Inside the hut, the air buzzed. Chaff sat on the hard stone, pensive, the bricks digging into his skin, waiting for Hurricane or Tattle to say something. They didn’t. Chaff kept his eyes cast down on the ground. He couldn’t bring himself to look in their faces.
“If you need me to find her,” said Lookout. “I know where she is. But I can’t-.”
“Of course you know where she is,” snarled Tattle, and Chaff flinched. In his short time knowing the girl, he had never heard her raise her voice like that. “That’s only thing you’re fucking good for.”
Lookout wrinkled her nose and looked away, but didn’t say anything else. The owlcrow’s screech from on high was audible even inside the hut, though, and it was harsh and angry.
“Amateurs,” said Tattle. “I run a team of fucking amateurs.”
Hurricane put a hand on her shoulder, and immediately Tattle twisted and slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me, Lonwal,” she hissed.
“What you expect?” he said, his voice accusatory. “You pick gutter rats and kids off the streets. You think you get a crew like we used to run like that? You got amateurs ‘cause you picked amateurs. Ain’t no one’s fault but you’s.”
Tattle buried her face in her palms, and Chaff could see how her shoulders slumped, how she seemed to crumple under some unseen weight. He hugged his knees and traced the tabula on his belt. It was a little comfort knowing that if the girl was ever taken from him like Veer, he would be able to save her.
“She’s not dead,” said Bull, suddenly. The boy had been leaning on a wall in the corner, jaw stuck out, burly arms folded across his chest. His voice was surprisingly soft. “Fieldmen prefer slave over dead.”
“Lucky her,” Tattle said, and there was murder in her eyes as she looked up. “All of you, get out. I need to think.”
Chaff didn’t waste time in sliding over the windowsill and out of the hut. It wasn’t hard to find the big guy once he stepped outside. Wiping crumbling clay off his clothes, he walked very quickly towards the camelopard, still clutching the girl’s tabula tight.
He had barely made it two paces when someone caught him by the collar of his neck, and Chaff flinched. He twisted, arms raised, but Lookout grabbed his forehead and held him at arm’s reach easily.
“You were going to run,” she said. A statement, not a question.
“So?” Chaff said, angrily, trying to pry Lookout’s fingers out of his tangled hair. “You hear her, yeah? Nobody here knows what they doing! I never ever should trust you-.”
“You were going to run,” Lookout repeated. “Like you ran from her.”
“Not my fault,” Chaff muttered.
“It’s not my fault!” Chaff screamed, and he didn’t care that the girl urchins were staring at him as he screamed. He wanted them to know, he wanted all of them to know. “I do as you tell, yeah? I see them come, I run. That’s my job, yeah?”
“Your job is to get us all out,” said Lookout.
“And I get that job today! You throw me into this job TODAY!” screamed Chaff, red in the face. His jaw hurt from shouting and he could feel the blood rushing through his temples. Behind him, the big guy reared and stamped his hooves, tossing his head. “What about your job? You supposed to keep watch out for us, what about that?”
Lookout’s face twitched. The bird overhead landed on her shoulder, its claws digging in tight to her skin, its eyes bright despite the dying sunlight. “That has nothing to do with the fact that you were the one who left her behind. You were the one who-.”
“If you don’t go and try to get closer, it never happens! If you don’t talk to- talk to that slave, it never happens!” Chaff was on the verge of tears now. His fists were shaking. His breath came in great shuddering gasps. The big guy, clearly agitated, had begun to canter to the boy’s side.
“Don’t pin this on me, you dirty, scrawny, little shit of a wild child,” said Lookout, and the owlcrow screamed, a harsh, raucous sound. “If you’re going to blame someone, then blame the girl in that house- the girl with the vendetta and the death wish that dragged us all into this.”
“At least she’s thinking of a way to save her,” said Chaff.
“And you would have helped by running away, would you?” Lookout sneered, and pushed Chaff away. “Go ahead and do it. I’ll find someone better and cheaper than you in no time.”
Chaff choked on his words. He felt so tired. He had felt tired and hungry and desperate for years, and the girl that had masked that for just a few hours had been snatched away. It wasn’t fair, it was cruel, and Chaff had to either blame someone or else believe that the world was just that cruel. And it couldn’t be, not if he wanted to believe it was worth living in.
He put his hand on the big guy’s side, leaning on him for support as Lookout walked away. The bandages around the big guy’s side were soaked red now. They were both hurting. He hugged the camelopard, even as he wished for someone who could hug him back, talk to him, support him, have a face that Chaff could recognize as a reflection of his own. It was a treacherous thought, and Chaff squeezed the big guy all the tighter for it, but he couldn’t help but think it.
He wanted to be friends with someone who owned their tabula. He wanted to be friends with someone who was free.
“It’ll never happen to her, yeah?” said Chaff, leaning on the big guy, gripping the disks in his belt. “So long as we got this, we can find her. We can get her back. We can…” He trailed off, mouth open.
And, in the depths of Chaff’s tired, hungry, desperate mind, lit the spark of an idea.
“Lookout!” he shouted, letting go of the big guy and sprinting towards the girl as she walked away. “Lookout, Lookout, Lookout!”
The owlcrow noticed first, and squawked, and Lookout turned around with a look of utmost confusion. She put a hand on her hips. “What do you want from me now?”
“You- you know where Veer is, yeah?” asked Chaff, breathless. He could feel the pressure under his eyes. He needed to sleep, and soon, but not now. There was no time now.
“Of course I do,” said Lookout, quickly, almost offended. “In the middle of the fucking caravan. But we have no way of getting her out without probably getting caught ourselves, and this time they’ll be ready for us, and-.”
“Do you know where her tabula is?”
Lookout’s automatic response began, but was then cut short. She looked at Chaff, her eyes slowly widening. “Veer doesn’t keep her tabula on her?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff. He stared into Lookout’s eyes, daring just a glimmer of hope.
With a furious humming to egg it on, the owlcrow launched into the sky, wheeling in tight circles that slowly expanded outward as Lookout’s vision glazed over. Chaff bounced on the balls of his feet.
“Do you know where she keeps it?” he asked, biting his lip. “In the house, maybe? In- in one of her favorite places? Where she eats?” It dawned on Chaff just how little he knew about Veer, how much more he could have known if he had just a little more time with her. He would get that time. He was sure of it.
Lookout’s answer was partial and distracted. “She’s got…places. Places that, uh…” And she trailed off, not finishing her sentence. She began to walk forward, and Chaff had to stumble out of the way as Lookout stumbled haltingly down the street.
Chaff looked over his shoulder. Should he tell Tattle and Hurricane? No, it would take too much time.
And, anyway, this was their fight. Their fault. Their battle to win, their chance to redeem themselves.
The boy hauled himself onto the big guy’s back and pushed him on to follow close behind Lookout. Chaff’s mind raced through the possibilities. Where would a girl like Veer, an urchin and a racer and a wild child, hide her tabula, her most precious thing, her one and only resource left to her in the world? Somewhere safe. Somewhere no one would look. Somewhere she could check daily.
She would hide it, Chaff realized, wherever I would hide it.
If only he knew this district as well as he knew his own. Chaff cast his gaze around, his throat dry. How many nooks and crannies would he have to comb? How many hiding places were there in the ruins of the city?
The big guy tossed his head, and Chaff let go of his belt, reminding himself not to channel too much of his emotion into the tabula. It might bleed over into the girl, too, and Chaff certainly had enough anxiety for the both of them. His head was beginning to spin, but he took several sharp breaths, trying to force himself to calm down.
It would be somewhere commonplace, but surreptitious. Not a place people went too often, but a place where no one would question him if they saw him going there.
The whole city pulsed around him. Shira Hay, a chaotic sprawl, unfolded in Chaff’s mind. Where, where, was the best place to hide a tabula in this city?
“Lookout!” Chaff screamed. “What do you see?”
