A very happy Mothers Day to one and all, even if you don't technically qualify.

Chapter 7

It was the kind of feeling you get from a good, hard rain shower after months of bone dry heat and you think it's never going to rain again. It washed away all the darkness and the worry and the anger. I mean, we were still sad about Mom, but it was the right kind of sad. We were able to talk about the good times again. And I had my dad back. He smiled, he laughed, he didn't crawl into a bottle to hide from the grief that kept chasing him, begging to be recognized.

In an unheard of gesture of generosity, Vashto nailed up a sign at the door of his tavern to say that it was closed (he was one of the very few of us who could read or write) and we had a party. This might not be how they did things in Isvhal Proper, but, well, we weren't.

All us vatrishi got together and played. Normally, we were each other's fiercest competition, struggling to earn a few coins at the gatherings and festivals of the quality. We'd tear each other down just to get a job. But when we got together, just for fun, we were glorious! We all knew the same songs, or we'd join in on something somebody else had come up with, it didn't matter. It was just for our own amusement, really, but I couldn't help thinking what a great show we could all put on together. I mentioned this to the other vatrishi, but they just laughed and told me I was crazy.

The falshaii, having the night off, cooked a nice little feast. Baata Nifaa even came, supplying eggs and vegetables. She sat in one corner with her teapot, offering to read our leaves. I wasn't quite ready to go through that again, even though it had turned out better than I could have imagined.

And, oh, sweet Ishvala, Dad sang!

He hadn't done that since before Mom died. Sure, he had played his instruments like nobody else could, flute, fiddle, lute, bagpipe, drum, but that was just to survive. It was like he had locked it away somewhere deep inside of him, never to see the light of day again. I guess Andakar helped opened that part of him up again. His voice was so rich and fiery and it hadn't lost anything by being hidden away for so long.

And just when I thought he might not show, who should step through the door but Andakar himself. He looked just a little nervous, but everyone greeted him like an old friend. One of the falshaii even went up and kissed him on the cheek. I felt kind of sorry for him because he must have been embarrassed as hell, but he took it pretty well.

Dad strode right up to him and gave him a hard hug. Facing the company, he called out, "How do you like this? This is real quality right here!" He turned to Andakar. "You've done me and mine a great service, you know that?"

"Not until after I did you a disservice," Andakar admitted. "I misjudged you." He gave a rueful smirk. "I told my master that you were wicked."

Dad burst out laughing. "Ah, but I am wicked! Aren't I, Vash?" he called to the tavern keeper.

"You're the worst villain alive!" Vashto answered back amiably.

"Have a seat!" Dad told Andakar. "Come and join us!" He steered him toward the table I was sitting at and pushed him down into one of the chairs. Sitting down next to him, Dad leaned his arm on the table and gave him a steady look.

"I knew there was a need, you see," he said as though picking up a conversation they'd already started, which, in a way, they had. "But I was so angry, at myself, mainly, because I couldn't take care of her. I couldn't keep her from dying. And I took that anger out on your lot, on my poor boy here"—he reached out and gave my hair a rough tousle—"and most of all, on Ishvala, for taking her away from me." He shook his finger at Andakar. "But the Creator sent you my way to knock some sense into me."

Andakar shook his head. "I don't presume to see myself as an instrument of God. I think I was sent to learn my own lesson."

"Ah, well…" Dad lifted his hands and dropped them. "In a way, I haven't lost Maya. She may have gone to Ishvala, but all the world lies in Ishvala's bosom, isn't that what they say?"

Andakar smiled and nodded. "They do, indeed."

One of the falshaii, the youngest one, Avizeh, walked up to where we were sitting. "You haven't had anything to eat or drink, Saahad," she said. "What can we get you?"

"Nothing, thank you," Andakar replied. He looked from her to Dad and me. "And you don't need to call me Saahad. I haven't taken my final vows."

"Well, if you're going to be making a pest of yourself around here," Dad replied with a grin, "we may as well get used to it. But what about it? Some halmi? We can water it down for you, like Dejan's got."

"Baata Nifaa's got her teapot going," Avizeh put in. "That's probably more likely, eh?"

Andakar nodded, looking just a little relieved. "That would be fine."

Avizeh sauntered off and returned with a cup of tea. "There you go!"

We played a few more songs, raised a glass or two to my mom, to my dad, to Andakar, to Ishvala—well, maybe more than a glass or two. Dad actually kept his head and made sure I did, too. Things quieted down a bit and I could sit for a while with Andakar.

"What do you think of our playing?" I asked him. This was what I did best and I was anxious for his approval.

"It's amazing!" he replied. "My brother has a couple of friends who are musicians, but they don't have the same sort of…" He paused to think. "Passion, I suppose."

I nodded. "Well, this is our meat and drink, so we have to be better."

