Part 1 of 2
Jump up! Take arms! Bare teeth!
We fight for these sands.
Sink iron knives and white teeth into their scented flesh, their soft city flesh, those stealers of our homes. This is our city now, this desert with its winds that scour our cheeks, its dunes that join us in song, its rare springs that we lap at so gently. We once gulped rivers of rubies and pearls; now they do and we will never be able to claim them back. We will not let them take this final city of air and graveyards from us! Jump up!
We fight for these sands with everything we have and sometimes we forget the feel of a sister's shoulder beneath our heads, we've been so long without sleep—but today will be remembered for more than this.
Today we retrieve the bodies of our Saints.
Nishir and Aree the Courageous, Nishir and Aree the Fierce, Nishir and Aree the Kind. We write their names on every rock we pass, because we fear that one day we will all be killed, and then who will tell their stories? We imagine a foxless woman hundreds of years from now deciphering the desert's rocks and holding them close to her heart like a new-born child and kit.
It pains us to imagine a future where the suns cross and no child and kit are born onto the hot sands. No other people are born like us.
We buried Nishir and Aree only fifty years ago, when we still numbered in the hundreds, when we still inhabited cities and slept under ceilings of scuffed gold.
We send our bravest, brightest daughters for this most sacred task. Jiresh and Iskree first perform the dawn mourning, barking ten times into the wind the names of our most recently lost sisters. We cook their breakfast. A feast: mice and snakes in neat rows, roasted cactus flesh, crushed agari petals and rare kurik stamens. They take small bites, and then Jiresh holds out the plates to the rest of us, smiling. "Eat, sisters. We must all be strong." Iskree licks her dye-whorled tail as we share the food. We help them prepare. Fifty years ago we still hung so much silver from our ears that the flesh stretched, hanging around our shoulders, and we still dusted our faces with the powder of sapphires. Going into battle, we used to gild our nails and claws, and fit ourselves with mail that shone like small suns, like our mothers. Now we anoint Jiresh and Iskree with shattered knives. We bind the triangles to their foreheads with leather, and the jagged edges draw small beads of red. For each drop of their blood, we think, may a thousand fall from our enemies.
One by one, we embrace them.
Dutash holds Jiresh last, and whispers, "Stay safe, stay safe. I will dream of you every night. Bring me back dates, if they still grow there."
"I will," Jiresh whispers against Dutash's lips, holding her lover close, "I will, I will."
Iskree and Tounee inhale each other's scents, snout to snout, to carry close to their hearts.
And then Jiresh and Iskree walk into the desert, woman and fox, towards bold Barsime, the city whose walls threw themselves to the ground when we were forced out.
Few of us remember our cities' glory.
Mere villages, our enemies say. But we were never so numerous, never capable of filling each city with thousands upon thousands. What need did we have of numbers when our cities were so beautiful?
We know Onashek: how could we not? We held onto it the longest, Onashek of cinnamon, carved into such beautiful houses. Even when crowded with refugees, it failed to lose all its lustre beneath their detritus. It made the sweetest fires; its smoke scented the tears that covered our faces as we fled.
We know Eriphos of our well-scribed stones. We launch rare raids into its remains, pillaging the stones that are covered in our stories, in the script our enemies call crude, simple. A child masters it so quickly, they say, surely it is only a plaything, like scribbles of the suns. We only want our human sisters to learn quickly. They need to fight—it is a remnant of our luxury that we also want them to write, just as we make dangerous journeys to the places where indigo grows, so that our fox sisters can harvest leaves and dye their tails with their traditional shapes, denoting histories.
We know Barsime of the green sarcophagus, where Nishir and Aree lie under a heavy lid. Our oldest sisters tell of the sarcophagus's unforgettable beauty.
The way to Barsime is long and dry, but Jiresh and Iskree are used to hardship. They walk together, barking and singing in poor harmony, chasing lizards, seizing animals that emerge at night. The stars point a path from oasis to oasis, so that they can fill their leather water-bags and with careful rationing keep their tongues wet.
They find rocks covered in our human script, and Jiresh stops to read out every story. Young as she is, she has heard only a few of them.
Once, we knew more stories than there were stars to follow and admire at night. We wrote them in the desert for fun. What we have lost since that time is immeasurable.
Jiresh and Iskree cross the desert, walking the dotted line on Jiresh's map, until they reach the triangle of Barsime.
They almost miss it.
The sands have swallowed the city's remains, so that Barsime is only a strange pattern of small rises in the ground. Jiresh, tired and thirsting, walks blindly among them, stepping on and off the fallen walls. It is only because of Iskree, who never tires of digging for lizards, that she doesn't walk on to the salt flats and die looking.
It is the first sun's dawn. As warmth covers Jiresh's body, she sighs in relief. The night is always so cold.
Iskree finds worked stone.
Her barks draw Jiresh back. "Barsime," Jiresh says. "Then there must be an oasis, or a well." But they cannot find water. The date palms are gone, torn down and burnt. The careful irrigation system is lost. The desert has claimed back the land once held by our city. There will be no dates for Dutash. "Maybe there's still water underground."