Lookout’s answer was a distracted mutter. “Her friends, her favorite place to eat, where she sleeps, where she walks, the routes she takes, the race road, the rooftops, a quiet place, a quiet place, a quiet place…”
Chaff ran a finger through his hair. How long had it been since Veer’s capture? An hour or two at best. The sun had not yet even fully set. The fieldmen must have figured out by now that Veer wasn’t carrying her tabula on her.
Would they try to break her first, or just kill her?
Thinking and fretting would do no good. Chaff grit his teeth, and despite the sores developing on his thighs and the ache in his legs, he hauled himself onto the big guy’s back once more. It was just like the plains, he reminded himself. This was easier than days on days of endless riding.
“Lookout, get on!” Chaff shouted, as the big guy trotted forward. Dazed, Lookout turned slowly, her eyes unseeing, the tabula vibrating violently in her hands. Chaff reached out to grab her hand and pull her up, and Lookout moved as if she was sleepwalking, brow furrowed, still muttering under her breath. Just how much could that owlcrow of hers see?
“Where to?” asked Chaff, holding tight onto the big guy’s mane. He turned around and grabbed Lookout’s chin, shaking her head. “Lookout, where to? Where do we check first?”
The girl blinked, and she seemed to finally look Chaff in the eye. “There’s the house. Where she sleeps. We could go back and-.”
“Too obvious,” said Chaff, immediately. “Too close to people, too easy to find.”
“She trusted us. She trusted them, at least,” Lookout said. She sounded hurt.
Chaff did not know how much he believed that. She had said so, yes, but to honestly trust someone enough to leave her tabula out in the open for the taking…Veer would have been a fool. “The hut’s not a good place,” said Chaff. “Too easy to get into. Everybody know she live there, yeah? No good, no good.”
“There’s the way she races. We could check her usual routes, maybe she has some kind of hideaway where-.”
“Come on, big guy!” Chaff shouted, not waiting for Lookout to finish. He could not push the camelopard too much, not with the wounds the big guy had suffered from the fieldmen.
He followed the street down where he and Veer had raced just hours ago, the course still fresh in his mind. The evening bustle of the city was beginning to emerge, and even in this broken down corner of the city the people of Shira Hay still found room to mingle and haggle and brawl in the dusk as the Lady Fall’s eye slowly opened. Chaff had to twist and turn through the pods of people, squinting to make out the high rooftops.
Overhead, the owlcrow screeched. A couple people on the street cast wary glances upward, and Chaff in turn kept his eye on them, but in a few seconds they all looked away.
“You see anything?” whispered Chaff. Talking loudly about tabula in a street full of hungry eyes and desperate ears was not prudent.
“Up,” said Lookout, her response terse. Her finger drifted as she pointed toward the building that her owlcrow was circling over. “Up.”
“Take care of the big guy, Lookout,” Chaff said, hopping off the side of the camelopard. “Take care of Lookout, big guy!”
The camelopard brayed an affirmative, although Lookout said nothing else.
Chaff had to feel the handholds out, rather than see them, in the dim light. It was hard work, groping blindly at the stones until his hand found a grip that might not even be sturdy enough to hold his feet. Chaff was glad that all it took was the light of the sun to dispel his blindness. He didn’t think he would have risked the climb if it was for any other reason.
His bandaged hands and feet provided enough traction that Chaff made steady progress. He felt, rather than saw, the stares of other junior Kennya Noni fighters watching him from below, wondering if they dared to challenge this newcomer, but while the danger of a daytime race was thrilling, the danger of a nighttime race was just foolhardy. It was not worth the risk.
All the same, Chaff kept a wary eye on the bare-sleeved racers down below. Some of them, no doubt, had nothing left to lose.
He hauled himself over the lip of the roof, his muscles aching in protest as he tumbled over the side. He laid on the flat clay, breathing heavily, ignoring his spine’s fervent protests as he curled up into a sitting then standing position. The owlcrow landed in front of him, flapping its wings as its claws clicked on the clay, and Chaff did his best not to flinch as he looked into its beady eyes.
“Lookout, where?” he asked, half-shouting in case she needed to hear him from below. The owlcrow preened its feathers once before, with a sudden jerk, hopping and flapping towards an alcove on the roof.
Chaff nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran to the odd depression, and he stuck his hands into the shadows, feeling for something, anything, that felt like a tabula. If he looked at it from the right angle, there was the glint of something in the shadows…
He pricked his hand on something sharp and metal and winced, withdrawing reflexively. A thin line of red oozed down his palm and, grimacing, Chaff reached in with his other hand just to see what it was. It wasn’t a tabula. Tabula didn’t cut.
His heart sank. Just a shattered piece of bronze, from some pot or pail, the hoardings of a spring magpie or some such creature.
Chaff threw the shard aside, and the thin, corroded metal cracked on the tiles. He looked around, trying to quell the fluttering in his chest. It was one roof. There were many more to search.
There were so many more to search.
Chaff could almost feel his own pulse inside his fingers as he climbed back down. It would have been so much easier to let go and fall, but he made the painstaking climb until his feet touched the cold, unyielding ground.
“Where next?” asked Chaff. He tried to climb onto the big guy’s back again, but his legs folded under him before he could. He knelt in the middle of the street, not caring how vulnerable he was, not caring the weakness he showed. He was just so tired.
Lookout stared at him for a while. “I know you’re exhausted,” she said, finally.
Chaff didn’t have the energy to come up with a reply.
“There are too many places. Too many hiding holes in this rotten city, too many streets where Veer liked to go. She never stuck around much in one place.” Lookout paused. “Chaff, it’d be easier to just take Veer back than try and find where she hid her tabula.”
He glared at Lookout. “We’re not giving up,” he said.
Lookout seemed like she wanted to say something testy. Her face twitched as she opened her mouth to speak, but after a moment looking at Chaff, she just said, “OK. We’re not.”
Holding tight onto the big guy’s side, Chaff hauled himself up. “Where now?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know,” Lookout said, haltingly. Her voice caught as she said it. “There are too many good places in this city to hide a tabula.”
“I don’t care about good places to hide it,” said Chaff. “Where would Veer hide it?”
“I don’t know,” said Lookout, and Chaff turned to look at the girl’s face contorted in frustration. “I’ve never known- I don’t- Tattle’s always been better with people than me. I just see things. I can’t see inside people’s heads.”
Chaff looked at the ground. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. The owlcrow flapped overhead, on its lonely patrol in the crepuscular gloom.
Abruptly, Lookout gasped. “They’re moving,” she whispered.
That made Chaff look up. Lookout’s owlcrow had flapped away, screeching, and the boy’s head snapped around to see where it was going. “Who’s moving?”
“The caravan,” said Lookout, hoarsely. “The fieldmen. There’s…there’s an elector with them. Inviting them…somewhere. Gesturing towards the river, towards the bridges, towards the Libraries, towards…oh, shit.”
“Lookout, what is it? Tell me,” hissed Chaff.
“The duarchs. They’ve come out of the towers. They’re getting ready to talk with emissaries.” Lookout choked on a strangled sob, and Chaff’s eyes widened. “We’re out of time. The robbery, the rescues, everything. There’s not enough time.”
Chaff licked dry lips. The echoes of three years ago still seemed to haunt him.
“I know you’re tired, big guy,” said Chaff, rubbing the camelopard’s neck. “But we got to go fast one last time tonight, OK? Just one last time.”
The big guy nodded once, twisting to turn back towards the river.
“Hold tight, Lookout,” said Chaff, lowering his body and gripping the camelopard’s mane. The camelopard started at a slow trot, sidestepping around the pedestrians on the crowded street, but Chaff could already feel the wind starting to stream around his face.
It had worked last time, hadn’t it?
Chaff had barely re-entered the slum where their headquarters were situated when someone stepped in his way. The big guy reared and pranced aside as Bull stood in front of them, bent low as if he was going to tackle the camelopard to the ground.
“Where you guys go?” said Bull, his voice low and guttural. His lips curled like a dog’s as he spoke. “You skipping on us?”
The beginnings of an indignant reply built up in Chaff’s head, but before he could think of something to say Lookout spoke over him. “Bull, they’re moving. The fieldmen are moving! Tell Tattle that we have to-.”
