Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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The Way of Children

by Kristen Lee Knapp


She retched, clots of black blood dribbling from her red mouth. Arcing veins throbbed, pulsing thunderbolts reaching across the gravestone of her face.

Mutan clutched her hand. His knuckles bulged against tan skin. "Tell me," he said. "You have to tell me."

"She is dying, Hijaz," said a voice from behind. "Release her."

Mutan glanced back at Vizir Yusaf, arms crossed, shimmery green robe burning with dull light. The silver ringlets in his beard sparkled like shards of glass. Jewels embedded in the fabric of his black turban glimmered.

He looked back to her. Sputtering breaths choked from her clenched teeth, sweat lathered every pore of her ashen skin, plastering her raven hair to her skin.

"Live," he said. Black vortexes spun in his eyes. Invisible fingers snuffed candles. Stone walls bled mortar chips against the trembling floor.

Her body shuddered, tensed, muscles flexing, fingernails gouging his hand, opening jagged red lines. The tower reeled underfoot. New cracks thundered through ancient limestone foundations. Dogs barked, foaming from the maw and snapping at their masters. Horses wailed gibbering screams, tossing riders and bucking as though their manes were ablaze.

Her life blinked away. Gone.

Light reappeared, flames burning atop wax candles. All became still.

He released her.

Sour tears rolled down his cheeks into the black icicle of his beard. Reddened coal black eyes glared at her corpse. Her blood, his blood, smudged across his palms and fingers.

"Gone," he said, turning to Yusaf.

####

Birds gawked from tall spires, claws scarring the gold-painted domes underfoot. Unforgiving midday light bounced off of pearlescent walls, illuminating an infinite web of claustrophobic streets and alleys, frothing with darkness.

Mutan led the burial procession. Black cotton robes haunted his stooped shoulders. A ceremonial sword bounced listlessly at his hip. Hanifs followed close behind, dazed-faced greybeards shuffling under the weight of their ponderous garments.

Steel-capped warriors wearing scale armor and sable cloaks marched behind, black and gold banners fluttering.

They carried her bier on implacable shoulders. Her samite robes dipped lazily over the sides. Her face was calm, reflective. Her hands clasped an array of rare flowers: snake tongues from Khosa, lion's tail from Azgoth, blue-eyed lotus from Jedengia. A bouquet to beggar a kingdom.

An army of body slaves followed, sobbing. Peasants lined the sidewalks, clutching palm fronds and carved wooden idols. They laid down their tokens as they passed.

"She was well-loved," Yusaf whispered into Mutan's ear, touching his shoulder.

The procession unfolded around the tombs' etched walls, endlessly crafted with perplexing symbols of arches, half-circles, prisms and hexagrams. Mutan walked through the entry, under scrolling columns topped with stone angels and djinns.

He stopped before a grave, a quadrilateral case of ivory stone covered with prayers and blessings inked in black. A dozen muscled slaves dragged open the stone lid.

The Mutaihba marched past, carrying the bier.

Mutan stopped them. He reached up, pulled the flowers from her fingers and grasped her hand. The clerics had painted it with arsenic. Priceless flowers dripped to the floor.

"She is gone," Yusaf said. "Her soul has left the husk of her body. You must let her go."

Surreal, anticipatory silence hung over the burial. Some of the slaves wept, the hanifs whispered. Only the Mutaihba were unchanged.

Mutan watched himself release her hand, watched the Mutaihba inter her.

Vizir Yusaf waved. The muscular slaves slid the stone lid shut. The sun crept through the sky, retracting light from the city's white walls and golden domes.

Mutan remained standing over the tomb.

"Come, Hijaz," said Yusaf. "The living must continue." He turned to the crowd of slaves and clapped. "All of her Exaltedness's slaves are free."

They cheered, cried out her name. A wild celebration exploded in the city streets. Thousands drank and smoked and fought and coupled to her memory.

