Names stuck. He had known it as well as Tattle, although he hadn’t cared quite as much. Tattle, of course, had styled herself off of one of her childhood heroes: a girl from some fairytale, who lived on a world that didn’t exist full of people who could do things that weren’t possible. It was nonsense that he had never had much patience for. People could call him what they would, and he couldn’t care less.
But there was a reason why they called him Hurricane. And so the whispers grew, and the name stuck.
Hurricane had sat in the dark, waiting, biding his time, a storm building inside of him. It had been so long since he had been in Alswell, so long since he had to squat in the slave huts, waiting for the call of the foremen in the morning. Not that it mattered, really. The past was the past. It meant nothing and did not bother him.
What did bother him was the fact that he was here, again. He went by the name Lonwal among the fieldman, a name he had thrown away, a name that stuck no matter how hard he tried to get rid of it.
Between Hurricane and Lonwal, he preferred Hurricane. People were scared of Hurricane. No one was scared of Lonwal.
So, in the moment before he killed Hook, Hurricane roared, “You ‘member who I am?”
Hook whimpered, his grimy face screwed up in such a pathetic expression that Hurricane was tempted to crush him on the spot. Beside him lay two corpses, though only one was Hurricane’s work.
“We was gon’ save you,” snarled Hurricane, lifting Hook even higher. The boy began to gasp and choke, his mouth opening and closing like some river fishtoad. “Get you out with Veer. And you sell us out.”
Hurricane stepped over the first body. It was another one of the Shira Hay urchins, caught in the riots by the fieldmen—Hurricane couldn’t even remember his name. Shin or Shitty or some nonsense like that. It had hardly mattered when he was alive, and it meant nothing at all now that he was dead.
The urchin in Hurricane’s hands blinked tears from his eyes. “I save, I saving you,” said Hook, shaking his head. “Can’t fight ‘em, Hurricane. You can’t!” His feet dangled limply as he struggled to get out of Hurricane’s grip, but slavery had sapped all his strength. This boy, this squirming weaselrat of a boy, got his strength from food, and water, and a long night’s sleep. Hurricane’s strength was his hunger, his anger, his bruises and aching bones.
“I did,” growled Hurricane. He stepped over the second corpse.
It wasn’t until today that Hook had managed to persuade an alsknight to listen to him. That same alsknight lay on the ground now, his neck broken, his lance buried in the other urchin’s gut. That was how Hurricane got him. Alsknights, he found, enjoyed their killing too much.
Tattle had been brooding for days. The advancing armies from the Seat had been getting closer and closer to Greeve’s plantation with every passing hour, but instead of creating chaos and an opportunity to escape, as she had hoped, they had pressured the fieldmen into tightening their security. Day and night, the alsknights stood watch over the tabula of the slaves, and without those Hurricane could never hope to free his crew mate. Tattle had spent weeks trying to figure out a way around them; she had never realized the greatest danger was from one of their own.
“Who else?” asked Hurricane, pressing Hook against the mud wall of the slave hut. “Who you tell, huh?”
“Just tell-and-tell ‘em you sorry,” said Hook, shaking his head, his eyes bright but unseeing. “You big an’ strong. They keeps you, I know it. Tell ‘em you sorry.”
With a grunt, Hurricane tossed Hook onto the ground. The boy bounced, convulsing, his back bent at an odd angle. He was trying to say something. Hurricane didn’t pay attention. He picked the skinny urchin up again easily, and threw him once more onto the ground.
That was why they called him Hurricane. He tossed people around. It was an urchin’s kind of humor, really. It wasn’t as if Hurricane was blessed by the Lady Fall, not as if he had some kind of special power to command the winds. He was too practical for that.
Hurricane killed Hook, and straightened, wondering what there was to do next.
The slave hut was empty; it was too far in the outer fields to watch effectively, and the slaves had long ago been evacuated and herded closer to the inner manors. Hurricane had been using it to meet with Tattle, sometimes Veer, and up until now the two dead ones. The traitor must have led the alsknight here to catch them all.
Pursing his lips, Hurricane looked around. He didn’t see the girls, or their bodies. Their blood did not soak the dirt, and he did not see their hasty graves. They weren’t dead—or, at least, they hadn’t died here.
Hurricane thought broader, picturing the surrounding area in his mind. He had done the same thing often in Shira Hay; it helped, when he was running from the electors or other street gangs, to map out the weaving streets.
Alswell wasn’t like the other nations of Albumere. The “nation” of Shira Hay had just one city, surrounded by harsh wilds that the plainsmen could technically call their own. The same went for most of the other nations. But Alswell had tamed its land, long ago. The manors of the farmers dotted the fields, separated by vast tracts of farmland.
Easy and spacious living it might have been, but it hadn’t been much use when King Banden Ironhide’s armies had come marching.
This plantation belonged to the farmer Greeve—a name, Hurricane noted, worth remembering. It was one of the last plantations standing, while the rest of Alswell burned.
Hurricane inhaled deeply, feeling his chest and shoulders expand. He had to focus. The whole inner complex was due west; most of the slaves, including Veer, were quartered in the huts on the south end, while the amber box that contained her tabula was kept on the opposite side.
He had to get that box. He held his own tabula, and so did Tattle, but Veer didn’t. All of this would have been for nothing, if they didn’t get Veer out.
Hurricane began to walk, striding out the hut and through fields of dry, broken stalks. There hadn’t been time to bring in the harvest, not with an army marching down on them, and between Ironhide’s men raiding the food stores, Greeves’s men burning them down, and the breath of the Lady Winter, there was hardly anything left.
Hurricane didn’t mind. As long as there was a bite of food left, it was his to take.
That was his mind. Practical, straight forward, without doubts. Hurricane had never hesitated in making his next decision.
How singularly uninteresting.
Hurricane froze. He lowered his stance, looking through the open fields, but there was nowhere for anyone to hide. His eyes flickered across the dry and broken stalks, his hands half-curled into fists. There was nothing but the whisper of the wind around him, and yet he had heard something.
