5: First Times

5.1

You need to identify the signals your body gives you that it's trying to release energy, or disperse spirit. They are well-known to those who meditate, to seasoned warriors, to athletes. Your pulse will quicken, you will become conscious of your breathing. As soon as you recognize these signals, you need to find a way to stop whatever pattern is building inside you.

All feelings occur in your body. That's what you're sensing, what you're trying to monitor. All actions and intentions, on the other hand, all acts of will... you start those in your head. Starting today, you will never treat a thought or a decision as something that happens... it always needs a subject, and for our purposes, that subject is you. Your body, on the other hand... you can treat that as an object that's connected to you, a surface that you're always up against, your field of input and output that connects you to the world.

For what you're trying to do, the key is to use your head... use your thoughts, your ability to execute acts of will... to interrupt the processes that occur in your body. Your mind has an incredible ability to disrupt the unruly energy as it flows through your body and tries to disperse itself into your words and behaviors.

We'll learn to achieve this through a Caesura practice that goes back to the earliest studies of our Order. There are two things that we all learn to do: we learn to find our bodies' tonic, its base rhythm, whose variations can tell us a great deal about our mood and awareness. Second, we each develop a single word... a focus word... to amplify and disrupt that baseline resonance, so we can institute our own rhythm in its place.

I am a student of Viscitae, the avatar of silence, so I can teach you to find your tonic. This will be a great boon in your quest to control your emotions. However, I haven't the time, or the experience, to teach the other aspects, so your focus word will remain out of reach for now. Perhaps some day, you will know our Order well enough that you can find one.

Stray went to Mistra Septa’s sessions throughout the winter, learning various disciplines and techniques to better manage his temper. It was hard for Edzie to gauge his progress… Boyle and Ghada were the most common audience (and targets) of his eruptions, and they avoided complaining to Edzie, not wanting to cause trouble between Elkansa’s children. Edzie’s only indications were occasional, fleeting moments when Stray seemed to be wrestling, silently, with some inner beast, his gaze smoky and disturbed, focused intently on nothing.

Elkansa had no intention to replace Edzie’s custom-made katsun, but she devised another solution to the loss, both a consolation to her daughter and an excuse for her own self-indulgence. She would have Rodra fashion her a new katsun, she decided, and Edzie could inherit her current weapon when it was replaced. It was a hardy instrument with more than a decade of nicks taken out of its shaft, balanced for an adult, fit for a soldier.

Elkansa made this request to Rodra herself, and to Elder Idilya, who handled inter-tribal trade and distribution. The tribe would gladly mediate the exchange: Rodra would create the weapon as a tithe to the collective, and Elkansa would take on tribal labor to earn ownership of the new katsun. There was always a surplus of necessary labor – goods to be delivered, structures to be maintained, food to be prepared, artifacts to be crafted – and most of Elder Idilya’s days were spent apportioning these jobs to tribeswomen who needed capital for their own sundry uses.

Idilya delegated Elkansa the task of traveling to Resine, a small city 200 kilometers to the west. Resine was situated along the Vertacross Road, halfway to Horizon, the gateway to the Pastures. Because of its large population of ex-tribespeople and Concordance kin, Resine was a healthy hub for Concordance trade: with Horizon, with the River Kingdoms, and between the various tribes themselves. Elkansa was to bear as many materials and deliveries as she could carry, and a sizeable amount of currency, and distribute them to the tribe’s merchants and contacts. She was also assigned to retrieve several shipments of raw materials, tools, and personal artifacts, fulfilling various Denorians' requests for supplies and imported goods.

Elkansa had never particularly liked the city. It seemed too interdependent, too fetid and obscure, to be anything but a suffocating offense to her sensibilities. This trip, however, she could share her misery: Stray and Edzie were finally old enough to take the trip with her, and they were ready to see something of the world outside the settlement. The journey would take them ten days each way, and they would remain in Resine for three days and three nights to handle their errands. Rodra would have the new katsun ready for them when they returned, and as a favor to Elkansa, she offered to refinish the older katsun, as well.

By the time Elkansa was ready to take her trip, it was mid-winter, only a few weeks from Stray’s birthday. He realized he would be spending it on the road, or in an unfamiliar city, and was wracked with mixed emotion: curiosity and excitement for the drama of travel, but also regret that he wouldn’t be able to celebrate with Boyle or Ghada. Elkansa, who didn’t put much stock in birthdays, reassured him that it would make it more memorable, and that he could celebrate with his friends when they got back at the end of the journey.

It took Elkansa a single busy day to equip for travel. She packed up her old katsun, noting that this would be its last adventure in her service, and she folded and bound two outfits for each family member. She retrieved her cargo – a very heavy pack consisting of four smaller, tightly-organized parcels – from Elder Idilya’s private storage, and she made a special request, while she was there, to borrow three traveling coats with heavy cold-weather brivsas, accoutrements lined with leather and Huskin fur, better suited to longer journeys.

