An excerpt from Book 8 of The Syshir Siblings, mentioning, in brief, the struggles native Shiften of Enthar must face under Empirical rule.
For all the heat of the day, as the sun set below the horizon, painting the desert in shades of red, pink, orange, and a hint of green, the desert landscape had turned cold. Without tree canopy or water, there was nothing around to trap the heat that had baked them mere hours before. The sand, which had been scalding to the touch, was now comfortable and cool. As Maq'im fed the fire and Quevarro settled their juarru, Unara unlaced her boots, tossed them aside onto one of the thick blankets Maq'im had placed in a ring around the firepit, and sank her feet into the cool sand.
She wasn't sure why. But she did feel 'safe' out here. There was no roof above them, they weren't hidden from view by anything but the dunes, but Unara felt more content here than she had of late in the City. It was so big. So quiet. So unknown to her. Even before she believed herself in danger, the City hadn't felt comfortable. Not that she'd ever have admitted it aloud. She had a job to do. Information to find. And she certainly wasn't going to squander her first opportunity to explore the world outside of Killaren by feeling a little homesick.
Of course, getting out of the City 'for her own safety' had meant she was out here, entirely alone, with the two Shiften who were her mates. Her cat had made sure of that. 'Mating' with them, although it had relieved the incessant itch under her skin, hadn't… resolved anything. The few days of uninhibited lust had been good, great even, but she hadn't chosen them.
Even now, although her cat wasn't clawing to get out and mark them any longer, Unara could feel their hands on her skin. How Maq'im's had been large and rough, Quevarro's strong and long. She shivered, glancing away from the fire to catch the reflective glint of Quevarro's eyes as he smirked across at her. She scowled back at him.
"Come brother," Maq'im said in his low, rough voice from where he crouched over the fire. He was carefully choosing food from the metal plate spread over the flames and laying the pieces on a flat, clay plate. "Food."
As Quevarro swaggered over, sitting beside Unara so that their shoulders and knees touched, she frowned between the two. "Why do you call him, brother?" She'd noticed the term a handful of times over the last few weeks. Unara couldn't remember either of them using it so freely when she'd first met them. Their nicknames had been Varro and Maq almost exclusively then. Unara gave very intentional looks between the two of them. "You're obviously not related." They were about as disparate as two men could be. While still being devastatingly handsome in equal amounts.
Quevarro laughed, affectionately reaching over to squeeze her knee, grinning when she batted his hand away. "You are what makes us brothers, Unara."
"Oh…" Right. They were both mated to her.
"Maq'im was about as close to a brother as I had here, even before that. But it's Maq's people that call Shiften who share a mate 'brother' or 'sister'. You wouldn't have heard it here so much."
It was part of the reason why she'd asked. Unara had noticed other polyamorous groups in Tinobi, but when Maq'im called Quevarro 'brother' it had always felt different.
Quevarro continued speaking, even while Maq'im walked around the fire to hand her the clay plate of food. As soon as she took it, Quevarro reached out to snag food straight from the fire,. Maq'im waited for her to take a bite before he did the same. He had brought a plate just for her? She didn't need it, of course. Unara would have been more than happy to blow on overhot fingers and lick them clean. But the intense, intentional way Maq'im watched her made her feel… not fragile or coddled, but important.
"It's just a difference in culture," Quevarro continued. "Though I suppose Almusia has so few…"
"My siblings are mages," Unara admitted. "So the number of Shiften I'd met before coming here, I could count on one hand."
Maq'im nodded thoughtfully, while Quevarro pursed his lips. "I suppose that explains a bit." Her reaction to finding out they were her mates, perhaps, was foremost on his mind, and Unara flushed angrily, bearing her teeth to give him a cat-like hiss. He grinned, raising his hands in a placating gesture even while a low purr thrummed in his chest. "I didn't say anything." Smug prick.
"I thought Shiften were outlawed in the Empire," Unara said quietly, glancing over to Maq'im, who was still watching her with those xina-dark eyes. A guess, but an educated one. His accent, his shifted form, his colouration, all pointed towards Maq being from Enthar.
"They are for all intents and purposes," Maq'im answered. Always measured. "That doesn't mean we don't exist."
Quevarro leaned backward on his hands, one positioned just slightly behind her so that their arms brushed, although he relaxed back far enough that she couldn't see his expression but for her periphery.
Tossing the inedible husk of his food back into the fire (he'd otherwise picked it clean), Maq'im linked his fingers together in front of him, resting elbows on his knees. The moon glowed palely above his head. "More specifically, shifting is outlawed in the Empire, not Shifters. We are allowed to live, if only we don't shift."
