A'an never let his mother's words drift too far away when he wandered through the Lif, though she was right there cradling his head between her breasts. The heady mix of clay, sweat and musk always accompanied her.
It wasn't often that she could sneak off to hold him.
Caution, caution, she liked to whisper in the middle of the fairy tales she recounted when his were the only ears there to listen, and it was always then that his heart would race, galloping like wild Hesin horses left to their devices.
His pulse thumped in his throat; fear on its way to smother him.
Had he finally been caught? Was he about to be dragged screaming to the Desirae, accused of witchcraft?
But no, she hadn't noticed, for the words that followed the sound of her quiet weeping were not, "A'an, my child, in your arms my soul breaks."
And so his heart would calm, his breathing would slow, and he would find himself once again at the Crossroads, toeing that fine line between life and death.
"A'an," his grandmother held her hand out over the rippling sea of constellations that separated them, "come."
She was made of auroras, of rainbows and shattered gemstones, much brighter than anything he had ever seen with his physical eyes, and her smile was just as kind as it had been in the weeks before she had been burned alive.
Her wrinkled fingers grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him across, giving no attention to his hesitation as though it was an invisible thing, not shackles about his ankles. His mother's voice dimmed a little, but not enough to make him worry.
Still, he looked back.
Caution, caution. But this wasn't a lesson on not favoring his concubines over his wife, or staying away when there were talks of him inheriting his First Mother's riches.
This was everything that mattered. The words he couldn't say to anyone until he was sure no one else was watching. The engravings on his walls that had become polished beneath his restless fingers.
It always took his breath away whenever he looked at the world from this side of the lens. It was only here that he had the time to stop and watch the sky. No painting would ever capture it as perfectly as it was, laid bare before him.
The sun was purple, the horizon dotted with wildlife striped silver and grey, and everyone who had ever left him filled up the space that remained.
His twin cousins, Maiyn and Asui, tackled him to the ground the moment they saw him, dragging him away from his grandmother's side as they all rolled down a hill that had appeared because they had wished it.
A'an tried to keep a straight face when their fingers went searching through his robes and their light touches had laughter stretching him until it caused him pain. "Now, why do you think I have something for you?"
While he kept growing, they remained the same—little tempests housed in ten year old souls. The more he looked at them, the heavier his apparition felt.
Guilt replaced the weariness that had just faded, his joy tainted with the bitterness of having survived. A'an touched their small faces and bit back the apology that would have spilled out.
Years of visiting them and he still hadn't managed to look them straight in the eye.
"A'an." Asui blinked at him. "How long will you stay?"
Maiyn flailed out of her brother's grip to land face first in the moon grass. She rolled and rolled until all their glitter had transferred onto her brown skin. "He never stays, Susu. If you talk too much, he'll leave right now."
"I'm not leaving." A'an knew his fever would keep him here until it broke, and he had taken enough cold herb for it to last days. "Really."
The girl stretched her hands towards him and waited until an assortment of shells and ribbons went spilling out of his pockets.
Asui squealed and rushed for them but a punch from his sister had him falling to a crouch with both hands cupped around his nose.
"Mine, Asui," she said to him, then stared at A'an until he started to fidget. "Father waits for you, A'an."
But it wasn't her voice that called him.
Like an arrow heading for the horizon, A'an came to in the distance, too far from where he wanted to be to find his way back. Already, he felt the other world slipping through his fingers with each curl of incense that slipped into his lungs.
The memories followed, like wisps of a dream. He only vaguely remembered his uncles warning him of something, his aunts pulling him close and begging him.
It had been important yet it had left no impression.
He had been woken up early.
A'an scrambled back until his back was flush with the cool clay of the hut. Warm sheets fell down his body to reveal his bare chest, his exhales leaving in hot puffs that burned his upper lip. The scent of spice—peppercorn and nutmeg—overwhelmed him, made his mouth dry. "You are not supposed to be here."
Se'an leaned forward like a cheetah about to pounce. Under the shadows of the flickering torches he seemed dangerous. "I know what you do with the iboga roots."
The accusation had him stammering. "I… The hunt…"
"You are no hunter." His eldest cousin let the censer fall from his fingers, teeth awashed with white sap, skin gleaming like honey.
Then he was gone.
Fear had A'an chasing him, he forced his quivering legs to carry him out of the hut only to stumble upon seeing his mothers sitting in front of a dying fire, intimately curled around each other.
He fell to his knees and paid obeisance to them both, aware of how his First Mother trained her gaze on Se'an until he did the same.
"A'rin was telling me how sick you were," she said.
