Rumi had to have had a mother at some time, right? Her smile was like coming home.
A strange wind blew through, tentative at first, but quickly growing in strength. Ubiquitous black clouds rumbled around her small form. She tucked her head and grappled at her red hat as it caught in a gust. The brewing storm could mean only one thing—he’d figured out a way to follow her even here.
Rumi gestured at random for a lamp. The filigreed iron snaked down to meet her and she flicked the latch open, rushing headlong into the memory.
The melancholy sound of the orchestra downstairs flared as the door behind Orum opened. She clutched at her ornate choker, twisting on her divan to see who’d interrupted her stolen moment of reverie. A man in fine tailored pinstripes ducked in and slid the latch quietly behind him as the music muffled again.
“Chozek,” Orum said, melting into the cushions with relief. She rearranged the decorative peacock tail of her dark mourning gown around her and rested her arm on the back of the divan to watch him cross the room.
He moved with the grace of his lion clan, but his black-tipped hair always stuck out on end as if his shift from cat to man was never quite complete. The solid metal band around his neck was proof his powers were in check, as all the clans would be at such an event, but the thought made her smile anyway.
“My princess.” Chozek solemnly placed a hand on his metal truce choker and bowed low. “I thought I’d find you here. Permit me to say how sorry I am for your loss.”
Orum’s smile faded and she nodded, her vision blurring once more. “Please sit, Choz. Help me feel better?”
Chozek eased down to the ottoman at her feet and leaned forward, running his thumb softly up the ornamental peacock plumage on her high cheekbones and through her hair. He tilted his head, looking at her with furrowed brows.
His eyes seemed to express so many things, but all he said was, “What can I do?”
Orum laid her hand over his and pressed her cheek into his palm. He looked so much like the boy she’d grown up with who would fix toys for her when they broke, and she loved him for his willingness to be vulnerable in this moment. She loved him for wanting to fix things for her still. She loved him.
And the sudden raw truth of the thought made her sit up in surprise.
“Orum?” Chozek’s eyes went wide with alarm. “Are you okay?”
“Strange. I think I am,” Orum said, her lips curving up as she felt some of the weight in her heart lift. She tilted toward him, her fingers slowly stretching through his wild hair. “Choz. Will you…”
Her voice trailed off. His eyes were still full of alarm, the color drained from his face, but he was no longer looking at Orum. She turned to follow his line of sight. A little girl in a red hat stood on the other side of the divan, her face contorted in terror.
“Rumi?” Chozek whispered. “What is this madness?”
The girl moved forward and gently curled her small fingers over the back of the divan. Orum’s chest pinched tight and something inside her wavered. She scuttled away from the child so she was nearly sitting in Chozek’s lap. He wrapped his arms around Orum and turned so his shoulder slightly shielded her from the apparition.
The girl said in a tiny voice, “Are you my mother?”
Orum gasped and shook her head. “No, I’m not.”
Orum screamed in rage. “This was not my intention, Tohu! I should never have helped you!”
Tohu wrapped his black jacket close, the winds starting to pick up around him. “I told you not to trust me. We all have the best of intentions, Princess, but in the end you are nobody.”
“That’s not true!”
“You are nothing.”
“You have nothing, not even a mother. You are no one. You don’t exist.”
Orum sobbed, shook her head. “No.”
“You,” Tohu paused, emphasizing each word, “are—nothing.”
Shoulders shaking, Orum closed her eyes against the growing storm and fought his words. He was right, she was nobody, but she had been someone once. She couldn’t think through the fog in her head. She wanted to be someone, but she was worthless, she had nothing.
A small hand slipped into hers. Orum’s eyes popped open. She looked down to see a small girl in a red hat looking up at her. The child’s face was wide with fear.
The man in the black jacket threw his head back, his laughter echoing off the low clouds. The winds whipped faster. When he looked at them again, his eyes overflowed with tears. He leaned forward, hands on his knees so his face was close to the girl.
“You are nothing,” he said, gravelly voice thick with mockery.
Orum pulled the girl behind her skirts and lifted her chin. “Leave the girl alone.”
