Grandmother ruled Gir Niajra, and always had.
Jummai felt certain this was so, mostly because it was impossible to imagine otherwise: anyone, anyone at all, seated so comfortably on that great golden throne except Grandmother? Anyone who could look or speak with such authority, to whom so many great and worthy people bowed down? No—only Grandmother. It had always been Grandmother, and it always would be.
It didn't matter to her that when she told Grandmother this, Grandmother smiled. It always made Jummai feel accomplished, to make Grandmother smile; and just because a thing was funny, that didn't mean it was untrue.
"That would simplify a great many matters," Grandmother agreed, taking Jummai by the hand. "But even very long days have sunsets, little mongoose."
Jummai could not see what this had to do with Grandmother, who was not a day and therefore seemed unlikely to set; but she was willing to accept that it was important, because Grandmother had said it and Grandmother was very wise and clever. So instead of arguing, she wrapped her fingers tight around Grandmother's warm strong hand and said, "Where are we going?"
"I need your help to do something important," Grandmother said, and together they walked all the way to the throne room.
It was late in the day, the light a cool gold against the sandy-smooth palace walls, and Jummai yawned once and then again—but Grandmother didn't stop, or hurry her along, or pick her up. They walked side by side, two or three of Jummai's steps to every one of Grandmother's, and Grandmother moved with such steadiness and grace that the loops of gold around her wrists, her ankles, barely even clinked.
The great hall was lined with guards, terrible stern faces and spears at the ready—but of course they didn't stop Grandmother. Jummai was frightened of them most of the time, hid from them and dodged their eyes; but holding Grandmother's hand felt like safety, invulnerability, and with that charm of protection over her Jummai found it easy to beam at them and walk by without hesitation.
And from there they passed into the audience chamber itself, with its high curving ceiling and smooth gilt floor, cool like water under Jummai's bare feet.
"Here, come along," Grandmother said softly, and Jummai did—and any moment, she thought, they would stop, because she had never been allowed so close to Grandmother's throne—
But they didn't stop, and didn't stop, until they were standing near enough to touch it.
Jummai pressed her free hand to her mouth to keep herself quiet, so Grandmother would not make her move away again; she loved so much to look at the throne, and from here she could see it so much better than usual. It was beautiful: gleaming and golden, vast and tall, and worked all over with the makings of a thousand stories—rivers and jungles and mountains, monkeys and elephants and vast winding caravans, queens and armies and holy men with guardian spirits crouched snarling beside them. Worked along the edges of the seat and back were rings, a hundred, a thousand, and from them hung golden bells—they rang warnings only the king or queen could hear, Jummai knew that much.
"You like it," Grandmother said.
"It's beautiful," Jummai said, forgetting she had meant to be quiet. "It's so pretty, Grandmother, I love it," and that made Grandmother smile again.
"Give me your hands," she said, beckoning—and she already had one, but Jummai held up the other obediently.
Grandmother took it and then knelt down, and looked at Jummai for a long moment without saying anything. But Jummai knew better than to squirm; Grandmother didn't care for impatience.
"I used to call your father little lion," Grandmother said at last, and her voice was heavy with something Jummai didn't understand. "I named him too well, I think. He was a lion—and when there are snakes in the grass, what can the lion do?"
Jummai was not sure whether Grandmother meant her to answer, and didn't know how to answer in any case; lions were almost as distant an idea as Father, for she had seen both only one time that she could remember. But Grandmother looked grave and sad, and Jummai felt a sudden need to tug one hand free of Grandmother's and lay it against Grandmother's cheek.
"Be brave?" she ventured quietly.
And that made Grandmother smile—not as wide as last time, but Jummai thought it still counted.
"Yes," Grandmother said, "I suppose that is so. But you, little mongoose—you I've named better. The snakes don't know the mongoose for what she is, because she's soft and small and loves to laugh; and they bite her and only then learn that her laugh is for them. Remember that."
"Yes, Grandmother," Jummai said, and that was when Grandmother took Jummai's hand again, took both of them by the wrists, and set Jummai's palms against the throne.
Jummai tried for an instant to jerk away—not because of the rules, not because she knew she was not allowed to touch it, but instead just because it was so hot. It burned, a sharp white flare of pain, and she made a small sound in her throat and wriggled, but Grandmother didn't let go.
"Shh, hold still," Grandmother said, "only a little longer," and even as she said it the hurt was not so bad—the heat was gone, even, the gold surface only just beginning to warm under Jummai's palms, and Jummai sniffled but could not help wiggling her fingers against it, feeling the outline of a tree, a dozen birds in flight, spread beneath them. She was not allowed to touch the throne, she knew. But she had always wanted to; and Grandmother was here and had made her do it, so it must have been all right this once.
Grandmother stayed where she was, fingers circling Jummai's wrists, hands pressed half over Jummai's, for another moment; and then she sighed and loosened her grip. It was strange for an instant to look at their hands: Jummai's were small and plump and smooth, Grandmother's wide and wrinkled, and Grandmother's were marked, as they had always been, with a splash of bright gold in the shape of a sun—
And Jummai's were, too.
Jummai blinked, once and then again, but it did not help: the backs of her hands were new and unfamiliar. They had become like Grandmother's; there was a circle on each of them, standing out pale like a scar, and flared around with rays fading out in all directions.
"You'll learn," Grandmother said softly, "so much more than you know now. You'll understand so much more—and perhaps, little mongoose, you'll wish I hadn't done this. But tell me now: if this throne were yours, would you let it be taken from you?"
Jummai tilted her head back to look up at it. Oh, it was so vast and shining, so very lovely—and Grandmother's, but if somehow Grandmother gave it to her? It was a simple selfish feeling, pure and petty, but no one lied to Grandmother; and Jummai could not imagine giving up such a thing.
"Never," she said, with all the determination pettiness could provide—which, she thought, was quite a lot.
"Remember that, too," Grandmother said. "Remember, always, that it is yours, that you have a right to it—and never let anyone tell you otherwise."
"I'll remember, Grandmother," Jummai said, and she meant it.
Then Grandmother died; and there was a war.
Jummai leaned over the board and hummed, idly tapping at her chin. There was a good move available to her, and a better move—the better move harder to see, and she didn't hesitate to ignore it. She made a show of pondering her houses, contemplating her seeds and the layout of the board; and then she reached out with a smile and made the good move, sowing out her seeds with deft flicks of her thumb, and was careful to look very pleased with herself for it.
Playing games with Danaram was a balancing act. Do too poorly, and he felt the victory cheap and was sour for it; too well, and even if you were still careful to lose, the sting of vulnerability could make him ill-tempered for days after. But: he was king in Mindin. There was no refusing to play.
And that was truer for Jummai than for anyone else in all the great palace.
"Ah," said Danaram with satisfaction, "very good, my pretty cousin—but not quite good enough." He scooped seeds from one of his own houses with a smile, and sowed them round the board to make a neat capture.
To be too upset was to say you had expected to win; to care too little was to disrespect his show of skill.
And there was no refusing to play.
"Oh!" Jummai cried, slapping her hand down among the cushions beneath her with a laugh. "And I was doing so well, my king." Her smile curved just so, her brows drawn as low as this but not a hair lower: a wry, rueful look, as amused at her own ill-placed confidence as it was pleased and impressed by his accomplishment.
"Perhaps one day you will beat me," Danaram allowed, generously; and then, glancing at the board, he added, "but I don't think it will be today."
"No," Jummai agreed, and laughed again, and then she sat up in a flurry, steepling her fingers, and examined the board with a look of sober determination. "But of course I'll do my best—anything less would not be fit to offer the king."
She didn't drag the game out too long. When the margin was comfortable, Danaram leaning back against his cushions with a satisfied air, she made one set of captures just good enough to draw his attention—which of course had only been possible, she explained, because she had studied his example so well. And it was not enough to turn the tide entirely in her favor.
He won; and had palm wine and fruit brought when the board was cleared away. "Soon," he said, handing her a cup, "you'll play the host, and I'll drink your palm wine and eat your mangoes, hmm?"
"I don't doubt it, cousin," Jummai said warmly, and she laughed and drank and made much of the sweetness and ripeness of the mango; and then at last she was dismissed.
She went without protest, departing his chambers for the courtyard hall and smiling at everyone she passed. She moved with her habitual careless energy—everyone knew that the king's cousin Jummai liked shining things, never went anywhere without a dozen bracelets, wore bells at her ears and ankles, and all told could be heard coming in the distance like a herd of elephants. The king's cousin Jummai was spoiled, too, and idle; but charming enough even so, good-tempered and easy to please, and uselessness wasn't so terrible a flaw compared to some.
So Jummai hummed as she walked to the gardens, and did not pay the king's guards any mind.
There was no Grandmother to hold her hand; there was no invulnerability to be had. But Jummai was not a girl anymore, and knew better than to look frightened where anyone could see it.
Soon you will play the host. Did that mean he had news from the front? Or did he only expect to receive some? Surely Gir Naim had not fallen so quickly! Jummai hadn't seen the city with her own eyes since she was a child, since Danaram had first had her smuggled out of it and brought to his court after Grandmother's death; but she remembered its walls, its great gilt gates, and surely it had not fallen. Not yet.
Jummai would hear when it did, as quickly as Danaram—more quickly, if she had her way. She stepped out into the courtyard garden, and with the leaves to hide her, it was safe at last to stop smiling, to draw a slow breath and look down at the backs of her hands.
Twin suns. The throne of Gir Niajra was hers, she had a right to it; except Kirjou had taken it first, and Danaram in reply had taken Jummai herself. She had only been a child then, she hadn't understood what any of it meant. And it had taken years, years and years, but at last Danaram sieged Gir Naim itself, and sooner or later the city would fall. And when it did—
When it did, she would not play host to anyone. Danaram was king in his own land and had a taste for it; he would not win a throne only to give it away. He fought for his beloved cousin's sake, because that was honorable and palatable and the twin suns were on Jummai's hands instead of his. But once Gir Naim fell, Jummai had no doubt that she would fall ill, or tragically die in her sleep, or choke on a piece of mango. She snorted at the thought, and shook her head.
Danaram said nothing about any of it except that he meant to make her a queen, and Jummai had gotten very good at pretending to believe it. But: sooner or later, Gir Naim would fall. And that meant that, at last, she was running out of time.
In the end, it took another sixty days.
There were bells all throughout the palace of Danaram; but Jummai woke with the sound of bells in her ears and knew it was nothing anyone else could hear. Even before Bheretai came in to tell her—even then, she sat up in the dimness and felt her breath catch in her throat, heard the ringing of a thousand golden bells, and knew.
She wondered dimly whether Kirjou was dead—whether he had been allowed to surrender or had already been killed. And then a hand caught her shoulder and she almost cried out, except it was only Bheretai.
