ONLY after all the preparations were made - the fires burning sacred roots stoked high, the walls daubed with the appropriate symbols, the herbs scattered and the circle inscribed - did the shaimin ask Yopi if she wished to change her mind.
"You could return to the village," he said, a low soft contralto almost smothered by the embers' crackling, "and tell them I refused you. I would not contradict such a story."
Smoothing her skirts nervously, as she did when the village elders summoned her to account for the flocks or the feed, Yopi shook her head. "I must go the journey, master. For Kani-Yan."
The shaimin turned from her a moment, adjusting the flame on a burner that heated glistening crystals in a sky-blue flask. His home, a rambling group of rectangular rooms on many levels, was part of the ruins at the edge of the river, strange old buildings built by long-vanished races, and it was full of their spoils.
Glancing back, he asked her, "Are you sure that Kani-Yan will wish to return with you ? That it was not his allotted time to die?"
"No, master shaimin. There were signs. He was so fit, so strong; even moments before his death he had been labouring in the fields with the other young men. There was light still in his eyes for hours after-"
The shaimin silenced her with an impatient gesture. "Very well. You understand that the journey is not without risks."
"I have heard that there are dangers, master," Yopi agreed, raising her dark eyes to his; "but not what they are."
He smiled at her, the soft rouged lips of a woman. "The risks, my poor child, are not that you will be unable to return - but that you will be unwilling."
Yopi shook her head fiercely. "If Kani-Yan will not or cannot return with me, I will return without him. I know I cannot stay there."
The shaimin was stirring the embers now, his back to her, but she thought she heard him say, "Ah, but you can..." Then he stood up, the burnished light softening the curves of his thin, delicate face, woman's face, and said bluntly, "Remove all that marks you as woman and step into the circle."
Yopi shed the long embroidered robe without embarrassment; the shaimin was not 'man' as the law defined it, and there was no shame to disrobe before him. Then there were underskirts and sandals, the braids of coloured thread in her neatly-cropped hair, the rings and bracelets and the chain of betrothal at her ankle-
She remembered Kani-Yan fastening it there as they sat courting beside the river, the red sun turning the waters to blood as they exchanged formal promises. She should have removed it at the burial, thrown it into his grave as custom demanded. But she had not. The promise was unbroken.
Yours, Kani-Yan, or no man's.
Letting the bracelet fall from her fingers to the strange polished stone of the floor, Yopi stepped into the circle and cried the word the shaimin had taught her.
The world dissolved.
There was pain, for a time; in the places she had expected, and in other, stranger places. She felt the muscle of her shoulders shift and change; her scalp tickled with growing hair, and her eyes ached. And there was red fog and darkness and a numb tingling in her feet as if she walked on coals, and she knew she was passing the boundaries of life, and no guardian or judge arose to stay her.
When the mist cleared, she stood alone in Kahi-Tamib-Rho, the Garden of the Warrior Dead, where no female flesh could go.
THERE were other men about the valley, walking and laughing in couples or small groups, and Yopi saw that they were naked also. The wind here was soft, and scented with distant rain, and the sun was warm, yet not strong enough to scorch. She shook her head, and felt the weight of long, raven-dark hair loose across her shoulders. Her chest was flat and bony, her hips narrow, her waist broad.
Man in every detail, Yopi stood breathless upon the ridge, gazing down upon the idylls of the dead and wondering for the first time how she would convince Kani-Yan whom she was.
Afraid, she began to descend towards the dark glitter of the lake to examine her reflection.
The Garden of the Warrior Dead was a garden indeed; the shallow slopes of the dunes were matted with fine grasses and the delicate white and yellow flowers that followed the autumn rains, and the valley floor was thick with vegetation - edible cacti and the sweet fruits of the yanla, thorn bushes laden with berries and the rare yellow shoots of the hachti, whose roots were prized above all others. And the lake-
There was a lake beyond the shaimin's home, among the ruins, but its waters were poison and glowed silver under the full moon, and few ever went near. Yopi had seen the river overflow many times - almost every year, the rains would sweep down from the hills and turn the dry bed into a tidal flood for a few brief hours, perhaps a day, and the villagers rushed to store water in pots and buckets to water in the new crops - but this much still, calm fresh water was a wonder to her.
Dazzled by the glare of sunlight upon its mirror-still surface, Yopi knelt and looked at her own face for the first time.
Yes, there were traces of the Yopi-who-was. A twitch of the mouth, a brightness of the eye. The broken tooth, cracked in a fall in childhood. But the face that looked out at her was a warrior's face, swift to laugh and swift to anger, hawk-eyed and slow-tongued. Looking upon her reflection she shivered, and not entirely from fear.
But she had come this far without her nerve failing, it seemed foolish to turn back without facing the ultimate test. The dead were graced with great wisdom, it was said. Perhaps Kani-Yan would recognise her even in this strange flesh, or perhaps he would know, with a shaimin's intuition, that she spoke truth.
If she could find him.
YOPI travelled through Kahi-Tamib-Rho for a what seemed a day's march or more, though the strange sun was still high in the skies and she did not feel tired. She saw many men, laughing and wrestling and hunting game, or sleeping in the afternoon sun, resting from their life's labours. Though she had known many who had come here, or so she thought, she saw no familiar faces.
And it was not until she began to think of turning back that she found Kani-Yan.
She was following the slow lazy meanders of the river - soft swift waters here, where the precious rainy season flood raced all year round - knowing; with a hunter's mind, that game and hunters alike would flock to its banks. And, coming round the sharp bend where the river veered around a high pillar of rock, she saw figures running and shouting in the water, splashing like children, and her heart leapt for joy.
It was Kani-Yan. His back was to her, but she knew. Chasing a young buck through the river, yelling and roaring like a lunatic, his hair flying free in the wind. There was another young man with him, lighter of skin and plump as a new babe, and they seemed to be trying to herd the terrified buck towards a hollow in the rocks to pen it.
It was a fools' errand, and they knew it. The buck was too fast, even in the rushing water, and it reached the bank ahead of them and was gone in a moment, leaving only a thinning cloud of dust.
Kani-Yan was laughing so much she thought he would fall; but the plump boy seized his arm, and they struggled out of the water together, laughing and yelling and imitating the buck's shrieking cries. Yopi watched them stumble up onto the bank and collapse, clinging like lovers, and understood at last the disappointment the shaimin had been trying to protect her from.
She stood still as stone while Kani-Yan and his companion disentangled themselves and set off, arms about one anothers' waists for support, along the narrow shale-covered bank of the river.
Then she spoke the second word the shaimin had taught her, and the river faded and cracked like a dream as she plummeted earthwards.
THE shaimin helped her back into her clothes without comment; she had returned alone, and that was enough. Only when she turned to leave did he say, "There are shaimins in many villages, many places, Yopi dhiHaan."
"No," she said, in a voice like glass. "I will not find him now."
"That was not what I meant."
THE stars were very bright in a bruised, blue-black sky, and Yopi had no difficulty finding her way back down to the shacks and the small withered gardens of the village. In the cool of the desert night, she thought she understood.
It would be a long journey, she knew that. She had heard how shaimin were trained, how they must come to a master already in the shape of that which they would become, and it would take her some time to grow her hair long and learn to match the manners and the shape of a man. Some said it had been years before their present shaimin had become woman enough to learn the deepest magics.
She would have to learn swifter than that.
There were so many things the world needed to know. And she intended to tell them all.
The above story has previously appeared on Gina Ivy L Snowdoll's website.