Adrenaline pumped through Chaff’s body like liquid fire. In that instant, he took in everything around him. Visibility was significantly impaired by the thick mist, as was mobility by the mud and marsh water. Al Innai seemed to stand on the only piece of dry land in sight, wrapped as it was by the engorged tree root. Straight-backed pines jutted from the water, with even straighter branches fanning out in every direction. They would take his weight, Chaff was sure. Would they take a grown man’s?
In that split second, Chaff made his decision. “Up and out, big guy!” he shouted, leaping onto the strait of dry land. He weaved past Al Innai, heading straight for the tallest tree he could see. It was still nothing compared to the behemoth that the great root fed, but it was a start. It could have been just an inch higher than Al Innai’s reach and Chaff wouldn’t have cared, so long as he was safe.
Al Innai turned leisurely, tossing a limp owlcrow onto the ground. The bird twitched weakly, its wings bent at grotesque angles, but Chaff did not have time to worry about that.
“Give us a little chase, wild child,” said Al Innai, rolling his head and cracking the bones in his neck. “Give the Ladies a little entertainment tonight.”
Chaff jumped, wincing as his calloused feet found purchase on the rough bark. He looked over his shoulder. Where was the big guy?
The camelopard cantered towards him, towards safety, when Al Innai struck. Chaff gaped in utter shock as Al Innai took one long stride forward, and with his other leg pivoted and swept under the big guy’s body. While he was under the camelopard’s belly, Al Innai forced his hands upwards. For a brief moment, the man hoisted the five-meter beast bodily off the ground, and the camelopard’s hooves kicked at empty air.
Then Al Innai pushed. Essentially flipping the big guy to his side, the Kennya Noni fighter heaved the camelopard off of him, and the big guy landed with a shuddering thud on the ground. His breath not even labored, his walk measured and composed, Al Innai strolled back towards Chaff, leaving the boy’s friend kicking and struggling in the mud.
Pragmatism kicked in. Chaff hauled himself upward, digging in with his hands and feet as he desperately gained height. His arms were thin, and scrawny: he had never been quite as fast as the other racers.
At last, Chaff reached a branch so thin and whippy that it could not hold even his weight. He looked down, and immediately regretted it. It was a dizzying drop down, and Chaff knew from experience that the water would do nothing to soften the fall. It would hit him harder than a brick wall. He tightened his grip. This was the safest place for him to be. His friends on the ground, however…
“You crazy, yeah?” shouted Chaff, as Al Innai walked, apparently unconcerned, up to the base of the tree. “You come all this way, Innai-Innai? Just for me?”
“You walk with me, you follow my rules. You break my rules, I lay down the law.” Al Innai craned his head upward as he approached. “Royya left after your little escapade, you know that? Crazy bitch just disappeared. That, and your little friend, and so your run took out half my fucking group. Half my manpower, half my eyes. You think I’m just gonna let that go?”
“So you go through the whole marsh?” shouted Chaff, incredulously. “Just to get me?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, kid, I’ve got nowhere to go back to. Shira Hay is at war.” Al Innai cracked his knuckles. “It’s real simple, kid. You made my life miserable. Now I’m gonna end yours.”
And he leaped.
Chaff could not believe how fast Al Innai moved. The boy had been right about the tree not holding the grown man’s weight, but that wasn’t stopping the plainsman. Al Innai clawed at the tree, launching himself up bark that crumbled even as he climbed.
The boy cast wild eyes around. His treacherous sanctuary had ensnared him. The other trees stood a taunting distance away from him, beckoning with their outstretched branches. Chaff braced himself. It was a manageable distance.
He shook his head. These were not the roofs of Shira Hay anymore. A wild jump could send him flying past his target, and while Chaff might not have been the smartest urchin on the block, he had survived all those years by not taking unnecessary risks.
The only out was down.
Chaff could waste no time regretting his decision. He took a deep breath and hopped to the next lowest branch, just as Al Innai crawled up to meet him. The fighter’s hand grabbed Chaff’s ankle, and Chaff felt his stomach leap to his throat as he pivoted around Al Innai’s arm.
Dangling upside down, Chaff had a second to react. The boy reached out for the nearest branch, and despite his misgivings, pulled. Using the branch as a platform to propel himself out of Al Innai’s grip, Chaff dragged his body down. Gravity helped, and Al Innai let go with a startled grunt as the boy hurled himself towards a fall that would kill him. They were both falling now, scraping at the trunk of the tree and each other as the ground raced towards them.
His fingers dug into the bark. Chaff roared in pain as the wood snapped and stabbed at his hand, long splinters digging into his fingernails, but he could not let go. He flailed as he fell, and his other hand closed around a sturdy support.
Tears rose unbidden in Chaff’s eyes as his arm jerked. There was an audible, hollow sound: the click and pop of bone as Chaff’s shoulder was pulled out of its socket. He hung there, fingers frozen out of shock, his dislocated shoulder throbbing.
Blinking rapidly, Chaff looked around. He had seconds before his hand gave out and let go. Where was the enemy? Where was Al Innai?
He dropped, and a jarring pain ran through his body as he landed on his tailbone. Chaff winced, propping himself up on his uninjured arm. His vision spun as he tried to get his bearings; everything below was mud brown, everything above was misty white. Al Innai could have been two feet from him and he wouldn’t have been able to tell.
“Big guy?” shouted Chaff, his mouth dry. “Lookout?”
He stumbled forward, and his foot prodded a body. Chaff fell to his knees. “Lookout?” he whispered, holding her chin, her face. Blood crusted the side of her head, and her head was twisted at an odd angle. She wasn’t moving.
“Lookout?” Chaff asked, again. He blinked tears from his eyes, and they had nothing to do with the pain in his shoulder. “Lookout, I need you.”
She didn’t respond.
Uncontrollable gasps began to shake Chaff’s body. “Lookout, please, please,” he whimpered. “It…it does get tiring. Leaving people behind. It gets tiring, yeah? So please don’t leave me behind. Please, Lookout, please. I don’t want to live in a world of strangers.”
He grabbed Lookout’s wrist and shook her arm. He couldn’t see anything but a watery blur, couldn’t hear anything but a static buzz. But he could feel the ache in his chest. He could feel the black loneliness surround him again. He could feel…
Chaff could feel a pulse.
Cold relief washed over him at the same time as a wave of fear. He had to get Lookout out, now. He wouldn’t go through losing her again.
Chaff could barely breathe, his muscles hurt so much, as he put his arms under Lookout’s shoulders and began to drag her away. She was bigger than him, and heavier, although that wasn’t saying much. Chaff dragged her through the mud, panting, sweating. “Big guy!” he shouted. “Big guy, I can use some help!”
He searched the mist for the big guy’s familiar silhouette, but it was nowhere to be seen. Where had he gone? Had he, too, been injured when Al Innai had pushed him aside? “It’s me you want, Innai!” shouted Chaff, cheeks flushed. “It’s me! Leave the rest of them alone!”
“Make me,” growled a voice from behind him, and before Chaff could turn or run, something hit him in the back of the head so hard he nearly blacked out.
He crawled backwards out of pure reflex, as Al Innai advanced on him. It struck Chaff just how calm the Kennya Noni fighter was, how deliberate and relaxed his actions were. How many times had he laid down his law? How many times had he killed children in the wilds?
“You don’t pay attention to what I tell you to do,” said Al Innai, and he pressed his foot on Chaff’s chest. Mud splattered Chaff’s shirt. “Why should I pay any heed to you?” Al Innai stared at Chaff. His expression seemed almost bored, except for his eyes. They were alight, and burning with anger a sane man couldn’t hope to achieve.
Chaff couldn’t respond. Half submerged in mud and marsh water, he couldn’t seem to draw breath as Al Innai pressed and pressed, and black spots were beginning to appear in his already spinning vision.
“Maybe I’ll bury you instead of your book. Maybe the Lady Fall will like you if you’re still squirming,” Al Innai mused, as Chaff’s weak fingers clawed ineffectually at Al Innai’s ankle.
The boy’s head fell to the side. He saw him again, a silhouette in the mist. The bark-made man watched with eyes made of amber, always at a distance, never quite close enough for Chaff to make out the details.
Chaff didn’t have the breath for words anymore, but he had enough energy to mouth the word.
“Help,” he whispered.
And then several things happened at once.
A bass roar filled the marsh, a deep and terrible sound that shook Chaff’s very bones. The thunderous bellow continued to crescendo, and as Chaff stared at the wooden man’s silhouette something else emerged from behind it in the mist.
The poltergeist of the marsh had swollen to three or four times its previous size. It barreled past the bark-made man, sweeping him aside with a crushing blow that Chaff swore could have toppled one of the great hollow trees of Shira Hay. The poltergeist seemed more beast than man, a writhing mess of vines and sloshing water that galloped forward on all fours, and even as it ran it seemed to grow in size.
At the same time, the big guy arrived. Eyes wild, prancing with nervous energy, the camelopard ran straight for Chaff—and he wasn’t alone.
Behind him rode the marshman Wozek, and the monstrous spiderwhale. Gopal and Sri were there, too, clinging for dear life to the spiderwhale’s back. “Where the hell are you taking-!?” shouted Wozek, but he stopped. He had seen.
Al Innai didn’t have time to cry out. He stepped off Chaff’s chest, eyes widening, mouth gaping, and was just about to sprint away when a vine-made hand with too many fingers closed around his waist. Chaff gasped for breath, unable to take his eyes away from the Kennya Noni fighter as he kicked and struggled in the now gargantuan poltergeist’s fist.
“Piece of the father, tried to kill our brother,” mumbled the poltergeist, in the same, mournful tones, except now its voice echoed throughout the marsh. “Doesn’t he know? Our essence is energy, and energy never dies.”
Al Innai beat his fists on the poltergeist’s hand, but the poltergeist did not even seem to notice.
“Our essence is energy,” it repeated, its sad green eyes flickering. “And energy never dies.”
Its other hand closed around Al Innai’s head, and Chaff could hear Al Innai’s terrified scream suddenly muffled by the mass of vines and plant matter. There was a creek, a groan like timber falling as the poltergeist’s arms stiffened, and then the poltergeist pulled.
Chaff saw Al Innai’s spine rip out of his body as his entire torso was torn from his waist. Blood spattered the ground, dark scarlet rain that landed on Chaff’s face. The boy felt ready to be sick as both halves of Al Innai’s body fell from the poltergeist’s hands: his head and shoulders crushed to a pulp, his lower body leaking guts and shit.
The boy backed away, twitching and shuddering, as slowly, inexorably, the poltergeist’s face turned towards them. The jade fire in its eyes seemed to burn hotter than the sun and stars.
“Hunger, hunger, can’t be sated,” it muttered, staring. “Green star, mother of spiders, she’s inside me. Can’t be helped. Sorry, sooorrry.” Its voice deepened and distorted on the last word, as it took a step forward.
“Lookout, wake up!” shouted Chaff, pulling at the girl’s shoulders. He slapped her cheek, the adrenaline overriding the pain in his shoulder and chest. “Lookout, we have to go! We have to go now!”
The big guy nickered and reared, biting down on Chaff’s collar and pulling him away. Behind him, the spiderwhale clicked and hissed, as Wozek shouted for Gopal and Sri to get to safety.
“Big guy, we can’t go now! Lookout!” Chaff struggled and twisted, his shirt tearing as he tore free. His tabula clattered into the mud as he stumbled away, but he didn’t care. “We can’t go without her! We’re not leaving her behind!”
The first impact between the poltergeist and the spiderwhale was nowhere near close enough to touch Chaff, and yet it still knocked him off his feet. The poltergeist cracked a fist over the spiderwhale’s back that could have crushed a house flat, while the beast dug mandibles into the poltergeist’s waist from which water leaked like blood. A humming so loud that it echoed with their titanic blows came from Wozek, as the marshman held on tight to the spiderwhale’s back.
Chaff watched with shock and awe as he knelt in the mud, his body taxed to the limit.
And overhead, he heard a familiar screech.
Sinndi’s flight was crooked, yes, barely even off the ground, but she was flying. And if the owlcrow was conscious, that meant…
“What the fuck did you do, Chaff?” shouted Lookout. She gripped her head as she rose, stumbling away from the fight the moment she raised her head. “Where’s Al Innai? Did he summon that?”
Her gaze slid downwards to the body, or at least half a body, sinking into the swamp, and she rolled over, retching.
“Let’s go now, big guy,” said Chaff, limping forward. “Now’s the time to go, yeah?” He bent down to collect his tabula, but no sooner had he done so when another impact knocked him flat.
“Essence burning, five in one,” said the poltergeist, staggering away towards Chaff and Lookout. The spiderwhale was alive, as was Wozek, but three of the spiderwhale’s great legs looked to have been snapped in two and it was bleeding profusely from its right side. “There shall be four, and a fifth to come.”
“Chaff…” muttered Lookout. “Please tell me you’re on good terms with that thing.”
Chaff answered by running. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of this one, but running seemed like a good way to start.
“All rivers flow to the sea,” muttered the poltergeist. Chaff tripped! He went sprawling into the mud, the tabula in his hands falling into the mud. They tumbled out, three golden disks that reflected the green fire in the poltergeist’s eyes. “All rivers flow to me.”
As Chaff struggled to rise, he saw Lookout bend down to collect his tabula. She looked at them, and then at Chaff, and then at the monster looming above him.
“Fuck it,” said Lookout, grabbing one of the tabula. “Whatever you’ve been holding out on us, Chaff, it better be good.”
Chaff looked up. It wasn’t his tabula, or the big guy’s. It had a single crack running down its face.
“Not here,” Chaff whispered, tears running down his mud-streaked face. “Not here.” But there was nothing he could do to stop her.
The spiderwhale clicked its mandibles together, bare inches from Chaff’s face. Eyes that were almost comically small compared to the rest of its body leered at him, and he shrunk behind the body of the big guy as it stared at him hungrily.
The man on its back slipped off easily, landing with a splash in the marsh water. “Strangers do not come often to the Quiet Marsh,” said the man. He stood like some fierce apparition before them, brown skin decorated with dyes and paints and tattoos. “Goodman Gopal, you let those who are not kazakhani walk so freely?”
Gopal shrugged. “You let me walk free, Wozek, when I first came. They deserve at least that chance.” He seemed entirely unperturbed by the presence of the massive spiderwhale, although Jiralla flapped agitatedly overhead. The bathawk was barely restrained violence and anger, snapping and squawking from a perch that had not yet been knocked askew by Wozek’s behemoth.
Wozek crossed his arms. “There was no war, then. Now I hear of such things as the Rape of Alswell from my messengers, and have cause to fear for my people. Two plainsmen come to my home. What would you have me do?”
“What children could bring war here?” asked Gopal. “The plainsmen have never been bloodthirsty. You have nothing to fear.”
The marshman considered Gopal for a moment, before turning back to Chaff and Lookout. “Let me see your tabula,” he said. “Just a precaution.”
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes, and she nodded. He dug his disk out of his belt and held it in front of him, close to his chest. He didn’t have much else of an option, with the eight-eyed beast staring down at him.
“They’re not slave spies either,” said Gopal, exasperatedly. “They just want to get through the marsh.”
Wozek’s face darkened immediately. “To where?” he asked. “The city of Kazakhal? The Maw? Or the deserts beyond?”
“Moscoleon,” said Chaff. “The Temple Moscoleon.” He hadn’t told Gopal or Sri that yet (or, now that Chaff thought about it, even Lookout), but at those words both Gopal and Sri immediately stiffened. He wondered if he had said something wrong.
“Pious,” remarked Wozek. He nodded. “Well, who am I to stop a pair of faithful pilgrims? Come, I shall go along with you. You are welcome to spend the night with us, so long as you spend just the night.”
He lifted himself bodily onto the back of the spiderwhale, slinging himself into the saddle on the creature’s back. Chaff had heard before the marshmen followed strength above all other things, but just how strong did one of their leaders have to be? The boy patted the big guy on the side. “No riding now,” he whispered. “We separate, we harder to catch, yeah?”
The big guy tossed his head, and did not take his eyes off of the spiderwhale. Wozek sat comfortably atop his mount, waiting for Chaff and Lookout to move first.
“Come on,” said Sri, pulling on Chaff’s hand. “We don’t want to keep Wozek waiting.”
“Who is he?” Chaff whispered, as they walked away. He tried to keep his voice low, although the marsh was so quiet that his voice carried anyway.
Sri looked over her shoulder. She, like Gopal, did not seem concerned by the spiderwhale or the man riding it. “He’s the leader of the village down the way. They come and go with the seasons, but he always makes sure to visit us when they’re here.”
“He impatient or something?” asked Chaff.
“Just very important,” said Sri. “He has places to be, people to talk to.” She leaned over and whispered, much quieter, “They say he used to run with a Jhidnu traveling circus before he came to Kazakhal. He’s very much kazakhani now, though.”
Chaff was about to respond when the sudden crashing footfalls of the spiderwhale began in earnest, as the beast stepped clear over the two of them. Chaff had to jump out of the way of its massive tail as Wozek steered it forward, and shielded his book with his body as water splashed over them.
He exchanged a look with the big guy, and they slogged on. The further in they walked, the deeper the marsh grew, and Chaff was beginning to tire of wading through the muck. Goosebumps spotted his bare skin, and he was cold and dripping and exhausted. The sun was up there somewhere, but its warmth could not penetrate the fog or the mist.
“So…” said Sri, softly. “You’re going to Moscoleon?”
Chaff nodded. He was about to tell Sri why, but then bit his tongue. Perhaps it was better not to.
“We were going to go there, once.” Sri’s expression was distant. “I would be careful. The road is dangerous, even when it doesn’t seem like it.”
“OK,” said Chaff, simply. He looked around, trying to think of something to say to fill the awkward silence. “Thanks for defending us back there, yeah?”
Sri shook her head. “That was all Gopal. I think he feels like he owes something to…your people.” She looked Chaff in the eye, and Chaff did not break her gaze. She had rather pretty eyes, bright and brown, that were too often hidden behind the hair falling around her face. “Chaff, did I ever tell you about Rituu?”
Chaff pursed his lips. If she had, he didn’t remember it. “Who that?” he asked.
“He was like a dad to me,” said Sri. “He and Gopal took me in when I was just a kid. They bought me off a slave auction, and then they freed me, just like that. He and Gopal…they loved each other.”
Sri stopped. Chaff turned to look at her; she seemed apprehensive, and was biting her lip, waiting for Chaff to answer. “Yeah?” he said. “So?”
“You don’t think that’s…weird?”
Chaff made a face. “Nah,” he said. “Love’s like kings and gods, yeah? What’s it got to do with me? People always yelling about the Ladies and the Seat and the revolution, but if they don’t do nothing to me then they don’t mean nothing to me. Maybe some elector in the Libraries got something to say ‘bout it, but not me, yeah?” He gestured for Sri to follow. “Come on! They’re getting ahead of us.”
Sri smiled and bounded ahead to catch up.
“So what about this Rituu?” asked Chaff. “Why he so special?”
“He was the biggest fibber there ever was, for one,” said Sri. “Just the grandest imagination there ever was, always telling stories about how he was the prince of this nation or that or how he had sailed past the three seas when he wasn’t yet grown-old. And he did have quite a few really amazing true stories. He was from Shira Hay, you know? Wandered all across the south, even went up north as far as Mont Don once.”
“Where’s he now?” asked Chaff.
Sri paused. She looked down. “In the owl’s embrace,” she said, her voice firm but her tone somber. “With the Lady Winter. That’s what I was telling you, about the road being dangerous. When I had seen seven summers, we, Gopal and Rituu and I, all decided to go to Moscoleon. It had gotten dangerous in the east, with the plutocrats pulling their guardsmen off the roads and the king not doing anything about it, and we just thought…it’d be a better place to go. You know that song, The Road to Moscoleon?”
Chaff shook his head.
Sri hummed the tune, singing softly, just like she had sung the old marshman children’s rhyme. “The road to the Temple is watched by the Ladies. The Ladies! The Ladies! In Moscoleon! Both prayers and blessings alike, they shall these. They say these! They say these! In Moscoleon! It just seemed like a good place to go.” She sighed, deeply. “So we took the back road, and one day, while we’re going through it, we meet this girl. She leads us back to an inn, and we find out that she’s been adopted by a couple too—a man and a woman, not like Gopal and Rituu.”
The path had become much easier to walk with the spiderwhale clearing a path for them, although Chaff did not pay much attention to what was up ahead. He focused on Sri.
“Rituu decided that it was a good time to teach me how to use a tabula. I was a slave first, even if only for a little bit, so I never had one of my own. The girl takes her first, too. The plan was to learn together.” Sri closed her eyes and shook her head. “It just went wrong. She summoned her beast first. It was too strong, too aggressive, too powerful. I don’t know why she did it alone, but she couldn’t control it. And the wounds…she must have died. I can’t imagine anyone surviving that.”
It was like the kids in the ghettoes that didn’t belong to a gang or a crew. Easy mistakes to make, with no one to watch out for them, got them killed on Albumere.
“She was just a kid, the kind to rush into things. She didn’t know any better, and it was no one’s fault. It was like a wild child dying, it just happened. But the woman who took care of her, she was so angry.” Sri held up her hands like she was holding something. “We all found that girl, lying there, at the same time. The woman got Rituu by the throat, and she kept screaming, ‘You did this!’ Over and over again. ‘You did this, you did this!’ Gopal tried to stop her, but she had this beast, this animal that came after me and…he had to choose. We didn’t fight, we just ran.”
There was silence. Sri’s story was over. Chaff looked ahead, and realized that Gopal and Wozek hadn’t been talking either. Their heads were just slightly turned their way, and their mouths were shut.
