rose all along Runa’s arms and legs, showing beneath the gauzy fabric
of her dress. Evenings were chilly in the desert, and the sun was fast
slipping beneath the horizon. Dusk’s warm fingers stroked the hill upon
which Runa sat and then dusk fell away, leaving a cool breath in its
wake. She did not shiver, did not stretch a muscle, though she was in
the lotus position and her thighs ached.
deathwhisper scorpion crawled along her upper arm, its yellow tail
curled high over its body, and she forced her heart to be still.
did not cry out for help, though she had royal guards waiting for her
to finish her meditation stationed at the bottom of the hill. If the
scorpion were startled, it would sting her, and they would both die as
a result. She could fling it off of her, but the scorpion’s fragile
body would break into pieces against the rocky ground; the deathwhisper
possessed terrible venom but its armor was thin like fine parchment.
the moons are rising!” one of the guards called up to her. He gestured
to the expanse of purple-black sky, jeweled with stars, and the seven
moons that were revealed by the sun’s receding trail. The moons poured
unearthly light across the desert; the dunes glowed as though imbued
from beneath rather than above. A sharply chilled wind raced over
Runa’s bare shoulders and stirred her long, dark hair.
The scorpion paused on her wrist, its tail quivering.
exhaled, slowly, evenly, imagining the way her mother cooked pea and
pearflower soup, letting it simmer for hours so that the flavor of the
vegetables seeped fully into the broth. She imagined her breath seeping
into her cells as she drew in air carefully and then let it back out,
so that her limbs remained taut, remained bound to their arrangement
like potted flowers. One of the guards shouted again, and the scorpion
turned around and around on her wrist, agitated. The little thing was
less than three inches long, but even a drop of its venom was enough to
kill a human being within ten minutes.
Ten agonizing, nerve-twisting minutes.
wanted to shout back at the guard, to silence him, but such a
disturbance would surely frighten the deathwhisper into sinking its
stinger into her wrist. It clung to her warily, unsure of the texture
of her skin, having wandered onto her leg while she meditated, and then
skittered in a panic up over the swathes of fabric to her bare left
arm, where it had picked its way up the slope of her inner elbow to
rest on her shoulder. Touching fabric again, the scorpion journeyed
back down her arm. It was now in Runa’s open palm, tracing the ridged
lines of skin as though preparing to tell her a fortune.
could have tossed it away then easily, and seen crumble on the rocks,
but even though her heart wanted to press through her bones and tumble
down the hill, the thought of killing the scorpion repulsed her. She
had not been raised to privilege any life above her own; in fact, she
had learned quite the opposite.
looked up at the seven moons, each in varying phases of fullness. The
largest moon was full now, and it was a blood moon, casting a rusted
light over the hill, the scorpion, and her brown cream skin.
guards were coming up the hill; she heard their heavy footsteps and
felt the little rocks around her feet tremble. Runa shut her eyes, sure
that the scorpion would react as many creatures naturally do, and
attack her in a spasm of fear.
After a moment, she heard the guard’s voice. “Princess, your parents will be worrying. Please, honor us with your company.”
opened her eyes and looked beyond the guard; the deathwhisper was
traveling leisurely down the hill. She exhaled with a great, shuddering
breath, and held out her hand to the guard. He helped her up, the
concern fading from his smile when she said, “Sorry, Ravi, you know
that I get lost in myself sometimes.”
the vast library of the Academy of Sophists, Damayanti studied for an
exam beside a wall of the world’s deadliest creatures. Carefully
crafted replicas of wraiths, chimera, demons and other such unsavory
beings lined the walls in glass cases, their sculpted, gleaming menace
almost as terrifying as the real thing. The deathskitter scorpion
occupied a case just above him, jutting out over a finely detailed
sabretooth. The location marker for the scorpion was vague; the placard
read ‘desert’ and nothing else, which pleased Damayanti. He had told no
one of his home country during his time at the Academy, and he lied
when asked. Most of them didn’t even know his real name.