“There’s no need for messages, I can hear you from here,” said Tattle, pushing the door open with her shoulder. She looked odd, standing outside, her skin oddly pale and her hair thin. Inside the hut, there had been a courtly aura to her; now, she looked like any other homeless urchin, except she stood a little taller and spoke a little louder.
Hurricane followed close behind her, and Chaff noticed a reversal there as well. Inside, he had been Tattle’s lackey. Outside, he was a brooding menace.
Tattle clapped her hands together. “Details, Lookout, details!”
“They’re at the bridge now,” she said, closing her eyes. “The electors are standing at the middle while the fieldmen are waiting at one end, on our side of the river. It looks like…like the duarch- no, the arbiters are talking with the farmer lord, the one in the shawl. No one’s moving much. There’s a crowd gathering.”
“What now?” asked Hurricane, low enough so that it was directed only at Tattle but loud enough that the rest of them could hear. “Do we go through with it?”
Blinking rapidly, Tattle twitched her head, as if she was shaking off some buzzing pest. “Through with the plan? We got our supplies. We got a fucking lionox’s weight in stones inside, we got months’ worth of preparation. I know each and every alsknight on that fucking wagon train like they were born in the same hollow as me. I been working this plan over for- for years.” Tattle shook her head again. “And everything that’s happening right now just about fuck that all over twice, so you know what? We’re improvising.”
Tattle kept running her hands through her hair as she looked around, walking into the center of the triangle that Hurricane, Bull, and the big guy formed. “Lookout, scoot up. Lonwal, get on. We have to move fast.”
Hurricane grit his teeth. “I can run faster than-.”
“I need you fresh, ready for action,” said Tattle. “Don’t worry, I can think while I run.” She turned around. “Bull…Bull, you stay on the ground with me.
The boy raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Because you’re fat and you won’t fit and you need the exercise anyways,” said Tattle, exasperatedly. “Now come on, get moving.”
As Hurricane clambered onto the big guy’s back, Chaff gripped the big guy’s tabula and nudged him forward. The tabula began to hum as he lent what strength he had to the camelopard, and the big guy ran forward at a steady pace despite the unprecedented amount of weight on his back.
The hum of two tabula at once was enough to make it feel like the air was buzzing around them. “There’s too many people around the bridge, Tattle, we’re never going to be able to get close,” said Lookout, eyes closed.
“Alright, good,” shouted Tattle, a little breathless as she dashed through the streets. Chaff could see it now; streams of curious watchers gathering towards the Libraries. “Getting close isn’t part of the plan!”
“There’s a plan?”
“There will be! And getting close won’t be part of it!”
They ran, and while Chaff had no idea where the next step would take him, it was better than not moving at all.
People had gathered around the bridge, and they whispered and muttered at the solemn congregation of electors at the center of the bridge. Chaff stopped the big guy once the crowds grew too thick, and nodded to both Lookout and Hurricane to disembark. He rubbed the big guy’s neck as he got off, and whispered, “You did good, big guy.”
The big guy shook his head and nickered.
“Shoo, now,” said Chaff, pushing the camelopard away. “Get some rest.” He craned his head back to look the big guy in the eye. “I’ll be fine. You draw too much ‘tention anyways, yeah? Go and eat and sleep and all that, yeah? I call if I need you.”
The camelopard trotted away, wading through the growing tide of spectators.
“Lonwal! Lookout!” shouted Tattle, as she shouldered her way towards them. A clearing opened around the group; no one wanted to stand too close to an urchin, for any number of reasons.
“Planned out yet?” said Hurricane, taking Tattle’s hand and pulling her forward through the last press of bodies. Bull followed in the gap close behind.
“Still working on it,” said Tattle, breathlessly. “Lookout, I need eyes.”
“You got them,” said the girl, and her voice had lifted back up to her old, confident self again. Chaff stared. The change had been so sudden. “What am I looking for?”
“Wagons, near the bank. See them? Half the alsknights are there, half the alsknights are escorting the big shot fieldmen. She’s…” Lookout stopped talking for a moment. “Never mind,” she said hoarsely.
Chaff opened his mouth to press for more details, but Tattle stuck a palm over it and glared at him. “Walsh?” she asked, after Chaff closed his mouth and looked away.
Walsh? Chaff thought. “With her,” said Lookout. “Same state.”
Tattle nodded. Sweat beaded down her red cheeks. “Tell me what the electors are going to do.”
“It’s formal,” said Lookout, closing her eyes tight. Chaff looked up, and saw that her owlcrow wasn’t the only one flying overhead. A menagerie of screeching, flapping things ducked and wheeled over the bridge. How many were watching with just their own eyes? “It’s public, too. They’re waiting for people to gather, but I doubt they’ll wait much longer. By the Ladies Four, both the duarchs have come out of the towers. Kobarr and Teyya Lay are all dressed up and everything.”
“What does that mean?” Chaff asked, before he could stop himself.
Lookout opened her eyes, and the humming Chaff had long ago stopped noticing fell silent. “They wouldn’t need something this public for a refusal.” She gulped. “I could be very wrong. But I think it’s more likely than not that Shira Hay is going to war.”
Tattle cast a dark look around. “These people aren’t going to be happy about helping fieldmen…” she muttered. Her eyes lit up. “Which is a good thing.”
“Everyone here gets all angry,” said Chaff. “That’s a lotta angry people. How’s that good?”
“This isn’t going to be clean, Chaff,” Tattle said, shaking her head. “But we’ve got an opportunity here and I mean to use it. Bull, Lonwal, get to the edge of the crowd.” Her gaze flickered from Bull’s adolescent face to Hurricane’s near grown old one. “Bull, you go first. Lonwal, stay back. They might still recognize you. I’ll join up with you in a bit, the timing on this one is going to be tricky.”
Terse nods from the both of them, and they set off. “Lookout, stay with me now,” said Tattle, and she had to raise her voice to be heard over the growing chatter of the crowd. “We’re going to give a lot of people a lot of reasons to be angry.”
“And me?” asked Chaff.
“Saving you for last, new kid,” said Tattle, smiling. “Remember what I told you? One race, that’s it. You get out there, by the river, and you wait. Don’t summon your pet yet, I don’t want anyone noticing you until it starts. And when it does, I want you to grab whoever Lonw- Hurricane tells you to grab and run, got it?”
It was simple enough, but Chaff felt that there was some piece of the plan he wasn’t getting. “How will I know when it starts?” Chaff shouted. It seemed like every man and woman, slave and wild, had come out to the bridge now. Were the electors waiting for the whole city to come out?
“Oh, trust me, you’ll know,” said Tattle. “Get going, it’s going to be impossible to get anywhere soon! Come on, Lookout, with me!”
Tattle slipped away, worming through a crack in the push and shove, but Chaff grabbed Lookout’s hand as she turned to leave.
“Lookout!” said Chaff. He met her eyes. “Before we goes, I got to know—what’s with you guys? Who are you, really? ‘Cause you sure ain’t like any urchin I ever see.”
Lookout just smiled, and ruffled Chaff’s hair. “Neither are you. Make it out of this alive and I promise I’ll tell you.”
And she slipped away, leaving Chaff alone, to be buffeted by the surge of onlookers.
Chaff was small enough that navigating the crowds was no great difficulty. He had to duck to make his way through a collection of dirt-smeared nomads, stumbling out into the fringes of the crowd where he could walk unobstructed. He straightened himself, looking for a good place to wait.
At that point, he heard a familiar voice.
“Wazzat? That Stink?”
Chaff froze. His hand fled to his tabula immediately, but he remembered Tattle’s warning. He couldn’t draw attention to himself. Not now. Now until…whatever it was started.
Hook sauntered up to him, grinning ear to ear. The smile didn’t reach his eyes, though, which were bloodshot and wide open. Scrabble wasn’t with him anymore, although lanky Shimmy, a year or two older than Chaff, walked close behind, and Chaff could see Crook watching from the roof.
