In Anmon, children danced in the playground of the dust devils.
The spirits would have eaten them if they knew, but the children were too quiet for them to notice. The boys made whorls in the mold of the dunes, while the girls traced Gebs through the sand with their smooth, dusty toes. Yet their steps were soundless all the while.
Sometimes it was so hot, you could pour a spot of milk on the ground and watch it sizzle. The desert heat swallowed noise like the sky swallowed the birds, melting them beneath its tongue.
Anmon’s children made a sport out of the silence. They learned to creep along the roofs and spook each other with shadows. They pulled the Apis’s tails and frightened the Kepru, whose large, sensitive ears could not catch the whisper of little feet on the walls.
Their mothers and fathers called it the Crystacat's foot.
A Crystacat would not even rest her paw on the point of a speck of sand. She weaved her steps with care. A Crystacat’s tail never brushed the ground—she walked with her neck long, head high, and the children who saw her always fell silent, for it was disrespectful to speak loudly in their matron’s presence.
Among the other children, Joma had one of the quietest pairs of Crystacat’s feet. She was only seven, but she could sneak up on any of her friends, even her keen-eyed stepmother—although Joma would never dare. The pads of her feet were brown and hard, baked by the afternoon sand.
On the hottest days, her father folded cloth around her ankles and fastened them with string. The string wrapped her foot tightly—once around the arch, twice above the bump of bone. She could feel it through the fabric. It made her itch.
When she told her father so, Farbhan leaned back and laughed with his head tipped back. Then he picked her up with one lean arm and set her down in his lap.
Farbhan was a young Kyrii, and Joma was his only daughter. His dark mane was luscious, without a single white streak, and Joma had overheard in the markets that the slope of his nose and jaw, which looked like the hook of a Horus beak, was considered beautifully virile.
He took one of her feet and put it against his elbow; it was less than a cubit long, and just slightly bigger than his paw. “We must buy you some proper shoes before your feet burn up like leaves,” he told her.
“My feet won’t burn up, Farbhan. I don’t need shoes.”
He laughed. “You’ll regret saying that later, after the sand turns your pads into little black crisps.”
Joma turned her head, trying not to squirm. Farbhan’s shoulder filled her face. “They won’t do that, Farbhan!”
“They will,” her father said sternly. “Then we will have to crack open the burnt parts, and you’ll be left with bright pink feet, as tender as they were when you were a baby. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”
Joma hated wearing shoes, but couldn’t stand the image of her lovely feet turning charred as burnt bread. “I’d hate it, Farbhan.”
“Then tomorrow I’ll tell Dhazy to buy you a pair. Until then, you must walk in the shade.”
Farbhan’s laughter shook his chest, sending quakes along her back. He smelled like hot stones and pyrmat spices. Just outside, heavy footsteps were crunching along the streets, each with a resounding boom, boom, boom. It was their guardians, the sandstone soldiers, walking past their front door. They were clearing away the hissing Crystacats.
“Will you please finish telling me the story of the Gebmids tonight?”
Farbhan patted her knees. "Of course, my little queen."
The nomads approached from the east, at low sun, on the broad humps of their Apis. They, the Dharmani, were all colored silver. They wore violet cloaks and dim, glittering veils, but their faces shone like the scimitar, glinting in the sun.
Joma had seen them already, two years before and the year before that, but she was always surprised by how much they stood out. Anmon had greenery in sparse little patches, sprouting from the oasis’s pools. But for the most part, the city was just like its people: quietly brown, dry, and baking.
The Dharmani looked like stars in comparison. There were rumors that they were here before any other people walked these lands—that they were the first true people of Mentu.
They trekked in, past the guardians—who let them through—and into Farbhan’s house. Farbhan greeted them as he always did: with tight embraces, the warmest of welcomes, and his best bottle of sherry wine.
Shefesh, the son of one of the Dharmani elders, held Joma’s paws behind Dhazy’s flustered eyes. “Look at you!” he whispered. “Little Joma is growing brighter and brighter by the year! Tell me, how is your magic coming along?”