It felt like talking to himself, every word forced but his own. Except, they weren’t his own. Hurricane furrowed his eyebrows, catching only brief phrases that his own mind seemed to be thinking. Sister…three of them…move quickly, before we lose their essence…
And then a crystal clear thought, that came unbidden from within him. His strength marks him as summerborn, but his resolve is so reminiscent of my eldest sister. Stubborn and unyielding, but he knows himself well enough to know when he is listening to thoughts that are not his own.
His hands were full fists now. Hurricane waited. He was patient. Whatever sorcery this person was using, it would not affect him.
Just as silent, too.
Hurricane shook his head, blinking dust from his eyes. It swirled in his face, along with the dried detritus of the abandoned harvest. Hurricane turned his head slowly, still alert, still-.
Hurricane, Hurricane, Hurricane. That is not his name. He is LONWAL.
“Tha’s enough,” snapped Hurricane, speaking at last. He was immediately struck by how different his own voice sounded from the voice in his head. He could feel his voice reverberating in his throat, feel it rattling in his chest, but this other voice was just the phantom of sound. “Tattle, that you? You trickin’ naw?”
He has such faith in that girl. She’s not even particularly original. The wind picked up around Hurricane, so strong that he stumbled back, arms covering his face. She is a summer fly to a star. She knows nothing of TRUE genius.
The field flattened around Hurricane, pressed down by a wind that grown from nowhere. Hurricane widened his stance, refusing to back down.
He heard laughter—his laughter—inside his head, although that was the last thing Hurricane felt like doing. Yes. He’ll do nicely.
“Can’t make me do no-thing, bitch,” snarled Hurricane, his feet still planted firmly in the ground. “My tabula’s mine. Ain’t nobody taking it.”
He mistakes me for the enemy. I have no need for amber.
And then Hurricane felt something bop him lightly on the nose.
His head snapped up immediately. The wind had died away, and he could just make out…something, moving through the fields, too hard to see amid the swirling dust still clouding his face. He paused only a second, the sheer impudence of the gesture registering with him, before he set out at a sprint, pummeling his way towards the figure, murder in his chest and on his breath. That kind of insolence could not be tolerated. To be strong, he had to appear strong. First rule of the streets.
And the voice, the thoughts that sounded like him but were not his, continued to speak. His is anger. He has never doubted himself. Hurricane squinted, trying to make out the figure dashing ahead of him, hands clawing uselessly at the blasted cloud of dust around him. It both moved impossibly fast and did not seem to move at all, always dancing just ahead of him, just far enough so that Hurricane could not even see what it was.
Does he feel it? Doubt?
Hurricane shook his head. What had he been doing? Where did he need to go? He couldn’t remember. All he knew was the blinding rage in his heart, the fire burning in his gut.
He can’t fight it. To merely exist is to be unsure. Doubt is life, Lonwal.
Even when he had been a slave in these damned fields, his head had been his own. This being had invaded his most sacred place. He would make it pay.
And now he thinks of what comes after. The voice never stopped. Even when Hurricane’s breathing became labored, even when his head buzzed so loud that he could hardly think himself, the voice continued, cool and collected. I soun’ like you. I know err’thing ‘bout you. How will he ever know what thoughts belong to himself ever again?
Hurricane roared, and his voice echoed through the deserted fields.
The shadow figure veered suddenly, and Hurricane slipped as he tried to match its agility. He sprawled in the dirt, spitting grass out of his mouth, and slammed his fist onto the ground just once before setting off in pursuit again. Hunger was his strength. He would not be stopped by one fall.
Uncertainty is the law of Albumere. But he shouldn’t blame me. I didn’t make this world the way it is. Hurricane shook his head. It was so hard to tell from a voice with no sound, but it seemed to be more distant now. No, that wasn’t it. It was starting to sound less like him.
And more like a woman’s voice.
Does he still believe in the gods? Has Hurricane, who never doubted himself, ever doubted us? Hurricane blinked, as he crested a small hill. Was that the compound? How had he run so fast? It should have taken him hours to clear the fields.
And yet, how could he doubt the gods? He has seen one. Heard it. Felt its power. Called it bitch to its face. The voice sounded amused.
Hurricane stumbled to a halt, blinking sweat out of his eyes, inhaling greedy breathes as he looked around. He stood before Greeve’s plantation, watching the figure pass through, actually pass through, one of the closed gates. His eyes widened as the gate swung open. He wasn’t shocked—Hurricane was never really shocked—but he was mildly surprised.
Any ordinary person would have been dumbfounded. He didn’t question it. The door had opened. It didn’t matter how or why, only that it had.
I suppose I cheated. The voice sounded mournful. It’s not my turn. The warden might notice, and we’re so very close to winning this game. But, then again, he cannot see here. I must thank the fieldmen, for walling in all his seed.
A shadow rose behind Hurricane, and he stumbled and twisted, heart thudding in his chest. By the time he had turned, nothing was there.
He knows there are no guards around the amber box. At least, there won’t be.
And then a pressure lifted from Hurricane’s mind, and he gasped out loud as the fog seemed to lift from his brain. Hurricane staggered, clutching his forehead, his heavyset brow creased in thought.
His eyes flickered towards the open gate again. It wouldn’t stay open for long, not without the alsknights so jumpy and the farmers so scared.
He walked on. Hurricane had never hesitated when the next step was clear.
Tattle, he decided, would be much more interested in his encounter with the divine than he was. If Lookout was still alive, she would have been raving about the “implications” or something like that. As far as Hurricane knew, a thing had happened and now the thing was over. It wasn’t his concern anymore.
He strode beneath the wall, tense, but it seemed this entire stretch of the perimeter was unmanned. Was that the work of the Ladies, too?
Hurricane looked over his shoulder, at the open gate. He had heard only rumors that the king’s men were marching in from the north. Greeve’s plantation had stood for so long because he had more stored food and more alsknights than any other farmer in Alswell. He would hold, if the king’s men came, so long as the walls were not breached.
Hurricane opened the gates a little wider, for good measure, and walked on.
The amber box was kept in a locked shed, on the north end of the inner compound. Hurricane walked, and the path was clear. No one moved to stop him, because no one was there. He could see the smoke of the alsknights’ fires beyond the manor, could even smell the stink of the slaves on the south end. But no one was here, the most important section of the compound.
