Dissadae Chronicles

Ch. 1: Quiet Departures


1.1

We were the warriors of the plain, safekeepers of the voice
Now we are the quiet peoples, adrift on the obscure side of time

... ... ... ...

Edzie had been in bed for a long time… forever, it seemed to her… but she was still wide awake when the conversation in the gathering room got loud enough for her to hear it.

The first voice was her mother, Elkansa, a distinguished pillar of the Denoria tribe, who had trouble controlling her volume. “Tamlis, now is not the time for this decision. Go to sleep, and things will be clearer in the morning.”

The second voice belonged to Tamlis, Elkansa’s lover for the past three years. Edzie could hear the hesitation in his voice, the tremble of anxiety, even as he mustered a level of seriousness that wasn’t characteristic of him. “No, Elkansa. I’ve already made the decision. I need to go now. Please don’t make it harder on me.”

As she listened, Edzie rolled to the edge of her cot, shifting slowly enough to prevent the wood frame from creaking. When she was close enough to swing her legs over the edge, she pushed herself off to the ground, landing softly and in perfect silence. She started moving toward the entrance to her room, and then paused to gather up her nightshirt in her right hand, to keep it from tripping her up. Suddenly conscious of the whispers of the fabric, she waited to hear more conversation.

“Why? Why are you suddenly so restless?” Edzie was only six, but she knew her mother’s voice, and she could tell Elkansa was keeping a reservoir of frustration concealed under a layer of grave sobriety.

“Kansa, it’s not sudden. Or, it shouldn’t be. I’ve spoken to you before: I love you, but I am not happy out here in the Pastures. But every time I try to talk about it, you just demand reassurance, instead of listening to me. You never wanted to hear me out, so I’ve been forced to make my choice on my own.”

As this exchange proceeded, Edzie crept to the entrance to her room and leaned out into the corridor. Light spilled in from the hallway, emanating from a single thresh lamp on the center table. She could see the shadows of her mother and Tamlis… the latter was shifting uncomfortably in his seat, half-standing and then sitting down again, not sure how to conclude the conversation.

Elkansa was not finished with him, though she already knew she was losing her way on this. “I just don’t know how you could do this to Stray.” She paused, her silence soaking in contempt. “You may be suited to a life of travel and… who knows what else… but your son is not.”

“A life of travel? Of course not.” Tamlis sounded confused for a moment. “Kansa… you didn’t think… you thought I was going to take Stray with me?”

“WHAT?” Elkansa struggled to control her volume as outrage slipped into her whispered voice. “You are leaving your son behind?”

“Of course Stray is staying,” Tamlis said, apparently more confident in this than in any other aspect of his decision. “Your tribe is strong, and it'll make him respectable.” Elkansa scoffed slightly at this, but let Tamlis continue. “And you're a better parent than I will ever be. You and Edzie and the tribal elders have already accepted the boy, and I couldn't think of a better place for him.”

Edzie had glanced down the corridor to ensure that both adults were wrapped up in the conversation. As they talked, she stole down the hallway toward the bedroom at the end, where Tamlis occupied a cot, and Stray slept on a platform in the corner. By the time she reached the bedroom, the voices were far enough away that she was no longer processing their words.

As Edzie crossed the threshold into Tamlis and Stray's room, quiet as a gust of wind, her memory danced over a few recent memories. Tamlis had been taking longer walks, later in the evening, and Elkansa had suspended their habitual lunches and dinners together. Edzie hadn't understood the significance of these events, but now it was beginning to dawn on her. Tamlis had always been a warm, ebullient presence in the household, which was sometimes grim and serious without him, but in the last few months, his demeanor had darkened, like some bright light inside him was beginning to falter. A shadow had passed over him, just as Edzie's was preceding her now, slipping silently into his bedroom

Tamlis’s room was sparse, like all Denorian dwellings. His cot was in the center of the room, its head against the far wall and its foot facing Edzie. In the far left corner, there was a small accumulation of belongings, gathered in a disorganized pile: clothes, personal items, and documents, barely contained on a wooden palette. In the near corner, to Edzie’s right, was Stray’s platform, hidden under a shapeless pile of blankets. On the left wall, there was an unused exterior door, covered up by a plank of wood wedged into the opening. On the right wall, about five feet up, there was a window, also covered by a plank of wood. The wooden shutter was slightly dislodged, but wedged in firmly enough to keep out bad weather and over-curious animals.

Edzie approached Stray’s platform, hoping he was still asleep. Stray was a year younger than Edzie, and she knew how naively attached he was to his father. For a moment, she was afraid his bed was empty… she was horrified at the thought that he might overhear his father’s departure… but then she saw the woolen covers rise and fall with glacial slowness, and she knew that, at least for this moment, he was protected. With this relief, Edzie felt a wave of sympathetic helplessness, an abysmal vulnerability in the eye of an empty universe.

Suddenly, Edzie was aware of footsteps coming down the hall. She realized immediately that she had to hide, lest her mother discover her eavesdropping… Elkansa was infamous for her creative disciplinary measures, and Edzie did not want to get caught in the conflagration of her current mood.

“If you are going to go…” Elkansa’s voice was still a ways down the hall. “Then hurry up and go, before I decide on a more severe sanction for your... … failures of character.”

The footsteps… clearly Tamlis’s leather sandals… were still a few meters away. In a panic, Edzie scanned the room. She would have hidden beside Stray under the covers, but she didn’t think she could keep him quiet. Her only chance was the window, which was along the nearest wall. She reached it in a few bounds and jumped up, wrenching the board aside with one hand and pulling herself up with the other. She settled into the square crevice and hooked her fingers around the plank to pull it back over herself. In her haste, she felt her fingers lose their purchase, and the board dislodged and fell.

Edzie winced, hearing the clatter as the board bounced off the ground.

At the same time, she was conscious of something in her fingers. She blinked, her muscles and nerves petrified, wondering what happened to the sound, and then realized her hand had followed the board and barely caught it before it fell. A wave of relief passed through her, and she lifted the board and wedged it into the window frame in front of her. It wasn’t completely secure, but it was enough to keep her concealed, and keep the window’s moonlight from attracting Tamlis’s attention.

Tamlis arrived at the entrance to his bedroom. He worked silently, pulling a tangle of leather straps from under his bed. He turned to his cache of belongings and arranged his outfits, a wardrobe of two pairs of linen trousers, a canvas tunic, three shirts, and a few miscellaneous undergarments. He bound these into a bundle and strapped them to his back, and finally retrieved his katsun, the traditional Denorian weapon, which, in his three years with the tribe, he had only just started learning to handle. He tucked a few more odds and ends into the pockets in his clothing, and he selected a light brivsa, made of soft linen for warm weather. He slipped its hood over his head and wrapped its wings around his neck and shoulders, forming a scarf that hung loosely above his chest. Fully prepared, he stood up, leaving only a few papers and scraps of fabric on the palette.

Tamlis turned toward Stray, still asleep on his palette. With somber steps, he moved out of Edzie’s view, but she could still hear him, barely above the threshold of audibility. He was saying farewell to his young son, consigning him to the care of a tribe of strangers.

“I’m sorry, Stray. First your mother, and now me. I’m sorry I couldn’t make a life for you where I could be happy too.” Silence flooded the room, and then Tamlis’s voice returned. “But you can grow up to be a good man out here. … Better than your father, I hope.”

There was another fissure of silence, and then Tamlis’s footsteps crossed the room and receded down the hallway. Edzie heard her mother’s bitter voice, pronouncing some curse as Tamlis passed, and then the house was still and quiet for about ninety seconds. Eventually, Edzie became aware of a new set of footsteps, quieter than the first, stopping in the entranceway.

“Come on out, Edzie.”

Edzie remained frozen, hoping, by some strange miracle, to keep her presence secret.

“I see that you are not in your room. There’s nowhere else you could be. It’s time to come back to bed.”

Edzie pushed the plank aside with her foot and dropped to the floor. She glanced up at her mother, and then turned her eyes down in chastened disgrace. Her mother didn’t move, so Edzie shuffled to her side, preparing for some kind of reprimand. They turned back down the hallway and returned to Edzie’s room in silence. By the time she was climbing back into her cot, Edzie realized no scolding was imminent… Elkansa’s eyes were far away, gazing over some troubling, endless inner horizon. Edzie pulled her covers back over herself and looked expectantly at her mother.

Finally, Elkansa returned to the present. In a low speaking voice, serious and insistent, she spoke in Old Concordage, the fading language of the eight tribes: “Amadja lesonor avre sewombris.” (“It is time to listen to your mother.”)

Edzie nodded, and Elkansa knelt before the bed to speak directly to her daughter. Having confirmed Edzie’s attention, she returned to the common tongue. “Now that Tamlis is gone, Stray is going to become a true Denorian, not merely a stranger’s child living in our village. I have no fears for your future, Edzie… you are my daughter, and you will make me proud. However, Stray has become our responsibility, as well, and we must make sure he grows up to be a wise and respected tribesman. I will become his mother, and I can do a great deal for him in that role, but not everything. You must be something to him that I can’t be… you must be his first friend, and his best. Can you do that for me, Edzie?”

Edzie nodded, mirroring her mother’s seriousness. She was too young to fully understand her mother’s expectations, but she could tell she was being called upon to help with a great burden. Also, she knew she would miss Tamlis, and she pitied Stray, but she was glad he was staying, because he had already become a welcome member of their family.

Elkansa stood up, and her voice leveled out, recovering the casual authority for which it was so well known among the Denorians. “Now get whatever sleep you can, because you will be getting up at dawn tomorrow to help me prepare supplies for this week.” She turned and left the room, and after a few minutes, the lamp in the gathering room was extinguished, leaving only traces of moonlight from the west-facing window to light the ceiling of Edzie’s room.

... ... ... ...

We were a warrior culture in a peaceful era, swinging our blades at each other idly while the rest of Pantempus traded, danced, dressed, and fucked. From our first words, we were taught to feel a connection to something deeper and older… something in the earth, in the loins, in the thick fur of the Huskin herds that we followed… but if we had stepped out from under our elders’ shadows, we might have realized that these were just so many more pretensions, games we played to placate ourselves. We were stronger and quieter than the children of the cities, but we were children nonetheless, and our traditions were just as frivolous.

We were a culture of survival, strong and womanly, with a mother’s fearlessness and a sisterhood’s fierce durability. The girls my age were always engaged in their games of status, vying for the validation of our mothers and the affection of our fathers. They trained, they politicked, they tutored the boys and each other in war and romance, and the tribe lived on their energy, as it always had. I should probably have been like them, especially given my parentage: Elkansa, one of the pillars of our community, and no father as far as I could tell, since I was the product of an impulsive tryst at an inter-tribal ceremony. Nobody was more suited than I to a proud, accomplished Denorian tribal life.

That isn’t how things worked out, though. Instead, there were the three boys, our lost causes: Boyle, perceptive and troubled, Ghada our beautiful prince of blades, and Stray, my adopted brother, who was at once nothing, and everything, and finally, only himself. If I have any story to tell, it is the story of me and Stray… I’ll leave the others for more worthy voices to recount.

... ... ... ...

Tamlis often woke early and wandered the Denoria settlement (perhaps to calm his restless nerves), so when Stray awoke the next morning, he thought nothing of his father’s absence. Edzie and Elkansa were already at the table in the gathering room, slicing and stringing fleurberries for drying in the late summer sun… Edzie might have been in a terrible mood, having been dragged out of bed at dawn, but she was too preoccupied with her concerns for Stray to indulge her own stormy disposition. When Stray appeared from the hallway, Edzie just glanced at him impassively.

Elkansa invited Stray to share a morning meal, and while they ate, she did her best to break the news of his father’s absence. She spoke gently, and avoided referencing emotional triggers like abandonment and loneliness. She simply told him that “your father has left us,” and to Edzie’s relief, Stray – being too young to fully appreciate the implications of the statement – didn’t even ask why, or how long. He simply accepted Elkansa’s reassurances and listened to her talk for a while.

Elkansa delivered one of those soliloquies that had become her trademark within the tribe. She talked about finding happiness, and discovering the power of family, even among people you were still getting to know. She repeated relentlessly that she and Edzie would take good care of him, and asked him to work hard – this was always a central theme in Elkansa’s speeches – to find happiness with the tribe, who would support him in all his future endeavors. Edzie simply nodded along with her mother, wondering whether Stray was really understanding what she was trying to tell him.

For her part, Edzie allowed her role in Stray’s life to shift over the next several months, as he slowly came to realize the truth of his father’s absence. Before Tamlis’s departure, she had treated Stray as a playmate and occasional annoyance, like a childhood classmate who happened to live with her. Afterwards, she began to integrate him into her budding tribal communities… bringing him along when she played with her friends, teaching him practical skills as she learned them from her mother, and generally acting as his chaperone and mentor. She would not have taken to this older-sister role, except that she sensed Stray’s need for it, and for him, she was willing to bear the responsibility.

That same summer – which ended with Tamlis’s departure – had seen the final thinning of the grasses around the Denorian settlement, and the increasing skittishness and truancy of the Huskin herds that they depended upon for meat, milk, fur, and leather. The tribal elders knew what this portended, and so, that autumn, they sent out a mobile band of scouts, rugged hunters and proven warriors from respected Denorian families, to find the tribe a stage for a new settlement, somewhere in the Pastures. The tribe then went about their business, storing meat and harvesting produce for the winter ahead. It was more difficult, with the Huskin herds so avoidant, but the Denorians were no strangers to an occasional scarcity, and they had survived much worse in the past.

In the middle of winter, as Edzie and Stray explored the frostbitten headwaters of the Bristle River, a few of the scouts returned with an account of their search. They had discovered an empty expanse of level grassland, lightly wooden around the edges, just north of the Prospect River, perhaps eighty leagues to the southeast of their current settlement. The Prospect River was an eastern branch of the Range River, and it led through the Pastures into the Crag Mountains, where it passed near the Envoclajiz temple, the stronghold of the Order of the Caesura. This would be an auspicious location for the Denorian settlement… the constant stream of pilgrims to the temple would ensure that they saw more traffic than most of the eight tribes, and they might take on an unusual number of transients as a result.

This new settlement was also further east than most of the other Concordance tribal lands, and unusually close to the mountains, so it would be the first line of defense if an aggressive contingent of the Fisher peoples ever attacked from the east. The eight tribes of the Concordance saw this as a sacred duty accorded to their culture, and the role of easternmost tribe was held in especially grave regard.

After two days of vigorous discussion (mostly inter-familial arguments and vain squabbling), the Denoria elders unanimously agreed to accept this responsibility. The site along the Prospect River would be their new home, and so it would remain, until the Huskins were driven away again, anywhere from five to ten years hence.

At last, as Spring began, the Denorians started striking their dromos. It began with the boldest and most trustworthy women and their families, yanking the wooden roofs from their clay houses and stripping away the calcified outside layer of the walls, so that the wind and rain could reclaim the earth. They gathered their belongings and the wooden frameworks of their structures, and those few who kept domestic Huskins lashed them up, and they gathered their lives into old wooden carts and saddlebags and began the long journey to the southeast. When these enterprising families arrived in the area surveyed by the scouts, they made some necessary decisions: the main body of the settlement would be on a flat plain just north of the Prospect River, overlooking the plains to the west and Cragstep Road to the south. They began building the watchtowers and the Huskin pens and storehouses, assembling the skeleton of a fully-functional tribal homestead.

As the Spring and Summer progressed, the rest of the tribe followed in waves, assembling caravans of a few score families every few weeks. They followed markers left by the scouts and the first settlers, but it was still a hard journey... they had to cross the hushed and hurried waters of the North Range River, and though the Pastures were mostly flat and level, there were areas of exposed stone, rocky folds in the landscape that gave the carts a great deal of trouble. The days went from temperate to sweltering hot, and in the late evenings, armies of mosquitoes harassed them, and their only defense was an exhaustion that brought an impenetrable blanket of sleep. The tribe tried to have healers ready at both ends of the journey, but there weren't enough to send one with every caravan, and several dozen tribespeople died of exertion, injuries of travel, and minor diseases while they were in transit.

As the Denorians arrived safely in their new homeland, they all agreed that it was worth the unusually long trek. The land was fertile, many herds of Huskin wandered the larger grasslands, and three rivers met near the settlement: the wide, noisy Prospect River, flowing from east to west; its tributary, the Glancing River, a jagged interjection from a ridge of foothills to the southeast; and the modest Tenebre River, meandering through the open plains to the north and making a gentle contribution to the Prospect as it thundered off toward the greater Range River.

As the summer drew on, dromos began springing up like wildflowers in an untended garden. A large central court was established toward the north side of the village, and a path radiated outward from its massive fire pit, heading east and west. Most of the villagers built their dromos in the vicinity of the central court, with the craftspeople and handworkers congregating along the western branch of the main path. A small stream ran through the center of town, dividing raggedly as it reached the Prospect River, and the tribespeople began referring to it as the Splitmouth. There, near the two rivers' rendezvous point, some of the tribesmen who had come from the Delta Cities built a row of piers, and they established an unconventional Denorian fishing neighborhood.

Not all of the Denorians settled in the main village along the Prospect River. A smaller satellite community appeared along the Rush Creek, some sixty kilometers northwest of the main settlement. This satellite village became a haven for hunters and scouts and restless men, and the road that led to the main settlement, along the Tenebre River, became well-trafficked with Denorians in search of game, or in need of peace and quiet. A third community also lingered on the outskirts of the land, to the northwest... this tiny village, a mere fifty families, was mostly composed of the original scouts who had discovered the land and staked their claim to its riches.

As the winter approached, pilgrims along the Cragstep Road gazed curiously upon the new Denorian settlement, and though the tribespeople attempted to ignore them, they eventually acquiesced to building a bridge, so that trade might be facilitated and a few of the travelers could be accommodated. Once the bridge was finished, the travelers named it the Twilit Bridge, honoring the soft glow of the landscape when the sun caressed the horizon opposite the Crag Mountains. Though the Denorians weren't thrilled about the attention this brought to the settlement, they were also proud of their new home, and came to identify with the bridge as an important touchstone of their village.

So, in their seventh and sixth years, Edzie and Stray joined the Denorian tribe, warriors of the greater Concordance, in starting a new life on the banks of the Prospect River.


1.2

There in the settlement, between the Prospect River and the Splitmouth Stream, Edzie and Stray began manifesting what would eventually become their trademark behavior. Edzie, as the older girl, had her mother's favor, and she leveraged it to indulge in restlessness and distraction, sometimes to the point of truancy. Stray was loyal and attentive, quick to make friends and impress adults, whose only faults were a short temper and a weakness for Edzie's bad influence.

So it was that one summer, in Edzie's eleventh year and Stray's tenth, they ended up occupying a field on the north bank of the Splitmouth, beside a grove of orebark trees. The largest of the orebarks was bifurcated about three feet above the ground, and one of its spurs had been hewn right at the split. Edzie, wearing a warm-weather brivsa, hood down, draped loosely about her shoulders, had taken a seat on the half-stump. She was trying, unsuccessfully, to lose herself in a book she had borrowed from Mistra Septa. Nearby, Stray and his friend Boyle whacked at one another with wooden rods, shouting rules and curses and interjections. Edzie was always amazed at how much time they could spend engaged in this activity.

Boyle had been Edzie and Stray’s neighbor since the tribe had migrated, and he and Stray had become close friends. Both Stray and Boyle still had the diminutive awkwardness of boyhood, but Stray was already developing some weight in his upper body. Boyle, by contrast, was distinctively thin, with large feet and ears. Both Stray and Boyle had a significant amount of migrant blood, so their skin was lighter than Edzie's... Boyle's a softer, more olive brown, and Stray's a creamy beige. Edzie, who shared her mother’s chestnut hair and deep bronze skin, may as well have been a spirit of the netherworld, lingering at the margins of their imaginary landscape.

Edzie’s attempt to read (How the Grasscat Lost Its Tail) was failing miserably, so she allowed the book to droop in her hands so she could watch Stray and Boyle play-fight. Boyle had been assigned the role of “Badlands Bandit,” so he held his rod close to the end, simulating the short-handled swords of the Western tribes. Stray was playing the noble Concordance Warrior, so he held his rod like a katsun, with the hands about a foot apart, spanning the whole lower half of the weapon. This gave Stray much more control over his movements… Boyle’s flailing seemed both reckless and faltering. Edzie noted that Boyle was probably hesitant to hit Stray with the full force of a swing, for fear of genuinely hurting his friend.

Stray was significantly more confident than his playmate. He parried Boyle’s attacks carefully, and only occasionally ventured a counterattack, which he would always miss intentionally. Thus, Stray was able to maintain his dominance, while prolonging the game and sparing Boyle any hurt feelings. Edzie observed this exchange for a number of minutes, and a great many close calls were averted, with only a few bruises sustained.

Eventually, growing tired of parrying and striking, Stray evaded a clumsy overhead swing and took three large strides back toward Edzie. When he had reached a safe distance, he pointed at the confused Boyle and cried, “A Dissa A Casa!”

Boyle wrinkled his brow. “What are you doing?”

“I’m striking with a Caesurite spell! You’re knocked over!”

Boyle took a moment to process this turn of events. Finally, he objected with umbrage: “No fair! You’re a warrior, not a Caesurite Monk! You can’t just use their spells like that!”

Edzie burst out laughing, suspending the boys’ disagreement. “Did you just make that up?” she shouted to Stray.

“No! I mean, I tried to use some of their words.” He turned back to Boyle. “And besides, the Caesurites ARE warriors!”

Boyle opened his mouth to argue, but Edzie cut him off. “Oh, quiet! You know that’s not how it works, right? They can’t just say some word, and bash somebody!”

“And how would you know?” Stray demanded. Boyle looked curious, as well, having already forgotten his dispute with Stray.

“I read all about it in Mistra Septa’s guide!” Edzie answered, vaulting off the tree stump. “She lent it to me when I asked her about being a Monk.” She looked at the two boys, who were momentarily at a loss. “Do you want to know how it works? It’s a lot different than that.”

Stray threw Boyle a glance, and then turned back to Edzie. “Okay, show us. Let’s see if we can do it.”

Edzie took a few steps toward them, recalling the old guidebook that had explained the Caesura practices. It came back to her in a rush, and she mustered an authoritative voice. “Okay, so there are four things they learn how to do. But they’re not, like, spells… they’re just ways of controlling your mind and body. They call them emanences.”

“That actually sounds a little boring,“ Boyle interjected, but Stray silenced him with a wave of his hand.

“They’re called… wait… the Cry, the Step, Silence, and… Slowness. No, not that. Stillness. That’s it.” She counted on her fingers as she repeated them: “The Cry, the Step, Silence, and Stillness.”

“She’s making this up,” Boyle said, knowing he was no longer relevant to the conversation.

“What do you do?” Stray urged, eager to try some new trick.

“The guidebook only had some general stuff about them,” Edzie continued. “Some of them don’t sound like you do very much. Like, Silence is all about seeing and hearing things, so they can do stuff like… hear footsteps from miles away, even if they’re barefoot. It sounds cool, I know, but I have no idea how they would do it. And Stillness is even harder… it’s about slowing your breathing and heartbeat down, and changing its timing, which I guess is useful for focusing, but I don’t know how that one works, either.”

“How about the other two?”

“The Cry is, like, chanting, so your voice, like, goes with…”

“Harmonizes,” Boyle offered.

“Yeah. Harmonizes with everything around you, even sounds being made by the stones and trees and dirt. So you can try listening to the quietest sounds you can hear, and then humming along with them. That’s one way to practice.”

Edzie allowed a minute of silence to pass, and then joined Boyle in looking expectantly at Stray. Stray had closed his eyes, and was completely motionless. All together, the three Denorians noted the low, steady rustle of the tree’s leaves, and they heard a distant conversation drift past their ears. As they waiting for something to happen, Edzie and Boyle began noticing a third sound, a very quiet hum that was growing gradually, and seemed to be coming from the air around them.

