Science Fiction & Fantasy

THE CALL

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Fiction

Two Dead Men

Everybody knows everybody else in Fejz, they used to say. They meant the high town, crowded shoulder to shoulder on its twin narrow peaks, not the sprawl of the low town in the bottomlands under the escarpment and the falls.

That was before the little war. It was never true but during the siege you learned how few you had known, how superficially you were acquainted with your nearest neighbors. At the peace talks in Katothtet one of the chief negotiators for the Bala was a woman who, when we were schoolchildren, handed me a sheaf of wheat ears and poppies on Eikis Day and demanded a kiss. When the international court declared the interim government’s reconciliation amnesty illegal and immoral she was tried for war crimes and, though nobody denied she was a very small cog in the Bala war machine, convicted, imprisoned.

By then I was five years away from Fejz, from Iszabal, half the world away in my mother’s country. Believing me broken and useless, one of the wealthy brothers of her house gave me an allowance and a villa on the beach at Suut-ua-Qaza. I believed I would never return to the town of my birth, speak the language of my upbringing.

Hoped, I suppose.

I was a foreigner in tranquil, tropical Suut, more than my foreign name and features had ever made me in Fejz. Once, years earlier, I had briefly been a tourist, when the small fishing village was first discovering itself as a destination, a place subcontinentals and other travellers would congratulate themselves on discovering. We came south from the capital on holiday, my Isz father and Avengi mother and half/half I, all of sixteen. There were no hotels yet in Suut, no hermetically sealed resorts, merely a guesthouse run by a weathered expat of Yf who taught me to ride a surfboard in hours not taken up by the town’s other attractions.

Girls, that is.

Lovely girls with lovely faces, searching eyes and sly lips, with long black hair sleeked with scented oil so they smelled like flowers, with necklaces or coronets of flowers, with sweet breasts they seldom troubled to hide away and long slender brown arms and work-callused fingers.

Girls who found my stumbles through my mother’s language charming, who told me stories from the life of the Kandadal to improve my vocabulary and ethics—older stories of Father Bodo and Mother Flame, of demons and boggarts and shape-shifting creatures that haunted the humid dark of Aveng’s rain forests. In turn, I was meant to relate old stories from Iszabal: how Eikis brought the two peoples, long-settled Bala and invading Isz, together as one nation and built the Old Bridge at Fejz from her own blood and bone. Of the nameless virtues and excellences of the land who watched over us, unseen, unknown, from their dwellings in the earth and rock and trees—who now and then out of whim or dismay or infatuation appropriated human form and name to interfere with our lives. Was Eikis one of those, a curious girl wanted to know, a virtue or an excellence? A question argued for a thousand years and unanswerable, I replied with adolescent airiness.

They would tire of stories eventually, the girls, eager to get me out of confining subcontinental shirt and trousers and shoes—then, after languorous play, to dress me up like a native youth in vividly plaided sarong and my own crown of scented blossoms. Shocking to a boy from sober Iszabal, they were delighted to share me around among their girl friends, puzzled when I declined to explore the pleasures their boy friends might offer.

When my uncle sent me back to Suut fifteen years later I was far less innocent if not especially less straitlaced or stupid. Chiefly, though, I was no longer human and sincerely believed all humans to be vicious and vile. For several months I refused to speak to the woman my uncle had hired to feed me and care for the house. When she impinged on my vision I shut my eyes and turned away. When I smelled the sweet oil and flowers in her hair the odors nauseated me. Once she learned not to watch over me I ate the food she prepared because I was an animal who had been starved, but it often sickened me. That my degraded state saddened her I remained determinedly unaware.

In a popular novel or motion picture intended for the sentimental audiences of Yf and the subcontinent the embittered siege veteran should rediscover his humanity when he learns the woman hired to tend him was the girl who romanced him in his youth, that the stripling lad who now and then aids her labors is the son he never knew.

