This is now. This is the present.
This is the time to lay aside our past, and the nostalgia that buffs our happy memories until they gleam. We must keep our eyes from straying towards the future, with its hazy aura of wishful thinking. The present is yet the hot ground under my feet, the hunger in my belly, the insect buzzing in my ear. It is the pause after the question I cannot answer.
I spent most of my life living apart from this city. I could look down on the Shadar from the windows in the temple, but I could not remember what it felt like to walk through the streets with the dirt kicking up in clouds around my feet or the heat pulsing from the whitewashed houses in the flaming noonday sun. I could only imagine what it felt like to have running children knock into my legs and then dart away, laughing, while I pretended to scold them. I used to be able to smell the sea when the wind blew from the east, but I only could imagine standing on the beach with that same wind blowing through my clothes, listening to the thin voices of the men on the fishing boats calling out to each other or singing ancient songs.
It was nearly thirty years ago that the Dead Ones came to the Shadar, with their white hair and skin, their blue blood, their silent language and their gleaming swords, to dig the black ore out of our mountains. They housed their flying beasts in our sacred temple, enslaved our people and made weapons – black blades, mixed with their own blood, that obeyed their minds as well as their hands – which they then used to carve the rest of the world into the mighty Norland Empire.
The temple is gone now, destroyed by the mad ambition of the Norland governor’s elder daughter, and by the grief felt by one little boy – a Shadari child with the ancient power of our people to move the rocks and sands – for his murdered mother. The entrances to the black ore mines are now blocked up with boulders and the Shadar is free from the rule of the Norland Empire. The city is my home now – but it is not as I once imagined it would be.
Now I walk past houses charred by the fires that swept through three months ago on the night when Frea Eotan, the White Wolf, tried to destroy it all. I see children sitting among the rubble, hungry and crying. I no longer need to imagine the beach, but I have to hold my breath as I pass between smoking funeral pyres to make my way down to the sea. The men on the fishing boats don’t sing anymore.
Ours is a victory counted in losses.
We have sent emissaries to the emperor across the sea to bargain for our continued freedom: the Norland governor’s son, Eofar; the child Dramash, whose terrible power to move the sands cannot be controlled, and the soldier, Rho, atoning for his crimes.
Our allies are few. King Jachad and the Nomas have come to our aid again and again, but they must roam: their men to the desert, their women to the sea. The Mongrel has disappeared, taking her secrets along with her. A drink in any tavern will buy you an account of her death, but I know this: if the Mongrel is dead, it is only because someone new has walked away in her boots.
And there is Isa, the Norlander governor’s youngest daughter, sister to the White Wolf, who stood with us in the uprising against her own people. Victory took her sister, her status, her sword, her left arm, and the love of her gods. It took the hopes she had for a future with the man she loves, who loves her more than his own life. Victory did not take Isa’s courage, nor her honour, because nothing ever could.
Our Shadari ancestors decided to protect our future by destroying our past. It was a decision made in fear and exhaustion. Now our history goes no further back than a glance over our shoulder, and yet I can feel that past closing in on us now, edging its way towards a reckoning. Forgetting what went before neither erases it nor absolves its debtors. Just because you don’t remember drinking in the morning doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for the wine.
And I fear the bill for our victory is about to come due.