Reign the Earth – A.C. Gaughen

There was a scorpion in my tent. I stared at him. The moon was bright, but only a little of its light filtered in. The scorpion walked carefully over the sand, his tail raised but not ready to strike. He moved slowly toward where I was meant to be asleep on my bedroll. With a deep breath, I held up my hand. “By the power of the desert, I command you to stop,” I said. In return, he curled his tail up, his body tilting down so the tail could flick out with poisonous aim. I laughed, leaning forward and scooping him up. He stayed tense and primed for a long moment, but scorpions and dragons had nothing to fear from each other, and he remembered that after a while, crawling tentatively on my skin. I moved to support him so he wouldn’t fall. “Come to wish me good luck?” I asked him, stroking the stiff shell of his body. With a deep sigh, I confessed, “I think I need it.” His tail flattened further, but flipped up again when I stopped. When the tent flap moved to the side and a shaft of moonlight pierced my tent, I gasped, sitting up and sheltering him in my hands.

“Good,” Kata said. “You’re awake.” Then she saw what was in my hands and jerked away. “There are less lethal ways out of a marriage, Shalia.” Laughing, I let the scorpion go and lifted the back of the tent so he could scuttle away. I jumped out of bed as she came in. She lowered her hood at the same time that the tent flap closed, and it seemed like the pale silver of her hair sucked up all the luminescence of the moon. “Kata!” I cried, throwing my arms around her. “You came!” Her arms tightened around me, and the unsteady rock of our hug knocked us over. We fell onto the sand giggling, nose-to-nose.

Like it used to be. “Of course I did. I came as soon as I heard. I’m sorry it took me so long.” I smiled at her. “You’re here now. And we have so much to talk about.” Her answering smile was watery as she looked at me. “You’re getting married,” she said, her voice softer. “How do you feel?” “Short,” was the first answer that came to mind, and her nose wrinkled.

I wasn’t short, and I knew she was about to point that out to me, but I sighed. “I think queens are supposed to be taller.” Our noses touched. “I’ve seen him,” she told me. “He’s not much taller than you, if at all.” A breath filled my lungs, full of questions, full of what does he look like what does he stand for why does he want me what do you know, but it didn’t matter. In just a few hours I would be his bride, and I would find out soon enough the answers to all those questions. But tomorrow I wouldn’t have Kata. “Are we doing it?” I asked her. She grinned.

“Tonight? You’re supposed to be up before the dawn.” “We both know I’m not sleeping much tonight. Besides, it’s bad luck to break with tradition.” In answer, she tugged my hands, pulling us both up from the sand. We stuck our heads out, looking around for my brothers or uncles or anyone else who would stop us. “Is Rian with you?” I whispered to her. “Yes,” she whispered back, tugging me forward. With no one in sight, we ran out of the tent, hand in hand, feet sliding in the sand. The sky was clear, the moon bright enough to guide us, but so much colder than her brother, the sun. We ran faster as the sand became more compact.

Our clan was camped right outside the city, ready for the morning, when I would greet the sun, my husband, and a whole new life all in one day. Coming upon Jitra was as strange and magical as every time before. Rolling dunes disappeared, leaving a blankness on the horizon, and the shifting sands slid away as solid earth appeared beneath. A hard shelf of rock then parted to reveal a narrow cleft, wide enough for a single person, the mouth of a staircase leading down through the cliff into the city. Jitra was a city cut into the rock. Long ago a powerful river had eroded a sloping path that was as wide across as ten men. From there, the desert clans had carved into the walls, forming massive dwellings, shaded and cool, eternal and unyielding. The river still ran in a narrow vein cutting through the mountain rock until it cascaded off a cliff at the end of the city, giving my nomadic people their one fixed source of water. It was a holy place. Kata always had a hard time finding it.

