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Sesuna Kidani
#1
Bio in brief: Born of the Qdus Atharim in Eritrea in 2023, the second child of Kidani Ali and Miriam Fitsum, Sesuna never fit into the life. She loved the thrill of the hunt, but not the kill. Her mother died when she was ten, an accident she has never forgiven herself for, and after that she found herself mostly in the care of her older brother, Anbessa. He swore his hunter oaths at nineteen, but continued to look after her despite their father's wishes. She roamed the city streets, honing her skills following people and learning of their lives. She never planned to join her brother or father in their oaths; instead she dreamed of travelling and living an ordinary life. But prophecy conspired her brother to be heralded saviour of the Atharim, and when he sparked a year later Sesuna was not far behind. She was sworn to the Qdus to save her life, and now works with her brother to control the channeler threat and the flames of Al Janyar.

Appearance: Tall and willowy. Thick black hair, often traditionally braided, and sultry hooded eyes. She wears a small gold cross that once belonged to her mother. Most times she is expressive and seems open with those she meets. She loves life and lives it in full colour. Agile and lean; fast more than strong. The gazelle to Idris's lion.

Personality: Something of a well-intentioned miscreant; often in trouble as a child, with boundless reams of curiosity and the gumption to nose right in, though she had the charm to smooth out the adults' chagrin too (mostly with that beatific smile). The rules of the church have always chafed, though she rarely outright breaks rules. Particularly if it means upsetting Idris, or bringing him shame. She idolises her brother something fierce, and takes his side in all public affairs. Privately she will make no bones of telling him when he's wrong, though.

Sesuna accepts her responsibilities but won't be crushed by them. On the hunt she will scout out the terrain or enemy ahead, rarely involved in the actual kill unless necessary, though she is far from defenceless -- with or without the Power. In the Little Rome of Asmara she is an information gatherer -- which suits her curious personality just fine. She will often notify Idris when she suspects a channeler.

Full Bio:

They called Asmara Little Rome.

Sesuna always fidgeted during the sermons, legs swinging, gaze taking in the backs of heads, the beads on a necklace, or the red and white tiles of the surrounding pillars. If there was a bug she watched its progress along the pew, each wriggling antenna forging ahead, teeny tiny legs whirring. She wanted to touch it, watch it climb the mountain of her finger, but knew she was supposed to be sitting both quiet and still. Ahead, the priest's words fell heavy as a rainstorm, but she would have preferred listening to the weighted thunks of water slapping leaves instead. It was cool in here, like the rain really had fallen.

On one side of her, her brother Anbessa's gaze was straight ahead, serious as always.

On her other, mother loomed like a doulm palm dripping sweet shade. The marks on her face told the story of home more authentically than talk of God or the gold cross she always wore around her neck. But the mark on her wrist told the biggest truth of all. Her hands twitched in the folds of her lap and Sesuna scrunched her nose. She was paying attention. Of course, mother never looked down to see her expression; her eyes were glued to the priest's lips.

Better were the days they roamed out from the city to learn of the trees and wind; of the bends in the scrubby grass and the pattern of dirt splayed under dry paws. Sometimes father loaded them onto the train to Massawa and the world sped by until it erupted into the shifting blue plains of the Red Sea. Other times they hiked the red cliffs or plunged into the rainforests. She adored the game of reading the land to unearth its secrets. Loved it all until the day father handed her the knife, the dark mark on his arm catching her fearful gaze. Her throat dried up. She loved the chase but baulked dramatically at the kill. Father's stern expression marked a first strike at that, but he had always been more tuned to her brother. Born under a super blood moon, his life was mapped from his first breath. But there were no such designs for her. Especially after that.

Sometimes she watched when father and Anbessa sparred in the yard at home, grinding up coffee beans with the pestle and mortar tucked in her lap, listening to the snap of wood or slap of flesh. Since the day the blade had fallen from her sweating fingers, Sesuna did not hunt with her father anymore. It was as though on that day he forgot how to see her. She puzzled over it as she puzzled over everything, until her mother ushered her away to other tasks. We are not all born to be warriors, her fingers said, and in that there is no shame. In the evenings their parents told the stories of their people. There was a pattern on father's arm; the mark of the Qdus. Mother bore the same symbol, but she said she had sacrificed enough for that life and it had let her go. Sometimes there was so much sadness in her eyes when she told those stories Sesuna stilled her hands and snuggled in close instead.