Avengi sentiment runs in different channels. Elilanongo recollected the prim half-foreign playmate of that long-ago season in the way one remembers a long-dead cat, reminded of its ways by the antics or attitudes of one’s new kitten. She knew as well as I that boy was dead. As for the lad, a son of her household, she was one of his mothers but not the one who bore him. If that girl had been careless or cunning the dead boy could have sired Gorulellu—he was the correct age—as he might have sired several of Gulu’s friends, but the dead man was nobody’s father.

We became friendly eventually, Gulu and I, even before he tattooed the Kandadal’s eleven precepts on my back and an allegory of the siege of Fejz woven around and about the scars on my right arm, but he had always possessed a sufficiency of fathers around and about his mothers’ house.

• • • •

The bridge fell again in my dream, silent, slow. I watched from an impossible, an inhuman perspective. Shells from the Bala artillery in the hills inscribed their whining trajectories over the high town. When the explosives hit—on the bridge or, falling short, in the river’s depths at the foot of the gorge, or against the walls of the tower-gates on either side—white exhalations of smoke billowed into clear air, deceptive and transient as droplets of black ink in a glass of clear water. Small fragments of sharp red stone leapt from the bridge’s parapets, hurtled like shrapnel against the steep walls of the gorge or down to the swirling water as it approached the falls. Dislodged, dressed blocks and ashlars simply fell. Then, at an instant indistinguishable from the moments before or after, the ancient stresses of the span overmastered the balance of the arch—the center of the Old Bridge dropped out and a cloud of dust rose. It seemed to form a tall figure, an immense woman wrapped in the white of mourning: I knew she was Eikis who had built the bridge nearly a thousand years before to bind the two peoples together, but now the bonds were broken. Her hands came up. She scattered red poppies over the river, over the estranged halves of the high town. They fell like rain, like blood. When she raised her eyes I recognized the devotion in those profound blue irises, and my heart stopped.

An instant later Eikis vanished.

On the broken wall of the fallen bridge’s south tower crouched a man. A starved man, lean, wiry, bearing a gaudy polymer bucket and a coil of hemp rope. He meant to collect fresh water from the river twenty meters below for his ailing friend. Our little store of water was stale, suspect, and there had been no food for days.

I seemed to see the path of the Bala sharpshooter’s bullet, hurtling from the emplacement in the peaks above the high town. Could a rifle bullet travel so far, so fast? Perhaps I was mistaken, perhaps the sniper fired from a high window on the north side of the gorge. The bullet struck flesh. Blood burst like a crimson poppy from Djevan’s shoulder and he crumpled. The bucket broke free of his shocked fingers, bounced once, fell free down the cliff, dragging the rope behind it. From my impossible height I watched it tumble, a spot of bright color against ruddy stone. Before it hit the river my friend had regained his knees—before the river brought it to the brink of the falls he had struggled to his feet. He threw up his uninjured arm as if in defiance or to call down a curse.

Before the second bullet hit, he leapt.

My perspective shifted, swerved, dizzyingly, sickeningly. I had witnessed Djevan’s final leap—as I had seen the fall of the bridge two years before—but from a very different viewpoint, as if I were a cellar rat peering through a crack in the wall: I had seen his leap but not the fall.

Abruptly I found myself in the pine-forested hills, near the ground if not walking like a man. Stumbling like a starved and wounded man between the black trees. I came upon one of the Bala artillery emplacements. It had been shut down, cleaned out, by the international forces. By soldiers of my mother’s country or one of its neighbors, U or Dothe or Piq, for tall bamboo stakes stood where the mortars and other heavy ordnance had been mounted. Topknots of brilliant ribbons in the Kandadal’s eleven colors fluttered bravely from each stake. I heard myself explain they were meant to confuse and frighten off the devils of discord drawn to such places. Then, half-lying: And to inspire hope, of course, in the besieged city below.

Then I woke, disoriented, distressed. I often dreamed of Djevan, seldom of his death. Outside the TGV’s window the fertile floodplain of the Sja blurred past, sunswept golden wheatfields and emerald pasture blotted with the red of poppies, the vivid blue of cornflowers. I was still far from the city of my birth, then, although it was unclear to me how long I had slept and what nation this was. A steward brought me chilled lemon water.