Andakar put on a thoughtful look and said, "You know, my master is officiating at a wedding in a few days. One of my family's neighbors in North Kanda. They're looking for someone to play—"

I didn't think twice. "I'll do it! We'll do it! Dad and me! I mean—uh—we can clean ourselves up a bit first—" I waved Dad over. "Hey, Dad! Come here!" I didn't say why. The others would try to jump in and push us out of the way. We might have sounded great together, but I wouldn't share a real job with them.

Dad came over and sat down. "What's up?"

I leaned closer to him and lowered my voice. "Andakar here has a job for us in town! In North Kanda!" I added in a whisper. I don't think any of us had been all the way to North Kanda.

Dad looked at me, impressed, then turned to Andakar. "North Kanda? That's grand, that is!" He rubbed his chin, glancing to the left and right to make sure nobody was listening in. "Five hundred cenz an hour."

"Hm." Andakar frowned. "One of my brother's friends mentioned charging a thousand cenz an hour."

I tried not to cough up my drink.

"Yes, well…" Dad gestured at me and at himself. "The quality aren't going to pay that much for a couple of desert rats like us."

Andakar gave a little shrug. "Not yet."

Dad considered this with a thoughtful look then gave a nod. "There's something to that." He frowned. "Shit, we're gonna need nicer clothes."

That was a bit of a problem. We couldn't really afford new clothes, not until we got paid, and we would need them if we wanted to show up in North Kanda.

"I'll talk to my aunt," Andakar said. "I'm sure she'll be willing to make you a couple of shirts and you can pay her after you get your money."

Dad brought his hand down on the table, but not so loud as to attract attention. "Done!" he declared. "Now, where do we find this place?"

"I'll write it down for you," Andakar offered.

Dad scoffed. "Don't bother. I wouldn't be able to read it."

Andakar looked at me, a little surprised. "What about—"

I shrugged. "Me neither."

"Oh." He considered this for a moment, then said, "I'll teach you."

Dad just chuckled, but my eyes widened. "Would you?"

"Of course!"

"Ah, now, Saahad," Dad said with a bit of a grimace. "We've already taken up so much of your time."

"No, you see," Andakar countered, "this is what I have chosen to do with my time. It is my wish to minister to you here, to compensate for the neglect you've all suffered and to help you better your lives. I'll teach anyone who wants to be taught. And before you ask, no, I don't expect or even want any payment."

Dad sat back and regarded him thoughtfully for a few moments. Then he turned to me. "Well, son, you think you could manage?"

I grinned. "Try and stop me!" I gave him a pleading look. "You should, too, Dad!"

Dad waved a hand. "No, I don't have…" he started to growl, then he paused. He gave Andakar a determined look. "Damn it, if you're willing to take the time, then so am I."

Andakar brought his hand down on the table. "Done!"

Dad laughed and turned in his chair, looking for Katri. She was sitting at one of the other tables, munching on some dates and spitting the seeds onto the floor. "Hai, laleh!" he called to her. "You wanna learn how to read and write like a proper little girl?"

The look she gave him would've turned milk to cheese. Dad turned back around with a shrug. "I tried."

Andakar took the last few sips of his tea and set his cup down. Thinking he might want some more, I looked toward where Baata Nifaa was sitting and saw that she was on her feet, shuffling toward us with the help of a stick. She came up behind Andakar and laid a bony hand on his shoulder. She peered down at his cup and I got a very uncomfortable feeling.

She reached out and made a little twirling motion with her finger. "Give your cup a bit of a swirl, Saahad, and I'll read your leaves for you."

"Maybe you shouldn't do that, baata," I said quickly. "I mean, he's—"

She waved my remark aside. "Oh, hush, lahaat! I know my business!"

"It's all right, Dejan," Andakar said. "There's no harm in it."

He picked up his tea cup and swirled it around a few times. Nifaa mumbled for a bit, then reached out for the cup. Suddenly, all around us, it got very quiet and I looked around. Everyone was watching the old woman, waiting for whatever pronouncement she came up with. She held the cup in her wrinkled fingers for a few moments and gave a little frown, then a shrug. "A circle," she said, as though she expected something a bit more exciting.

Everyone else seemed a bit disappointed as well. They may have thought she'd see something like "danger" or "glory" or something grand.

"Ah, well." Nifaa set the cup down. "Make of that what you will."

Four Years Later

Things got better.

Just like he said he would, Andakar taught Dad and me how to read and write. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. Dad picked it right up, but I wasn't too far behind. Katri had no time for any of it. She never did take a liking to Andakar.

He would come and preach to us a bit, now and then, when we were of a mind to come together and listen. The vatrishi were pretty set in their ways, though, and when Andakar encouraged us to come to the Kanda temple for prayers, no one was overanxious to go. I thought I might brave it someday.

