The largest city in the largest nation in Albumere screamed for blood. As if thunder and lightning had struck the Libraries, now the riots spread like wildfire from all sides of the Gammon, and just like wildfire in the plains, everything that lived sprinted to escape the heat.
Chaff hauled Lookout up with him onto the big guy, who reared to avoid the screaming, charging crowd racing after the fleeing fieldmen caravan. “Where now?” yelled Chaff.
“Rendezvous with the rest of the crew!” shouted Lookout. “We can come up with a plan once we’ve consolidated our forces!”
“Ran-day what the what?”
“Just find them,” snarled Lookout, kicking at an urchin who had gotten a little too close for comfort. The scrawny urchin made a face at them and slipped into the crowd.
“Come on, big guy, let’s get out of here,” said Chaff, and the camelopard leaped forward. He moved with the path of least resistance, striding over the heads of many of the plainsmen running forward. “You got to give me directions, Lookout!”
“Give me a second, Sinndi can only fly so fast,” snapped Lookout, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Chaff cast his eyes upward, looking for Lookout’s owlcrow, but the bird had already flown so far it was only a speck in the night sky.
“Keep moving forward,” said Lookout. “The caravan’s been caught! We—other plainsmen, I mean—are tearing them down, but they’ve made this sort of defensive barricade out of…” She paused. “Out of the slaves.”
The slaves of the fieldmen meant Veer. Veer was fighting in the frontlines against the bloodthirsty, violent, and generally pissed off mobs of Shira Hay. They might not have her tabula yet, but that didn’t stop them from shoving the girl in front of them as a human shield. “Remember how I said we had one last race today, big guy?” said Chaff. “I lied. We got to move fast now! Come on!”
“For once in my life,” said Lookout, burying her head in her hands. “I wish I could have one hour where I’m not in crisis management mode. Just one.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, holding his tabula with one hand to make sure they didn’t slip. “Yeah, I know the feeling.”
The streets were so clogged with people that Chaff was forced to turn back. The big guy snorted and gave a questioning glare to Chaff, pacing around the edge of the roaring crowd. “I know, big guy, I know,” said Chaff, so soft that he doubted the camelopard could hear him. “Got to find some way through, yeah? Can’t just run through, no.”
“I see Bull,” said Lookout. “He’s trying to get out of the way of the mob. I don’t know if he’s seen the caravan, yet, and I can’t find Hurricane or Tattle.”
“Can you tell if he’s angry?” asked Chaff.
Lookout blanched. “How the hell could I tell that?”
“Look at his face!”
“OK, why would I need to know that?”
“’Cause, depending on the answer, I go see him or no,” said Chaff.
The girl rolled her shoulders, and closed her hands around the tabula. “Let me see, let me see…” she said, and far out over the clay buildings Chaff could see a dark blur dive from the sky. “Well, he definitely looks surprised now. That’s it, Bull, come on, come on, come this way.”
Chaff pulled on the big guy’s mane. “Where now?”
“Shit, give me a second,” said Lookout, pinching her nose. “Left. I’ll give you more directions as we go. Bull, where the hell are you going?”
As the big guy turned to go, something shattered in the street. Had the duarchs planned to throw the city into such chaos with such a violent and unexpected move? Chaff shook his head. It was politics, all politics. He would never be able to understand it.
In the back alleys, along the smaller, weed-ridden roads, there were significantly less people. All the slum-dwellers had left to see what the fuss was about. Lookout occasionally gave Chaff a direction to go as they rode, but for the most part the boy tuned her out as she continued to mutter to herself.
An incongruous thought floated across Chaff’s head. He was hungry. Come to think, the big guy was probably hungry, too. Hadn’t they just eaten lunch a couple hours ago? The fact that they had eaten a meal today was not something to be taken lightly, but no matter how grateful Chaff felt he couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling in his gut. There would have been food in those wagons, Alswell grains and fruits…
Chaff squeezed the big guy’s sides, egging him on a little faster. If he was hungry, the rest of Shira Hay was too. One little Alswell slave girl wouldn’t stand in their way.
“Here, here, here,” said Lookout, gesturing to the right. A screech overhead confirmed that Lookout’s owlcrow had arrived as well, and a bedraggled Bull was waiting for them in the small plaza.
Chaff’s heart caught in his throat when he saw Bull sitting on the edge of the dry fountain. He recognized the statue behind him. Three years later, Fra Henn’s stone features had not changed, her outstretched arm as implacable as ever. Lookout’s owlcrow sat on its shoulder, preening her feathers, and for some reason it seemed almost sacrilegious.
“Where the hell are Hurricane and Tattle?” shouted Lookout, sliding off of the big guy’s back. “Bull, what happened?”
The tanned boy turned his head away and refused to look. There was a thin red line running down his cheek, and despite how still he sat his chest was heaving.
“That bad?” said Lookout, hesitantly. “If they’re dead-.”
“Sick of you people.” Bull snorted, nostrils flaring, eyes wide. “Sick of all this. You crazy? You want to get yourself killed? Fine. Leave me out of it.” He stood and walked around the fountain, running his hands over his head.
“He looked angry,” muttered Chaff, edging the big guy closer to Lookout.
“He looked scared,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “And that’s worse. Come on, Chaff, let’s go. Let him be. We’re not getting any more out of him.”
“Just a little more, big guy,” said Chaff, soothingly, as Lookout mounted him once again. “Just a little more, I promise.”
“Come on, Chaff, let’s go. That way,” said Lookout, as the familiar buzz of the tabula picked up again and the owlcrow took off into the sky.
The big guy stepped back a little as Lookout pointed to a street with a tattered red flag flapping over the entrance. “Not that way, yeah?” said Chaff, slowly. “We don’t like going that way.”
“Why, do you know this place?”
Chaff coughed, and didn’t answer. “Let’s go another way, Lookout.”
To her credit, the girl wasted no time on prying. “Alright, sharp right then.”
Nodding gratefully, Chaff turned the big guy’s head and pressed him on. They passed Bull as they walked, and Chaff could not help but notice the haunted, tired look on Bull’s face. Chaff bit his lip. They didn’t have the time. He shouldn’t.
“Hey, Bull,” said Chaff. The other urchin looked up, the ring on his lip glinting in the emerging starlight. “It’s going to be okay, yeah?”
Bull looked slightly taken aback, and then said, slowly, “No, new kid. No, it won’t.”
Chaff bowed his head and whispered into the big guy’s ear for him to keep running. They didn’t have the time. At least this way he could say he tried.
The night clung to the cobblestones, and echoed with the shouts and chants of the nomads of Shira Hay working themselves into a frenzy. They rode past a bar where Hadiss liked to drink, and Chaff saw a man in fieldman garb being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the street. He didn’t even look like he was associated with the emissaries, but a fever had gripped the normally placid plainspeople.
A building blocked Chaff’s view as the big guy ran on, and he looked away and shivered. He hated the night.
As the murky gloom grew deeper, the big guy began to slow. “We’re not there yet,” hissed Lookout. “We need to go farther.”
“Big guy can’t see anything,” said Chaff. “And he tired, yeah?”
The big guy snorted in agreement, head drooping.
“Owl eyes,” said Lookout, tapping her tabula. “Trust me, Chaff.”
Chaff flinched. He didn’t like when people used that word. He egged the big guy on forward, though, all the same. It was for Veer, he reminded himself. They had to save Veer.
The looming question of how still lingered in his mind.
The next alleys did something strange to the sound. The roar of the city faded to a dull buzz, and the silence gnawed at the edges of Chaff’s patience like some locustbeast. He gripped the big guy’s mane so tight his knuckles were white. He was so tired, so tired, so very tired…
Chaff felt it in his chest a second before the big guy collapsed onto the ground, a twinge that seemed to shake his very essence. The camelopard had come to the end of his endurance; there was simply nothing left in him to keep moving.
The landing was painful, but numbed by the fact that Chaff was at this point too tired to feel anything. He didn’t move from his place on the ground, while Lookout rolled over and groaned beside him. The big guy’s gargantuan form blocked out the weak starlight, and lay slumped across the entire alley.
The owlcrow landed beside them momentarily, ruffling its wings and squawking. The dull throb of Shira Hay screaming seemed almost unreal now, distant.
“I can’t move, Chaff,” mumbled Lookout.
With a pained grunt, Chaff put his hands under his chest and pushed. One step at a time. He paused, and then slid his knees under him, going from lying to kneeling. He closed his eyes, letting his vision swim back into place. “Did you break something?”
“I don’t know.” Lookout raised her head, but then fell back down. “It doesn’t hurt, but my legs won’t move.”
Chaff crawled to her side, hands hovering over her leg. A bloody gash had been torn into it, a flap of skin dangling open above the knee, raw red and white. Chaff closed his eyes, and for a moment at least was glad for the gloom.
A jagged corner of brick glimmered beside him, a red streak on its jagged edge. With so much rubble in the city, it was bound to happen eventually. But, for it to happen to Lookout, who saw and heard everything…
Chaff felt his skin crawl, and tried to block out the voices of doubt and fear growing louder around him.
Hesitantly, he put his hands over Lookout’s knee and pressed. She winced, but said nothing as he applied pressure to the wound, his own hands growing sticky and slick.
“You OK, big guy?” he asked, as he began to unwind the bandages from around his hands and wrap them around Lookout’s knee. That was what they were for, after all, although it was usually for the Kennya Noni fighter who had missed his roof jump and had fallen to the ground, not for a fall from a mount.
The big guy flicked his tail and snorted, although he did not get up. He was at least well enough to sound indignant.
Chaff tied the cloth around Lookout’s leg as tightly as he could, and rose. He had to lean on the alley wall as the blood rushed to his head, and stood like that for a few seconds, winded from just standing up.
“Look at us,” said Lookout, bitterly, pushing herself up into a more comfortable position. She looked to the side, slumped against the wall. “Who’s going to be saving anyone, the way we are?”
Chaff didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure how to.
“I look for help, yeah?” he muttered, and he began to stagger away. Lookout made no move to stop him. She didn’t say anything either.
The boy rubbed the big guy’s neck. “You watch out for her, yeah?”
The big guy gave him a lazy glare, and seemed to nod almost imperceptibly. At least, Chaff hoped he had nodded. It was hard to tell in the night.
The camelopard’s prone body blocked the path out, and he didn’t look like he was moving anytime soon. Chaff walked out back, the way they had come, away from the sound of the mob in the street. He wondered what gruesome spectacle they were preparing now, to stoke up passions even further.