Sri cleared her throat. “So be careful, OK? Be careful on the road to Moscoleon.”
“You hear that, Lookout?” said Chaff. “We gotta…” He stopped. “Lookout?”
He spun around. She was nowhere to be seen. Immediately, sweat broke out on Chaff’s forehead. Hadn’t Sri’s story been about a girl who wandered off on her own? And now Lookout was somewhere, by herself, in this cursed marsh?
“Come on, big guy,” he said, dragging himself out of the water and onto the big guy’s back. “You seen her? You know where to go?”
The big guy’s long neck twisted as he looked from side to side. Even if he hadn’t seen her, he had better chances than Chaff ever would.
“Wait, Chaff!” shouted Sri. “This marsh is dangerous! You could drown!”
“She could drown!”
The pounding of the spiderwhale’s feet stopped, as Wozek turned. “What is the boy doing?” he shouted. “Where is he going?”
“I be right back!” shouted Chaff. The big guy bounded out of the water, twisting to go back the way they had come. Chaff felt a sudden, horrible vertigo as the big guy’s hoof slipped in the mud and his knee buckled, but the camelopard righted itself before falling into the marsh. Bleating, the big guy slowed just enough to prevent another fall. Even so, Chaff’s mouth became very dry. The big guy had sunk to his knees in that pit; how deep might Lookout have fallen?
To his surprise, Wozek was not following him. Chaff supposed it made sense: so long as he ran away from Wozek’s village and not towards it, he wasn’t a threat. All the same, if their positions were reversed, Chaff would have stopped Wozek to make sure he wasn’t going back to get help or allies to-.
Chaff shook his head. That was an urchin’s way of thinking. The urchins were treacherous, murderous scumbags, and thinking like them wouldn’t help find Lookout. Just the opposite, in fact.
There were no tracks in the water, but Chaff saw footprints in the mud on higher ground. “Up, up,” he said. “That way, big guy.”
A white mist clung around them, so dense that Chaff could barely see at all. He kept looking over his shoulder; he knew the way back to Sri and Gopal, he was sure of it, but nonetheless it would be very easy to get lost in the fog…
He yelped and grabbed for the big guy’s mane as the ground sloped steeply upward. “Lookout!” he shouted. “Where you go? We gotta get back to them, yeah? They gon’ show us the way out, that’s right.”
The Quiet Marsh had only its usual response.
Chaff did not know how long he walked back, calling for Lookout. He needed to find her. He couldn’t just leave her behind. Every step forward, though, felt like he was getting left behind himself. How long would Sri wait for him? How long until Wozek decided enough was enough?
“Lookout!” shouted Chaff. “If I do something wrong, I sorry!”
He looked around, waiting.
A figure moved in the mist, and Chaff froze. His heart beat very fast. It looked like a man, and the last time he had seen a man in the mist it had been less than settling. At this moment, he wanted nothing more than a torch: not to light the figure, but to burn it.
He heard a faint mumbling. “Little by little, big guy,” said Chaff. “You see what I see?”
The big guy flicked his tail and nickered.
“Quiet now,” whispered Chaff, as they approached the shadow. The mist swirled, so that at one moment it seemed to be just ahead of them, and the next it was several body-lengths away. The closer they got, the less human it appeared, and Chaff was just about to give it up as a tree stump or rock when it moved again.
“Lookout?” he called out, forgetting his own admonition to be quiet. “You there? We can use you right now…”
Again, he heard a low mumbling. He strained his ears, but couldn’t make out the words. “You stay, big guy,” he said, slowly clambering off the camelopard’s back. “Don’t you go running off too, I don’t have no patience to go looking for you.” The boy reached into his belt and his tabula, ready as he approached the figure.
He caught the end of its muttering. “…to the sea,” it sighed, in a deep, mournful voice, so deep that it seemed to shake Chaff’s very bones. “All rivers flow to the sea. All rivers flow to me…”
Chaff edged forward, resolving in his heart of hearts that Kazakhal was the weirdest place on Albumere.
The figure shambled forward slowly, wading through the water. Chaff could make out something that looked vaguely like a head, draped with vines like dreadlocks, and its hunched back, all covered in moss and vegetation. It stumbled forward, deeper into the mist, and hesitantly Chaff followed.
“What you doing standing there, big guy? Let’s go!” hissed Chaff.
The big guy tossed his head, annoyed, and descended back into the water to follow.
Chaff followed at a safe distance, although he didn’t know what distance was safe for this thing. Its arms were like rope made out of twisted roots, and they descended into the water, going too deep for Chaff to see where they ended. In fact, Chaff could only see the creature from its waist up, as the rest of its body swayed and rocked through the water.
“All rivers flow to the sea,” it continued to mumble. “All rivers flow to me.”
“You know where Lookout is?” Chaff asked, his voice small and quiet. The shambling thing did not respond, and Chaff shrugged at the big guy. “It like a two-part beastie, yeah? Like a plantman or something. Can humans be part of two-part beasties? It’s not like we two-part alr-.”
The monster cut Chaff off as it can began to make heaving, retching sounds. Chaff watched with horrified fascination as it stopped, swayed, and swelled, the vines that seemed to either make up or surround its body expanding until finally brackish water began to spew from approximately where its mouth should have been. Great waves of the stuff hit Chaff in the chest, and he had to cling to the big guy’s leg for support as it washed over him. The creature continued to vomit water into the marsh, the vines covering its body tensing and twisting and snapping as it did.
“Yike,” gasped Chaff, spitting water out of his mouth. He had fallen under, but the hand holding the wobbling book had managed to stay dry. “You take this, big guy, I don’t want to deal with it no more,” he muttered, tying it around the camelopard’s neck with his scarf. He looked back at the shambling figure, which had resumed its plodding journey forward.
“How long you think it’s been doing that?” he breathed, as he followed further. It was against his better judgment to stay so close to something he understood so little, but Chaff’s curiosity itched to be sated. He had to know just what this thing was. Perhaps Lookout had thought the same, and by following it he would find her.
Another shadow loomed in the mist, and Chaff held his breath. It grew larger and larger as they approached, and as the details and shapes began to break through the fog Chaff realized what it was.
It was a gigantic tree root. Like some bulbous, bloated snake, it stretched on in front of Chaff; its full size could not even be seen for the fog, but Chaff was sure it had to be massive.
“How’d that song go again, big guy?” asked Chaff. “The one Sri sang us? Poltergeist that haunts the hollow, hung himself where none could follow…” Chaff hummed tunelessly to himself as he gently touched the great root. He followed along it, behind the poltergeist of the marsh, but he could see neither the trunk of the root nor the tree it fed.
“Must be a big tree,” said Chaff, to the big guy. “A real big tree.”
He heard it again. A distressed, choking sound echoed through the marsh, and even though Chaff lagged so far behind the poltergeist, he could still feel the waves lapping at his submerged legs. He stared at the ground, thinking. If Sri was to be believed, the poltergeist was located at the center of the marsh.
Perhaps, Chaff thought, the exact center.
Chaff followed the poltergeist, wondering just how long it would take a man, even a man such as it, to puke an entire swamp into existence. He made a face. “That’s really gross,” he said, to the big guy, and the big guy flicked an ear in agreement.
They caught up to the thing easily, it moved so slowly. Chaff wondered if he was the first to think of the theory. Surely other people had seen this thing; surely they had left with their lives? The poltergeist hardly seemed to be a threat at all. Perhaps, Chaff thought, with a little glow in his heart, he wasn’t as dumb as he thought he was. He wanted to tell Lookout.
“All rivers flow to the sea…” the man continued to mumble. “All rivers flow to me…”
This was taking too long. “You talk, yeah? You tell me where my friend is, that OK?” said Chaff, and he reached out to tap the poltergeist on the protrusion that appeared to be its shoulder.
The poltergeist stiffened immediately. It turned so that its waist looked like a twisted up roll of cloth, and stared at Chaff. Its arms dangled by its sides, and while at first Chaff had assumed the thing didn’t have a face, now he saw two spots in its “head,” glowing points like jade green fire.
Then it tackled him into the water, moaning. Chaff coughed and spluttered, struggling to sit up, but the weight of the thing held him down. He managed to hold his head above the water and sucked in breath, spitting the marsh out of the corners of his mouth. It took a few seconds for him to realize that the poltergeist was not holding him down. It was just…holding him.
“Father, father,” it moaned. “Brother, son. War we lost, can’t be won. Father, father, we did wrong. Now he’s got us, now we’re done. Took us apart and put us back together! Arms for legs, eyes for ears, disk made of sap where our hearts should be!”
Chaff stared at the poltergeist, at its burning green eyes, inside the slack jaw made of vines, not even sure where to begin his questions. Before he could, though, he heard a sudden humming.
The surface of the water rippled as the vibrations shook the marsh itself. The poltergeist slid off of Chaff, and the boy fell back into the water. When he emerged, wiping the grit of the swamp from his eyes, Chaff saw it again. The man made of bark, standing just so he was shrouded in the mist.
“Brother, brother, sister fair,” mumbled the poltergeist, shambling away, resuming its lonely walk. “You’re not going anywhere…”
Chaff ignored it. He did not have time for the ravings of an old ghost. It was the master he wanted.
The humming had stopped as soon as the poltergeist walked away, and the bark-made man had disappeared as soon as the humming had stopped. Chaff grit his teeth together, running as fast as he could through the deepest part of the marsh, searching for a figure in the mist.
There! He saw it! Chaff set out in a headlong run, determined to catch him.
Chaff stumbled to a halt when the figure came into view. It was not the bark-made man. It was a man made of flesh and blood, with a prone Lookout lying at his feet, with a struggling Sinndi in his hands. His hair was tangled and disheveled, and there were shadows on his face like he had not slept for days.
“Found you,” whispered Al Innai, with murder in his eyes.
The boy stared at the night sky, the tear streaks cold and wet on his face. The stars winked overhead, mocking him with their freedom. The boy turned his head away. He did not want to look at them.
His prison stretched on around him, the endless plains of this strange grassland. Despite his best efforts to follow, the walking tree had long ago left him. He was alone.
The four disks in his hand went clink, clink, clink. They glittered, amber-gold, in the weak starlight. Four disks. As the boy had tumbled out of the tree, he had thought it was a good number to take.
He stumbled over a snag of twisted grass, and sprawled in the dirt. He rapidly blinked his moistening eyes, clutching his skinned knee and doing his best to brush away the dirt and gravel. It burned and stung when he touched his raw skin, and he whimpered as he stood shakily back on his feet.
One disk, the special one. When he held it, he felt a warmth stirring inside his chest. He slipped it into the heel of one of his fraying shoes, separate from the others. The other three, he clutched in his hands.
He kept walking.
They had dressed him in fine clothing. Golden threads hemmed his tunic and pants, and a pouch of dried fruits had been tied around his wrist. They seemed to have known it was coming. The boy did not know why his parents had sent him away; perhaps they had never been real at all. Even now, his memory of them was fading like a half-forgotten dream.
At first, he had thought this, these grasslands, was the dream. He had thought he would wake up soon enough from this terrible, surreal, endless expanse.
It had been four days and four nights and he had not yet woken.
Perhaps his so-called old life was the dream, a pleasant dream that had just ended. Perhaps he had spent his whole life inside that tree, slumbering until it was time to wake.
What was it time to wake for? Why now?
Clink, clink, clink went the amber disks. The boy stopped, his short legs incapable of taking him any further. He knelt in the grass, catching his breath. Weakly, he untied the bag around his wrist, and pulled out a slice of dried apple. He ate it greedily, barely even stopping to swallow, but as he began to dig around in the bag again his fingers only scraped across coarse fabric.
It was empty.
He chewed what was left slowly. Eat it slowly, whispered a voice in his head. Save it. Find more food now. The boy furrowed his brow. It felt like advice from another fading memory, even if it didn’t sound like it.
The boy turned over the golden disks again. He dug in his shoe, and pulled out his own; it was warm from the heat of his feet, but it had not scuffed or scratched. Its surface was flawless but for the natural ripples and imperfections.
He wiped his thumb across it. If he squinted, he could just barely make out his own reflection on its surface, a barely visible dark shadow lit by the starlight.
The boy stared at it for quite some time, as the disk gradually grew colder. It was stiff and still and inert in his hands. The boy put it away. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting.
As he got up to walk again, though, he could not stop fiddling with the other amber disks. They were the only things he had to play with, after all, and as he stared out at the lonely horizon ahead of him tears began to well in his eyes.
He shed none, though. What was the point of crying if no one was there to see or hear?
The boy exhaled, a shuddering release of emotion and energy, and nearly dropped his disks in shock when they began vibrating in response. The bottom two he let slip, and they rolled in the dirt for a second before falling at his feet. He held one, though, and his fingers still tingled from its movement.
He exhaled again, breathing slowly and heavily, and did his best not to drop the disk when it began to shake violently. Push it further. Give it more. More.
Sweat began to break out on the boy’s forehead. The blood rushed up to his head, and his knees wobbled underneath him as, even as his lungs felt like they were out of air, he kept breathing out, kept all his attention on the disk in his hands and the waving plains around him.
There was a crack like thunder as the boy fell to the ground, gasping for breath. White spots danced in his vision, as he struggled to sit upright, and it was several seconds of clutching his head and blinking his eyes before he noticed the shadow standing over him.
The boy let out a strangled yelp as he turned to see the behemoth standing over him. Its yellow fur was patterned with dark brown spots, and its long, spindly legs were matched only by its long, spindly neck. “Big guy,” the boy breathed, craning his head all the way back just to see its head. To his surprise he saw that its black eyes were wide with fear and shock.
Camelopard. The boy blinked. That was its name, he was certain of it. That was what it was. But…
How had he known that?
The camelopard tossed his head, eyes rolling as he began to back away. The boy rose hurriedly to his feet, clutching the disk in his hands. “Don’t go!” he shouted, his voice high and reedy. He wasn’t even sure if the giant had heard him, it stood so tall above him. “Please don’t go.”
He didn’t go. The camelopard turned his head this way and that, prancing in circles, legs shaking as he walked. The boy could make out a barely audible bass hum from the creature’s throat, as the big guy surveyed the vast plains.
The camelopard sank to the ground, his legs folding underneath him even while he kept his neck upright and outstretched. The animal bleated, a low, morose sound that carried far around them.
Edging forward, the boy gulped, trying to calm his raw nerves. Who was this creature? Who had sent him? Who had brought him?
With a hesitant hand, the boy stroked the camelopard’s fur. It was delightfully warm and soft, and despite himself the boy drew a little closer.
“I’m tired,” said the boy, sitting next to the camelopard. He met the animal’s gaze: the camelopard had not stopped looking at him since the boy had approached the beast. “You tired?”
The camelopard snorted and flicked an ear.
The boy wrapped his arms around his knees, and before he knew it the tears were flowing openly and freely again. “I’m so tired,” the boy sobbed. “I want to go back to sleep. I want to go back to my dream.”
And he cried into the long night, until he had exhausted everything that still longed for home inside of him. He had no dreams that night. But for the echo of his own thoughts, it was only darkness and silence.
He woke up in the morning with his face in the big guy’s fur, warm and soft. The boy must have tipped over sometime in the night, but as he blinked bleary eyes and looked up, it seemed that the camelopard did not mind. The big guy still had his head up and his eyes open, as if he had not moved at all since last night.
The boy wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He felt…empty. A good empty, a complete empty. Empty of grief and fear and worry. Empty of everything.
He used the camelopard to support himself as he stood up, and methodically picked up his four little disks. Perhaps each one was a wish, and this was his first. The boy smiled. He would save the next two, then. He didn’t know what his, the last one, was supposed to do, though. He supposed he would find out later.
The boy furrowed his eyebrows as he looked at the empty pouch dangling on his wrist. He was supposed to find food, wasn’t he?
Before he began to walk, though, the boy untied the string that held the pouch to his wrist. It was uncomfortable, dangling there like that. He considered it for a moment, his last reminder of wherever home was or had been, and slowly he let it slip out of his hand. It landed in the dirt, a sad, faded thing.
The boy turned away, just as the big guy stood up. “You coming with me?” asked the boy.
The big guy didn’t say anything.
“Let’s stick together,” said the boy. “You want to stick together?”
Not a word, but as the boy began to walk the camelopard followed.
“Let’s go.” The boy looked around, not knowing which way to go, which way was the right way. “Let’s go forward.” He paused. “Yeah?”
The boy smiled. “Always forward. That’s right.”
Twisted shadows snaked around him as the boy sat under the shade of the thorntree. The big guy stood nearby, browsing the rubbery leaves. The boy had tried to them once, but he had been sick the whole night after and decided it was better to just let the camelopard have them.
The boy stared out at the horizon, the taste of onions in his mouth. The water was clean, the food was wholesome, and the air was cool. What more could he ask for?
Company. The boy flipped the golden disk in his hand over and over. If the boy could ask for anything, it would be company. The big guy was his friend, yes, but sometimes the boy wanted more than one friend. It couldn’t be wrong, to have more than one friend.
The boy looked out at the horizon, searching for anything out there that looked like…well, that looked like him. His hands and feet, his arms and legs, his face. It had to be somewhere out there. He was sure of it.
He stared long and hard at the horizon, but nothing moved except for the swaying grass. There was nothing out here.
He looked at the amber disk again. He had promised himself it was for emergencies only, but it had been weeks and weeks and he had not yet run into an emergency that neither he nor the big guy couldn’t handle on their own.
The disk glinted in the sunlight, enticing him, tempting him. What could go wrong? There was enough food for all of them; an extra pair of eyes would help find more. The boy wondered what kind of friends he’d get. Would they be as big as the big guy? The boy doubted it, but he was ready to believe anything.
He hopped off of his branch and sat at the base of the tree. The sun was climbing and soon it would be too hot to keep moving. “I’m sleeping now, big guy,” said the boy, still fiddling with the disks. “You can too if you like, yeah? We don’t go nowhere ‘til night.”
The big guy flicked his tail but otherwise did not acknowledge the boy. The boy left him to his own devices; the camelopard could sleep when he wanted to sleep.
As the hours passed, the boy realized he couldn’t sleep that well either. His hands kept tracing the rim of his disks, and his mind was racing with the possibilities. As the sun climbed higher and the air grew hot and dry, the boy could stand it no longer. He sat up straight and held one of the disks in his hands. His hands tingled with nervous energy.
And to his surprise, with something else, too.
The disk hummed ever so softly, so lightly that the boy could barely even feel it. The boy squinted. It was hard to see in the shadow of the tree, but through the molten, smoky colors of the amber disk’s surface, he thought he saw something moving.
The boy leaned closer, his curiosity building. What was that? He saw gold and white and green in the disk, and when he angled it just right, his heart beating just fast enough, he saw something that took his breath away.
A human face. Fair hair, tied in braids behind her head. Two eyes, crinkled in a happy smile. A mouth, wide open in laughter.
The boy stared at the picture for the longest time, until his head spun from the effort of powering the disk and he had to stop and lie down. He would do it tonight, the boy decided, as he curled up at the base of the tree and closed his eyes. He would make a new friend tonight.
When he woke up, the tree was gone. The watering hole had disappeared, and the ground and grass was unblemished. It was as if the grove had never been there at all. The boy yawned. It didn’t worry him; the trees walked, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
He looked up at the swaying stars, and around him at the swaying grass. He thumbed the amber disk, and bit his lip. This was no place to do it. It had to be done just right.
“Come on, big guy,” he said, patting the big guy’s side. Perhaps one day he would ride the beast, but for now he could barely hoist himself on the camelopard’s back without running out of breath. “Let’s find somewhere better, yeah?”
As they walked through the grass, the boy’s mind buzzed. What was he going to say? How was she going to react? “Hi there,” rehearsed the boy. “Do you want to play?”
There was something missing, something he had to add…
“Hi there,” tried the boy again. “I’m…I’m…” He paused. He started over. “Hi there. This is the big guy. He’s my friend. Do you want to be my friend?”
The big guy snorted and spit on the boy’s head. Evidently, he wanted no part in this.
The boy decided he would figure out what to say later. What about actually bringing her here? With a sinking heart, the boy realized that perhaps things would be different than from the big guy. What if all her disk could do was show her face? What if he broke it somehow when he tried to bring her here?
So preoccupied was the boy with his thoughts that he didn’t realize that he was beginning to walk on dirt, not grass. He looked up. “You see that, big guy?”
The camelopard turned his head placidly, as if savoring the view.
Dark canyons snaked their way around them, their pits and crevices near pitch black in the dim light. It was a spider’s web of shadows, set against the near unbroken horizon and flat plateaus around them. It was stunning.
“Here, yeah?” said the boy. “Here.”
He looked at the amber disks, and he felt his heart racing again. He would practice first, he decided. He had two disks left, after all.
After quickly double-checking which was hers, the boy took the one that wasn’t and braced himself. “You ready, big guy?” asked the boy. The big guy said nothing. The boy took that as a yes.
And he focused. With a twisted grimace of concentration, the boy grit his teeth and put all of his attention on the amber disk in his hand. His hands were shaking from the effort, his muscles so stiff and tense they were quivering.
He held this position for at least half a minute before he loosened his grip, perplexed. Nothing had happened.
The boy wiped the sweat from his forehead and tried again, but no matter how tight or tense he grew nothing happened. Frustration building inside him, the boy stamped his foot on the ground. How was he supposed to get this thing to work?
It started to vibrate.
It stopped as soon as the boy noticed, and he snarled, shaking the disk to try and get it to move again. He needed this to work tonight! What if the canyons moved away like the groves, slithering away like snakes? He would lose this perfect opportunity.
