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Seven years ago, Isika’s mother walked out of the desert with three children in tow, leading the priest of the Worker village to marry her and take in her children. In all those years, fourteen-year-old Isika has never been able to fit in as a Worker or live up to her role as the priest's daughter, and worse, she has been helpless against the tragedies that have fallen on her family.
But now the four goddesses they serve want another sacrifice, and Isika's stepfather has chosen the next child to be sent out to sea: the little brother who Isika loves more than anything.
This time Isika will not be powerless.
Together, she and her two remaining siblings leave the walls of the Worker village to save their brother, traveling into unknown lands and magic they never could have imagined.
The woman held her breath as she approached the high walls of the village. The walls shimmered with heat. She walked toward them slowly with the great desert at her back, two of her three young children stumbling along behind her. She carried the sleeping three-year-old on her shoulders, the weight lodging a painful kink in her neck that pinched and trailed down her spine under the merciless sun. The woman’s name was Amani. In one hand, she held a bow, and her back was bent under the weight of a large satchel she wore slung over one shoulder; all their possessions. When she reached the wall, she found that it was taller than her, and made of thick stone. She placed her free hand on the wall and flinched as she felt the demon magic seething within it. Her shoulders slumped and she pulled her hand back from the wall. Beside her, her six-year-old boy whimpered, and at the sound, her eyes flitted to him and his sister, seven years old now, though when they had started their journey, she was still six. The two of them stood leaning on each other, dusty tear tracks showing on the girl’s cheeks, which were much hollower than a child’s cheeks should be. All three of Amani’s children were so thin, no matter how much of her own food Amani put into their wooden bowls at mealtime. A slender, white-barked tree stood nearby, and Amani knew that the little ones couldn’t walk much longer.
“Here, sit in the shade. Isika, you sit there,” she pointed to a spot that seemed clean and soft. “There’s room for Ben too. That’s it.”
She carefully lifted the sleeping toddler from her shoulders, laying her in a hollow between two roots of the tree and unwrapping her long head covering to cover the tiny girl.
“Wait here a moment,” she told the two older children. “Mama is going to take a little look at this wall. Have some water. Drink carefully and share!” she said, then smiled at them. “Play the water game.” In the water game, the sister and brother took turns having sips of water, the tiniest they could manage, passing the water skin back and forth between them. It used up time and kept them from gulping water, which could be dangerous in the scorching desert that had been their home for many months.
Isika’s eyes lit up at mention of a game. She was the older and braver of the two. The woman stroked her daughter’s hair and touched her cheek gently, and tapped the boy on his chin with her knuckle, before straightening and turning, her eyes on the wall. The walls that surrounded the village made her sick to her stomach. The city they had fled, many months ago, had also been surrounded by walls. Amani had hoped to find a new place, free of poisoned walls.
She approached the high barrier again, one hand on her belly, which went before her like the prow of a ship. The baby moved heavily within her and she flinched as an elbow or foot knocked her ribs. She knew it wouldn’t be much longer until the baby demanded to come into the world, and she felt the familiar tendrils of panic reaching along her spine and flickering into her mind.
She walked along the length of the wall, ignoring her fear and exhaustion, looking for any sign of a breach. She only wanted to see within—she didn’t want to be seen before she was ready to show herself. She walked a long way, searching, and it was after her children were out of sight that she found it: a large crack in the wall that gave just enough of an opening to gaze through. She put her eye to the wall, registering a market square with stalls of food and goods.
She gasped, drawing back, one hand on her heart and the other on her belly. After a moment she laughed at herself. It was silly to be afraid of any person. She heard the words of her own deceased mother in her head, chiding her for being afraid. But these weren’t the people she was looking for. For seven months Amani had been searching for her mother’s people, and the place where Amani had been born. This wasn’t the place, even at first glance she knew it, because the people she saw through the wall had pale white skin. The woman stared at her own hands on the wall; as dark against the sandstone as black tree branches against the dawn. She lifted a hand to her face and looked again through the crack in the wall. The people were the palest she had ever seen. Of course she had seen white people in the walled city, but one or two maybe, and at a distance. Never so many at one time. Her courage faltered. She wondered if the people of this village had ever seen a woman with black skin.