• • • •

Like any tourist, when I returned to Fejz a decade after the little war I ascended to the high town in a gondola of the téléphérique. There had been no great sentiment to rebuild the low town as it was before Bala artillery knocked it down so practically the whole of it was new to me. But it was all laid out rationally, scientifically, and I had no difficulty making my way to the téléphérique’s lower terminal. This was new as well, in the swoopy, spidery, over-engineered Uvian style, as of course was the aerial tramway itself. I remembered, as a kid, being thrilled to ride in the rackety, rickety old wooden gondolas with their faded, worn upholstery and ineradicable stink of acrophobic sick.

The new gondola more resembled the Sjolussene TGV that delivered me to Fejz: sleek and austere, perfumed, climate controlled, silent. Unexpectedly, I had it to myself for the fifteen-minute ascent. Its motion was smooth, sway somehow damped. The cliffs beetled up before me—I could not see the walls of the high town. Formerly the cables took a utilitarian straight line, bottom to top, but engineers were cleverer now than ninety years ago and the reimagined téléphérique more a tourist attraction than an urban convenience. Elegant pylons spun the cables in a wide curve above the low town, out over the Gievkoa. I could gaze downriver to where the blue of distance confused itself with the blue of the sea, blurring and muddling the high rises and cranes of the port.

Or I could turn inland. The white thunder of the river hurtled down the fault in the escarpment. Below, the cauldron boiled. However close I pressed myself to curved glass, however I craned my neck, I could not see the top of the falls. I could not see the faded red sandstone arch of the new Old Bridge. It struck me as a failure in the gondola’s design but doubtless there were sound reasons of safety or function to frustrate me.

The gondola dipped to the high-town landing and I climbed out. I carried no baggage, sent ahead to the pension, except memory. Childhood, youth, young manhood. The little war, the famous siege that nearly killed me. I was lucky, they said, the doctors, when I woke in the field hospital of the international forces. Lucky.

I had meant to return sooner. I had meant not to return at all. I had no choice.

Only half Isz, damaged, expatriate a third of my life . . . all that by the by. It was the thousandth Eikis Day and the dedication of her rebuilt bridge. Rebuilt by mortal women and men, engineers, masons, of quarried stone and mortar, not the transmuted bone and blood of myth. Formal invitations had gone out months before to all the farflung refugees and expatriates in the city’s database. The signature on the one that reached me in Suut, half the world away, did not match the printed name of Fejz’s mayor: it appeared to be a single letter, the initial Dj.

I failed to convince myself I misread it.

In any case, my rich uncle was relieved to pay my way. It could only be healing, he agreed, for me to pay my respects at the Field of Martyrs where my Isz father’s bones had been reburied. My Avengi mother’s, when securely identified the year before, had been repatriated, for the new government was scrupulous. My aunts and uncles gave her bones to Mother Flame, the ashes to Father Bodo, and her soul at last was freed to that deep blue sea which is the sky, where the burning spirits of women and men are forever marked by their descendants on earth as stars.

In Iszabal, among both Isz and Bala, the belief is different. Best to be laid beneath the soil, your body to feed the virtues and excellences and the small essential animals that dwell there, your soul to grow green and thoughtful and slow, eternal. Worst, worst to be lost in tumbling waters, spinning, spinning, never to rest.

I walked away from the téléphérique terminal, following the map in memory though the one my ’phone could produce would prove more useful. I was not ready to cross the bridge.

• • • •

The café on the former University Square in the high town had inevitably changed hands, all investment in postwar Iszabal being foreign. Now it wore the livery of a Sjolussene chain, blond wood and crimson lacquer, but the unsubtle spicing of local-style coffee recalled my youth. I recognized the old building’s architectural skeleton under the wood and lacquer better than I had the neighborhood. The university had moved to the low town. A long, arcaded commercial building in antique style replaced the ruins of the Rector’s Palace. In the center of the great public space that was now called Plaza Concord stood a bland committee-designed memorial in place of the rococo extravaganza of the Eikis Fountain or its shocking rubble. I sat in the window, looking out over the unhurried late-morning business of the transformed city, sipped my sweet coffee.