Edzie and Boyle realized at the same time that the sound was coming from Stray. It didn’t seem to harmonize with anything in the environment, but he was doing an admirable job at keeping his tone steady, and increasing his volume on a smooth, glacially-paced gradient. Finally, he stopped and opened his eyes. “How did that sound?”

“Good, I guess!” Boyle ventured. Edzie shrugged.

“Okay, what’s the last one?” Stray asked, fully caught up in the exercise.

“The last one is the Step. That’s where you move as slowly and smoothly as possible, and keep your balance… umm… it said it was all about being aware of every part of your body.” Her eyes went glassy as she tried to remember what the book said.

“So stand on one foot,” suggested Boyle, not sure how serious he was being. Stray put his arms out and complied. They stood there in silence for a few seconds, and then Stray’s balance faltered and he put his foot down. He looked at Boyle, then at Edzie, and then inhaled and exhaled, and raised the foot again, determined to keep his balance until he felt satisfied with himself.

Edzie turned her gaze back toward Stray, and started counting silently. After a few seconds, she said, “Okay, now try to kick. Like a low kick, like you’re kicking over a chair.”

Stray kicked with his free foot, and wobbled, but managed to remain upright, and returned to his balanced position. He stayed up for another few seconds, and then had to stabilize by toeing the ground. He only allowed a slight compensation before he returned to his one-legged stance in the middle of the clearing.

“Hey,” he said, still concentrating on his own body. “You try it.”

It wasn’t clear who Stray was talking to, so Edzie simply ignored him. Boyle shook his head. “No! I don’t like balance games! You’re too good at them!”

Edzie spoke up again. “Okay, Stray, now try kicking again, but this time, draw it out over five seconds, as smooth as you can.”

“Five seconds isn’t THAT long,” Boyle noted, and then asked, “Hey, Stray, can you do it without holding your arms up?”

Stray was already in the middle of his kick, which was causing him to teeter and compensate considerably, so that he looked like a tree limb being shaken by gusts of wind. He managed to fully extend his kicking foot, and left it hanging there for a moment. As he began to draw it back, he overbalanced to the rear, and he stumbled and had to catch himself on one hand. He murmured a mild self-rebuke, but when he looked back up, he found that Edzie and Boyle both seemed impressed anyway.

“Pretty good!” Boyle said, hoping nobody called upon him to attempt the same performance.

Edzie nodded, and then said, “Anyway, that’s what I know about them. I don’t know where people got those stories about…”

Edzie stopped mid-sentence, hearing her name come drifting across the empty field to the North. Stray and Boyle looked at each other, and Edzie craned her neck to see where the voice was coming from. It continued yelling, “Stray! Edzie!” over and over, growing louder with each call. In a few seconds, the three young Denorians saw Elkansa’s figure, stomping toward them over the field.

As Elkansa approached, they found she was no longer calling out… she was grunting their names in seething frustration. “STRAY! EDZIE! And you too Boyle! You are supposed to be at lessons! They’re already half over by now!”

Edzie started walking. Stray and Boyle dawdled for a moment, looking at each other with theatrical embarrassment. Finally, Elkansa ordered them to walk, and they snapped out of their reverie and hurried along after her. Edzie muttered a feeble apology as they all converged into a group, walking across the field toward Mistra Septa’s pavilion.

“You damn boys, you’re always so distracted!” Elkansa fumed as they marched. “If you wander off and miss half your lesson again, I will wake you up every day – I’m talking to YOU, Stray – and make you sit quietly all morning, so that when the first session begins, I can walk you personally to Septa’s!” She picked up her pace, driven to agitation in her stormy mood. “And you, Edzie. I don’t know why you let these two murts drag you away every morning, when you could read in your own mother’s garden! You may as well be another little boy!”

“Sorry, mother,” Edzie said again, trying not to smirk. They reached the dromos behind Septa’s pavilion and turned right on the walking path, respectfully circumventing the private space around the small Denorian dwellings.

Stray lagged by a few steps, dropping into stride beside Edzie, as Boyle trudged along ruefully beside Elkansa.

“She always yells at me,” he whispered, almost in tears. “You’re the one who wanted to go down to the field.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Edzie said, trying to project remorse. “Sometimes it seems like she doesn’t know which of us is which.”

... ... ... ...

The walk to Septa's pavilion was not a pleasant one, for all three of the truants knew that they were being passed from one reprimand to another. The pavilion was a sheltered grove of wooden posts hung with Huskin leather, accessible by a small break in the hides that obscured the activity within. As they approached, Elkansa hissed at them to fix their brivsas, which they did, pulling up the hoods and wrapping the scarves loosely around the lower halves of their faces. Elkansa stopped a few feet from the pavilion entrance... when Boyle hesitated, she practically shoved him inside. Edzie and Stray followed a few steps behind, resigned to their duty.

As they entered the shadow of the pavilion, they could tell the usual lecture had ended, and the class had entered its period of informed discussion, which tended to occupy the last thirty or forty minutes of each session. They stepped into the shade of the drapings to find the usual attendees, all in their places... Sola and Luna lounging near the rear, Ghada sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the middle, Brill and Varda and Leanne and Prawley and fifteen other children of the tribe all scattered around the crowded interior.

Edzie only managed to catch a few words about riverfolk migrating into the Azural plains before she was noticed, prompting a sudden, horrifying silence.

Meekly, Stray performed the boundary ritual, turning his palms upward and muttering in Old Concordage, “Entren atrista bransa Dissadae, sevastrin vastris.” ("On this ground, we defer to Dissadae, the guardian guarded.") Edzie followed suit, and then both hovered there, heads down, waiting for some kind of reaction.

"Well?" Mistra Septa demanded. "Find somewhere to sit."

Stray and Boyle hastily navigated the carpet of bodies, managing not to kick anyone in the head as they found a gap to sit in. Edzie was quicker and quieter about it, but she was also more picky about crowding out her fellow students, so she ended up on the opposite side of the pavilion, sitting a few steps to the left of Sola and Luna. They all looked up to meet Mistra Septa's stern gaze.

"So," she said, her quiet voice belieing a ferocity in her tone. She was a compact woman with a commanding posture. She never raised her voice, but in her silence there was the echo of an inexplicable suppressed rage. More than any of the other Mistras, she commanded the deference of her class, and she did it without any kind of theatrics. "There are three young people here who had something so important to do, they felt they only needed to make time for the final few minutes of our class session. I'm sure, whatever duties they were performing, we will all be impressed by their urgency." She looked at Edzie and Stray, in turn, and then her gaze settled on Boyle. "So what was it? Please tell us."

Boyle ventured a look up, and in the line of Mistra Septa's gaze, he jerked his head back down as though something had been thrown at him. "Nothing, Mistra Septa," he said. "We were just playing, and we forgot."

"That doesn't sound right," Septa replied, radiating contempt. "You must just be too modest to tell me." She turned to Edzie. "How about you, older sister? Will you own up to your exploits this afternoon?"

Edzie didn't even bother looking up. "I'm sorry, Mistra. I let myself become distracted in the afternoon sun. I should have been ready for class."

Mistra Septa paused, only for a moment, to fashion a response, when Stray spoke up, unwilling to be cowed into submission. "We were learning about the Caesura, Mistra! Edzie was showing us how the Monks practice their arts!"

Mistra Septa turned theatrically toward Stray. Some of her poisonous contempt drained away, and her face took on an ambivalent expression. "Is that so?" she said. "What a noble pursuit. Edzie, are you finally putting the contents of my guide to good use?"

Edzie remained silent. Septa accepted this new turn in the conversation, but she was not satisfied with the amount of contrition her charges were showing, so she kept pushing them. "And what did you learn from your wise sister, Stray? Please enlighten us."

Stray took a moment the absorb the challenge and calm his nerves, and then he answered with what confidence he could muster. "We learned that there are four ways of practicing the arts, Mistra. They're called Emanences. They are... the cry, the step, silence, and slowness."

"Stillness," Mistra Septa corrected him, feeling her indignation draining away in the presence of Stray's small act of courage. Edzie heard Sola giggle behind her, and rolled her eyes. Mistra Septa continued: "And what did you learn about them?"

"We didn't know what to do with three of them," he answered. "But we tried two of them. The one where you hum, and the one where you balance."

"Impressive! I am glad you have taken such an interest in my order!" Mistra Septa said. Then, she recovered the disgust her voice had lost, and she went back to her admonishment. "But you might have learned that in a few minutes here in class, and somehow, I doubt it was worth the loss of two whole hours of instruction that you won't..."

Stray's voice leapt like a blade from a sheath, neatly interrupting Mistra Septa's monologue. "I can show you!" Sola and Luna's giggles intensified, and a few more erupted from other parts of the room. Edzie suspected that Stray was about to humiliate her, but she suppressed her objection, hoping she could just disavow the whole affair.

Mistra Septa wasn't sure how her scolding had been so derailed, but she ceded control of the situation. "I see you still want to prove something to us, Stray. Go ahead. Show us."

Every gaze in the pavilion fixed itself on Stray. He hoisted himself up to his feet, looked down, and took a deep breath, preparing for a performance. Edzie heard a whisper off to her left, and felt a pang of embarrassment. After a moment, though, the embarrassment faded, and she felt something more tender creep up in its place. Boyle, for his part, was captivated, his agony of humiliation momentarily salved by Stray's confidence.

The whole pavilion, including the rigid Mistra, waited for a few empty seconds. Then, they registered a faint hum. A few students looked around, and as the tone grew in volume, Edzie heard Sola or Luna whisper to the other, "It's him, he's doing that." Each child, one by one, realized that Stray was the source of the sound, but before anyone could pass judgment, they saw him raise one foot in the air. His arms tensed up a bit as he fought to establish his balance, but they remained at his side. His eyes were closed, and he was absolutely stone-faced, but his expression was serene.

Someone in front of Edzie whispered, "What is he doing?" Edzie felt her uncertainty give way to the faint but growing warmth of admiration.

Stray remained on one foot just long enough to stabilize, and then he started a second movement. Over the course of a full fifteen seconds, he rotated at the waist and extended his raised leg, still bent at the knee, counterbalanced by the weight of his torso. From this position, he pivoted smoothly into an extension of the leg, pantomiming the slowest, smoothest kick any of his peers had ever seen. When his leg reached full extension, he stopped, and then retracted it slowly. He had almost brought it back to its starting position when he finally faltered, letting the raised leg drop to the ground and almost falling forward over the students in front of him.

The whole class gasped in time with his stumble, and there was a ripple of laughter at the boy, trying as hard as he was. Edzie knew that none of them, save herself and Boyle and perhaps the Mistra, understood how difficult Stray's feat had been. The giggling diffused into a low murmur of conversation, which went on for a few minutes unchallenged.

The Mistra looked on in silence, her expression unreadable. When Stray's moment had passed, Septa diverted the conversation back to the session's topic. She concluded her lecture and answered a few questions, but Edzie could tell her thoughts had left the classroom and she was not about to return.

... ... ... ...

The brivsa

... ... ... ...

As punishment for missing their lessons, Edzie and Stray were made to wake up at dawn the next morning. They spent those early hours helping Elkansa grind and mix the paste they used to repair the walls of their dromo. After a frugal breakfast of blusterwheat bread, they turned to the task of patching cracks and filling holes. Neither Edzie nor Stray showed any aptitude for this task... Stray kept forgetting to let the mud dry in his hands before he applied it to the wall, so it kept running out of the gaps. Edzie, for her part, wasn't very good at deciding which gaps to fill, so she was subjected to a continuous stream of corrections by Elkansa, who kept noticing large, unsightly fissures that she had missed.

By midday, all three of the laborers were tired and impatient. Elkansa told Stray and Edzie to find their own food, and left to visit Varda's parents, a short walk to the southwest. Stray ran off to Boyle's dromo, where he hoped to be fed and entertained until Elkansa checked in around dinner.

Edzie, for her part, decided to go visit Baliban, the Mistra who conducted his class out on the eastern side of the settlement. It was a refreshing walk – about eight kilometers northeast – and she guessed that he would be almost done his second session of the day by the time she got there.

The youths of the Denoria tribe were expected to attend one or two Mistras' sessions per week, but discouraged from squeezing more than one into a single day. The four instructors, all Monks on long-term assignment from the Order of the Caesura, had entirely different curricula, and taught a different lesson each day. There was no strict sequence... generally, each session could stand entirely on its own. The Denorians were expected to learn their life-skills at home, and the Mistras' sessions were designed to provide them with a broader familiarity with the kingdoms, cultures, and histories of Pantempus. They were a proud, nomadic tribe, but they were not isolationist.

Edzie was a curious outlier among the Denorian youth. Where most of her peers always went to the nearest Mistra, and only occasionally took a class at a different pavilion (generally for some special lesson), Edzie was known for visiting all of the Mistras on her own, traveling across the breadth of the settlement in her free time. She was infamous for missing sessions when she was expected, but she was also known for showing up unlooked-for, sometimes attending three or four classes in a single week.

Edzie set off in the mid-afternoon, donning her summer brivsa and draping its scarf loosely over her shoulders. She was sanguine as she passed Boyle's dromo, waving to his father, who was outside stripping flesh from a skein of Huskin leather. She could hear the din of the boys inside. Past Boyle's house, she crossed a rocky stretch of empty ground, and kept to the gap behind the following row of dromos. A ways off to her right, she could see the shape of a large wooded area alongside the Prospect River, which was just out of sight. After a half hour of walking, she reached Surcrossing, a shallow ford across the Splitmouth. The ford was only as deep as Edzie's ankles in some spots, and the deeper furrows were traversed by wooden planks weighted to the riverbed. Edzie reached the opposite shore with a pair of wet feet, which she dried off in a patch of grass before continuing up the path.

She was now on the east side of the main settlement of the Denoria tribe. Here, the dromos were sparse, and she only passed a few pedestrians on her way up the path. When she was due south of Baliban's residence, she had to divert to the right, leaving the path and crossing a grassy expanse dotted with small private vegetable gardens.

By the time she approached Baliban's plot of land, Edzie had a tiny line of sweat running across her forehead, right at her hairline. She slowed her pace as the dwelling approached: fairly large for a Denorian dromo, with the standard gathering room and small bedroom, but also with a private annex, a second bedroom, and a study, where Baliban kept books, supplies, and memorabilia. A few meters to the southwest of the house, Baliban's teaching facility, the "East Pavilion," stood proudly in the soft sunlight. It was a round wooden structure, nine posts with a roof of planks, perhaps fifteen meters in diameter. It was currently open to the daylight on all sides, but there were six leather curtains rolled up beneath the roof, always available for privacy and protection from inclement weather.

There was no sign of the Mistra or his students. Edzie must have arrived later than she thought, or Baliban had finished early.


1.3

Edzie approached the door to Baliban's dromo, whose wooden plank was ajar. She peeked through the gap, and called his name a couple times, but there was no response. She stepped out of the shadow of the doorway and lingered in his yard for a moment, and then she meandered over to the East Pavilion. There was a low wooden stage in the center, whereupon she sat, discouraged at the thought of making the walk home. A moment later, she found herself terminally bored, and stood back up, eager for some way to amuse herself.

For a while, Edzie contented herself with drawing pictures and patterns in the dirt with her foot. The floor of the pavilion was fairly clean, so her scribbles barely showed up, but at certain angles and in certain lights, they became visible for a moment. Edzie played this game idly, pondering meanwhile the incident with Stray and Mistra Septa the previous afternoon. Stray's small act of defiance in the face of the Mistra, which had seemed so innocuous at the time, had lingered in Edzie's mind, and now she found herself replaying it, trying to visualize all its incidental details. Edzie knew Stray had done it largely to serve his own ego, but she also knew – knowing the boy better than anyone else in the tribe – that he did it partly to protect her and Boyle from rebuke.

Edzie wondered, for a moment, whether Stray, in defending himself from Mistra Septa's scolding, had also been defending himself from Elkansa's judgment. This seemed like the type of thing that Mistra Eryn might say... she always had obtuse theories about these sorts of social situations. Edzie herself dismissed the idea quickly... she knew that Stray was simpler than that, and in a way, more noble. He had sensed a challenge, and in defense of his pride and his friends' self-respect, he had risen to it.

For a little boy, she thought, he was strikingly womanly: a stalwart defender of his social territory, the stable center of gravity for the people in his circle. She wondered if he might eventually become one of the few male heads of households in the Denoria tribe, or perhaps a male tribal elder... he seemed to have the patience and the charisma for it, at least.

Eventually, Edzie couldn't think of any more pictures to draw, so she turned to practicing the katsun formations her mother was teaching her. There were sixteen in all… some tribes had more elaborate practices, but the Denoria had settled upon the most important subset, and their warriors were well-respected for it. Edzie didn’t have Stray’s natural aptitude, but she made up for it with her perfectionism. After every repetition of a form, she would pause and recalibrate her shoulders and hips, hearing her mother’s carping in her head.

She spent a few minutes searching for a stick that could stand in for a katsun. There was nothing of interest around Mistra Baliban’s house, and the pavilion was cleared out and tidied up for the next session. Finally, snooping around his garden, Edzie stumbled across an old digging wedge lying in the soil. She picked it up to examine its head, and found it was already nearly dislodged from the four-foot wooden handle. A few shakes, and the wedge-head dropped off. Edzie was confident that she could claim it had happened before she got there; wooden handle in hand, she headed back to the pavilion.

The rod was about half the weight of a katsun, made of softer wood, and badly balanced, but it would work for a bit of practice. She thought about taking the forms in prescribed order, but eventually decided to start with the ones she found easiest.

Low, hovering, hands apart. Number three, attack: feint from left, kick, thrust.

Low, weight on back foot, right hand centered. Number seven, withstand: parry thrust, step inside, assert the body.

Low, stable, left hand loose. Number nine, intercept: wait for cue, horizontal strike at waist, shift into follow-up form.

When the gravelly baritone of Baliban’s voice interrupted her, it was disconcertingly close. “How studious, Edzie! I hope your teachers appreciate your dedication!” Turning, Edzie found him leaning against one of the posts on the far side of the pavilion, attired in his eggshell Mistra’s robe, with a pair of hard-soled walking shoes substituted for the traditional sandals.

“Hello, Mistra!”

“Hello, Edzie. Would you like a partner for practicing your forms?”

Baliban was in his young fifties, nearing the end of his oath to the Caesura... within a few years, he would no longer be bound by the order, and he would be free to leave his post as a Mistra to the Denoria tribe. In his decades with the tribespeople, he had evolved from an ebullient young guru to a weathered sage, his good humor tempered but fully intact. He had always been broad in the shoulders and chest, but in the last few years, the tribespeople had seen his posture dip and his belly distend, so he was now on the portly side.

Edzie agreed to match him, and he spent a few minutes searching for a practice katsun in the front room of his dromo. When he came back out, he carried a wooden staff with the lower half carved into a handle... lighter than a true katsun, with its metal point and fused blade, but certainly better-balanced than Edzie's gardening stick.

At length, Baliban stood before Edzie, idly swinging it to loosen up his arms. As he did so, he glanced in her direction and flashed his wry smile. "So, battle maiden, are you going to slay me with my own garden implement?"

Edzie assumed a basic stance, raising her mock weapon in front of her. Baliban began cycling through the basic striking patterns, announcing each one in advance. Edzie would have taken some offense at this patronizing treatment, except that it gave her the mental space to hold a conversation. Besides, she clearly remembered her mother's words: action and adaptation must keep happening, regardless of attention and distraction. Exercise your muscles, not your mind.

"So... number two... your mother and Stray are well, I take it?"

"Yes, and food is plentiful, and mom says we're growing fast." Edzie parried and circled as she spoke, refraining from mounting any counterattacks for the moment. "She says when I master the sixteen forms, I'll be ready to kill my first Huskin. She's already claimed one of the grazing females for me."

"An important... number three... moment for a young woman!"

"Did you have to do it?" She measured her words carefully, taking breaths between steps.

"Not at your age." Baliban side-stepped, feigned a lunge, and then returned to the default defensive stance. "The people who raised me were merchants from the Delta, and they had no such custom. ...number four... When I took my place in your tribe, I was already an adult, but your people had to treat me like a child. I learned to keep a dromo, kill and prepare my food, and fight, fifteen years later than you all."

"Was it hard?"

Baliban slowed down for a moment as he plumbed his memories. "It was unfamiliar. But life with my family, and then my training with the Order... by the time I got here, I was capable of adapting." He was striking without warning now, though he hadn't intensified his pace. Still, he was finding every attack met with a competent defense. "You are very quick, Edzie, for someone just learning."

"You're being nice."

"You are mistaken," Baliban assured her, fully sincere. "If you mean the compliment, it was simply an observation. And if you mean with the attacks, I assure you... if I tried any harder to hit you, I would just expose myself for the clumsy bristlebear that I am."

Edzie could see that he was, in fact, starting to struggle, breathing more audibly and letting his footwork lapse. She let her own reactions slow down to match his rhythm. There was no reason to be pushy, and besides, she was already moving on to her next topic of conversation.

"Mistra, when you lived at the temple, did you learn the emanences?"

Baliban raised an eyebrow as he advanced. "Indeed. All the monks have to learn the fundamentals of the four paths. What brought this to mind?"

Parry, step back, parry... Edzie let her body react to Mistra Baliban as she explained her interest. "Yesterday, before Mistra Septa's lesson, Stray tried doing some of them. The Cry and the Step, by humming and then moving really slowly."

"Ah, right." Mistra Baliban retreated a few steps, now too involved in the conversation to keep thinking about his forms. "The way of Inselsin... that's the Step... never my strong suit. There's too much of me for me to keep track of all of it at once. Aaraya, though... the Cry... I picked that one up pretty well. I still use it sometimes, when I need to get myself realigned."

Seeing that Baliban was no longer practicing, Edzie lowered her wedge handle. "Stray thought they were magic powers. He thought you could knock somebody over by saying words of power. I told him it wasn't like that."

Baliban nodded thoughtfully. "Hmm. I see."

There was a moment of ambiguous silence between them. Suddenly pensive, Baliban walked around past Edzie and sat down on the wooden platform at the front of the pavilion. Edzie joined him presently, laying her wooden weapon beside his own. His unexpected hesitation had piqued her curiosity.

"It's not, right? I mean, the monks can't make things happen with their minds and stuff, right?"

Baliban glanced at Edzie and half-smiled, still caught up in his own thoughts. "Well, if you're talking about the stories you children tell when you're supposed to be sleeping or doing chores, about words that can kill grown men and make lightning strike, then you're right, nobody can do that."

He looked away again, his gaze drifting. "But even in the Order, we have our stories."

"Like what?" Edzie was already impatient, even just having to ask.

"Well, it's believed that the students of Ademah... Stillness... at least, the most accomplished ones... can hear the softest sound for miles around, and can see types of light that are invisible to normal eyes." He gazed aloft, seeming to search the skies and the air, as he sorted through the stories in his head.

Edzie remained silent, at attention.

"And it is said that the followers of the cry, Aaraya, can intone a chant in a meditation room, or even in a cave on the mountain, and the hum will continue, sometimes for days, after they've left."

"Wow," Edzie said, trying to remember more from Mistra Septa's guidebook. "I wonder if I could learn them?"

"I am sure you could, if you ever joined the Order," Baliban assured her. He hesitated a moment. "Although... I'm not sure you would be suited to such a life, living in a temple and practicing meditation all day."

"I could do it," Edzie declared, unwilling to be discouraged.

Baliban chuckled in reply.

“So...” Edzie spent a moment formulating her subsequent question. “So if you hadn't come out here, to teach our tribe, do you think you could have learned to do those things? Would you have spent your whole life at the Envoclajiz, learning to be a powerful monk?”

“My whole life?” Baliban was mildly amused at the thought. “No, I would never have become one of those Prima Caesura adepts that you all whisper stories about. All monks have certain plateaus for each of the arts... some level where they no longer have the talent, or the drive, to go any further. Besides, we monks are as varied as you tribesfolk. Few of us want to spend our whole lives doing one thing. I certainly didn't... I wanted to be out in the world!”

