Gaza looked down at the city of Nyss, surveying his creation. He thought it was perfect.
In the city centre stood several griots spinning a tale to a captive audience, their camels and brightly-coloured caravans sheltering in the shade of palm trees. The griots should be dusty—after all they had travelled some distance, spent several months weathering the harsh terrain of the desert. As it was they looked too pristine, glistening as they were with fresh coats of paint. So Gaza plucked his brush, dipped it in a bowl of dust and worked some dirt into their wooden grains until each griot looked appropriately aged and travel-worn. After a moment’s thought, Gaza moved a young boy from the steps of the library and placed him in the audience. There. Now it was perfect.
“Daughter,” Gaza called. “Come!”
The door swung open. Gaza pushed back his dismay at the sight of her. He would never get used to seeing his daughter this way, the stone-like scales eating her skin until the healthy brown flesh was nearly overtaken. The sickness had taken half her body, and her entire left leg was all carapace so that it was useless and snagged on the floor whenever she walked, making a sound like a rolling boulder. If it ever reached her heart . . . he shook the thought from his head. Ufa leaned against her walking stick, the weariness stark in how she carried herself, in the way her shift clung to her frail form. But as she took in the city, sprawled on the floor of what used to be their bedroom, the light came back into her eyes.
“Papa!” She said. “You built . . . you built Nyss!”
“Do you like it, Ufichka?”
“I love it!” She cried, shivering with excitement. “I can see Yonju’s bakery! And here, the bathing pools—and the Square of the Dancing Maiden! Papa!” She turned and hugged him tight, and he held her in that careful way he had come to learn, for fear of causing her pain.
Ufa loved to roam the city, but ever since the Stone-sickness took her, her strength had dwindled until walking became exceedingly painful, and running around the city, impossible. At first, whenever Gaza could pry himself from work, he would put Ufa in his cart to push her all over the city, but even that soon became too unbearable for her. So he spent the past two months cutting wood to construct this replica, painting and sanding and refining each clockwork figurine until they moved with grace. This Nyss was not quite as big as the real thing, of course. But it was big enough for one with a mind like hers. To imagine that she was truly there, to lose herself in the miniature streets. Seeing her eyes light up, seeing how much she appreciated it . . . that was everything.
She peeled away from him, looking at the city in silent wonderment. “There are people. You made people. But . . .” she frowned. “It is . . . a little different, papa. This building, this is where the university is—”
“This is the Nyss of my youth, of before . . .”
Before the coming of the Anukhi and the conquest of Nyss. Now his beloved city was marred with the mark of foreign occupation; hard utilitarian structures sprouted up at every corner, the hideous effigies of their sun god Yaveh defaced the faces of sleek Nyssini architecture. The Anukhi were slowly eating the city, as surely as they had eaten its peoples.
It was the Nyss of his youth, but it was also the Nyss of his dreams. At the very end of the Street of Light stood a two-storey brick structure he could never afford, with large glass windows, and rustic shale roofing, and a drainpipe that ran down the leeward side, curving like an elephant’s trunk. A sign, embossed in gold lettering, ran over the glass windows: MASTER GAZA’S EMPORIUM OF CLOCKS, CHRONOGRAPHS AND OTHER ASSORTED TIME-PIECES.
“Here,” he said, “let me show you something.” He reached for the drainpipe, wound it until it was taut. Then he released it.
The city sprang into life. Dirigibles sailed overhead, palm trees waved in a non-existent breeze. The houses lit up with the warm glow of electricity, and clockwork Nyssini went about their business: here, a mother tugged her two boys to the temple of Light. Here, some acolytes of Faun gave alms to the poor.
“It is alive,” breathed Ufa, the lights dancing in her eyes.
Gaza looked at it again, feeling his heart swell with joy. If he tried, he could almost imagine he couldn’t hear the faint tick of gears as they turned, that he couldn’t see the near-invisible cables that held the dirigibles aloft. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine that yes, truly, the city was alive.
• • • •
The air was thick with the smells of the market as Gaza made his way down the street: coriander and black pepper and curry and paprika. He saw one or two Anukhi soldiers, looking like fire ants in their red armour as they clanged past, but there were less Anukhi here than there were in other parts of the city. Their constitution couldn’t handle the spiced market air, which burned their throats and brought tears to their eyes.
