By W.A. Hamilton
Sometimes the pain overpowers Peruc, the throbbing in his eardrums making him double over. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The narrow streets of Kristembe City flash through his mind: the high tenements, the morning crowds, the blast of steamers in the harbour. Wheeling gulls echo the words. Wrong, wrong.
Isa has it worse, although she is careful to hide it from the children — their blessed little ones, who will never know the agony of another world, its echoes trapped in your skull. At night, Peruc holds her when the pain is too much. He strokes her hair while she shudders. Her cries are muffled by a pillow. Sweat beads on her dark skin.
One morning, he speaks his thoughts aloud: “Perhaps we should go back.”
Her refusal is emphatic. A violent shake.
Peruc does not bring up the matter again, although he considers it often. Did they make a mistake by coming here? Will the hardships of this new world prove too much to bear? All the while, the absence of Kaliyah, their home, presses on their minds like a phantom limb; the world-transplasia almost unbearable.
Their new home is a hospitable place, but remote. Pristine blue waters stretch for leagues. A small village lies on the next island, a few hours’ sail. Enough solitude to feel safe, neighbours close enough to keep from getting lonely. Peruc is glad for both. Their island is all their own, with room to grow. Although the sandy soil is poor, he intends to plant olive trees in the spring and yarrow to feed the goats.
Their goats love the island. They are already running wild across its upper slopes, the only inhabitants more unruly than the children. Peruc lets them loose for now. There is nowhere for them to go. He will take both in hand, once the house is finished. So many things to build: a well; a cold cellar; a proper hearth, to keep their fire burning on the windy nights. Then there are the things Peruc wants for himself: a still for brewing aukkoia; a garden with sage and rosemary and other herbs; a little ramp to launch his boat, when the tide is low.
There will be time for all these things — if their family can bear the hardships ahead.
Each day comes with fresh challenges. Little Sandro is five and already racing everywhere on his sturdy legs. Yara is two years behind her brother, more careful but less aware of her surroundings. And another will join them in less than a month.
Isa struggles with the growing belly. Peruc does his best to shoulder the heaviest burdens, but he cannot anticipate every fit, every tantrum from the children. And he cannot lift Isa’s homesickness, cannot replace her parents and siblings, left behind in Kristembe City.
Most days pass with tasks left unfinished. Their list of wants grows. There is freedom, but not the ease of their old life: the food stalls in the market, the heated water in the pipes, the gas bulbs in their simple rooms. Living under the Tekne syndicates had its pleasures — if you ignored the cost.
“Sometimes I think we traded the tyranny of the factory line for the tyranny of the hoe and the hammer,” Peruc remarks one night, his shoulders sore from digging.
“The hoe and the hammer do not strike you when you stop for a rest,” Isa reminds him.
“Aye, but the sun does.” The turn of the seasons has been on Peruc’s mind. “Will we have enough set by for winter?”
“We will manage.” Isa rubs her belly. “We can always move back to Turbada for the cold months. Merruan offered us our old rooms.”
“We cannot. We would be taking advantage of his good nature.”
In truth, it is not the imposition that bothers Peruc. Turbada — that town, that whole island, is too near the Gate. Too close to the Tekne. A dark alleyway in Kristembe City; a night he tried to wipe from his memory. Blood dripping from his fingers. The knife’s handle in his slick palm. The man lying at his feet, the skin of his face smooth as glass.
One day, Peruc comes home to find mother and daughter in a heap on the bed. Sandro stands watching in confusion. Isa has been crying. Her cheeks are streaked with tears. Yara is inconsolable, her tiny arms wrapped around her mother’s belly as she shakes with sobs.
“We were cleaning the dishes after breakfast,” Isa says, stroking her daughter’s hair. “I saw her staring out to the sea, as if she saw something I did not. Then she began to cry and clutch at me. And what she told me… Things no child could imagine.”
“Yara, my little plum.” Peruc rests a gentle hand on his daughter’s arm. “What did you see? Can you tell your da?”
