An Excerpt from The Lilies of Dawn
The air is cool in the predawn light. I’m alone on the lake, poling my boat through the fields of floating lilies. All around me they grow—their leaves large enough to hold a small child, their pink flower buds held above the water on slender stalks, shut tight against the dark and chill. Even now, a hint of their sweet scent escapes. Here near the center of the lake, one would never know that something is amiss. Here the lilies still thrive, still carpet the water with their dense mats of blossoms and leaves.
The island draws close; I’m almost there. The roof of the shrine is dark angles against a lightening sky. There’s white on the horizon, and the first blush of dawn. I rest for just a moment, standing in the prow of the boat. The sun will rise soon. The lilies aren’t ready, not yet. But in a few weeks they will be. On that day, the sun will rise and the lilies will open to the light. Slowly they’ll unfurl petals of deepest pink, and their full, heady scent—richer than jasmine or roses—will open, too. Dawn will glow on the water as well as in the sky: the fields of dawn-lilies will bloom.
And then the ravenous birds will come.
So many visitors have come to stare at our flock. Wise sages, hoping to divine the cranes’ mystery. Priests and monks and wandering shamans, promising to drive them away. Charlatans and simple curiosity-seekers. The visitors have dwindled as the years wear on, but we still get a few each season. They rent rooms and pay for meals. They don’t make up for the pilgrims who used to come. They can’t even begin to make up for the lost lily harvest. Some pay their respects at the Dawn Mother’s shrine, and some don’t.
None have ever driven the cranes away, not even for a moment.
So I’m not inclined to be impressed by the latest visitor. I’m airing out the shrine, washing down the inner walls and scrubbing off the mold and grime of the past rainy season, when the scrape of a boat on rough pebbles catches my ear. I come out in time to see the stranger walking up the path.
He’s not a monk or a priest; I see that at a glance. He doesn’t wear the golden robes of the ankha or the white and blue robes of the Saadu orders. Nor does he wear the red sash of one of our local shamans, or the traditional amulet of a sage. He’s dressed simply, like one of our own men, in a light shirt and trousers. His black hair is unshorn, falling loose down his neck. He’s young, not much older than me. And distractingly handsome—I see that at a glance, as well.
His dark eyes meet mine. He stops several paces away and bows, his hands pressed together above the level of his heart.
“Lady Kai,” he says. “My name is Kevak. I’ve come to ask for your help.”
No, he’s not from here, whatever his dress might be. His accent is of the cities, of the cultured and educated classes. His skin is the pale golden hue of one who’s never labored in the fields, under the pitiless sun. I say nothing, taken aback.
“I’m a doctor,” he says into my silence. “I’ve come to learn about the lilies here, about how you make them into medicines and use them in your healing.”
I can’t help a bitter smile, then. “You’re almost too late, Master Kevak,” I say. “It will be a small harvest this year, as it has been for seasons. I can’t say how much we’ll be able to gather, or how much nectar wine or petal-tea we’ll be able to make. There’s scarcely any left from the last harvest.”
“I know.” His gaze holds mine, gentle and solemn. “That’s why I’ve come.”
I feel something drop in my belly as he says this. To hear it said aloud—that we’re in such a desperate way, that he knows our supply of dawn-lilies is almost gone and may fail altogether … Has he come just to catalogue medicinal recipes that will soon be useless, to note them into a book for history and curiosity’s sake?
“You’re not here to help with the cranes, then,” I say. My voice is flat.
Something shifts in his manner: I catch an irrepressible gleam in his eye, the shadow of a smile on his lips. Some quiet, private amusement. Almost a hint of triumph in those beautiful eyes, dark as night and tapered like lily petals.
“I’ve come to learn about the lilies,” he says smoothly, evenly. “But what I learn might help with the cranes, too.”