Once there was a girl named Sahta. She was courageous and strong of heart and could not bear to see anyone in pain; but what decided the course of her life was only that she was the first.
She was born when the first dragon flew overhead; and the Princess herself stopped by to see her, when she came; and when her mother found that she could name the little girl, she was as happy as a mother can be. And her father was happy too, and the midwife, and everyone who lived in their street - and in the next street, and in the entire city. Sahta had a name, and that name was Sahta, and she was the first child the city had had since the plague passed. And because she had a name, because she was Sahta, they no longer hoped that the plague was over and that the Princess had saved them, but they knew it; and so all the city rejoiced, and the dead and the living alike danced in the street and laughed and called her name: "Sahta! Sahta! Sahta, first child!"
She knew nothing of this, of course. She was only a baby, gurgling and crying, just like any other. And she learned nothing of it until one night when, a child, she ran away from her father's arms, because the night was so warm and the moon so full and she didn't want to go to bed, she wasn't tired! And because she was light enough to swing over walls and fast enough to dart into alleys unseen, she ran away through the city and he could not catch her.
She ran for a long time, her bare feet slapping against warm stone, drawn on by the night's breeze and by the sight of the stars scattered throughout the sky. She stopped when she couldn't run anymore for the stitch in her side. She didn't want to go to bed yet the night was so beautiful! but her side hurt, and she was tired, and she would walk back now. But she'd left her father behind long ago, and she didn't know the way back home. The street was dark and empty. For a short while she wandered about, searching for something she knew; then she sat down with her head against her knees and cried.
She was sitting on a step, on a market street, with merchants' abandoned tents all around her. One stall, alone, was still tended: its owner had gone out for a while, and had asked a friend to watch over the wares until he returned to clean up. He was a ghost, and his friend too; but so many people were, here, that this did not spare them from thieves.
The friend a kindly man, on the whole heard the child crying, and he called her over. "Come here, child," he said, "come here, that's it, don't cry. What's wrong? Lost your way, have you? Don't cry now."
She came over, glad that there was someone there, that she wasn't quite alone. She nodded and she wiped her tears away with her sleeve and she tried to swallow her sobs. The tears didn't quite stop, and the best she could do with her sobs was turn them into hiccups, but it was enough that she could listen.
"Come now, don't cry," said the man, and patted her head as well as he could, stopping his hand before it went too far through her head. It was a strange feeling, like a tingling in her scalp, and she laughed a bit through her tears. "That feels funny," she said.
"That's it," said the man. "That's right. Don't cry. Now what's gotten you so upset?"
That brought the tears back. "I don't know how to get home," she hiccuped.
"There, now, we'll find your home. All right? Don't cry. Now what's your name, child? Where do you live?"
She shook her head, not knowing how to answer the second question, but to the first she said: "Sahta."
Now the man threw back his head and laughed, a big laugh from the bottom of his belly. "You are Sahta, child? And to think I just met you on the street just like that and you're Sahta! Well, I know where your home is, little one, and I'll take you there just as soon as I can but first oh, you're Sahta! And I didn't know!"
She looked at him, confused.
"You don't know who you are, do you! Well! Perhaps your parents were waiting until you were a little older but why wait? You should know. You must know. You are Sahta! You are the first child!"
"What first child?"
"Oh, this world was very sick for a very long time, child. A very long time indeed. Surely you've heard of the plague the gray bane all this world was dying."
She nodded. "Father said he and Mother lived by the river. Because there were fish, sometimes. And water. But they kept losing themselves, he said."
"Yes they lost themselves, and so did the fish, and so did the water. All the world lost itself! But the Princess came from another world and saved us -"
"Mother said the Princess came to see me when I was a baby!"
"Of course she did. Because you were the first, Sahta. You were the first baby this city had after the sickness passed, and because of you we knew it was over, and we were safe. We all know your name, Sahta, all the dead, and likely all the living as well."
"But I didn't do anything."
"Oh, we don't hold you as a hero only as a hope. But you are a hope. You are Sahta! First child! You are Sahta. And I didn't know you but that cannot happen again. You see, I am friendly enough, and I like children, and I would have helped you even if you were someone else but there are others I have a friend, you see he owns this stall, you know! But he doesn't like it when people, well, when people bother him. And with Lady Katira gone, what's to stop him from hurting you?"
She looked up at him with wide eyes.
"Oh, he's not that bad, really he's just a little, well, you see, he's just a little strange. He doesn't always believe we're back. It's back. The world. The veil, the other side, everything. There is no one gladder of your existence than he is, I'll have you know, but if he didn't know it was you why if you came here after the stall was closed no, no, we'll have to do something about it."
"But -" she said. "What -"
"Come here! Listen, child, this is a city ruled by a necromancer it has been that way all along, since long before the gray plague came and half of us are living and half of us are dead it has always been that way. Now the living, they can go anywhere in this world, easily, just by walking. And they see each other and know that they're alive, and that's all well and good; they might have gone on for another few years yet. But we dead, we're bound, we can't do everything. And we could do nothing during the plague, nothing at all, do you hear me? So many of the bone-men disappeared they cannot die, you know, not properly and we ghosts couldn't come through the veil at all. But that's not the worst of it, child, it isn't; the veil was eaten too by the plague, even the other side. And we couldn't do a thing! We were trapped, and disappearing! So the living might be glad of you, indeed, but the dead are more than glad. We are in your debt, forever. And so -"
"But... I didn't do anything."
"Oh, you did, Sahta, you did. You showed us that it was over. And so, I will give you something that is not given to one of the living more than once in a hundred years even before the plague. I will give you the protection of the dead."
She yawned. It was well past her bedtime. She could hardly hold her eyes open anymore.
"Here -" He gave her a tiny bottle filled with oil, with a cord tied around it so it could be worn as a necklace. She took it and looked at it tiredly. "What is it?" she asked.
"Usually, it's worn to keep away the dead the dangerous ones, of course to ward off ghosts. But for you, it's so that I can touch you, so I can mark you. Open it yes, that's right and spread the oil over your hands and face."
She took out the cork and did as he asked. It smelled like sweetgrass and pine.
"There, now I can touch you! And so can any other ghost. Now give me your right hand."
She held it out.
He drew a mark on the back of her hand with his finger. For a second she thought she saw it shine, but then it was gone and she could see nothing.
"Anything dead will see that," he told her, "and it will know that you are Sahta, the first child, and that you have the protection of the dead. Nothing dead will ever harm you."
"Okay," she said and yawned again.
"Now come on," he said, lifting her up and setting her on his shoulders. "Ufh. Now, let's go home to your parents, all right?"
"All right," she yawned.
The man knew where she lived, of course she was Sahta, after all and he took her straight there. Her mother was waiting outside and crying, and she plucked her off the ghost's back and thanked him at least fifteen times for bringing her home.
"Will I see you again?" Sahta asked, before her mother carried her back inside.
"Oh, I'll be around!" the ghost said, and laughed his deep belly-laugh again, and walked away; and Sahta's mother took her straight to bed, and tucked her in firmly, and she fell asleep with the scent of sweetgrass hovering in her nose.