There was a wind that should have torn the world into shreds.
Isis huddled in a corner of her room, unable to sleep. She was glad that her family was safe within the One City, in the chieftain's big house, where the walls were made of stone and where the windows were made of double layers of thick glass. If they had been in the desert, this wind could have snatched up their tents and carried them away like so many dead leaves. Isis could see them in her mind's eye, tents and wagons and camels, whirling away into the ether to never be seen again, until someday when their white bones emerged under the blazing desert sun...
A scream cut through her thoughts, hoarse and ragged with exhaustion. Isis's mother had been in labor for hours now, and she was coming to the end of her strength. The clan's wise man had predicted that this would be a difficult birth, and that it might even be the end of her. The chieftain had been willing to risk it. He could get another wife; he was the absolute ruler of the tribe, and any woman would come obediently if not willingly to his call. In his mind, the trouble of finding another woman to marry was insignificant next to his desire to have a son of his own blood. By morning, Isis would have a little brother or sister. What she didn't know was whether she would still have a mother, or whether the child would be cut from her mother's dead body and handed off to a wet-nurse. She stifled a sob.
Rishid, who had been staring out the window as though keeping vigil, walked over to sit next to her, putting one of his warm hands on her shoulder.
"It will be all right," he said. "The midwife and the wise man are both very skilled. They will take care of our mother and keep her safe."
"I know, but..." She sniffled, trying to get control of her emotions. She had always prided herself on her self-control, never complaining, never letting her father see her cry. She wondered sometimes if her efforts to be the perfect daughter were some way of trying to compensate for not being born a son. "I've had a feeling all day that something bad is going to happen."
"It's natural to be worried," he told her. Rishid was her big brother in every way except by blood, and in her mind, that didn't matter. "Everything will be all right. It was like this when you were born, except for the wind. Mother will be fine. Now, it's late, and you're tired. You should try to sleep. Tomorrow, the storm will be over, and there will be a new baby for you to play with."
She nodded obediently, and stood up. Even as she did so, she heard the sound of shouting from the next room - shouts of relief and delight. Her mother's voice was among them, sounding tired but happy. Isis felt her fears melt away. Her mother was alive and well, and her new sibling was born. A boy. Her father would be happy at last. Everything would be all right.
Then she turned to walk towards her bed, and she screamed. Rishid called her name and rushed to her side, and seconds later, various other people who had been attending the birth came rushing in to see what was the matter. Isis tried, over and over, to explain, but no one seemed to hear her. They bundled her up in a blanket and gave her a cup of date-wine, liberally mixed with honey, to make her relax. She drank it mechanically without tasting it. It made her woozy, and as various hands bundled her back into her bed, she felt herself growing sleepy in spite of herself. Her heart, though, was not comforted. She knew what she had seen.
At the moment her brother had been born, she'd seen a face pressed up against her window.
In the firelight, under the stars, a little girl danced.
She was about five years old, and shouldn't have had the grace to do much more than toddle, but instead she danced. Her feet barely seemed to touch the ground as she skipped and jumped and twirled. The firelight glinted off her dark hair as she tossed her head. For instants, between the closing and opening of a blinking eye, she seemed older than her years. The men sitting around the campfire laughed and clapped as she danced circles around it.
"She's going to be a real beauty when she grows up," said one of the men to her father. "Hey, keep me in mind when you're ready to marry her off!"
"I think I can do better than you when the time comes," said her father jocularly.
The man laughed. "Hey, Anzu! Do you hear what your dad says? Don't you want to marry me when you grow up, little lady?"
She stopped her dancing and shook her head. "I'm not going to get married," she said, with all of a child's absolute certainty.
The men had a good laugh at that.
"What's wrong, sweetheart?" one of them asked. "You too good to be somebody's wife?"
"I don't want to be a wife," she said firmly. "I want to dance."
"You won't say that when you're all grown up," said one of the younger men. "You just wait. Another ten years and you'll be dancing to a different tune."
She shook her head. "No! I'm just going to dance. Forever and ever."
"Nobody can dance forever," he told her. "Sooner or later, you have to stop and settle down."
"Not me," she said. "I'm special."
That got a big laugh. Her father got up and gathered her into his arms.
"That's enough dancing for one night," he told her. "Come along and let's put you to sleep."
She allowed herself to be carried. They walked away from the campfire and the circle of laughing men, who had gone on to start telling stories and jokes, the kind they wouldn't tell when a child was around. She could still hear their raucous laughter as she and her father returned to their tent.
As her father tucked her into her bedroll, she said, "Do I really have to get married?"
"Not yet," he told her. "You're still too young for that."
"Everyone gets married someday," he said. "It's not so bad. You'll have a nice husband to look after you and keep you company, and some children to teach to dance."
"But I don't want to teach them," she insisted. "I want to do it myself."
"You'll feel differently someday," her father told her. He kissed her forehead. "Go to sleep."
She closed her eyes and nodded sleepily. She heard her father move away, and a few seconds later, their lamp went out. Then the tent was empty again. Into the darkness, she said, "But I want to dance..."
There was an oasis where they had stopped their wagons. It was a large one, quite big enough that the entire clan could camp there in comfort. There was a wide clear spring at the center, with lush grasses growing around it, and trees ringed around its perimeter. Some of them were large enough that Isis would have had trouble encircling them with both arms. Fruit grew heavily here, and the scent of flowers was so thick as to be almost intoxicating.
It had not been there last year.
"There is something uncanny about this place," said the wise man.
Isis turned to look at him inquiringly. As she had grown older, she had taken to spending more and more time with him. His name was Shadi - an austere man with a perpetually somber expression and eyes as blue and blank as the sky. Isis had sometimes found herself wondering if he might be blind, and if he had some other way besides his eyes of seeing the world, but she had never dared to ask. By his looks, he could have been only a few years older than her, but he had looked that way when she had first met him, and everyone she had asked could not remember a time when he had not been their wise man or a time when he looked any different from how he appeared now. He had seen the signs of an intuitive nature in her when she was about eight years old and had begun allowing her to follow him around while he did his work. He had not said anything outright, but she had the vague impression that he intended her to take his place someday. The idea filled her with both pride and no small amount of anxiety.
"Is it safe?" she asked him.
"It had better be safe," said her father from nearby. "We need water. We can't afford to let this opportunity pass us by."
Shadi looked thoughtfully around at the oasis. His mouth turned down slightly at the corners, and his blue eyes narrowed.
"It is the law of the desert that water must be shared with those in need of it," he said at last. "Without that understanding, life in the desert would be impossible. Even the spirits that inhabit the wastelands understand and respect this. Refill your waterskins, let our people and beasts drink from the spring, and make camp around the perimeter. That should be safe enough. But do not allow anyone to eat any of the fruit, pick any of the flowers, or cut any of the trees. There is some mischief at work here that I do not like. We should leave this place as soon as we can."
The chieftain looked as though he would like to argue, but at last he nodded.
"I'll pass the word along," he said, and walked off to tell the rest of his men.
Isis looked inquiringly at her mentor, who read her gaze and nodded.
"Go with your family," he said. "I require no assistance."
Isis thanked him and scurried off to help set up her family's tent.