Mutan remained. Night came. The Vizir ordered a palanquin and was carried back to the palace. Mutan raked the tomb with his fingernails, gouging stone. Muezziqs sang from minaret towers, turning their flawless voices to the sky.

Day came. Light leaked over the city's weathered battlements and adobe households. Half-sphere domes bloomed with divine light. But the streets were empty, the city drunk. Hours passed before people emerged, stumbling as though aboard a small boat adrift in a stormy sea.

A nervous-looking court scribe appeared behind Mutan. "Holy Hijaz," he said, bowing. "Reports have come from the front. The Vizir demands your immediate presence."

####

"Catastrophe!" shrieked Akmout, yanking at the oiled curls of his beard.

Vizir Yusaf raised his staff of office. Torchlight glimmered across the ruby and emerald encrusted stave. "Messenger. Repeat your report for the Hijaz, he has only just arrived."

Mutan adjusted himself in his seat, a throne of syrup-colored wood from some forbidden forest in the North. Knotty armrests, an austere back. Mutan had only ever seen one less comfortable chair: an iron seat of barbed spikes belonging to the Guild of Torturers.

A dusty warrior garbed in a ragged cloak dropped to one knee. "The Grand Amir Asuleymon met the Byzeki army, commanded by Crown Prince Aditrios," he stated. "Gods grant mercy to our fallen brothers and sisters."

"That blustering fool Asuleymon must not be forgiven for this failure," said Uztam, chewing something in his heavy jowls.

Yusaf leaned back in his council chair. "Continue."

"The Amir has instructed me report that enemy sorcery was the cause of his sudden defeat."

All sounds in the council chamber died.

"Grand Amir Asuleymon is retreating through the Alat Mountains, mustering fresh troops to bring to the city. He has sworn to the divines Shodai, Beduin and Al-Quwam that he will revenge this defeat."

"Describe to us what happened," said Yusaf.

"Byzeki archers harassed our patrols through the Valley of the Eye," said the messenger, suddenly sounding tired. "But did not offer battle. The Amir kept us in good order as we marched on their camp, near the Hwat Oasis." He shook his head. "The lights...I cannot describe what happened. We were annihilated. The Amir withdrew his cavalry and the battle was over."

"So he salvaged many horses," said Uztam, sounding relieved.

"Is there no hope for victory?" said Akmout.

"The Amir is in full retreat," said the messenger. "He will bring his army here."

"Here?" Akmout wiped sweat from his face with his sleeve. "Why here?"

"He is sapping the countryside of our people," said Yusaf, sighing. "Paving the way for Aditrios to advance further into the countryside. Clearly the Amir is correct. Sorcery defeated him in the field."

Yusaf nodded. "Reward this man, and leave us. The Hijaz and I must confer in privacy."

Akmout, Uztam and the messenger withdrew. A pair of Mutaihba shut the immense iron doors.

"Have you the strength to turn back this attack?" said Yusaf. "No, I don't suspect you do. Very unfortunate." Yusaf paced, tapping the floor with the silver-capped end of his stave. "Defeats will soon become endemic. Vassal states will rebel. With the threat of your powers gone, the land will sink into anarchy."

Mutan closed his eyes. The phantom of an icy hand clutched his fingers. Screams curdled in his ears.

"What words could justify your actions? Thousands have died because of your useless grief. Men and women may grieve for lost loves, but a Hijaz must be more. Years will pass before you recover your strength. By then, the Byzeki Prince may have decorated our walls with our own heads." Yusaf shook his head, swung the top of his stave like a gavel. "Drastic action must be taken. A child."

"No," said Mutan.

"What is one child compared to thousands? Rulers must be above such petty moral misgivings. Our enemy does not share your qualms. Prince Aditrios keeps a supply of children with his army. A veritable harem of boys, girls..."

"I am not Aditrios." Mutan rose.

"No," said Yusaf, sucking on his teeth. "You are not. But without a powerful sorcerer, our people will suffer."

