Angel in the Autumn
Sandstorms. They weren't really a problem, not here in the Lost Desert. Here they were a regular autumn occurrence, but some people could be so stupid. Some people would walk in the desert when they didn't know the weather. Some people didn't realise the winds had changed until it was too late. And here in the centre of the Lost Desert, some people died. My sister was one of the lucky ones; she didn't die.
"Saire, you idiot," I raged, shaking her by the shoulders. "You grew up here. How could you forget this stuff?" My rage was subsiding now, being replaced with an uncertain hollowness. "You could have died." My voice trailing off at the end as the tears started rolling down my face.
Saire smiled weakly, her Ixi features moving about her face. "Sorry. I just had to find you; there wasn't time," she said softly.
I allowed my head to drop even further. Saire always had been impatient. That was just part of who she was. If she thought she could make it before the storm hit, she would try. Do or die. That was just her way. There was little point in trying to change her, especially now. I hadn't even seen her in six years. She'd moved away right after our parents died. She couldn't stay, she'd said. Running from the problem, that was how she'd always dealt with things.
I'd stayed. I had finished what my parents had started, and now I was a highly regarded archaeologist and an expert in ancient languages; at least, that's how I viewed myself. Tabari, my current employer, wasn't as convinced.
There was something else that was bothering me, aside from the fact that Saire had just turned up here after six years without so much as an explanation. She'd also come with a small child. A baby Kougra, its stripes already turning the blue of the desert, she must have been nearly a year old. I couldn't understand it. Why was she here? She couldn't possibly be Saire's daughter, could she?
"She's not mine if that's what you're thinking," Saire said, apparently reading my mind.
I smiled. As different as we were, we did know each other inside out. We were twins, after all. "I didn't think she could be," I answered, "but what I want to know is, if she's not yours, then why is she here with you?"
Saire shook herself free from my grip and glanced across at the child. "Her real parents are dead," she answered simply. "I need to find somewhere for her to stay."
My eyes widened in surprise. "And you thought of me?" I asked. Saire of all people should know that I wasn't good with children.
Saire shifted a little uncertainly. "You're the only person I can ask. It'd only be for three months a year. My boss says he's found somewhere for her to stay the rest of the time."
I looked into her dark eyes, and knew I that could not say no. I disliked the idea of having a small child to look after, but I knew I had no other choice. I nodded. "Of course," I said, and that was the beginning of the nightmare.
Angel-site. That was what I called her. I didn't know her actual name. Saire hadn't even bothered to tell me. I was annoyed, to say the least. Angelsite, a bit of a pun, I know. For those that aren't geologists, Anglesite is a rare type of crystal, with a high lead content, and it is very brittle. My niece, I'd already decided that she must be, and it was easier to think of it that way, wasn't brittle, and she certainly wasn't an angel either.
Angel was always underfoot, always in my way, and always playing with things she shouldn't be. Surely a one year old Kougra cub couldn't cause this much trouble. Not that I would know; I'd never had any kids of my own, but I persisted. I worked long hours into the night, after I'd put her to bed, trying to translate the ancient Geb tiles.
It had been one such night. A pile of books sat on my desk along with about half a dozen stone tiles with the hieroglyphs that I was trying to identify and translate. The Characters looked like Geb, the same stroke shapes, but the letters were different. They didn't match any of the Geb Hieroglyphs I'd ever seen before. Nor were they in any of the many books on Geb that I had. I had already put Angel to bed but she just wouldn't stay there; she kept coming out again and repeating, 'Trick trick'.
Okay, that's not quite right. The word was said in Old Qasalan and 'trick' is the simplified translation and I don't want to go into details about this particular word; it holds too many bad memories. I don't know where she had picked the word up, but she had been repeating it constantly ever since I started trying to work out these tiles.
I sighed, and picked the cub up to put her to bed once again. But she struggled in my grip and dropped to the floor. She moved across to my work desk before I could stop her, clumsy paws reaching for a tile. I caught her before she could pick it up. I glanced down at the tile, my mind far from the job at hand, and gasped.
The Character on the tile was 'Trick' written in Old Qasalan. That didn't make sense; the strokes matched that of Geb. The tile was from a Gebmid. So why was the letter in Old Qasalan? At the same moment of joy at the realization, the fear and sadness also came flooding back. I had been thinking about it before, but in a detached way. Now they hit me. The memories I always tried to forget.
This character was written on my parents' grave, if you can call it a grave. We couldn't get the stone off of their bodies.
In Old Qasalan the world was a combination of look out, a mocking joke, and rest in peace. The character was all over the Old Qasalan tombs. It was placed sometimes to warn people of the traps, or to mock them once they had fallen for the traps, though occasionally you'd see it on tombstones when there was no trap at all. All you could be sure of was that it was always found in tombs or ancient treasure rooms.
I managed to force a smile back onto my face. I couldn't go thinking about that now. This word wasn't responsible for their deaths. It merely could have saved them if they'd known what it meant.
"Yes, Angel, Trick," I said softly, "you're right, but Aunty needs to work now. So please stay in bed."
