by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
illustrated by neomeruru
121 And if a mother should bear two children in the same labor, then let it be known that the two are one flesh and one mind divided into two within the mother’s flesh;
122 and they will be granted surpassing powers over the invisible world, as in its division into two bodies their power will be honed, as though they were light and a lens.
123 And the birth of two from one womb will bring calamity on the People of the Book, for the gods themselves will envy their power, and desire to retrieve it to its source, and have the two for their possessions.
124 And so it is that of the two, one should be put to the sword in the year of their coming of age; so that the gods may be pleased with the offering and the People of the Book spared their judgment.
125 And when two are so born, the first to emerge from the mother will be called “the first known to the world,”
126 and the second will be called “the one who follows,” and be given the rights due to the eldest child. And let it be known that the second follows behind because he is the most beloved of the gods, and they have clung to him throughout his journey into the world, and not allowed him to come before the other.
127 Thus, to best please the gods, it is the second of the two who must be put to the sword;
128 and it is the first who will receive his share of the power of both in one, and become a prophet of great wisdom, who will surely lead the People of the Book to good fortune.
—The New Qadrian Student’s Book of the Gods with Commentary, Sacrifices:121-128
ed. M. Lanassus, c.784
Their parents had given them up to the temple together, as soon as they were both old enough to wean from their mother’s breast. It was the first and only home either of them had ever known. Kebineh’s earliest, foggiest memory was an image of the sky pitching forward and toppling away, as his back struck the paving-stones of the steps inside from the courtyard; he remembered wailing, and then the face of a priest looming into his vision, all stretched around a round concerned O of a mouth. He had been lucky, he had been admonished many times since, long after he could no longer remember why he’d thought it was a good idea to run up the steps as fast as his chubby toddler’s legs could go. Lucky, to have come away with only bruises and a bump on the head. Of course, what the priests really meant (Regidhu had whispered, mischievously, in their bed in the dark) was that they had been lucky. He was their highest duty, after all, not the other way around.
It was Regi who was the real troublemaker, anyway. As she had been first into the world, so was she first into treasuries with broken locks and forbidden parts of the library, in between their lessons in scripture and the gods’ laws; first to laugh behind Arnah Naal’s turned back and to slip out their window at night, to go collect pretty rocks or tiny panicked lizards from the moonlit desert beyond the walls. Kebineh could only come panting along after, every time, looking over his shoulder for the both of them. When they were caught, the priests scolded them only indulgently, like fat spoiled pets — but Kebineh still cringed from it, felt each word like an arrow in his chest. He would plead with Regi later, in private, but she would only laugh at him, and kiss him, and tease him until finally he laughed too in spite of himself.
So it was in chasing Regi that he came stumbling in one day to the animals’ enclosures, in the long outbuilding beyond the eastern wing of the temple. It was the hottest part of the afternoon, when their lessons broke for the priests to rest indoors, and they had been playing a game they’d invented, one chasing and the other hiding, jumping out and frightening the pursuer. On her turn, Regi had raced without hesitation into the eastern wing — where they had never been permitted before — and Kebineh’s heart raced in his ears in more than just play as he poked his head down each silent side corridor, hissing her name with increasing desperation. He finally crossed over to the outbuilding when she stayed nowhere to be found, still feeling like a trespasser and thief even as he sweated under the midday sun, his sandals turning up thick puffs of dust. Before long, though, they were crunching down stray tangles of straw as well, and a thick, sour smell met him not long after, wrinkling his nose. It only strengthened as he passed out of the sun into the building’s cooler shadows, where it huddled near the outer wall of the temple grounds. He had to squint, at first, to see into the dimmer space beyond the open arch in its stone.
Within was maybe the most curious thing he had ever seen on the temple grounds, in all their explorations. A single, long, expansive room with only dirt for a floor, divided by knotted ropes into a hive of small open cubicles, narrow alleys left between each. Penned inside the squares were animals: goats, lambs, long lean desert rabbits, small groups of birds in pens with closed tops, even cattle in much larger spaces near the far end. Even as he stood, baffled, in the entrance, he could see that they all seemed tame in the extreme; the few that even reacted to his noisy breathless arrival looked surprised at most, small curious black eyes lifting his way and then turning away again.
And near the center of the maze, crouched down in the space between two pens so that Kebineh hadn’t seen him at once, was a priest.
Kebineh’s hand flew to his mouth, his eyes wide. “I’m sorry!” he blurted, before he had time to think, and then winced and tried to be quieter when the sound of his voice made even more of the animals shift and flutter. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
Whatever the priest had been doing, he paused now, and looked up — and seeing Kebineh, rose to his feet. He was tall, and younger than most of the priests, Kebineh thought, although all adults still mostly just looked old to him. The priest had a handsome, smiling face, and wore his hair briefly and bare, instead of in long curls or covered in a headdress like so many of the others. The short coppery thatch of it looked enviably cool and light to Kebineh, whose hair, like Regi’s, had never been cut, and fell in thin loose curls to his shoulders. Although Kebineh had always assumed he knew all the priests by now, he recognized the man only dimly; he had only glimpsed him, now and then, at prayers for the fasting-day, or passing by on the far side of the courtyard. He and Regi were eleven years old this year, and not yet allowed to attend the rituals of the yearly festival times.
“You don’t need to apologize,” the priest said, and inclined toward him in a small bow, his smile and gaze never wavering. His voice was warm and deep and rumbling, surprising for his age. “Your presence is a blessing to any room of the temple you choose.”
That caught Kebineh up short, both flustering and guiltily pleasing him. That wasn’t the way Arnah Naal saw it, to say the least. “I-I was just looking for my sister — I thought she came in here. Have you seen her?”
“I haven’t, no.” The man’s smile broadened, became conspiratorial. “This seems like a strange place for such a distinguished young lady to visit, though.”
Kebineh laughed a little, dropping his eyes to the packed earth. “…Not Regidhu. She loves animals.”
“I see. That’s a noble quality.” When Kebineh finally dared to glance up, the priest was tilting his head, looking thoughtful. “And you?”
Kebineh smiled and bit his lip, and nodded, his head ducked down more than ever. There was another moment’s considering pause. And then the priest’s voice, softer now: “Come here.”
He went slowly, his gaze mostly on his feet. Standing right in front of the priest, he found he barely came up to the man’s chest; his robes smelled of incense and smoke and faint animal musk. His hands, right on Kebineh’s line of sight now, were large and thick-boned, their fingers long, their knuckles heavy and square.
As he watched them, one gestured to the nearest pen, where a rabbit looked up at them both with shiny blank disinterest above its twitching nose. It was larger than any Kebineh had ever seen, fat from ready food and too little exercise, and its fur was mottled in a beautiful cascade of dark and light browns. “Would you like to pet him?” the priest asked, a smile in his voice. “Any of them would be fine, but he’s been wanting attention all morning.”
That startled Kebineh into looking up, his eyes wide. “Can I?”
The priest nodded, and dropped back into his crouch again, keeping himself well back from the pen and Kebineh both. Kebineh mirrored him, and then went to his knees as well; little puffs of dust rising under the front of his robes, the copper links of his belt heaping on the ground. Things that, as always, he wouldn’t think of until the scolding later. He reached out his hand tentatively, a slow bird swooping in from overhead, and the rabbit watched it come with its ears flattening back slightly. It twitched a little, all over, when he touched it, but then held still, just looking at and through him again. Its fur was an unbelievable silken softness, its ears even more so as they compressed gently together under Kebineh’s passing hand. A warm thrumming alive thing, strange and small and wonderful. Kebineh smiled, letting his knuckles glide down its side, watching the way his fingers seemed to make the different colors of its fur iridesce as they passed through.
“He likes you,” the priest said, still smiling when Kebineh glanced up at him sidelong. “He’s being very patient. …You can pick him up, if you’d like. One hand behind his front legs, one under his rump.” He demonstrated with his hands, holding them out in the shape of an imaginary animal.
Kebineh bit his lip again and nodded, scooting forward on his knees. The rabbit tensed again when he reached under it, even shied backward a little, but then seemed to just resign itself and allow him when it had backed up against the rope wall of its pen. It squirmed and adjusted itself as Kebineh lifted it up with clumsy care against his chest, its long strong hind leg thumping into his belly hard enough to sting a little. The priest laughed, in a soft breath.
“It’s good that you came to visit, I think,” he said, as Kebineh settled and secured the rabbit. It felt larger and heavier in his arms than it had looked on the ground. “The animals are very accustomed to men, but they aren’t handled often. It makes them a bit shy.”
Kebineh glanced up at him, before looking back down to make sure he still had the rabbit to rights. “Why are they all here?”
“They were given to the temple.” That made a kind of sense, Kebineh supposed; he’d seen enough tithes paid to the temple before, and it stood to reason that people from some of the poorer farming villages might have nothing but livestock to offer. He looked back down at the rabbit, as it tried to scrabble its way a little up his shoulder, and saw for the first time a flash of something pink on its flank. As he peered closer, he could see it was a brand: a pink, uneven oval of burn-scarred flesh peeping through fur, a line drawn raggedly through its center. The Eye. The symbol was by now almost as familiar as his own face.
“Do you take care of them?” he asked, peering back up at the priest — a little shyer, now. Somehow the question seemed to surprise the man, and then he smiled again.
“In a manner of speaking, I suppose.” He paused a moment, and then bent his head in another slight bow, somehow still graceful even from his hunker. “I’ve been rude, I apologize. My name is Chakred.” He raised his eyes, smile broadening. “And you can only be Kebineh.”
Kebineh nodded, smiling down to the floor. The rabbit seemed calmer now, and he stroked it in a constant rhythm with the thumb of the hand curled around its chest. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“And you, at last.”
He held the rabbit for a few minutes longer: stroking it, marveling at its warm soft weight, giggling when it relaxed enough to nibble at the folds of his robe. Chakred only crouched beside him throughout, watching. Finally it dawned on Kebineh that he might have begun to overstay his welcome, and he raised his head with a small sheepish smile. He gave the rabbit one more quick caress, and then lifted it carefully from his chest to hold it out to Chakred — who surprised him, however, by raising his hands and leaning back, out of reach.
“I can’t touch them, I’m afraid,” he said. “You can set him back down in the pen, if you’ve finished. Make sure you lower him all the way to the ground; he’ll want to jump down himself, but if you let him, he may kick you.”
Kebineh frowned at him for a moment, but when no explanation seemed forthcoming, only craned over the ropes of the pen to do as he’d said. The rabbit did begin to struggle as the ground neared, but Kebineh kept his hold with some difficulty, freeing first its front and then its back legs only as they touched the dirt and loose straw. It hopped away as soon as he’d let it go, as though fearing he might change his mind, and he smiled a little as he straightened and climbed to his feet. Chakred followed him, and when Kebineh looked up into his eyes, there was a look there that made his skin prickle and his stomach squeeze itself, for no reason he could have explained. No one had ever looked at him that way before: like he wanted to be sure not to miss a second, to stockpile the sight of him against a possible future without.
“Thank you,” Kebineh said, first in a whisper too small to hear; and then he cleared his throat, and tried to draw himself up, to do better. “Thank you, Arnah Chakred.”
Chakred looked surprised, and then laughed. “Just Chakred is fine. You needn’t call me Arnah; I’m not your teacher.” He paused a moment, and then his smile broadened, again to that conspiratorial point that was almost uncomfortable. “As a matter of fact, I probably shouldn’t even be speaking to you.”