He smirked. For all their schemes, all their plots and all their plans, it seemed that it had been the work for the Ladies Four that had cleared the way for Veer’s freedom. Tattle wouldn’t have liked it. She would have called it a cheap twist.
Hurricane called it an opportunity, and one he would not pass up.
Normally, there were at least four alsknights stationed at the front entrance of the shed, two more at the back. Thick locks and chains straight from Irontower were always wound around the door, to which only Greeve had the key, and there was at least one beast prowling around the shed at all times, ready to spit summer or winter’s breath on anyone foolish enough to approach.
There was none of that, now. It just looked like a sad little shack.
The door swung loose on its hinges, broken by some unseen force. The lighting was dim, but sunlight through the open doorway was enough for Hurricane to see by. The box sat on its marble pedestal, made from polished hollow wood, innocuous if Hurricane hadn’t known the power it contained.
He picked it up with one hand. It was heavier than he had expected, and rattled when he held it.
It was one of many boxes, Hurricane knew, but it had to hold the tabula of at least forty people. The souls of forty people, right in his hand, gifted from the Ladies…that was the fortune of a lifetime, for a Shira Hay urchin.
And for the first time in a long time, Lonwal hesitated.
He had not been born into slavery, but he might as well have been. That was the nature of the Fallow. He had grown up to be a big, strong boy, one the taskmasters could work harder than a mulebull. There had always been the work. Never question the why or the how, only do the what. He had never raised his head until she found him.
Let’s go south, she had said, after that first crew fell apart. (Thieving was hard, after all, in the fields. There was nowhere to hide.) South and east, to Shira Hay. People wander in there all the time. We can start new lives. Be new people. Have new names.
They’d made a good crew, the two of them, but Beets and Gazzahar didn’t stick around, and they lost Walls and Lookout in the end. Bull and Veer had been good kids, but unexperienced. And the only good thing Hurricane could think to say of the aristocrat was that he ran fast when trouble came.
Hurricane missed that time. His face darkened at the thought of who had taken it from him.
The fieldmen had stolen his first life. They’d stolen his second. But Hurricane would make sure they would not take his third, ever.
He strode from the shed, the amber box in his hands, purpose in his step. He was not afraid.
He had never really worshipped the Ladies. He’d believed in them, as any god-fearing man should, but he had never seen why they were worthy of his respect. He still didn’t.
But he thanked them for this chance, nonetheless.
Hurricane walked towards the hut where he knew Veer lived. She had grown quiet ever since the fieldmen had taken her. Her constant smile had been eroded by the slavers, and her laughter silenced. Hurricane grimaced.
They would pay for what they had taken.
He thought of the new king, that distant king, the king who was no king. Hurricane had never paid much attention to his rhetoric, but now he felt just a glimmer of kinship with this Ironhide. “No kings. No queens,” Hurricane muttered. “We will never be slaves again.”
He felt a hand on his shoulder, heard some alsknight try to stop him, and without pausing jabbed the alsknight in the neck and threw him on the ground. With a single heavy kick, he broke the alsknight’s nose, and kept walking.
Distantly, he registered other guards—not knights, not as heavily armored—rushing around him, but he paid them no heed. The hut was close.
He stepped inside, to the shouts of the guards swarming outside. Indecisive. Unsure. Pathetic.
“Hurricane!” shouted Veer, standing up. It was a wonder she could stand at all, on those emaciated legs. “What’s the what happening?”
Hurricane thrust the box out at her. He didn’t bother with the lock; with a single thump of his fist, he cracked the lid apart and tossed the broken shards away. They landed amid the sleeping slaves; Hurricane was all too familiar with the dead relief that came from knowing he could sleep away a day with no work. With the fields abandoned, most of these slaves had slept whole days away, dreaming of better lives, he supposed.
“You find yours?” asked Hurricane, curtly.
Veer nodded, her hand drifting over the arrayed golden disks before she seized one that, to Hurricane, looked just like the others. It was the same way a child after Fallow could pick out his tabula out of a hollow full of them.
The girl cradled her tabula, blinking shining eyes. “What’s the what we do now?” she whispered, as if she didn’t dare believe what was happening.
“We wake ‘em up,” he said, and he threw the box of tabula into the crowd, where the new masters slept.
The red brand steamed and hissed as it was dipped into the water, flakes of dead skin peeling off the mottled iron. Hook stood, watching, his eyes shining, but he shed not a single tear, nor did he move a single inch. His internal screams drowned out his own thoughts, even as his face remained passive, immobile, almost bored.
The old man tapped Hook’s jaw with his knuckles, and squinted. Hook could do nothing to stop him, as he was inspected like a piece of meat. “This is what you brought me?” the old man said. “He looks fit for fertilizer.”
The alsknight named Fisk didn’t say anything. He just watched as the man with the brands proceeded down the line, and the old man followed along behind him. Hook watched with his eyes, as he could neither turn his head nor his body to see them.
“Mm, a small one for her,” said the old man, clicking his tongue. “The other farmers like their girls unblemished. On her foot, there you are. Fisk, raise her foot.”
Hook didn’t even hear the buzz of the tabula, the command was so easy and automatic for the alsknight. It was a terrible power, one that Hook had severely underestimated. He realized now how foolish his dreams of easy living on the border between Shira Hay and Alswell had been. How could he have ever stayed out of the grasp of that kind of power? If only he could go back to warn himself. If only he could go back to warn anyone.
They had tried to warn him—him and all the boys—but Hook, and therefore Hook’s crew, had never listened.
To them, the alsknights had just been another kind of inferior racer. They were supposed to be clumsy and slow, easy to trick and outwit. Any plainsman worth his wits could outsmart an alsknight, or so they thought, but in the riots of Shira Hay, Hook had seen firsthand their training: their speed, their discipline, their precision.
Hook watched out of the corner of his eye as the bent-backed old man snapped and barked at all of his attendants. The row of human beings lined up before him were completely and totally his property. Hook almost could have laughed at himself, and a part of him, a shattering, tenuously sane part of him, wanted to. He had thought himself the pauper king of a peasant kingdom, but right here, right now, he saw what true power was, and how far he had been from it.