"We will offer peace," said Mutan. "Forge a new alliance with the Cyntai. Retrench."

"No, Hijaz." Yusaf smiled and touched his shoulder. "You have never objected before. Why now? How many boys and girls have we brought to the castle, blindfolded, crying..."

"She never approved."

Yusaf's smile vanished. "Guards," he said. "Escort your Hijaz to his chambers and bring him a potion for deep sleep. He grows weary. Tomorrow, you choose."

####

Mutan sucked smoke through the ivory nozzle of his shisha and exhaled a blue cloud above his head. Veiled serving girls walked past, silver platters of spiced meats and red sauces in hand. He waved them past.

"Ten potential Suuras have been chosen," said Yusaf from behind. "You must pick at least one. All ten would be best."

Mutan dropped the nozzle, raked his fingers through the tangle of his beard. "Leave me," he said.

"Most Holy Hijaz, I..."

"Leave and I will choose."

Vizir Yusaf withdrew, the serving girls followed close behind, scarlet skirts whispering as they walked. Ten boys and girls were led in before Mutan, boys and girls, no younger than six, no older than ten, naked save for the chained collars about their necks. Terror, anger, shock in their trodden expressions and downcast eyes. Their presence charged the air with unspoken power, raising every hair on Mutan's body.

"What are your names?" he said, sucking the shisha.

Nine answered, names he quickly forgot.

One said nothing. A boy, face comprehending, chocolate eyes sullen. They'd powdered his face, combed and washed his hair and painted his eyes with kohl, but even the noxious perfumes they'd doused him in couldn't hide the air of the street about him. A cloying scent, like sun-cooked fruit.

"Are you mute, boy?" Mutan set aside the shisha.

The boy said nothing, only stared. Sweat soaked his cinnamon colored skin.

"I choose you then," Mutan said, choking back vomit. He clapped his hands and two Mutaihba appeared at the door. "The rest go free," he told them.

Mutan stood, pulled off his damask coat and draped it over the boy's shoulders. "What's your name?" he asked.

The boy punched his arms through the sleeves and covered himself.

Mutan called for the serving girls, ordered them to leave their plates and dismissed them again. "You know why you were summoned," he said, handing the boy a plate. "I don't believe you're deaf. Or mute, whichever you're pretending to be."

The boy stared. No fear or excitement. Only expectedness, as though their exchange was pre-rehearsed. Mutan found it difficult to look him in the eye.

"Suuras chosen by the Hijaz were treated as divinity for three days, long ago. Did you know?"

The boy gnawed at a strip of meat.

"They were given gold rings, silk cloaks and ruby swords. And women." Mutan smiled. "Virgin girls fed Suuras night and day from endless golden bowls. They dined on the finest meats and wines to make a man weep."

He trailed off. "And sexual pleasures, such as a child can enjoy. But you are nearly a man. You can have more women in three days than some do in an entire life time. Whores will moan under you day and night. Simply ask." He handed the boy a jeweled cup of wine.

The boy sniffed, then poured the wine out onto the floor.

Mutan looked down. "Did you know, boy, I was once a slave? I was half your age when I was chosen as a Suura. But Hijaz Hissam spared me and brought me into his household."

His thoughts bled away. A starry night, breathless fires burning in iron braziers, strong hands snaking across his thighs. The throbbing pain afterward, weeks of sobbing nights.

"But Hissam... died."

The boy stared at him. Unchanging.

"I was crowned in his stead," he said, holding his legs from shaking.

No response.

Mutan stood, took the boy's hand and led him through the palace to a small bedchamber. He walked him to the bed, stripping his coat from the boy's shoulders.

"Good night," he said, hurrying from the room.

Two Mutaihba crossed their halberds before the door. Mutan walked to his bedchamber and vomited.