“I’m the top of my class,” Joma admitted. “I know how to cast air charms now.”
The Gnorbu beamed, his cheeks glimmering in the lamplight. “Then you must show us, yes? After I catch up with your father.” He gave her a wink. “If you’ve started the elementals already, then my sister might like to show you a few tricks.”
She gasped, heart fluttering. “Really? Really?”
“Later,” Shefesh stressed, ushering her back to Dhazy. “For now, you should go find Assun. He’s quite excited to see you again.”
With that, her stepmother whisked her out of the room, and she went to find Assun. Among the Dharmani, there were no girls her age—so she had befriended Assun, the youngest boy. He was only a little older than she was, but as an Elephante, he was far larger in presence. Joma secretly admired his good nature.
After they hugged and said hellos, the first thing Joma made him do was take her to see the Seti.
The Dharmani’s Apis were magnificent beasts, mounted and pampered like kings. But the tribe was truly known for their hunting Seti. They were slender, long-legged sables, handsome in the face, bred twice the size of their wilder kin—taller than Joma by an inch. There was a regality in their bearing, an elegance in the way their sleek bodies unfurled as they loped across the dunes, guarding their keepers from the venomous Erisim.
Joma loved the hunting Seti. Every time she saw them, she fed them fistfuls of sugar and rice, ignoring the way Assun shook his head in disapproval. She loved the way the Seti nipped her hands, twin tails swishing back and forth.
After a while, Assun dragged her away to show her his tribe’s yearly wares. He split a leather bag, and from it spilled a river of colorful cloth, sewn and stitched with spidery finesse. The cool emeralds and blossoming scarlets glowed in the moonlight. Joma dipped her round paws through the fabric. It was softer than wool, slicker than water. This was liquid thread in her hands.
“It’s silk, from the high north,” Assun proclaimed with pride. “The road through Altador is dangerous now that King Heksas has moved in, so we had to walk the whole stretch of the Hadar Mountains to get these. But the gold—oh, the gold will be worth every step of it. We plan on selling it to your princes at double its worth.”
“Is it magic?”
“No, it was weaved by hand. All their textiles are, I think.” He cupped her ear and whispered, “Can you imagine wearing something made out of silk? Wouldn’t it be incredible to have silk scarves, or silk gloves, or—“
“I’ll have a wedding dress in silk,” she announced.
They burst into giggles. Assun folded the silk back into place. Joma followed the motion with her eyes, feeling a pang in her stomach. Farbhan and Dhazy weren’t that rich yet, but when they were, Joma would buy a thousand silk robes. She imagined this was what faerie veils were made of.
Assun beckoned her away. “Come on, let’s find my brother. He’s a better storyteller than I am, and there’s so much to tell you about the path through Hadar.”
“Did you see any faeries?”
“In the mountains? Don’t be ridiculous. We did see a flying ship, but I suppose you wouldn’t care about something as plain as that…”
She gasped. “No! No, Assun! A flying ship? You have to tell me!”
With a grin, Assun left her grasp and thumped across the starry courtyard—thump, thump, thump. “No way! You wouldn’t be interested, anyway!”
“Assun!” Joma shrieked, and chased after him.
From the west, and through the south, the region of Mentu collapsed before the feet of King Heksas the conqueror. The Dharmani, who brought the most news, called him an evil spirit. They were not the only ones to do so.
Servants and hawkers, beggars and merchants—all the people of the city turned coldly away from Heksas’s name. The princes and princesses openly expressed their own loathing. From her palace in the heart of Anmon, the exalted Queen Massar spoke to the crowds, banishing their fears. She did not hesitate to rebuke him with the fire of her words, even before Heksas’s messengers. She swore to them that their king would fall.
Because the Queen’s words were truth, Farbhan and Dhazy were not afraid of what was happening outside the walls. So then, neither was Joma. She crouched on the rooftops in her new white shoes, forming sigils of fire in the diamond demarcated by her touching forefingers and thumbs. It wouldn’t be long before monsoon season struck. The sun looked like buttery yolk, oozing into the coppice.