Samil! How are you doing?” Geoff Harper shouted from the room’s
entrance, his big, friendly voice echoing over the bookcases.
lifted one dark hand in acknowledgment and then brought a finger to his
lips, offering Geoff a slight smile. “Keep it down, if you could. I
have finals tomorrow.”
sure, buddy,” Geoff said, tromping up beside his friend and slapping
him on the back. Geoff thought physical exchanges were signs of
affection, regardless of whether that meant a hug or a punch to the
face. As a result, he found himself quite popular with a variety of
people. “But you’re all set, aren’t you? I mean, your scores are like,
possibility for failure lurks always,” Damayanti replied evenly. After
four years, the language of this continent was still rough on his
tongue. He was looking forward to hearing the flowing, low tones spoken
by his kinsmen, and returning them in kind; the words here were rough,
heavy on sharp consonants and colloquialisms. He turned the page in the
enormous, yellowed book laid out before him; it was a compilation of
volumes regarding ancient military treatises. He had come to the
Academy from his homeland to study Arcanotech, but he took electives in
History. He was not surprised to find that he excelled at both.
“What are you gonna do after graduation?” Geoff asked.
wrote a note on his paper about the aggressive culture of the
Bellicosans, a long-extinct tribe that was believed to declare war upon
any strangers who approached their land, regardless of that stranger’s
actual intent. This policy offered them relatively peaceful isolation
through widespread fear of their country and the vicious god they
worshipped (said to be capable of stopping the hearts of a thousand men
at once). Eventually, however, the entire tribe died of a disease,
posited to be an early form of tuberculosis.
material was never mentioned in his class, but his professor liked to
be tricky. As a woman who hated students that skipped class and
students who tried to get by only on lectures, she pulled exam
questions from every possible source, and was rarely moved by any pleas
for clemency. Damayanti liked her immensely.
Geoff said. He nudged Damayanti’s elbow, and the page in the smaller
man’s hand tore at the edge. Damayanti exhaled through his teeth.
“I’m going home,” he said. “You know this.”
“Where is that again?” Geoff said.
voice was light, mischievous and oblivious. Damayanti shut the poor
book to spare it any further collateral damage. Disrespect to books was
difficult for him to tolerate. He imagined his mother’s gentle face
drooping in disappointment after he, as a small child, drew a red X in
oil paint over a paragraph in one of his books. He felt that gaze on
his back then, as he pushed the book away, and for a few moments he was
a little boy.
“I’ve told you,” he said. “Really, Geoff, I’m quite preoccupied.”
right. With the name I can’t possibly pronounce.” Geoff slapped
Damayanti on the back again. The gesture was affable, but it knocked
the wind out of Damayanti’s thin frame, and he wheezed.
“Please, Geoff,” he said.
fine. Just send me a postcard sometime, would you?” Geoff bowed with an
exaggerated flourish and started walking for the exit.
his back, Damayanti looked up at the glass box containing the
deathwhisper. As he examined the artistry of its multi-faceted eyes and
segmented tail, wondering who had seen it long enough to draw a sketch
from which to create the sculpture, he heard Harper call out to him.
forgot!” Geoff said. He tossed a rolled-up copy of the university
newspaper at Damayanti’s head, which the other man barely caught. He
unraveled the paper in front of him on the table and read the headline:
PARADISE IN THE DESERT. A grainy image of his actual homeland,
Shantiis, accompanied the short article.
that might interest you!” Geoff said. His inflection was bright as
ever, but Damayanti could have sworn he heard a smirk. He looked up
sharply, but Geoff was gone. Frowning, Damayanti traced his fingers
over the photograph and wondered if Geoff Harper was quicker than he
seemed. Not that it mattered: Damayanti would be home in a few days,
and then all would be well. Let them know of his kingdom. Let them
come, and be sorry for their intrusions.