As Chaff left the alley behind him, he looked down. He wasn’t leaving the mob behind. The mob was all around him. There was no escaping it.
He jumped when he heard the patter of feet in front of him. He readied himself, shifting into the fighter’s stance, and looking up saw a man approaching with the red scarf of the electors billowing behind him. For a moment, Chaff saw the electors on the bridge again, leaping out, pulling iron death from beneath their cloaks, hidden strength in such unassuming bodies…
“Young master! Young master, are you alright?”
“Hadiss?” asked Chaff, incredulously. He blinked. He had not seen the man’s face in the dark, but upon hearing his voice he immediately recognized the silhouette. “Hadiss, how-?”
“You are an easy boy to find, young master,” said Hadiss, breathlessly. “Or, rather, your bestial friend is. I saw him in the assembly at the bridge and feared you had been caught in the violence.”
“Hadiss, aren’t you- aren’t you…” stuttered Chaff. “Aren’t you supposed to be fighting them?”
“Ex-elector, young master, ex. If the duarchs no longer want me, then their decisions can no longer bind me, either.” Hadiss gripped Chaff’s hands and shook them firmly. “It’s good to see that you are alright. I was worried that…” He stopped suddenly and trailed off.
Chaff suddenly became aware of the blood on his hands. “A friend,” he said, quickly. “A friend of mine has been injured. Quickly, Hadiss, she needs help.”
“Another one of your friends, another one of your problems,” mused Hadiss, but he followed as Chaff led him back towards the alley. “And the endless cycle thus repeats, does it not, young master?”
Chaff didn’t honor Hadiss’s philosophy with an answer. He didn’t have time for it.
“Lookout! Lookout, I found an elector,” said Chaff, running back to her side. The big guy stirred as Hadiss approached, but Lookout did not. “He’s going to help you out. Hadiss, can you help her out?”
With a grunt, Hadiss bent and picked her up. Lookout’s eyes had closed. She did not move as Hadiss carried her away. “I’ll get her to a sick bay, but then I have my own people I have to watch out for. Chaff, I came to tell you-.”
“Can’t you fix her?” asked Chaff, desperately.
“I am a scholar, not a doctor,” said Hadiss. His voice was not unkind, but it brooked no argument.
Chaff bit his lip and nodded. He whistled for the big guy. “Come on, big guy. No carrying anyone no more. Just walking. Come on.” The camelopard struggled to his feet and began a slow, fatigued limp to Chaff’s side. The owlcrow screeched and flapped its wings to catch up with them, circling overhead like the Lady Winter’s omen of death.
As always with Hadiss, questions bubbled to Chaff’s head as they walked, but he did not know which ones to ask. He settled for the first one that came to mind. “Did you know?”
The ex-elector paused. He shifted Lookout in his arms, and looked down uncomfortably. “I had heard rumors. Some of my acquaintances still with the Libraries tried to convince me to join. Got me nice and drunk before asking, but all the same I refused.”
Hadiss turned from side to side, as if afraid someone was eavesdropping on him, and then said, quietly, “This war will not end soon, young master. The duarchs and the electors are short-sighted. They think only of the plunder to be won now and not the months if not years of bloodshed waiting beyond that.”
“How do you know?” asked Chaff, in hushed tones as well, even if he did not know why.
“Because it has already happened. The War of Whispers, the War of Broken Chains. And the endless cycle thus repeats, does it not?”
Chaff was quiet. Hadiss seemed to be leading him farther and farther from the city center, and the boy realized with a pang that every step he took was leading him farther and farther away from saving Veer. He would go back, he told himself. Once Lookout was safe. Once he was ready. He would go back.
Was it even worth it, for all the good it would do?
“I fear for Shira Hay,” said Hadiss, as they approached the outskirts of the city. It was deserted now, all the doors and windows shut, all the gawkers and gapers already gone to see the…festivities. “I fear for us all. War is coming, young master, and all of Albumere will be consumed in the coming fire.”
“So what do we do?” asked Chaff.
“I do not know what you will do,” said Hadiss. “But I will find the people I call friend and speak to them at least once, before it is too late. I will go where I must, and prevent what harm I can. I will survive, Chaff, as I always have.”
The boy nodded, slowly. As plans went, it was one of the better ones. “That what you doing then, yeah?” asked Chaff. “Talking to me…before it too late?”
Hadiss shifted the girl in his arms and sniffed. “Yes, young master. Before it’s too late, for either of us.”
And as they kept walking, Chaff felt very cold.
“Where we going, Hadiss?” asked Chaff, hugging his shoulders. The shadow of the big guy dipped and rose around him, as they passed buildings lit by sparse firelight.
“An encampment on the outskirts of the city.” Hadiss twitched, looking over his shoulder, which made Chaff twist and look, too. After a moment, Hadiss turned around and kept walking, his pace casual. “I am not alone among those who wish Shira Hay would not join this war, but even among them tempers flare high. Your friend can rest and recuperate there, but then I must leave.”
Chaff did not speak for several seconds. Then, he said, softly, “Like you leave me?”
The burly man sighed. He did not stop walking, or in fact pause to look at Chaff at all. “I have made no pretense, young master. I must keep myself distant. There are others I must guard, others who are, I’m sorry to say, more important to me than you.”
“Like who?” blurted Chaff, and he bit his tongue. “Sorry, if you don’t want to answer-.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Hadiss. “I have a wife. Married six years, back when I was still a full elector. We have lived in the east quarters for quite some time now, making a living where we can. She is a knowledge keeper at the Libraries, and information is something that can be sold easily enough.”
“You living with a woman?” asked Chaff, incredulous. “Hadiss, I never know!”
Hadiss shrugged. “I tell few. It is something that is too easy for those who wish me harm to exploit.” He paused. “We…we had a daughter. The Fallow took her three months ago.”
Chaff looked down. He didn’t know what to say to that.
“Three months, one week, and four days ago, to be precise,” said Hadiss, and his voice was hoarse. “It’s easy to see why so many eschew marriage in Shira Hay, after that, but she is and remains that best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Their footfalls formed a synchronized beat on the street. A man’s boots, a child’s bare feet, a beast’s hooves.
“You know,” said Hadiss, and his voice lifted slightly. “That Shira Hay is unique among the many nations of the world in its lack of formal marriage traditions?”
“Really?” said Chaff, feigning interest. Hadiss seemed to be happier when he talked.
“Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. In Da’atoa, the couple must be humu akani, sea-forged: they must spend three days at sea, alone, for the bonds to be true. They say the fiercer the storms are on those days, the greater their love is. In Jhidnu, the marriage rites are completed by exchanging tabula, a sign of complete and total trust, and in Moscoleon, they must be overseen by one of the many pontiffs. Even in Alswell, they have elaborate courtship rituals, where the man must prove himself both chivalrous and gentlemanly while the woman is chaste and virtuous. Remember, Chaff, that even though we call them enemy, they are still people like us. We must empathize…” Hadiss stopped talking. He looked at Chaff. He sighed. “You don’t know what marriage is, do you?”
Chaff shook his head. “Is it like slavery?”
Hadiss barked a laugh. “Like slavery,” he said, chuckling so hard that Chaff feared he might drop Lookout. “Yes, for some it is, oh, yes.”
Despite himself, Chaff laughed, too. He kept on laughing, until suddenly tears were in his eyes and Hadiss was practically guffawing. Even the big guy joined in, a few deep, wheezing grunts.
“I think I shall add that to my plan for the future,” said Hadiss, lifting his spectacles and wiping his eyes delicately. “Laugh a little. At ignorance, at cruelty, at pain. It is the only way, I think, to defy this world and its malignities, no?”
Chaff smiled. “It feels good, yeah?”
“It feels good! Most eloquently put, young master,” said Hadiss. The last huddle of clay buildings they left behind them, and Chaff stepped out off the street and onto the grass. He wriggled his toes in the grass, and for the first time in a long time it felt like home.
Chaff looked out at the outskirts of Shira Hay, at the vast rows of tents and colorful banners splayed like a rain festival circus in front of him, at the scrubs whose shadows seemed to dance in the light of the campfires, at the nomads with honest faces and simple garb. He looked out, and he remembered a promise a long time ago for a tour of this place.
He closed his eyes and sighed. This was as good as he was going to get.
Beside him, Hadiss sighed. He stood, staring at the tents too, and his eyes seemed a little moist from more than just laughter. “I will miss this place. And you, young master. As much as I speak of distance and priorities, I will miss you.”
Chaff cocked his head. “Why? Hadiss, what’re you doing?”
“With this war, Shira Hay is not safe for me, or for my wife. I am leaving, and I think I will not be returning for quite some time. I told you, young master, I will do what I have always done.” Hadiss looked at him, his eyes glinting. “I will survive.”
Behind them, the light of the bonfires in the city still flickered. Chaff wondered how many of the fieldmen had survived the massacre that had just happened, and how many would survive the massacre to come.
“In…in more cultured circles of Shira Hay, there is a tradition. A departure gift, given in the name of the Lady Winter and Fall.” Hadiss set Lookout down gently, and reached into his robes to pull out a thick, leather-bound book. He pressed it into Chaff’s hands, gently, and Chaff’s jaw dropped. He had only ever seen the things in the hands of the electors, mystical items of power that whispered and rustled whenever the wind blew.
“What happens is…oh, how do I explain?” Hadiss pursed his lips. “It is a promise. I give something to you, and you give something to me, and we promise to meet each other again to give our gifts back.”
“I don’t have nothing to give, Hadiss,” said Chaff, shaking his head. He licked his lips. He wanted to keep the book, but…
Slowly, he unwrapped the remaining bandages around his other wrist, and proffered them to Hadiss, a little sheepishly. He had never been much of a Kennya Noni fighter, anyway.
Hadiss took them, grinning. “A fine gift, young master. I will remember you whenever I use it.”
His hand drifted to the red scarf around his neck, and he closed his eyes and sighed. “I suppose…I suppose it will be a boon to have a flexible ethnicity in the days to come.” With a sharp tug, he pulled it off, and the scarf lay limp in his hands, its rich golden threads glimmering. Hadiss walked up to the big guy and draped the scarf around his long neck. “You always did fancy the thing, master jarraf. My departure gift to you.”
The big guy rumbled, his face a look of extreme consternation, and a moment later something wet splattered onto the ground.