Living among the clans was a life of constant motion. Her people were traders, one small section of a vast tribe that canvassed the desert that they called home. Most of their lives were spent on a cyclical journey from one desert's-edge city to another, stopping only long enough to sell the things they had picked up in the last city, and buy some things to take to the next city. The only stability in their world was in the One City, the stone stronghold they had built around a series of springs, where all the varied clans gathered once a year. There, they would swap news and information, tell stories, socialize with friends and relatives they hadn't seen since last year. The young men would look for wives, and the young women would look for husbands. Any weddings would be held at that time, under the watchful eye of the clan chief. Sometimes legal disputes would be settled. For a little while, everyone would live in stone houses and enjoy a rest from their wandering ways. That was where they were headed now.
They should have been there already, but their luck had been bad. Three of their wagons had broken down in quick succession, one failing almost as soon as the last had been fixed. A previously solid stretch of road had caved in for no easily explicable reason, miring one of the supply carts so firmly that it had taken the better part of the day to dig and haul it out. Somehow four of their camels had gotten free of their harnesses and had run off into the desert, and Shadi had been forced to concoct one of his charms to lure them back. He had been on edge for several days now, and while he hadn't said anything, Isis suspected that he believed their run of bad luck had been something more than simply the odds catching up to them. It was small wonder he was suspicious of this oh-so-convenient oasis.
I don't like it either, Isis decided. It was too perfect, and it shouldn't have been there at all. The natural shifting of the earth might cause a new spring to appear, but these trees could not have grown between one year and the next. There was some magic afoot here, and she wasn't certain that it was friendly. Maybe Shadi had been right to mention spirits. She shivered, even in the hot sunlight. She would be glad to be well away from this place.
"Isn't this place great?" said her brother when she arrived. While the rest of their family was dutifully setting up their tent, he was wandering around the oasis with wide-eyed appreciation.
Isis stifled a sigh. She couldn't help but love her little brother. He was a gentle soul, with a streak of mischief that kept him from becoming intolerably perfect. His jokes and escapades could certainly liven up some otherwise uneventful journeys across the empty desert. On the other hand, he was his father's only son by birth, and would someday be ruler of the entire tribe. His mother and father tended to treat him with a reverence that he hadn't yet done anything to earn. It was almost inevitable that he would end up being a bit willful and spoiled. He had been worse than usual lately, ever since their father had allowed him to accompany some of the older men into one of the cities they traded in, instead of waiting with the caravan outside the city limits. He had come back bubbling over with stories of the city, which Isis had never seen, and his father had bought him a small belt knife that he was immensely proud of. Malik had clearly enjoyed himself immensely, and since then had found his rather confined and monotonous life in the caravan a letdown. He had been itching for some sort of excitement.
"It's so big," he went on. "I've never seen an oasis like this."
"Be careful," said Isis sternly. "Shadi thinks there might be something wrong with it. We're just supposed to fill our waterskins and leave first thing tomorrow."
"Shadi worries about everything," said Malik, making a face. "Look at those dates! When was the last time you had fresh fruit?"
Without waiting for her reply, he scampered over to the nearest date palm. Quick as a thought, he was up the trunk and pulling down a handful of fruits. He dropped back down to the ground again, landing lightly, and flashed his sister a grin.
"Want one?" he asked.
"No," she said, "and you shouldn't eat those."
"Spoilsport," he said. He bit down on one of them and tossed the rest aside before running off laughing.
"That boy..." she sighed. "He's going to be the death of me."
She helped get the tent set up. That night, the temperature dipped sharply. Desert nights could be as cold as the days were hot, but this night was something special in its intensity. Isis found herself unable to sleep, shivering beneath her thin blankets. She curled into a ball, trying to conserve heat.
Malik, lying in the bedroll next to hers, reached out and prodded her shoulder.
"You awake?" he whispered.
"Mm," she said.
"I can't sleep either," he replied. "I'm going for a walk."
Isis sat up. "You shouldn't..." she began, but he was already disappearing through the flaps of the tent. With a sigh of exasperation, she got up to follow him.
A stillness lay over the camp. There was no wind, no cries of night birds, no distant yip of a jackal. Even the camels seemed to be deeply asleep; she couldn't even hear a snort or a jingle of harnesses. The still air was heavy with the scents of fresh fruit and night-blooming flowers, oddly out of place in the chilly temperatures. She shivered.
"Malik," she said, her voice sharp in the silence, "we should go back inside. Something is wrong here."
Malik wasn't listening to her. He was moving, like a man in a trance, towards the center of the oasis.
"I'm just going to get a drink of water," he called back to her. His voice sounded very far away, muffled and echoing, as though he stood at the bottom of a deep canyon.
"Malik, come back!" she shouted, and began to run towards him.
A wind lashed out at her. Suddenly the world was full of roaring and lashing plumes of sand. The huge palm trees rocked and bent like blades of grass, and the flowers were torn from their stems and sent hurtling around in a maelstrom of petals. A sharp-edged leaf whipped across her face, leaving a thin track of blood on her cheek.
Malik stood in the calm center of it all, at the edge of the spring, where the water was barely even rippling. Something that glowed hovered just above the water, flickering like a flame. Even as Isis watched, the fire became more human-shaped. She thought she could see a glint of eyes, and she thought suddenly of the face she had been telling herself she had dreamed of on the night of Malik's birth. Malik seemed to have no fear of it. Even as she watched, he began walking towards it, across the surface of the water as though it were solid ground.
"No!" she shouted. "Stay away!"
"Come," the thing hissed. "Come to me. Let us be one body and one soul, and I will give you everything you desire..."
It held out its hand, and Malik took the last step towards it and reached out to take it.
The world shook. Isis was thrown off her feet to land face-down in the mud by the spring. The wind shrieked over and around her as if it would blow the skin from her bones, and she could hear trees crack and fall. Somewhere over it all, she heard her brother screaming.
"It's burning me!" he cried, in pain or in ecstasy. "It's burning me alive! It's burning me!"
Isis stumbled to her feet, blinded by the storm raging around her. With all her strength, she flung herself at the sound of her brother's voice, and both of them fell into the spring. He fought her, struggling with inhuman strength, trying to push her beneath him, to drown her in the freezing water. She gasped and splashed, desperate to keep hold of him and to keep her head above the water. All around them, the storm continued to rage, until she wondered if the world would come to an end before she had time to drown.
Then through all the noise and chaos, a quiet voice said, "Be still!"
The storm subsided. Leaves and sand drifted down from the suddenly motionless air. Isis felt Malik go suddenly limp, and both of them splashed into water that was suddenly much shallower than it had been before. She sat up, dripping and shivering, to find herself sitting in the center of a muddy puddle, surrounded by the burnt ruin of what might have once been a circle of trees. There was nothing left of them now but charred stumps and ashes. Clumsily, she pulled Malik up out of the water and checked his pulse. He was still breathing, but shallowly, and his heartbeat was fast and weak.
Shadi strode forward and lifted Malik out of her arms as though he weighed no more than a rag doll.
"Is he all right?" Isis asked automatically, and then, "What happened?"
"There was a spirit here," said Shadi. "A very powerful one. It was here for your brother."