“Like in our tribe?”

“Precisely.” Baliban was now fully present, smiling softly as he accounted for himself. “And also, all the other places I've been. Dror, Horizon, the old kingdom up the Tempus River, and Tundras out on the Stoneside... the Order has given me many chances to see many places, all in the name of Dissadae and the Caesura.”

He smiled fondly, lost in younger skies. A couple figures were approaching from the west, but Edzie didn't say anything, and Baliban kept talking. “I know I don't travel as much anymore, but you should have seen me ten years ago, back before you were born. I would be gone for whole seasons out of the year. Just ask your mother... the other Mistras must have hated me then, making them take up all my slack.”

The approaching figures, two Denoria girls who Edzie didn't recognize, stopped at the edge of the pavilion and gave the Blessing of Dissadae. Baliban looked toward the new arrivals, and stood up promptly. “Ah, hello, Bayla, Tevni. This is Edzie, from down in the central quarter.” He turned toward Edzie. “Edzie, my lesson is starting in a few minutes. We're learning about the reconstruction of Bhijanica after the Succession Wars. Will you be staying for it?”

Edzie did some calculations: two hours might keep her later than she had planned to stay, and she wasn't sure she wasn't still on her mother's bad side after yesterday's truancy... but the temptation to stay for the session was strong, and Edzie didn't need much convincing anyway. She shrugged, nodded, and took a seat toward the rear of the floor to wait for the rest of Mistra Baliban's students.

... ... ... ...

The sixteen forms

The sixteen forms

... ... ... ...

By the time Edzie arrived home, the daylight had turned orange and the shadows had turned blue, and the air temperature had dropped by five degrees. She found her mother and Mistra Septa at ease in the gathering room of her home, having finished their katsun lesson for the day. Mistra Septa had been learning martial techniques from Elkansa since before Edzie was born, and she remembered a time when they would exhaust themselves with their exercises, night after night. For the past couple years, their rigorous sessions had declined to about two a week, and they spent the rest of their practices idling and venting.

When Edzie arrived, Mistra Septa was at the table, and Elkansa was beside the door, binding scraps from today’s harvest of vegetables. They were not caught up in any conversation… at the moment, each seemed to be occupied with her own thoughts (Edzie was always amazed at how long adults could spend in this state). When she passed through the doorway, they both offered their greetings, Septa in her formally self-conscious style, and Elkansa with typical curtness.

“Edzie, where is Stray?” Elkansa held Edzie’s gaze for a moment, continuing to strip and bind her scraps.

“I don’t know. At Boyle’s, I think.”

“Go find him.” Elkansa’s voice maintained its stubborn neutrality, which she rarely allowed to lapse. “Tell him I will not prepare dinner until both of you are here, and if you take too long, you will have to find your own food.”

“Okay mom,” Edzie assented, and then turned to acknowledge her teacher. “Nice to see you, Mistra.”

“Well met, Edzie. Will you be at our lesson later this week?” Mistra Septa shared a certain sternness with Elkansa, which many young Denorians found off-putting. Edzie, on the other hand, found it reassuring, because she could sense the warmth in it, even if it was habitually suppressed.

Edzie nodded, smiling softly. “Yes, Mistra. Perhaps the day after tomorrow.”

“And punctual this time, I hope?”

“Of course, Mistra.” With a nod to each of the adults, Edzie hurried out of the gathering room. She jogged halfway to Boyle’s dromo, and then relaxed her pace, realizing she had no particular urge to be stuck at home for the rest of the evening.

Boyle’s dromo was a few hundred yards to the north, across the walking path. Dredda, Boyle’s father, sat on a stool near the front entrance, stooped over a bucket of water. As Edzie approached, she saw that he had washed the few metal implements the family kept for cooking and eating, and was now using the same water to rinse some of his and his wife’s clothes. He heard her footsteps and glanced up at her, smiling. Edzie could see Boyle in his father’s face, though somehow, between generations, Dredda’s unassuming smile had morphed into Boyle’s wry smirk.

“Hello, Edzie! What brings you to my workroom?”

“Hello, Dredda. I was looking for Stray. Is he here?”

“No, I’m sorry, young lady, but he left an hour or so ago. Boyle is inside, doing whatever it is he does.”

“Do you mind if I say hello, and see if he knows where Stray went?”

Dredda gestured toward the open door. “Not a problem. I hope he can help.”

Edzie stuck her head hesitantly through the front door, feeling as though she was trespassing. She found herself in the gathering room, which had three doors leading off in different directions. The ones in front and to her left were dark. She saw the steady glow of lamplight flickering in the right-hand room, and set off in that direction, still mildly uncomfortable in the unfamiliar house. A few paces from the room, she could see Boyle through the entranceway, sitting on the floor with his legs crossed.

Boyle glanced up as Edzie arrived. He had a wooden plank before him, and an old parchment manuscript to his right. In front of him, on the plank, was a piece of brown scrap fabric, whereupon he had drawn some figures and diagrams with a whittled charcoal pencil. Whatever he was doing, Edzie had clearly interrupted a fairly intense train of thought, because it took him a full four seconds to greet her.

His greeting finally came out as a disarming “Hi, Edzie!”

“Hi, Boyle.” She reclined in the doorway. “I was wondering if you knew where Stray went.”

“Oh yeah.” Boyle didn’t skip a beat. “He went out to the western watchtower. He went last week, too… said he likes talking to Genefre when she’s on duty.”

Edzie didn’t balk, though this news was unexpected. As far as she knew, Stray’s whole life was fully secondary to hers: spending time with the same people, worrying about the same lessons, always easy to find if he decided to do something on his own. Edzie barely knew Genefre, except that she occasionally chatted with Elkansa after council meetings, and she assisted Mistra Gita’s crafting lessons a few times a week. Now, knowing she'd have to follow him all the way to the watchtower, she was sure she wouldn’t be home until long after Elkansa had given up on food. Part of her regretted this, but part of her was glad for the excuse to keep drifting through the settlement, reveling in the privacy of the open air.

In the fast-fading light of the evening, she took off west, passing her own dromo without looking up. She crossed a loose lot of half-built shacks, stepping gingerly between excavated earth and neglected piles of old timber, avoiding the thicker shrubbery, which someone in the area might have been using as a garden. Passing through, she reached the Splitmouth… there were no easy crossings in this part of the settlement, but there were wooden rafts dragged up on the bank every few hundred meters, all kept for public use. She had to walk almost a kilometer before she found one on her side of the river.

The other side of the Splitmouth was officially the west side of the settlement, with the central court and the Chronoboros a ways to the north. Edzie pulled the raft ashore, and then set off almost directly west. She passed south of the spacious Huskin pens and the cluttered avenue of merchants' huts and stands known as Handworkers' Row, and continued walking parallel to the major East-West Road that linked the two halves of the settlement via the Central Court. Most of the day’s bustle of activity had ended, but she could still hear a murmur of foot traffic and conversation. Edzie was walking between dromos and storage sheds now, impinging slightly on other residents’ territory, but she was careful to be inconspicuous, and nobody gave her a second look.

A few people crossed her path as she walked by, returning, presumably, to their own homes down near the docks on the Prospect. The homesteads had grown more sparse, and now she was in a largely empty field, with an occasional glimmer of lamplight marking a window in the distance. She knew that the larger Western storehouses were off to her right, but they were unlit, so they were fully lost in the deepening dusk. From her left, she could barely hear the rush of the Prospect River. Luckily, the clouds were sparse on this particular night, so the moon was generous in showing her the ground she was stepping on.

By the time the western watchtower came into view, the wind had picked up slightly, and Edzie was starting to feel the chill seep through her brivsa. She put up the hood and pulled the scarf tight around her face, like she was preparing for some formal introduction, and it gave her a moment of relief from the breeze. The sky around the horizon glowed with the light reflected from the fields, and the skeletal silhouette of the watchtower broke up the sedate blue. Edzie felt her steps softening as she approached, and by the time she reached the ladder leading up the scaffolding, she was as quiet as a breeze grazing the grass. She could hear a conversation happening above her, but she couldn't discern its content without getting a bit closer.

Within the first three rungs of the ladder, she recognized Genefre's voice.

“... would make a good tribal elder. At least, my dad always said so, though I think it's because she was quick to defend him when my mom got mad at him. I never told her how much I appreciated...”

When Edzie pulled herself up to the fourth rung, the wood emitted a tortured groan. The conversation abruptly stopped, and Edzie heard Genefre scrambling to ready her weapon and look down over the edge of the platform. It was too dark for her to identify Edzie, so she called out for an acknowledgment.

“Hello, Genefre, it's Edzie. I was wondering if you've seen Stray.”

“Oh!” Genefre processed this news for a moment, still looking down over the ledge. “Of course! Feel free to come up if you want, Edzie. I was just talking about your mother, actually.”

Stray's voice followed, sounding slightly guilty. “Hi, Edzie... is Kansa mad?”

“No, I think it's okay. She's not making us dinner, but I don't think she means it as a punishment.”

Edzie reached the platform several seconds later, pulling herself up and settling into a crouch. Stray was sitting on the middle bar of the guardrail, and Genefre was leaning against it on the other side. She had left her lighter tunic behind in favor of a Huskin pelt, which she had draped over her bandeau and most of both arms, and she had worn a winter brivsa lined with grasscat fur. Edzie silently admired her foresight, having condemned herself to a bristling chill in the night air. Genefre was twenty-four, well-regarded among the tribespeople, with a strong bearing and a patient demeanor. Her initiation scar wasn't visible... it was probably somewhere on her chest or back... so her foremost distinguishing feature was the strand of burgundy thread that she had braided into her shoulder-length hair.

Genefre took a moment to size up the situation, and then tried to restart the faltering conversation. “Nice of you to join us, Edzie. Can you and Stray stay long?”

“We probably shouldn't,” Edzie replied, her voice touched with shyness. “Mom told me to come get him.” She caught Genefre's eye for a second, and then looked back down. “You know mom pretty well from when you were kids?”

Genefre smiled. “Yes. From when I was a kid, not her. Your mom is a bit older than me... when I was your age, she was already making a name for herself with the elders. Your mom helped with some of my katsun lessons, back when I was that age, and she was a really excellent teacher.”

“Edzie is doing those now,” Stray interjected. “I don't really get it.”

Genefre raised an eyebrow. “What don't you get?”

“I don't get why we all have to learn to fight, when everybody just spends all day herding the Huskins and working around the village. I mean, they tell us it's best to run away if something scary attacks us... why are we all being treated like we're supposed to be warriors?”

Edzie was taken off-guard by the question. As far as she had considered it, they were taught to be warriors because they were a warrior tribe. All eight of the Concordance tribes were warriors, and they all measured one another by their military prowess. Yet, as far as Edzie knew, they hadn't been involved in a violent conflict in nearly a century, since the last incursion by the Fisher tribes from across the mountains.

She glanced at Genefre, expecting an answer, and discovered that Genefre was already looking back. There was a moment of pregnant silence between them, which Genefre finally broke. “Come on, Edzie. If your mother is still the same woman I remember, then you know the answer to that question.”

The answer came to Edzie in a flash, like a ray of sunlight through a cloud. “Readiness. She says we always have to be ready, because we could be called up at any moment to defend the Envoclajiz from the Fisher tribes.”

“Yes, well-put,” Genefre confirmed. “And how are you doing with your forms, Edzie?”

“I don't know,” Edzie answered honestly. “I'll know when mom tells me I'm good enough.”

“When she's ready, she has to kill a huskin!” Stray exclaimed, excited at this prospect.

“Yes, as will you,” Genefre replied. “Most of our parents make us do that when we're about Edzie's age. It won't be long for you.”

“Yeah, I don't know if I can do it,” Stray said, scrunching up his face. Then something occurred to him. “So wait, how come Sola and Luna have to kill a grasscat, instead of a huskin?”

“That's later,” Edzie explained. “They're fifteen. We all do the initiation when we're fifteen, in front of the whole tribe. That's when you get your initiation scar. The huskin slaughter is just an informal thing.”

Stray processed this information, and then turned to Genefre and asked, unexpectedly: “When you did it, did your father get to see?”

Genefre stammered a little. “Yeah, and my mother both.”

Stray nodded, and suddenly lapsed into silence, turning and looking out across the Huskin fields. From this distance, you could barely see the line of the Tenebre River, which met the Prospect several kilometers to the west. Now, at night, you could only see the blanket of unbroken shadow, a placid ocean beneath the field of summer stars.

Edzie let Stray inhabit his private world for a moment, and then she interrupted him as gently as she could. “Are you about ready to head home?”

Leaving Genefre to her post, Edzie and Stray started walking back east, crossing the open field under the watchtower’s gaze. Walking side by side, they navigated by the moonlight, both concentrating on the uneven ground in front of them. The sound of the Prospect River dominated now, occasionally synchronizing with a breezy rush of distant leaves. Every few steps, they were serenaded by the croak of some singing insect, but these were sparse, so far from the water. The only signs of civilization were the dim pinpricks of the thresh lamps in the distance.

“So,” Stray said as they passed into a patch of taller grasses and river weeds, “do you think you’re good at the forms?”

Edzie shrugged. “I guess. I’m trying to be good enough for mom. She’s really serious about this stuff.”

“Yeah, especially with you. She’s really been teaching you a lot.” He paused, and then spoke more quietly, as if to himself. “More than me, at least. All she wants me to do is memorize them.”

Edzie felt a pang of annoyance, which turned almost immediately to sympathy. “Well, I’m a year ahead! She’s just starting you with the practical stuff.”

Stray was not interested in false reassurance. “No, she worked harder with you, from the very beginning. You started earlier than me, and she never just went over lists of forms with you. It’s not because I’m an outsider, either… she’s serious about it with Mistra Septa, and all her other girl students. It’s because I’m a boy… she doesn’t think I can do them as well as you and her.”

Edzie considered offering him another consolation, but she realized almost immediately that he was in the mood for honesty. “You might be right,” she said, finally. “Mom is pretty traditional. You probably have a lot more to prove than me.”

“But you think I can do it, right?” Now he wasn’t looking for honesty, so much as a pledge of faith. Edzie was not a person to come to for that sort of thing, but for Stray, she could spare it.

“Yes, Stray, I know you can do it, just as well as any of the girls in our tribe. You already use the forms sometimes, when you play with Boyle. It’s so natural for you, I think I’m the only one who’s even noticed it.”

Stray betrayed a shy, wavering smile. “Thanks, Edzie.” He paused, only now getting to the crux of his inquiry. “So I was wondering… since your mom is teaching you so much, do you think you could show me? I want to learn… I want the chance to learn… the forms as deeply as you do.”

Edzie cocked her head slightly. “Show you?”

“Yeah, like, you teach me the advanced stuff that your mom is teaching you. So I can start practicing the hard stuff on my own.”

Edzie considered Stray’s request as they walked. They had nearly reached the Splitmouth, and she started scanning the bank for the boat she had left. She turned north, with Stray close behind… as they trudged over the grassy earth, she thought about taking on a new responsibility as Stray’s clandestine katsun teacher. At first, she was inclined to turn him down, simply for the sake of her own convenience. When she thought about it, though, she found herself becoming more favorable, especially when she thought of it as a subtle protest against her mother’s monolithic seriousness.

Pushing through the flora on the riverbank, she and Stray came suddenly into a small clearing, and at that moment, Edzie’s frame of mind shifted decisively. She stopped, and Stray almost bumped into her. Edzie turned to face her adopted brother, who stepped back nervously.

“Okay, Stray. I accept. Whatever mom teaches me, I’ll pass on to you, as long as I’m good enough at it.”

Stray smiled, preparing a grateful cheer, but Edzie interrupted him. “So we’ll start now. Have you memorized all sixteen forms?”

Stray shook his head.

“Well, first off, I can at least tell you what they mean, and maybe that will help you remember them. There are four types.” She paused to break off a branch from a fallen limb, and when she returned to her position, she was holding it like a katsun, hands set apart. As she listed each of the four types of maneuvers, she pantomimed them. “First, there are the Attack forms. Second, there are Defense types, which mom sometimes calls the Withstand forms. Those are ones where you’re supposed to hold a position and deflect attacks.”

“And there are four of each, right?” Stray asked.

“Yes. Third are the Intercept forms, where you parry attacks and then follow up with your own attack. Those are the hardest. Fourth are the Withdraw forms, where you give up ground so you can find a better position, or regroup.”

“Or run away.”

Edzie took a lunge at Stray, feigning a whack at his knee. “NO!” Laughing, she relaxed her stance. “Well, mom would say no, never, but yeah, you’re right. If you’re obviously overpowered or outmatched, the Withdraw forms will let you get away.”

“Okay, I think I got it,” Stray said. “Attack, Withstand, Intercept, and Withdraw. That’s way easier than the numbers.”

“Yeah, but you have to learn the numbers too. Don’t lose track of those.”

“How come?”

Edzie shrugged. “I don’t know. Because you do. Sometimes people… the elders especially… will ask you to do the forms in order.” She swung her branch idly, listening to it whistle in broad arcs. “But there’s even more to the four types… like, if you take any pair of two types, they make a special group.”

Stray laughed. “Like a group of groups? That’s weird.”

“It helps you understand all of them. Like… Attack and Intercept are the striking types. And Attack and Withdraw are the positioning types.”

“How about withdraw and intercept?”

“Those are called the weak types, or passive types, because you’re supposed to be making space for the opponent’s attack. So the other two… attack and withstand… are the strong types, or active types, because you’re asserting yourself.”

“I think I get the idea,” Stray said, his brow furrowed. “I won’t remember them all, though. There’s too much to memorize.”

“It’s okay. You can actually diagram them, and they’re a lot easier to remember.” Edzie glanced down at her makeshift practice weapon, and then tossed it back into the underbrush. “Okay, that’s enough for now. Let’s head home. I’m hungry.”

Edzie turned and started walking. They saw the raft about a hundred meters on, and turned toward it. Just as she was getting there, she heard Stray scamper up behind and look for a way to help move the vessel. As they pushed it off the bank and hopped up on its wooden deck, she saw that Stray was carrying something behind him. It was the stick Edzie had used to show him the forms, and as they crossed the Splitmouth, he was clearly fighting the urge to swing it around and slay imaginary beasts.

Stray managed to keep the stick for several weeks afterwards, playing with it less and less frequently, until one day Elkansa needed a replacement leg for a stool in the gathering room, and the toy katsun was finally recruited for a more practical purpose.


Ch. 2: Sensitive Decisions


2.1

In the central region of the Denorian settlement, there was a large huskin pen, surrounded by a sturdy wooden fence. It was taller than a full-grown adult, its posts too thick to wrap one's fingers around, reinforced with knee-high struts on the outside... it had to be strong enough to protect the Denorians from an irate huskin, after all, and so it had to be strong enough to withstand a head-on, full-speed charge. A smaller annex, approximately the size of a standard dromo's footprint, was attached to the north side of the pen, separated from it by a gate that swung open and closed.

A number of trees had been removed to make space for the huskin pen, and so there were stumps scattered around the interior. Edzie crouched on one of these stumps, knees folded in front of her chest, and watched a congregation of adults standing around a lone female huskin, isolated in the center of the northern annex. Behind her, Edzie could hear the muttering voices of Stray, Boyle, and their mutual friend Ghada, a Denorian who was close to Edzie's age. The assembled adults had ordered the three boys to stay away from the huskin, which was currently being prepared for Edzie's blade, groomed to become a lone sacrifice to her informal rite of passage.

Elkansa was doing most of the work, as usual… the other adults were there largely for moral support. Mistra Septa stroked the huskin’s head idly, and Boyle’s parents, Alynn and Dredda, were standing to one side, doing their best to keep out of the way. Baliban had said he would try to make it, but there was no sign of him at the moment.

Elkansa had tied a length of cord around the huskin’s neck, and she had looped the other end around her katsun, which was newly sharpened and polished. Standing about a foot away from the huskin, which looked catastrophically bored, Elkansa lifted the katsun and drove it, blade-down, into the soft earth. It embedded itself nearly a half-meter into the ground, becoming a sort of symbolic hitching post for the huskin's cord. Having completed this final arrangement, she waved away the bystanders, walked halfway to Edzie, and beckoned her over.

Edzie was suddenly aware of her peers’ voices behind her.

“It’s time.”

“Finally.”

“Go on, Edzie! Slay the beast!”

This last remark was followed by two little boys’ snickering. Edzie dismounted from the stump, waved dismissively at her chorus of companions, and proceeded toward Elkansa. Behind her, Ghada and Boyle were arguing over whether it was hard to kill a defenseless huskin. As she walked, their argument faded into inaudibility, and Edzie suddenly found herself in a wide, quiet space, alone with her mother.

Stray, Ghada, and Boyle watched Edzie and Elkansa lean into a conversation in the center of the enclosure. Elkansa put a firm hand on Edzie’s shoulder, and Edzie made a visible effort to straighten up.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” Ghada asked offhandedly.

Stray shrugged. “Probably just about the right way to do it.”

“The right way?” Boyle was confused by the concept. “Don’t you just cut its throat, like we do every time we pick one out for eating?”

Stray shook his head. “No, Elkansa says you have to do it right, so it’s a clean kill, and it doesn’t suffer. She says we can mess up jobs around the house all we want, but this one has to be perfect. You have to sever all the arteries, and the windpipe, in one stroke with the blade, and the animal has to be standing up, so the blood drains fast.”

Ghada and Boyle nodded, taking Stray at his word. Each of them privately wondered if they could do it right, and what would happen if Edzie failed. Stray, now caught up in the topic, elaborated further: “Edzie wanted to do it from behind, where the Huskin couldn’t see her. She said it would be easier for both her and it. Elkansa said she couldn’t do it that way… it’s disrespectful. She says you have to stand in front of it and look it in the eye, so you know what you’re about to do. She says it’s only fair that you face the animal.”

“Edzie’s way sounds better,” Boyle said. “It’s not like a duel or anything.”

“No, Elkansa’s right.” Ghada was looking intently at the mother and daughter as he spoke. “Sometimes the ritual is more important than the practical stuff.”

In the center of the enclosure, Edzie looked at her mother’s feet as she listened to her repeat the basic instructions. She felt strangely separated from the earth, from the people looking at her in anticipation… even from her own body. She understood her mother’s words, but they seemed to be floating by, and Edzie was glad she had already committed these expectations to memory. Finally, completing her litany of precautions, Elkansa knelt to give her final appeal to her daughter.

“Go ahead, Edzie. Don’t rush it. It may be hard… taking life away should never be easy… but you mustn’t hesitate, now, or ever, if something needs to be done. From now on, you must always be ready to do this.”

Elkansa locked eyes with her daughter then, and Edzie returned the eye contact, focusing her attention and settling into the moment. When Elkansa was sure Edzie was fully present and prepared, she stood up and guided her daughter toward the katsun protruding from the earth. Edzie placed both hands on the handle, and Elkansa stepped back, giving her whatever space she needed. Bracing her foot near the embedded blade, Edzie pulled it up, and it slid out of the earth, allowing the huskin’s hitch to fall limply to the ground.

Edzie turned toward the huskin, wiping the streaked dirt off the katsun blade on her pant leg. Holding the weapon in one hand, just high enough on the handle to keep its point from dragging on the ground, she looked into the huskin’s eyes. They were dark, disconnected, and absolutely serene, fully engaged in the idle act of chewing on its cud. She was expecting it to look at her with some kind of recognition… fear, anticipation, distrust… but when the shadow of her body fell over its sad eyes and matted muzzle, it just turned its head away from her, as though she was a bug hovering around its nose.