"Princess," Bheretai said. "Princess, there's a messenger coming in at the gate, and she says she'll speak only to the king."
Jummai met Bheretai's eyes, and oh, she wished for a moment she could press Bheretai, ask her whether she was sure—but Bheretai was no fool, and she would not have come in like this, would not have risked it, if there were any doubt.
"She looks like she's been running all night," Bheretai added, very low, "and she came on the road from the west."
Where Gir Naim lay, and Bheretai knew it as well as Jummai did.
"Thank you," Jummai said, and put her hand over Bheretai's. "Are you ready?"
"Yes," Bheretai said, unwavering; so Jummai struck her, once and then again, hard enough to bruise her cheek and split her lip.
"If they find you here like this, they won't blame you—"
"Or I will go running to them, hysterical," Bheretai said thoughtfully, one hand at her bloody mouth, "and need calming before I can explain what has happened, and throw them into confusion over it."
Jummai could not help but laugh, though it came out sad and ragged. "Whatever you think best," she said, low, and leaned in to press their foreheads together; and it was a long moment before she could make herself pull away.
The king's cousin Jummai was ruled by whim. Everyone knew that. She rose early sometimes, late other times; she did as she pleased when she pleased.
Perhaps she walked too quickly. Perhaps she did not smile enough. But the guards she passed did not stop her, so she must not have done too poorly.
All her care and caution, all her planning, and here in the moment when it all counted most, her head was empty of all things except steps. Steps: her own and the messenger's. Jummai could picture nothing except their competing paths, could measure nothing but the distance—she crossed a hall, passed along a corridor, and somewhere else the messenger must likewise have been crossing a courtyard, passing through a gate—whose footsteps fell more quickly? Jummai's were so loud in her own ears, above even the thudding of her heart; almost enough to drown out the faint high sound of bells.
But the messenger had run all night. Surely, then, Jummai was faster—or fast enough, at least. She could not run, could not rouse suspicion. This had to be fast enough.
The sun was balancing neatly on the eastern hills by the time she reached the elephant grounds. She begged a length of sugarcane off the old elephant-keeper, paying the woman ridiculous compliments; and the elephant-keeper huffed and rolled her eyes but gave in, as she always did.
And lucky for Jummai that Kashi was so predictable—there was nothing the elephant liked better than to wake and go to the watering hole, and spray herself down before lolling about in the mud. For a moment, Jummai thought she had miscalculated; but no, that dim lump was Kashi, half-submerged, and an instant later her trunk came up and cast a long sweeping splash of water far enough for the highest-flying drops to speckle the backs of Jummai's toes.
"You wretch," Jummai told her, and because only Kashi was there to hear it, it was safe to allow the words to come out breathless with relief.
Kashi ran her dripping trunk over Jummai's shoulders, her head, one elbow, and then found the sugarcane in her hand, and accepted it for the gift it was with quiet glee. She was well-trained, of course, as every royal elephant was; a touch to her side was all it took to get her to kneel down, and Jummai climbed astride that wide damp neck and felt the worst of the tension leave her shoulders.
"Almost," she murmured, and swung a shin forward to nudge at the curve of Kashi's ear. "Come on, now. It's almost done."
Kashi groaned a little, low in her throat, and lurched up again, and when Jummai clucked to her she turned without hesitation and ambled toward the gate.
From here, Jummai could see over the wall that closed in the elephant grounds; and she flattened her hands against the back of Kashi's vast head with her heart in her throat and waited for a cry to reach out of the morning and find her. Had the messenger reached Danaram? Surely she must have. Surely she was not so slow as that, no matter how long she had been running. Had he sent his guards to Jummai's chambers? Had they found Bheretai—lying on the floor, pretending unconsciousness; or wailing and clutching her bruised face? Or had Bheretai run to them, weeping, spilling words in a jumble they couldn't untangle?
At any moment, they must come. Surely they must come. The sun was creeping higher, the light shifting from red to gold, the shapes of the wall and the trees and the palace in the distance growing crisper; and at any moment Jummai would see movement at the far end of the path. Spears raised, guards crying out, and the elephant-keeper would hear them and close the gate—
"Be well, Princess," the elephant-keeper said.
It felt like it was someone else who smiled down at her then, who said, "And you," with girlish warmth and then nudged Kashi forward through the gate to the elephant grounds—who ducked her head to pass under the arch of it and laughed, as the elephant-keeper shook her head.
And then it was done: they were out. Jummai turned Kashi onto the great road to the east, heart pounding, and squeezed just a little with her thighs, her knees; and Kashi rumbled beneath her and went.
That was the only choice that made any sense.
East to leave the city, at first. And then Jummai drew Kashi off to one side of the road, just beyond a stand of prickly acacia, and carefully removed three-quarters of the gleaming jewelry king's-cousin Jummai so loved to wear. It would do fleeing-in-secret Jummai very little good—or at least it would do very little good if it remained where it was. Even if she could not be identified by that alone, she didn't care to be robbed for it; she wrapped it up in one end of her sash so it would not clink and then tucked it away at her waist. If she had to, she could barter with it.
And then she nudged Kashi back onto the road, and turned north.
West was Gir Niajra; of course Jummai longed for it, was doing all this in order to one day reach it, but to go there at this time would be idiocy. Here was Mindin, and she could not linger here or Danaram would surely find her.
South was Kaou, Kaou and Garmura to the east of it, and due east lay Zijrun, Tanka; but there would be no help for her there. Together with Mindin, Gir Niajra, they maintained an unsteady balance—but Danaram, conquering Gir Naim at last, had set his fist on the scales. Any of them might be glad of the excuse Jummai would provide to go to war with him, to return to the old equilibrium; but any of them might also be glad to offer her back to him, a price for his goodwill that was not after all very hard to pay. He had conquered one kingdom that was not his—who was to say he would not conquer another? Better to be the ally of such a man than his enemy. And a bargain indeed, to secure such a position at the cost of one woman, a stranger, who had nothing to call her own but a pile of jewelry and an elephant.
No—not south, and not east either.
But north: to the north lay the desert highlands. Scrub and gravel, rock and sand—and clans no kingdom of the south had ever managed to number, warriors on horseback who swept the highlands like storms and asked nothing except to be left alone. They had struck an uneasy peace with Grandmother a very long time ago, and Kirjou had made no move to upset it. But Kirjou was not king in Gir Naim anymore.
They would not trust Danaram, if he came to them asking for her and promising peace in return, and they would not fear him either. Perhaps they would turn Jummai away entirely; perhaps she would have to try her luck in the south or east after all. But if she could find them, find them and convince them—Gir Naim would be hers again, then. All the kingdoms of the south together had never conquered the highlands, not once in all the time there had been kingdoms in the south.
Gir Niajra would be hers again, and she would give the clans of the north anything they wished in return.
The going was not hard—at least not at first. Jummai knew she must let Kashi eat and drink her fill while there was still enough to fill her, because there was no telling how it would be further north. And no telling how far they would need to go to find the clanspeople of the highlands, for that matter.
But Mindin didn't give way to the desert all at once. Perhaps the trees grew thinner, a day or two on; perhaps they were shorter. Perhaps the tread of Kashi's feet raised more dust. There was still grass, there were still leaves—they had to cross a river, and Kashi knelt down in it and flapped her ears and trumpeted contentedly at the coolness of it. Not so bad, Jummai thought, and laughed, and slid from Kashi's neck to wash her face, her arms, her feet.
It could not stay so pleasant forever. The grass grew browner, the ground harder; Jummai began to have to look for damp or green places, where she could climb down and dig in the earth until water welled sluggishly up. The dust was endless, inescapable, and of course it would be a waste to wash—king's-cousin Jummai had had nothing for fleeing-in-secret Jummai to wear that was not bright, red and green and gold, but riding through the northern dust for this long, she felt she must have become nearly the same color as Kashi.
Kashi always drank first. Jummai had decided this would be the rule before the messenger from Gir Naim had ever even arrived; she had decided this lying in her chamber in the dark many days ago, trying to guess how best to survive the desert. Kashi labored hardest, and as big as she was, there was more of her to thirst—and if Jummai began to grow ill and faint from the lack, Kashi could keep walking beneath her regardless. But oh, it grew hard to bear! It was difficult, so difficult, to crouch down and dig so hard, to watch that precious hard-won water pool in the grit—and then to step back from it, to kneel there thirsty and watch Kashi's trunk dip curiously down. Sometimes Kashi sprayed her first trunkful up against her belly instead of into her mouth, and for brief wild moments Jummai almost wanted to hit her, to scream at her and yank her ears for wasting it so cruelly.
But Kashi must drink first. Jummai didn't let herself forget it.
There was one thing, she discovered, that was easy in the north: up there on Kashi's neck, moving with the sway of her shoulders and peering off into the relentless bright distance, it was easy to—to fall down into oneself. To lose time to the endless sameness of it, the sun always beating and the dust always choking, the horizon always just as far away as it had ever been and shimmering like a false promise of water. Water, water; Jummai thought of nothing else for what felt like entire days at a time. She sat upright on Kashi's neck and her eyes were open, she must have looked and seemed like a woman riding an elephant—but inside her there was no person, only dust and thirst and the dim scraped-thin dream of water.
And then, at last, they found the oasis.
The day hadn't started well. The thought of turning back had begun to cross Jummai's mind, unbidden and unwelcome—she knew full well there was no merit in it, that she would be better off dying on her own terms alone in the desert; at least then perhaps her spirit would linger here, and the tales told of it would follow Danaram well after he crowned himself in Gir Naim. If she could do nothing else, she could make his sleep uneasy—with all the determination pettiness could provide.
She would not turn back, then.
But, oh—all the rest of her, all the part that could not be made to think ahead and see what must be done, wanted nothing more. Had it been such a hardship, to lose at wari and drink palm wine and be charming? She could have gone on playing the fool, and perhaps that would have been enough; she could have claimed to fear it, to feel herself something less than a queen, and that she preferred a life of leisure in Mindin to—
To the throne that was hers. She tilted her head back and cast an eye up at the bright flat desert sky, and wondered distantly whether Grandmother watched her. Had she known exactly what she was doing, planting the dream of that throne in Jummai's heart—deep, deep, beneath all thought and practicality and logic, beyond all hope of digging it up? So deep that even here, in the desert, it found water?
Jummai found herself laughing, hoarse and cracked and helpless. "Well, it worked, Grandmother!" she shouted at the sky, and she threw her arms wide and let herself fall back against Kashi's sturdy shoulders. "It worked, you sneaky old witch," because it had—Jummai would die here and be satisfied by it, with a fierce unreasoning joy, solely because then she would not have given up; she would not have let that throne go, would not have handed it away. Which was mad and childish, but also viscerally pleasing; perhaps it was the heat, her thirst, perhaps she really had gone mad, but if she had then it was not so bad, because at least she was happy about it—
And then there was a hitch in Kashi's step, and Jummai's head lolled to one side against her flat hot back; and through the narrow window of barely-opened eyes, Jummai saw green.