Hadiss started to laugh so loud that some of the nomads looked up in suspicion. “I suppose I did ask for a sample,” said the ex-elector, and Chaff turned in a hurry to see a fetid pile of camelopard dung steaming on the grass. “But to think you had the memory to keep that in mind all these years! Oh, by the Ladies Four—young master, you must take good care of this one, he is a unique specimen indeed.”
Chaff met the big guy’s eyes and grinned, and the big guy just looked up, a little smug.
“You may keep the thing itself, although its spirit goes with me, master jarraf,” said Hadiss, shaking his head. He bent down to pick up Lookout again, and when he rose, but for his spectacles, he looked like any other dirt-worn, weary traveler. “Come, come, come. I shall get her to the common grounds and then I shall be taking my leave.”
Chaff followed, as he flipped through the book. He did not know his letters, and most of it was a cramped, incomprehensible scrawl, but the pictures stood out in particular. Beasts even stranger than the big guy, oddly shaped weapons in all sizes, foreign and exotic clothes. Chaff squinted, trying to make out the ink sketch in the dim light.
And, suddenly, everything seemed to go silent.
“Hadiss! What is this?” he asked, nearly tripping over his own feet as he ran to show Hadiss the picture.
The ex-elector stumbled, Lookout jostling precariously in his arms, and he blinked rapidly. Peering through his spectacles at the picture, he said, slowly, “That? Well, it’s a coza. People in Moscoleon wear it. It’s-.”
“Where is Moscoleon? Where can I find it?”
Hadiss looked like he was about to laugh again, but Chaff’s face, despite its eagerness, was also dead serious. “Moscoleon?” said the big man. “Well, it’s hard to miss, it’s a very big place. Out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do.”
East. Chaff closed his eyes, muttering under his breath, trying to put the names into his leaky memory. Moscoleon, out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do…
“If you want to go east,” said Hadiss, hesitantly. “Go by day. Follow the sun, not the treacherous stars. Once you have made it out of the great grasslands, there will be others to show you the path. Indeed, many will walk it with you.”
Chaff was still muttering the names under his breath. Moscoleon, out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do…
“OK,” said Chaff, after a moment. “Just…curious.”
Hadiss nodded, although Chaff could see the questions forming on his lips. Ultimately, the ex-elector did not ask any of them.
They walked on, talking sometimes, mostly silent. Chaff’s mind was buzzing.
He had seen her wearing it. What had Hadiss called it? The coza. He had seen her with it! He knew where to find her!
Lookout dangled in Hadiss’s arms, the bandages around her knee soaked red. Would he abandon her? Would he have to?
No, Lookout was…useful. She would see. She would help.
But the others?
Chaff rubbed the big guy’s side for comfort, and then traced his thumb on her tabula to soothe his nerves. He would have to. It was the only way.
Like Hadiss, he had to keep himself distant. He closed his eyes and whispered an apology to Veer, to Hurricane and Tattle, to everyone. This was the way it had to be. Chaff would do anything, give up anything to find her.
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.
The big guy flicked his tail, watching. The boy hadn’t moved all morning. He lay in the dusty dark, curled up and eyes closed. The big guy flicked his tail again. The boy should have been out, in the open air, in the sunlight, free and moving.
Something jostled past his leg, and the camelopard snorted. He didn’t like this place. There were too many moving things crammed into one space.
The big guy shook his head to ward off the gathering flygnats. He nudged the boy with his snout, but still he did not move. Worrisome.
“Shoo! Go on! Out of the way, you dumb animal!”
The big guy looked down at the man and snorted, but stepped out of the way nonetheless. He didn’t want to cause any trouble.
He rumbled, the sound vibrating from his chest, so low that it seemed to shake his whole neck. None of the humans reacted, although a chained elephantbear snarled at the sound. The big guy was calling for friends. For people like him.
The crowded streets drowned him out, and the camelopard was left to stand in the cramped alley over a boy who would not get up.
It had not been like this in the grasslands. The boy’s essence burnt hot; the big guy could feel its touch even when the boy laid prone, but when the boy lent him strength…
When the boy lent him strength, the big guy felt he could stand as tall as clouds.
The big guy ruminated. The cud lodged in his throat on the way up, but with an annoyed cough he spat it up and chewed on it thoughtfully. He looked down at the boy. It wasn’t sickness. It couldn’t have been, not when his essence flared so. Something else in him had broken.
The big guy bent to nudge the boy with his snout again. If he did something enough times, the camelopard had realized over the years, it was bound to work eventually.
The boy did not stir.
“Hey! Move!” shouted another voice, and the big guy looked back to see another man, waving his arms to get the camelopard’s attention. “Go!” The man jumped up and down and yelled a little, as if he could scare the big guy off.
The big guy shuffled around and bent to look down at the man. His nostrils flared, and he widened his stance as his neck stiffened.
The man walked away rather quickly after that.
A painful twinge came from the big guy’s side as he stood straight again. The cold one had only scratched him, but the area around the scratch had become swollen and numb. It annoyed the big guy to no end. He had barely been able to sleep because of it, and between that and the intensity of running last night, he felt so exhausted his knees might collapse under him.
The big guy swallowed his cud and glared at the walls next to him. If he stretched his neck he could look over the rim, but all the same the fact that they were both taller than him and not made of food was annoying.
His tongue rasped over tombstone teeth as he digested his meal for a second time, and he rumbled. For however long it had lasted, he had been the cold one’s herd-mate and shared food with him, but that was over now. The big guy didn’t mind much. Having a herd wasn’t all he had dreamed it would be.
The camelopard’s gaze flicked over to the boy, who he did not consider so much as a herd-mate but rather as a detachable part of his body. Like a fifth leg. Or perhaps a very talkative tail.
The big guy ruminated some more.
Finding food had been easy enough back home. They simply walked until they saw it, and then they ate it, and they moved on. Here in the clay place, with so many moving bodies around him, it was going to be a bit trickier.
The camelopard’s tongue scraped his gums, like a mouthful of sand. He bleated once, to let the boy know he was going, and strode out of the alley. Someone screamed as he stepped over a human’s head, but the big guy thought little of it. Hopefully the boy would feel better by the time he was done grazing.
He looked down as he walked. He had to, if he wanted to avoid stepping on people. The big guy put every foot in front of him with slow purpose, watching with hooded eyes as men scurried past like antflies. The big guy blinked, trying to avoid the light of the dusty morning sun. There weren’t as many people on the street, just cloaked men setting up their colorful shelters.
The big guy eyed one stall from above. He smelled crisp onions and cool lettuce, hidden under the shade. He bent down to bite…
“Shoo! Back off!” A shorn plank hit the big guy squarely in the face, and the camelopard backed away, bellowing. “Go back home, you dumb brute!”
“Animals running out of the stables…” he heard the man mutter as he walked away. “This whole city’s gone to shit.”
The camelopard rumbled, but no one heard. His stomach felt empty and his side still hurt.
He came across a plaza- not the plaza, but a plaza nonetheless. A stone bearded man stood on this fountain, his expression stern, but the fountain was the same: dry. The big guy stared at the dust gathering in the corners and snorted. A couple fall sparrows fluttered away as he approached. He glared at them as they rose over his head, and snorted. Annoying.
He flicked his tail and moved on.
Dumb brute, dumb animal. Contrary to what those men seemed to believe, the big guy wasn’t dumb. He looked down at the stalls setting up along the street, at the tired nomads stumbling back into the city with bush meat hauled over their backs. He looked down at everything. But if he raised his head just a little…
He saw everything, too.
The river was just ahead, its waters pale and sluggish. The big guy had avoided it for fear of meeting the cold one again, but this stretch of the bank seemed clear. He bent and drank, until his whole throat was full of delicious, cool water. His eyes, watching from the side of his head, looked for danger as he drank, but he saw only a group of human children playing in the mud. It seemed wasteful, to splash around like that.
The big guy rose and licked his nose. Then again, as he looked at the vast stretch of the river flowing before him, there seemed to be water enough to spare.
A red flash on the edge of his vision caught his eye. The big guy squinted. He had to look up to see it, even as it disappeared over the lip of a stone outcropping.
Buildings, then birds, now this. The number of things in this place that were above him was uncomfortably high, which was to say it was more than zero. The big guy strolled towards the road over the river. It made a strange image on the water, as if another road just like it was made for the crossing in a mirror world, but the camelopard walked towards it anyway. He knew a reflection when he saw one.
The only way onto the road was through a shadowed arch, which made the big guy stamp his feet and nicker. His hooded eyes searched for another way on, but the road had only two entrances, also eerie reflections of the other, mirrors upon mirrors.
The big guy bent his neck forward as he walked under the stone arch, feeling his heart speed up slightly as the sky slid out of view. Hunched old men scurried out of his way as he strode forward, ducking back inside the dim, musty doors on either side. When he emerged back into open sunlight, the big guy stretched his neck as far up as he could, shaking his head and whinnying.
His hooves made hollow sounds on the river-road. The big guy’s eyes slid over the crenellations and cobblestones, towards the men with red cloth wrapped around their necks. They were, to his great satisfaction, beneath him now.
He stopped at the center, where the path bent up at its highest. His ears pricked at the low murmur of the men around him, like wind through the grass, but as far as the big guy could tell they weren’t hungry and therefore weren’t a threat. He ignored them, casting his gaze upward instead. The sky was open here, thankfully, although the big guy was starting to prance nervously as he noticed the arches boxing him in on either side.
Where in the city would he find food? In the plains, it had been simple: he just had to look for things that were (nearly) as tall as him. He tried the same thing here, looking towards the fluted, bulb-like roofs of the massive buildings on either side of him. Perhaps there would be food there.
The big guy licked his nose as he strode toward the opposite end of the river. He couldn’t help but notice the rustling, pale slips the men in red were holding. They looked vaguely leafy. The big guy bent, lips peeled back to bite…
“No! No, no! Back, get back! This is very important! You can’t eat this!” shouted the man in a squeaky little voice, trying to hold the parchment out of reach. The big guy, not to be perturbed, snapped eagerly, curious as to why the man would want to hold onto it so much.
With a terrified moan that sounded like the big guy passing wind, the man scurried away with his papers clutched to his chest. The big guy flicked his ears dismissively, and walked on. It was all just trial and error, in the end.
His belly was silent, which worried him. A good, happy rumble meant he was digesting his last meal; if it was quiet, that meant there was nothing left. The big guy passed through the second stone arch, head drooping.