"But it's gone now, isn't it?" she persisted. "Isn't it?"
Shadi frowned slightly. "I... am not sure. It seems to be gone, and yet..." He shook his head. "There are things here that I do not understand. I do know that your brother is in a state of shock. We will have to guard him closely tonight. I am not yet certain what damage the spirit has done to him."
They returned him to his tent. Oddly, no one else seemed to have heard the commotion at all. Isis's parents were still sleeping deeply when they arrived with Malik's unresponsive body. Of course, once Shadi woke them up, there was a tremendous do-do. Isis sat and watched silently while the uproar flowed around her. It was nothing next to what she had already endured. While her parents were talking to Shadi, trying to understand what exactly had happened, Isis leaned closer to study Malik's face. He didn't look burned, or damaged at all, but wasn't there something... different... about his appearance? She frowned, trying to pinpoint it. Maybe it was only strain and exhaustion making him look so pinched...
His eyes opened slowly. He looked up at her, and a smile crept across his face. His eyes glittered like purple flames. Isis looked into them, and a chill crawled down her spine.
Bells rang in the market square. They were affixed to the bracelets and anklets Anzu wore, so that they rang out the time as she moved, creating the beat to the dance she performed. All around her, men shouted and whistled at the beautiful woman in the brightly colored clothes as she leaped and pivoted on her makeshift stage. Anzu tuned them out. They were nothing, neither part of the music nor the steps of her dance, and those were the only things that mattered. She felt her muscles strain as she took a particularly taxing pose, felt the sweat trickle down her back, and she couldn't help but smile. For these few moments, she felt fully alive, fully at home in her body, filled with the simple pleasure that came from the surety of her own strength and agility. There were times when she felt she could simply leap up into the sky and fly away. How wonderful that would be, to dance among the stars and the wind...
The music ended, and she let herself fall to a resting position. Her appreciative audience threw coins and flowers at her feet as she bowed. While she held the pretty pose of humility and gratitude that she had perfected, two of her friends began quickly gathering up the coins and hiding them away before anyone else could get the clever idea of grabbing for them.
A third friend, Jonouchi, began waving his arms at the crowd, shooing them away.
"All right, show's over!" he shouted. "Nothing more to see here! If you're not here to throw money then go home!"
"Wow, Jonouchi, you're some salesman," Honda teased him, as he scooped coins into a pouch.
Jonouchi shrugged. "The way I figure, if they were going to fork over any money, they'd have done it by now."
Anzu's best friend Yugi held out a hand to help her down from the stage. Now that the show was over, the usual post-performance lethargy was beginning to take over. She was glad of his support. Once she had her feet back on solid ground, he offered her a robe. It was warm from being held by him, and she pulled it around herself gratefully. The sleeveless top and short skirt she wore for dancing were fine while she was keeping herself warm by moving, but now that she had stopped, the night air was chilly, and the sweat drying on her skin was enough to make her shiver. While she was tying the belt around herself, Yugi gathered up the flowers her admirers had thrown to her. Anzu liked to die them in bunches from the roof of her tent at night, so that their scent drifted down over her as she slept.
"Good haul tonight," said Honda, gathering up the last of the money. "You must be starting to make a name for yourself."
"I hope so," she said. "I really hope so." She looked out at the city, which still had many lights in its windows even at this time of night. "Sometimes I think I'd like to just stay in a city where I could dance every night."
"Your father would never go for it," said Jonouchi sagely.
"I can't think why," said Honda. "She's making more money with her dancing than the rest of us are selling things."
She sighed a little. "He thinks I need to get married and settle down. Maybe he's right," she said. If she was honest with herself, the thought worried her sometimes. Most of her female friends had already found husbands or fiances. Some of them even had their first children. She had seen how tied down their lives had become - they had little time for doing anything but attending to their duties as wives and mothers. Anzu wasn't ready to give up her dancing yet, but when would she be? By the time she was old enough that her body would no longer be able to take the strain of dancing, she would probably also be too old to attract a husband or bear children. It was a conundrum she hadn't managed to work through sufficiently yet.
A man, mostly drunk, shuffled over to her and leered.
"Hey, pretty lady," he said. "Saw you dancing. How would you like to partner up with me tonight?"
"No, thank you," she said coldly. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her friends shifting closer, preparing to back her up if need be.
"Aw, c'mon, don't be like that," he wheedled. He made a clumsy step forward, attempting to grope her.
Her foot flashed past his face, passing only millimeters away from his nose. He staggered backwards, blinking in surprise. She glared at him.
"I didn't have to miss," she told him. "If my foot had hit your chin, you'd have ended up with a broken neck."
But apparently he was too drunk or too deluded to take her threat seriously. He gave her a lopsided smile and started forward again, mumbling, "A feisty one.. I like that..."
She kicked at him again. This time, her foot connected with his gut. He made a wheezing noise and collapsed back onto his rear. He flailed there, his eyes bulging as he struggled to get breath back into his body. Anzu might not look threatening, but a dancer's legs were strong, and she could control them with absolute precision.
"Next time," she said, "I'll aim just a bit lower."
She helped her friends fold up the portable stage, and the four of them set off towards the city limits and their caravan. After they had gone about half a block, the man recovered enough breath to shout obscenities at them, but Anzu ignored him.
"Shut it," Jonouchi shouted back to him. "Or it won't be just her you'll have to deal with."
That apparently go through. The man subsided into grumbling, and soon became completely inaudible as Anzu and her friends disappeared around a bend in the road.
That was something Anzu would have to consider if she moved to the city, she thought. Even if she was able to make a living by her dancing, even if she was able to save up enough to support herself in her old age, she would have to do it on her own. The reason she could still do what she wanted to do was because she had friends to help her. The only life they'd ever known was in the desert. She couldn't ask them to give that up to stay in the city with he. If she did stay in a place like this, she would have to do it alone.
This is my home, too. I don't really want to leave. I just want to be allowed to do what I love while I'm here...
They found Anzu's father waiting for her next to their wagon.
"You went into the city again," he said.
"I did," she said. "I was earning money."
"It's not right," said her father. "You're getting too old for this, Anzu. I've told you before."
"It's what I'm good at," she said.
"You shouldn't have to support yourself like this," he said. "It reflects badly on your family that you go out and dance for flung coins every night when you should have a husband to take care of you."
"I don't need anyone to take care of me," she said. She tried to sound defiant instead of just tired. It had been a long day, and she'd had this argument so many times...
Her father shook his head. "You need to think of someone besides yourself. I won't have you bringing shame on your family and your clan just to please yourself."
She felt a small stab of alarm and tried to stifle it. "You can't make me stop dancing."
"I will if I have to," he said. "I've made up my mind. When we attend the next Gathering, I expect you to choose a husband. You have until the end of the Gathering to make your decision."
Her jaw dropped. "But Father...!"
"No arguments," he said. "You've had plenty of time to think about this. I've been telling you for years that it's time for you to put childish things behind you. It's time you actually listened."
"But..." she began.
"That's final," he said. "This is for your own good."
"No!" she said, but he had already turned his back on her.
Isis was watching her brother.
