Aspects of Sand: Chapter 3

The temple is quiet when I arrive. Nobody stirs in the courtyard. I look around before I enter, but nothing stands out to me. All the waking rituals are complete, and the priests are busy going about their business. The gate is open. A man comes out of the central building as I walk into the square. He’s tall, thin, with the first edges of gray encroaching on his night-black hair.

He looks me over from top-to-bottom, then sighs. “Can I help you?”

All business. Not even an introduction. “I am Zefra of Odun, daughter of Ramir.” He blinks when I say the name. “I keep a shrine in the outskirts, and I need money for new altars.”

“New altars?”

“Yes.”

“Come in.” His voice is hushed, and his face darkens with concern. “Your father’s name is Ramir?”

“Yes.”

“That is my name, too. This is a day of coincidences.”

“How so?”

“Were your altars split in two? Cleanly? Like they had broken themselves?”

I’m sick in my stomach. It creeps and crawls, twisting itself into a knot. “Yes.”

He furrows his brow. “It’s happened all over the city.”

“What happened?”

“Only the gods know. Vandals, maybe. We don’t close the gate at night, but the boy who keeps watch ran off and we can’t find him.”

Was Hanun right? Why would the gods break their own altars? “What do the elders think?”

Ramir sighs. “The elders never agree on anything anymore. They’re too busy with their own concerns. They spent three hours arguing whether the Third Oracle of Olipha was written before the Songs of Akkun or afterward.”

“What did they decide?”

“Nothing.”

“Does that interfere with the temple’s duties?”

“What duties? You’ve seen how many people come here. If it weren’t for the king, we’d have to beg table scraps for the weekly offerings.” He leads me through the doors to an annex. The mosaic tiles on the floor are brilliant shades of blue and green, arranged to make the sacred patterns of Olipha. This must be her own sanctum.

It’s larger than my shrine, and it’s not even dedicated to all the gods.

“You don’t have alms to give out?”

“All the beggars have started going to the Glassmakers.”

“They don’t strike me as charitable.”

He looks at me. “They aren’t. You know they use blood in their craft, right?”

“I’d heard it, but I didn’t believe it.”

“The Glassmakers give people money for their blood. Aren’t too picky, either. Sometimes it kills them, but Glassmaker coin is good. They can make a living off of it.”

“How could the king allow that?”

“He doesn’t care. The Glassmakers built his palace.”

We pass through the threshold of the inner sanctuary. An elder hunches over a table covered in scrolls, his beautiful blue-green robes glimmering in the light. For a moment, lost in thought, he reminds me of the elders back in Odun. Then he looks up at me and his face curls up. “This is not the time for distractions, Ramir. Who is this woman, and why have you brought her here?”

“Good morning, father. Zefra, this is Serhum. He–”

“We have more pressing issues than beggars.”

It stings a little. “I keep a shrine on the outskirts.”

The elder’s face relaxes. “I apologize.” Everyone is silent for a few moments, then he continues. “I assume Ramir has told you about our problem.”

“Her shrine’s altars broke too.”

“That is troubling, but it no longer surprises me.”

I respond. “It happened sometime between midnight and dawn.”

Serhum perks up. “Oh?”

“A dream woke me up during the night. The altars were fine then, but they’d broken by morning.”

The elder strokes his beard, running his fingers through the black and gray curls with a distant look on his face. “Tell me about this dream.”

“It’s nothing unusual. I have the same dream every night.”

 “That makes it more interesting.”

“Akkun asks me who I am, like I’d died and gone to the underworld.”

“And then?”

“Then he gets upset with me and complains that too few people follow the gods. And I wake up.”

“You haven’t taken an order?”

“No, I’m just a shrine keeper.”

The elder chews on his lower lip, then Ramir butts in. “What should we do about the altars?”

“I’m thinking about that, Ramir. But what comes next is less important than understanding what happened.”

“Father, you’re always focused on the past.”

Serhum sighs and turns to me. “He wouldn’t be my son if he didn’t have a temper. I have a task for you.”

“Oh?”

“First, I need to know if you can travel.”

“I can, but my betrothed is a guard here in Ehram. He’s doing his service for the king.”

“Does that matter?”

It does to me, but I don’t want to offend the elder. “No, I guess not. I’d need to let him know I’m going, though.”

“That is fine. Just make it quick. We should send someone to the Oracle. He is more in touch with the gods than we are. If anyone knows why the gods are angry, it would be him. Do you know the way?”

