We Are All of Us



They wore white armor, sleek and chitinous—not the white of chalk, but the white of bone peeking through the skin of a mummy. The white of a grub writhing in black river soil. They dwelled in the deep desert, where few of the Folk dared to tread, in cities carved from the bones of the earth. No one knew much about them, yet everyone knew everything that they needed to know. That they crawled into rock-cut tombs to devour the dead. That their cities wended for miles under the earth, and that they could dig up into a house at night to defile the living.

As blue first-sun set, and red second-sun rose, Suvan went out into her fields. Shared with her husband Petemet once, their lands lay at the periphery of the village, as far from the River as the canals could reach. Here, the black soil brought by the floods each year waned into the silver sand of the desert, and they’d wrested crops from it each year by dint of back-breaking labor. The tales of the priests spoke of a time when the devices of the gods and ancestors, carried through the void between the stars, had broken earth and sown seed, bringing plenty and ease to all. 

Suvan had never known anything but ceaseless toil.

The past two years, Petemet had worked long into the searing light of first-sun, when he should have retired into the shade of their mud-brick hut, struggling to ensure that they’d have enough both to eat and to offer in tithe to the priests and the Sepat. He’d died of those labors, of the burning sickness brought by first-sun’s light, blackness erupting from his flesh, from between the white scars left by bronze swords when he’d served the Sepat as a soldier.

As second-dawn stained the eastern sky, she found one of them in her field, crumpled and broken. Past the body, she saw spotted laughing-dogs skulking. A couple of thrown stones deterred the beasts so she could investigate the body. She poked it gingerly with her hoe. “Are you alive?” she asked, feeling the void behind her where her husband should have stood like a mountain. 

But his body rested in a cave in the cliffs west of their farm, the stones of which provided a frail final barrier against the desert. His sepulcher boulder-blocked to keep the laughing-dogs and marble-cats at bay. 

And them, of course.

The body stirred, and she backed away, holding the hoe aloft, ready to bring it down on the creature’s head. “Are you alive?” she repeated tightly.

Its head rose, white and gleaming, seemingly encased in armor. She could see its eyes through the holes of that white mask, glistering blue, like the sky when first-sun was at its zenith. 

The creature didn’t speak, but it hummed a peculiar melody. 

Looking down, she felt abashed—no, ashamed. Blue blood seeped from where the armor on the forearm had been crushed like a nutshell. More streaked down its back in thick indigo rivulets, as if something there had been torn away. It’s hurt. Nearly dead, and here I am, threatening to finish the job. Shame warred with prudence, however: Everyone knows what they are. Eaters of the dead. Defilers. Murderers. Safest to bash its head in.

Her eyes skimmed along the cliff-face. Found the boulder that blocked her husband’s tomb. If you were here, Petemet, would I feel the same way? He’d been a soldier before he’d come to the village. His strength had been her shield. She paused, and a surge of warmth passed over her, as if he did, in fact, stand behind her. No. I’d be counseling kindness. He always gave me the freedom to try.

Come,” Suvan said, extending a hand stained cinnamon by the light of second-sun. “Back to my house, where I can help.”

She hadn’t had visitors since her husband died. The Folk held that death clung, and avoided those affected by it until the taint cleared. The kings with their palaces in the mountains where the River was born, the merchant princes at its delta to the north, and the sepats in between, they all had priests to cleanse the taint. Suvan and her village were too poor for the priests to care about, save at harvest, when tithes came due. She’d expected to endure without the sound of another voice for another half-year. Till the rest of the village rolled back the stone, revealing that Petemet’s flesh had sunk down to his lovely bones, and that his soul had fled to the stars.

Still feeling haunted, Suvan prepared water and bandages, torn from the last cloth she’d woven—and then stood there, feeling foolish, as the creature stared at her. “Does the armor come off, so I can tend the wounds?”

No words, just humming. Then it extended its bleeding arm. She hesitated. “Do you have a name?”