She had been watching him for the last couple of years, ever since the day her brother had wandered into an oasis at night, waiting for some sign that something had changed. No one else seemed to remember that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Since that day, he had been a little quieter, a little more thoughtful, a little less inclined to make trouble. His parents said that he was growing up at last. Isis thought he was doing something else. From time to time, she would catch him watching the people around him with an odd, calculating expression, as though analyzing their every move and filing it away for future reference. She didn't like him looking at people he'd known all his life as though he'd never seen them before and couldn't fathom what they were doing in his presence.
Then again, sometimes she'd see him watching the people around him and smiling as though they were the funniest things in the world, and that was much worse. It had been infrequent at first, but she had noticed over the past few weeks that it was occurring more often. She had the lurking feeling that some essential balance had been tipped, and now she was waiting for the inevitable crash.
Just now, they were in their tent, doing some mending while they waited for their father to get back from the city. They were stopping there for several days while the traders did their business. Isis had once liked this part of their journeying - it was a good time to rest, to clean and mend things that had gotten worn during their travels, to tell stories and to socialize. She had treasured it as time to actually play with her little brother. These days, though, he was aloof, treating her as though she was barely there at all. Her father, predictably, encouraged him. Their father didn't have much use for women, and saw no reason why his son and heir should feel differently. Even now, while Isis sat patching old clothes and Rishid mended some harnesses, Malik was prowling, pacing back and forth along the length of the tent, apparently oblivious to the fact that anything else was going on.
"What is troubling you?" Rishid asked him at last.
"I'm thinking," said Malik. He raised his head as if he had only just remembered they were there. "Where does Father get back?"
"Soon," said Isis, in her most soothing manner. "He's usually back just after nightfall. Are you worried about him?"
"I'm bored," he said. "He should have taken me with him."
"We can't always go into the city," said Rishid philosophically. "There is always work to be done here, and Father is relying on us to do it."
"Work for menials," Malik scoffed. "I'm the future ruler of this entire tribe! I shouldn't have to patch tents all day."
"A real leader should be able to take care of himself instead of relying on others to look after him," said Isis.
"It's a waste of my talents," said Malik. "There are more important things I could be doing."
"We're all tired," said Isis placatingly. "Just try to be patient a little while longer. We'll be going to the Gathering soon, and we can all stop working and enjoy ourselves for a while."
"The Gathering..." he repeated slowly. He stared off into space, as though trying to remember something long forgotten. "How far away are we now?"
"Two more stops," she said. "We should be there in about a month and a half."
"I see," he said. He began pacing again. "Yes... the Gathering will be good..."
Isis looked at Rishid, who raised his eyebrows in a gesture of faint puzzlement. Malik had been to the Gathering many times before; he should have been well aware of the route and how long it took to complete it.
"I am looking forward to this gathering," said Malik, his smile sharp and sudden. "This is a time for great things to happen."
When their father got home, Malik was waiting for him, smiling in a way that made even their father stop and stare for a moment. It wasn't that his expression was angry or malicious, it was that his entire demeanor suggested nothing so much as that of a king observing the arrival of a lowly subject. It was not an attitude often taken in front of the tribe's chieftain.
"Welcome home, Father," he said, his voice oily. "Did you have a successful day?"
"Fair enough," his father replied. "How was your day?"
"Rather dull," said Malik. "I would have preferred to go with you to the city."
"Perhaps another time," his father replied.
"Are you saying you don't trust me with our family's business?" said Malik, an edge of danger creeping into his voice. "I'm not a child anymore."
"Of course you aren't," said his father. He sounded faintly confused by his usually tractable son's demeanor. "I suppose it is time you took a greater hand in our work..."
"Yes, you're right," said Malik. "Much, much greater. I'm tired of taking orders and being shunted aside. I think it's time I started showing what I can really do in this family, and in this tribe, and in the world."
"What do you..." his father began.
"This tribe has been run by a doddering old man long enough," said Malik. "I'm the rightful heir. I think it's time I took over. When we get to the Gathering, I am going to announce my ascendancy."
His father's face went red. "You will do no such thing. You're getting too full of yourself, boy. You haven't got the knowledge or the strength to run the tribe."
"You think I don't have the strength?" Malik answered. "I think you're jealous, old man. You see a man who is younger and stronger and cleverer than you, and you're afraid of me usurping your place. Well, you should be afraid. I'm stronger than you can imagine, and I have plans for this tribe that you could never dream of."
"Listen here, you arrogant young pup," his father blustered, "you are my heir and you will inherit rulership of the tribe when I die, but you will never rule while I am alive."
"Is that so?" said Malik.
Inhumanly fast, he seized a wine bottle from a nearby table and swung it at his father. It struck his forehead with a resounding thump and a wet crack of bone. The old man stood there for a moment, his expression one of shock and puzzlement. Then he toppled forward onto the rug and lay there, sprawled gracelessly, looking small and insignificant as he never had in life. Malik tossed the bottle down next to him.
"That was easy," he said, sounding satisfied.
"Father!" Isis cried, rushing to his side. She touched his throat, searching for a pulse, but there was nothing. She turned accusing eyes on her brother. "Malik, how could you do this?"
"He defied me," said Malik. "I gave him the chance to back down peacefully and he didn't take it. This is all his own fault."
"Malik..." Rishid took a step forward, but Malik drew the knife from his belt and held it at ready. He was still smiling.
"You didn't see anything," said Malik calmly. "Father came home from the city. He was tired, he drank too much wine, he fell and cracked his skull. It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone. And if anyone ever says otherwise..." He licked the knife. "There could be more accidents." He glanced at Rishid and then waved a hand to indicate their father's body. "Dispose of that. I need to go spread word of our father's tragic demise."
Then he turned on his heel and walked out, leaving his sister and brother stunned and silent in his wake.
Later that night, Isis lay on her bedroll, not sleeping, not sure she'd ever sleep again. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Malik striking her father down. A few feet away, behind the privacy of a cloth screen, her mother was weeping softly. She was such a quiet, self-effacing woman that there were times when it was hard to remember she was there at all. It was hard to think that she had actually loved the proud, often domineering man she'd been married to, but he had been the strong protector who had taken care of her, and without him, she didn't seem to know what to do.
Isis wept too, but silently. She wasn't weeping for her father, who had barely paid any attention to her, but for the brother she had loved. She had been hoping, deep down, that her parents had been right, and that he'd simply been growing up - that she had stopped whatever had been happening to him at the oasis by shoving him into the water, and that her feelings of unease in the years since then had only been paranoia. Now she knew. Something was very wrong with him. Something might be worse than wrong. He might be gone entirely, replaced by whatever she had seen beckoning to him. She cursed herself now for not intervening sooner.
She became aware of a presence kneeling next to her. She sniffled a little, trying to settle her emotions enough that she could speak.
"Rishid?" she murmured.
"No," said a quiet, familiar voice.
Isis looked up, surprised to see her mentor looking down at her. She had not heard anyone come into the tent, and she did not think that anyone could have picked their way through the maze of bedrolls and privacy screens without her noticing, no matter how distraught she might have been.
"I am sorry to intrude on you," said Shadi, "but there are things we must talk about, and I do not know when it will be safe for you to come to me."