But Yara only shakes her head, burying it into Isa’s tummy. Once Sandro is sent to play outside, Peruc has Isa recount the details to him, as best she can remember. It does not take long to get the picture. A vision of Isa in pain; the baby in danger. Blood marking the floor.
“Mama was all red,” Yara adds at one point, from her safe refuge. “And da’s face was sad. Then Mama lay down to sleep on the floor.” This last detail makes her begin to cry again. Isa’s fingers clench tight in Peruc’s grip.
Peruc runs his hands through his hair. “When does this happen, Yara?”
But Yara does not know; is not able to guess at the length of time.
“It was only a dream, my love,” Isa tells their daughter.
Peruc is not so sure. He has heard the stories, back on Turbada. The Shown. The visions of danger that come as warnings, often heeded too late. He considers how long it will take him to sail to the village, where a healer lives.
“My plum,” he says, bending low to speak to Yara again. “Do you ever dream of an old woman, with green beads in her hair?”
Yara turns her face towards him. A single nod is all the confirmation he needs.
“Where are you going?” Isa asks.
“Not far.” Peruc fills his voice with a false reassurance. “I’ll be back by dinnertime. Stay here and do not exert yourself. I’ll send Sandro to fetch water from the spring.”
Within the hour, Peruc has hauled his little sailboat down the beach and out into the surf. The wind is fair and it does not take him long to cross the channel, but his chest tightens with each passing hour. He pays no heed to the spray wetting his clothes. After tying his boat at the wharf, he hurries through town, looking for the healer. By sunset, he is back with the woman, Alla, and two of the fishermen. They come in one of the fishermen’s boats. When Peruc steps over the threshold of their house, he finds Isa curled beneath the blankets. Sandro and Yara are in the crook of each arm. All three are fast asleep.
Peruc almost weeps for relief.
The labour begins a day later in the village, only hours after their arrival. The babe is breech and weeks early. It takes hours for the healer to turn the child and deliver it. Peruc sits by Isa the whole time. But the child is born healthy, a little sister for Yara and Sandro. Alla asks to keep Isa with her for a few days in the village, until she begins to recover. Peruc does not know how he will ever repay the healer.
“I will bring you a carafe of aukkoia,” he tells her, stumbling over his words. “And olive oil from our first pressing. And goat’s cheese.” Meagre gestures to repay a life saved — and these promises are years away. All Peruc has to offer.
“There is no need,” Alla tells him. “This is not like the old world. We harbor no debts here. You are our neighbours. You would do the same for us.”
The woman’s words, and their welcome in the village, fill Peruc’s heart with a fierce, bright joy. For the first time in months, he remembers why he and Isa chose to come here, to make a life among these wild islands.
He tells Isa of Alla’s kindness that night, as they lie together in the dark. Isa cradles their youngest daughter against her. She has named her Astra, after her grandmother.
“We will have to send her something at Heseltine,” she says. “A gesture. Something the children have made.”
Of course, Peruc thinks. As usual, his wife is steps ahead of him. It is what you would give a relative — and Alla is family now. Even after years, he struggles to shed the city-thinking, the old ways. But Isa’s words remind him of something else. Heseltine. The feast of the crossing.
“My love, Yara has been Shown. We must tell someone of this.”
“She is too young for us to know.”
In the dark, his wife’s eyes linger over her elder daughter. Yara’s sleeping form lies curled against her brother in the cot beside them. Peruc knows what Isa is thinking. I am not ready for this.
“Of course,” he agrees. Now is not the time for argument. “Yara could have been saying what she thought I wanted to hear. An old woman with green beads. It might not be the Sibyl.”
For months after the birth, Peruc does not feel the world-transplasia. No echoes in his head, no daily reminders of Kaliyah and Kristembe City. The pain has eased, as if the generosity of their neighbours was cure all along. Peruc wakes each day with peace in his heart. When he stands and breathes the sea air, he feels as if the new world is welcoming him. This is a good place, he thinks. We will have a good life here.