It was probably not real. This had happened before, now and then—a glimmer of something that was not there. And Jummai had learned better than to ride toward such glimmers, but—
But Jummai was a madwoman, after all. And this one looked more promising than most. Jummai sat up a little and peered at it, squinted and then widened her eyes; it wavered with the heat, but didn't change or vanish. An outcropping of rock, that was what gave it solidity—that part might be real. The greenness that seemed to creep along the edges would surely vanish as they drew closer. But if nothing else, perhaps there would be shade for a little while.
So Jummai nudged Kashi into a turn with her knees, and, with perfect blithe confidence that nothing would be there, rode directly into the camp of the war-king of the north.
She didn't realize it at first—she was too busy trying to keep Kashi from trampling a horse that should not have been real. But the horse was real; and so were the hands that grasped at Jummai's ankle, her shin, and dragged her down off Kashi's neck; and so was the long straight-edged sword that appeared as if from nowhere and pressed itself to Jummai's throat.
"Ah," she said, in sheer stupid surprise, and held still.
Whoever was holding the sword shouted something that made no sense. When Jummai didn't answer, the shout was repeated—the same tone and tenor, but this time in trade language: "Who are you?"
And that—that was what it took to make Jummai's mind work again. She could not swallow, her mouth was far too dry for that; she stood there and breathed against the line of the blade at her neck and looked around herself—and more important than the green leaves, the shade, more important even than the water, was the tent that stood in the distance, at the other end of the outcropping. Not the only one, there was a whole camp set out beside the rock. But one tent was taller than any other around it, the cloth of a blue so blue that it was nearly black, and surely that meant something.
"I will go to the tent," she said, clumsy—trade language was not a tongue for princesses, but she knew some. Enough. It would have to be enough.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" A little harsher this time.
"The tent," Jummai insisted. And they were looking at her warily, the sword against her throat not the only one that had been drawn; but she was tired and alone and not entirely sure she was standing up straight. They could not really think her dangerous—not these people of the clans, who weren't afraid of anything.
She waited and did not move—did not lean away from the sword, but couldn't find it in herself to cringe or shake over it either. A few more days and she would probably die anyway, and be much more uncomfortable while she did it. Merely having her head cut off wasn't so poor a prospect by comparison.
And at last one of them peered at her, mouth twisting dubiously, and said, "All right. The tent, elephant girl."
When she was thrust within the blue tent, Jummai had a moment to wish she hadn't let herself be pulled off of Kashi—that way it wouldn't have mattered how weak her knees were, how much her thighs trembled; and she would still have been dirty and thirsty and wretchedly exhausted, but she would at least have been high up. There would have been something about her that was impressive.
But as it was, the man who'd pushed her in said something she could not understand, and then, to her, "Lower your head, elephant girl," and when she stared at him, he nudged her sharply in the leg with his foot and she almost fell over entirely. Which did make her head drop; and it must have been enough to satisfy him, because he backed away after and left her there.
The floor of the tent was cloth—also blue—and the effect was so strange as to be almost unsettling: the coolness of the whole place, the shade, soothing dimness instead of relentless blazing light, and the feeling of something against the dry cracking soles of Jummai's feet that was neither sand nor Kashi's rough hot skin. This was what it must be like for the sun, Jummai thought dimly, to enter the house of night at day's end, after such a long burning journey through the sky.
There were several people seated, on cushions or simply on the floor of the tent, but Jummai was not here for them. The man, gray-haired and gray-bearded, gazing at her with calm steady eyes from the raised couch at the tent's far side—he was someone important. And—
And perhaps also the woman next to him. Standing, and in nothing particularly fine—white, loose and flowing, with a sash of that profound and endless blue—but with her chin lifted, a clear dark stare that settled on Jummai and seemed to see everything, to look through her entirely. Her face—if she was not queen of something then it was a waste, Jummai found herself thinking, an unconscionable waste; the stern proud brow, the line of cheek and jaw, the way she held herself.
"Who are you?"
Jummai jerked her eyes back to the man, belated, and for a moment her dry tongue would not work at all; and then she said, "You are the king."
The man looked at her, and the corner of his mouth slanted up the barest touch—not quite a smile, but at the very least he did not look angry. "I am Amasan," he said, which Jummai feared at first was some sort of title in trade language she didn't know, except then he added, "and I am war-king, that is true."
War-king; because the clans had chiefs, was that right? The clans had chiefs, and Jummai felt sure she had been told a story once that had said something about choosing from among them for a war-king before—well, before riding swift and terrible against some queen or another, sweeping across the grassland as a great storm from the sea—
"But these things I know already," Amasan murmured. "Which is why I ask instead: who are you?"
"I am Jummai," because that would mean nothing by itself and was therefore safe to give away, when there was so much more Jummai must know before she could even guess at the best way to explain the rest. "Do you go to war then, war-king?"
"I may," Amasan said slowly, "and then again I may not." His eyes narrowed; he looked her up and down, more carefully than he had before, and then leaned forward a little on his elbow and said, "You are from the south, Jummai the elephant girl, and run north. Do you run from Gir Naim?"
Jummai went still. He had no cause to ask unless he knew—knew Gir Naim had been sieged, knew how the war progressed. And why shouldn't he? He had cause to be troubled, too, at the thought of a king of two kingdoms, an emperor rising—because no kingdom alone had dared wage war with the north and open itself to attack by its neighbors. Because there had been so fragile a balance; but Danaram's fist was on the scale, and who could guess what weight he was willing to set his strength against?
And then again I may not. He had been named war-king by his people, and—and had come far enough south, Jummai thought, for her to stumble across him, even wandering as hopelessly as she had been. But he still hoped not to go to war, or at least thought there was a chance of it. He came south to show himself, then, to make it clear that he and his people were prepared and to see what Danaram would do with the knowledge.
And that was—that was the rankest foolishness. But then he did not know what Jummai knew.
"Gir Naim is fallen," Jummai said, as loudly and clearly as she was able, and Amasan's face didn't change except that his mouth pressed itself flat. "Gir Naim is fallen, and Danaram the king of Mindin will be king in Gir Naim soon if he is not already."
"And you come here to tell us this?" said the standing woman sharply, that perfect imposing stare of hers suddenly intent.
"I come here to tell you that he has no friend in me," Jummai said, and held out her hands so the backs of them showed—and the clans must have had legends here just like Jummai had heard something of their war-kings, because the woman and Amasan both drew in quick breaths, and a murmur went round those who were seated. "I come here to tell you that he will not fear your shadow. He will go to war with you one day—perhaps not this day, perhaps not this season, but one day it will happen; because you are here and not yet under his heel, because he can and no one else will stop him."
She broke off there and let the silence ring for a moment; and then Amasan tilted his head and said evenly, "And what do you think we should do about it, Jummai the elephant princess?"
There were reasons to think it might work. The standing woman was someone who mattered, staying as close by the war-king as she did, and with her head higher than his; and she had jumped in to ask a question and no one had looked at her sideways for it; and her eyes had not left Jummai's face, not once.
There were reasons to think it might work; but in the moment Jummai was a madwoman, reasonless, making a desperate leap. She locked eyes with the woman and drew a slow breath, and then let it out and said, "Marry me."
And the woman looked back at her, cool and regal and assessing, and said, "Yes."
A moment's silence, that was all; and then an outcry rose in multiple voices, overlapping. Nothing Jummai could have understood even if it had not been—it was desert-talk.
The woman didn't flinch at it. She did not even look away from Jummai. She stood there with that steady queenly arrogance and waited for it to die down, and then said, "Danger? What danger is there in it? Will you murder me in my sleep, then, wife?"
The tone was sober; but the arch of one brow said the woman knew precisely how useless a question it was. Jummai swallowed a laugh and said, "No," anyway—what could it hurt?—and only then realized what had happened.
The woman had gone back to trade language, had chosen pointedly to make it possible for Jummai to understand.
"There," the woman said, "you see, I have her word. Will you question the word of my wife?" She brushed aside one tail of her sash, and set her hand upon—upon the hilt of a sword, Jummai realized, that was what had been tucked away beneath it. "I will defend the honor of my clan, Imgar—as heir to the war-king I cannot do less."
And this, this was said mildly; but the woman's eyes were like stone.
One of the men who had been speaking—Imgar, no doubt—had risen up to his knees, and now subsided back. Jummai could see his jaw clench. "She is not your wife—"
"Not yet," the woman agreed. "But I will fix that." And then, at last, her gaze flicked away from Jummai to someone else: a woman, on the other side of the tent from Imgar. "Does this satisfy you, Dassin?"
"No," said Dassin baldly. "We do not know she speaks truth, when she speaks of Gir Naim—when she speaks of her own cousin who she says is king."
A low murmur, again.
"Her own cousin," the woman repeated, as though this were the significant point—and perhaps somehow it was; Jummai could not swear she had not missed something, she was so tired. "Her cousin whom she fled here to escape—her cousin to whom she prefers we strangers." Her eyes cut sideways to Jummai again, and she said slowly, "Look at her hands, Dassin. You know how the crowns of the south are passed. If her cousin has won Gir Naim, then she has said it herself: he has no friend in her, nor she in him." And then, with a tilt of her chin toward Jummai, "What will happen if you go back?"
And even if Jummai had had the wit about her to come up with a lie, there was no need to tell one. "I will die," she said.
"There," said the woman. "She was in the south, and would be dead—now she is safe in the desert, and will be killed by nothing that cannot duel me and win, and will have a wife besides. What a glorious day this is for her! Why, Dassin, would she spoil it with a knife in my throat?"
"Because she is stupid," said Dassin, who evidently didn't feel a need to be delicate about it. "Because she has been paid. Because she is her cousin's instrument—"
"In which case we will go to war with her cousin anyway," the woman murmured, "when you find my body—"
"Enough," said Amasan, and Dassin turned her head and huffed irritatedly but didn't speak again. The woman went quiet, too, but somehow Jummai could not apply the word obedient to her silence; it was as though she had chosen to finish there, and that Amasan had raised his voice at the same moment was only coincidence. "You choose this."
"Yes," the woman said. "If there is no war—she lives, we go on, all is well. If there is war, we fight with cause; we fight to make my wife queen in Gir Niajra, and when we win ourselves peace it will last. Who would not choose this?"
Amasan looked at her, and his mouth was still pressed flat—but the corners of his eyes had crinkled just a little. He sighed a little through his nose and then looked at Jummai. "And you, elephant princess?"
"Yes," Jummai said, and then, before she could think better of it, "only—"
"What?" said Amasan.
"Only—what is your name, wife?" Jummai said, wry.
