He has been crossing the bone-dry desert for many moons now. Sweat slides down his skin as he breathes in, hot wind and sand gusting into his eyes. He pulls the bandanna tighter across his mouth to keep from inhaling dirt and grit. He isn't tired, not really, although that could also be a trick of his mind: he can only remain peaceful if he breathes evenly and thinks of nothing. Knowing this, he is content to keep his eyes on the horizon, watching it shift and turn. The rolling and cresting remind him of nothing, nothing that he desires, nothing that he longs to see. The sun measures his pace and when it has drifted far enough away that he no longer feels its rays lashing his skin, he has just enough presence of mind to unfasten one of the jugs at his camel's side, and take a slow sip of water, carefully letting each drop slide onto his tongue.
At night he wraps himself in two embroidered quilts and huddles against the warm, heaving side of his camel. Sometimes it is cold enough that he imagines it is wet, too, that the air could condense into a stream for him, though he opens his mouth and it remains dry as ever. To distract himself he maps the stars, reciting their names, sometimes reaching out as if to caress them where they lie in the dark blue sky.
In his village, he was called O-haru, Distant One, for he spoke very little. He made a living by fishing and trading, and occasionally helping villagers with odd tasks. He was one of the few who did not fear crossing the dessert, although his love for the springs and streams and their jeweled surfaces was widely known. There were rumors that he had been a water spirit in his past life, and that he would return to that form in his next.
A year ago, on his way back home from an excursion through the desert, O-haru found a man with wine-colored hair sprawled just a few meters from the village walls. The man was shrouded in a dirty brown cloak and looked as if he had not eaten for days. He might have been dead. When touched, the man did not stir, although when O-haru laid his hand upon the man's wrist he felt a faint heartbeat. The man's skin was frigid, despite the burning day. It was the heat, O-haru realized, unforgiving to most strangers who visited this small village, deep in the bone-dry desert. O-haru raced for the village healer, and together they carried the stranger to his home.
The stranger did not awaken for several days. Unable to give his name, he began to be known throughout the village as the Cold One. Many people came by O-haru's house to peer at him through the window, and speculate about his origins. They spoke of how the doctor described his skin as cold, colder than any human's should be. The women talked of his wine-colored hair, and wondered what shade his eyes were. The men whispered about the devils that possessed him to cross the desert without the proper supplies – did he not know about the sandstorms, about the terrible winds, about the skeletons that would turn up, year after year after year?
O-haru had little patience for those who came and called him a hero. He did not like to explain how he did not aspire to this kindness. What else was there to do when one found a dying man? The man might yet die, in fact, although with each passing day he drew deeper breaths in his slumber, and the color crept back into his tan cheeks.
On the sixth day, the Cold One opened his eyes.
By now, he has crossed three villages and refilled his jugs three times. The last village is as far as his own maps have ever taken him before. Once he leaves its walls he will be moving into the unknown, guided only by the sun, the stars, the hastily scrawled directions on a piece of parchment, at the bottom of which is written to O-haru, the one who saved me. It is very easy to be lost in the desert. One could swiftly be turned in the wrong direction, chasing after long shadows cast by a fickle sun, lured by mirages of water, an oasis that isn't there.
In the first village, the one closest to his own, he was given water by his longtime friend, the trader O-mako. He passed O-mako's stall nearly every time he left his own village. After filling his jugs, O-mako kissed his forehead, his nose, his lips. When O-haru looked at him with a wrinkled brow, O-mako smiled and said that it was a charm he had learned as a young boy, to ward off the desert demons. I am not afraid of the desert demons, O-haru told him. O-mako replied, yes, but your journey is long and the sands may well stretch to eternity. I should like to see you upon your return, my brother. O-mako did not ask him to stay the night, as he had done many times before, for he knew the urgency with which O-haru traveled, and he knew it would not be kind to ask. He knew these things because of their friendship, which ran deeper than the dregs of the desert sands.
In the second village, he was given water by a friendly youth in the bazaar, who emptied his own jugs in exchange for some of the dried fish O-haru kept in his saddlebags. The youth wore a pale green veil and a thick golden collar, and if not for the fact that his bare chest was visible, O-haru would have mistaken him from one of the dancer girls that giggled when he passed their abode. The youth told O-haru a few lines of village gossip even when O-haru did not ask, but he seemed content with O-haru's silence. When O-haru thanked him and turned to leave the youth grabbed O-haru's hand, curled it into a fist, and pressed it against his lips. When O-haru frowned at him he merely smiled and said that it was extra protection against the desert demons.