Astra sleeps well. Each night she lies wrapped between them on the bed, a blessing for their home. Although Yara does not understand what her words have done, she has adopted the role of her sister’s protector. When Isa goes to fetch something, it is Yara who sits by Astra’s side and ensures she does not spend a moment untended.
Peruc watches his older daughter carefully. Yara is a curious child, eyes always taking stock of what her parents are doing. Unlike Sandro, who is more interested in digging under rocks, Yara’s attention is fixed on people. She wants to know why things are done. Whenever her eyes begin to glaze, Peruc will catch her elbow and ask: “Did you see something, my plum?”
Always the shake of the head. No more visions.
Isa catches him at it on several occasions, but says nothing; only frowns. It is not a fight worth having. I hope I am wrong, Peruc thinks, but Shown or not, our daughter is growing up.
It is almost a year, when the next Showing comes. A mild winter gives way to lingering summer. Two nights in a row, Yara is woken by nightmares. Despite their concern, Yara refuses to tell either parent what troubles her. She only hides against her pillow.
The second evening, Peruc brings Yara down to the shore. He has sunk traps off the rocks and can bring in a crab or two with the right bait. She watches him as he hauls them up, one-by-one. But even a pair of crustaceans, still battling over the half-eaten bait, cannot bring a smile to her face.
“What is wrong, plum?” He tries again. “You can tell me.”
Yara does not say anything, simply points her chubby finger out to sea. Peruc follows her gaze to the island in the distance: the village where her sister was born.
“Bad men are coming.”
“How do they come?” Peruc asks.
“In a boat.”
Other questions dance on his tongue, but he sees Yara’s lip trembling. It is enough for him to bring a warning. He lifts Yara and settles her on his hip. “Well, we have a boat of our own, don’t we? If they come, we’ll sail far away from here. How does that sound?”
A slow nod and tears are averted, for now. Father and daughter make their way back to the house. When Yara is settled with her sister, Peruc pulls Isa aside to tell her what Yara has seen — and what he intends to do. He is gratified when Isa does not question the decision. She simply nods.
“Will you go tonight?”
“Yes. I’ll leave now and return after dark, when the moon is high. The weather is clear. It should be an easy crossing.”
Isa wraps some dried meat in a roll for him. They do not tell the children where he is going, only that he will be back late. Yet as he waves goodbye, Yara watches him — his own fear reflected back in her eyes.
It is full dark by the time he reaches the village. The little houses are dim, casting no light as his boat creeps up to the wharf. He knocks on the first door and is relieved when someone answers. There have been no signs of a ship, but folk are concerned. As the news spreads, villagers begin to congregate by the shore with torches. It is not long before the question is put to him: how does he know they are coming?
“My daughter has been seeing things,” he tells them. Most of the villagers do not know of Yara’s first vision, other than Alla the healer. Will they believe the myths — or take him for a superstitious fool? “She saw my wife’s birthing struggles last year. For two nights now, she’s dreamt of raiders. I think she has been Shown.”
There is a hush. The boats rock at their moorings.
“Well, what can we do?” one woman asks, “There is nowhere to go!”
“We can hide in the hills,” someone suggests.
“And let the raiders plunder our homes? We must arm ourselves!”
Peruc listens for a while, as the villagers discuss the matter. At last, when he is satisfied his warning has been heeded, he bids them farewell and turns for home. As the wharf dwindles from sight, the sound of their raised voices follow him across the water.
Peruc is scarcely out of sight of the village, when he notices a shape out to sea. Its dark silhouette obscures the moonlit surface of the water, as it moves swiftly towards him. Peruc is close to shore. He drops his sails and crouches low in the bottom of his boat, fingers trembling on the tiller.
As he ducks down, he loses sight of the larger ship. For minutes, there is only the sound of the waves breaking behind him and the beating of his heart. Then the dark shape passes within a dozen boat lengths to starboard. Peruc is close enough to make out the light of a hooded lantern. It is a Norder longship. Its single, square sail is furled and it moves under the quiet creak of its oars.