And for an instant, she thought she saw the woman's mouth twitch. "I am Takallat," she said.
"Takallat," Jummai murmured. Takallat. There was something in the rhythm of it that pleased her—that reminded her of bells. "And if it is not too late to ask: what has been done with my elephant?"
Nothing had been done with Kashi, as it turned out. She had not trampled any horses, they had all opted to get out of her way; and without a rider or any other guidance, she had gone straight for the water, the wide clear lake and leafy banks that formed the heart of the oasis. When Jummai stepped out to find her, she was submerged up to her shoulders, trunk raised and curled over her head, delightedly spraying water across her back.
And Jummai would have been doing the same, she thought, if she had a trunk. As it was, she laughed, and then ran to the bank and dropped to her knees and plunged her hands into the water—her hands, her arms, her face, and for the first time in days it felt possible that she would again be more woman than dust. She cupped her hands and drank, messy and noisy with the luxury of it; there was so much water, she could drink and drink again and there would still be more—
"Not too fast, elephant princess," someone said, grasping her shoulder, and Jummai blinked droplets off her eyelashes until she could see again: it was the man who'd spoken against her, Imgar. His mouth was still pinched with disapproval, but he looked down at her and said again, "Not too fast, or you will only lose it all."
Jummai could not help measuring again, as she would have in Danaram's palace—if drinking more without caution would be foolish, then perhaps that was precisely what she ought to do, to make them all think less of her. Except there was no benefit to it anymore. Jummai had made a leap in asking—but Takallat had made a leap in accepting. At any moment, for all Jummai knew, she might think better of it, and Jummai's life depended on convincing her not to.
So: best to seem wise. Best to seem like a—like a good choice, a good wife. Best to give this man no grounds to question Takallat's judgment, or at least no more grounds than he felt he had already.
Besides, the water was not going anywhere. There was no need to drink it all now.
Jummai told herself this and then could not resist cupping just a little more in her hand—but she sipped it slowly, and didn't reach for more when it was gone.
"Enough, then?" said Imgar, but not unkindly; and then he pulled her to her feet. "Come on, elephant princess."
"If we are going to go to war over you," said Imgar, "there is no time to waste."
It was lucky for Jummai that the clans of the north celebrated weddings with tremendous amounts of food—she didn't know whether anyone would have thought to feed her, otherwise.
There was no obvious opportunity to ask. Jummai was led away to a tent that was not the vast midnight-blue one, and was full of people who seemed to have a very clear idea as to what Jummai ought to be doing: sitting still and letting them do what they pleased with her.
Her clothes were taken away to be cleaned, and she was given new ones—was dressed in them, more accurately, since she did nothing herself except lift her arms or feet when they were pushed at. Northern clothes were wrapped and pleated and tied in mostly familiar ways; it was only that it looked unfamiliar, layers upon layers of white and that deep dizzying blue.
Her hair was examined, her old gold ornaments removed, and it was tugged and parted ten different ways, rebraided by a dozen quick hands, before they were put back—and more besides, loops and discs and little clinking charms. Her cheeks and forehead were marked in careful patterns with something red; it itched as it dried, and Jummai twisted her fingers together behind her to keep herself from touching it.
A great deal was said around her, but all in desert-talk—nobody spoke to her, except to say, "Higher, elephant princess," or "Turn—turn—no, no, turn that way," or, once, to ask, "Do you have gifts, elephant princess?"
"I—my sash," was all Jummai could think of, and it was retrieved from wherever it had been taken and the pile of jewelry tied in it examined. Jummai had a moment to think wildly that she should have brought some oxen, maybe a few goats; but gold was apparently good enough and would serve, and they didn't ask for Kashi instead.
They asked her nothing more, in fact, after that. And it was good, she thought, that they needed so little from her; that she did not have to speak or think, that she could sit there while they swarmed around her and be nothing. Because nothing was not thirsty or hungry, was not tired or afraid. Far better to be nothing than to be Jummai.
And then, all at once, it was time.
Whatever the ceremony was, Jummai could understand none of it. It was done outside, on the sand not far from the water, with the sunset drenching everything in gold; Jummai was made to stand in the center of a great circle of gathered people, more than she had expected, and she had time to think that she had no idea what to do and that all their eyes were on her, and a moment later Takallat was next to her.
Jummai felt like a doll, dressed by others and propped in place; but Takallat, she felt certain, was wearing it all as it was meant to be worn—the blue and white in their draping layers, the braids and charms and glittering ornaments. The red paint on Jummai's face felt like dried mud, like a child playing at beauty; but seeing how it lay down the perfect straight line of Takallat's nose, how it followed the curve of each cheekbone—everyone else in the north who had ever worn this wedding paint, Jummai thought, had worn it in the hope of looking like Takallat.
There was a great deal of orderly speech from a number of faces that were familiar to her from the blue tent—perhaps clan chiefs? Perhaps blessings or good wishes? Some seemed very brief; but none were withheld, which Jummai dared to think boded well. Takallat replied to each with grave attention, and no one seemed to expect the same of Jummai. They were evidently meant to kneel at some times and stand at others, which Jummai was slow to realize the first time, and thereafter she did her best to simply do whatever Takallat did as quickly as she was able.
And then, just as the light began to change, more red than gold, the food was brought out.
Trays and trays and trays of it, fruit and meat and some sort of grain that had been cooked somehow and smelled amazing. Suddenly the nothing was gone; suddenly Jummai was all herself again, the self that hadn't slept or eaten in much too long—
They were standing, at that moment, and abruptly that seemed a great trial. Jummai realized dimly that her legs were shaking; she wavered in place, feeling dizzy with hunger, almost sick with it, and she knew she must not move or fall. It was—she didn't think, it was only that Takallat was so tall, so wholly immovable, and right there: she felt herself make a small sound in her throat, and she reached out and grabbed Takallat's wrist.
A murmur rose—for a moment it had no meaning to Jummai at all, it was only one more thing that was happening. And then it occurred to her, as though from a distance, that that was not good. She must have made a mistake. It must not be right for her to touch Takallat; not in that place, or not at this time, or something. She had done something wrong—
"It is nearly over," Takallat murmured, clinking gently as she leaned close. And then she lifted her arm, but not to pull it from Jummai's grip; only to settle her fingers over the back of Jummai's hand, cool and dry and steady.
It had not been a lie. Only a little longer, and they knelt again at last and the food was brought closer. Jummai managed not to plunge her face into it; she waited for Takallat to nod regally at someone and then pick up a piece of flat bread with one hand, half a date with the other, and carefully did the same.
There was even more talking, a fire laid and started, drums and a slim flute brought out and someone singing. Jummai ignored it all—if it mattered, she had begun to hope, Takallat would tell her. She ate, steadily and slowly, because she remembered Imgar's words by the oasis pool; Takallat had calmly committed the same error Jummai had in touching her, and by doing so had made it acceptable, but Jummai couldn't imagine she would repeat that kindness if Jummai's next mistake was to vomit their wedding feast into the sand.
So she made herself sit there and choose one thing at a time, take one piece of it and chew it thoroughly, swallow it slowly, before she chose another. And, because there was nothing else for her to do, because she needed to help herself space out each choice and each motion, she looked at Takallat.
She had thought—she had thought very little, truth be told. It had been reasonable to make the offer to Takallat rather than Amasan, because Amasan was old; because if he had married Jummai and then died, she would be no better off than she had been before. And Takallat had proven to be a startlingly good choice. She hadn't needed the potential benefits of such an arrangement pointed out to her, hadn't forced Jummai to beg or plead or promise anything. She had argued for it of her own free will, had smoothed Jummai's way where she could and had been—had been considerate. Jummai hadn't thought to expect it from her, from someone with that graven face and stern haughty chin, and yet that was the only word for it. She had been considerate. She had been—kind.
Jummai had decided, kneeling by the water with Imgar's hand on her shoulder, that it was time for a change in tactics. Except it wasn't so great a change as all that, not really. Yes, she would try to seem wise and quiet and careful where before she had been better off foolish and loud; but above all she'd wanted to—to make sure she was pleasant. To make Danaram like her, or at least struggle to find personal fault with her. And she had done it then because it had meant she wouldn't seem like a threat, but—
But she was starting to think that she wanted to do it for Takallat.
It would be clever, it would be—it would be best, to let her eyes linger and let Takallat catch them doing it. It would be best, tonight, to reach for Takallat without needing to be asked. To offer, perhaps, to be the one to remove the gleaming ornaments from Takallat's hair; to skim gentle fingertips along the line of Takallat's neck and shoulder as she did it; to smile shyly and lower her eyes and let Takallat pull her close—
It would be clever. It would be best. And if it would also be easy—if thinking of it even now, as she sat here and looked at Takallat in the firelight, made her shiver a little—that was hardly to be rued. That was—that was more than Jummai could possibly have thought to hope for.
The fire burned long. The music, the singing, went on, and soon enough there was dancing—but Takallat made no move to rise, simply sat and ate, so Jummai did the same.
And then at last someone shouted, tone commanding, and the tune, the beat, changed; and Takallat said something that made everyone who was near enough to hear clap and laugh. She waited in perfect dignity for them to stop, and then turned to Jummai and said, "It is our turn now."
Jummai did not know any clan dances—but Takallat had to know it and was still standing, holding out her hand, so it must not have mattered too much.
So she put her hand in Takallat's and stood likewise, and let Takallat draw her out into the circle, between the fire and what remained of the food.
"Everyone is supposed to be drunk by now," Takallat murmured, leaning in; she didn't need to, Jummai thought, because even with the crackling of the fire, the rush and hum of voices around them, it felt as though Jummai simply could not fail to hear her. As though wherever she was, however near or far away or loudly or softly she spoke, Jummai would know and listen. "So there are not really steps. We just dance."
Her face had been so impassive all the time—even when Jummai had amused her a little, in the great blue tent, her mouth had only shifted the smallest portion and it had been like a laugh from anyone else. So it didn't feel entirely real, as though perhaps it was a matter of the dimness and the firelight, that Jummai saw a dimple form, the quick bright gleam of teeth. And, too, she had stood so still, in the tent and when Jummai had taken her arm, and had sat without fidgeting while they ate; it was startling, breathtaking, that she should step back and whirl away into the dark in a rush of white and blue and clinking ornaments.
Jummai was left there—but only for a moment. King's-cousin Jummai had liked to dance and had done it with exuberance, and the drums of the northern clans were not so very different from what Jummai was used to. She closed her eyes and let them move her, and there was something wild and lovely about dancing on the sand beneath the vast black sky, surrounded by strangers. Danaram, his guards, had not caught her—she had gotten away, had not managed to kill either Kashi or herself in the desert—had made it here and been married and was alive.
