Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 42
Stories
A Dragon's Doula
by M.K. Hutchins
Fire Born, Water Made
by Adria Laycraft
The Burden of Triumph
by Samuel Marzioli
IGMS Audio
Orson Scott Card - Bonus
Visitors, Chapter 1
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Small Offerings
by Paolo Bacigalupi

Fire Born, Water Made
    by Adria Laycraft

Fire Born, Water Made
Artwork by Andres Mossa

Chahna let the babe suckle, yet still no milk would come. He cried, and she sparked a trickle of fire to run along her fingertips. Her little firelord only cried harder, fists punching the air.

She let the fire die and his panic settled into mere cries of hunger. Exhaustion made her body heavy. She put him to her shoulder.

"Please, Taksheel, don't cry," she whispered, but nothing would sooth him. Chahna clucked and cooed and cried right along with him.

When she rose to walk him, her father stood in the doorway. She caught her breath, and held Taksheel tighter. By some small grace of the gods, the babe quieted.

"Give him to me." Fire licked along his bare arms and trailed from his fingertips.

"Father --"

"His ceremony approaches." His glower warned her. "I will not risk public shame. Bad enough you are now spoiled for any decent marriage contract. Give him to me."

His fire grew and she stepped back. He seemed almost hungry for the child. There was only one way to forestall him. Chahna looked up at her father through a veil of saltwater mist. "Let me take the babe to a Vaidya."

He studied her for a long moment, and she feared he would not even allow this one concession. Then he gave a sharp nod. "I am leaving to meet with our merchants. If you don't have proof of his firelord status when I return, then you will be forced to surrender him to me. Understood?"

She simply stood with her gaze downcast, chin tucked to her chest. When she finally dared look, her father was gone.

Taksheel began to cry again. Chahna sighed, and set him on blankets of silk so she could heat more goats' milk. In drips and dribbles, he drank from the cloth until his eyes drooped closed. She changed his wraps, glad for this moment of peace, but she saw his ribs, his sunken cheeks, his weakness.

What stupidity made her believe Jalesh when he claimed to be born of a high family? As a firelord Kumara, she knew she could only be paired with a true Kanwar, a prince of equal caste. In her deepest heart, she must have known he wasn't worthy, or she never would have kept their affair secret from her parents.

Why hadn't she demanded the truth of him?

She knew why. He had soothed her fires and watered the garden of her heart. She knew, she knew, but she never believed it would come to this, Jalesh dead of firefever and their child in danger.

But if Taksheel passed the ceremony as a proven firelord baby, it would no longer matter who his father was before the fever. All she had to do was ensure he did pass.

Chahna called for her servant girl. "Bring me one of your saris."

Pani brought the simple wool sari, blue to mark her as a water slave. Chahna held the rough fabric between trembling fingers.

"Mistress?"

"Yes, Pani?"

"What do you intend?"

Chahna held Pani's fearful gaze until the girl looked away. She kept her head down after that, just as Chahna had before her father.

"Be sure no one enters my chambers tonight."

"Yes, Mistress."

Chahna changed into the homespun sari, flinching as it chafed her flesh. With teeth set hard against her fears, she took her son and left the palace through her private gardens.

Mandore, the Sun City of daily fire and heat. The markets teemed around her as the day waned into evening. Vendors hawked anything one might need -- jewelry, cushions, spices, and candles, as well as lesser silks and food for every taste.

Chahna tucked Pani's wool sari over her face, doing her best to blend in with the other women in the market. She needed to assuage her suspicions without risk of being gossiped about, and that meant a Vaidya that did not know any high caste families. She entered a doorway under the sign of holy fire, Taksheel tucked within the folds of the rough sari. A low caste Vaidya crouched on the rug crushing herbs, his grey beard stained with tobacco. Scattered around him were baskets of cardamom and black cumin seeds, and bundles of dried mint and basil in various stages of drying. Tea steamed in a pot, and glass bottles with strange stoppers lined the shelves behind him. He rolled his eyes up to peer at her. Flies hounded him, and the fragrance of the turmeric he crushed could not overpower his stench.

Chahna swallowed. This man was nothing like the high-caste Vaidya she was used to seeing when illness or injury struck. She tried to speak, swallowed hard, and tried again.

"My milk will not come," she said. She pulled back her sari to reveal the babe. "He fades away before my eyes."

