Edzie, in her enthusiasm, forged far ahead. Stray might have kept up, with some effort, but he saw that Boyle was struggling with the uneven landscape, so he dropped back a bit to bridge the space between them. They crossed a lengthy expanse of threshweed, divided into wide tracts by a half-dozen drainage ruts, and then turned up a sharp rise in the landscape. Presently, the tracks became fresher (their quarry evidently wasn’t traveling very fast), and as soon as they came near a rocky depression in the landscape, the footsteps veered hard in that direction, making for an alcove of boulders in the shade of three ancient amberwoods. They heard noises in the underbrush, and approached the boulders carefully.

There, crouching in the shelter of the stone, they found a lone man ravaging the corpse of a freshly-killed shade hare, digging out its meat with fingernails and teeth. The first thing Edzie noticed was his footwear… the short, toughened leather boots of a traveler, clearly the source of those footprints. The second thing she noticed was the shock of hair in the center of his scalp, tied into a greasy brown braid that clung to the back of his head. The third thing she noticed was a short blade in a leather sheath, lying prone on the ground next to the man’s planted feet.

“Hey,” Stray said firmly. “You took our rabbit.”

The man jerked his head up toward the interlopers, desperation flashing in his eyes. When he saw that he was facing three children, he relaxed a bit, lowering the torn-up body of the hare. Edzie could make a more complete assessment, now that he was looking up at her: he had the ashen pale skin of the men who came from the rivers to the southwest, with sunken wet eyes and hollow cheeks. Judging from his demeanor and complexion, and his behavior toward the rabbit, she guessed he was half-starving. At the moment, he didn’t look dangerous, but his attitude made her wary.

There was a long delay as the parties regarded one another. Finally the crouching rabbit-thief said in a veritable grunt, “What was that?”

“Our rabbit,” Stray repeated, louder. The man continued looking confused.

“He can’t understand your accent,” Edzie explained, noting the unfamiliar stresses in the stranger’s use of the common tongue. “Speak slower, like Mistra Septa taught you.”

“You stole our rabbit,” Boyle chimed in, pronouncing each word with all the stiff propriety he could muster.

“Oh!” The stranger looked at the hare in his hands, as if to verify, and then looked back. “So I did! Sorry, little ones… I’m very very hungry. I’ve been traveling for like six days now.”

“From where?” Edzie asked. “And where are you going?”

“Well…” The stranger’s eyes flickered with uncertainty. “From way out west, actually. From the Range River, and before that, Settlers Road. You heard of that?” He watched the children’s faces for credulity, but kept talking before they could respond. “Anyway, right, I should give you something for your little prize here. I’ve got something very nice, if you want it. Something specially special.”

The stranger reached for his blade in its scabbard. Stray and Boyle watched obliviously, but Edzie’s hand flicked to the handle of her katsun, small and unfinished as it was. It struck her that they must not look very intimidating, with their homemade spears and her apprentice’s weapon, but there were three of them, and this traveler didn’t seem to be in the best shape.

“Jeez, bit jumpy, aren’t you, girl?” The stranger made a show of moving slowly, picking up the scabbard and slipping his fingers into a slot beside the blade’s handle. He dug around in some kind of compartment… someplace tucked into the tailoring, whose subterfuge Edzie found intriguing… and pulled out a smaller item, black and shiny. He lowered the sheathed blade, but Edzie took note: he left it in contact with his free hand, which he used to prop himself up in his crouch. Affecting a friendly attitude, the stranger held out the black object, and Edzie took it cautiously.

It was an object of some type that was completely unfamiliar to her: a perfectly smooth plate, two fingers wide and as long as an adult’s hand from wrist to fingertip. In terms of shape, it was basically a standard knife, the top half tapered into a sharp edge on both sides and the bottom half smoothed into a handle that was slightly too large for her own palm. In terms of material, though, it was confounding: it was a single seamless piece, absolutely smooth, and it was shockingly rigid and inflexible, like forged metal… but it was lighter than soft wood. It was perfectly black, but now she could see that it was reflective like polished stone, and she found her own face staring back at her from its surface.