“They’re mangy vermin,” said the old man, as he came upon the last person in the line. “No better than ratbeasts. This is what you bring me?”
“My lord Greeve, with all due respect,” said the alsknight, Fisk. “I am fortunate to have left the plains with my own life.”
“Your life? As if your life is worth anything.” The old man’s voice was rising. “You return with not even a quarter of the force I sent to Shira Hay. You have not only failed to gain an ally in the duarchs but you have also made an enemy in them as well, and you think to compensate for your failures by dredging up the filth of the plainsmen gutters. Where is the help I sent for? Where are the men I sent to fight this war? Where is my son?”
Fisk stuttered. “Your son, my lord? Engers? He was not-.”
The line of slaves did not move as the old man struck Fisk squarely across the face. The other attendants froze, watching, as Greeve advanced on the alsknight. He put his cane to the quivering man’s throat, and said, in a low, husky whisper, “Finish that sentence, survivor Fisk, and make the loss of my forces in Shira Hay total and complete.”
The silence stretched on, as the cloying air grew hot in the dimly lit slave’s hut. Fisk did not finish his sentence. No one said a word.
Greeve took a deep breath and looked around, as if he was about to give some sweeping command, but no command came from his lips. He hobbled away without saying anything, and the line of slaves was left to stand and sweat as Fisk picked himself up.
Hook heard whispers behind them as the other fieldmen prepared the slaves’ new home for them. “We are lost,” whispered a balding man with ruddy cheeks. “Have you heard? The outer fields have already begun to burn.”
“And where’d you hear that?” hissed an old crone, sweeping away the soiled straw in front of Hook.
“Refugees, Gomora,” said the bald man. “The ones that flee into Alswell, anyway. The smart ones sneak out past the enemies, go out into the rest of Albumere, away from here.”
The woman grunted, but said nothing.
“I’m not staying. I’ll go to the coast, take a ship out to Farsea, and make my living in the wilds. If a wild clanchild of four springs can make it out there on their own, why can’t I?”
“What do you know of being wild, Saxdon?” The woman clicked her tongue and Hook marched forward to sit on the newly swept patch of dirt. Even if she did not hold his tabula personally, he did not dare disobey her. “The Ladies won’t be there for you in the wilds. It’s hollow magic, savage magic that rules out there.”
“Superstition and nonsense,” said Saxdon. The woman did not look convinced. “Either way,” he continued. “Wherever I am, tabula will work. I’ll just take one or two from the amber box and-.”
Hook flinched instinctively when Fisk appeared directly behind the fieldman servant. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, friend,” said Fisk. Though his face was bruised and purpling, the cold light in his eyes made both servants pale. “We all need to bond together in these difficult times. Now I understand if recent events have demoralized you, but we need discipline more than ever now.”
Both servants bowed their heads deferentially, and Fisk walked away, but the moment he was out of earshot the woman named Gomora muttered, under her breath, “Coward.”
“That Fisk is a Summer-burnt coward and he knows it,” spat Gomora. “How was he the only alsknight to survive the plainsmen riots? He did it by skulking and hiding, that’s how. No wonder he brought nothing but rats here, he’s a rat himself…”
They drifted away, and Hook was no longer privy to their conversation. He sat, rigid and stiff, until all the fieldmen had left and the slaves were left to tend to themselves. Only then did he at last relax, slumping, and groans and winces stirred across the hut as the other slaves also became at ease and felt the new scars on their bodies.
They didn’t even have the courage to scream anymore. Hook was silent as he flexed his shoulders and back, even as the pain burned like lines of fire there. Once, in what seemed like a long time ago, he would have been angry. He would have been plotting terrible, terrible revenge.
Now he was just praying that they would leave him alone for the rest of the night.
Hook stared at the ground, his face not moving. Even when he could, now, he found it hard to change his expression. He wondered where Penna was, now. The kestrelgull had been there the whole time when Hook had been captured, but there had been hardly anything she could do as the alsknight nearly strangled Hook from behind. Of course, they hadn’t let Hook keep her tabula, and she had disappeared when they dragged Hook away.
Wherever she was, even if she was dead, she was freer than him. Envy crawled in Hook’s gut, but just as soon as it reared its ugly head he suppressed it. Hook hadn’t felt much of anything since he arrived in Alswell. It was better that way.
Slowly, gradually, so that no one would pay attention to the movement, Hook clamped his hands over his ears. It didn’t help to block out the buzzing. Even when his tabula was not active, Hook heard its humming, like the whine of a small insect inside his head. It was enough to drive a man insane.
Hook stared blankly at the ground, his hands so tight on his head that he imprinted red pressure marks on the side of his face. Even as his eyes began to dry, he didn’t close them.
When he had run his gang in Shira Hay, he had often giggled at the loons and fools that sometimes begged near the Twin Libraries. He and Scrabble, or Shimmy, or on some days even Stink, would laugh at the demented madmen, mock their odd manners, and after that had bored them, throw rocks at the beggars to get them to clear their turf. That kind of madness, the giggling, constant mirth, Hook would have now welcomed.
This madness was humorless. He could not think anymore. He seemed to hear everything, but the words drifting over his head he could barely process, while the constant, ceaseless buzzing inside his mind never seemed to stop.
As the other slaves settled in, Hook tried to summon his old anger. He remembered it, that blinding rage, but he could not seem to feel it. He traced the scars on his back, and the fresh wounds where the brand had been pressed into his skin.
“They ruined you,” he said, to himself. “They takes you away. Hurt ‘em back. Hurt them back. Hurt them.”
He stared at the ground, muttering to himself, waiting, but his heart only felt cold and clammy with fear. If they heard him saying that, they would take his tabula out again, and what little humanity Hook had hoarded to himself would be burned away. He couldn’t risk being anything other than perfectly obedient.
The air was starting to grow musty around him. Even though the stench made Hook light-headed, he didn’t move. He hardly moved at all, nowadays, unless someone told him to.