It shook its head, and the humming intensified. Whispered shapes almost like words that rose and fell like ripples in the River. 

She tried to remove the armor. The creature recoiled, and she had to brace its arm over her knee and hold it in place with her other leg. Fragments came away under her finger like pieces of eggshell, but thicker—clinging to the flesh below with white, gelatinous strings. The creature screamed once, a sound that reverberated through the hard-packed earth floor under her feet and made her ears ring. Then it collapsed unconscious, and she was able to pick the remaining pieces out of the wound. Wash the blue blood away, and wrap it with clean linen. The armor is his skin, she thought, feeling sick. I’ve flayed him. The gods only know if that was the right thing to do, but he didn’t fight me, though he could’ve kicked my legs out from under me at any time.

Suvan bundled the creature into the straw-filled pallet she used as a bed, not knowing when the creature had passed from it to he in her mind. Probably when he’d screamed, she reflected. Animals could scream—she’d heard goats at the slaughter, after all. But things didn’t. 

She looked down at him, alien and gleaming, on the pallet she’d shared with Petemet. Among the few belongings they’d shared—a low table set with two clay cups and an unadorned pitcher of river water. A red-dyed wooden statue of Sah, the warrior-god to whom Petemet had still prayed, even at the end. The embodiment of second-sun. Reed baskets for her clothes—Petemet had been buried in his festival shirt, and his work clothes had been burned. Her warp-weighted loom, bereft of thread—their last goats had been sacrificed for the funeral rites, and keeping the garden alive had left her no time to harvest flax along the canals. 

She’d kept everything in perfect order since Petemet’s death. Every item, every object, just so. But in bringing the creature in, she’d knocked over the baskets, jostled the cups on the table. She set them back in their places, her hands shaking, and then glanced over at the bed. What am I doing?

Suvan studied the hooked claws, surely meant for digging and killing, at the ends of his hands. The face, seemingly featureless beyond the gleaming eyes. “You’re more than an animal. The stories say that your kind are cunning and fierce. That you’ve invaded the Riverlands before. But the stories never said that you felt pain. Could be vulnerable.” She hadn’t spoken in so long, that her voice sounded rusty as she spoke aloud to the unconscious form. Suvan shrugged, feeling foolish now. The stories didn’t say that they’re beautiful. What else have the stories left out?

As the days passed, Suvan learned how little the Folk knew of them. When he was able to sit up, she offered her unlikely guest millet porridge, and he regarded her with fathomless eyes. “Don’t you eat?” she asked. 

Finally, he spoke, the words wreathed in echoes. “Our feeding would distress you. It would be best if you left us.”

Suvan recoiled, startled. “You speak?”

We always speak. Humans do not always listen. You . . . you are listening.”

She hastened outside, in spite of the searing light of first-sun and weeded the garden that was all that sustained her these days, her hood pulled low over her face to protect her skin. When first-sun is high, be shy. When second-sun rules the fold, be bold

Then she stole a glance through the windows of her hut, watching as the creature’s armored jaw unfurled, like a flower blossoming. A tube of some sort extended from his opened mouth down into the bowl. 

Disquiet bloomed in her stomach. They aren’t like us at all, are they?

When she came back inside, she cleaned the bowl and asked abruptly, “When will you leave?” Gods, make it soon.

We have no place else to be. Home lost, destroyed.” His voice whispered threnodies. 

That’s not an answer. And why do you keep saying we?” She heard her own impatience, though the sound of loss tugged at her heart. 

Because we are,” he replied, sounding puzzled. “We are all those with whom we dwelled.” A pause. “All of us, together.”

Mothers and fathers?”

His head tilted. “Only one mother in each city. The Great Mother.”

Suvan frowned. “A goddess?”

A rigid head-shake. “No. Mother of all. Many fathers. One mother.”

She set the bowl aside, wishing she had thread with which to occupy her fingers. “I don’t understand.”