The third village was a small community clustered around the extravagant home of a shah, one of the great Sultan's uncles. He was given water by one of the guards posted by the shah's gates. The man held one of those long, daunting machinations from distant countries, and on his face he wore a strange contraption of wire and glass that, from certain angles, made his eyes glint in the sun. The soldier explained that he had a deep respect for desert travelers, and the shah was a generous man who gave his people enough water. Very few people cross the desert up to this point; your bravery, the man said, is commendable. Having filled the jugs, he saluted O-haru, and O-haru bent his head in gratitude and departed.
The Cold One's eyes, like his hair, was the color of wine – only deeper, redder, more like blood. O-haru found them disconcerting. They made his throat go dry. The Cold One blinked and sat up, looked around in a daze, then put a hand against his throat. O-haru handed him a jug of water, wondering what to do – wondering if this man would now leave. He had spent the last six days tending to this stranger, and he was tired of it. The Cold One took the jug carefully in both hands, brought it to his lips, and drank deeply. He tipped his head back, exposing his throat, his sweat-slick hair brushing his shoulders. He emptied the jug and pulled it away, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
You saved me, he said, turning to O-haru. His eyes seemed to glow, but with fury or relief, O-haru could not tell. He said nothing in reply. His mouth seemed to be filled with sand.
The Cold One gazed at him, and then broke into laughter. You saved me, he repeated, and you have given me a place to stay. You will be handsomely rewarded. Do you not know who I am?
O-haru shook his head.
The Cold One beamed, revealing a row of white teeth, even whiter against his beautiful tan skin. For reasons he could not name, his teeth reminded O-haru of knives.
I am Prince Rin, the Sultan's Son, the Cold One said.
He reached up and pulled O-haru's face towards him, and kissed him tenderly on the cheek. His lips were wet from the water he had just drunk, and O-haru felt his face burn while his body turned to ice.
One day, he passes the remains of a large animal, the bones cleared of any meat by the roiling desert sands. He thinks about the demons that O-mako spoke of, things he had feared throughout their shared childhood: imps that snared the ankles of travelers, djinns that tricked one with their clever words, sand-maidens that enticed fools with their slender figures, beckoning them into sandstorms.
It has been a long time since O-haru left the third village. He has emptied four jugs and only has two left. He is not worried. He knows where he is going.
The deep springs from which O-haru's village takes its water have been drying out, little by little, and O-haru has decided to find some way to solve this. But he cannot do it by his own power. The Sultan has magicians and soldiers and countless people to service him, and he knows the Cold One – Prince Rin – has not forgotten. It is not their way, to forget the kindness of strangers.
The Cold One stayed for several weeks. O-haru could not ask him to leave. He told himself this was because the Cold One was a prince. He pretended he did not hear the village rumors that the Cold One was a desert demon, sprung from the oasis: beautiful, dangerous. It was the pointed teeth, the deep red eyes, the wine-colored hair. And yet the Cold One had a beautiful laugh, which flowed freely and frequently from his lips. During the day he helped O-haru fish, and during the night he told O-haru stories of the beautiful things he had seen and witnessed, in the vast estates of his father the Sultan, in the gigantic capital that lay in the heart of the desert.
The first night after he awakened, the Cold One asked O-haru where he had been sleeping, for O-haru had only one bed. O-haru said nothing, but when the Cold One frowned at him O-haru gestured to the carpet he had rolled against the wall. That won't do, the Cold One said, and turning on his side, he insisted that there was room for them both. O-haru snorted. He was known as the Distant One, and he did not like to touch the Cold One's skin, chilly as it was. The Cold One shrugged and said he was free to do as he pleased. They kept that arrangement for several days.
One night, however, O-haru was wrenched from his dreams by a pair of hands that picked him up and carried him a short distance. He thought it might be a demon, and twisted violently, but a familiar voice bade him quiet. He squinted, and in the dark he saw a pair of deep red eyes.
I am tired of your sacrifice, the Cold One said. If you will not sleep beside me, at least let me sleep on the floor. This is not my home.
You are a prince, O-haru said angrily, as if that was explanation enough. He did not ask when his visitor had gained such strength; he had his pride. I will not let you sleep on my floor. Now you must put me down.
No, the Cold One said, and he too was angry, O-haru realized.
They said nothing for several moments. Then O-haru twisted his face away, and said, then I will sleep beside you.
And that night they lay down together, trying very hard not to touch.