The voice of a dead man said, “Dan—” (he had always had trouble with the Avengi -ngu of my name)—“Dankou.”

My heart pounded, stopped, pounded again.

“Don’t speak,” the dead man said. “I know.”

He had changed, changed nearly as much as our city. If he had looked as he did the day I saw him die I would know him for a vision, a ghost conjured out of nightmare memories. Setting his cup on the table near mine, pulling out the chair opposite, he sat: an unextraordinary person in that place, tall, slender but not gaunt, with the very fair skin endemic in Iszabal and pairs of deep lines bracketing his mouth and hawk nose as if he meant to smile a great deal. His hair was not uniformly grey but brindled distinctly white through black, and cut too short to flatter, clinging to his skull like the fleece of a new lamb.

“Dankou.” He did not smile. His blue-black eyes were very keen, pupils very deep.

Dangu,” I said, more offended than the first time he mispronounced my name. The uncertain table trembled under my hand. The air in my lungs felt heavy.

“I know. I’m sorry. I hear it in my head . . .” He touched my hand, his fingertips as cool as the Gievkoa’s waters.

I had changed more than he, who had never known me healthy. It was ten years since I was released from the field hospital and sent to my mother’s country to recuperate. Back to my mother’s country, they said, as if I hadn’t been born in Fejz, only ever visited Aveng as a tourist. The dead man’s cool fingers moved to my forearm, tracing the Avengi iconography of tattoos that told stories of a broken nation and a little war the artist had scarcely known existed before he began the work.

“Djevan—”

“I don’t use that name now,” the dead man said. His fingers had moved from tattoos to the scars they meant to highlight and I could no longer feel the chill of his touch, only the pressure.

“You died!”

His nod was equivocal, avoiding my eyes.

“I saw you die.”

“I know. I didn’t mean you to. It happened too quickly—I wasn’t prepared. You should be angry.”

I pulled my arm away. “Ten years—ten years!”

“It was a war, Dankou, the last act.” More graceful than I remembered, he rose from the chair, a man in control of his body.

“You could have found me.”

“I did.” When he smiled the brackets by his mouth dimpled and finer wrinkles fanned across his cheekbones. My eyes burned and blurred. He offered his hand. “You are here.”

• • • •

I was wounded. Shrapnel. My right arm torn open. In peacetime, in civilized nations, not terribly significant wounds. Otherwise in besieged Fejz.

When I rose back to consciousness some unknown person of unprecedented strength was carrying me off the street where I’d fallen toward dubious shelter. I don’t believe he noticed I’d roused—a few moments only, but long enough to memorize the severe face of a stranger, hardened and thinned by privation as we all were, a man who should have no cause to aid me. I would not have stopped for a wounded person likely to die.

Next time I woke, a low fire smoldered in the open mouth of a porcelain stove and I was settled into an upholstered chair drawn up so close I might burn myself with an unwary motion. My arm ached and throbbed but did not excruciate. The coals put out little light yet I saw the careful, boney hand and the chipped cup it held. Steaming. Smelling of . . . meat.

“It’s hot,” the stranger said, lifting the cup to my lips. “Careful. Slowly. Just a little.”

It was very thin unsalted broth but as rich to me that night as four-hour-simmered oxtail stew. Whatever savory vermin flavored the broth, I had eaten worse as the siege reached its anniversary, and would again, and never enough.

“Just a little,” he said again, pulling the cup away, setting it on the stove. “More later. Let me tend your arm again.”

His face moved into the light and I cringed back in the chair for his visage was bloodied, horrifying, stained around the lips with blood. My blood. There were always rumors of cannibalism. My flesh in the broth I drank.

His grip on my right hand was firm. “We have insufficient safe water,” he murmured as he raised my arm. For all his gentleness, I seemed to feel muscle tear further, capillaries weep afresh. “No clean bandages, no medicines, no sutures.” Lowering his head, he began to bathe my wounds with his tongue. Even colder than his fingers, numbing. At first I was terrified for I knew about the ferocious bacteria bred in the human mouth but there was nothing I could do and somehow, slowly, it became soothing and the ache seemed to diminish. I seemed to feel safe.