"Master, I... isn't someone going to hear us?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I have laid a circle of sleeping around this tent. No one can hear us."
Isis sat up. "Do you know what's wrong with my brother? Can you tell me? He killed our father, Shadi. I need to know what has happened to him.
"I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head. "I never dreamed that matters would come this far. I blame myself for not intervening sooner."
"So you can't help him?" asked Isis. Her throat was tight. She had never seen Shadi fail at anything he wanted to do. In her mind, he was all-powerful, more a sort of local god than a man. To hear him admit that he had been mistaken about something, to have him here apologizing instead of simply going out and correcting it...
"I don't think so," said Shadi, very quietly.
"But what has happened to him?" Isis asked plaintively.
"I believe that oasis we stopped by was created as a lure by a desert spirit," said Shadi. "Malik ate some of the fruit there, didn't he."
It was not a question. Isis nodded.
"With that bit of the spirit's essence already inside him, the spirit was able to draw him to itself," Shadi explained. "These spirits... they are creatures of sand and wind and fire and chaos. They are in constant motion, eternally bound to the desert they emerged from. I believe this one desired to leave the desert, and so merged itself with a human who would be receptive to its will."
Isis thought of the strange, distant way her brother had been behaving, the way he seemed suddenly not to know things that had always been part of his life, the way his expression would suddenly twist itself from gentle to savage in an instant.
"So he's possessed?" Isis asked.
"On some level, yes. On the other hand, he is not," said Shadi. "These spirits have very little in the way of thought or personality in and of themselves. They have only desire and instinct. When this spirit merged with your brother, it incorporated itself into him, like dye seeping into a cloth. I believe this process of integration has taken a long time for something as mindless as this spirit to achieve, which is why I was not certain before of what was happening. By now, they have become one being - for all practical purposes, this is still your brother, but he now has the power of the desert spirit within him, and its own desires are strengthening his, to the point where he can no longer fully control them."
Isis stared at him. "Are you saying Malik wanted to kill his father?"
"He wanted to be the clan leader. He wanted to be independent, able to do whatever he liked. All young men want that. He simply reacted to that desire with little thought of what its long term effects would be, so long as he got what he wanted. Do you understand?"
"I think so," she said. "This is my brother's dark side, then."
"That is probably the easiest way to think of it," Shadi agreed.
"What do we do, then? How do we get the spirit out of him again?"
"I am not sure," said Shadi. "The longer it remains within him, the more integral a part of him it will become. It won't be long before they lose all memory of being separate entities. When that happens, there will be no way to bring them apart. Even now, I don't think there is any way for us to force them apart without seriously damaging your brother, perhaps even killing him."
Isis frowned for a moment. "You say force. Is there some other way? Could we trick it, or bargain with it somehow?"
A faint smile touched the corners of Shadi's lips for an instant. "Very good. Yes, there is a chance that we can lure it out, if we can find something it wants badly enough to be willing to trade its new host body to have it. That will not be easy. Malik is now the leader of our tribe. Almost anything he wants will be his for the asking."
"There must be something," said Isis firmly.
"And we will find it," said Shadi. "That is what you must do for me. I cannot stay too close to him without attracting his attention, but he will think nothing of you remaining by his side. Act obedient and eager to please. Let him think you fear him too much to defy him. Watch and see if there is anything he reacts strongly to, and then tell me, and together we can work out what to do from there."
She nodded. Just knowing that there was something she could do gave her hope.
"I can do that," she said. "I'll do whatever it takes to save my brother."
"I knew you would," Shadi replied. "I must go now, before my spell wears off. Come find me when you have learned something."
Isis didn't quite see him leave. He simply stood up, and the shadows enveloped him, leaving her blinking and wondering if she had simply lost sight of him for a moment. Then she lay back down and closed her eyes. She didn't need to know where he had gone. The important thing now was that she had some vestige of a plan. Tonight, she would rest and gather what strength she could, and tomorrow, she would start looking for a way to save her brother.
It was called the One City. For a tribe of people to whom constant motion was a way of life, it was a thing of sacred significance, the only permanent dwelling their people had created. It was built of great blocks of red sandstone, carved out of the desert itself from some time in the forgotten past, surrounded by a rough wall of stones to protect it from storms and from prying eyes. The wall itself was cleverly designed, with four roads leading into it, each not much wider than would admit one of their carts, and zigzagging back and forth sharply, so that anyone looking at them from any sort of distance would have no way of realizing that they were seeing anything other than a shallow cleft among the rocks. From the outside, the whole thing looked like nothing more significant than a massive rock formation. Inside, though...
Inside was home, the only home that these wandering people truly knew. The houses inside were as sturdy and elegant as anything to be found in what were fondly imagined by others to be "civilized" places. They had survived hundreds of years of use within this secret world, and would probably do so for many more. There were trees growing on the corners, ancient things with heavy limbs that drank the water of hidden springs and stretched out their gnarled limbs to shade the houses around them. There were actual paved streets here, with walkways of brick arranged in artistic patterns. Each of the houses were large enough to hold multiple families, with shaded patios to sit in during the heat of the day, and flat roofs where people could look up at the stars at night. There were wells at four evenly spaced points near the perimeter of the city and a larger one at the central square. There were murals on the walls and mosaics on the floors. Everything had been designed to be clean, durable, and as beautiful as the stark conditions would allow.
Normally, Anzu loved it. This was the one time and place where she really felt welcome among the various clans. During the Gathering, they all forgot about their work for a while and took time out to enjoy themselves. No one thought twice about seeing a girl dancing in a town square - not when there were probably already several other people there playing music or even dancing themselves. Normally she would have headed that way as soon as she was able to, getting through the usual business of sweeping out the house they'd be living in and unpacking all her things as quickly as possible so that she could go and join the other merrymakers. Now she was going through her work in a daze. For once in her life, she had no heart for dancing.
A patter of footfalls announced Yugi's arrival.
"Anzu! Hey, Anzu, look what I've got!" he said.
She looked up from sweeping the kitchen to look at him. "What is it?"
"This!" He proudly held out a little box for her inspection. It was made of polished dark wood, heavily ornamented with gold, and there was a lacquered inset on its lid showing a bird in flight.
"A jewelry box?" she guessed.
Yugi smiled. "Even better. Watch!"
He inserted a key into the back of the box and gave it a few twists. Then he opened the lid. The inside of the box showed a view of complex mechanisms, springs and gears and a rotating barrel with an assortment of notches that pulled at a row of metal prongs as it turned. They plinked out a gentle melody.
"It's a music box!" said Yugi proudly.
"It's beautiful," said Anzu, her troubles forgotten. She was captivated by this elegant, intricate device. "How did you manage to get such a thing?"
"I got it off one of the traders," said Yugi. He looked slightly bashful. "Actually we gambled for it."
She had to laugh. No one had ever been able to convince Yugi that gambling was a risky way to make money, probably because with him it wasn't. His skill with dice and cards was positively legendary, to the point where no one in their clan would gamble with him for any sort of real stakes because they were guaranteed to lose to him. Obviously he'd gone out and found someone to play with the moment he'd arrived.
"Anyway," he said, "it's for you. I want you to have it."