She found herself laughing as she spun and twisted and pounded her feet against the earth. Because it was funny, wasn't it? To think she had left a palace and come here and counted this wealth: to have eaten, to have drunk her fill of water, to have her elephant and clean clothes and a wife who probably would not kill her—and yet it was wealth, of a kind she had never had before in her life.
Her path crossed Takallat's once at the far side of the fire, and then again at the near side, and the next time Takallat didn't let her pass but caught her by the wrist, the hand, and drew her in close. They were still moving—spinning together, feet quick in the sand, Takallat's fingers warm against Jummai's hand; and then Takallat brought her other arm in to catch Jummai about the waist and draw her still closer. For a moment Jummai could not breathe: Takallat was suddenly so near, the firelight there and gone and there again as they turned, her face almost unrecognizable but for the sheer glorious intensity of her gaze on Jummai's face—
Someone shouted it, and then it was echoed back by the rest of the circle, in trade-tongue so Jummai would hear and understand. Jummai threw her head back and laughed, and then nearly lost her balance—Takallat's arm tightened around her for an instant, and then they were slowing, and then someone caught them each by one shoulder and shook them a little—Imgar.
"Good enough, elephant princess, good enough," he said, and then, with a laugh, "Now—gifts!"
What this meant was that it was time to go and sit again. Gifts were duly given out—next to Takallat on a mat Jummai hadn't noticed before was a remarkable pile of things, including some familiar jewelry, and all these were passed around and exclaimed over and chosen from. There was a great deal more talking, and Jummai wasn't even frustrated by it; she sat by Takallat and looked at the fire, the sky, and dug her toes into the sand, and let it all drift by around her.
And then, at last, she was called back by a touch to her shoulder.
"Come on," Takallat said, "up, we must get up again," and there were no teeth this time but that was still a smile, tucked away into the corner of her mouth.
Jummai grinned at her and then let herself be pulled up by Imgar.
There was some sort of presentation of a great deal of cloth—"A tent," Takallat explained, "or at least it will be." And then even more talking, as they went through the camp at the head of a great line, slow and ponderous; Jummai did her best not to yawn, but oh, her eyes were heavy!
And then, all at once, everyone else was gone. It was—they had reached another tent, mats and cushions laid out across the floor of it, and then the flap closed behind them and they were alone.
It was almost too dark to see, with nothing but the glow of the great fire in the distance, and the mats felt soft beneath Jummai's feet; but Jummai found herself swallowing, and was suddenly not quite so tired anymore.
"Here," Takallat said, and drew her down to sit beside a little basin of water. Takallat dipped her fingers in and then swiped them gently across Jummai's cheeks, her forehead—the paint, Jummai realized.
She hurried to wet her own hands, and then had to talk herself firmly into setting them against Takallat's face. Which was warm, not stone at all, no matter what it had sometimes looked like.
She swallowed, and Takallat must have been able to feel how her arms were shaking—she could not even have said why, as if there were a single answer; it had been so very long a day, and she was a little cold now that they were away from the fire, and they were alone, and she did not know what she was doing—
But Takallat should not know any of that. Jummai needed to do this right, to be charming and pleasant and easy to be around, because Takallat was all that had saved her life and if she wished it to stay saved then Takallat would have to keep wanting it that way. This was no time to quiver or falter or be unsure.
"Jummai—" Takallat said, very low.
"Takallat," Jummai murmured, and made her tone soft and teasing, tempting. She dug a smile up from somewhere, because she wasn't sure how much Takallat could see through the dimness, and surely Takallat would like her better smiling; everyone did. She steadied herself and let her hand soften, linger, against the curve of Takallat's cheek, and then she reached up with the other hand to the first strand of ornaments braided into Takallat's hair and said, "Let me—"
Takallat caught her wrist, and Jummai fell silent without thinking; it should have been a good thing, progress, except something in Takallat's grip, some tension or rigidity, said otherwise. "You think it necessary," she said quietly after a moment.
"To—take all this out of your hair?" Jummai said with half a laugh. Reflex, to choose the least difficult path; Takallat's tone said that wasn't what she had meant, but—
But there were so many roads here that were strewn with stones, and led nowhere Jummai intended to go. Better by far to turn toward the garden instead.
Takallat was silent for a long moment. Jummai waited, smiling, eyes straining through the dark to pick out the edges of her, the shape of her chin and the gleam of her eyes, and couldn't decide what to do—surely it would not be wise to test her grip. To draw away, then, was as unwise as to push forward. So: do not move at all. Say something? To press the matter too clumsily was to say she thought Takallat stupid enough to be toyed with—and yet clumsiness was hard to avoid, when she had nothing but a child's words in trade language and could not say half of what she wanted—
"Enough," Takallat said, soft and even. "We are—we are not wives until the tent is done." She let go of Jummai's wrist and stood. "You are tired. Lie down."
She was displeased, and that meant Jummai could afford no more mistakes. "Thank you," she said, shy and sweet as she could make it, because—because she was tired, after all; because Takallat did not need to know how her heart was pounding.
Whatever it was she had done wrong, she would have the chance to do better. Takallat had married her, or—or was marrying her, even if it wasn't quite over yet, and did it for her own reasons; it would be best if she liked Jummai, but the whole matter did not rest on that alone. There was time for Jummai to work out how to get this right.
So she lay down, and felt Takallat move to kneel by her, and then Takallat's hands were in her hair, among her braids. They were quick and deft, and didn't linger—where there were threads or ties, Takallat simply snapped them, instead of drawing the thing out by undoing the braids themselves.
But it was in service of making Jummai comfortable so she could sleep. That counted for something, it had to.
Jummai was half asleep already by the time Takallat was done—it took her a moment to realize, to turn her head a little into the pillow and discover that she no longer clinked. Takallat hadn't moved. She was still kneeling in the dark by Jummai's head, and surely all Jummai was to her was a blacker patch of darkness and the sound of steady breathing.
Jummai kept it steady, and didn't open her eyes.
"You are safe here," Takallat said after a moment; but coolly, quietly, and she didn't touch Jummai again.
Takallat was still angry in the morning.
She didn't look it, and she said nothing, but surely it was so—she was gone when Jummai woke. When Jummai ventured out to find her, Takallat looked her up and down with impassive coolness and—in front of even Dassin! Dassin, who didn't like her, and Takallat knew it—assigned her a single servant.
One. Danaram had tended to be generous with Jummai, perhaps because he'd known he would only need to carry on with it until he took Gir Naim; but if he ever had sought to insult or diminish her, that would have been one of the simplest ways to do it. To take away all the servants who dealt with her clothes and jewelry, who fetched and carried and cleaned her chambers, and leave her with only Bheretai—there would have been no clearer signal that she had lost favor and was vulnerable.
It took Jummai time to even realize what was happening. Takallat was speaking in desert-talk again, to a woman with iron-gray hair who looked vaguely familiar; and then she cast Dassin a pointed glance, turned to Jummai, and said, "This is Meghida. She will care for you."
Because there was another ceremony to come that called for special care in preparation for it? Because Meghida knew something in particular—because they feared Jummai was ill or might become so, after she had nearly fainted in the middle of her wedding?
Jummai couldn't guess which; she didn't know clan ways, after all. She hesitated, unsure, and then inclined her head to Meghida, because the clans seemed to take the lowering of the head very seriously, and it was better to be too polite than not polite enough.
And then Meghida clucked her tongue, tilted her head and said, "Well, sleep has done you good. Perhaps it will not be too hard to keep you alive, elephant princess."
She spoke with such assurance, and the words had no hint of the temporary: to keep you alive, to do it and go on doing it. Jummai was startled, and then caught herself before the startlement could turn visibly to dismay; but her gut had already begun to churn.
Was Takallat so vindictive as to punish her for whatever misstep she'd made, and to want to do it in public? Or did she mean this as a warning, a demonstration to show that she was not to be crossed? Or—it was still possible that there was another reason. Wasn't it? Perhaps this was a demonstration of another kind; perhaps Dassin didn't like Meghida either, and Takallat was endeavoring to make it clear that she did not care, with Jummai only a means to that end.
Looking at that unreadable face in daylight, it felt impossible to guess.
"I will do my best to make it easy for you," Jummai told Meghida, and listened to herself laugh—because at least then Dassin would see she wasn't hurt by it, that if it was an insult then the insult had passed her by; and because she didn't know what else to do.
So, when the clans at last broke camp, it was Meghida who rode by Jummai. Her horse was lithe, or at least looked it next to Kashi, and was also nearly as old as she was, if Jummai was any judge. Which seemed to mean it was also as imperturbable as Meghida, since it did not show half the anxiety some of the other horses had over being asked to stay so close to Kashi; it ambled along comfortably without any visible direction at all, Meghida squinting out across the sand from its back and otherwise paying it no attention.
And it was Meghida who explained where they were going, and why.
"We are only some clans, here. There are more coming, many more, and there must be a place where—where we can all be together, you see? Where we can be together and talk to each other, and the war-king can speak and all our clan chiefs will hear him. So when there will be war, we go to the city."
"The city," Jummai repeated. "What city?"
"Our city," said Meghida, and then her mouth quirked at Jummai's bewilderment. "It is called Aradames, elephant princess, and between it and any city you have ever seen in the south, it is the larger."
"I have never heard of such a place—"
"Well, and you would not," said Meghida. "It has been a very long time, and it—" She paused and made a face, spat out a string of desert words Jummai couldn't understand, and then aimed a glance up at Jummai, sighing through her nose. "I do not have the words! It goes away? When we are not there, it is not there either."
Jummai made a face right back at her—who had ever heard of such a thing?—and Meghida laughed and reached up to pat Jummai's knee with the backs of her fingers.
"You will see, elephant princess."
So: they were riding to Aradames, a city that wasn't there. Jummai had thought it might be difficult, to leave the oasis behind and set out again into the desert—but it wasn't so hard when she was not alone, when she knew she would not have to find her own water. And the clans were in no hurry. There were so many people, so much to carry, children darting about between the horses and laughing—the pace was not hard.
It became easy to find a certain rhythm in it. Riding through the day—and she had never ridden Kashi so far or so long, but because they didn't need to go quickly, it wasn't nearly as difficult as it could have been for her legs, her thighs, to adjust. The children were almost as shy of Kashi as the horses, at first, but soon she was groaning and trumpeting at them, lifting the little ones up with her trunk while they shrieked and giggled. And Jummai and Meghida were able to struggle along together in trade language well enough—or sometimes they gave up, and Jummai told Meghida all about the kingdoms of the south, Grandmother, the great palace in Gir Naim, and then let Meghida flood her with desert words in turn.