She looked back up at the stranger, still full of suspicion. Meanwhile, Stray took the object out of her hand. “What is it?” he asked, and Boyle leaned in to see, as well.

“Something very rare and special,” the traveler said. “A knife, but different from what your parents have got.” He lowered his voice a bit. “But you’re not supposed to have it. It could get you in trouble. So if you want it, you have to never tell anyone you saw me out here, and not show them that knife, either. All this has to be our secret.”

Edzie, Stray, and Boyle all kept this stranger locked in their gaze, and each considered this offer privately. Edzie had just concluded that she would keep the knife, promise the stranger her silence, and then tell the tribespeople immediately when she got back to the settlement, so that the adults could deal with the situation. Unfortunately, Stray’s principles decided for all of them, undermining her strategic dishonesty.

“If it’s not right, then we don’t want it!” he cried, throwing the knife on the ground in front of the stranger.

Edzie barely had time to utter a curse before the stranger’s muscles tensed. There was an infinitesimal delay, a fraction of a second of calculation, before he lunged at the children, drawing his blade from under his foot with one hand and grabbing for them with the other. All three of them scattered before his burst of movement, and Stray and Edzie cleared the underbrush immediately, but Boyle hadn’t been so prepared, and he stumbled as he fled the attacker, toppling to the earth.

Stray and Edzie both heard the resulting scuffle and turned back to find Boyle, desperately pulling away from the stranger’s arms, but gradually being overpowered. Stray didn’t even pause to consider a tactical approach… he dove into the fray, and was nearly caught by the short blade across his belly. The distraction didn’t change the dynamic of the melee, but it gave Boyle extra leverage to struggle, and the wrestling continued for another ten seconds.

At last, as Stray recoiled from the threat of the weapon, the stranger slowly gained the upper hand, trapping Boyle under his bicep and pulling the short blade into position below his neck. “Sorry, kids,” the stranger grunted, trying to steady his weapon, “but I can’t have you running off home to tell on me.” At last, his hand closed around the sword handle, and he started to move the blade across his captive’s throat.

And then Edzie was behind him, her katsun at the ready. She had crept around the stranger’s back as the boys struggled, her mind flashing back to Luna’s initiation rite with the Grasscat, and in transit, she had decided upon an effective point of attack. Now, as the stranger’s blade moved, she put the point of the katsun behind his knee and thrust downward viciously, putting all her weight on the wooden handle. Flesh parted, bone and sinew split and unfolded, and the stranger bellowed in agony, crumpling onto the devastated knee. His sword-arm spasmed, splitting Boyle’s skin at the collarbone, but the sword leapt from his grip without inflicting a serious wound.

Edzie pulled her katsun back, feeling the flecks of blood splash from its tip, and swung it with both hands, bashing the back of the stranger’s head and laying him out on the ground. Boyle put his fingers to his minor wound, and when he saw blood on them, the first traces of tears in his eyes, but he held himself steady. The three regrouped silently, looking at one another in desperation. Edzie, still feeling the rush of adrenaline in her brain, was the first to take action.

“Stand on him,” she ordered Stray, taking out Gransa’s cord and pulling the stranger’s arms behind his back. Working quickly, she tied the tightest knot she could manage, looping the cord around the stranger’s wrists until it was an impossible tangle, cutting into his skin and lying sinuously over his back. By the time she was happy with her work, he was starting to move again, trying to turn his head to the side and prop himself up.

“Boyle,” she said, “go back to the settlement. Run as fast as you can. Tell whoever’s at the watchtower what happened, and show them how to get back here. Stray and I will watch him.”

Boyle hesitated. “Don’t make me go alone,” he finally said, trying to control his tears. “I might not know the way back. Please come with me. He won’t get far.”

“I’ll go with him,” Stray volunteered. “Between the two of us, we’ll make it back before sundown. Can you keep watch until then?”

Edzie looked at her captive, groaning and struggling to roll over, his crippled knee letting blood flow into the earth. She looked back up and nodded, brandishing her katsun. The boys took flight, and Edzie stood quietly, offering no conversation or assistance to the stranger. She remained that way for a long time, watching him writhe on the ground… eventually, amidst groans of pain and constant sputtering in the dirt, he managed to roll over, leaving his tied hands wedged uncomfortably under his back. With wet red eyes, he watched his diminutive guardswoman.