He circled around the great building, snorting and shaking his head. As far as he could tell, there was no way up. Like a cliff in the red lands: insurmountable, untouchable, alien.
The big guy shook his head. He didn’t like thinking about the red lands.
A great crack caught his attention immediately. The camelopard stiffened at once, prepared to make a run for it at the slightest chance that something was on the hunt. Few things had even dared to assault something his size in the plains, but in here, in the stone place, all the rules had changed.
“What do you think of anarchy as a legitimate means of societal organization now, you fucking cunt?” shouted a burly man, kneeling over a smaller male and punching him in the face. The small man’s head rolled on the ground and he mumbled feebly.
The big guy looked around. He couldn’t see the female they were fighting over.
Breathing heavily, the larger man rose, pushing his spectacles up his nose. For a brief moment, the big guy’s eyes widened. He recognized this man.
It was the annoying one from a few days ago.
The man had apparently seen him too. He squinted for a moment, and then rubbed his eyes, and then squinted again. “This is why I shouldn’t go for drinks in the morning,” mumbled the man. The smaller one beside him groaned, and he turned and kicked him in the ribs. “Stay down, you’re still an idiot.”
The man stepped forward and nearly fell over. He wobbled as he found his balance, and when he looked at the big guy again his mouth formed a little circle. “The young master’s jarraf!” said the annoying one. “No wonder, I was beginning to think I needed new glasses.”
The big guy did not relax. He still wasn’t quite sure whether he should run.
The annoying one bowed, and then tripped. “Good morning and felicitations on this serendip…” The man closed his eyes and smacked his lips. “Serendipitous occasion. To what may I owe the pleasure of your company, master jarraf?” He squinted again. “Where is your boy? Did he get that problem with his friend sorted out?” A sudden look of consternation flashed across his face. “He’s not dead, is he?”
The big guy aimed carefully and spat in his face.
“That,” said the annoying man, wiping at his face with the back of his hand. “Could be interpreted in many ways.”
Snorting, the big guy spat again, just to make his point clear.
The man clapped his hands together. “As fascinating as I find you and your, erm, varied forms of communication, master jarraf, I have a morning read I need to finish before they kick me out of the Libraries for, er, kicking him out of the Libraries.” He scratched his nose. “I suppose this is the real reason why I’m an ex-elector.”
He bent over the unconscious one, digging in his satchel. “If you can hold it, everyone else can piss off because it’s yours,” said the man, grinning, pulling out several squares of hard tack. “Enzaa Dey’s philosophy in a sentence.”
The big guy didn’t listen. He was too busy snapping at the biscuits in the man’s hand, which smelled terrible but smelled like food nonetheless.
The man twisted to get out of the way, although he stumbled over his own feet as he did so. The big guy found himself with a mouthful of red cloth, as the man staggered over the unconscious one’s prone body.
The camelopard chewed. It didn’t taste half bad, actually.
“Hey, now!” said the man, grabbing at his cloth, but even with its length the big guy was still too tall for him to reach. The big guy scowled at the annoying man as he leaped and jumped around him. “That’s very precious to me, you can’t eat that!”
The big guy ignored him- that was, until a sudden sharp pain made his knees buckle under him and the camelopard crumpled forward. He held his head up high and out of reach, kicking his legs indiscriminately as the man wrestled with him. “Would you kindly return my fucking scarf?”
Their eyes met for a moment, and the big guy’s gaze flickered to the biscuits in the man’s hand. The man followed the big guy’s eyes, and brightened.
“You want these? Come on, then. Come here, master jarraf,” said the man, waving the tack enticingly in the big guy’s face (or as close as he could get to the big guy’s face, at least).
The camelopard let the cloth slip out of his teeth as he licked up the biscuits. It was too hard to chew, anyway.
“There, now,” said the man. “We’ve reached a compromise like reasonable, erm, men.” He made a face as he picked up the soggy end of his scarf, and cast a forlorn look at the tall stone building. “If I come back tomorrow morning and it takes me another two hours to find Reed’s On Wild Minds, I’m blaming you,” he grumbled, as he made towards the river bank.
The big guy followed, if only because the man had a biscuit or two left and he was still hungry.
The man took off his shoes and rolled his pants up to his knees as he stepped into the water. He seemed intent on not getting his clothes wet, even as he scrubbed his scarf vigorously in the river. The big guy stood by him, enjoying the cool current against his legs.
“Phorro must have had a very different experience from me,” said the man, as he washed out the worst of the big guy’s drool. Personally, the big guy didn’t understand. It all came to be water in the end anyway. “His almanac describes your kind as being placid, gentle, and non-confrontational.”
The big guy stared away, not paying attention. Humans tended to say many things he could safely ignore.
“All better,” said the man, squeezing out the water from his scarf and standing straight to admire it. “I was worried you might have ruined the stitching. See here? This is for my journey into the border villages near Kazakhal. They taught me how to play pipes there. And this, this is for my time in the Seat of the King. Oh, and here- this is when I tried to encourage a little learning among an urchin child’s gang and they near killed me for my trouble.” For some reason, he smiled at that.
The big guy’s ears pricked at the last sentence. He looked at the man, the beginning of an idea forming in his head.
The man turned to show his cloth to the big guy. “Every elector’s scarf is different. Our whole lives are on here, and the more we learn the longer they grow.”
The camelopard flicked his tail. He decided.
“Oh, summer burn it all,” swore the man, as the big guy tugged the scarf out of his hands and waded out of the water. “You had to wait until after I cleaned it?”
The big guy splashed out of the river, ignoring him. The scarf clenched firmly in his teeth, he made once more for the bridge. More people were on it, gaping as he passed; skittish with the attention, the big guy galloped across the bridge at breakneck speed, sucking in air through his nostrils. It was harder without the boy, and his side wound was beginning to burn hot and cold all at the same time…
The man could very clearly see him, but the big guy waited at the other end of the bridge just in case. The camelopard wasn’t actually that much faster than men, but humans tired so easily.
When he was confident the man was in following distance, the big guy set off. He had no idea which streets he had to run to return, but the boy’s essence called out to him like a glowing beacon, hot and strong and bright.
It must have taken quite some time, with the distance it had taken him to travel, but to the big guy it felt like no time at all. When he was running, he was free. It was like the plains again, where the hours and minutes mattered less than the days and nights and seasons.
The big guy stopped in front of the alley, dropping the scarf over the boy distastefully. He felt like a common hyenalizard, prancing around with his latest kill in his jaws. It was beneath him, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
“Temperamental, impetuous beast, where are you going?” gasped the man, and he stumbled to a halt in front of him, looking from side to side for his scarf. He found it on the boy, who was curled up and shivering despite the heat of the rising sun. “Oh.”
He went to retrieve his scarf, and immediately the big guy stepped into the alley entrance, blocking the whole path.
“What do you want me to do? I’m no healer! Go back to your friend, let her-.”
The big guy stamped his foot and tossed his head.
The man paused. “So it didn’t work out. I suppose friendship does come after trusting, then,” he said, looking at the boy. “I have nowhere to accommodate him, master jarraf. You took my morning meal, but I’m afraid that’s all you’re going to get. I need the rest for myself.”
The big guy looked towards the scarf in the man’s hands, pointedly.
He considered it for a moment. “Kazakhal?” he muttered. “Seat of the King? The child’s…oh. Well,” he said, shaking his head. “They certainly wouldn’t take a recommendation from me, but if you needed my help in finding them…”
He met the big guy’s eyes. “Are you sure? I cannot emphasize the danger enough.”
The big guy did not move. He stood, resolute.
The man nodded, slowly, and bent to pick the boy up, feeling his forehead as he did so. “He’ll need time to rest,” said the man, as he carried the boy away. “There is no fever, but there is a sickness to him that does not bode well. He must not show weakness in front of them.” He made to walk away, but the big guy shifted into his path.
Their eyes met, again, and after a moment’s hesitation, the man put the boy on the big guy’s back. The boy shifted slightly, woken from his stupor by the movement. The big guy felt the boy’s arms wrap around his neck, and rumbled. All was as it should be.
“There’s a place you can stay,” said the man, beckoning for the big guy to follow. “For a day, maybe two. I’ll- I’ll propose your plan to him when he wakes. The Ladies play life as it comes, I suppose, after that.” He looked back at the camelopard, as they walked on. “I must not have sobered enough if I’m saying this, but you, master jarraf, seem to have more sense than all the electors of the Twin Libraries combined.” He smiled. “I must include that in Phorro’s Almanac, when I return.”
The big guy ignored him. He kept vigil for the boy as they walked, looking out over the whole of the street.
The boy shifted, and spoke, his voice bleary and barely above a whisper. “Do you remember your mommy and daddy?”
The big guy didn’t answer. He didn’t remember, and he didn’t need to. In the end, the big guy reasoned, everyone only had enough room in their lives to love just one other person.
He shifted to make sure the boy was comfortable and walked on, his heart warm and at peace.
“She thinks she’s being clever,” snorted Vhajja, as he ate. He wiped rice gruel from his mouth with a yellowed cloth and cackled, pink gums stretched wide. “Just like when she got her own name.”
Chaff squinted at Vhajja, trying to figure out what was so funny. He wasn’t quite sure about his new name yet, but he liked the way it sounded. Did it mean something?
“That’s enough from you, old man,” said Loom. “If you don’t stop talking soon I’m taking away your food.”
“Tasteless slop anyway,” said Vhajja, distastefully letting the gruel dribble. He looked at Chaff and grinned again. “Not that I have much choice. See this, boy? No teeth. It’s what happens when you get old.”
Chaff squinted even more, until his eyes were narrow slits. “You still have teeth, though, yeah?”
“And they’re more trouble than they’re worth,” said the old man, with a curmudgeonly grunt. “Can’t eat anything with them. Which is why I’m going to need someone to help me with this…”
Vhajja leaned back from his mamwaari and flipped open a wooden cupboard with his staff. A smell that made Chaff’s stomach roar wafted out, and he practically fell over himself to see what was inside. The crust was golden brown, laced with purple jam.
“You bought him a tart,” said Loom, flatly.
Chaff held the pastry like he was holding the bones of a saint, and looked at Vhajja with wide eyes.
“Well, go on, then,” said Vhajja, gesturing with his staff. “It’s for eating, not gawking.”
Chaff grinned from ear to ear, and plunged in. It was warm, and sweet, and filling, and delicious in ways that Chaff hadn’t even known food could be delicious. For this alone, he would take the city over the grasslands any day.