Her health, diet, and sleep patterns were questioned, as well as the quality of water she drank. She assured him all was better than he could imagine and passed him two gold coin, fire no doubt flickering in her eyes.

"Please just examine the babe."

The man's eyes narrowed as he took in her blue slave clothing. He opened his mouth, his gaze meeting hers again, then closed it tight, asking no more questions. He indicated where she could lay the child as he tucked the gold away with a clink of coin.

He examined Taksheel, muttering prayers while he laid out different element stones. One by one he laid a sliver of each against the babe's skin. The gold made Taksheel flinch and wail and left a red welt. Chahna blinked away tears, holding back the fire of her protectiveness in fists clenched. A piece of oxide had no effect, but the polished sliver of limestone from the enemy lands of the waterborn made Taksheel stop crying, suck in his breath, and hiccup. When the Vaidya lifted the element away, the welt was gone.

"I am sorry, this boy is no fireborn," said the Vaidya. He watched her, though he tried not to be obvious about it. "What do you know of the father?"

This question, spoken so light, woke all her fear.

"A good man," she replied, lifting Taksheel back into the safety of her embrace.

"Where is he now?"

"Dead."

The Vaidya raised an eyebrow. "If the babe is waterlord . . ."

Chahna rose on shaking legs and pressed more gold into his hand. "Thank you, kind Vaidya."

He stopped her retreat with a hand on her forearm, waking fire in her. He released her, eyes wide, but still spoke his mind. "It would be a kindness to end it. He cannot thrive here, nor can you feed one such as him."

Chahna gazed down at the tiny sleeping form. "I know." She raised a hopeful face to the Vaidya. "Although, maybe . . ." she began, but the twist of disgust in the old man's face made the thought die inside, unuttered.

"You would soil another by taking their birthright?"

Shame soured her stomach, and she hung her head.

"No."

His expression softened, and he patted her arm. "Call for me when you are ready, Kumara. I will make it quick and painless."

She had other ideas.

She braved the blood-hot streets now shrouded in the depths of night. The crowds had thinned, and wild monkey packs hooted at her as she descended into the bowels of Mandore. With a piece of gold she purchased both a guide and safety in a teenage cinder. No firelord, he would endure a low caste all his life. The gold would at least let him buy comfort and sustenance, for some time to come if he spent it wisely.

The cinder boy led her into streets so dirty she covered Taksheel completely with her sari. The cinder ran ahead, dodging through crowds of people, goats, carts, and vendors. It took her a moment to understand why he did not treat her as befitted her rank. Then she realized the blue sari and plain sandals marked her as a slave, not worthy of any respect at all.

Chahna hurried after him as best she could. Her head spun as the cinder ducked this way and that, turning her completely around. Then, at a doorway like hundreds of others they had passed, he pushed aside a dirty woven rug and waved her into the dimly lit room beyond. Within, she found a place so foul the rug over the doorway was blissful in comparison. She wished she had thought to bring a satchel of cinnamon or a press of jasmine to place under her nose. Better, she wished she could fire this hole until it burned clean.

"Pretty lady, please be welcome, sit here. I am Sandeep. Tell me what this humble servant can do for you."

His smile spoke of greed, not kindness, but Chahna sat. "I have a need for your services, kind ramanah," she said. "I need a birthright."

"Pah, I can see the fire in you, my lady. You have no need of me, surely . . ."

She let her sari fall open enough to see the baby hidden there.

"By all the gods," he said, his voice harsh. He sat hard on the small goatskin stool across from her chair. "Is this babe yours?" When she nodded, he spat to one side in disgust. "The man who raped you, I curse him to the seventh watery hell. Such an abomination should never be allowed to live." His assumptions angered her, but she held her wrath tight within and fingered two more gold pieces in her hidden purse in case it was needed. She wondered if a knife might have been wiser insurance.

"Please, good ramanah, tell me you can change this poor child's fate. I cannot bear to kill him."

He shook his head in disgust, but his greed won over. "I have no one immediately available, my lady, but I can send the boy when one comes along."

She released the hidden gold, took a deep breath, and said, "No, good ramanah, I do not wish to steal a birthright from another. You will take mine."

He stared so long she took a breath to repeat herself, only to have the ramanah bark out a laugh that stole all her hope away.

"You cannot give an adult's fire to an infant . . . it is a boy, no? Even worse!" he cried when she nodded. "No, my lady, I cannot help you today. Find me a fireborn boy child, no more than a year old. Only then will it work."

