5.2

By the time Edzie and Stray awoke the next day, Elkansa was already gone. Estrelle informed them, over a modest breakfast, that their mother would be returning early in the afternoon, whereupon the three of them would prepare for the return journey. They both nodded, indifferent, at the mercy of Elkansa’s plans, but privately, they resented the shortness of their stay. The city was enchanting, especially for Edzie, and homesickness was still far away.

Estrelle said she would be meeting a few of her clients downtown, and she charged Edzie and Stray with the task of occupying themselves for the rest of the morning. Before she could even finish, her two charges exploded with objections, Stray practically begging, Edzie scowling and insisting. They would behave, they said… they just wanted to come along to see more of the city. Where was she going? How long would she let them explore?

Estrelle, fully disarmed by their enthusiasm, agreed to bring them along, as long as they kept within immediate sight of her and stayed quiet during her meetings. She was going northwest by way of the Vertacross and the downtown thoroughfares, bound for another part of the city they hadn’t seen. This was the part of Resine where most of the local shephards kept small cottages, and Estrelle eked out her living by helping with their household duties while they tended their flocks. It was modest employment, but it gave her the stability she wanted in her young adulthood.

Estrelle gathered a few provisions for the day, and the three of them set out, just as they had the previous morning, with Estrelle parting the rush of pedestrians on the Vertacross Road. At first, she moved slowly, holding their hands and making sure they could keep up, looking back every few feet to make sure they were still following. By the time they left the Concordance neighborhood, she was satisfied with their competence, and let go of their hands, having felt a bit patronizing about holding them the whole previous day. Edzie took shrewd note of her caretaker’s comfort.

Both children noticed that by the time they got to the travelers’ quarter downtown, Estrelle wasn’t looking back as frequently. Stray kept strictly in her wake, but Edzie started lingering and falling behind, constantly distracted by the side-streets. Finally, as they were about to turn a corner and head north past a row of boarding houses, Edzie grabbed Stray and restrained him for a moment.

“I want to see around. You go ahead.”

Stray was momentarily horrified. “EDZIE! What are you doing? Hurry up!”

Edzie laughed at this, charmed by Stray’s obedience, and then shook her head. “No, I think you two can go ahead. Tell Estrelle I’ll meet you later at the place we ate at yesterday. The Swollen Wither, it was called.” She turned her gaze ahead. “Now hurry up, or you’re going to get stuck out here with me! She’s just up at the next block! GO, STRAY!”

She smacked Stray in the rump, and he went running, like a Huskin prodded to flight. She watched him catch up to Estrelle at a sprint, nearly plowing into her leg. Edzie remained just long enough to make sure Estrelle saw Stray, and finally, satisfied that they had made contact, she turned and darted into the shadow of an open door. She took a moment to survey her surroundings, and her gaze settled upon a side-street, too narrow for a wagon, with a chain hanging across to keep out horses. She barely hesitated, dashing into the shadow of the alley and looking for the first open entranceway she could find.

The alley led deep into the recesses between the buildings. The looming stone walls – bleached gray on the left, clay red on the right – were frigid, their textures bone-dry and chalky in the winter air. Near the base of the walls, Edzie could see darker stains, wet spots and bodily fluids frozen to the stone. Scrambling along the left wall, Edzie turned her gaze upward, where she saw a gallery of balconies and small, arched windows, all protected by metal slats turned closed. There were a couple pedestrians using this alley as a shortcut, and though Edzie was still in a hurry, she made generous space for them to pass. Several meters down the alley, she found heavy wooden doors on each side, opening up near ground level, both reachable by stoops on either side of the street.

The door on the left bore a bronze plaque that said, “Rickett’s Formulary.” The one on the right was blocked by a wooden plank, scrawled with the words “NO ENTRY – Please use front entrance.” Edzie chose this one, and to her delight, she found its bolt was splintered, and it swung open without resistance.

Stepping over the threshold into the shadows of the interior, Edzie was swallowed up in a tide of fragrance: the odors of herbs, incense, wool, and stagnant air enveloped her, and she almost lost her balance. The door clattered shut behind her, and she reeled… The smells seemed to have blinded her and rendered her insensate, and she fought panic for a moment as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. Finally, feeling her wits returning, she ventured a little ways into the interior, brushing past mysterious objects stacked and hung on all sides. The dim light grew brighter, and she surveyed her surroundings.