The man smashed the back of his hand across Orum’s face and she tottered against the unexpected blow. Her cheek and eye felt like they were on fire with pain. The little girl cried out behind Orum.
Shoulders pushed back, Orum straightened and glared at the man. The winds had become strong enough they could pick up pieces of debris. A wedge of something whistled by Orum just as she ducked, but then the man punched her again. Harder this time, so that she felt her jaw shatter and she went down with the force.
“Please,” the child whimpered into Orum’s ear. “Are you my mother?”
“No, baby, I’m so sorry,” Orum mumbled, unable to open her eye. “I wish I was, because then at least I would be somebody.”
Orum watched the silver ritual spoon stir her tea, seemingly by itself, though really her servant was stirring it for her. The WaBohu were invisible when their powers were held in check by the truce chokers. If it weren’t for the visibility of their collars, they would be indiscernible all together. They would be nothing.
Which was why they made perfect servants.
“I cannot take off your choker without discussing the matter with the Clans Council, Tohu. You know that. Your kind are not to be trusted.”
“I never said you should trust me, Princess. But you know as well as I do that the Council will say no.”
“Still, I don’t want to act without the guidance of the Council.”
“Your mother is dead.” The spoon stopped and Tohu’s voice lowered. “You will be queen. You don’t need anything from the Council.”
Orum scowled at Tohu’s choker and she matched the low tone of his voice. “You will respect my mother, and you will respect the Council. It is indecent for you to speak of them so.”
“No, it is indecent for them to enslave an entire clan for their own pleasure. You can take your chokers off at whim, we cannot. We are forced to serve you. We aren’t allowed to shift, as you are.”
“Because what you shift into is chaos.”
“Is there really such a thing?”
“Take my choker off and you’ll see.”
A handful of Council members entered the room to join Orum for tea, so she lifted her cup and said into the steam, “I’m done talking about this right now, Tohu.”
“It’s wrong and you know it,” he continued.
“I’ll think about it, but for now I’m done.”
As the members approached a small girl in a red hat appeared at Orum’s elbow. The girl’s eyes were large and heavy with sadness.
Orum cooed at her. “Hush now, darling, everything’s going to be alright. Are you lost?”
The girl ignored Orum’s question and asked, “Are you my mother?” Her voice was so low Orum had to lean out of her chair to hear.
“I’m not your mother, but would like me to help you find her?”
Orum felt weightless.
She felt nothing.
She shifted, or floated, or stopped existing in one place only to materialize in another.
And then there was a lion sitting on a wall. Black tips in his mane. What would it be to stretch her fingers through his wild hair?
And then there was a little girl. Red hat. And they were talking.
Orum drifted closer, overhearing the lion saying, “…waiting for my peacock princess and future queen to return.”
The little girl nodded knowingly, but then burst into tears. She buried her face into the lion’s mane and wept.
“Why do you cry?” The lion rumbled.
“I can’t find my mother. There are too many memories—I can’t sort through them all.”
“Come,” the lion said, and the little girl seemed to understand. She climbed onto his back, as if this was something they’d done before. She adjusted with his shifting shoulders and wrapped her small arms as far as she could around his neck.
Orum followed, but dissipated before going very far.
The little girl, red hat, ran.
Mosque all lit up with colors shattered across the floor.
What else had shattered?
Orum absently rubbed her jaw and watched the little girl run to a more shadowed part of the sanctuary where a woman knelt by a lantern.
The woman drew the sobbing girl into her arms, comforted her. Pulled the little girl’s red hat off and combed her fingers through the girl’s hair.
“Was Tohu teasing you again?”
“You mustn’t listen to him. He’ll be the end of you, if you let him.”
“Can’t we get rid of him?”
“Even if we did, other WaBahu would try to control you. They are wind and chaos.”
“Why not get rid of them all, then?”
“Because learning to overcome chaos is what makes us stronger.”
“But it hurts when Tohu tells me I’m nothing.”
“I know.” The woman hugged the girl closer. “But you are more powerful than the pain. You are light, and you are love. You are Orum.”
“Who are you?” Orum asked, pulling slightly away from the woman’s hug.
The woman held the lantern up so Orum could see her face clearly. Her smile was like coming home as she said, “I am your mother.”