A'an swallowed his excuses in favor of silence and his mother swooped in to save him, stealing their matriarch's attention with a soft kiss. "Children will always play no matter how sick they are. My heart, come here."
He did, even though he stopped being a child long ago. "Mother," he whispered, his heart beating so hard he felt the ache in his ribs.
She pressed a palm to his forehead then slid her fingers into his hair. "Poor child is burning up. He won't be able to attend midnight's sacrifice."
"A group of men crossed the borders," she said, as though that explained everything.
That should have been the end of it, but in front of him, where no one else could see, A'an relived the murders of the half of his family that no one ever spoke of, a series of deaths that had begun with the arrival of a woman that hadn't belonged to them.
"You will kill them?"
His mother shot him a look that made him clamp his lips shut but it was too late, his First Mother was already looking at him with disapproval. "Better them than us."
A'an forced himself to pretend that he had not been in his grandmother's hut when the Desirae started the fires that had razed it to the ground. The ink that curled up his arms hid only a fraction of the scars that remained from the day his mother made sure to sear the memory from his mind.
He nodded and forced himself to be a proper son. "Yes."
"Se'an will accompany A'an," his mother said, and because she was a favored consort it became so. "They can watch out for each other."
It was only when Se'an draped an arm over his shoulder and pulled him to his feet that A'an realized that he had been dismissed.
His cousin's nails dug into his bicep as they walked back. "Stop being stupid."
Since the fire, the older boy only spoke in low tones, deep and curt.
We used to be close once. It hit A'an like a punch in the mouth, watching Se'an's scarred back as he walked away. We all were.
A'an walked deep into the forest bounding the huts at the outskirts, where he was sure no one would see him curling against the roots of a tree, throwing up food he didn't remember eating, his hands clenched in loose fists that had once held ribbons and shells.
He would have been quiet too if his entire family had been killed because a ten year old hadn't been able to do what he was told.
The moon was high in the sky when his skin cooled and he had the strength to walk again. High enough that A'an almost thought he had slept through the sacrifice, but the ground hummed beneath his feet in a familiar way and in his mind he could almost see it, his people chanting—stomping and singing—around the platform in front of his First Mother's hut.
A twenty minute walk separated him from the celebration, but still he could feel their rage, raw and terrifying for whoever was on the receiving end.
When he squinted hard enough, he was able to make out dark smoke rising into the sky, blocking the stars for a moment before dispersing in the moonlight.
He was so focused on trying to see if there was anybody being tied to the platform, that he didn't notice the person watching alongside him until the edge of a blade was pressed against his throat.
"Demon," a voice hissed into his ear in a language close enough to his native tongue for him to understand.
A savage. He pored through all the warnings he had been told as a boy. How the savages outside the island would catch him and roast him alive if he ever wandered too far.
But this isn't too far… "You escaped," A'an whispered. "No one escapes."
His grandmother had tried to help captives before. He had been the look out, the person with the simplest job. All he needed to do was shout when he saw somebody approaching her tent, but he had been distracted. His eyes never strayed from Se'an as he wielded his machete against an invisible enemy, and his cousin had entertained his gaze, knowing full well that with the way his damp skin gleamed, he was nothing but a spectre in front of the bonfire.
A'an hadn't noticed the Desirae and their armed guards heading to the tent until it was too late. If Se'an had known what was happening, he could have stopped it.
But he didn't know, and only A'an survived the blaze.
The savage dug their blade deeper, drawing blood, a punishment for not answering their question fast enough, but he hadn't even heard what they had said.
His mind was spinning.
If anyone found him here with an escaped prisoner, he wouldn't be able to explain himself and his mother would be sentenced to death along with him. But if he died, if he was killed right now, she would only lose some status among the other mothers.
She would still be the favorite.
"Wait," he tried to keep his voice even, "I can help you."
"I don't trust you."
"You have to." A'an wondered if his aunts and uncles had seen this coming. If that was the reason he had been warned and hugged and cried on. "Once they don't find you, they will start searching."
Their island was a small one where everyone knew each other and secrets were hard to keep without the promise of death. His grandmother was the only one who cared about the savages that snuck in from the sea despite knowing better, and now she was dead.
"If you try anything, I'll kill you," the savage warned, then tucked the blade away.
"I know." A'an turned around to face the prisoner and was struck by how tiny they were—far from the monstrous savage he had imagined.
He was taller, and bigger, and could probably subdue them no matter how many knives they had hidden.
The savage seemed to notice this as well because they immediately distanced themselves from him.