The alsknights, he had discovered, could do things with tabula he had never even dreamed possible. For him, the tabula had just been a means of mobility; he had prided himself on how he could sling Penna towards any of his enemies in the city with that old rod of his, but now Hook was learning how much of that power had gone wasted. He had never imagined the potential a man had if he could make someone do anything, feel anything, be anything.
The first time Hook had disobeyed, out in the grasslands as the escaping Alswell caravan wound its way back to the fields, he had been commanded to feel pain. It had been, without a doubt, the worst experience Hook had ever had in his life, for his mind had summoned all of his worst experiences and pushed them all just a little further in that one instant of pain.
When he obeyed the next time, he had been commanded to feel pleasure. It had been the polar opposite, a soft cloud to ride high into the sky of ecstasy and bliss, and as much as Hook didn’t want to admit it, the pain made the pleasure all the sweeter. It was…
It was addicting.
A hand touched his shoulder, and he flinched.
“Hey-hey, Hook,” said a boy, his face dirt-smeared, his skin cut and bruised, but his eyes bright. “It’s me! It’s Shimmy!”
Hook squinted. Was it Shimmy, his old crewmember? If so, what did it matter? They were both slaves now, both powerless.
“Come on-and-on,” said Shimmy, and his voice was so energetic that Hook had to look up. What did Shimmy have to be so happy about? “We all Shira Hay here, right? We all together! Now they say we gon’ get split up-and-up soon, but we ain’t gon’ let that happen, right, boss?”
“Who say what now?” said Hook, suspiciously.
“Get up,” said Shimmy, pulling on his hand. “Quiet now. I show you!”
Hook trudged along behind the fellow slave, his sore legs protesting as he rose to his feet. He edged his way around the cramped floor, around other captured plainsmen sleeping or resting or simply staring at nothing like he had been, following Shimmy towards wherever they were going. Perhaps, Hook mused, Shimmy had also gone insane.
“Right here. See him? Don’t make no fuss now, he’s a hidin’,” said Shimmy, pointing, and Hook followed his finger towards the near grown-old sitting with his back to the wall. He was nursing a girl that Hook almost recognized, tending to the new scars on her foot.
The near grown-old looked up and met Hook’s eyes, and Hook felt a cold flash as he realized who it was.
“You wit’ him?” asked Hurricane, gesturing with his head toward Shimmy.
Hook nodded slowly, not trusting himself to speak.
Hurricane grunted in approval. “You helpin’ us get out of this shithole, then.” He stood, rolling his head and cracking his neck, and as he shifted his stance Hook saw something glint gold in his hand: a tabula. Whose was it?
Shimmy grinned widely and nodded when Hook looked questioningly at him. “He ain’t no slave,” said Shimmy, in an excited but hushed whisper. “He come to break us out!”
“I come to break her out,” said Hurricane, putting an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “You two comin’ if you can pull your own weight.”
“Wait-wait,” said Hook, shaking his head. It didn’t make sense. “How you still got your tabula? What you do, huh?”
“Followed y’all. Snuck in. Never caught in the first place,” said Hurricane. He was constantly looking to the side, although what he was watching out for Hook did not know. “Tattle got some sort of a plan. Gon’ do what she says to get Veer out, is all.”
“You go and get yourself branded just for her?” asked Hook, incredulously.
Hurricane’s arm tightened around Veer’s shoulders. “They ain’t branding you if you already branded,” he said, and his eyes dared Hook to ask another question. Hook didn’t.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Shimmy, eagerly. “How you getting us out?”
“You want spe-ci-fics, ain’t none. Ain’t no plan ‘til Tattle make one. She working on it, now. But we thieves, and we gon’ steal you out.” Hurricane sniffed and gave the hut a long look. “Anyone else here feel like making free, you find them. We gon’ need all the help we can get.”
Shimmy was nearly bouncing on his feet with excitement, but Hook remained more skeptical. The girl, he noticed, also looked subdued.
Hurricane let the girl go. “I go now. Meet up with Tattle, see what we can do. We gettin’ you out, I promise.”
“Why can’t we go with you now?” asked Shimmy, a pleading look in his eyes.
“How you gon’ get out of here without you tabula? No way, no how,” said Hurricane. “Gonna take the amber box, first. That’s the only way to do it.”
With only a curt nod, he walked away casually, through the opening of the hut, into the deepening night. No one made any attempt to stop him. No one made any move to hold him back. Why would they?
The girl shuffled away to a private corner, and Shimmy did as well, after a lengthy pause where Hook did not speak to him. Hook did not feel like talking now, too busy pondering the possibilities in his head.
Escape. As Hook considered it, his thoughts immediately turned to the potential punishment. It would hurt if they were caught, and they would be caught. The alsknights had demonstrated that. It was simple: they had the power, and the slaves didn’t. There was no way this would ever end well for Hook. Unless…
Hook realized with a sickening twist in his gut that he would be given the pleasure again if he ratted these people out. Was Hook really going to sell out their last chance for freedom for some temporary high?
Of course he would. He was doing them a favor: their last chance was no chance at all. They would never escape. The power of the alsknights was absolute. Hook laid down to sleep, betrayal already on his mind. The old man had called them all rats, and Hook wasn’t about to deny it.
Veer jerked Chaff’s head to the side, holding his face so that he had to look directly at the caravan of wagons trundling down the road. “You see, you see it?”
Chaff nodded, standing on the big guy’s back to get a better look. The bright colors and floral lace of the Alswell wagons stood out plainly among the more conservative Shira Hay tarps, and that wasn’t even mentioning the entourage of alsknights walking beside them. They weren’t exactly subtle.
“The caravan moves about once every two or three days, to a different part of the city,” said Lookout, dangling her feet over the edge of the roof. Her owlcrow wheeled overhead, and Lookout had a glazed, distracted look in her eyes as she flipped its tabula over and over in her hands. “Dense areas, mostly, where the most people pass per day. Places where they got a lot of listeners. Unfortunately, also places with a lot of witnesses.”
She stood up, and beckoned from above. “Come on, keep moving. We need to follow them to know where they’re going to stop next.”
Chaff squinted as Lookout rose and walked away backwards, still flipping the tabula in her hands as she skipped without looking back over the gap in the roofs. His gaze followed Lookout, then the owlcrow, which was still circling in the overcast sky, beady eyes glinting.