I should have wondered, I suppose, but wonder was a quality in short supply during the siege. Wonder enough to survive day to day. Much later, when the internationals finally sent in their peacekeepers, when the bombardment faltered and during the period that international aircraft regularly overflew the town, dropped bundles that sometimes contained drugs and other medical supplies, no longer especially helpful, sometimes supplies difficult to recognize as food but nutritious, it was easier to wonder. But by then I had no recollection of my arm healing unnaturally fast and clean.

He did not tell me his name immediately. He already knew mine, although he never learned to pronounce it properly. Perhaps I was still carrying passport or identity card, I couldn’t remember, perhaps I had told him while delirious. Perhaps I was still delirious. I had never felt sexual interest in any man, should not have been capable of feeling anything but horror when he lifted his head from my arm and kissed me so I tasted my own blood. I wanted nothing, nobody else, not peace, not freedom, not the absence of fear. Only him.

• • • •

My young friend Gulu in Suut grew up a handsome fellow. I recognized that, when I became nearly human again. I had always, I think, appreciated masculine beauty but never desired it, until Djevan, and never after. Gulu would have pleased me if I wanted, it’s the way of things in my mother’s country, he liked both women and men, and liked me, and made it clear, but I wanted no man but a dead man, nor any woman either. I told Gulu stories of the little war and the siege because he and his mothers and fathers believed I needed to, and he inked my stories onto my scarred right arm.

My arm was only so long. There were stories left over.

• • • •

The dead man and I left the café, walked across the grey expanse of Plaza Concord. There were people about, visitors as well as citizens of the artificially peaceful, artificially prosperous town, but they were of no moment. Two dead men paced over concrete paving mottled with vivid splashes of crimson. Out of respect and superstition one avoided treading on the poppies of Fejz. Each red blossom marked the impact and fragmentation pattern of a Bala bombard, the scars it left filled in with glassy resin. I remembered the first time I saw one of the poppies, startled by it, certain it was fresh blood but unable to comprehend how so much liquid could drain from a single body. But where was that body?

I remembered a later evening when I spied a frightened, determined student of the university’s arts faculty pouring resin into a new scar. A shell whistled through the dusk above the square and I looked up to follow its path, flinched at the hollow thunder when it destroyed a building some blocks away. When I turned back the girl had vanished but her handiwork glistened innocently, like spilled wine.

In early months, it’s said, the irregulars in the hills launched three hundred rounds or more into Fejz each day, high town and low. I wouldn’t know—in the moment I was more concerned with surviving the bombardment than counting individual shells. Later, of course, when besiegers were themselves blockaded by the international brigades and matériel ran low, they deployed their artillery more circumspectly. The university’s stock of air-drying crimson resin had run out long before: most of the poppies throughout the city were poured after the war. After I was sent away.

I did not speak the other dead man’s dead name. He touched my elbow to guide me around a gleaming red poppy, to herd me into the narrow alleys of Scholars’ Warren. He pointed out the bolthole where we sheltered some months until the morning, returning from our overnight scavenge, we discovered it occupied by a clutch of savage children I was still too sentimental to displace. In a manner both bitter and nostalgic he reminisced about our rat hunts through the streets and cellars, pigeon hunts over the nighttime rooftops. One memorable night we discovered a hidden dovecote and gorged ourselves sick on the sweet small eggs. Returning some weeks later we found the cote broken up—not by a shell but human hands—and wondered thereafter whether by the flock’s clandestine keeper or feral scavengers like ourselves.

He asked to hold my hand as we walked, the other dead man.

Out of the Warren, we turned west on to the High Street built up on bastions from the walls of the gorge. The South High Street before the war, then the Isz High Street, now South again according to recently minted signs. It looked much as it had when I was a child but I remembered too well the rubble of shelled buildings on its one side, the savage bites chewed out of the other. No poppies inlaid in shattered stone or concrete here, or everything in sight would be red.