Those memories are precious now.

As she grew, father became even more distant a creature, like mists from the sea just swallowed him up. His hunts with Anbessa became longer; the kills harder, the lessons more ferocious. Sesuna scouted the land with her mother in the days before a long hunt, burying caches of weapons or food in the earth. She knew the demons they tracked, in principle if not in flesh. When her father and brother came home bloodied she helped her mother scrub the blood and skin and hair from their clothes; helped clean their recycled weapons and sew their wounds. If father presumed her soft-hearted and squeamish, she never once squirmed away from those tasks.

But her gaze caught Anbessa's sometimes, bright with question. Father pushed him so hard.

When father was not hunting with Anbessa or plying his skills at Medeber's famous metal market, Sesuna and her mother continued to unfold Eritrea's secrets. From the muddy rivers that rushed towards Sudan to the forested highlands. Her favourite was the green belt of Filfil, where the arid starkness of the steep road from Asmara gave way to lush verdant life. Hamadryas baboons skipped in the trees amidst the flash of birds. They followed the path of majestic kudu as they feasted on sweet fruits, or watched the flighty klipspringers as they danced from rock to rock.

She tasted the very air.

Sometimes they played games that honed their skills, until Sesuna was so weak from happiness she almost sleepwalked home.

And on that day, she didn't pay attention.

She was mother's ears.

But she didn't notice when the world fell quiet, not quickly enough.

They were almost home, the sky blood red about them on the mountain path. Sesuna was yawning into her palm when a desperate flick of mother's fingers sent her scurrying back. The stranger's eyes glinted like gold as he emerged from the scrub. Blood matted his beard, the stench of rotted meat wafting from him and turning her stomach. She knew what he was; knew what turned his mind, and she sent a furtive glance into the distant trees around them, listening for the pad of paws. But wolves did not usually hunt men, and in Africa they dwelt in the desert. He was alone. And likely newly turned.

Still, she was afraid. She only had the paring knife Anbessa had made her from the market's junk metal. Her small fingers wound around its handle, testing it in her grip. Her mother's back was to her now, inching closer, pushing her further down the path. One hand wound behind her back, fingers making a frantic gesture, the other edging out the knife at her belt. The one she always carried but never used.

The golden eyes moved their mark, sensing the sweeter meat of an easier prey. Mother made a terrible, deep-throated noise as she charged.

And to Sesuna's deepest regret, she ran.

She skinned her knees on the rocks along the steep path home. The sun drained its warmth, and she was panting by the time the city came into focus an hour later. Barely paused for relief as she threaded through the evening crowd of tourists. Father was in the open workshop with her brother. Medeber was a marvel of the city. Metal stacked the walkways alongside heaps of piled junk upon which men plied their craft. The heat and sparks bit her skin. The air screamed with hammering, sawing, cutting, as corrugated iron was flattened into baskets, or car tires became sandals. Her father lifted the goggles from his face, but it was to Anbessa she cried her plea. "Come quickly!"

There was no logical sense in hindsight, but at the time Sesuna was consumed with the desperate understanding that her brother fixed all things. It had been the single thought that loosed her like an arrow from mother's side.

Hours had passed already. She was shivering and fraught and desperate, and no sense passed her lips. She only pulled Anbessa by the hand until he followed. What was time? Of course mother was where she had left her. Sesuna was still a child, and the land by then blanketed by deepest night, but she still found her way back. Her small legs ate up the distance when she saw the shadowy mass ahead, but the cold had already begun to freeze its way in her chest. It was Anbessa who pulled her back, but not before she saw the torn mess of mother's throat. Sightless eyes. Blood black like tar.

Their father keened.