It was good to have people, in the desert. It was good to have someone to talk to who was not Kashi or the sky, or Grandmother's spirit. It was even good, Jummai discovered, to talk to someone who couldn't understand it—to speak precisely as she thought, to spill out every petty thing she'd ever trapped behind her teeth, lowered her eyes and swallowed, over and over and over. "My cousin is useless," she could say, "he is a terrible king and he has no mind for strategy—it's only that he has so many warriors, he doesn't even have to know how to use them," and Meghida would only squint up at her and smile, uncomprehending. It was wealth: to have food, to have water, to have an elephant and a wife who probably would not kill her—even if she didn't like her—and to be able, in even this little way, to say what she pleased.
So the days were easy enough. There was nothing to do but ride; and with Meghida by her side, the great line of people and horses stretching away ahead and behind, Jummai could not get lost.
It was when the riding was done, when the desert grew dark and cool and she was going nowhere, that Jummai found her way difficult to navigate.
Takallat had spoken precise truth on the night of their wedding: the vast lengths of cloth they had been given by the clans were not a tent, but would be. And, Jummai discovered, it was their task as the newly-married to make it so.
The cloth had already been dyed that profound and perfect blue, had already been embroidered beautifully—Jummai ran her hands across trees, birds, wheeling suns, and couldn't help thinking of the feeling of gold beneath her fingers, of Grandmother's hands and eyes and quiet smile; little mongoose.
But it still had to be sewn together. Which might not have been so momentous a task except that Takallat was heir to the war-king of the clans—it was clearly intended to be a very, very large tent.
It felt almost too appropriate: to sit across from Takallat in the tent that had been Takallat's alone, with such a vast space and quantity between them, and so much work yet to do before any of it would become anything. And Jummai had no idea how best to accomplish it.
Not the sewing—that, she could do. Takallat didn't need to be told that Jummai had never made a tent before, but she showed Jummai which edges to join where, and after Jummai's first few seams were deemed acceptable, she didn't insist on continuing to check them but kept to her own side of the tent.
Jummai almost regretted having failed to make a mistake.
It was—she could not work out how to close any of the distance, how to bring Takallat nearer to her again. She wished she could insist that it had not worked the first time, that they needed to marry again, if only because then they would be required to dance—then at last Takallat would be within arm's reach, if only for a little while.
She tried working quietly and well, as quickly as she could; she tried going slowly, with great care, and talking a little about how lovely it would be when it was done, how generous a gift it was. Takallat only agreed and then fell silent again, or watched her without speaking, hands quick and sure with her own needle. The closest Jummai came to anything she could call success was the night she stabbed herself in the hand by mistake—it had been so quiet it felt almost like she was alone, and she had, all unthinking, let out a great long string of many and varied curses; upon the needle and the hand that had shaped it, the cloth and the loom that had woven it, whatever desert plant or animal had given up the fiber for each strand of thread—
She had stuck her finger in her mouth ungracefully, still muttering around it, and then belatedly looked up—and Takallat hadn't been looking back, her gaze fixed steadily on her own work; but she had been smiling, lips pressed tight against what surely might have been a laugh.
Jummai had felt gladness bloom within her chest like a flower, like sunrise. That evening had been a good one, even though Takallat had still barely spoken to her.
But Jummai was a little reluctant to jab herself so hard every night. There must be another way to win Takallat's favor back—if only she could work out what it was.
She didn't intend to say anything about it to Meghida. It was only—it was only that it was all she had to think about. That everything else was easier, that she no longer needed to worry about where she would get water or whether it would be she or Kashi who starved first, meant there were no distractions. There was nothing to keep her from circling the thing in her head, with all the relentless attention of a desert vulture.
She asked about gifts, that was all. She had very little left to give; and Kashi would make a poor gift, when giving it would only mean Jummai then had to beg the use of a horse. But if there were anything the clanspeople made to give to each other, or—or if she could barter a little more of her jewelry to someone for a token, something that meant more to the clans than Jummai understood—
But Meghida peered up at her and said, "And why do you want to know that, elephant princess?"
And she was tired and hot and at her wits' end, and all that was left to do was let it all come spilling out.
"It is just that I do not know how to please her," Jummai found herself saying, and if nothing else, saying it in trade language meant she must pare it down to the barest essentials. "I was pleasant, I smiled, I reached for her first, but that was not good enough. I was quiet, I did not make a nuisance of myself, I worked hard on the tent—that was not good enough. I laughed and talked and was amusing—that was not good enough.
"It is—I cannot work out where I have gone wrong. But I have gone wrong, and I must fix it—"
"Must," Meghida repeated, looking away across the sand.
Jummai hesitated. All this was still a matter of life and death, there could be no doubt of that; but she couldn't claim to be afraid Takallat would turn her out onto the sand, not anymore. Even that first day after the wedding, even when Meghida had seemed like a clear sign of Takallat's disfavor—why go to the trouble of assigning any servant at all to someone you planned to leave for dead? Takallat had said they were not wives until the tent was done; surely, then, all she had to do to free herself was fail to complete it. But instead she came every evening and sat with Jummai and sewed it, even if she wasn't happy about it. It was only—
It was only that Jummai wanted her to be happy about it. Because that would be safer; because knowing how to make her happy was sure to prove valuable in the future.
Because if she were happy, then perhaps someday she would smile again—not by firelight, not in the dim tent in the evening. In the sun, where Jummai could see it.
"I must fix it," Jummai said again, but Meghida was right: that didn't capture the whole of it. "I wish to fix it. I—I could please her, I would try very hard, if only I knew how. If only she would let me."
She sighed and shook her head, and thought again with a dim wistfulness of Takallat's smile, of the way her hand had felt wrapped tight and close about Jummai's waist in the dark; and then she realized Meghida hadn't replied and looked up, and found Meghida watching her with steady knowing eyes.
"Hmm," Meghida said. "Well. That is not a bad way to feel about your wife, elephant princess." She clucked her tongue at her horse, which had no effect as far as Jummai could tell, and then tilted her head and added, "There is a thing which I do not think has been said to you. What matters to the clan is simple enough," and she raised a hand so three fingers were spread apart in the air. "You—aah, these words are no good!—you dye the cloth." She patted her sash with her free hand—blue, that shade of blue Jummai had never seen anywhere else. "You use the sword," and she reached to touch the hilt of hers; she had one, Jummai had noticed that, but somehow it hadn't occurred to her in quite those terms that everyone had one. Or at least everyone old enough to lift one. "And you tell the truth."
Jummai looked up, unthinking, to meet Meghida's eyes. Tell the truth. That was—
That was the right sort of sentiment. It fit, it had a rhythm to it, like for a proverb or for storytelling. You dye the cloth, you use the sword, you speak the truth.
That would be a gift that meant something. Two, even—a sash Jummai had done herself, and a show of skill with the sword; and underneath that, a demonstration of respect for the ways of Takallat's people. That could be the truth to match. Public enough, and Takallat couldn't refuse to acknowledge it. Even Dassin might be swayed, or might at least restrain herself a little more.
"The cloth," Jummai said, "and the sword—will you show me?"
"Yes," Meghida said. "Do not worry, elephant princess. All will be well in the end."
Jummai had seen cloth dyed before—but only in the south, in dye-pits full of bright water. And of course that wasn't how it was done in the desert.
In the desert, water couldn't be wasted on such a thing. The color was dry; they had cakes of it, Jummai discovered, like small stones that could be cracked apart, so blue that it almost hurt to look at. The cakes could be broken, ground into blue dust—and then the cloth was laid out and the color beaten into it.
It was bizarre—but it seemed to work well enough, even if it took forever. Jummai sat by Meghida, who chose a length of cloth she seemed to have been saving for a sash ("You have a better use for it, elephant princess! It does not make the gift small. The work will be yours—and the sore arms—") and laid it out, and then dumped a pile of blue onto it and handed Jummai a fat stick. The end was rounded, and it had been used for this before—the wood was naturally pale, but at the rounded end it looked nearly black with blueness.
Jummai held it uncertainly, and glanced at Meghida.
"Go on," Meghida said. "It will not beat itself!"
And, indeed, it would not. Jummai wavered at first over everything: whether she was holding the thing correctly, whether she was striking too hard, with what motion or in what pattern it should be done. Whether there was any way to keep the stuff off her hands—which it seemed there was not, because Meghida took one look at her trying to brush it off and held up her own blue-black palms.
"Beat, elephant princess!"
So she beat, and beat, and beat, and gradually discovered she cared about none of that anymore. There was only the buzz in her hands; the strain in her arms; the steady relentless sound of it, hammering away at her.
That became the sound of her days. She woke early to go beat the sash—because, Meghida said, the darker the blue the better the gift—and then got on Kashi and rode in the middle of a sea of horses, with hooves that pounded around her just like dye-beaters. It became a relief to sit in the evening with Takallat and work on the tent and be quiet; Jummai discovered she didn't even want to break the silence anymore.
After all, it wasn't silence—not really. There was breathing, hers and Takallat's. A hiss sometimes when one of them stuck themselves with a needle; and the shift of cloth when they finished a seam and needed to shift what would soon be a tent around on their laps to start another. Now and then Takallat even hummed a little, very low, winding unfamiliar melodies, and Jummai liked that best of all. It was easy to feel comfortable, then: to know that nothing was required or expected of her, that she didn't need to work out what the right thing was to say or how it should be said. She could sit and sew and listen, smile if she wished to and not if she didn't, and Takallat would think nothing of it either way.
Wealth, Jummai thought, and smiled to herself, and kept sewing.
The day she finished the dyeing was a good day, to start with. Meghida had made Jummai beat a little more around the edges of the cloth, and carefully out to all the corners, and at last had agreed that the sash was dark enough to be fit for a war-queen. Giving it to Takallat would make a good gesture and was sensible; but, Jummai discovered, it had also begun to feel like it would be a real gift. Something about the process of it, the work she had put into it with her own two hands, had made the sash precious to her—had made the prospect of seeing it worn by Takallat something with a meaning beyond the practical.
The riding, too, was more pleasant than usual. The clans were passing down into a long wide valley, not just one oasis but several of them strung out in a line, enough water and dirt—real dirt, not just sand—for grasses and desert wildflowers to have sprung up in between them. Kashi was delighted with it; she had done well enough sharing date-fruits and barley with the lean, lithe clan horses, but was thrilled to have grass, and even trees here and there by the edges of the little springs and pools.
They didn't pass out of the valley before evening, and camped instead just at the end of it, where grasses and cool wet breeze gave way to scrub and gravel again. And perhaps Jummai made a little too much of Kashi, was too eager to let her into the water and laugh with her and let her eat what she pleased—perhaps they were neither of them careful enough to avoid startling the horses a little, making the skittish ones shy back from the edge of the pool. Perhaps that was why it happened.
Or perhaps it would have happened anyway; perhaps there did not have to be cause, perhaps it was enough that they were there at all.
