Gazing into the eyes of her infant daughter, Nimur almost forgot for a moment that calamity was stalking her. The baby girl gazed up at Nimur with innocent delight, her golden eyes opened wide to drink in a world whose every detail was new to her. Nimur stroked her hand over the downy silver fuzz that covered her newborn’s teal-colored scalp, then traced the paths of pale yellow spots that ringed the girl’s ears and met at the nape of her neck before continuing down the center of her tiny back—the same coloration and pattern shared by all Tomol.
Kerlo, the girl’s father, placed his hands on Nimur’s shoulders. “She needs a name.”
Nimur craned her head back to smile at her mate. “I was thinking of ‘Tahna.’”
Her suggestion conjured a bittersweet smile from Kerlo; it had been the name of one of their dear friends who recently had been claimed by the Cleansing. “If you like, yes.” He sat down beside Nimur and tickled the baby’s tummy and the bottoms of her plump feet. Tahna squeaked and cooed, then flailed her tiny limbs as a broad smile lit her face. A grim cast overtook his lean, handsome face. “Have you thought about who we’ll name as—”
“I don’t want to talk about it yet.” A glare from Nimur gave Kerlo pause.
It took him a moment to regroup. “We can’t put it off.”
“Because we don’t have much time left—either of us.”
It was too painful for Nimur to face head-on. She had always known this day would come, that this was the cruel shape of her life, as it was for all Tomol. So had it been for countless generations, all but preordained, stretching back to the time of the Arrival.
“I only just birthed her, Kerlo. I can’t give her up yet.”
“No one says you have to. But we need to choose her Guardians.” Kerlo circled around Nimur and kneeled in front of her. He rested his hands upon her knees, a gentle and comforting gesture. “It took us so long to have a child, Nimur. Almost too long. We can’t afford to wait any more. We need to make a decision.”
Nimur hugged her infant gently to her chest, then rocked slowly forward and back. The selfish part of her wanted to spend every waking moment reveling in her beautiful child, and in her wildest fantasies she imagined being able to watch Tahna grow up and become independent. But that was not the way of things. That was a dream born of delusion, a specter of false hope.
She kissed the baby’s head. “What about Chimi and Tayno? They’d take care of her.”
Kerlo was noncommittal. “I don’t know them. But if you trust them, so do I.”
A twisting sickness churned in Nimur’s gut. Deciding to whom she and Kerlo would give up their precious child, the last proof they had ever lived, made her ill. Despite ages of tradition, it felt like a crime against nature, against her very essence, to surrender to such a demand. All she could do was salve her conscience with empty declarations of hope. “They’ll be kind to her, I think.” A foolish optimism sprang up inside her. “Should we try to have another?”
The mere proposition made Kerlo blanch. “At our age? Nimur, we’ve both passed our seventeenth sun-turn. Conceiving new life at our age is forbidden.”
“At our age? Kerlo, look at us! We’re better and stronger than we’ve ever been!”
He shook his head in stern refusal. “You know the law as well as I do.”
“The law, the law, the law! Nothing but words scratched on a rock!” She clutched his arm and squeezed it. “You and I are real! Our lives”—she nodded at Tahna—“her life, is real.”
“So are the lives of everyone else we know.” Kerlo slowly lifted his hand and pressed his jade-colored palm to Nimur’s face. “Think of the Endless, the ones who defied the Wardens. Remember how much pain they caused? Do you want to do that to everyone we care about?”
Nimur closed her eyes. Shutting out the world around her was easier than facing a future in which she had no place. “Can we talk about something else?”
Kerlo stood and paced around their hut, which they had inherited from a long line of Tomol who had come and gone before them. “We need to get ready for next year’s crop rotation. And not a moment too soon, if you ask me. The north field needs a fallow season. But what I’m really worried about is irrigation. Last year was the driest I’ve ever seen, and the scribes say it was one of the driest on record. If we don’t get some decent rainfall next spring, I don’t think the tubers will make it to harvest season. We might have to pull them in the summer before—”
His voiced faded over the last few words, then he fell silent.
The sudden gulf of quiet was split by Tahna’s frightened wailing.
Nimur clutched the infant closer in a futile attempt to comfort her, but the maternal gesture only made the baby’s cries louder and more shrill.
Kerlo plucked the infant from Nimur’s hands and retreated across the room, then edged backward through the doorway to the bedroom they shared. He made no sound, but his face was marked by the same brand of horror that split the air in Tahna’s panicked shrieks.
“What is it? What’s happening?” Nimur’s questions were acts of denial, a refusal to accept what she had long known to be inevitable. Kerlo grabbed up a walking stick of jungle reed and brandished it like a weapon. Still, Nimur refused to believe that this moment, whose arrival she had dreaded most of her life, was at last upon her.
She turned toward a crude mirror propped up in the corner and saw the horrible truth.
Her eyes burned with the crimson fire of the Change.
It was the destiny of all Tomol, if they lived past their seventeenth sun-turn. None escaped the Change. It came on without warning and, within a single arc of Arethusa’s twin moons, turned all whom it afflicted into fiends of flame and suffering. No prayer, no sacrifice, no offering could spare a Tomol from its baleful touch—and now it had laid its burning hand upon Nimur.
She fled from the hut and she ran, without direction or destination, into the sultry embrace of the jungle. Her feet followed familiar trails—around the great menhirs of the first Tomol, past the sacred Caves of the Shepherds, and over the Peak of Shadows. Thick foliage snapped as she sprinted through it, breaking each leafy embrace with a twist of her body. The erratic patter of her footfalls was lost beneath her frantic tides of breathing and heaving sobs of panic. She crested the steep-faced cliff and fell to her knees on a rocky ledge.
Rage coursed through her. Why? Why do our lives have to end when they’ve only just begun? She hid her face in her hands as she wept. There was no path left to her now but the Cleansing, a willful descent into the ancient blue fire. She would be expected to give up her only child, her future, her hopes and dreams . . . her life. All to satisfy a law no one could overrule.
A defiant streak inside her compelled her to deny the high priestess and her Wardens the satisfaction of condemning her to the holy flames. I could leap from here and dash myself on the rocks, she told herself. She stared down over the edge, at the angry sea tearing itself across jagged stones where the cliff’s base met the water, and she knew she could never do it.
The sea beckoned, but Nimur knew that no matter how strongly she felt the ocean’s call, her path lay in the Well of Flames. Every instinct she possessed told her that her daughter needed her alive—but every lesson she had ever been taught told her the hour of her death was at hand.