Edzie found herself overwhelmed once again, as she had been many times on this journey. She was in a narrow aisle crowded with stalls and tables, all covered in colors and textures: clothing cascading from hooks on wooden dividers, shelves filled with small statuettes, gloves and shoes and headwear and belts and precarious towers of candles and wooden staffs and pots and pans, and in every alcove, a glowing lamp and a merchant vying for attention. It was, in fact, only a small indoor travelers’ market, an outdated arcade leased by a few dozen local artisans. To Edzie, it might as well have been Drysperia Coombe, or some other dream-city from the stories she read.

Edzie already had her brivsa pulled over her face for warmth, but in this exotic universe, she felt she owed some measure of reverence, so she pulled it tighter over her mouth and secured it in the neck-line of her bandeau. Feeling less conspicuous, she started walking slowly, gazing at the merchandise as she passed. Here, a selection of wool leggings, dyed in brighter colors than any she had seen in her settlement; here, a display of small knives, all polished silver or steel, about the right size for whittling wood or skinning small game. She reached out to touch one, finding its elegance irresistible.

Someone standing over the table slapped her hand and shouted at her, and she looked up to find a surly middle-aged woman protecting the display. Edzie looked around, then, to see what kind of company she was in. The merchants were a colorful variety, some gossiping with customers, others maintaining attentive frowns as they counted their coins. The woman at the current stall was still staring at her with unconcealed suspicion, so Edzie continued to the next stall. Here, there were spools of cable and thread, and small pouches that could hang from a belt or a saddle.

Over the next hour, Edzie walked the entire circuit of the marketplace, trying to stay beneath notice. The other customers were mostly in thick, dirty traveling attire, their capes and overcoats loosened, their caps crumpled up in their fingers. Many were men, traveling alone or in small groups; only a few women were among them, and some wore clothing so thick and disheveled that their genders couldn’t be determined. Edzie’s attention swung back and forth from the merchandise to the customers, and she drifted, distracted, until she caught sight of the sash.

The sash was hanging from the waistband of a customer a few stands down the aisle. It hung low, falling below the knees of its wearer, and it was made of some very delicate, glossy silken fabric of a sort that Edzie had rarely seen before. She followed it compulsively, and was drawing near when it floated away, buoyed along to the next stall. Edzie nearly stumbled over a crate of tinderwood, but she finally reached the sash and its wearer, making no effort to disguise her interest.

Edzie had seen things dyed black before. The use of such strong, impractical dyes was discouraged by her tribe, but there were visitors at every annual festival, and some of them always had exotic vests and armaments. Those articles were almost always faded, though… the black was uneven, its color was muddied by the mix of pigments, or it still looked blue or green in the sunlight. This sash, on the other hand, seemed crafted by the shadow itself, its depth and richness woven so deep that it must have come from the fleece of a demon. The sash was blacker than anything Edzie had ever seen, save one small object: her plastic knife, concealed in the foundation of her dromo.

Edzie’s gaze went from the sash to its wearer. Standing above her, surveying a rack of feathered armbands, there stood a lean boy about twice Edzie’s age. He wore a charcoal gray wrap around his waist, and his beandeau, a snug, sheer panel of cloth wrapped around his chest, had entirely abdicated its duties of modesty. Over his arms, he wore a wool cape whose insides were lined with gray fur. His hair was shaved up to the crown of his head, and it fell jauntily to one side, reminiscent of Ghada’s mohawk. His dark eyes flickered as they inspected the armbands.

“Sorean, I think you have an admirer!” A woman’s voice called out from behind Edzie, and she turned to look back.

The woman approaching the stall was breathtaking, even more so than the young man to whom she had spoken. She was tall, nearly six feet, and had skin so dark that Edzie could see shades of blue and purple in its soft surfaces. She wore a dark gray wrap that fell to her knees, clinging close around her waist by way of some unseen binding. Her arms were covered, from wrist to shoulder, in the same padded wool as the man’s cape, and her hair, black with burgundy streaks, was woven with dried shoots of willow.

“There is a young lady sneaking up very close to you,” the woman said. “I might be suspicious, if she wasn’t a bona fide Concordance girl.”

Sorean had turned, and he was now looking down with a scowl. “What do you want?” he grunted, his voice unexpectedly gruff.