“What’sa matter, Stinky?” said Hook, swinging the tabula on a string in front of him. He had not yet found a replacement rod, it seemed. “Where your boooyfriend now?”
“No trouble, yeah?” said Chaff, backing up to the safety of the crowd, but like a tide the spectators watching seemed to be pulling away from him.
“No trouble, sure. No hard feelings,” said Hook, and Chaff knew from experience that it was a complete lie.
“Come on, Hook,” said Chaff, grinning weakly. “Big two gon’ say something. Let’s have a look-see listen, yeah?”
He saw Hook’s hand coming but was still too slow to get out of the way. Hook grabbed him by the collar, his face twisted in a mocking smirk. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “Look-see listen, alright.”
Chaff closed his eyes. Fighting back would just prolong what was coming, and he needed it to be over quickly.
And then, like the angel voice of the Ladies themselves, Chaff heard the criers shouting, “There will be silence!”
Hook looked up. He didn’t let Chaff go, but he didn’t move either. A hush of anticipation fell over the crowd, and the sudden quiet was almost eerie. All Chaff could hear was the screech of the birds overhead, the seep of the river as it sucked at the pebbles on the shore.
Chaff turned to look and saw two silhouettes standing alone in the center of the bridge. The first man’s voice echoed as he spoke. “Bax of Alswell,” he said, his voice clipped, pointed, and harsh. “I am Kobarr, duarch of the grove that does not move. You speak for Engers of Alswell, whose liege is the farmer Greeve.”
The second man’s voice wheezed, but still his voice carried over the hushed masses. “Bax of Alswell,” he said. “I am Teyya Lay, duarch of the grove that does not move. Your intent is to make Shira Hay an ally against the aggressor Banden Ironhide. Make your case.”
As the Alswell emissary stepped up and began to speak, Chaff recognized it as the same tired speech each of the fieldmen had shouted over Shira Hay for so many weeks. A disgruntled muttering built up among the crowd, and the sudden torpor that had come over them broke slightly.
As people began to move, someone emerged from the fringes. Chaff turned to see Lookout glaring, and closed his eyes. As much as he was glad to have someone on his side, he did not know how good Lookout was in a fight.
“Violence while the duarchs are speaking?” she said, her nostrils flared wide, as the fieldman continued to argue his case. She had affected a different tone of voice, and stood like Tattle, tall and imperious. To his surprise, it seemed like Lookout pretended not to notice Chaff.
And, to Chaff’s even greater surprise, Hook looked down. “Sorry-sorry, ma’am,” he said, backing away, although Chaff could tell he was smoldering. “We was just-.”
“Just what? Are you prepared to make a thorough and convincing case, boy?” said Lookout. Chaff blanched. Boy? Lookout looked barely a summer older than Hook.
“Nothing, elector ma’am,” stuttered Hook, and then Chaff knew.
It was the scarf, the beige scarf around Lookout’s neck. Chaff had almost stopped noticing it, but to Hook, it must have been the first thing he saw. Poor, stupid, simpleton Hook, who did not know that the scarves of the electors were always red, who did not know that women had not been electors for centuries in Shira Hay.
“Leave,” hissed Lookout. “Before you cause further disruption.”
Hook backed away, gesturing for Shimmy to follow. Chaff saw Crook disappear over the lip of the rooftop, and Chaff’s shoulders slumped as he breathed a sigh of relief.
“How did you know?” he began, and Lookout just smirked. Chaff took Lookout’s hand gratefully to stand up. “Who says you’re bad with people?”
He saw Lookout smile before she tried to hide it. “Shut up, before a real elector notices.”
“Where’s Tattle?” whispered Chaff. “You done what you had to do, yeah?”
“Tattle’s with the boys, she’s waiting for the right time to get them moving,” said Lookout. “And I did the best I could.”
Chaff fell silent, as the fieldman Bax concluded his speech. He could only hope that the best Lookout could do was good enough.
“We have considered your argument,” said the first duarch, Kobarr, and from the speed with which he said it was clear that they had already come to a decision beforehand. “And we have decided thus.”
“Bax of Alswell,” said the wheezing one, Teyya Lay. “Approach to receive your arbitration.”
From afar, Chaff could only see the silhouette of the fieldman as he walked forward. He made a dramatic figure against the sun setting over the river.
“So what’s the plan?” hissed Chaff.
“The moment the duarchs announce that Shira Hay is joining the war,” said Lookout. “There’s going to be some…shall we say, discontent. Tattle’s going to take that and see if we can start a small riot with it.”
Chaff’s eyes widened. “A small riot?”
Lookout shrugged. “Just enough to distract the fieldmen. Just enough to grab Veer and Walsh in the chaos. It’s the best plan we got. By the Ladies, it’s the only plan we got.” She hunched. “Shh, get ready, he’s almost there.”
“Alswell is a nation of great bounty,” said Teyya Lay. “Alswell is a nation of peace. This, we know to be true.”
“Here it comes…” muttered Lookout.
“However,” said Kobarr, and Chaff saw a sudden look of consternation flash across Lookout’s face. “Alswell’s peace is one founded on oppression.”
“Alswell’s bounty is one hoarded from the hungry,” said Teyya Lay.
“You have not respected our borders.”
“You have offended our people.”
“You have been arrogant in times of prosperity.”
“You have been self-righteous in times of need.”
“This is our answer, Bax, who speaks for Engers, whose liege is Greeve,” said Kobarr, and before the emissary could run the duarch grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in close. “Shira Hay will go to Alswell, and Alswell will burn.”
Chaff saw the glint of the knife for just a second before he heard the strangled, gargling choke of the fieldman who had spoken so eloquently. There was a dead silence as the emissary staggered away and tumbled over the edge of the bridge, and a collective breath being held as he fell down, down, down to the water. He hit the river with a dull splash, his blood mingling with the orange light of the sun bleeding over the horizon.
And then everything fell apart. Immediately, the crowd roared, some in outrage, some in shock, but many more in celebration. The solemn cluster of electors on the bridge moved into action, pulling from beneath their great cloaks weapon after weapon, as tabula buzzed and hissed all across the riverfront. Both groups of alsknights reacted immediately, mounts stampeding over civilians who had become casualties of war, and over it all Chaff could hear the high cry of the fieldman noble shouting, “Away! Away! Out of the city!”
Mouth dry, Chaff reached for his tabula. He needed to keep the big guy safe from the chaos. He turned to Lookout, eyes wide. “What now?”
“Now?” Lookout shook her head. “Now, we really have to improvise.”
The food was, despite Chaff’s most extreme misgivings, good: a stew that was rich and creamy, with chunks of white meat and wild mushrooms. Tattle watched him, grinning, as he ate. On his part, Chaff did not look up. He took his food very seriously.
“Gobble up,” said Hurricane, carrying a hefty stone the size of a watermelon into the hut. He looked at Chaff, and shook his head ruefully. “The best we got and you go on and feed half it to your horse out there. What you, boy, crazy or somewhat?”
Chaff didn’t answer. The big guy got his half first, and then him. It made sense, in case they took the food away.
Another boy walked in behind Hurricane, this one carrying the brick fragments of some old and broken Shira Hay building. He was a couple years Chaff’s senior, with a thick, heavyset face and a single golden piercing on his lower lip.
Of the three of them, he did the trick. Chaff looked up and stared as the boy walked past, and the boy’s lidded eyes glared as he passed.
“Just put it over there, with the rest. We’ll have to move them soon, anyway,” said Tattle, pointing towards the slowly growing stack in the corner of the hut. “Bull, Chaff, I don’t think you’ve been officially introduced.”
The boy with the lip piercing glared at Chaff, as if daring him to explain why he was worth the time.
“Bull doesn’t talk much,” said Tattle, helpfully.
Chaff put the bowl down and met Bull’s steady gaze. He coughed, once, the movement sending waves of pain through his bandaged sides, but he met Bull’s eyes with a glare that was just as cold.