The disk began to hum, even as the impatience and frustration built up in the boy’s gut. In-between those hot, heady feelings, though, the boy felt a single drop of cold fear. The disk was almost thrashing in his hands now, its steady hum interrupted by violent and erratic screeches, but it was too late to let go. The boy felt his vision clouding as the air was squeezed out of his lungs and the strength bled from his body.
And then it was over.
Like with the big guy, the boy found himself on the ground, with a shadow looming over him. The big guy was tossing his head nervously, and realized that yes, there could be something taller than the camelopard. Well, “taller” wasn’t exactly it.
The giant bird flapped its wings once to stay aloft as it wheeled in the air, and the boy could feel the sheer force of the wind. Its talons were long and sleek; its head was noble and proud; its eyes were gold like the amber disks glinting in the boy’s hand. The boy gaped, even as the corners of his mouth began to curl up in a wide smile.
“Hey!” the boy shouted, waving his arms. “Hey!”
The boy saw the bird’s eyes flicker from him, to the disks in his hand. There was a moment’s pause, as the bird dipped one wing to turn around and face him.
And then the eagle tucked its wings in a dive.
Before the boy could react, talons as long as his arm closed his waist. Wings that could have smothered him in an instant began to beat at the air, and the gales ripped the screams out of the boy’s mouth and scattered them to the winds.
The bird took off, and the boy’s stomach lurched as the world shrunk under him. He was too afraid to struggle, his eyes growing wider and wider as the wind whipped at his hair and the ground sank further and further away. They passed over one of the shadowy chasms, and the boy felt bile rising to his throat as the bird dived again.
The boy began to focus on the bird’s disk again, panic welling up in his gut, but his focus was broken when the bird slammed him into the cliff face. The impact shuddered his bones, the rock tearing deep cuts in his skin, and the disk fell from his hands as the boy cried out in pain.
“No!” the boy shouted, reaching for the falling amber glint, but the bird smashed him against the rock again and when the stars had cleared from the boy’s eyes the disk was lost.
The eagle landed on an outcrop on the far side of the canyon. The boy was pressed against the ground, arms splayed out and chest open, and he stared in abject terror at the bird pressing him to the ground. It stretched its wings out and screamed, hot breath rushing over the boy’s face as the high-pitched keening noise pierced his ears.
His eyes met the bird’s golden ones, and the boy found no pity or understanding in them. The bird’s eyes darted from the boy, to the sky, and it screeched again: a lost, angry sound.
How long that bird sat on that perch, screaming for the home it had just been taken from, the boy did not know. Every time it looked at him, the boy could feel the malice and hate in its eyes, and he shrank further into himself, awash with not only fear but guilt.
The bird did not kill him, but some part of the boy died in that canyon that night. When morning came at last, the eagle flapped away, still screaming for whatever it had lost, leaving the boy alone on the outcrop. He lay there, feeling his bruises and cuts, and when at last he had recovered the will to get up he began the long climb down.
It was a dangerous trip, one that his little hands and feet had only just enough strength for, but he could see the big guy waiting for him at the bottom of the canyon, pacing and bleating. That gave his spirit just a little more hope.
They walked out together, the boy limping as his bruises began to turn purple and swell. The entire time, the boy did not speak. Not to the big guy, not to himself, not to anyone. It was only after they had left—only after they had struggled their way out of the canyons—that the boy said, very quietly, “Not here. I’m not bringing her here.”
The boy remembered very little, but his night in the Redlands he never forgot.
Chaff fell. He clutched his tabula to his chest, and to his surprise he was not afraid.
He was angry.
The tabula exploded to life in his hand. Faster than he had ever felt before, he felt them vibrating and shaking and then, out of thin air, crackling and buzzing and snapping with raw energy, the big guy materialized.
The camelopard was too late to catch Chaff’s fall, but still Chaff did not hit the ground. He had been caught in someone else’s arms.
Lookout planted her legs—both of them—and grunted as she caught Chaff. Her arms were like tree boughs, stiff and strong, but while she managed to slow his descent, she could not stop it entirely. Chaff collapsed on the ground, groaning, even as Lookout hopped back up to her feet. As Chaff’s concentration on his tabula broke, she stumbled suddenly, looking dazed.
Chaff rolled on the ground. Hadiss’s gifts had tumbled out of his grasp, and, pushing past the pain and aches, he tried to pick them up.
“What the hell is going on?” shouted Al Innai, running up to Chaff. He looked back up to Parsaa, who was still making her way down the cliff. “Did I tell you to do that?”
“Smart of her to get the jump on him like that,” said Royya, the only other person to have made the descent. “We’ve only got so much food and water, Kennya Noni boy. Parsaa is more intelligent—and more ruthless—than you give her credit for.”
“Yes, but…” Al Innai froze. His face colored red as he saw what Chaff was grasping for. “The book?” he breathed.
A cold sweat broke out over Chaff’s entire body, and he stumbled forward, trying to both recover his things and mount the big guy. Lookout, noticing Al Innai’s livid expression, bent hurriedly to help Chaff to his feet. “Now would be a good time for that mystical healing bullshit,” she said, pulling him up.
Chaff had only just got to his feet when Al Innai grabbed him by the collar and pulled him in close. “What was my one rule? You fuck with me, you die in these plains,” snarled Al Innai. The muscles bulged in his arms, and Chaff’s most desperate struggles could not budge him an inch. “You want to explain yourself before I finish what Parsaa started?”
The boy’s eyes rolled, and he looked up, struggling for breath as Al Innai’s grip tightened. He stared at the sky, sucking in air, and managed to wheeze one word. “Up,” Chaff said.
Al Innai’s eyebrows furrowed, and he automatically glanced upwards- just to have Lookout’s owlcrow land on his face, screeching.
He let go of Chaff, yelling and batting away at the bird, and despite all of his training there was very little that had prepared him for an aerial assault. Every time Sinndi screeched, Chaff felt his old phobia flare, but it was masked by relief. The bird was on his side, now.
“Up, up, up,” said Chaff, clambering onto the big guy’s back and extending a hand to Lookout. “Go big, big guy!”
As the big guy broke into a sprint, Chaff turned to look. Royya made no move to stop them; she only watched, arms crossed, a smirk on her face. Lookout’s owlcrow had broken away from Al Innai and was now flapping behind them, which meant that the Kennya Noni fighter was free to pursue.
Chaff had to admit, the Kennya Noni fighter was fast. But Chaff was a child of Shira Hay. He was a racer.
The big guy was much, much faster.
“I don’t think,” said Lookout, breathlessly. “That’s the last we’ve seen of him. Any of them.”
“Yeah? So what?”
“They might cause some problems, later.”
“Nothing we can’t handle, yeah?”
Lookout grinned. “Sure. Nothing we can’t handle.”
Chaff gripped the big guy’s mane, and Lookout held on by wrapping her arms around Chaff’s waist. The canyon stretched on ahead of them, a long and unbroken path that the big guy ran quickly and easily. When and where they would emerge, Chaff did not know, but it was plenty of ground to lose the rest of the nomads in.
Behind him, Lookout flexed her leg. “You want to explain what happened back there?”
“I don’t know,” said Chaff, and it was the truth. He didn’t know why he said it with a smile. Perhaps it was just the rush of the chase getting to him. “I’m dumb, yeah? I don’t know a lot of things.”
Lookout sighed, but she did that with a smile too. “Lucky for you,” she said. “I do.”
And they rode through the Redlands. It had taken him seven years, but Chaff finally left the canyons with another friend.
The makeshift flag flapped in the wind, pointing southwest, deeper into the Redlands. Chaff hugged his bundled book and scarf to his chest, sweating in the heat. It was a hot wind, and it seemed to blow sand and grit in Chaff’s face wherever he turned. He huddled in the shade of the big guy’s body, and watched as Al Innai stripped off the bandage. The Kennya Noni fighter left the bone in place, though, as he turned in the direction the wind was blowing.
“Let’s get moving then,” he said, hoarsely. “The faster we get out of here the better.”
Chaff clutched his book closer to him. Perhaps, when he had a spare moment, he could get Lookout to read it for him and see if there was an answer somewhere in there.
His gaze flickered to Lookout. Could he trust her enough to share his secret with her? What if she ratted him out to Al Innai? She certainly didn’t seem to be the reverent type, but Chaff could never tell with religion and gods. He didn’t want to risk it.
From her seat on the big guy’s back, Lookout had apparently noticed him looking, and met his gaze questioningly. Despite the hot sun, she looked pale, and there were dark bags under her eyes. The skin around her leg was blotched purple and red, and the flesh seemed to sag to her bones.
Chaff looked away immediately, and rubbed his thumb on the girl’s tabula for good luck. He hoped Lookout would get better soon. There were no healers out in the grasslands, no medicine to be found and no sick bay to rest.
“You two, get moving!” shouted Al Innai, and Chaff patted the big guy’s side. The camelopard snorted, and walked on unsteadily. He didn’t look so good, either. The fur was hanging loosely on him, and his black tongue seemed almost swollen. Chaff hadn’t heard his stomach grumble in hours, and truth be told it was days since the camelopard had last eaten. A creature that big needed food in him, and fast.
“We find something to eat soon, yeah?” said Chaff, putting a comforting hand on the big guy’s side as they walked. “Gonna do it, no worries.”
The big guy flicked his tail, as an even stronger wind blew at Chaff’s back. It should have cooled him off, but all he felt was the sharp prick and sting like little needles on his bare arms and legs.
They had walked for barely a minute when a sharp crack rang out across the shimmering Redlands. Chaff froze, tense, but it was close; Clatter was on the ground, whimpering feebly as Royya drew her fist back for another punch.
“No!” shouted Parsaa, and she leaped in Royya’s way, grabbing her wrist and shielding the frizzy-haired urchin with her body. When she grabbed Royya’s arm, though, it was like watching the thin woman try to snap rock with her bare hands. Royya barely moved, although she did stop to give Parsaa a once over.
Royya’s grim expression seemed to spasm momentarily, before her mouth split in a wide, cold smile. “Sorry,” she said, and her voice was hoarse, too. Dry, Chaff thought. Everyone’s voices is dry. “Sun made me do it.” She offered no other explanation. She just stood straight, adjusted her pack, and kept walking.
Al Innai made no comment, and so no one else did either. As Chaff walked past them, he saw Parsaa dabbing Clatter’s bleeding lip with the hem of her shirt, and heard Scrabble commiserating with Clatter, arm around his shoulder. “Don’t feel no bad nothing ‘bout crazy Royya,” said Scrabble. “Don’t worry ‘bout it.”
Chaff looked Royya’s way. She had wandered off separate from the group, and from what Chaff could hear seemed to be humming tunelessly to herself. He squinted. He had to know if she was volatile enough to be a threat.
“You see why she do that, Lookout?” asked Chaff, craning his head to get a better look at Royya’s face. As far as he could tell, she was still smiling.
“No,” croaked Lookout. “But I know why.”
“How-?” began Chaff, but then he remembered who he was talking to and said, under his breath, “Never mind.”
“She’s scared,” said Lookout. She sniffed, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. She looked nauseous, and Chaff put a steadying hand on the big guy’s side, a sign for him to walk a little slower and a little more smoothly.
“She doesn’t look scared,” said Chaff, unable to shake the image of Royya’s frozen smile from his mind.
“She’s more scared than any of us.” Lookout opened her eyes. “See the way she keeps looking over her shoulder? She doesn’t think this is the right way, but she has to stay with us if she wants to survive. She’ll do anything she needs to, to survive.”
Chaff could appreciate that line of thinking, although just because he appreciated it did not mean he sympathized with her. That just made Royya all the more dangerous.
He hugged his book tight to his chest again. He had more of a mission than just to survive.
The sun began to set as they walked on, and Chaff welcomed the coolness. Long shadows danced with the orange tendrils snaking across the arid badlands, which at this point had devolved from grass to sunbaked dirt, cracked like porcelain. In the fading sky, he could make out the faint outline of the moon, full and round. The eye of the Lady Fall, Hadiss had called it, watching over all of them.
Chaff thought nothing of it, even as the eye stared unblinkingly at the little party as they trekked across the dusty, broken badlands. The walk was becoming harder; his muscles were sore from his sprint from the slavers around the city, and tired from lack of rest. They burned as he walked, a slow fire that ate away at the fringes of his strength and stamina. The path seemed to be leading uphill, too. It was a hard climb, but Al Innai led point, marching straight forward in the direction the wind had pointed him.
If Chaff remembered correctly, he knew why the land was sloping upward. He knew where they were going. He didn’t say anything out loud, but as the big guy began to toss his head in nervousness, Chaff put a comforting hand on his neck and whispered soothing nonsense up to his ear as he held the camelopard’s tabula.
As they walked, Chaff kept his gaze up, looking straight at the orange and blue sky. Sinndi, Lookout’s owlcrow, was too weak to fly, so the skies were clear, but all the same, Chaff looked out for birds.
Lookout sucked in a sharp breath. Of course, she would be the first to see it. As they crested the hill, Chaff could see it with his own eyes, and his suspicions were confirmed.
The long canyon cracked this place, these Redlands, in two. As the group finally ascended, a long flat stretch of stone and dirt lay before them, broken only by the dry riverbed that snaked through the canyon. Chaff could only imagine what force had carved the great stone plateaus and cliffs ahead of them.
Up ahead, Parsaa had put a warning hand on Al Innai’s shoulder. Al Innai had paused, and when he turned to look at where the canyon led, in both directions, Chaff saw a pained grimace on his face. The path ahead was not so straight and easy—not, Chaff reminded himself, that it ever was.
“You said you’ve been here before, Chaff?” said Lookout, and Chaff started. He looked around. His face must have given it away. Everyone else was surprise or startled, but he had not jumped up or gasped or swore. He had simply been…disappointed.
Chaff nodded once. There was no use lying about that.
“You know how to get out?” Lookout coughed when she said that, and Chaff’s eyes darted from her leg to her eyes. He knew what she meant. If this wasn’t the way out, then Lookout was never leaving Shira Hay.
He remembered standing on the edge of those cliffs, staring at the canyon below. Some of the canyon walls were sloped and smooth; one could almost walk down them if they were careful. Others were straight, steep shots downward. That was the one Chaff had stood on, staring at the long fall downward.
The wild child shuddered. It must have only been one winter, at most two, after his Fallow. He was not proud of that moment.
“Last time I is here,” said Chaff. “I turn back. I don’t know how we goes forward.” He nodded his head slowly. “But we go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
Despite her obvious fatigue and the pallor of her skin, Lookout smiled. “That’s right,” she echoed, and looked ahead at the great canyons. The strata of the rock glowed in the light of the setting sun, russet to bone white to an orange red that almost looked like the surface of a tabula. “You know,” Lookout said. “If you take a moment to just…appreciate it, it really is beautiful.”
“No water, though,” said Chaff. He didn’t care how beautiful the Redlands were if they were going to kill him. “No hollow ever comes here. Nothing lives here, yeah? No good, no good.”
He paused, staring at the great crack on the face of Albumere. He scratched the big guy’s side, but the camelopard did not move, the scene reflected in his black eyes.
“It is beautiful, though, yeah?” said Chaff, nodding. “The view’s…pretty.”
And they stood there, their backs to the setting sun, and watched the light paint the Redlands as night fell and the stars began to emerge.
“We don’t got much water left,” said Scrabble, shaking both the water skin and Chaff from his reverie. What was left of their water sloshed around pitifully in the skin, and Chaff knew that one more drink was all he got before he went thirsty. “If we make camp here, Innai-Innai…”
“We’re going to keep moving,” grunted Al Innai, waving them on. “Down into the canyon, then back up and over. That’s the way to go.”
Chaff gulped. Climbing down into the canyon would not be easy. Climbing up and out of it would be near impossible.
“What about the water?” shouted Clatter. “We drink-a-drink ‘fore we go!”
Al Innai looked over at them. Chaff knew what he was thinking. He would not waste a precious drink on someone who might fall to their death in the next hour.
“You drink on the other side,” he said. “Now suck it up, let’s get moving.”
Chaff caught Scrabble leering at him as they walked ahead, and felt a crawling in his gut. Scrabble could not lull him into the same sense of false security as Hook. Chaff resolved to keep as far away as possible from the urchin on both the climb down and the climb up. He would make sure to do the same for Royya, too. Except…
The slope was steep, but Al Innai insisted on marching straight ahead. He climbed down easily and swiftly, his muscles rippling as he swung from handhold to handhold like some gorillai from the Jhidnu wilds. Royya was less sure-footed, but as she began to clamber down she was agile and confident. Parsaa’s footsteps were careful and cautious, but she seemed in no danger yet.
But as Chaff watched, he realized that no matter how careful and cautious someone was, hooves could not grab those handholds. He looked up at the big guy, the lanky, cumbersome animal, and knew that a camelopard had always been designed for horizontal distances, not vertical ones.
“Parsaa!” he shouted, before she had gone too far. “The big guy can’t make this climb!” Chaff’s look was pleading. Perhaps she could get through to Al Innai, if they were so close…
Parsaa pursed her lips, and looked from the big guy to the canyon floor. Finally, she said, “Climb down here alone!”
Chaff shifted closer to his friend. “I’m not leaving-!”
“You won’t have to,” said Parsaa, cutting him off. “Climb down alone, then use his tabula to summon him. He won’t have to lift a hoof.”
“Clever Parsaa,” Chaff breathed, and he nodded. “See you on the other side, big guy,” he said, patting the big guy on the leg.
“Wait!” said Lookout, and her face was, if possible, even paler. “Chaff, I can’t make that climb either.”
Chaff met eyes with Lookout, and the same thought passed through their heads at the same time.
Shaking his head, Chaff looked around, trying to think of another way. “Could- could your owlcrow fly them down to me?”
“No,” said Lookout, weakly. “Her talons aren’t big enough, and the tabula are too heavy.”
Chaff was silent. He didn’t know what else to suggest. He wasn’t the clever one.
“Fuck it,” said Lookout. Chaff looked up. “Fuck it. Yeah, fuck it. Alright, I’ll do it. I don’t give a fuck, I’ll do it.” Aggressively, Lookout dug behind her own scarf and pulled out her tabula. She flipped it over in her hand, staring at it. “Whatever. I have to do it. No choice.” She gripped it tight. “Lady Summer, fucking burn it all, I got no choice.”
Chaff could not bear to meet her gaze.
“I trust you,” said Lookout, breathing deeply. “You get me down there, alright? You get me down there, and then you get me out of here, you hear me?”
Still not looking at her, Chaff nodded. It felt almost sacrilegious, to touch Lookout’s tabula, like he was violating some intimate and private part of her. But, slowly, hesitantly, he took the tabula from her hand. He stuffed it in his belt at once; he didn’t feel right touching it with his bare skin.
But when he did, he saw the momentary shudder. “I won’t keep it, Lookout,” he said, as the girl hugged her own shoulders. “I’ll give it back as soon as I can.”
Lookout just nodded.
The other two urchins, with him, were the last to go down. “I don’t know ‘bout you,” said Clatter, as they scraped and slid their way down the hill, clinging to the rock face. “But my hunger getting’ hungry.”
“We gotta eat somethin’, yeah?” said Scrabble, affecting Chaff’s speech again. Chaff sped up his pace. He did not want to be caught near this two without any of his own allies to protect him.
Clatter licked his lips. “You know what-what I got a craving for? Meat. Aw, meat.”
“Not so much meat to find out here, yeah?” said Scrabble. “Not never gonna find something living. Gotta make do with what we have.”
Chaff had had enough. He almost leaped down the rock face, doing his best to get as far away from the two as possible. As long as he held the big guy’s tabula and his tabula and Lookout’s tabula and the girl’s tabula, they would all be safe. He could—he would—make sure of it himself.
Hands slick with sweat, Chaff could feel his arms shaking as he grabbed the tiny cracks and juts in the canyon wall that he could hold onto. The book and the scarf wrapped tight around his waist, he could only hope that the others were too busy climbing on their own to notice.
Chaff made the mistake of looking down. All of a sudden, the wall seemed to be sloping in, like he was hanging from the rock with nothing to catch his fall but the ground. Chaff could feel his heart palpitating, feel bile rising up to his throat.
He choked it down and kept climbing. He could rest when he made it to the bottom, and he would make it to the bottom. Chaff was a survivor.
He kept a weather eye out for both the urchins Scrabble and Clatter, and Royya of the Cove. Of all the things in the canyon, they were his biggest threats. He had no doubt that at least one would kill him, just for an extra drink of water.
His gaze flickered from foothold to Royya to the skies to Clatter to Scrabble to the next foothold. There were too many things to track, too many to keep all in his head. He closed his eyes, doing his best to let his mind rest even as his body shook from the effort.
Then he felt a foot on his hand.
His head snapped up. Royya and the urchins were both whole body-lengths away! They would never have been able to get to him so fast!
That was the first thought that ran through his head before he saw Parsaa right over him, her tired, motherly face somehow more tired than ever. “I’m sorry, Chaff,” she said, softly. “There’s just not enough for all of us.”
And she pushed his hand away, sending Chaff grasping wildly for support as his whole upper body was thrown off-balance. His heel struck the rock and began to bleed even as he tumbled over and began to fall down, down, down. There was nothing left to hold now but air and hope.
The boy clutched his precious things, closed his eyes, and waited for the ground to catch him.
The grass was dying.
Chaff first noticed the long grass shrinking as they walked onward, until it reached only his knees. It was brittle and yellow, and cracked underfoot as Chaff walked. The soft loam of the plains became gravelly and dry, and the land itself seemed to bite at Chaff’s feet as he walked.