Another head-tilt. “Great Mother chooses males with whom to mate. Some many times, some never. She gives birth in the crèche. When her favored males grow old and die, if she yet lives, she takes of their sons. When she grows old, she finally allows one of her daughters to live, and she becomes the next Great Mother. Sometimes new blood needed, from other cities. Males sent in trade.” 

Her mouth dropped open. “You’re traded? Like slaves?

The gleaming eyes dulled. “No. We are what we need to be. What others need. We know what we are for. All serve. One voice in many bodies.” He held up his hands, armed with those curved claws. “Digging, shaping, building. This is what we have been for.” He paused, and his shoulders slumped. “And now we are alone, and the silence presses on us. We cannot bear it.”

She tried to make sense of it. “I thought I was part of a we, once. A we that was supposed to endure my whole life.” Petemet wasn’t supposed to die so young . . . 

We understand.” His head didn’t lift. “We hear the loss in your heart. We grieve.”

 “You grieve for me? Or you grieve with me?” Suvan asked sharply.

A whisper. “Yes.”

Her skin prickled. Hesitantly, groping for the concept, she asked, “Being a we is very important to you.”

We cannot live without others.”  

Suvan recoiled. “Are you . . . you don’t want to be a we with me, do you?” Oh, gods. I was a we with Petemet, but I can’t, I won’t . . . .

His head swiveled towards her, his gleaming eyes going dull. “You already are. We think that is how you understand us. Most humans cannot.” His voice sounded almost . . . apologetic.

She scrambled away from him. Intolerable violation of her space, of her sacred solitude. “I don’t want to be a we with you.”

We know that, too.”

She turned away, seizing her broom. Swept at the hard-packed floor with rapid, angry strokes. “Get out.”

Immediately, he stood. Limped for the door.

Shiff, shiff, shiff, went the bristles. “Wait.”

He paused, claws on the wooden door.

You would just leave if I told you to do so?”

We are what others need us to be,” he repeated simply. “If what you require is solitude, then we will leave.”

Several more angry strokes across the floor. Suspicion crackling through her that she was somehow being manipulated. They could do that, couldn’t they? Get inside your head and make you believe . . . anything? The old stories were a jumble in her mind, but they kept coming into conflict with everything she’d seen in the last week from him, and . . . nothing made sense. “So you’d leave. Though you’d be not a we then at all.” She fumbled for the words, concepts utterly alien to her. “Would you die if you were an I and not a we?”

Perhaps. We would want to.” He still faced away from her, claws on the door.

This is a bad idea. But . . . he’s already demonstrated willingness to leave if told to do so. What harm can a little more compassion do, than has already been done?Sit back down,” Suvan grudged. 

As he crouched below the hut’s only window, shuttered in wood, she asked, leaning on her broom, “What destroyed your home? Why can’t you go back to your own them?”

He stood. Unlatched the shutters with clumsy fingers, letting first-sun’s light strike him. She hissed and pulled back into the shadows. “Invaders. Your kind, not ours.” 

Suvan’s mouth fell open. “Soldiers of the Sepat?”

He turned, taking the broom from her lax fingers. “No. They came from the west, riding on great lizards. Their cities and another of ours, under the control of a different Great Mother, had disputed over land. When they came, they did not see us as different from the city that had disputed with them. So they came with fire and bronze.” He paused. “It is time for you to rest in the brightest part of day. We will labor in your stead.”

That night, a sandstorm came. Suvan felt the first breaths of it as she labored under the light of seven moons all at their fullest, their white light making every detail of her garden easy to pick out. Such nights were the best times at which to work. The laughing-dogs took advantage of the light, but the marble-cats usually hunted at moons-dark. 