The night they buried mother, four days after they brought her body home, Sesuna cried herself raw, tucked beneath her blankets, desperate to shut out the world. In the dead dark something moved her from her half sleep, drew her to crouch at the top of the stairs like a moth aching for the burn of light. Her heart stung with loneliness as she absorbed the muffled voices below. Her eyes swam glassy, chin pressed tight against her knees. The second strike against her, this time not in a look but in her father's voice; each sharp as a knife. Each never forgotten.

(A true Qdus child would have protected her mother or died trying)

(It is not fair on her, my son. We must let her go. That is our duty.)

(Then she is your responsibility, Anbessa. You will learn you cannot be all things.)

Her brother always swore otherwise, but Sesuna knew the truth of it. Mother's death was her fault.

Life was strangely quieter without her. They all grieved, but perhaps especially father; sometimes he looked at her when he thought her ignorant of his gaze, and its weight felt like a mountain. Duty took him away more often in those days, leaving Anbessa the man of the house exactly like he'd promised. She tried not to be a nuisance to her brother, but her grief drove her to find distractions. Suddenly home felt a foreign place. Asmara was a large city, and now she learned it like she learned the wilderness beyond its walls. Without her brother's escort she could not leave, and father forbade her from joining them on the hunt. She made the most of the new bars enclosing her in.

The covered market thrived under the cathedral's watchful eye. She'd come here often with mother to translate for those who did not understand sign, its familiarity both an ache and a comfort. She began to read the people like she read the wind, and learned to unravel their lives through simple observation; what they wore, or which stalls they visited, how hard they haggled, where they went when their baskets were full.

Such as Afwerki Hagos with his long slender hands searching for diamonds among the dross; his gambling debts were great, and he bargained with desperation or smugness depending on his fortunes.

Or Hyiab Mustafa, a Muslim woman, who ran her fingers through imported silks but never purchased more than meat and vegetables; her husband died last year, and now she lived with her brother and two young babes.

Another man favoured red items; beads or fabric and sometimes fruits. For a daughter or a lover? He wore no ring and always smelled strongly of suwa.

Sometimes Sesuna earned a little coin shifting wares, or curried favour by nudging vendors to notice opportune thieves in their midst. Today she sat upon a salted barrel of fish hauled in from the coast, peeling back the pads of a sweet beles fruit she had earned from one of the traders. Birhane next door sold mostly trinkets, the sorts of things tourists lapped up to take back to their families to boast of exotic travels. She nudged him with her foot and nodded to the red man browsing further down the busy isles. Today she noticed his brow was damp, like an addict kept too long from his vice.

"That man will pay double for anything ruby red, and you have some beautiful scarves."

Birhane paid her no mind, but he did call out to the stranger. Once the transaction was complete the man tucked his purchase into a satchel and left.

Sesuna grinned and slipped down from the barrel.

People were easy to follow, especially when you were as insignificant as a small girl. She trailed and drifted and followed him beyond the market and through the city until he disappeared into a white, arch fronted building. She explored all around its back and sides until she found somewhere to sneak through, then padded her way in cautiously. The stink of perfume was overwhelming. The float of gauze and silk amongst the carved wood draped over her head as she peeked beyond. The sultry tones of shambuko music overlaid the breathy noises deeper within. She caught a tease of mnzerma flesh that made her blush.

Oh. Not a daughter or a lover then.

It was the giggling, hand clapped over her mouth, that betrayed her trespass.

Only eleven, and still small for it, the proprietor held her arm at an angle that almost wrenched it from the socket as he marched her home. She was truthful about that, a little afraid of the consequence of lying, though when she saw her father's face she wondered if that was a mistake. He was furious when the man explained where Sesuna had been. His face darkened like thunder, but maybe it was only her that noticed. When the man joked to buy her, father forced him from their threshold and shoved him until he fell flat. The door slammed.

Why was she not at school? Did she pay no attention to the city's troubles? Sesuna shrank back from an anger that had never been shot so violently at her before, so accustom to his ambivalence, but it was father's anger at Anbessa she regretted most. The failure he heaped on his shoulders for not keeping his sister safe. She knew about that promise of course, though neither of them mentioned it more than obliquely now, and it burst like glass in her chest and shredded everything up inside. Her lungs wouldn't work properly then, and her eyes stung as she ran to her room before the sobs heaved themselves out. When her cheeks were cold and the emotions passed, she stared blindly at her wall in silence.

