The Silver Kings Awash in Crimson
He Walks Among You
“Time to rise, children.”
When I open my eyes, Master is kneeling by the fire, holding two skewers over it. I can’t tell what sort of creature it was, but the smell of cooking meat makes it hard to care. As Li-nah and I get up from our beds, Master sprinkles some sort of aromatic grass over the skewers before handing them to us.
“Be mindful of the heat, but eat well. We have a busy day ahead of us.”
Our first stop that morning is a section of the refugee camps where Master has taken us before. Here, a small tribe has formed of older adults providing guidance to younger families, in exchange for the labor the younger ones are better suited for. I see them eating their ration of spongy wafers, and try not to think of the meat I had for breakfast. Master greets one of the elders by name, and I see smiles light faces all around us. There is hunger and hope behind their eyes, for Master’s presence promises much. But food is not why we are here, it seems.
Instead, Master pulls rolls of parchment from his robes, and takes pieces of charcoal from the firepits that dot the camp. He calls out to the people to gather, and tells them that today it is important to remember what home was like. If, he tells us, we keep An-Teng in our hearts and minds, our feet will surely find it. After some conversation, a few people are brought forth who have some talent for art. They are given the parchment and charcoal sticks.
“The village is the foundation of a culture, a community that carries your traditions, and displays your values. What was your village like? What was the biggest building there? What was your favorite festival? Help me to imagine it as though I was there.”
I’ve seen him do this before. Master asks questions, and gets a few answers. Then he moves to engage different people, focusing on them to gain their participation. Soon, people are telling stories of the time they stole a plum from a merchant’s cart and hid in someone’s cellar to evade capture, or how the local temple would always hang a cerulean lantern out front on someone’s wedding night.
I don’t join in, though the opportunity is there. Li-nah does, though. She talks about her walks to market with her grandmother, stopping to say a prayer at a road-side shrine. Master seizes on this, plopping a ball of clay-rich mud on a stone beside her and asking Li-nah to try and model the shrine for him. Other children and adults begin digging up their own clay. The morning goes on like this for a few hours, as the artists finish their sketches, the modelers laugh over their mistakes and start anew, and the stories give everyone that far-off look in their eyes. Everyone but Master, who merely watches them, and then slips away.
Li-nah and I find him right where he told us he would go, a stand of trees a quarter-mile away. He asks her if she had fun, and she gives a bright smile and a happy affirmation. Then he scoops her into his arms, and gives a curt motion for me to follow him. We make our way around the city, stopping in at different camps. Farther from the gates, there are fewer midwives and doctors and herbalists. Master is welcomed as, if not a skilled healer, then at least someone who might be able to help. I take Li-nah to play at the outskirts of the tents and lean-tos. Master wouldn’t want her to see the sick and injured. She has seen far too many, already.
After a few hours of this, Master emerges from a tent and exchanges grave words with a worried family. They cry, and go inside to grieve with the soon-to-be deceased. Another family is given a better answer, and they sag with relief, one kissing Master’s hand in gratitude. As he approaches, I consider asking him why he does not save others the same way he saved me, but think better of it.
The sun is beginning to set as we stop at a camp three-quarters of the way around the walls. Here, there are strong men who have been felling trees and breaking rocks at the behest of the bird-men atop the walls. The work is hard, but the man called Dorian has told them that it is good training for when he comes back to make them soldiers. However, the hard work and the watchful eyes of the birds have bred anger.
Master knows this, and I suspect that is why we are here. He calls to them to set their work aside for now, and speak with him. He asks them about their troubles, their health, their concerns. He presents himself as a fellow man, someone they can open up to. And when the workers speak of feeling like prisoners, of how they have heard that the birds hold mounds of food hostage behind the walls, Master listens intently.
“I understand, my friends, how it seems. Like you, I have been outside the walls since coming here, and I too have wondered what is hidden inside. But please, know this. Just the other day, I was allowed in. And what I saw within shocked me to my core.”
He has their ear now, I can tell. Even if they are watching him carefully, testing his words for truth, they are at least listening to what he says.
“Within the walls, the birds and their allies are on the verge of starving, too! I saw it with my own eyes, and their leaders cautiously confirmed it. As wisdom dictates, they kept a reserve for resisting a siege, but their stores are now barren. And if their people learned of it… I shudder to think what might happen to us. No, the birds have sought to help us all they can. We shall have to rely on our own strength if we are to find more food.”
They aren’t certain of his sincerity. Rumors and complaints have already found purchase in their hearts, and even Master’s words will not shake them loose right away. But that is why Master follows up his words with action. He bids the men lead him to a cleared patch of land, where he calls to the earth for its blessing. The earth erupts, and so does Master. The roar of his blue-silver sandstorm merges with the rumble of parting ground and the droning of countless wings.
I still feel nervous whenever the locusts come. I have eaten one or two at a time, and I cannot deny that the flavor makes the texture bearable, but never has Master let me or Li-nah partake of a full meal. Some day, I will ask him why. But tonight, I simply stand by with Li-nah, eating some of Master’s jerky and dried fruit. The men eat their fill. Master steps up onto a tree stump, the luminous sandstorm having eased around him, but the hourglass on his forehead shines bright enough to challenge the bonfire. He spreads his hands to both signal silence and to place a benediction, then lets his voice ring out over the throng.
“This meal is given to you by the Highest, so that you may grow and remain strong. Remember, always, that strength is necessary to survive. By your strength, you shall lift yourselves up. By your strength, you shall serve as guides and protectors for the weak. Cherish that role, cherish that strength, and the Highest will cherish you.”
The men cheer, their bellies full of Master’s gift. Like others I have seen, Master’s words seem to touch them better when they have just partaken of the locusts. And once again, I wonder why myself and Li-nah are not allowed to fully join in this communion. Li-nah, for her part, has already fallen asleep in my arms.
Master comes to us after saying his goodbyes to the men, gingerly taking the girl from me. I avert my eyes from his lighted brow. We walk back to the shrine in virtual silence, and he sets Li-nah to bed. As I prepare to do the same, Master lights the fire and speaks to me, his back turned. There is something… ominous… in the way the firelight limns his silhouette.
“Remember, Boy. Those who have power are, by their nature, above those without. The strong rule the weak. But, that does not mean the strong must be apart from the weak. People want to know that those above them care about their problems. A god or king who walks among them is a god or king who understands them. Except, of course, that gods so rarely do.”
He settles into his usual resting position, his back to the column by our beds, and seems to sleep. Eventually, after some time thinking, I fall asleep as well.