The summer that Aria left me, the prairie turned to dust -- fields, roads, even the endless unworked stretches of grass. Most of the dust that year was just raised by the wind, but when we saw the dust cloud approaching us, we bet on who was causing it for three days. At first it was just a film on the horizon and you wondered if your eyes were as dirty as your hands, but then it got bigger and bigger and you realized it wasn't just a farmer from Old Caledon come to trade. For a while we thought it might be a dust storm, but the wind whipped those up out of the west, scouring away dying fields. This was a brown cloud up from the east. Road dust, like a dirty thumbprint on the rainless sky.
On the third day, the monks walked out of the cloud like a dream. It was only Aria and me out in the fields when they appeared, their gold robes and the quartz braided into their hair flashing in the sun. Aria was only five years old, and had never seen more than fifteen people in a room together. I stopped counting monks after I got to twenty.
"Aria," I said, "run tell your father."
"But I want to watch, Mama!"
"Hush, girl. Go tell your father. He's mending the roof."
She gave me a surly look, then turned and ran down the line of scorched knee-high corn, looking at the monks over her shoulder. I wiped my hands on the rag at my belt and watched them come closer. Monks came for only two things: tribute and war. But I'd never seen so many of them in one place. I wondered who my man would have to go fight now. We'd been raided many times by the Enhala, but the monks had never bothered with that. Reddis was the far frontier. There weren't enough of us to matter.
The procession stopped at the edge of our field, where the circles of corn, beans, and squash left off to nodding stalks of grass and tangled, half-burnt morning glory vines, and a group of monks in the middle lowered a wooden litter to the ground. I couldn't imagine a place where that many trees grew, that wood would be used to carry people. We had a few stunted cottonwoods growing along the wash, but the wash was drying up and so were the trees. Rich 'steaders used wood to frame their houses or to heat them in winter. Most of us made do with bricks of sod.
Until I saw the litter, I didn't think that the monks had walked all the way from Itarra, capital of the empire. Terador, maybe. But not Itarra.
A monk got out of the litter and walked toward me, and I smoothed out my apron and picked up my water gourd and went to meet them.
"Here is water," I called, the greeting we always used. I held the half-empty gourd out in front of me. "I'm sorry I don't have more to offer."
The monk who had gotten out of the litter waved it away, and some of the stiffness went out of my fingers.
"Thank you, little sister," he said, "but we have no need of water." I touched my forehead in thanks. He wore a fine, ochre-dyed cotton robe, and hammered gold earrings shaped like snakes pierced his ear lobes with their teeth. A necklace of jade plates rested on his chest. If he had wanted water, he could have demanded all I had, and more. But instead he reached into a leather sack he wore slung over one shoulder and pulled out a scroll of bark paper. It crinkled as he smoothed it out. A homesteader, and daughter of a homesteader, I had seen paper only once, and that was in the Great Hall of Terador when the empire took my father's land and gave it to another family after he died. A monk had signed the paper for me with a quill from a crow's wing. Homesteaders never learned how to write.
"You are Sadhann?" he asked. "Tenant of Camrae Farm?"
Bad luck when a monk calls you by name. I nodded and pulled the water gourd in tight against my stomach.
The monk smiled.
"Sadhann," he said, still smiling, the light of his smile reaching gray-blue eyes the color of water never contaminated by dust. "Sadhann, we have come to bestow a wonderful revelation upon you. Five years ago you bore a child. And lo, that child will become the God of War. Give thanks!"
The gourd slipped from my fingers and all that precious water splashed on the monk's good leather boots.
They made me take them to the house, even though I told them Aria was a girl. Their eyebrows lifted just enough for me to tell they were surprised, despite their smiles. Women did not fight in wars. Sometimes, if they were rich and lucky, they learned to weave beautiful tapestries and even to read and write. But daughters of homesteaders hoed pumpkins and tended corn and lived their lives dust to dust. After I told the monks that Aria was a girl, I could see in their eyes what they thought: that I was a dirt-woman, trying hard to keep her only son by lying about his sex.
"The proclamation states that the War God wishes your child to become his new avatar," the Senior said. "The form he currently inhabits grows old, and he needs a new body. A young body. So we will go see this girl."
It was common knowledge even out here that some of the gods of the Itarran Tribunal grew old and sought new hosts. We gossiped about it when we met, the way we gossiped about the weather. But I had never thought a god would touch me or my child.
