ASHES OF THE SUN
Django Wexler (https://djangowexler.com/)
Head of Zeus (https://headofzeus.com/home)
Gyre and Maya were playing ghouls and heroes. Gyre had to be the ghoul, of course. Maya would never tolerate being anything less than a hero.
Summer was in full flower, and the sun was alone in a pale blue sky, with only a few wisps of cloud at the horizon. They’d already had the dramatic sword fight, and Gyre had been defeated with appropriate hissing and choking. Now he lay on his back, dead, and Maya had planted one foot on his stomach, hands on her hips in a heroic pose.
“. . . an’ now I’m queen,” she shouted at the top of her lungs. “An’ there’ll be peace an’ justice an’ all, an’ everyone’s got to do what I say. Stupid Billem Crump an’ his stupid brothers have to help Mom dig the new well, an’ there’s going to be apple pudding every day with dinner. An’ my brother Gyre can have some,” she added generously, “even if he never beat a ghoul all by himself.”
“If we had apple pudding every day, you’d get sick of it,” Gyre said.
“Would too. And anyway, queens are for barbarians. We have senators and consuls.”
“You shut up. You’re dead.”
She pressed down on Gyre’s stomach, and he let out an oof. At five, Maya was heavier than she looked, plump and broad- shouldered, with their mother’s light brown skin and curly crimson hair. Everyone said Gyre, darker and black- haired, took after their father.
“I’ll be consul, then,” Maya said. “Everyone still has to do what I say forever an’ ever.”
“You only get to be consul for a year,” Gyre said.
“That’s practically forever,” Maya argued. “An’—”
She stopped, and a moment later vanished from his field of vision.
Gyre sat up, brushing dirt and dried vulpi dung off his back. All around him, yearling vulpi snuffled over the rocky ground, looking for tender green shoots. Yearlings were Gyre’s favorite age for vulpi, soft-furred and playful, before they grew into bristly, irritable layers and then huge, sedentary terminals. They didn’t take much watching as long as the gate to the pasture was closed, which was why he had time to fool around.
Even so, Gyre had a guilty moment while he made a quick count of the herd. He relaxed when he came up with the requisite thirty- three. He was eight and a half years old and had never lost one of his father’s vulpi, not even the time when the fence had washed out in the rain and six of them had made a break for it.
“Gyre!” Maya shouted. “Gyre, it’s a centarch! He’s riding a warbird!” She was standing at the fence with her feet on the second rail, leaning as far over as she could. “Gyre, you have to come see!”
“It can’t be a centarch.”
Gyre hurried to the fence, absentmindedly grabbing the back of Maya’s dress with one hand in case she leaned too far over. Maya was reckless, and often sick to boot, spending months with fevers and racking coughs. Keeping his sister out of misadventures was as much a part of his daily chores as tending vulpi. But her excitement was infectious, and he found himself leaning forward to get a better view of the cloud of dust coming down the main road. It was moving awfully quickly.
“It was too a centarch!” Maya said breathlessly. “I saw him an’ all. He had white armor an’ a blaster an’ a hackem!”
“Haken,” Gyre corrected. The legendary bladeless sword, weapon of the centarchs of the Twilight Order. “What would a centarch be doing here?”
“Maybe he’s come to arrest Billem Crump for being an ass an’ all. Dad said he was going to go to law with him if he kept picking those apples.”
Gyre pulled his sister back. “Centarchs don’t arrest people for stealing apples.”
“They arrest people who’ve got”—she lowered her voice to a stage whisper— “dhak.” The word, with its connotations of filth, infestation, and immorality, was inappropriate in polite conversation. If Gyre’s mother had heard Maya saying it, she’d have gotten a smack on the ear. “Maybe Billem Crump’s got ghoul dhak in his shed and the centarch is going to drag him away!”
Gyre watched the dust cloud with something less than his sister’s wide-eyed wonder. He still didn’t believe it was a centarch, and if it was, he wasn’t sure how to feel about having one of the Order’s champions on their farm. He’d caught on to the hard expression his father and the other farmers wore when the subject came up. Everyone knew the Order kept the people safe from plaguespawn. But . . .
Nothing else, just the significant “but.” And Gyre knew, as Maya did not, what was in the locked shed off the south field. Last summer, when a plague of weevils had threatened their potatoes, Gyre’s father had taken him out there by night. They’d both equipped themselves with a double handful of bright green seeds, like hard young peas, from a half-full sack, and spent the evening planting them between the rows of potato plants. By the next afternoon, the field was full of dead weevils. Gyre had swept them up and buried them in the compost pile, proud and guilty with the shared secret.
