On my seventeenth birthday, the magus summoned me to his study.
I sat down and waited while he shuffled through a stack of papers. Finally, he looked up.
"I've found you a daēva," he said.
I sat very still, hardly breathing.
"His name is Darius. He was raised by the magi in Karnopolis. By all accounts, obedient and devout. And powerful." The magus held my eyes. "Very powerful. The strongest in generations, if his keepers are to be believed. You were chosen because your gift is so great." He sighed. "And because I can't leave either of you unbonded much longer. You're nearing the time when your mind will become too rigid to accept him, Nazafareen. And so that is my present to you. Are you happy?"
"Yes, magus. Very happy." I was happy. I was also nervous.
"Do you wish to meet him?"
My heart lurched. "He's here?"
"In the yard, waiting for us. Oh yes, and his curse is a withered left arm. I thought the fact that you are left-handed would be a nice complement."
I let out a long breath as we walked outside. Bonding my daēva meant I could hunt Druj. Go on patrol with Ilyas and the others. I'd been waiting for this moment for three years. And yet part of me still wanted to run in the other direction as fast as I could.
We came around the corner of the barracks and there he was. A boy still, although not for much longer. I took in the close-cropped brown hair and pale, serious face. His sky-blue tunic matched his eyes, which were not particularly warm. More along the lines of one of the glacial lakes I'd bathed in as a child.
I walked right up to him, refusing to be cowed. It seemed prudent to let him know who was in charge immediately.
"I'm Nazafareen," I said.
Darius nodded. His face was perfectly impassive, but did I see a spark in those eyes? Of fear? Contempt? It came and went too fast to tell.
I had no idea what to say next, so we just stood there in awkward silence for what felt like an eternity. Finally, the magus spoke.
"Come. Satrap Jaagos and the other Water Dogs are waiting."
The bonding ceremony took place in the audience chamber of the satrap. It was a cavernous room, with vaulted ceilings of gilded tile and three marble pillars. The walls were carved with bas-reliefs of horses, their arched necks and braided manes rendered in exquisite detail.
Jaagos sat on his throne, his Water Dogs arrayed to either side. Half of them wore tunics of sky blue, the other half of a deep, bloody red.
I'd seen Jaagos from afar a few times, but this was the closest I'd ever been to him. In the moment before I prostrated myself, I saw a chubby man dressed in a rich gown of silver thread. He was bald as an egg, with thick lips and sloping shoulders. A housecat among lions.
I pressed my forehead to the stone. To my right, Darius did the same.
I was keenly aware of the eyes of the Water Dogs on me. They were the ones I wanted to impress, especially Ilyas. I didn't give a fig about the satrap, except that I knew I didn't want to make him angry. His authority was absolute, the hand of the King in Tel Khalujah, and if he wanted me dead, he had only to make the slightest gesture and it would be done.
"Get on with it," Jaagos said after an appropriate amount of time had passed for the obeisance.
The magus stepped forward. "You are Water Dogs, the holiest of all dogs," he said. "Without water there is no life, yet water has the power to destroy as well as to create. May your impurities be washed away." The magus slowly poured the contents of a silver bowl over our heads.
"May the Holy Father keep you and guide your actions," he intoned. "May the bond bestowed this day be true and pure. May you always serve the cause of light and shun the darkness."
He set the bowl aside and pulled on a pair of leather gloves. Then he took out a gold cuff, thick and worked with snarling lions. Had he touched it with his bare hands, he would have bonded Darius himself instantly.
The magus's face swam in my vision as he knelt before us. Darius had gone a deathly pale, but he looked at the cuff—the twin of one already encircling his right arm—without wavering. I resolved not to show him how afraid I was. Not to give him that victory.
"You will fight as one, live as one," the magus said. "You will carry out the will of the Holy Father, as directed by your King and satrap. Good words, good thoughts, good deeds. By the Prophet and the Holy Father are you bonded."
Then he snapped the cuff around my wrist and locked it with a tiny golden key. I may have cried out. I probably did. Because I wasn't alone anymore. Floodgates opened in my mind, releasing a torrent of alien emotions. Next to me, Darius drew a sharp breath as the same thing happened to him, although I barely heard it.
Panic surged through me, followed by an aching loss so deep it tore a hole in my heart. I didn't know if it was mine or his, or both feeding off the other. And I felt his power, a deep, churning pool of it, held tight in my fist.
"It is done," the magus said.
My knees trembled as I stood. Darius offered me his hand but I was afraid to touch him so Ilyas took charge of me, leading me from the audience chamber to the fire temple. We knelt there together. I tried to pray, but my teeth were chattering.
"It gets easier with time," Ilyas said in a soothing tone, as if he was talking to a small child. "You'll learn to tell the difference between your own feelings and his. To separate them. To hold onto yourself."
I nodded but I didn't believe him. I just wanted to tear the cuff from my wrist. To get Darius and his bottomless despair out of my head. But that was impossible. It was locked in place.
"Look into the flames," Ilyas said. "Imagine them burning your fear away. Scouring your mind clean of thought. Feed it all to the holy fire. You have the gift, Nazafareen. Now you must learn to control it, or it will destroy you."
I tried to do as he instructed. For a moment, I felt as though I'd broken the surface, that the torrent was easing a little, but then it came back stronger than ever.
I jumped to my feet and just made it to the courtyard before I threw up.
They let me go to my bed after that for the rest of the day. Everyone left me alone. They understood that I couldn't bear to be near even a single other person. I had enough of them in my head already.