“You bought him a tart,” repeated Loom.
“I gave the baker’s lackey a copper cup for a month’s worth of bread and you came back early,” said Vhajja, adjusting himself in his seat as he resumed his meal. “I bought him more than a tart.”
Chaff dug a warm slice of plum out of the pastry. “I let the big guy have some of this, yeah?”
“Oh, no,” said Vhajja, putting his cane on Chaff’s chest to stop him. “That’s people food. It’s for you and you only.” Chaff sat back down, slowly, although his hand moved to put the plum in his pocket. Vhajja rapped him on the wrist. “Remember this, boy- you may treat your slaves kindly, but they are never your equals. Understand?”
Chaff looked to Loom for help, but the cane came up again, hitting him on the head and turning his gaze back towards the old man. “Yes, Vhajja,” he said, finally, looking down. It seemed contradictory that the big guy couldn’t eat people food.
“Good,” said Vhajja, smiling. He cackled. “You like it? I’ll ask the baker’s man for a custard one the next time he comes around.”
The boy nodded, his mouth full. As Vhajja looked away, he surreptitiously slipped the plum slice in his pocket. It squelched, but the big guy wouldn’t mind if it was a little out of shape. Chaff knew that Vhajja would be angry at him for getting jam all over his clean clothes, but Vhajja got angry at him for a lot of silly things.
“Sit like a civilized person,” said Vhajja, tapping the rug under the mamwaari. “And clean your mouth.”
Chaff scrubbed the jam off the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand, and then for good measure he licked it off.
“Feh. Hopeless.” Vhajja shook his head. “Utterly, utterly hopeless.”
The blanket tucked over him, Chaff folded his legs and sat. Hesitantly, he put his wooden plate on the low table, careful not to touch the cloth covering it with his sticky hands. It looked delicate. He wiped his hands off on his pants, instead.
“Why’s my name clever?” Chaff asked.
“Not another word,” said Loom, before Vhajja could speak. Chaff started. Loom’s face was usually in a permanent scowl, but now it was absolutely livid.
Vhajja shrugged and looked away, apparently unimpressed.
“Why’s Loom’s name clever, then?”
“Fuck this,” snarled Loom, standing up. “Gossip like ladybirds, whatever. I need some air.”
Chaff was confused. “There’s plenty of air-.”
“It’s too musty in here,” said Loom, heading for the door. It jammed when she tried to open it, and with a roar of frustration she stepped out of the window screaming, “Fix your fucking door, old man!”
Chaff watched her go, biting his lip. Loom had seemed happy enough when they were touring the city, but something had changed between going out and coming back. Was it Vhajja’s old house that bothered her so much? Or the prospect of going out to the city limits, where apparently the nomads and drifting travelers lived? Loom had said small-time slave traders lived out there. Perhaps she just didn’t fancy meeting them again.
“Loomer,” said Vhajja. “The street girls called her Loomer, when she was kid. She was a big girl, back then.” He laughed into his bowl. “Still is. Afterwards, she changed it to just Loom. It’s weaving terminology. Her way of spitting in their faces, I suppose.” Vhajja’s voice grew bitter. “She thought it was clever, but it was just stupid.”
Chaff waited, watching Vhajja’s sunken face. The old man’s eyes flickered over his decaying home, and he coughed, his body shaking. “Stupid like your name. Chaff is the part of the wheat you throw away. She doesn’t want you.”
The boy stood, backing away from the old man. Vhajja had said it almost casually, but the words stung like a physical wound. The old man had grown hunched and sullen, and Chaff began to automatically back away from him.
“I think I need some air, too,” said Chaff, haltingly.
Vhajja didn’t stop him. He just sat there, wheezing laughter squeezing out of his chest. “She thinks she’s being clever. She doesn’t want you.”
Chaff ran. It was an instinctive reaction, to run from that which hurt him. He ducked out of the back of the house, through to the makeshift stables. He picked his way over the rubble that made the ruined entrance, and past the crumbling walls with no roof.
Deppash raised his head and snorted when he heard Chaff’s approach, but aside from a chilly breath in his direction did nothing. Chaff edged around him, towards the big guy, who was sitting with his legs folded on the ground, neck curled around his body.
“Up, up, up, big guy,” he said, shaking the camelopard’s side. “We go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
The camelopard blinked slowly as he rose, unfolding at a languid pace. Chaff supposed it was his version of a yawn.
He was halfway up the big guy’s side, getting ready to ride, before he stopped to think.
The big guy snapped at the boy’s head, glaring. They weren’t moving. Chaff rubbed the camelopard’s head, around the little bone nubs, and whispered, “Sorry, big guy. I panic a little.” He offered him the squished plum slice, which seemed to placate the beast.
What had Vhajja meant, Loom didn’t want him? It seemed an evil goad. The old man was crotchety, yes, grumpy, certainly, but downright cruelty had seemed out of his reach until now. Chaff slipped off the camelopard’s back, sitting on the ground and hugging his knees. He had wanted to like Vhajja just he had wanted to like Loom, but those four words had made it impossible to do either.
Chaff slumped to the ground. He hugged his knees, his breath coming in short, hard gasps; his stomach felt like a rock and his head swam.
The bandana around his forehead made his skin itch and sweat. Chaff untied it with fumbling hands, letting the tabula slide out, onto his open palms. There was a snort, in front of him- not the big guy, but Deppash, staring at him coolly, still except for the occasional swish of his tail.
“What are you two planning?” asked Chaff, staring at the winter ox. The boy rolled his three tabula between his thumb and forefinger. He sighed.
The third tabula caught the light and glimmered. Chaff put his other two aside gently and cupped the girl’s in his hands.
“He gets me sweets,” said Chaff, to the tabula. “She gives me a name. They’re nice to me. They don’t hurt me.” He sniffed. “I don’t need to throw rocks at their faces, yeah?”
He flipped the tabula over in his hands.
“How’s she going to make her money back, huh?” Chaff closed his eyes and sunk down even further, shaking his head. “How’s she going to make her money back?”
He looked up at the big guy. “Maybe we help her, yeah? Get her some money so she doesn’t worry so much. We could do some trading.” Even as Chaff said it, he knew it was pointless.
Chaff stared at the way the tabula caught the light. He closed his eyes, and took the worry and fear and channeled it. He felt a sinking, crushing feeling in his stomach, and sucked in a sharp breath, sweat beading on his forehead. He had felt refreshed, almost invigorated, after a week gripping that tabula in his comatose state, and yet a few seconds of descrying threatened to knock him out. What was the difference?
Immediately, Chaff felt that something was wrong. His current troubles forgotten, he angled the tabula. The reflections under its surface were dim and murky, and Chaff had to squint just to see an outline in the amber shadows.
“What happened?” whispered Chaff. The girl’s world wasn’t supposed to look like that. It was green and gold and bright. It was happy. It was where Chaff went to escape, except in the darkness of the tabula Chaff could not see the girl’s smile.
His grip tightened, his thumb tracing the thin crack in the tabula’s surface. Had he done something wrong? He had thought he was helping, but Chaff felt with a sick lurch that this could have all been his fault. After all, what else had changed?
Loud swearing broke Chaff’s concentration. The shadows dispersed, and the boy felt a great pressure removed from his head. He staggered to his feet, blinking as the blood rushed to his temples. The big guy shuffled forward, letting Chaff lean on his torso as the boy found his footing.
Chaff looked up at the big guy, eyebrows furrowed. The camelopard snorted, tossing his head in the house’s direction. Voices drifted out from the thin walls.
Picking his way back out, Chaff sent one suspicious glance Deppash’s way before sliding out of the stables. To the ox’s credit, all he did was stare back. Not a sound, not a move, still as ice.
Chaff reached for handle of the door to go in, but he hesitated. He looked back to the big guy, who had followed him and clambered awkwardly out of the hole in the wall, and sighed.
Then, he pressed his ear to the crack in the door and listened.
“It’s such a pleasure to do business with an old friend again,” oozed a voice from within. Chaff bit his lip. It was a voice he did not recognize.
He knew Vhajja’s harsh laughter instantly, though. “Business, yes, but friends? Never. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Kharr Ta.”
There was a high pitched, affronted squeak. Chaff had almost thought it was a prairie vole’s warning call. “Aged you may be, Vhajja, but I still expect you to be mannered.”
“Piss on your manners.” That was Loom. She had come back inside, then. Her voice was low and surly, and Chaff had to strain to hear. “Do we have a deal or don’t we?”
“You understand, this is most unorthodox,” said the mystery man- Kharr Ta? “I don’t usually deal with children.”
Chaff stumbled backwards, eyes widening. He had misheard, surely. It hadn’t meant what he thought it meant. He scrambled forward on his knees, trying to listen in again without being obtrusive.
“-winterborn, by the looks of it,” he heard Loom say. “You know they sell well in this season. Good breeding, too.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” sniffed Kharr Ta.
Chaff heard a low rumble, and what sounded like Loom swearing under her breath.
“It’s a fair trade,” said Vhajja.
“It’s more than a fair trade, you’re fucking ripping us off.”
“Which is the only reason why I am even considering it,” said Kharr Ta. There was a distinct pause, and Chaff pressed his ear against the door, trying to listen. “…be that as it may,” said Kharr Ta’s voice, picking up again. “I’d need to see the product first.”
Chaff heard footsteps on the floor, and was just about to pull away when the footsteps stopped. Chaff froze, too, unable to miss a second more than he could spare.
“Now, if you please.”
“Well, I don’t fucking please.” Something hit the mamwaari very hard.
“If you don’t want to do business, Miss Loom, then there are a hundred other suppliers that I could be talking to who are both more pleasant and more profitable.”
“No, no, stop, I just…” Loom growled. “There’s just a little problem, OK? I’d need to…I’d need to talk to the kid for a few minutes.”
And that was when Chaff decided to run.
“Up, up, up,” he hissed, jumping onto the big guy’s back. He looked around, blinking watering eyes. The alley leading into the stables was small and cramped, but the big guy could fit if he squeezed. “Go big, big guy,” Chaff muttered. “Go big, come on.”
The camelopard did not pause or question him.
They rode through the narrow street, the big guy’s hooves loud on the stones. Chaff had to duck to get out of the way of low lying clotheslines, even as the big guy barreled through them. Out they stumbled, into the plaza with the dry fountain.
Chaff looked to the streets splayed out before him. Where to go? Where to run? He didn’t want to get lost in the urban sprawl of Shira Hay.