When the three Denorians set out to traverse the Pastures, it was a frigid winter morning. The weather along the Prospect River tended to swing between oppressively overcast and blindingly sunny, and this was one of the latter days, where the light from the sky cut through the little clouds of fog that issued from the travelers’ mouths. They walked southwest, crossed the Splitmouth where it met the Prospect, and entered Docktown. Edzie saw Pithri Afekt through her window as they passed and tried to wave at her, but Pithri wasn’t looking. Elkansa remained fixed and purposeful, nodding cordially to fishermen but maintaining a protective aura of privacy around herself and her bundled-up children.

In Docktown, they hired an oarsman – a greasy, pock-faced teenager with a jaunty smile – to ferry them across the Prospect River. He left them on the steep southern bank and waved to them as he departed, and they climbed and scrambled over wild earth, through brambles and dried-out underbrush, until at last they emerged from between two trees and found themselves at the edge of the Cragstep Road, wide as three Denorian dromos, trampled and frosted to the soundness of mountain stone. There, they paused, Elkansa’s comforting hand on their shoulders: Edzie on her left, Stray on her right. Edzie noted that this was the first time she had left the settlement to the south, and soon, she would be further from home than she’d ever been.

The Cragstep passed up and down mild inclines, past big empty fields on the left side, always keeping within hearing distance of the Prospect on the right. The troupe passed a few groups of travelers going the other way… pilgrims and traders, with small horses pulling wagons of supplies. Each time they saw a pack animal – a horse, a donkey, an old southern cow pulling a cart – Stray stared at it, enamored, wishing he could stop and pet it and hear the noises it made. Elkansa kept the group moving hastily, not wanting to get into the habit of sightseeing, so they passed one unfamiliar sight after another, and Stray had to content himself with Edzie’s clumsy attempts to impersonate the animals' voices.

Edzie and Stray each carried one of the parcels of cargo, and Elkansa carried the other two, along with their luggage. They made excellent time, and the first night, at the tail end of dusk, they reached the fork in the Cragstep where one branch led north along the Tenebre River. Edzie recognized the spot from Mistra Septa’s maps: this road, to the north, eventually led to the Hunter’s Roost, the secondary Denorian outpost where Bellaryn was being trained. Unfortunately, Elkansa and the children were continuing west.

There was a small inn at the fork in the Cragstep, and the three Denorians slept there, soaking up the warmth around a small hearth in a tiny room. Elkansa slept in the bed, and Stray and Edzie shared a large fur rug next to the fire.

The travel was rougher on the second day, descending a rocky slope that threatened the children’s balance. Edzie was shocked at how much exertion it required going down a rough incline, and she pitied the pilgrims who had to cajole their carts up the hill in the opposite direction. They camped out that night, making a small fire in a clearing along the road, and another small caravan joined them, a gaggle of pilgrims from Tarrytoil who were eager to trade food with Elkansa and bring some variety to their meals. By the end of the third day, they crossed into the territory of another Concordance tribe, the Aerimus, who were reputed to be the first of the eight tribes.

Travel was easier in Aerimus territory… the tribe had posted guard stations along the Cragstep Road, and the women who staffed these stations were kindly and talkative. The Aerimus allowed a few semi-permanent travelers’ encampment sites along the road, and these were managed by experienced traders and explorers, well-stocked with meat and lean-to’s for sleeping. For three nights, Elkansa took advantage of these waystations, accepting the company and resources of a dozen or so other travelers with dignified gratitude. Elkansa was clearly more bothered by the austerity of the travel arrangements than her children, but she bore the discomfort with absolute, stone-cold stoicism, so Stray and Edzie knew not to complain. They remained in high spirits, kept warm by the fire, surrounded by strangers, their adventure now fully underway.

In the early afternoon of the fifth day, the three Denorians reached the Range River, a swollen artery of freezing water that plowed through the center of the Pastures. The Range was the main stem of the river system that nourished all eight of the Concordance tribes... the Denorians' river, the Prospect, was one of its larger branches. Here, where the rivers met, the banks faltered on the east side, forming an area of wetlands as large as Edzie and Stray’s settlement, and the three travelers struggled across it, their feet making nausea-inducing noises in the caked mud of the main road. To Edzie, this looked familiar – she had occasionally explored the chartreuse marshland south of the Denorian settlement – but Stray had never seen a landscape like this, a fecund green ocean, chunky with floating wood and algae and lillypads, presided over by massive trees standing perfectly straight, like the Witherleafs back home.

The three travelers had passed through the swamp by dusk – much to Stray’s relief – and reached Thwarted Crossing, a massive bridge that had been half-built by early settlers, but had been abandoned with an uncrossable gap in the middle. At the foot of the bridge, protected from the weather by its wooden frame, there was a busy outpost – Thwartopia – where travelers could rest, eat, and take a ferry across the Range. Elkansa called for their day to end, and they slept an anxious nine hours, dreaming of muddy water and trees that blocked out the sun.