It was true. She saw men with guns more often in the city these days.

She vowed to be more careful, for Anbessa's sake.

Or at least not to get caught.

Sesuna was fourteen when her brother took his vows. The night before the ritual she sneaked into his room to perch on the edge of his bed and interrogate him. Was he scared? Would it hurt? They'd both heard the rumours. But Bessie was as pure Qdus as they came. She wasn't afraid, but it didn't stop her remembering mother's face with the light winked out and her eyes as still and cold as glass marbles.

She couldn't bear the thought of losing him.

That afternoon Sesuna toiled in the kitchen to prepare a meal for his return. Spicy goat tsebhi and flatbreads like mother made to mark their birthdays. The coffee would be fresh, and she had traded for a sweet pannetone cake to celebrate his welcome amongst the holy ones. Only as the shadows deepened and the sun bled in the sky, Anbessa still did not return home. Father's silent vigil gathered like storm clouds. The stew congealed in the pan. The breads grew cold. In the end Sesuna made an escape to her room, where she perched on the window ledge and waited under the watchful eyes of a thousand stars. She never prayed to God before, but she did that night.

She had fallen asleep, face pressed against the glass, when the door softly clicked shut below. Voices murmured too low to hear, even though she tried. Forcing herself to patience, she waited for Anbessa to come upstairs before she ambushed him.

"What happened, Bessie? You were gone so long."

“It is alright, Sessy. It just took longer than expected is all.” In the shadowy darkness he stooped to hug her close. But he didn't answer her question, not really, and these days she had a young teenager's understanding of the world. She chafed at the words meant to ease her fears, angry that he shut her out and toiled with his pain alone. It was only because it was Anbessa that she bottled it down and said nothing, just signed him goodnight and returned to her room.

Sesuna was resourceful; she would find her answers through other means.

Though as it turned out, her father did the work for her. They called Anbessa the Heart now. It fractured something between them when her brother revealed the brand on his hand but refused to share the secrets of the Negus Mena, and that rift only grew. For Sesuna it was painful to watch, but her life -- for a long time now -- had diverged from the path of Qdus. She could be neither comfort nor mediator to the struggle between them, but it made her sad all the same to see them begin to lose one another.

Anbessa was all father had.

By 2038, Al Janyar had begun to shake the roots of the city in earnest, revelling in the dissonance left in the wake of the Sickness that swept the world. In those days they were still little more than a nuisance, but even Sesuna grew more cautious in her wanderings when she was alone. By fifteen she was all long limbs and elbows, but her little girl's body had faded, and sometimes the crawl of men's eyes made her uncomfortable. She traded for an early model Wallet that she tinkered with in the evenings. Dreamed of travelling and spoke of it in earnest.

The tech was another world to explore. She had never been allowed to touch mother's research, and truthfully it had barely interested her back then. Now she realised there were secrets behind the screens no different to the ones in the land or in people, and her inquisitive nature pulled her into its deep waters and kept her quiet for long stretches of the dark evening months.

Later that year Anbessa grew Sick. The bad kind. Sesuna tended to him through his fevers, while father prayed at the church for God to spare the life of his son. She wasn't so sure there was anyone listening, but she didn't begrudge his absence during the hours Anbessa moaned and thrashed through twisted sheets. Mother's death had pulled his heart from his chest; she didn't like to think what seeing his son like this would do to what remained of him. Anbessa simply could not die, for both their sakes. So she wiped his brow like mother had done during all their childhood ailments. Boiled broth when his stomach rejected all else. Told him what the land was doing or stories of the people she watched at the market. And eventually his strength returned bit by bit, until father returned from his prayers and they both returned to work and the hunt.

Then one night Anbessa showed her what the Sickness had done. He wound around the words like they wound their path around the city, until they tracked beyond the white palm-lined roads and into the grassy, wild heart that had always been their mother's domain. The taste of freedom made her smile even as the reitcence with which he stuttered made her want to poke him in the stomach until he spit it out. She had some idea of what he might say; she had been making full use of her Wallet and the knowledge it bared to her fingertips. Already she was discovering ways and means of digging deeper than simple searches.