Meanwhile, below her, the guardians marched on.
Many years ago, when Joma’s mother, her Morbhan, was still alive, the city had been threatened by a different war. Morbhan had held Joma by the paws and fiercely said, “We will never be in danger here. The guardians will protect this city. So long as Queen Massar lives, we will be safe, safe from everything.”
Then, she had pointed out the window. One of the stone giants was walking past. Like all soldiers, it was massive, puzzled together from thick sanded slabs and spell-carved blocks. The glyph of Anmon was glowing on its chest. From deep in the chambers of its hollow throat, Joma heard the familiar guardian call—a deep stuttering of magic, guttural, musical, as if someone were blowing into a glass bottle.
“Queen Massar’s magic keeps our guardians alive. That is why we must give her all of our strength, and send her good spirits to keep her healthy for all eternity.” Morbhan pressed two rare kisses on Joma’s ears. “Queen Massar will protect us,” she had murmured.
The guardians could destroy any army, defeat any champion. Joma made the sigil of war in her hands, which Shefesh’s sister had taught her just the day before. She paused, looked down, and saw that one of the guardians had drawn close, pausing in its patrol to observe her. Its hollowed eyes were filled with a pink, cleansing light.
Joma stared back, wondering what to do. The guardian turned away and continued its march.
Anmon’s guardians could sense all of the children, no matter how quiet they were. They were beyond the reach of mortal beings, as stubborn as the stone—untouchable, unconquerable.
The yolk of the sun was spilling over the clouds, now, and Dhazy would be angry if Joma was late. She slid off her perch and hoped that supper’s soup would have pomegranates.
But when she came home, supper was forgotten. News from the neighboring settlement of Wari had arrived.
Farbhan’s brother, Uncle Zirkar, lived there. It was only a day and night’s ride from Anmon. Uncle Zirkar was nothing like Farbhan, or even Joma herself. He was a melancholy Zafara, dulled and sagging at the shoulders. After his wife died, he had been robbed of most of his joy, and, according to Farbhan, was stuck in an extended period of mourning.
Joma wasn’t close to Uncle Zirkar, but she knew he was a good brother to Farbhan. When word spread that Wari was taken by civil war, Farbhan became a wild thing. “It’s Heksas’s influence, corrupting the people,” he insisted, pacing the perimeter of his rooms. “I must make sure my brother is safe. I’ll even bring him back with me if I need to.”
The Dharmani lent him two of their Apis, and Shefesh lent him his Seti. It was a great honor, and a great debt, which Farbhan would one day repay. In a frenzy of determination, he packed for the journey in half a night, kissed Dhazy goodbye, and knelt before her, his daughter, little Joma.
“Take care of Dhazy,” he instructed. “She might be lonely while I’m gone, but I’ll be back soon. Be a good daughter to her, like you’ve always been. Don’t cause any trouble.”
“I won’t, Farbhan.”
“Good girl,” Farbhan said. Then he swung himself up on the carpets of the Apis and set off for Wari.
Joma did not fear for her father. He had told her, once, that they were the Kyrii of Mentu, great warriors and sorceresses with strong hearts in their chests.
But Dhazy did fear, and threw herself into housework with twice the vigor. Joma knew, from an afternoon of shameful eavesdropping, that Dhazy was secretly worried that Farbhan would leave her entirely, because Dhazy was not the same goddess that Morbhan had been. Farbhan had worshipped Morbhan with an intensity that was almost frightening. If given the chance, he would have built a shrine and pillar in Morbhan’s honor, and a tomb larger than Sekmet’s for her grave.
Of course, Farbhan would never abandon Dhazy for that. He was not so dishonorable. Secretly, Joma wished that they would give her a new sibling soon, a smaller sister or a little brother to dote on—someone else to spook. But that would have to wait until Farbhan returned from Wari.
Joma didn’t need a distraction like Dhazy did, but Assun gave her one, anyway. He took her out to the plains and showed her how they led the Seti. In the wilderness, he said, the Seti never stopped moving. They were born for the hunt. At their heart, they were natural predators, graceful and savage. You could see it, a strange wildfire in their eyes.