Elkansa, Edzie, and Stray took the first ferry the next morning, and by the light of dawn, they surveyed the west bank of the Range. It was shockingly different from the previous territory… the bank was a rock face, too sheer to climb, too hard to support even the sparsest of vegetation. It took half the day to walk around it to the south, where the incline was more gentle, and where perhaps fifteen different parties of travelers could be seen climbing a network of narrow, rocky trails. The Denorians reached the summit of the ridge and could see for leagues ahead: a harsh, irregular landscape of anemic grassland, supporting only an occasional tree, sculpted into folds and ridges and outcroppings by the rough hands of time.

There was a road to follow, at least: the Downcross Follow, a dry, flat bed of gravel that made sounds like eggshells breaking as the travelers walked. They gathered their patience and pressed onward, sometimes sheltered beneath a ridge, sometimes making a wide swerve around a bluff or a fissure. As the day wore on, they found the landscape beautiful, in its stern way, but absolutely unchanging. Stray lost his patience by the early afternoon, and Elkansa had to institute a measure of deterrence: any time he asked how far they had to go, or how long until they stopped, she would take a small object from her luggage and add it to his. By the time they reached an appropriate campsite, Stray was carrying most of the group’s personal effects.

The next day – the seventh of their journey – the road sidled up alongside the Downcross, a branch of the Burburine River that wove playfully – almost gracefully – through the rocky landscape. The stream made the travel more pleasant, as Edzie and Stray could walk along its bank and listen to its whispers, but it was still a monotonous stretch of landscape, feeling more gray than green, and in the depths of the cold, there weren’t many other travelers passing. In the early afternoon, the Downcross Follow converged with its twin, the Upcross Follow, to become the Vertacross Road, a minor commercial route that would eventually lead to Resine and the Settlers Road. The three tribespeople were lucky enough to find a homestead that night, a residence on a small farm that had an annex set aside for guests and travelers.

The next day, the eighth, was more of the same scenery, except that they started seeing small herds of sheep being corralled by their shepherds. Elkansa, Edzie, and Stray were tired… tired of this humorless landscape, tired of carrying parcels for people they didn’t know… so, to Stray’s dismay, they pressed on as far as they could, covering perhaps a dozen more kilometers than usual. At last, shivering and shuffling under a merciless moon, they reached a small village dominated by an inn, run by a family of shepherds with a merchant son.

They set out early again the next day, and to their chagrin, that small, nameless village seemed to have broken a seal on civilization: they passed through another village by late morning, and a larger town by mid-afternoon, providing a nice spot to stop and take a meal. In the late afternoon, they passed through another village, this one awkwardly situated on a steep hill. They didn’t bother stopping – Elkansa’s indomitable work ethic set a fire at their backs – and finally, as the daylight was fading, they neared the summit of the hill they were climbing. At its peak, the road turned sharply left, and the grassy earth gave way to a hazardous drop-off. There, the three travelers found themselves overlooking an altogether alien sight: two rivers converging, their rendezvous encrusted with a gritty texture of streets and buildings, as small as sand at this distance, with the lamps and hearth-fires just beginning to light. Elkansa guessed that it was another ten kilometers out, but they might reach it that night, if they pushed themselves.

That, she said, is the city of Resine.

Elkansa woke Edzie and Stray uncomfortably early the next morning. They had not had the most hospitable night... not only had they gotten in very late, but their host – a sister-in-law of one of the Denorian tribeswomen – didn't have much room to spare, so they had slept on the wooden floor of a store-room in her house. Of course, in their excitement, Edzie and Stray had also stayed awake for much of the night, whispering about all their new experiences. When they woke to Elkansa lifting them to their feet, they were struck with poisonous annoyance, and it took a full half hour to dissipate.

Edzie remembered, the previous night, her palpable exhaustion as they trudged down into the main street of Resine. Inside the city limits, the gravel of Vertacross Road gave way to cobblestones, and rows of small houses floated by on either side, glowing with an invigorating inner light. Edzie, at the time, had been struck by the regularity of the community – the road was so straight, with such an even slope and contour, and the houses seemed to be standing at attention, spaced out at a perfectly regular interval. Aside from their regularity, they didn't look too exotic to her eyes... they basically looked like Denorian dromos, squat and fashioned of earth and wooden supports, though a few were much larger. She wondered if there would be something more interesting to see this morning.

Edzie and Stray made a hasty effort to clean themselves up, brushing off their clothes and drawing water from a basin that had been supplied to them. Satisfied that they wouldn't trigger Elkansa's rebuke, they entered the main gathering room of the house, and found Elkansa and Esterelle – their host – eating a breakfast of bread, cheese, and a pungent soup with the taste of fermented berries. Edzie and Stray both appreciated the bread, which was softer inside than their Denorian blusterwheat loaves. Stray couldn't endure the potent soup, so after Edzie devoured her own, she ate his portion, as well.

Elkansa explained that she was going to take care of her errands on her own – the children would slow her down, and probably preferred to rest after their travels – and she would return late in the evening. In the meantime, Edzie and Stray were remanded to Esterelle's care. She told them that she would show them around the city, eliciting a theatrical display of excitement.