She wasn’t a clanswoman, a fact I tended to forget until times like this, when she couldn’t find her way to this sacred city. Her fingers, pale and strange on my dark skin, clutched mine tighter as I led her to the break in the earth, and we plunged into darkness as we descended the steep, narrow stone stairs into the city. We slowed at the bottom of the staircase. I could hear city guards somewhere ahead and tugged her to the side. Another path burrowed deeper into the mountain rather than out into the city, and I led the way, sure of my steps as I would always be in Jitra. Another staircase, older, less even, twisted around the rock and deep into the ground. Along that staircase, the air changed from the hot dryness of the desert to a damp that clung to the walls and our fingers. It was there that Kata became more confident in her steps, keeping pace with me, able to tell where she was going instead of being dragged. After a few more wild steps and a laugh that echoed, the passageway opened into a huge cavern, and the massive underground lake that was the hidden treasure of the mountains. The moment I saw it, I halted, and Kata slammed into my back.

I barely noticed her as I looked around us. Hundreds of thousands of tiny droplets of water hung suspended in the air around us. The fine scatter of mist caught the glimmer of a far-off shaft of moonlight at the surface and refracted it, sharing it among the tiny beads of water until the whole cavern looked like it had swallowed all the stars of the night sky. I laughed, delighted, and Kata moved forward, letting the drops break over her like tiny kisses. I touched them with my fingertips, watching the little bubbles break into smaller and smaller pieces, still suspended, still standing at attention for Kata. The cave knew her. In this place of water, her power was strong, beautiful, magical. As I gazed over such wonder, I felt spirits pressing close around me, protecting me, filling me with faith. Tomorrow would be perfect, and this marriage that would take me away from my family would be the beginning of a long and eternal peace. My sacrifice would protect my people.

Kata turned in a slow circle, a happy smile on her face, and the water coated her skin. In the desert she was always dry, her pale skin cracked and sore, aching for the water, but here she was whole. Here she was everything she was born to be. Her power, and the way the world responded to it, was the most stunning thing I’d ever seen. And then, at some unseen command from her, the water droplets fell, those around me slipping over my skin like a tiny burst of rain. The light dimmed without them, and I went for the torch on the wall, scraping my hand as I grabbed it. I struck the flint. When it flared to life, I saw Kata skimming out of her desert clothes, tossing them to the side as she dove into the water. I put the torch back in its holder and followed her, jumping into the water with a massive splash, the sound mixing with our laughter and skittering around the whole cavern. “Oh,” I said, standing in the shallow water as I saw red blooming in the water.

“What did you do?” Kata said, looking at the blood coming from a short gash on my hand. “I thought I just scratched myself,” I told her. “Here,” she said, but before the word was even out, her hand touched my hand, and I watched the small wound close up and fade, the scar turning pink to white in the space of a breath. “How do you do that?” I whispered. “It’s the water,” she told me. “I can feel the water in your skin, in your blood. I can make it answer my command.” I had known Kata so very long, and yet I understood so little about her abilities still. “Thank you,” I said as her hand fell away. She waved at me.

“I love this place,” Kata said, shifting to float on her back. I kicked my way over to her, floating on my back beside her, looking up at the long mineral spines that hung above us like wet, shining teeth. “I know you do,” I told her. “Now tell me about your trip. Did you find the earth temple?” “It’s called an Aede,” she said. “And yes.” I looked at her, my heart suddenly aching. “So they’re all open now, and you can rest.” I looked away. “But I won’t be here anymore.

” “Rest.” She stared at the ceiling. “All the powers have come back to the world, yes. But I can’t rest, Shalia. Can’t you tell? There’s nothing different? Nothing happened to you when I opened the earth element?” I put my legs down so I could look over at her. “Not this again.” She did the same. “You have the potential for an elemental power. I know that you do. And nothing changed when I opened the other elements, so it has to be earth.

” “Just because I think of you as my sister doesn’t mean we actually are.” She drew a breath like my mother did when we were being difficult. “Shalia, it’s not about families. Maybe it was, years ago, but when my people were murdered, the elements—they found places of extreme power and hid. Until I let the elements out again, no one could use them.” “I know all this,” I told her. “I know that’s why you left, to go find these temples and crack the elements open like an egg. But it doesn’t mean I’m an islander.” “No,” she said hotly. “It means everything changed when my people died.