“I think she likes your sash, darling,” the woman said. She approached and knelt in front of Edzie, her eyes radiating warmth. “And who might you be, young galeed?”

“Uhh… I’m…” Edzie hesitated. “I’m Edzie. How’d you know where I’m from?”

“Hello, Edzie. Well, lots of people in this little city wear the brivsa, but only those from the actual tribes – the visitors, or the first-generation immigrants – wear it so tight around their mouths and noses, so as to protect their animus.” The woman looked up at Sorean, and then back down. “So you like the sash?”

“I’ve never seen one like it,” Edzie said. “Where’s it from?”

“Sorean? Where’d you get it?”

Sorean fingered the article a bit, trying to remember. Finally, he said, “I don’t know. One of the couture malls by Hellian Street.”

The woman looked back at Edzie. “From a shop, I guess. We are here from Tempustide, visiting one of my merchant friends. She forges very good steel, but she doesn’t like to travel. So why are you here, Dame Edzie?”

“My mom has tribal business,” Edzie said. “I’m just seeing the city with her.”

“Well, I hope you’re careful. This city may be small, but it has its share of perils. Would you like to walk with us for a few minutes?”

Again, Edzie hesitated, remembering Estrelle’s advice: the more a person seems to want your attention, the more they’re likely to be dangerous. Still, she had some confidence in her own judgment on these matters, and so far, these strangers hadn’t offered anything or asked anything of her. She nodded and turned to look at the armbands with Sorean, who seemed to disapprove of suddenly having extra company.

The woman identified herself as Por’vyra Cerest, a dealer in quality components to artisans and botiques throughout Tempustide. Sorean was her lover and sometime traveling companion, a capable assistant who was good at haggling and navigating. As she walked, she picked up artifacts from the tables – knives, carpentry tools, paints, articles of clothing – and told Edzie about the shameful flaws in each object, its amateurish design, its crude craft. The merchants ignored her or rolled their eyes at her comments, but Edzie noticed that they never stopped her or slapped her hand.

As they approached the west exit, Sorean grunted at Por’vyra, insisting that they get to their appointment with their supplier. They were heading north along a side-road; Edzie was going back west to the Swollen Withers. Smiling, still projecting a captivating warmth, Por’vyra bent down to say goodbye to Edzie.

“I’m glad we met, Edzie. May I give you a parting gift?”

Edzie nodded, and Por’vyra ordered Sorean to buy her something from a trinket-vendor nearby. Edzie chose a small statuette of a freymane, the great bird of prey of the Pastures, carved from soapstone and stained a soft green. Sorean set a few coins in the vendor’s hand, and then listened as the merchant explained the trinket.

“He says it represents the wisdom of the earth, finding justice in the whims of fate, or something like that,” Sorean explained, handed it to Edzie. Finally, he nodded to her, unsmiling, but less stern than before. “Now find your way home, and be safe.”

The three of them said goodbye, and Edzie returned to the front of the market. She came out onto the main road, and had to walk a full block before she recognized any of the establishments from the previous day. Once she oriented herself, she was able to find the inn, its impassive facade standing at attention a few blocks up the street. She let herself in and found a small table in a corner, not even large enough to support a dinner party, where she could remain inconspicuous. She set her freymane statuette on the table in front of her and commenced admiring it.

An hour later, Edzie was trying to practice her forms without attracting too much attention, reciting all the steps in the dark corner of the tavern. A concerned barkeep came by and asked her if she was lost, and she told him she had been at the market, and now she was waiting to meet her parents. Another two hours after that, she was reciting stories she had read as a child, trying her best to remember each lyrical word. The barkeep kept looking at her, but he didn’t have anything to offer except for a watchful eye.

Finally, two more hours after that – around her fifth hour in the bar, and her seventh out of Estrelle’s reach – she heard an enraged voice calling her name. Suddenly, she was surrounded by faces… Stray, anxiety-ridden, with tears drying on his cheeks… Estrelle, overcome with relief… Elkansa, livid, taking Edzie by the arm and practically lifting her from the table… and off in the distance, the old barkeep of the Swollen Withers, looking mildly amused at this influx of new customers.

 

It turned out that Estrelle had spent the entire day scouring the neighborhood for Edzie, missing her appointment and wasting her afternoon. She had checked the Swollen Withers twice: first, thoroughly, before Edzie had gotten there; second, later in the day, glancing inside just long enough to overlook her quarry. The rest of the day was taken up in a meticulous, futile back-street search pattern. She was sure Edzie had been kidnapped, or had fallen off the bank into the Burburine River, and her anxiety had convinced Stray of the worst, as well.