The street outside Esterelle's house, which had been so quiet the previous night, was now alive with pedestrians. Edzie's observations of the previous night were confirmed: these were essentially Denorian dromos, but with a wider range of sizes, and with a layout that seemed so perfectly regular that it was downright unsettling. Each house had a designated space, suggested by its proximity to its neighbors, and nearly every one of these spaces included a small private garden and a few personal belongings. Vertacross Road, which was known as Shephardhome Street here in the city limits, was a hazardous channel of horses and carts, families walking hand-in-hand, and merchants carrying precarious stacks of merchandise on their backs and shoulders. The traffic only slowed at the edge of the street, where some of the merchants hovered and harassed passers-by. For a few minutes, Edzie found the whole thing dizzying, to the point where she wanted to close her eyes and sit down on the cobblestones.

Luckily, Estrelle kept Edzie and Stray in her grip, holding one of their hands in each of hers, hustling them along in the flow of foot-traffic. Edzie marveled that she always seemed to find a gap between other pedestrians, as if she had a repulsive magnetic field around her, such that the children were never quite in danger of being trampled. She wasn't repellent, certainly... in fact, the very opposite: she was a charismatic young adult, probably near Genefre's age, with creamy skin and thick sculpted hair that Edzie tended to associate with foreigners. If anything, Edzie thought, she should be attracting people, not repelling them.

At the same time that she sensed this quality in Estrelle, Edzie looked around the road at her feet, and discovered a whole separate, discreet world below the adults' eye level. The cobblestones were dry from the cold, smeared with a frosty stew of litter and excrement, and above this bottom layer, she caught a glimpse of an inconspicuous ecosystem: the scampering feet of a pair of children, a stray animal staring at her from behind a wagon wheel, piles of produce stacked on palettes for display to potential customers. Edzie twitched, momentarily, receiving a vivid mental image of these children and small animals being crushed, these pieces of fruit being knocked over by a careless boot. She was baffled by their elusive durability, but didn't have time to reflect on it... the scenery above her was changing, and she discovered a whole new milieu to absorb.

Edzie could see, now, that the familiarity of the houses in the previous neighborhood – their similarity to the dromos of the Concordance tribes – was purely incidental. They were now passing near the center of the city, leading to a dramatic change of scenery: the buildings here were many times the height of an adult (as large as mountains, it seemed to Edzie and Stray) and they were made from stone blocks larger than a human head. They varied in color, from the warm brown of clay and brick to the stern gray of granite, and to Edzie, these buildings, pushed up against one another into a single jagged facade, looked like a tawny mineral rainbow, stitched together with florid decorative wooden trim.

Estrelle had pulled Stray and Edzie over to the side of the road; now, in a stationary pocket in the foot traffic, she spoke to them about their well-being in the city. She said that they had just come from Shephardhome, a neighborhood of Concordance relatives and immigrants, which was a bit more gentle and friendly. But now, she said, they were passing into the city proper, a busy commercial district, and Stray and Edzie would have to be very careful to stay close to her, and not to talk to anyone... if someone seemed to want very badly to talk to them, she explained, it was probably a sign that they were dangerous.

Edzie made a show of listening, but she only gave Estrelle the slightest part of her attention... mostly, her mind was on her surroundings.

Estrelle asked if there was anything either of them wanted to see. Edzie said she just wanted to see the houses and shops. Stray reflected a little longer, and then asked an unexpected question. “Do a lot of travelers come through here on the way to Horizon?”

Estrelle was confused by the question, but recovered quickly. “Yes, if they come from the Delta, or out east, where you folks live.”

“Can we see where the travelers would go, if they were heading in that direction?”

“Well, they would probably take this very road... the Vertacross... right through the center of town here, and then leave on the west side, where the markets are held. If they stopped over, they would stay in one of the inns... those are all in this part of town, actually, down those streets behind you.”

Stray looked up, his eyes alight with awe and curiosity. Finally, he said, “Can we see those parts of town? The inns, and the road that goes west?”

“That sounds like as good as plan as any,” Estrelle answered. “We can go to the markets, if you can make it that far without getting tired, and then we can eat supper at one of the taverns on the way home. We can do all that, and still get home before Elkansa, I think.”

And so they continued, traveling slowly enough that Edzie could look around, but quickly enough that she always felt like she was falling behind Estrelle. For a few blocks, they stayed near the north side of the street, and the buildings – vertical walls of a density and impermeability that Edzie had never imagined – seemed poised to fall on their heads. Every time they passed under a wooden sign, larger in both dimensions than she was tall, she would cower involuntarily. She caught sight, as well, of narrow corridors and obscure crawlspaces, some cleaving between two buildings like a fissure from a butcher knife, others burrowing into the stone exteriors, venting stale air and traces of lamplight. If it wasn’t for Estrelle’s insistence, she would have stopped at every one and tried to see inside.