It means that anyone can have these powers now. I have no control over who receives them. They’re everywhere in the world, not just in the islands. And I can feel it in you, as certain as whether or not you’re breathing, that you have a power. The elements have been awakened. This was the last Aede, so you should be able to use your power by now.” She frowned, looking into the water. “If I did it right. No. I’m sure I did it right.

” When she first told me I had the potential for an elemental power, I had been thrilled. She could control water, and over time she had even developed the ability to heal things. I was in awe of her, and it would have been so exciting to share that with her. But I couldn’t, not ever. I’d accepted that—probably around the time she kept leaving me, kept choosing these temples over our friendship. “I don’t have a power,” I said again. “And it doesn’t even matter.” “It does,” she told me. “Now more than ever. Your future husband has declared the Elementae to be traitors, and their powers illegal.

More than that, he’s persecuted them.” “All the better that I don’t have it, then,” I told her. “Can’t you just stop? Can’t we just swim and enjoy being home?” Kata looked so hurt that I immediately regretted my words. “I’m sorry,” I said immediately. I shook my head, scattering droplets in the water. “I knew this wouldn’t be easy for you.” “Easy?” she said softly. “Aside from the fact that his father murdered my people and he doesn’t seem to have very different beliefs, I might not ever see you again.” “No,” I said solemnly. “Don’t say that.

We’ll see each other again.” “I’ve been helping Rian,” she admitted softly. “With the Resistance. Do you know about your brother’s cause?” “Only what I can manage to overhear from Father yelling. But I do know that whatever Rian is doing in the Trifectate, the king thinks this marriage will stop Rian from doing violence to him and the king will stop doing violence to the desert people.” “By putting you between them,” she said. “Don’t you see that?” “Yes,” I told her. “Of course I do. But better between them than standing to the side as they burn another one of my brothers in the sand. Because next time it could be Rian or Kairos in Torrin’s place.

” She looked at me like I was foolish and young, and I huffed out a sigh that rippled the water. “Kata, I would have been married soon anyway. I could have married some d’Skorpios boy, or I could marry this king. I could protect my family for once. I could have my marriage mean something.” “You’re just as fierce as your brothers,” she told me. “I’m not faulting you for that. I just don’t think you know how dangerous this will be.” “Peace is always dangerous,” I said. “Maybe,” she said.

“But have you even wondered why he wants a desert bride? He was supposed to marry a rich princess across the sea. Why is it more essential to form peace with the desert than with them?” My mouth drew tight, and I returned to floating on my back. “Shalia,” Kata said suspiciously. “You know something.” “You won’t like it,” I said. “Shalia,” she insisted. “I think he’s looking for this,” I told her. “The lake.” I couldn’t hear her moving in the water anymore. “What makes you think that?” “As part of the marriage agreement, they’re sending some men to pore over Jitra and the mountains,” I said.

“They said they believe the desert is sheltering Trifectate dissenters and want to search it, but I think they’re looking for something else. And this is the only thing I can imagine they’re looking for.” “You can’t let them do that,” she said, gripping my arm. I raised my head. “Don’t worry,” I insisted. “No clansman would ever willingly let this place be discovered. The only things that could threaten us are lack of water and the spirits turning on us,” I said. “They’ll hide this reserve as best they can. Even you can’t find your way down here, and the water pulls you.” I looked at her.

“If something happened to the lake—would that hurt your power?” “No,” she said, shaking her hair. “This water is pure and powerful, but the Water Aede is in the islands.” “Good,” I said. “If I had told you it would take my power away, would that change anything?” she asked. “What can I do to make you refuse this marriage?” I gave her an angry look, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I couldn’t stand the idea of her being hurt, but what could I really do to stop this from happening? “I believe this marriage is a dangerous mistake,” Kata said. “And worse, it will cut you off from those who could give you aid. It gives him everything and leaves you powerless.” “No,” I said. “It will make me queen, and it will keep my family safe.

And it costs us nothing.” “Our friendship is not nothing.” I met her eyes for a long moment. “Which is why no one can take it away from us. No matter where we are.” She nodded, still unsure, and I moved closer, drifting by her side, hoping I would always have her by mine.

.

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