Fine grains of sand slapped her face as the winds mounted, and she struggled to cover at least part of her garden with lengths of linen, kept for this purpose. He appeared at her side, though she hadn’t called him, and helped her tie the first lengths in place. “The millet will be lost,” Suvan shouted bitterly through the gathering storm. She could see that the stars to the west had been blotted out by the storm already.

Go inside,” he told her. “We are meant for such storms. Your skin is soft. Ours is not. Go!”

She huddled indoors, listening to the sand tear at the walls. Leaped to her feet to catch the wooden shutters as they blew inwards as the wood bar holding them in place shattered. She leaned all her weight against them to close them once more. The only piece of wood close to hand? The statue of Sah, which she picked up with a mumbled apology to the soldier-god, and then employed.

When the storm abated, her door had been silted shut, and she had to climb out through the window, her sandals touching down on two feet of silver sand that shouldn’t have been there. As she rounded the corner of her hut, she stopped, stunned to see him alive, and digging down to where her vegetables lay under the sand, his claws sending sand flying through the air.

And beside him, huddled on the ground?

Three child-sized versions of himself. All three with wings, however, like those of a beetle, folded against the backs, but clattering in the last remnants of the breeze. “Blown here by the storm,” he called over his shoulder, as if he’d known she stood there all along. “Thirsty. Hungry. Their voices—their voices are ours.” 

They’re of his kin, she translated mentally. 

He gestured to the tallest of the three, the one with the strongest-looking wings. “Female. Queen, someday. Must survive, so that all may survive. All our voices. All our memories.” The closest thing to passion she’d yet heard in his humming voice.

Suvan stood for a moment, staring at them. More mouths to feed, and there wasn’t enough for two before, her practical side reminded her. Her heart replied softly, But they’re children. And . . . maybe through them, he can go home? They can leave when they’re strong enough, and go rebuild their lost city.

For some reason, the thought didn’t comfort her.

Can you dig?” she asked them. I’ll make this work. Somehow. 

Three solemn nods.

Come along then. We need to clear the canal to get water. I have some inside for you to drink as we work, but it won’t last long.”

The smallest raised its claws. “You don’t have enough food to feed us all,” it said. “The storm buried your crops, and there was little enough before.”

How do they—like himknow what I’m thinking? 

The child’s song buzzed gently in Suvan’s mind, a patient threnody. “It is ours to die. This body will provide food and drink for all.”

She gaped as the youngest dropped to a crouch, lifting its head so that the armored ridges on its neck pulled apart. Offering its vulnerable throat to the others’ claws. “No!” Suvan shouted, her voice loud in the silence after the storm. “There’s no need for that—”She spun wildly toward her guest. “Tell them! Tell them that we don’t eat our dead!”

He paused in his digging. “We do,” he said, turning. “We take them back into us. Their memories, their voices—always here.” He tapped the side of his head. “We are all of us. Always.”

There’s no need,” Suvan said, stepping forward, putting her body between the youngest and the other two, though they’d made no move yet. “We’ll. . . . make this work.” We, her mind mocked her. We, together. How quick you are to offer them your home. Are you sure that he hasn’t done something to your mind?

And yet it did work, somehow. With extra hands, her fields were the first of all her neighbors to be unburied after the storm. She went with the children at night to the canals to catch frogs and crabs to eat, and picked flax while there to spin the thread she hadn’t had the time to make, while tending her fields alone. 

Suddenly, in every day, there was time. She hadn’t remembered what it was like to have many hands available to accomplish tasks. Hadn’t remembered what it felt like, not to be alone, every moment consumed with the struggle for survival. And with these precious added moments in each day, came something akin to peace. Though she declared that for her own sanity, the children needed names. “So that when I call for one of you, I don’t have to say you all the time.”

But we always know which of us you mean,” the female protested. “It’s clear in your mind.”

They hear my thoughts. The notion no longer troubled her, however. “Humor me, please? If you all stay nameless, I’m afraid I’ll forget mine.” Wrapped in their shimmering voices, that seemed all too real a possibility, some days.