“And neither, apparently, does Chaff,” sighed Tattle. “Alright, break it up, you two lovebirds. Bull, outside, come on. We’re not even halfway done. You, Chaff? Finish quick, I need to get you up to speed. The complete tour, as it were.”
At the prospect of a tour, Chaff stiffened. He remembered his last tour guide through Shira Hay. He didn’t need another one.
“Don’t look so pensive,” said Tattle, clapping him on the shoulder. “It’ll be fun.” She stood and walked outside, stretching her arms behind her back as she shouted, “Lonwal! Stop playing with your dick and get out here!”
Hurricane passed by Chaff, his face dark. Chaff watched him kick aside a straw bedroll as he walked outside, and made a mental note never to cross the big man. Well, another mental note.
Chaff ate furtively, like a cathound in an alleyway. He kept looking over his shoulder, hunched protectively around his meal. It was a good thing he ate like that, too, or else he never would have noticed Veer as she crawled in through the windows.
The skinny girl was light on her feet; she landed on all fours, lithe, like a fall lion. The crack in the window she had slid through had been tiny, and yet despite that and the shards of sharp glass bordering the opening Veer was unscathed. Chaff supposed that was all part of being a “door maker.”
Veer glanced towards the open door, but no one was entering. She grinned at Chaff. “Told I told you that we ate good. Tattle and Hurricane, they watch out for us.”
Chaff wiped a bit of stew from the corner of his mouth and licked it off his finger. “So long I does as I’m tell’d, yeah.”
“So it ‘ficial now? You our runaway guy?”
“The big guy your runaway guy, yeah?” said Chaff. He looked out the window to where the big guy was browsing on a stack of stolen hay, and then glared at Veer. “Dunno why you needs me at all.”
Veer stuck her hands in her pockets and rotated on her heel, starting to walk towards the door. “Well, hey, hey, if you don’t want to do this no more, I’ll go tell Tattle…” She looked back at him and grinned through the hole in her teeth.
Chaff looked aside and picked up his bowl again. With a start, he realized he was smiling. He screwed his face up into a scowl immediately. He would not let his guard down again.
“Watch it, watch it, you got your grouchy face on,” said Veer, bending down to look Chaff in the eye. She got so close to him that Chaff had to lean back to get out of her face (or, rather, get her face out of his).
“It’s my face. My grouchy face is my face, yeah?” said Chaff, huffily.
“Naw,” said Veer, leaning even in closer to Chaff, clearly enjoying how uncomfortable he was. “It look like-a-like it don’t fit right. You gotta smile side to side, like this!” She grinned, her lips stretched wide, her teeth a dirty yellow but her eyes bright and wide.
Chaff bared his teeth in what could have been interpreted as a smile before gulping down the rest of his stew and pushing the bowl away. It was clear he wouldn’t be able to savor his meal in peace, but Chaff would have to have been just plain stupid if he let food go to waste.
“You get off me now,” said Chaff, trying to push Veer out of the way, but she wouldn’t budge. She was still grinning like a loon. “Or I fight you off, yeah?”
“Ooh, Chaff, Chaffy-Chaff, he big and strong,” said Veer. Her eyes darted to the bandages around his wrists. “Aw, you Kennya Noni?”
“That’s right,” said Chaff, puffing up his chest.
Veer pushed him down with ease. “You wraps all white and pretty, like you done did wash ‘em four times today. Holy hollows, they could be the wraps of the king he-self.” She bent down and whispered in his ear, “They ain’t Kennya Noni wraps, though. Kennya Noni wraps is dirty.”
Chaff gulped. “Yike,” he muttered, as Veer pressed close against him. He wasn’t sure what else to say.
And then Veer decked him in the face. Chaff’s head hit the floor, and he clutched his cheek, his head spinning, as Veer hopped off him and danced away, guffawing. She hadn’t hit him that hard; after Hook’s beatings, Chaff could definitely tell a friendly punch from an unfriendly one, but all the same his jaw stung.
“You Kennya Noni or not, Chaff?” shouted Veer, and she ducked under the arms of a protesting Tattle as she ran out the door.
Veer was moving too fast for Chaff to think. He jumped up, dashing to keep pace with Veer as she raced out the door. Oddly enough, Tattle stepped aside and let Chaff run past without comment, although Hurricane looked substantially irritated as Chaff blew past him.
With a flick, Chaff took the big guy’s tabula from his belt. A brief twinge of nausea surged through his head, but the fresh air and the wind racing past him did more than make up for it. The big guy crackled out of thin air, in a flash of light blinding enough that Chaff had to avert his eyes. Seeing the boy running, the camelopard began to sprint immediately.
Before he could stop himself, Chaff laughed. He jumped! Onto a rotting wooden crate, off its splintering frame to the sill of the nearest window, and then once more onto the big guy’s back. His momentum threatened to send him tumbling over the big guy’s side, but the camelopard turned as Chaff jumped and the boy ended up sprawled but secure on him.
“Tricky, tricky!” shouted Veer as she looked over her shoulder. She did not pause for a second as she ran backwards. “Can Chaffy Chaff catch me with his tricks?”
Chaff, clambering into a sitting position, gave the big guy a hard squeeze. “Come on, come on, big guy,” he said, breathless but more exhilarated than he had felt in years. “We’re not gonna let her beat us, yeah?”
As if she had heard them, Veer stuck her tongue out at them and began to scale the sides of the nearest building. They were nearly out of the slums: any farther and big guy would have to run through the main thoroughfare of the city. Chaff steeled himself, his sides still aching but his heart racing. There was a fire in him that kept him awake, alert, and alive.
He stood on the big guy’s back, balancing precariously as the camelopard pounded forward. Chaff’s eyes darted from the eaves to the windows to Veer. At last, he found something that might work: a low-hanging clothesline, only a few seconds away. His fingers curled and uncurled. He would only get the one chance.
“See you, big guy!” shouted Chaff, laughing uproariously, and he jumped. His hands caught the clothesline, and the string pressed so hard into his fingers that he thought it might cut them off. The torque sent his feet flying while he stretched the string taut, and just as he swung upwards he let go.
For a second, Chaff flew. There was nothing but air above him, air below him, air on all sides. He was freer than he had ever been in his whole life.
Then he started to fall down. He wheeled his arms, gasping for breath as he sailed through the air, and then with a heavy crunch he landed on the roof, his feet nearly folding underneath him.
Chaff did not stop. He kept running, whooping and shouting as Veer turned to look in amazement. “You see that?” Chaff shouted, in-between breaths as he practically fell across the roof. “Big guy, you see that?”
The camelopard brayed his approval.
When Chaff looked back, he saw that Veer had already stopped. His feet, on the other hand, seemed to have no intention of slowing down. He twisted his body, trying to decelerate, but that only seemed to make his reckless skid worse as he crashed headlong into Veer.
Chaff’s stomach dropped as the two of them tumbled off the roof.
The big guy caught the back of Chaff’s shirt in his teeth just as Chaff grabbed Veer’s hand; there was a brief lurch as the camelopard pulled both of them up, before Chaff’s old shirt gave and ripped. They tumbled in a heap on the ground, bruised but not broken.
“Thanks, big guy,” said Chaff, breathlessly, massaging a battered rump.
“Chaff,” said Veer, flopping over onto the ground and laying her arms wide. “You dumb.”
“I catch you,” said Chaff. “I ain’t that dumb, yeah?”
“Yeah,” said Veer, and she giggled.
Chaff started to laugh, too, which made Veer laugh even more, too, and suddenly both of them were rolling on the floor in fits, tears in their eyes, for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Chaff didn’t know how long they laid there, laughing, only that it was far too short a time.
A shadow suddenly stood over him. “You look like you had fun,” remarked a dry voice, and suddenly all of Chaff’s humor vanished. He leaped to his feet, hands on his tabula, but Veer putting a steadying hand on his wrist. She stood, too.
“How you doing-a-doing, Lookout?” she asked. “Chaff, this is Lookout. She our point man.”