The oldest among us recall that the sarcophagus is buried, and told them so before they left.
In the early morning's shadows, Jiresh and Iskree decipher the pattern of Barsime's fallen walls and by the time sweat is soaking their bodies under two high suns, they stand in its centre. Iskree digs. Jiresh helps her, on hands and knees sweeping aside the sand until they reveal a door, leading down.
Its jewels and bronze decorations are gone.
Nauseated, Jiresh pushes the stone door completely off the hole. Iskree, who sees better in the dim, leads the way down the cool stone steps. The temperature is a relief. They smell damp, and feel renewed hope for a well—and there it is, in the middle of the subterranean road. There is no bucket. Jiresh unhooks the bucket she carries on her back and lowers it on some of her best rope until it strikes liquid.
The water is perfectly, beautifully pure. She sets the bucket on the floor so that she and Iskree can both drink.
When they and their leather bags are full, they walk on.
There is enough light for Jiresh to see that the walls' decorations are also gone, prised off.
Jiresh wants hope. She wants it like she wants fine food and perfume and a house with windows of stained glass: it is a thing she knows that others possess and think nothing of, while she only has an emptiness that wants to hold it.
At the end of a long corridor, she and Iskree step into a small chamber.
The pedestal is swirled with blue like a tail and engraved with lines of letters, declaring in both scripts: Here is the final sleeping place of Nishir and Aree, who taught us all to be strong.
That the pedestal is bare of its green sarcophagus and sacred bodies doesn't surprise her.
Our enemies say that our stories are all lies, that we never were born each time the suns' paths crossed, we never were, that we were just women who went mad, who raped men to get their daughters, killed sons out of the womb, who tamed foxes with meat and bestial sex.
They say we never lived in those cities they filled with locks and guns and foxless people.
Iskree whines as if wounded.
"Why have you taken them if you think we're worthless?" Jiresh shouts to the empty chamber. "Why can't you just leave us alone?" She falls to her knees, sobbing. "You've won. You've already won. Why can't you stop stealing from us?"
When we later hear this tale, we will keen for their pain, and wish we were there to press against them and stroke their fur and hair.
"We only want to honour them," Jiresh cries. "We want to bury them in a place far from our enemies, where they'll be safe and we can always return to make offerings."
She lies on the floor, too tired to consider walking.
Iskree licks her cheeks and barks—it's not yet time to give up.
"We don't know where they've been taken," Jiresh says.
Iskree barks and barks, reminding Jiresh that yes, they do.
She and Jiresh are considered brave for more than their willingness to stand and fight while their maimed and younger and more fearful sisters flee an attack. They were once captured and taken to an enemy town, a place where our people die as easily as cacti under a blade. In their cell, as they planned an escape, they overheard the guards talking. One, a woman, said that she hadn't even believed the fox-fuckers to be real until she took her current job. She'd thought the exhibits in the Museum of Caa were hoaxes, like the skeletons of dog-headed men from the far North. Iskree and Jiresh happily killed all the guards several hours later.
Now they give thanks for being slowly, tediously taught the enemies' language as children.
"If they collect our artefacts in Caa," Jiresh says to Iskree, and the words taste foul as suns-turned meat, "then the bodies of Nishir and Aree will be the museum's finest display." Iskree barks agreement.
The concept of museums is strange to them, even after seeing one of the enemy's towns. A life under roofs, in a house that is safe, full of children, full of food and copper pots that bubble over with meat and spices—they dream of such things. They feasted on the bowls of plain rice in that cell, ignoring the guards when they laughed, when they asked if Jiresh would fuck her fox, and could they watch.
Caa is even further away than that town—but it was once one of our cities, so it is on Jiresh's map.
Iskree barks and Jiresh nods, determined. "We will not fail our mission. At dusk we'll begin walking west."
They sleep near the base of the steps to the subterranean part of the city, until they sense the darkening of the day, wake, drink further from the well, and depart.
They cross the western desert, and it tries like the drammik of legend to kill them. The land is truly plant-less, the water scarce, the sun unrelenting, though they find deep cracks in the ground and curl in them during the day, pressed to the earth in a desperate sleeping search for shadows. They sleep nose-to-nose; Jiresh has liked waking with hers wet since early childhood. They pine for Dutash and Tounee. Sometimes when they are tired, they lie under the stars, Iskree on Jiresh's chest, barking a rhythm in time to Jiresh's fingers drumming on the hard ground.
They sit on a stony ridge where agari flowers grow, and watch the city of Caa. Its old walls are tiled in emerald. Its old roofs gleam silver. Our walls. Most of the city is newly built of sand-brick, full of so many people. Iskree can already smell their food, and her gut cramps in longing.
Numerous times she and Jiresh have leaped into hiding as merchants leave the city, on their way to another of the enemy's cities. In this place, the fertile land is riddled with old rock formations that make easy hiding places.
"You have to hide," Jiresh says to Iskree.
"You have to. I can pretend to be one of them, poor and wild-haired, and they'll kick me a little but they'll let me in. I can steal their clothes, even, and find a stream to wash in, and bind up my hair, and they might let me right into the museum. If I walk in with a fox. . ."