Edzie glanced at Stray very briefly, and then forced herself to focus. She reached out and scratched under the huskin’s ear with her free hand, and then took the animal by the chin and turned its head toward her. Its boredom seemed impenetrable, but finally, it made eye contact, and as it did so, its ears twitched with a slight tremor of annoyance. Edzie kept her free hand under its chin, and stroked it, giving it a moment to relax. Finally, its eyes lost focus on her, and an indifferent serenity returned to its face.

Stray hadn’t even noticed that Edzie had drawn her other arm across her body, in preparation for a diagonal upward stroke, like you might use to undercut a high defensive stance. The instant the dynamic between her and the huskin stabilized, her katsun flashed through the air with a sigh, and the huskin’s neck opened up, releasing a gout of blood. The huskin’s expression hardly changed, but its knees buckled as it tried to inhale, and then it toppled to one side, suddenly unable to stand or breathe or make a sound. Within seconds, its struggles turned to twitches, and then it went entirely still.

Applause issued from behind Edzie, signaling the adults' approval. She glanced back at them and gave a half-smile, and then turned her eyes toward the boys. Ghada and Boyle were talking in hushed voices, looking at the katsun in Edzie’s hand and the huskin at her feet. Stray was just staring at her, his eyes wet, his expression paralyzed by some kind of psychic turbulence.

Edzie’s concern for Stray mounted for a moment, and then it was interrupted by Elkansa, arriving from behind and putting her hand on Edzie’s shoulder. Edzie jerked to attention, the katsun twitching in her grip. Calm as a passing cloud, Elkansa reached down and took the katsun from Edzie’s hand, squeezing her shoulder as she did so. “Well done, maiden. I have rarely seen better.”

Edzie flashed her mother a smile, and tried to pull away to go check on Stray, but then the other adults arrived and swamped her in trivial praise and idle reminiscence. Ghada and Boyle joined in, asking what it had felt like, and why she had waited so long… but their questions were lost in the bustle, and had to be deferred until many hours later, during their next idle afternoon. Stray stood behind the other boys, forcing a smile, watching Edzie and Elkansa with trepidation in his eyes.

Presently, Dredda and Septa wandered off, talking over some routine settlement matter. Baliban (who had arrived during the pre-slaughter discussions), Alynn, and Elkansa involved themselves in the moving of the huskin, hoisting it onto a canvas sheet and then dragging it to the edge of the annex. Edzie was left with the boys, who were now talking about the sixteen forms, and whether grown-ups ever had trouble with these kinds of things. Stray was still standing a few paces off, lost in his own thoughts.

Edzie had the urge to leap to Stray’s side and offer some sort of consolation, but she knew better than to draw attention to whatever private battle he was fighting. She remained steady and patient, half-listening to Boyle and Ghada’s conversation, occasionally offering an assent or acknowledgment when they looked in her direction. Eventually, they tired of the enclosure, and indicated that they were going to their usual grove along the Splitmouth. Stray turned to follow them, an absent-minded participant.

Edzie took his hand, calling forward as she did so: “We’ll be right behind you. My mother said she needs us for something.”

Boyle and Ghada waved their acknowledgment, and then continued walking, mercifully oblivious. Stray turned and looked back at Edzie, his mildly distracted state suddenly disturbed. “What was it?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Edzie replied. “I just needed a second, with all that stuff going on. We’ll let them get ahead, and then we’ll follow in our own time.”

Stray was a little discomfited by Edzie's casual white lies, but he found himself grateful for the quiet moment. He took the opportunity to offer his congratulations to Edzie, having been overshadowed by the activity before. “Good job. I knew you could do it.”

Edzie shrugged, looking absently at the blood stain that was soaking into the earth. “It… feels weird to actually do it. That’s the only thing that's hard about it. And also, all the people watching.” She turned, then, and they started walking, side by side, toward the south fence of the enclosure. She considered her next question carefully, determined to stay close to the fine line between friend and big sister. “So, we've all seen others do this, for feasts and stuff... did it look like I did it right?”

Stray didn't answer right away. When he and Edzie reached the fence, she used both hands to hoist him over, and then took a running jump to scramble over herself. Finally, after they had both landed, Stray replied to Edzie's question. “You did really good. Even though it didn’t feel the same as the others. Like, you did something different, or maybe it was just different because I was paying more attention this time.”

“Different? How?”

“I don’t know. I never felt bad for the huskins before. But the way you looked at it, it suddenly made me feel bad for it, that it was there for you to kill it. I guess that’s what Elkansa means when she says we need to respect it?”

“Yeah, probably,” Edzie said. She spoke haltingly, choosing the best phrases she could from the common language’s imperfect vocabulary. “I like the huskins, they seem so calm and content. Boyle would say they’re just dumb, but… they’re animals, just like us.” She paused, trying to parse her feelings on the subject. “But also, liking it… or feeling bad for it… never felt like a good reason not to kill it. I mean, I don’t like killing, but… it’s just something I have to do sometimes.”

Stray accepted this from Edzie, and they continued on to the grove, where they found Ghada and Boyle trying to knock each other off an orebark stump. Edzie and Stray stood aside, and Edzie offered to referee, which gave her a good opportunity to annoy the boys. Stray put on a cheerful face, but he was considerably quieter than normal. Boyle and Ghada hardly even noticed, but Edzie could see the troubled detachment in Stray’s eyes, and she couldn't help but wonder about the monsters he was struggling with.

... ... ... ...

Edzie returned home earlier than Stray that night, leaving him with Ghada and Boyle to concoct fantasy scenarios and practice their katsun-play. Elkansa was serving cuts of the slaughtered huskin, cooked over the gathering-room fire, and she had invited Boyle's family to join them. Edzie was lost in another of Mistra Septa's books... Last Bounty of Alcovale... when her mother called her to her side at the cooking fire.

Edzie dawdled, as she was prone to doing, and Elkansa had to call her a second time before she marked her place in the storybook and made the trip down the hall. Seven strips of Huskin flesh rested on a metal plate over the fire, cooking slowly. Elkansa wore her usual domestic attire: a modest loincloth, wrapped tightly from her belly-button down to mid-thigh, and a bandeau tight over her breasts, leaving her arms and shoulders, midriff, and most of her legs bare to the summer air. Her mass of dense black hair was pulled back into a club, kept in order just above her neck, and her brivsa hung loose about her shoulders. There was a roll of furs on the floor beside her.

Edzie knelt next to her mother, before the fire, just beyond the flames' strongest heat. Elkansa gave a placid smile, directed at Edzie, though she didn't look away from the cooking food. “Thank you for your contribution to our dinner, Edzie. You performed admirably.”

Edzie nodded.

“I want to ask you how it felt,” Elkansa continued, “but I don't think it's necessary. At my age, I know how all these kinds of hard victories feel in the aftermath. But there was a first time for me, too, and there was also a first love, and a first weapon.”

Content with the food's slow progress, Elkansa turned toward the roll of animal fur beside her. She unwrapped it to reveal a katsun, beautifully crafted, though still unfinished. She gestured for Edzie to take it, which she did, inspecting it with trepidation.

The katsun was smaller than an adult's, but significantly larger than any of the practice weapons and tree-limbs that Edzie and Stray played with. Edzie was struck, first, by its weight... she wondered if she would be as smooth in performing her maneuvers, having to balance such a weapon. It was a straight wooden rod, about a meter long, its handle accounting for just under half that length. It was fashioned from orebark, whose hard wood was lighter than metal, but nearly as strong for all practical purposes. In its finished state, the katsun would have one edge girded in a metal strip, sharpened into a blade, and the metal would deform into a point at the end, for stabbing or spearing a foe or an animal. This katsun didn't have its metal lining, and its handle wasn't wrapped in canvas, but aside from those details, it was fully functional.

“This will be your first weapon,” Elkansa said. “I had Rodra carve it, and even asked Mistra Gita to check in and make sure it was well-wrought. In a few months, when you've shown me that you can control which edge you strike with, I'll bring it back to Rodra to have its edge forged.”

Edzie stroked the wooden blade, and then grasped the handle with both hands, separated for control. “Thank you, mother. It's gorgeous.” She lingered over it, watching the light from the fire play off its smooth surface.

Elkansa watched her a moment, and then laughed over the crackling fire and the hissing meat. “My daughter, the romantic. Most children would be jumping up and swinging that weapon all over, knocking down lamps and slaying phantoms. I will never understand how you can be so serious all the time.”

Edzie stood up, as prompted, and turned the katsun over in her hands, approximating some of her forms without moving far from the fire. “But mom, you're the most serious person in the tribe,” she objected matter-of-factly. She was disappointed that the katsun didn't immediately feel natural in her hand... she wasn't used to its balance or the girth of its handle... but she knew it wouldn't take her long to get used to it.

“Maybe,” Elkansa said, “but even I was childish once... a confrontational bully as a teenager, and a wiggling ball of fire as a little girl. I inherited my first katsun from my older sister, who left it with me when she moved west, and it never felt like my own. I thought it would be better if you felt connected to yours.”

Elkansa prodded the cuts of meat, and then stood up and retrieved her own katsun from the east wall of the gathering room. “Come,” she said, joining Edzie in the middle of the floor, “let's see if having a new weapon makes your forms better or worse.”

As the meat cooked, filling the gathering room with the smell of charred bovine, Edzie and her mother sparred, matching aggressive form with defensive, interjecting minor improvisations, Elkansa always staying a comfortable step ahead of Edzie's thrusts and feints. Before they were finished, the day's light had softened, and Stray had returned, and the room had grown uncomfortably warm. Stray watched, hypnotized, as Edzie and Elkansa exchanged blows, until the meat's sizzling reminded them to turn it over, and the family was forced to turn their attention to dinner preparations.

... ... ... ...

As the days shortened, and summer passed into fall, the great trees around the Denoria territory burst into autumn flame and then saw their leaves fall like ash to the earth. Edzie's twelfth birthday passed, and Stray's eleventh approached (he was a mid-winter child, born early in the year). For several months, Elkansa seemed to forget her promise to finish the katsun, and Edzie eventually stopped asking about it, having come to accept the weapon in its nascent state.

As autumn came to a brilliant end in the Pastures, the summer storms abated, and the tribe began its preparations for the winter. The official marker for the change of seasons was the Festival of Release, when the Denorians held their initiation ceremonies and feasted in honor of the huskins' mating season. Edzie and Stray had seen their older peers at the initiation trial, but they had never known any of the participants personally. Finally, this year, their friends Sola and Luna were going to be initiated, and so Edzie and Stray were given special priority as spectators.

When she was a little girl, Edzie had thought Sola and Luna were bound in some sort of magical twinship, dedicated respectively to the sun and moon. Eventually, she grew old enough to ask, and her mother explained the truth, which was much less interesting: their mothers had been close friends since they were children, and when they both became pregnant in the same year, they decided to coordinate the names of their daughters, in honor of their friendship. The girls grew up together and became inseparable, even as their mothers grew apart over the years.

Because their birthdays were only a season apart, they were initiated at the same Festival of Release. They were expected to be proud daughters of the tribe, vigorous and aggressive and full of explosive confidence, and the initiation trial was their chance to prove it. The tribe's hunters took care to trap two of the largest, most dominant grasscats for them to fight, and a great crowd of tribespeople assembled for the spectacle.

Sola's trial was the more challenging... her grasscat, though smaller (about twice an adult human's weight), was more calculating, keeping its distance until she cornered it and provoked it into an attack. When it struck, it was fierce and aggressive, clawing at her calf and then lunging for her throat when she stumbled. Sola had to regroup, and the adult onlookers betrayed some concern, though they didn't interfere. At last, on the second engagement, Sola clipped the grasscat across the muzzle, opening a nasty gash in its snout; as it recoiled, she speared it just inside its left forelimb, delivering the mortal blow.

Luna's trial was shorter, with less theatrics for the spectators, but it made a grave impression on Edzie, who was barely a few paces from the site of the killing blow. Luna's grasscat was very large, fully twice and a half the weight of a grown warrior, and it was more anxious and desperate than Sola's had been. Luna tried to bait it, encouraging a drawn-out exchange of advances, but at the first sign of danger, the grasscat attacked her viciously, going straight for the meat of her leg. Luna barely escaped, and she hardly had time to consider a new approach before the animal, clearly in a terrified frenzy, renewed its attack.

At that moment, Edzie saw something change in Luna's manner. It was subtle, but Edzie recognized it: a subtle shift in her stance and a quickening of her breathing, as Luna realized the severity of the situation. The grasscat was not going to give any quarter, and it was no longer Luna's reputation that was at stake, but her very life. When this realization struck her, she abandoned her forms and her strategy and replaced them with a purposeful brutality. At the height of its next lunge, the grasscat encountered the sharp edge of a katsun, its head split nearly in half by a merciless downward stroke.

Their initiations completed successfully, Sola and Luna spent the day celebrating. In the evening, they were subjected to their scarring ritual: each, in turn, was held by their parents, as Amiaverta, the Elder of Reckoning, inflicted wounds mirroring the mortal blows they delivered to their grasscats. Sola's was a deep “x” carved on her left breast, a bit below the shoulder; Luna's was a vertical slice, nearly bone-deep, from the top of her head to the bridge of her nose. Thus, for her grace, Sola was given a scar that could be displayed or obscured at will; for her ferocity, Luna's face was permanently marked, and she would have to wear it with Denorian pride. Nineteen other youths were initiated at the same festival, but Edzie and Stray didn't know them; as far as they were concerned, the rest of the Festival of Release was a whirlwind of feasting, dancing, and passing obliviously beneath the concerns of the adults.

As the winter wore on, Stray spent most of his time with Boyle, and slightly less, though still a majority, with Edzie. As she learned her forms, she taught them to Stray, and she was impressed and intimidated by his natural grace, his body's innate, almost poetic effortlessness. Stray kept the habit of visiting the watchtowers at certain routine opportunities – early in the mornings or right before dinner – and he grew friendly with all the women and men who kept the vigils. He seemed to like Genefre in particular.

Edzie remained dutiful in her studies and military exercises, and was never long parted from some borrowed book. After she killed her huskin, Elkansa started recruiting her for more adult tasks: helping with the herding, maintaining the public areas of the settlement, and running errands for neighbors who kept hours in the Handworkers' Row. Elkansa also started teaching Edzie about the politics around the tribe – points of authority and hostility, the relationships between the eight elders and the best-known families, the way to present yourself to strangers within the tribe. Edzie feigned an interest in these social games, but privately, she regarded them as trivialities. Her mind was caught up in the books she borrowed from Mistra Septa, and through them, she occupied a much wider, stranger world than Elkansa had time for.


2.15 - a map.

 

Here's a quick map of the Denoria Main Settlement. A note to any occasional readers: the next section (to be posted tomorrow) takes place mostly off this map, so don't let it confuse you. I'm just posting it because I wanted to include a little more visual reference and embellishment. In other words, it is a thing I made, and I am not patient enough to withhold it. Cheers!
maps_DenoriaSettlement_HandDrawn


2.2

Having slain her first live animal, and having Sola and Luna’s initiations on her mind, Edzie took a sudden interest in hunting and trapping, and so it became Stray’s interest by proxy, and then Boyle’s, as well. From Mistra Septa's books, she learned the tracks and habits of the animals that wandered these regions of the Pastures, and after some weeks of incessant nagging, she induced Elkansa to give her a short but productive demonstration of the setting of snare, pit, and deadfall traps. By the time the dry winter frost thawed and the warm air promised storms, she was getting antsy to take to the field. Thus, that spring, Stray found himself being roused from sleep by Edzie, just as dawn was breaking over the Pastures. The mere fact that Edzie was the first awake made this a rare and special occasion.

First, Edzie’s voice echoed in Stray’s dreams, which were a foggy soup of images and anxieties from the previous day. Presently, her words became clearer, and his lingering emotions began to fade, until he was just hearing his name, repeated insistently at sparse intervals. He peeled his eyes open and found her face hovering above him, a featureless silhouette in the cool light of dawn.

“Hey, are you ready?” she asked, keeping quiet. “We won’t catch anything if we wait til the middle of the day.”

He groaned and pushed his covers aside. “Hold on. Okay. Wait.” He couldn’t find an answer at the ready, so he mustered some irritated noises and tried to sit upright.

“Okay, hurry up,” she said. “I’ll go find Boyle.”

Edzie picked up her katsun – still a virginal weapon of naked wood – and stole across the path to Boyle’s dromo. Alynn and Dredda were in their gathering room, preparing something, when Edzie stuck her head in the front door and asked about Boyle. Dredda nodded toward his son’s room. “He’s usually up by now, so don’t worry about waking him.”

Edzie approached Boyle’s room, and found the light of a small thresh lamp illuminating a corner near the window. Boyle was indeed awake, and intensely involved in his work. He had taken the smooth wooden palette, wrapped it in a linen sheet, and propped it up against the wall. As Edzie watched, he stared at it for several seconds… five full breaths, by Edzie’s count… and then wiped something off the linen with his forearm and scrawled something new in its place.

Edzie waited patiently for the cycle to repeat, and just as Boyle put the pencil to the linen, she said, “HEY Boyle!”

Boyle jerked with a start and the pencil shattered, leaving a black streak across the linen. He turned around to face Edzie, his face a display of violent irritation. “Ugh, hi, Edzie. You messed me up. Is it time to go already?”

“I think I’m a little early,” Edzie said, without a hint of remorse, and then, taking Boyle’s silence as an invitation, she walked into his room and approached the linen. Under the black streak, there was a fairly intricate pattern of faceless animal and human figures, interspersed with more abstract shapes that might have been letters in some exotic alphabet.

“I like this,” she said, slightly regretting her interference in his hobby. “These letters look a little like the Badlander writing Mistra Septa showed us.” Boyle looked confused, so Edzie clarified. “In that book she passed around last month.”

“Oh, yeah. Funny, I forgot about that.”

“So you weren’t trying to make it look like that?” Edzie could scarcely believe the coincidence.

“No!” Boyle said, inexplicably defensive at the implication. “I just make things I feel like making. Aside from the animals, it’s not supposed to look like anything.”

Boyle cleaned up the shards of his drawing implement, and then retrieved his makeshift hunting weapon from under his cot. It was a wooden rod, probably scavenged from some debris around the settlement, with a notch whittled out of the end, and a sharpened bone fit into it and tied with a length of cord. It wasn’t exactly master craftsmanship, but Edzie figured it would do. She tried to hurry him along, but he demanded she wait another moment so he could dig a warmer brivsa out of his modest wardrobe.

Returning to Edzie and Stray’s dromo, they found Stray outside, tying up his footwraps and still blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He had donned a warm woolen brivsa, pulled the hood up over his ears, and drawn the scarf tightly around his nose and mouth. His weapon was a straight limb from some tree along the Splitmouth, smoothed out, with the end whittled to a point. Edzie privately wondered why he didn’t put some sort of hard tip on it, but it looked strong enough to work as a spear.

“Did you get the bread and fleurberries?” Edzie motioned toward the dromo. “They're in the canvas bundle on the table.” Stray hustled back inside, his weapon bouncing along in his grip, and came back out with their provisions. Edzie folded them into her waist-wrap and pulled it tight.

The three of them set out north, crossing the Splitmouth at the central ford, and Edzie directed them left at the main road. This brought them around to Handworkers’ Row, where Gransa the materials-trader was setting up her stall. Edzie borrowed a length of cord, a score of meters long, promising that she would bring it back, and if she broke it, she would pay for it in labor. Gransa made a show of reluctance, but she accepted, trusting in Elkansa’s honor, and in Edzie's by proxy.

Now fully equipped with spears, katsun, food, and a line for making snare traps, Edzie, Stray, and Boyle headed north, out of the settlement, and up an embankment that served as its informal border. From this rise, Edzie could see over several kilometers of Pasture land, a patchwork of deep wet green and jaundiced yellow, flecked with wooded ridges and striped with fissures where the granite bedrock peeked out of the landscape. A light rain had fallen during the night, drifting down from the warmer pastures to the north, and this front had brushed against the thawing earth around the Prospect, resulting in ribbons of fog obscuring parts of the landscape. Thus, under the overcast sky, a gray cloak of mist veiled the green and yellow grasses, whose seeds patiently awaited the imminent warmth of spring.

By the time the sun was high, they were beyond the furthest trafficked roads, crossing a scrubland that was stripped of trees and overgrown with weeds. Stray and Boyle kept seeing tracks and hearing noises in the brush, but Edzie continually urged them to be patient… game would be more plentiful further from the settlement, absent its noise and foot-traffic.

The difference was not dramatic, but her case held. Eventually, the settlement passed out of visual range, and the trees grew taller and more plentiful, mottling the landscape with Orebark groves and tangles of vegetation. Here, the noises became unmistakable: rustles of activity would greet them as they passed, and they recognized frequent hoof-tracks and deposits of excrement.

Eventually the hunters’ attention fell to a trace of boundeer hoofprints, leading off along the path and then diverting into the tall grasses. They turned and attempted to follow, assuming the animal was close by, so that for the first twenty minutes, they stalked along after it, pausing and listening and half-hiding every few steps. After they had covered a fair distance, it occurred to them that the tracks weren’t as fresh as they thought, and they fell into a steady pace, and then a brisk one, still stepping quietly and scanning for a sign of their prey.

The tracks continued, and as the hunters walked, their looking merged with their listening, both highly sensitized in the silence of the pastures. The absent body of the boundeer, all prancing legs and nervous eyes, became a voice, distinct in the sprawling murmur of the fields and brush, and the hoofprints, which the hunters continued to follow, became a transcription of that voice across the landscape, sometimes sparse and breathless, sometimes ruminating around some sapling whose leaves had been tentatively nibbled.

The tracks seemed to go on forever, an epic poem that never quite resolved, and the hunters ended up covering perhaps ten kilometers in their pursuit of the elusive boundeer. They scrambled up and down gentle slopes, the hills dry and dusty, the troughs spongy with mud. They narrowly circumvented lines of amberwood trees, generally clustered around granite ridges and stone protrusions breaking up the soft contours of the landscape. It was along one of these rocky patches that the hunters lost the boundeer’s trail… it might have picked up nearby, in some saturated dip in the soil, but Edzie was not an experienced tracker, and the boys were getting impatient anyway. At last, they gave up on the boundeer and looked for another trail to follow, trying to keep a westward bearing.

It was another hour before the trio stopped to reorient, which they did by making Boyle climb a young witherleaf tree. From its lowest branches, he could see a stunning panorama, a navigable landscape stretching off in all directions. To the southeast, he could barely see the settlement's western watchtower and a few plumes of smoke; to the west, the rolling hills dipped gradually, eventually reaching the Riverpath Road and the Tenebre River, massaging the shale on its riverbed. He promptly decided that it was further than he was willing to go.

To the south, a small herd of semi-domesticated huskin grazed, which – as Edzie soon explained – made that the worst possible hunting-ground. Just a bit north, there was a patchwork of rocky ridges and tree-lines, which was exciting in theory, but seemed a bit on the dangerous side. They eventually decided to continue westward, trying to get as close as possible to the Tenebre, despite knowing it was out of their reach. If they could reach the road, at least their walk back to the settlement would be easier.

Following a path through the tall grass – less a path than a slight thinning of the vegetation, a vanishing ribbon of navigable earth – the three hunters made their way west, down through mud and up across dry patches. Eventually, they stumbled through a tree-line and into a wide open field, bordered by woods on three sides. Another twenty paces onward, they were startled by a rabbit crossing their path, and the three of them all froze and followed the rustle of the leaves across the open ground. It seemed to scamper up a nearby rise, setting the whole field swaying in the breeze, and terminate in a tangle of underbrush at the foot of two lonely amberwood trees.

Stray was riveted. “Did you see it?”

“It was a shade hare,” Edzie answered cautiously. “I think it went into those trees.”

“Probably its warren,” Boyle observed.

Reduced to the softest of whispers, the three planned a strategic approach. Stray would go first, taking a long route along the back of the grove, and Boyle would approach from the right side. Stray would flush it out, and Boyle would box it in if it came his way, herding it toward Edzie. Edzie hoped that she could get close enough to skewer it as it crossed her path. She borrowed Boyle’s spear, which seemed more appropriate for this task, and gave him her katsun as collateral. She and Stray decided on a sign, so she could notify him when she was ready.