Lost? Chaff almost could have laughed. As much as he ran, he wanted to know the way back. He had been lost for far too long. And Vhajja’s home, as dangerous as it might have become, was still the only home Chaff had ever known- or, at least, could remember. He couldn’t run away from that.
The big guy trotted, pacing circles around the fountain. He seemed nervous.
With a start, Chaff realized he was still holding all three tabula in his hand. He tied them around his wrist with shaking fingers, and the big guy’s pacing stopped.
Loom was right; he was easy to spot. The big guy stood near twice as high as some of the lower buildings, and there was nowhere to hide if Loom was in pursuit.
Chaff looked over his shoulder. Loom…wasn’t. There was no one following him, no one chasing after him. He was alone.
It was both comforting and disappointing.
The boy slid off the big guy’s back, leading him on with a tug. He walked, but only out of habit than anything else. It felt strange, to have cobblestone under his feet instead of grass and dirt. He looked up, at the statue of Fra Henn. Had the duarch ever betrayed her friends? Would Loom?
He went forward. It was the only direction to go.
The big guy reared as a figure emerged from behind him, and Chaff nearly wet his pants. The boy raised his hands in defense, already backing up to run. Had the slaver sent his catchers out after him?
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said the man behind the big guy, holding up his hands behind his head. “Don’t run! I should have asked for permission first, I just wanted to touch him, that’s it!”
Chaff paused. The man looked strangely familiar. The red scarf dangling from his neck, the broad shoulders, the stained clothes…
“The elector from the pub?” he said, completely taken aback.
The elector smiled broadly. “You recognize me! That summoning really took me by surprise, I’ll admit, but felicitations, yes? A boon comes oft astonishing, like lightning in a cloudless sky. I’ve been trying to track you all morning!”
Chaff stared. He had somehow expected smaller words to come out of such a bulky man’s mouth. Big vocabulary from a big man seemed somehow unbalanced.
“Mine own eyes, I can’t believe it,” said the elector, reaching up for the big guy again. The camelopard tossed his head, backing away, but the elector’s touch was slow and gentle. “A genuine jarraf. Would you mind telling the good beast to open its mouth for me?”
“Will you leave me alone if I do?”
The elector grinned. “I won’t if you don’t. No guarantees if you do.”
Chaff patted the big guy on the side, trying to walk out of the way. The elector kept standing in their path, so that Chaff could not mount up and run.
The elector had an expression like he had just found a month’s worth of food when the big guy opened his mouth. “Phorro was incorrect! Black, not purple! Astounding, astounding.”
Chaff eyed him. The man seemed too giddy for Chaff to be properly paranoid. “Who are you?”
“I am Elector Hadiss,” said the man, adjusting his scarf proudly. “Well, ex-elector. Perhaps they shall reinstate me once I present this revolutionary correction to Phorro’s Almanac of Albumeran Species.”
“That the big guy’s tongue is black?” said Chaff, flatly.
Hadiss seemed to deflate slightly. “Well, perhaps I shall need a little more information.” He perked up, just as Chaff was about to edge around him, and stepped in his way. Chaff growled. Why were the streets so narrow?
“Would you mind if I tailed you until your jarraf defecates? I only need one sample,” said Hadiss, looking far too eager for his own good.
“Until it shits.”
“As long as it’s not stinky,” said Chaff, automatically.
Hadiss’s eyes widened, behind an odd metal and glass contraption on the bridge of his nose. “It doesn’t have an odor? Well, that is unorthodox.”
Chaff didn’t answer him. He looked around the nearby buildings, searching for something big enough to hide the big guy in. If the camelopard just curled up and slept, they might hide in something as small as those stables, but Chaff wanted to move.
His eyes fell on the biggest building in all of Shira Hay. Or, rather, buildings.
“They let you in the Libraries, yeah?”
“Well, yes. Even if I am no longer one of the elect, as long as I wear the scarf I may enter.”
“Good. OK. You get the big guy’s shit if we go there now, yeah?”
“A child, a barbarian, and a scholar,” said Hadiss, delightedly. “Perhaps I shall be taking samples from you next, young master.”
“What’s that thing on your face?” asked Chaff, unable to hold the question back any longer. He was curious. He couldn’t help it.
“These? Spectacles,” said Hadiss, adjusting them. Chaff didn’t know how “spectacles” were supposed to fit, but they looked a bit small on his wide nose. “Correctional lenses through which I may see the world in a state more pleasing.”
“It makes things look nicer? Yike, wish I had one,” said Chaff. He looked over his shoulder. He didn’t see anyone, familiar or unfamiliar, following him.
Hadiss, who had been ducking around other pedestrians to look at the camelopard from different angles, paused. He looked at Chaff. “Troubled, young master? If this is not a good time, I apologize- just seeing a jarraf has done wonders for my research. You may go if you wish.”
“We go, yeah? We go faster.” Chaff sped up his pace, although it did not help much as they entered denser crowds. Even now, the streets were packed.
“Perhaps,” said Hadiss. “We could be of mutual benefit to each other? Let’s solve problems the elector way. You give me your problem, and I give you mine.”
“What’s your problem?”
“Well, being an ex-elector is one of them,” said Hadiss, ruefully.
“You a special kind of elector?”
“An elector who once was, but now no longer is.”
“Oh. Why’s that?”
“Stirring up too much commotion,” said Hadiss, and his face grew dark. He rolled his shoulders and clenched his fists. “The electors shout at each other all day, but raise your voice against an arbiter? Freedom of speech, my ass. They pay more attention to silks and whores than learned scholars, and by the Lady Summer does that rile me.”
“Did you punch anybody?”
“I punched an anybody, some somebodies, and a little bit of everybody.” He sighed. “It is a fault of mine, I admit.”
“Is that why you fight this morning?”
“This morning was because Elector Yur Haa is a moron. He says, and I quote, that ‘a functioning republic can’t work in Albumere due to sheer size.’ And this is better? This nonsense with the apprentice-princes, the kings don’t care a thing for the state of the nation they’re leaving behind as long as they live their retirement in luxury. We’re putting bankers and merchants in charge of Albumere, with debts to a hundred marble mercenary companies and every plutocrat in Jhidnu! They’re not proper rulers!”
To Chaff, this sounded like a serious problem indeed. He nodded slowly. “You should punch him.”
Hadiss laughed out loud, and shoved a pair of ogling passersby aside with a meaty hand. “An elegant solution for a tangle of a problem, young master. Now, allow me to return the favor.”
Chaff looked at the banished scholar, wondering if he could trust him. The elector hadn’t tried to kill him and was friendly enough to talk to him, which put Hadiss miles ahead of most people Chaff had met in his life, but at the moment Chaff found such a quick trust hard to swallow.
Electors were intelligent, though. Hadiss would know what to do, and he had no reason to steer Chaff wrong.
“I have a friend…” he began, slowly.
“Ah, yes.” Hadiss nodded sympathetically. “Odd, is it not, that it is our friends that cause us our most difficult dilemmas, and not our enemies?”
“I don’t know,” said Chaff. “I don’t have very many friends. And this one never caused me so much trouble, did you, big guy?”
The big guy spat in Chaff’s general direction.
“Let it be written, that which I must show has been proved,” said Hadiss, grandly. “Please continue, young master.”
The Twin Libraries looked so far away. Chaff sped up his pace. “Well, my- my friend has been kind to me. I just met her, but she’s helped me. But she’s got money troubles, and I’m scared she might…use me.”
The flurry of Hadiss’s sudden arrival seemed to die away as Chaff said that. It had just been a week. What was a week in eight years? What was a week in Loom’s decades? What did Loom owe him that was worth more than trading him away?
But she had helped him. Loom had given him a name. She had taught him all about the city, promised to teach him so much more.
Educated slaves sell for more, whispered a sinister echo in the back of Chaff’s head. He squirmed. She wouldn’t.
“Where is your tabula?” asked Hadiss, and his voice was serious.
Chaff narrowed his eyes, but his hand moved toward the wrap around his wrist before he could stop himself.
Hadiss nodded. He patted his scarf. “In here, on the back of my neck. Most, but not all, electors keep it there.” Hadiss sighed. “It is good that your tabula is still yours. If it was not, then hope might have been lost already.”
“Hope to escape?” asked Chaff.
“Hope to trust,” said Hadiss. “If what you say is true, and if this friend truly is a friend, then you must trust her. For if you cannot trust your friends, who can you trust?”
“Can I trust you?”
“Am I your friend?” Hadiss smiled. “Oft is the sequence of such things befuddled.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, she is not your friend until you trust-.”
And then Loom punched Hadiss in the face. Chaff fell backwards, looking back over his shoulders in disbelief. “Where did you come from?”
“Get the fuck away from him!” shouted Loom, giving a downed Hadiss a kick in the ribs. She turned on Chaff, red in the face. “What the fuck did you run off for, stupid kid? You need me to save your ass every time you leave my sight?”
“He wasn’t- I don’t-.” Chaff gaped.
“This is your friend? I’d certainly trust her to kick my teeth in,” said Hadiss, standing straight, clutching his side. He was a little taller than Loom, with broad shoulders and thick muscles, but he held his hands up in peace. “I meant no disrespect, mistress.”
“Hmmph,” Loom snorted, shoving him in the chest before grabbing Chaff’s head and dragging him away. The big guy snorted, confused, but after a second Chaff beckoned for him to follow.
“I do not think this is the last time I will see you, young master!” Hadiss called after him.
“Why?” Chaff shouted back. “Because of fate or something, yeah?”
“No,” said Hadiss, chuckling. “You and your friend are just very easy to find.”
“Fucking dumbass kid,” said Loom. “Where’d you get it in your head to run off like that, huh? Could have gotten yourself killed.”
“You’re very protective, yeah?”
“I gotta be,” said Loom. “And it’s a dangerous world out there. You don’t know shit about it.”
“You’re irreplaceable, you get me? Irreplaceable.”
Chaff didn’t speak after that. He followed Loom back to Vhajja’s house- back home, or the closest thing to it, all the time wondering. Loom cared for him. Loom protected him. Loom would never betray him.
The boy couldn’t stop scrubbing his eyes, even as he devoured the old man’s porridge. It made an odd sight, with one hand pressing the chipped bowl into his face while the other rubbed away furiously.
“You were out for a whole fucking week,” said Loom, watching with a kind of horrified fascination. “I guess that’s what seven days of barely eating will do to you.”