“This is Sharazakh.” Firmly, Assun patted the sable at his side. “He’s the third-youngest of the pack. He got sick in the mountains, but he jumped right back. He’s a real fighter, you see.”
Sharazakh the Seti was stunning. Joma cooed, stroking his snout and the faint ruff beneath his chin.
Assun taught her the different commands. Diya to heel, Beleen to scout, and Nakom to stand guard. Inat was the call for a free hunt, but the Dharmani rarely used it. The Seti were always hunting.
“Beleen!” Assun barked. Sharazakh circled past them, skimming the bleached grasses. He was the purest, blackest of birds, flying low and free.
The Elephante poked her. “Now you try, Joma. Remember the command?”
Joma nodded. “Diya!” she shouted.
For a moment, Sharazakh froze, his head swiveling around to stare at her, and Joma thought he might disobey. But then he trotted back, his split tail held behind him like a magnificent fan. He slowed to a stop right in front of her, pushed his nose into her thigh, and Joma squeaked with delight. She didn’t think she had ever been happier.
When the evil magic rolled across the land, Joma was in school, practicing fire glyphs beneath the table. “What’s that?” one of her friends asked, then. They peered out the window, clambering on chairs, boxes, and backs.
Outside, a large, dark plume was rising, breaking the leathery clouds. It looked scarlet in the sun, and was growing bigger by the second. Joma only blinked once, but already it was twice the size it was before.
The city began to quake. The teachers ushered them all outside. Joma heard the heartbeat of the guardians as they pounded through the streets, strong and tall as towers. They were moving to the outskirts, to protect the city at its borders.
Anmon’s voice was the people’s voice. Anmon was caught in Joma’s tongue, in the marrow of her teeth. “Evacuate, by the order of the Queen!” Anmon called. “Look at the wicked magic, stirring up the sands! It is Heksas! King Heksas is here!”
Joma and her classmates looked at each other. Then they slipped away from the adults, each to their own.
Joma’s heart was fluttering. Her lungs felt terribly small. Around her, the people were swarming to the city square, where the portal glyph was inscribed. It would take them to Sephat, near Sakhmet. Families were rummaging through their homes for their treasures and their loved ones, testing how much of their life’s worth they could save.
King Heksas’s red wind hadn’t hit them yet, but the ringing screams and wails were fit for mourning. People were losing their homes. Joma looked at the market street. Things were strewn about in bright, gabbling messes, the juices of fruits spilling into the gutters. This was the destruction of a different kind of hurricane.
She took to the rooftops to look for Dhazy, and found her with a few of the Dharmani. Dhazy looked smaller than a speck, lost in the ocean of brown veils, but the Dharmani flanked her in a violet box, guiding her to the square. Joma almost ran to join them. But then she glanced back over her shoulder and saw, at the far edge of the city, a black shape rushing up the hillside.
One of the Seti had been left behind.
Joma jumped down into the streets and pushed past the stream of the horde. The sandstone buildings blurred, stark-white on the reddening sky. She didn’t realize how far she had ran until she saw the guardians again, striding solemnly to war as a little Kyrii dashed between their legs.
No wonder Queen Massar wanted everyone to leave, she thought as she ran. The desert was on King Heksas’s side, and nobody won against the desert. Not even the guardians.
Everyone had expected an army, not this. Silly them. Silly Queen Massar.
The Seti hurtled towards her. “Diya!” she cried, wondering if it would hear her and stop, or if it would flicker past her, like the shadows of mosaics in lanterns. “Diya!” she screamed again, her voice cracking.
Sharazakh skidded to a halt at her feet, whistling in distress. Joma thought she might cry. “We have to go to Assun,” she tried to tell him through the howl of whipping winds. They stung her eyes, forcing grit between her teeth.
Sharazakh gave another whistling whine. Heksas’s hurricane was so close now. It loomed over them, whirling with demons. Joma turned to run, but one of the demons knocked her to the ground, snapping at her shoes.