“What’s that on her head?” asked Chaff, glaring at the strange second pair of eyes on Lookout’s forehead. They were like Hadiss’s spectacles, but with frames of leather and not wire.
“Goggles. I filched them from someone you don’t know,” said Lookout. She whistled, and a feathery shape dove out of the sky and onto her shoulder. Chaff flinched. “I visited the hideout and you weren’t there. Tattle didn’t know where you were. I did.”
Veer stuck her tongue out at Lookout. “Congratu-atulations. I take him back now.”
“Oh, no, no,” said Lookout, putting hands on Veer’s shoulders and turning her around as she started to walk away. “Tattle’s got a headache now. You show him the caravan, we’re already out here anyway.”
Veer pouted. “I don’t even know where it is.”
“I do,” said Lookout, smugly.
Veer looked to her side. “You okey-dokey with that, Chaff?”
He blinked. Honestly, he hadn’t been paying very much attention to the conversation; he was too busy looking at the scarf around Lookout’s neck. It had the same golden inlay and weave of the elector’s scarves, but was beige-white instead of red. He had never seen anything like it.
“Are you one of them?” asked Chaff, unable to keep it to himself.
Lookout smirked. “No, though I should be. Shame on you, new kid. The scarves are Shira Hay tradition; all nomads should wear them, even those who aren’t part of the Libraries.” The owlcrow on her shoulder squawked as if in agreement, and Lookout shushed the bird and shooed it away with her hand.
“If they tradition, then why does nobody else wears them?” asked Chaff. It was an honest question.
“Because they’re all dumber than me,” snapped Lookout. She sounded irritated. “Are we moving on or what?”
“We moving,” said Veer, pulling Chaff along. “Come on, Chaffy Chaff. You see the full caravan, what they got inside, your brain gonna go booshhh.” She moved her hands around her like her head was exploding.
Chaff looked back to the big guy, grinning. He heaved himself on, swinging himself lightly onto the big guy’s back and adjusting into a comfortable, familiar position. From on high, he was taller than even Lookout. He looked down at Veer, grinning. When she looked back up to him, his grin faded slightly. His stomach churned.
He paused. His voice cracked when he spoke. “You wanna ride?”
Veer looked at him, a look of genuine surprise on her face.
Chaff babbled and stuttered on. “Cause we need to see if there’s room for two, yeah? I’m part of the crew, yeah? We gotta…we gotta test it out.”
With a light hop and a skip, without another word, Veer swung herself onto the camelopard, just behind Chaff. The big guy shifted at the new weight, glaring around at Chaff and trying to shake Veer off, but the girl grabbed Chaff around the waist and clung on for dear life, whooping.
“Lookout, stop staring!” shouted Veer, when the big guy finally settled down.
“OK,” said Lookout. She didn’t.
Chaff squeezed the big guy’s side and prompted him to follow as Lookout started to walk away, but the camelopard stayed put. “Come on, big guy,” said Chaff, pushing his neck. “We gotta go!” He was about to turn to Veer and apologize when the camelopard spat in his face.
Glaring, Chaff wiped the spit off with the back of his hand. “What? You too lazy to go with two people or something?”
The camelopard tossed his head and looked away.
“Just walk, big guy!”
“I can get off if you want me to,” said Veer, hesitantly, as the big guy began to fold his legs under him and sit down on the street.
“No, no, no,” said Chaff, distractedly. “Big guy, move!”
The camelopard did not budge. Instead, he cast an annoyed look in Chaff’s direction and pulled his lips back again.
“You stubborn sometimes, you know that?” growled Chaff.
They sat, staring at each other, both of them refusing to budge until Veer said, “Hey, Chaff, why ain’t you just use your tabula?”
Chaff began to speak, but paused. He didn’t know what he was going to say. The thought of using the big guy’s tabula like that had never occurred to him.
He met Veer’s questioning stare, and his mouth went dry. Would she take it as a sign of weakness if he didn’t? What would she tell Hurricane and Tattle when the crew’s runaway guy couldn’t even control his own steed? What would they do to him then?
“Yeah,” Chaff croaked, finally. His hand closed around the big guy’s tabula while the camelopard, oblivious to their conversation, flicked his ears and sunned himself. “Yeah, OK. I do that.”
His palms were sweating as he held the tabula. He looked once more to Veer, and saw only impatience and expectation in her face. Chaff closed his eyes and sighed. He didn’t know what he had been looking for.
“Big guy,” Chaff said, softly, so soft that he doubted the beast could hear him. His breath caught in his throat. “Get up.”
The world dissolved. It was nothing like the descrying or summoning; it was a thousand times worse. Chaff felt a pit open up inside his chest, eating into his heart, threatening to suck away everything he was. A chill snaked through his gut, and Chaff could see nothing but a blinding light. His whispered words echoed until they were deafening: get up, get up, get up.
And then it was over. The big guy was standing, his eyes wide, not moving. Chaff had fallen to the ground, and could only stare at the terrified expression in his friend’s face.
Veer dropped to the ground and touched his shoulder hesitantly. “Chaff, you OK?”
He raised his head and looked at Veer, mouth dry, as his thoughts came back into alignment. Then he groaned and let his head fall back onto the ground. She had definitely taken that as a sign of weakness.
“You go on and walk,” mumbled Chaff. “I catch up.”
Veer took one long look at him and then nodded, jogging away to meet Lookout. Chaff watched her go, his insides turning over inside of him.
“Big guy,” he said, and he heard the camelopard move. Chaff stood, the blood rushing to his head. He stumbled to the beast’s side and hugged one leg tightly, shaking. The big guy flinched. “I’m sorry,” Chaff said. He looked up at the camelopard, blinking rapidly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
The big guy lowered his head and touched Chaff’s shoulder gently. The boy hugged the beast closer, and for a moment they stood in silence, as the cold drained from Chaff’s gut.
“Come on, big guy,” Chaff said, after a moment. He took a long, deep breath, and smiled. “I promise to never ever ever do it ever again. Let’s go now. Go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
He walked down the street, leaning on the big guy, trying to ignore the twisted feeling in his chest. Veer and Lookout were waiting; Veer waved, a wide smile on her face, and Chaff smiled back. She was kind to him, he knew, and when she smiled he couldn’t help but feel happier. She had made no move to take advantage of his weakness, and from the looks of it Lookout did not even know about the incident.
But, as he join the pair and walked down the street with them, Chaff couldn’t help but wonder what she was going to make him do next, and how much he might regret it.
The child gangs segregated by gender; Chaff usually avoided the girls’ territory. The almost-grown-old Hurricane, however, strode past their curious (and at times sullen) glares without even looking. He walked while Chaff rode, and Chaff, who winced at every sudden movement, was grateful for it.
Chaff hunched closer to the big guy’s neck, a throb of pain flashing through his side. He rubbed the big guy’s fur. “Thinking you can make you’self any smaller?”
The camelopard tossed his head and kept his haughty vantage point, eyes flickering from child to child. He made no move to lower himself down.
“Yeah, OK,” said Chaff. “Keep an eye out, yeah. That’s fine. That’s good.”
Hurricane held up a hand, and Chaff reared the big guy in. “You see what I see?” said Hurricane, his voice low and guttural.
Chaff squinted, but could see nothing except for the everyday streets of Shira Hay. There were nomads trying to haggle off their bushmeat, urchins running underfoot, and a few garbage scraps someone had thrown out that Chaff would have to remember to come back for later. He couldn’t focus on the street anyway; he was too busy looking over his shoulder. The girls didn’t seem overtly hostile, but he couldn’t sit still with them behind him.
Hurricane snapped his fingers and Chaff jumped. “You done ogling?”
Chaff gave a noncommittal grunt. The street slang of Shira Hay was wide and varied, and he wasn’t quite sure what ogling meant. There was, however, something odd in the way Hurricane spoke, something Chaff had never heard in all his years in the city…
“Get your eyes back then, ‘ristocrat. You can court your pretty ladies later,” Hurricane said. He crossed his arms and stared out at the street again. “You see it yet or did that twerp beat the eyes out your head?”
