THE OBREGI MOUNTAINS
YEAR 315 OF THE SUN
(10 YEARS BEFORE CONVERGENCE)
O Sun! You cast cruel shadow
Black char for flesh, the tint of feathers
Have you forsaken mercy?
—From Collected Lamentations from the Night of Knives
Today he would become a god. His mother had told him so.
“Drink this,” she said, handing him a cup. The cup was long and thin and filled with a pale creamy liquid. When he sniffed it, he smelled the orange flowers that grew in looping tendrils outside his window, the ones with the honey centers. But he also smelled the earthy sweetness of the bell-shaped flowers she cultivated in her courtyard garden, the one he was never allowed to play in. And he knew there were things he could not smell in the drink, secret things, things that came from the bag his mother wore around her neck, that whitened the tips of her fingers and his own tongue.
“Drink it now, Serapio,” she said, resting a hand briefly against his cheek. “It’s better to drink it cold. And I’ve put more sweet in it this time, so you can keep it down better.”
He flushed, embarrassed by her mention of his earlier vomiting. She had warned him to drink the morning’s dose quickly, but he had been hesitant and sipped it instead, and he had heaved up some of the drink in a milky mess. He was determined to prove himself worthy this time, more than just a timid boy.
He grasped the cup between shaking hands, and under his mother’s watchful gaze, he brought it to his lips. The drink was bitter cold, and as she had promised, much sweeter than the morning’s portion.
“All of it,” she chided as his throat protested and he started to lower the cup. “Else it won’t be enough to numb the pain.”
He forced himself to swallow, tilting his head back to drain the vessel. His stomach protested, but he held it down. Ten seconds passed, and then another ten. He triumphantly handed the empty cup back.
“My brave little godlet,” she said, her lips curling into a smile that made him feel blessed.
She set the cup on the nearby table next to the pile of cotton cords she would use later to tie him down. He glanced at the cords, and the bone needle and gut thread next to them. She would use that on him, too.
Sweat dampened his hairline, slicking his dark curls to his head despite the chill that beset the room. He was brave, as brave as any twelve-year-old could be, but looking at the needle made him wish for the numbing poison to do its job as quickly as possible.
His mother caught his worry and patted his shoulder reassuringly. “You make your ancestors proud, my son. Now… smile for me.”
He did, baring his teeth. She picked up a small clay bowl and dipped a finger in. It came out red. She motioned him closer. He leaned in so she could rub the dye across his teeth. It tasted like nothing, but part of his mind could not stop thinking about the insects he had watched his mother grind into the nut milk to make the dye. A single drop, like blood, fell on her lap. She frowned and scrubbed at it with the meat of her palm.
She was wearing a simple black sheath that bared her strong brown arms, the hem long enough to brush the stone floor at their feet. Her waist-length black hair spilled loose down her back. Around her neck, a collar of crow feathers the shade of midnight, tips dyed as red as the paint on his teeth.
“Your father thought he could forbid me to wear this,” she said calmly enough, but the boy could hear the thread of pain in her voice, the places where deprivation and sorrow had left their cracks. “But your father doesn’t understand that this is the way of my ancestors, and their ancestors before them. He cannot stop a Carrion Crow woman from dressing to honor the crow god, particularly on a day as sacred as today.”
“He’s afraid of it,” the boy said, the words coming without thought. It must be the poison loosening his tongue. He would never have dared such words otherwise.
His mother blinked, obviously surprised by his insight, and then she shrugged.
“Perhaps,” she agreed. “The Obregi fear many things they do not understand. Now, hold still until I’m done.”
She worked quickly, coloring his teeth a deep carmine until it looked like blood filled his mouth. She smiled. Her teeth were the same. Father was right to fear her like this, the boy thought. She looked fierce, powerful. The handmaiden of a god.
“How does your back feel?” she asked as she returned the bowl of dye to the table.
“Fine,” he lied. She had carved the haahan on his back earlier that day at dawn. Woken him from bed, fed him his first cup of numbing poison, and told him it was time. He had rolled dutifully onto his stomach, and she had begun.
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