That made Kebineh frown again. “Why not?”
But Chakred only smiled, and shook his head.
“At any rate, I should be the one thanking you,” he said, after just enough of a pause to become uncomfortable. “You should always feel welcome here, if you’re so inclined.”
Kebineh dropped his gaze back down, and mouthed another thank you; suddenly unwilling, again, to meet those eyes.
He had to stop and catch his breath, outside in the sun again: closing his eyes and waiting for his legs and hands to feel steady. It didn’t help when, as he passed the corner of the building, a bit of shadow suddenly seemed to detach itself from the rest at the corner of his eye — and then a shrieking, gibbering weight had launched itself onto his back, making him yelp out loud and almost fall.
“Cheater!” Regi laughed in his ear, when he had gotten some of his balance back, her arms tight around his neck from behind. Her tumbling hair tickled his throat, making him squirm. “Asking a priest where I was — you should be ashamed. What are you, a coward?”
“We aren’t supposed to be here, stupid–” He wrestled at her arms, indignant, until he at least managed to get them turned around facing each other. “I was trying to find out if you’d run off, I thought you were just trying to get me in trouble!”
Regi made a thoughtful humming noise, pressing her nose against his. “Who says we aren’t? Nobody ever told me that.” Kebineh scowled, which was better than admitting he didn’t have an answer. She kissed his nose once, then let him go, linking their hands instead to walk swinging them back toward the east wing. “Who was that you were talking to, anyway? He seemed nice.”
“He was nice,” Kebineh said, almost under his breath. And allowed himself one look back over his shoulder, at the long unsuspected building behind.
That night, he lay awake, curled in bed with his forehead pressed to Regi’s and the rhythm of her breathing steady around him; and thought of the feeling of sleek rabbit fur under his fingers, the beating of a small fast heart in his hands, and unreadable eyes that looked so hard and so long they seemed to want to eat him alive. And beneath the blanket, let his thumb worry absently at the raised, pink, puffed lines of his own Nechemyyeh’s Eye, burned into the skin of his inner wrist.
They went back together a few days later: at Regi’s demand, and over Kebineh’s half-meant protests. It was midday again when they snuck out, while the priests rested, and Kebineh wondered on the way whether Chakred would even be there again today. Surely his presence must have been a fluke; why would he linger all the time around animals he apparently couldn’t even touch, rather than sleep through the heat like all the others? The thought somehow managed to be both a disappointment and a relief at once, and he didn’t share it with Regi.
But when they came into the outbuilding, Chakred was there again, pouring feed from a bushel into one of the birds’ pens. He laughed at Regi’s cheerful, noisy introduction, even while Kebineh frowned and hissed at her as he saw the way the animals shied away, and this time showed them both a goat, young and milk-white and watching them with determined insolence.
“He seems so young,” Kebineh said softly, petting its nose, while Regi hunkered on her knees and rubbed its neck, cooing. The goat took an exploratory nip at his fingers before seeming to decide he wasn’t much of a meal; he winced, and then smiled. “…A lot of them do.”
Chakred nodded, from beside the next pen. “They have to be, to be accepted into the temple. Only young and yearlings, with no blemishes or faults.” Kebineh frowned at him, puzzled, and he smiled. “Once given up, all the animals are purified, and become sacred. After that, they can’t be shorn, or plucked, or trimmed, in any way. For some of them, that would become very uncomfortable, after a while, but younger animals tend to grow their coats less quickly. So it spares them a lot of unhappiness, while they stay here. Especially the sheep.” Kebineh laughed at that, a little — under his breath, ducking his eyes away. He was aware of Regi glancing up at him when he did, smirking at him a little with veiled eyes, but pretended not to notice.
“What happens to them afterward, then? After they stay here?”
For the first time, Chakred appeared to hesitate… and then he only smiled again. “That’s for the gods to decide,” he said. “This isn’t covered by your lessons?”
Regi rolled her eyes, poking her head out under Kebineh’s arm to join in. “Arnah Naal just goes on and on about the Book forever. We didn’t even know there were animals here.”
“Well, the Book has a fair amount to say on the subject. Maybe you just haven’t covered the right sections.” But before Kebineh could ask what he meant by that, Chakred had caught his gaze again — making the words seem to die in his mouth. That intensity gleamed out of his eyes like the sun off something metal, halfway buried in sand. “I can’t say I’m surprised, though. I was raised in a temple as well; what you learn about the world can be — selective.”
“You were?” Regi asked, bright with sudden new interest, and clambered around Kebineh’s back to kneel in front of Chakred. “To Nechemyyeh, too?”
Chakred shook his head, smiling a little more at her enthusiasm. At least his eyes were off Kebineh now. “To Shetekh, actually. …I suppose I’ve come a long way.”
That surprised both of them — Kebineh into raising his head and frowning again, his hand stilling on the goat’s head (and getting nipped again, although he barely noticed). He’d never even heard of a temple to Shetekh, who was sort of a relatively minor god, all things considered… and on top of that, he was always Nechemyyeh’s enemy, in all the recitatives. The one who had envied Nechemyyeh’s sunlit throne and murdered his first form, and then been driven back to the world of the dead on Nechemyyeh’s resurrection; the passing of night and day was supposed to represent their endless struggles. Why would someone raised in a temple to Shetekh wind up a priest of Nechemyyeh? It made no sense to him — seemed almost vaguely indecent.
“Really?” Regi only seemed fascinated, though, wide-eyed and beaming. “Was it really different from here? Tell us about it!”
Chakred smiled, shaking his head slightly. “Not so different. It was a smaller compound, and much less lively, I think. But in the day-to-day, all temples are much the same.” His gaze drifted across both of them, and his smile broadened. “And all things considered, I think I like it better where I am now.”
That made Regi laugh, and Kebineh blush; but Chakred only smiled at both of them, and changed the subject back to their lessons almost at once. Regi chattered to him for some time, with the occasional soft comment from Kebineh, and they only left when Chakred looked out the doorway at the angle of the sun and remarked, gently, that they would be missed.
Sure enough, when they tumbled out of breath in out of the heat, in two panting tangles of limbs that raised dust from the thatch-roofed classroom’s floor, Arnah Naal looked thoroughly cross. “Where have you two been?” he asked, his arms crossed so his heavy sleeves draped over his breastplate. “It’s almost mid-afternoon!”
“We were playing outside,” Kebineh said — quickly, before Regi could say anything. He was careful not to meet her eyes as he bowed, his fist closed above his heart. “We’re sorry, Arnah Naal. We just lost track of the time.”
Arnah Naal sighed, looking heavenward, but he did seem slightly mollified. “See that it doesn’t happen again. The gods don’t wait for late children, and neither do I.” He inclined his head at two of the straw cushions on the floor, making his headdress clink against itself, and they scurried to sit. “Today we will speak of the laws regarding the purity and purification of the wives of kings. Try to ready your minds to receive the wisdom of the Book.”
Kebineh took a deep breath, and did as he was told; ignoring, all the while, Regidhu’s stifled smirk. He didn’t know why he had felt that they shouldn’t tell Arnah Naal that they’d been talking to Chakred — only that he had, and strongly. But it wasn’t like there was anything wrong with it, was there? They were a little bit out of bounds being there, of course, but their boundaries were never really hard-and-fast, as long as they remained within the temple. Telling them where they could and couldn’t go was only meant to keep them safe, and to keep them from getting underfoot and making trouble for the priests. And thus far, Chakred didn’t seem to feel that they were trouble. There was no reason not to tell… but there was no reason that he had to tell, either. And it would take so much explaining, for Arnah Naal to understand.
And if now, Chakred’s smiling face and deep voice seemed very difficult for him to banish entirely, as he was clearing his mind, well… it was often a little hard for him to focus on his studies, at first. Nothing to worry about at all.
As the weeks and months afterward passed, going to see Chakred and the animals became first a hobby, and then a habit. They would come in mid-day, at the peak of the heat, and Chakred would always be there, waiting; they would wander between the pens with him and talk to him, helping him distribute feed and clean up dung, or sit playing with one of the animals under his watchful eye. He asked about their lessons, asked who’d won one of their games, told them about the habits and personalities of each of the animals and how they were best cared for. When their answers and questions made Chakred smile, or even laugh, a long cramp of muscle seemed to run up the middle of Kebineh’s body, from the pit of his stomach straight up to his heart. He was always shy and tongue-tied with strangers, but even as Chakred became more friend than stranger, it seemed to get harder and harder sometimes to talk around him. Kebineh always tried to find the courage, though, and when he couldn’t Regi would fill in the gaps like she usually did, cheerfully trampling over him and speaking for them both. So one way or another they always got along, even though Chakred never seemed to speak about himself.
Otherwise, their lessons went on, and their lives went on, one day after another. Regi got into trouble, and Kebineh apologized for her, and they studied and played and ate and slept and passed small and unnoticed below the sightlines of the priests that surrounded them. The same thing over and over, day in and day out: as dull and comforting as ever.
When Kebineh and Regidhu turned thirteen, they were permitted, for the first time, to join the priests and the people from the villages at festival-time that spring. Regi was excited, like she always was to find her way into a place that had been forbidden to her, and she announced the change gleefully to Chakred first thing when she and Kebineh came to the animals’ building the week before. Chakred looked slightly surprised to be reminded, and then thoughtful for a moment, before his smile returned.
“I suppose I’ll see you there, then,” he said. “But forgive me if I don’t have time to say hello, please. I’ll be very busy.”
Kebineh blinked at him, startled enough to forget his shyness. “You will? Do you do something in one of the rituals?”
“All of the priests do,” Chakred said, after a fractional hesitation, smiling; only much later would Kebineh realize how little of an answer that had been. “But I’ll be happy for you, all the same. You must feel very grown-up.”
Regi scoffed, although she looked pleased. “We’re still just children. Arnah Naal is always telling us so.”
“Time has a way of going by quickly,” Chakred said. And Kebineh thought that, for just a second, his smile faltered.
At any rate, the forbidden fruit came at first as something of a disappointment. The actual celebrations of festival-time happened at the village square or the shared courtyards of neighbors; what came to the temple were only the somberest parts, prayers of thanksgiving and praise and for sunlight and against drought. Spring was the festival of Nechemyyeh’s ascendance, late summer that of Hoseirot, the tree at the core of the earth which flowered up everything that grew; and in the dark and storms of winter the people huddled into the dim temples of Teholochum, fish-tailed queen of the ocean and the dark between the stars. Kebineh had committed all of their rituals to memory in Arnah Naal’s classroom, mouthing to himself the characters of the Book, while Regidhu beside him had only pretended to read between daydreams. What they found themselves invited to now were not much more than the usual fasting-day prayers in the main temple hall — only with many more villagers than usual crowded in to kneel shoulder-to-shoulder, and stretched out to even more interminable length. Regi groaned under her breath as she was herded off to the far side of the divider, to join the village women, and Kebineh alone brought up the end of the priests’ procession, biting his lip to keep from smiling.
He was abandoned quickly, though, to kneel amid the men and other boys of the nearby villages, when the priests all hurried off at once to prepare in the sanctuary — even Arnah Naal. The dais in front of the veil was empty, Kebineh was interested to note; normally the priests conducting the prayers would wait there while the incense was lit and the drummers started playing, until it was time to lead the chant. There were decorations, too: swags of linen and disks of gold hung from the altar, burnished by the light of fat candles on every surface around the hall. All the doorways had been draped in heavy black fabric, entirely blotting out the mid-morning sun.