The boy looked up to the big guy for help, but found none. He bit his lip. It was getting harder to ignore the pain in his side.
“The fieldmen,” said Hurricane. He pointed, and Chaff followed his finger towards the huddle of shawled men, with their escort of alsknights in their boiled leather boots and chainmail armor. He saw even a few slaves in attendance, marked by the brands burned on the back of their necks. He shuddered. If anything, that was enough reason for the boys to never try and invade the farmlands; an Alswell slave was a slave for life.
“Sons of bitches lined up over there, gold in them teeth and crumbs on them clothes,” said Hurricane. His prominent jaw was set, and his eyes were shadowed. “Go on and take yourself a good look. Farmers be raising up a fuss about king this, king that. What you think, boy? Think we should listen?”
Chaff stared at Hurricane for some time, unsure what the correct answer was.
“I’m listening,” said Hurricane. “I’m listening and I hear they scared.”
There was silence. Hurricane’s expression was unreadable. All Chaff could see in his face was something to be afraid of.
“Get on, boy,” Hurricane said. “Enough gawking. We got people to meet.”
Chaff nodded, watching Hurricane’s back as he walked away. His hand never left the big guy’s tabula, though. At the slightest hint of a trap, he had enough left in him to give the big guy the boost to run. Until then, though, Chaff followed, if only because it was easier than not. He had nowhere else to go, anyway. He doubted Hook would welcome him back with open arms if he returned.
Hurricane nodded to a wiry, thin girl as he stepped up to the entrance of one of the least run-down buildings. Chaff blanched.
“You know them?” he hissed.
Hurricane raised an eyebrow. “You scared of girls or somewhat?”
Chaff felt the heat rise to his cheeks. “There’s lines, that’s all. We don’t fuck with them, they don’t fuck with us, yeah?”
For some reason, Hurricane laughed. “No fucking with girls. That’s funny, ‘ristocrat. Why di’n’t you tell me you had a sense of humor?”
Chaff didn’t answer. He looked instead at the wiry girl, gauging her. She didn’t seem like too much of a threat, although she had a nasty look on her face as her gaze followed the big guy’s neck. Chaff couldn’t help but notice the way she held the shattered shard of brick in her fist, and tensed instinctively.
“You stay here wi’ your ride,” said Hurricane, cracking open the door. It was pitch black on the inside; the windows had all been boarded up. “The folks need rustling. Veer, make sure he don’t go nowhere.”
The girl guarding the door, presumably Veer, nodded. Her fingers tapped on her brick. It looked sharp. As Hurricane stepped inside, she sidled in front of the door, closer to the big guy. “Wazzat, wazzat, what kind of beastie you got there?” she asked, grinning and revealing gaps in her teeth.
Chaff tugged on the back of the big guy’s neck, and the camelopard took a few steps back just as the girl took a few steps forward. Chaff met her eyes, and after a moment the girl nodded. She didn’t come any closer.
“Ain’t no-nobody got tabula here ‘cepting-cept they own. Can’t seem to…hold onto ‘em.” And again, Chaff felt awfully uncomfortable about the amount of time Veer spent staring at the camelopard’s neck.
“He’s useful. Real useful. The big guy runs a lot faster than you, yeah? We get away always if you try to catch us, yeah?” Chaff said.
Veer drew herself up. “Maybe he do, maybe he don’t. We gon-gonna catch you either way. If Hurricane angry at you, he tear the whole city ‘part-a-part to find you. He knows where everyone is in all of Shira Hay.”
“It’s a hy-po-the-ti-cal,” said Chaff, using one of Hadiss’s favorite words. “Made up. Not going to happen.”
“Yeah, well, longs as it stays that way.” Veer spat on the ground.
The big guy flicked an ear and cast a disdainful look downward, which for him was normal behavior. He seemed at ease here, although Chaff couldn’t relax. His throbbing sides were bothering him, and his stomach was grumbling. “What you want from me, anyway?” he asked, after a stretch of silence.
“Dunno, dunno,” said Veer. “Hurricane wants you to stay, you stay. I trust him.”
That made Chaff pause. “Yeah?”
Veer nodded. “Yeah. Hurricane and Tattle and the rest of the crew, they good to me. I been having three meals a day for weeks. Good stuff too, not garbage shit fished out from the river. You do what Hurricane says, you eat like king and queen.”
Chaff could just imagine the kind of “good stuff” Veer preferred, a step up above the scraps and leftovers that the orphan urchins scavenged from the gutters. In his own head Chaff remembered custard tarts and honeyed oatmeal with almonds. Even fresh meat and clean water, out on the plains, had been preferable to Veer’s good stuff.
Veer spoke up. “Hey, hey, you got a name?”
Did he? Hadiss never really called him anything but young master, and he had been going by Stink or boy or thief or just now ‘ristocrat for so long that he had forgotten the sound of his own name. Was it even his, if it had been given by someone who had betrayed him, someone who he had betrayed?
“Chaff,” he said, finally. “But only my friends call me that.”
“Well, I guess you my friend, then, Chaff,” said Veer, grinning again. Her tongue poked through the gap in her teeth. “Lighten the lighten up, you got your grouchy face on.”
Chaff shifted, turning away from Veer. He didn’t get off the big guy’s back, but he made sure the urchin girl couldn’t see him as he drew out his other tabula. There was no getting around the inquisitive stares of the others in the child’s slums, but they were of less concern to him.
“Help me out a little now, yeah?” Chaff wiped the girl’s tabula, and felt the tingle of energy through his fingers. “Show me.”
It wasn’t so bad nowadays; Chaff felt only a mild twinge in his head as the murky shadows swirled on the amber surface. For three years, it had stayed dark and opaque, but Chaff hadn’t given up. He was still looking for her. He would give it back.
He could see only silhouettes in the tabula, obscured by darkness. It was impossible to get any real sense of form or shape from the image. But sometimes…
Sometimes, though, as the tabula hummed, he would hold it up to his ear and he would hear something underneath it all. People speaking, a dog barking, footsteps, chanting. And, on very special days, high laughter.
Chaff didn’t mind terribly that he could no longer see her smile, if that meant he could hear her laugh.
“What the what you got there?”
Chaff jumped and stuffed the tabula in his pocket immediately. Veer was standing on tiptoe, trying to peer at Chaff’s tabula, standing much too close to the big guy for Chaff’s comfort. Chaff tugged on the big guy’s mane for him to step aside, and glared at Veer. “You nose around in my business, nuh-uh, no good.”
Veer ignored him. “You got another tabula?” she asked, and she looked up at the sky. “Where your other beastie at? I wanna see, I wanna see!”
“I don’t have no other beastie,” snapped Chaff. He kept glancing backward, to make sure the big guy wasn’t walking back into a trap.
“Well, then, what you got there? You don’t have no slave, that’s for sure.”
Nothing seemed capable of perturbing Veer. Chaff curled over his tabula, trying to shield them from the girl’s view. He couldn’t let her be taken again. He had to find her.
And suddenly, Chaff had an idea.
Chaff cast a wary glance Veer’s way. “You say Hurricane can find anybody in Shira Hay, yeah? Anybody at all?”
“Yeah,” said Veer, reaching for her brick shard again. “Why? You think-thinking of running?”
“No,” said Chaff. He straightened up, his mind buzzing. Planning around these people could be so difficult. If he showed them her tabula before he put them in his debt, he would lose her for sure; if he did it after, he had no idea what he was walking into. Chaff stared at Veer for a few long seconds, chewing his lip.
He slipped the tabula back into his cloth belt and repeated, “No. I’m not going nowhere.”
Veer grinned. “They gonna be good to you, you wait and see. Hurricane and the crew, they gonna be real sweet on you. Lotta food, all the time.”
The big guy glanced Chaff’s way and snorted at that. The city didn’t have nearly enough for a growing camelopard to eat, and the promise of food was never one an urchin took lightly. Chaff sighed. If it was for his friend’s sake as well, he supposed he would do it.
The only trouble now was figuring out what exactly it was.