So she listed all the names that she knew, and they picked the ones that they liked. Takha, Emhebi, and Ra’enkau, they became. And Suvan realized to her surprise, that she loved these strange children. Part of her fretted that she had formed such an attachment so quickly. It hardly seemed natural. But they asked little from her. And gave more in return, digging to uncover her millet before it was lost. Bringing her flowers from the canal to strew her pallet and make it smell sweet. 

Her first guest, however, withdrew after a few days. Found a corner of the hut where the children didn’t scamper, and sat there, his breathing low and slow. “Are you ill?” Suvan asked, worried. His wings looked to be re-growing—she could see their membranes expanding from his shoulders, quivering with his breath. The armor over his exposed arm had regrown, but only thumbnail-thick, the slick blue of his flesh visible under it.

But now, the gleaming white of his armor looked dull for the first time. Ashen. I can’t, she thought tightly. I don’t want to watch him die, the way I watched Petemet die.

Won’t see us perish,” he replied. He always seemed to know her thoughts. She’d become almost accustomed to that. “Not ill. Just . . . changing. Becoming. As you . . . have become. We are what others need.” 

Suvan dropped to a crouch, alarmed. Change sounded almost as bad as death. And she wanted to deny, hotly, that she’d changed. Become any different than she’d always been.

But then she glanced at all the things she’d kept just so since her husband’s death. Then realized that somehow, inexorably, things had changed. The god Sah still barred the shutters tight. She’d had to make new bowls of river clay, rough-baked in her fire, for the children. She’d made them each their own pallet of linen and reeds. 

Nothing was as it had been before. Change had caught her unawares, as inexorable as the River’s flow.

He looked up at her with eyes as bright as first-sun. “We become what others need of us. So have you. Our lives are a gift. Freely given. Most humans . . . do not understand. You do.”

Images crossed her mind. Visions of a city through which she’d never walked. One in which faceless humans crowded all around bustling, busy . . . and empty. All dissatisfied with their lot. All envying what their neighbors had. Because none of them knew what they were for. One person in a dozen, perhaps, had a face. Carried with them a sense of purpose. And one of those faces was her own. 

You think that I know what I’m for?” Suvan wanted to laugh, though it would have been edged with tears. But I don’t know. I never have.

A silent nod.

But what will you become?” 

He closed his eyes. “What you need. What they need.”

What do they need? To start a new city?” Suvan bit her lip. 

A shrug. “If queen grows to adulthood, perhaps. But not for some time. What we will become now, born of their need . . . we do not know.”

He huddled in his corner, not eating, only drinking, for days. 

And she watched and worried and waited.

The miracle of her fields’ recovery didn’t pass unnoticed by the neighbors. A group of them, men and women, came striding across the sand-choked road with second-sun high. They shouted and raised their sickles and hoes at the sight of the children, who scuttled into the shelter of Suvan’s hut.

Suvan picked up her bronze scythe and met her neighbors, blocking them from entering her hut, where the children huddled, and where her guest had sat, somnolent for the past two days. “No further,” she told them boldly. “They are my guests. I’ve given them food and shelter. Will you dishonor me by breaking my hospitality, poor shred that it is?”

That stopped them. The Folk had strong traditions about guest-rights. 

Her neighbors paused uncertainly. “But they’re them.” Sounds of disgust, spittle on the ground. “They eat our dead.

Go unblock Petemet’s tomb,” Suvan ordered harshly, her face feeling like a stone mask. “Look on his body. See how much of him has been eaten.” She wanted to spit herself now. “You feared the taint of his death so much that you didn’t come to check on his widow until two weeks after the storm. For all you cared of me, I could have been dead.” She saw them flinch. Saw the guilt in their eyes as if they’d shouted it—heard it, as discordant twangs as from a rebec, pouring out of them. Is this how they can always hear what I’m thinking? Suvan wondered. How am I hearing this?