I led them down the path home, through stands of sick green bluestem higher than our heads. The monks had nothing to say to a dirt-woman, even if she was the mother of the War Goddess. Their boots crunched on the hard, dry soil. The wind swirled it up around us and rustled the grass. Ordinary sounds, but there was nothing ordinary about that day.
The grass ended suddenly at the bounds of a circle of scorched earth, our only defense against fire. The house itself was built into a gentle roll in the land, its roof curved and green with plants. It looked like a turtle, the kind that buried themselves in the mud down in the wash. Jaren and I had dug up bricks of turf to build our house and seed shed ourselves, a year before Aria was born. For the past six years, the roots that grew down through the walls had held them solid and tight, but now the house was drying out like the rest of the prairie. Sometimes at night our roof trickled down on us like water. Jaren's spade lay forgotten atop the house, where he'd been packing new sod into the holes left by the crumbling old bricks. He stood in the doorway, wiping his dirt-blackened hands on a rag.
Aria put down her cornshuck dolls and greeted me with a wilted handful of blue forget-me-nots. "Here, Mama," she said. "For you."
Forget-me-nots were Aria's favorite flowers. They grew in a small patch that straggled along the lip of the roof, where it hung down low on one side of the house. It was a miracle they were still alive in this drought.
I took the sick forget-me-nots in one hand and her hand in the other. Jaren came to stand beside us, tucking the rag into his belt. Aria pressed herself against my leg and watched the monks from halfway behind me.
"What's this?" Jaren asked. In the afternoon sun, his dark hair shone just like Aria's, like the polished wood of the monk's litter. My heart hurt to see it.
"This is Aria," I told the monk.
My husband gave me a mute look. The Senior walked hesitantly toward us, and Jaren took Aria's other hand in his. Aria blinked up at the monk with those wide brown eyes that had always seemed too old for her face.
The monk carefully lowered himself to one knee in front of her.
"You're going to take me away," she said. "Aren't you."
"Did your father tell you that, little one?"
Aria shook her head. "No. I just knew." She scuffed her toe in the dirt and watched the marks it made for a while. Then she said, "Can Papa and Mama come too?"
The monk touched her shoulder. "You will be going to meet your true self. Your true self has no papa and mama."
Aria sighed. "But they'll be lonely without me."
"They'll be proud of you."
Aria bent her head back to look up at us, and I wanted to smile at her but couldn't. I wanted to grab her from the monk's uncallused white hands and draw her to me, to feel the heat of her sun-warmed hair under my hand and hear myself say, No, you can't have her, she's mine, she's all I have. I saw myself getting up in the morning and making breakfast without her putting her fingers in the pot before it had even cooled, and I saw myself coming in from the fields to find her dolls sitting neatly on her bed, alone. I saw myself not having to scold her when she ran naked and laughing out into the sun because it was summer.
I should have torn her away from the monk.
But I didn't. I stood there frozen with Jaren, who gripped her other hand so tightly it turned white. We both watched as Aria slowly shook her head.
"No," she said. "I think they'll be lonely. I want them to come."
The monk frowned. "Aria, the God of War has no parents."
Jaren jerked, and I remembered that he didn't know what this was all about. "But she's only a girl!"
The monk's frown hardened and the color of his eyes looked less like water than stone. "Do you dare question the Tribunal? The God of War has chosen this girl as his new form -- give thanks and be proud!"
Jaren made a strangled sound deep in his throat.
The monk unrolled his scroll again and began to read from it. "The God of War speaks thus:
"'Walk upon the Western Road, my faithful ones, walk until your feet gather sores and stones and your eyes ache from dust. Bear this in my name, for I grow tired of this body and desire another, a child who lives far, far from Itarra in the province of Reddis, amid fields of corn and pumpkins and prairie grass, in a place called Camrae. This child's father is called Jaren and its mother Sadhann, and this child will be one with me, my new body. In this body I will vanquish all those who challenge our borders and I will trample their bodies to dust beneath my boots.'"
The monk slowly tucked the paper away in his pack. "So it is written, so shall it be." Then he knelt before Aria, dragging his golden robe in the dust, and he touched his forehead to the dirty tops of her bare feet. "I pledge myself to you, Aria, daughter of Sadhann and Jaren, Goddess of War."
Aria watched him silently. I started to cry.
That night Jaren and I lay in bed and argued. Since Aria was born we had gotten in the habit of arguing softly, so we wouldn't wake her. We spoke so softly now that we might have been drifting together in the moments after making love, both flat on our backs and staring up at the dark earth ceiling, while Aria slept, curled up against the far wall.
"We have no choice, Sadhann," Jaren whispered. "The god himself has decreed it."