Unara shook her head. "I don't understand. Why?"
Maq'im gave her a sad smile. "Shiften aren't mages. In the Empire, they believe our abilities are a God-given gift. As such it is morally wrong to use arcane magics to get in the way of the divine. But Shiften are a threat to the power dynamic of the Empire. The most powerful mages rule. They don't have to worry about controlling the divine with the arcane if it can be done by bureaucracy and law instead.”
“But that… doesn’t make sense. If they believe it’s a Gods-given gift, why do they want to stop you shifting?”
“It’s not truly about belief, Unara. It’s about control. Making people seem different makes it easier to control those who are the same.” He should have sounded bitter. Unara wouldn’t have blamed him if he had. Would have understood. To live in a world where it was against the law to shift? Unara had faced some difficulties in The Unition, some misunderstandings. But it was unimaginable to her to live that. She was livid on his behalf, and he continued to watch her with that intensity he always had.
Beside her, Quevarro adjusted his hands a little, shifting to keep the blood moving in his fingers. “Maq brought his siblings here to give them a better life,” he declared, a little grandly, over the top, breaking some of the tension. Maq’im had siblings? They hadn’t exactly done a lot of talking when they had finally given in to the mating urge.
“It wasn’t quite as grand as all that. I grew up in a Shiften commune, though I don’t remember much of it. It was broken up by Empire soldiers, and we ended up living off the grid. Somewhere my parents hoped they wouldn’t be able to find us.” From the stillness of his voice, evidently, that hadn’t been the case.
“My sister was caught shifting. She had just newly figured out how to run in bear form without tripping over her own paws.” There was affection in his tone for his sister, and it made Unara smile despite the grim tale. She was sure she sounded the same when speaking of her siblings. It was reassuring, in a way, to hear that affection from him. It reminded her too, of when she had first shifted. That body parts weren’t where they were meant to be. She’d go to step forward and her back legs responded instead of her front. The animal soul was part of her, but the form was something a Shiften needed to learn.
“A day later my parents were dead, and we were fleeing a lifetime at Kevvox.”
Unara cocked her head, brow furrowed in confusion. Kevvox?
Quevarro answered her unspoken question in sarcastic, angry tones. “The Empire’s Shiften-exclusive prison.”
“My parents chose death, rather than face it,” Maq’im admitted quietly.
The crackling of the fire was a lonely sound for a minute or two, as the three of them digested what Maq’im had shared.
“And then you came here?” Unara asked, looking across the fire again to Maq’im.
Maq’im shook his head. “I took us to Nalys first. Would have moved on more quickly had my sister not fallen in love with a Nalysian mage and convinced her new beau to house us for a time.” Two sisters then. Unara was learning more about Maq’im during this one conversation than she had in weeks of knowing him. “De’shka’s husband was polite, but my other siblings needed to be around other Shiften. It had always been the plan in the back of my mind to come here to Tinobi.” He shrugged. “We crossed Almusia, and then hopped a ship here. Varro decided to make me his project when we started in the Library together and…” he spread his fingers wide in a shrug as if to say ‘here we are’.
"He complained about the heat as if he'd never experienced the sun before he got here," Quevarro teased. Maq'im took it good-naturedly, smiling back at Quevarro although he didn't laugh along with the other man's chuckle. "'Bears like me are meant to be in the snow', I believe you said more than once." Quevarro's tone took on the rumbly bass of Maq'im while quoting him.
Maq'im shrugged. "Sometimes I do miss the snow, but the Library feels like home now. That and obviously I was meant to be here." He gave Unara a weighty look. As if the struggles he had faced in his life, fleeing his home, taking care of his siblings when they had no one else, was worth it because he'd met her, his mate.
To distract herself, and them, from the intensity, Unara made a somewhat flippant remark. “To think we might have met. The Unition isn’t so big.” She idly played over a mapped image of Almusia in her head. There were more than a handful of Port cities, but the one she'd spent much time at in her youth in her brother's county was one of the larger for recreational passage. Maq'im and his siblings may have walked right through Killaren.
Maq’im nodded slowly, but in a way that made her feel it was a nod of acknowledgment that he'd heard her words, not agreement with them. That little piece of him in her mind, that one she had been trying to avoid thinking about, was that what helped her know what his careful nod meant?
“He would’ve known if he’d met you, kitten,” Quevarro said dryly, confirming her suspicions.
“We have always been mates, Unara,” Maq’im said, the heavy weight of significance in his tone.
"Will always be mates," Quevarro added.
Unara felt a little like a cat who had found herself cornered, and a little like one who had also found just the right warm, comfortable spot, to curl up in forever.