Still, knowing and seeing were different things. She grinned and placed her hands around the globe of light before he could tell her not to. It was cold like ice and pushed the blue glow through her palms so that she could see under her own skin. The power of the g'brim was both a blessing and a curse. He must have agonised over this decision, already knowing the heavy weight of duty's path. He was Qdus. There was only one route he could go.

But he was still her brother. And Sesuna was Sesuna. Her grin widened until she was laughing at the mix of hope and fear in his expression. "Show me what else you can do!"

It never phased her, the line he walked. She was aware of his burdens at times but never shared them then. Their mother raised a fearless daughter, a little wild maybe -- but utterly prepared to forge her own path. She wasn't the child she had been, if not yet entirely a woman either, but she was growing confidently. Just as she accepted the unknown puzzle of her father, she accepted the unique gifts of her brother. They might call him Heart. But to her he was just Bessie -- and she reminded him of it often, then and now, when things got dark or difficult.

But Anbessa was not the only one who suffered on fate's road.

When the Negus Mena called Anbessa forth to visit the sacred urim (that known only later, but still, father must have guessed) she saw him anew in his vigil. She knew the prophecies that surrounded her brother, and now that she was older she presumed to guess at the thoughts that might pass behind her father's distant, foreign eyes. He could not have imagined it this way in all the many ways he must have imagined it. He, at the kitchen table, elbows dug into its grooves, weary eyes counting the seconds drift to minutes stack to hours. Left behind alone. Unseen.

She knew how that felt.

Sesuna moved around the kitchen silently, like the last time they had awaited Anbessa's return to them. She roasted the coffee beans over an open flame and ground them down while he watched the view from the window. She watched him like he were a stranger. There were more scars than she remembered among the flecked burns from his welding torch. Others from hunts she only knew by the bloody remnants of clothes and weapons she had cleaned afterwards. Some of those wounds she had sewn herself after mother's death. He was not an old man, but he had walked a hard road. Some of it his own doing. It weathered him like the unyielding rocks in the mountains.

His faults were accepted not forgiven.

For this man had never wiped her tears or soothed her fears. He'd never brushed the hair from her eyes or whispered her stories at bedtime. He'd never defended her against bullies or helped her with school projects. He did not know her secrets or her dreams. There were times as a small child she had been afraid of his sternness, or had wilted under the way his gaze skimmed over her like she did not exist. They'd lived under the same roof all these years but there were few bridges between them. None but the ones that intersected through Anbessa.

The knife of his words the night they buried mother had never left her. His rejection still stung; it always would. But she was still his daughter.

The last time they waited she had fled his fearsome company, but she was a child no longer. Now she joined him at the table with mother's favourite jebena pot set between them. There were no words to speak, none that could sooth or excuse the past hurts and mistakes. She didn't even know if he truly saw it that way, or if even now she sought a love that simply was not there in his heart for her. But when she served the awel for them both he accepted the steaming cup, and for the first time she could ever remember, his eyes met hers.

Awel became kale'i, then kale'i led to baraka -- the third cup shared -- before they saw Anbessa.

Qdus g'brim. A holy weapon. That was how Idris returned. With new name and purpose. The brief bond with her father left her melancholy to the news, like she had lost Anbessa and the last real link to her old life. What would mother have thought? Of the fire and blood her son saw to consume their land. Of machine gun fire ripping the red soil and myths reborn with inexplicable gifts. She absorbed all he said with wide eyes and for once a silent tongue. Her earliest stories had been filled with the truth of the dark things in their world; she had lived on the fringes of these truths all her life. But what he said now rippled her with fear.

But she was not Qdus. And she trusted her brother, and even her father to keep her safe. To keep the world safe.

Even so, she couldn't sleep that night for the images that consumed her mind; bloody war drums and the skittering of gunfire. Not monsters. Just men. The house was silent when she slipped out of it. It was not safe this late for a girl her age alone, but she was not looking for trouble; she was looking for clear air and the moon's breath and the memory of her mother's wisdom on the wind. She was looking for comfort to ease the lonely ache in her chest. Standing between worlds, and never before had she felt torn by it.