"Really?" she said. "Yugi, I can't, it's too much..."
His face fell a little. "But... I won it for you. You might be going away soon, and I wanted to give you something..."
"Oh, Yugi..." She sighed and shook her head. "Don't talk like that. I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I still have a few days to make up my mind."
He gave her a half-smile. "If it comes to that, I would..."
"No," she said gently, "you wouldn't."
"I could," he said. "We could go to the city together. You could go on dancing. I'd find something to do there."
"You couldn't leave your grandfather behind," Anzu pointed out. "What would he do without you? And you know he wouldn't be happy living in the city."
Yugi sighed. "I guess you're right. I just wish there was something I could do, but this is the best I have."
"I'll take it, then," she said. "And thank you. No matter how this turns out, you've always... you're a really good friend to me. You know that, right?"
"Well, I..." he said.
Before he could finish formulating an answer, Honda barged in.
"There you two are!" he said. "You need to get to the main square, and hurry! There's going to be an announcement."
"Already?" asked Yugi. Normally the chieftain didn't bother holding meetings until at least the second or third day, to give everyone adequate time to get settled.
"It's important," said Honda. His face was grave. "Rumor is, the old chieftain is dead."
"Oh, no," said Anzu. Not that she had ever known the old chieftain very well, but he had ruled this tribe for as long as she could remember - longer than she had been alive, in fact. He was one of the steadfast things in her world, and hearing that he was dead was just one more awful thing on top of everything else.
"His son's holding a meeting now," said Honda. "Probably to let everyone know he's taking up where his father left off, but it would still be a bad idea not to show up."
Anzu nodded. Oddly, the news made her feel slightly hopeful. Maybe in all this upheaval, her father would reconsider making her go through with this marriage scheme, at least until next year's Gathering. That would give her some extra time to work out what to do, or maybe even to talk him out of the idea.
"All right," she said. "Let's go hear what he has to say."
It was, Malik thought, turning out to be a good night. He had not had high hopes for this city - it was nothing but an animal den carved out of the rocks, a place for these deluded sand-dwellers to trick themselves into thinking they were living like real people. His memory still contained images of what real cities looked like. Compared to them, this was hardly better than the tents, which were themselves only a bare step up from the nights when the weather was too bad to unpack the tents, and whole families had to sleep huddled inside their wagons.
He contented himself with the knowledge that after this brief stay, he would never have to return to this so-called One City again. His plans had been moving along quite satisfactorily. He had found that if he exerted his will, just a little, he could influence people without their even realizing he was doing anything to them. When he had announced his father's death to his particular clan, they had reacted with panic. Even now, it angered him to think of them, weeping and wailing as though his father had been the only man in the world who had any idea how to do anything. They seemed to think he was nothing more than a child barely out of his mother's arms who couldn't do a thing to protect them. And yet, within three days, he had talked the entire clan around to his point of view.
Of course I did. I wouldn't even need magic to convince these flea-bitten desert rats that I'm right if they didn't have sand between their ears instead of brains.
It was obvious to him, even if it was obvious to no one else, that there was no future in wandering around in an empty desert, baking under the sun and freezing at night, putting up with everything from sandstorms to sick camels, all for the dubious privilege of buying things in one city to sell them somewhere else. What kind of life was that? And more importantly, why was it his people who had to do it? No, if the job needed to be done, someone else could do it. He saw no reason why he should be stuck leading this traveling circus of a caravan, when instead he could be ruling over one of those cities he had heard so much about but barely glimpsed.
...Somewhere in the depths of his mind, he remembered being the wind, a raw force of nature that roared and danced forever over the desert but could never, ever leave it...
Well, no longer. He was going to leave this desert and never look back. If he was going to lead a tribe, it would be a tribe of conquerors. They would rally their strength and fall upon one of these soft, pampered cities like a storm, ravaging everything in their path. Once they had obliterated everyone who stood against them, they would take what was left for themselves, and they would be a proper society - with him as their leader, of course. No more sleeping on the ground under a tent, no more living off of dry food and warm water, no more miles and miles of empty sand. He was going to have a proper house - a mansion, even, a palace. He was going to sleep in a soft bed, and bathe in a tub large enough to swim in. He'd have servants to wait on him, and eat fresh fruits and vegetables every day if he wanted to, along with cakes and sweets and things he'd heard of but never tasted before. Most important of all, he was never going to have to set foot in this accursed desert again.
Now all that remained was to persuade the rest of the tribe to follow his lead. He didn't think that would be any problem. He had already made a good show of grief over his dead father, convincing his listeners that he had nothing in his mind but to follow in the great man's footsteps and carry on his legacy. They were all predisposed to like this poor, tragic young man who was bearing up so nobly in the face of adversity. They liked him, and were prepared to go on liking him for as long as he went on telling them what they wanted to hear. He had arranged for a brief tribute to his father to be held at the same time he had announced his assumption of leadership, just so that everyone would have no cause to feel he had done badly by the old geezer. Now he had announced that tonight there should be a special celebration in his honor. Not that he'd put it in so many words, of course - he'd said something about welcoming in a new age for their tribe, and similar nonsense. The important thing was that everyone should be feeling good tonight, and that they would know - consciously or unconsciously - that he was responsible for it. If they were all a little drunk tonight and a little hung over tomorrow, and therefore less likely to think too hard about what he was telling them to do, so much the better. By the time this Gathering was over, he'd have them all firmly convinced that he was the greatest leader their tribe had ever produced, and they would be right. They would do whatever he told them to do.
For the moment, though, he was almost enjoying the festivities going on around him. People had begun cooking, breaking out the best of whatever was in their stores, and the air was thick with the smells of exotic spices and roasting meat. There was perfume in the air, too, from the clusters of young unmarried women, who were all dressed in their finest as they flirted with the young men they passed. Malik's eyes followed them closely. As a young man with a watchful father who lectured him constantly on correct behavior, he had never had the freedom to do more than watch. Now he was the ruler of the tribe, and all these women, whether they knew it or not, were his. He had heard of places where the great kings and sultans had whole harems of women to choose from. Why should he be restricted? Getting his people to accept that idea, would take time, though. He would have to go about it carefully. Still, perhaps if he was discreet... yes, that was a good idea. If he was careful enough, he could use his powers to make any woman he was with "forget" she had ever been there. That was a thought worth pursuing.
For now, though, he simply flashed a smile at a gaggle of girls, who tittered and blushed. A few batted their eyes at him. Behind him, he could hear his sister's small sound of disapproval. He wondered whether she was angry at them for flirting with him, or at him for encouraging him. Well, either way, that was her problem. Lately she had attached herself to him like a leech, hanging onto his every word and rushing to obey every time he delivered an order or even expressed a preference - which was how things should have been, of course, but it made him suspicious. His best guess was that since she could not inherit control of the tribe herself, she had decided to turn herself into his right-hand woman and bask in his reflected glory. Well, if that was her idea, he didn't disapprove in theory, but that didn't mean he trusted her.
As they passed through one of the main squares, Malik heard the sound of what seemed to be an argument, or at least a disagreement, and he homed in on it. Fights could be entertaining, but he didn't want anything spoiling his night of glory.