The cinder boy was gone when she emerged into the narrow street, but the light of dawn pinked the sky, guiding her home. By the time she stumbled into her courtyard, Taksheel screamed in hunger and seemed to weigh double what he did an hour before.

Pani came at once, taking the boy and following Chahna into the chambers. Taksheel needed fed, but she couldn't even bear to try to nurse again.

"Feed him best you can, Pani," she said, turning away before the girl even answered. Chahna went into her bathing chambers and let a whirlwind of fire and sand score her clean. What good was it to be of the powerful firelord caste if she could not save her son?

Chahna let the fire burn away any tears that dared fall. She stepped out calm, took up a fresh silk sari, and wrapped, tucked, and draped it, finding comfort in the ritual and the fine touch of luxury.

Then she sought out her mother. She was not with her ladies or in the gardens, so Chahna climbed the tower to find her on a balcony staring out over the city.

Her mother turned at the sound of her approach. Chahna wanted to run to her as if she were still a girl and bury her face in the warm folds of sari. Instead, she was stopped short by a fierce gaze.

"Daughter."

There would be no understanding, yet still Chahna tried.

"He said he was a true prince."

Her mother turned away. "I fear he told you the truth. This is the problem. You have borne a waterlord child, and if you will not do what needs done, the ceremony will reveal his source to your father."

Chahna's fire leaked beyond her control. "You would have me kill a babe, my get, to save yourself some embarrassment?"

Her mother's nostrils flared. "Embarrassment? No, daughter, it will be much worse than that. The elements don't mix, and water drowns fire. Your father and his kin have sought a way to conquer water for generations. What do you think they will do to the babe? And how do you think they will treat you?" Now her mother's gaze narrowed, cold, hard. "If you don't make that thing disappear before your father returns, you will suffer far worse than embarrassment, my daughter. The child will be taken from you. You will be disowned, sold, and branded as a slave, your birthright stripped away, your face scored forever. There is no worse fate for a firelord princess. Death would be a kindness, for both of you."

Chahna turned away. Her father's hungry look made more sense now.

Taksheel's feeble gasps and protests echoed through her chambers as she made her way back to him. Pani fussed and fawned over the babe, praying in a steady stream of foreign water words as she held the milk-soaked cloth for Taksheel to suck.

Chahna leaned against the doorway, the stone cool against her cheek. She must be strong. He should not suffer for her stupidity. Once she put him out of his misery, she would end her own life and send her soul to join him and his father in the water depths of hell.

She drew upon her fire, bringing it forth in a rush of sound that sent Pani scrambling aside with a cry. Taksheel began to wail, and with every step closer he howled louder, barely able to gasp a breath in between, little body stiff with terror, and still she moved closer, and closer, body enveloped in flame.

The tiny wisps of hair on his head shriveled away. His silk wrap began to curl and darken at the edges, his skin reddened, and blisters rose on exposed flesh. She stepped closer still, forcing her body forward, wanting to close her eyes and scream but knowing she deserved to watch this . . . and that it would haunt her all her days.

The smell of burnt hair filled her nostrils.

Pani screamed somewhere to her right. Chahna faltered.

It was too late. He already burned.

Then water arced through the air, gathering and growing. Chahna looked to Pani for its source and saw that Pani's tears flowed away from her face. But there was more. From her. Tears, the saltwater of the soul, flowing from both women, became a sheet winding through the air to settle over Taksheel and wrap him, dousing the fire, soothing his burns. His cries abated.

What magic was this? Chahna stood quiet, her fire gone, and stared at her son. Pani fell to the floor to press her forehead to the tiles.

But she did not bow at Chahna. No, she bowed to Taksheel. She chanted a word in her own language again and again.

Waterlord. Her mother was right.

Chahna's fear rose to new heights. There was no saving him from her father now. He was a threat to all Firelord people, and she could never change him. She stepped forward, ready to battle the water of this tiny being, turn it to steam and end it all.

"Please, Mistress, please."

"Please what?" She did not mean to sound so sharp, but grief engulfed her in a terrible wave, and her weakness made her angry.

"Please, Kumara, you must not kill him."

"And what would you have me do?" Chahna demanded. "He is no watersnake like you -- he is powerful. My father will do worse than burn him alive. Why make him suffer so? Death would be a blessing," she said, echoing her mother's words.