“You see what he sees, yeah?” said Chaff, as he hopped off the big guy and walked down the street to keep pace.
Lookout just grinned. “Sharper than you look,” she said.
Chaff’s hand edged back towards the tabula at his belt. It would have been a great help to see what the girl saw; it would do no end of good in helping find her. Chaff just wished he knew how to do it.
The boy looked back up at Lookout, the question forming on his lips, but the girl had already looked away. The conversation was over. Chaff wasn’t going to ask any more questions, not if he didn’t want to arouse suspicion.
As Chaff’s hand left the tabula, he felt, not for the first time, his curiosity prickle. He had had no idea tabula could borrow the vision of others; what else could the little amber disks do? What power did they hold?
And why did everyone have one?
Chaff felt like he was looking into the hollow of a hollow, at a thousand glittering amber disks beckoning to him, so many details inside of details that they threatened to overwhelm him. Asking why people had tabula was like asking why people were alive at all.
“You coming or nope-not, Chaff?” said Veer, punching Chaff’s shoulder. She giggled. “Don’t think so hard, I think I see-see your brains leaking out yo’ ears.”
He did his best to laugh, but he couldn’t bring himself to meet Veer’s eyes.
The path they took led down to the waterfront. Chaff did his best to hide behind the big guy and sneak past the stalls without the alsknights noticing, but when he saw Veer walking boldly down the road he straightened and followed behind her.
“They don’t care about us, yeah?” said Chaff, just to make sure, in a hushed whisper. His eyes never left the lances in the fieldmen’s hands. “They not gonna hurt us?”
“Too proud,” said Veer. She spoke normally, as they followed close behind in the little bubble of space the caravan left in its wake. “That’s what Hurricane says. Them in their shawls and silks don’t give a shitting shit about urchins like us.”
Chaff rubbed the big guy’s side, and felt the camelopard twitch at his touch. No matter how tender or frequent his apologies were, wounds had been left by his abrupt command of the beast. “What about big guy? Last time they saw him they wanted to…to…”
“Take him? They’d done do it, too, if they thought no one would see.” Veer clapped Chaff on the back. “They wouldn’t-won’t in the street. The farmers need Shira Hay. Ain’t no nomad gonna help them if they see the fieldmen ‘tack us on our turf.”
Chaff wasn’t entirely sure what Veer meant by that; he had been on both sides of attacks by fellow plainsmen in Shira Hay, and no one seemed to have any problem with that. He supposed that was what Hadiss called politics.
“What about when they think no one is watching?” asked Chaff, as the street opened onto the banks of the Gammon. A man wearing a shawl that went all the way down to his elbows barked orders to his men, and then reclined back inside his palanquin. Veer took a step back at that, and Chaff followed her cue, hiding in the shadows beneath the eaves of a riverfront shop.
“If no one’s watching,” said Veer, darkly. “It’s them that should be worried, not us.”
Chaff didn’t ask any more questions after that. He retreated into the corner, brushing the big guy’s hair, eyes flickering around. They were near the edges of the sprawling library complex, a couple minor bridges spanning the river, cheap imitations of the Gammon. A couple off-streets provided ample space for Chaff to duck in and hide, although he didn’t know if the big guy would fit, and worst case scenario this section of the river had a long open space for the big guy to run. In his experience, the big guy could outrun just about anything so long as nothing else got in the way.
Lookout dangled her feet from the rooftop above them. “We do this every few days,” explained Lookout. “Keep tabs on where they are, what they’re doing, what their pattern is. Veer, how you doing?”
“Done-doing fine,” the urchin girl said, her tongue poking through the hole in her teeth as she surveyed the caravan with furrowed eyebrows. She didn’t say anything else.
“Veer looks for ways in, Bull and Hurricane take notes on who they might have to fight, and I…well, I look out.”
“What am big guy and I supposed to be doing?”
“You are our new runaway guy. You look for quick exits, escape routes, anything that can get us out of here in a hurry if things get messy- and I guarantee that things will get messy.”
Chaff chewed his lip. “Well, how does you know that?”
“’Cause I know a lot more about this business than you do,” said Lookout, and she seemed almost smug about it.
The boy scoffed, and turned aside. Look for exits? He had already done that. It seemed silly that the urchin’s crew needed someone to do such an automatic job for them.
Chaff yawned, scrubbing his eyes. The pale light of dusk was starting to fade away, and the exhaustion was beginning to catch up to him. The bruises that were starting to swell across Chaff’s sides were no doubt Hook’s handiwork, and two races in one day were proving to be more than Chaff could handle.
“What you think ‘bout-a-bout waiting by the river?” said Veer. “Wait for them to do their rounds, come in from a side they ain’t expecting.”
“They’d clear us out the moment they saw us,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “And if anybody has a winter animal we’re dead in the water. No, no go.”
“What ‘bout-a-bout a listener? They start a shout, somebody shout back and distract ‘em while I go ‘round-a-round back…” continued Veer, in a low mutter.
Chaff spoke up, suddenly. “Who was the old runaway guy?”
“Hmm?” said Lookout, distractedly.
“Who was the old runaway guy? You said I was the new one. Who was the old one?”
Veer looked nervous, but Lookout just smirked. “Go on up there and ask him yourself,” said Lookout, pointing to the caravan. Chaff followed her finger and saw a brown-skinned boy, scrawny to the point of emaciation, wash a bundle of grey clothes in the river. A collar looped around his neck, and the skin in-between his shoulder blades was a twisted mat of scar tissue.
He did not once look up as Chaff stared at him, and kept his eyes trained on the ground and the water whenever he walked. Chaff shivered, and it was not just from the autumn cold. He was beginning to doubt if running with Hurricane’s crew was a good idea after all.
“Take it as a lesson to be learned,” said Lookout. “He didn’t run away fast enough.”
Chaff looked down at the ground. What was the real lesson? If he didn’t run fast enough, would he be caught, or would he be left behind?
It was only his friends that could betray him, not his enemies.