Even the falshaii would sometimes come and listen to him. He didn't judge and he made them feel a little better than they were. They certainly had no intention of setting foot in a temple, either, but they appreciated the effort Andakar made. Avizeh was the one who took it most to heart, breaking into tears one day. She had never really grown used to this life. Andakar, bless him, managed to get her a position in his parents' household. One of the maidservants had left to get married and they were looking for someone else. Avizeh was smart and fairly tidy and handy in the kitchen. Andakar's mother was in on it because he's always hated to lie. She didn't have any problem with telling her husband that Avizeh was just a decent girl from a poor section of Daliha who had no family. That was absolutely true, but that was before she became a falsha. Vashto wasn't best pleased, but the other women were happy for her.

It was entirely possible that one or two of Andakar's father's distinguished guests may have made the occasional visit to Vashto's, but they would never admit to recognizing Avizeh. Her secret was pretty safe.

Andakar was also good about getting us jobs in Ishval Proper, even for some of the other vatrishi. Dad and I were the ones whose reputation grew and folks started asking for us especially. When Andakar was finally made a priest, his folks threw him a little party. And who do you think provided the musical entertainment? That's right.

Things got worse, too.

In 1901, some damn crazy bluecoat shot a little girl in the head. Nobody ever really figured out why, not as though the Amestrians tried that hard. All the tension that was poised and ready to explode did just that, and Ishval became a battlefield. We kept our heads down as best we could. Some of the vatrishi joined in the fighting and got killed for their trouble. Neither Dad nor I were that motivated.

Andakar would be called upon to use those fighting skills of his against the bluecoats. He began to grow hard and stern and he didn't smile as much anymore. Another casualty of war.

There were a few bright spots, though. Every now and then there would be a lull in the fighting, and we would still get a wedding or something to play at, even if it was just to get fed. A close friend of Andakar's cousins was able to celebrate her fifteenth birthday in relative peace. It was in a nice little neighborhood in South Kanda. The girl, Rada, was awfully pretty, and even with the oppressive threat of war, she glowed with joy.

We had met Andakar's cousins before. They and their parents were a lot more down to earth than Andakar's folks were. We were welcomed more like friends than the hired help. They loved to dance and they sang along with us like they did it every day.

The oldest, Damyan, was fascinated by the bagpipe Dad played. The next eldest, Naisha, planted herself in front of us like a bold cactus wren.

"My fifteenth is next year!" she announced. "Will you come and play for me?"

"God willing, laleh," Dad told her as he drew his bow across the strings of his fiddle.

She gave a little giggle, clapped her hands, and tripped away.

"You'd better watch that," Dad warned.

I looked at him blankly. "Huh?"

He jerked his chin toward the girl as she rejoined her younger sister, Vesya, the shy one. "Katri'll kick your teeth in if she finds out you've been looking at other girls."

I sighed. We never brought Katri on these jobs. She couldn't behave herself if her life depended on it. My relationship with her was becoming complicated and tempestuous. Which basically means I can't explain it. "I wasn't looking, Dad. I was just…looking."

He gave a snort of a laugh. "It's all right. I won't tell. That one's too skinny anyhow."

I just shook my head and rolled my eyes.

Andakar stepped up to us. "Make sure you take time to eat."

"We'll play a few more dances first," Dad said. "We want them to get their money's worth."

He started up a tune to signal the guests to get into line. The birthday girl, who could now dance next to whoever she liked, hurried up to Andakar and grabbed one of his hands, her smile lighting up her face and pretty much everything else.

"Come and dance, Saahad!" she cried, pulling on his arm.

He could take on a squad of bluecoats without batting an eye and without mercy, but Andakar had absolutely no defense against that smile and those eyes. Without so much as a see-you-later to us, he let Rada drag him away.

While he played, Dad gave a laugh and shook his head. "Poor bastard's got it bad!" he said, loud enough so I could hear him over my drum but no one else could.

I just nodded. I thought it a shame that for all the good work he had done, Andakar had to give up so much. But when he put his mind to something, he put his whole heart and soul into it, too. He kind of wouldn't be him if he didn't.

Things got a lot worse before they got better. The war took a bitter toll and so many were lost. Andakar, I think, lost himself nearly to the point of not being able to come back. When a heart as great as his breaks, it doesn't make a little noise. The circle that Baata Nifaa saw in his leaves was something that I never quite understood, and he was reluctant to talk about it. It was apparently one hell of a big circle. I prefer the notion that Nifaa's reading had more to do with our journey. That was one hell of a big circle, too, but it still brought us home.

Wow, I didn't think I was ever going to finish that one. Now I need to go back and change several things in Sons of the Desert so that they match up. Keep an eye out for redone chapters.