Confident that he was immobilized, Edzie walked around him and picked up the black knife he had tried to use as a bartering chip. She looked closely at it, turning it over in her hand, and then put it away in the folds of her waist-wrap.

“You like it, don’t you?” the stranger sneered at her. “It’s not allowed, you know. All sort of laws forbid that sort of thing.”

“I know,” Edzie said. “It wasn’t smart to show it to us. It won’t serve you well before the elders.”

“The elders, eh?” The stranger grunted between words. “That’s just great. I get to meet your old field-people, maybe we can all smoke some herb together.” He raised an eyebrow. “You better admire that knife while you got it… if you’re gonna be a well-bred plains woman, you’ll probably never see one again. Good people miss out on a lot of beautiful things.”

She considered this as she paced, but refused to indulge it with a response. Instead, she sat down on a piece of boulder, buried in the dirt a few meters away.

In the face of Edzie’s silence, the stranger continued talking. “You’re nothing like those two little boys. Not like the other plains people I’ve met, either. You’re fierce. You know how to make a point, if I may put it that way. Make tough decisions, when the need arises. I know some people out there who would appreciate a girl with your… attitude.”

“Well, you tried to kill us,” Edzie said. “So I don’t think I’m too interested in your favor at the moment, or your friends’.”

The stranger continued his halting conversation, finding little but curt acknowledgment from Edzie. He tried to ply her with promises of gifts, with dangerous knowledge, with veiled threats and provocations, but he was continually met with a stone stare and a watchful eye. Eventually, as the sky started changing colors, he fell to humming some foreign tune to keep his mind off the pain of his ruined knee.

Meanwhile, Stray and Boyle ran as fast as they could, with Stray urging Boyle on, across the open grasslands and directly through the huskin fields. They stumbled through mud and huskin excrement, doing their best to avoid the bulls, which might have been territorial toward anything trespassing among their herds. After what seemed like an eternity of running, and then hasty walking, and then more running, Stray and Boyle reached the hewn forests on the outskirts of the settlement, and the western watchtower gradually came into view. They arrived, gasping for air, and two young warriors came down to meet them.

The boys poured out their story, gulping air as they did so, and one of the guardswomen went scrambling for assistance. Elkansa and Alynn arrived several minutes later, and Alynn took Boyle back home so Dredda could tend to his wound, minor as it was. Elkansa, meanwhile, recruited two of the younger warriors – first Genefre, and then a huntress of twenty-six summers named Laine – and set out for the stranger’s location, with Stray leading them on. Stray was already exhausted, but he did his best to hurry… luckily, Elkansa seemed unexpectedly sanguine about the whole thing, having invested Edzie with her full faith in this sort of high-pressure situation.

By the time the tribeswomen reached Edzie and the stranger, the sun had set, and the only trace of daylight was a pale glow on the horizon. The stranger was sitting up against one of the boulders, still humming, and Edzie was perched on a rock fragment nearby, watching him intently. When she saw Elkansa approaching through the tall grass, she leapt to her feet and ran to join the party. Elkansa gave her an approving squeeze on the arm, and then she turned toward their captive.

“So you finally made it,” the stranger said. “Good thing. This one couldn’t stay awake forever, and who knows what I would have done when she fell asleep on that boulder.”

“I can see you’re from one of the provincial cities,” Elkansa said, taking stock of his clothing. “You don’t have the poise of a river citizen. You will sorely regret laying a hand on a Denorian child.”

“And you smell like those huskin that soil your fields,” he spat. “I hope you send me away soon, or I might end up getting used to it.”

Elkansa, Genefre, and Laine set about lifting the stranger to his feet. He made a show of being too hurt to walk, but after some prodding and threatening with their katsun blades, he fell into line, supporting himself on his good leg and hopping along between his captors. Elkansa led the party, keeping Stray and Edzie beside her, and Lain and Genefre followed, walking on either side of the captive. At one point, when the stranger tired of hopping, it occurred to him to go limp, refusing to cooperate with his wardens. They fought to drag him for a few strides, and then resorted to striking him with the unsharpened edges of their katsuns, calling him an ingrate. After a few minutes, enough bruises and discomforts accumulated that he stood back up and returned to hopping.

