ESTHESIA

Safiyah's sister greets her at the gates of her village with an incredulous stare.

"Amani," Safiyah says stiffly. There is a moment's silence before the sisters embrace. She is welcomed. Then Amani looks to Zavala and Hakim. She simply raises an eyebrow.

Days pass.

"I don't think she likes me." Zavala speaks softly over Hakim sleeping in the makeshift cradle in Amani's home.

"She definitely doesn't like me," Targe says, emerging.

"Why do you say that?" Safiyah asks.

"She said, 'I don't like you,' " Targe answers. "To both of us."

Safiyah frowns. "She likes Hakim," she offers. That will have to be enough.

Her sister's village is small, but well-fortified, a wall of wooden stakes around their homes. They scrape vegetables and bitter rye from the earth and keep livestock in the barn.

Safiyah and Zavala build their home there. Years pass. Hakim grows. Zavala holds his hands as the boy toddles on young, unsteady feet.

Clack, clack.

Safiyah knits in her favorite chair, something once precious she had left behind. Through the window, she sees Zavala and their son spar with wooden swords in the field behind their home. It is play. Their son is nine. Safiyah can hear the clack of wood on wood in the autumn air. Her eyes drop back to her yarn.

Clack, clack.

Their son is twelve. She sees Zavala correct Hakim's stance, raise his arms, straighten his back. The boy only comes up to his father's elbows. Targe circles around them. The yarn shifts around her fingers as she passes it from needle to needle.

Clack, clack.

Their son is fifteen. The sleeve of the sweater she works on lengthens. It is summer, but she knits for the colder months ahead. Her sister sits beside her, cleaning a rifle and counting bullets.

"We're overdue for a raid," Amani says, as if she were remarking on a low crop yield, bad weather, or a stillborn calf—just another hardship, inevitable. Bullets clink together in her lap.

Safiyah spreads the woolen sweater over her knees.

"For Hakim?" Amani asks. Safiyah nods.

"He outgrows them every two months. He needs new trousers too. I can see his ankles."

The final clack of the swords clatters out, and she looks up.

Safiyah sees the flash of a metal blade in Hakim's hand. She throws down her knitting and runs to them. The knife is at Zavala's throat when she reaches them.

"What are you doing!"

It is not a question. It is an admonition. Zavala steps back and gestures to the knife in Hakim's hands.

"I'm teaching him how to defend himself."

Safiyah reaches for her son, holds Hakim to her chest. She kisses the crown of his head, whispers softly into the curls of his hair. But he pushes her away, steps back, stares up at her defiantly.

"I can do it," he says. "It's just a lesson!"

Safiyah looks to Zavala, shaking her head in disbelief.

"He needs to be prepared to take a life." He speaks gently, as if he had not just asked his son to slit his throat.

"He is a child," she says.

Hakim takes a breath, frowns, begins to speak. Zavala touches his shoulder.

"Do you think that matters to the Fallen?" His voice is dark.

Safiyah takes the knife from her son's hand and holds it by the flat of the blade. An edge for harming, not healing.

She knows Zavala is right, and hates it.

***

That night, Safiyah's sister stays up with her, talking by candlelight.

"It's been years." Amani clicks her tongue. "He'll never see the way we do. They can't."

"I don't believe that."

"I know you don't."

Amani laughs, but Safiyah is silent, frowning. He must understand.

Her sister sighs.

"He loves you."

Safiyah nods.

"He loves Hakim."

She nods again.

"Then maybe that is enough."

When she returns home, Safiyah finds Zavala watching over Hakim as he sleeps. Zavala rises, pulls the blanket a little higher over Hakim's shoulder, then brushes his fingers over his son's cheek.

Safiyah realizes then that in all the Risen's long, unenviable years, they were never once children.

She reaches for Zavala, and he takes her into his arms, a silent question of forgiveness.

"Let him be a child for a little longer," she whispers into his ear. "You will miss these days when they have gone."

TAXIA

Category: Book: Triage

ALGIA

Empty Vessel

Category: Zavala

Eternal Blazon