Iskree snaps her teeth.
Jiresh buries her face in her hands, moaning softly. In truth she cannot bear the thought of separation from Iskree.
She remembers that she has seen women and men carrying large woven baskets of goods.
"I have a plan."
It is a long wait.
For this, Jiresh convinces Iskree to stay hidden. Jiresh too is out of sight, among rocks—among badly scratched, defaced stories of how we raise our suns-born young—until finally the wait is over. A woman approaches, with corn poking from the top of her basket. Looking at the quality of her jacket, its colours in patterns so fine that Jiresh thinks surely they're a figment of her imagination, Jiresh assumes that she traded cloth for food in the city. But how she got the food and basket matters little.
As she passes, Jiresh leaps out from her hiding place and strikes her on the head with a heavy stone. The woman crumples with a groan, and lies on the road, twitching. Only when Jiresh has dragged her into the rocks and stripped her of her fine clothes, untangled strings of beads from her beautifully combed hair and taken her basket, does she slit the woman's throat. The blood gathers in dips in the rock, like soup in bowls. Jiresh and Iskree feast on corn and small packets of raw meat from the basket.
Jiresh wants to wear the jacket, but fears someone will recognise it as belonging to the dead woman, so she only dons the dress underneath—and cannot resist the belt, on which bells jangle like a continuous song. There she hangs her knife. She reluctantly unbinds her feet from their worn, tattered dark cloth, and puts on the woman's boots. Her long wild hair she winds into a knot at the back of her head, fastened with silver pins taken from the woman's head. She removes the knife-shards from her forehead and hides their small cuts with beads.
She worries that she will be instantly recognised as an imposter.
She uses the jacket and remaining corn as a cushion and concealment for Iskree, who gives her a long look before curling inside.
"You know I wouldn't do this if there was another way."
Iskree licks her paws: she is unhappy, but she understands.
And so Jiresh, born under the crossed paths of two suns on a bed of hot sand, raised in the shells of old cities and under temporary canvas, walks into the thriving stolen city of Caa carrying Iskree on her back.
It is unimaginably big. She must keep walking. It crowds her: the voices, so loud and numerous, speaking that language not so different to her own. The colours of the clothes. Oh—the fruits, the powdered spices in pyramids, the smell of cooking meat. She drools and has to wipe and wipe her chin. Iskree buries her snout in the jacket to muffle her whimpers. "I know, I know," she hears Jiresh whisper. "Shh." They want to leap on the vendors and steal their food. Jiresh tries not to stare at women with big breasts, at men, at people of all ages who don't show their bones on their skin. The buildings are so tall, several times her height. There are so many children. There are no foxes. There are men.
There are so many styles of clothing that her unfinished theft of an outfit is complete next to others. There are so many kinds of faces that her darker, wind-scoured one is not so unusual. People look at her, and her shoulders are torsion-tense, and the worst they do is eye her apparent poverty with disdain, concern, wariness.
She thinks: We are just a story to you, a folktale or highly questioned part of history, and you might not believe me if I said I've walked weeks in the desert to reach here, and I'll steal our Saints' bones back or die trying.
Even though she has seen some of this before, in the enemies' town, it is too much, too different, and she is barely across the market at the gates when she wants to run back into the desert and sit under the sky's horizon-wide stretch, with the rocks and the agari flowers growing like little banquets.
She clenches her fists on the straps of her basket and walks on, up a major street, towards the distant roofs that sparkle in the suns' light.
When she walks in the remains of our old city, she must fight the urge to cry, to shout and rail against the theft of these walls. It's all so wrong! So full of intruders. Fists clenching ever tighter, Jiresh follows the winding pattern of the streets, but cannot find the museum. Increasingly uncomfortable under clothes and corn, Iskree turns and turns. She hears Jiresh begin talking in that ugly language. She imagines a whole city full of foxless people and nearly keens aloud for Tounee.
"I'm looking for the museum," Jiresh says to a vendor, who displays small, intricately detailed statues carved of bone on a bright red mat. It draws her attention even as she tries to carry out a conversation. Bone and blood, and under it dusty stones. Simultaneously familiar and wrong—a keen bundles in her throat like fabric.
Jiresh hopes the woman thinks her accent only distant-strange.
"Um." Iskree circles again. Jiresh wishes that she could whisper apologies. What a fine city this is, with so many museums like gemstones on a necklace. "The one with the desert people in it? The women and foxes?" She doesn't know their non-derogatory terms for us.
"Sorry," the woman says, smiling, "but I don't actually know where that one is. You'll have to ask someone else."
"Oh. Thanks." Jiresh cannot smile back, and stalks off to find someone who cares enough about our people to know where our Saints are kept.
A man in a brilliant blue tunic overhears her question to another woman. "I know where it is," he says, with a smile as warm as tea. He has hair on his chin. He is tall and broad, like a wall, and his trousers subtly bulge. It's like talking to an inscription on Barsime's subterranean walls; even as more words pass between them, she can't imagine that she is doing this thing. "Do you want me to show you?"