Although dusk had fallen, the air boiled as the streets and buildings gave off heat trapped from a full day of sun, and Gaza found his clothes sticking to his back. Once or twice he ducked as an airship flew past, dirigible engines chugging. The invaders sometimes monitored them, peering down in their long scopes, looking for suspicious gatherings or signs of uprising. Not that there had been one in over thirty years. The Nyssini were thoroughly conquered and perfectly docile.
A bell announced Gaza’s presence as he stepped into the apothecary’s. Laila was a small, severe woman, wrapped in shawls even in the sweltering heat. She didn’t look up, didn’t even acknowledge him, but stood pouring a purple liquid into a decanter. Gaza stood politely while she worked, enduring the stink of medicine and herbs and old sweat.
Laila held up the decanter to the light, then placed it carefully on the counter before turning to glower at Gaza. “Yes?”
“I need medicine,” he said.
“Well, I no imagine you come here for bread or face paint for your beloved.”
“. . . what?”
She waved an impatient hand. “Which kind medicine you be wanting?”
Gaza licked his lips, glanced over his shoulder at the dusty shop windows darkened with night. “Asha’s Tears.”
Her eyes went round. “You mad, nuh?”
Asha’s Tears. The tear-shaped fruits that hung from the tree in the middle of the palace. The reason the Anukhi had invaded in the first place. Some said that Asha the first queen of Nyss, upon hearing of the death of her only son broke down and wept. And from where her tears fell sprouted a tree. Others said her pain had been so unbearable that she transmogrified into a many-limbed tree, tall and white with salty-sweet fruit. Gaza remembered seeing it as a boy, where it grew in what used to be the city centre, watching pilgrims come from every corner of the country to worship at its roots. It was believed to have healing powers, and indeed it did, for not one Nyssini who ate of its fruit ever took ill. Sickness had been a concept as foreign as the Anukhi. Over the years people tried to regrow the tree, planting its seeds in other parts of the country, but it never took. There was only the one tree, in the very centre of the empire, with its bountiful fruit. It didn’t take long until word spread, and the Anukhi turned their covetous eye on it. If Asha’s Tears could heal any disease, they reasoned, then it could stay the dark hand of death, and prolong the life of their wretched emperor. For what was death but the succumbing of the flesh to the disease of time? And so they came, and built their hideous palace around it, and claimed the tree for themselves.
“You wan’ get me killed, eh?” said Laila. “Talking bout Asha Tears. Get out me bloody shop.”
“I will pay you,” he said, clinging to the counter.
“Are you deaf or what?”
The tree belonged to the Anukhi now, where behind the palace’s ivory gates alchemists worked day and night trying to create a life elixir from its juices. Some made its way to the black market, to apothecaries like Laila—the rotted ones, the gnarled ones. But Gaza was desperate. He would take even a dried husk if there was a chance of saving his daughter.
“It’s not for me.” He was of a dying generation of Nyssini, of which they were scant few, who had tasted Asha’s Tears in the pre-war days and could not fall ill. “It’s my daughter. She has . . .” he took a deep breath. “Please, she is in pain. I don’t . . . I don’t want her to die.”
Perhaps it was the desperation in his voice, perhaps it was the knowledge of his daughter’s ailment, but Laila’s scowl softened somewhat. “What she ‘ave, your daughter? I can make ointments, tinctures . . .”
What poor healers they made, when for generations they had not had the need to learn medicine. Now disease ate through them like wildfire, and the Anukhi responded in the only language they knew, banishing the sick to the desert, and in the case of the highly contagious, those with Stone-sickness, they burned.
Gaza shook his head, tears leaking from his eyes. “You cannot help her.”
And in that moment understanding passed between the two of them. Laila sighed. “How old is your daughter?”
“She’s seen twelve full seasons,” said Gaza. Asha grant that she sees her thirteenth.
“S’not right,” muttered the apothecary. “One so young shoont ‘ave to suffer so much.”
Gaza looked at her hopefully. “You will . . . you will help us, then?” And without waiting for an answer, reached into his pocket. “Here,” said Gaza hastily, placing a cloth-wrapped package on the counter. He unwrapped it to reveal a clock. “This is all I have. My most expensive piece. Take it.”