“I know where it is. I grew up in Odun.”

He looks at me, his face blank.

“It’s not far from us. Sometimes we’d send trades or offerings to the Oracle.”

“Excellent. I will write a letter detailing the situation. If they’re busy, it’ll get you to the front of the line.”

“And my shrine?”

“I’ll have Ramir watch it while you’re gone. That’ll teach him to watch his tongue.”


We weave through the city. People seem on edge, though I never can tell with city-dwellers. Maybe it’s this season. It’s not like the farms or the herds, where you know what time of year it is by looking around.

We’re heading into the summer. I’m glad to have my loose coat to keep the sun off my skin. When I check on Ramir, he’s crowned with beads of sweat. It mixes with the dust.

The city stinks.

And nobody gives space. The Temple Quarter is the worst part of the city I’ve been in. Even without the devout coming to pay their respects on the holy days, all traffic from the old city to the outskirts has to flow through it.

Someone nearly knocks me over. Ramir steps in to catch me, but he doesn’t need to. I’m quick enough to stay on my feet. A glob of spit lands by my feet. If I could figure out who it was in the crowd, I’d yell at them, but it doesn’t make sense to start a scene over such a thing. Ehramites are rude. When the streets are filled with strangers, people go about their business with their heads down.

It reminds me just how far from home I am.

I lead the priest through the winding streets. He’s not used to the city, though I’m hardly more familiar with it than he is. “You don’t leave the temple much, do you?”

“No, not often. Just for ceremonies and events.”

“I’d say you’re missing out, but it’s not that great.”

“You’re from the desert. Why come to Ehram?”

“My betrothed was conscripted.”

“Oh?”

“For the guard. You’ve noticed they’re not Ehramites?”

“I don’t have encounters with the guard.”

We don’t say anything else to each other. I can tell we’re nearing the outskirts when the crowds’ clothes lose their color. Dye is expensive, and the outskirts are rough.

Ramir notices but doesn’t say anything. He has more tact than his father.

The streets widen as we leave the Temple Quarter. They’re newer and more orderly than the twisting alleys that make up the inner districts.

Suddenly, like passing into the eye of a storm, we find ourselves alone on the street.

“Is it always like this?” Ramir tugs at his collar.

“No.”

I can hear someone shouting in the distance, but all I can make out is a man’s voice.

A woman walks past us, grumbling under her breath. “Where’s the guard when you need them?”

Ramir slows down.

“Come on,” I say, “this will be interesting!”

The man’s voice is clearer once I’m closer. “–the city! We will all pay the price for our sin!”

The crowd jeers. Some laugh. A couple more people pass us, casting glances back over their shoulders at the plaza.

I see him once I round the corner. The shouting man has climbed onto a balcony, and he’s addressing a crowd.

“The Glassmakers have doomed us all!”

The man collapses to his knees and wails loudly. Someone from the crowd throws a stone at him.

I turn to one of the bystanders. “What’s going on?”

“He is a madman, a dreamer. He says that–well, you’ve heard what he says by now.”

Maybe he’s had the same dream I’ve had.

I turn back to Ramir. He taps his foot impatiently.

If he wants me to acknowledge it, he’s sorely mistaken. “We’ll go the other way to the shrine.”

I’m sure he notices that I’m leading us back the way we came, and that the shrine is in the opposite direction, but I don’t care to acknowledge it.

I’m ready to spend some time in the shade by the time we arrive at the shrine. The paint around the doorframe greets us like a familiar friend, and I’m glad to see it.

But Ramir crosses his arms. “Well, it doesn’t look like much.”

“This isn’t the temple. Out this far from the city center, people don’t have money.”

“I understand.”

He doesn’t, but I’m too polite to say this. He has the sharp voice of an Ehramite. And that means he grew up with water free for the taking, food you can buy–or beg–without great difficulty, and everyone who couldn’t make it moved away.

They moved here. “This shrine serves the needs of the poorest people in Ehram. You’ll find grain in the back room. The fountain just down the street provides water, so people won’t ask for it. You will need to draw some each morning for the water sacrifice, and again each evening.”

I lead him inside. At least the altars are nice, that’s one thing the shrine has going for it.

Had going for it. I grimace at the sight of the shattered stones.

But even the temple’s altars broke, so he can’t judge me on that.