The drummers to either side of the dais started forming their rhythms, first slow and erratic, then finding a pulse. Scented smoke clouded the hall, making Kebineh’s eyes feel heavy. And still there was no one at the dais, no one taking charge and leading them through routine prayers and recitations. It was a strange feeling, watching the empty altar: almost eerie. As though with no human presence, perhaps something far greater, far stranger, could come in and coalesce in the space they had left. A humming in the air that might take on flesh, might grow a voice.
Then the veil to the sanctuary twitched, and was pulled aside. The figure there was shadowed at first, blurred by smoke, impossible to see. Kebineh only squinted until the man came into the light… and then froze, his breath catching in his chest, his hands curling into fists on top of his thighs.
It was Chakred.
Kebineh had never seen him look anything like this before, though. Instead of his usual plain robes and bared head, he was now draped in complicated vestments of solid black, with a chestplate of beaten silver metal, and a headdress whose links were beaded with black stone and dangled almost to the ground behind him. His face had been colored with clay and ochre and ash, in abstract lines that seemed nonetheless to suggest the bones beneath his skin, to create dark hollows from which his eyes burned like black coals. The expression he wore was solemn, with no trace of his perpetual smile. He should have been unrecognizable, but he wasn’t, not even for a second. The sight of him struck Kebineh like an arrow between his ribs.
Chakred stepped to the altar with deliberate purpose, and raised his arms so that his sleeves fell back. In one of them was a knife, about the length of his hand, plain and gleaming in the candlelight. The kneeling congregants made no noise, but something seemed to pass through the hall all the same: a tremble in the air, like a collective stifled sigh.
Then, in a slow line, the rest of the priests emerged from behind the veil. The first ten came carrying large brass bowls in front of them, their eyes cast down; the last one, instead, held a swaddle of cloth, inside which struggled and brayed a young, white lamb, eyes wide and rolling with discomfort and front hooves scrambling for a purchase it couldn’t find. As he sat transfixed and staring, breathing through numb lips, Kebineh thought that he recognized it from the enclosures, had even petted it a time or two. Chakred had told him it was high-strung and timid, and should only be spoken to in a very soft voice, touched with care.
Now the last priest held out the lamb to Chakred, and Chakred, who never touched any of the animals, who kept his body carefully at the center of the aisle between their pens so none of them could brush the hem of his robes or his foot by accident, took its wriggling body in one bare hand. He collected it in to his chest in the circle of his arm, his hand supporting its chest between its front legs, a startling brown against its white wool. Then turned out toward those in attendance, cradling the lamb. Its high, unhappy bleatings punctuated the speeding rhythm of the drums. Kebineh stared, immobile, pulse racing: terrified that Chakred’s eyes might come to rest on his, but unable to drop his eyes away.
But Chakred turned his head down toward the lamb, his eyes hidden by his headdress. He shifted its position in his grasp like a mother with an infant, all tenderness, dreaming-slow. His large, heavy-boned hand curled around up under the lamb’s jaw, fingers curling voluptuously along the side of its head and holding it in place. And only when he had stilled it did he put the blade of the knife to its throat.
He drew that hand to the side casually, with no apparent pressure. The welling line of red the knife left behind seemed anticlimactic somehow, as though he’d only had a handful of the same wet clay that had colored his face cupped in his hand, and spilled it down over the lamb’s wool. The lamb stiffened in his arm, and its eyes showed white around the edges, its hooves beating at the empty air under its feet; and then the eyes were already becoming glassy, and all its movements slowing, slowing, slowing. And stopping. Life and movement fading from its face and limbs, and the small quivering trunk at its core.
The first of the priests came forward as the blood soaked its way down the lamb’s front, and knelt to hold his bowl under the red trickle, catching it inside. Nothing would be wasted. After all, it wasn’t a gift for them.
The priests still waiting to fill their bowls began the call to prayer, at the same time, and the congregants raised their voices in the ritual responses, rocking as they joined the chant. Even as, all the while, Kebineh still sat frozen among them, tongue-tied and unable to move. His penis was a hot throbbing stony-hardness underneath his robes, a sensation still unfamiliar to him by this point in his life. His lungs wouldn’t seem to draw in air. Nothing in the world seemed able to reach him at all.
He could only stay like that, his voice and body trapped where they were, for as long as Chakred stood in front of the altar with a priest kneeling at his feet with bowl outstretched — still cradling the lamb’s bleeding body in his arms.
“Are you all right, Kebi?” Regidhu said, when they were finally able to escape out into the sun again amid the milling village folk. Her laughing smile at seeing him had faltered away, almost at once, when the light hit his face. “You’re really pale. And you look out of breath.”
“I’m fine,” Kebineh said, and smiled at her sheepishly, dodging away his eyes. “It was just… really crowded in there. I got hot.”
She made a sympathetic groaning sound, apparently satisfied; at least enough that she’d grab onto his arm and cling to it as they walked, no longer afraid he might be fragile. “Ugh, me too! I wish we could go to the real festivals, not just all these stuffy ceremonies.” She seemed to pause there, though, as though thinking of something, and then looked at him sidelong with a little more real sympathy in her eyes. “…It smelled a lot like blood in there, too, didn’t it? I don’t like it either.”
Not a word about Chakred, or anything else, for that matter. And Kebineh could only smile, and look at the ground.
That night, he dreamed of being held by hard, strong hands, being pulled backward against hard metal and warm flesh, in a draped circle of rough wool cloth that smelled of myrrh and smoke and blood. One of the hands cupping around his jaw, thumb beside his chin, skin hot and rough on his own — and the other drawing the point of a knife across his throat, a bright flash of silver pain before all his veins opened to the air, and he knew nothing more. He woke up slick with sweat, panting, his lower belly and inner thighs all feeling hot and trembly and full of twitching muscles. There was a slick wet spot on the bedding where he had been sleeping, and he had to tug that blanket free from the heap with extremes of care to keep from waking up Regi, and go out blushing to the rear courtyard, to scrub it clean by himself in the cool, pre-dawn dim.
He had never been frightened by the knowledge of what would happen when he came of age, although he could see how someone would be. There were parts of it that did concern him, he would admit: he would be sorry to leave Regi, and he worried a little about whether it would hurt… and much more about what would come after, what would happen to him in the realm of the gods once he was given to Nechemyyeh as promised. There was something about the way the priests spoke of it — talked around it, really — that made him uneasy for reasons he couldn’t explain. But the fact that it would happen had never troubled him. It would help his people, his sister and his unknown father and mother, and all the priests who had raised him; it would make Regi into a prophet, and everyone else would love and admire her as much as he did — even if he did hope she would grow up a little bit before then. He was so happy, so excited to be able to do so much to help that the thought of resenting his responsibility never even occurred to him, at least not in any more than abstract way. And if it had to be someone, he couldn’t imagine wanting it to be anyone but him.
The next year was lean, and hard: the planting season over-hot and dry, the crops sparse, the winter dust-storms stronger and more destructive than usual. There were more villagers at prayers each week in spite of such harsh weather for travel, and they looked tired and thin. After every fasting-day, Kebineh noticed and not without dismay, there seemed to be fewer animals in their enclosures when he and Regi went to see Chakred. Which he supposed could have meant one of a few things.
In the depths of the coldest season, during the worst sandstorm of the year, a wandering holy man staggered into the temple compound: a ghostly figure swaddled in sand-soaked wrappings, begging shelter in a hoarse strong voice that rang from wall to wall. The priests hurried out to him and brought him inside, and Kebineh and Regidhu peeped around a corner and watched Arnah Dhidek and Arnah Elinu supporting the man between their shoulders, up the central hall. The rags he’d wrapped around his feet under his sandals were worn to tatters, and every stripe of his exposed skin cracked and bloodied. A trail of sand marked the floor in his wake.
Water was precious even with a well as deep as the temple’s, but hospitality (as the Book said) was more so; and after a bath and hot meals, the man was much better, enough that he joined the priests the next morning for their ablutions and meditations. His name, Arnah Naal told Kebineh and Regidhu when their constant curious pestering exasperated him, was Le’sham Meir, and he was an oracle — a term that their studies of the Book had only passingly defined.
“One the gods speak through, rather than to,” Arnah Naal said, when Regi asked him about that too — apparently resigned to her growing excitement. “They are prepared vessels the gods can fill and steer to their purposes. Depending on which aspect mounts them, they may heal sickness, produce miracles, or see visions of the future.”
He didn’t sound much impressed, given the subject. Kebineh and Regi blinked at each other, and then Kebineh asked tentatively, “If they’re that powerful, why haven’t we heard of them before? Why don’t they come here?”
“Many are charlatans,” Arnah Naal said, shortly. “And others consider themselves above the priesthood, and even the word of the Book. They have little cause to worship at the temple, in either case — or so they would claim. Even our visitor would likely never have come here if this winter weren’t so violent.” He glanced up from the codices in front of him, on which he had kept his eyes fixed throughout, and passed a stern look from one of them to the other. “Don’t trouble him, while he stays here. He doesn’t need to hear a thousand of your questions; nor you a thousand of his boasts.”
Kebineh had never heard Arnah Naal speak so dismissively of another servant of the gods, even one who wasn’t a priest. He spent much of the rest of the lesson in slightly scandalized silence, which Regi seemed to find hilarious. And of course, the next time they had the chance, they both snuck in behind the door-hangings of the priests’ sanctuary, to peer through the crack at the stranger, as he listened to the priests debate over interpretations of scripture. He wasn’t as old as their first impression of him had made him appear, younger than most of the priests and maybe not even much older than Chakred; but skeletally thin and swimming inside his borrowed robes, and with an immense wild thicket of beard down to his chest, hair to match down to mid-back. Its darkness was shot through with streaks of premature grey, but the eyes above his hollowed cheeks were bright and sharp and alert, set in unlined skin, and his bony hands showed none of the spots and veins of age. He sat quietly while the priests spoke, a little apart from them, never interrupting them. There didn’t seem to be anything boastful or deceitful in his quiet composure.
It wasn’t until the night before the fasting-day that Kebineh finally saw Le’sham Meir in person. He was present at evening prayers, which Kebineh alone had been permitted to attend with the priests since he’d turned ten, much to Regi’s indignance. The man knelt in their midst as though he were just another priest, although one without any signs of office, washed his hands and face in the same bowl that they passed and prayed along without drawing any attention to himself. All the same, Kebineh found his mind wandering from time to time from the chants, and his eyes slipping sidelong to investigate Le’sham Meir’s face in profile.
When the last chime had been rung and their bowed heads lifted, the priests began to climb to their feet like always, and mutter again to one another about earthly things — but then they were all stopped in place and silenced, by the sound of the stranger’s voice.
“A moment, please, A’arnah Shimeth,” Le’sham Meir said: surprising Kebineh a little with the term of respect, for no good reason. He had a very rich, sonorous voice, now that it had healed from the sandstorm’s damage, so smooth and deep it was like a lion’s purr. Kebineh turned back to see him in a supplicating bow to the high priest, forehead to the floor in front of his knees. “This being an occasion of worship, I hoped that I might offer to show my gratitude to the temple for providing me shelter.”