There were about a dozen men, women, and children in the market square before her. The women wore heavy, long dresses that covered them from wrist to neck, neck to ankle in dark, dull material. They had long, straight hair that didn’t look real. Amani wondered whether they were wearing wigs, to have hair in such strange colors, hanging like a cloth on a clothesline. She reached a hand to her own head, where her short, tightly curled hair was slowly growing, after she had shaved her head to make it easier to care for on the journey.
Amani stared at her hands again, seeing the way her wrists jutted from her thin arms and her hands looked impossibly large. They had been walking for so many months with little more to eat than the occasional rabbits she could kill with her bow. The baby shifted in her belly. She sighed, and the sigh came from the deepest part of her. This was the end of wandering. She couldn’t go farther, she had no more strength. She had run away from the walled city, desperate to protect her children, and here they were, at this village that reeked of demon magic. It was this or death. She only hoped that they were merciful here, merciful to those who looked different, merciful to strangers. It didn’t appear that they were kind, she thought, craning her neck to look at the broken glass stuck along the top of the wall. But she would have to use everything she had left within her to gain their trust.
“Help me, Mother,” she whispered, feeling the familiar ache of loss. If only her mother was still here. She would know what to do.
The reaction of the villagers was even stronger than she had feared, though thankfully they did not become violent. As Amani and her children walked through the main gate of the village, the littlest girl on Amani’s hip, the older two holding hands tightly beside her, the people stopped what they were doing and stared, terror plain as daylight on their pale faces. The village children wailed, and a few women picked up babies and ran headlong, in a panic. Amani thought wryly, that, seeing their reactions, that she had been right to wonder whether the people of this village had ever seen black people before. She was almost certain they hadn’t. She stood as straight as she could, her head high.
“Do you see how silly it is to be afraid, children?” she asked in a low voice. “You must never give into fear.”
“They look so strange, Mother,” her daughter replied in a whisper.
“Don’t fear what is different, love. This is another game. A chance to learn.” She cast her eyes around for someone who might be brave enough to offer a cool drink and answers to Amani’s questions. She spotted a tomato seller at a stall nearby, who was standing straight, though her face was pale and still. She had hair of a color that Amani had never seen; bright orange, pulled behind her, curling in tendrils like the creepers of bean plants. Amani walked toward the stall, and though the woman took a step back, she didn’t flee.
“Greetings,” Amani said. The woman nodded swiftly, tears standing in her blue eyes. “Don’t worry,” Amani said. She couldn’t help herself. “I’m only a person as well. Not a demon or a ghost.” The woman lifted her head and dashed at her cheeks with the backs of her hands. She gave a short bark of laughter, not meeting Amani’s eyes.
“I should be ashamed of myself. Please, mother, sit. You look as though you’ve traveled far.” The woman fetched four cups of water from a bucket behind her while Amani sat. For once, Amani didn’t make her children play the water game. She watched in silence as they gulped. Now that she was sitting, weariness crashed into her with such force that there was every chance she would not be able to find them the shelter they needed.
Summoning her strength, Amani asked her question. “Who is in charge of this village?”
“The priest,” the woman said, her eyebrows shooting up. She glanced away and used her chin to point somewhere in the distance behind Amani. “But you won’t have to search for him, because here he is, coming to us.”
Amani looked. In the distance, a building rose from the earth, a strange red cube, and from it strode an old man. He wore deep black robes that contrasted heavily with his pale white skin and even paler hair. She felt stirrings of understanding with her and she bowed her head, taking a long, deep breath to ready herself for a last effort to save her children.
SEVEN YEARS LATER
Isika looked nothing like her father. It was an awareness that had always hummed underneath the regular work and sleep of her daily life, something the neighbors watched and gossiped about, something she brooded about during the evening offering, peeking from beneath her eyelids as she bowed her head. Isika’s skin was dark, like the large sooty garden moths. Her father had long, papery limbs, pale as the moon. Lately, her father’s face had a gray tint that alarmed Isika. He was sick, possibly dying. That day, the day everything changed, fourteen-year-old Isika was already familiar with fighting off fear.
The morning started out like every other morning in the Worker village. When dawn came, she woke, put on her outer dress, and rolled her sleeping mat to store it in the corner of the room. She left the house on soft feet to begin the day’s work. Her seven-year-old sister, Ibba, had finally settled into sleep after a restless night that involved a lot of murmuring and thrashing about, until Isika had been tempted to tie her sister’s legs together. The house was quiet. Outside, the sky was pink, the light barely bright enough to outline the walls, but already Isika’s youngest brother, Kital, was outside playing. He threw a ball for a street dog, hurling it again and again with his thin arms. He grinned every time the mangy dog brought it to him.