The maneuver was executed with care and precision – Stray stalked around the rear of the trees, seeming to take forever as far as Edzie and Boyle were concerned – and by the time he was approaching from the opposite side, Edzie was poised to throw. Boyle and Stray both hesitated, standing perfectly still in their positions, watching for Edzie to make her sign.

Finally, she gave it, and Stray let out a war cry and charged at the amberwood trees. They were right about the shade hare hiding within, and it burst forth in a panic, but it saw Edzie before it got anywhere near her. Fully a dozen paces from her position, it veered hard into the gap between Stray and Edzie, making for the clear field in the distance. Edzie barely had a second, but she cast the spear in the hare’s direction anyway. The three hunters watched it sail through the air, disappear into the weeds, and – they could only assume – flop ineffectually to the ground.

The three hunters reconvened, and after a couple minutes of searching, they found the spear. There was no rabbit, but miraculously, the spear had a tuft of hair stuck along one edge, and there might have been a spatter of blood in the ground (though Boyle thought it was just some darker dirt).

Edzie and Boyle were disappointed, but not defeated, and Stray was actually marginally encouraged, having suspected that their hunting excursion might be completely futile. They decided, for the moment, they would head for the river without taking any more detours, but Edzie insisted they set a snare trap first, on the off-chance that the rabbit might come back to the grove after they left. She found what looked like a small nest – no young, but a carefully-crafted little bed of chewed-up grass and twigs – and she set the trap around it, doing her best to keep her fingers off the nest itself. She used two amberwood twigs as stakes and constructed a delicate trigger between them; looping Gransa’s cord into a noose, she fastened the other end to one of the low-hanging amberwood branches and pulled it taut. She gathered a few small berries from the shade of the amberwood trees, and added these to the nest, hoping to sweeten the lure.

This process, which was supposed to be quick, took her more than an hour, and by the time the hunters left for the river, they were all privately preoccupied with their growing hunger.

The next tree-line concealed a short, severe rock face, whose shale had been worn away by running water, creating a shelf in the shade of the orebark trees. Under this rise, which only extended about fifteen feet above them, the hunters cleared a space to eat their blusterwheat bread and fleurberries. The victuals were simple, barely the skeleton of a Denorian breakfast, but it was welcome after their long trek across the settlement's peripheral fields. They had gone perhaps twelve kilometers, and the dawn had turned to late morning, and then early afternoon.

There was a short dispute over who got which piece of bread, but once they loosened their brivsas to eat, both Stray and Boyle went quiet, and Edzie felt compelled to fill the silence. In searching for a suitable topic of mealtime conversation, her mind returned to that morning in Boyle's house, when she had cheekily interrupted his private pursuit. Between bites of bread, she floated this as a possible topic.

“So that thing you do… the canvas-marking…”

“Drawing,” Boyle said. “That’s what my dad calls it. He learned about it while he was away from the tribe, before I was born.”

Stray remained silent, taking note of the conversation, even as he kept his eyes trained on his fistful of food: a bread-crust, folded over several fleurberries, leaving red stains on his fingers. He had talked to Boyle about this before, and he was wondering how much Edzie would get out of him on the topic.

“So your father taught you?” Edzie inquired, circumspect but clearly curious. “I don’t know any Denorians who do that.”

“Yeah, dad says our tribe has no aptitude for it. But I used to scratch markings into the floor of our hut and the wood of our furniture til my fingernails bled, so dad told me I should try drawing instead. Mom didn’t like it at first, but she’s learned it helps me think better.” He paused to take a bite of his bread, then continued, spewing crumbs as he talked. “Dad says he’s bad at it, but he showed me how to hold the pencil and set up the canvas. Mistra Gita showed me some books with a lot of pictures: ones that look just like real life, and others that look more like… feelings, I guess. I like drawing the second type better.”

“And is that how the pictures get in our books, too?” Stray asked, leaving the question open for either Boyle or Edzie to answer.

Boyle shrugged. “I think so, except there are monks down in the Citadel who are specially trained to copy pictures exactly, and they’re the ones that make the books.”

Edzie elaborated, drawing from her reservoir of knowledge she had culled from the Mistras’ libraries. “Yeah, it’s actually a totally different practice. Before the copyists can make their copies of all these books, someone has to make the first book – the manuscript – by thinking up all the text and creating the pictures.” She glanced up at Stray and Boyle in turn. “That’s more like what Boyle does, because he draws new things, instead of drawing things from other peoples’ pictures. In the River Kingdoms, the word is ‘artist.’”

“But there are no artists in our tribe?” Stray asked, vaguely troubled by this thought.

“No, except the monks who decorate their robes.” Edzie looked over at Boyle. “But I'm glad you can do it, Boyle. Your markings look really good.”

Boyle smiled in return, unaccustomed to positive feedback. There was a lull, then, and after a few minutes of eating and discarding their scraps, the three companions launched into a vigorous debate over whether or not they should keep going. Edzie wanted to follow the ridge, and didn't seem concerned with getting home at any particular time; Boyle knew he would have to check in with his parents, but he wasn't comfortable advocating for himself. Stray took up the position that they should turn back, partly on Boyle's behalf, and finally, after some barking and eye-rolling, they chose this as their consensus. They all agreed to circle back to the settlement via the watchtower, after stopping off at their snare trap and collecting Gransa's cord.

Edzie approached the grove a few steps behind Stray and Boyle, and even before she could see the snare, she could tell something was wrong. Her body cried out a warning, something triggered by the shifts in the foliage, the creased and divided grasses, the scent of dust in the air. Still, she wasn’t trained to respond to these kinds of instincts, so she just hurried to join her companions, who were just entering the grove. She was only a few steps back when she heard Stray.

“Something happened to the snare. It’s tripped, but there’s nothing in it. Everything’s all torn up back here.”

Edzie joined Stray and Boyle and surveyed the empty warren. Stray was entirely correct… the snare had certainly been tripped, but its loop hung empty, with traces of blood and fur on the cord and on the ground below. The underbrush was trampled, much more roughly than a shade hare could have managed. She started untying the cord with nimble fingers, her eyes darting over the tall grasses nearby.

Before she had finished, Boyle found the bootprints, leading off conspicuously to the north. They weren’t Denorian, nor tracable to any of the Concordance tribes, who stepped lightly, with bare feet, footwraps, and bound leather soles. These were the heavy imprints of boots, leather or wood, with a tread carved into the flat soles. Edzie thought of the caravans she saw along the Cragstep Road, heading toward the mountains to trade or pay tribute at the Temple Envoclajiz.

Boyle gained some nervous confidence, practically insisting that they hurry back to the settlement to let their parents know about the strange tracks. Edzie, whose dangerous curiosity was in perfect counterpoint with Boyle's trepidation, demanded that they follow the tracks into the brush. Whoever was around had ruined their trap, after all, and they had come a long way to return empty-handed. Stray became the deciding vote, and though his honorable and conservative instincts shivered in the face of this reckless diversion, his love and loyalty for Edzie finally won out (helped along, of course, by the heat of his own hunger for adventure). They set off, following the tracks deep into the fields, toward the rougher, woodsier ground to the north.


2.3

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.


Ch. 3: New Faces


3.05 - the tribes

Eight Tribes of the Concordance


3.1

For several weeks, rumors about the criminal and the Protectorate soldiers circulated through the settlement, and among the younger tribespeople – those impressionable adolescents who had heard vague stories of the Prefect's enforcers, but had never seen them in the flesh – these rumors took on a troubling, sinister tone. Some of the youths thought Dormoroy Gesk had killed Denorians, or that he had laid a curse upon the settlement with his parting words of resentment. Others did not understand what he had done wrong, having only seen him as a crippled, embattled prisoner, and the more sensitive of these betrayed some fear of the Protectorate agents themselves, who had carried such mysterious authority with them.

The parents of the Denorian children tried to calm the rumors by relating relevant bits of history and law, but many of them weren't skilled in storytelling. In order to allay the fears of the young Denorians and control the circulation of gossip, the four Mistras eventually held a joint lesson. On a mild afternoon, all the young Denorians were encouraged – nigh required – to gather in the central court of the settlement. Only Baliban's students had leeway in this, because most of them lived far on the other side of the settlement, and Baliban promised to hold a separate session for them.

So, in front of a crowd of nearly eight hundred young Denorians, ranging from four to sixteen years in age, Baliban told the story of the Mekonic Decrees, the centuries-old laws of conduct that Dormoroy Gesk had violated.

... ... ... ...

Some five hundred years ago, there was a stray century when the Templars of the Upriver Kingdoms coexisted with the blossoming bureaucracy of the Delta. The seats of these kingdoms were Callibreath, far up the Tempus River, and Tempustide, the young city at its mouth. The Templars' influence was waning, fading from the world like a fog in the morning twilight, but their Order still echoed with the memory of its own greatness, and all the people of the great river still looked to its monks for their approval and knowledge of the world.

Where Callibreath was governed by the Templars, Tempustide was ruled by the Prefect, and by 2330, that office was already the most powerful position in the river kingdoms... indeed, in all of Pantempus, the known world. The reigning Prefect at the time was Prefect Elle, the first matriarch from the second line of successors. She was generous and diligent, and the troubles that afflicted the kingdom during her reign were truly a cruel misfortune.

Within her sanctum, there was a noble house called Grail, whose eldest son, at the height of his ambition, was in line for the Prefecture. Grail III had a strength of character, a romantic wildness, that infected the whole city of Tampustide, and the citizens felt they were finally ready for the first male Prefect. It was only those close to Grail III – some in his own house, and some in Prefect Elle's administration – that recognized in him a recklessness, a hunger that was too dangerous for the Prefecture. Prefect Elle was compelled, at the height of her reign, to revoke the promise of succession and give it to her own youngest daughter. The latter may not have even wanted it... scholarship differs on this point... but in a time of stirred emotion, she was the only safe option for the kingdom's future.

Lord Grail did not react well to being spurned by the Prefect. Wielding his gifts of influence and charisma, he began gathering an army of soldiers, and his network of support spread across the River Kingdoms. He found Bhijanica and the Tidelands to be fertile with sympathy for his cause, and he channeled untold resources to his most trusted craftsmen and engineers, bidding them to experiment with technologies of destruction and war. Where the soldiers of the Protectorate fought with the ancient weapons of handle, chain, and blade, Grail's army began using devices that loosed tiny projectiles, rapidly and at a high enough velocity to tear a person's flesh from her bones.

The followers of House Grail fought for three generations, and their war nearly tore the kingdoms asunder. The years were marked by assassinations (among them Prefect Elle II) and diplomatic conflicts over whether to appease or to oppose Grail's revolutionary army. Meanwhile, Grail's burgeoning estate became a haven for engineers, and soon he had outfitted an army with fire-armaments, and was developing a warship that floated like a cloud and could destroy whole towns without fear of defense or retaliation.

Prefect Elle II responded to Grail's escalations by creating her own military technology program, but she began too late, and House Grail's weaponry allowed it to remain dominant in the conflicts that engulfed the kingdoms. The historians remember well the prophecy of Grail IV, who killed herself in Tempustide's foreplaza, choking on her own promise that her daughter would deliver the Delta Kingdoms into her arms on the other side of the iron and fire. They also remember the Night of the Beacon, in which the followers of House Grail managed to light fires on the roofs of all the ancient temples of Callibreath, proclaiming the city a spiritual conquest.

Grail III and IV had a far-ranging strategic vision, and they were patient and diligent, but the rebel family's sights were always fixed on Tempustide and the Prefecture. Grail V, being possessed with her family's ambition but lacking their patience, finally gathered all her willing supporters and her formidable army of war machines and laid siege to Tempustide itself, ready to take it by force, destroying it completely if necessary. At the resulting Battle of Tempustide, the forces of the Prefecture – weakened by a long war of resource management and attrition – were overwhelmed, and it looked as though the city would fall.

Salvation came through a Paladin, an artist of war who had been trained at the Citadel and the Envoclajiz, who had been a lesser adviser to the Prefect for nearly a decade. This young adviser was named Nova, may his name be honored in the annals of the Echo. In the desperation of those final weeks, Nova created a network of compromised enemy soldiers, operators, and administrators, and when the Battle of Tempustide reached its peak, he leveraged this network to gain access to the enemy's command center and lead a series of precision strikes on Grail's tactical centerpieces. Nova was personally responsible for capturing Grail V, and he brought her, alive, to the interim governing council of Tempustide, who presented her to the public to account for her crimes.

This was a bittersweet win for an embattled kingdom... Prefect Elle II had been assassinated in those final escalating engagements, and Tempustide was being ruled by an interim council with no obvious successor to choose. Realizing the danger, Nova stepped into the vacuum and assumed the Prefecture. He earned the approval of the populace he had delivered, and ruled for twenty years, two decades beset by uncertainty and misfortune. Out of fear and respect, the industrial sector – engineers, applied scientists, and manufacturers – abruptly halted their development, which had been spurred into wild progress by the war. However, the knowledge that Grail had unlocked – flying vessels, engineered weaponry, machines created to replicate objects at unimaginable volume – were now common knowledge, and the public struggled to form a consensus regarding the ethical and practical value of such dangerous processes.

Eventually, Prefect Nova sensed that his kingdom was pulsing with tension and anxiety, desperate for a new era and an act of compassion and guidance in the shadows of dire knowledge. Having earned the unwavering, almost fanatical trust of the people of the Delta, he called an abrupt conference with all the leaders of the River Kingdoms: a host of Templars from Callibreath, a board of nobles and officials from Tempustide, and an array of recognized governors from the surrounding cities.

These counselors, who numbered twenty-eight, would eventually find their names permanently inscribed in the history of Pantempus. During this extended session, they drafted the Mekonic Decrees, a document strictly governing the intersection of technology, power, and violence. This document laid the groundwork for a great many laws established over the next century, and the decrees eventually earned an elevated cultural status as universal norms. They were built around four taboos, based on the methodological innovations that House Grail had put to such destructive use:

 

FIRST, no person shall create a weapon that uses combustion of chemical or mineral to destructive ends, e.g. those which engineers call "firearms," "explosives"

SECOND, no person shall produce substances that differ at a molecular level from what's yielded up by the Earth, e.g. those which engineers call "plastics" and "synthetic polymers"

THIRD, no person shall create a machine whose purpose is the replication of objects, simple or complex, at high volume, without human intervention, which engineers call "mass production"

FOURTH, no person shall create a device that robs the Earth of her power, stores it in chemical form, and releases it by conduction through plates, wires, or contact between metals

 

And then, having set forth these principles, Prefect Nova announced his resignation and self-exile from the kingdom, naming as his successor Prefect Organis I. Her line ruled wisely for many years.

When the Mekonic Decrees were instituted, the Protectorate – the infamous law enforcement agency of the Prefect – had already existed for two centuries, and their detachments had spread throughout all the civilized cities of Pantempus. When the Mekonic Decrees became the law of the land, they quickly became one of the first enforcement priorities of the Protectorate, who pledged to uphold them wherever the laws of the Prefecture held sway. Enforcing the decrees still constitutes a major part of their mission... perhaps the largest part.

Since the Binding Pact, wrought during the Age of Names, the eight tribes of the Concordance – of whom we are one, as you all know – have kept peace and partnership with the River Kingdoms. We plainsfolk have always agreed with the Prefect's stance on military technology, and though we do not have the need or the means to enforce these laws ourselves, we always cooperate in extraditing offenders to the Protectorate agents. We will not suffer the abominations of technological diffusion in our lands, and we are proud of our alliance, and of the peace we have maintained for these passing millennia. It is for our own sake, and your sake, that we respect these decrees, and maintain our partnership with the Protectorate enforcers.

The man whom some of you may have seen, and who many of you have heard about – Dormoroy Gesk – was carrying a forbidden object, in violation of the Mekonic Decrees, presumably as a courier between criminal factions. When he was exposed as a criminal, he tried to cause harm to some of our own tribespeople, and it was their own competence that saved them and led to his capture. The people who came here in the aftermath – the armored soldiers on horseback – were Protectorate peacekeepers. We handed the criminal over to them, and they are now bearing him back to Horizon, where he will be tried and punished, harshly but fairly, for his crimes against the kingdom.

... ... ... ...

This was at least the second time Stray had heard this bit of history, and Edzie, for her part, was intimately familiar with it, having read about it countless times. Still, it felt new, not only because Baliban spoke with a special sort of intimacy, but also because this was the children's first time seeing the consequences of the decrees played out before their eyes. When Baliban finished, dozens of arms shot up, open-handed for those wanting to ask a question, and closed-fisted for those wanting to answer one, or make an observation.

Stray held his hand up for a few minutes, but then another young Denorian asked his question: what punishments awaited the stranger, now that he had been apprehended and remanded to Protectorate custody? The adolescents in the crowd hoped for something sensational and salacious... a beheading, or a trial by fire... and it was all Baliban could do to smooth out the edges of their lurid curiosity. He told them that the Mekonic offense would be tried first, in Tempustide, under the laws of the Prefect. Once that sentence was declared, Dormoroy would be tried for the murders in its victims' native municipality. Between the two crimes, Dormoroy might face decades of labor and isolation, enough to keep him banished from Pantempus for the forseeable future. He remarked, cryptically, that the murders might earn Dormoroy a capital sanction, but when the younger children asked what this meant, he declined to explain it.

At last, after nearly an hour of dialogue with the young Denorians, the Mistras brought the lesson to a close, and the students began to disperse. Stray found Boyle and Ghada, and they left for the Chronoboros, chattering about their next means of amusement. Edzie declined to join them, thinking she might go home and read, or spend some time practicing her forms with her mother and Mistra Septa.

As Edzie was leaving the central court, she was intercepted by Sola, whose initiation had gone so well the previous year. Luna, her inseparable friend, lingered a few feet away. Edzie didn't remember either of them being in attendance at the lecture... they were too old for this sort of lesson at this point... but they had obviously been nearby, perhaps looking for Edzie, and certainly ready to catch her eye.

“Hello, Edzie,” Sola said, sounding cheerful.

“Hi, Sola,” Edzie replied, and then looked at the other girl. “Hi, Luna.”

“We hear you got a new katsun from Rodra, and that's what you used to kill that Riverlander who was sneaking around our lands.” There was a suppressed note of fascination in Sola's voice, and if Edzie were older and wiser, she would have noticed an edge of jealousy. Luna watched with silent interest.

“Not kill him...” Edzie stuttered, shy at the attention from the older girls.

“Well, no, I spoke wrong. But that's how you disarmed him, anyway. Me and Luna were wondering if we could see it.” She glanced at Luna, and then back to Edzie. “We heard Rodra makes some of the best ones, and yours has a special distinction now.”

Edzie couldn't very well refuse, and though she was still feeling shy, she felt a glimmer of vain pride in her weapon and her accomplishment. She politely assented to the request, and presently found herself leading Sola and Luna south from the central court, across the Splitmouth on one of the rafts, and then along the path to Edzie's dromo. The three of them stopped there for a few minutes, and Sola and Luna waited in the gathering room, chatting with Elkansa, while Edzie fetched her katsun. The two teenage girls each handled it in turn, weighing it and showing off their attack forms.

"Feels good," Sola pronounced.

Luna raised an eyebrow. "Well, it'll feel better once it's got an edge."

Edzie nodded politely, and Elkansa, preparing her midday meal at the basin counter, pretended not to hear the remark.

"Well, yeah," Sola conceded. "I just meant it feels well-balanced. Of course having a little extra weight at the thrusting end will do it a lot of good."

Sola executed a couple more shadow strikes, and then handed the katsun back to Edzie. "It's nice, Edzie. Good job with the trespasser, too." She glanced at Luna, and then said, "Well, we're going down to the Dock Town. We'll see you about." Edzie acknowledged awkwardly; Luna was already half-way out the front door.

"Hey, girls," Elkansa interjected, confirming that she was indeed paying attention, "do you think Edzie could come with you? She spends so much time with those boys... I think she could stand to get out and meet some of the other village-folk."

Sola visibly hesitated. "I'm not sure the fishermen would really be... Ahh..."

"She can handle it," Elkansa interrupted. "Maybe she can even get a fishing lesson. How's that sound, Edzie?"

Edzie scowled with dismay that she would lose valuable reading time, but she quashed the thought, knowing it was a bad idea to spurn her mother's suggestion. Instead, she assented, though she wasn't sure what value there was in such a trip. Sola cast a glance at Luna, whose face was rigid with annoyance, and shrugged her shoulders.

Thus Edzie followed Sola and Luna to the fishing pier at the far south edge of the settlement, along the bank of the wide, white Prospect River. The older girls maintained a steady chatter as they walked, discussing their practice schedules, their opinions of the various Mistras and younger warriors in the tribe, and their plans for the winter. Edzie understood most of it -- certainly more than the older girls were assuming -- but she found it terminally uninteresting, preferring to note the scenery and ponder the story she was reading in one of Mistra Septa's books.

Her current literature told the story of Tumbler Morida, a legendary Caesurite monk from the time of the Breach Wars. A vast legion of Fishers – the hardy, reclusive barbarian people from beyond the mountains – had found a way to cross the impenetrable Crag Mountains, and they intended to engulf Pantempus's peaceful civilizations: first the Concordance, and then the rest of the plains, and ultimately the river and delta kingdoms, as well.

At the time, the Caesurite Monks lived in the Envoclajiz, perched on the summit of Gryffepeak; deep below, the city of Gryff quietly prospered in the shadow of the temple. When the Fisher army reached Gryff, they annihilated it within a day, and then turned their attention to the Envoclajiz. The monks, many of them veterans and tacticians, were able to stave off the Fishers' attacks, though they lost half their number.

When the Fishers attacked, the monks – acting in desperation – sent an initiate named Morida down the mountain to get word to the Concordance. The monks held out for three days, and somehow, by means that had passed into myth, Morida got to the foot of the mountain and met with the elders of the Solavera tribe. The Solavera rallied an army of Concordance warriors, and though the resulting war was devastating, costing the eight tribes as many as twenty thousand casualties, the Fisher warlord was routed, and both the Concordance and the Envoclajiz were left standing.

Normally, Morida's journey would have taken as long as two weeks. The fact that she made it in three days led to centuries of speculation: perhaps she was favored by Dissadae, and discovered some arcane emanence that allowed her to float like a feather from the mountaintop? However her miracle was accomplished, she had been christened the honorary patron of messengers, and her name had been permanently inscribed in the histories, including the one Edzie was currently reading.

Edzie was pulled out of her reminiscence as the three girls reached the bank of the Splitmouth where it fed into the Prospect River. This was the Splitmouth's namesake: the waters of the stream diverged here, creating a small island and a riverscape of rocky protrusions and swift rapids. There was a series of wooden bridges, just wide enough for a single pedestrian, with no guard rails, traversing the mouth of the stream by hopping from shallow to island to shallow to shore. Edzie had to concentrate to follow her companions, who crossed with graceful nonchalance.

As they navigated the island, Edzie asked the question that had been nagging at her since she left home. "So what do you do at the fishing pier? Are we just going to fish?"

"That, and also talk to the menfolk down there,” Sola confirmed. “They're really nice, and a lot more interesting than all the tribeswomen we deal with all day."

Edzie found this puzzling, but she noted to herself that she spent most of her time with Stray, Boyle, and Ghada, and they were indeed more interesting than her female peers. Edzie even felt threatened and stifled by Sola and Luna themselves... their casual confidence, their assumption of authority... and she felt the same about all the women in her tribe, both adolescents and adults. There was some irony in that now, in one of her rare female bonding experiences, she was following them to socialize with a bunch of itinerant males by the fishing pier... but irony wasn't something that Edzie had learned to recognize, so she just felt a passing note of amusement as she hastened across the stream.