Although a storm had just broken over the plains, Chaff found his mouth lined with sores and dust. The sky was a clear unbroken blue, with not a cloud in sight, and the sun beat down mercilessly on the nomad group as they walked.
Chaff remembered coming to a place like this only once, one night long ago. It was not a memory he was fond of.
A tired owlcrow landed on Lookout’s shoulder, and Lookout groaned and shifted. She looked half-dead already, slumped against the big guy’s neck, and her swollen knee was wrapped in so many bandages that she could not even sit astride him properly. “Pass me that water skin, will you?”
“Drink sparingly!” shouted Al Innai, the consummate survivor, as Scrabble sycophantically handed the leather water skin to Chaff. Chaff glared at the urchin, remembering how close Hook had let Scrabble to get to him and all the good that had done the old crew leader.
“We won’t be meeting any of the walking groves soon,” said Al Innai, as Lookout dribbled the water into her mouth. Chaff took a drink too, the water comfortingly cool on his cracked lips. “Not here, not in the Redlands.”
“The Redlands,” Chaff repeated, under his breath, as he passed the skin back. “So that’s what this place called.”
Lookout laughed and muttered, “You been here before Chaff?”
Her acute hearing had evidently been unaffected, and her propensity for eavesdropping likewise. Chaff looked away and said nothing. In three years, he had told no one about his trip into this place, these Redlands. He wasn’t going to start now.
“What? You not talking to me anymore?” said Lookout. She sounded almost happy that Chaff had not yet acknowledged her. Chaff, on his part, did not respond. It gave Lookout something to do, and seemed to fill her with a little more life.
“I can’t see why you’d be angry at me.” Lookout shifted, taking short breaths as she moved her leg. “Seeing as you were the one who dragged me out here in the first place. You say you need me? What good are my eyes now? Sinndi’s too tired to fly and when she gets some air all I can see is grass and grass and grass.”
“Different kinds of grass,” said Chaff, feeling the spines and bristles of the short, yellow grass they now walked through. This kind wasn’t good for much except perhaps bedding, if he was desperate, and he had watch out for viperbugs and rattlerats hiding in the underbrush.
“Oh, yeah? What do you know about grass?”
Chaff considered answering, but decided against it. Lookout didn’t appreciate people knowing more than she did.
“Hey, Lookout,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “What does Jova mean?”
The thin girl brushed sandy hair out of her face and pursed her lips. “Sounds like gibberish to me. Why, where’d you hear it?”
“Nowhere,” said Chaff, absently. If even someone as smart as Lookout did not know what Jova meant, how was he supposed to figure it out?
“Fine, don’t say it,” said Lookout, and the owlcrow on her shoulder ruffled its feathers huffily. “Although I’ll tell you now, the aloof and mysterious angle doesn’t work for you, Chaff.”
It seemed such an odd thing to say that Chaff had to repeat Lookout’s words under his breath. “The a-loof and…the what?”
“The aloof and mysterious angle. You know, the look. The attitude. Doesn’t work for you.”
Chaff scratched his chin. “Why not?”
“Because you’re dumb.”
The boy looked down. He adjusted the scarf around his neck, which was starting to grow hot under the heat of the sun, and wondered if it was supposed to make him any smarter. He continued to stare at his feet, when he noticed something odd.
The grass had been growing shorter and shorter as the troop had walked, and here, where weeds and shrubs dared to stretch out of the parched cracks in the earth, the grass stopped.
It was unnerving.
Al Innai had noticed too. He waved for the group to stop, turning slowly as his sharp eyes took in the terrain around him. Chaff followed his gaze. If they were to continue on the path they were on, they would go into a vast scrubland that stretched just as far as the grassland into the horizon. It may have been just Chaff’s imagination, but the very air seemed to shimmer in the distance on the unbroken flats.
They could turn back to the grass, but Chaff could see that no matter which way they walked, short of retracing their steps entirely, the plains broke into small shrubs and patches, nowhere near the size and abundance of the old grasses Chaff used to walk through.
The Kennya Noni fighter took off his pack, and Chaff could see the sweat on his shoulders and biceps as he stretched out his arms. His face was haggard, and worried.
“I need water,” he said. “I need something of value. And I need something to dig with.”
No one seemed to question this strange request. Scrabble handed the skin to Al Innai, who drank only a mouthful, while Royya and Parsaa put down their packs and began searching them for…something, Chaff did not know what.
“Come on, Stink,” said Clatter, leering at him as he passed. “Let’s dig-a-dig for some diggin’.”
Chaff followed him slowly. Did Al Innai intend to bury something? The boy looked over his shoulder to the Kennya Noni fighter, and saw that he had knelt, tracing a circle over his forehead again.
It was like the buried jug, Chaff realized. It was a token to the Lady Fall. It was prayer.
It was begging.
“You stay here, big guy,” he said, patting the camelopard as he passed, and the big guy snorted and flicked his ears as Chaff began to search the short grass for some stick or stone that Al Innai could use to break the hard earth.
Sweat was beginning to drip into his eyes. Chaff took off Hadiss’s scarf and slung it over his shoulder; he didn’t care how smart it might make him if his neck lit on fire. He kept his back to the sun, searching the grass in the shade of his own body.
His foot bumped against something and Chaff, intrigued, bent down to inspect it. Most of it was buried in the dirt, but as he began to sweep away the loose topsoil with his hands, he began to uncover more of it.
It was long and white and sleek, and Chaff had to tug hard to break it out of the earth when the dirt below, which had sucked up most of the rainwater from the storm, became too compact and hard for him to dig at. It cracked, and Chaff fell backward with a shard of what had been buried in his hands.
It was bone.
From the leg of some large animal like (and Chaff shuddered at the thought) the big guy, the bleached white bone sat heavily in Chaff’s hand. He turned it over, wiping the dirt away, and stared at the odd patterns playing on its surface. It seemed almost warped in parts, unnatural ripples and waves on its surface like it had been held too close to some intense fire, melting and then solidifying again.
“Yike,” muttered Chaff, scraping off what mud he could with his fingernails. “What can do that?”
“Wazzat, wazzat?” said Clatter, and Chaff nearly speared the boy as the urchin bent to inspect Chaff’s find. “Hey, hey, that’s a digger!”
Chaff tapped it experimentally on the ground. It didn’t break, which was good enough for him.
“Looks like,” said Chaff, tossing it to Clatter, who nearly dropped it as he stooped to catch it. “Give that to Al Innai, yeah?”
Clatter ran off, shouting, “Innai-Innai, see what I found!” Chaff rolled his eyes, but said nothing. It was too much trouble to argue.
Al Innai nodded approvingly. “It fits,” he said, and spun it in his hefty hand. He looked around. “Now I just need something to bury.”
Royya stood up, putting a foot on her pack, her grin unmoving, her eyes grey and cold. Parsaa knelt by both her packs and Al Innai’s, anything they could spare laid out neatly on the ground in front of him. As for Scrabble and Clatter, they had nothing but the grime on their skin and the rot in their teeth.
Al Innai passed over Parsaa’s offerings, lips pursed, and shook his head at each one. He gestured with a hand, and Parsaa immediately began to pack the knives and trinkets and utilities away. Not a word was exchanged between them.
And then Al Innai began to walk towards Chaff.
Lookout raised her head, her hair once again a tangle mess in front of her eyes, and this time she did not bother to swipe it away. Al Innai looked to her, and then to Chaff, his eyes slowly scanning over the both of them. Chaff did not dare meet his gaze, hoping against hope that he would just walk away. He didn’t know what Al Innai was looking for, but whatever it was Chaff didn’t what to give it.
“The book,” said the burly Kennya Noni fighter, and dread became replaced with horror. Hadiss’s book, the book with the coza in it? It was his ticket to finding the girl, his promise to Hadiss that they would meet again. He could not just leave it to rot in the ground, for the winter worms and maggots.
Al Innai held out a hand, and his voice was as cold and hard as iron. “She favors books, boy,” he said. “Give it to me.”
And as Chaff looked up to meet the fighter’s gaze, he knew that this was a struggle he could not win. He pulled it from his cloth belt and gave it to Al Innai without looking, and Al Innai took The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man with a curt grunt.
“Tents,” said Al Innai, as he jammed the long bone into the ground. Parsaa scurried to obey. “Sleep if you can, don’t move around much if you can’t. Get in the shade if it’s too hot, but don’t all crowd in at once. Try not to drink too much. We’re going to be here a while.”
Chaff watched as Al Innai threw the book aside onto the ground and began to dig, his eyes smoldering. Behind him, the big guy was starting to snort and stamp, and Chaff realized too late that he had been gripping his three tabula ever since he had given away the book.
“Hey, Chaff,” said Lookout, and her voice betrayed her nervousness. “You might want to calm down your friend here.”
Chaff gave him a pat on the side. “Easy, big guy. Come on, get down, let’s break a little now, yeah?”
The big guy rumbled, flicking his tail. Lookout’s owlcrow began to twitch its head neurotically, as Lookout licked dry lips and failed to look casual.
“Because your head too close to the sun, big guy!” said Chaff, tugging at his fur. “Now, come on, let Lookout off.”
“Yes, let me off, please and th- ow.” As the big guy sank down, Lookout’s leg hit the ground and she winced in pain. She continued to hiss and gasp and occasionally swear as she got off the big guy, with Chaff’s help, and slid onto the ground.
“Just let me into the shade, that’s it,” said Lookout, her forehead shiny with sweat, and it was from more than just the heat. Chaff stared at her knee, and felt apprehension crawling in his gut. The bandages were stained a sickly purple color, and Chaff could see blue veins running along Lookout’s calf.
Lookout didn’t seem to notice, or if she did then she didn’t call any attention to it. “Lady Summer and Spring, how do the Hag Gar Gan do it? Just let me walk next time, Chaff. Oh, by all the Ladies, just let me walk,” she said, massaging her thighs.
Chaff decided not to ask who the Hag Gar Gan were, and instead sat next Lookout in the shade of the big guy’s body, as Al Innai continued to dig. With every thrust of the bone shovel, the sun seemed to jump a little higher in the sky.
The shimmering was definitely not in Chaff’s imagination any longer. The air itself rippled and bent, and Al Innai’s figure became an indistinct blur as the earth baked beneath them like clay. Perhaps, Chaff thought as he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the heat, that was what had caused the warping in the bone, but in the back of his head he knew that wasn’t true.
The more Chaff thought about it, the more it seemed like the bone had been fused. The ripples had originated from some point at the center, and while the upper half (the one that had cracked) had been thin and delicately built, the lower half was thick and bulbous. It was still one continuous bone, no doubt, but Chaff couldn’t help but feel it was a little odd.
He scooted himself deeper into the big guy’s shadow and wondered what could have done that.
Chaff’s stomach rumbled. It felt almost too hot to eat, but the boy saw wraps of dried bush meat and tubers near Parsaa’s pack and knew he wasn’t about to turn down an opportunity for a meal.
“Hey, Lookout, you wants anything?”
Lookout did not respond.
Chaff poked her in the shoulder, and the girl slumped, but otherwise did not move. He held a hand in front of her face; she was breathing, but shallowly. “Lookout?” he said again, shaking her, and with a screech (well, the screech was from her owlcrow), Lookout opened her eyes.
“You wants anything?” Chaff asked again, cautiously.
Her eyes were glazed and unfocused, and it seemed to take her a moment to recognize Chaff. Her mouth moved, but she made no sound, until finally she said, “I, um…I…say again?”
“Getting food, yeah? You want somewhat to eat?”
“Yeah,” said Lookout, distractedly, and she wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Yeah, sure.”
Chaff wondered if he should say anything, but Lookout did not seem to want to talk to him. He squeezed her shoulder just once before he rose. It didn’t look like she had noticed.
Eying the food, Chaff wondered if he would have to argue Parsaa to get it, but the woman waved him over as she saw him approach and Chaff decided that perhaps Parsaa was not so bad.
“Hungry?” she said, and she gave him a tired smile. “Now’s as good a time to eat as any. Have the phaan first, the salts in the meat are no good when it’s this dry out.”
Chaff took the flatbread cautiously. “Thanks,” he said, and the look of surprise on Parsaa’s face was so comical that he had to smile.
“A gentleman, I see.” As Chaff began to fold the phaan into a bite-sized piece, Parsaa took his hands gently and tore a small shred off. “Eat it like that,” she said. “It lasts longer that way.”
The boy nodded, tearing small pieces off and sticking them in his mouth. The phaan was good, if dry, and his mouth felt sticky and tacky after just a few bites. He coughed, smacking his lips together to moisten his dry tongue. “Can I have some more?” he asked. “For my friend,” he added, quickly.
Chaff could understand Parsaa’s hesitation. He had never known when his next meal was going to be in the plains, too.
“Please?” he added, smiling.
Parsaa smiled and gave him one more strip of flatbread. Chaff glowed on the inside. He was good with people! “If she’s sick, feed her slowly,” said Parsaa, peering at Lookout’s prone figure. “One bite at a time, don’t rush her even if she wants more. And if we find a grove, give her sambuu or make her suck on thorntree leaves to stop the swelling.”
Chaff nodded. He was about to leave when Al Innai walked over, clapping his hands together to brush off the dust. His heart clenched when he realized the book was gone, although he could still see the patch of dirt where it had been buried. Al Innai had stuck the long bone into the ground as straight as he could, and tied one of his bandages around the end like a flag.
“Give me some,” said Al Innai, snapping his fingers, and Parsaa bowed her head and handed him more flatbread than Chaff and Lookout’s pieces combined. “Anyone in the tent? I need to get out of the sun.”
“The boys are doing their best to share,” said Parsaa, looking over her shoulder at the tent she had just set up, one Chaff recognized as the tent he himself had slept in. “And you know how Royya is about her things.”
Al Innai grunted, and marched off to his own tent without another word. Chaff stared at Parsaa.
The boys. The way she said it made him think twice about what exactly Scrabble and Clatter’s relationship with Al Innai was, and re-evaluate the servile woman called Parsaa.
Parsaa yawned. “You best get some sleep now, child. There’s precious else to do while the sun is up and you’ll need the rest.”
Chaff nodded. As he walked back to Lookout and the big guy, he heard shouts from behind him and saw Al Innai shove Scrabble and Clatter out of his tent. The urchin boys grumbled and muttered, but made no move as Al Innai wordlessly slipped inside. Scrabble went his own way, trying to find what shade he could in the pathetic patches of grass on the border of the Redlands, while Clatter curled up just outside the tent, bending his long legs awkwardly to fit in its weak shadow.
“Here you go, Lookout,” said Chaff, handing the roll of phaan to her, and Lookout took it in her hand. She didn’t eat it, though. Occasionally, she would feed a scrap to her owlcrow.
“Sorry, big guy,” Chaff said, rubbing his friend’s side. “I don’t think they brought much camelopard food.”
The big guy snorted, but Chaff knew he could handle it. They had gone far longer both in the city and out of it without meals before.
Chaff watched as Parsaa laid down, right out in the open, watched as Scrabble finally stopped rolling around, watched as Clatter’s fits and twitches ceased. He watched the openings of Al Innai’s and Royya’s tents, and neither of them moved. He watched Lookout as she dozed off again. He watched, and he waited.
The air grew so hot that Chaff felt it almost impossible to move. It was so hot that he could not breathe, so hot that he could feel the sheer weight of it all pressing against every part of his skin. No one would have even wanted to be awake in this heat.
So, when the sun was its highest, Chaff rose and walked to the mound where Al Innai had buried his book, unafraid of being interrupted or caught. The cracked earth actually scalded his feet as he walked; his hands burned as he began to dig away at the now loose dirt that covered the hole.
The hole was actually quite shallow, but as Chaff was digging it felt impossibly deep. When he found at last the corner of his book, though, a wide grin split his face. It more than made up for it.
He wiped the dirt off the cover and hugged it to his chest. It was his way to find her. It was his promise to come back. He couldn’t let go of it.
He covered up the hole as best he could, and stuck the long bone back into the ground as straight as possible. No one would ever know that he had taken the book back. He could bundle it in Hadiss’s scarf, he could hide it, he could keep it. It was his.
And on the chance Al Innai found out? Well, Chaff had dealt with grown-olds before. He could deal with Al Innai.
It never occurred to Chaff, as he was digging, that perhaps it was not Al Innai he should have been worried about. It was not Al Innai he was cheating.
A lone wind blew against Chaff’s face, and Chaff reveled in the coolness even as the Lady Fall whispered silent retribution into his ear.
The stars shone like a hundred thousand glimmering eyes, winking out when they turned away and flaring bright when they opened. Such was the night sky of Albumere: always changing, never constant, the constellations swirling not so fast as to be noticeable but just fast enough to be disorienting.
Chaff tried looking up, and then he tried looking down, but no matter which way he looked the world seemed to shift around him. He clung to the big guy’s side and closed his eyes, trying not to look as he walked, but that only served to dizzy him further.
The constellations, he had heard some of the city folk say, were the plains of the goddesses, upon which all four of the Ladies walked endlessly. It was easy enough to believe: the stars in the sky seemed to sway as much as the grass on the earth.
He hoped Al Innai knew where he was going.
The boy held the tabula of the girl in his hand as he walked, and after looking surreptitiously around to make sure no one was watching, waved his hand over the surface and whispered, “Show me.”
None of the other nomads seemed to notice as the tabula began to hum. They had begun the day’s journey energetic and ready, but when Al Innai had called for them to make camp the bruised clouds overhead had chosen that moment to split. Chaff hugged his still damp clothes, and felt his feet squelch in the mud. They hadn’t been quite so energized after that.
Chaff could barely see the amber shadows in the dark, but as he held the tabula up to his ear he could hear nothing under the hum but a vague, rhythmic beat, like a hundred footfalls all happening at once.
“What’s that you got there?”
A violent clash of emotions surged through Chaff so suddenly he nearly dropped the girl’s tabula. It hummed so loud that Chaff heard one word, one crystal clear word that rang in his head for the rest of the night.
He hardly had time to process it before he stuffed the tabula in his belt, his fingers shaking. Fear was what he felt most of all, fear that someone was going to try and take her away from him again, and then anger at being interrupted, and then dread as he turned around to see the beady eyes of the owlcrow, glinting in the night.
Lookout smirked, peering over from her perch on the big guy. “You look like I caught you on the shitter or something. What were you looking at?”
Chaff shook his head. “Nothing, yeah? Is nothing.”
Before Lookout could say anything, Al Innai shouted, “No straggling, you two! We’ve got a long way to go, let’s keep moving.”
Chaff sped up his pace just a little, almost wading through a particular puddle that had grown in the sodden grass. It was good that the soil was so loose; most of the water had drained away already. All the same, Chaff could hear the big guy’s hooves suck at the mud as they walked faster.
The word echoed in his head as he walked. Jova. Jova. What did it mean? Was it a word he did not know? The place that she came from? Jova. Perhaps the book would tell him.
“I know you have a third tabula,” Lookout whispered, as she clung to the big guy’s mane. She seemed to have basic knowledge of how to ride (one of the seemingly infinite things that Lookout just knew), but even so her injured leg made it difficult for her to keep astride the big guy. She had to quickly lean back on the big guy, breathing heavily, and the camelopard cast an annoyed look behind him before turning back forward.
“I see you with it,” continued Lookout, as they forged onward. Chaff squinted. How did Al Innai know which way to keep going? As far as Chaff could tell, they were just…walking. “And there’s a little crack running down in it, which your other two don’t have. Most people would miss it, but these eyes spot everything.”
“Congratulations, Lookout,” said Chaff, distractedly. The book in his belt, which he had so painstakingly protected from the rain, shifted as he looked around, and Hadiss’s scarf hung heavily on his neck. The stars overhead continued to dance still.
“So what gives, huh? I’ve never seen you with another animal before. You holding onto a slave’s tabula or something?” Lookout looked indignant that her smartness had inspired so tepid a reaction from Chaff. “You got a butterbug or a beetlegnat hiding in your shirt? Come on, Chaff, you can tell me.”
Chaff tightened the belt around his waist and made sure that her tabula was safely tucked away. “It’s nothing, yeah? No worries, no problem.”
Lookout harrumphed and looked away, dissatisfied. Chaff didn’t know what to say to her. Bringing her tabula up again with another person was not something he was going to do lightly.
“If you’re going to drag me out of my way while I’m sick and injured,” said Lookout, crossing her arms. “The least you can do is trust me enough to-.”
“Watch out for her, big guy, OK?” said Chaff, patting the camelopard on the back, and the big guy rolled his eyes but snorted in acknowledgment.
“Where are you going?” hissed Lookout, as Chaff ran to join the rest of the troop.
“Not talking to you, yeah?” said Chaff. “Not gonna answer no more questions.”
Lookout sat, fuming, on the big guy’s back, but she had no way of speeding up while the big guy continued at his placid, unconcerned pace.
“There you are, boy,” said the woman, Royya, nodding with an approving grin on her face. “Grow a spine, put your woman in her place. That’s it.”
Chaff paused, shifting his stance so that he was ready to run. He was not talking to Lookout, yes, but that didn’t mean he was ready to start discussions with strangers.
“Looks like you’ve already learned your other lessons,” said Royya, adjusting her pack and rolling her shoulders. She was a lanky woman, with a sun-browned face and stained teeth. A simple shell earring dangled from one ear, and while Chaff had to squint to see them in the gloom, her hands were large and calloused.
She walked a distance apart from Al Innai and the woman Parsaa, who seemed to follow the Kennya Noni fighter wherever he went, and the urchins, who kept to themselves mostly, as they marched onward. (Scrabble, Chaff noticed, looked quite at home in the plains, but Clatter kept staring at his feet. The frizzy-haired boy walked a circular, weaving path, stepping around patches of grass Chaff couldn’t see: a city boy, evidently, who was afraid of getting his feet dirty.)
