Her hands had never failed her before. With them, she’d wielded the jegun blade in battle among the stars. With them, she’d climbed the falling trees of Dong’ea Sulai, felled a shrieking falcon, and plucked maika wool. She’d always trusted her hands.
They betrayed her now.
She tried to hold them still, but they shook as she held it. She should press it away from her, call for the pigment to stain its skin, and gather provisions for a quick journey into Night. She wouldn’t have to go far. Any ice pit would do.
Kadaa’s arms twitched and drew the child close against her chest. Its curled fist rested above her heart, its skin full of life heat. It wailed softly, shifting in its sleep. Kadaa shuddered and clamped her eyes shut. She should not have fed it. When Temuujin left to stand before the elders, she’d held it to her breast like a knife. Its limbs had jerked against her skin as it suckled.
Was she not strong? Was she not sharp among the Andala? Then why this sun-cliff in her soul? The child’s tiny lips parted. It burbled, sighed. Kadaa’s stomach burned. Fear lunged beneath her skin. She looked into the child’s face. Rage and terror filled her as she recognized the truth. I love it.
She heard noise outside. Someone was coming. Kadaa almost threw the child away from her, but her hands arrested the violence. She laid it down just as Donka thrust her head inside the dwelling. Her face flowed with folds and wrinkles. One beady black eye and one milky white eye raked over Kadaa and the child. Then she leveraged herself inside, wrinkled arms lifting and twisting her torso, dragging her two leg stumps behind her.
Donka set a gourd on the skin-covered floor, then reached back through the flap and dragged a pack of supplies inside. Kadaa wrenched her eyes away. So, the elders had made their choice. Three cycles of deliberation and this is what they had come to.
“Wrap it tight,” said Donka, “and take heart. The winds of Erseleng are fierce. You will not hear it scream when you leave it behind.”
Lies. Kadaa heard the child screaming already. It would never stop screaming. Every time the wind blew ice and fury from Night to Twilight, she’d hear its voice on the air. Already she heard her own screams answering back. She felt the pools of black and the brittleness of ice and the click of night cat claws in the pit of her gut.
“You said it wouldn’t survive this long,” said Kadaa. She tried to keep her voice steady and strong, but it, too, betrayed her. The elders had told her the child would die, but it had not. Now they wished her to do the deed.
Donka cocked her head. Then her arms shot out and snatched the child. Kadaa lunged for it. Donka flicked her wrist and Kadaa recoiled, her neck bleeding from a hairline cut. Hot shame built behind her eyes. Donka clucked her tongue, then set her ancestor blade aside. She unwrapped the child and looked at it. Its chest was hunched inward, its arms were emaciated and twisted. One leg was missing, the other a stump.
“Look at it,” she said.
Kadaa had done nothing but look at him. She’d looked at him for hours, chilled and feverish. She’d stroked his soft black hair, she’d peered into his liquid eyes. Though the whites were tinged with blue, she’d fancied she’d seen strength there. But this child could never run upon Erseleng’s back or climb the walls of Dong’ea Sulai during initiation rites. He could not throw koda or fight with an akiiya, or twist the spine of a fanged snake. He could not move from sinkhole to sinkhole during the cycles, dig for gux to make a fire, or scale a Dolm Nut tree. He would weaken the brotherhood, and that above all no Andala could allow.
Still, she grasped for something, for a frayed rope or a pot of balm. “What if it is sharp of heart or sharp of mind? Why must it be physically strong? Aren’t there other ways to hone an edge?”
Donka sighed. She took the gourd she’d brought and scooped pigment out with her fingers. She painted the child’s skin with it, staining it a deeper black. “Other ways. Other kinds of sharpness,” Donka shook her head. “You see? It is not meant to be here, it is not one of the brotherhood. We cannot risk bluntness. We must guard against rust, otherwise we cannot cut our path to the khans.”
Donka wiped her hands, wrapped the child up again, and set him in Kadaa’s lap. Then she took a small pot from the folds of her clothes, dipped her finger in, and wiped it on the back of Kadaa’s neck. “We have all marked our necks with the oyugun,” said Donka. “You are not alone in this, and if you choose, any one of us will bear it into Night in your stead.”
The child was heavy in her lap. Kadaa drew her forearm over her eyes. It came away wet. The heat of the oyugun, the fire herb, warmed her neck and spread through her limbs. Her breath came faster. Kadaa licked her lips, shivered, and glared into Donka’s beady eye. “You have no legs and yet you are sharp.”
Donka laughed. “I gave my legs in battle.”
The child woke at the coarse sound and began to cry. How dare Donka disturb him? Kadaa yanked him close, felt the tick of his heartbeat against her own. Where was her jegun blade? What would she do with it? It was no use to her, not now. Donka was saying something, but Kadaa couldn’t hear the words. All she heard was the baby’s cries, filling her up. All she felt was fire burning her neck, burning her feet, incinerating her as if she stood beneath the unrelenting brightness of Day. She saw the flicker in Donka’s good eye, saw her fingers twitch towards the ancestor blade, felt the child settle against her, his head slippery with black pigment. Pigment that marked him for a shameful death.
Kadaa flung herself sideways and lashed out with a foot. Her heel cracked against Donka’s chest, sent her toppling backwards, wrinkles eddying and flowing around old bones. The door flap brushed Kadaa’s shoulder and then the craggy walls of Ralis Naya sprang into her vision. Her toes gripped deep into Erseleng, fiercest of planets, and she flung her face up to the Twilight sky. Just over the hill sat the elders, their backs scarred with the five cords of scourging. With them stood Temuujin, hunched, haunted, a shell of himself. Temuujin, who’d killed a Night Cat with his bare hands. Temuujin, who none dared face in battle. Temuujin, who loved her and whose eyes looked out at her from the screaming face of their child.
Her movement caught his eye and he straightened, stiffening and staring. “Kadaa?”
Her hands were sure again. They steadied the child as she strode with savage steps into the ring of elders. “So,” she said, looking from face to face. “You have decided this child is other. It came through the wrong dark door. It cannot sharpen. It will blunt us and hinder our passage into the realm of the khans.”
The elders murmured. Temuujin merely looked at her, his eyes bright and hard, his large hands curling. A little ways off, Donka emerged from the dwelling, leveraging herself across the ground with speed born of wrath.
Kadaa ignored her. She dropped to her knees, set the child on the ground, and pulled off his wraps, baring his mangled limbs to the sky. His arms spasmed, but he was too surprised now to cry. Those elders who had not yet seen him gasped. Temuujin twitched and shifted his feet. “Don’t turn away,” Kadaa said.
He paused and gazed at her. Something in his eyes gave her courage.
“Look.” She rested her fingers on the child’s sunken chest, on his leg stump, his emaciated arms, his perfect nose. “You say it is other to come to us like this. I say it has been through a great battle. It has fought hard to pass through the dark door. Its eyes shine with strength. Can we be sure it is not a brother? If it is, then to curse it and throw it into the pits of Night would blunt our edge. I say let the child live as long as his battle scars allow.”
Donka reached the group. Words flew among the elders like birds, but Kadaa did not hear them. She had eyes only for the baby, waving his limbs at the sky. She had ears only for the soft tread of Temuujin’s feet as he came and stood beside her. He was upright again, proud. His hand rested on her shoulder as she drew the child against her chest and buried her lips in his hair.