"...could be your last chance," a male voice was saying. "You don't want to give that up, do you?"
"I know, but I'm just not sure I'm in the mood," a woman replied.
Malik smirked a little. A lovers' spat? He moved a little closer and found a young man with wide violet eyes talking to a shapely brunette woman. Malik eyed her, thinking that if she wanted to have a spat, he had no objections to playing the rescuer and "comforting" her in her moment of duress.
"Just one dance," said Yugi. "Come on, Anzu. Everyone would like to see you."
Various other onlookers shouted their agreement. A few people picked up instruments and began discussing what music they might most like to play. After a few seconds of hurried discussion, they struck up a lively melody.
That seemed to decide the matter. The woman - Anzu, apparently - stepped out into an empty patch of walkway, and she began to dance.
Malik watched her, fascinated. He had never imagined any mortal being could move that way. She leapt and twirled, bent and stretched, her hair swirling around her face and flashing in the lamplight, her arms reaching skyward until she seemed ready to brush the stars with her fingertips. She seemed to be made of nothing but air and light. Something about her stirred a deep aching desire in him - not just lust, but a kind of avarice, a need to possess and control. Watching her wasn't good enough. He wanted to own her, to make her dance for him alone.
"Who is that girl?" he demanded of his sister.
"I do not know," she answered. "She isn't from our clan."
"Then find out," he snapped.
Isis bowed her head and slipped into the crowd. He continued to watch the dancer while Isis collected her information. The musicians finished their song and started another, and the woman began a new dance. She seemed to have found her stride now. Her steps became more intricate, her movements more swift. It made him a little uneasy, as though she might fly away and escape his reach at any moment.
Isis returned a moment later.
"Her name is Anzu," Isis answered. "She belongs to clan Mazaki. Her father is a trader of cloth goods, and she goes into the cities her caravan visits and she dances there for coins. The gossip is that her father feels that her dancing is bringing shame on their family, and he has ordered her to take a husband before the end of the Gathering."
"A husband?" he repeated.
"She's past being of age," said Isis mildly.
Malik scowled. He didn't want her to choose a husband. She ought to belong to him. The idea of a lesser man possessing something so rare and desirable set his blood boiling. No one had the right to take what he wanted without his say-so.
"Where can I find her father?" he asked.
"I'm not sure, but I can find out," said Isis, and Malik had no doubt that she could. Even in a chaotic place like this, where no one owned any particular house so much as borrowed it for a while, she was endlessly efficient.
"Find him, then," said Malik, "and give him a message from me. Tell him that I will take his daughter."
He saw Isis's eyes widen, but she quickly composed herself. Good. She wasn't going to argue with him.
"I'll take care of everything," she promised.
"See that you do," he said.
With that settled, he turned his attention back to watching the dancer. His dancer.
Anzu walked alone towards the house where her family was staying. She walked slowly, letting her muscles cool down. Yugi had been right, she thought with a smile - an hour or two of dancing had restored her spirits, just as it always had. Later, there would be time to think about unpleasant things. For now, she just wanted to enjoy the celebrations...
A man appeared in front of her, and she jumped. His appearance had been very sudden - one second, there was no one there, and in the next instant, he was blocking her path. Anzu stared at him. She had seen this man a few times at a distance. He was Shadi, the wise man who served the clan chieftain - or, perhaps, who deigned to assist him.
"You are Anzu, of the clan Mazaki?" he asked her.
She nodded. "That's right. Is there... something I can do for you?"
"You can talk to me for a moment," he said. "There is something very important I want to discuss with you. Come."
He turned and began walking, without waiting to see if she would follow him. After a moment, she did. He led her through the side streets of the One City, down alleys unlit by festival lanterns and streets empty of partygoers. At last, he ushered her through the door of one of the smaller houses at the edge of the city. The door led to a kitchen, where a very pretty young woman, a few years older than Anzu herself, was sitting at the table, looking worried. Shadi went to sit next to her, and Anzu, after moment's hesitation, took a seat at the table as well.
"What's this all about?" she asked.
"A matter that concerns you," said the young woman gravely. "My name is Isis. You may not know me, but I'm the older sister of Malik, of the clan Ishtar."
"What does a chieftain's sister want with me?" Anzu asked. "I'm nobody important."
Shadi's face took on a faintly sardonic expression. "Ask instead what the chieftain wants with you."
"He saw you dancing tonight," said Isis. Her worried expression deepened. "He was... intrigued by you. Enough to order me to go to your father and ask in my brother's name for your hand."
"What? No!" Anzu blurted. She collected herself. "No offense. I just mean..."
Isis waved her protests away. "No, you have good reason to be dismayed. More than you know. My brother is... there's something wrong with him."
"There is a spirit of evil within him," said Shadi solemnly. Anzu stared at him. Coming from anyone else, a statement like that would have sounded absurd, even insane. From him, it was simply a statement of fact, no different than saying "He is tall" or "He is hungry".
Isis nodded. "His mind has become twisted, and it's getting worse every day. I know by now that you've heard the story that my father died when he drank too much and fell. That's the story that my brother concocted. The truth is, he demanded that my father step down and make Malik the new chieftain, and when my father refused, Malik struck and killed him."
"Oh, no..." said Anzu. She had been angry at her father plenty of times, but she still understood that he was trying to do what he thought was right by her, and she still loved him. To imagine someone killing his own father chilled her to the bone. But then again... looking back to the speech Malik had made, hadn't there been something a little forced about his grief, something a little too arrogant in the way he'd talked about carrying on his father's legacy?
"It's worse than that," said Isis. "Malik is planning a war. He's been using the spirit's magic to manipulate the minds of the people around him and make them believe his goals are their own. While the entire tribe is gathered here, he's planning to rally us all to war and send us to conquer the nearest city. He wants us to give up our entire way of life and leave the desert forever - not by founding our own city, but by laying waste to one someone else has already built and killing everyone who resists us, enslaving the survivors and then taking their wealth and goods for our own."
"But that's crazy," said Anzu. "We're traders, not warriors. We'd get massacred."
"I know," said Isis. "Even if we somehow succeeded, it would be the end of our culture. Nothing would ever be the same."
"Isn't there something we can do to stop it?" Anzu asked.
Shadi almost smiled, though his eyes seemed sad. "I'm glad to hear you ask that. We have been looking for a way to lure the spirit out of Malik's mind and restore him to his true self. You are the first hope we have had that we might be able to do so."
"Why me?" Anzu asked. "I'm nothing special. I'm just a girl who dances."
"Perhaps that will be enough," said Shadi. "Your skill at dancing makes you stand out, and I believe that Malik desires you specifically for that skill. In his present state of mind, he cannot stand the idea that someone else might come to possess something he can't have, and you are one-of-a-kind. He would not want you to fall into the hands of a 'lesser' man. That is why he is in such a rush to claim your hand for himself."
"I think I get it," she said.
"Good," said Shadi. "We have a plan to try to save him from this madness. We are going to try to lure the spirit out of him, and we hope to use his desire for you to do it. How brave can you be, Anzu of clan Mazaki? How much are you willing to sacrifice to save your people?"
"Am I going to have to marry him?" she asked automatically.