“Learned all your lessons already,” continued Royya, picking at her teeth. “Learned them the hard way, I bet. Lots of crying and screaming involved, no doubt.”
Chaff stiffened. He wanted to walk away from Royya now.
“Oh, it’s alright to admit it,” said Royya. “Everyone’s gone through it. It’s one of those dirty secrets no one acknowledges, like jerking off or something. You’ve gone through hell, haven’t you? Made it through the wilds, probably had a couple run-ins, maybe even got blood on those tiny little hands of yours. Guess what? So has everyone else. It doesn’t make you special. It just makes you a survivor. Every damn person on Albumere’s a survivor. If you aren’t, well…you don’t know how many kids’ skeletons the grass has buried.”
The boy stared open-mouthed at Royya. She spoke so frankly and matter-of-factly that she didn’t even bother to look at him as she talked.
“Sorry,” she said, after a stretch. “Guess I forgot my manners again. It’s what the plains do to you, don’t they? You spend years out here and you sort of lose touch with people. Can’t figure out what expressions mean anymore. Can’t figure out when they’re lying or telling the truth. Can’t figure out if they hate you, if they want to hurt you, if they’re going to kill you.”
Royya turned to look at Chaff, and her grin, which at first had seemed smug, now appeared eerie and empty. It flashed in the darkness, a glowing gash in her dark silhouette.
“That’s Shira Hay’s special challenge,” she said, staring at Chaff, her grin unwavering even as she talked. “All the other nations got their own flavor of wild children. The land breeds them. A wild child in Shira Hay can go years without meeting another living soul. They just…wander. Death or life catches up with them eventually.”
“You look like a city boy to me,” Royya continued. “Look like you made it there early. Lucky you. I didn’t see the city until I was grown-old. Eighteen, nineteen winters, maybe. When I was a kid, I stumbled and stumbled all the way to the coast, until I reached Farsea and the Cove. Saltmen found me there.”
Chaff had only dim knowledge of the oceans of Albumere. Farsea was to the north, Oldsea in the southeast, Lowsea all the way on the other side of the continent. Da’atoa was in one of the oceans, Chaff couldn’t remember which, although the saltmen pirates spread out and sailed all of them.
“They have it different in Da’atoa.” Royya stopped looking at Chaff and turned her head up to the stars. “Only a couple hollows there, walking in circles on their islands. Wild child there either swims out into the sea or goes crazy. Most of ‘em go crazy. Start chanting and dancing, shouting to whatever gods they think are up there, eating each other. The sea buries a lot of skeletons, too. The land breeds them.”
Chaff shivered. The only boats he had ever seen were the barges, owned by powerful slavers and merchants traveling up and down the Gammon. To have that power, combined with that madness…
“Can’t think of anywhere on Albumere where Albumere won’t break you,” said Royya, staring vacantly into the sky. “Can’t think of it. Can’t think of anywhere at all. Seat of Winter will freeze you to the bone. Wild children there stop feeling. Pain, emotions, everything, they just stop feeling. Everything in Moscoleon is poisonous. Wild children there get paranoid. Half-starving, no idea what’s going to kill them or not, everything’s a gamble. The marblemen in the Stronghold will kill you on sight. Wild children there hate everyone. All they know is fight, fight, fight. The land breeds them.”
One name stuck out to Chaff in particular. Moscoleon, where wild children were paranoid. Paranoid, Hadiss had told him once, meant always afraid.
Chaff had to admit, sometimes he felt a little paranoid. It kept him alive, didn’t it? He didn’t see what was wrong with it.
Royya sighed heavily, and shouldered her pack again. “Well, it was nice talking to you,” she said, absently. “Don’t let the girl get the better of you. Lay down the rules, that’s it.”
And she walked away, leaving Chaff confused and more than a little disturbed. “She crazy, yeah?” Chaff muttered to himself, as he watched the woman speed up her pace until she was even with Al Innai. “Crazy Royya.”
“Yeah, she crazy alright,” said a voice beside him, and Chaff felt very, very paranoid indeed as he twisted to see Scrabble walking right beside him.
“Where you people come from?” hissed Chaff, looking over his shoulder just to make sure that Clatter wasn’t standing behind him with a gag and a shiv. “Always sneaking up on me. No good, no good.”
“Aw, sorry, Chaff,” said Scrabble, not looking sorry at all. “Just want to hang tight with my friend, yeah? Make sure he doing OK and all that.”
“Yeah, well,” Chaff began, ready to follow Royya’s advice and lay down some kind of rule about personal space, when the owlcrow screeched. It wasn’t just for Chaff or Scrabble to hear; it was loud, harsh, carrying as far as it would go, and in the great plains of Shira Hay it carried far.
Chaff whipped around to face Lookout. Had something gone wrong? Was she hurt? But no sooner had he turned when voices from behind him started to shout.
“Ambush!” shouted Al Innai. “Slavers!”
“They seen us!” shouted another voice, harsh, unfamiliar, and out of the long grass dove at least half a dozen shadowed silhouettes, racing to surround the nomad group.
Without hesitation, the big guy galloped forward. Scrabble forgotten, Chaff dashed for his friend and leaped, clambering onto the camelopard’s back behind Lookout as the big guy dashed for safety.
“Thank me now,” said Lookout, gasping for breath as the big guy’s movement caused her injured leg to swing violently back and forth. She was red in the face, and sweat beaded down her forehead from more than just riding exhaustion.
“Why now?” screamed Chaff, doing his best to direct the big guy from behind Lookout’s frame.
“Because I want to hear you say it before you’re dead!”
The big guy reared, suddenly, and Chaff nearly fell off the camelopard’s back as the beast twisted to avoid the lunge of one of the slavers. Beside him, he saw Clatter, running for safety, towards the biggest ally he could find, and the big guy had to step over the urchin as he evaded the slaver’s attack.
They infested the borders around the city, Chaff knew, but he thought that Al Innai could have at least guided the troop past them. Chaff remembered a similar problem upon entering the city, a ring of fire surrounding a broken wagon, and the fury of the merchant who owned it. They had been easy to spot then because of the big guy’s size. Chaff felt his stomach lurch. Had it been the same problem this time, too?
Chaff grabbed the big guy’s tabula, the vibrations already beginning to numb his arm, ready to give the big guy any boost he needed to get away. Before he could even shout at the big guy to run, though, something dashed in their way.
Al Innai was faster than any fighter Chaff had ever seen, and more than that he seemed to be in the midst of more than one fight. His outstretched palm caught the slaver ahead of them on the back of the head before he twisted around the slaver’s back and gave him a solid shove into the ground. Al Innai ran after that, bounding away to wrestle a man off of Scrabble and Clatter while the slaver he had just dispatched stumbled to his feet.
The big guy reared and kicked the slaver in the head. With a sharp crack, the man fell over, sprawled on the ground.
Chaff’s throat dried. Of course, the last time he thought that…
The camelopard walked on top of the man as he ran, and Chaff made sure the big guy stepped as hard as he could onto the prone slaver before running away.
It was just one, though, and as fast as Al Innai was he was not fast enough to beat six people. The howls and hums of summoning were beginning to ring through the clearing, and the ground under Chaff was beginning to rupture from the effects of some spring animal.
He ground his teeth in frustration. If only he was the only one on the big guy, he could have maneuvered so much more easily, but with Lookout sitting there as well, it was nearly impossible to just hang on. There were tears in the girl’s eyes now, too, from the pain and stress her damaged leg was causing her. She looked about ready to faint, but her hands, knuckles white and veins pronounced, still clutched tight onto the big guy’s mane.
Royya dashed past them, towards the hole Al Innai’s fighting had made. She wasted no time in helping Clatter to his feet, no effort in beating the slavers back down: she just ran. Parsaa was close behind her, but she waited long enough to wave to Al Innai, catching his attention.
They were not going to fight this battle. It was not one they had to win.
“Go big, big guy!” Chaff shouted, and the big guy bounded forward. The storm had broken and he had been unleashed; torrents of water flew with every step as the big guy galloped away. The stars overhead became streaks of light as the big guy ran, and nothing could stand in their way.
Except, suddenly, the mud splashing in the big guy’s wake began to move with purpose. Chaff watched in horror as tendrils of water began to snake their way around the big guy’s ankles, and the camelopard had to strain just to break through the sudden quagmire. Chaff heard the distant hum of some tabula, but he couldn’t believe it. This was not the work of any winter animal: none of the beasts touched by the Ladies could manipulate mud and muck like this. What was going on?
Al Innai stamped his foot onto the crawling muds, pushing the big guy out of the puddles as he shouted, “Go! Go! Get out of range!”
There was no time to wonder why, to question anything. Chaff focused, and the big guy bellowed to the skies as the boy felt a shared warmth surge between them.
Chaff bit down on the scarf under his chin, gritting his teeth as he felt lightning crackle through his veins. It was for her. Everything he had done, he had done to find her. He would not be stopped here, not by some anonymous group of slavers out in the featureless expanse of the grasslands. Not here. Not until his work was done.
The big guy pulled free and galloped away, Al Innai running at impossible speeds beside them, the rest of their troop dashing alongside them. Chaff did not know how long they ran. There was nowhere to hide in the grasslands. Only speed could save them. The battle-fever pushed him on, his blood pumping quick and fast through his head, demanding that he go faster, faster.
When he stopped, though, all that energy seemed to leak out of him. The big guy made it a few paces before he had to stop, and as the humming of the tabula ceased Chaff slipped off the camelopard’s back and landed in the grass, his vision spinning.
“Did we lose them?” he heard Scrabble ask, as the urchin stumbled to a halt as well.
“Yeah,” gasped Al Innai. “Yeah, I think we did.”
Chaff grit his teeth and slowly, painfully, rose. He would not be seen lying down when Scrabble was still standing. He had to prove himself strong.
His knees buckled and he fell onto the big guy’s side, his head still spinning. Chaff sucked in long, slow breathes, his eyes closed, trying to soothe his jittery nerves.
When he looked up, it was to Lookout staring at him with wide, almost fearful eyes. Her owlcrow hopped back and forth on her shoulder, its head twitching in agitation but its beak clasped tightly shut.
“What are you, Chaff?” she whispered. “What did you do?”
Chaff could not find the energy to answer. He stared at Lookout, his eyes asking his question for him.
“I felt it,” breathed Lookout. “Between you and- and him.” She twisted around and patted the big guy’s side, as the camelopard slowly folded his knees under him. “When we were running, it was like…the Lady Summer’s fire. More than that, it was…it was…indescribable.”
Chaff didn’t know what to say. He just looked away, his hand tracing the girl’s tabula in his belt. The stars danced overhead and the grass swayed underfoot. Chaff’s mind was filled with one purpose, burned with a single, overriding purpose, even as the tingling in his fingers faded away.
Find her. He had to find her. In Moscoleon, out east, past Kazakhal, past the Seat of the King, past Hak Mat Do. East. Except…
He looked around him, and the featureless, endless plains seemed to sway with him as he turned. He raised his voice. “Al Innai,” Chaff said. “Where are we?”
The nomad looked up from his pack; items had been lost as they ran and he had been surveying the damage. At Chaff’s question, though, Al Innai looked up immediately. He turned slowly, just as Royya and Parsaa looked up too, and the more he took in the tenser he seemed to get.
Al Innai bowed his head, and traced a small circle on his forehead. To Chaff’s understanding, it was a prayer of some sorts, although he did not know to which Lady.
“We,” said Al Innai. “Are lost.”
He poured the mead into the hole in the ground, and once it had all dribbled away he put the jug in as well. Chaff watched as Al Innai began to bury the jug with his crude shovel, and couldn’t help but squirm as it was covered in dirt.
“A token to the Lady Fall,” said Al Innai, at Chaff’s semi-horrified expression. “So she will give us good fortune and guide us safely through the plains.”
Chaff was not entirely sure how the Lady Fall would get the mead if they just dumped it into the dirt, and surreptitiously reminded himself that he would have to dig that jug out later before they left. He said none of this aloud, though. He just nodded and let Al Innai continue burying his jug.
There were no words said, no complex entreaties or prayers. Al Innai simply covered the hole as best he could, smoothed it over with his foot, and then tossed the stick he had been using as a shovel aside, wiping his hands in a satisfied sort of way.
“Come on, let’s get moving,” he said, gesturing for Chaff to follow. Scrabble and Clatter were absent, having gone to get water from the river, but for some reason Al Innai had kept Chaff with him. The boy still did not know why, although he had his suspicions.
Granted, most of his suspicions involved him being killed and eaten, and as much as Chaff felt uneasy around Al Innai he was fairly certain the Kennya Noni fighter would not go that far.
Al Innai put his arm around Chaff’s shoulder again and Chaff flinched. Fairly certain, at least.
“Chaff,” said Al Innai, giving him a friendly pat (although Chaff couldn’t shake the feeling that Al Innai was either looking for where he kept his tabula or checking if he had any weapons), “I’m going to be honest with you. Usually, I don’t travel with people I don’t know. Scrabble and Clatter, Royya and Parsaa, I know. You and your girl? I don’t.”
That hardly sounded like a bad thing to say, and Chaff said so. “That’s smart, yeah? Better safe and all that, yeah?”
“Yes, exactly.” Al Innai paused. “Now, Hadiss vouched for you, and that’s good enough for now, but I want to get just one thing straight.”
Chaff wasn’t looking. He was trying to remember where exactly Al Innai had buried the jug. It wouldn’t be too hard to find, not with the fresh dirt right on top of-
And then Al Innai had pinned him to the ground. Chaff gasped as Al Innai pressed hard against his throat, and pulled in vain against the man’s grip. It was like beating his fists on a rock; Al Innai would not budge. Desperately, Chaff reached for his tabula, to summon the big guy, but Al Innai pinned his hand down easily as well.
“Listen here, you dirty, dumb wild child,” he growled, and he bent down until he was breathing in Chaff’s face. “Fuck me over and you die in those plains. It might be in ten seconds or it might be in ten years. Doesn’t matter. You will never get out without my help. Clear?”
Chaff did his best to nod, but he could barely move his head with Al Innai’s arm pinned against his throat.
“Good,” said Al Innai, getting off and wiping his hands off on the side of his tunic, as if he had done nothing more than trip on top of Chaff. “As long as that’s clear. Come on, let’s go see how your girl is doing.”
Chaff rubbed his neck as he rose, and glared at Al Innai’s retreating back. He might not have been able to fight him off, but all those years practicing in the street races had not been for nothing. He was fast enough to get onto Al Innai’s back, get his arms around his neck, and squeeze…
His gaze flickered to the other tents, and he saw someone duck out of sight the moment he looked. He straightened, and followed behind Al Innai at an even space, his hands loose and relaxed by his side.
Better to play it safe. Al Innai had someone watching his back, although Chaff had not seen who.
“If you always walk this slow, it’s going to be a problem,” said Al Innai, as Chaff jogged to catch up.
Chaff shook his head. “No problem. I got a big guy, yeah? Got someone to ride with.”
“Speaking of, how much does it take to feed that thing?” asked Al Innai. “We can only carry so much with us, and I for one am not lugging around six bales of hay to keep that thing alive for a couple days.”
“He don’t eat that much, yeah? Don’t worry about it.”
“Oh, no, you can’t shit me like that,” said Al Innai, spinning around and standing in front of Chaff. “I had something like that once. Spring antelope. Thing didn’t do anything except shit and eat. If your beast’s going to need food, that’s something I need to know.”
“He don’t,” said Chaff, and he meant it. “We eat what we find. We done it before.”
Al Innai snorted. “Alright. If it starves to death, we’re eating it.” And he turned and kept walking.
“Ain’t nobody gonna eat the big guy,” Chaff muttered, under his breath, but only when he was sure that Al Innai was out of earshot.
Chaff trailed behind Al Innai after that. He didn’t want to get within striking distance of the Kennya Noni fighter, and even if the man was faster than him at least Chaff would have a chance to run away if things got violent. Why or how things would get violent, Chaff wasn’t sure, but the precaution was hardwired into his brain. He needed to keep himself safe.
The sun was starting to crawl up over the horizon, orange light casting long shadows over the grass. Chaff could see the brick buildings and the great libraries of Shira Hay in the distance; they weren’t that far away, but compared to the vastness on the other side of the outskirts they seemed absolutely tiny, little outposts and islands in a sea of emptiness.
The outskirts struck an odd balance between wilderness and civilization. Trash and scorch marks stained the flattened, brown grass, and the numerous tents that dotted the area each looked as if they could be torn down, rolled up, and carried on one’s back in the matter of minutes. As the sun rose so too did the nomads of Shira Hay, wrapped in as much clothing as they could fit on their bodies, with bags under their eyes and spots on their teeth. They had browned, sullen faces, thin arms and long legs, and overwhelmingly seemed to be living alone. Chaff could understand that.
The smell of grease from the cooking fires began to drift Chaff’s way, and his belly rumbled. If this was any ordinary morning, he’d be scouting the stalls and the shops around this time, looking for scraps to scavenge or meals to steal. Instead, he had to rely on the generosity of Al Innai.
If he had been given the choice, Chaff probably would have gone with the former. At least theft was something he could control, while Al Innai had whims and moods that Chaff would never be able to predict, no matter how long he lived with people.
A sudden scream made his head jerk upwards. He tensed, looking around. Where was Al Innai?
He saw, opposite him, the big guy clambering to his feet. He had evidently been resting, letting the wounds on his side sit, but now the camelopard’s eyes had grown wide and a distressed bleating began to rumble from his throat.
The scream began again, from inside the tent. Lookout.
Chaff ran, diving inside to see Lookout, eyes red and hair disheveled, backing away as best she could from Al Innai, who had held his hands up in a placating gesture but whose face read as pure anger.
“Will you shut up, girl?” barked Al Innai, as Lookout paused to draw breath.
“Lookout, Lookout, it’s OK!” shouted Chaff. “He’s frien- he’s with us.”
Lookout closed her mouth, looking from Chaff to Al Innai, taking it in. Beside her, the owlcrow ruffled its wings and twitched, beady eyes glinting, although Chaff did not hear the hum of any tabula.
Then Lookout shook her head and rubbed her red eyes, trying to straighten into a more dignified position. “I knew that,” she muttered, not looking up. “I was just…taking precautions.”
“It seems like we’re all the cautious type here then, aren’t we?” said Al Innai, annoyed. “Boy, get your stuff and your girl and clear out. We eat while we walk, we’ve taken too much time as it is. I’ll explain the rules to you as we go.”
There were more rules? Chaff had assumed don’t fuck me over was the only one.
He scooped Hadiss’s scarf and book up in one arm, and patted himself down to make sure everything else was still on him. His three tabula, his cloth belt, and the bandages he still wore around his ankles: those were all there.
“Come on, Lookout,” he said, putting her arm around his shoulder. “Let’s get up.”
Lookout hobbled to her feet, planting her injured leg gingerly on the ground as she walked. The effort seemed to take more out of her than it should have; she was breathless by the time they had stumbled out of the tent, and needed to take a breather while leaning on the big guy’s side.
“You’re right,” she muttered, as they watched Al Innai’s silhouette work inside the tent. “He is scary.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Chaff, although to be honest he wasn’t paying much attention. He eyed the road, wondering if it was worth it to go back and dig that jug out again. In the end, he decided against it. He didn’t know how offended Al Innai (or the Lady Fall) would be, and he wouldn’t have any way to sell it or hide it for quite a while.
All the same, it hurt to leave it buried.
Chaff looked down at his sparse belongings, which were starting to feel heavy in his arms. He had no pack to carry them in, and he definitely did not want to carry them for the whole trip.
“The scarf yours, big guy,” said Chaff, tossing it over the big guy’s back. The camelopard did not seem to mind, although when he started to use the scarf to tie the book to the big guy’s side he started to snort in protest.
Chaff shushed him. “Carrying books around make you smarter. That’s why all the electors do it, yeah?”
The big guy spat at him, but Chaff pushed on regardless. “My neck too small, big guy,” said Chaff, petulantly. “I do it if I can, but I can’t so I won’t.”
Lookout limped over, snatching the book out of Chaff’s hand as he tried ineffectually to slot it in the space between the scarf and the big guy. “What are you trying to put on his neck anyway?” she asked, turning it over and looking at the cover. She gave a long, low whistle, and the owlcrow on her shoulder cooed.
Chaff watched, unsure of what to make of her reaction.
“You, shoo,” snapped Lookout, waving the owlcrow away. “Go eat a mouse or something.” She turned to Chaff. “Where’d you get this? Did you steal this? The electors are lax about a lot of laws, but if they see that you’ve stolen a book, you could be in some serious shit.”
“It’s from a friend,” said Chaff, snatching the book back. “He gave it to me!”
Lookout leaned on the big guy’s side, grinning. “I don’t mean to be offensive, Chaff, but can you even read?”
Chaff glared at her. “Can you?” he said, finally, by way of answer.
The girl tossed her beige scarf over her shoulder. Her eyes were still red, but she seemed to have recovered some of her old cockiness. “Sure, I can. Smart people have to know how to read.”
“Then you gonna teach me how, yeah?”
“Hell no!” said Lookout, and Chaff wasn’t quite sure if she was faking her surprise or if she was actually taken aback. “What, you think I can just sprinkle some magic hollow dust over you and you’ll learn your letters? It’s not that easy, Chaff. Anyway, why would I waste my time teaching you something like that?”
“Cause I won’t stop bugging you if you don’t?” offered Chaff, holding the book out to Lookout.