Presently, they veered left into an open square at an intersection, heading straight toward the Vertacross just south of their position. Here, out of the shadow of the buildings, Edzie’s focus shifted to the people flowing around her. She was struck, first, by the sheer variety, this blossoming garden of distractions. She had never realized how narrow the Denorian fashion sense had been: its simple, snug silhouettes, wool and leather rarely bleached or dyed, were a badge of ascetic honor for her people. Here, there were few leggings and overcoats that weren’t, at the very least, bleached a pale yellow or a porcelain gray, and many were dyed in reds and yellows, turquoise, ochre, lavender, and emerald. In the cold weather, most villagers – perhaps two adults in three – wore headwear, and among the simple caps and coifs, there were some genuinely exotic headdresses of folded felt, fiery plumage, and dried flowers. The brivsa, so ubiquitous in every Concordance settlement, was here a rare and distinguishing feature, clearly indicating a tribeswoman submerged in the cosmopolitan throng.

They passed through the northeastern section of downtown Resine, its central court surrounded by hotels, taverns, and restaurants, and crossed the southern branch of the Burburine River by way of a large paved bridge, keeping to the right side to avoid wagons and carriages. This was called the Durnbray Bridge, Estrelle explained, and it connected the hospitality sector in the northeast with the founders’ quarter just across the river. Here, Edzie found, there was more generous space, a network of plazas and spacious, straight city byways. Curiously, despite the open air, it seemed even more alien than the commercial district… there was no flora anywhere in view, and all the earth was surfaced with gravel and concrete. The concrete and marble served as the tissue between the buildings, which were freestanding and conspicuously self-conscious, contrived shapes that folded around themselves and protruded in angles and ridges. Edzie stared at each building in turn, getting lost in its architecture, forcing Estrelle to drag her along.

These strange, conspicuous buildings – mostly administrative plazas, theaters, monuments, and temples – eventually gave way to a few kilometers of high-end housing, large white villas and bungalows perched on terraces and protected by stone walls. Here, the street seemed fully dissociated from the architecture: the foot traffic on the Vertacross was still a medley of merchants and couriers and laborers with their animals and children, and these were visibly excluded from the housing partitions, locked outside of closed gates and wooden doors. At last, as Edzie was growing tired of the pristine repetition of these ivory houses, the neighborhood changed again, transitioning into a crowded commercial landscape.

Of all the sections Edzie had seen of downtown, this seemed the most familiar from her storybooks. It looked like the market in her settlement, except multiplied several times in area, and many more in liveliness and density. Swirling around her, flanking the channel and splitting off into eddies and vortexes, merchants called out names of produce and supplies, grasping at pedestrians' sleeves as they passed by. They passed whole blocks that were entirely taken up by long tables and vast towers of vegetables and handmade furniture; then, the next block would be a canyon of brick storefronts, boutiques draped in tapestries and illustrations of specialty products. Estrelle thoughtfully asked her if she wanted to go inside any of them, but she was so overwhelmed that she couldn't formulate a response.

When Estrelle slowed down to wander through the market stalls, Stray urged her on, eager to see, at the very least, the western edge of town. Estrelle marveled at her charges' reserves of energy, but she pressed on, and eventually the merchants thinned out and gave way to a quieter residential neighborhood. Finally, at the western edge of Resine, they came to a public park along the Burburine River, complete with a four-story observation tower perched above a massive watermill that provided grinding and textile services to the workshops in the southeast.

When they reached the top of the observation tower, exposed to the piercing wind and shivering in their winter coats, Stray got to look over the road heading west. He surveyed the woodlands that clung to the banks of the Burburine, and he saw a tiny groove in the distance, the only visible trace of the Settlers' Road that led north to Horizon. Finally, with this, he pronounced himself satisfied. The three of them lingered for a few minutes in the shelter of the watermill, and then they returned to the road and started the walk back to Estrelle's house.

The walk through the cold had drained the party's energy and enthusiasm, so that they were reduced to sullen wraiths by the time they crossed the Durnbray Bridge. Their dinner – a generous portion of arriboar meat, served up at an inn called the Swollen Withers – refreshed them significantly, though it filled Edzie to the point of discomfort. Finally, as the dusk became darkness, they returned to Estrelle's little village dromo. They lit the thresh-lamps, put a small log in the hearth, and retired to the gathering room to talk about the city while they waited for Elkansa.

Edzie was barely conscious by the time she and Stray headed for their ad hoc quarters in the store-room. As she drifted into sleep, she saw the smooth, sculpted, and assembled cityscapes of Resine, passing like firelight inside her closed eyes. Her last feeling, before she departed the waking world, was one of blissful approval.


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.”

 


5.3

“So, last time we met, you tried to find the natural tone in this space and reproduce it with your own voice. Do you think you can remember the pitch you found?”

“I don’t know. Is it the same?”

“The same? I don’t know. If you want to try to find the same tone in this space, and match it, you can do that. What I’m asking is that you reproduce the same pitch you had last session, as closely as you can.”

“Will you know if I’m right?”

“Yes. That’s one of the basic skills you develop when you follow the paths… I can remember the exact pitch, or as close as the human ear can get to it.”