Presently, Edzie discerned the row of wooden docks, some floating and anchored to the riverbed, others elevated above it on sunken pilings. A muddy path led from one dock to the next, and a row of fisherman's huts lined it on the other side. The whole stretch of earth smelled offensive, partly from fish, and partly from rampant waste and refuse that the fishermen allowed to stagnate around their homes.

The fishermen all seemed to be loitering on the docks, observed by a few matriarchs who lounged at the front doors of their huts. The men, many shirtless, with greasy hair and balding heads and scruffy faces and backs, were collected into groups of two or three, chatting and chuckling boisterously as they waited for their lines to bob. A couple of the nearest yelled greetings to Sola and Luna as they came into view. The nearest woman, a broad-bodied matriarch sitting on the porch outside a hut, sneered at the three girls, saying nothing.

Everything about the experience -- the smell, the immodest men, the fishy mud of the path -- prompted a certain revulsion in Edzie. Her reaction echoed a whole conditioned history of distrust toward these outsiders, who were known to be transients and degenerates, merely tolerated by the tribe, rather than welcomed. None of them came from Denorian families -- most had traveled here from the towns along the Delta, or they had come from the disputed territory to the north, where some wandering tribespeople kept contact with the hostile Fisher Kingdoms across the mountains. Somewhere, these itinerant exiles had learned to harvest food from the sea. This was not something the Concordance tribes generally did.

"Hallo, ladies!" the nearest fisherman yelled, excited for the girls to join him on the dock. Sola and Luna did so, greeting him and his friends cheerfully, and waving politely to the woman on the porch. She did not wave back.

"And who's this then?" the first man grunted, looking towards Edzie with a raking grin. His black hair was heavy with dust and sweat, and fell below his shoulders. His jawline had a light dusting of black scruff, and his weathered skin had the pallid tone of the natives of the Delta. There was something inked on his back, but Edzie didn't get a chance to look at it.

"I'm Edzie, from up in the center of town," Edzie replied.

"Allo, Edzie, I'm Eryff. Eryff Afekt, they called me back home, but no need for you tribesfolk to remember both names." He glanced up at Sola. "So you're watchin' her for someone? Or..."

"We said we were coming down here, and she wanted to see the place," Sola replied, only slightly distorting the truth. "And her mom thinks she should learn to fish."

Eryff turned from Sola to Edzie, looking genuinely surprised. "Your mom, you say? Who's that?"

"Elkansa."

"Ah, right, I know the one. Hasn't talked to me much, but sometimes talks to Pithri about tribe business." He glanced back at the woman on the porch, and then returned to the matter at hand. "Anyway, must be a sensible woman! You plainsfolk generally don't care too much for fishing. Useful skill, though, if you ever get caught out in the woods. You know any of the basics, girl?"

Edzie knew there was something about string and sticks and live flesh used as bait, but she didn't know anything about setting a hook, trolling, or reeling in a catch. Eryff explained these concepts, each in turn, using his own line to demonstrate. Sola and Luna clearly thought the whole display very charming, and even Edzie might have been taken with Eryff, if it weren't for his unfamiliar smell. Still, she listened closely, and before long, she was holding her own line in one hand, waiting for a tug, as the older girls and the fishermen chatted behind her.

Among the three men now on the dock, Eryff was clearly the dominant personality. The others may have been cousins, or old friends, but they knew him well, and their dynamic was firmly entrenched. When Eryff spoke, the others deferred to his voice, and most of their remarks reinforced the conversations he was driving. He spoke roughly of the hardship of being on the road, of the hazards of hunting in the forests to the north, and of the many reasons he appreciated Concordance women.

As this latter topic progressed, Edzie came into some awareness of the dynamic that had formed around Sola and Luna. They were still young -- living with their parents, and therefore off limits to serious suitors -- but both of their bodies had developed significantly in the past two years, taking on the proportions of grown women, all elegant contours around their muscular frames. Edzie could see that the men who were not talking to them... Eryff's two fishermen friends, plus some of the others on the adjacent docks...were scanning them and assessing them with a furtive hunger in their eyes. Eryff seemed the least blatant about this, but if anything, it was because his vanity was satisfied by being the center of attention.

As for Sola and Luna themselves, they were making a visible effort to ignore the ogling. Edzie could see that they were conscious of it, and from the way they were shifting their weight across their hips and tossing their hair, they secretly appreciated it. Something about this whole spectacle made Edzie anxious and uncomfortable, so she turned back to her fishing line and gazed into the water.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be excruciatingly boring.

When she could no longer stand the tedium, Edzie tied her string to a pole mounted on the corner of the pier -- a rod, slightly flexible, that allowed the bait to continue bobbing without the dedicated care of the fish-catcher -- and left the dock, hazarding nary a glance at the socializing adults as she passed. She sensed that it would be rude to leave completely, but she wanted to get away from their awkward sexual chemistry. She reached the muddy path, hesitated for a moment, and then crossed it and approached the woman on the porch of the house.

The woman was well beyond the bloom of maidenhood, though she wasn't elderly, either. Edzie guessed she was a bit younger than her mother. The woman wore a burlap tunic with a mesh outer layer, and her legs were shamelessly bare, folded up beneath her. She had a fierce burst of curly black hair that fell over her ears and suddenly terminated, hovering just above her shoulders. Her eyes were fixed on the distance until she spoke.

"What then?" she prompted, affecting surliness as Edzie approached her space.

"You're Pithri, right?" Edzie said, remembering the name Eryff had just used. The woman nodded, and Edzie gave a little bow. "I'm Edzie. I came with my friends, but they're all caught up talking to your men, and I got bored."

"Those two are your friends? Then you must get bored a lot." Pithri snorted. "I don't know how they don't all just get bored of themselves, posturing like that. Damn unwomanly."

Edzie was not fluent in the languages of desire and jealousy, but she had an instinct for navigating conversations. Sensing the ire in Pithri's voice, she spoke with an intentional vagueness. "They... seem to like them. Your men, I mean."

"Aye, the comic stupidity of young women," Pithri replied. "Eryff gives off a whiff of danger, he's got the look of a challenge... Not something girls their age find in young boys. As soon as they start noticing the bad habits... The running off, the petty lust, the show with no substance... They'll learn better, and stay here with their people, where they belong."

"Why do you travel with them?" Edzie asked, her curiosity driving away any concern for tact. "You don't seem to like them very much."

Pithri was stone-faced for a moment, and Edzie was afraid she might lash out at her. Instead, she got quiet. "Edzie, you say... You're Elkansa's girl?" Edzie nodded and remained quiet, allowing Pithri to continue. "Your mom's got a good set-up here. Your people love her. She's the kind of woman those two whelps will grow into one of these days." She leaned back, then, her expression loosening. "Well, not all of us have a tribe, like she's got. Me, I had to make my own."

"Where'd you meet Eryff?" Edzie asked, sensing that this was the unspoken fulcrum of this conversation.

Pithri seemed guarded as she told her story, but it quickly became apparent that she was just being patient, and careful. She was the youngest daughter of a poor but upwardly-mobile family from the outer districts of Tempustide, the Delta's capital city. Pithri's mother had sworn that her daughter would join the Protectorate, and had groomed her for this role her whole life. For a struggling family in Tempustide, having a daughter in the Protectorate conferred countless advantages... For some, it meant a way to escape from the cycle of petty crime, a respectable means of providing an income to the family. For others, it meant almost the opposite: a contact within the city's only law enforcement agency, allowing the family's illegal endeavors to go on unhindered.

Pithri was viscerally opposed to this expectation, so she refused the only way she knew how: she gave her love to an outsider, a migrant fisherman traveling through the Tempustide markets, and she let him spirit her away on his journey up the Tempus River. Over the years, Eryff had become her occasional lover, her trophy romance, and her only confidante. She fought for him when he needed her (he had the typical masculine excess of strength and dearth of grace), and her presence conferred respectability in the cities they passed through. His gift to her: the chance to be an outsider, the ability to live a life wherein she did not have to bear the burden of her family's welfare.

As Pithri told her story to Edzie, they watched Eryff, Sola, and Luna, first flirting and exchanging witticisms, and then fiddling with the men's fishing equipment, and then sparring with practice-blades that lay about the docks. Edzie gradually became aware of the design inked on Eryff's back... A primitive outline of a female figure towering above a layer of crudely-illustrated clouds. When Edzie realized what she was looking at, she felt a shock of disgust at the figure's grinning face, whose eyes and mouth were painstakingly detailed with abstract pupils and teeth. Edzie was too disturbed to look away for a moment.

"Edzie?" Pithri's voice became curious and insistent. "Something wrong?"

Edzie's mind was reeling, and she couldn't pinpoint where the anxiety was coming from. "Eryff's tattoo..." she finally said. "Who... Why would somebody put the face on it like that?"

Pithri clearly wasn't surprised by this reaction. "Right, you plainsfolk and the faces. He always covers that up when you Denorians are around. Sola and Luna eventually got used to it, when he explained it a few times over, but you're still new here." She yelled out to Eryff, then. "AY! COVER UP OL' PAPA! YOU'RE GIVIN' EDZIE A TWITCH!"

Eryff went looking for a torso wrap, and Pithri turned back to Edzie, who was not only still shaken, but was suddenly a bit confused. She looked to the older woman for an explanation.

"I know you Concordance tribesfolk have a problem with anyone drawing faces on anything, but you should know... The rest of the world doesn't care. Lots of artists put faces on their drawings. Most of them, really." She put a gentle hand on Edzie's shoulder. "We actually had to help Sola and Luna understand, back when they first saw it... you young ones don't even realize it's happening. Whenever your moms see a mark that looks like a face... even just two dots and a line, or sometimes just three dots... they rub it out like it's poison. If any of you kids makes a mark like that, your parents go mad, yelling about it without even really telling you why."

Edzie struggled to process this, hardly comprehending and barely believing it. She did know that there was an old story, told by her mother, that came to mind when she thought of the drawn face... a story about the first humans, and the face being the sacred sign of its animating spirit. She couldn't put the pieces together, though, so she blurted out, "I just think it's ugly."

"Fair enough," Pithri said, and let the topic rest.

The two of them stood in silence for a few minutes, watching the others carouse by the water, and then Eryff's voice summoned their attention. "Hey Edzie!" She and Pithri looked down and found themselves at the mercy of Eryff's handsome gaze. "I think you got one!"

And then Eryff was tugging at the line, wrapping it around his big hands, and then a small fish was flopping around on the dock beside him, suffocating in the afternoon air.


3.2

Edzie tried to scale the fish, with Eryff supervising, but she was squeamish, and she suffered from a crippling case of distraction... her thoughts always going back to the face imprinted on Eryff's back, causing her to recoil from his tutelage. Eventually, she gave up on the fish, and Pithri took it from her and finished preparing it. Edzie surrendered to her discomfort and asked to be excused, claiming she wanted to get home for her midday meal.

A few minutes later, she passed out of the smells of the fishing village and Docktown, and her discomfort faded as quickly as it had transpired. Instead of heading straight home, she cut through the intervening fields, passing to the west of her dromo. The day was still young, she reasoned, and she had already attended a lesson... she was ready to join the boys at the Chronoboros, and maybe tell them about her lesson in fish-catching.

Cutting across foot-paths, skipping through gardens and avoiding the weary glances of passing adults, she forded the Splitmouth and continued by the path that led north past Mistra Septa's pavilion. Finally, having walked for nearly an hour, she neared the open court around the Chronoboros, with its serene carpet of scrubby grass, its single towering witherleaf tree, and its small conferences of adults, lost in private conversations.

There, at the other end, she saw two figures: one sitting on a marker, the other standing over him and offering a consoling hand.

Edzie's gaiety turned abruptly to alarm. The figure on the marker was Boyle, apparently in distress, trying to suppress his tears (as Edzie had seen him do often enough in the past). The figure above him was Ghada, leaning over and putting a hand on his shoulder. Stray was nowhere to be seen. Edzie was thoroughly alarmed, but she knew she had a tendency to be insensitive at these moments, so she approached slowly and kept her distance. When Ghada looked up at her, his brow was furrowed with concern.

“What happened?” Edzie asked, glancing around again to see if Stray might appear.

“Stray got mad and knocked him over,” Ghada explained, his voice registering discordant notes of anxious patience. “Boyle hurt his arm, but he seems okay otherwise. I think the real problem is Stray's behavior. He was a little scary there for a second.”

“Stray?!?” Edzie was absolutely bewildered. “Boyle, Stray hurt you? Why?”

Boyle collected himself enough to answer the question through intermittent sobbing. “We were joking about how the Protectorate can make people disappear, and I said maybe that's what happened to his dad.”

“I've told him before, Stray's sensitive about that,” Ghada interjected.

“Stray's sensitive about that?” Edzie was still baffled. “Stray's never been mean to anybody in his life! Where is this coming from?”

“He's not, when he's around you,” Boyle stammered. “Usually when he gets mad, it's because somebody is doing some katsun exercise wrong. But Ghada's right, we don't talk about his dad much, because it sometimes sets him off.”

Edzie stood in paralyzed silence, trying to process this surplus of new information, a bizarre anecdotal narrative about some version of Stray whom she had never imagined nor encountered.

“You didn't know about this?” Ghada asked.

“No!” Edzie was emphatic, letting her confusion come out as shock and dismay. She moved to approach Boyle, and then hesitated, asking a question instead: “Where did he go?”

“West,” Ghada said, pointing down the main road. “Are you going to do something?”

“I don't know,” Edzie said, “but I think I should probably find him.” She offered Boyle an almost inaudible apology, but he had withdrawn again. Finally, decisively, she turned and hastened down the path to the west, setting her sights on the watchtower.

Traffic in the settlement had settled into its typical routine, and Edzie could avoid pedestrians with only the slightest effort. This was fortunate, because Edzie was caught in her own head, and the normalcy of the foot-traffic only made her journey seem more surreal. Stray was fully predictable in their play, their exploration, even in their informal lessons where Edzie kept him abreast of her katsun training. Chasing Stray, trying to anticipate his state of mind, unable to account for his behavior... this was strange territory for Edzie, who always felt so complacent in their relationship.

Traffic thinned out as she neared the watchtower. She half expected to find him there, talking to Genefre or one of the other Denorians, but there was no sign of him from the ground. The warrior keeping watch told her that he had passed this way, but had only noted that he was taking a walk by the grazing huskin to the west, and he would be back that evening if anybody needed him.

After a few minutes of searching, Edzie found Stray's tracks, stamped into the mud and leading between two parallel tree-lines into the huskin pastures. He wasn't trying to conceal his path, and from the distance and the freshness of the prints, Edzie could tell he wasn't hurrying at this point. He wouldn't be hard to follow, and she could catch up with him without exhausting herself. Nonetheless, she moved quickly, eager to talk to him and clear the air about the incident with Boyle.

Stray had reached the edge of a sprawling huskin pasture and turned right, heading north along the base of a jagged embankment. By the time Edzie caught up with him, he had lost all his restless momentum and stopped under a tree, suddenly feeling languid and aimless. He gazed across a muddy trench and into an endless expanse of tall grass, just low enough that he could see over it from his perch in the crotch of the tree trunk. A few huskin families grazed in the distance, too few to constitute a herd, but enough that the group didn't have to worry about predators.

Edzie waved as she approached the tree. She made a tactical decision to assert herself, rather than hesitating… before Stray could object, she situated herself at the roots by his feet, slouching against the tree trunk like she was fully entitled to the space. Having acknowledged her presence, Stray kept his eyes fixed forward.

“Nice spot,” Edzie said. “You been here before?”

“Nope.” Stray answered curtly, and then remained silent for a moment. Finally, he asked an unexpected question. “Hey, remember that story about Estus and the huskins?”

“Yeah, I know it,” Edzie said. “Mom told us that story every few nights when we were little. There was a version in one of Mistra Septa’s books, too, that was a little different. How come?”

“How was it different?”

Edzie struggled to review the story in her head, and after a few moments of silence elapsed, she started going through the stories out loud. “Well, in mom’s version, the first people on the plains stole the huskin calves and ate them, and there was a war with the huskins over their young being used for food. That’s the same in the book. In mom’s version, Estus was a human priest who learned to speak Huskin, and he made allies with them and brought them before Dissadae the creator, who settled the war. In the book, Estus wasn’t a peace-maker. He was just the leader of the humans, enemy of the huskins, and the huskin prince was favored by Dissadae on her own merit.”

“Right. So in the book, there was no human betrayal, and the huskins didn’t need any help from the humans to come before Dissadae. Weird.”

“Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that,” Edzie replied. “Anyway, they both end the same… with the curse of the plains.”

Stray nodded, still looking forward. “Right. Humans get the huskins’ meat and milk, but they have to follow them and protect them and respect their herds, because the humans depend on the huskins, and not vice versa. If the humans violate the pact, they die alone in the empty pastures. And that’s how the Concordance started.”

“Yeah, that’s how it is in both the book and from mom.”

Stray was lost in rumination for a moment. “Do you think it’s true?” he finally asked.

“I mean…” Edzie struggled to articulate her skepticism, which always troubled her in light of the story’s potency. “I think stories like that are kind of true, even if people don’t remember quite how it happened. They’re true in a secret way, even when they’re just made up.”

Stray nodded, seeming to understand. “And do you think it applies to me, too?” he asked. “Do I owe the huskins my allegiance, like you and your mom and all the rest of the eight tribes?”

Edzie frowned. “Sure. You get your food from the huskins, same as me and mom. You follow them from settlement to settlement, just like the rest of us.”

“But I don’t come from here,” Stray said. “I wonder if my dad died after he left the huskins. If we’re really Denorians, me and him, he shouldn’t have been able to just wander off like that.”

“Your dad and you are a lot different, I think,” Edzie said, feeling this was the simplest way to speak to Stray's concern. They both sat in silence for a few minutes, then, watching the huskins stand, sit, congregate, and munch on the grasses at their feet. The sun was descending before them, falling into the western horizon, and losing its shape in the wet clouds in the distance. Finally, feeling she had done her due diligence, and Stray was prepared to listen, Edzie spoke. “Ghada and Boyle said you got really mad today. What happened?”

“He was being mean,” Stray said, struggling to come to terms with the whole situation.

“It sounds like you were a lot meaner than he was,” Edzie observed.

“Yeah, but he deserved it.”

Edzie considered this for a moment. She wasn't inclined to recommend pacifism or wilting ambivalence, but she sensed that Stray's overreaction was impractical, and probably, to some degree, unfair in its disproportion. When she finally found advice to give, it was a synthesis of all these principles.

“Well, let's think of what you just did in terms of tactics. If you think of the sixteen forms, this certainly wasn't a withdrawal form, or even a withstand form, right?”

Stray nodded. “Yeah. It was an intercept form. He attacked me, and I fought back.”

Edzie winced at this distortion of the situation. “Okay, so that's how you see it... but are you sure Boyle even thought he was attacking you? … and if he was, he was just attacking with words, not hands or feet. You didn't neutralize, you escalated. If anything, that's an attack.”

Stray paused, struggling to accept this, and then conceded the point. “Yeah, I guess he might see it like that.”

Edzie continued. “And like mom... Elkansa... has told us, when we're aggressive, we have to be decisive, and we have to be very clear about why we're attacking. I don't think you were entirely clear on why you hurt Boyle. I'm still not sure you've figured it out.”

Stray finally deigned to look Edzie's direction. “No, I know why. It's because when I think about my father leaving, I don't feel like a Denorian any more. It's like I forget you guys are my family for a second. All of a sudden, I'm a stranger, like that guy the Protectorate took away.”

Edzie wasn't sure how to help with this problem, and she found her patience suddenly wavering. “Well, you know you're family, as far as we're concerned... me and mom and also Boyle and Ghada and the Mistras and everyone else. So you can stop being sore about it.” She became self-conscious, suddenly, and forced herself to soften her tone. “Maybe it'll keep getting easier.”

Stray shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. Maybe I'll stop thinking about it after I get initiated.”

“Yeah. But for now, we should probably go back to the village and say sorry to Boyle. He's smart... hopefully he'll know better than to make jokes about your dad from now on.”

Edzie and Stray headed back along the path as the light softened and cycled through its twilight colors. They greeted the guard at the watchtower as they passed, and Stray's mood slowly lightened, so that he was cheerful again by the time they reached their own region of the settlement. The path was deserted, which was unusual, but nothing to be alarmed about. Stray was hesitant, but Edzie coaxed him toward Boyle's dromo, urging him to apologize so everybody involved could return to their former rapport.

Stray's attempt was frustrated by the frigid reception he received from Alynn and Dredda. At first, they simply refused to acknowledge him, effectively shutting him out of their household at the front entrance. To Stray's solicitations, they replied that Boyle was not in the mood to entertain, and they thought Stray and Edzie should go home and attend to their own affairs for the moment. Stray and Edzie left in dismay, an anxious and disturbed mood settling over both of them.

At home, they fared little better. Elkansa had heard about the fight from Alynn, and had assured her that she would speak to Stray. She was in a cruel and impatient mood when they arrived, and she confronted Stray in the kitchen, effectively ignoring Edzie, who kept as close as she could without drawing any more wrath from her mother.

“Stray, you can't start trouble with your friends when they are also my neighbors. Boyle's parents are unhappy with all three of us. Frankly, I find it petty and irritating, but I can't seem to talk them out of their fit, so we'll have to be cordial and apologetic until we're all back on friendly terms.” She shook her head. “In the meantime, I have no patience for you, either, throwing temper tantrums about trivialities.”

Edzie interjected. “Mom, he hardly did anything. Boyle wasn't hurt, was he? Stray just knocked him down. We do that to each other all the time.”

Elkansa knew better, and her sensibility overrode her sympathy. “You may have thought so, but both Boyle and Ghada felt threatened. They said this sometimes happens, meaning you” – looking at Stray – “get mad and lash out at people, often enough that they're familiar with the situation.”

Stray's mood had gone from anxious to thoroughly sulky, just hurt and angry enough that he wasn't ready to be contrite. He stared at the ground, scowling defiantly. Meanwhile, Elkansa's lecture continued on the momentum of her disapproval. “Frankly, I don't think I can abide such a temperament in my household. I'm certainly not going to advance your lessons or give you a huskin until you show me you're capable of keeping friends and staying on good terms with our neighbors. Let me know when that happens, and we'll see about your progress on your forms.”

She stepped back, then, waiting for a reaction. Stray's head remained down, his gaze fixed on his own feet. To both Edzie and Elkansa's surprise, he gave a simple, tortured nod of assent, and then shuffled off to his room at the back of the house, silent and unreadable.

Watching this confrontation play out, Edzie thought back to Stray's meditations of an hour earlier, his confessions of alienation as he watched the huskins graze. She felt an inexplicable rage well up in herself, as if Stray's suppressed anger had seeped into her through the air between them... for the first time in her life, she felt an open, flagrant hostility toward her mother, who looked so cruel and stupid, standing in the light of the thresh lamp. Edzie found herself wanting to physically attack her mother on Stray's behalf... and even on her own behalf, out of a sense of injured righteousness.

There was no way Edzie was challenging her mother, especially in the latter's present stormy mood, so she muttered the worst curse that she, as a mere foundling, could muster, and then hastened to Stray's room to see if she could offer him any consolation.

She found Stray sitting on his bed, facing a wall. He refused to turn toward her, but looking from the side, she could tell that despite his best efforts to be strong and self-possessed, tears were streaming down his cheeks.

... ... ... ...

Elkansa's threat proved redundant, because she had been neglecting Stray's lessons even before his fight with Boyle. Now she simply had a convenient excuse to delay his informal initiation, which should have happened that summer. Edzie and Stray both knew Elkansa's tendency to set things aside and never return to them. Even Edzie's katsun was still unfinished.