Finally, knowing when Elkansa was due to return to the dromo, Estrelle had gone to her for help. Elkansa was furious, but she knew her daughter, and she was fully confident that Edzie was right where she said she would be. Now that Estrelle’s panic had left Edzie to sit for a whole day in the inn, it was up to a righteously enraged Elkansa to lead them back to their starting point. The rest of the evening was spent in sullen preparation, with Elkansa and Edzie and Stray packing up their belongings and eating an ample dinner. They would set out toward the sunrise the next day.

Edzie and Stray spent most of that night whispering in the dark of the store-room, recapitulating their two days in Resine. Edzie took a significant tangent to tell Stray about the indoor market, and about Por’vyra of Tempustide, and she thanked him for helping Elkansa find her. As a token of appreciation, she gave Stray the freymane statuette, thinking that he would probably find it more fascinating than she did.

As promised, they set out at dawn the next day. As they trudged east, they remembered the trip to the city, and how the whole world had unfolded, revealing itself anew with every step. Now, as they walked, they found it collapsing again, leaving a trail of strange memories, like dreams being washed away by wakefulness. As she traversed the river at Thwarted Crossing, Edzie felt like she was saying goodbye to a recent friend. As they walked up through the swamp, she tried to commit the fetid smells and the uncanny atmosphere to memory. The journey was only made more difficult by the six parcels that Elkansa had made Edzie carry, a punishment for her vagrancy.

At the Aerimus tent-stations, Edzie traded stories with other pilgrims, describing Resine in whatever detail she could muster and listening to them describe other cities in turn: cities like Horizon, Simper, Fabrice, and Claive. She let Stray talk about the western neighborhoods and the observation tower; meanwhile, she honed her own story, choosing her words carefully and trying to gauge which parts were getting the best reactions from her audience. She wanted to remember this journey in rich detail, so that she could reproduce it for her peers in the settlement, especially Ghada and Boyle. I will own this story, Edzie thought. It will be a gift and a badge of accomplishment, and I will always keep it with me.

 

Edzie and Stray arrived home twenty-four days after they had set out for Resine. They found the settlement entirely unchanged… indeed, it was almost disappointingly familiar, as if it had been waiting eagerly to sweep them back into their old routines.

On her third day home, Elkansa visited Rodra, picking up her new katsun and her daughter’s newly-refinished endowment. The new katsun was admirable work, perilously sharp, balanced perfectly at the juncture where blade met handle. The shaft was bound tightly with linen and sealed with resin, and Rodra’s mark was carved into the wood underneath.

Elkansa’s old katsun, now bequeathed to Edzie, looked as good as it had when it was first made. Rodra had sanded the whole thing, enough to even out the finish but not enough to strip off any of the weight, and she had tempered and sharpened the metal blade. Finally, as a finishing touch, she had stained the blunt side with dark red pigment, and had wrapped the handle in linen of the same color. Edzie had hoped it would be nigh unrecognizable, so she could pretend it was brand new… instead, she felt a sort of ancestral kinship with the weapon, and she found that it felt natural in her hand before she even tested it out.

The only noticeable change in the settlement’s routine was a difference in Boyle. Edzie and Stray didn’t think about it the first time it happened – Boyle disappearing after one of Mistra Septa’s sessions, and later declining to join them at the orebarks – but it wasn’t long before a pattern emerged. Edzie was the first to identify its source: several times a week, especially after the Mistras sessions, they saw him keeping company with Varda, a girl Edzie’s age who lived in a dromo to the southeast.

Edzie and Stray couldn’t just ignore this sudden development. One morning, well before the Mistra’s session, Edzie crept up to Boyle’s window and ordered him to come outside so they could talk. He complied, joining Edzie and Stray near the old orebark grove. Once they were there, they harassed Boyle until he opened up about his life over the previous month.

With Stray and Edzie gone, Boyle had grown excruciatingly bored. He occasionally spent some time with Ghada, but their personalities clashed insufferably, so Ghada often used his other social obligations as an excuse to keep Boyle away. Finally, after two weeks of crushing boredom, Boyle got desperate enough that he asked Mistra Septa if she could teach him any new skills or crafts. Mistra Septa suggested he speak to a girl named Varda, one of Mistra Gita’s students. Varda was learning to carve small musical instruments from huskin bone, and she was hoping to learn to play them, as well.