The boy shook his head, still blinking his eyes furiously. Everything seemed to have a reddish tint for some reason. “That’s what four years of barely eating does to me, yeah?”
Behind him, Vhajja wheezed out a laugh from his bed, and even Loom cracked a smile, although she tried to hide it. The boy grinned, bits of oatmeal sticking out between his teeth, and attacked the bowl again. It was delicious and wholesome, full of honey and little sweet nuts that Loom called almonds.
“Where’s the big guy? Is the big guy eating this good?”
“Well,” said Vhajja, before Loom could speak. “Eating this well.”
The boy wiped some porridge off of his chin with the back of his hand. “Well,” he repeated. The old man had a curious way of saying things, but the boy liked him nonetheless. With his books and his candles and his speech with all its clandestine rules, he was like a wizard.
“The freak horse is out back,” said Loom. “I bet it’s the best fucking hay he’s eaten in his life.”
That made the boy paused. He raised an eyebrow. “Hay like Shira Hay?”
“No, like, er…straw.”
“Hay like straw…” The boy stroked his chin, thinking. “Straw like the stuff the dirty people sleep on, yeah?”
“Well…yeah,” admitted Loom.
The boy laughed, clapping his hands together. Loom gave him a curious look. “Big guy doesn’t need anything but hay,” said the boy, grinning from ear to ear as he ate more. “He lazy. Just give him the straw hay for sleeping and eating, yeah?”
“You’re certainly energetic,” remarked Loom. “For someone who’s been sick for so long.”
“I sleep for seven days,” said the boy, sticking out his skinny chest. He prodded it with a thumb. “This guy’s fine now.”
“This guy should also tell me what the fuck he’s still doing here. I got you to the city, now it’s time you leave me the fuck alone.” Evidently, Loom was in one of her grumpy moods. The boy suspected it would pass before lunch.
He was about to speak, but Vhajja cut him off.
“Loom, don’t swear. Boy, use the appropriate tense. The third person when referring to oneself is crass and signifies ignorance.”
Loom glowered, but said nothing. The boy was just confused. He counted three people (five if he added in the big guy and Deppash in the stable in the back), but he was unsure which one was supposed to be the third.
“You promise me more than just getting to the city,” said the boy, licking the rest of the bowl clean. He crunched on the last almond and spoke around a full mouth. “You promise a tour.”
“You don’t even know what a tour is.”
“No,” the boy admitted. “But I would like to see it now.”
Loom looked up, and the boy twisted around just in time to see Vhajja give a small nod. “Yeah. OK. Let’s show you that tour.” She pushed her chair out and stood.
“Get some food while you’re at it,” said Vhajja. “I’m certainly not going to walk to the market. I paid the neighbors to fetch meals for me while you were gone, with furniture and cutlery.” He eyed the boy’s chipped bowl. “I’m glad that you’re back.”
“Hrmph,” grunted Loom, as she walked to the window. “Rubbish old man.”
“Feh,” was Vhajja’s only response.
The boy put the bowl down and followed, hopping through the opening after her. “Bye, Vhajja!” he shouted, as he left, and he heard the old man chuckling.
“Come back soon, boy.”
As he slipped out of the old house, the boy grinned. Even though the shade was appreciated, the boy didn’t like the feeling of being boxed in. The alley was still far too cramped and squeezed for his liking, but at least here he could see the sun. “Hey, what’s that big square of wood for?” he asked, looking at it. There was a shiny bauble thing sticking out it. He wondered if he could keep it.
“It’s called a door,” said Loom, as they walked down the narrow alley. “And it’s for eating.”
The boy looked back at it. “Really?”
“No, it’s actually for sleeping,” deadpanned Loom.
“Oh, alright,” said the boy. He wondered what it would be like to sleep on that thing. It was probably a poor person’s alternative to straw. “Hey, will I have to sleep on it?”
“No, you’ll have to eat it.”
“But you said-.”
“Just- just ignore the door for now, kid,” said Loom. She massaged the bridge of her nose. “You’ll see how they’re supposed to be used in a minute.”
“Are there lots of doors in Shira Hay?”
Loom looked at him. The boy stared innocently back. She sighed, as they emerged into the open plaza. “Tons. Look, there’s one right there.”
The boy cocked his head. The flat slab of wood had been flung open as a group of bespectacled men wearing long, red and gold scarves came tumbling out. They grappled on the stones until the burlier one managed to straddle the other and land a loud blow on his face.
“What’s going on?” the boy asked, squinting.
“Well, it seems the electors are having a little debate. Whenever they have disagreements-.”
“No, I understand that,” said the boy, shaking his head. “But why’s the door swinging? Is it supposed to do that?”
Loom sighed. “Dumb fucking kid.” She beckoned for him to keep walking as they crossed the plaza. “Are you sure you don’t want me to tell you about the electors? They’re a pretty interesting bunch.”
“I see people fighting before. No need for you to explain, yeah?”
For some reason, Loom laughed. “Yeah, fine. I can respect that. Now, this right here is a fountain. It’s not working right now but when it does it shoots water in the air all day long, and it pools up in this basin here.”
The boy ran over to the fountain’s edge, hands brushing the dusty interior. He looked up at the statue, and jumped. For a moment, he had thought a real person was standing there, petrified in the stone. He looked closer. She- it- looked like a woman, her robes caught in mid-ripple around her, as if there was a high wind. Her features were dainty, her hands slim and graceful. They were outstretched, gesturing towards the sky.
He tried to mimic her posture. Maybe if he got it right, water would shoot out of his head, too.
Loom leaned on the fountain, smirking as she watched the boy try to imitate the delicate curve of the woman’s wrists. “Who is she? Is she one of your Ladies?” asked the boy.
“No, this dinky little place would never get a fountain like that,” said Loom. “That’s duarch Fra Henn. She lived in the first era, during the Traitor’s War. She was…a strong woman. Came from the wild, learned to read and write herself, yelled at the arbiters until they let her into the Twin Libraries. Took over the Seat of the King for a year or two with duarch Lejja, before the mad lord of Mont Don burned it all to the ground.”
The boy stared at the statue of the woman, and then at Loom. “How do you know all that?”
“First book I ever read,” said Loom. “Vhajja made me read it line by line until I was damn near sick of the whole thing.”
The boy wrinkled his nose. “If you read about it in a book, how do you know it’s true?”
“I guess I fucking don’t, kid.” Loom shoved his head, and the boy nearly slipped and fell from the rim of the fountain. “But that’s the thing about books. You got to trust the stranger that wrote ‘em.”
The boy stared at the bottom of the dry fountain, thinking. “Are the duarchs now like Fra Henn?”
Loom glared at the sky. “The duarchs now are a pair of fat old sods that spend their time drinking in their towers and pissing into the river. They haven’t done a fucking thing for this city in years.”
“Were there any duarchs like her?”
Loom’s brow furrowed. “Nissa. Dess, although she doesn’t really count, she was only supposed to be duarch for a few weeks. But there haven’t been any her duarchs for centuries now, not since the fourth era. Women are banned from every position in the Twin Libraries except as slave knowledge keepers.”
The boy stared at the fountain again, taking it in. Then he asked, “How does the water get into the fountain?”
“What?” Loom seemed surprised by that question. “Fuck if I know. It uses magic.”
“You think I can learn some fountain magic? It’d be real nice if the big guy and I could use some fountain magic. I mean, the big guy’s got a neck so big I bet he-.” The boy froze. “The big guy!” He jumped off the edge of the fountain, flat out sprinting back towards the alley (although he had absolutely no idea which street he was supposed to go back down), until Loom caught him by the collar of his shirt.
“I told you, he’s in the back lot with Deppash, he’s fine.”
“No, no, I stay with him,” said the boy, trying to shake his way free. “We friends, we have to stay together.”
Loom rolled her eyes. “You can’t just lug an animal like that around the city, he won’t fit.”
“I stay with him,” repeated the boy, and he stuck his face into Loom’s.
She relented. “Fine, but if you get in trouble, I don’t know you, OK? Hey, hey, hey, don’t start running off, now, I got a better way.” She flicked his belt. “Take out his tabula. And for the sake of the Lady Summer, put your tabula somewhere safer, any common pickpocket could take it if he wanted to.”
The boy did as he was told, putting the big guy’s tabula in one hand while trying to find somewhere else to put his other two. He settled for wrapping the tabula around his forehead with his belt. The hard disks felt odd on his head, but at least no one would take them without him noticing. Loom smiled, although the boy couldn’t tell if she approved or if she was just making fun of him.
“Alright, you got it? Hold it with two hands, it makes the first time easier.” Loom paused. “You feeling good, kid? I mean, you just woke up and all, and you’ve been just fucking bursting with energy, but I don’t want to push you too far, so if you don’t-.”
The boy put a reassuring hand on hers. “I’m fine, yeah?”
Loom nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, of course you’re fine. What the hell was I even worrying about? You’re dumb but tough, kid.”
He grinned. That seemed like a compliment, coming from Loom.
“Sit down, here,” said Loom, patting the edge of the fountain again. “You don’t want to be standing if it’s too much for you.” She laughed. “Ah, what am I saying? You spent a whole week holding onto that bitch’s tabula, you’ve got the stamina for this.”
The boy had the feeling that bitch was a bad word, but he forgave Loom for that just this once.
“Alright, you got it? Hold tight now. Concentrate. You did it once with that freak horse, you can do it again.”
Thumbs pressed tight against the big guy’s tabula, the boy nodded. “It’s accident when I bring the big guy the first time,” he said, sheepishly.
“Ah, relax. It’s like saying show me, you only have to change it a little.”
“How’s it different?”
“When you show, you think of the thing bound to the tabula, right? You think of their face, their appearance, their looks?”
The boy nodded.
“When you summon, you think of the place instead. Look around you. Take it all in.”
His eyes scanned the plaza around him. The hot sun overhead, the buildings of wood and clay, the pods of talking electors, the cluttered streets that seemed to open in every direction. He closed his eyes, and held the image in his head. It was like holding onto a memory.
“Put him here. Think of him in this place, put your energy in…”
The tabula began to vibrate in the boy’s hands. The boy felt a clenching in his stomach, a pang like he had just disturbed a sore muscle.
All in all, though, it wasn’t so bad. The boy smirked. He was going to show Loom just how easy it was.