"We could appeal," I whispered back.
"We're dirt to them, Sadhann. They'd just ignore us."
I clamped my teeth shut tight against the cry I could feel in my throat. All that escaped was a hiss of air that ruffled the feathers of my pillow as I rolled over.
"You never wanted Aria," I said, closing my eyes. "You wanted a boy."
"Gods' blood, Sadhann, would this be different if she was a boy?"
I pressed my lips tight together. I did not trust myself to speak.
Jeran sighed, and then I felt the touch of his rough fingers on my shoulder. "The gods know I love Aria, too."
I blinked at the wall. "If they know," I said, very slowly, as if I were dropping pebbles into a well to test the water level, "then why are they taking her away from us?"
His fingers stilled on my shoulder, then drifted away. He didn't say anything, and I closed my eyes again.
The gods didn't care for us. Surely this must be a joke, some cruel sport of the War God and his monks, to call up a dirt-girl. We had heard rumors from Terador that the gods in Itarra were in need of more slaves. I could almost picture the gold cuffs jangling on Aria's small wrist. I buried my face in the pillow.
But there was a worse image in my head, in the dark. A tapestry of the gods hangs in the trial-house at Terador. On it, the gods of Death and War stand together, wearing the black and red uniforms that make them look like half-healed wounds, and each has a foot on a naked man. The man's life runs out in rivers that pool into a slash of crimson thread at the bottom of the tapestry. In the dark, I saw Aria in this picture. She stood on the corpse and looked down at me with her old eyes, sword raised above her head in victory. But Aria -- my Aria, whose warm weight I held against me when she woke from bad dreams in the night -- my Aria was not there. The War God had bled her away, until she was nothing more than the red stitches at the bottom.
Mothers of boys expect war to steal their offspring some day. Out here in Reddis there is a good chance of that. With Aria, I worried about sickness and injury and that some day she would leave us to marry, that she might go away to a further frontier and we would never hear from her again. I did not expect war to take her.
I couldn't sleep. I went out into the night as quietly as I could, and Jaren let me go.
I couldn't remember the last time a storm had cooled the air. The night was hot and dust-filled. The wind wrapped my cotton shift around my legs as I walked, barefoot, down the path to the fields and road. The hard, smooth dirt, still warm from the day, felt good on the soles of my feet, and the walking helped ease that feeling I had inside of not having enough air. The grass was alive with the high chirrah of locusts. When I came to the edge of the road, I sat down in the dust and watched the monks' camp.
At that moment it seemed impossible that the world was going on as it always had, with these men lodged in the middle of our grass like a colony of ants. I felt like I was sleepwalking. The monks poured corn beer and wine for each other out of hammered silver ewers and drank from cups of bronze and gold. The pillows on which they reclined were worked in such rich reds I couldn't guess the dyes or what fabrics they were made from. Flower petals lay scattered on the ground to ease and perfume the monks' travel-worn feet. Every now and then one of the men would reach into the middle of the circle, where a fine wooden table supported more food than we ate in weeks. The mottled brown feathers of a roasted pheasant stuffed with grapes gleamed in the lantern-light. A silver dish beside it held slices of red tomatoes, so ripe and dark that they looked almost black. The smell of food made my mouth water.
One of the monks rose from his pillows and walked toward me. I scrambled to my feet, prepared to run, but the monk said, "Wait."
The Senior. I bowed low. "Forgive me. I didn't mean any harm."
He waved away my apology and held out a cup. "Go on," he said. "Take it. It's for you."
I put my hand around the stem of the cup, barely aware of what I was doing. Slivers of ice floated on the surface of the wine.
Ice. Itarran magic. The hot prairie wind greedily ate it, making the goblet sweat.
"Sit," the Senior said. He had already done so, cross-legged in the dirt like a commoner. I obeyed, still feeling as if I were dreaming.
"She was born to be War," he said. "We do nothing that isn't fated."
I didn't speak for a moment. Then I said, "She's only a little girl."
"She is now. Children grow up."
I stared at the wine. "She'll grow up to be a woman. Will you deny her a husband? Children of her own? Happiness?"
I marveled at myself that the words came out. But the monk didn't scold me. Instead he sat quiet for a time, and I put my dry, wind-cracked lips to the lip of the cool bronze goblet and drank.
The wine was cold. I'd had nothing cold since winter.
"Sadhann," the monk said. "Would you deny her this?"
He swept his hand out toward the monks' camp, the flowers, the pheasants, the laughter and music. He stared at me for a moment and I bent my head and looked at the wine instead.