Through rheumy eyes Laila squinted at the clock. It was a beautiful piece, the finest work of his craftsmanship. He had made it when Ufa was born, and had been saving it for her dowry. But right now, he needed her to live. He could always make another. A long moment passed in which Laila stared at the piece, in which Gaza prayed silently that she would agree to help him, then she placed a proprietary hand on the clock, sliding it towards herself. “Come tomorrow, then. Thirteenth bell.”
“Thank you,” said Gaza, bowing repeatedly. “Thank you so much, oh thank you . . .”
Gaza left the shop considerably light of heart. It felt as though a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Hope! How he hadn’t dared to hope. And now . . . the dark fog that had wrapped itself around him with each passing day was not quite gone, but he could see through it now. Just a bite of Asha’s Tears and his Ufa will be made whole again.
“Ufichka,” he called as he stepped into the house. “Good news!”
He found her sprawled facedown on the threshold between the living room and dining room. Gaza’s mind when black with panic as he rushed over to her. He was too late. He had dawdled too long, and now—
“Aaah,” a feeble cry as he turned her over. The Stone-sickness had nearly consumed her face, the previously smooth brown skin was now hard as wood, lined with fissures like water-starved earth.
“What happened?” He asked, his heart thrashing in his chest.
“Sorry papa,” groaned Ufa. “I was . . . trying to reach the city.”
“You shouldn’t—you shouldn’t move when I’m not around, I told you that!” He carried her gently and set her on the chair. “I thought . . . I thought . . .”
“You said you had good news.”
“Yes. I’ve been able to purchase Asha’s Tears for you.”
“Really?” She brightened. “How? Can we afford it? What if the Anukhi—?”
“Don’t you worry yourself, Ufichka,” said Gaza, smoothening her hair. “All that’s important is that by this time tomorrow, you’ll be whole again.”
They had a satisfying dinner of mouldy bread and curdled jam. But they were in such high spirits that even the bread tasted sweet. It pleased him to see Ufa eat so ravenously.
Later, he carried her to the bedroom, to the miniature Nyss, where they sat, two giants, at the edge of the city.
“We’re wrong, papa.” Said Ufa.
Gaza frowned. “Wrong? What about?”
“Asha’s Tears. It’s not a healing tree. I heard it from the griots a long time ago.”
She touched a hand to the griots near their caravans, who were frozen before their small audience. It looked like a moment captured by the deft hand of a sculptor, as if by the breath of wind they might resume their lives, griots and audience alike, enraptured with wondrous tales of an age long past.
“Okay, and what did you hear?”
“It is a wishing tree, papa. You make a wish as you eat the fruit, and it becomes true. But our ancestors were so ravaged by diseases and all they wanted was to heal themselves and be free from sickness. So whenever they ate it, they wished for good health, until the fruits did only that. Healed. Asha’s Tears is like a clay which bends to the will of the potter.”
“If what they say is true, then the Anukhi emperor would have wished immortality for himself.”
“But they don’t know.” She looked up at him. “We don’t know. Our ancestors forgot.”
“I see . . .” he said. Then, gently, “Ufichka, there is a reason no one listens to the griots anymore. Memory is fallible, humans doubly so. You see, tales often morph in their retelling, until you can scarcely tell truth from embellishment. It is better to trust in the written word.”
“But people can lie, can’t they?” she asked, turning to look at him. “They can easily write lies in books too.”
“True . . .” said Gaza slowly.
“So? What’s the difference? One way or the other we’re beholden to those who tell us things.” She shrugged. “We choose what we believe.”
“Ay, you this girl! When did you get so smart, eh?”
She beamed up at him, her grin stiff and lopsided. “When you were sleeping, old man.”
• • • •
Gaza knew something was wrong even before he arrived at Laila’s shop. It was in the way the streets were nearly empty, devoid of the usual press of roiling bodies. It was in the dark looks that were darted his way as what stragglers remained hurried off. When he arrived in front of the lopsided shop, he found the door shut, the windows dark.
“Hello?” He called, knocking on the door, but there was no reply. He pressed his face to the dusty windows and was confronted with an impenetrable darkness. There was no one in the shop.