Stray nodded, closed his eyes, and listened to the atmosphere, just as he had earlier that week. He was patient… waiting a few seconds, and then another thirty, and then longer than he cared to measure. Eventually, he began to hum, trying to let the air escape his lungs at the same rate that the breeze brushed against his ears. He hummed the tone until he was entirely out of breath.

“Did I get it?”

“No. It was more like this…” Septa hummed, just above Stray’s threshold for hearing. Her tone was a few measures deeper than his. “Now listen again, and try to find that tone again.”

Stray listened outside himself, let his breath even out, and prepared himself for the slow exhalation. Before he could reproduce the pitch, he stopped. “No, I can’t. It’s different. Maybe it’s the weather, or something.”

“Good,” Septa said. “That’s fair, I think. The fact is, you’re never just hearing the outside world… you’re also hearing your own resonance, and the two are interfering with one another. Hopefully, with a little work, you can find a tone that you keep entirely for yourself, that you can always find, and it can be your tonic for gauging the harmonics of your body and the world around you.”

“Okay. So what do I do?”

“Think about what you’re hearing, and think about that tone from last session, that I just reproduced for you. And now… triangulate. Look for something else, that gives sense to both of the other two. I’m guessing it’ll take you a few sessions, but you can go ahead and work on it. We have as much time as we need.”

 

Edzie turned fourteen that autumn, and though she was still a year away from her initiation, it started inhabiting her idle thoughts. She was fully proficient in the forms now, and she could fight competently enough that she held her own in sparring matches, even against her mother. Her martial techniques served as the backbone to her social life... when Stray was attending Mistra Septa's private lessons, and Boyle was with Varda, Edzie would drift over to practice with Bellaryn and Ghada, both of whom had a great deal to teach Edzie in the subtle art of katsun-fighting.

Stray had made great strides in calming his temper... since his first lesson with Mistra Septa, he had only ignited a few flare-ups with his classmates. The Mistra was now teaching him some more advanced methods of mediating between his mind and body: meditation inspired by the Caesurite teachings, including chanting, controlled breathing, and low-frequency acoustic sensitivity. Stray showed significant aptitude in these areas, and after a while, Mistra Septa told him he might benefit from some high-intensity physical discipline, so that he might learn more muscular and respiratory awareness.

“How about katsun fighting?” Stray suggested, with very little introspection. “Could I learn that stuff and practice the forms at the same time?”

Mistra Septa was pleased with this response, however predictable it was. “I think that would work nicely. We just need to get you a specialized trainer... luckily, I think we both know one who would be happy to take you on.”

Thus began Stray's second schedule of private lessons: twice-weekly sessions with Mistra Eryn, the soldier-guru Caesurite monk who maintained a pavilion-practice-space in the center of the settlement. For the past fifteen years, Eryn had instructed the Denorians in philosophy, mathematics, and military tactics. Before becoming a Mistra, she had studied in several schools of arms in the River Kingdoms, and she had led a detachment of Protectorate in Bhijanica for nearly a decade. She ranked among the greatest warriors in the tribe, and was certainly the fiercest and most feared of its non-natives.

Eryn spent her first few sessions with Stray forcing him to perform very basic balancing and stretching exercises, doing her best to purge him of various bad habits that Edzie had inadvertently taught him. Once she was satisfied that he was in rudimentary control of his limbs and center of gravity, she started taking him through the sixteen traditional Denorian forms, impressing upon him the primal tactile-acoustic nature of the parry, the thrust, and the slash. Together, Eryn and Septa inducted Stray into an arcane discipline of rhythm, consciousness, and mediated instinct. He eventually realized, in a gradual private revelation, that they were grooming him.

Edzie often resigned herself to tracking Stray down across the settlement, and in those days, her search often brought her to Mistra Eryn's practice-space. This happened on a frigid, overcast day that winter, shortly before the new year: Edzie finished the final chapter in one of Mistra Septa's textbooks, and found herself mentally numb and physically restless. Putting on a woolen shawl and tying her heavy brivsa over her hair and shoulders, she set off north. In a few minutes, she had crossed the half-frozen Splitmouth, passed the old orebark grove, and crossed into the prairie around Mistra Eryn's practice-space.

When Edzie arrived, the pavilion was silent... no squeaking footwraps on the wooden floor, no clatters of katsun or war-cries issuing from the entrance. Edzie stuck her head inside, and saw Mistra Eryn in the center of the space, clad in wool and boundeer leather, executing a series of maneuvers with glacial precision. She was using a western-style sword with a short hilt and a long blade, and it rotated in her palm in a way that Edzie had never seen with a katsun.

“Hello, Edzie. What are you doing all the way out here?” Eryn didn't break her rhythm to speak to Edzie... in fact, as far as Edzie could tell, she hadn't even looked in her direction.

Edzie took a step inside. “Entren atrista bransa Dissadae, sevastrin vastris. Hello, Mistra Eryn. I was just bored, and hoping to catch Stray at his lesson.”

