Alikhan's presence complicated the task at hand. Before, I at least had the influencing advantage over Xerxes, but with him there, I was lacking in reinforcement, strength, and influencing.
The crates of green fire were everywhere, daring me, the only immediately obvious avenue around Alikhan. But the ignition of one crate would be the ignition of every crate, and then the entire fifth ring, even those not aligned with Amestris, would burn to the ground. I could not - I would not - take it.
Takehiko's eyes locked on one of the crates, and I could see the pieces moving behind them as he put two and two together. Ever-so-slightly, I shook my head 'no'. It wasn't just the potential physical damage - it was Takehiko. Only one of us had to take this, and Takehiko's hands were still mostly clean. I wanted to keep it that way as long as possible. His eyebrows scrunched up, not understanding, but before I could continue, a voice ripped me away.
Since I'd arrived, nobody had called me 'Shah'. By the way he said it, I got the feeling this man had meant it less as an honorific, more as a wall between us. I was 'Shah' and he was not. He was tall and burly, with a burn stretching from his ear, down through his neck and below his robe much worse than my own that made my heart stall a beat when I saw it. The fifth ring, the burn - it could have easily been from being a part of Amestris's whole operation, he could have easily been a transporter that got caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. So I didn't know how I knew - only that somehow, I did.
I kept my expression placid.
"I lived in the fifth ring, right where one of those bombs went off nine years ago. My wife and daughter burnt to death."
And though there wasn't a question, he waited for my answer. I became painfully aware of Xerxes's, of Amestris's, of Takehiko's, of Alikhan's, of certain nearby members of her group's attention.
Nine years ago, the first time this happened to me, I'd been walking with my eldest brother, Malik, to my father's memorial speech over the event. Instead of a man, it had been a woman. She had lost the more - a husband, two daughters and a son, but wanted the same - an answer. I'd had no words left in me, but I'd given her an answer in the form of a bow, long and low, an apology. Malik had let the moment pass, then lectured me after we'd walked away. I'd bowed lower than a shah should ever bow for his subject. It was confusing to them, he'd said, and they'd had enough confusion at the time.
But that was then. Here, I needed confusion, I needed to break the wall between us. So I bowed lower than a shah should ever bow for his subject.
"The second time's the charm, right?" His voice was gruff and not at all satisfied.
There was nothing I could say or do to change that. I turned away and did nothing.
"So?" Alikhan waited. "Do you have knowledge to pass on, or was it just talk?"
I was confident enough that even if I explained how my energy disappeared at times, Xerxes and even Alikhan would not be able to replicate it. Apart from Abu and myself, they were hardly familiar with what the lack of energy felt like. I was even more confident that even if Alikhan did manage to replicate it, he would not be able to kill our father.
I repeated the unhelpful advice Izzet had spouted me nine years earlier. "It's similar to having an intrusive thought - bury the thought in your mind. Repeat other words over it, try and think about something else. But then there's still the image, so you cover it with another image. But then there's all the other senses, the feelings behind it, and you have to bury them."
YOU ARE READING
The Ants that Carried UsFantasy
✵2019 Watty Winner! ✵ They say that the two things Shah Minos loves most are fire and spies, but what he actually loves most is order. Even if it is maintained through the brutal telepathic domination of his father, the Emperor. Even if his mother b...