… … … …

In the settlement, amidst a sizeable crowd of curious bystanders, the stranger was escorted to the western storehouses and pulled into the auxiliary building. As Stray and Edzie stood by and watched, Laine closed the large doors behind them to keep out the tribesfolk, and Elkansa and Genefre dragged the stranger to one of the pens used to hold large animals, a rectangular metal frame suspended about three feet off the ground. They lifted him and tossed him inside, face-first. He grunted in pain and rolled over, trying to ease the stress on his knee, as Elkansa fastened two latches – one at the center of the door, and one at the very top – and took both keys with her.

“Nice accommodations,” the stranger said. “How long before I’m served up for dinner?”

Elkansa huffed at him. “You will be entered before the elders in the morning, and they’ll decide what to do with you. In the meantime, Genefre will have the pleasure of watching you.”

Genefre scowled for a moment – apparently just learning of this responsibility – and then spoke to Elkansa. “Uhh, can you stay for a minute while I get my latticework from home? I should work on it while I’m on watch.”

Elkansa dismissed her, and she ran out through the front door, which Laine closed behind her. Her business presently settled,, Laine drifted over and stood at a distance from the criminal. Elkansa, with Edzie and Stray by her side, stood immediately before the enclosure and the stranger, and she took slow stock of him.

“Stop looking at me like that, sluicule,” he barked at her. His face was a blur of bruises and mucus, bits all swollen out of proportion, and when he spoke, he had to hack through blood and damaged teeth. “I’ve heard about you plains-people. You eat grass, shit mud, and fuck those cows that hang around your villages. Your stench alone may as well be a death sentence.”

Elkansa was unfazed. “You are hardly worth all this effort,” she sneered at him. “Had you come here with a caravan and asked politely for asylum, there’s a chance we would even have tolerated you, living out at the edge of town. But attacking one of our children… you’re lucky I don’t flay you right here, before the elders have a chance to complicate things.”

“It’s all I deserve, getting hobbled and dragged off by you boggs. You’d have no satisfaction but three dead kids, except for that demon girl you raised.” He looked at Edzie again, grinning grotesquely. “Don’t forget what I said, little girl. Stay in this shit-town, and everything you got will be wasted.”

In this rude stranger’s gaze, Edzie felt a strange glimmer of conspiracy. She thought of the forbidden knife, tucked into her waist-wrap, and averted her eyes from his. Stray looked over at her, confused and curious, but Elkansa remained entirely focused on the prisoner.

“You are not worthy of a response from my daughter. You are lucky she isn’t as cruel as some of her elders… at times like this, I almost wish I had raised a less wise, more destructive child, so she might have put that blade through your throat, instead of your knee.”

“She don’t need you to teach her to be a monster. It’s already in her blood. I can see it. One sluicule breeds another, all polite society knows that.”

Elkansa smiled at this provocation and fell silent. Edzie stood behind her, gazing at the floor, until she heard the door creak, and Genefre returned with a satchel of crafting tools. She took a position at the far end of the storehouse, watching the locked pen, and the rest of the Denorians stepped out. Laine and Elkansa helped Genefre secure the door, and then Laine bid them better fortunes and headed north to handle some residual business. At last, Elkansa walked Stray and Edzie home, fatigue finally beginning to show on her face.

Neither the stranger nor Genefre had a peaceful night. Aaraya and Dredda left Boyle with Elkansa and visited the storehouse an hour or so later, guided by the light of a thresh lamp. They did not try to enter, knowing that it would be more troubling for all involved, but they wanted to reassure themselves that he was secure, and that there were sufficient plans in place for him to be held responsible. Shortly after they left, as the last traces of light left the horizon, Greya the healer arrived, summoned by Elkansa to ensure the prisoner was presentable the next morning. Greya was a persistently gentle middle-aged woman, and though she handled the stranger with an uncharacteristic frigidity, she did her best to make sure his wound was dressed and his face and body were clean. At that point, he was too sore and exhausted to resist.