Once taught and never forgotten, Sesuna eased between shadows to make her escape unseen from the city, until it was only soil beneath her feet and the night noises of animals around her. It had been years punctuated by brief trips with her brother since she had breathed the wild, but it still felt like an embrace of the child who had revelled all those years ago in nature's bounty. This was where her mother lived now. In the dirt and wind and stars. She had needed her these past years, to explain a woman's changes, to sooth the troubles that neither a brother or father could truly understand. But never so desperately as now. She signed to the night. Easing her soul, knowing no one listened. I miss you.

The walking helped her think -- or, it helped her not to think. Until her skin prickled and she hearkened to instinct. She paused in her tracks. First panic. Then calm. She stood still, using her eyes to search the rippling shadows until she saw the creature that had been stalking her. The leopard crouched low, lambent eyes catching the barest reflection as it patiently waited; then, sensing the shift in its prey, stood. It rippled tawny gold as it moved, velvet paws silent. Too small for a male, and if it were a female prowling at night, most likely it had cubs. That twinged her chest; she almost gave a hopeless laugh.

It had seen her. She was as good as dead anyway.

But it was beautiful. And despite the fear beating out her chest, it passed almost close enough to touch and did not stop. For a damning, awe-filled moment she almost reached out her fingers to the mother cat and felt the soft beating warmth beneath its spotted fur. But she was not her father to believe in such portents. It passed her by, a swish of tail, and the darkness consumed it quickly as it came. Sesuna lifted her eyes to the star-filled sky, and wondered at the answer.

Three days later she did not rise from her bed.

Three days after that she knew she was dying; had seen enough on the news feeds by now of girls burning up in their beds until the life left them. She was supposed to call her brother Idris now, but when they were alone she always seemed to forget. Idris was the Qdus's tool; their holy weapon. Bessie belonged to her. He was there through the fever and the pains that wracked her double. The streaming tears and the mumbled inanities of the night terrors. He sang the songs of the hunt, or maybe she remembered them as the car rumbled home under the disappointed father's eye, bright as the moon. She confessed her sins and cried for her mother, held Anbessa's hands tightly even as they slipped in her sweating palms. He tried to teach her as he had taught himself, but the words meant nothing. She begged him to stay close until the end.

After five days she finally woke for the first time with clarity, fingering a leather cord about her wrist curiously. It was one she recognised as a gift made many years before from scraps salvaged from the junk piles at Medebar. She was able to drink a little that day; water, then broth, and by the next she was sitting up amongst her blankets. This time it was Idris that sat by her bedside. The Heart of the Qdus. Not Anbessa her brother.

He tried to teach her, but was as unsuccessful as the first time. Her lips quirked a smile at his frustration, though she tried very hard to be a good student for his sake. Sometimes father watched from the doorway, his face unreadable as he observed his children. Both of them. And for a while it was as if the past echoed little ripples of happiness. A family forged together; learning and laughing and loving. For a short while at least.

Though she was still recovering from the fever's grip, she had not lost her edge; she sensed the war in her brother long before he broached the words. She wondered if father planted the seed, or if perhaps by now he knew anything he spoke to Anbessa would be as poison so said nothing at all. Duty burdened Anbessa more than father ever had, and he did that all by himself. Idris. He was Idris now. The distinction grew ever clearer the morning he told her he must take her to the Negus Mena. That she must let God into her heart and swear the oaths of the Qdus, so that he could be sure she would be accepted and safe.

The fear made her still as the night she had stared into the leopard's eyes. But she trusted him.

Even so, on that day she was afraid; more than afraid. They said the Shegurah bared your soul and judged you for it, marking only those worthy of the title. Sesuna was not true Qdus; she knew that in her heart, from the very night at six years old she had been unable to even take the life of an animal. She'd never killed. Never wanted to, even as it sieved her father's love through her fingers like sand and added another stone to her brother's burden.

She knew the lore and histories of her ancestors; knew the difference that marked the Qdus from their Roman cousins across the ocean and why it spared her brother's life. Knew too that it only offered her a chance and not a right, and maybe she was too weak to pass this test.