Isis gave an unsteady little laugh. "No, I don't think that will be necessary. But what we are planning is dangerous. It may cost you everything you have, even your life. I won't lie to you about that. You should know the risks."
Anzu thought about it for a long time. She knew she didn't want to die. The thought chilled her. On the other hand, if she didn't help these people, what then? If what they were saying was true, then their new leader was about to march them all straight into a bloodbath, and they would follow him smilingly. The thought of a man with the power to alter her very thoughts frightened her even more than dying.
"What do I need to do?" she asked.
Isis went back with Anzu to the house where her father was staying. He was surprised and seemingly quite gratified that his daughter had attracted such a high-ranking admirer, and had responded with eager agreement. Anzu, for her part, had played the part of the demure and obedient daughter, so much so that even Isis half believed it.
The one thing Anzu had insisted on was that she be allowed to dance in public one last time. Perhaps that was what made her sudden turnaround on the subject of weddings so convincing. At any rate, she had made a good show of it, and Isis had returned to her brother with the news that his proposal had been accepted. The date was set for three days hence, and preparations began.
On the night of the wedding, the square at the One City's heart had been arrayed with streamers and wreathes of flowers, and torches had been lit until every inch of it was lit bright as day. At the center of the square, just in front of the well, a stage had been raised, likewise draped in colorful banners that fluttered gently in the night breeze. Opposite the stage rested a smaller dias that held only a chair - a throne, in fact, of carved wood and velvet cushions. Malik reclined on it, with a bottle of wine on a small table at his elbow. His expression suggested that he was anticipating seeing a good show. He was already dressed in his wedding outfit, the finest clothes that Isis had ever seen. They practically bankrupted Anzu's father, who had provided the cloth, but he had been happy to do so. Isis hoped he would find some way to recoup the loss when all this was over, but it was hardly the greatest loss there was likely to be tonight.
Isis, Rishid, and Shadi lurked in the shadows behind Malik's throne, waiting with barely disguised tension. Shadi looked unruffled, as he always did, but Isis could tell from the way his lips were pressed together that he was worried. She knew she and Rishid looked worried, but anyone seeing them would probably chalk it up to the usual prenuptial jitters of someone about to take part in a wedding ceremony.
On the other side of the square, the musicians were limbering up. Snatches of music floated over the assembled crowd. Everyone was in high spirits, clearly delighted that their beloved new leader was about to take part in such a joyous event. The opinions Isis had picked up seemed to be divided between the ones who believed the story that Malik had seen Anzu and fallen in love at first sight, and thought it all utterly romantic, and the ones who thought that it was only right and proper for a young man in a position of responsibility to have a wife at his side to take care of the day-to-day minutiae for him, and considered this an act of maturity. They were all laughing and chatting and passing drinks around.
Then the music stopped, and everyone looked in anticipation at the stage. The musicians began playing their piece, the song Isis had carefully selected for them, and Anzu stepped out of a building and into the light. She was dressed in clothes of red and gold and orange silk, worked heavily with gold thread and set with garnet and topaz gems. Silk streamers in the same colors were tied to her wrists, fluttering and flashing at the slightest movement. She glittered like a flame, like the sun on the sand, and the crowd drew in a collective breath at the sight of her. Malik leaned forward in his chair, his gaze intent, like that of something predatory about to pounce. With head held high, Anzu took measured steps in time to the music, all the way up the steps of the stage and onto its center. She bowed to the crowd on either side of her, and then again, more deeply, to Malik. Then she raised her head, and she began to dance.
With the light of the flames dancing on her skin and glinting off her hair, she whirled and leaped. With the ribbons twirling around her and the gold and gems of her clothes flashing, she seemed to be made of fire, to be more than human. No one could move so quickly, so precisely, so gracefully. Her feet flashed too fast to see, her back and legs and arms arching and bending so smoothly that they seemed as supple as the ribbons at her wrists. As the music swelled around her, she moved faster and faster until she was nearly a blur.
Then the tempo of the music changed, becoming more sensuous and seductive, and the dancer followed suit. Her hips swayed in time to the music, her hands slid over her thighs and chest as she moved. She arched her back and threw back her head in a gesture of ecstasy, and a low sound like a moan rose up from the crowd.
And now she was casting glances at Malik, smiling at him, giving him sultry winks and licking her lips. She beckoned to him with her eyes and her fingers. Malik appeared entranced. Slowly, he stood and began moving towards her. He clambered up onto the stage and made a grab for her, but though he was quick, she was quicker. She bounded nimbly out of his way, never losing the rhythm of the song. He reached for her again, but she gyrated around him, always just a little ahead. His face contorted in fury, and it looked as though he might strike her, but there was nothing he could do to her. Next to her, he was a clumsy ox, a lumbering turtle. He might as well have tried to grasp the wind.
"Hold still!" he barked at her, but the words didn't even seem to reach her. She was off in some world of her own where there was only her and the dance, and he barely even existed for her any more.
That might have been what pushed him over the edge. For a moment his face was twisted into a fury so intense as to be inhuman. Then a shimmer like heat rising off the sand drifted up from him, and his body collapsed and slumped to the stage. The shimmer twined itself around her, glowing like a red flame, draping itself over her body like a long scarf. The two of them danced together, whirling around in a circle of ever growing light. The wind began to pick up then, stirring sand up into a whirlwind that enclosed the two of them, the woman and the spirit. While the audience gasped and screamed, the wind lifted them both towards the stars, still caught up in their frenzied dance.
Then there was a single powerful gust of wind, and the two of them unraveled into flame and sand, and they were gone.
Yugi sat at the back of his wagon, watching the One City recede behind him. The Gathering had ended on a somber note, and he was glad to be leaving the city behind. Malik had come out of his daze with only a blurry recollection of what he'd been doing for the past few weeks, and he'd been genuinely broken up over his father's death. He'd insisted that he was in no shape to take up his father's mantle, and had willingly ceded over control of the tribe to his older siblings. The tribe had never had a female leader before, but everything he'd learned about Isis lately made Yugi think his people were in good hands.
She had saved her clan. She had managed to lure the spirit that had poisoned Malik's mind out of him and into her own being, saving the tribe from what would have been a bloody war. She was a hero. They would probably be telling legends about her from now until the day the desert blew away.
She was never coming back.
Sitting next to him on the back of his wagon was the music box he had won as a gift for her. Her family had kept the rest of her things, but Yugi had managed to take the box back. He couldn't bear to leave the One City without anything of hers. Now he fumbled for the key and began winding it up. It was hard to see what he was doing because his eyes were blurred.
When he opened the lid, a gentle melody tinkled out. It shouldn't have been audible over the rumble of the wagons and the padding of the camel's hooves, but somehow it seemed to fill the desert and echo off the dunes.
A little wind blew up. It stirred the sand into billows and plumes, and Yugi watched them as they floated past. For a moment, they seemed to take on shapes: the curve of a leg, the arch of a back, the swell of a breast, the line of an arm and the tilt of a chin. For a brief instant, a star flickered through the cloud of dust, like an eye winking at him. Then the figure in the dust passed by him, whirling off over the sand, to dance through the desert and the sky forever.