The little cub looked up at me with her bright blue eyes. Looking into my own golden eyes as though trying to work out what was happening. She didn't speak she just nodded her head once.
I smiled and returned to my work desk. The tiles were all in old Qasalan. They were so easy for me to read, now I knew what I was looking at.
* * *
It's possible that I was a little sad when Saire came for Angel, but mostly I was glad to get back to my work. We were making ground breaking discoveries with this tomb. It was unbelievable it held the starting point of the written languages of Qasala as well as artefacts, and history. Not to mention the treasure we would find if we could make it to the inner areas without getting caught by booby-traps. That was the thing about Geb tombs. It could take months sometimes years to reach the inner sanctums without getting killed.
Even so, I couldn't help thinking that I wouldn't have worked it out if it wasn't for the little cub. Why had she been screaming that word? She seemed to have a gift for languages, and she was hardly even speaking yet.
* * *
When she returned the next autumn, I realised that I was right. She was a natural, picking up the languages just by watching and listening. By the time Angel was six, she could read ancient Geb, a language long gone, read and speak old Qasalan, now evolved into the two modern dialects, and speak both dialects of Qasalan as well as a few words of common Sakhmetian. I hadn't taught her to read the ancient languages; she'd just picked them up, but now she was older, about six and a half, I thought it would be a good idea to start teaching her to read and write the modern dialects. I was amazed to discover just how quickly she learned, when she was actually taught.
When she was older, I started taking her with me to the digging sites. We would work together out there till lunch time, before returning home for the hottest part of the day.
* * *
I loved Angel like the daughter that I had never had, but it wasn't until she was sixteen and a half that I realized just how little I knew about the girl. Tabari had moved west exploring the new tombs littered across that part of the Lost Desert. Angel and I had also moved; we worked together to translate the hieroglyphs. By now our reputation was without rival. I was sad when Angel left each year, but I always pushed the thought to the back of my mind that one day she would leave, and not return. When she returned the spring after her sixteenth birthday, we were working on a tomb in Hibivaea. Hibivaea was one of the many hundreds of kingdoms west of Qasala. It also bordered on Altador. For this reason for many of the diggers the preferred language was Altadorian rather than the western Qasalan that Angel and I both spoke. At first it didn't seem like a problem, as nearly all of them also spoke western Qasalan and a few even spoke eastern Qasalan as well, but I was wrong.
"Μην ανησυχείτε, αυτό το κορίτσι δεν μας καταλαβαίνουν," one of the Lupe diggers commented to his friends, as I passed them. He glanced over at me and gave a huge grin which turned into a laugh when he saw my puzzled expression. I decided that I probably shouldn't let things like that just pass. I had to learn Altadorian, and fast.
So that afternoon, rather that study the hieroglyphs, Angel and I tried to learn Altadorian. Or at least I tried; Angel just picked it up like any other language she knew, but she was reluctant to speak much. She just contented herself with writing it. "I will only confuse you more," she said, laughing when I asked her to help me, or at the very least speak it a little as well.
* * *
"Κατανόηση μας ακόμα; Μαλάκας," the Lupe called as we walked past them the next morning. Understand us, I could pick up, but as for the rest or what to respond with, I didn't have the faintest idea.
"Ναι, μπορείτε ηλίθιο άνθρωπο," Angel shouted back without hesitation, "Έχετε κάποιο πρόβλημα με αυτό;" To me it seemed like a reflex rather than her actually thinking and translating what she actually wanted to say.
I don't have a clue what she had said. A few words stood out like yes, and you, but other than that, I had no idea what she had said. It didn't matter. The men didn't notice that I was still in the dark. They said nothing and turned back to their work, and I had little interest in them. I had noticed something much more obvious in what Angel had said.
When she talked to me, she always had a flawless Qasalan accent, yet when she had spoken Altadorian she had done so perfectly, and without such an accent.
"You speak Altadorian?" I asked as we entered our onsite tent where we spent most the morning working unless Tabari, now quite famous in the Archaeology world, wanted us to look at anything in particular.
"Yeah," she said, shrugging. "I've been able to speak it as long as I can remember, same as old, eastern and western Qasalan," she continued as if it was not big deal that a girl of sixteen could speak four languages as well as read countless dead ones.
"Do you speak anything else?" I asked casually, as though it was no big deal.
"Just Shenkuuian, and standard Neopian," she said again as if they meant nothing.
"Why so many?" I asked, but she didn't get a change to answer because at that moment Tabari came rushing in.
"We've got the next door open," he called excitedly, and off we went again digging through old treasure, and translating warnings. That was our life, my life.
* * *
"I know I don't normally give you presents," I said, pulling a small black box from my pocket. We were back at my house, waiting for Saire. She'd be here soon. "But you've just turned sixteen and I'd like you to have this," I said, handing her the box.
She opened it and laughed, pulling out the gold charm bracelet with a single charm on it, a gold letter. "Trick," she whispered, looking down at it.
Saire arrived less than an hour later. She left, taking Angel with her. The girl never returned. I would miss her, just like I missed Saire the day she left twenty or so years ago. The pain will always be with me. The pain that I could have had a daughter, and didn't, the pain that I let Saire take my niece away.