####

Lithe fingers fluttered across the strings of a sitar. Buxom women twirled in tight circles, beaded garments flashing. Drums throbbed. The silver disk of the moon peeked over the ivory banisters into the chamber. Mutan and the boy sat beside one another on an array of silk cushions. Court nobles and rich men formed a half circle around the spectacle.

One of the girls, a blonde-haired beauty with sinful eyes threw her scarf over the boy's shaved head and dragged it down sensuously. Akmout, Uztam and several others whistled, shouted jokes. The boy sat unmoved, still as stone.

"I am glad you chose so quickly, Hijaz," Yusaf whispered into Mutan's ear from behind. "I feared you would dally." He paused. "Somehow I knew you would choose the mute."

Mutan poured wine down his throat. "So he is mute."

Yusaf shrugged. "Or deaf. Or a lackwit. Does it matter?" He set a hand on Mutan's leg. "Though I do not think it wise to honor the tradition of Three Days. We may not have so long."

Mutan could scarcely think of something he cared for less than his people at that moment. "What do you mean?" he said, drinking.

A teenage girl with coal-black skin draped herself wantonly across the boy's lap. The boy said nothing, did nothing.

"He's an unusual boy," said Yusaf. "Isn't he?"

"He knows."

Yusaf extended his bottom lip. "Perhaps. Do not show him mercy, Hijaz. He will die anyway if Aditrios sacks the city. Or worse, end up as the Prince's Suura. What could be crueler than turning the Gift against your own people?" Yusaf shook his head. "If one man commits evil to preserve the goodness of thousands, he is no longer a man, but a God. Gods are not bound by petty morality."

Mutan drank more wine.

"Your idea has grown on me, anyway. I've invited the Cyntai delegation to enter a new alliance. We'll concede some territories, maybe pay some bribes, but our long term security will be ensured."

Dancers whirled in circles around the boy, roiling, reaching, clawing.

The boy rose and hurled his goblet, striking the blonde-haired girl just above the eye. She wailed as blood sluiced from a gash above her eye.

"Control your pet," said Yusaf.

Mutan rose, took the boy by the hand and walked him from the chamber. He stopped beyond the door. "Clearly you aren't pleased," he said. "What would you rather do?"

The boy gestured, walking away. Mutan followed, puzzled by the boy's apparent knowledge of the titanic palace.

The boy led him to one of the castle's many temples. Sleepy-eyed hanifs hardly seemed to notice their presence.

"You want to pray?" said Mutan, incredulous.

The boy approached the hexagonal altar, a slab of marble stone draped with dusty velvet and hundreds of gold and silver idols of spirits and demons. He swept his hand across, dumping them all to the floor. When the altar was cleared, he knelt, pressing his face to the floor three times.

####

A herald wearing a fox-fur headdress raised the standard of Cyntai nobility, a long stave capped with a golden wolf's head. Mutan sat on his throne, the boy stood to his left .Yusaf, Uztam and Akmout stood to the right, wearing pleasant smiles.

"Hail, noble Hijaz," said Princess Jicey, bowing. Hair the color of burnt leaves, tumbled past her shoulders. "The whole of our country mourns your loss." Her masterly Sireenek was barely accented by a Northern twang.

"Our ruler thanks you and your countrymen for your sympathy," said Yusaf. "And for your speed in arriving." He smiled, looking past her. "And who is this young man?"

Jicey stepped aside, placing her hands on a boy's shoulders. "Savan, my nephew. The Queen's son."

Savan looked up at her. "When can we leave this heathen place?" he said in Cyntai.

"Forgive me," said Jicey, sliding Savan back behind her. "The ways of Sireen are strange for newcomers."

Mutan stared at Savan, unlistening to Yusaf's endless gesticulation.

"There's a Churam here!" Savan shouted, pushing forward. "Him!" he said, pointing at the boy. "A Churam! A Churam!"

"Now, nephew." Jicey placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled.

"Churam," Mutan told the boy, "is a Cyntai deviation of 'Suura'."