“He’s coming out of there soon, yeah?” asked Chaff, staring at the door. He had passed beyond worry at this point to simple curiosity. Hurricane was taking an awfully long time.
Veer strode in front of the door quickly, standing in Chaff’s way again. She tried to look nonchalant about it, although her arms were crossed and her cheeks were red. “Don’t you worry ‘bout-a-bout what goes on in there. Hurricane’s business is he own business, see?”
There was an uneasy silence.
“They’s watching you, Chaff friend,” said Veer, after a moment. Her head was turned to the side, and her eyes seemed distant.
Chaff looked around him, back at the urchins coming and going, and then to the door. “Who? Them? Hurricane?”
Veer pointed. “The fieldmen. They’s watching.”
Chaff turned. Sure enough, some of the alsknights were leaning on their lances, a bright glint in their eyes, whispering to each other as they watched Chaff on the big guy’s back. “Yeah,” Chaff agreed. “I seen hungry. That’s hungry.”
“Ain’t-they-ain’t hungry,” said Veer, leaning against the wall next to the door with one foot propped up against the building. “At least not for meat. Them fieldmen, they like their fancy things. I’m betting they ain’t never seen a beastie like yours before. Soon as they can, they gonna try and grab him to bring back as a gift to their farmer king.”
“I lets them try,” said Chaff, indignantly. His hand strayed to his belt, and the big guy pranced as a brief jolt of energy surged through both of them. “They touches the big guy, I kills all of them.”
Veer scoffed. “You gonna fight off all four of them alsknights on your own? Got a lance youself, do you?” She grinned. For some reason, she seemed to think it was funny.
“Then I steal him back.”
Veer rolled her eyes. “How? If you can’t beat the alsknights what-what come af’er you, how you gonna beat the alsknights just sitting ‘round-a-round and waiting?”
“They slow, yeah? I Kennya Noni,” said Chaff, tightening the bandages on his wrists and ankles. “I runs around them.”
“They alsknights, stupid. All they do is chase after slaves that run, and then they kill ‘em. Double triple double kill them.” Veer stood straight. “But say if you say you get past them. How you gonna get a great big animal out without no one noticing? How you gonna get his tabula back? How you gonna live in this city without they hunting you down and catching you? You can’t steal from the fieldmen. Not you, not nobody ever gonna do it.”
Chaff glared at the fieldmen soldiers until they looked away. “Nobody touches the big guy,” he repeated. “Nobody takes him either.”
Veer looked up, eyebrow raised, but did not inquire further. It was better that she didn’t, Chaff decided. He didn’t want to give her ideas.
At that moment, the door cracked open. Chaff tensed, ready to run, but the girl held her hands up behind her head as she walked out. Behind her, Hurricane stood with his arms folded across his chest.
The new girl gave Chaff and the big guy a quick scan. She smiled, still holding her hands behind her head. “He’s jumpy,” she said. “And he’s dumb enough to go along with it. Hurricane, I say we got a runaway guy.”
Run away was certainly what Chaff felt like doing, as Hurricane stepped out from behind the door too.
“You hear that, boy? You in, long as you willing to come in.”
Chaff stared from Veer, who shrugged apologetically, to the new girl to Hurricane and back to Veer. He opened his mouth automatically, but the new girl cut him off. “He’s going to say yes no matter what. You scare him.”
“Well, I’m doing my job then, ain’t I?” snarled Hurricane.
The new girl smirked. She looked nearly as old as him, and looked at Chaff with an almost vulpine grin. “I never said that was a bad thing. He’s going to say yes, and we’re going to take him. Isn’t that right?”
Chaff stared at her, trying to figure out what was hiding behind that wide smile. And, very slowly, he nodded.
“Come on in, then,” said the girl, kicking the door open wide. “There’s company watching I’d rather avoid.”
There was no way the big guy would fit in that small one-room hut. Chaff didn’t get off.
Veer stepped up. “Hey, hey, Chaff friend. It’s OK? Nobody taking your tabula off you. No fieldman is going to get this far into the ghetto. He’s safe.”
“You feel safe, big guy?” whispered Chaff. He coughed, his sides flaring with renewed pain, and the big guy nuzzled his shoulder. With black eyes opened wide, the camelopard nodded.
“There’s blood on his shirt,” said the new girl. “Hurricane, tell me why there is blood on his shirt.”
“He done did got a beating when I found him,” said Hurricane. “He’ll-.”
“We don’t have a crew if the crew is bleeding out, you nincompoop. Come here, Chaff, let’s get you inside.” The girl tugged on Chaff’s hand, although Chaff tugged back.
“I can get off on my own,” growled Chaff, swinging his legs over the big guy’s side and dropping to the ground. Sore from riding, his knees buckled as he landed. “And how you know my name?”
The girl shrugged. “I was listening.” She opened the door. “If you hate us so much, you could always walk away. We can help, though. Truly, we can. So, you in or you out?”
Chaff glared at the girl as he staggered inside. The hut was dimly lit, with straw mats scattered across the dirt floor and a fire pit ashen black and smelling of soot in the center. A few personal belongings were scattered along the walls, in plain sight where anyone could take them.
“Welcome to headquarters,” said the girl, a hint of sarcasm in her voice, as she closed the door behind her. Neither Hurricane nor Veer had followed her inside. “I’ll be your guide on this tour. You can call me Tattle.”
“Tattle,” repeated Chaff. He stared at Tattle as she patted down a mattress in the far corner. Odd that an urchin would care so much about cleanliness.
“Sit down here and rest a bit,” said Tattle, sitting cross-legged next to the mat. “It won’t do you much good if anything’s broken but it’s better than walking and riding around, right? I swear, Lonwal is blind sometimes.”
“Lonwal?” echoed Chaff. He did not make to sit down. He did not even move from the doorway.
“Oh, he hasn’t told you his real name yet? Well, I suppose some of us are proud of our nicknames,” said Tattle. She looked up and smiled, in a way that seemed so warm and genuine that Chaff’s insides started to hurt. “You really can rest here, you know. I’m not going to hurt you. Trust me down to Da’atoa, I promise.”
Hesitantly—very hesitantly—Chaff made his way over and sat.
“We’ve put together a decent-sized crew,” said Tattle, as Chaff sat. “You know Lookout? Hangs out a lot on the nomad outskirts? No, I suppose you don’t. She doesn’t exactly get along with people- but, she’s a damn good point woman. Hurricane and my buddy Bull are our muscle. Veer’s our door maker, and I’m the show master. All we needed was someone with a good tabula, a runaway guy.”
“None of you has tabula?” asked Chaff, suspiciously, still holding tight onto his belt. He had sat, yes, but was neither reclining nor relaxing.
Tattle shrugged. “I had a beast once. Ate her a few years back.” She grinned, and Chaff immediately made to stand.
“Stop, stop, stop, I’m just joking you,” said Tattle, grabbing Chaff’s wrist. The bandages loosened under her grip, and Chaff pulled free easily. He began to walk away, as Tattle shouted after him, “He’s more useful to us alive!”
Chaff faltered. He felt the tabula under his belt again, not just the big guy’s but hers as well. This was for both of them.
“All you need to do, Chaff, is run a race. That’s it. When the time comes, you just need to ride one race for us with a bit of cargo and a few passengers against a couple of foreign ratvipers.”
“Why?” shouted Chaff, at last. He turned on Tattle, ignoring the pain in his sides. “Why this crew, why you need me?”
“You’ve seen the caravan. I told Hurricane to show it off and by the holy hollows he loves doing that. It’s more than just food in there.” Tattle rose, her eyes gleaming. Chaff recognized in her gaze the same hunger he had seen in the alsknights’ eyes. “There’s wealth. Enough for all six of us start new lives. Good lives.”
Chaff shook his head. “But the people of Alswell…”
“The fieldmen? The ones with the professional slave-catching knights and the bondage system that strikes terror into the hearts of even the bravest marble soldiers of the Stronghold? Yeah.” Tattle nodded. “No big deal. We’re going to rob them.”