Jummai didn't even realize it had anything to do with her, at first. There were often shouts through the camp in the evening, clanspeople calling to each other. Her attention was all for Takallat, standing by the flap of the tent where they did their evening's work. Jummai had learned to recognize it even when Takallat was not there to mark it out, its particular shades and colors and the angle of its roof; and she had told Takallat as much the other day, but Takallat was still standing in front of it, waiting for her. Almost looking pleased, Jummai dared to hope; almost glad to see her—
And then Takallat's gaze went over Jummai's shoulder and turned flat and hard, any hint of warmth that might have been in her face wholly snuffed out. The shout came again; and Jummai couldn't understand the words but could interpret the tone well enough.
"You have something to say, Dassin?" Takallat said.
Jummai turned to look—it was Dassin, sure enough, and her face was twisted up, sneering and unkind. She had started in desert-talk to make a point, Jummai thought distantly; and, having made it, she inclined her head to Takallat and went on easily enough in trade language. "I have many things to say—will you hear them?"
"If they are worth the listening," Takallat said, cool.
Whatever insult it was that Dassin had shouted before, she didn't repeat it—couldn't, perhaps, if there was no word for the same thing in trade that she knew. Instead she said, "And I will hear you, Takallat, if you have the words to tell me that I name your elephant princess poorly."
"You do not name her at all. You shout insults at the sky—"
"The sky," Dassin spat. "The sky is not what slows us, what eats and drinks so much, whose beast takes the water of ten horses! The sky does not wear southern colors, does not speak in southern ways; the sky does not drag us all to war for its own selfish—"
"Enough," Takallat said, a sharp heavy blow like—like pounding dye, Jummai thought. "We chose a war-king before she ever came to us, Dassin, she drags us nowhere. She is my wife, she is my clan; my own aunt has charge of her, as she would of any who came new to djir Tighar—"
So: not one servant, then. Not an insult at all—
"—and you know all this very well. Yet still you stand outside my tent, and say things I cannot let pass," and Takallat drew her sword with a hiss of metal and pointed it at Dassin's throat.
If Jummai had been a storyteller, she couldn't have placed the thing better: Takallat and Dassin dueled on a rise at the edge of the valley, with the sunset spilling red across the sand, their faces, the lengths of their blades. Their shadows were long, like the shadows of giants, and the water, the walls of the valley, caught every ring and clash of metal and tossed it back and forth in the distance, like a thousand women fought instead of two.
Takallat stood with such perfect untouchable confidence—the memory of seeing her that first day, standing in the great blue war-king's tent with her chin high, had faded a little after dancing with her, sitting by her and sewing together; but here, like this in the sunset, Jummai was knocked senseless by it all anew. Takallat was like a sword herself, stern and unhesitating, and her face, her eyes, full of a keen bright edge like a blade.
Jummai couldn't look away from her. And that was right, too, by the storyteller's measure; but that wasn't why Jummai was doing it.
It seemed impossible to Jummai that anyone should stand against Takallat when she looked that way, and yet the fight was not over with the first blow. Dassin and Takallat circled each other, rushed and struck back and forth a few times and then eased away from each other—and Jummai had watched Danaram's guards spar with each other in the courtyard, she knew how to judge a fight, but she could not drag her eyes from Takallat.
At last some sort of mistake was made. Jummai didn't see what it was, only that Takallat coolly swept in to take advantage of it; a rush of movement, the scrape of metal, and then all at once a sword had dropped to the sand, and it wasn't Takallat's.
And for all that Jummai didn't like Dassin, she would never have tried to call the woman a coward. Dassin stood there with Takallat's sword just touching her shoulder, and didn't falter, didn't quail.
"I am not going to kill you, Dassin," Takallat said—not loudly, and yet it carried, because all else was silence. "I am not going to kill you, because when we go to war with Mindin to restore my wife to her throne, I will need you and djir Madur at my shoulder."
Dassin's gaze cut sideways, from Takallat to Jummai and then back again; and Jummai could see her jaw go tense, but she lowered her head to Takallat and said, "And I will not make you kill me. I—spoke unfairly."
"So you did," Takallat agreed; but mildly, and she let the point of her sword drop to the sand so Dassin could pass her and go.
"Besides," Dassin murmured, "it would be a waste to die for you, elephant princess."
"It would! I too am glad my wife shows the good sense not to let you," Jummai said warmly, eyes lowered; and Dassin huffed what might almost have been a laugh, bent to pick up her sword, and didn't swing it at Jummai as she went by.
The clanspeople who had been near enough to hear the insult given had circled round Takallat and Dassin to watch—but Dassin broke the circle, leaving, and as if that were a signal, all the rest of them began to move away. Soon enough it was only Takallat and Jummai who stood there on the rise.
Takallat had caught Dassin here and there with her blade; never badly, but there was still blood on her sword. She lifted it to wipe it against her sash, and it was the motion of her arm that allowed Jummai to see that Dassin had struck her at least once in return.
Jummai reached without thinking—but Takallat didn't pull away, only looked down to see what she was reaching for. "Not so bad," she said, assessing. "It may not even scar."
She looked up again, locked eyes with Jummai; and Jummai stared at her and was full of a thing she couldn't say, not in any language—a thing that felt too large for her head or heart to contain—
And oh, it was impossible not to fall back in that moment on what had always served her well! She tore her eyes away and found a laugh somewhere, heard herself say, "Well, and a scar would not be so bad either, hmm?" and when she looked again Takallat's face had changed, smoothed out and turned remote.
"I wish you would not do that," Takallat said, very low.
"What?" Jummai said lightly, heart pounding.
"I wish you would not lie," Takallat said, and stepped away, and didn't even wrap a hand around her arm where it was bleeding; she only turned and sheathed her sword, and walked back down into the valley alone.
So the dyeing was done. Jummai's timing could not have been better; Takallat had ruined one sash wiping Dassin's blood on it, after all, so she could use another.
But Jummai didn't want to give it to her until the other part of the gift was ready, too.
She did know how to use a sword, or at least she had once. She could remember learning as a girl in Gir Naim—Grandmother had told her she must, and it hadn't even occurred to her to fail to do as Grandmother said, and so she had been taught the sword. Not from Grandmother's guards, who had still frightened her then, but from one of Grandmother's generals, a tall quiet man with patience in abundance.
But swords in the south were different: they were short, narrow at the hilt and then wider, with a curved edge. The duel had given Jummai an opportunity to look her fill at clan swords—which were straight, long, and narrow all down their length.
"Yes," Meghida confirmed, and offered her own hilt-first to Jummai so Jummai could feel how it handled for herself. "You see how the balance is different. It is heavier."
"It is," Jummai agreed, and then swung it once, twice—only a half-remembered pattern, but when she looked up again, Meghida was watching her with one gray eyebrow raised.
"Not bad at all, elephant princess," she said. "Wait here. I will find another, and you will show me what you know."
It was a little harder to conceal the sword-work—the dyeing could be done seated in a tent, after all, with the flap closed, and the noise wasn't so uncommon in a camp full of horses. But for the sword-work they had to stand, and have a space to move where they could not cut a tent-stake in half if they swung too wildly.
But unlike the dyeing, Jummai had done this before. And the more she did it, the more it came back to her, and the more she remembered how it was meant to go.
She could do some of it while she rode, too. Not the sword-work itself, of course. But she could keep the sword with her—hold it out by Kashi's shoulder until her arm tired, and then switch hands and hold it to the other side. The weight of it became familiar, or at least no longer strange. She would probably never be fit to duel Takallat; but then she would never have to, so that was all right. She could at least—
She could at least make it easier for her to keep herself alive. That had been half Dassin's complaint, hadn't it? That she was too soft, too small: a mongoose who had never killed a snake. And the other half had been that Jummai didn't value clan ways enough. With this, she could fix both at once—she could show that she understood what was important, and that Takallat would not always need to make allowances for her, that one day she might fight her own duels.
She was so absorbed with this, with the sash and the sword and her own visions of what might come to pass, that it was almost a surprise when they arrived at Aradames.
Meghida had told the truth: there was no city.
"I do not understand," Jummai told her, when all the great long line of horses had come to a halt next to nothing.
Not that it was nothing. A great level gravel-flat that stretched away, and in the distance an immense outcropping of stone—probably not so high as all that, but with flatness all around it, it looked like a mountain.
But there was nothing else. Not even a spring, and they had been following a route the clanspeople clearly knew well—there had almost always been a spring, or a well that had been dug out and covered, something that was worth camping by. Even the outcropping in the distance. If anything, Jummai would have expected them to continue until they reached it, and settle in its shade.
But instead they were stopping here?
"Well, and you understand very little, elephant princess," Meghida agreed comfortably, "so that is no surprise."
Jummai snorted, to let her know the slight hadn't gone unnoticed, and then said, "But why—"
"This is Aradames," Meghida said, and then tilted her head back and laughed at the look that must have been on Jummai's face. "Oh, be easy. It will be clear soon enough. It is not here now, you are not wrong about that. But it will come."
Meghida could be odd and liked to tease; it almost wasn't madness, to hear her say things that made no sense. It was far, far stranger to have Takallat agree.
Jummai had begun to be careful again, after the duel, because she didn't know what else to do. The tent was not done yet—but even as large as it was, they would finish eventually, and Jummai had begun to dread that day. At least when there was the tent, she knew she would see Takallat in the evenings, would sit with her a while; even if they didn't speak to each other, even if Takallat was displeased.
But a question would be all right, Jummai thought.
Better than all right: when at last she did venture to ask, Takallat turned to her in the lamplight and almost smiled.
"Ah," she said, "so Aunt has told you about the city."
"A little," Jummai said. "That it is not there when you are not there; that this is, somehow, to be expected."
"It comes and goes," Takallat agreed. "It is like its people, like the clans—it travels away. I have never seen it," she admitted, "it has been a very long time since we have come; but Aunt has told me, too."
"How long?" Jummai said.
"A very long time," Takallat said again, and there, once more, was the look that wasn't quite a smile. "It is the only city in the north, and very old; it was the seat of our kings and queens, once, when the north was greener. We had an empire then, and Aradames was never empty. There were caravans from the south, of gold and salt and ivory, and festivals for the sun—" Her gaze dropped to Jummai's hands—to the needle, Jummai thought at first, and checked hurriedly to make sure she hadn't gone awry in her inattention; but then Takallat reached out and almost, almost, touched one of the suns that stood out so brightly on Jummai's dark hands. "At least that is what Aunt says," she added softly, and then all at once drew away and returned to her own seam.
In the morning, there was a city.
Jummai would never have believed it if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes, but nevertheless it was so: she woke and stretched and dressed, and then stepped outside and discovered it had all changed. Where there had been nothing, flat hot ground and bare stone, there was—there was a city.
Low flat roofs stretched away, far enough that Jummai could admit that Gir Naim was indeed not the larger; and from its edges it rose up, climbing the foot of the great outcropping, carved into its sides. Before there had been no water, but there was water now—from somewhere within or below the outcropping, with channels that had not been there before either to carry it through the streets.