The boy did not so much as blink. He seemed to know precisely what was said. Savan launched into hysterics, kicking his feet and pumping his fists.

"Savan is only just being trained by our court wizards," said Jicey. "Boys his age are so eager. Would you agree, Hijaz?"

"Understandable," said Yusaf, head bobbing. "Hijaz, why not take our young Prince Savan and your Suura to the Chichek oasis?"

"A splendid idea," said Jicey.

Mutan stood and led the boys away, distantly aware of the ghost of humiliation at being dismissed from his own table. Mutaihba followed from the shadows, steel shapes on silent feet.

"Who are they?" said Savan, staring.

"Royal guards," said Mutan, in Cyntai. "There is no exact translation. They have taken the Oath. They forfeit their afterlives, and are born again and again to serve as Mutaihba. Some have lived over two thousand years."

"Savage nonsense," murmured Savan. He looked at the boy. "What-your-name?" he said, in garbled Sireenek.

"He is mute," said Mutan.

They exited the castle, out into the oppressive noonday sun. An immense palanquin carried by half-a-hundred slaves bore them through the city streets, through the cool shadows of tall walls and out through the gaping maw of the city gates, down a dusty road. The journey required an hour. Savan spoke endlessly to the boy. The boy stared out through the gauzy white veils.

They arrived at the Chicek oasis, a pool of blue-black water clustered with thorny bushes and rotting trees. Fishing gondolas crisscrossed the water, dragging nets. Mutan led the boys to one banked in the shallows. The fisherman bowed and silently helped them in.

"When Omoak drank from these waters," said Mutan, sitting, "He was visited by the Gods. They told him to settle here, and that a city would rise. They said it would become the center of the world."

The fisherman gave the boys each a bamboo fishing pole.

"My aunt told me your wife died," said Savan, looking boredly at the eggshell bobber drifting in the water. "How?"

"She died giving birth," said Mutan.

"And the child died I assume." Savan tossed the pole into the water. The swarthy old fisherman watched it float away.

"Tell me about her," said Savan. "Or I shall die of boredom."

"She was a slave," said Mutan.

Savan's blue eyes flared. "You wed a slave?"

"We are all slaves, according to the philosophers."

"Savages. Continue."

"I freed her and married her."

"And?" Savan looked bored again.

"The Gods took her from me." Mutan looked at the boy, remembered he had less than two days.

####

"Tomorrow you will be killed," Mutan said, walking the boy back to his room through the palace's mammoth halls.

Shadows of columns rolled across the boy's face, obscuring and then revealing his unchanging expression.

Mutan hooked his thumbs in his belt, slowed his shuffling gait. "You'll be drained of your fluids, sapped of your marrow and organs. Your bones will be ground into a powder, which I will consume."

The boy stopped midstride, looked at him. The candor in his guileless eyes made Mutan catch his breath. His cheeks boiled. Suddenly he felt a child again, caught committing some transgression by an authoritative parent.

The boy disappeared inside his chambers. Mutaihba bolted his door, locking him in.

Mutan reeled on his feet. Silk tapestries, white walls, decadent gold statues circled endlessly, blurring into a grey sickness. He sensed the Mutaihba leering from the shadows, wordless specters too accustomed to the whims of insane, evil men. Their terrifying oaths.

They emerged from the darkness, forming a loose semicircle around him. Scarred knuckles clutched sheathed iron blades. Breath ceased. Reflections of pitiless moonlight watched from the mirror sheen of their steel armor.

Mutan knew they would kill him.

"Hijaz," said one, he couldn't tell which. "Are you ill?"

"No. Leave me. I will see Vizir Yusaf now."

They bowed, withdrawing back into omnipresent shadows. Mutan walked on, fervor in his quickened pace as he hiked the spiral staircase leading to the Vizir's tower. Torches waved as he passed, dim blue firelight trickling through the iron grates of burning braziers. Stars blinked through narrow windowslits. Mutaihba waited at the top of the staircase. They wordlessly admitted him through.