Was that dhak? Gyre suspected it had been. Dhak was anything from the Elder times, before the war that had destroyed both ghouls and Chosen, unless the Order had approved it as safe, sanctioned arcana. But his father had assured him it was fine and that every farmer in the valley had something like it laid away. A centarch wouldn’t come after him, just for that. Would they?
“We should get back to the house,” he told Maya. Or, he discovered, he told the empty space where Maya had been, since his sister had already jumped down from the fence, wriggled out of his grip, and set off up the path as fast as her short legs would carry her.
Gyre looked at the dust cloud. It was rounding the point of the hill now, going past the turn for the Crump farm and definitely heading their way. He wanted to run after Maya, but there were the vulpi to think of— well behaved or not, he couldn’t just leave them on their own. So he spent a few frantic minutes rounding the animals up, ignoring their affronted blats and whistles at being turned out of the pasture early. Only once they were safely back in their pen, jostling for position at the water trough, did he hurry toward the house.
The path led directly to the kitchen door, which was undoubtedly where Maya had gone. But a smaller side route led around the low, ramshackle farmhouse to the front, and Gyre went this way. He had a notion that if the visitor was anyone important, his father would banish him and his sister to their room before they got a good look. Coming in through the front door, Gyre hoped he would be able to get an idea of what was happening.
There was indeed a warbird standing in the gravel drive, looking incongruous next to their battered farm cart. Gyre had seen one of the creatures before, years ago, when they’d been in town on the day the magistrate’s guard had come through. This one seemed bigger than he remembered, its long, curving neck layered with overlapping plates of pale white armor with the iridescent shimmer of unmetal. More armor covered the warbird’s plump body. Two long, knobbly legs each had four splayed toes and a single enormous backward claw. The head, ridiculously tiny compared to the rest of the animal, was encased in segmented white plates, with its beak covered by a long, curving blade, shrouded in turn with a black velvet cloth.
It was easily twice Gyre’s height. The magistrate’s warbird hadn’t been nearly as big, he decided, and in retrospect its plumage seemed a bit ragged. It certainly hadn’t been armored in unmetal. Whoever the visitor was, he was considerably better equipped than even a county official. Maybe it is a centarch. Gyre gave the warbird a wide berth, creeping around the edge of the drive toward the front door, which stood partially open.
It led to the parlor, which the family used once a year at Midwinter. The rest of the time, the good furniture was covered by dust sheets, and life at the farm centered around the kitchen and the back door. Gyre and Maya’s room was in that part of the house, an addition that leaked when it rained. Looking into the parlor, Gyre had the feeling of being a stranger in his own home, the shrouded shapes of the sofa and end table looming and ominous.
Gyre’s father stood in the doorway that led to the kitchen. He was a big man, broad- shouldered, with dark hair tied at the nape of his neck and skin the color of the soil he spent his time tending. Gyre could tell at once there was something wrong, just from the way his father stood. He was slumped, defeated, his eyes on the floor.
In front of him, in the middle of the parlor, stood the visitor. He was tall and thin, with short hair that gleamed purple-black in the light. He wore an unmetal breastplate and shoulder armor and carried a matching helmet under one arm. On his right hip there was an implement a bit like a capital letter T, or a sword hilt and cross guard with no blade.
It was, without question, a haken. The highest of arcana, able to manipulate the power of creation in the raw. And that made this man a centarch of the Twilight Order, since only they could use the haken. Gyre had never seen one, of course, but he recognized it from a hundred stories. With haken in hand, a centarch was unstoppable, invincible.
Now that he was confronted with one of the legendary warriors in the flesh, Gyre realized he very much wanted the man to be gone. Just go away and leave us alone, he thought. We’re not ghouls, and we haven’t got any dhak except for seeds that kill weevils. What harm can that do to anyone?
“You’re certain?” Gyre’s father said quietly. Neither of the men had noticed Gyre yet, and he pressed himself against the sofa, desperate to hear their conversation.
“Quite certain,” the centarch said. He had a highborn accent. “Believe me, in these matters, the Order does not make mistakes.”
“But . . .”
Maya screamed, and Gyre’s father started. Gyre’s mother came in through the other door, holding Maya under her arm. The girl was kicking furiously, tears running down her cheeks, and shrieking like an angry cat.
“It’s all right,” Gyre’s father said. “Maya, please. Everything’s going to be all right.”
“Yes,” the centarch drawled. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“No!” Maya said. “No, no, no! I don’t want to go!”
“You have to go,” Gyre’s mother said. “You know how you get sick. They can help you.”