Chapter 1: Little Embers
Lenith Thaymen emerged through the flames, covered from head to toe in ash. She knew running into a fire was a poor choice to make, no matter how noble. The fire left nothing to salvage. The building was gone.
A crone pounded her wrinkled palms on the dry, black dirt. Lenith had returned with nothing.
The eldest surviving member of the Halibred family howled. A perfect microcosm of her lineage. Lenith never took the time to learn the crone’s name.
Instead, Lenith knelt and set a hand on an old, sunken shoulder. The crone swatted it away and barked about getting ashes on her blouse.
Men and women beat back the flames with timeworn towels. Others sacrificed water to douse the blaze. It was never enough. The fire forced them to give in.
Though no one celebrated, they should have felt lucky. The flames spared the other shops of the octagonal pedestrian mall known as Rugerbin.
Tireless hands had transformed the shops into places for the people to rest their heads at night. To lose one building was to lose three homes. Three homes perished today, the Thirty-sixth of Tiid.
The residents gathered around the mall’s central patio. Some sat around a fountain, gutted of frivolities, adapted into a cooking pit. Long gone were the days of bubbling waterfalls—scorched by hundreds of meals.
Other onlookers sat in the dirt, enduring the fire’s swelter.
The Halibred flock—lanky and clothed in dull hues of gray and brown—sat at wood dining tables. Their dreary faces contorted at their elder woman’s pleas, hypocritical as it might have been.
The fire was something new. Fresh. Not much happened at Rugerbin, insulated by the town of Bayona in a long forgotten forest.
The distinct sounds of gunfire and scatter-bombs hadn’t marred the peace in years. No loss of life or limb had occurred in cycles. Three enneads had passed since the last visit from another camp.
Lenith, with arms overlapped, stopped at the far end of the patio. She found her father Herielt at the backdoor of Rogdul’s Feasting Ground, away from everyone else. Their belongings hung over his shoulder.
A statue of a man guarded the door from any unwarranted entries.
Tall, tan, and muscular, the statue wore a ruthless expression and unbuttoned pants. He clutched a quad-pronged circlet sword with both hands. Lenith knew its mysteries better than she knew most others. The feral soldier it intended to depict would have never held such an impractical weapon. It felt out of place with the blatant, primordial caricature.
Lenith scrunched her nose at the stench of melting, synthetic memories that clung to her skin. Pink lips contorted into a thin, ash-stained grimace. She imagined the statue might smell the same if caught aflame.
Herielt handed over Lenith’s black and red satchel.
“All that remains?” Lenith asked.
“All that remains.”
An ember flittered from the smoldering remnants, carried by a temperamental breeze. It caught on Lenith’s shirt. She swatted at her stomach until a new flame had no chance of kindling.
Twisting and turning, Lenith pulled on the fabric to search for a mark or, even worse, a hole. She had always been fond of the shirt. The simple black-and-purple pattern happened to be her favorite—durable yet light. The sleeves bunched at her elbows. She had undone the top button to let the breeze kiss her collarbone.
“You okay, Leni-cakes?” Herielt asked.
Lenith creased her brows. Her hands flopped back to their sides. She said, “A little fire got on me. Did it get through? Please, tell me I don’t have to get it patched.”
“Let me see,” Herielt said. He inspected his daughter with keen attention. After a respectable pause, he pinched the knot where her nose had once broken.
The ember left a neat, unnoticeable mark on one of the black checkers before snuffing. “You got it. It looked like you were dancing.”
“Yeah, it’s a new craze. The fire-panic dance.” Lenith presented a toothy smile to her father.
She fixed the mess her auburn curls had turned into since dawn, when she had tied it in a tail. A curtain of fringe covered her forehead. She hadn’t the time to wash. It was disobedient over the soft, rounded features of her face.
She added, “With all the flames around here, it’ll spread fast.”
“You’re a bonob,” Herielt said.
“I’d hope so. One raised me.”
“Someone raised you behind my back?”