“You know you’re not supposed to play with them,” Isika told him, her voice stern, and he turned. For a moment, his eyes were wide with guilt. Then he grinned at her, his dimples appearing and disappearing in his small face. He knew Isika wouldn’t stop him or tell on him, so again he threw the ball as far as his small arms could manage, and laughed as the dog ran for it. Street dogs were like rats to the Worker people, but Kital had always loved them. If he could get away with it, he fed them tiny bits of fat from his meat when he thought no one was watching, and Isika had no will to keep him from doing as he wished.
Kital was only four years old, and he was the boy of her heart. Their mother had died soon after he was born and Isika had raised Kital from when he couldn’t even pick his head up off her shoulder. She knew every part of his body, from his high, round forehead to his tiny square brown toes.
She touched him briefly on the head, something Workers were only allowed to do to a younger person, and walked across the yard to reach the tall iron gate. Their family wall was broken, which was how the dogs got in, but keeping the gate closed was one of the strictest rules of the Workers. It was how they kept the sacred boundaries, how peace remained in the village. Each family had its own island with honored borders that other Workers did not violate. It was wrong to tread on another person’s home ground.
As soon as Isika left the walls of her family’s ground, a familiar weight settled on her. She looked down the long road that swept from the temple and the priest’s grounds toward the village square, out to the harbor beyond the village. Walls of different shapes and thickness lined the road, separating each family’s ground from the ground beside it. Every family wore the responsibility for its own walls, but no family had lifted a finger to build them. The walls were gifts from the goddesses, breathed straight from the four deities, without help from the people of the village. Isika had seen it happen; waking in the morning, you might find a foot added to a neighbor’s wall that hadn’t been there the night before. The walls were a blessing, and Isika assumed that their wall remained broken because of her father’s sickness. The goddesses were visiting some kind of anger on her family.
Many eyes turned toward her as she walked, and even though she was as familiar as the sun to the people on her street, they always stared at her, one of the four black-skinned villagers, before giving the traditional nod and looking away politely, eyes on the dust at their feet. Isika nodded back, looking down as well. Holding eye contact was impolite, a violation almost as bad as walking on another person’s ground, something Isika’s father had spent years trying to get through Isika’s head.
When she was younger and her mother was still alive, eyes had fascinated Isika. Her mother’s were black as the night sky and they shone like mirrors in moonlight or sunlight. Isika’s eyes were dark brown and her father’s eyes were light grey—startling, with black rims around the irises. Some people in the Worker village had eyes that were blue, or even a mix of green and blue. Isika longed to stare at all the different colors, to study the rays that seemed to sit in some people’s eyes, blooming like flowers. But if her father caught her looking too long, he put his hand on her head, resting it there to let her know she was trespassing on the person’s soul, or even forcing her head away. Whenever she looked away from a person’s eyes to the dust on the ground and her own bare feet, she felt a sense of loss. Isika didn’t know why the rules came so hard to her. She knew she hadn’t always lived here. Maybe something from before made her different.
Seven years ago, Isika’s mother had walked out of the desert and into the Worker village with her children. Isika’s new father, the priest of the village, had taken the family in and married her mother. There was still a lot of talk about why, exactly, he had done it. Isika flinched away from the talk, the murmurings of a strange magic that her mother had imposed over her father.
They had wandered in the desert for months before finding the Worker village. Before the desert they had been in another place, but though Isika tried, she couldn’t remember it well. She could picture eyes and faces, blurs of color. It troubled her because she knew she should remember. She had been old enough—she was six years old when they left that place. She remembered high walls, much higher than the walls in the Worker village. She remembered her mother singing, or sometimes crying. She remembered being alone and afraid, and that was all, before her memories of coming to the desert and playing with wandering herds of goats. Then they reached the Worker village and it had been their home ever since.
Isika stumbled on a stone in the road, her mind still busy with trying to remember their past. Sometimes trying to remember consumed her. Benayeem, her brother, didn’t like to talk about it at all. Just a year younger than Isika, he should also remember, but he shook his head when she prodded him.
“Mother didn’t want us to talk about it, Isika, you know that,” he would say.