Her closest neighbors, an older couple who had six grown children, both frowned. “They’ve taken over your mind,” the woman, Atveh, declared. “You know they can do that. They sing in your dreams and turn you on your own people.”

Have they? Suvan wondered briefly. No. I’m just seeing the things that have always been there.The only reason I’m holding a scythe,” she returned scornfully, “is that you all arrived on my lands carrying tools, and then raised them as weapons.” She gestured at her fields. “As you can see, I have all the help that I need. I require none of your aid to recover from the storm.” Not that you offered it. She bared her teeth in a humorless smile. “Perhaps my guests and I could offer you our assistance in recovering your crops?”

The little crowd eyed each other. Took a few steps back. Suvan could feel the children pressing up against her back, unsure and frightened. She hummed at them gently, Be calm. Don’t frighten them. 

At length, her neighbors withdrew. Atveh and her husband warily permitted Suvan and the children onto their fields, where they all worked through the hours of second-sun’s light, freeing the dying millet stalks from the burden of the sand. Exhausting, back-breaking labor. And Suvan could see that other neighbors watched from the periphery of their own fields. “Just wait,” she told the children bitterly as they returned to her own hut. “If anything goes wrong with the crop now, it won’t be because of the sandstorm. It’ll be because I touched the plants, still tainted by my husband’s death. Or because you three poisoned the ground.”

Small, taloned hands touched her arms. “You’re tired,” Takha, the little female, whispered. “And angry.”

They brought us water to drink,” Emhebi pointed out.

Yes, making signs to turn away evil behind the pitcher.

Foolish,” Ra’enkau whispered. “But not evil.”

We know what you know. They may turn against us—the us that is you, too, Suvan,” Takha sang. “We’ll be ready to flee if we need to. And you should be ready, too.”

She shook her head. They won’t lift a hand against me. They can’t. I’m Petemet’s widow. I’m one of them. 

They will not see you as of them for long, if their fear rises,” Takha replied to her unspoken words. “They will see you as part of us. And in how much will they be wrong?”

Suvan twitched, but she’d grown largely used to the fact that her thoughts were as transparent as water to them.You’re entirely too wise to be a child,” she finally responded as they entered her hut.

We are not only children. We are all that we have been. All the memories of Great Mothers and fathers before us.” Takha shrugged, as if that were of no great matter. “We must ensure that they have no reason to fear us.”

Or we must ensure that they have too much fear of us, ever to strike,” Ra’enkau countered, adult words in his reedy, soprano song.

Suvan moved away to kneel beside her first guest, still unconscious against the wall. She could see that his armor was peeling away from his body now, and her fingers itched to tug it away, like a healing scab. But at the same time, she couldn’t make herself touch him. In case anything she did made his condition worse. “I wish I knew how to help you,” she murmured.

Small hands on her shoulders, patting her hair. “There is nothing to do for him but to wait,” Takha replied. “He is becoming.”

After second-twilight, as the moons rose high, her neighbors returned. This time with torches as well as their hoes. “Where have your precious guests been, Suvan? Have they been with you, every moment of every day? Can you account for them?”

Even at twenty paces, she could smell the yeast of bread-beer on the men’s breath. Then, to her surprise, Atveh emerged from the side of the crowd, taking position between the men and Suvan’s hut. “They helped us today!” Atveh shouted. “I bet if they were asked, they’d help any of you, too—”

We checked the bodies in the tombs!” a voice shouted. “Half of them have been eaten!”

Suvan turned her head. Asked the children silently, Did you eat of the tomb-dwellers before you came to me?

No,” they all responded immediately. “We were hungry, but we knew that this would turn the humans against us.”

One of them offered, when he first came here, to set down his life for the other two, so that they might eat,” Suvan called out, letting scorn fill her voice. “Why would he have done that, if they’d already fed on the dead? Go look for borer-worm signs in the tombs. A more likely explanation.”