“Just try,” said Lookout, smugly. “I know who’s going to break first.”
Chaff pursed his lips. He met Lookout’s gaze and patted the big guy’s side just once. The camelopard stepped aside, taking Lookout’s support away from her, and the look of shock on her face was matched only by the violent wheeling of her arms as she tried to find her balance. She winced when she had to put weight on her injured leg, and glared at Chaff as she wobbled on one foot.
“You teach me,” said Chaff. “Or you don’t get the big guy.”
“You evil little boy,” hissed Lookout, trying to grab him, but Chaff took just one step back and he was out of reach. Lookout’s gaze flicked up to the skies, and her hand reached for her tabula, but from the concern in her face she seemed to be deep in thought. She glanced at over the tents, and wobbled in their direction for just a moment, but in the end she sighed, and opened her arms in surrender. “Fine,” she said. “Now will you just give me something to lean on? My leg is starting cramp up.”
The big guy stepped forward, and though he showed no teeth, he met Chaff’s gaze and his eyes were smiling.
“Tents,” spat Lookout, in disgust, as she hopped over to the big guy. “Flimsy fake buildings. By all the Ladies Four, I hate tents.”
Chaff held the book back up to Lookout. “What does the front say?”
Lookout squinted. “The…The Song of…Mazzia, the W…Wandering Man,” she read, slowly. “The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man.”
“Who’s he?” asked Chaff, cocking his head.
With a tired shrug, Lookout said, “Dunno. Guess you’ll find out once you read the book, won’t you?”
Chaff opened the book to the page where he had seen the coza, and traced the ink. Had the Wandering Man gone to Moscoleon? What kind of traps and perils had he met on the way?
“What does this part say?” asked Chaff, holding the page up to Lookout.
“It’s a book, Chaff, you have to start from the beginning.” Lookout flipped a considerable amount of pages back to the first. “Right…here. Only proper way to read stories like these, from the beginning.”
Chaff’s eyes widened. “But then it’ll take so long to get to the part I want!”
“Oh, I know,” said Lookout. “But the journey’s what makes it worth it.”
“Yike,” Chaff said, feeling just how many pages he had in-between the beginning and the picture. There must have been tens—no, hundreds—well, maybe not hundreds—a lot of pages in-between. “OK,” he said, holding up the first page. “Then what does this say?”
“Chaff, I’m not going to read the whole book out loud to you right now.” Lookout pointed to her knee. “My head hurts and I am injured. Wait, or bother someone else with it. Actually, don’t: knowing you, you’ll probably walk straight up to an elector and ask them to read your stolen book. Put it away, before anyone sees.”
“Don’t matter anyway,” said Chaff, tucking the book into the cloth belt where he kept his tabula. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it fit. “Won’t be dealing with electors for a long time now.”
Lookout furrowed her eyebrows. Her owlcrow returned, flapping noisily as it slowed to land on her shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“We leaving, Lookout! We going away from Shira Hay!”
The girl straightened, but almost immediately her knees buckled under her and she collapsed onto the big guy, breathing heavily. “You already decided? When did this happen, Chaff? By the Ladies, did you even think to tell me?”
Now that Chaff thought about it, he realized he hadn’t. He opened his mouth, trying to think of something to say, and then said, meekly, “We leaving Shira Hay, Lookout.”
“Dammit, Chaff,” snarled Lookout, gripping the big guy’s fur so tight her knuckles were white. The big guy tossed his head, bleating in distress as Lookout hobbled forward. “You thought I could just uproot and leave? I got people to watch out for here! Friends! You know what those are, Chaff?”
“I thought you were one of mine,” said Chaff, hoarsely.
“Well, listen to the news crier, Chaff, but you’re not my only one. I can’t just leave my life in Shira Hay to run off…wherever the hell you and your Kennya Noni nomad are running to!”
“But you say it isn’t safe in Shira Hay no more!” Chaff clasped his hands together. “I need you with me, Lookout.”
Lookout stiffened. She stared at Chaff, her gaze as hard as granite, and after a moment rubbed her eyes. “What’d you just say?”
Chaff blinked. “I say I need you with me!”
The girl looked aside and took a deep breath. Her eyes were starting to shine again. “Chaff?”
“Don’t ever say that again.”
Al Innai stepped out of the tent, the bed rolls stacked neatly on top of the pack that he carried on his back. He set to work taking the stakes of the tent out of the ground, and looked over to Chaff and Lookout. “We got a problem?”
“No,” said Lookout, not looking away from Chaff. “No problem.”
A wide smile split on Chaff’s face. “So you coming?”
“Not going to turn down someone who needs me.” Lookout punched Chaff on the shoulder. “Not this time, anyway. When we leaving?”
Lookout slapped her palm against her forehead. When she let it slide off her face, she rolled her eyes very pointedly at Chaff. “Of course we are,” she muttered. “Who else? Just us three?”
“More on the way,” said Al Innai, from behind her. “Seven total.” The tent wrapped up and stuffed inside his pack, he stood and held his hand over his eyes as he squinted at the sun. “Come on, I want to move fast. Don’t want to get stuck in the sun at mid-day.”
“I thought we is supposed to travel by day,” said Chaff, slowly. “I thought we wasn’t supposed to let the stars…something about stars…”
“If you want to get roasted into a shriveled bean of a wild child, sure,” said Al Innai, snorting. “Where’d you hear that?”
Chaff rubbed his head. “I don’t remember.”
“It’s people like you that make everyone think plainsmen memories are shit.” Al Innai picked up his pack, the large muscles on his shoulders and arms moving visibly as he shouldered it. “Come on, let’s get moving.”
As he began to walk away, Chaff looked to Lookout, whose head was hanging, who looked pensive. “Big guy, get low,” he said, patting the camelopard’s side.
The camelopard knelt, but Lookout did not move. Chaff gave the girl a gentle nudge on the shoulder.
Lookout started, but caught on rather quickly as she looked from the kneeling camelopard to Chaff. It took a bit of maneuvering to get her onto the camelopard’s back, and she yelped as the big guy stood again, but riding seemed to come easily to her.
The tent where Al Innai had been gambling had already been torn down. Chaff walked beside the big guy as they approached it, and saw Al Innai greeting Scrabble and Clatter, who both had multiple skins bulging with water from the Gammon.
One woman, Royya, had rolled up the tent and had a pack like Al Innai’s on her shoulders. The other, head bowed, seemed to be carrying far more, bags and bags of supplies for the journey slung over her back.
“You gave the Lady Fall her dues?” asked Royya.
“Would never forget,” said Al Innai. He gestured to the party. “Come on, let’s get moving. We’ve got a long road ahead of us.”
And that was all the ceremony they had. Chaff trailed behind the group with the big guy, stroking his fur absently.
“Hey, Chaff,” said Lookout. She was trusting Chaff to steer the big guy, looking back instead at the retreating cityscape of Shira Hay.
“Promise me one thing,” she said, and the owlcrow on her shoulder rose high up, up into the sky, as if trying to get one last clear look of the city. “Promise me we’ll come back.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, staring at the endless grasslands ahead of them, deceptively empty. “Yeah, OK. I promise.”
Chaff woke to Lookout’s owlcrow screeching and flapping its wings, as the girl herself groggily sat up straight. He felt his side, made sure all his tabula were still there, and then stumbled upwards.
“Lookout!” shouted Chaff, scrambling to his feet, nearly tripping over her as he wiped the dream-sand from his eyes.
“That is my name,” said Lookout, testily, making a face as she rubbed her forehead. “By the Lady Winter, my mouth is dry.” She looked around her, and her hand tightened reflexively. “Chaff…where are we?”
Chaff looked around too, at the patchwork tent tarp and the soft bed rolls. He could see the shadow of the big guy, curled up outside, and in a corner lay Hadiss’s precious gifts: the book that had told him where she was, and a red scarf of the electors.
Lookout groaned before Chaff could answer her question, holding one hand to her head and one hand to her knee. “This is shit,” hissed Lookout, falling back down. “My head hurts. My knee hurts. My fucking tongue hurts. Trust me when I say I know what it feels like when my tongue hurts.”
“You was out for a long time,” said Chaff.
The owlcrow’s neck extended and it hissed. Chaff flinched instinctively, reaching for his own tabula, but the owlcrow just started to hop back and forth like it was pacing. Lookout’s eyes widened. “How long?”
“Six or seven…”
“By the Ladies Four, Chaff!” Lookout fell back down, glaring at him incredulously. “Are you kidding me? Are you actually being serious?”
Chaff squinted to see if Lookout was angry or not. Eventually it became too difficult, so he gave up. “Yeah,” he said, simply.
“Burn it all, you are,” snorted Lookout, covering her eyes. “Chaff. You’re dumb.”
“Yike,” muttered Chaff. That was a serious problem.
“Made me think I had fallen into a fucking coma or something,” grumbled Lookout, turning over. “Made me think I had slept through the thrice-damned war or something. And where the hell are we? Sinndi, go on, go outside, shoo!”
The owlcrow hopped until it had passed through the tent flap, and then leaped into the sky, wings spread out to embrace the early morning gloom.
Chaff rubbed his eyes. The owlcrow took some getting used to, and as much time as he had spent with it he still didn’t like birds.
“The outskirts…” Lookout muttered, as her tabula began to hum again. With Lookout, Chaff realized, it would be constant, never-ending, always on. She never seemed satisfied with her own eyes. “What are we doing in the outskirts? How did I get into the outskirts?”
“You was out the whole time then, yeah?” asked Chaff. “You don’t notice what happened?”
“I notice everything!” Lookout snapped, immediately, and this time she definitely looked angry. “I just…I know what happened. Know more about this place than you do, even.”
“If it makes you feel better,” Chaff muttered, under his breath, too soft for Lookout to hear.
“You know where the rest of the crew is?” she said, after a pause. She seemed unwilling to look Chaff in the eye when she asked.
Chaff stared at the ground. He had practiced the lie all last night until he had fallen asleep, but now the time had come to tell it he found himself suddenly lost for words.
“Chaff?” Lookout slid off her bedroll and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Did we get Veer out?”
“They kills everyone,” said the boy, not looking up. “I can’t find Tattle or Hurricane afterwards. I find a friend after and he brings us here.”
It was more words strung together than Chaff had said in a long time and he couldn’t help but feel they had come out wrong. The longer the silence stretched on, the less he dared look up into Lookout’s eyes.
“Everyone?” she said, hoarsely, after a while.
Chaff just nodded.
“All of them? They didn’t spare the slaves or- or…”
“All of them,” said Chaff. “Veer gone, yeah? She better off now. Better dead than an Alswell slave.”
“And better free than dead,” snarled Lookout, and she tried to stand. She gasped in pain as she put weight on her injured knee and collapsed back onto the bedroll, clutching her leg, blinking back tears from her eyes.
“Free’s not an option, yeah?” said Chaff, hugging his knees. “Ain’t nobody free.”
Lookout didn’t answer. She just stared at the tent, the tabula humming in her hands. Chaff’s stomach dropped as he realized what she was doing. If she found Veer alive—if she knew Chaff had been lying…
Chaff’s gaze flickered across Lookout’s prone body. He would be able to escape easily enough, but he’d never get Lookout on his side after that, and he needed those eyes.
The boy reached for the book, with half a mind to shove it in Lookout’s face to distract her from her search, but it was too late. Lookout gasped, a single, short, sharp breath.
Then she closed her eyes and turned her head away. The tabula stopped humming.
“Lookout?” asked Chaff, hesitantly.
“They burned him,” she whispered, quietly. “They hung the body over the bridge.”
Him? If Lookout wasn’t talking about Veer, who was she talking about? Chaff dug deep into his head, but his memory, as faulty as ever, came up blank.
He decided to ignore it. They both had secrets. They would both keep them.
“Who owns this tent?” Lookout asked, hoarsely, breaking Chaff from his thoughts. She had recovered so quickly, from desolation to cold business in seconds. “And how do we know they won’t kill us and take our tabula first chance they get?”
“We already slept in here one night,” said Chaff, although he felt a familiar twinge of fear seizing his body again. “They would’a already taken it, yeah?”
“No reason to push our luck.” Lookout forced herself up. “Chaff, answer the question. Who owns this tent?”
“Friend of a friend,” said Chaff, thinking of how Hadiss had introduced the man to him. “Takes all his stuff outside, says we can sleep in here while he keeps watch.”
Lookout stared at her knee, and then the open tent flap. “I didn’t see him outside. He left us?”
Chaff shrugged. He hadn’t checked.
“Think you can take him?” asked Lookout, picking gingerly at the bandage tied around her knee.
Immediately, Chaff shook his head.
“Oh, come on, have a little faith in yourself. You’re Kennya Noni, right?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, looking at his bare, unwrapped wrists. “And so’s he. Real Kennya Noni. Grown old Kennya Noni. Scary Kennya Noni.”
Lookout looked down. She was no Tattle, and neither was Chaff. A single Kennya Noni fighter was enough to scare both of them off, while the entire armed forces of Alswell hadn’t even stopped their old crew leader. Perhaps, Chaff thought to himself, that was why he and Lookout were safe, sitting on soft beds on the outskirts of the city, while Tattle and Hurricane were lost somewhere in it.
“Don’t worry, Lookout,” said Chaff, clenching and unclenching his fists. He looked at the shadow of the big guy behind the tent again, slumbering peacefully, and smiled. “I don’t think we in trouble.”
“Really? Why not?”
“Just a feeling,” said Chaff.
Lookout groaned, falling back down. “You feel that little tickling in your skull? That’s your brain. It’s trying to think. Let it.”
Chaff watched Lookout, not convinced by her casual demeanor. She kept looking away, like she needed a moment to herself to hide her face before turning to Chaff with exaggerated expressions, as if putting them on display for him to see.
He wondered if he should say anything, but, in the end, he didn’t know what to say. Perhaps Lookout’s owlcrow could help her get through it, just like the big guy had helped him. He would give them time to be together later.
“He helps me,” said Chaff, finally.
“The guy who owns this tent. Al Innai. He helps me, when I run from the river,” said Chaff. He clenched and unclenched his fingers again. “Remember? Big guy got hit real bad, and somebody bandages him up? Helps me out, fights off the alsknight. That’s him.”
A look of consternation flashed across Lookout’s face. “Coincidence?”
“Sure,” said Chaff, not looking up. He wasn’t quite sure what those were.
Lookout rolled her eyes. “Accident?” she said.
“Yeah, it’s an accident. Pretty bad accident, yeah? Big guy getting all beat up like that. But he heals fast enough, if I hold onto his tabula like this and concentrate real hard.” Chaff held the big guy’s tabula in both hands, tongue poking out between his teeth.
“I mean, Chaff, what was this fighter doing there?”
“Hadiss, the elector who helps you, my friend, he says he hates Alswell,” said Chaff, trying to remember how exactly he had described the Kennya Noni fighter. “Says he hates Alswell and loves Shira Hay. Says he’s got a bad case of jingoism.”
The dirty urchin girl snorted. “Why wasn’t he rioting with the rest of them, then?”
“Hadiss says he loves Shira Hay but hates the people in it,” said Chaff. “S’gonna leave. Might take us with him.” He paused at that point, looking to Lookout for some kind of reaction.
She didn’t move.
“Hadiss says it’s dangerous to stay here. Says there’s going to be a lot of fighting soon, because of Alswell.”
“Hey, Chaff,” said Lookout, and she sounded thoughtful. “You know something?”
“I hate Alswell too.”
“Yike,” Chaff muttered, under his breath. Everyone seemed to hate Alswell so much, but Chaff had seen the duarch make the first move, had seen the electors draw weapons first. The fieldmen were annoying, but they hadn’t starting anything.
It was Shira Hay that had done that. Chaff’s home.
“Did this Hadiss say anything about where he wanted to go when he left?” asked Lookout.
“Says he’s going east and north. Different way than us, cutting through the plains and around the Seat to reach the Marble Stronghold, or Irontower.”
“Not the elector friend or whatever, you dolt, the other one. The one that’s supposed to be watching over us, but he’s not here, so either he’s really stupid or he’s setting us up.”
“Setting us up for what?”
“Fall like the Lady?”
“Fall like—oh, forget it.” Lookout turned to massage her knee, ignoring Chaff. “You’re a lost hope, kid. A lost fucking hope.”
Chaff grinned. “Hey, hey, I’m not that stupid, Loom.”
And it was Chaff’s turn to fall silent. He stared at Lookout, trying to bite back the words, trying to find a way to un-say them. “She’s nobody, yeah?” he said, after an expectant pause. “She don’t matter no more.”
Lookout didn’t ask further. She knew better than that.
She tensed suddenly, and looked up. Chaff saw movement beyond the tarp of the tent, and behind him the silhouette of the big guy moved. “Friends?” he asked, getting up. The aches of the past few days still throbbed in his muscles, but even Loom- even she had admitted that Chaff was a tough kid. A night’s rest was all it took.
“Don’t recognize them,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “Wild boys, skinny, scrawny, dirty. Kind of look like you, actually.”
Chaff pulled the flap of the tent just far enough to peer outside, and immediately let the flap fall. He recognized both of them.
Scrabble he had last seen just a few days ago in his last race with Hook. As far as Chaff could remember, the urchin boy had been beaten soundly, and had stood by and watched as Hook had laid down his punishment. Clatter, on the other hand, Chaff hadn’t talked to in months. The gangly boy had always been clumsy and awkward and ridiculed, and if Chaff had learned anything from the child gangs of Shira Hay it was never to show weakness by associating with the weak.
“What they doing all the way out here?” Chaff hissed, ducking down as if he could somehow burrow into the ground and hide himself from view.
“How the hell would I know?”
“You say you know everything!”
“Well, yes, I do, but this doesn’t count!” Lookout craned her neck, as if she could somehow get a better view through the eyes of the owlcrow if she adjusted her own angle of vision. “Do you know these people?”
Chaff nodded. What if Hook had sent them? Would he really have gone that far out of the way to track him down, especially with everything that was happening within the city? Shira Hay was going to war and the street boy could think nothing more than settling some psychotic grudge.
“He’s insane,” muttered Chaff, lying as low as possible.
Lookout raised an eyebrow. “What did you just say?”
“Nothing, just talking to myself,” said Chaff, distractedly. He dared another peek out under the tent again. If he stayed inside until Scrabble and Clatter left, they would never be able to find him.
“Hey, hey, look-see over there! It’s Stink’s horsey thing!”
Chaff buried his face in his hands and asked every Lady, every hollow, every power that was why the big guy had to be so big. There was nothing for it, he had to go outside. He couldn’t let anything happen to the big guy on his account.
“I’m going outside,” said Chaff, standing straight again.
“If you die I’m looting your corpse,” said Lookout, her expression bored and contemptuous as she looked off-handedly to the side.
Chaff paused, and traced the rim of his three tabula again. “Why do you do that?”
“It’s a joke, Chaff. I made a funny,” said Lookout, staring at him. Her deadpan glare met Chaff’s bemused one, and they didn’t speak for several seconds. “Fuck it,” Lookout muttered, breaking eye contact. “We’re both terrible with people.”
“I’m going outside,” Chaff repeated, and this time Lookout didn’t say anything.
He almost felt it was still night when he stepped outside. Evidently this year’s rain festival had appeased the Ladies: the bruised clouds threatened the worst storm Chaff had seen in a long time. He remembered miserable days in the plains huddled by the big guy’s side, the sodden grass clinging to his skin as thunder cracked the sky into pieces.
Hopefully he wouldn’t be caught in the open in this storm, as well.
Clatter looked altogether too happy to see him. “Hey, hey, look Scrabble, that Stink!” he shouted, his smile wide and overeager.
Scrabble sauntered away from the big guy, who he had been inspecting closely, and gave Chaff a critical look as he passed. Chaff did the same, and noticed bruises on his face and forearms: punishment, no doubt, from Hook for trying to race ahead of him.
Chaff slid along the side of the tent, keeping his back to what little cover he had as moved closer to the big guy. The camelopard had not healed fully yet, either. He walked with a limp and his knees buckled with every step, but the glint had returned to his eyes and he stood by the boy, tall and strong, as Scrabble joined Clatter’s side.
Clatter picked his teeth with a grimy finger, his stance slouched and casual. A chill breeze swept through the nomad encampment, and it made the frizzy shock of hair on Clatter’s head sway. He sniffed, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, and leered at Chaff.
“Hook angry?” asked Chaff, falling back into the broken phrases of Shira Hay street slang. For people like Lookout and Tattle, the pidgin tongue would have been offensive, but Chaff knew from experience that many urchins hated any pretense of superiority.
Clatter’s sniggering wasn’t unexpected, but Scrabble’s smirk was. “Yeah,” Scrabble said. “He fucking pissed. So what the what? What that to you, Stink?”
That gave Chaff a moment’s pause. He looked from Clatter’s hands to Scrabble’s, and said, slowly, “He doesn’t send you then, yeah?”
Scrabble shook his head. “Oh, no-no, Hook ain’t sending nobody nowhere for a long time.”
“Fieldmen got him. He get in their way, they snatch him up, they stab, and I hears his tabula crack like that,” said Clatter, clapping his hands together delightedly. There was a vindictive anger to the boy that Chaff had never seen before, and Chaff wondered just how long Clatter had held his grudge against their old crew leader.
“The others?” asked Chaff. “Shimmy? Crook? Spill?”
“Fuck ‘em,” sneered Clatter. “Goods as dead.” Scrabble looked away when he said that, but Chaff did not press either of them further on the subject.
He put his hand on the big guy’s side, and surreptitiously moved in front of the tent flap. Overhead, he saw the owlcrow wheeling silently, its bright eyes watching them. “So what you want from me?” he asked.