Kebineh frowned at that, but when he glanced over at the high priest he found A’arnah Shimeth’s expression carefully blank, as he leaned on his walking stick. “Hospitality is the duty of any of the People,” he said after a moment, in slow measured tones. “Let alone of men of faith, and to one another. Sheltering you is its own reward, Le’sham Meir; you need show us nothing.”
“I beg your pardon, A’arnah, but all the same, I would very much like to.” Only once he’d said so did Le’sham Meir finally straighten up on his knees, looking at A’arnah Shimeth with a steady earnest that made him look younger than ever. “I owe the men of this temple my life. Please, allow me the pleasure of serving you in return, with the only trade I know. It would be a great honor for me to invite the Lord of the Sun to mount me in the presence of his faithful.”
Arnah Naal was standing by not far from Kebineh, and from the corner of his eye Kebineh could see that he had stiffened; and from a glance around the sanctuary, he wasn’t the only one. There were the faintest of murmurs now, a rumble of soft exchanged words. A’arnah Shimeth still betrayed nothing, though — only looked down at Le’sham Meir without moving a single muscle in his face. The silence that stretched out was considerable.
“It would be graceless of us to refuse, either your sincere request or a visitation by Lord Nechemyyeh,” A’arnah Shimeth said, at great length. It wasn’t at all what Kebineh had expected, and he started a little, his eyes darting to A’arnah Shimeth’s shuttered face. “How may we help you to prepare?”
Le’sham Meir, who had looked as startled as Kebineh felt at first, took only seconds to recover; then he was beaming, his whole face lit like a child’s in spite of his beard. “Thank you,” he said, and prostrated himself again, briefly. “Thank you very much. If one of you honored gentlemen could drum, and if I could have a dish of burning oil, that should suffice.”
In the end, two of the more talented young priests started up his accompaniment, one slinging the heavy drum around his hip and the other building a syncopated counterpoint on the iron krakebs. Another priest fetched a bowl of lamp-oil and touched it to one of the torches until it blazed, then handed it to Le’sham Meir. He nodded his thanks, solemn now, already falling into a ceremonial sort of reverence in their center. As the priest stepped away, Le’sham Meir folded himself down to a cross-legged sitting position on the floor, sucked his first two fingers wet in his mouth, and then dipped them without hesitation into the flame-licked surface of the bowl. There was a hiss as the wetness met the hot oil, and Kebineh put a hand over his mouth to stifle a sympathetic sound, but Le’sham Meir didn’t so much as wince: only drew back out his oily fingers, and anointed his forehead and eyelids and throat and inner wrists with it, all while mouthing words too fast and low to hear. Then he set down the bowl to burn in front of him, and drew himself up with hands on knees and eyes closed, still chanting under his breath.
His voice rose gradually with time — first becoming just faintly audible, and then swelling until it could be heard over the drums, and then until it began to overpower them. He was speaking very quickly and all run together, seemingly without ever breathing, but from the bits and snatches Kebineh could catch it sounded like mystical names: the thousands of ritual names of Nechemyyeh one after another, mixed with invocations and praise.
And then, as Le’sham Meir’s voice rose, so did he. He climbed slowly back to his feet, one knee at a time, planting them and swaying in rhythm with the pounding of the drum. His hands lifted in front of him, shaking like he was trying to shed water from them, only in intermittent rhythmic pulses. He began to stamp his foot in time. And again Kebineh thought he could feel that tension, stealing over all of them; as when the emptiness of the dais at festival-time had begun to seem so fraught, now there seemed to be a humming in the air, a sense of gathering presence. It wasn’t much like anything he could put a name to — but a little like being on one side of a closed curtain, and hearing footsteps coming up to the other side and stopping, a voice whispering through the veil. Knowing that someone was right there but for a thin barrier, and might pass through at any time.
As Le’sham Meir stamped his foot, the high priest braced his weight and then began to pound his walking stick on the stone floor too, on the same beat. The other priests seemed to look around at each other, slightly uncertain, but then one by one began to stomp in time too. Kebineh didn’t join them; he wasn’t sure that he should, and anyway he was much too fascinated by watching Le’sham Meir — with twitches now working their way all through his body, head rolling back, hands shuddering their way higher in front of him. His eyes had fluttered slightly open, showing slivers of rolled-back white even as he continued to chant. Sweat beaded his face and rolled down the hollows of his neck. Even as the majority of the priests picked up the stomping from him, he abandoned it: instead beginning to first sway and then dance in place, a snapping jerking step that looked almost more like convulsions, whipping his body like cloth in a high wind.
And then he stopped. He froze in place, his hands stiff in the air, his mouth working. His voice, which had been continuing to rise to a deafening volume and come faster and faster, ran together into one last high, ululating, guttural shout — and then broke off altogether. His head dropped forward, almost down to his chest, and his arms to his sides.
A’arnah Shimeth stopped beating the floor at once, and held a hand out in the direction of the other priests to stop them too. Then, still without speaking, he extended it toward the drummers, patting at the air with it — making them not stop, but only dampen their volume. The counterpoint of drum and castanet fell into the background, an undertone. Everything seemed, all at once, very quiet.
Then Le’sham Meir’s head lifted.
The expression there had completely changed — so much so that it hardly seemed like the same face, on the same man. In place of Le’sham Meir’s earlier almost boyish reserve, there was now a hard, canny smile, the mouth curving up to a faint gleam of teeth at one corner, the eyes flinty and watchful. He turned slowly to look around at all of them, and his smirk widened and deepened, pulling out at the corners. It was, it occurred to Kebineh dimly even as he stood transfixed, something like the way an eagle or a raptor looked, when it opened its beak.
Around him, the priests all knelt in ragged unison, and then spread out fully to prostrate themselves on the floor, in a ring around the man standing at their center. Kebineh, dazed, followed only a second or two later — less out of any real thought than simply not wanting to stand out, and make himself visible.
“I am come,” Le’sham Meir’s mouth said, from above. Even the voice that issued from it was startlingly changed: a cold, drilling tenor in place of its former baritone warmth. It seemed somehow to carry its own echo with it, too, as though he were speaking from inside a very wide stone room. “I grace you with My holy presence, sons of Nechemyyeh. Are you not grateful?”
“Deeply, my lord,” A’arnah Shimeth said, his face still turned down to the floor. His voice was muffled, but composed — even oddly so. “We are unworthy to behold you, even in a human skin.”
For some reason, that seemed to amuse the god inside Le’sham Meir; his laughter was high and sharp, and over as suddenly as it had begun. “Always such dull old men,” the strange voice said. There was something in its tone Kebineh didn’t quite understand, that was almost like the way Regi always teased him… but more than that, too. Something with teeth. “I might not even have answered the call, were My intended not among you.”
It took a second or two for that to sink in. And then, turned down to the floor, Kebineh’s eyes widened; all the spit seemed to dry up in his throat. The air in the room seemed very still, as though everyone there were holding their breath.
All except for the sound of Le’sham Meir’s footsteps, pacing between the bowing priests and straight to him.
“Raise your head, beloved.” The teasing note was gone from the voice now; it was softer, warm and caressing. “Let Me see your face in your world, as soon enough you will see Mine in My own.”
Hairs stood up on the back of Kebineh’s neck, and he swallowed — but he lifted his head, too. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do. All but unrecognizable, Le’sham Meir’s face smiled down on him from what seemed like far above, the curve in its lips as free of human feeling as a kestrel’s beak snapping around a songbird. Still sheened in sweat, Le’sham Meir’s body seemed to glow in the torchlight, with its own interior fire.
“We meet at last,” said that smiling mouth. “Although we have before, even if you don’t remember. I knew you before any other did, save your twin — even before you were both formed in the womb of the woman who bore you. That was the moment when I set My mark on you, and called you Mine.”
Le’sham Meir’s upper half was leaned in over him now, and each of his eyes reflected the torches from the walls in miniature, making tiny flames appear to dance in the dark of their blown pupils. As Kebineh watched, hypnotized, one hand lifted from Le’sham Meir’s side, and curled over Kebineh’s cheek, tilting his face up even further. It was heavy and large, coarsely masculine and rough from the weather, its heat on his skin electric. No one but Regidhu had been permitted to touch him since he was eight years old. Even if he had hurt himself badly enough to need treatment, a physician would have had to undergo hours of ablutions and purifications before laying hands on his body.
“Pretty,” the god in Le’sham Meir murmured, thumb stroking Kebineh’s cheek and down to graze his lips. “What a pretty thing you are, like a little dove. Are you ready to be Mine in more than name, beloved?” His voice dropping all the while, becoming throatier: a purr. “Do you tremble for the pleasures of our nuptial bed?”
There was some shifting sound off to one side, miles distant from where Kebineh knelt frozen. “The boy is not yet of age, my lord,” Arnah Naal’s voice said — board-stiff with what might have been shocked propriety. “These matters aren’t for his ears.”
Le’sham Meir’s body drew itself up to its full height again; when his hand left Kebineh’s cheek, Kebineh had to brace himself to keep from just falling forward, in a heap. “Oh?” There was no mistaking the tone now — sharp and bright as a blade. “They’ll be for every other inch of him before too much longer. Should his ears be set so far above?”
“My lord — ”
“Do you presume to censure the One you serve?” There was no fond teasing left in that voice; it was distant thunder, and drawing closer. “To scold Me like a wayward child? You petty, grasping greybeards, this is why you annoy Me — you’d hate for anything to stand between you and your power, even its source.”
“I beg Your forgiveness, my lord,” Arnah Naal said, after a moment’s pause to be sure no more would be said. His tone was softer, and humbler than Kebineh had ever heard it — although deep down underneath, and well-hidden, it seemed like there was the slightest hint of something like irritation. “I didn’t mean to offend. It is only my duty to protect him, while he is still a child.”
Le’sham Meir was silent for a long moment; and the voice that finally spoke out of him again sounded at once unconcerned and grudging. “Which he is. And by the law of the Book handed down to you, still yours to keep, for a time.” Le’sham Meir’s eyes refixed on Kebineh after a moment, though — and again, the fire inside them stole the breath from him. “But you’ll be Mine after,” his voice said, even as his body bent in again, tipping up Kebineh’s chin. “And you’ll have all eternity to open to your bridegroom like a flower at dawn, and to break the air with your cries.”
With no will of his own that he was aware of, Kebineh’s eyes shut. He knew dimly that he was shaking everywhere, his fingers like leaves, his lips like a hummingbird’s wings. Dimly, that the room was full of the priests who had raised him, their eyes turned down away from him but their presence impossible to ignore. There was only silence for a moment above him… and then a soft, dark laugh, that made sudden stinging water prick at his closed eyes.
“Until then, think only of Me,” the god said, from above Kebineh. And then, with only a faint rustle of movement for warning, a hot, wet mouth closed on his.
He twitched back on instinct (an impulse he’d be horrified by if he could think), but a heavy hand gripped the back of his neck, preventing escape. He could feel Le’sham Meir’s beard scratching at his face, the thickness of his lips, the anointing oil on his skin. A tongue, slick and strong and faintly sour, forced entry between his lips, choking him. He was rigid, his chest burning from stopped breath, his hands in fists on his thighs. The smell and taste of fire, of smoke, filled the world.
Then it was over. The hand and mouth released him; he fell forward over his bent knees, gasping, unable to hide it even if he’d tried. What he could see of Le’sham Meir’s face above him, however, showed no sign at all of displeasure. And then Le’sham Meir’s back was turned to him, the footsteps walking away again — back to the center, where the bowl of oil still burned. His figure seemed to waver in Kebineh’s wet, blurry sight.