Peruc does not dare to breathe. Somehow, the raiders are already here. He knows he should warn the village, but the longship is already past him. It creeps towards the cove where the village lies. All Peruc can do is look on in silence. The longship rounds the headland. But as it comes within sight of the wharf, it slows. For several minutes, it sits there. Waiting.
Straining his ears for cries of alarm, Peruc remains motionless in the belly of his boat. His own craft drifts closer to the rocks. Soon he’ll have to move or risk running aground. Meanwhile, the longship continues to wait.
Have they sent men ashore? Peruc wonders. Are they preparing an attack?
His rudder bumps against rocks in the darkness. Yet even as he prepares to stealthily fend his boat off, the longship moves. It rows away from the cove. Within minutes, the ship vanishes into the darkness — carrying on along the coast.
Bent double over his gunwales, Peruc retches into the sea. His palms are coarse with salt. His hands shake as he rows away from the rocks and hoists his sail again. When he returns the following day, to tell the villagers what he saw, he is greeted with mixed emotions. Some folk remain afraid, convinced the raiders will return. Others are skeptical.
“Listen,” one of the fishermen tells him. “I appreciate your heart was in the right place. But we’d prefer if you kept your daughter’s visions to yourself from now on. No sense getting scared over nothing.”
It is understandable, but Peruc cannot let it go. What if he’d ignored Yara’s dreams? Would the longship have passed by unnoticed? Or would the night have been broken by fire and screams, echoing across the open water? He doesn’t know and the doubt haunts him. Perhaps the torchlit village had persuaded the longship to seek easier victims elsewhere. Or perhaps the dreams had meant nothing after all.
“We need to know,” he tells Isa. “Has she truly been Shown? Every time she has a nightmare, I will wonder.”
While Isa refuses to agree with him, she is nothing if not practical. After putting up with his worries for several days, she breaks her silence. “We must take her to Turbada. Bring her to the House of the Hosatti.”
Peruc knows she is right. If their daughter is one of those touched by Hosatta’s visions, another Shown will recognize the signs; will be able to teach Yara about them — and their dangers. But speaking to a Shown means returning to Turbada. That thought brings Peruc almost as much anxiety as the visions themselves. He does not want to go back to the city in the shadow of the Gate. Yet, eventually, the need to know is greater than his fear. With Isa’s blessing, he charters passage for the family.
The isle of Turbada sits alone at the southern tip of the archipelago. Its solitary mountain rises above the sea, guiding the cutter towards it beneath the afternoon sun. Their children are enraptured with the open sea — even Sandro cannot remember their first voyage north. The weather is mild and Peruc lets them dance across the deck, while the sailors watch with smiles.
By late afternoon, they round the point into the bay. Houses line the steep slopes of the island, more than he remembers from his last visit. Turbada Town is growing. New arrivals come through the Gate with each turn of the celestial wheel. Soon, it will be a city in earnest. But, for now, it is just a frontier shantytown in a new world.
His cousin, Merruan, greets them as they disembark. He is wearing a rich green doublet, belted with fine leather. His colours leap out of the crowd of browns and greys. As the other passengers part, he strides forward to embrace them.
“Your family is growing well!” Merruan leans down to ruffle the hair of young Sandro, who has become unusually shy with so many strangers about. “Hey, no hug for your favourite uncle?”
Merruan’s men carry their things and their party begins the long climb up to the villa. As they walk, Merruan keeps up a steady stream of talk. The bustle reminds Peruc of the street markets in Kristembe City. He longs to wander the quayside, but the children are tired and need to be taken out of the sun.
Merruan’s property has been engulfed by the neighbourhood. His once-isolated plot is surrounded by new homes, built in the last few years. The compound’s collection of outbuildings has tripled. His wife, Karolina, greets them in the courtyard, her hands dusty with flour. Her hair has gone grey at the temples, but it is a distinguished grey and even the crow’s feet become her, bringing an extra measure of joy to her smile.