He jumped as Lookout landed next to him with a heavy thud. “Getting tired of this sitting around,” she said, stretching her arms. “You guys up for a closer look?”
“That’s not such a good idea, yeah?” said Chaff, hesitantly. He rubbed his shoulders, and averted Lookout’s suddenly demanding glare. “The boys is always saying, don’t get close to the fieldmen. They work you hard, the fieldmen. Make you so miserable you wish you is dead.”
“You can’t be part of this crew if you’re scared,” said Lookout. She walked right up to Chaff, until they were almost nose to nose, her voice was a low whisper. “We’re doing big things here. You’re either all-in or you’re out, no middle ground. We can’t risk it.”
Chaff quailed, his fingers drumming on the tabula in his belt, and the big guy tossed his head beside them. Chaff’s gaze met Lookout’s, and he saw in her eyes the same manic expression that had been in Hook’s. His bruises began to throb, despite himself.
“I’m in,” croaked Chaff, gripping the big guy’s fur very tightly. “All in.”
An easy smile returned to Lookout’s face. “Knew you’d say that. See? Everything’s good. The way you’re hanging onto your tabula, they’ll never be able to rip it out of your hands.”
Chaff laughed weakly, although his grip only tightened. It wasn’t his tabula he was worried about.
Veer clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry-worry,” she said, smiling. “If I didn’t know no better, I’d say Tattle and Lookout had fallow in the same hollow. Both fallborn, both pretty-pretty smart, both…” Veer gestured, jaw stretched as she searched for the words.
“Pushy?” offered Chaff.
“Yeah,” said Veer, shoving Chaff forward so that they could keep up with Lookout. “Pushy.”
Chaff walked forward hesitantly as they neared the Alswell caravan, still holding her tabula close to him, as if he could shield it with his body. They were so close that he could hear snippets of their conversation, smell the food cooking inside their tents.
“Hey, hey, Chaffy Chaff,” said Veer. She put a hand on Chaff’s forearm and the boy twitched. “Don’t hold it like that. Next time, hide your tabula somewhere safe. It better that way.” She grinned. “No one can take it even if they catch you.”
“Hide it somewhere else? Don’t keep it on me? Like some animal?” said Chaff. He cocked his head. “That what you do, then, yeah?”
Veer put a finger to her lips, and Chaff shook his head and kept walking.
As the big guy followed behind him, Chaff could hear the camelopard’s stomach rumbling. It was a good sign; the big guy’s stomach only rumbled after he had eaten. Chaff patted him on the side, and the big guy tossed his head, a bass rumble emerging from his throat. When he looked back at Chaff, his eyes were back to their lazy, hooded stare.
Chaff smiled. “I like this. Everything normal, yeah? Everything good.”
The big guy grunted in response. It was probably a yes, although Chaff could never really tell.
“What the what you doing, Chaffy?” said Veer, pushing on his shoulder. “Not so-so close!” The ragged urchin girl took Chaff’s hand and led him to the riverbank, into the muddy shallows. “Over by the water, that’s it. They don’t suspect nothing if all we doing is getting a drink.”
Chaff yelped as he stepped into the frigid waters, but he grew numb to the cold within minutes, and the mud felt good on the soles of his feet. The fieldmen seemed not to care that two urchin children were playing in the water, although Chaff caught one or two surreptitiously evaluating the big guy. An Alswell announcer started to shout, his voice high and loud, as dusk began to fall. More nonsense about the tyranny of the one called Ironhide.
The mud sucked at his feet as Chaff stepped around, the water up to his ankles. He made a mental note that escape via the river was only a last chance resort, and laughed as the big guy sloshed through the water. His laugh died quickly in the odd quiet, unease crept over him as he looked around. “Where’s Lookout?”
Veer, standing next to him, looked hesitant to say anything. Chaff followed her gaze, and jumped, splashing water over both of them, when he saw Lookout stepping right up to one of the Alswell slaves.
He strode two paces through the water, with half a mind to walk up and figure out what was going on, when Veer put a hand on his shoulder. He twisted, trying to calm the jitters in his gut, and met Veer’s eyes. The girl shook her head once, her mouth drawn in a thin-lipped frown.
Chaff waited, not willing to speak, searching Veer’s eyes for an answer. The possibility of betrayal loomed in the back of his head, and he could not dismiss it.
He turned back to Veer, scanning the whole scene. None of the fieldmen seemed to have noticed, still shouting at the top of their lungs at passersby in the streets, but if a patrolling alsknight came back and saw Lookout, then that was it. If Lookout was arranging some kind of double cross, Chaff had no easy out.
The boy caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He twisted, already taking steps to pull his feet out of the muck, but then he stopped. It was Lookout who had moved.
She had touched the slave—the old runaway guy, Chaff realized—tenderly on his back. The slave did not look up, did not move, did not react in any way, but still Lookout traced the scars on his skin. Chaff could not see her expression, but her hand moved lightly, daintily, gently.
A new question was in Chaff’s eyes when he turned back to Veer, but the urchin girl just shook her head once more.
And then he heard the shout.
“Thieves near the slaves! Alsknights, to arms!” Heavy leather boots slapped against the stones as the shouting alsknight began to run. “Walsh, subdue her.”
The tabula’s vibration seemed to find its way into the alsknight’s voice, and no sooner had he spoken did the slave boy straighten and attack. There was no restraint in his action, no semblance of technique or strategy. The slave’s limbs flailed violently, so hard that Chaff could barely see Lookout through the foam; he caught one glimpse of the boy’s water-streaked face, locked in its eternal, mournful grimace, before both disappeared under the river.
That was the least of Chaff’s problems. Two more alsknights dashed at them from the wagons, the rustle of their chainmail a sinister steel whisper as they ran. Chaff moved automatically, splashing through the water to haul himself onto the big guy’s back. He reached out for Veer, slippery fingers trying to catch onto Veer’s hand as the big guy reared and shrieked. Even slogging their way out of the river, the big guy was faster than two men on foot…
Sound shone and light echoed in an explosive mess across the river as the two alsknights each gripped their palms tight, and blurred forms galloped out of the foam of the now turbulent river.
