Amidst the conversation, Wallaj slammed the hall doors open and stood there awhile, breathing heavily, as if he wasn’t present. The conversation was dashed by the pregnant silence that seemed to cling to him, blind him even. He did not look himself. It was as if a rictus mask had been plastered overtop his face, and the stiffness of it threatened to suffocate his entire body.
Al-Wahallan was the first to break in. “Well, speak Wallaj! You stand there as one dying.”
“I think I have already died. And now I’m stuck in some underworld of my own design.”
“What do you mean by this?”
“I had heard rumors, terrible rumors, since entering the city. But it can’t be, I thought. I ignored them. Saw blood in their eyes, but turned away. I’m so sorry. I renounce my people and will die with you. Ishara, she too…”
“My daughter! Is this about her?”
“No.” With an effort that nearly took him to the ground, Wallaj forced blood and sense back into his wooden body. “They are coming.”
“The Mibab’I mean to break the long peace between our peoples?”
“There isn’t time for this. Up! Up!” Wallaj knocked unlit candles over on the table, grabbed a metal urn from its center and hurtled it to the ground. It rang loud and cold, and had the desired effect. All who had been seated rose, as if the sound compelled it.
The sky filled red as if the Sun herself bled with shame on that evening. And the foundation of the Conservatory shook as they fled through the crumbling, forgotten tunnels beneath, hewn by lava and gently carved by the fingers of the Nadaya waters. Above, tiles and statues built by two thousand years of artisans were smashed, the great eye that once contemplated upon the stars was put out, books and scrolls containing the knowledge of an age were shredded and fed the fires that all but blotted out the memory of a People from the reaches of the South.
This tiny company fled with the pittance they could carry, tears streaming down all their faces save the one who had witnessed such loss before. A part of him was nevertheless left behind forever in that rubble, a mound of shattered pottery that had cut his daughter’s skin to ribbons before the weight of tumbling stone crushed what was left of her.
The memory of this small band, marching into the cracked lands where the desert abutted the Great Divide, and the pack of rescued texts on the back of a single Zladd’i, were the only light in the growing dark. They were the few remaindered candles that could keep those fires alight.
In the skies all they could see was the smoke. Little had been seen in the dash to safety, but in their mind’s eye they knew, as we might know when the life of our beloved has been vanquished, and that plume was a churning mass of teeth that would chase them through dreams for years to come.
For generations people might wonder at what secret hate the Mibab’I must have long nurtured for their seeming-allies. But on the ground, it was just madness. Ima’ri bones still lie out in the abandoned streets, never finding proper burial, as once the city was choked with ash it was as if the Mibab’I themselves looked upon what they had done and couldn’t bear it. For the time they would slink back to the lands they had known without even attempting to reclaim or fortify the once fabled Gem of the desert. Now it was but pitted coal. If the Im’ari were the beating heart of that world, as they once claimed, it was as if the body, in a fit of madness, reached into its own chest and ripped it out.
Al’Wahallan had looked upon the greatest times for his people. Now, he beheld their doom. What do you say? The enormity of grief swallows you, and the focus of your life shrinks to what you can hold in your hands. Words were useless. Nothing would be the same again. Always would he live in the shadow of a memory. Gone were the crystal spires, the baths, the maze of gardens filled with plants and animals that had long ago died off anywhere else on the continent. As his foot shuffled through the sand — and it had been quite some time since he’d even left the palace, his feet dragged like an Ar’im, an outsider — he tried to recall the sights and sounds, but they were already taking on a mythic gloss, as if none of it had ever existed.
That was what Ashenti had been, he realized. A refuge. A dream. In its walls beautiful, fragile things had grown that might never take root elsewhere. A small realization, maybe, but why did he only think of it now? Buildings can be rebuilt. But the dream that was Ashenti could not. Not in a hundred million deserts.
A tiny caravan of fifteen, all that remained of a Kingdom too proud to call itself anything so lofty. There must be other Im’ari, those with the luck to be on their airboats at the time of the slaughter, those that made their homes in foreign lands. To them, all lands would now be foreign.