He sighed and climbed to his feet. With a start I got to my feet, too, holding out the half-drunk goblet of wine for him to take back.
"Drink, Sadhann," he said. "We will come again in the morning."
But I'd had more than my share already. I licked the water droplets off the outside of the cup before they could fall to the dust, wasted.
I stayed there by the road almost until dawn, watching the monks' big, gold-stitched tent ripple in the night wind. Perhaps Aria would sleep there, on a bed whose mattress was not made of corn shucks. Perhaps there would be no bedbugs to leave red bumps in the morning. Perhaps they would feed her grapes and tomatoes and pheasant while she sat on deep pile carpets and had servants dust her hair with violets and rub the chubby pads of her fingers with fragrant oils. Perhaps they would give her fine-spun cotton to wear, and leather boots so she wouldn't catch cold when it rained, and maybe she would have fine, soft furs to keep her warm when it snowed. And perhaps she would learn to play a keipa like the monks did and recline on pillows and laugh like the ladies in Terador, behind her veils. And all these monks would have to do her bidding, because she would be their War Goddess.
She would be a little wild thing.
I wondered what the monks would do when she had a nightmare. I always stroked her hair until she fell asleep again, and then I listened to her breathe and put my hand on her back so I could feel the breath moving in her. It was said that the gods found their avatars by searching for them in their dreams. I wondered how different it would have been to cuddle her against my breast and wipe away her tears with my hand if I had known. As I watched the monks sing and eat, I wondered how I would treat her, if by some miracle the god changed his mind and gave her back to me -- if I would bite my tongue instead of scolding her when she trampled the young bean plants, if I would watch her eyelids flutter in her sleep and think not of childish things but of war dreams. My Aria, the War Goddess.
At what cost would she have those things the monk promised her?
But if by some miracle she were to stay, would things ever be the same? And if she was destined to be the War Goddess, would life as a dirt-girl ever satisfy her?
It was almost dawn when I walked back to the house, the monk's metal cup in my hands. Our neighbors -- what few of them there were -- were already coming into the fields. I stopped and watched one mother walk up the road with a hand to her side as if she were in pain, a baby slung over her back and another little girl of about three running beside her, and her belly swollen big and ripe with the next one. They were my neighbors. I knew their names and their dispositions, but suddenly they seemed like strangers.
The little girl tripped and fell on her bare knees in the dirt.
"Hush," her mother told her when she started to cry. "We have work to do." And she bent and lifted the little girl to her feet, dusting off her knees and kissing her hair.
I turned and walked the rest of the way to the house, tears scratching the corners of my eyes.
When I opened the door, Aria was already up and dressed. She had folded her nightshirt, and she was sitting on the edge of her mattress, clutching one of her corn-husk dolls with both hands.
"Will the monks let me take Deer?" she asked, blinking up at me.
"I'll tell them to," I said.
"I wish you could come."
"So do I, Aria."
I sank to my knees in front of her, put the monks' goblet aside, and gathered her up in my arms so tightly I didn't know if she'd be able to breathe. I cried against her shoulder for a long time. She was a good girl. She tangled her fingers in my hair and let me.
"You be good to your fancy clothes," I told her. "And keep your hands clean."
"And listen to the monks when they tell you to do something, all right? Don't be hard-headed."
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She nodded and swiped at her nose with the back of her hand. I wanted to tell her to be merciful and just, but the words would not come out of my mouth. I wanted to tell her a hundred other things, too, but instead we walked outside to wait with Jaren for the monks. They came in a long, snaky line, walking down from the road, the wooden litter bobbing in the middle like a branch in a stream.
Before they took Aria, I snapped off a handful of forget-me-nots from the roof and pressed them into the hand that was not clutching Deer. "Remember me, Aria," I whispered.
Jaren knelt and gave Aria a hug, then stood and put his hand on my shoulder.
The Senior came down the path toward us. He didn't mention the cup. I didn't say anything to him. I held Aria's hand until the monk gently pried my fingers from hers and led her away. She only turned around once, biting her lip, her eyes too big.
Jaren tried to guide me into the house. But standing in the doorway, I thought I heard Aria say, "Good-bye, Mama." When I looked over my shoulder, they had already lifted her up into the litter and settled it on their shoulders. She opened her hand and stared at the flowers lying flat on her palm, then clenched her hand into a fist. The forget-me-nots stuck out through the gaps. That was the image of Aria they left me with -- that handful of crushed forget-me-nots.
And the sight of the dust cloud fading away into the horizon, until it became a film on my eyes, like tears.