“I cannot think of five mouths I would be gladder to feed,” she tells Isa, as she squeezes the children to her.
“Come, I’ll show you what we’re building here,” Merruan says to Peruc.
As the women talk, Merruan takes Peruc’s elbow and guides him away. His cousin’s pride is evident as they walk the ambit of the property. He shows Peruc the stone wall that his workmen are building and the new stables. They peek in on his brace of donkeys. Yet as they return for dinner, Peruc notices the line of beggars in the street outside the gate. His cousin’s eyes pass over them, as if he no longer notices.
The dining hall is emptier than Peruc remembers it, but there is an excitement among the family and servants. Peruc and Isa sit at the main trestle with Merruan, Karolina, and their two youngest sons. Most of their older children have their own homes in the city. Merruan and Karolina have found good places for them.
“To family.” Merruan’s toast is the signal for the meal to begin.
Everyone tucks in eagerly. A dish of spiced goat is served first, accompanied by large platters of steamed durum and roasted vegetables. When the plates are cleared, the servants bring out pots of dark Kaliyan tea. A heady aroma of mint and honey precede their arrival. As Peruc’s cup is poured, he asks about the empty seats.
“There will be another crossing tomorrow,” Merruan says, “we are making room for new arrivals.”
“A crossing?” A shiver of fear runs up Peruc’s spine. The gate will be open.
“We’ll get some news from the other side and no trouble hopefully — If I’ve paid the right bribes.” Merruan laughs, not seeming to notice Peruc’s discomfort.
“This is the little one?” Karolina asks.
Peruc has taken Yara on his knee. Sleepy from the food, she drowses.
“Yes, this is Yara.”
“So you’ve seen an old woman with green beads, my dear?”
Yara gives a sleepy nod.
“Have you seen a tall man with purple hair, by chance?”
Peruc is relieved when Yara shakes her head, frowning at her aunt. Merruan and Karolina only smile.
“Ah well,” Merruan says, “it was worth the test. I will take you to the House of the Hosatti tomorrow, but I know what they will tell you. She is too young for any trial.”
“Even if I vouch for her?”
“Children invent tales. Even if she were Sandro’s age, the answer would be the same.”
“But we’ve come all this way…” Peruc thinks of the goat he traded for passage.
Merruan sips his tea. “If I could, I would’ve warned you. Your letter came too late. Still, it is good to visit.”
“I suppose we must go and try at least.”
“Of course! I would feel the same in your position.”
That night, for the first time in months, Peruc feels the world-transplasia again. He wakes from a vivid dream, a memory of home. Walking back to their old apartment — the two rooms, where Sandro was conceived. It is the end of a long day. He stops at the corner. The sun is setting over the ocean, painting the water orange. The lights of Kristembe City twinkle below him. And despite the beauty of the scene, all he can remember is dread for the coming day. How long could he keep working like this? How long till the landlord raises their rent? How long till the syndicate men come knocking at their door?
He knew people who were taken by the syndicate. Gone and never seen again. Families split apart. The laws of the Tekne were unyielding. Cruel.
Only a dream. Kristembe City is behind them now.
But, despite his relief, the memory tears at his soul. His skull aches with the weight of it. While Isa sleeps beside him, he sits on the edge of the bed, head in hands. Moonlight filters onto the floor, and Peruc wishes they could go back. But they cannot. He remembers what he has done.
Opened once, some doors are closed forever.
The next day, Peruc leaves Isa at the villa with the baby. She is glad to remain behind, sitting and hearing the news of the other women. Together, he and Merruan shepherd Yara and Sandro through the upper streets of Turbada Town. The House of the Hosatti lies on the far side of the bay. Merruan guides them along the high street, following the ridge that encircles the harbour.
At the halfway point, they pass the temple. Even as the town grows, the stone building sits alone on its hilltop. No shanties are built beneath its eaves. The Gate lies within, shrouded in shadows.