Mother had spoken true; she didn't have a warrior's spirit. But she had lied that there was no shame in it.

Because the shame was eating her up.

Sesuna had survived the Sickness, and she didn't want to die now. Not here, in the office of the Negus Mena with her brother staring down with hopeful eyes, and suddenly all she could see was the disappointed moon from her fevered dreams. She was only a teenager, and no one ever swore this young beyond necessity. Perhaps the Negus recognised the fear carving up her face, or took pity on the way her hands were shaking. She gestured Anbessa from the room, and in the quiet emptiness of his departure she felt the earth swallow her up.

But at least her brother wouldn't watch her die.

"Sesuna, daughter of Kidani, are you Qdus?"

Her mouth was parched, the lies drying up her tongue. Her heart pounded in her chest and her gaze dropped. She shook her head, scalded by her own honesty.

"Are you holy, child?"

"I go to church, but... but I don't always listen, Negus Mena."

A smile sounded in the woman's voice, but Sesuna still stared down at the desk. "Then tell me, Sesuna Kidani, what is your heart?"

"My heart is the wind and the dirt and the stars."

The answer sounded foolish even as it left her mouth, but the Negus did not respond, and Sesuna did not dare look up at the woman's face. A hand stretched across the desk, a stone nestled in its palm. Sesuna could barely swallow. It was red like mother's blood soaking into the earth as she raced the path home to her brother. Father spent four nights hunting the monster who cleaved the heart from their family, while Anbessa rocked her through the wracking sobs and guilt.

"Take it, and make your vows."

What would happen if she refused?

They would make Idris do his duty, and Anbessa would buckle beneath the pressure. Her brother would be dead. A husk. So she took the Shegurah and let God peer into her soul. Her tongue tripped over the words she had helped Bessie memorise but never thought to swear herself. It burned. Something tightened, like her skin shrank a size too small as it accommodated the new mark on her skin. And then, to her wide-eyed surprise, it was done.

She carefully laid the Shegurah down on the desk, quite content to never have to touch it again.

He only waited outside. Tall as the mountain that crushed him with duty. The relief sparked like rainbows in his eyes when she emerged, but Sesuna couldn't muster a smile. She ran her fingers over the mark of the Qdus on her skin, the snake eating its own tail. Thought of all the times she traced the same circle on her mother's arm and felt safe. But she had never coveted this. She could feel the tears swimming, waiting for a blink to spring them free. Because she ought to be pleased, and she wasn't. All she could see was fire and blood.

"Will you make me kill now, Bessie?"

She held out her arm so that he could see the mark and looked up, the tears rolling a fat path down her cheeks. She didn't want to make him feel guilty, but she'd never been good at chasing back her emotions. The tears were for her, not for him.

He kissed her forehead. Eased away her fears. But he couldn't promise there would be no war, and her dreams were awash with blood for months to come.

Life changed. In good ways and bad. The shining dreams of her future slammed a door in her face and shoved her another direction instead. It took time to adjust to the new scenery. In some ways Sesuna was delicate as summer flowers, but she had learned to be adaptable many times over; she always managed to spring back up. Only this time it took her a little longer first.

Though obviously pleased God judged her worthy, Idris was as reluctant as her at first to accept what this meant. She was sworn Qdus now, no longer a child to be protected. Her vows came with duties of their own, and while she mourned for what she lost it did not break her either. She welcomed the jungles of her youth, but he would not let her return unarmed. Mother's ghost watched them both with her sad eyes. So under Idris's tutelage she learned to defend herself. Sometimes, despite herself, she searched for the glow of leopard eyes in the darkness. And then there was the bright power that slipped through her fingers like bright fish in the shallows. He seemed hesitant to let her loose with it, despite the enamoured way she smiled at the prospect. Or perhaps because of it. But he had little choice, for though he had tried his best, there was no one else to teach her.

So the years passed and Eritrea slipped into the chaos of Al Janyar, now under the hateful warlord Taddesse Tsegaye. Sesuna works alongside her brother and two others. Because sometimes the monsters do not slink in the darkness. Sometimes the monsters are men.
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