The next day, at dawn, Genefre was relieved, and three Denorian warriors (Laine among them) roused the stranger and led him to the central court, where he was due to face the elders. A great many Denorians were there – no less than five hundred, crowded around the edges of the gathering space – and five of the eight elders had deigned to attend (more than sufficient, for a decision of this order). Along with the stranger, the assembly in the court included Elkansa, Edzie, Stray, Boyle and his parents, Laine (who had been licensed to speak for Genefre), and Mistras Septa and Baliban, who were there to provide learned counsel.

The elders, spread out in a line before the blackened fire pit, included Amiaverta the Elder of Reckoning, Hylidae the Elder of Harmony, Warryn the Elder of Severity, Yogo the Elder of Favor, and Pattrice the Elder of Stewardship. If the stranger was an outsider arriving in good will, only one or two elders would have been necessary for the decision, but for criminals, hostile foreigners, and anyone taken against their will, at least three were expected, and more if possible.

Elder Hylidae stepped forward to speak. “Greetings, outsider. I am Hylidae, one of the elders of this tribe. I’m sorry we have to meet under such unfavorable circumstances. Do you wish to declare yourself?”

“Rasteur Pelipen,” the stranger grunted, his face a mask of stony defiance. “Let’s get on with this.”

“You have been brought here by force, accused by members of the assembly…” she gestured to the Denorians standing behind him, “of attacking a child from our village, who you encountered in the fields a score of kilometers to the northwest. Do you dispute this charge?”

The stranger seemed to snarl in spite of himself, unable to maintain the composure required to answer. “I would, but I think you boggs’ll trust the children and that little scratch more than my word. But you know… all of you… that I wasn’t here to hurt nobody.” He visibly struggled, trying to rise up a few inches, but his bound knee buckled, and he slumped back over in his wardens’ arms. “I was just scared. You know running from those bastards is hard.”

Elder Yogo stepped forward and spoke in a surprisingly gentle voice. “We know that some men are made who they are by fate, not by their own hand. We have not gathered here to bury you, Rasteur. Now is your chance to tell us: why were you hiding in our land?”

“I’m being run down by Protectorate thugs from Fabrice,” he said. “I was trying to get to the mountains, maybe find shelter, decide where I could make a new life. But they have a long arm, and I don’t trust nobody, even up here.”

“What was your crime in Fabrice?” Hylidae prompted.

The stranger paused, processing the question for the length of a full breath. Finally, he struggled to answer. “Thievery. Stole a few bites of fruit and bread from the stalls in the market. They want to make an example of me. Just wanted to feed myself and my woman, though.”

The murmurs of the audience rose and fell, and Edzie saw Baliban raise an eyebrow. Elder Yogo spoke. “That is hard to believe, Rasteur. We have dealt with the Fabrice branch of the Protectorate, and they may be strict, but they are not barbarians. I would suggest being more forthright.”

There was a gap in the exchange, and then Stray’s voice broke the silence. “Wait, I know something else,” he declared, to Elkansa’s visible surprise. The elders all looked at him; the stranger tried to turn, but he was held in place by his guards, so he could only turn his head far enough to glimpse Stray out of the corner of his eye. “He had something he said wasn’t allowed. A flat thing, like a knife, but made out of some black slippery stuff. We wouldn’t take it, though.”

Elder Warryn looked at Laine. “If he has contraband, it is best we find it.”

“It was hidden in his sheath,” Stray offered. The stranger snorted with contempt. Laine departed hastily to fetch the sword from the storehouse, where it was propped against a wall.

“Is there anything else you would like to declare in your defense?” elder Hylidae asked, as they waited for Laine to return.

The stranger was silent long enough that conversations started whispering across the court. Elkansa looked at the stranger with contempt, and then spoke up, feeling uncomfortable with the leniency and lack of progress so far. “Let us not get distracted by petty charges claimed by this criminal. He attacked our children. He is an enemy. Look at him… he disrespects us, slumping and blubbering, as if he was the victim.”