The situation with the neighbors remained awkward. Boyle quickly forgave Stray, even going so far as to acknowledge his own role in the disagreement, but Alynn remained frigid, mildly disapproving of Stray and Edzie's visits. She extended this treatment to Elkansa as well, though she relented a bit when she encountered her by chance, and Dredda – gentle husband and caretaker of the household – was swept up and carried away by his wife's anger. He was polite to Stray and Edzie when he was out of Alynn's sight, but he couldn't openly defy the protective mother's grudge against her neighbors and long-time friends.

The days grew warmer, and the Festival of Emergence approached quickly, sending the settlement into a flurry of anticipation and preparation. This festival was the traditional celebration of the new brood of huskin calves, conceived during the previous mating season, around the time of the Festival of Release. For several weeks, activity picked up in the settlement, and though Stray was left free to play with Boyle in the fields, Edzie was enlisted by Elkansa to help with the preparations. In the final ten days before the festival, Stray was recruited, as well, and Boyle was left to wander off and attend to his own amusements.

Where the fall festival, the Festival of Release, was generally a tribal affair, with its rituals of mutualism and pacification, the Festival of Emergence was more open and more volatile. It was a customary gathering for family members returning to the Concordance from the kingdoms beyond, a homecoming for a great many emigrants who still had ties with the tribe. It was also a time for trials by combat and tests of martial skill, where those rivalries that couldn't be calmed and unraveled at the fall festival would be resolved, instead, by mediated bloodshed.

This was also an occasion for the elders to account for themselves, and to name their successors, in cases where they hadn't already done so. It turned out, to Stray's delight, that Ghada's mother Treya was being named a successor, and so all who knew her had extra cause for celebration.

So it was that by the last few days before the festival, Edzie and Stray were both mortally weary of cleaning and cutting fruit, dressing butchered huskins, and tidying up gardens and public spaces around the settlement. Elkansa had an endless stream of mundane tasks for them to complete, and it gradually dawned on them that without some convincing excuse, they would never get away from her litany of small jobs.

Luckily, on the last day before the festival, Ghada invited them – Stray, Edzie, and Boyle – to join him in primping and choosing his wardrobe. He promised Stray and Boyle that he would help them prepare, and even provide some accouterments and accessories to make them presentable. Edzie herself wasn't terribly interested in this spectacle, but word had reached her that Ghada's sister Bellaryn was going to be visiting, and she very much wanted to see her.


3.3

The three of them left for Ghada's at mid-day, navigating a swarm of gawking, loitering visitors and traveling markets to reach the family's dwelling. Stray and Boyle each carried a few articles of rarely-used clothing that they felt would be fancy enough for a major festival; Edzie carried nothing, except for her katsun, sheathed along her left thigh. They reached Ghada's dromo at mid-day, having crossed the Splitmouth near Boyle's and cut across the settlement behind the East Storehouse. The front entrance was uncovered, the interior steeped in shadow, lit only by the sunlight through the doorway and a few front windows. They called out as they entered, heading instinctively toward a hallway on the right side. After a moment, a young girl's voice greeted them enthusiastically. Edzie instinctively quickened her pace, and Bellaryn emerged from the hall just as Edzie was reaching it.

Bellaryn had been studying at the Hunter's Roost for the last two years, a two-day journey to the north, and to Edzie, it seemed like an eternity had passed since they had last seen each other. Bellaryn was fourteen, nearing her own initiation, and Edzie was barely old enough to call her a peer. Nonetheless, the older girl recognized her younger playmate, and she greeted her with an old friend's embrace, before Edzie could even pause to look her over.

Bellaryn was tall and straight-backed, with thick well-muscled arms and legs and a ruddy tan that told stories of a life spent outside, in the sunny patches within thickets of trees. Her hair was cropped around the height of her cheeks, and shaved nearly to the scalp up around her temples, less severe than her brother's mohawk, but still rugged and stern. Her features were naturally cheerful, her eyes bright, but normally she held them steady and impassive, her demeanor no less serious and stony than Edzie's. At this moment, however, Bellaryn's natural smile lit up her face, and Edzie found herself compelled into a grin.

“Edzie!” she said, almost shouting. “It's been ages! Shameful! You're probably grown like a weed, but you look just the same to me, except maybe a little tougher. How's your mother? How's Stray?”

Edzie glanced back at the boys, who had stopped behind her and fallen into their own distracted conversation. “I don't think much has changed,” she concluded. “Mom is still tough on us... Stray especially, lately, but that's really not such a big change. So nothing much to say about my circle. But I know you have some news, don't you?!?”

Bellaryn grinned. “You've heard, eh? Mother is being recognized as next in line as Elder of Accord, after Keldra! People are afraid it means Keldra is getting ready to step down. I don't really have any idea, myself.”

“Still, great news for the four of you. Are your parents here, so I can congratulate them?”

“Mother is out talking to people, meeting her friends' visitors, buying things... you know, her typical day. Father is out back, working on something for mom. Feel free to say hello if you want, but he's probably too busy to talk much.”

“I'll leave it til later, then,” Edzie decided.

“Fair enough. We'd better go see Ghada, then. He's been insufferable, waiting all morning for you three to show up.”

The two girls headed toward the end of the hallway, with Stray and Boyle in tow, and into Ghada's room. It was impressively large, having been built with both children in mind, but with Bellaryn away, Ghada's belongings had spread out over the whole space: from an arrangement of practice-weapons and outerwear in one corner to a small table in the other, stacked with cosmetics and accessories. Ghada was leaning over his cot, sorting through some odds and ends for the tailoring session. Edzie gave him a friendly acknowledgment, and then was almost knocked over by Stray and Boyle as they passed through to join him, looking at his small collection of tunics and brivsas and jewelry. Stray and Boyle each tossed their outfits on the cot next to Ghada's, and they all stepped back to look at them, falling into disordered conversation.

Edzie and Bellaryn both remained at the far edge of the room, observing and forming opinions, though they kept them to themselves for the moment. “I can't believe how much thought they can put into this,” Bellaryn observed, watching her brother verbally assess his friends' outfits.

“Do you have anything to do to get ready?” Edzie asked.

“I worked out an outfit, but it only took about half an hour to get everything in order. I think it's cause mom helped me. She doesn't quite have Ghada and dad's eye for fashion, but at this point, she knows how to fit clothes for me better than Ghada does. I don't have a young boy's body any more, obviously.”

Bellaryn had indeed filled out significantly since Edzie had last seen her, though she was still lean and athletic. An outfit would have to work around her hips and keep her breasts under control, and a young girl's tunic wouldn't do it any longer. Ghada, on the other hand, being only twelve years of age, was still well within the constraints of boyhood. He was already growing quickly, taller than most of his companions, but still a child compared to his sister. He had learned the basics of preening and self-care from his young, handsome father, and had shown an aptitude for it; though taste generally discouraged it in polite conversation, he was spoken of privately as a very attractive youth, an excellent specimen of the traditional Concordance male. He was also well-spoken and quick-witted, necessary corollaries to his good looks.

Ghada was now directing the other two boys to try on their outfits. He already had a look of skepticism in his eyes, knowing that Stray and Boyle didn't maintain their wardrobes, and that they were going to be hard to clean up. Edzie watched Ghada look over Stray's outfit, turn it over, and then gaze at Stray's figure again, trying to decide if it was even salvageable.

“They're hopeless,” Bellaryn remarked, chuckling.

“Stray can't help it. He was brought up with two women.”

Bellaryn nodded, trying to decide whether she was supposed to laugh at this. “I suppose that's true. And Elkansa is a beautiful woman, but she never did have much patience for fashion. How about Stray's father? Would he have taught Stray some of these things if he had... uhh...” She paused awkwardly, and then spoke quietly, to keep Stray from hearing. “... If he had stayed with your mother?”

Edzie shrugged, making a minimal effort to keep her own voice down. “No, I don't think so. I was young at the time, but I remember him a little, and Tamlis wasn't the type of man to make a show of himself. He was more the restless, moody type... from what I remember, he dressed the part, like a transient. ... That's what he was, after all.”

Boyle and Stray had now put on their outfits for the festival, and Ghada was adjusting the folds and tweaking the seams. Stray's outfit was a draped tunic, mostly the dusky gray of standard Denorian outerwear, but elaborated with a few dark red vertical slashes, dyed by some merchant at Elkansa's request. It wasn't very impressive, but it was acceptable... it gave his young shoulders some definition, at least, and fit closely about his waist.

Boyle's outfit, on the other hand, was essentially a disaster. It was dyed a mottled foliage green, and it fit tight around his chest, practically exposing his ribs, with a loose fold over his shoulders and down his back. At his waist, it settled into an explosion of shapeless fabric, and his thighs and legs were completely lost in a cascade of ill-fitting trouser. At his knees, it suddenly grew close again, emphasizing his skinny legs and drawing attention to his large feet. It would need exponentially more attention than Stray's outfit... Ghada was still focusing on the latter, perhaps simply to avoid the stress of having to fix Boyle.

Edzie glanced at Bellaryn, and saw that she wore a reserved smile, her eyes wistful and content. She noticed Edzie's gaze and returned it, speaking with a placid sobriety. “I miss you all,” she said, nodding toward the boys. “Ghada and mom and dad, of course, but especially just being around everybody.”

“Is it lonely up at the Hunters' Roost?”

Bellaryn shrugged, and then seemed to reconsider her indifference. “Yeah, it is, actually. No kids to spend time with, no Mistras to teach me formal lessons. I'm practically the youngest one there.”

“Is it hard? Are you learning a lot?”

“It's hard, yeah.” Bellaryn spoke slowly, sorting through memories. “I'm learning to hunt and fight from all my host families... I go from one house to another a few times a week. Seeley, Jagrana... the women all live alone, and hunt for food, and I only stay with them when they have a few days to spend at home. They're always tired, and they make me dress their game and prepare their meals. Most of them would rather teach me to fight, than take me hunting.”

Edzie chuckled in spite of herself. “So you're, like, a surrogate husband?”

Bellaryn rolled her eyes, remembering. “Yup, that's about right. There are almost no real families there... the women who live there are the ones who want to be left alone, who don't have any use for courtship or tribe politics. The men are the ones who are loyal to the tribe, and want to stay near by, but don't want to get attached to a wife or a child. I think the Hunter's Roost lets them provide for the tribe in other ways, like hunting, trapping, and gardening, so they don't feel like freeloading transients.”

“The women sound like me,” Edzie remarked, half to herself, then said: “That doesn't sound like it suits you, though, if you miss the rest of us so much. I guess you wouldn't stay there, if you had a choice, eh?”

Bellaryn shook her head. “Nope, not a chance. After I get initiated next year, I'm coming back to the settlement. I think I'll petition the elders and find a place to live. Maybe I'll travel a little with mom, just to see what it's like, but I don't think I can be an ambassador like her.” She looked over at Edzie, suddenly registering her friend's last remark. “So you think you'd live out there, if you could? Maybe when you get old enough to travel on your own?”

“I might,” Edzie said. “It sounds nice, being apart from all the boring tribe business I'm supposed to be helping with. I can't stand the thought of being at the center of everything, like mom.” She thought about it a little more. “I don't know about the Hunter's Roost, though. I think I might get bored. Plus, I don't think Stray would ever be happy someplace like that, and I think I'd miss him too much if he stayed here.”

Bellaryn felt a pang of remorse, knowing that maturity and independence would eventually degrade this inseparable attachment between Edzie and her adopted brother. She decided not to say anything about it, turning instead to the activity of the boys. Ghada had spent the last few minutes prodding at Stray's outfit, and he had finally decided that he couldn't let it go without some trimming and tailoring. He had made a few marks on the fabric with a brown grease-pen, and then he had prompted Stray to remove the tunic and put his regular clothes back on. The two of them turned to Boyle, and Ghada was making exasperated sounds.

Bellaryn made a couple remarks about how the outfit seemed to swallow the boy, and Edzie laughed obligingly. Ghada told both of them to keep their stupidity to themselves, taking a protectively harsh tone, as Boyle remained silent and motionless under the light of Ghada's gaze. Ghada spent a full fifteen minutes tugging, tucking, wrapping, and tightening, constantly asking Boyle if his adjustments were comfortable. Boyle tried to be useful, and whenever he started feeling like a clumsy wooden scaffold, he distracted himself by joking with Stray about their respective outfits. The girls exchanged quiet witticisms, and offered an occasional unwelcome opinion, but the boys managed to ignore them most of the time.

Watching this spectacle play out, Edzie became aware that Ghada wasn't maintaining a very strong focus on Boyle. His gaze kept drifting to Stray, who was an oblivious bystander, entirely preoccupied with Ghada's work on the outfit. When Stray chatted with Boyle, Ghada managed to stay on task, but whenever Stray asked about the outfit or the tailoring procedure, Ghada answered a bit too quickly, as if he was waiting for some chance to make the point. Edzie also noticed that whenever there was eye contact between Stray and Ghada – an occasion that Stray seemed to completely disregard – Ghada would suddenly hesitate in his work for a moment, and he would have to take a breath before he returned to his arrangements.

This dynamic made Edzie mildly uncomfortable, so she tried to disrupt it by asking a question. “So, are you going to do all the adjustments yourself, Ghada?”

Ghada replied with vigor, exhibiting some of the same excitement in talking to Edzie as he had shown Stray. “Almost, but not quite, I don't think. The seams on Boyle's tunic are a little weird, and I don't know how to make the trousers look good around his knees, so I think I'll need some help from my dad.”

“What else are you going to do?”

Ghada stopped fussing with Boyle's tunic long enough to give a clear answer. “We need new hair and faces, too! Boyle's hair needs to be evened out at the bottom, and Stray's just needs a trim all around. It's too wild, he'll look like he's just getting home from a pilgrimage or something.”

Bellaryn rolled her eyes as Edzie prompted him to continue. “And the face?”

“Not much,” Ghada said. “Boyle hardly needs anything, except maybe a little shading to accentuate his jaw-line, and a little extra color on his cheeks. Stray could use a little covering, to smooth out his skin and darken his complexion a little.”

“See? My skin's better,” Boyle interjected with snotty self-importance.

“You're just younger,” Stray retorted. “Wait until you're in double-digits.”

“Can you do something with their personalities?” Bellaryn snarked. “Touch up their sense of humor, maybe?”

Ghada gave a polite laugh, hoping not to hurt anyone's feelings, and said, “I think that's perfectly presentable already. You ladies, on the other hand... I can help you guys out, too, if you want. You both could really use some work.”

“No thanks,” the girls chirped in unison.

“Besides,” Edzie went on, “won't you have to do it all over again tomorrow anyway? Especially the make-up! It seems like a waste to spend so much time on it now.”

Ghada had asked his own father the same question once, when he was much younger, and now he scoffed at Edzie, so much older, still asking for an explanation. “Well, obviously we have to test everything out first. You can't just throw some cosmetics and accessories on a boy, assuming they'll all look good together.” He paused, tugging and folding one of Boyle's sleeves. “No different from all of us learning to fight. First we learn the technique, and then, before any serious combat, we spar, study our opponent, and review the forms.”

“I suppose that's true,” Bellaryn conceded. “What did our mothers always say, Edzie?”

“Readiness,” Edzie and Stray said, nearly in unison.

This may as well have been a mystical invocation... before anyone could say anything else, there were a mother's unhurried footsteps in the gathering room of the house. A moment later, Treya opened the door and greeted her children and their visitors. She was a short, sturdy woman, wearing a traditional Denorian tunic adorned with eccentric accessories from her travels around the Concordance tribe lands: a gold bracer on her right arm, and a cascade of reed-woven lace over her left shoulder. She greeted Edzie and Stray each by name, her face open and warm.

Stray jumped to respond. “Hello Ambassador Treya! Ghada's helping us get ready for tomorrow!”

“I know!” Treya replied wryly. “He spent all day yesterday talking to my husband about it!”

“Congratulations on your distinction tomorrow,” Edzie offered. “You'll make a wonderful Elder of Accord.”

“Thank you, Edzie,” Treya said kindly. “And how are you two doing? It's been quite a while since I last saw you.”

“We're fine,” Edzie said.

“Have you been traveling?” Stray said, now fully distracted from Ghada and Boyle.

“Yes, in fact, I visited the elders of the Entrane over the winter, and then took the Settlers Road south to attend the vernal festivals of the Aerimus and Hexcalor tribes. The Aerimus gave me this...” She indicated the latticework of dried reeds on her shoulder. “It's made from the tough reeds they harvest from the Huskin Draw. Would you like to try it on?”

Each of them felt the lace accessory in turn – Stray first, and then Edzie and Bellaryn – and finally, Boyle got away from Ghada long enough to investigate it for a moment, loosening and disrupting some of Ghada's adjustments as he did so. Treya told them she would be wearing the accessory to the Festival of Emergence, and then she would give it to her husband for safe keeping. It was up to him to decide whether anyone else might wear it for future events.

Ghada soon realized that Boyle wasn't about to come back and submit to his inspection, so he set down his grease pen and pins and joined the other three children at Treya's side, looking at her artifact. She talked for a few minutes about the Aerimus... one of the smaller of the eight Concordance tribes, whose elders were famously worldly and authoritative... a tribe whose decorative tokens of status were recognized throughout the Pastures, and even as far west as the Weary Road and Horizon. She herself had spent several years with the Aerimus, learning the finer points of tribal history and diplomacy.

One by one, Treya's audience found places to sit or recline, and she went on to tell them about the other two tribes she had visited on that journey: the Entrane, the tribe that had accepted her father and father-in-law, a culture of hunters and trappers who resettled far more frequently than the Denoria; and the Hexcalor, a tribe of Concordance merchants, currently living between the Range River and its smaller western branch. It was Treya's Entrane relations who had encouraged her to become a traveler, inspiring a wanderlust in her breast far beyond the usual Denorian spirit of independence. The Hexcalor tribe was one of the most common stops on her forays, because their central courts were hubs for news, both of the Concordance and of the larger world beyond the Pastures.

They were still talking when Kosef, Treya's husband, returned from his craftwork in the back garden. He entered from the back, poised and polite, as Treya described the Hexcalor's merchant curators, and he took a seat on the bed beside Edzie. It was a few more minutes before Treya paused for a breath, and Kosef took the opportunity to ask Ghada, Stray, and Boyle about their preparations. He reminded Ghada that they still had to do the boys' faces before they went home, and even then, they wouldn't be finished: Ghada had to do all the necessary alterations to their outfits before the evening was over. The children took the hint, leaving Treya's shadow to resume their preparations, and Treya was left watching her husband preside over a painstaking process that would continue into the evening.

A few minutes later, when the boys' attention was back to their primping, Kosef and Treya excused themselves, claiming some valuable time together between their obligations as parents and busy tribespeople.

... ... ... ...

The Festival of Emergence swept up the following day, embracing the settlement at dawn and refusing to let go until the darkness started to soften, twenty-four hours later. Ghada managed to get Stray and Boyle fully dressed and prepared before the mid-morning feast, which all five young Denorians – Edzie, Stray, Boyle, Ghada, and Bellaryn – attended as an inseparable group, waving to visitors, admiring outfits, and sampling vendors' food along the main path.

The feast itself was mostly freshly-butchered huskin, large locally-grown fruit, and smaller exotic berries, nuts, and raw vegetables. The elders' table was favored with a platter of boundeer flank, a meat that was rare because the animal was so damn difficult to catch. There were open seating areas around the central court, but the Denorians and their families generally didn't use them... everybody spent the meal upright, circulating and socializing.

Ghada was invariably complimented by every passing acquaintance, and a few of them noticed Stray and Boyle's accoutrements, as well... not as accomplished as Ghada's (or especially Kosef's, which was rightly famous within the community) but it was enough to keep Stray and Boyle's egos afloat. Edzie and Bellaryn watched this repeated ritual – some stranger noticing Ghada's fierce hair and impeccable outfit, Ghada trying to accept the compliment gracefully, but still proudly recounting his routine to anyone who would listen – and found it all very silly and annoyingly charming.

After the feast, there were combat demonstrations and trials until sundown. The first several hours of these pitted Concordance warriors of the various tribes against one another, purely for the sake of sport. This spectacle was limited to proven adults, well beyond the age of initiation, some of them as old as fifty or sixty, paired off as comrades, rivals, and representatives of their tribes. The combat was carried out with fully-forged katsuns, in a broad, accessible stadium. The competitors were required to strike with the wooden edge, and if a serious mistake was made – a bleeding wound, the loss of a digit – there were elders and healers standing by.

These exhibition matches could be won by connecting three direct hits, or by disarming the opponent. The younger Denorians watched with excitement, knowing they would grow to be the ones participating in these matches... indeed, the loudest cheers came from the adolescents, who watched with enthusiasm as their parents were tested. It didn't grow quiet until the second half of the matches, which constituted a more serious ritual: combat over grudges, a rite that the Concordance tribes referred to as a Reckoning.

There was an enviable solidarity in the tribes of the Pastures, both within the Denorian tribe and across the whole of the Concordance. However, there were still hostilities from time to time, mostly over unequal sharing of resources, or warriors' children being favored by the Mistras or the elders, or some long-forgotten jealousy that had soured relations between families. Most of these conflicts were resolved at the Feast of Release, when a discourse and gift-giving ritual helped melt frozen-over relationships.

Some rivalries resisted even this annual show of good-will, and these strained situations needed to be vented through a more violent means. Thus, the Reckonings: a series of single-combat encounters designed to resolve the standing hostilities within the Denorian tribe and its closest allies. These matches would take several hours, and were presided over by the elders... in particular, the elders of Harmony, Severity, and Favor. The victory condition was the drawing of blood, so the stakes were markedly higher, though the combatants were required to control themselves and avoid causing permanent injury to one another. In Elkansa's life, there had only been two fatalities in Reckonings, and both were followed by severe punishment for the perpetrators.

The children watched the Reckonings with intense interest, but they only knew a few of the participants, and even these were mere acquaintances of the families. The Reckonings were followed by a collective breath of relief, tension dispersing into the evening air, and then the tribe and all its guests circulated methodically through the streets of the settlement, making their way to the various feasting facilities that had been established among the residences. The most decadent proceedings occurred at the central court, and this is where Edzie, Stray, and Boyle joined Bellaryn and Ghada to support Treya's acceptance of her distinction.

After a great many huskin calves had been eaten, and a great deal of milk and liquor had been consumed, the eight elders rose silently from their seats. Within seconds, the whole court fell absolutely silent, and all eyes turned toward the elders, anticipating the ritual. Elder Amiaverta, the elder of Reckoning, began the chant, starting on a middle tone. Following her, each of the other seven elders joined in the resonant song: Lillina the elder of Tales, Keldra the elder of Accord, Hylidae the elder of Harmony, Warryn the elder of Severity, Idilya the elder of Plenty, Yogo the elder of Favor, and Pattrice the elder of Stewardship. They let their chant linger in the air for several breaths, and when they finally allowed it to fade, several hundred of the surrounding Concordance tribespeople had joined in.

Elder Idilya followed up with a blessing in Old Concordance, wishing the tribe a strong memory, a plentiful year, and a perpetual peace. She made a special mention of the Mistras, the four Monks of the Caesura who had taken up the burden of joining the tribes and educating their children. She honored the three champions of the combat exhibitions from that day, and thanked the hunters and herders for the day's feasts. Finally, she noted the succession ritual that was to take place, and then gave the floor to Elder Keldra to complete it.

Ambassador Treya was brought to the front of the silent audience, followed by Kosef, Bellaryn, and Ghada. She was asked to pledge her life and experience to the Denorian tribe, to accept the mark of succession, and to serve as a guide to her fellow plainsdwellers until her death. Kosef, Bellaryn, and Ghada were each asked, in turn, whether they would surrender their matriarch to the service of the tribe when the time came. They all answered, proudly, solemnly, in the affirmative.

At last, in the final minutes of the day, the ritual reached its climax. Elder Keldra drew the third elder katsun, the weapon committed to her care. Elder Keldra and Ambassador Treya, her chosen successor, each revealed their tribal scars... Keldra's was on her left side, right at the front of the ribcage, just below the solar plexus; Treya's was on her back, just under her shoulder blade. Treya dutifully removed her tunic to display the scar, and then, leaving it hanging by her side, she presented her naked upper body to Keldra. Bracing herself with her left hand, Keldra sliced with the katsun in her right, reproducing her own scar on her successor's body.