Taking a moment, only a moment, I leaned against the unweathered riverwall meant to appear ancient. Below, the Gievkoa tumbled noisily between its banks toward the bridge and the falls, white along the edges and where it erupted over uncleared rubble. Bombard scars marred the bastion below me, unrepaired where they didn’t threaten the walls’ integrity. On the far bank, the Bala side, the masonry was largely unmarked except by age and few of the façades on the North High Street had needed repair. Roofs, in a few instances, where bombards fell short.

My fingers gripped the new stone of the parapet above the foaming Gievkoa. Under my hands and all along the river’s course were engraved names, name after legible name. My parents, my professors, colleagues and acquaintances, dear friends and lovers and enemies, strangers I might have met if not for the war, strangers I would never meet. If I walked long enough along the High Street, I knew I would find his name, the name he used before he died, but not my own. As I lifted my hands from the stone, chilled, the dead man placed his arm around my waist and urged me west on the High Street toward the falls. Toward the new Old Bridge.

I pushed off his arm and took his shoulders in my hands. I backed him up step by step into the sheltered doorway of some falsely antique building. “You left me,” I said. “You were all I had, you were everything, you made it possible to continue living in that hell. I never wanted, never thought to want any person so much before you. You left me. You died. Now I’m to take you back?” I kissed the dead man’s cold lips.

• • • •

We believed the Bala bombardiers and snipers would not bother with the High Street again for they were hard pressed by the internationals, low on matériel, and the buildings were nothing but rubble already. We made our last haven, my love and I, in the burnt-out cellar of a broken building near the stump of the shattered bridge’s tower-gate. We had had no food for some days. The internationals’ supply drops had ceased, nobody understood why, though aircraft still roared over the high town. Rats and other vermin were all eaten or fled, birds too wary to be caught by starvation-weakened people, bugs too quick or too small to make a mouthful. I was ill. Feverish. Again or always. My love said he would fetch cool water from the river. Don’t go, I pled, don’t leave me. You need water, he said. They never shoot in daylight anymore. Just a little while. His cold lips touched my cracked lips, and he was gone.

Too parched to weep, too weak to stand and walk, I crept after him to the ragged hole we used as a door. It was very bright out in the world, too bright: I recoiled.

I needed him. I needed him more than water. I needed not to die alone. Blinking, I tried again.

The light made it impossible to focus on anything nearby so I raised my eyes to the deadly hills. I couldn’t actually pick out the stands of beribboned stakes among the pines but I had looked through binoculars before and knew they were there. The Kandadal discouraged prayer, for his is an ethic limited to things one can see and actions one can perform. I prayed. When my eyes were clear again I looked for my love.

I saw him.

Nimble as a child, nimble as a healthy man, he had already climbed what remained of the tower-gate, himself and his bright bucket. Crouched low, he peered down the cliff, working out the best route to drop the bucket.

I did not hear the shot—not mortar but rifle. I saw him stagger on his knees, saw the blood red as poppies burst from his shoulder. Saw the bucket tumble from his hand, bounce, fall.

It was not a fatal wound. In an instant I had convinced myself. Even starved he could survive it. I needed him to live. To live for me.

On the broken red rock he rose to his feet, made himself a surer target for a second shot. He roared—I heard his voice, could make out no words. He leapt into . . . no, over the gorge.

Everything went white. White as cloud, white as snow, white as mourning. Then red.

The internationals broke the blockade the next day, Eikis Day. The nine hundred ninetieth Eikis Day, for anybody counting. I was dead when they found me, collapsed half out of our cellar refuge. In hospital, they said, I raved about virtues and excellences, a new red bridge over the Gievkoa—the dead man who left me, whose body needed to be found and buried lest his soul be caught forever in the whirlpools under the falls.

• • • •

If his soul had been trapped in the maelstrom, now it was free. Under my hands and lips his flesh was chill as river water, but so it had always been. There was no doubting his solidity. Against his cool cheek I said, “You were never human.”

His chest rumbled against my own, answer enough.

“Are you a man?”