Elder Yogo gave Elkansa a stern look. “The prisoner is not on trial for being unpleasant. This is the time for understanding his situation. Our wisdom stems from our mercy.”

Laine reappeared presently, carrying the sheath. In her hands, she had two of the black objects, which she explained had been tucked into secondary compartments alongside the blade. Stray confirmed that those were the objects he had seen, and one was presented to the elders. They passed it among them and each handled it with aversive reverence, assessing its texture and testing its strength. The other knife was given to the Mistras, who conferred over it.

“Revolting,” Elder Pattrice muttered, giving voice to the expression on a few of the elders’ faces.

“Plastic, I’m guessing?” Elder Hylidae was looking at Baliban for confirmation… Baliban, who had spent so much time traveling Pantempus on diplomatic missions, who had advised the Protectorate branches in other cities, and who would be the only person in the assembly who might be familiar with such travesties.

“Yes,” Baliban said, looking from the object to the elders. “Some sort of polymer, certainly, possibly polycarbonite or polystyrene. High-density.”

“Clears up the dubious story,” Elder Pattrice remarked wryly.

“Well, Rasteur,” Elder Hylidae said, now more severe, “now we know that whatever your status here in our tribe – whether a desperate exile or a seasoned manipulator – you are certainly an enemy of the River Kingdoms, whose Protectorate enforces the Mekonic Decrees. We will treat you as an oath-breaker, armed murderer, and fugitive from justice, until we can confer with agents of the Prefect.”

The elders allowed a moment of silence, gazing together at the prisoner, some looking to Elkansa for her approval, as well. She looked agitated, but not hostile.

Finally, the stranger broke the silence. “I knew this whole show of mercy was pointless. If I can be chased down across every city in Pantempus for having something so small and stupid as pieces of plastic, then I wasn’t gonna find asylum here, with you simple boggs.” He looked around at the audience and spat at the ground.

“You know the laws,” Elder Hylidae said, “and you brought this crime to our doorstep. I see no reason to talk of mercy.” She glanced at Alynn, whose stony eyes remained locked with hers, and then she turned back to the prisoner, who was looking at the ground. Unexpectedly, a single tear squeezed out of his scowling eye, belying his show of defiance.

At length, he spoke again, loudly, his voice cracking as he tried to extend its volume. “The learned folk in the cities talk so much of how you Concordance tribes are so independent, so fierce, out here in the open space above the rivers, guarding the borders of civilization and all that. I never put much stock in it, but I’m glad to finally know for sure: it’s tripe, all of it. You’re just another name in the Prefect’s ledger, ready to dive between her thighs whenever she gets moist. Keep your righteous rituals, give me back to the redges who own up to hating me.”

Hylidae now looked more disgusted than disapproving. As the guardswomen prepared to drag the prisoner back to his cell, Elder Yogo spoke: “For the sake of candor… do you have any more of these things, or any other contraband we should know about?”

It only took the prisoner a moment to respond, but in that moment, he caught Edzie’s eye and betrayed the slightest hint of a smile… or perhaps she merely imagined it, waiting to hear what he would say. “No,” he replied, “you found ’em. Easy access, next to my blade, and usually overlooked by simpletons.”

“Then you are dismissed. Laine, Thrynidae, put him back in the pen in the storehouse. Have somebody – one of your companions, I don’t care who – prepare one of the empty dromos closest to the gathering area, as a more suitable lodging for the time being, with a barred door and at least one guard at all times. Two at night. Be sure he is bound in some sort of irons – restrained and secured, but not cruelly.”

The guardswomen left, guiding the stranger before them. He was only defiant for a few paces, and then settled into a compliant shuffle, using his damaged leg and the guards’ arms for balance. As he departed, the assembly stepped up together so the elders could conclude the matter.