Then, the winds disappeared.
She sat up and turned her head. A stone guardian gazed back.
It was blocking the fury of the storm, and she was sitting on its knees, feeling the stuttering thrum of magic through her back. Slowly, the guardian lifted its helmet, revealing a gaping hole instead of a neck. Joma twisted around even further to look at the symbol on its chest.
The glyph of Anmon wasn’t there anymore. It had been replaced with the glyph of the people.
For the first time in sixty years, Queen Massar had changed their command.
Protect my people, she had said.
The guardian bowed lower, showing her the chamber of its torso. Joma glanced up and saw only the crimson wind. She scrambled into the stone, landing in a heap at the bottom. Sharazakh dove in after her.
Once again, the guardian’s helmet eclipsed the light. In the muted space, Joma realized she was wheezing. Her knees wobbled weakly. She reached out in the darkness for Sharazakh’s silhouette. In that instant, he felt softer and lovelier than silk.
The Queen’s magic enveloped her in a pallid light. With each blink, Joma saw rosy hues beneath her eyelids. The world shifted as the guardian rose to its feet and began to walk—to where, she didn’t know.
Sharazakh crooned at her, long and low. She buried herself into his neck.
The guardian walked onward.
Joma opened her eyes to the sound of the Queen’s magic fading. It shuddered and groaned, startling her awake.
The guardian had come to a halt. When she tipped its helmet onto the sand and lifted herself into the open, the sky was clear, the air purified. Around them, the desert sea was one long, endless ripple, flowing over the world’s edge.
Beneath her, Sharazakh nudged her stomach. They tumbled over the rim of the hole and onto the fluffy dunes. Joma walked off a short distance, turned around, and watched as the Queen’s magic spluttered into silence.
The death of the soldier was breathtaking. Its chest caved inward, broad arms crumbling as they fell. The plate of its stomach was wiped of any trace of the glyph. It sank to its knees and fell silently, magnificently, sandstone raining from its frame. It was like watching a soul break free.
Joma found herself sobbing. After a few moments, she scrubbed her tears away.
Farbhan had told her that Mentu’s people were strong. They were as ageless as the sand, enduring war, drought, and toil. Joma, too, was Anmon’s girl, a Kyrii blessed by the Queen. Her family needed her to endure.
She looked around, at the vast, pale plain. Dhazy and Assun would be in Sephat, she realized, thousands of river’s lengths away. They were all refugees now, but at least they would be safe. Sephat lay on the boundaries of Sekhmet’s empire, and Sephat’s ruler was King Sobek the Wise. He was the figure of the Khonsu, as powerful as Queen Massar herself. There were even faeries in his council. If Dhazy and the Dharmani were in Sephat, evil King Heksas would never be able to reach them.
The husk of Anmon was nowhere in sight, but the sands in front of her had given way to the green growth of the mountains. Joma caught a glimpse of a familiar, white-capped village, steeped in the faraway hill. Her heart skipped a little.
Her guardian had been walking south, abandoning the city. It had been taking her to Wari.
Joma dug through the sandstone rubble. The only thing left intact were the guardian’s boots—cracked at the soles and heel, but still mostly whole. Her own shoes were almost ripped away at the seams.
It was too hot to walk the sands barefooted, so she blew a feather spell on the boots and lifted them up. When she slipped them on, they were clunky and went up to her knees. The insides were carved to cool, perfect smoothness. Her first step sloshed the sand with a whuff and a solid thump.
There was Wari, right in front of her. Farbhan would still be there, along with Uncle Zirkar. Joma couldn’t walk to Dhazy in Sephat, but she could walk to Farbhan. She could tell him that Dhazy was safe. Then she could tell him about the guardian of Anmon, who protected her and gave her its sandstone boots.
She was a child of the Mentu, and so she would survive.
Her sandstone boots thudded across the dunes. They made her feel untouchable, unconquerable. “Beleen,” she said, and Sharazakh streaked across the sands, his pelt a brilliant disc, inking the fluid scripts of the Dharmani’s ancestry around them.
Joma walked onward.