In an oasis I meet a serpent with eyes of water.
Something in me simmers, a burning in my chest like the burning of the sun above. Was it always this way? Or did I only notice when I stumbled into this land of the sun?
Was I born here, where earth and sky are dullest brown, and the dirt cakes to my skin, an endless itch… was this my womb? I remember cool water. I remember cooler colors than these. I remember… not loving my skin, never that, but not feeling so much pain that I wished to peel it away and show my bones to the sky and hope the great eye burns me to ash once and for all. Hope is a rotten waste.
But this landscape is all I see, proud mesas towering above, with valleys and sand plains in between. And if I cannot find my way, before too long this will be all I remember.
The Demon is almost at its highest point in the sky when I see another color. It is not the first time, and I am wary. I have seen colors far away, been fooled by their sorcery, until they vanished and only the sand was real.
But this time it does not vanish. I see shapes that might be trees, and shadows underneath.
I do not watch it approach. I watch the ground so that I do not stumble. I watch the rise and fall of the earth. I dream as I always dream, nightmares of air like sandpaper, water of acid sludge, and no world in-between where respite lives.
When next I look up, it is closer. It is real. I stumble forward and find the shadows where they should be, freckled with bits of light and moving in a breeze. And I see water.
I fall to my knees at water’s edge and bend to drink. My thirst once sated subsides, and I see that farther in, the pool is deeper. I throw myself into the pool, claw my way along the ground, and sink until my head is under water and my legs regain their truest form.
The water is not deep, but still I swim in circles, breathe the water, and feel the screaming of my skin begin to fade. The Demon Sun is here with me, yes, but filtered through water it is something I can face with hate instead of pleading.
A long time later I emerge, with just my head in the air again, and look around.
Then I notice the man sitting at the edge of the pool with his legs crossed in some fashion. He smiles and bows his head to me, and “I greet you,” he says.
It does not occur to me at first to wonder how I understand. Instead I float among the reeds and watch him. He is wrapped in deep green and silver, and smoking something in a long jade pipe.
“Who are you?” I say, because suspicion was taught to me by everyone I ever trusted.
“I am an orphan,” he says, and helpless laughter takes me.
“Who is not an orphan who has lived in this world?” I say at last. “We refuse, cast-aways, forgotten and lost, we who were lifted from our glory and thrown into this world to sink or swim.”
“Which would you prefer?”
“Sink, of course,” I say, “but that choice was never given to me.”
He nods as if he already knew the answer. Pale smoke rises from the end of his pipe—carved in the form of a serpent, I see.
“I welcome you here,” he says, “whatever choice you have made.”
I have felt the choking scrape of smoke along my throat, worse than naked air, and wonder why someone would enjoy that feeling so much that they would carve a jade serpent and choke themselves on smoke with it.
“You are a quiet one,” he says. “I have heard that the Myr have plenty to say in their homeland. Yet here you are, beyond the bone civilization of Ogres, beyond their enemies of tooth and fur, wandering these lands. Quietly you come, quietly you float in still water.”
“I had a dream,” I say. “A vision of a world less wretched. A promise of song and silk water.”
“A vision of water in the desert.” He nods and sends smoke rising again from the mouth of jade. “You would not be the first.”
I notice his eyes behind the smoke, eyes like the deep water over canyons in the sea. “Are you Khägan, then?”
He smiles. “No. No, I am not Khägan. But I am an Orphan. As are you, it would seem, though your ears are sharp fins and you are a creature half-made for land.”
A curse leaves me. “What do you know of this?” I say. “We were glorious.”
“Where is ‘were’?” he asks. He removes the pipe from his mouth points with it here, there around the oasis. “Show me ‘were’. Show me ‘glorious’. Can you find it, point to it, cradle it in your arms while bright death in the sky watches? Does it feed you in your darkest hunger? Dry salt tears?”
I swallow nothing in a dry throat. “It is what they taught me.”
What is pride when the world is senseless abomination? They told me stories, my elders. Fairy tales of a time of kings and warriors, brave victories and palaces of shell and coral. Fairy tales.
“Fairy tales,” says the Orphan. “Yes.”
Shards of sunlight move across him as the leaves sway above. Does he hear my thoughts? Am I so naked to eyes above water?
“Tell me about yourself,” says the Orphan. “What is it like to grow up among the Myr?”
Something in my face twists and furrows at his question as pain pushes against my eyes from behind. I sink deeper into water until it nearly covers my eyes. I do not wish to answer.
But I do. “I am a priest of a slaughtered god. I am a performer of truths I don’t believe. I betrayed. I ran.”
He nods. “You did not come to the desert; you ran from the sea. You are indeed an orphan.”
My breath blows bubbles into the water. Air. They accused me of sympathies for the Nythirian Red, as if I would ever love those who killed my lady. No, my only sympathies were for the sea, for the blessed dark away from eyes.
“If such thoughts pain you, tell me then about your quest instead. What vision brought you to this place?”
I raise my head out of the water enough to say, “A riddle.”
He smiles around his pipe. “I love riddles. Perhaps I can help you with this one.”
“I am standing,” and my voice sounds hoarse, “on a stairway. Above, the sky, the sun. Below me is water, surrounded by sand. Everyone I know plods up the steps toward the sky, every step begrudged. I knew that the pool amidst the sand would heal me. I knew it. Yet I also knew that they would kill me if I took one step downward.”
“So what did you do?”
“I jumped. I leapt over the railing so they could not touch me, and fell until I landed far from home. That is all I remember.”
“So you kept walking until you found the desert, and the pool within.” The Orphan takes his jade pipe and sets it down beside him. “What do you believe this riddle means?”
And something in me sinks. “If I knew, would I have run so hard, so far? I brought my skin with me, so there is no escape.”
The Orphan leans forward. “What if I told you there is life beneath you? What if I told you the water does not end?”
“I can feel an end,” I choke out. “I can feel sand beneath me.”
Then I realized that I could not. It was there before, the bottom of the pool, but now… nothing.
“Shed your skin,” he says.
“I am a Myr.”
He shakes his head. “Shed your skin if you hate it so.”
“Is this your answer to my riddle?”
In answer, he sheds his own skin, the form and clothes of a man falling around him until he is clean and bright, shining jade in the Demon’s light, his tongue flicking, scenting the air. And then he leans down and enters the water with me. I feel him pass underneath, and in something like calm I dive down, toward the depths I now know are there. For a moment I feel fear that he has lured me here to devour me whole as serpents do, but I too have changed. I shed my hated skin at last and twine around him. He does not touch me as if fearful I am easy to break in my new form. He only swims alongside, guiding, showing me the way without fear.
“It was you who called me,” I say, and salt tears from my eyes mingle with the water around me.
We swim into the depths, and I choose to call it home.