Taksheel cooed, a tiny sound that caught in her heart.

Pani beseeched her. "If you will free me from my bond to you, and let me take him to my lands, Kumara, he will be all you are here, and I will serve him to my dying day. I can sneak him --"

"So he can grow to be one who can douse my people's fire?"

Pani recoiled from Chahna, shaking her head but unable to voice her protests.

Chahna leaned over the woman, the heat rolling off her making the girl flinch. "I will fix this, not you," she said, unable to constrain her anger.

Pani's mouth tightened. Chahna's gut twisted in shame. Pani loved and cared for Taksheel as well -- or better -- than she ever could.

Chahna left them, the fires of guilt and grief trailing off her to blister the flowers of her gardens. She would have to kill Taksheel if she could not purge his waterlord birthright and replace it with a firelord status.

Chahna paced the city streets again, only this time wearing flames and expensive silk. The way cleared before her, many bowing or prostrating on the ground.

She needed a child, an infant boy. A firelord. How would she possibly gain one? She made her way along the richest streets, remembering a cousin and his pregnant wife.

At the cousin's palace she heard the cries only a woman in labor could make. Chahna's own memories were only too fresh, and she flinched with remembered pain. Guards stood at the ornate gate, but let her pass without a glance. She was a cousin, after all. She didn't doubt the expression she wore discouraged them just as much as her caste and family ties.

Once out of their sight she slipped into the side gardens, passing trees laden with fruit and flower before finding a quiet doorway in. All attention in the hall was focused on the celebrating father.

The cries from within the room beyond quieted.

Chahna waited, her heart as hard as sunbaked earth. She would fix her son, make him a firelord as he was meant to be, raise him and love him and feed him . . .

A slave brought the precious wrapped bundle to the firelord and he took it into his arms. His gaze lowered, his face softened, all firelord gone to reveal only adoration and joy.

That is what Jalesh could have looked like, holding Taksheel.

Chahna stood in the shadows a long time, unable to move. Finally she retreated, returning to the streets.

There was only one way left to her.

She returned to the market and purchased a small sharp blade that could be strapped onto her arm beneath her sari. Then she sought out the cinder boy. She saw him talking with his friends, his back to her. She walked up to them, the others scattering as she approached, and tapped the boy on his shoulder.

He turned, irritated look melting away to awe, and then fear as he recognized the woman he had helped the day before. Falling to his knees, he shoved his face into the dirt, his muffled voice begging her forgiveness.

"I did not know, Kumara, I did not know," he repeated like a mantra. Chahna bent to touch his head and quiet him.

"Take me back to the ramanah."

He guided her back to the hovel, the streets now crowded with vendors and carts in the heat of the day. Children ran shouting after monkeys, chasing them from the fruit carts in return for a mango. A donkey brayed close by, loud to her ears but ignored by everyone else. Some stared to see a firelord walking through their streets. Others simply bowed and backed away.

If the ramanah was surprised to see her as she really was, he let nothing show. Again she sat on the only chair, folding her hands in her lap.

"I am at your service, fire princess." He licked his lips as his eyes travelled over her sari, no doubt noting the missing babe. "Have you found a suitable fireborn child so soon?"

"You are despicable, and the fires of heaven will shun you," she said with no emotion at all. She knew she spoke out of her own guilt, yet it felt good to scorn him in her place.

His eyes widened only a little. "My apologies for my presumptions, princess. Please, this one begs to know how to serve you."

Fire trailed unbidden along her fingers, as if it made its own protest at what she considered doing. "You must have clients interested in rising to the firelord caste."

He only hesitated for the barest moment. "Of course. There are always those who would buy what birth did not give them, although it is rare to find one who will sell it. But your son has nothing to sell, Kumara. Why do you trouble me?"

An insult she could not let pass. "Your veils are so thin, Sandeep, I see right through to the greed in your heart. No matter. Bring your client that they may buy my birthright. You will pay me the full price that they pay, and not a coin less."

Shock froze his tongue. He blinked a few times. "My princess?"

"No, I am not yours and never will be." Fire danced over her, licking dangerously close to the wood shelves and wall hangings. She did not have time for this man's greedy thoughts to work it through. "Do it, now, as I command!"

