Seti forgot more and more of himself every time he took on a new veneer.
He had heard that, long ago, there had been magic users who could rip the ground apart and flood the desert with a wave of their hand. Times when the water had been plentiful in Afasa because the people had worshipped them like gods. When they hadn’t had to hide, people believed that magic could be used for good instead of evil. But the fear had changed everything. No one remembered those days as anything more than legends. Even those who used magic were starting to believe they were fiction.
Seti watched as nobility wondered out of the Temple, wondering how they could believe the fortunes they were told and yet also believe that the prophets weren’t using magic. Granted, he had never heard of any spell that could see the future, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one. It was strange to feel as if he were alone when so many people milled about the streets. The streets would empty as people made their way back to their homes before the sunset and the cold winds came. He would be able to relax and be himself again.
Eventually, with a hand shading his eyes, Seti spotted his fiancé emerging from the temple doors and picked his way through the crowd towards her. As he bumped into or was pushed by the group, he had to fight his reflex to lift some of their jewelry— he was sure none of them would notice how much they had on. But where was the challenge? He ultimately convinced himself to leave it all where it was because there would be no skill involved in taking it. Besides, he hadn’t brought anything to carry it in. The nobility was strange when it came to carrying things themselves.
In the fading light, Kahina’s black hair gleamed. Everything was already painted in shades of gold, giving the streets a dreamlike quality that made it seem intangible. It was, in part. Seti was here because Kahina had asked him to come. He felt obligated to go, even if their engagement was fake, not that Kahina knew that. She would find out eventually, but he was content to let her dream.
That girl at the Temple was something else, Seti thought as he stepped up beside his fiancé. Even without her magic, she was memorable. He offered Kahina his arm and started walking her home, her maid trailing close behind them.
The conversation died away as they left the crowds behind them. Seti took a moment to take in the relative quiet, something he missed when he had been away from the slums for too long. He missed walking around the desert in the evenings and coming back to large cauldrons of the night’s dinner over fires where everyone would gather. There were more people within the city, but there was no sense of community. People needed each other to survive in the slums, but here it was all about whom you were seen talking to—Seti hated keeping track of it all.
“How was your reading?” Seti asked with a smile, reaching over to tuck a strand of Kahina’s hair behind her ear and getting a pointed cough from her maid for it. “All good news, I hope.”
Kahina glanced back at their watcher and giggled. The woman had to be at least a hundred years old and thought that even being within a few feet of each other would seduce them into sinful acts. She scowled at them and looked at their linked arms. Seti winked at her with one of his winning smiles. She kept frowning, but he could tell he had softened her a bit.
“I was told that great happiness is in my near future,” Kahina said, looking back at him. “That it would be something I keep for a lifetime.”
See, when she said things like that, it made him feel wrong about swindling her. He made himself smile back. “Happiness becomes you,” Seti said. “It makes your eyes sparkle like the stars.” Seti cringed inwardly—not his best line, but he was under pressure. That servant in the Temple, her eyes had been brilliant. So blue that even surrounded by the gems in the foyer, they had stood out. One could drown in that kind of blue and never know it…
Kahina giggled. Seti snapped his attention back to the present and hoped that his thoughts wouldn’t wander again. She was so young and carefree—this would probably be her first real heartbreak. He would have to slowly push her away so the final break wouldn’t be as harsh. He was a thief, not a man who took pleasure in making young ladies cry after all.
“It’s all nonsense anyway,” Kahina said in a wistful tone. “They say the broadest thing they can and hope that they tell you what you want to hear. If they could actually tell the future, the senate would have kept them to themselves.”
Smart girl, Seti thought. “And yet you still give offerings when you know you will be told lies? You’re far more forgiving than I would be.”
“I grew up with one of the girls who was initiated there, so I try to give back when I can.”
She smiled at him as she said it, but there was a deep sadness there that she was unable to hide. Had it been the girl he had seen? They were about the same age…
Stop it! Seti told himself, and yet he found himself asking, “What is her name?” It had been reckless to imply as much as he did in their brief exchange, but it would be even more dangerous if he started asking questions about her.
“Dema,” Kahina said, looking at him curiously. They had known each other and were, in theory, going to be married; he had asked little about her past, hoping that it would discourage her from asking about his. The best lies were half-truths. The scars circling his wrists and neck seemed to burn as he remembered what those chains had felt like, then there was the whip against his back and the sun blazing on his skin. Everything was fuming when he looked back. His own little portion of hell that he never truly escaped from, no matter how expensive the cloth he put on or how socially prominent the woman on his arm.
“What’s wrong?” Kahina stopped walking, her words full of worry.
Seti cursed himself silently for letting it show on his face and forced his most pleasant smile to his lips. “Nothing, darling, I was thinking. Did you get a chance to see your friend?”
“From a distance—she’s a simple serving girl in the temple, so she couldn’t read my fortune,” she replied.
Her words were said lightly, but there was still a hint of worry there. Had she seen a haunted look in his eyes? Did she catch a glimpse of the scars around the base of his neck?
