Under the Southern Sun

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Hot. The sun was directly overhead, bearing down like a blow. The young elf sweated under a discolored straw hat, her head pounding. She lifted her hands from the slumped form at her feet and stood, stars coming into her vision; her hands were smeared with red from fingertip to elbow.

As she waited for her vision to clear, her consciousness shifted to another hot day, another splitting headache and the stomach-roiling nausea that accompanied it. The close air within the wagon, thick with the stink of dyes and leather. She was clawing the canvas, trying to find an opening, yelling -- and there was the man who threw back the flap, and his expression of disgust.

If he'd done what she needed, so much would have been prevented. This was the fulcrum on which her whole life had upended. A few days later she would be reaching her small, scabbed hands into a barrel of persimmons beside an inattentive Landing stallkeeper, the clamor of an unknown language all around her, her stomach empty and heart fluttering like a rabbit's.

She scoured a hand down the opposite arm, and vice versa, flinging off some of the thick red starting to congeal against her skin. She was erasing the stains inside her by what she did now, resetting her life. She would stop doing wrong and become a good person -- the woman that the little girl in the wagon was supposed to have become.

The South had been a disappointment. Not a single thing was recognizable, nothing spoke of home, no face called to mind any memory from the past. The great city and its far-flung environs had been a welter of dust and confusion, half-understood questions and hard stares. Of the seven people she'd come to find, she'd uncovered not a one. It was an embarassment.

It was, in other words, like everything else. Her crumbling during the war for the sword; her dearest friends turning their backs on her; her name becoming a synonym for hysteria, whispered behind cupped palms in wisecracks across Ta'Illistim and the Landing. The memory made her livid -- angry enough to kill.

She bent again to the slumped form on the ground. Working in practiced, efficient movements, she scooped more red clay into the half-empty sack. When it was full she would wrestle it to her shoulder and trek across the shadeless flats to where the bricks were made.

She'd been at it a long time, breaking her back in the brickyard alongside farmers' sons and prospectless widows, surrounded by these forgotten dregs on the perimeter of New Ta'Faendryl's sphere of influence -- and, once again, by the murmur of a language she failed to understand. Every evening, the foreman would count out a handful of silvers into her calloused palm. Honest work.

She'd meant it to cleanse her. And in fact, after over two years of prayer and toil, her nightmares... the sound of fingers crunching between teeth, the plush fox fur that concealed a knife... had mostly ceased. Her mind had cleared; however, the anger had only sharpened. She would have torn apart the man with the wagon, if she could find him. The same for the others who had hurt her: the boys in the alley, the callous hooligans in the Landing gang, and those who had broken her body and mind in the fight for the sword.

She knew it wasn't working. She was not becoming a good person. She needed to accept it. She regarded her stained hands, weary inside and out. If honest work had no purchase on her soul, then she might as well return to dishonest work. It was, after all, what she was good at.

When the sun had set that evening but before the air had truly cooled, she let herself into the foreman's office and studied the lockbox from which he drew the workers' pay. She wasn't sure how much was in it, but she expected it would be enough to get her to Ta'Nalfein. Someone there would know what to do with her.

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