“For twenty-two years straight. Right under your nostrils, dad.” Lenith tapped the side of Herielt’s bulbous nose; a Thaymen feature she luckily hadn’t inherited.
“Hey, now, almost twenty-three. Your birthday’s right around the bend.”
Lenith did well to hide her sadness behind a constant smile, like a shield, when her father spoke. Memories liked leaking from the back of his head, polluting the present. He spoke to deceased friends at night. His daughter transformed into a toddler before him. He had no way of seeing through the lies his mind spread.
She asked, “Since when is five cycles around the bend?”
“You’re already halfway. Four-hundred and ten days are flying by,” Herielt said with a swing of his hand.
Lenith sighed, relieved. He remembered after all. “I’m starting to think you did raise me.”
Herielt laughed. An infectious, deep chuckle he always had in stock as far back as her first memory. They had been visiting the Dartwo Pier in Juptos, along the northern shore. An entertainer in a vast, fleece costume meant to depict a lupsa jumped out from a registration kiosk. He slashed his long claws and gnashed sharp teeth at her. It scared Lenith so bad that she clung to her father’s leg. He chuckled all the way to the exit.
Few childhood memories left recognizable imprints. Those two did: her father’s laugh and the mask’s thoughtless, black eyes. Joy and pain.
Tendrils of heat whipped from the fire and returned her to reality. She struggled and failed to prevent a laugh of her own, provoked by the memory as much as the comment.
The victims that surrounded her were all too busy mourning to engage in jokes. Their communal attention befell the Thaymen family. Any joy at the mall needed destroyed during such a dire time.
Brawny, stern Usvild sauntered toward them. He adorned the only Korvilian Armed Forces suit at the mall. Gray stripes cut over his padded breastplate and loose, black pants. A sparse beard trickled from his chin. He tried so hard to grow something. Dirty blond hair clawed at his scalp, pulled back in a tail down to his shoulders.
A self-appointed officer of justice, Usvild’s word was law. His family founded Rugerbin Mall’s resurrection. The population spread around his orderly conduct. Lenith had always considered him beyond theatrics. Noting his hawkish scowl, he appeared ready to haul off on Herielt.
“Hello, Lenith. I’d like to talk with your dad for a moment alone, if you don’t mind.” A hidden urgency in Usvild’s voice hinted at a grim tale Lenith pined to hear.
“All right. I’ll tend the fire.” She couldn’t resist one last joke. Their home, after all, burned the same as the others.
Lenith managed three whole steps away before her legs turned to heavy stone. She listened.
“You’re pretty close with Iggy, right?” Usvild asked.
“I wouldn’t say we’re close anymore. I’ve helped him out,” Herielt said.
“Of course. I ask because the fire started in his lot. I’ve reason to believe he was on photintra. Nena heard glass shattering, from her bed, on the other side of the wall. One of the Halibred kids said they heard something, too. Something along those lines, you know, makes it easy to start a blaze. Now, you don’t believe the Chimayri did this, do you? You’re the expert on these matters.”
Herielt crossed his arms, cupping his right elbow. “I don’t think it’d be them. The old Chimayri, yes, but the new breed enjoy shock and terror much more. All the same, keep an eye out. Bring it to light at the next Agglomeration. I’ll call major leaderships and warn them. I’d still chalk this one up to an addled, careless mind.”
He had so few mistakes left to make.
Lenith knew how outraged her father felt. His aggression hid behind a measured tone, but she had always seen through the ruse. His nostrils flared when he held in his anger. Cartilage was the one part of him he failed to control. That and his memories, but he forgot that, too.
A low, hot fragrance caught Lenith by surprise. The fire masked it well. Usvild was right. The subtle smell of acidic, condensed photintra traveled on the wind. She commanded her feet to move.
Herielt had spent so much of his time weaning Iggy off photintra. It was no easy task. The plant was a potent hallucinogenic, especially after modification. Iggy knew all the strongest concoctions. Any lifelong dwindler would attest to that. Nothing meant more to them than the pleasure.
If Herielt found Iggy, and the man was flying high, murder was a guarantee.