He picked up the bowl, and poured it out over the stone floor.
Light flared, burning Kebineh’s eyes. It startled him out of his motionlessness, a small yelp out of his throat, and he winced his eyes shut, protecting them in the sleeve of his robe. The drum and castanets faltered into silence, but there was still a confusion of noise around him: shouts and voices snapping at one another, shuffling motion and then running footsteps, rumpling whipping fabric. When he lowered his arm, the sanctuary was dimmed again, the fire all but extinguished under the dampening tails of several priests’ robes. Le’sham Meir lay on the floor, apparently unconscious, his shoulders supported by the arms of a few more kneeling priests. His borrowed sandals and clothing looked scorched at the edges.
As Kebineh watched, though, he blinked his eyes open. The birdlike, predatory look was gone from his face, and the posture of his body; he looked only baffled and deeply weary, as though he had been sliding in and out of sleep. Human again, and nothing more or less. He only lay where he was for a moment, his eyes fluttering open and closed, as the last of the fire was stamped out and the old priests began instead to lean on each other, and catch their breath. As quiet fell, gradually, over the sanctuary again.
“Did I succeed?” Le’sham Meir said, at last, into it. His voice sounded raw and half-broken. “Did the Lord of the Sun appear?”
There was a long moment’s silence, in which none of the priests — even those supporting him — would seem to look at him. They only cast studious steady eyes on their hands, or on the ground. Finally, though, A’arnah Shimeth stirred, taking a step forward and letting the rest fall behind him.
“Yes,” he said, shortly — so much so that Kebineh would have thought Le’sham Meir couldn’t possibly miss the tone. Whether he did or not, though, he only closed his eyes again, and relief loosened his brow. “Thank you for this honor.”
Le’sham Meir inclined his head slightly, in acknowledgment, but he didn’t answer. Or open his eyes, for that matter; nor did he move again. For all any of them could see, he might have fainted again at once.
“Naal,” A’arnah Shimeth said after a few more seconds — making Arnah Naal start before looking toward him, as though woken from a dream. “The children have worked hard at their studies. I think perhaps they’ve earned a few days’ holiday, to spend in rest and meditation.” His gentle tone took on only the slightest sour, ironic edge. “Surely a visitation by Lord Nechemyyeh Himself, however brief, should be considered more instructive than any length of study of scripture.”
Arnah Naal seemed to hesitate a moment, and then bowed. “As you say, A’arnah.” He turned his head in Kebineh’s direction, but kept his eyes on the floor as he spoke. “You heard the high priest, Kebineh. Now go and find your sister, and to bed with both of you.”
“Yes, Arnah,” Kebineh said, without entirely knowing he meant to. His voice seemed to come on its own: wind from a dry hollow cave, somewhere miles away from him.
None of the priests would look at him, as he left the sanctuary… or, as he finally noticed just as he was about to leave, none save one. At some unknown point — and though he usually never came to evening prayers — Chakred had slipped in among the ranks of priests at the back of the room. He stood at the far corner of the sanctuary with his back to the wall, in between torches and almost lost to shadow; the sight of him would have jolted Kebineh, if he hadn’t already been so numb. He, and only he, watched Kebineh every second as he left: with nothing moving but his eyes, and no expression on his face at all.
“No one’s talking to me,” Kebineh said, muffled into the tops of his knees. “It’s like I did something horrible.”
“Not you, but them, I think.” That made Kebineh look up at Chakred, raising only his eyes and not his head. Chakred’s head was only rested back against the wall, though, his neutral gaze fixed ahead, hands folded in his lap. “The oracle threw back in their faces what they’d hoped to forget. Now they’re ashamed.”
Kebineh frowned, but only dug his face down against his knees. They were sitting up against the inner wall of the outbuilding, facing the cattle pen, watching the cows’ legs through the ropes as they milled and shifted. Le’sham Meir had left when the winds had died down, a day ago, but Kebineh’s and Regi’s so-called holiday had been grim thus far: the priests avoiding their sleeping chamber like a leper’s hut, Regi sitting by day after day and trying to coax him out of bed. He’d finally stolen out to see Chakred today only out of mounting frustration.
“They knew all along,” he said, after another moment. His fingers plucked up a bit of his robes, twisted it between them. “It’s not like it was a secret.”
Chakred made a soft, thoughtful sound. “But they didn’t tell you? About what would become of you, afterward?”
“Not… the things he said.” His voice so low he could barely hear himself. Chakred glanced over at him this time, and then smiled, kindly. It made Kebineh hide his face again.
“No. I suppose they wouldn’t have.” A pause. “Are you afraid?”
Kebineh didn’t answer for a few seconds… and then nodded, his hair rustling against the knees of his robes. Chakred stirred beside him, how or why he had no way of knowing, and all at once his throat clenched with a bitterness he’d never really felt before: hating being himself, hating his own sacred, untouchable skin. He wanted nothing more right then than to be able to lean sideways and rest against Chakred’s shoulder, to feel its warmth through both their robes. To bury his face in the cloth and breathe in the smells of myrrh incense, animal, faint lingering blood.
“They shouldn’t have let him be ridden by Nechemyyeh in your presence,” Chakred said after another moment — when Kebineh had finally breathed away the worst of the impulse, swallowed the ache down to his stomach instead. “Although then again, I don’t know that it helps to try to hide it from you, either. It should have been explained to you, maybe years ago. That was the wrong way for you to learn.” He was silent for a time that seemed long. When he spoke again, his voice was very bland, and neutral — almost chilly. Certainly more so than Kebineh had ever heard it. “A child born to a predestined role brings out in adults a curious talent for self-deception. We know what must happen, we see it lying ahead in the road, but we look only at our feet as we make our way there, and do our best not to raise our eyes. The priests of Nechemyyeh have brought you up like a son, never minding that it will only make it harder to bear what they’ll eventually have to ask of you.”
He raised a hand, gesturing around at the enclosures in front of him. “We feed and protect these animals, and try to spare them pain, even knowing that in a few months’ time, they’ll die. It’s the same thing, in the end. Oh, they will suffer, we tell ourselves; but it won’t be at our hands, but at the hands of the gods. The gods may have demanded pain, and no one can argue with the gods — but if we take care to inflict no more than precisely what they ask, at precisely the proper time, then perhaps we can be forgiven.”
Kebineh was staring at him openly by now, and as he did, the corner of Chakred’s mouth curved up: a tiny, unpleasant twist that looked more like a cramp than a smile. “Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that the Lord thinks so little of his servants. If they’re so arrogant as to believe that they can do kindness where the gods have chosen cruelty — and yet stay blameless when their hands hold the knives… then maybe they deserve it.”
In Kebineh’s mind’s eye, unbidden, he saw the sacrificial knife that had pressed to the lamb’s throat; the anticlimactic line of dripping red its passing blade had left behind. His fingers dug into his knees, and he swallowed.
“It’s not your fault, Kebineh,” Chakred said, finally. His voice was so gentle, so warm, Kebineh looked up at him in surprises. “You’re the only blameless one here.”
And as Kebineh sat staring at him, after a few seconds, Chakred’s solemn look broke suddenly into a smile.
It took him some months to actually ask any of the questions all that had left in his mind, though; long after his and Regi’s lessons with Arnah Naal had resumed, after the memory of the summoning had begun to fade and the priests to meet his eyes again. Even after the next year’s festival-time — during which he’d feigned illness, to keep from having to go to the ceremony again. No one had challenged him on that, or even questioned.
“Arnah Naal?” Kebineh asked finally, though, at the end of lessons one day. “I was wondering something. The priest who performs the sacrifices, at festival-time and on fasting-day…” Arnah Naal turned to look sharply at him, and he swallowed and managed a small rueful smile. “H-he… he doesn’t come to any other prayers with us. Why is that?”
Arnah Naal kept looking at him throughout, and then finally straightened up from his pile of codices and turned to face Kebineh fully. They were alone in the classroom; normally Regi waited, but today Arnah Naal had mentioned that he needed help carrying the very rare texts they’d been studying back to the sanctuary, so of course she’d vanished as soon as they were done. Kebineh struggled, now, to keep meeting Arnah Naal’s eyes, and found himself a little relieved when they finally flickered away.
“There’s no need to worry about him,” Arnah Naal said only, though, scooping up another codex and putting it on the pile already in Kebineh’s arms. “He’s no concern of yours.”
“He will be, though,” Kebineh said, quietly. “Before too long.”
That gave Arnah Naal pause again, to say the least. His gnarled hand clenched on the codex’s bindings for a second, then released. When Kebineh glanced back up at his eyes, they were fixed, downward but at nothing in particular. Then they closed, and Arnah Naal sighed.
“Yes. I suppose that’s true. …Forgive me, Kebineh.” That startled Kebineh into looking at him more sharply, but Arnah Naal didn’t even seem to have noticed. He just took another breath, drawing himself up again and meeting Kebineh’s gaze. “Brother Chakred doesn’t attend our prayers unless he is needed, because he is not, in fact, a priest of Nechemyyeh. He is a priest — but of Shetekh, the Lord of the Dead. You remember from our study of the Narratives, yes?”
Kebineh did, of course, but for the time being he could only stare — struggling not to blurt out some dozen things, not least of all that he’d known Chakred had been raised in a temple to Shetekh, but — “Why is he here, then? Why… wouldn’t he be in one of Shetekh’s temples, instead?”
Arnah Naal half-smiled, wanly. On his hook-nosed, deeply-wrinkled face, its dark skin as thin and mottled as stained fading cloth, even that expression could be slightly alarming. “Very few of the sons of Shetekh remain in His temples when they have completed their novitiate. Instead, they are dispatched to the temples of other gods, where they fill a very particular office.” He hesitated, and then when he saw Kebineh’s uncomprehending stare still fixed on him, went on with some discomfort. “It is as you observed, Kebineh. The sons of Shetekh, and only the sons of Shetekh, perform temple sacrifices. This is the word of the Book, and also tradition since time out of mind.”
“Why?” The word stumbled out of him half-thought, surprised, and he winced at the frowning look Arnah Naal gave him. “If the temple priests perform all the other rituals, why shouldn’t they be able to sacrifice, as well?”
“There are a number of reasons.” Arnah Naal was taking on his teacherly voice again now, unconsciously as far as Kebineh could tell. “Firstly, because through their service to the Lord of the Dead, the sons of Shetekh alone have the ability to usher the sacrificed safely through the underworld, and into the realm of the gods. And secondly — it is a matter of purity. To touch blood or the dead renders one impure until the proper rituals can be observed, no matter how virtuous the cause for which the blood was shed. Men of the priesthood have far too many responsibilities to spend their time in constant purification. And what’s more, just as cloth dirtied again and again over time may dull in color in spite of washings…” His eyes flicked to the knees of Kebineh’s robes, making him blush.”…so too does repeated impurity leave its mark on men, which in time becomes indelible. The sons of Shetekh, therefore, are raised from childhood to take that stain upon themselves; and thereby allow the priests of the greater gods to worship in full sanctity.”