Vizir Yusaf sat in a simplistic oak chair at a large table. Waxy, flesh colored candles poured light across a table inundated with thousands of scrolls of parchment scribed with maps and orders and reports and poetry and philosophy. A large, reptilian skull sat at the table's corner, eye sockets gaping.

"What have you kept from me?" said Mutan.

Yusaf looked up. "Regarding?"

Mutan's heart stopped, continued. "The boy."

Yusaf shrugged. "Nothing of consequence. He is exactly what he seems: an orphaned boy. I believe he truly is mute."

"Who were his parents?"

"Ruined merchants, I believe. Outstanding debts. The boy is touched. Mad."

"What do you mean?"

Yusaf tapped his lip with a pen. "The ghetto I took him from claimed he was a prophet."

"To which God?"

Yusaf shrugged. "None of them, according to his followers. A mute prophet! His 'followers' claim they worship some lord. Nonsense."

"How?"

"What do you mean?"

"How did the boy teach them?"

"Drawings. Gestures, maybe. Perhaps he can write. The ghetto devolved into a riot when they realized he'd been taken. But the Mutaihba quickly crushed their revolt."

Mutan clenched his jaw. "The Mutaihba are mine to command."

"The Mutaihba aren't the Hijaz's tools of madness," said Yusaf, weaving his fingers together. "I could recite history to you. Mutaihba ordered to drag wives in the street to be publicly raped for imagined adultery. Mutaihba purging the courts of nobles for illusory coups. They should not be in any one man's control."

Mutan had no words, his arms hung impotent at his sides.

"If I understand correctly," Yusaf said, voice touched by irritation, "the boy's three days are finished tomorrow. No doubt you have endless preparations to make."

Two Mutaihba appeared behind Mutan.

"Ensure that he makes them."

####

Mutan woke at dawn, tangled in the arms and legs of a dozen naked men and women. Memories of sweat, grunts, pulsing hips and shrill sounds. Mutan rose, dressed in a black cotton robe and left his bedchamber. Mutaihba followed.

Torrents of sunlight filled the open-air halls of the palace. Dull flames burned from oil basins, slaves hurried to refill them. Mutan counted his steps in threes, three days, the end. He would kill a prophet today.

He missed her. The unsaid guidance her lips never uttered. The clarity of her unclouded brown eyes. Her memory made him ask: how much evil could one man commit in a single life?

Mutan came to the boy's room, pushed open the iron-hinged door. The boy sat naked on a silk-sheeted bed, reading a scroll from an embossed silver case.

"Today is your death day boy," said Mutan, words slurring together.

The boy set the scroll aside and placed his hands on his knees.

"What does your God say of me, boy?"

The boy's eyes slipped to the floor, his hands floated to his sides and his legs propelled him upward.

"You can't answer," said Mutan. "A mute prophet."

"The God says you are infected by devils," said the boy.

Mutan was unable to speak. "Not mute," he said.

"I waited, so as to be heard," he said.

"You'll never be heard again, prophet."

"Why do you torture yourself? I do not fear my death. You do, for what it will mean to the memory of your dead woman."

Mutan choked. "Silence."

"I could but speak your secrets and drive you mad," the boy said.

Mutan's skull clawed at his skin, fighting to break free.

"You are a man tortured by your sins," he said. "I will not list them. I will say only one thing. Think on it."

The boy cupped Mutan's cheek in his small hand. "Through me lies salvation."

Mutan left the room. Mutaihba waited outside, followed him as he stumbled his way to the palace's main hall.

Princess Jicey, Savan and Yusaf stood over an assortment of maps and treatises, shadowed by dozens of Mutaihba.

"Hijaz Mutan," said Yusaf. "Fortunate timing. We require your signature."

Jicey smiled prettily. "I'm so pleased that we can usher in this new age together. The Gods intended our union."