“Oh, he's already finished. He and Ghada went off somewhere... probably to Ghada's dromo, to practice.”

A small knot appeared in Edzie's stomach, but she kept it contained. “Oh, right. Thanks. How are his lessons going?”

Eryn executed two slashes at chest level, and then seemed to let the sword fall, but when it swung downward in her palm, she simply caught it in a reverse-grip. “He's doing very well. I think the meditations are helping him a great deal, even with the katsun. He'll be a worthy match for you soon, Edzie, we'll see to it.”

Edzie nodded, feeling impatient. “Sounds good, Mistra. I'm going to go see what they're doing. Thanks!” With this, she turned and departed the pavilion, not feeling it necessary to repeat the blessing. Ghada's dromo was just a bit to the north, a couple minutes at a jog. She had no reason to hurry... logically, she was aware of this... but a gnawing annoyance, a sort of lurid suspicion, drove her to haste. She was at the entrance to Ghada's dromo in a fifth the time it normally took her to travel that distance.

Edzie knocked at the door politely, and poked her head in. The interior was submerged in shadow, still and frigid with the winter air, and the only light came from the direction of Ghada's room. There were quiet sounds coming from that direction, the shuffling of limbs or linens. Edzie marched in that direction, trying to decide whether to make a noise or appear in sudden, terrifying silence.

When she entered Ghada's room, conspicuously and without preamble, she found Stray and Ghada intertwined in the center of the room... fully clothed, to her relief, but obviously not sure how to react to her intrusion. Ghada was standing very close behind Stray, one hand on his waist and the other on his shoulder, adjusting his posture and helping him lower his center of gravity. Stray was holding a practice katsun in a guard position, approximately at the level of his solar plexus, pointed at some imaginary opponent in front of him. Stray was clearly making an effort to concentrate on the weapon... Ghada, on the other hand, looked petrified with guilt.

Luckily, he recovered quickly. “Uh, hi, Edzie. Never one to announce your presence, are you?”

“Must have slipped my mind,” Edzie said. “And what is it that you two are so focused on that you couldn't hear me coming down the hall?”

“Ghada's helping me square up my stance,” Stray said innocently.

“Very nice,” Edzie said. “But you've got one of the best katsun teachers in the tribe giving you private lessons. Why trouble Ghada?” She directed a raise of her eyebrow at Ghada as she spoke.

“Mistra Eryn says she's tired of drilling me on the basics, so Ghada's help is welcome.”

“Fine, then. You look like you're doing pretty well.” She walked past him, giving his katsun a tap when she came close enough. “Hey, Stray, you should head home. Mom could use some help with dinner, and I wanted a few minutes with Ghada, too.”

Stray scowled. “She does NOT need help. It's still the middle of the day. I'll stay a little longer, and you and Ghada can practice.”

“No, Stray, start back. It'll take a while to get home, and you... might distract us.”

“Oh, come on, Edzie. I just got here.”

Ghada rolled his eyes and intervened. “No, it's okay, Stray. Head back, and we'll work on you some more later in the week. I'll come over to your dromo, and Edzie can't kick you out. I guess she and I have something to talk about, though.”

Stray nodded, his face skeptical. He placed the katsun gently against the wall, gave a half-hearted wave, and walked out into the shadows of the hallway.

“Okay, Edzie, let's hear it.”

“SHH.” Edzie waved to quiet Ghada, and then, keeping low and quiet, she followed after Stray, trailing him all the way to the front entrance and watching him depart down the path toward the Splitmouth. Finally, satisfied that he had started home in earnest, she returned to Ghada's room.

Ghada was standing by his cot, arms folded. “Come on, Edzie. If Stray says he's going home, he may as well already be there. He's not like you, sneaking around and being nosy.”

“Well, I just wanted to make sure,” Edzie said. “Don't need him hearing us talk about this stuff, and he certainly doesn't need to learn about it from a rake like you.”

“What stuff, Edzie?”

“Come on, Ghada. I'm not stupid.”

“I know, but I want to hear you say it.”

Edzie groaned. “You know... coupling. I mean, it's fine for you, but Stray's too young.” She was met with silence, so she repeated herself. “Seriously. TOO YOUNG. Twelve is too young.”

Ghada laughed at Edzie's sudden maternal turn. “Come on, Edzie, you're only a year older. I started learning when I was around his age... maybe even younger. And for me, it was with a girl of, maybe, three, four years older, who was a cousin of mine by marriage. At least, with me, you'd know he was learning from someone you all could trust.”

“Quite a story,” Edzie said, slightly uncomfortable with this rush of information. “So were you planning on teaching him... the whole spectrum? All the way to...”

“No, no, of course not! Come on, Edzie, I'm not a complete scoundrel... even I haven't done that yet. Just the first things.” He sat on the cot, and Edzie joined him, listening to him with disguised fascination. He was trying his best to be open about the topic, despite its sensitivity. “You know, kissing, flirting, hands, mouths.”