A'an wouldn't lie and say that he hadn't thought about it. Killing the savage and bringing their head to his First Mother. Elevate his mother's status and shut down the whispers about him being just like his grandmother.
But she had been the one to raise him while his mother had been chasing his First Mother's skirts. Her smile was the one he saw when he tried to sleep again after a nightmare.
And she rescued savages.
A'an swallowed the thick lump in his throat and gestured to the moonlit forest, ignoring the way his stomach churned.
But he had stopped listening a long time ago. "Follow me."
The savage obeyed but was wise enough to walk beside him. A'an had no doubt he would be used as a shield the moment trouble arrived.
"What will happen to them?"
A'an tilted a bit, just enough to catch the sadness that softened the captive's expression. "Burned alive."
His agreement surprised the savage so he offered a little more of himself in hopes that they would have second thoughts the next time they wished to stab him. "My grandmother and cousins were also burnt alive."
"I'm sure they deserved it," they snarled.
"For trying to help savages like you escape," A'an added, long used to people sullying the names of the dead he cherished.
After a moment of silence, the savage spoke again. "My name is E'miri."
In his language, it meant 'Man'. A'an supposed it was intentional and considered giving a fake name as well. "A'an."
"We are the same. I am also a second son," E'miri said, all the aggression wiped from his face.
"Is your father among them?"
"He is dead."
"Oh," A'an looked away, "mine is too."
At last, common ground was found. From nameless faces to fatherless sons, now they knew there were souls in each other's eyes.
"You call us savages," E'miri said while examining the small cave A'an had led him to. The walls were plastered with clay and decorated with polished engravings and luminescent stones that cast a dim light in the overwhelming darkness.
"You escaped from a hut, didn't you?" A'an rearranged the vines that hid the mouth of the cave. "We'll stay here. When everyone is asleep, you can leave."
"Where I come from we make our huts from stone." E'miri chose a spot near the entrance to sit, never once taking his eyes off A'an.
"This is better than a stone hut. It's my home, so you are my guest. You will keep quiet."
E'miri held his hands up in surrender. "My bad."
"We will die." It was a fact that A'an had already resigned himself to.
"If they find us, kill me first," he said, then squeezed into a corner and felt for the shards of pottery he used to carve the walls. Everything.
He wrote the word over and over again until peels of clay surrounded him and the joints in his fingers grew stiff. If only everything was different.
"My father was killed by the men that were captured with me. I won't mourn them," E'miri announced. "Why are you helping me?"
"Because my grandmother would have wanted me to."
Because if she was alive you would live too. Se'an wouldn't look at me like I was a monster and I wouldn't try to die every full moon.
He shut his eyes and only opened them again when he sensed E'miri approaching. He stiffened when the boy sat beside him. "What are you doing?"
"I was getting cold… Can we?"
Without waiting for an answer, E'miri looped his arms beneath A'an's until they were hugging. Though E'miri was clothed from his neck to his toes, he only stopped shivering when he felt the warmth of A'an's bare chest.
"It must be nice and warm in your stone huts," A'an mused. So warm that anything else must seem frigid.
"This... is also nice."
"Will you stab me in my sleep?"
"I still," E'miri yawned, "need someone to show me the way off this island."
A'an couldn't bring himself to close his eyes but E'miri seemed to have no problem falling asleep in this position, his defenses lowered now that he was no longer cold. He groaned and mumbled so much that A'an kept his hand over his mouth as the night shortened.
Keeping the cave's mouth in front of him, he rearranged E'miri's limbs around him. His fingers inevitably found the blades and he considered slitting both their throats then and there, but it was at that moment E'miri chose to snuggle even closer, nothing but a cat with sheathed claws.
A'an couldn't help but run his fingers across the boy's peaceful expression, tempted to wake him up and ask why he had come to the island when he knew it meant death.
His fingers ended up in E'miri's hair—straighter and softer than his coarse coils. He thought back to the Crossroads, to his aunts, uncles and his grandmother's knowing smile.
He looked down at the dagger in his hand, sure of it now.
They were saying goodbye.
He shook E'miri awake and the boy sat up, groggily. "What is it?"
"Listen," A'an told him, and he did. It was A'an's own name being called over and over again.
"They've found us." E'miri stood up.
"They've found me," A'an pulled him back to his side, "you can still escape if I go out there and distract them."
"No, you can't—"
But A'an was already pushing past the vines and out the cave before E'miri could blink the sleep out of his eyes.
"Don't let me die for nothing, E'miri," A'an turned back to say.
"A'an, wait! I—"
Then he was gone.