“We don’t want nothing, Stink,” said Clatter, a nasty grin on his face. “We-.”
“Shut it, Clatter,” groaned Scrabble. He crossed his arms and straightened his back, and Chaff straightened his back a little too. Even outside the city, with Hook gone the children of the street had a power vacuum. Chaff would not be the one to submit this time.
Scrabble rolled his neck and stepped forward. The big guy pranced slightly out of nerves, but the street boy made no overt moves. “We leaving now, Stink, and-.”
“Don’t call me Stink,” snapped the boy. “My name is Chaff.”
Their eyes met, and Chaff saw Scrabble’s brow furrow slightly, as he re-evaluated timid, submissive, weak Stink. It only lasted for a moment, and after that Scrabble’s face became a cold mask, as illegible to Chaff as Hadiss’s book.
“Chaff,” he said, finally, and he bowed his head a little. Chaff nodded. Technically, it meant he had won, but Chaff did not like the dark look in Scrabble’s eyes. It reminded him of Bull, of the quiet anger and malignance lurking in his face. “We thinking of leaving. You coming with?”
“Anywhere. Outta here. Go back to the plains, live free, no electors bitchin’ at us, no crew leaders yellin’ at us. Hunt when we wanna hunt, sleep when we wanna sleep. We watch each other’s backs. Doesn’t that sound nice, Chaff?”
It sounded nice, but it was honey laced with poison. Chaff had no doubt that Scrabble and Clatter would watch his back—up until the point they shoved a knife in it. All the same, as long as he could keep them under control, traveling partners out in the plains would be nice…
Moscoleon, out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do. He could not get there without leaving the grasslands first.
“I gots a friend,” said Chaff. “Hurt. She coming too, yeah?”
“A girl? Fuck her,” Clatter began, but then Lookout’s owlcrow dove towards his head and he fell down, yelling, covering his face with his arms.
“No can if she don’t come.” Chaff crossed his arms.
“Yeah. Yeah, alright,” said Scrabble, staring with wide eyes at the owlcrow as it took off into the air again. Clatter was waving his arms and yelling in surprise and shock, but Scrabble seemed smart enough to have made the connection between what the owlcrow had done and what Clatter had said. “We going with some grown-olds. They take care of her, then we leave. Yeah?”
Chaff hesitated, staring at Scrabble, whose face was the picture of innocence. He had not missed how Scrabble had adopted Chaff’s way of talking, but before he could comment on it Clatter shouted, “Yeah, you sleeping in one of them’s tents! How come you don’t notice, huh, Stink?”
Chaff looked over his shoulder at the tent, thinking hard. “The Kennya Noni? You going with him?”
“Yup yup, Chaff,” said Scrabble, grinning helpfully. Chaff couldn’t help but stare. The sudden change in his demeanor scared him.
“You know where he is?”
“Yeah yeah.” Scrabble walked away, beckoning to Chaff. “He playing Wwa Ta with some other grown olds, come on! I show you.” Clatter followed close behind Scrabble, dragging his feet on the ground as he walked.
Chaff looked up at the owlcrow, and it screeched once in acknowledgment. He put a hand on the big guy’s side and craned his neck up to look him in the face. “Coming, big guy?”
The big guy nodded: a tired nod, but a nod nonetheless. They walked slowly, passing blackened fire pits and scattered piles of old bones. One nomad, breaking his fast early in the morning, turned a haunch of bush meat over the fire, and eyed Chaff suspiciously as he passed. Chaff looked away, but his belly rumbled. Whatever Scrabble’s plan included, he hoped it included food.
“You see, you see? Up there, they playing,” said Scrabble, pointing the way.
Three nomads sat in the dirt (to Chaff’s disappointment, they had no food), rolling triangular four-sided dice onto the ground. They passed around a jug with a rye grass straw, and laughed louder than they should have as they drank. While Chaff did not know the other two women, he recognized Al Innai, and evidently, so did the big guy.
“Whoa, whoa, you’ll make me spill!” shouted Al Innai, as the big guy nudged his nose into his back. He looked around. “Well, if it isn’t all my little lads. Woke up, then, friend of Hadiss? How is your girl doing?”
“Fine,” said Chaff. He didn’t mention how she couldn’t stand on her own yet.
Al Innai nodded his head, and continued to nod as he passed the jug to his side. He stood up, and had to lean on Scrabble for support. Scrabble whispered something into his ear, and he pursed his lips. The Kennya Noni fighter looked Chaff in the eye. “We’ll take care of her,” he said.
“What’s in it for you?” asked Chaff, before he could stop himself.
One of the women, a lithe grown-old leaning back as she sat on the ground, smirked. Al Innai smiled. “I like wild children,” he said. “Good eyes, good ears, good hands. You’ll do fine.”
Chaff walked to the big guy’s side and kept his hand on the camelopard’s tabula as the other nomads rose. “Where we going?”
Al Innai sniffed. “Where the Lady Fall takes us. Perhaps we will pay old Ironhide a visit at the Seat, or we will brawl with the saltmen at Farsea Cove, or we will drink beer and eat snails in Kazakhal.” He snapped his fingers, and the woman standing next to him gave him back his jug. He offered it to Chaff. “Rice mead, all the way from the Maw. Have some, friend of Hadiss!”
The boy took a sip, and made a face, gagging and coughing on the tang and spice of the drink. It burned the back of his throat as he swallowed, and tears rose unbidden to his eyes. Al Innai laughed, and took the jug back. “Strong, isn’t it?”
Chaff nodded as he wiped his eyes, and when he looked up he did not miss the derision in Clatter’s eyes and the satisfaction in Scrabble’s. Chaff’s fists tightened. That had been weak. He would not fail like that again.
“Parsaa! Go, get my things ready,” Al Innai said, shoving the jug back in the woman’s hands. She bowed her head and ran off, struggling a little to stay upright. The Kennya Noni fighter turned. “You’ll be prepared in the hour, Royya?”
The woman that had smirked at Chaff nodded, and ducked into the tent behind them.
Al Innai put his arms around Chaff’s and Scrabble’s shoulders, and walked them away as Clatter straggled behind. “We leave today, before Shira Hay wakes. Don’t worry, you’ll get a chance to sleep. We rest when the sun rises, travel when it sets. Boys, stock up by the river, say your prayers, and we leave.”
Hasty for any excuse to get Al Innai’s beefy arm off of his neck, Chaff nodded and ducked out of his grasp, but the fighter grabbed his collar and pulled him back easily. “Not so fast, lad! Let me get the water skins at least.”
Chaff looked up at the big guy for help, but the treacherous camelopard just nudged Chaff a little closer to Al Innai, snorting.
The boy held the girl’s tabula for luck, and looked out past the tents of the encampment towards the long, unbroken horizon ahead of them. Even as he stared, the grass swayed, a hypnotizing rhythm in the gentle wind.
The last time Chaff had been in the grasslands, he had been lost in them for four years. He could have counted the number of people he met in that time on one hand.
This time would be different. This time, he was ready for anything the grasslands had to offer.
His gaze flickered to vindictive Clatter, to conniving Scrabble, to forceful Al Innai, and did his best to keep his expression from changing. Truthfully, it was never the plains he had been scared of.
It was the people.
Veer jerked Chaff’s head to the side, holding his face so that he had to look directly at the caravan of wagons trundling down the road. “You see, you see it?”
Chaff nodded, standing on the big guy’s back to get a better look. The bright colors and floral lace of the Alswell wagons stood out plainly among the more conservative Shira Hay tarps, and that wasn’t even mentioning the entourage of alsknights walking beside them. They weren’t exactly subtle.
“The caravan moves about once every two or three days, to a different part of the city,” said Lookout, dangling her feet over the edge of the roof. Her owlcrow wheeled overhead, and Lookout had a glazed, distracted look in her eyes as she flipped its tabula over and over in her hands. “Dense areas, mostly, where the most people pass per day. Places where they got a lot of listeners. Unfortunately, also places with a lot of witnesses.”
She stood up, and beckoned from above. “Come on, keep moving. We need to follow them to know where they’re going to stop next.”
Chaff squinted as Lookout rose and walked away backwards, still flipping the tabula in her hands as she skipped without looking back over the gap in the roofs. His gaze followed Lookout, then the owlcrow, which was still circling in the overcast sky, beady eyes glinting.
“You see what he sees, yeah?” said Chaff, as he hopped off the big guy and walked down the street to keep pace.
Lookout just grinned. “Sharper than you look,” she said.
Chaff’s hand edged back towards the tabula at his belt. It would have been a great help to see what the girl saw; it would do no end of good in helping find her. Chaff just wished he knew how to do it.
The boy looked back up at Lookout, the question forming on his lips, but the girl had already looked away. The conversation was over. Chaff wasn’t going to ask any more questions, not if he didn’t want to arouse suspicion.
As Chaff’s hand left the tabula, he felt, not for the first time, his curiosity prickle. He had had no idea tabula could borrow the vision of others; what else could the little amber disks do? What power did they hold?
And why did everyone have one?
Chaff felt like he was looking into the hollow of a hollow, at a thousand glittering amber disks beckoning to him, so many details inside of details that they threatened to overwhelm him. Asking why people had tabula was like asking why people were alive at all.
“You coming or nope-not, Chaff?” said Veer, punching Chaff’s shoulder. She giggled. “Don’t think so hard, I think I see-see your brains leaking out yo’ ears.”
He did his best to laugh, but he couldn’t bring himself to meet Veer’s eyes.
The path they took led down to the waterfront. Chaff did his best to hide behind the big guy and sneak past the stalls without the alsknights noticing, but when he saw Veer walking boldly down the road he straightened and followed behind her.
“They don’t care about us, yeah?” said Chaff, just to make sure, in a hushed whisper. His eyes never left the lances in the fieldmen’s hands. “They not gonna hurt us?”
“Too proud,” said Veer. She spoke normally, as they followed close behind in the little bubble of space the caravan left in its wake. “That’s what Hurricane says. Them in their shawls and silks don’t give a shitting shit about urchins like us.”
Chaff rubbed the big guy’s side, and felt the camelopard twitch at his touch. No matter how tender or frequent his apologies were, wounds had been left by his abrupt command of the beast. “What about big guy? Last time they saw him they wanted to…to…”
“Take him? They’d done do it, too, if they thought no one would see.” Veer clapped Chaff on the back. “They wouldn’t-won’t in the street. The farmers need Shira Hay. Ain’t no nomad gonna help them if they see the fieldmen ‘tack us on our turf.”
Chaff wasn’t entirely sure what Veer meant by that; he had been on both sides of attacks by fellow plainsmen in Shira Hay, and no one seemed to have any problem with that. He supposed that was what Hadiss called politics.
“What about when they think no one is watching?” asked Chaff, as the street opened onto the banks of the Gammon. A man wearing a shawl that went all the way down to his elbows barked orders to his men, and then reclined back inside his palanquin. Veer took a step back at that, and Chaff followed her cue, hiding in the shadows beneath the eaves of a riverfront shop.
“If no one’s watching,” said Veer, darkly. “It’s them that should be worried, not us.”
Chaff didn’t ask any more questions after that. He retreated into the corner, brushing the big guy’s hair, eyes flickering around. They were near the edges of the sprawling library complex, a couple minor bridges spanning the river, cheap imitations of the Gammon. A couple off-streets provided ample space for Chaff to duck in and hide, although he didn’t know if the big guy would fit, and worst case scenario this section of the river had a long open space for the big guy to run. In his experience, the big guy could outrun just about anything so long as nothing else got in the way.
Lookout dangled her feet from the rooftop above them. “We do this every few days,” explained Lookout. “Keep tabs on where they are, what they’re doing, what their pattern is. Veer, how you doing?”
“Done-doing fine,” the urchin girl said, her tongue poking through the hole in her teeth as she surveyed the caravan with furrowed eyebrows. She didn’t say anything else.
“Veer looks for ways in, Bull and Hurricane take notes on who they might have to fight, and I…well, I look out.”
“What am big guy and I supposed to be doing?”
“You are our new runaway guy. You look for quick exits, escape routes, anything that can get us out of here in a hurry if things get messy- and I guarantee that things will get messy.”
Chaff chewed his lip. “Well, how does you know that?”
“’Cause I know a lot more about this business than you do,” said Lookout, and she seemed almost smug about it.
The boy scoffed, and turned aside. Look for exits? He had already done that. It seemed silly that the urchin’s crew needed someone to do such an automatic job for them.
Chaff yawned, scrubbing his eyes. The pale light of dusk was starting to fade away, and the exhaustion was beginning to catch up to him. The bruises that were starting to swell across Chaff’s sides were no doubt Hook’s handiwork, and two races in one day were proving to be more than Chaff could handle.
“What you think ‘bout-a-bout waiting by the river?” said Veer. “Wait for them to do their rounds, come in from a side they ain’t expecting.”
“They’d clear us out the moment they saw us,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “And if anybody has a winter animal we’re dead in the water. No, no go.”
“What ‘bout-a-bout a listener? They start a shout, somebody shout back and distract ‘em while I go ‘round-a-round back…” continued Veer, in a low mutter.
Chaff spoke up, suddenly. “Who was the old runaway guy?”
“Hmm?” said Lookout, distractedly.
“Who was the old runaway guy? You said I was the new one. Who was the old one?”
Veer looked nervous, but Lookout just smirked. “Go on up there and ask him yourself,” said Lookout, pointing to the caravan. Chaff followed her finger and saw a brown-skinned boy, scrawny to the point of emaciation, wash a bundle of grey clothes in the river. A collar looped around his neck, and the skin in-between his shoulder blades was a twisted mat of scar tissue.
He did not once look up as Chaff stared at him, and kept his eyes trained on the ground and the water whenever he walked. Chaff shivered, and it was not just from the autumn cold. He was beginning to doubt if running with Hurricane’s crew was a good idea after all.
“Take it as a lesson to be learned,” said Lookout. “He didn’t run away fast enough.”
Chaff looked down at the ground. What was the real lesson? If he didn’t run fast enough, would he be caught, or would he be left behind?
It was only his friends that could betray him, not his enemies.
He jumped as Lookout landed next to him with a heavy thud. “Getting tired of this sitting around,” she said, stretching her arms. “You guys up for a closer look?”
“That’s not such a good idea, yeah?” said Chaff, hesitantly. He rubbed his shoulders, and averted Lookout’s suddenly demanding glare. “The boys is always saying, don’t get close to the fieldmen. They work you hard, the fieldmen. Make you so miserable you wish you is dead.”
“You can’t be part of this crew if you’re scared,” said Lookout. She walked right up to Chaff, until they were almost nose to nose, her voice was a low whisper. “We’re doing big things here. You’re either all-in or you’re out, no middle ground. We can’t risk it.”
Chaff quailed, his fingers drumming on the tabula in his belt, and the big guy tossed his head beside them. Chaff’s gaze met Lookout’s, and he saw in her eyes the same manic expression that had been in Hook’s. His bruises began to throb, despite himself.
“I’m in,” croaked Chaff, gripping the big guy’s fur very tightly. “All in.”
An easy smile returned to Lookout’s face. “Knew you’d say that. See? Everything’s good. The way you’re hanging onto your tabula, they’ll never be able to rip it out of your hands.”
Chaff laughed weakly, although his grip only tightened. It wasn’t his tabula he was worried about.
Veer clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry-worry,” she said, smiling. “If I didn’t know no better, I’d say Tattle and Lookout had fallow in the same hollow. Both fallborn, both pretty-pretty smart, both…” Veer gestured, jaw stretched as she searched for the words.
“Pushy?” offered Chaff.
“Yeah,” said Veer, shoving Chaff forward so that they could keep up with Lookout. “Pushy.”
Chaff walked forward hesitantly as they neared the Alswell caravan, still holding her tabula close to him, as if he could shield it with his body. They were so close that he could hear snippets of their conversation, smell the food cooking inside their tents.
“Hey, hey, Chaffy Chaff,” said Veer. She put a hand on Chaff’s forearm and the boy twitched. “Don’t hold it like that. Next time, hide your tabula somewhere safe. It better that way.” She grinned. “No one can take it even if they catch you.”
“Hide it somewhere else? Don’t keep it on me? Like some animal?” said Chaff. He cocked his head. “That what you do, then, yeah?”
Veer put a finger to her lips, and Chaff shook his head and kept walking.
As the big guy followed behind him, Chaff could hear the camelopard’s stomach rumbling. It was a good sign; the big guy’s stomach only rumbled after he had eaten. Chaff patted him on the side, and the big guy tossed his head, a bass rumble emerging from his throat. When he looked back at Chaff, his eyes were back to their lazy, hooded stare.
Chaff smiled. “I like this. Everything normal, yeah? Everything good.”
The big guy grunted in response. It was probably a yes, although Chaff could never really tell.
“What the what you doing, Chaffy?” said Veer, pushing on his shoulder. “Not so-so close!” The ragged urchin girl took Chaff’s hand and led him to the riverbank, into the muddy shallows. “Over by the water, that’s it. They don’t suspect nothing if all we doing is getting a drink.”
Chaff yelped as he stepped into the frigid waters, but he grew numb to the cold within minutes, and the mud felt good on the soles of his feet. The fieldmen seemed not to care that two urchin children were playing in the water, although Chaff caught one or two surreptitiously evaluating the big guy. An Alswell announcer started to shout, his voice high and loud, as dusk began to fall. More nonsense about the tyranny of the one called Ironhide.
The mud sucked at his feet as Chaff stepped around, the water up to his ankles. He made a mental note that escape via the river was only a last chance resort, and laughed as the big guy sloshed through the water. His laugh died quickly in the odd quiet, unease crept over him as he looked around. “Where’s Lookout?”
Veer, standing next to him, looked hesitant to say anything. Chaff followed her gaze, and jumped, splashing water over both of them, when he saw Lookout stepping right up to one of the Alswell slaves.
He strode two paces through the water, with half a mind to walk up and figure out what was going on, when Veer put a hand on his shoulder. He twisted, trying to calm the jitters in his gut, and met Veer’s eyes. The girl shook her head once, her mouth drawn in a thin-lipped frown.
Chaff waited, not willing to speak, searching Veer’s eyes for an answer. The possibility of betrayal loomed in the back of his head, and he could not dismiss it.
He turned back to Veer, scanning the whole scene. None of the fieldmen seemed to have noticed, still shouting at the top of their lungs at passersby in the streets, but if a patrolling alsknight came back and saw Lookout, then that was it. If Lookout was arranging some kind of double cross, Chaff had no easy out.
The boy caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He twisted, already taking steps to pull his feet out of the muck, but then he stopped. It was Lookout who had moved.
She had touched the slave—the old runaway guy, Chaff realized—tenderly on his back. The slave did not look up, did not move, did not react in any way, but still Lookout traced the scars on his skin. Chaff could not see her expression, but her hand moved lightly, daintily, gently.
A new question was in Chaff’s eyes when he turned back to Veer, but the urchin girl just shook her head once more.
And then he heard the shout.
“Thieves near the slaves! Alsknights, to arms!” Heavy leather boots slapped against the stones as the shouting alsknight began to run. “Walsh, subdue her.”
The tabula’s vibration seemed to find its way into the alsknight’s voice, and no sooner had he spoken did the slave boy straighten and attack. There was no restraint in his action, no semblance of technique or strategy. The slave’s limbs flailed violently, so hard that Chaff could barely see Lookout through the foam; he caught one glimpse of the boy’s water-streaked face, locked in its eternal, mournful grimace, before both disappeared under the river.
That was the least of Chaff’s problems. Two more alsknights dashed at them from the wagons, the rustle of their chainmail a sinister steel whisper as they ran. Chaff moved automatically, splashing through the water to haul himself onto the big guy’s back. He reached out for Veer, slippery fingers trying to catch onto Veer’s hand as the big guy reared and shrieked. Even slogging their way out of the river, the big guy was faster than two men on foot…
Sound shone and light echoed in an explosive mess across the river as the two alsknights each gripped their palms tight, and blurred forms galloped out of the foam of the now turbulent river.
“Go big, big guy!” screamed Chaff, using both of his sweating hands to hold the big guy’s tabula. “GO BIG!”
He would not be a slave. Not then, not now. Not until he found her.
There was a clap like thunder as the big guy bounded out of the river, the water around his hooves evaporating into steam as he charged onto the street. The electors emerging for their night debates and the hunters returning from their day hunts scattered as the big guy pounded through the street.
Clinging onto the big guy’s neck, Chaff turned to see the two alsknights galloping after him, their faces cold and intent. Sweat broke out on the back of Chaff’s neck. It wasn’t the fieldmen he was scared of. At least, not now.
Six Alswell slaves pursued him as well, running so fast that each step looked like it was breaking their own legs. Never had Chaff seen someone—something—run that fast. A burly man, with a face so disfigured by scars that Chaff could not even see his expression, reached out as he began to near the big guy, his red mouth open wide as he sucked in breath. He made no sound as he ran but a desperate wheezing.
“Turn, turn, turn, turn!” shouted Chaff, tugging on the big guy’s neck to send him careening down the nearest street, away from the river and into the inner city. The camelopard’s hooves scrabbled on the cobblestones, and Chaff clenched his teeth so hard his tongue began to bleed.
Their momentum carried them in a wide arc into the street, knocking over more than one stall preparing for the evening market in their mad dash. Chaff heard several more consecutive crashes as the Alswell slaves hurtled into walls, buildings, other people. He looked over his shoulder.
It had barely slowed them down a second.
And close behind them rode the alsknights, not even winded. Six slaves meant three tabula on each, and their own mounts. Chaff’s head swam. How was it even possible to command four different living things at once?