“This is the main sanctuary. It’s right off the street, but that’s fine because we have a separate chantry.”

“Charming, really.”

My hands go to my hips before I realize what I’m doing. I should bite my tongue, but–”You don’t have to like it, but at least try to do a good job.”

He grimaces. “I’m a priest. My father is a priest. I grew up in the temple, and I know how to keep a shrine.”

I take a deep breath. He’s upset because he feels this is beneath him. If I were in his shoes, I’d feel the same. “I’m not saying you don’t. But it’s important that you know where things are unless you want to carry everything you need for the rituals from the temple. Do you know where the nearest fountain is?”

“Just down the street.”

“Which way?”

He heads out into the street, his green and blue embroidered robes glinting as the beads reflect the sun. “It’s that way.” He’s pointing in the wrong direction, the way we came from.

“Did you see a fountain there when we came by?”

“No?”

“Then it’s in the other direction.”

He turns back to me. He’s already regained his composure, but I can tell he’s offended. “I could have figured it out.”

“But I’ll save you the time.” I say it as gently as I can.

We walk down the street. It’s busier than it was near the square with the dreamer. It’s not late in the morning yet, but the day’s already warm. I lead him to the fountain. It’s busy now, with a line of people waiting their turn. Craftspeople have their own separate line, but it stretches almost as far as the regular line.

“Seems like it’d take a while.”

“Get there early,” I say.

“I’ll have to come from the temple.”

“The guards won’t stop a priest going about his business in the morning, even if the curfew hasn’t ended.”

He groans. I’m right, but traveling half-way across the city to make the waking offerings means an early start to the day.

Then someone pushes their way through the crowd. At first all I see is a guard’s armor, but I quickly realize who it is.

“Hanun!”

Menir follows him, moving with an energy surprising in a man his age.

Hanun pulls me aside, casting a glance at Ramir as he pushes me back into the shrine.

“Grab what you can, quick.”

His voice is hushed, frantic. He’s got cloth wrapped around his arm. Tight. There are tinges of something dark and red peeking through. It scares me, but I don’t want to know what it is. It’s blood, but I push it out of my mind. “What’s happening?”

“They’re closing off the districts one-by-one.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Something the Glassmakers did, maybe.”

I think of the dreamer we saw in the plaza. Ramir perks up.

But Hanun’s always too quick. “We’ve got supplies here.”

He shakes his head. “No. Leave Ehram. Now. Take Menir with you.”

Ramir peeks his head in. “And who are you?”

Hanun swivels on his feet. He lifts his left hand–his injured arm still dangles by his side–and thrusts it toward Ramir’s chest. His finger presses into the man’s robe, causing the outer layer to ripple. “Who are you, priest?”

He spits the words out like an insult.

I insert myself between them. “I have to go to the Oracle.”

“And him?”

“He’s watching the shrine while I’m gone.”

He scowls at Ramir. “When did this happen?”

“Their altars broke too. They want to know why.”

Hanun spits. “The gods have abandoned us.”

“Don’t say that!”

“You haven’t seen what I just saw. Get out. Quick.”

Menir puts his hand on Hanun’s shoulder. “I’ll help guide her.”

“Good. Don’t let her delay.”

Menir heads to the storeroom. Ramir recovers from enough of his shock to ask a question. “What did you see?”

“Men turning on each other like wild beasts. One bit me.”

“Bit you?”

He gestures to his arm. “I broke free and ran. Didn’t stop until I was out of the Glassmakers’ Quarter.”

Words from my dream come back to me. I speak them aloud as if I were reciting an incantation.

“Because of their treachery, I say to you:

They will tear each other to pieces

And they will gnaw on bones.”

Hanun shudders. “What?”

“Akkun’s words. From my dream.”

He puts his head down and presses his good hand against his forehead. “Gods. Gods.”

He can’t find anything else to say. Tears seep through his fingers, and a deep sob echoes in his chest. I reach my arms around him. “It’ll be okay.”

“This is the end of Ehram.”

Menir emerges from the shrine’s storeroom with sacks of grain. He hands one to Ramir. “Make yourself useful.”

The priest protests. “This is for alms.”

“We are all poor now! These are the end times.”

I look at Hanun. He lifts his head. He looks weary, like he’s been awake a thousand years. “Menir knows the way to Odun. He’ll take care of you.”

Ramir scoffs. “It can’t be that serious.”

Then someone screams.

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