, soothing the edges of her overloaded senses, but it was scarcely enough. She felt restless, her muscles tense with energy she knew not how to release and a brain ready to snap and do something about it—no matter the consequences.
From the dazzling of colours, the contours of a person emerged, announced with the clanking of jewellery. Dark against the light, the figure came in to focus. A headdress of dragon scales and horn stretched from her head. The skirts of her robes swished about her legs.
“Sire,” the priestess said. Had it not been for Salandrine’s sensitive ears she might have missed her words, spoken with a voice as gentle as the thin flowing material of her prayer gown. “It has come to my attention that you wish to have a personal farewell with the Shaper. We have accepted, knowing of your relationship.”
It was the way of the Faiths to always speak out loud. There was never a time for them that they had resorted to sign language, there being none higher in station but Aeon themself. However, it had become the subject of heavy discussion amongst the royal family and their advisors.
“Thank you kindly,” Salandrine signed.
The priestess stepped aside to let her pass.
It took a moment for her to find the Shaper amidst the piles of coffins, walking all the way around them to find hers at the front on a separate pedestal.
This is my last chance.
But how could I ever…? I’m not capable of theft! Why have I been tasked with such a sinful act? Oh Aeon forgive me, what am I to do?
Memory of the advisor’s stern voice popped inside her head as if sensing her wavering resolve.
“It needs to be done,” he’d said. He’d brought his face so close she could easily see his expression as well as hear is whispering words. She didn’t know if turning vocal towards her was an act of arrogance or emergency, to bring power to its meaning. She never completely knew with him, but he always knew how to convince her.
She took a deep breath and knelt down by the coffin, digging her hands deep into the soft sand and kneading it until she heard it’s crunching.
Shaper Hadeel lay there, suspended in their precious water. Wilted, like their grains and crops. Withered, along with the only remedy to their predicament: the power to shape the lands as their country’s last descendent of her bloodline, her body soon to be lost to the world, but the impression she left would remain for centuries to come despite the deserts erosion.
Oh Hadeel, how could this have happened? Death should not have been able to find your door. Ever. Your powers should have shielded you against time’s grip. Yet see how it has drained from you, your strength, your beauty, your breath.
Her heart raced, feeling it in the tips of her fingers as she touched the ice that contained the Shaper.
She dipped her hand in the water and touched her face.
You were like a mother to me.
No matter with how many we were, with all mother’s spouses and all of my siblings, none knew me the way you did. Of all the stories I’ve read, you were the closest thing to a mother I’d ever had.
She bit back her tears, as she remembered the way she’d gently repeat her teachings when other’s had lost their patience. The tight embrace as she rocked her to sleep at night after mother’s scolding for being too brazen in court. It pressed her with the wish to feel it again.
The sound of footprints pulled her from her reminiscing. One of the Faiths, an elderly one stepped around the larger pedestal.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Yes, but forgive me, I need another minute.”
She waited for him to turn back, then stared at the amulet resting on the Shaper’s chest. The clear periwinkle gem fastened between the silver of her necklace still brimmed with residual energy, and the ghost of every one of the Shaper’s spells.
Salandrine took one last glance to see if no one was looking, then she quickly reached for the clasp of Hadeel’s chain to unfasten it.
She fumbled to undo the chain, her fingers catching the fabric of Hadeel’s robes.
Quickly! They’ll find out!
She worked hard to steady her hands.
She pulled the amulet free and swapped it with a replica she held under her gown.
As she retrieved the fake amulet from her pocket, the smooth gemstone slipped through her fingers and splashed into the water.
Her heart beat up into her throat.
She frantically grabbed the amulet from the water, her eyes darting between the coffin and where she expected the priests to come see what was happening.
Once back in her hands she squeezed so hard to not let it fall again it pained her hand. She hid it inside her gown and rose.
What have I done?! Put it back!
She couldn’t catch her breath. Couldn’t move, caught between what she knew and what she felt.
No, but this needs to be done. It’s for the best.
But it felt like she’d just ripped Hadeel’s heart out. It wasn’t just an amulet, it was an extension of the Shaper’s soul.
She bit back a curse and sauntered back with tears in her eyes.
The priests continued on preparing for Aeon’s arrival, as Salandrine returned to her brother’s side.
He received her with open arms.
“Ahh, such tears,” he signed.
He wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly.
“It must hurt to see her like that,” he signed after they came apart.
To see Hadeel in the state that she was.
To see her robbed by the person who adores her.
But she did not speak her mind. He couldn’t know. No one could except Advisor Oba.
“We’ll be alright,” Kasim signed.
“Will we really?”
Kasim gazed into the distance. “I will make sure of it.”
The priests formed a semi-circle between the pedestals and the people. Their voices rang through the air, accompanied by rhythmic stomping of their feet and the chiming of bells from their ankles. They swayed in their prayer gowns, draped in jewellery that brought a soft pandemonium to their performance only Salandrine could hear from that distance.
The soil around their feet whipped up from their dancing, falling down to form glass pedestals beneath their feet that as their performance progressed grew high into the sky.
The summoning had begun.
# # #
Eventually the sky grew dark and restless, heavier, making it harder to breathe. Gales rushed through the area, flinging sand in all direction and growing in strength with every one that followed. Their patterns shifted into rhythmic beating, until recognizable as the carry of wings.
Within minutes darkness solidified before them, steadily growing until they could hardly see an end to it. Its silhouette sharpened into an arrow-like head, a long neck, and the split of two vast wings cast aside from its body.
Cloth and unbound hair whipped about at the pull of air, as the silhouette crashed down on top the mountain, causing the sand and rocks to splash outwards, hailing down on them.
Their movements seemed almost too smooth for the size of their body. Majestic, they sleeked down into the roiling dunescape and approached them at a leisurely speed.
Would they know? Will they see through my sins and find me detestable?
No, advisor Oba couldn’t be wrong, nor would he ever lie to me. Even if Aeon knows, they’ll understand. They’ll approve. They surely would…
But her heart would not lay easy, instead it frantically pulled for her lungs to bring them more oxygen, and ready her muscles to bolt.
The urge grew with every approaching step The Dragon took.
“It never ceases to amaze me how massive they are,” Kasim signed, partially blocking her view with his hands.
They came to a stop before the pedestals. Dragon’s breath warmed the area as much as it reeked. It all increased as their jaw unhooked. Rows upon rows of teeth became visible, dripping with saliva that smoked as soon as it touched air.
Dizziness forced Salandrine’s eyes shut, but she could still sense their presence like a roaring torch.
The Faiths broke from their dancing and bowed down.
A low growl rumbled through Aeon’s long throat as they snaked closer, eyes gliding over the crowd of people and the bodies they returned to him.
Aeon opened their jaws and lowered them around the Shaper’s coffin. They languidly craned their neck and threw back their head. A bulge slid down behind the skin of their throat, traveling down to their belly.
From there, they moved to the masses upon masses of dead and started feeding from the top.
Through Aeon we are born, and through Aeon we return. Salandrine remembered from the holy scriptures and prayed. May you give them peace.
As the last of the dead vanished down Aeon’s throat, they took one last look at the crowd before rounding away, strutting in preparation to flight, and launched off with a powerful kick of their hind legs, disappearing into the night.
Liked reading this first chapter of Salandrine? The novella will be available from March 2018.