His water will not last for much longer. He does not think about this as he presses on. He has looked at the map often enough that it is now burned into his memory – and when the sun is too hot he takes a rest, and imagines the beautiful city the Cold One described, with spiraling towers that gleam in the sun; markets with hawkers selling precious wares and delicious foods from every corner of the globe; rich fountains that spout water into basins encrusted with jewels. The Sultan's palace, with its sprawling gardens and ponds filled with lilypads, and servants at every corner, carrying jugs of wine and bowls of fruits. And in the middle of it, the Cold One, the prince, lounging in his room, with his sharp white teeth and large hands, his ice-cold kisses. In some images of the Cold One he is being showered by water from jugs that are continuously emptied by his attendants, the liquid slipping freely from his fingers, a terrible waste. It is a cruel thing to envision, when the springs at home recede by the day.
O-haru shakes himself from these reveries; it is the journey wearing down on him, muddling his brain. He will not be distracted. He has come with a clear purpose. He had no intention of ever seeing the Cold One again, and yet now the village needs the help of one close to the Sultan, and perhaps no one is closer to the Sultan than his own son.
O-haru is not wandering, not wavering. He will not be lost to the sands or the demons; he repeats this to himself as he stands and continues his journey.
Eventually it grew too difficult to hold himself stiffly to one corner of the bed, and he found himself tired of keeping away. Eventually he let his body lie however it wanted, and some mornings he would awaken to find the Cold One's head buried against his shoulder, the Cold One's arm snaked around his belly.
Once, while they were fishing, the Cold One recited a song that one of his nurses sang to him as a child:
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
Far away already the sea has gone out
Like seaweed gently caressed by the wind
In the sands of sleep you stir dreaming.
What are you saying? O-haru asked. He did not look at the Cold One.
It is merely a song, the Cold One answered. When O-haru looked at him, he was smiling.
Not long after, the village burst into an uproar, because the Sultan's emissaries had finally come, frantic with news of their missing prince, deeply relieved when he emerged from O-haru's home, holding his palms out in surrender. I did not run far enough, he told O-haru, while his guards and his horses and his twenty servants waited outside the door.
O-haru said nothing.
I do not wish to leave, the Cold One said.
O-haru said nothing.
I do not wish to leave you, the Cold One said, growing angry.
O-haru said nothing, and thought of desert demons, the kind that looked into a person's eyes and froze their souls, and ate their hearts.
One day, perhaps, I will be able to return the favor, the Cold One said. He sounded tired. In the elaborate riding clothes they had brought for him to wear on the journey back, his body seemed unfamiliar. Should you need to find me, here is the path you must travel, he said, holding up a sheet of parchment. He set it down on the table. He drew close and leaned his cheek against O-haru's cheek and whispered into his ear: one day I hope you will come and find me.
In some of his memories, the Cold One leaves without another look, another word.
In some of his memories, the Cold One gives him a long, slow, kiss, that feels like drowning, like having water in his lungs, instead of air.
In some of his memories, O-haru gives the Cold One a brief kiss, one that he does not realize he is giving until after it has happened, and the Cold One laughs and embraces him and says, Someday.
The last of his water drains out of his jug and into his mouth. He wipes the sweat out of his eyes. Above him the sun burns cruelly, but he will not think of it unkindly, because that will not help him. There is nowhere left to go but forward, and if he can ignore the thirst for a few more hours, perhaps the walls of the capital will rise up to greet him, and he will make his way through the gates, and his strength will be restored.
He walks and walks and walks, one hand on the camel's bridle, one hand dangling at his side.
He walks and stumbles and walks.
He walks and stumbles and stumbles.
And just when he thinks the flare of the sun might be getting too much for him to bear, just when he thinks he might like to sit down a moment and draw deep breaths and keep his mind on a blank space that burns, just when the points where O-mako's lips have touched his skin burn, as if he is now coming within reach of a demon, he sees it:
a beautiful expanse of water, curving like a woman's waist through the sand, dotted with lush trees and tiny islands. Burning like the blue of a candle flame. Shimmering with light, as if by heaven's rays. And beyond it, in a haze: the capital's walls, protecting a city of wonders, in the middle of which rises the distinct domed roof of the Sultan's palace.
He lets go of the camel's reigns, and breaks into a stumbling run, thinking of nothing but the cool water. His throat burns. His skin longs for the chill. He is shedding his garments as he goes, unwinding the cloth that shields his face from the heat, shucking off his vest, his scabbard, belts, pants.
He falls, desperate, into the oasis, into the Cold One's arms; he sinks through the water into sand.
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
Far away already the sea has gone out
But in your half-open eyes
Two little waves remain
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
Two little waves to drown myself in.
A/N: Many thanks to A for the beta. Comments are always greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading!
The poem that Rin recites, completed at the ending, is Quicksand by Jacques Prevert.