They’ve poisoned you,” another voice came from the crowd. Arag, Suvan recognized dimly. One of Petemet’s friends from his soldiering days.Turned your mind against us.”

Suvan picked up her scythe from where it stood behind her door. There were twenty of them, and while she could see Atveh, old and white-haired, was trying to calm them down, they’d clearly been drinking. Had found a reason to justify breaking the iron laws of hospitality. She could see it all with a crystalline, distant perspective that surprised her. 

Even more surprisingly? Suvan didn’t feel afraid. She could see events transpiring before her, unwinding like linen string around her spindle, before they actually occurred. Could see how the men would start forward. How Atveh would step in their way. How her skull would be crushed by one heedless sweep of a hoe, and how she’d fall, red marring her white hair, to the black soil of the garden.

How the men would leap forward and overbear her. Throw their torches onto the thatch of her hut. Hold her down and make her watch as they dismembered her children—yes, her children. How the blue blood would spray up in the red light of her burning hut. How they wouldn’t even be sated by the blood and the death, but would require more, and more, and how she’d be lucky to see first-sun rise in the morning. Ah, Petemet. For the first time, I’m glad you’re not here to see what the village you came to love, is capable of doing—

Suvan closed her eyes and told the children, “Run.”

That won’t be necessary,” Takha sang, and a hand closed on her shoulder from behind her. Filling the void where Petemet once would have stood. 

They’re not evil,” a voice said from behind her. “They just don’t know what they’re for. For this, we forgive them. But we do not forgive lies and words spoken to create fear. We will resist. And we will win.”

Suvan saw terror on the faces of her neighbors. As one, they dropped their tools and ran. Atveh turned, and put a shaking hand to her lips. “By the gods,” the old woman whispered.

Suvan spun. Looked up at her guest. For a moment, she stopped breathing.

His old armor, damaged and dull, had fallen away. Revealed now was a shining blue carapace, iridescent in the last light of second-sun. He was taller now, with full, healthy wings that clattered lightly in the breeze. The claws on his hands had lengthened, but a second set of arms had somehow joined them, terminating in hands more like her own. Meant for grasping and manipulating. And the armored plates of his face?

Appeared almost human. There were grooves that hinted at cheekbones. A jawline. An opening that implied lips. But lines remained that also suggested that it could still unfurl, as it always had.

Suvan swallowed. He didn’t look like Petemet, and she was grateful for that. It would have been intolerable if he had. “You’ve . . . finished becoming?” she asked, feeling awkward. 

For now, yes.”

She didn’t know how to ask it. “What are you?”

What they needed.” His eyes flicked towards the young ones. “Perhaps what you need? We do not know.” A hesitation. “They didn’t need a mother. Already have one. You.” He pointed at her as the children gathered close, touching his drying wings with light, admiring claws. “They need . . . protector. Guide. Became soldier. Have not been, before. Was always builder. We are always what we were. But we can always become something more.”

 She closed her eyes, aware of Atveh’s awed presence bearing witness nearby. “Will you leave, and look for others of your kind?” Her throat ached at the thought.

A clawed hand touched her face. “Perhaps. If we all go. We are all of us.” A pause. “Or we stay here. Build a new kind of city. Together.”

Suvan opened her eyes and looked around the farm that had been a refuge to her since her husband’s death. Everything in its place. It had been a refuge to Petemet, too, she realized, a place to heal after years of service in war. But now? 

It was time to move on. To risk being bruised by the world once more. “If we stay here, it will be harder for you,” she said simply. “The others won’t accept easily.”

But if we go into the deep desert, you cannot live there,” Takha replied, her voice echoed by the other children. “We don’t wish to go without you. You are part of us. We are part of you.”

Tears sprang to Suvan’s eyes. That simple declaration, that simple acceptance, meant more to her somehow, than she’d ever have thought possible. “Whatever we do, we’ll do it together,” she whispered. “I promise.”








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