She only wanted to know if he remembered anything at all, but Ben refused to say. Her younger brother was the most frustrating person, more frustrating than either of the other two. At one time there had been five siblings, but Isika shrugged the tight, sad thoughts of her sister, Aria, away, as she always did when she remembered her. She thought of Ibba, instead, born shortly after they had reached the village, and Kital, the son born to her mother and her new father, the priest. Thinking about Aria couldn’t bring her back.
Isika reached the edge of the woods and walked between the trees slowly and carefully, watching for snakes. She began to gather the dead sticks that lay on the ground, keeping her eyes open for larger sticks that would burn longer. Many people in the village bought wood, but Isika’s father wanted their family to gather first and buy wood only if they couldn’t find any. It was the way, he said, an old Worker tradition; his answer for most hard things in their lives. Isika’s limbs were sluggish, exhaustion trickling through her body. She had only sipped a little tea before she came. The Workers ate only one meal—the day’s food—at midday; it was the way. She felt the slow, hungry, feeling of the morning overcoming her even as she tried to hurry. She blinked and rubbed at her eyes, bending to pick up a stick that was wider than the others.
“Ah!” she said under her breath, happy to find such a large one. Just then she heard a sharp crack as someone stepped on dead wood behind her.
“Give it to me, Loshy,” a voice said. Isika sighed and hesitated. The voice went on. “Actually, give me all of it.”
“No,” Isika said, straightening and staring straight into the eyes of a tall, wide-shouldered boy. His name was Jak. She knew him from her time in the village school, and from seeing him strut around the village, knocking baskets out of the hands of younger boys, or throwing stones at street dogs. Isika knew he was from a pig-raising family and that they should have more than enough money to buy their own wood. She saw again that his eyes were a dark blue, deep set in his face, caught in an expression halfway between cruel and excited. She kept staring until he looked away.
“Get your eyes off my soul, Loshy,” he said, his voice fierce as he looked down at her basket of sticks.
“My name isn’t Loshy and where were you this morning, Jak? Dead asleep from overeating? You should get out here earlier and find your own wood. You know you can’t take wood from a temple daughter.”
He spat at the ground then, and a tiny drop caught in the wind and flew up to Isika’s cheek. She took a step back, finally looking away from his face, wiping at her cheek with the sleeve of her dress.
“You’re no temple daughter, what a joke,” he said, his eyes bulging as he kept them trained on Isika’s shoulder. “And your father is dying— his well-deserved punishment for bringing foreigners into the temple.”
Isika felt as though he had slapped her. A bird cried out and the sound echoed around the quiet forest. The losh trees were bare at this time of year, tall, with long black limbs and hard wood that was perfect for burning. “Loshy,” they had called Isika in school because her skin was the darkest out of all her siblings, nearly as black as her mother’s. She looked at her hands now as she clutched the old basket, and remembered her mother’s hands holding hers before she died, her mother, wasted away, commanding her with feverish eyes to take care of her brothers and sisters.
The terrible fear she felt now at the possibility of her father dying was even greater than the daily dread she felt at him continuing to live and breathe and be disappointed in Isika and her siblings. He had taken them in and cared for them, and even though his care was hard to feel sometimes, without him Isika knew the village would not keep them. With her mother dead, Isika didn’t know where they would go. She knew that her stepmother, Jerutha, could not change the minds of the Workers. Jerutha would try, because she was brave and kind. She had moved into the house of a priest and four black children, a house of mourning and bad luck, even after one daughter had been given over and the mother had died of grief. She had married the priest out of pity for the children, and she would stand up for them out of love, but there was only one of her and too many villagers. Many of them had no mercy in their hearts. Isika’s father couldn’t die.
“You know nothing about it,” she said, but she was shaking and she could hear fear in her own voice.
Jak smiled, his eyes narrowing. “Oh, really?” he said. “Is there another plan? One we haven’t heard yet? I haven’t heard bells yet, but maybe they’ll ring soon.”
Isika moved before she thought, her hands itching to knock the smile off his face, but she stopped in time, tightening her hands on her basket to keep them still. She gulped large breaths and tried to calm down. It was as though he had found her greatest, most secret fear, and prodded with something sharp. Fear washed over her like cold water. It was not of the possibility of being alone at the mercy of the people who had never trusted them. Her worst fear was the bells. But no! She shook her head against it. The goddesses had never forced any family to give over more than one child, and this was truth she clung to, even when sharp dreams of boats woke her in the night.