Panicking will make her more suspicious, Seti thought. “You should have pointed her out to me.” He flicked Kahina’s nose playfully, and she laughed. “We’ll have to go back there so I can meet her. She probably has all kinds of embarrassing stories about when you were a child.”
She started protesting, but at least she seemed to have forgotten her worry. They started walking again, and Seti made sure to smile as Kahina chattered, but his mind was on other things. Suppose they did go back to the Temple. In that case, he might see the serving girl again. Dangerous given what she could do but infinitely more intriguing than the idea of waiting around Kahina’s parent’s manor until he spotted something worth pocketing to sell later. As if aware of his thoughts, Kahina’s house came into view around the corner.
“I have returned,” Seti proclaimed when the servant opened the door. “With the young lady as safe and pure as she was this morning, as I’m sure this wonderful woman,” he gestured to the maid behind them, “can confirm.” He spoke in a dramatic tone hoping to make the old butler crack a smile, but all he got was the same sour look he always received. No doubt, the whole house staff would hear about how conceded he was before the day was out. He should have tried harder to win over the staff—they would have been good allies.
“I hope you enjoyed the temple, my lady,” the man said, turning preferably pointedly away from Seti towards Kahina. “You’re parents are waiting for you in the library and wish for you to meet with them there. Someone will bring refreshments to you, so no need to stop in the dining room along the way; I would suggest a change of clothing beforehand—I’m sure Sekai would be more than obliging with that. Um, will your guest be joining you?” The man looked over Seti with distaste.
“I think not,” Kahina said, turning to Seti. “Better to see what they want first before trying their patience.”
“Apologies,” Seti said in a light tone. “I didn’t realize I was so unwelcome in this house. I’ll be sure to put some distance between us two for a while until I know I’m wanted again.”
Kahina paled. She was no doubt worried whether he was joking or telling the truth. Putting some distance between us, my love, Seti thought.
“Won’t you wait a few minutes? I’m sure you can wait in the sitting room while I find out what my parents want. Unless you’re not feeling up to it.” She looked at him with sad, imploring eyes that cut to Seti’s heart. And there was something in the way people on the streets kept glancing in their direction.
Seti placed a hand on her shoulder. “Come, come, darling,” he said. “No need to look at me with those sad eyes. I have no intention of leaving your side unless forced to.” With that, he smiled, knowing that this would win her over if nothing else would. “I leave you to make sure you miss me.” He took her hand and pressed his lips softly to it before guiding her away from the eyes that followed them.
Seti was lead to a room off to the side of the entrance, and with a last look over his shoulder at Kahina as she climbed the stairs to meet her parents, he entered the sitting room. Odd shadows coloured the room as the sun slipped into the horizon, and Seti stood by one of the windows. He positioned himself with his back to the wall to look out at the streets. There were too many people milling about for this kind of neighbourhood, and it caused his stomach to tighten.
His heartbeat increased with a hit of adrenaline, and his eyes darted around the space, trying to take in every face. It was clear from the gathering people’s clothing, for it was becoming clear that they were gathering, that they weren’t rich enough to live in this neighbourhood. Servants in the nearby houses? But then why were they in the streets instead of working? They kept looking at Kahina’s home. Seti pushed himself more into the wall, hiding in the shadows.
That’s when he saw some of the people were carrying staffs and other blunt objects. Mumbling came in through the walls as the crowd grew, then the noise grew louder. It was, as far as Seti could tell, a mob. His first thought was that he should have left when he had the chance, but they would catch him on the street. If these people were angry at Kahina’s family for some reason, they could easily find out his connection with them–it wasn’t as if his engagement to their daughter was a secret.
A scream echoed down from the floor above. Seti’s head snapped to the staircase. Another scream pierced the house’s closed space, and Seti’s muscles tightened as the crowd outside started up a returning cry.
Seti felt a burning in his core.
He hadn’t used his magic in years, not after what had happened last time. It twisted within him, heat radiating from a point above his naval and coursing through his blood. His skin tingled, and his arm hair stood on end. He had to reach down into himself and stop the panic of his pounding heart. There were too many people around, too many buildings caging him in. If he let it take control for a second, Kahina would die, everyone in the area would die—except him. He breathed deeply, unfocusing his eyes, and concentrated on the feeling of his feet against the floor, his back against the wall.
He had to remember why he needed to stay calm without trying to suppress the magic. There was no stopping it now, so he would have to find a safe way to dispel the energy building inside him. He started running, up the stairs and towards the screams, he was sure were Kahina’s. Energy tensed his muscles as if he were preparing himself for a fight, and he rolled his shoulders in an attempt to loosen them. A door was flung open at the top, and Kahina tumbled out, looking wildly around her. Their eyes met, and he had her in his arms in a heartbeat. She shook, her body tense as sobs ripped their way through her small frame, and all Seti could think to do was hold her. And glare at her parents, who sat in the room before him, silent and unmoving. He had never liked them, but this was the first moment he had hated them. And the hate made the magic within him burn hotter.