“Summon messengers,” Hylidae said, suddenly brusque in discharging the necessary duties. “They will inquire with our neighbors in the Aerimus, Hexcalor, and Vananya tribes, making known our prisoner’s situation. If no news is to be found, they will continue to Horizon, to determine whether such a criminal is known there. Send two, also, to Fabrice and Tempustide, to the South. If anyone is looking for this criminal, we shall make it easy for them to find him. If all else fails at last, we shall with our own hands bear him to the Protectorate in Tempustide, so the court of the kingdoms can deal with him.”

An attendant scampered off to make the necessary arrangements. By now, the audience was already drifting off, many of them satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. Before Hylidae dismissed the assembly, she called Edzie, Stray, and Boyle forward. She prompted Elder Amiaverta to speak, then, knowing she was more experienced in the informal aspects of these rituals.

“Edzie, Stray, and Boyle, children of Denoria,” she said in show of comfort and recognition, “you all conducted yourself in exemplary fashion. Your parents will talk to you more, I am sure, but we are proud that you all acted in the interests of the tribe, especially by taking care of one another. It is more than we have any right to expect, that you meet these challenges with such character, at such a young age.”

Amiaverta turned to Stray for a moment. “Stray, in particular: I would like to thank you for bringing the contraband to our attention. It allowed us to see the full range of this ruffian’s offenses, and treat him accordingly. Your respect for our tribe’s character is something to be celebrated.”

She returned her attention to the whole trio, then, giving a glance to Boyle’s parents as she did so. “I also want you three to know something… you especially, Boyle, who fell into the most danger: even if the contraband hadn’t come to light, we would have taken your interests seriously, and I can assure you, you would have seen that criminal exiled from our lands, and the stain of his presence would have been erased from our lives, one way or another.”

The three children nodded, maintaining the grave countenance that the occasion seemed to demand. After a minor ritual of conclusion and release, the assembly was dismissed, and the last of the spectators wandered off. Alynn, Elkansa, and Mistra Septa joined some of the elders for a few minutes of private conference; Edzie, Stray, and Boyle, tired from the formalities, left to return home, avoiding any path that might take them past the storehouses.

… … … …

The stranger was kept secluded in his makeshift cell for forty-one days, as messengers and couriers arrived and departed, bringing bits of news and accepting new assignments. Edzie, Stray, and Boyle tried to return to their routines, but they were always conscious of the danger lurking within their own village, a bristling presence that they seemed to feel, or smell, when they wandered the empty lots or tried to sleep at night. Edzie hid the plastic blade in the foundation of one of the walls in her room, knowing that keeping it was a serious transgression that would earn her a severe and lasting punishment. She felt a steady current of anxiety for the entire season, but generally managed to conceal it from Stray and her mother.

Within five days of the elders’ gathering, the messenger from the neighboring tribes reappeared with the first bit of news. A traveler affiliated with the Aerimus tribe, a few hundred kilometers south of the Denoria, had discovered a small caravan, hidden beside Cragstep Road, whose civilian passengers were murdered. Their possessions were left with them, including a large satchel of various illegal artifacts: fully a dozen plastic knives, plus a few other obvious pieces of contraband. The elders acknowledged the discovery and kept a close watch on the prisoner.

The messenger returned empty-handed from Fabrice, the city to the south, but several days later, the messenger who had been sent to Horizon returned with three Protectorate soldiers, riding tall gray steeds that bore the insignia of the municipality of Horizon. All three of them wore platinum breastplates, their arms protected by bolts of thick leather. They wore wide staffs with curved blades affixed to them, and carried saddlebags packed with documents and provisions. Their leader, Jordani Atrey, was a muscular, full-figured woman, her blonde hair obscured by a brightly-polished helmet consisting of three metal spurs mounted on a skullcap, reaching around from the back of the headpiece, just short of covering her face. Her companions – one lithe, darker-skinned woman and one broad-shouldered man – wore no headgear, but their breastplates had high collars to protect their shoulders and throats.

They said they had been tracking such a criminal – a dealer in Mekonic contraband – within their black market for several seasons, and had recently been informed by their sources that he had joined a caravan heading to Tempustide via the Settlers Road.