“One child has always been enough,” she said.
Jak smiled wider, leaning against one of the bare trees of the forest. His feet were bare, like Isika’s. His family might have enough money for wood, but not for shoes, and that made them more alike than different. But he was glad to see her panic, and she told herself there was nothing similar between them.
“Your ‘father’ is a priest, and he is dying,” Jak said. “Do you think he’ll keep foreigners safe rather than appease the goddesses? He has no priest trained up to follow him—if he dies, the Workers are left without the offerings. He knows his duty.”
Worse, Isika thought. Her father was afraid of dying. She could smell his fear in the nighttime, when he got up and paced and her own terror grew until it was as large as her chest and leaked out through her eyes, making damp spots on the pillow beneath her head.
Jak laughed. Isika remembered that he had been especially cruel to Benayeem, who had learned to fight for his life in the village school after they came out of the desert. Jak reached out and pulled the basket from her shaking hands. He emptied every stick but one into his own basket.
“I’ll be waiting for the bells,” he said. And he was gone, stomping away through the forest. Isika could hear him long after she couldn’t see him anymore. She began to gather wood again, taking deep breaths to calm herself and drive back her anger. The sun was barely up and already it was hot on her head, so she put her headscarf on, tucking it under her heavy hair. After another half hour, she felt she had enough. Her stepmother had slipped a few coins into her dress pocket the night before—“In case you can’t gather it all,” she had said, and Isika decided to buy the rest of the day’s wood. Her father would never know. He wasn’t the same as he had been in the past, when he oversaw absolutely everything. Since he had become sick, he rarely checked the wood to see if it was forest wood or the shorter, neater logs the woodmen sold in the market.
Isika put her basket on her shoulder and left the woods to walk on the road. The dust swirled around her feet and the sun pounded on her head, its rays glistening on the dangerous broken glass that adorned the walls on either side of the road. The houses behind the walls seemed heavy and quiet, as though no one was in them, but Isika knew people lived behind the closed doors. She watched the wall glass sparkle in the sun until she reached the market square. She wandered through the market and bought tomatoes from Faiza, the kind woman with the bright red hair who always pressed her hand gently as she passed Isika her change. The tomato seller had been friendly with Isika’s mother. She bought goat milk from the man with the long nose who had repaired the temple roof two months ago. His twins were sleeping under a tent behind him while his wife sat spinning goat wool. She looked at Isika briefly, nodded, and looked away.
“May your eyes be guarded,” the man said in the traditional greeting. He passed her the goat milk in a leather bag.
“And your speech kept safe,” Isika replied, taking the bag and handing him a few coins.
She wandered around the market as long as she could, purchasing a bag of wheat to pound and a small packet of meat for the day’s meal. She would help Jerutha harvest greens from the garden plants that still struggled along in the season of hot sun.
At home she let herself in through the gate and brought the wood to the kitchen. Jerutha was standing over the sink, washing dishes. She leaned over to pick more dishes from the pile on the bench beside her and sighed. Her belly was round as a ball and Isika knew her back hurt her. Her time was growing near. Together, she and Isika had been preparing the birth space, a small room on their grounds, the custom for Worker women when they gave birth.
Isika laid the sticks beside Jerutha on the floor and bent over to make the cooking fire in the grate. They would begin cooking the day’s meal soon. But Jerutha turned to Isika as she pulled the larger sticks from the basket.
“Your father wants to see you,” she said. “I’ll ask Ben to make the fire.”
“Benayeem? Make a fire?” Isika said, her voice incredulous.
“You know he can do it,” Jerutha said, her voice reproachful, but she was smiling.
“When have you ever seen him make a fire?”
“He has his temple work. It keeps him busy there.”
Isika looked at her stepmother with raised eyebrows. Jerutha smiled at her. “Go to your father.”
Then Isika realized what she was saying, and her stomach clenched with dread.
“Why does he want to see me?”
“He didn’t say.” Jerutha’s voice was light but Isika saw the frown on her face. She mulled over the different reasons that her father could want to speak to her first thing in the morning, and none of them were good. Scolding, a work assignment. She shrugged off the idea that came next. An announcement. She stood and shook herself, standing as tall as she could before walking to her father.