…Was all of this written in the Book? Kebineh supposed it must be, in some form or another — even if not in the full detail Arnah Naal had explained, then interpreted by generations of priests before him and again by his own. Was it all enumerated in chapters they had yet to study, and would come to in time? Or in the other parts of the ones they might have read piecemeal, skipping from section to section, Arnah Naal carefully leading them around the pitfalls and dangers? What else was there that had been hidden from him, and without his ever knowing? He knew that it had been done to protect him, out of pity for him, and even so he couldn’t help but feel a thin thread of anger, winding its helpless way down into his chest and belly. It was him that all of this concerned, him that it would affect, far more than Regi or any of the priests. Didn’t he have the right to know about it? Didn’t he have the right to decide for himself what to turn his eyes away from, and what to look at straight on?
“It must be terrible,” was all he said when he finally spoke again, though, instead of any of that. Looking down toward the floor, now, more than at Arnah Naal. “To dedicate your whole life to killing, over and over again.”
Arnah Naal hesitated at that, and when Kebineh glanced at him, he looked surprised. Then his expression softened, though — into a gentler look than Kebineh thought he had ever seen on Arnah Naal’s face, or indeed any of the priests’ when they looked at him. …Except Chakred, of course. Always except for him.
“It’s the will of the gods,” Arnah Naal said, and not unkindly. “It’s not for us to call terrible or wonderful, wrong or right, because we know so much less than they do, and see so much less far. We were given the Book by which to know their commands and understand their purposes, but in the end we are still as ants in paradise: so dwarfed by a single blade of grass that we may, in our ignorance, call it the world.”
He paused for another long moment, and then sighed, inclining his head. “It comes as no surprise to me that you should wonder about these matters, Kebineh. And in truth, much of this you should have been told already. But I’m only a frail, ignorant human myself; and even I sometimes long to turn my face away from what is mine to do.” One hand stuttered up from his side for a second, as though he had forgotten himself and reached to touch Kebineh’s shoulder, perhaps pat his cheek — and then it dropped down again, and curled into a loose, arthritic fist. “No one could think less of you for doing the same, at least for now, for that matter. But know this much: your fate is the gods’ will. And though it may not be ours to know, they must have some reason for what they wish.”
Arnah Naal took another breath, and lifted his head again; and, as he met Kebineh’s eyes, offered him a strange, sorry smile. “And if nothing else, in exchange, you have been granted a gift that some men spend their whole lives in seeking. You know, and have always known, and will always know, for what purpose your life was meant. And when the time comes for your death, you will also know — without a second’s doubt — that not for an instant was it spent in vain.”
Time seemed to Kebineh to move more quickly after that: the days rushing toward the last year before his coming of age at a new alarming speed, as though the revelations of that year had broken fetters that had been holding them back. Very little actually happened, in the day-to-day — lessons with Regi and Arnah Naal, prayers with the priests, visits with Chakred, over and over — but that in itself seemed to make the weeks disappear all the faster. The last of his short life, slipping away from under his feet.
As the time passed, though, it also became clearer to him that things were far less quiet outside of the temple walls. The Niban Empire — always a distant, but looming, threat — had begun pushing its southwest border further, and encroaching on the sea-cliffs and deserts where so many of the People made their homes. Hard weather hadn’t been the only reason more villagers had been coming to the temple to worship, or that they looked tired and grim; many, he learned from overheard discussions and from pressing Arnah Naal, had been displaced by invading armies, or so harassed by well-armed Niban settlers that they had fled. Nor were they the last, even as the seasons turned and the temple would ordinarily have emptied. There were more strangers sleeping in the spare rooms, and more whispered conversations in the hallways that stopped when Kebineh walked by.
It was hard to say whether it made all of this better or worse, knowing it wouldn’t matter to him for long.
“Why are they all coming here?” Regidhu complained one evening, flopping back on the tangled cushions and pillows of their bed with her arms spread wide. After a lifetime of sharing a height with him as well as everything else, Regi had begun to grow slightly taller now, and her splayed limbs were a decidedly adolescent gangle. “It’s so crowded already. There must be someplace else for them to live.”
Kebineh hmmed under his breath, toying with her hair as her head came to rest beside his hip. “I think it must be because of the Anointed.” Regi twisted her head around to peer up at him, frowning, and he smiled and tapped her forehead. “Don’t you ever pay attention to lessons?”
“Why would I do that?” Regi said, on a haughty sniff, and he grinned in spite of himself; when he tapped her forehead again, though, as punishment, she grabbed his hand in both hers and pulled it down to her cheek instead. He let her have it, thinking instead back on their lessons, the dry leaves of the Book and Arnah Naal’s voice.
“The Anointed’s the person who’s supposed to come and defeat all our enemies, and make it so we’re always free,” he said at last, and stroked Regi’s cheek with his thumb as she looked up at him upside down. “It’s come up a couple times already, but I think the Book mostly talks about it near the end, in the Prophecies.” He met her eyes, and shrugged. “I don’t know how serious it’s supposed to be. Arnah Naal said not everyone believes it; some of the priests think it’s just a legend, or a metaphor for what we should all do. But the Anointed is supposed to be chosen by Nechemyyeh — so it makes sense people would gather in His temples, if that’s what they’re waiting for.” Regi made a thoughtful little noise, leaning her chin into his palm, and Kebineh smiled. “Maybe it’ll be you. You are going to be a prophet, before long.”
Regi made a face at that, although he couldn’t help noticing her heart didn’t seem much in it. “Isn’t it supposed to be a man, though?” Before Kebineh could answer, though, she craned her head back, groaning. “Never mind, of course it is. Everything’s supposed to be a man. I can’t go to half the prayers you do, five days out of the month the priests can’t even talk to me…” She sighed, and flopped over onto her belly instead, looking moodily down at her folded hands. “It’d make more sense if I were the one who follows, instead of you. You’d be a much better prophet than I would. And if I weren’t here, it wouldn’t make that big a difference to anyone.”
“Don’t say that,” Kebineh said, softly — stricken, in spite of her light tone. “That’s not true.”
She turned her scowl up toward him, but it softened as soon as she met his eyes; she closed her own, then pulled herself forward to flop across his lap instead of the pillows. “I know you don’t think so.”
“Nobody should.” She didn’t answer, and he carded his fingers through her curls again, then bent to kiss the ones that wrapped around his hand. “…You’re more like a man is supposed to be than I am, anyway. You’re braver, and stronger. You don’t worry as much — you always know what to do.”
“That’s not the point,” Regi said, scoffing, but he thought she looked a little pleased, anyway. For a moment, at least; until her face slowly quieted, became serious again. “…Anyway, I don’t think I’m actually braver than you.”
That tied up his tongue, and he couldn’t seem to answer. For a long moment afterward, they just stayed like that: her knees tucked up and cheek pressed to his thigh, his hand stroking her hair.
“I do wish it were me instead,” she said, finally. Her voice was uncharacteristically quiet, and she didn’t look up at him, letting his hand and her hair hide her eyes from him. “It’s not fair for the gods to take you away, and leave me behind.”
He looked at her for a few breaths, helpless. And then just folded himself down, over her; curling his arms over her waist, pressing his forehead to her shoulder. So that he could hide her at the center of himself. Keep her safe there, and never let anybody in.
“I know,” he said, muffled in her sleeve. After a moment her hand lifted up, and clasped the nape of his neck, tight.
The last year. Then the last months. Then the last weeks. Then the last days.
As much as he had always known what would happen, it had never seemed entirely real to Kebineh, never entirely certain. He had thought that as the time came closer, it would begin to… but it didn’t, not at all. The temple began its preparations a full moon-cycle before the day of his coming of age, and he faced them with a hypnotized, detached distance, never fully present in his skin. It was just so hard to believe. He was here, in the same place, with the same people, that he had been all of his life; the only difference was that now, in a space of some 30 days, those people would kill him. He would be adorned and led through the same halls where he had played as a child and walked to and from his lessons as an adolescent. His throat would be cut on the same altar where he had seen drums beaten and prayers said and animals sacrificed, instead. It was impossible to believe, impossible to incorporate. He might as well have been told that, when the day came, he and Regi and all the priests would simply step off the ground and fly.
But he went through the motions, all the same. He was blessed and anointed, prayed over, immersed in water and taken into secret rooms to sit for hours on end breathing smoke and meditating. He saw visions: the blade of a knife, bright and impossible in its size, and then cities and temples in flames on the horizon, the terrible stooping arc of a raptor as bright as the sun as it dove down the sky and brought on night behind its wings. He told the priests, afterward, what he had seen, and pretended not to notice when their lips thinned. He went where he was led, did what he was told, drank and ate what he was given and prepared himself with what was provided. He did not argue. He did not weep. He did not beg. He could not even imagine why or how he would.
Maybe, he was able to think at the darkest, quietest times, in the middle of the night as he lay apart from even Regi for the first time in their lives, maybe this was how they did it. Maybe they just got carried along with the tide: all the sacrifices, all the children like him. Maybe it just never seemed real, until the last moment when it most undeniably was. And maybe, when all was said and done, there was even a sort of kindness in that. A mercy.
Impossible to say. He could only speak for himself.
The ceremonies, the lead-up, all led in time to their end, anyway. And then it was the last day, the last night, and Kebineh was ushered — fully purified and fully sanctified, ready for his journey to the realm of the gods in every other respect — into the sanctuary alone, to spend his last hours on the skin of the world in solitary contemplation. None of the priests who guided him inside would look at him, or speak to him more than they had to, but this time it didn’t seem as bad as it had before, when he’d been younger. Now he didn’t know what he would have said to them, either.
He sat alone in the center of the floor — the priests departed, the torches burning away in their sconces — and stared ahead into the shadows that pooled at the corners of the room, underneath the lower swags of the curtains on the walls. He was supposed to be contemplating, meditating, making himself holy, but his mind wouldn’t seem to focus on anything. It was as empty as the room, empty as the whole threat of what would happen tomorrow seemed to be. He couldn’t think, couldn’t feel. The most that would come to him were memories of this room: of Le’sham Meir shuddering and twitching in the center of the floor as Nechemyyeh’s presence had filled him; of the hand curled around the back of his neck, and the scratchily bearded mouth on his, that had brought stinging water to his eyes.
He would never know how long he’d sat there, numb and staring, before he heard the scuff of a footstep behind him.
Kebineh whirled, startled by the sudden noise in the silence — and then froze where he was, numb and confused. Chakred was behind him: standing in the parted curtains at the sanctuary’s entrance, holding one of them up and away to the wall beside him, not quite smiling. He looked as calm, as casual, as though Kebineh had come to visit him at the animals’ enclosures again, or met him out in the courtyard; as though Kebineh were still the one intruding on his space, and not the other way around.
“Such a dreary place to spend your last night of life,” he said, glancing around the sanctuary with a critical eye. “They could at least let you go outside the walls, to the city or even one of the villages — have some actual experience of the world, before you leave it. Drink wine, speak to people, watch a sunset. Something.” A small, somehow unpleasant twist formed at one corner of his mouth, like a cramp. “It’s not as though Nechemyyeh really minds what you think about or do before you come to Him — as long as He can have you in every foul way He can think of, after. The rules are for us humans. No one else.”
“Chakred?” Kebineh said. It was all that his numb, clumsy mouth would seem to produce; he certainly had no answer for any of that. He could barely even make himself believe this was really happening. “…What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here — no one is.”
Chakred smiled. It was a canny, conspiratorial smile, as uncomfortable as it was compelling: more the smile he’d given Kebineh when they’d first met, when he’d told Kebineh they shouldn’t even be talking, than any of his kinder, more benign ones since. He took a few steps into the sanctuary, letting the curtain fall closed behind him, and didn’t say anything for long moments.