And then he felt a violent, visceral tug at his core. He tumbled forward, hurtling through the darkness, the world shrinking around him. The boy bit his lip. Focus, focus. He imagined the plaza again. The cobblestones, the circular design, the hagglers shouting in distant streets and the wandering nomads coming through with wagons full of merchandise.
The tabula stopped shaking so suddenly that the boy lurched. He opened his eyes slowly, prepared to pick himself up off his knees from his little fall.
Except, he found, he hadn’t moved a single inch.
“…and the tabula should just take it from there.” Loom finished saying. She looked up and clapped her hands together in surprise. She glanced over her shoulder, at the electors at the bar. Their squabble had stopped. “Ha, the looks on their faces.”
The camelopard bellowed, blinking his eyes rapidly as he tried no doubt to adjust to the bright sunlight.
“Hey, big guy!” The boy jumped to his feet and wrapped the camelopard in as big a hug as he could manage. “Impressive, yeah? I do all the fancy disk tricks now.”
Suddenly, the boy felt hands around his waist. He yelped and looked back in surprise as Loom lifted him up onto the camelopard’s back, before she clambered on herself. “Come on, kid, we got to get moving. The scarves are staring.”
The boy looked up. All the electors who had been talking so animatedly before were now wide-eyed, shocked perhaps by the big guy’s sudden appearance. “Are we in trouble?” he asked, adjusting his makeshift tabula bandana nervously, wrapping his hands around the big guy’s neck. “Are they going to get rid of him?”
“Get rid of him? Oh, no. They’re going to try and research him. Get moving, kid, come on, before they pull themselves together!” Loom cackled, and gave the big guy a sharp slap to egg him on. “Come on, you lazy old brute, let’s get moving!”
The big guy reared and screamed, unused and unsuspecting of Loom’s riding style, and before the boy could calm him down the camelopard was galloping down the nearest street, practically plowing through crowds of scattering Shira Hay residents.
“Good thing it’s so early, eh? The crowds aren’t so big- whoa!” Loom ducked as the big guy barreled past a merchant and promptly vaulted over his stall. “By the Lady Summer and Fall, kid, watch where you’re going!”
“I don’t steer him, I just hold on!” shouted the boy, in total terror. This was a small crowd? His introduction into the city had been gentle: just Vhajja, a passerby or two, and that group of electors. But this was more people than the boy had ever dreamed possible. “What do we do if we hit someone?”
“Go big, big guy!” The boy laughed, almost involuntarily, as pedestrians in the street shouted and screamed at him. He really shouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. They looked angry. Absently, the boy wondered if they were going to try and kill him.
“Down that way, come on!” Loom pointed towards a narrow street diverging from the main road, and screaming the boy wrenched the camelopard in that direction. He doubted his exertions made any difference, but the big guy managed to turn, skidding into an unfortunate elector before tumbling into the dark alley.
The boy bounced, rolling painfully on the stones before his landing stopped on something soft that squelched. “Think anyone is going to follow us?” gasped the boy, poking his head out of the mushy pile he had landed in. It smelled like old fruit peels, among other things.
“No idea,” said Loom, not looking, although from her tone she sounded positively delighted. Perhaps, the boy wondered, being civilized was what made Loom so grumpy all the time. “If they come at us, it’s a narrow entrance. I can fight them one by one.”
“That’s why you made us run in here?” The boy clambered to his feet. He looked around, both panicked and exhilarated. His hands felt the closed walls, and his eyes looked up at the tiny sliver of blue visible between the looming buildings. The big guy moaned as he tried to untangle his legs. “There’s no way out! We can’t run from here!”
“Sometimes you have to stop running and start fighting, kid,” said Loom, peering out of the alley. “But…but I don’t think anyone’s after us.” And all of a sudden, she started laughing.
The boy watched, bemused, as Loom practically doubled over, laughing at their narrow escape- escape from what, the boy did not know, but he felt quite sure that they had been escaping from something. Perhaps it was civilization.
“Hey, Loom?” the boy said.
“You a crazy bitch.”
“Ha, and you’re a dumbass kid,” said Loom, wiping a tear from her eye. “And don’t say that word.”
“The bitch word or the dumbass word?”
“Both of them.”
The boy tried to help the big guy up with muddy hands (odd, that there was mud in such dry heat). “You too big, big guy,” the boy muttered, as he slipped arms under the big guy’s torso and did his best to haul upwards. Camelopards evidently did not appreciate the city life.
“Ah, fuck, you stink, kid,” groaned Loom. “The fuck did you fall into?”
The boy pointed. “I’m stinky but not shitty, right?” he asked, wiping his hands on the edge of his new shirt as the big guy found his feet.
Loom looked at him. She looked at the trash mound where he had fallen. She looked back at him. A couple of gnatflies buzzed around his head.
“Let’s just get you to the river,” muttered Loom, not answering his question. She kept his distance from him as they emerged into the main thoroughfare on the other side of the alley, as did just about everyone else. The boy sniffed. Perhaps living with one shirt for several years had desensitized his nostrils, but he couldn’t smell a thing.
The boy looked around, wary. Besides the odd glare, no one made any comment about their rapid flight through the streets. Granted, it had been on the other side of the buildings, but these people were close, weren’t they? The boy had noticed everything that had happened around him in the plains.
The sheer number of things happening in the city at once threatened to overwhelm the boy. People haggled, people talked, people argued. No wonder they hadn’t noticed the boy and Loom running past; it was a nightmare for the boy just to keep track of the people who might try to kill him.
A smell distracted him. In a world of dizzying new sensations, he latched onto the familiar smell to anchor himself, and what a smell.
“There’s onions!” he shouted. “Loom, Loom, Loom, there’s onions!”
“Kid, I don’t need you stinking anymore, let’s just keep going to the river-.”
“You said we were going to get food,” said the boy, edging closer to see. A group of four men sat on a woven reed mat, around a bubbling pot. There was no way he could sneak up on them with his scent, but maybe if the big guy distracted them while he ran in and out…
He felt something grab his tangled hair. “What are you doing?” hissed Loom, her voice lowered to a whisper. “Were you going to steal it?”
“We were going to get food, yeah?” repeated the boy.
Loom rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to steal it anymore, kid. They’ve got whole crates of them, anyway. We’ll come back later, no one’s going to trade with you when you’re covered in shit like that.”
“So I am shitty!”
“There’s the river: get in it.”
They forged a way onward to the tall towers standing in the distance; as the streets got narrower, people began to push the boy away in disgust rather than edge around him. Eventually, he gave up trying to keep track of them all, and stopped mentally adding them to his list. If he treated the crowds like grass, they suddenly became much easier to deal with.
“So this trading,” said the boy. “You steal something from them and they steal something from you?”
“It’s not stealing if you agree on it,” said Loom, with a heavy sigh. “But essentially, yes. My trade is carpets and fabrics, so I’d set up shop and get some goods, and then I’d swap with some of the nomads for bread and meat. They don’t do as much trading near the city limits, it’s mostly just hunters and gatherers out there.”
“The city limits?”
“Oh, right, you were asleep when we came in.” Loom looked back and smirked. “That’s the next part of the tour, then, after we cook up something for Vhajja to eat.”
Even as the buildings melted away, the crowds grew no less dense. They flocked to the riverfront, running and talking and eating and fighting and doing no end of things that the boy had never seen before.
He walked forward, wide-eyed, just trying to keep track of it all.
Without warning, someone dived in front of him: a tall, skinny man, with bandages wrapped around his hands and feet. He landed lightly before leaping forward, more jumping than walking, and seconds later another man came shooting after him, this time from the boy’s back. Trying to keep out of their way, the boy was knocked off-balance, and found himself tumbling headfirst into the shallows of the river Gammon.
“Well, that’s one way to do it,” snorted Loom, as the big guy charged into the waters. Fellow bathers made a hasty retreat as the camelopard sank into the muddy shallows, his head still a good few body-lengths higher than the rest of them.
Spluttering, the boy floundered his way out. He was definitely wet now; how he was doing on the stinky and shitty front, he had no idea. He looked questioningly at Loom, arms outstretched.
“Kennya Noni fighters,” said Loom, mistaking his indignant stance. “I told you, you see them for a second and then they’re gone.” When the boy still did not move, she crossed her arms. “Well? Wash up quick, we’ve got to get moving.”
The boy splashed himself with water haphazardly, his movements slowed by his sodden clothes. As he tried to get the worst of the muck off himself, he found his gaze drawn to the great stone bridge to his right.
The stones were worn near the shore but seemed brighter and cleaner the closer they got to the center. From his vantage point below, the boy could just see the heads and necks of the electors crossing the bridge, their red and gold scarves flickering in the wind. His gaze stayed on the bridge for a long time.
It was formed from a long row of stone columns, arches forming in-between them. The entire bridge was reflected in the water, an eerie mirror image that the boy felt he could just dive into and come out on the other side. Both ends of the bridge, too, reflected each other, as did the tall buildings on either side. Reflection inside reflections.
How had they built that?
“Magic,” he muttered, under his breath.
The magic of city folk wasn’t over yet. He nearly leaped out of the river when he saw the great, wooden monstrosity approaching. It floated on the river, as people in rich blue silks walked across it. The boy squinted. Some stood in a line, wearing collars around their necks, although their clothing varied from rags like he had worn to finer, thin gowns, fluttering revealingly as the ship passed.
“Slave auction,” said Loom, following his gaze. “Slavers give them to the auctioneers for goods, the auctioneers bring out the rich bastards on barges for a nice little shopping cruise. See the one they’re looking at now? Her clothes mean she’s educated, she’ll sell for more.” Loom paused. “Are you finished yet?”
The boy shook his head. He hadn’t realized how still he had gotten in the waters, just letting them soak around him.
“Let’s go, yeah?” he said, slogging his way out of the shores. The water dripped in dark spots on the stones, but already the sun was beginning to dry him off.
Loom nodded, and as she walked away the boy whistled for the big guy to follow. He adjusted his headband, and traced the rim of the tabula. He wished the girl could see this.
As the camelopard made his slow way out of the river, the boy found himself thinking. He had been doing that a lot more since they had come to the city; there were so many new things to think about.
The carpet merchant looked back, eyebrows raised. “Hmm?”
“You said you have to trade for the food, yeah?”
“What, do you need me to explain it again?”
“No, I just…I just remember you saying that all of your stuff wasn’t worth anything anymore, and I was just wondering…” The boy trailed off. “How are you going to get your money back?”
Loom looked at him for a long time. She sighed. “I got some notion,” she said, and lead the boy away.