Peruc knew they would pass it. He was expecting the crowd gathered outside; the pendants, the wreaths of flowers, the bells. But the sight fills him with dread nonetheless. He shudders and hurries the children along, as they stare at the brightly-dressed folk, who wait for family or friends to arrive.
“We’ll come back later,” Merruan tells Sandro and Yara, but Peruc privately disagrees. The farther he can stay from the temple, the better.
The House of the Hosatti is recognizable at a distance, from the odd objects adorning its exterior. Part temple, part halfway home for the dispossessed, there are long strands of green beads strung from the siding; left by newcomers after a safe crossing. Hosatta’s Eye medallions hang among them, flimsily made from tin or copper. Other green objects can be spotted here and there — empty bottles or jars, enamel pins, necklaces and earrings. The Sibyl has touched many lives.
Merruan leads Sandro to examine the wall of offerings, while Peruc takes Yara by the hand and climbs the steps. The broad door echoes when he knocks, but there is no answer. After waiting a moment, Peruc sticks his head inside. The interior is hushed. The floor smells of fresh polish and resin. He removes his sandals carefully. There are few furnishings in the hall and no one in sight.
His voice carries in the emptiness. A distant exhalation of breath is the only answer. Peruc follows the sound, leading Yara. In an empty room at the back, its screened windows overlooking the sea, he finds an old woman. She sits in meditation by an opening in the screen.
“Salutations to Hosatta’s chosen,” Peruc intones, as he and Yara approach.
Their host opens one eye.
“I’ve come about—”
“Yes. She’s been given visions. Please, I know she is young, but—”
“If you knew she was young, why did you bring her?”
“I wanted to know what to do.” Peruc wrings his hands at the woman’s tone. He should’ve brought a gift. An offering, at least. “Whether to heed the visions or not.”
“We should always heed the visions of our children,” the woman tells him.
“She saw her mother’s struggles with childbirth,” Peruc says, lowering his voice. Yara’s gaze has drifted toward the ocean. “My wife was close to death. The vision saved her. And she has seen other things, but folk will not believe me, when I tell them—”
“People will believe what they choose to believe. My judgement will not change that.”
“Please. She has dreamt of a woman with green beads.”
“Many dream of the Sibyl. We tell children stories, do we not? I will tell you again, she is too young. At this age, a vision can be luck. Or a child’s intuition. We cannot test her.”
“I would do anything.” Peruc raises his hands in supplication.
The woman turns to look at him directly for the first time. “Why does this matter?”
And Peruc finds himself stumbling over the words, admitting what he has been afraid to say to even his own wife, to his darling Isa. “Because if she has been Shown, then we are Hosatta’s chosen. We are on the right path. I have made the right choice for my family.”
The Sibyl’s path; the traces laid across time, the footprints for her people to follow. Peruc’s grandmother once told him that Hosatta’s path would lead them to freedom; freedom from the Tekne, freedom from oppression. She passed many years ago, back in Kristembe City. Never saw the new world.
Pity flickers across the old woman’s face, as she watches Peruc. She glances in Yara’s direction. “Come here, child.”
When his daughter does not respond, Peruc reaches for her hand. “Yara, my plum, can you show—”
But he does not finish. As he clasps his daughter’s fingers, the empty room in the House of the Hosatti disappears. In its place, there is darkness. The sound of water dripping onto rock. The distant crash of waves. Familiar. A cave. Guttering torch light illuminates a man, thigh-deep in the brackish water. The curved grips of two flintlock pistols jut above his shoulders. Peruc recognizes the metallic weave of his jacket, the sigils stitched onto his straps.
A Tekne hunter.
Yara is with him. It is her vision, her eyes that he sees through. He can sense her presence with him. As they watch, the hunter pushes past a line of trembling Kaliyans, waiting in the water, their backs against the wall of the cave. There is terror in their eyes, as they see the assassin. Husbands shield wives, parents hide children. But the hunter is uninterested. Deaf to their cries.
