I wake to someone pounding on the door. “Zefra? Zefra?”
It’s Hanun’s voice. He’s desperate.
As I get to my feet, I realize I must have been in rough shape last night. My coat’s still draped around me. “Hanun?”
I can’t hear his response through the door, but the pounding stops.
I unlatch the bolt and pull back the door.
“Are you alright?”
I head out to the balcony of the loft. There are a couple windows that let light in, giving the place a warm feel.
But something’s off. I have to look closely to see the cracks in the altars. “Who could’ve done such a thing?”
“You didn’t hear it?”
I shake my head. “I was up during the night and they were intact.”
“The same dream again?”
“Maybe the gods did it.”
“Smash their own altars?”
“What did the elders say to you before you left Odun?”
I wasn’t supposed to tell him what they’d said, but I did anyway. Now he always brings it up. “That Ehram is a wicked place with no love for the gods.”
“Maybe they don’t want to be here.”
I can’t think of anything to retort, so I just lean over the railing. “I’ll have to head to a mason, get some new altars made.”
“And how will you pay for it?”
I shrug. “The temple has plenty, thanks to the king. I’ll talk to them and get permission.”
“They’ll just believe you when you said the altars broke?”
“They’ll probably send some bureaucrat over to look at them. Then in the end I’ll have to steal it from their coffers in a daring feat of grace and skill.” I grin to let him know I’m not serious.
“Careful now, you know who I work for.”
“I know. Maybe you’ll have to carry me away.”
He wraps my arms around me, and I melt into him. His body is strong, and he holds me off the ground. It’s better than flying.
“As soon as my term’s up, we’ll go back to Odun, right?”
I sigh. “I can’t just leave the shrine.”
“How many people came here last week?”
“Three. And Menir.”
“And how many of those three were beggars?”
All of them, but I won’t let Hanun win so easily. “I can help beggars, at least. Better than standing guard for the Glassmakers. What do they even need protection for?”
“It’s not the Glassmakers who put guards in their district. It’s the king. They’re under scrutiny right now.”
“I’m not supposed to tell you as much as I have, my love.”
“Do you need to do anything right now? Or can we eat? I had a long night.”
I don’t know. There was nothing in the elders’ teachings about what to do with a broken altar.
“Let me check.”
I look over the stone altars. Each broke into two parts relatively neatly, all things considered. If someone were in a hurry, they wouldn’t even see the cracks. I look for any graffiti or filth that might have come from a vandal. “Doesn’t look like they’ve been desecrated, Hanun.”
“So I was right about the gods?”
I look at him and he gets the point.
“This is serious.”
“I know. Do you have to do anything?”
“Nothing special. I’ll just do the morning rites.” I pour out a water offering at each altar.
“Akkun, we thank you for the blessings of the night and a safe waking.”
“Heja, we thank you for the bounty of spring and our birth.”
“Neiro, we thank you for the heat of life and the light that guides us.”
“Olipha, we thank you for the shade that shelters us and your cool water.”
I look at Hanun. For all his jesting earlier, he’s bowed his head as I say the prayers.
That’s why we’re lucky. The elders and our families made the right choice for us.
I take his hand and he lifts his face. “Ready to go?”
The city is busy, as it always is in the morning. Hanun leads me through the streets, the brass plates on his armor shining in the sun. People look at us. He’s not supposed to be in uniform when he’s off duty, but who’s going to stop him? The guards look after their own.
The grocer he takes us to is his favorite. I can smell the food cooking in the back behind the shop as we pass under the awning. Old Menir always switches out the stock in his displays, but the chicken and herbs he sells out of his oven never change. He’s from the desert, like we are. He knows some elders from Odun.
“For two,” Hanun says.
He doesn’t need to say anything. Menir hands him the flatbreads, and he passes one to me.
It’s delicious. Yogurt and cucumber mixes with the savory meat.
“You won’t find better than this in the king’s palace.”
Hanun laughs. “Careful who hears that. You’ll be taken away to cook for him!”
“Wouldn’t be the worst fate in the world.”
Menir always reminds me of home. People there knew each other. It’s not like Ehram, where everyone is going about their business with their eyes turned down to watch the sand beneath their feet. He’s alive in a way other people here aren’t.
Hanun pulls out two coins and pays. They’re more than is due, but it’s worth it.
“You don’t have to–”
Hanun’s not wrong. If it weren’t for the shrine, Menir’s cooking would be the only reason to come to Ehram.
The voice is harsh, an Ehramite voice. It lacks the country lilt or the musicality of us desert people.
Hanun stands at attention. He’s already finished his food. He’s fast when he eats, especially when he’s tired. I can see the dark rings around his eyes. But he never disappoints anyone.
The officer has a blue sash. That means something, but I don’t know what. He speaks with such force that it’s impossible to argue with him. “We need more men in the Glassmakers’ Quarter.”
Hanun nods. “Understood, sir. I will head there at once.”
He turns to me and kisses my forehead. “Stay safe, Zefra. If there was a vandal at the shrine last night, he might come back. Keep both eyes open.”
“You’re the one going to the Glassmakers’ Quarter. I’ll be fine.”
He turns away and walks into the crowd. Even with his uniform, it doesn’t take long before I can’t see him anymore. My heart sinks. We had so little time together, and he’d just gotten off-shift.
I turn to Menir. “Yeah?”
“Is everything all right?”
“I’m just tired. Someone broke the altars last night.”
“That’s a problem, isn’t it?”
I shrug. “I don’t know what to do about it. They weren’t desecrated in any other way. I’m just going to have a mason carve new ones.”
“But that’s not what’s bothering you.”
“Ever since moving here, Hanun hasn’t had any time for me.”
“He’s doing his service for the king.”
“I know, but couldn’t someone else have? We’re betrothed. We should have married a year ago, except we’re so far from home.”
Menir hands me a cup. There’s dark tea inside, the sort they grow up in the mountains.
I drink. It has a richness to it, and it makes me feel better.
“You need it, right? Haven’t been sleeping well.”
I shake my head. “A dream.”
He knows that if I wanted to say more I’d have said more. “Well, I can’t do anything about that. But if the neighbors act up, let me know.”
There’s a playfulness in how he says it, but I know he’d do something if I asked him to.