His head snapped back forward. The big guy dodged past pedestrians and stalls, not out of any concern for their fellow citizens but simply because a collision would have slowed him down. The slaves had no such qualms; they plowed through the market, and while they moved with relentless strength and speed, they were beginning to lose ground.
The alsknights, on the other hand, were beginning to gain it.
A fall horse leaped so high for a moment it seemed to be galloping on air. The alsknight atop it reached for the mace dangling at his side, and Chaff tensed. He was far enough ahead that melee weapons would have been useless. Yeah?
It was only as the alsknight swung the mace forward that Chaff saw the glint of amber at the mace’s head.
Something exploded out of the mace, hurtling forward with momentum that did not decrease as the thing grew and grew and grew and landed with such a forceful thud that it cracked the stones on the street with the impact.
It trumpeted, long white tusks sharp and glinting, barreling through the street so fast that the stalls literally exploded into shards of wood and cloth as it passed.
The big guy began to move, and the thrill of fear Chaff felt passed through to the camelopard, but nothing either of them could do could prevent the impact. Numbly, as the creature crashed into the camelopard’s side, all Chaff could think was five tabula. The alsknight had shown complete and total control of five tabula without breaking a sweat.
He skidded across the ground, his bruises flaring and screaming in protest. A hot pain began to throb at the base of his spine, and Chaff could see nothing but red and black as he rolled on the cobblestones, trying to get his bearings.
Chaff saw, dimly, the silhouettes of the alsknights surround him: one on the fall horse, the other on some slim, sinuous steed. He groaned, trying to rise, his hand scrabbling over his belt to keep her tabula safe.
The alsknight on the sinuous animal dismounted. Instead of a mace by his belt, he had a sword. He drew it. The blade distorted until Chaff saw four of them, floating in various positions over his head.
And then someone bashed the alsknight across the head and the sword clattered to the street, harmless. Chaff blinked, hope lighting a fire in his hazy mind, but the movement was still too fast for him to see.
Another blurred figure—or was it the same one?—dragged the other alsknight off his mount. More beat the approaching slaves into submission, and the fieldmen in their heavy armor found themselves in a hurricane of quick blows and body shots.
A smile found its way onto Chaff’s lips. Kennya Noni. The fighters of Shira Hay.
“The fuck you think you’re doing?” snarled a male voice, with a familiar Shira Hay twang. “Tear up a whole street going after a kid.”
“Who do you think you are?” shouted another voice, female. “You horde your food, you steal our people, you march into our city, and you expect us to just give you help when you come begging for it?”
“You expect us to die for you,” said yet another voice. “When you go after us on our own land?”
Politics. It was all politics.
No matter how many tabula they had, the fieldmen were outnumbered. Their faces drawn and pensive, they backed away, not quite running but clearly retreating, and Chaff found himself helped up by a myriad of hands as his head finally began to clear.
“Big guy,” he mumbled, staggering to the prone camelopard’s side. His vision hadn’t cleared yet, but he saw red. Too much red.
“The elephaunt gored him good,” said one of the fighters, taking off the bandages on his wrists to wrap the wounds on the big guy’s side. The fighter opened his mouth to say something else, but when he saw Chaff’s expression he fell silent. “He’ll be fine,” the fighter muttered, quietly, and he stood and left without another word.
Chaff knelt by the big guy’s side, too exhausted to even move from their place in the middle of the street. The crowd ebbed and flowed around him, although no one seemed to notice him. They had fought out of hate for the foreigners, not love for him.
His lungs hurt, his legs hurt, his back hurt. There wasn’t even a distinction between what Hook’s beating had given him and the rest of the day anymore; his entire body felt like a giant bruise. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the pain.
Then Chaff heard footsteps near him, and when the drip-drip of water near him grew to be too much he opened his eyes and looked.
Lookout stood next to him, water dribbling from her clothes onto the street. Her owlcrow still circled up in the sky above her, which would explain why Lookout had her eyes closed while her head turned to Chaff. There were red marks around her neck.
“You alive?” she muttered, eyes still closed, her voice low and gravelly.
“Yeah,” said Chaff.
She nodded. Chaff waited, looking around, even as a sinking feeling began to open up in his gut.
He had reached for her when they were leaving the river, but when he had seen the alsknights mounted he had panicked and…and…
“Lookout, where’s Veer?” asked Chaff, hoarsely.
Lookout didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, she said, “Didn’t run fast enough.”
Chaff sat on the ground, his head spinning and his ears ringing. I guess we friends now, Veer had told him.
And only friends could betray friends.
A hyenavulture flapped its spotted wings and cackled as it circled around Chaff, while the spring lizard shuffled forward and hissed, claws digging into the cracked earth. The merchant tapped a wooden baton on his other palm, shaking his head as he walked up the alley. “What are you doing, kid? Never steal without back-up.”
Chaff pursed his lips, unimpressed. He skipped back, hands held behind his back. “I got back-up.”
“Really? I don’t see it.”
Chaff snorted. “That’s a first, yeah?” He whipped out his tabula and focused. The world contracted around him and, in a sudden flash of bright light, exploded.
With a crack like thunder, the big guy materialized in the cramped alley. He brayed, annoyed, swinging his head at the hyenavulture while he kicked at the grounded spring lizard, and Chaff shrugged as he grabbed the big guy’s fur with one hand, the other holding onto his precious onion. “S’not my fault, big guy, he made me,” he said, shaking his head to clear the traces of the dizzying summoning.
The merchant gripped his own tabula in his hands, screaming and shouting, and suddenly the earth began crack under them as the spring lizard hissed, glaring with its one good eye as the bruised other began to swell.
“Let’s go, big guy!” shouted the boy, swinging on the big guy’s side as the camelopard galloped forward.
With a frustrated scream, the merchant grabbed out at Chaff, but the boy swung himself out of the way easily and gave him a smack on the noggin for his trouble.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” said Chaff, holding the onion in his teeth as he clambered onto the camelopard’s back. “I doesn’t like the stealing either, but I has to, yeah? No other choice, yeah?”
The big guy turned his head to respond but at that point his hoof caught on a widening fissure in the street, and he tumbled over, screaming. Chaff curled up on the camelopard’s back and tried to dodge the worst of the impact, but he still bounced painfully off the cobblestones.
Its legs skimming the ground as it waddled forward, the spring lizard flicked out a forked tongue and held its head haughtily over them.
Chaff snarled, trying to help the big guy up as the merchant approached, breathless, baton in hand. The boy looked around. No one walked on the streets except disinterested passersby and other merchants who would have no sympathy for a common thief. On the roofs, though…
“Wazzat? That Stink?” shouted a familiar voice, and a dirt-smeared, sun-browned face poked over the eaves.
“Ooh-hoo, Stink in some bout’a kind of trouble now,” snickered another voice, from the roof opposite.
Chaff held out his arms expectantly and glared at the roofs.
“Hey, hey, you see that birdy-by up in there?”
“Oh, I sees it,” said the first voice, and on the roof the other boy stood. He hefted a rod with a thin string at the end, holding it over his shoulder as he shielded his face from the sun with his hands. “Good eats on that one, uh-huh.”
The merchant paused, his gaze flickering upward. He crouched and whistled for his hyenavulture, which landed beside him with a heavy thud.
The big guy had regained his feet, but Chaff made no move to mount him again. He stood, watching, resolute. He couldn’t show any weakness- not to any of them.
“Take your damn onion,” snarled the merchant. “Next time, I catch you without your cronies.” And he walked away backwards, not letting his gaze slip from any of them.
“You taking the old man from the one side, I take him from the other?” said the second boy from the roof.
“Mm-hmm, mm-hmm,” said the one with the rod on his shoulder, preparing to run.
“Hey, wait, no,” said Chaff, waving his hands. “We let him go now, yeah? Not worth it.”
The boy with the rod swung himself over the roof, dangling with one hand before dropping neatly on the ground. “You still eating that shit, Stink?”
“Told you not to call me that, Hook,” said Chaff, one hand on the big guy’s side. “I’m not Stink, yeah?”
“You Stink ‘cause you stink,” said Hook, still holding his rod over his shoulder. An amber tabula dangled at the end, and swung as he swaggered forward. “Hey, Scrabble, you think he still Stink?”
“He stink awful,” said Scrabble, landing on the ground as well. He brushed off the bandages on his hands and wrists, rolling his shoulders like the adult Kennya Noni fighters did. “It’s the food he eats. I ain’t never seen him eat him some real meat before.”
“Yeah, why don’t you eat meat, Stink?” Hook gave him a not so friendly shove in the chest. “It’s good. You should try some.”
Chaff looked to the big guy, hoping for an answer, but the camelopard looked away pointedly. “I do,” said Chaff. He gestured with his head to the big guy. “He doesn’t so much, though, yeah?”
Hook glared at Chaff for a good minute before his face split in a wide grin. He punched Chaff in the shoulder, guffawing, and ripped the onion from his hand. The older boy took one large bite before throwing it aside. “Come on, Stink, let’s get on back to the boys.”
Scrabble followed, laughing, and Chaff did his best to smile with them. When both their backs were turned, though, he bent down to retrieve his onion. He wiped off the worst of the dirt with his hand and kept eating, his belly rumbling.
“Mm-mm, don’t you no go riding now,” said Hook, shaking his finger. “What you, some Alswell fieldboy?” He grinned at Scrabble and cackled.
Scrabble puffed out his chest like one of the Alswell farmers. “Get up on that pony, boy. Do some laps for me, boy.”
Chaff laughed weakly with them, although he didn’t leave the big guy’s side.
Hook rubbed his hands together. “Come on, come on. Let’s race, Stinky.”
It wasn’t an offer Chaff could turn down. He bounced on the balls of his feet, chewing his lip. “Alright. Alright, yeah. On my mark?”
“Nope,” said Hook, pushing Chaff down with a nasty grin. Chaff hit the ground, wincing. “On my mark.”
And Hook began to run.
Chaff scrabbled to his feet, whistling for the big guy to follow. Hook was scaling the side of the nearest building, Scrabble close behind him.
Heaving, Chaff struggled to catch up. The cobblestones felt hard on the soles of his feet, and he could already see Hook and Scrabble pulling ahead. Chaff had enough stamina to sprint up to them for a few seconds at most, but he couldn’t hope to beat them in a regular race.
He tightened the bandages on his wrists and leaped. This wasn’t a regular race.
He clambered over the stone walls, onto the clay eaves, and up onto the flat rooftops. Up on the buildings, he could almost look the big guy in the eye. He nodded to the camelopard, and took a deep breath.
His legs screamed as he ran forward, but he had Hook within his sights. Sweat blurred his vision, but he kept his focus constant.
There was a gap in the roofs! Chaff leaped, his arms wheeling to keep balance as he slammed back onto the solid stone. He kept running without slowing, his momentum threatening to send him tumbling forward.
Hook was just ahead of him. Chaff lunged, swinging his fist out to catch Hook’s collar, falling forward recklessly. Hook was ready for him; he spun, swinging his fist out to catch Chaff as he was pulled backwards.
They danced, half-fighting, half-falling as they hurtled across the rooftops. More than once Chaff’s hands and feet scraped painfully against the stone roofs, but he didn’t let himself slow down. Every punch and kick carried him forward, even as Hook tried to knock him back.
There was another break in the buildings. Chaff noticed just as Hook swept his legs out from under him; Chaff threw his arms out behind him to catch his fall, and his neck bounced painfully off the rim of the building. Hook stamped his foot on Chaff’s face, sneering.
“Little help, big guy?” screamed Chaff.
The camelopard bit out and snapped at Hook, even as the men and women inside the building jeered and shouted at the animal to go away. The big guy’s teeth managed to snatch the string and tabula hanging on Hook’s rod, and pulled. The urchin stepped off of Chaff’s face immediately to get it back. Hook’s hand snatched the rod just as the big guy was about to pull it out of reach, and there was a moment of frozen silence as a look of consternation crossed Hook’s face.
Then something exploded out the big guy’s mouth, flapping its wings and screeching as Hook yanked his tabula back.
The kestrelgull circled once before, after a short bark from Hook, diving directly at Chaff’s face. He raised his hands to defend himself, flashes of a night a lifetime ago coming back to him, long talons and pure terror.
“That’s right, that’s right,” cackled Hook. “Stinky don’t like birdses, do you? You gonna do what now, run crying back in your hollow?”
The kestrelgull’s sharp beak tore at Chaff’s forearms, and he felt hot blood oozing down his elbows. He tried to back away, but his head was already hanging precariously over a long, long fall to the ground.
And then Chaff saw out of the corner of his eye Scrabble leap over the gap in the buildings. The look on Hook’s face froze, and immediately the kestrelgull pulled off to join him as he began running again.
Everything was staked on the race in Shira Hay: dominance, position, support. Hook might have wanted to humiliate Chaff, but he wasn’t going to lose his minion to do it.
Chaff rose to his feet unsteadily, watching the two run into the distance. He looked to the big guy, who snorted and tossed his head. Chaff sighed, slumping. He might have had a chance before to win, but now his head pounded and his feet hurts and his arms throbbed.
“Come on, big guy,” he said, clambering onto the big guy’s neck and sliding down. “We go the rest of the way together, yeah?”
The big guy’s neck shifted as he nodded, and he strolled away at a reserved, contemplative pace.
Chaff wondered what the gang would do to him when he returned so defeated from the race. At best, they’d take his dinner and make him sleep outside the hideout for the night. At worst…
Chaff buried his face in the big guy’s fur and sighed. It was tiring to think about.
His hand drifted to his belt, making sure none of his tabula had been dislodged in the hectic run. He held the girl’s tabula a second longer for good luck, and straightened his back, cracking his neck and knuckles.
“Hey, big guy, you want to visit Hadiss?” he said, his voice raising a little at the thought.
The big guy didn’t respond.
“Let’s go check the usual spot,” said Chaff, patting the big guy’s back. “Just to see if he’s there. Just to talk to him before we go back, yeah?”
They set off. After three years of living in the city, Chaff still wasn’t sure where the merchant district began and ended. As far as he could tell, people with stuff simply walked out in the streets and yelled for more stuff until a satisfactory trade was made.
It was a different matter altogether with the butchers’ shops, the bakeries, and the inns. Chaff knew where all those were; his breakfast, lunch, and dinner often came from the choicest scraps they threw out, if he could get to them quick enough.
Hadiss liked the bars around the Twin Libraries best (which Chaff knew to be a bit stingy with their trash). They conveniently combined his three favorite hobbies of drinking, reading, and arguing.
Chaff rode along the edges of the river, watching the sluggish waters trundle past under the great bridge. He looked around, his eyes skimming over the crowds to the scarves among them. He didn’t see Hadiss at first; he heard and recognized his raucous laughter instead.
Standing on the big guy’s back to get a better view, Chaff almost raised a hand and waved. He stopped when he saw that Hadiss was with two others. They wore no scarves, but they were grown old like him, big and burly with their tabula hanging visibly from their necks. They were talking together, laughing and joking.
Chaff sat back down. Friends of Hadiss they may have been, but they were still strangers to him. As a rule, he didn’t trust strangers anymore.
He stared at the passing crowds for some time, and watched as Hadiss crossed the bridge with his friends and walked away.
“Let’s get back to the boys,” said Chaff, softly. He yawned. “Tell me when we gets there, yeah?”
Chaff tried to sleep as the big guy rode, but couldn’t do it. He wasn’t as small as he once was, and found it difficult to balance on the big guy’s back; more than that, he couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes with so many people around them. At the slightest bump or jostle, Chaff would start, hands raised in self-defense.
He crossed his arms and sighed, letting the sounds of the city wash over him. As the big guy passed over the bridge, Chaff’s eyes slid over a group of electors holding debate with some foreigner.
“House Alswell beseeches you,” shouted the foreigner, his fieldman drawl thick in his voice. “Even now the usurper king marches to burn the land that feeds all of Albumere. Will you stand by and let this tyrant rule over you, or will you rise up to stop him?”
“A plea of the heart does you no good in the halls of power,” said one of the electors, his arms crossed. “We have neither the inclination nor the ability to assist you. Take your case to the duarchs, fieldman.”
“Duarchs who will not make a decision until they have heard open debate by the electors!” the fieldman shouted, his voice cracking slightly.
Chaff rode on, not listening. There had been quite a lot of fuss in the last few weeks about Alswell, but as far as Chaff was concerned the fields were too far west to be any concern of his. A couple of the boys entertained fancies every other night or so of riding out and living along the border to raid the farms for easy food, but the reality of the farmer’s slave-catchers always deterred them.
“Nothing worth risking becoming an Alswell slave, yeah?” said the boy to the big guy, as they walked off the other end of the bridge. “The boys is stupid, that’s right. It ain’t worth it.” He crossed his arms and nodded his head, even as his belly started to rumble again.
Chaff could tell when he was near the hangout when he saw the crumbling buildings, their inner walls collapsed to form a kind of network of smaller houses. It reminded Chaff of the stables where Loom-.
He didn’t let himself finish that thought. His chest hurt enough as it was.
“Hey, hey, there he is!” Hook shouted, hopping over a waist-high brick wall, Scrabble close behind him. From the look on Scrabble’s face, Hook had ultimately won the race. “What the double fuck taking you so long, huh? You get lost under the bridge, Stink?”
Chaff didn’t say anything. It would be better for him if he didn’t.
He dismounted the big guy and saw others coming out of the ruined buildings, all with the same dirty clothes and dirty hands and thin faces: Clatter, Crook, Shimmy, Spill. All colleagues, even allies at times- but none of them friends.
Hook’s kestrelgull flapped up from behind the wall suddenly and Chaff flinched. Hook grinned, tapping his rod on the ground.
“Maybe he see a birdy and he piss himself. That it, Stink?”
Chaff led the big guy to his corner of the complex, avoiding eye contact with Hook. He stared at the ground, trying to make it clear that Hook was the superior here. If he didn’t fight back, maybe Hook would be satisfied with his power and position and leave it at that.
And then something cracked on the back of Chaff’s head, and he saw stars.
“What, you too good to talk to me? That it? That fucking it, Stink?!”
Chaff put his hands on the ground and tried to respond, but all the wind was knocked out of him as Hook kicked him, hard, in the stomach. No one made a move to help. They just watched, curious.
“You talk big,” sneered Hook, and his voice was livid. The kestrelgull screeched on his shoulder, flapping its wings wide. “You too good for swearing. You tell me what to do. Ain’t never seen you eat proper food before. I don’t like you, Stink.”
Struggling for breath, Chaff croaked, trying to speak.
“What’s what you say now?”
“Sorry,” Chaff whispered. He rose unsteadily to his feet, clutching the big guy for support. He looked up and met Hook in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Hook nodded, walking away. He scuffed his bare foot on the dirt. “Alright. Alright, yeah. You sorry.” He stroked his chin, still nodding, eyes flicking from Chaff to the big guy to Chaff again. “Yeah, you sorry.” He flicked a hand in Chaff’s face and walked back to Scrabble.
And then Chaff reeled backwards as Hook twisted and planted his fist into his nose, and gasped as hot blood gushed down his face. He raised his hands to defend himself, but before he could make one move, Hook was pummeling Chaff’s gut, forcing him backwards against the big guy so neither he nor the camelopard could move.
“I’ll make you SORRY!” screamed Hook. “You sorry yet, Stink?! You fucking sorry?!”
Chaff fell to the ground, and Hook began bashing his rod on the back of his head. The wood splintered on the back of his neck, and Chaff curled up, whimpering. The big guy was bellowing, prancing and trying to find an angle to kick at Hook even as the kestrelgull pecked at his eyes and head.
At that moment, Chaff wished for Loom. He wished for her so bad it hurt more than anything Hook could do to him.
“Back off, Hook,” snarled a voice, and suddenly the beating stopped.
“Loom?” Chaff whispered, deliriously.
But no, it was just another urchin boy. Almost grown old now, standing near twice as tall as Hook and Chaff. Chaff blinked. Kids as old as him usually didn’t come around to the younger hideouts.
Hook stood, breathing heavily. He was red in the face, and a line of spittle dangled from his chin. He wiped his mouth, and stared at the older boy for quite some time. The other boys watched as ever, their eyes dark and sullen.
“We was just messing around, Hurricane,” said Hook, shrugging. “That’s all, that’s all.”
“I don’t care. I said back off, skinny bitch.”
Hook snorted and ripped the tabula and string off the end of his now broken rod. He tossed the pieces of wood at Chaff’s feet and spat on the ground, then walked away. The boy named Hurricane gave one glance over the rest of the gang, and they scattered.
He looked down at Chaff. “They call you Stink?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff. He did not feel like saying more.
Hurricane sniffed. “Sound foreign to me. They make fun of you or somewhat?” He held out a hand.
Chaff took it and stood up. Blood continued to drip down his chin, and he had to lean on the big guy to prevent from collapsing from the twinges in his stomach. Nonetheless, if this almost-grown-old wanted him to stand, he would stand. “Thanks,” he muttered.
“You go on and say sorry, please, and thank you,” Hurricane scoffed. “You a ‘ristocrat. Shit, I’d beat your ass too if I was one of them.”
Chaff tensed, hands gripping the big guy’s fur. He wasn’t sure if he had strength enough to ride, and even if he did the older street urchins were always very, very fast.
“That fella o’ yours,” said Hurricane, pointing at the big guy. “He take more than one?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, looking at the big guy’s broad back. “Never tried it, but…yeah.”
Hurricane nodded his approval. “Well, saddle up then, ‘ristocrat. You coming with me.”
And Chaff watched the urchin boy walk away, wondering what a stranger could possibly want from him this time.