He pushes to the front of the line and lifts himself out of the water onto a flat rock. From the darkness, a circular archway takes shape: an empty doorway, leading from nowhere to nowhere. Peruc recognizes what he is shown. A place he’d hoped to never see again. Runes in the archway glow a deep violet, as they’d done before his own crossing. The darkness is taut between the pillars. It sucks in the light of the man’s torch.
And Peruc is granted a glimpse of the violence to come. His own body, sprawled in the street. Blood paints his tunic. The hunter stands over him, pistol smoking. Yara, his little plum; her screams tear at his heart. Poor Sandro’s eyes are wide. And the crowd is silent. Blank faces watch as the hunter turns and climbs back up the steps of the temple.
Terror, as Peruc claws his way out of the Showing. The empty room at the House of the Hosatti reforms about him. His heart is in his throat, his eardrums pounding with the pain of world-transplasia. The face of the Hosatti woman appears before him.
“What just happened? Did she just—”
But Peruc is already carrying Yara towards the door.
“Did you see, da? Did you see?” Yara asks, tugging at his tunic. Her wide eyes are brimming with tears.
“I saw, my plum, I saw,” he tells her. He is running now, clutching her to him.
Merruan and Sandro are outside, still standing by the wall of offerings.
“Ah, I hadn’t expected—” Merruan breaks off as he sees Peruc’s face. “What happened?”
“There is a hunter, cousin. Here. Now. In this world.”
“A hunter? How can you be sure?”
“He’s come through the gate. He is here to kill me.”
“Calm yourself, Per. That can’t be. Why would a hunter travel all this way for you?”
Peruc sinks to his knees on the cobbles. He clutches Yara to him. His arms are shaking. Breath comes in shuddering gasps. He cannot think. He was dead. A bullet in his chest. What can he do?
He remembers again the darkened alley, the bloody knife in his fingers as he stabs the Tekne agent. Once. Twice. Three times. The clatter of its handle on the cobbles. His desperate flight through the alleyways of Kristembe City. The price of their escape. It has caught up with him. He should’ve never tried to leave. He gives the story to Merruan.
A hunter. The trained assassin of the Tekne, deafened at birth to inure them to the dangers of the crossing: the world-transplasia. No matter what the Kaliyans risk for freedom, the long arms of the syndicates follow.
“We can hide you, cousin,” Merruan suggests, earnest but fearful.
But Peruc’s path is already clear to him. He shakes his head. “No, you cannot do that. You know the hunters’ code. If they don’t find me, they will come for Isa and the children. Or you and Karolina. Only life can pay for life. I will not let you take my place.”
Merruan wrings his hands. “Per, I cannot watch you do this. Is there not a choice?”
“If there is a choice, I suppose this is mine,” Peruc tells him.
His arms are weak as he passes Yara to Merruan. She clings to him as she goes. Even Sandro is crying, although he does not understand what is happening. The commotion is turning heads.
“Take care of them,” Peruc tells his cousin. It feels as if his heart has almost stopped beating. The final moments of his life, trickling through his fingers. He cannot hide from his debt any longer. The hunter will find him, wherever he goes. Better to accept what is inevitable. “Let me say one last goodbye, at least, before he takes me.”
There are tears in Merruan’s eyes, but he nods.
They walk back up the high street. With each step, Peruc’s feet grow heavier. The hunter waits for them on the steps of the temple. The welcoming party has been muted by his arrival. Gathered families shrink back from the deaf killer. The festive air is gone. Pendants hang limp, no songs are sung.
As Peruc approaches, the Tekne killer’s eyes find him. His features crease in confusion. He lifts the flintlocks from his back. Folk stand aside to let Peruc pass.
Step, step. Halfway to the temple, Isa’s face flashes before his eyes. Her smile, at the end of a long day. Her laugh, as they tumble into bed.
Another step. No chance to say goodbye. Only a memory.