Edzie winced a bit at this, and Ghada tried to wave it away. “Or, maybe even less. But he's not that young, and you're not his mother. In fact, I doubt Elkansa would even have a problem with it.”

“You're probably right,” Edzie said, “but I still don't think he's ready. When he is ready, I think he'll show it by going outside our circle of friends, and finding somebody who's not knee-deep in all our business. It would be better that way, anyway.”

“I don't know,” Ghada said. “I wouldn't want to start trouble between you two, but I think Stray might already know what's on my mind. If he comes to me on his own, why should I go out of my way to reject him and hurt his feelings? I think you're making the whole thing even worse by trying to baby him.”

Edzie scowled at this, but held her tongue. “Well, I'm not interested in Stray having some tryst if he can't even keep it secret from me, and if it's between you and him, I would know about it. In a second.” She glanced at the katsun leaning against Ghada's wall, and then at his hand, resting on the cot.

Edzie was about to speak, and then she found her head swimming. She knew this feeling from other encounters around the settlement... close passes near some of the older boys and girls in the Mistras' sessions, furtive thoughts triggered by the contour of Sola's waist or the sweaty, suggestive smell of the Denorian boys as they practiced their forms... it was a profoundly physical sensation, welling up from her gut, into her chest, and forcing the blood into her head and her loins. She had never found Ghada particularly attractive, even as the rest of the settlement swooned over him, but now, sitting beside him, watching him torture himself over his attraction to Stray, she felt herself dissolving into a warm, sensual reverie.

Ghada was looking at her, and she felt caught between paralyzing anxiety and inscrutable ambition. Finally, in characteristic form, she followed the latter. “Well, Ghada, if you need somebody to teach, you can always teach me.” Having stepped off the precipice, she went the extra step, taking his hand in hers.

Ghada was slow to look at her, and he held her gaze for a considerable span, perhaps a full minute. She kept her expression absolutely neutral, her only defense against hyperventilating, or choking with the tension. Finally, he started leaning in, awkward as only a fourteen-year old can be, and as he drew close to her, casting his eyes downward, he said, “I hope Stray's okay with this.”

Their first experiments were charmingly innocent and earnest. Ghada's lips moved softly over Edzie's, and Edzie's hands explored cautiously, brushing over Ghada's chest and ribs and shoulders. Following her hesitation, she took his hands and invited him to paw at her stomach and back, allowing him to make only the slightest contact with her still-developing breasts and her sinewy legs. The sensation that lingered longest, for Edzie, was the smell of his breath, which Ghada kept as flawless as the rest of him.

They only spent a handful of minutes in this experiment, and afterwards, they made a fire in the small stone hearth in the gathering room. They huddled there for much longer... close to an hour... with Edzie's arm around Ghada's back, and Ghada's head leaning against Edzie's clavicle. They talked about the tribe, and about Stray, and about Ghada's mother, and finally about Edzie and Ghada themselves.

“I don't think we make that much sense together,” Edzie observed, not sure whether she was joking.

“I don't know,” Ghada said. “I mean, I think I could make a case for it.”

“What's that?” Edzie said, captivated and curious.

“Well, I don't think either of us are looking for long-term arrangements, right? I'm not planning to tether myself to one woman... I don't think I need it like some men do... and you don't strike me as the type to start a family and build a household around yourself. In fact, I'd be surprised if you ever took a spouse at all.”

Edzie laughed. “So we're a good match because neither of us wants to be matched with anyone?”

“Well, there's more than that. I may not be very domestic, but I am loyal to the tribe. You could use someone like that... a little bit of an anchor, so you don't just wander off as soon as you get bored.”

I already am bored, Edzie thought, but kept it to herself.

“I mean...” Ghada continued, “you're already better-off than your mom, letting a guy like me get so close to you.”

Edzie was struck by this observation, and almost jerked out from under Ghada. “What do you mean by that?”

“You know, your mom and her romantic habits.” Ghada looked up at Edzie for some acknowledgment. “No? You don't know? I mean, it's pretty well-understood around here that your mother has a very particular type of love interest. She doesn't want to get some man attached to her, so she only falls for the tortured, restless type, the kind of man that never quite returns the commitment.”

Edzie stared at Ghada for a moment, and then looked back toward the fire. This was a strange revelation, and had it come from anyone else, she might have taken offense. From Ghada, though, it simply felt honest, almost too obvious in retrospect. Her own father was lost in the haze of youth and time, and Stray's father had only lingered long enough to leave his son behind. Aside from this, Elkansa had always been alone, as far as Edzie knew. In her mother's self-imposed solitude, Edzie recognized the seeds of her own wanderlust.

When Kosef returned to the dromo, the overcast sky was in the grip of twilight, casting a blue-gray shadow over the Denorian settlement. Ghada and Edzie got up from the fire, politely concealing their intimacy, and Edzie made smalltalk for a few minutes before taking her leave. It took her another ninety minutes – long enough for her to think hard about this new eventuality in her life – before she arrived home, shivering, to an indifferent mother and a still-annoyed Stray.