This prisoner… whose name was not Rasteur Pelipen, but Dormoroy Gesk… was affiliated with a lesser manufacturing and smuggling syndicate that operated out of Horizon, Tempustide, and Bhijanica. He had vanished somewhere along the Settlers Road, along with the small caravan that had been seen accompanying him. There were not enough agents with the Protectorate of Horizon to mount a wide search for the fugitive, so they massaged their contacts and kept an eye out for news. At last, the Denorians had provided it.

The arrival of the Protectorate agents renewed the Denorians’ interest in their prisoner, and the subsequent whisperings became wild rumors that writhed and mutated among the Denorians, causing a great deal of “incidental” traffic to pass, gaping, past the guarded dromo. The buzz and speculation lasted for two days, as the Protectorate agents spoke to the prisoner in private, leaving him with some vivid wounds for his reticence. The agents gathered information from the Aerimus tribe, as well, and through these sources, they determined that Dormoroy’s caravan had diverted from its course to make stops at the Aerimus and Denoria settlements, and perhaps some of the other Concordance outposts, as well.

Somewhere along the route, some event forced Dormoroy – whom the caravan passengers thought a mere passenger “returning to my family in Tempustide” – to expose himself, and he killed them out of desperation. Perhaps they had discovered the contraband he was trying to transport, or they had angered him by diverging from their planned route. Whatever the case, Dormoroy had no plan to cover this contingency, so he had traveled up the road for several days, and eventually became paranoid enough about passers-by to flee into the fields around the Prospect River.

He was nearly starving when, by luck, he ran across a shade hare in a snare trap.

Finally, after gathering their narrative from the children and massaging (a gentle euphemism) a confirmation out of Dormoroy, the Protectorate spoke to the Denorian elders. They assured the tribespeople that the prisoner would be held fully accountable to the public and the blade for both his ongoing criminal activity and for the murders he had committed. Though they were a mere secondary branch of the River Kingdoms’ Protectorate, they gave their provisional sanction to the Denorians: if this man was ever to escape his punishment and return, by some miracle, to the Denorian lands, they had permission to execute him immediately, and only had to return his head to the Protectorate for later identification.

The agents mostly spoke with Elder Amiaverta and the messengers, though they did meet, briefly, with Stray, Edzie, and Boyle, accompanied by their mothers. They asked each witness to recount, in turn, the events that led to the prisoner’s capture, as the male agent took notes in a ream of logging paper, scribbling with a mechanical rhythm and efficiency. After Stray and Edzie had finished their respective accounts, with Elkansa watching from behind, Jordani addressed them in turn.

“Young man,” she said to Stray with righteous and impersonal confidence, “I commend you for exposing the criminal’s possession of contraband, and for refusing to humor his pleas for appeasement. Your principles will serve you and your tribe well.”

Stray nodded, grinning in the light of this outsider’s attention. Edzie smiled and nodded at him; Elkansa remained silent behind them, though her eyes were alight with approval. Jordani turned to Edzie and sized her up, noting her wary posture and her serious gaze. Their eyes locked for a few seconds, and in their exchange of regard, there was an echo of suspicion, and rivalry, and finally mutual understanding. At last, Jordani addressed her.

“Young woman of the eight tribes, whose warrior’s spirit exceeds your maiden’s body, we thank you for your service in apprehending this enemy of the Prefect. May your wrath always strike true, and may you wield it with dignity, always in service to your tribe and your elders.”

Edzie bowed her head, less taken with this soldier’s praise than Stray had been. Jordani turned to Elkansa and offered her thanks and her congratulations on the upbringing of her fine children, and then the conversation ended and the Protectorate soldiers returned to the duties of their residency.

The agents’ visit was to last two more days, and then, having settled the situation to their satisfaction, they suddenly announced one morning that they would be departing immediately, with the captive in tow. Amid a small gathering of supporters and civilians, the Protectorate agents finally rode off on their gray horses, with Dormoroy bound and borne in a cart behind them. The gawkers returned to their daily toils, and the morning turned into an afternoon, and then the night passed into further mornings, afternoons, and nights. Gradually, the acrid memories of their ordeal began to fade, both in the minds of the three children and in the consciousness of the tribe as a whole. By the arrival of the Spring Festival of Emergence, the prisoner was largely forgotten.