Peruc looks back at Merruan, standing with Yara and Sando. And it’s as if he has been underwater. The sound rushes back. The shriek of gulls, wheeling above the bay. The mutter of the people. The clatter of a hammer somewhere. The world-transplasia is gone — the pounding in his ears lifted, as if there was never any doubt; no question this was where he belonged. He is one of Hosatta’s chosen, one of the moments in time she has touched. Him. His family.
He stops, turns to the faces on either side. The frightened fathers. The worried mothers. Children waiting for parents. Sisters waiting for brothers. He speaks because he must speak. What does it matter now? The hunter watches from the steps, reads the words on his lips.
“Will we allow this?” Peruc asks the assembled Kaliyahs. “Will we let the Tekne continue to claim mastery? This world was meant to be different. A place where old debts were forgiven. We all paid a price to come here. If mine can be called to account, then so can any of yo—”
The butt of the hunter’s pistol strikes him in the jaw, knocking him onto the cobbles. He did not see the man approach. His head rattles from the blow. He tastes blood on his lips. Spits, tries to get the words out.
“Perhaps, I deserve this in the eyes of the syndicates,” he calls, to the watching crowd. “But what do you deserve? What crimes have you committed? When will you be judged?”
Merruan is hurrying towards him, signing to the hunter with his free hand, while he balances Yara on his hip. His daughter wails in fear. But her eyes are drawn not to her father, but to the hunter. Her fingers clutch at the lapel of Merruan’s tunic. Trying to pull him away…
Peruc’s ears are ringing from the blow, but he hears the pistol cock behind him. Merruan’s eyes go wide. He stops mid-stride and backsteps. Peruc does not hesitate, does not second guess. He surges to his feet. Leaps to shield them.
The first bullet strikes him in the shoulder. The second, in the lower back.
His body hits the cobbles, chin glancing off the stone. His vision goes dark and, when he opens his eyes again, the acrid smell of gunpowder is heavy, along with something else: the tang of blood. His blood. Numbness is spreading through his body. Feet move past him. People are running. Someone turns him over. Jostling bodies. A chink of blue sky overhead.
“Yara?” he asks, but no one hears him.
More shots ring out and Peruc tries to lift himself onto his elbows. But he is too weak. Unfamiliar hands press him back to the ground. The noises are getting farther away.
“My daughter?” he tries again.
“She’s here, we’re here.” Merruan’s face appears. His cousin is kneeling, holding Yara. Sandro is close beside them, white and trembling. Peruc extends a hand, so his children can wrap their little fingers about it.
“I saw again, da,” Yara tells him. Her face is red and tear-streaked. “I tried to stop him.”
“I know.” Peruc smiles at her. “I saw you trying. I’m so proud of you. You’ve been very brave today.” Dark spots dance before his vision. He can barely move for the pain. Blood is pooling around him. He does not have much time. “I love you both. Tell your mother I love her. Tell her every day. For me.”
He presses each of his children’s hands. Tries to wipe the tears from Yara’s cheeks. But he cannot. His arms have become too heavy.
“They are chasing the hunter out, cousin,” Merruan tells him. There is awe in his voice, beneath the grief. “Back through the gate. When he fired, people thought he’d killed — well, most didn’t see you jump in the way. They rushed him. Pelted him with loose stones. Even a hunter can bleed. They listened, I think, to what you were saying.”
“What I was saying?” Peruc has half-forgotten already. A helpless wonder kindles in his heart.
“What you were saying,” Merruan echoes. “Listen.”
A distant chant is spreading through the crowd, building in volume around them. Peruc can just make out the words. No Tekne in Turbada. No debts in the islands. He looks at his children. His hands tremble. The song of his fellow Kaliyans is a bright melody, lifting his spirit to soar with the gulls above the harbour. As his eyes close, he sees many hands, reaching for him like some kind of talisman.
And for that moment, all is right with the world.
About the author: W.A. Hamilton is a copywriter and editor, working in digital marketing. Born and raised in Canada, he currently resides in Aotearoa New Zealand with his wife and a cat that does not belong to him. In his free time, he enjoys board games, bouldering, sour beers, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki.
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