Sandeep tripped and scrambled for the doorway, shouting for the boy. For now she ruled him with fire -- how would it be once her fire was gone? Chahna stepped out of the tiny room and looked to the sun in the sky. Her time was running out, and soon she would have no fire at all. She watched Sandeep yelling at the cinder boy and pointing up at the palaces of firelords. The boy glanced once at her, only to receive a blow to the side of the head. He scrambled aside, dodging the second swing, and took off up the hill.

Chahna hid her fear deep within, burying it in ashes, and readied herself for what must come.

Sandeep ushered her back into his room and laid out a mat for her. He lit incense, praying under his breath, and laid out gold nuggets in star burst patterns over her heart and on her third eye. Then he mixed bits of this and that into a marble mortar, releasing a horrid smell when he ground it with the pestle.

Chahna met his gaze as he sat back. "It is ready," he said.

"Where is your client, ramanah? My time runs short."

"Soon, soon," Sandeep said, licking his lips. He rose and paced outside the doorway, muttering quietly. Chahna shivered. This was her only chance, and the gold from it as important as the change it would wrought in her. She must be ready. She must be brave. She must be quick.

Finally Sandeep led a pretty young girl and a firelord prince she vaguely recognized into the small room. The cousin fell to his knees beside her, palms pressed together. "Thank you, Kumara," he said, his own eyes smoldering. "My family would never allow us to be together otherwise."

Chahna studied the two faces that hovered over her. She recognized the love that filled the air between them, just as it had with her and Jalesh, and the pain of that loss was soothed in knowing she could at least give these two a chance.

Sandeep crouched at her other side. "Make it so, ramanah," she said.

He bowed his head in acknowledgment. He dipped a trembling finger into a bowl of foul paste and marked her. Pain seared along her skin, heat flaring high, and she bit her tongue so hard blood filled her mouth. Sandeep chanted breathlessly as he marked her again and again, each time more painful than before.

Chahna's awareness faded, and some small voice within screamed at her to stay conscious. She must not let the ramanah take her coin, and she must not die, not here, not like this, not after such a sacrifice. Only she could rescue her son.

"You must let go now, Kumara," Sandeep said in a whisper at her ear. The girl knelt at her other side, her hands pressed to Chahna's belly, her eyes closed and arms swathed in fire. "Let the fire go."

He dipped his finger, steady now, a small smile creeping over his face, and drew the final mark.

Chahna's back arched and the girl screamed. Every bit of Kumara fire poured out of her in a rush, leaving her cold as death. Sandeep let out a happy sigh.

"It is done."

With a flick of her wrist Chahna bared the steel of her hidden blade and thrust it up to nestle under Sandeep's chin. "Slowly now, ramanah," she choked out. "Help me up so that I may not slice your neck by mistake."

Sandeep, his face pale as limestone, took her other hand and pulled her to her feet. The young firelord prince and his newly gifted girl backed away, eyes wide.

"Drop your payment there, cousin," Chahna said, counting on his gratitude and family loyalty to save the moment. He hesitated, and Chahna wondered if all was lost, until the girl elbowed him in the ribs. He grunted, pulled out a bulging pouch of bright red fabric, and let it fall. It made a satisfying clink.

Chahna pushed the tip of her blade hard enough to draw blood, then shoved Sandeep back so he tripped over his own stool with a cry of dismay.

Scooping up the bag of coin, Chahna ran full tilt, praying to every god she knew that the cinder was not lying in wait, that Sandeep would not follow, that her father would not have returned home yet. She dashed through lines of saris hung for sale, past crowds that stared, around donkeys and monkeys and children. She reached the gardens outside her room, scattering birds in every direction, and burst into her chambers. Pani looked around, eyes wide, and Chahna saw Taksheel beside her. A rush of love nearly took her to her knees.

"Quickly, Pani," she gasped, her fingers tight around the heavy pouch of gold. "We must go before we are found."

Pani gaped at the markings still painted on Chahna. "What have you done?"

"What had to be done. Quickly, or it will be all for nothing."

Soon they rode through the gates of the city on newly bought camels and headed west into the desert. Chahna gazed at her son, and his wide eyes regarded her back. She opened the stopper on her waterskin, and dipped her finger to place it on her babe's forehead. He blinked and sighed, content. Peace washed over her.

Fire no longer sprouted from her fingertips.

Pani led them west and south and west again, on towards the legends of great waters beyond the sand. And when Taksheel, their waterlord, cried out to the world his demanding, Chahna smiled and open her sari to his questing mouth so he could nestle up against her full breast to feed.


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