“Go big, big guy!” screamed Chaff, using both of his sweating hands to hold the big guy’s tabula. “GO BIG!”
He would not be a slave. Not then, not now. Not until he found her.
There was a clap like thunder as the big guy bounded out of the river, the water around his hooves evaporating into steam as he charged onto the street. The electors emerging for their night debates and the hunters returning from their day hunts scattered as the big guy pounded through the street.
Clinging onto the big guy’s neck, Chaff turned to see the two alsknights galloping after him, their faces cold and intent. Sweat broke out on the back of Chaff’s neck. It wasn’t the fieldmen he was scared of. At least, not now.
Six Alswell slaves pursued him as well, running so fast that each step looked like it was breaking their own legs. Never had Chaff seen someone—something—run that fast. A burly man, with a face so disfigured by scars that Chaff could not even see his expression, reached out as he began to near the big guy, his red mouth open wide as he sucked in breath. He made no sound as he ran but a desperate wheezing.
“Turn, turn, turn, turn!” shouted Chaff, tugging on the big guy’s neck to send him careening down the nearest street, away from the river and into the inner city. The camelopard’s hooves scrabbled on the cobblestones, and Chaff clenched his teeth so hard his tongue began to bleed.
Their momentum carried them in a wide arc into the street, knocking over more than one stall preparing for the evening market in their mad dash. Chaff heard several more consecutive crashes as the Alswell slaves hurtled into walls, buildings, other people. He looked over his shoulder.
It had barely slowed them down a second.
And close behind them rode the alsknights, not even winded. Six slaves meant three tabula on each, and their own mounts. Chaff’s head swam. How was it even possible to command four different living things at once?
His head snapped back forward. The big guy dodged past pedestrians and stalls, not out of any concern for their fellow citizens but simply because a collision would have slowed him down. The slaves had no such qualms; they plowed through the market, and while they moved with relentless strength and speed, they were beginning to lose ground.
The alsknights, on the other hand, were beginning to gain it.
A fall horse leaped so high for a moment it seemed to be galloping on air. The alsknight atop it reached for the mace dangling at his side, and Chaff tensed. He was far enough ahead that melee weapons would have been useless. Yeah?
It was only as the alsknight swung the mace forward that Chaff saw the glint of amber at the mace’s head.
Something exploded out of the mace, hurtling forward with momentum that did not decrease as the thing grew and grew and grew and landed with such a forceful thud that it cracked the stones on the street with the impact.
It trumpeted, long white tusks sharp and glinting, barreling through the street so fast that the stalls literally exploded into shards of wood and cloth as it passed.
The big guy began to move, and the thrill of fear Chaff felt passed through to the camelopard, but nothing either of them could do could prevent the impact. Numbly, as the creature crashed into the camelopard’s side, all Chaff could think was five tabula. The alsknight had shown complete and total control of five tabula without breaking a sweat.
He skidded across the ground, his bruises flaring and screaming in protest. A hot pain began to throb at the base of his spine, and Chaff could see nothing but red and black as he rolled on the cobblestones, trying to get his bearings.
Chaff saw, dimly, the silhouettes of the alsknights surround him: one on the fall horse, the other on some slim, sinuous steed. He groaned, trying to rise, his hand scrabbling over his belt to keep her tabula safe.
The alsknight on the sinuous animal dismounted. Instead of a mace by his belt, he had a sword. He drew it. The blade distorted until Chaff saw four of them, floating in various positions over his head.
And then someone bashed the alsknight across the head and the sword clattered to the street, harmless. Chaff blinked, hope lighting a fire in his hazy mind, but the movement was still too fast for him to see.
Another blurred figure—or was it the same one?—dragged the other alsknight off his mount. More beat the approaching slaves into submission, and the fieldmen in their heavy armor found themselves in a hurricane of quick blows and body shots.
A smile found its way onto Chaff’s lips. Kennya Noni. The fighters of Shira Hay.
“The fuck you think you’re doing?” snarled a male voice, with a familiar Shira Hay twang. “Tear up a whole street going after a kid.”
“Who do you think you are?” shouted another voice, female. “You horde your food, you steal our people, you march into our city, and you expect us to just give you help when you come begging for it?”
“You expect us to die for you,” said yet another voice. “When you go after us on our own land?”
Politics. It was all politics.
No matter how many tabula they had, the fieldmen were outnumbered. Their faces drawn and pensive, they backed away, not quite running but clearly retreating, and Chaff found himself helped up by a myriad of hands as his head finally began to clear.
“Big guy,” he mumbled, staggering to the prone camelopard’s side. His vision hadn’t cleared yet, but he saw red. Too much red.
“The elephaunt gored him good,” said one of the fighters, taking off the bandages on his wrists to wrap the wounds on the big guy’s side. The fighter opened his mouth to say something else, but when he saw Chaff’s expression he fell silent. “He’ll be fine,” the fighter muttered, quietly, and he stood and left without another word.
Chaff knelt by the big guy’s side, too exhausted to even move from their place in the middle of the street. The crowd ebbed and flowed around him, although no one seemed to notice him. They had fought out of hate for the foreigners, not love for him.
His lungs hurt, his legs hurt, his back hurt. There wasn’t even a distinction between what Hook’s beating had given him and the rest of the day anymore; his entire body felt like a giant bruise. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the pain.
Then Chaff heard footsteps near him, and when the drip-drip of water near him grew to be too much he opened his eyes and looked.
Lookout stood next to him, water dribbling from her clothes onto the street. Her owlcrow still circled up in the sky above her, which would explain why Lookout had her eyes closed while her head turned to Chaff. There were red marks around her neck.
“You alive?” she muttered, eyes still closed, her voice low and gravelly.
“Yeah,” said Chaff.
She nodded. Chaff waited, looking around, even as a sinking feeling began to open up in his gut.
He had reached for her when they were leaving the river, but when he had seen the alsknights mounted he had panicked and…and…
“Lookout, where’s Veer?” asked Chaff, hoarsely.
Lookout didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, she said, “Didn’t run fast enough.”
Chaff sat on the ground, his head spinning and his ears ringing. I guess we friends now, Veer had told him.
And only friends could betray friends.
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.”