"Wrong," he mumbled. Mutan touched his temples. "Something is... different." He looked at Savan.

"You sense my new powers," the boy said in Cyntai, flexing his hand. Tiny serpents of black lightning coiled around his fingers.

"Oh, yes," said Yusaf. "I volunteered the Suuras you declined so the boy could practice his sorcery." Mutan trembled, wells of sorcery, geysers of unspeakable power shivered through his body.

"I hear you had an orgy last night Hijaz," said Jicey. "Delightful, yes? They are quite popular in our home. A Byzeki custom originally, they say. I did not think your virtuous people took part in such indulgences."

Mutan opened his palms. Black lights swirled from his fingertips. Princess Jicey exploded in showers of red and pink viscera.

Yusaf staggered, face dripping with her remains. "Mutaihba!" he shrieked. "Kill him! Kill him!"

Shadows coalesced into shapes with swords like fangs of black flame. Their sorcery charged the air with a humming presence, like the air before a storm. Wrangling black tentacles of light speared from their blades, ensnaring Mutan.

With a wave of his hand, he dispelled them. In the palace's dark corridors and deep tunnels, Hijaz Hissam had loved him, raped him, and taught him an unparalleled power.

He ducked under slashes, sidestepped swords. Where his eyes fell, Mutaihba collapsed, devoured from within by countless black termites. Organs flopped against the sunlit floors. Swords fell, useless.

Mutan stepped over the ruins of dozens of bodies, following as Yusaf ran, dragging Savan behind. He found them cowering behind a column.

"Hijaz!" Yusaf clutched the boy close. "Stop! You'll destroy us all. You mustn't!"

Mutan grabbed the boy by the ankle and dragged him from Yusaf's arms. Savan screamed, spraying urine.

"Faggot boy!" Yusaf's voice followed him. "I know what Hissam did with you! Will you do the same with your prophet?!"

####

Storms of grey smoke blasted the city's sandstone walls. Trebuchets moaned as they hurled boulders. Catapults cracked, launching corpses and firepots over the city walls. Byzeki trumpets. Cyntai horns. Sireenek screams. Blue, white, gold banners flaring under a darkened sky. Screaming stars, a half-lidded, exhausted moon. Mutan watched. Silent.

"Could you help them if you stayed?" said the boy, walking away, leading their camel.

"No," said Mutan.

"More Mutaihba will come," said the boy. "You must protect me. Teach me."

They walked on in silence, stopping when the moon was high. Tall dunes spat puffs of sand. Mountainous crags loomed in all directions. Mutan and the boy erected a tent. The boy withdrew in silence.

Mutan wept. He thought of his child, his wife's bastard. A blue-eyed insult to their love. The lie of their love. He had sold his wife's daughter bastard to slavery. Rage turned his tears to acid.

The boy emerged and sat beside him. "When evil is everywhere, the dead deserve to rejoice."

"I have done evil," said Mutan, weeping like a child to the boy-prophet.

"The God will not punish you. You will punish yourself. Every day of your life. Serve me and the God will pardon you on your death day."

Mutan trembled, shook his head. "No. No, you don't know what I've done."

"The God will forgive your wife's adultery. He will keep your wife's daughter, and forgive you for exiling him."

Mutan wiped his eyes. "How?" he asked, but already knew.

God. The God. Whispering wisdom into this boy's ear.

The boy nodded. "Yes," he said. "The God. He will forgive her. And you, for poisoning her and exiling her bastard."

The boy's fingers closed around his.

They soon departed east, unnoticed on desert roads.

THE END


© 2010 Kristen Lee Knapp

Bio: Kristen Knapp is an author/student living in Jacksonville Florida with his girlfriend Kaity. Kris's stories have been published in Allegory ezine, Moon Drenched Fables, Bewildering Stories, Yellow Mama, and, of course, Aphelion (most recently Weregild, February, 2010)./i>

E-mail: Kristen Lee Knapp

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