Gaza stood for a long moment, staring at nothing in particular.
She had tricked him. The woman had collected his payment with no intention of holding up her end of the bargain. But . . . that wasn’t right. She wasn’t some street peddler with no fixed spot he would never be able to find. She had a shop—and he knew how costly those were to rent in Anukhi Nyss—so she wouldn’t abandon it all for some clock. Although it was an expensive piece . . .
Someone clutched at him.
Gaza turned to find a filthy man hanging on to his sleeve, the other hand proffering a rusted collection cup which he rattled in Gaza’s face. “Alms for the poor?”
Gaza pried himself free of his grip. “Sorry. I have no . . . do you know where the woman went?” He asked, pointing over his shoulder at the shop. “The apothecary.”
The man turned his jaundiced eyes to the dark shop, then back at Gaza. Slowly, he thrust out his collection cup.
“Fine.” Gaza rooted in his pockets and came up with a few bits of nickel which he deposited in the cup. “Well?” said Gaza impatiently. “Where is she?”
“Ants,” croaked the beggar. “Fire ants.”
Gaza’s blood turned cold. The man was talking about Anukhi soldiers, in their red armour. “They took her?” He asked, hoping—praying—that that was what it was, and not what he was beginning to suspect—
“Nuh. She took them.”
“By the Light,” he breathed, shaking his head as he stepped backwards. “No, no, no . . .”
And then he was running, flying down the street, willing his old bones to move faster. His mind skittered. If he could get there before them, he would grab Ufa and flee the city. Go somewhere they would never be found, if need be to the farthest reaches of the empire where Anukhi influence was virtually non-existent. Gaza couldn’t have said how he crossed half the city, but he soon found himself on his street, his home—
Gaza gave a strangled cry at the sight of the door hanging by its hinges. He had been hoping he was wrong, that Laila hadn’t led the soldiers to his house—however she knew how to find him—but that had been a fool’s hope.
Then came the voices. Raised voices. Angry voices. And rising above them, Ufa’s voice: screaming for him.
He burst into the house. Two soldiers turned as one in his direction. They looked a menace in their armour, the room too small for them, their swords and batons silently promising violence. But in that moment Gaza found that he did not fear them, did not fear for himself; there was only Ufa on his mind.
“Where is my daughter?” He demanded.
Two more soldiers emerged from the bedroom, Ufa hanging between them like a sack of stones, screaming in pain. A blind madness overcame Gaza.
“THAT IS MY DAUGHTER!” He yelled, dashing towards them, “GET AWAY FROM MY—oof!”
The soldier nearest him drove a gauntleted fist into his belly, cutting short his advance and folding him in half. Gaza dropped wheezing to his knees, clutching his belly.
“Papa!” Ufa screamed when she saw him. “Papa! Help me!” Tears streamed down her cheeks, splattering to the floor. He could see the terror in her eyes.
“Leave her be—” he gasped. “Please. Can’t you see you’re hurting her?” But they paid him no mind, were already stepping over him as though he did not exist, heading for the door.
Gaza scrambled to his feet, still gasping for air, and moved to block the door. “No,” he said. “You will not take her.”
The soldiers looked mildly irritated, almost bored. As though they had only come to take out the trash and found a territorial rodent. As though it were not his daughter they were taking to her death.
A soldier stepped forward, gently unhooking his club. “Step aside,” he said softly. “I won’t ask again.”
“You will have to go through me.”
The soldier moved fast. One moment Gaza stood at the threshold, clutching the posts; the next he was flying through air, flipping head over heels. Lights exploded in his vision as he cracked his head against the wall, then sank onto the table. It came down in a chaos of splinters and broken crockery and food from their half-eaten lunch. The room swam. Darkness seeped into the edges of Gaza’s vision, but he shook his head, shook the ringing from his ears as he wrenched himself from the wreck and started to crawl towards the now empty door and the rapidly receding screams of his daughter.
Gaza gave a great hoot of pain as a boot crushed his hand. He looked up to the see the soldier, dead, passionless eyes staring at him as he ground the small bones of Gaza’s fingers. And then he swung the other boot, cracking it across Gaza’s jaw.
The world went black.
