by LISA M. GREEN
With incredible speed for a man of his age, Prime Julos bounds from the firehouse, just as Mori turns to me with a visage of apprehension that I’ve never seen him wear before. I’m still angry at him for his previous comments, but at the moment we are united by a common enemy, and there are more important things at stake.
“Do you think we should check on Gani?” he asks me with trepidation dripping from his voice.
“Yeah, it would probably be a good idea. Why don’t you run back to the hut while I stay here to keep an eye on the fire?” My face dares him to make a snarky comment.
“Rinni, look. There’s no point in all this. You were right. It was my responsibility to keep the fire going. But I swear to you that I was watching the whole time, and there was nothing I know of that I could have done to stop it. It just . . . disappeared into the ash.” I wish he wouldn’t do that. Here I was, planning on being mad at him for the rest of the day or perhaps longer, and he has to go and apologize. It’s amazing how easily he does that.
“Don’t waste time with all of that. I know. I’ve seen it too, remember? Just please go check on Gani and come right back. Hurry!”
I need to make sure that Bhradon is safe. My mind falters with a sudden sickening realization. It’s Seventh Day. Oh, please no . . . it’s Seventh Day!
As Mori runs from the firehouse, my mind is already imagining the worst. Seventh Day . . . Bhradon would have been outside the gates last night on Sixth Day patrolling the western planting grounds. Would he be back by now? It could have happened anytime during the night!
I can’t do this. I have to check on him now.
Luckily, I run into Jinsa almost immediately. Actually, what I mean to say is I collide violently with her as I careen in a sideways track out of the door to the hut.
“Rinni, what are . . . why did you . . . hey, wait! Where are you going? Is Mori tending the fire?” she asks in a perplexing and slightly perturbed manner. Even at this harrowing moment, there is some amusement to be found in her attempts to show anger. Jinsa never truly gets mad at anyone.
I barely hear her words from further down the path as I had never stopped my forward motion, having quickly picked up a sprint again without missing more than a stride or two. “He went to check on Gani. Could you please handle the fire till he gets back? Bhradon was on patrol last night!”
There is no doubt in my mind that she understands what I mean by that statement. Everyone knows that Bhradon is my mate, whether they approve or not. Please don’t let it be him!
Even as the thought enters my head, I know that it is a selfish one. But hoping that it is no one is fruitless, and I cannot imagine my life without him. We have been friends since I was very young and bonded in our hearts as I became old enough to understand and appreciate such subtleties. Our people, especially Gani, do not like the fact that he is older than I am. While we’re both still considered young, Bhradon is forty-two years old, while I am only thirty-two. I say only because that is the way that many here see it. In their eyes, I am too young for him, too inexperienced in life by comparison, and frankly not good enough.
Bhradon has been one of the most sought-after males among our people for years, with mothers once parading their daughters in front of his parents’ home as if they were the latest crop to be harvested. Not once would he even look at them. It was quite a disgusting display, if you ask me. But that was a few years ago. He has since passed the appropriate age when young girls entering the period of bonding at twenty-eight should be available as mates. Those females have long since bonded with others and started families of their own.
The talk in the village for some time was that he did not like women and preferred to be alone. But they were all blinded by their own desires. Deep down, they knew the truth. Bhradon loves me. He always will. He has waited all this time for me, and we are bonded now: in heart, body, and soul. I was far too young at the time for anything physical to be appropriate, but Bhradon is an extremely patient man. The Primaries would force everyone to acknowledge it officially if we asked, but I keep waiting for our people to open their eyes themselves and realize there are more important things at stake than their stubborn pride. Until then, he and I are both content to live apart and steal moments alone as often as we can. Obviously we would rather live together as mates, but Bhradon understands how important the acceptance of our friends and family is to me.
You should hear Gani going on about it. She’s been a guardian to my brother and me since we were fairly young. After our parents died, she was the closest family we had. Gani is our great-mother, our mother’s mother. Ganitha is her real name, but only Mori and I call her Gani. I guess it’s our way of giving her a parental title that is all her own. At one hundred and thirty-four years old, you’d think she would tire of village gossip. She listens to the talk in town far too much if you ask me, but I don’t think she means half of what she says.
A large crowd is gathered ahead of me in the distance as I rush onward to the gates, my long dark hair racing away from me, desperate to fly far away, bouncing with every bounding step, every tread that takes me closer and closer to the truth. Pushing aside as many people as I physically can in my haste, I distinctly notice the absence of my objective. I can usually feel on some level when he is near, but my heart is beating so fast that I cannot trust my own internal observations. Both anxious to see and terrified to look, I find myself panting breathlessly after my arduous dash from the firehouse. My pants and tunic cling to me, covered in sweat and desperation. And now that I’m here, my legs betray me when I attempt to move again. Does the root of fear somehow lie in the lower extremities?
My breath is quickening, and I can feel a panic attack coming on. Oh no, not now!
Well, of course now! When else have I had a better reason to panic? The salty liquid languishing on my upper lip is the first indicator to me that I am now openly crying. I don’t cry very often, but I see all of my life before now rushing at me in a blaze of images, and they are all of Bhradon.
In the midst of my preemptive grief, strong arms envelop me in the gentlest of embraces. I look up.
“Shhh! What’s all this about? No worries, beautiful! I’m here. You’re here. That’s all that matters. No need for tears.” Half-smiling, he adds, “You keep that up, and you just might get too ugly and swollen for my taste.”
I want to hug him, kiss him, hit him as hard as I can. How can he say something like that at a time like this? He knows, though. He knows exactly what I had been thinking this whole time. He does this so often I sometimes wonder if he can really read my mind. He knows I am having one of my panic attacks. And he is here, here with me. Alive, and here with me. I sigh loudly but end up sobbing in mute relief.
None of this changes the wail of the steam-powered sirens as they scream their message across the entire village: the Shadows have returned.
And someone is dead.