Boyle had made a few visits to Varda’s dromo by the time Stray and Edzie returned, and their relationship was moving quickly. Varda taught Boyle to carve the huskin bone with a tiny metal chisel, and because she was just learning the craft herself, he wasn’t too far behind her skill level. She would carve the outer form of the instrument, a handheld perforated pipe called a pinti, and then Stray would etch designs into its surface. For the next pinti, they would switch jobs. When their hands were tired, they would test out their creations, playing pathetically discordant duets until Varda’s parents told Boyle to go home.

Boyle said Varda was a solitary girl, almost as lonely as he was, but that she was also very calm and patient. She worked hard for her parents, and she was well-respected by Mistras Gita and Septa, and she could fight.

“I hope you can be friends with her,” he said, sounding tentative about the idea. “But for now, she’s my friend, and I don’t think I’m ready to give that up yet.”

“She’d better take good care of you,” Stray said, his tone bittersweet.

“You tell us if she doesn’t,” Edzie said, much less wistful than Stray. “And if we don’t start seeing you more, we’re going to stand guard at her door and drag you away. That redge doesn’t get you all to herself.”

 

As the year cycled into autumn, the Denorians found themselves facing a unique situation. The huskins in the fields on the west side of the settlement had thinned out and moved north, as they were expected to do… normally, this signaled another migration for the tribe, in search of a more fertile site for their settlement. They had been at this site for seven years, after all, and they rarely went more than seven or eight in a single location. Many Denorians sensed that it was time to move on.

But as one herd of huskins left their territory, another had moved in on the east side of the settlement, and it seemed their numbers would support the Denorians for several more years. They might be able to stay at this site twice as long as usual.

There were several meetings to discuss the matter, and Elkansa dragged Edzie to most of them, trying to get her involved in the tribe’s decision-making process. Edzie generally remained silent, trying to pay some attention, though it was a constant struggle. She discovered, in these meetings, that fissures had opened in the tribal leadership. Half of the elders firmly believed that the tribe should leave the settlement, even if they could plausibly remain there. Others, especially those with more practical and bureaucratic specializations, believed they should embrace this chance for stability.

Edzie processed the arguments from each side, albeit with little interest. The argument for leaving: the nomadic cycle of the Denorians was a tradition with deep roots in the Concordance; it kept the tribe hardy and mobile, and it minimized their footprint on the landscape. Yogo, the Elder of Favor, was particularly concerned that the youngest tribesfolk would never know the joy and hardship of relocation, and they would become so used to staying in one place that they might lose their nomadic impulse altogether. Edzie sensed, in these arguments, a deep connection to a sort of willful impracticality, a spiritual need to sand away the tribe’s imperfections with the hard grit of austerity.

The more practical elders, on the other hand – Amiaverta, Hylidae, Idilya, Pattrice – made their judgment on the basis of security, status, and resources, knowing that the tribe would be more prosperous if it remained in place longer, and perhaps settled more deeply. This river settlement, with its fertile expanses and its rushing waters, had already benefitted the Denorians… there had been a spike in population, a drop in preventable mortality, and the tribe’s annual ceremonies had grown in renown among the other seven tribes. This was a prized location, being so close to the Envoclajiz, and the Denorians’ status was rising steadily. Amiaverta pointed out that the largest of the eight tribes, the Ellakay, were the ones who moved the least frequently, being able to draw resources from multiple herds and even some short-term, high-yield farming.

Edzie was there on their last day of deliberation, when the question was finally called. They met in Elder Warryn’s practice stage, a large, square chamber with a crisp wooden floor and walls decorated in huskin fur of various colors. It was far enough into fall that the air was parched with cold, having lost all its summer moisture, and Edzie, standing along the northeast wall, could see her breath diffusing in graceful little puffs. The eight elders were sitting on raised chairs near the center of the room, facing inward in an approximate circle (Elder Warryn and Elder Pattrice were both standing and pacing near their chairs, their anxiety on full display). The other influential tribeswomen, perhaps twenty in all, sat on the floor or leaned against the furs around the interior periphery; Elkansa crouched beside Edzie, balancing on the balls of her feet, her brivsa pulled tight over her ears.