“Not always.” His hands tightened their grip in the small of my back. “I chose to be a man for you because you didn’t expect it. Dankou—”

“Dangu.” I was unoffended.

“Those sounds—they’re not natural!”

“Are you?”

I meant him to confirm supernatural or a force of nature but he declined to give me the satisfaction. “Dankou, your room, your pension.” Bearing the weight of his fists down on my hips, he demonstrated the satisfaction he wanted, I wanted. “Ten years! Questions later.” He pushed me out of our shallow shelter.

The pension stood on the north side of the Gievkoa, the Bala side. I knew the address but not where to find it. The ’phone would guide me, or he would. First the new Old Bridge.

We must have walked right by our cellar. The south tower-gate, too, had been rebuilt. Wreaths of wilting poppies and wheat ears for the dedication on the morrow already adorned it but the joins between old stone and new were apparent. Flanking the portal, the three-quarter-round statues of Eikis looked newly sculpted, features sharp and unworn: her nose hawklike, her cheeks dimpled. I compared her face to my companion’s—but the sculptures were not true portraits. “It was here. I saw you. Ten years ago.”

He led me into the dimness under the arch without a glance at the images on either side. “I’m sorry. The opportunity—I was responsible, I’d been waiting. I couldn’t let it slip.”

We passed under the second arch. The red sandstone paving of the bridge might never have been walked upon. I felt certain, although it was in every way unfair, the span could not have been rebuilt if he had not died. The stones underfoot were his bones, colored by his blood—the little war could not end without his sacrifice.

“Tell me—” I said, clutching his fingers, because I needed a smaller thought, “tell me what to call you.”

My newborn love laughed. We had climbed halfway up the strenuous hump of the arch, so familiar from a different bridge, from a time before he found me. “What do you wish to call me, Dankou?”

“Mine.”

“I am that. I was never not that.” At the arch’s crest he drew me to the shoulder-high iron railing clamped to stone, wound with wheat sheaves and poppies—shoulder high to me. We gazed down to the river, and the absence of the river where it broke over the escarpment’s edge. Rainbows dodged in and out of view, multicolored immaterial ribbons. “It took time to . . . collect myself,” he said, holding me as though I might jump, as he had. “I didn’t measure time as you do but it was more time than I liked. You were gone long before I succeeded. Dankou, I’m sorry, there are limits on my actions, my movements. I could not go to you. If it were possible I would be unwelcome. How do they say mine there, where you were?”

In orthodox Kandadael thought a mildly scandalous concept, but I would never return alive to my mother’s country. “Zeu,” I told him, the most emphatic declension of the pronoun.

“Zeu,” he repeated, and laughed again. “I can say that! More importantly, you must.” He held my head so I could look nowhere but into his eyes. The blue of them swirled and boiled like twin whirlpools. “You must believe it. If you had died in the siege—” He pressed his brow against mine so hard it hurt me. “I know you will die. I cannot bear the knowledge, that you will leave again and again I may not follow. It would be very restful to dwell among the stars with you forever. Yet I will bear it.” He shuddered, I felt it, and his voice cracked. “There is nothing, nothing, I must do for now, Dankou, for your now, except be yours.”

“Zeu,” I said. His promise was too large for my mind to contain. As we walked on down the far side of the bridge, arm in arm, he told me the name, as common in Fejz as Djevan, I should expect others to call him. The mayor to call him, for this unextraordinary citizen of Fejz posed as a civil servant. Unless I wished him not to. He had no house or apartment because he hadn’t needed one but finding a place for us to live together was simply something we would do. I had the rest of my human lifespan to persuade him not to send my bones to Aveng when I die but allow my mortal substance to nourish him so long as its virtue persists.

Alex Jeffers

Alex Jeffers

Alex Jeffers is the author of the novels Safe as Houses, Deprivation, and That Door Is a Mischief; the novellas Do You Remember Tulum?, The New People, and The Padişah’s Son and the Fox; the novel-length story sequence The Abode of Bliss; and the collection of wonder stories You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home, in addition to many works of uncollected short fiction.