“Are you ready?” he asked, finally, instead of answering Kebineh’s own question. His eyes on Kebineh’s were bright, interested, and opaque, and fixed him in place like manacles. “You’ve been in preparations for so many days now I’ve lost track. It never even occurred to me before, how many there are. So are you fully prepared now? Are you ready to die, Kebineh?” It was clear he saw the way Kebineh flinched at that, though; his smile widened, fractionally, although it did not touch his eyes. “Ah. Yes. ‘To be sent to the gods,’ the old men will have said. Not that. ‘To be sacrificed.’ ‘To be given up for the sake of your people.’ And all of that may be true in some way… but you and I know the core of what’s true, don’t we? Let there be no euphemism between us; there’s hardly room with the blade already there. To die, Kebineh. To have a knife carve the skin of your throat open and let the blood run out into golden bowls. Are you ready for that? Is that something you, beardless virgin, a man by only some arbitrary count, honestly think you’re prepared to face?”
Kebineh didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer. Couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, couldn’t think. His head and chest were dry hollows, scoured by the wind.
“Do you know what I think?” Chakred said. His smile was constant, warm and sympathetic and kind. “I think the gods are children. …Oh, not compared to us, certainly; we live such short lives, such brief instants, that to us they seem eternal and infinite. But on a cosmic scale, in comparison to everything that’s ever been out in the heavens and other realms — just children. Newly made, and still growing, not a fraction yet of what in time they’ll become. And selfish, too. Careless. Casually cruel, because they haven’t yet gained the capacity for insight that will show them the consequences of their actions.” He laughed a little, under his breath, just as though he weren’t blaspheming cataclysmically in the heart of a sacred temple, to a sacred prepared sacrifice. “But they tell us how to live, and we obey them. We don’t argue with them, we just do as we’re told. Because we understand that, for all the failings they may have, it’s all a matter of scale.”
He fell silent for a moment. No longer smiling, not looking at Kebineh for the moment. His eyes wandered instead along the wall of the sanctuary, the curtains and hangings and torches, without really seeming to see them.
“This isn’t my first time, you know.” His voice was quieter now, contemplative, the humor that had been in it gone. His eyes flicked back to Kebineh’s, and held there as he raised his head. “To have a human throat under my knife, instead of a lamb’s or a pig’s. It’s rare enough, but I’ve done it twice before.” He wandered a little deeper into the room, a little closer to Kebineh, with his eyes still looking distant. “The first time was at the completion of my training, at the temple where I was raised. The man was a criminal, already sentenced to death. He was one of a dozen given up by their people so that we could learn. …Every trade, after all, has to be practiced before it can be mastered.” He glanced at Kebineh again; and the smile that sat his lips was ghastly. Empty at the eyes. “He was prepared and forced to his knees in front of me, and he wept, and soiled himself, and begged. I was younger than you are now. I didn’t weep, because I’d been trained from the time I was barely more than an infant, but something inside my mind screamed, for days. A long, piercing scream in the center of my skull, day and night, that I could almost hear.” He was quiet again for a few seconds, taking a few more steps forward. The hem of his robes dangled right in front of Kebineh’s folded knees. “The second was a child. An infant, less than a year old. She was first-born to a governor and land-owner who required an heir, and Nechemyyeh had appeared to him in a dream and promised him boys if she was given up to Him. I was almost twenty by then. When I held her throat to cut it, my hand — ” He held it up, demonstrating with a graceful gesture — “circled all the way around.
“There was a week of celebrations, here in the temple, when you and your sister were given over. Twins are always cause for celebration. I didn’t attend any of them, and I did my best not to come too near you — even to see you passing by, from any short distance.” He watched Kebineh while he said this, and through a long silence after… and then, finally, broke into a new and brilliant smile. “But it didn’t matter. In the end, you came to me, like I should have known you would. And in the first second that I truly saw you, I knew what I would have to do.”
Another silence. Nothing stirred in the sanctuary, and neither of them moved: Kebineh looking up, Chakred looking down, even the torchlight that painted shadows across their cheeks seeming in that moment to stand still.
“I need you to trust me, Kebineh,” Chakred said, finally. Low, and gentle, and always so kind.
“What — ” Kebineh started to say, still stupid even now that his tongue seemed at last to have unstuck itself. But it didn’t matter. Before he could manage to even get all of the word out, Chakred had dropped to kneel in front of him, wrapped both hands behind his head, and pulled him in to kiss him.
Lightning seemed to run all under Kebineh’s skin; blood roared in his head. Chakred’s mouth was warm and soft, chastely closed, barely wet, but it might as well have been a dash of icy water. The hands in Kebineh’s hair were gentle but felt like burning coals. The two points of transgression burst at once into an exquisite sennsitivity, where he seemed able to feel every microscopic change in pressure, feel even the blood beating and tiniest muscles moving underneath Chakred’s skin. The smell of smoke and blood on Chakred’s robes was overpowering, clamoring, raucous. Kebineh’s head swirled, and he was sure for a moment that he would faint.
He couldn’t move at first, but as soon as he struggled backward, Chakred let him go. Their mouths parted on a slight wet sound that made Kebineh’s stomach flip over but his groin heat fast enough to make him lightheaded again. And Chakred’s hands were still cupping the back of his head, a light pressure that loomed so large in his awareness as to be unbearable, not letting him get far.
“I waited as long as I could,” Chakred said, before Kebineh could form any words at all, his eyes turned down and voice only a murmur. “I’m sorry.”
“You can’t — ” Kebineh tried, but his voice came out in a cracked whispery wheeze, and he had to lick his lips and try again. “You can’t…”
But Chakred didn’t seem to be listening — was in fact leaning in again, brushing his lips lightly enough to both make them feel burned and raw and stun a dragging moan out from between them. “Shhh.” His lips moved against Kebineh’s, his whisper swallowed on one of Kebineh’s gulps for air. “It’s all right. It’ll be all right.”
It wasn’t. Nothing was. The world was shattered, pieces strewn on the floor in front of him. He couldn’t move, back away from Chakred or forward toward him, but it didn’t matter; Chakred’s arms had him tighter now, wrapping down around his shoulders and back. Chakred’s body pressed forward into his — he was so heavy, so solid, he had never quite seemed like something real in the world, with weight and volume, up until this moment — and pushed Kebineh backward on his knees, to where he had to brace his hands behind him and awkwardly splay his legs out forward to keep from overstraining their joints. His robes stretched taut across his legs, and then Chakred’s knees pressed in between his thighs, on top of the fabric, pinning it to the floor. Kebineh’s breath was coming very fast now, every muscle in his body like rock. He was so preoccupied with the nerve-burning tingle of Chakred’s mouth moving down his neck that he didn’t notice the hand moving around his waist, until it had cupped and stroked the straining hardness at the front of his robes.
He choked. Gasped. Clawed at Chakred’s chest with both hands, and then without their support under him fell down all the way on his back. He hit the stones hard enough to jar his teeth together, the bony click making his head hurt and eyes water. Chakred covered him a second later, lay flat-out on top of him (panic swelled in him, making his heart run like a rabbit’s, and he’d never been so hard in his life), making a soft chiding sound and kissing his way into Kebineh’s mouth, soothing with his tongue along the line of his teeth. Kebineh pushed weakly at his chest one second, then hissed breath and pulled at fistfuls of his robes the next, when Chakred’s hand began to work him again. The large, warm palm on that desperate spot was the best thing he’d ever felt, the most terrifying, the most wrong and out of place and unthinkable. He couldn’t do anything but writhe up into it, his gasps wet through Chakred’s gentle teeth in his lower lip.
Then Chakred pushed up after a moment, and let him go, making him whimper and turn his face away. Hands, knife-wielding hands, hands that could each have circled a dead girl’s throat, unfastened Kebineh’s belt from around his waist, and set it aside with an absurdly careful neatness. His robes were still simple, the ceremonial dress not to come until morning, and Chakred stripped them away in a matter of moments: holding him up with one hand under his back to pull the fabric off his shoulders and down his arms, spreading his clothing out wide beneath him and then lifting him like a doll off and away from it. Kebineh was laid out, naked and shivering, on the cold stones of the sanctuary floor, not far from the scorch-marks that still lingered from Le-sham Meir’s visit. His eyes squeezed shut against all of this, he tried to clutch at his robes with one hand for a moment, then to cover himself with both; but Chakred took gentle hold of them, after a moment, and pulled them away.
“It’s all right,” he said in Kebineh’s ear, his weight pinning Kebineh down and legs between Kebineh’s thighs, his smoke-scented robes soft and draping out over his skin in at least the illusion of privacy. “It’s all right, Kebineh, don’t be frightened. It’ll only be a little while longer.”
And then his hand returned to where it had been, and stroked naked flesh. And all of Kebineh’s thought was gone: lost in arching his head back as far as his neck would go, his mouth locked open, a cry tearing out of his throat.
It went quickly from there. Chakred’s hand encompassed him, warm and firm around his penis, and it left him wanting for nothing; the pace he set, caressing and squeezing tighter every time he neared the tip, was quick and certain. Kebineh had had dreams, and even made a few very furtive explorations after Regi was asleep on nights when strange thoughts had kept him awake, but none of it had ever been like this, and almost all of the thoughts had been of Chakred’s hands, these same hands. Bloodied and deadly, square and hard and strong. The way they would touch him, for that one thrilling, terrible instant, before the knife came.
They were an obscenity now, on far more vulnerable parts: strange and hot and overpowering, slicked with his fluids, far too ordinary and human. They built a kind of illness inside him, a cramping delirious fever. He clutched a fistful of Chakred’s robes up over his upper arm, trembling, his mouth working without making any sound. Nothing mattered anymore outside that one, very small part of him.
Then a terrible pleasure, so baffling to his senses it might have been pain, and the heat flared. His body spasmed, shuddered, thrashed. Gasping cries wrung from his throat, wordless, unrecognizable. Thought rushed out of him, leaving behind only whiteness, and he was gone.
He fell back into himself to find his chest heaving for air, his muscles all quivering and exhausted, his belly sticky with cooling semen. Chakred’s hand still circled him loosely, but now its strokes were only idle, all its urgency gone. Chakred’s mouth was pressed into his hair, his breath warm, breathing in. It was very cold on the floor with sweat drying on him. He wanted to go to sleep, right now and here, and never wake up.
But Chakred was moving now: pushing back on his elbows and then up on his knees, his hands drawing away from Kebineh. His hands went to his own robes, and even in his stupor Kebineh eventually realized — with a drop of something cold as dread falling into his stomach — that he was opening them. He tried to push himself upward on his elbows, at least: to move somehow, to say something. But he couldn’t seem to move, and nothing would come, no ideas for where to start with either. Nothing made sense, and there was nowhere to begin.
Chakred unbelted his robes, and unwrapped them. His body was slim, dark, lightly muscled, unremarkable, beautiful. The torchlight gleamed from his skin, but doubly so from the shaft that jutted fully hard from his dark thatch of pubic hair, and the surrounding flesh of his lower belly and thighs. He had oiled himself there, before he’d come. Kebineh stared, mortified but helpless, as hypnotized as if it were a snake. He had no idea what to do, what to think, what to expect.
