Desert Rising - Kelley Grant


SULIS STARED AT her mother’s still form on the pyre, trying to memorize the details of her face. It was serene, her expressive eyes closed, the welcoming smile gone from her lips. White silk hid the arrow wound on her neck. It had festered and refused to heal, the poisons stopping her heart.

Sulis’s gaze followed the white silk down her mother’s body to where it draped over the still form of a great cat, the temple feli who’d paired with her mother before Sulis was born. Rafael had paced beside her mother all the years of Sulis’s life and now lay with her mother on the pyre, his head resting on her stomach.

Sulis had found them in this position when she’d brought in the morning tray. She’d called out to her mother and put her hand on the feli’s rough fur, but neither had woken. Though her mother had been strong enough to survive the long caravan from Illian to Shpeth, her heart had given out when she was safe in her own jetal. Her feli followed their bond past the boundary of death.

Sulis could picture them like this in life, lying together in the shade on a scorching afternoon while Sulis napped beside them. Her mother, Iamar, laughed when the feli flopped beside her, and she’d pushed his big head off her lap.

“Too hot, Rafael,” she’d said. “I don’t want a fur coat. Go lie on Sulis.”

Sulis closed her eyes, yearning to climb the pyre and curl up with them, to rest her head on the feli’s side and hear him purr, with her mother’s laughter echoing around her.

“I will light the pyre,” she’d told her aunts this morning, insisting when they protested: “I’m the eldest. It’s my duty.”

“She’s only twelve,” Aunt Raella had murmured.

Sulis had raised her chin stubbornly as her grandmother studied her. But her grandmother had nodded.

“It is her privilege,” she’d said.

The sun was setting in the heat-bleached sky, casting shadows over desert dunes that stretched into the distance.

The time was nearing. Sulis’s legs shook beneath her, and she clenched her hands so they wouldn’t tremble. She listened to her grandmother speak the sacred words that would send Iamar’s soul to the One, and suddenly she wanted nothing more than to hide in the jetal under her bedcovers until this was all over. She wanted to be a little girl again, to run into her mother’s arms and be comforted. But she was the eldest daughter, and her mother was dead. Everything had changed, and she felt old, as though she’d skipped ten years of her life and become, overnight, a woman.

A hand slipped into hers, and she darted a quick, grateful glance at her twin, who stood beside her. Kadar stared straight ahead, his expression stoic except for his eyes, which swam with tears. Sulis looked away quickly, not wanting to give in to the luxury of weeping before her task was done.

Her grandmother’s voice ceased, and Sulis looked to where the tall, regal tribeswoman stood at Iamar’s head. She looked gravely at Sulis, then across to Sulis’s father. He stood alone on the other side of Iamar’s body, staring at his feet. His brow was set in furrows as he scowled at the sand. Sulis had heard him shouting earlier, out in the hot desert, screaming at the One for taking Iamar just as he’d brought her home.

“Gadiel,” Grandmother said to Sulis’s father, gesturing for him to come forward.

“Sulis,” she said, and gestured with her other hand.

Sulis released Kadar and stepped forward as her father did, her heart almost leaping out of her chest. They stood before her grandmother, who held a staff with an oil-soaked rag tied around one end. Gadiel brought out his flint and struck a single spark, a good omen for the speed at which Iamar’s soul would go to the One. He took the lighted torch and handed it to Sulis. She grasped it with both hands. The torch was heavy, of a longer length than usual to extend her limited reach, and she concentrated on holding it straight and proud. It would be shameful to let it tip and extinguish in the sand because she couldn’t control her trembling arms. She pursed her lips and forced her body to still.

In front of her brother and the crowd of mourners, Sulis walked with the torch to her mother’s feet and stood facing the setting sun, her father’s hand warm on her shoulder. The last of the blazing orb sank beneath