• • • •
The long shadows of dusk were stretching across the room when Gaza came to. His jaw was swollen shut, and every inch of his body was alight with pain. It felt as though he had been dragged through the streets, or trampled beneath a herd of enraged elephants. At first he sat there in the darkness, trying to fit together the jumbled pieces of his mind. Then it all came flooding back.
“Ufa,” he cried.
How long had he been out? A long while by the looks of it. They would have taken her to the palace. And she . . .
He burst into tears. It was too late. He had failed his daughter.
Gaza couldn’t say how he found himself on the streets, but he limped along, clutching his side. He thought of going to the palace gates, of raising a ruckus, demanding that they give him his daughter. But he was too much of a coward for that. He realised that he did not want to die. And he hated himself for it. What did it say about him that he clung on to a life that was no longer worth living, for what would life be without Ufa? Without his dear Ufichka?
It wasn’t until he stood outside the dusty windows that he realised where his feet had carried him. Gaza pushed open the door and stepped into the dank shop.
Laila was in the middle of preparing a tincture. She started to snarl at whoever had intruded when she saw him. A look of shame passed across her papery features.
“Why?” said Gaza, limping towards her. “You’re one of us. Why would you side with them? Why would you let them take her?”
“She was in pain,” she mumbled. “One so young shoont ‘ave to suffer so much.”
“That’s why I came to you! To cure her. I don’t understand why you couldn’t just . . .” something clicked into place in his mind. “How much?” He asked.
Laila looked away, looked down at her hands, which she had folded neatly on the counter.
“How much did my daughter’s life cost?”
“Thirty pieces,” she said, still not meeting his eyes. “Thirty pieces of silver.”
Gaza burst into laughter; a long hyena-like cackle that belonged to the veld. Pain spasmed through his jaw as he laughed, but he couldn’t help himself. “Thirty pieces!” He choked, wiping tears from his eyes.
Laila reached into the folds of her skirt and produced a fat brown pouch, tinkling with coins. “Take it.”
Gaza was overcome by fresh gales of laughter. He didn’t know which was worse, that his daughter had been priced for such a meagre sum, or that the woman was trying to give it to him.
“No,” he growled. “I will not absolve you. You will think of her when you spend that money. You will know that you condemned a child to die.”
He turned to leave.
“There is no more Asha’s Tears,” Laila said as he pushed open the door. “Has not been many seasons. Alchemists took too much. The tree died.”
Gaza stumbled out of the shop, numb with shock, with pain, with despair. Of course, there were no more Tears. Of course, they took too much. That was all they were good for. They took and took until there was nothing left. They had taken the prosperity of Nyss, and now they had taken his daughter from him.
• • • •
It was dark by the time Gaza found his way back home. The door still hung by its broken hinge, clacking as it swung in the breeze. The room was still in disarray, signs of struggle everywhere.
He limped towards the bedroom where he found the miniature city in ruins: buildings trampled, people lying crushed, mechanical innards spilling out. In some of the buildings the lights flickered on and off, as if trying to wrest some semblance of order amid all the chaos. It looked like the aftermath of war. Like the aftermath of the Conquest of Nyss.
Gaza returned to the living room, then stopped dead in his tracks.
In the middle of the room stood a plant. A single white shoot which barely reached his chest, but a plant nonetheless. And at the end of the slender stalk hung a single tear-shaped fruit.
“What in the world?” He breathed, limping slowly towards the plant. He had missed it when he passed, but his eyes were now adjusted to the dark, and there was no denying what he was seeing.
Gaza dropped to his knees. It made no sense. Hadn’t people tried over millennia to regrow the tree? Hadn’t they failed? And yet, here it was in his living room, sprouting from the floorboards! Around the young roots he could see dark wet marks, as though the floorboard had been soaked by water . . . or tears.
And from where her tears fell sprouted a tree.
“Ufa . . .” He breathed as he plucked the fruit. It was warm and soft in his palm. And as he sat there in the dark, turning the golden fruit in his hands, Ufa’s voice came loud and clear to him: It is a wishing tree, papa. You make a wish as you eat the fruit, and it becomes true.
With trembling hands, Gaza brought the fruit to his mouth and bit into it.
Then he made a wish.
Spread the word!