The eight elders had already gone over the arguments that had been raised in the past several meetings, and were visibly impatient, when Elder Keldra said, “Enough, we’ve heard all this already. I call for the question to come before the council, so that we might make our decision.”

Edzie heard this declaration, but didn’t immediately process it. Her eyes were wandering over the huskin furs on the far wall, and her thoughts were on dinner. Elkansa looked up at her, sensed her lack of attention, and hissed at her like a snake, giving her calf a painful pinch.

Elder Pattrice stopped her pacing and glared at Keldra. “The question would already be decided, if you didn’t insist on running off with the menfolk, abandoning the best hope for our tribe.”

There was a whisper of provocation among the bystanders. This was the first time anybody in these discussions had explicitly noted the genders of the elders, though it had been referenced obliquely many times, and had been an undercurrent through the whole discussion. Elder Amiaverta rolled her eyes, but didn’t step in immediately, hoping this tension would work itself out.

“Excuse me. Excuse us.” Elder Warryn’s baritone resonated through the chamber. “What’s between our legs has no bearing on this argument, and if it does, it’s probably a good thing. We travel. We follow the Huskins. That’s who we are. Branap avre valkadsa redsonor.” (“We sing to the herd’s rhythm,” an Old Concordance phrase that a very young Edzie had learned from her mother).

Elder Amiaverta, feeling some equivalence had been established in this exchange, raised her hand to prevent any further escalation. “That’s enough. Everybody here, woman and man alike, is working for the tribe’s best interests. In the meantime, the question has been called, and we must decide. I, for one, tend to agree… your positions are clear, and I haven’t seen any progress made in the last few days of arguing. So, is there anyone among you who has any objection that might reopen this discussion? Are there any more paths left to follow before we call for Dissadae’s favor?”

Silence ensued. Edzie hazarded a look at her mother, and found Elkansa staring forward, her gaze as cold and rigid as steel, trying to see into the impending future.

After a few seconds, Elder Amiaverta confirmed the decision. “Very well. The tally will be taken tomorrow at sunset, in the Central Court. May Dissadae and our fellow Denorians look favorably upon our decision.”
The elders’ messengers canvassed the settlement the next morning, letting the Denorians know that a vote would be taken at sundown. Most of them knew that the issue was under consideration, so they weren’t terribly surprised at the news, but an inevitable buzz of excitement still filled the air. Anticipation and anxiety flitted like birds, alighting on every tongue and ear, as the morning passed into afternoon and the decision approached.

When sunset finally came, a great crowd had gathered in the Central Court, larger than any public decision had drawn in a long time. Several thousand Denorians stood, a collective animal writhing with impatience, the children scampering around their parents’ feet, oblivious to the impending decision. As the sky turned a dusty lavender and warm yellow, and the sun lost itself in the silhouettes of dromos to the west, the eight elders arrived from the four cardinal directions, parting the crowd and congregating in the clearing at the center of the court. They all held their katsuns at their sides, the bare wood and metal reflecting light from the sky. A single, synchronized gesture washed over the crowd: a thousand Denorians drawing up the scarves of their brivsas, hiding their noses and mouths out of deference and respect.

Elder Yogo initiated the ceremony, calling for Dissadae’s blessing and naming all the elders in turn. Each of them touched their scar as their name was spoken, and they remained still and reverent in the few moments that followed. At last, speaking to the crowd as a whole, Elder Amiaverta explained the nature of the issue. There were nods and quiet discussions among the Denorians, but Amiaverta cut them off before the murmur could rise to a roar. She informed them that a vote had been called for, and they were there to make their decision, with the tribe’s blessing.

The procedure for taking the vote should have been quick and painless. The question: would they use that winter to scout for new territory, so they could start moving the following summer? Each elder would plant her katsun in the ground like a stake for “Yes,” or place it back in its sheath for “No.” It was a well-rehearsed, widely-respected method for handling the voting process.

Elders Warryn, Yogo, Keldra, and Lillina drove their katsuns into the ground, moving with the practiced choreography of dancers at the end of a song. Elders Amiaverta, Hylidae, Idilya, and Pattrice sheathed their blades and lowered their heads, knowing they were standing in the face of centuries of tradition.

“The elders are divided,” Amiaverta pronounced. The message was relayed through the crowd, and a rumble of uncertainty followed. Adults began looking around themselves, scanning for some unfamiliar face. Children looked up at their parents, sensing the anxiety in the air, and their parents shushed them.