His thighs still lay spread loose around Chakred, and Chakred picked them up in each hand, pushing them back with gentle ease until they pressed to his chest. He lay like a turtle flipped on its back; aware enough again at last to be humiliated, shutting his eyes and twisting his burning face away. Hot flesh pressed to his buttocks, making him gasp and twitch. One of the hands left his thighs.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Kebineh; just try to relax and be calm and it’ll be easier,” he thought Chakred whispered, thought his voice was slightly broken now, but he couldn’t be sure. Once all that flesh had begun to push inside him, there was nothing left of anything. There was no other part of the world.
He would remember little of it later. Mostly sounds, smaller sensations, the little things around the edges rather than what it had felt like itself. Chakred’s thick, labored breathing. The loudness of his own pulse. The faint, soft crackle of the torches. How hard the stones felt on his back, with his body pinned to them by Chakred’s weight, worse on every thrust of his hips. His aching knees and hips, and the way he couldn’t seem to get a full breath with his body folded up in that odd position. The cold. The smell of smoke and blood. Thinking, It hurts, more than it actually hurt, more than he could have explained. Maybe the thought had been the only way he’d had of expressing something more nameless, something opening inside him like a vast, dark eye.
Eventually, though, Chakred’s breathing began to speed up, and the sound of it to become harsher and rasping. His head dropped forward, almost resting against Kebineh’s shoulder, shoulders shuddering slightly above him. He was almost noiseless otherwise, and Kebineh couldn’t see his face.
Then he shuddered again, harder; and this time his shoulders reared up, he pushed from where he’d been braced on his elbows on the floor up to his hands and held there for a moment. His head was downturned, obscuring his eyes, but his mouth was silently open. And then he pulled back, further, all the way away — easing out from inside Kebineh more slowly than it seemed like, even with the easy-slick glide of the oil. He gripped his penis and pumped it once, twice, and then his jaw set, and with another shudder more lines of seed laced over Kebineh’s belly, crossing his own almost-dry remnants from before. Some noise, the only one he’d made all this time, squeezed free from behind Chakred’s closed teeth: a soft grunt, barely more than breath. Kebineh’s own member, half-hard again by now where it lay against his belly, gave one more weak twitch, and then was still.
Neither of them moved, or looked at each other, for what seemed like a long time.
Then, finally, Chakred pushed backward and to the side and tumbled off him, to sit heavily on the stone floor alongside. Kebineh lay where he was, staring at the ceiling, breath fast and eyes unseeing. The sanctuary was very quiet, the air feeling heavy and oppressive on his chest. He didn’t think he could have gotten up if he’d tried.
After some length of time that he couldn’t count, Chakred reached under his shoulders with his unfouled hand, lifting them off the stones with infinite gentleness and care. He pulled Kebineh toward him, to curl up on his side along the floor with his head on Chakred’s bare thigh. Kebineh went where he was guided, pliant, unresisting. Chakred settled that hand on his hair after a moment, and stroked it, combing it back from his sweat-sticky face. It felt good, the touch warm and pleasant. Kebineh let out a soft breath and closed his eyes.
And then opened them again, at the sound of running footsteps and raised voices in the hall.
There was no time to sit up, or move away. In the next second the curtains of the sanctuary had burst open again — and some dozen priests were staring in at them, their faces frozen in paralytic masks of stunned horror. Kebineh stared back, unmoving, unable to react. He lay prone and naked, spattered with his own semen and Chakred’s in an inseparable mingling, all of it exposed in perfect view to all the men in the doorway who had raised him from infancy.
There were no questions to be answered, no explanations to be made. Nothing to be said. Everything here was plain.
He couldn’t see Chakred’s face, but for all he knew Chakred only looked up at them all too, his expression as calm and blank as ever. Maybe even with that slight smile on his lips. His hand on Kebineh’s hair never stopped stroking it, even as his other reached out, casually, to root into the robes he had worn here.
And then there was a sudden gentle tug at the back of Kebineh’s head, and then, just as suddenly, lightness — as the knife Chakred had drawn out of his clothing sliced through his fistful of Kebineh’s hair. Its long, dark curls fell loose in drifts over Chakred’s thigh, while they all looked at each other, and said nothing.
Kebineh spent his coming-of-age day shut up in a storage room, seeing and speaking to no one. No one was allowed to come near, not even to approach the curtain. The priests, stony-faced and silent, let him bathe and put on fresh robes before marching him there, but that was all. Once inside, he folded up in the corner between one wall and the floor, and stayed that way, for what must have been hours. He barely even bothered changing his position, when it became uncomfortable.
He heard sounds now and then, from the rest of the temple. Raised voices, and running feet, and then hushed but vicious arguments. Slamming, thudding sounds from the lower floor. Once, wailing, and once sobbing, and once screamed words so far-off and furious he couldn’t even identify a gender, let alone a speaker. He didn’t get up, and he wasn’t curious. None of it seemed important. Nothing did.
Light poured in through the window, from a blameless blue sky, throwing shadows from the boxes and bales and his own huddle of limbs. As the day went by, the light shifted across the room, changed its angle as it fell inside. He stared at the shadows as they moved, and thought nothing. He found his cheeks wet now and then, but had no memory of crying. No one had even bothered to neaten the ends of his hair, and the lopsided bits itched against his neck.
Then, after some length of time he didn’t know, at some time of day he couldn’t name, there were footsteps outside the curtain, and urgent murmured voices drawing nearer than any others had. Then there was a pause, and the footsteps stopped; and a thick, tearful voice said: “Kebi.”
He didn’t move. Didn’t answer. He couldn’t see her, couldn’t speak to her. There was no way he could bring himself to.
There was a hitch of breath outside the curtain, a muffled sound. “Kebi, I’m so sorry,” Regi said — her voice wavering and cracking under the words. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault.” The sound of a long, shaky breath. “I knew… I knew he was going to do something. I could tell. From a long time back. I could always see it, in the way he looked at you, the way he acted around you, and… And — I let him.” A whimpery little sob. “I didn’t say anything, or try to stop him. Even when I knew I could. I really should. I… I thought he was going to help you. That he’d — save you. Run away with you, get you out of here, or something like that. And I wanted him to. I didn’t… I never thought… he would — hurt you.” Her voice dropped, almost to a whisper. “I thought he was nice.”
His eyes had focused on the curtain, unblinking, so long they were blurring. Breath slid into his chest, and out again.
“I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry for everything.” A sniff, the fleshy sound of a hand rubbing over skin. Some soft, chiding voice, from off to one side? He couldn’t quite hear. “…I always wanted it to be me, you know. Instead of you. I always wanted to go instead of you, so you could stay. You were always better at everything. You’ll make a better prophet, too, I know you will. I always said so.” A heavy, shaky sigh. “I just never wanted it to happen like this.”
It took a moment to settle in. To reach him, through the endless curtains of grey that surrounded him, and begin to make sense. And then his eyes were widening, slowly. His hands clenching into reflexive, cramping claws. His head lifting, legs tensing under him, lips drawing back from his teeth.
“I love you, Kebi,” Regi was saying, all the while. Openly crying now, her voice all run with wavering, jagged cracks. Now, as he rose, he could see her shadow on the curtain; and the shadows, also, of the hands reaching to settle draperies and veils over her, the village midwives who were hastily dressing her in ceremonial finery, hurrying to soak her with perfumes and oils. “I love you so much. You have to be brave, all right? You have to be really strong now, with nobody to look after you.”
“Regi,” Kebineh said. His voice was a hollow, dusty creak that he could barely even hear.
She didn’t seem to have, either. The shadow of her hand reached out, toward the curtain, where the shadow of his own hand must appear to be. “Be good, Kebi. Be strong. I’ll… I’ll see you again, someday, okay?”
“Regi.” Choking out, coughing out, even as he couldn’t seem to make himself move. “Regi. Regi, no, you can’t — they can’t — ”
“I’m sorry.” Half-whispered over top of him, almost too broken to understand. “Goodbye.”
And then the footsteps sounded, moving again. Moving away from him.
“Regi!” He was screaming now; and he could hear the footsteps moving away much faster now, amid low voices and a choked sob. Everything forgotten, he tore the curtain aside — caught only a glimpse of her back, surrounded by women, disappearing around a corner down the hall. “Regi! Regi!” He crashed and stumbled out of the storage room, trying to gain his feet and run — more footsteps, racing up from the stairs, no voices but only the grim faces of priests and some of the men staying at the temple — “No! No! Regi, come back! Regi! Regi!”
They caught him halfway down the hall — arms snaring around his shoulders, catching around his waist. He thrashed against them, screaming, flailing out with fists and feet, not connecting. He could see some of the priests’ faces twitching by reflex, just instinct, as they grabbed him. They weren’t yet accustomed to the idea that they could touch him.
After some minutes’ struggle, they dragged him back into the storage room, and guarded him in while he begged and wept and threw himself at them, screamed and screamed himself hoarse. After a while, he was screaming over the sound of drums, inhaling the occasional whiff of far-off incense. A while after that, both intensified, and then dissipated. And a priest came to the curtained doorway and nodded at all of the men inside, and they left him alone.
After that, he only wept.
The ceremony, he learned later, had been performed by a priest of the temple, not one of Shetekh. There had been no time to wait for a replacement, if one could even be summoned on such short notice. Kebineh wondered if the priest, inexperienced and horrified as he must have been, had been able to come even close to equaling the vast gentleness Chakred had always shown, the almost-casual neatness of his knife drawn to the side. He never found out, though, and had no urge to ask.
Chakred himself had been placed in a makeshift, temporary jail, at the same time that Kebineh had been spirited off to the storage room. By the time Kebineh was allowed out, however, Chakred had escaped: fled into the desert, the priests told him shortly, and vanished. But the more Kebineh thought of it as time went by, the more he began to suspect that “escaped” might have been a strong word for it — that Chakred might have just walked out of his cell and out of the temple grounds unimpeded, and no one even tried to stop him. No one would have wanted to challenge someone who would dare to do what Chakred had done.
In the silence that followed, Kebineh did little, and spoke less. He slept, as much as he could sleep, alone in the bed that he and Regi had once shared. He took his meals, and offered his prayers, and did most other things, alone. He was not trained as a prophet. His lessons in the Book with Arnah Naal did not continue. Nobody seemed to know what to do about him, or to want to try to decide. He skirted around the edges of the temple like a ghost.
The following spring, in some dark hour before some night’s dawn, a man’s body was thrown over the temple wall and into the courtyard. It was badly burned, and cut into its chest and limbs were characters spelling out a fragment of the book of Sacrifices, concerning the consequences of man’s disobedience. The man, it was eventually determined, was Le’sham Meir, the oracle. No one could seem to figure out how exactly he had been burned; the heat seemed to have come from the inside out, the core of his flesh consuming its own shell. Bandits, the priests said, with no further explanation, and would not meet each other’s eyes.
The desert outside shifted and subtly changed, crept along from side to side with the force of the winds that scoured it. Keeping its own counsels, and indifferent to any of them.
Two years later, the temple fell: overrun with Niban soldiers, its stores burned and sacred places desecrated, every priest and refugee put to death. But by then, Kebineh had already left it behind. He had gone forth into the desert the year before, almost truly a man grown, armed with a new diligent study of the practice of exorcism… and with the old sacrificial knife, stolen from the dusty temple storeroom where it had been thrown away, whose holder’s hands he had once so admired.
Everything begun should be finished in kind. So said the Book.
And so said he.