It might have been frightening, to see the whole vast place so deserted, except that it had the air of a festival to it. The clanspeople streamed in, a river of blue and white, shouting and singing and exclaiming; Kashi couldn't be convinced to stop trumpeting happily, and once she got close enough to one of the stone channels, kept sucking up water and spraying it everywhere, loops and slashes of rainbow hanging in the sun for a moment before pattering down.
And, of course, this wasn't even every clan in the north. "To the west, elephant princess," Meghida shouted up to her, as they began to wind their way up the base of the outcropping; and Jummai looked and could see the cloud of dust that must have drawn Meghida's eye, and even perhaps the barest shimmering suggestion of blue.
The outcropping became a cliff partway along its height, far too sheer to climb; and against the foot of it, overlooking all the rest of the city, was a palace that Danaram's—or even Grandmother's—could not equal.
It, too, was carved back into the outcropping, and Jummai couldn't guess how large it might really be. But the part that stood in the open was—it had been built by clanspeople, Jummai thought, however long ago it had been done. It was full of open spaces, courtyards, and the floors were tiled in a thousand shades of blue. And the largest of the courtyards had dimensions that were almost familiar—which turned out to be because it was precisely the right size for the war-king's vast blue tent to be set up within it.
So: they had arrived, and Aradames was theirs, and yet in a sense they were still waiting. It felt almost the same way picking up a sword had, to Jummai—coming back to what had been set aside, going through motions that were not quite unfamiliar: clans were arriving every day, those who had traveled further in their time or had been slowed by storms or accidents, and of course their chiefs came to pay tribute to Amasan. Takallat stood by him; and Jummai stood by her, and felt things she hadn't needed when she was riding through the desert by Meghida return to her. This chief was loyal, and would follow where Amasan led—it was in her face, in the angle to which she lowered her head, the low sincere way she spoke to him. And that chief would bear watching, with something scornful in the way he held himself and in the dismissive flick of his gaze across Takallat and away.
Even working on the tent was no relief. They were on the last of the great thick seams that rounded the roof of it, each of them at an end and working toward the middle. A few days more at the most, and they would be—they would be wives, the thing would be done and the war would draw nearer; so much at stake, in a seam!
So, in a way, Jummai was almost glad when the emissary from Danaram arrived.
He was received as all the chiefs of the clans had been: in the war-king's tent in the courtyard, with Amasan impassive and at ease upon the raised couch, Takallat and Jummai standing together to the side. Jummai looked at him and wanted to laugh, because—because she could see, all at once, how little he understood. How he blinked at the dimness, the perpetual blue; because he didn't know what tremendous effort went into making so much cloth so dark a shade, because he couldn't tell what incredible wealth it was to have a tent like this. He didn't lower his head, because he didn't know he should. And he looked at Takallat and saw—what? Someone who was probably important. A horse princess, and that was all.
He made his formal introductions in trade language, and his facility with it was certainly to be commended. He explained that he was from the king of Mindin, named his family and his house, and performed the traditional list of Danaram's titles and accomplishments; Jummai didn't have to listen, she had heard it all many times.
She watched him instead. He knew about this city—Danaram knew, then, and it must be something his advisors or generals knew, something Grandmother might have told Jummai if she had lived long enough. Or perhaps it was something he had discovered, in trying to guess where she might have fled. If he had sent envoys to Zijrun, Tanka, Kaou, Garmura, and turned up nothing, then his attention would have come north. And if he'd tried, he would certainly have been able to find someone who'd heard tales of the ancient royal city of the clans.
Perhaps he had even had a scout—had been sent word when they arrived. Jummai counted back the days, and yes, perhaps there was time enough; perhaps someone fast, leaving the day they had come, could have reached Danaram, who had then sent this emissary in response.
So: he knew this must be where she had gone. He knew the clans were gathering in their vast old capital, and for what purpose except war? And he had sent a man here to say—
"The king would of course like to express his great pleasure and relief at knowing his cousin is safe and well," the emissary was telling Amasan. For a moment Jummai couldn't quite pick out what it was that pricked at her; something in his tone? His expression?
And then he paused, and the tent was silent, and Jummai could hear it: as though from very far away, the sound of a thousand distant bells.
She didn't have a sword of her own, not yet—she had been borrowing Meghida's. She moved the barest instant before he did, and was lucky that Takallat's sword hung on her nearer hip; Jummai was able to grasp it, to yank upward on the hilt at an angle, and catch the knife-blade across it.
He had greater strength and more speed, because the three paces he had needed to close the distance between them had given him some from the start. The point of the knife skidded along Takallat's blade with a terrible scraping sound and then plunged off the edge—but Jummai had turned it aside, and when at last it struck her it bit deep into her arm instead of her chest.
Much to be preferred; but it still hurt. She cried out and shoved at him, and it didn't feel any better for him to tug the knife out but she suspected it wouldn't kill her. It had been only an instant—Amasan was on his feet now, a hand at his own waist, and Takallat had jerked into motion beside Jummai, but she didn't wait for either of them.
The shove had knocked him back a pace, two, and she followed and swung at him. Lucky that he only had the knife—if she had never touched a sword in her life she would still have had the advantage, and she didn't need to be Takallat to press him back, to slash at his hand so that he dropped his blade and then kick him with awkward force in the gut.
He stumbled back. It had not been enough to hurt him, but enough to knock the breath out of him, and he faltered down onto a knee with his hands raised, pleading. "Wait—"
She didn't wait. She caught him by the hair, wound her fingers tight through his braids, and then she pressed the edge of Takallat's sword to his brow. Takallat's sword was sharp; she only needed to lean into him a little to send blood sheeting down his cheeks, his nose.
"Listen," she said.
"Listen to me," and she said it in their own tongue so none of the meaning could be lost. "I could kill you now. I won't; but I could, and when my cousin sees this wound, he'll know that.
"Tell him I am safe and well. Tell him this is no one's game of wari—tell him this time I will not lose. I am my own queen and I will have what is mine, and I am coming for him."
"Yes," the emissary gasped, "yes—please," and Jummai let go of him and stepped away so he could wipe the blood out of his eyes.
She was shaking.
She didn't know why; everything was fine. Except—oh, there was blood on Takallat's sword, all over.
She raised it to wipe against her sash, but that didn't help at all. Her sash was bloody, too, because—because it was seeping down, soaking through, from where she had been stabbed in the arm—
"I have it."
Jummai blinked, and dragged her head up. Takallat was there. She was there and she had wrapped her hand around Jummai's—around Jummai's hand and around the hilt of the sword, which was still in it.
"I have it," Takallat said again, low, and this time Jummai understood and loosened her grip. Her fingers ached. "Come with me."
"It is not over—"
"It is all right," Takallat corrected. "Your part is over. Come with me. Come with me, Jummai; we have to finish the tent. Remember?" and yes, that was right. The last seam, they were almost done.
So she let Takallat take the sword, and clean it, and sheathe it; and she let Takallat lead her back out of Amasan's tent, across the back of the courtyard and down the passage, back into the cool stone room where they had been doing their sewing in Aradames.
Except when they reached it, Takallat didn't give her a needle. She went for her own hem instead, tore off a length of cloth and began wrapping it tight around Jummai's arm—"Just to stop the bleeding, we will see to it properly in a little while"—and that was—
"You lied," Jummai told her.
"I did not," Takallat said evenly, gaze still on Jummai's arm. "We do have to finish the tent. It is only that we do not have to do it now."
"I have done it all wrong."
"It is all wrong," Jummai insisted. "The sash was supposed to be first. We were going to finish the tent, and then I was going to give you—"
Her head was clearing; she faltered because of it, because sense was coming back to her and she wasn't supposed to be saying any of this to Takallat. Except, at last, Takallat was looking at her, dark eyes fixed on Jummai's face instead of on her bleeding arm. Takallat was looking at her and was—was close.
"Yes?" Takallat said, low.
"Your aunt told me," Jummai heard herself say. "About what matters to you. She gave me cloth, and I dyed it for you—and she lent me a sword—"
"Ah," Takallat said. "But you have ruined the surprise, saving your own life."
"—and I was going to," Jummai said, except then the words dried up in her throat; it was like that first day, like her tongue was fat and cracked with thirst, and wouldn't move. But she knew what she wanted to say, and made herself say it. "I was going to tell you the truth."
All sorts of things had crossed her mind, when she had let them—when she had thought, as she fell asleep, or in all the long hot hours on Kashi's back with Meghida at her side, just what it was she might say to Takallat if she could convince herself to. How much she hated Danaram—really hated him, hated him and his wari board and his mangoes, hated every moment she had had to spend smiling at him. How much she missed Grandmother, for all that she had only been a child, had never known Grandmother as a queen or a person in any way that counted. The terrible selfish strength with which she wanted Gir Naim, wanted to set her twin-sun hands on that golden throne and know it was hers and hers alone—
But sitting here with Takallat in this dim cool room, with the tent that would make them wives spread out across the floor, all that came out of her mouth was, "I would be queen with you. Takallat—" and then she caught Takallat's face in her hand and pulled her in and kissed her.
And, wonder of wonders, Takallat did not push her away. Takallat's long steady fingers wrapped around Jummai's wrist, and Takallat leaned in and made a small sound against her mouth and then broke away. "Jummai," she said, very low. "Jummai—that is all I wanted."
"I had thought so," Jummai said, "since you married me—" but Takallat was shaking her head.
"No," she said. "That is—I said a peace that will last, and I meant it. I want you queen in Gir Naim, and I queen in Aradames. I told you this city was the seat of power once, in the north; I would make it so again. Your cousin—he is no king. His throne, too, could be yours—"
And all at once Jummai could almost see it: how war could be turned back upon Danaram, how they could take not only Gir Niajra but all of Mindin as the price for peace. And two kingdoms, the whole wild north, bound together by the two of them—who would rise against them then? Who would not swear themselves to bide by Jummai's rule? We had an empire, Takallat had said, and who was to say they could not have one again?
"I thought you did not want this," Takallat was saying. "I thought you had thought better, or—or were hiding something, that you meant to run from me as you ran from your cousin. You would not let me know you, and I thought—" She hesitated, paused and bit her lip, and looked uncertain for the first time Jummai could remember. "I thought your cousin's man might have come to take you away. I thought you might go, and take with you all these things I wanted; and I did not know whether anything I said could stop you."
Jummai looked at her—at that regal arrogant face, that steady commanding gaze—and could not help but laugh. "Ah," she said, tracing a lingering fingertip along the curve of Takallat's mouth, "but you must know that you only ever need say what you want, and it will be given to you. You and I, we are queens."
"Not yet," Takallat murmured. "But I will fix that," and her smile then—it was all Jummai could have asked for; it was wealth; it was like water in the desert.