“Will Dissadae send his voice to resolve our dilemma?” Yogo asked, raising his head and speaking into the air. “We call on you to guide us.”

The conversations vanished from the court, and for an uncanny moment, complete silence and anticipation reigned in the autumn air. This stasis was broken by a shifting at the west side of the court, a swath opening in the crowd of tribespeople. Murmurs and gasps came as whispers, drawing the curious eyes of every Denorian. At length, a figure appeared at the edge of the clearing where the eight elders stood. A low ripple of aversion and distrust rolled over the crowd, but Elder Amiaverta put up her hand, and those closest to the council went mortally quiet.

“Welcome, Deviant,” Elder Yogo said to the newcomer.

The newcomer bowed, arms slack at his sides, and then rose to his full height. He was bare-chested, slathered in mud so thick that you couldn’t see his skin, and his arms were entirely covered in strips of huskin fur, caked with moss and black earth. They were long enough that they obscured his hands completely, and he wore trousers under a greasy, stiff loincloth. Over his face, there was a mask, carved from witherleaf and strapped to a hood, like a brivsa without its scarf. His whole appearance was otherworldly, but the Denorians couldn’t avert their eyes from one particular detail: the wooden mask had two dots and a curved line, clearly denoting an ecstatic smile.

All Denorians knew the stories of the Deviant, the messenger from the earth who resolved decisions for the deadlocked council. Some had seen him passing through the crowd at festivals, picking food from tables, resoundingly ignored by the tribespeople. Only the oldest had ever seen him perform his duty… the last council deadlock had occurred eighty years prior, regarding the punishment of a child who had murdered his brother. In the meantime, the role of the Deviant had passed from one host to another, bestowed by the elders in some closely-guarded secret ritual that prevented anyone – even those who performed it – from knowing the identity of the mask-wearer. The Deviant’s meditations, his rituals and practices and responsibilities, were passed on with the mask.

Accepting his place before the council, the Deviant lurched forward, scrambling into the center of the clearing. He moved with a strange gait, off-balance, swaying so much that it was miraculous he remained upright. When he reached the katsuns planted in the earth, he caressed their handles with his forearm, turning his painted face toward each of the elders as he walked. At last, getting to the end of the line – Elder Lillina, who remained motionless and returned the mask’s impassive stare – he extended his right arm, and a mud-caked hand emerged from the fur sleeve. With one filthy finger, he traced a line up the center of Lillina’s body, over her navel and between her breasts, and touched her chin gently. She didn’t react, and so he returned, satisfied, to the center of the clearing.

With this, he turned to face the elders and stepped back into the crowd. It parted around him, showing its disgust, and in the gap he created, he reached up with his exposed right hand and pushed the mask up a few inches. He clawed something out from under the mask, struggling a moment… those near him saw that it was moving in his hand. Once he had secured it, he held it up, and the Denorians saw that it was a bravadae, a tiny, clever species of songbird that was native to the Pastures. Nobody knew where the Deviant had been concealing it, but it looked frail and unhealthy, batting its wings in a feeble attempt to escape his grip.

He squeezed a little, and then with a grand, theatrical gesture, he released the bird, casting it into the air. The Denorians watched in suspense as it fluttered, chittering in a panic, and convulsed in its attempt to take off. It banked hard, faltered, grazed two of the elders, and seemed like it might find its rhythm and escape the court, but at last, with the whole tribe looking on, its strength gave out, and it flopped to the ground near the eastern edge of the clearing. The little bird remained still for a moment, clearly stunned after its crash landing, and then it tried to kick itself upright.

Before it could even turn over, the Deviant was there, holding Elder Lillina’s katsun. With one fluid slash, he bisected the bird at the shoulders, decapitating it and taking off the top half of its wings and breast. He wiped the katsun blade on his mangy sleeve, and then walked over to Lillina and slipped her weapon back into her sheath.

The Deviant bowed to the elders, and then to the gathered audience, and then he pointed his free hand at the three katsuns that were still sticking in the ground. Satisfied that he had made his point, he slipped into the crowd, leaving along the same path that had brought him there. An inquisitive, aversive murmur followed him, and then silence settled.

“Dissadae has spoken,” Elder Yogo finally said. “The question is declined. We remain another year, and revisit this question next autumn.”