Treya didn't move or flinch, and when the first few drops of blood fell, Keldra raised the katsun above her head. A great cheer arose from the central court, breaking the solemn silence. The noise continued, unabated, until all the food was devoured and swept off the tables, and the liquor was vanquished, and the Denorians had danced by the light of fire and thresh lamps, and the first traces of sun spilled out of the mountains in the east.


Ch. 4: Bad Habits


4.1

The summer was characterized by several stable patterns. Edzie perfected her forms, supervised by her mother, and occasionally assisted by Mistra Eryn, the Caesura monk from the north side of the settlement, whose youth had been spent training in military tactics with various civil lords from the river and plains kingdoms. In their private free time, mostly in the evenings, Edzie and Stray would practice these forms together, with Edzie drilling Stray in all the practicalities that Elkansa had glossed over or withheld. Twice a week, Edzie and Stray would attend Mistra Septa's lectures, and generally managed to coordinate with Boyle, so that the three of them could attend the same sessions. In any remaining time between meals and chores, the three of them would linger on the outskirts of the settlement, lost in their own private worlds (Edzie's books, Boyle's drawings) and their shared imaginings.

Ghada was an occasional guest in their group, but he balanced a number of other friendships and social circles. He was generally a student in Mistra Eryn's lectures, rather than Septa's, and his mother and father were more connected with the families in the central and eastern neighborhoods of the Denorian territory. Still, he made an effort to see the three of them at least a few times a month... perhaps, Edzie intuited, following whatever special affinity he felt for Stray.

The summer's schedule was fully established, and was even beginning to feel tired and anemic, on the day that Stray, Edzie, and Boyle learned about the Denorian trade – a lesson they would remember well, but not for its own sake.

Ghada was with them – the oldest, walking in front, followed (in miraculous order of seniority) by Edzie, Stray, and Boyle – as they entered Mistra Septa's pavilion, each giving the boundary blessing and looking for a seat. Edzie, Stray, and Boyle sat near the center of the room, and Ghada remained behind, near the entrance. Luna was in front, at the Mistra's platform... she and Sola had been taking turns helping Mistra Septa these last few weeks, on the order of Elder Hylidae, who thought both of them needed some practical experience under some authority figure. Among the older Denorians, there was a murmur of gossip: parents traveling, friends getting punished, accomplices discussing schemes of mischief and escape. The younger children – the six- and seven-year olds – were making a racket around the edges of the group, eliciting occasional rebukes from older friends and siblings.

Mistra Septa arrived momentarily, giving the boundary blessing, and within perhaps fifteen seconds, the pavilion fell silent. Luna stood dutifully, and Mistra Septa allowed the space of a long breath before she acknowledged her and bade her sit back down.

“Good morning, fine Denorian foundlings,” Mistra Septa began, affecting formality and demanding strict attention. “Today we learn about the economics of our tribe, especially in terms of trade with neighboring peoples. This includes some discussion of our crafts and our natural resources. If anyone feels they know this material already, you are excused from the lesson, and I wish you a lovely afternoon.”

Edzie saw three Denorians get up; glancing behind her, she saw that Ghada was getting up, as well. He gave a modest farewell gesture as he parted the curtain of the pavilion, and then he was gone. The activity abated after a few seconds, and Mistra Septa continued.

“First, I have an assignment: we must collect some of our staple resources from around the settlement. I only need a few people for this task. Are there any volunteers?”

Several hands shot up, Stray's among them (as always). Boyle hesitated, and then put his hand up, as well, following his friend's lead. Mistra Septa chose two younger Denorians, Boris and Ingra, bidding them to find the largest stone they could carry. She picked another student and asked her to find some orebark... either a fallen limb, or some object or artifact already fashioned... and then she pointed to Stray and told him to find threshweed, which grew in several places along the Splitmouth. She said she wanted them back within half an hour, so they wouldn't miss too much of the class.

“Can Boyle come?”

Mistra Septa raised her eyebrows at Stray's interruption, but didn't immediately reprimand him. “Finding threshweed only requires a single person, I think. I suppose it comes down to whether Boyle is comfortable missing the first half hour of the session.”

“I think I'll be okay,” Boyle said.

“Well, I want to be sure. You can go with Stray if you can answer a question...” She inclined her head, considering. Finally, she continued. “Name something we use in the settlement that we do not make here, that we have to get by trading with our neighbors.”

Boyle sensed that there was more to this question than a simple recounting. He screwed up his forehead, trying to figure out what kind of answer would please the Mistra. Finally, he said. “There is nothing we need that we can't provide for ourselves, with the help of the Huskins. That's what mom tells me, anyway.”

“Okay, a very wise response, but there are things we use regularly that we don't make. Can you name something? I'm not trying to trick you.”

Boyle's thoughts jumped to his own belongings, several of which he was carrying in a wrapped bundle that rested beside him on the floor: a few strips of Huskin jerky, a couple black grease-pens, and a long, rolled tapestry of canvas that he was drawing on in his spare time. He thought about Stray and Edzie – Edzie's katsun, Stray's gloves and foot-wraps – and finally, an appropriate answer occurred to him.

“Books?”

“Very good,” Mistra Septa said. “Also, most of the inks and dyes we use to color things... precious stones that some of the craftspeople use for embellishing their carvings... any of the soft cord and fabrics that some of your parents use for warmth and special clothing... there are other examples, too. But yes, books: almost all imported from monks of the Echo, or from Horizon or the River Kingdoms, where they have large copy-houses dedicated to works of the written word.”

Stray was already up, ready to leave. “You may go,” Septa said to Boyle, and he leapt to his feet. There, he faltered a moment, deciding whether to pick up his small collection of belongings.

“Go ahead, I'll watch it,” Edzie said, and Boyle complied, following his friend out into the settlement to find threshweed.  The rest of the class turned their attention back to Mistra Septa, who was introducing the topic of trade and resource management, explaining the general concepts of “economics” and “subsistence.”

For fifteen minutes, Mistra Septa lingered over these terms, and their various ilk: resources, capital, labor, and trade. When she felt she had covered the essentials, she allowed some time for questions, and half a dozen open hands shot up, giving her fertile space for a healthy discussion. Most of the questions came from students who hadn't been there for previous lessons.

Do the other tribes trade the same things we do?

Where do the big cities get their resources? Who do they trade with?

When did people start buying and selling things?

Why don't the Denorians use money within the tribes, like the merchants on the road?

By the time Mistra Septa had answered half a dozen questions, the Denorian children had returned to the pavilion with the stone (a crusty rock from near the Chronoboros) and the orebark, a scrap of discarded lumber from an unfinished house to the east. Stray and Boyle were still nowhere to be seen, and Mistra Septa was starting to look impatient. Inevitably, she called upon Edzie to solve this problem.

“Edzie, we need some of the threshweed to finish here. Do you know where your friends might have gone?”

“I don't think so,” Edzie said. “Besides, they could still get back before their time runs out!”

Mistra Septa groaned and shook her head. “No, they've already taken too long. I'll wait another two minutes, and then I'll have to do my best without them. If you want to go find them, feel free.”

Edzie accepted the responsibility, springing to her feet and jogging out the back of the pavilion, making a show of haste. Outside, she headed south toward the road, planning to go to the bank of the Splitmouth and keep searching eastward, where she (and certainly Stray) knew some threshweed could be found. She continued at a steady jog, pulling off her tunic as she ran, leaving only her bandeaux and leggings. She could already feel the beads of sweat at her forehead, and she allowed herself some annoyance at Stray and Boyle's truancy, though she knew it was exactly the type of behavior she occasionally encouraged.

Edzie's search wasn't long... within a few minutes, she encountered them walking briskly back in her direction, legs dripping with water from the stream, each carrying a fistful of threshweed. Edzie grabbed Stray by the arm and dragged him back toward the path, insisting he hurry up; he stumbled behind, laughing, as Boyle scrambled to keep up.

“What took you so long?!?” Edzie barked.

“We got distracted talking about Boyle's mom and dad, and we missed the spot where we normally pick the threshweed. We walked, like, twice as far as we should have.”

“Well, Mistra Septa is already going on without us, and if we don't get back, she'll probably have mom up in arms at us next time they talk.”

The three of them retraced Edzie's path, arriving back at the pavilion a few words into the second half of the lecture. They returned to their seats and listened as she talked about how the stones in the Pastures were brittle enough to be broken up and used in city landscapes and gardens, and how the orebark was one of the strongest woods in their part of the world, just right for fashioning strong tools and weapons. She spoke of the many Concordance craftspeople who worked with these materials, and how their creations were worth a great deal in trade. She then prompted Stray and Boyle to hand her the threshweed, and she showed how its fibers were oily and tough, and explained how it was used throughout Pantempus as an oil in lamps and perfumes.

As always happened with these lessons, many of the students were already familiar with most of the information, but they remained dutifully attentive, soaking up the lecture and context with the thirst that motivates young minds. Mistra Septa finished and fielded questions for a quarter of an hour, and then dismissed the class with a blessing. Stray, Edzie, and Boyle were confident she had forgotten the boys' lateness, or overlooked it.

As they clambered to their feet, discussing their afternoon plans, Boyle became suddenly animated. “Where is it?” he exclaimed, first at nobody, and then at Edzie. “Where are my things?”

Edzie realized she had entirely forgotten about them when she left the pavilion in the middle of the lesson. As far as she knew, that was when they had disappeared. Mistra Septa wouldn't have taken them, nor tolerated anyone else doing so, if she had known. They concluded it must have been one of the other students sitting near them, perhaps motivated by an excess of curiosity.

“It's fine,” Edzie said, “we'll just ask the ones who were near us. We'll find it soon.”

Boyle agreed, but he seemed unduly anxious. Stray and Edzie looked on with concern as he picked over the room, checking the floor and the corners multiple times before he accepted that his effects had completely vanished. Finally, he abandoned the search and prepared himself to go with Edzie and Stray to the Splitmouth, where they could continue talking about their parents, peers, and private obsessions.

Edzie, the first of the three to leave the pavilion, immediately felt something unsettling in the air. It was both an excess of sound and a strange sort of silence, a buzz of conversation just out of earshot, and a suspicious absence of playful activity. The boys, having followed her into the open, hadn't noticed any difference, and now they had moved ahead of her, down the path to the southeast. She followed, inexplicably vigilant.

Her anxieties were explained several meters further on. They passed through a gap in the houses, an open clearing of hot, dry, and dusty earth, sprinkled with scrub and scattered with a few tiny saplings that Denorians had planted over the years. Scanning the empty lot, Edzie spotted a significant group of children, perhaps seven or eight, all huddled in a hushed conversation. Boyle and Stray noticed it too, and Stray set off to investigate, ignoring, as usual, Boyle's hesitation.

Edzie took stock of the situation as she followed Stray. The children were hushed, but agitated, and they had congregated in an area where adults wouldn't interfere with them... indeed, the spot seemed chosen for this purpose, which Edzie read as a strategic decision. She checked her side and found her katsun, bound reassuringly to her thigh.

It turned out that Luna was at the center of the group, with Sola by her side, and the other children were craning their necks to hear them and see what they were doing. Edzie heard a few words as she approached: “not good,” “parents,” and “redge” – the latter of which Edzie recognized as a nasty, vicious epithet, which she had most recently heard used by the prisoner in referring to his own people.

As the children noticed the three newcomers, their conversation stopped abruptly, as though a disapproving ghost had passed over them. The hush was palpable, withering, more severe than the sun on those cloudless days. Edzie could see immediately that they were all focused on Boyle; this dawned on Stray, as well, though it took him another moment.

“Hey, Boyle,” Luna shouted, “we got something of yours here. Come take a look.”

Boyle remained motionless, clearly paralyzed by some sudden uncertainty. Edzie moved forward to stand beside him, and a little bit behind; Stray advanced until his ten-year-old body became a worthy obstruction, and then stopped and assumed a protective stature. “What is it?” he said, curious for a moment, and then his tone turned indignant: “Give it back. What's all this about?”

The children, most of them around Edzie's age, remained subdued, locked in a grip of hostile anticipation. Only Luna stepped forward, having declared herself the spokeswoman for this gathering of children. She tossed something on the ground not far from Stray's feet, though he had to take a few steps to reach it.

“Take a look,” she said. “Pure filth. Your friend needs to be straightened.”

Stray picked up the object – a crumple of canvas as long as an adult's arm – and let it fall open so he could look at it. Edzie stepped up around Boyle to get a look, and they both saw the drawings together: on one end, flowery abstractions, and then loose shapes of human and animal bodies, and then, somewhere near the center, a whole section, perhaps a handspan in length, covered in sketches of heads and faces. Most were loose and unrefined, and others were more detailed and volumetric... some were barely recognizable as warriors or tribal figures. All had the faces drawn on the heads, lucid and unmistakable, all lips and teeth and staring eyes and nostrils.

Stray's reaction was so strong, he seemed to visibly twitch, and he let go of the canvas and let it fall. Edzie's reaction was more private – a shock of distaste, a feeling like some personal boundary had been punctured – but she stood firm, suppressing her reaction and looking back up at Luna. Stray did the same, but only for a moment, and then he looked back at Boyle for some explanation or reassurance.

“I just wanted to see if I could get them right. What it would feel like.” Tears welled up in Boyle's eyes as he looked at Stray. His muscles had tensed and he had shrunk, as if he was gathering himself up to sprint away, or trying to hide in the dust at his feet. “I didn't mean anything by them, Stray. Nobody else was supposed to see it.”

Stray glanced at the canvas and winced, and then Edzie saw a transformation take place: swallowing his visceral distaste and instinctive disapproval, Stray gathered his courage and turned his visage back toward Luna and the other children. If he had a weapon, Edzie thought, he would be drawing it now, making a show of his conviction. Instead, he spoke loudly and firmly, addressing the whole group.

“Who took it? It wasn't yours.”

Some of the children exchanged bewildered looks – none of them sure whether to feel offended or guilty – and silence filled the lot as Stray bent over forward and picked up the canvas. Edzie could see that he didn't even want to touch it, but for the moment, he was being driven by his righteous instinct, not his inhibitions. He lifted the canvas gently with one hand, trying to keep it together without damaging it, and turned his attention back to Boyle, offering it to his friend. Boyle took a tortured step forward, reached out, and accepted it from Stray's hand.

Before anyone could stop her – even Sola reached out to try to defuse her ire – Luna charged, closing the ten steps, and knocked Stray to the ground. She clutched at the piece of canvas and tore it from Boyle's hand, ripping it in half in the process, and then shoved him, as well, though not as hard as she had done to Stray. As she stepped back, she yelled, “We don't give things like this back! We burn them and spit on the charcoal!”

Edzie was positioned about two paces to Boyle and Luna's flank, where she had withdrawn to give Stray some space; her katsun was already drawn. At this last pronouncement of Luna's, she stepped around Boyle and lashed out hard with the katsun, catching Luna around the kidney with a bruising blow. Luna cried out in pain, choking on whatever it was she was trying to say next, and now lunged at Edzie, knocking the katsun aside and striking her, open-handed, hard across the cheek. Edzie dropped back, stunned, and loosened her grip on the weapon just enough that Luna could wrench it free and throw it across the clearing.

Luna, rallying somewhat from her loss of control, turned and took a few steps back toward the children. Sola watched with apprehension as Luna held up the canvas, of which she still held the majority. Edzie shook the fog out of her head and took stock of the situation: Boyle was already moving to help Stray, who was propped up on one elbow, and whom Edzie could tell was so livid he was tempted to spurn his friend's help.

Luna assumed her authoritative role once again, looking back and forth between the larger group of children and the three offenders. “As I was saying: we don't abide things like this, do we? Sick stuff! I say, first, we take it to his parents, and while we're there, we check around to see if he's got any other nice markings he wants to show us! And then his mom and dad can help us burn his filth, so no other little ones have to see it!”

“It's just markings on a canvas!” Stray grunted, now fully invested in his defense of the drawings. Boyle's eyes took on a panicked look, desperate for Stray to defuse the situation, but Stray went on escalating it. “I've never heard anything so stupid! Probably has something to do with that scar you took to your forehead!”

Edzie groaned in dismay. Luna, now fully self-possessed, turned and spoke to Stray's insult. “You think you can defend this voraish? Go ahead and try! I'll make sure not to hurt you too bad!”

She gestured to Sola, who hesitated, and then used her toe to lift Luna's katsun from the ground and vault it through the air. Luna caught it at the top of the handle... it wasn't the most luxurious specimen, but sturdy and balanced, with its plated metal blade fully sharpened. Edzie knew that Luna was skilled enough to strike exclusively with the blunt wooden side, but the threat of a fully forged weapon was still alarming. Stray and Edzie both hesitated, and Boyle looked terrified, poised to retreat at the merest word.

A voice came from north side of the clearing, then, to Edzie's right and Luna's left – a boy's voice, still in the throes of frail adolescence, but it carried across the clearing like the cry of a Freymane, swooping down to pluck a rodent from the earth of the Pastures.

“Ugh, nasty word, Luna! And in front of all us children!”

All of them turned – Sola, Luna, Edzie, Stray, Boyle, and the whole gallery of onlookers in the center of the lot. The voice belonged to Ghada, who had stooped to pick up Edzie's katsun where it landed, and was now standing up and posturing for the audience. He refused to run, but he hastened his walk enough that he had joined Boyle and Stray within a few seconds. He looked ready to help Stray to his feet, but the other boys had already managed, so Ghada had to be content with presenting himself in solidarity.

“Nasty? Not nasty enough for this one. You didn't see what he marked on that parchment.”

Ghada scoffed audibly. “It doesn't matter what he marked. He's lived with us his whole life... he's no voraish. Besides, you shouldn't call people that name, even if you don't like them.”

Sola chuckled at this display of conspicuous dignity, but it wasn't enough to disturb the silence and the tension that sealed the air with hostility. Luna scowled at the three boys in turn. “Well, it doesn't matter whether it's nice or not. It's our word, and it's the right one.” She scowled, turning the katsun over in her hand, and then pointed it at Stray. “Especially for him, left on our riverbank by some westerner.”

Stray's reaction was barely visible, but, sensing it, Edzie could practically feel the heat rise in the air. Stray closed one fist, slowly, and she could see him fully quivering with rage. He might have exploded on the spot, but Luna, impatient with the silence, turned her anger back on Boyle. “But at least that one's got an excuse. This runt...” – she nodded at her hapless target  – “he knows full well that we don't tolerate that kind of filth in our home. He deserves a good kicking.”

“Unless the voraish wants it instead,” Sola interjected, laughing as she said it.

Stray started to move, ready to unleash his frustration, but Ghada put his hand in the way. “No,” he said, talking to the group, “that's not fair. You've riled him up too much to think straight, got him taking this all personally.” Hearing this, Stray heeded Ghada's hand, and Ghada continued. “If you want to fight someone, I'm up for it. You can punish me for the bad markings, or whatever they are. Provided you can hit me, of course.”

Luna raised her katsun just slightly as she spoke. “With what? You don't even have a weapon!”

“Should we let him use mine?” Sola offered, to Luna's visible annoyance.

“NO!” Luna barked. “A kid his age? He'll slice me right open, just by accident!”

“Come on,” Ghada said. “I already have a weapon.” He held up Edzie's katsun. “It's... a little light, but it'll serve.”

A note of shock slipped into Sola's voice as she responded. “Oh come on, Ghada. She's got four years on you, and you... fighting a real katsun with a wooden one... you're gonna get destroyed.”

Ghada rolled the katsun in his hand, swinging back and forth at chest-height, and replied, “Then I'll get what he deserves, right?” He glanced back at Boyle and gave a wink, barely perceptible, and then made a show of stepping into Luna's space. Luna took three steps back, opening a neutral area between them, and Sola, sensing that she had been overruled, made an effort to herd the young Denorians back and out of harm's way. Finally, having staked out his position, Ghada raised the katsun into a guarded stance. Luna responded in kind, letting the scrap of canvas escape her fingers. She raised her katsun, gripping it with both hands, and turned the blunt wooden edge outward; a second later, the ripped drawings landed softly at her feet.

There was a sprawling, ineffable moment as they stared at one another... Ghada, a mere twelve years of age, looking collected and positively regal, and Luna, a headstrong 16-year old on the cusp of womanhood, still caught in the inertia of her anger at Boyle's transgressions. Edzie sensed each of them, at peace in their element: Luna fighting for dominance, following a sort of vestigial survival instinct, and Ghada making a show of honor and loyalty (to whom? Edzie couldn't be sure). The very rustling of the brush seemed to abate, leaving the lot in absolute silence for an interminable split second.

Finally, Luna's impatience won out, and she led with an attack form, flitting and tentative, testing Ghada's reaction. Ghada did not disappoint her: he had his withstand form ready, deflecting the blade of her katsun with a snap of wood striking wood. Luna's eyes focused, and she shifted into a more aggressive posture, chaining together a series of three more attack forms. Ghada deflected two, and then, with no apparent effort, he shifted into an intercept form, turning aside her final thrust and stepping inside her guard.

The melee was now well and truly joined: Ghada pivoted the katsun inward, trying to catch Luna under the jaw, but she caught his arm, and rolled out of his grasp, nearly getting a grip on his handle as she did so. He stumbled back, and then moved into his own attack form, lower and smoother than Luna's staccato slashes. Luna fended off the smaller katsun, meeting strike after strike, but Ghada didn't give her the opportunity to rally.

The bystanders were collectively transfixed, as though they were all caught up in the rhythm of some faintly-remembered song. Edzie had known to expect Luna's proficiency... she and Sola were being groomed intensively by their parents, after all... but she hadn't expected such a performance out of Ghada, who seemed to know the forms as well as any young Denorian she had ever seen. He didn't just execute them in sequence, like Boyle always did, nor did he have Stray's clumsy, restrained ferocity. Instead, he seemed to have adapted his technique into a sort of dance, a fluid, premeditated flow from one form into another. His lack of experience showed – there were moments of visible indecision on his face, and he sometimes cowered before the larger katsun – but he managed to keep Luna from taking control of the fight for several exchanges.

The dust rose in swirls and puffs from the combatants' feet as they circled one another, each trying to adapt their technique to unsettle the other. It was Ghada who landed the first hit – a clip behind Luna's knee, barely worth mention, except that it seemed to throw Luna off and further incense her. Luna responded with renewed ferocity, and her heavy blows drove Ghada into a cowering retreat. She caught his fingers once, and then landed a heavy blow on his left shoulder, before he managed to contort out from under her assault and strike her in the rump as he darted past.

“ARGH! BASTARD!” Luna screamed, whirling around with a vicious swing, and then, without warning, Sola stepped in from the side.

“AH COME ON,” Sola barked, exasperated with her friend, and brought her own katsun down on Ghada's head, hard enough to stun him and make him stumble back. As Ghada reeled, Sola stepped in front of him and used her katsun to block another wild strike from Luna. As Edzie looked on, horrified, Stray jumped into the fray, and suddenly he was wrestling both of the older, larger girls, grabbing for their hair and clothes and weapons.

“ENOUGH ALREADY!” Again, Ghada's voice rang through the lot, arresting the attention of the three combatants. Stray found himself on the ground, pinning Luna under his writhing lower body; Sola remained upright, her right leg locked in Stray's elbow, her left foot stamped squarely on Luna's loose katsun. The three of them extricated themselves from the tangle and stumbled apart, each checking themselves for mortal wounds.

Luna had gotten away with two bruises, and Ghada had a couple sore spots and a rising welt on the back of his head. Sola was arguably in the worst condition... Luna's careless katsun strikes had opened a gash on her upper arm, and blood ran down and dripped from her elbow.

Ghada, now secure that he was still intact, made the first effort at forging peace from the debris of confrontation. “Well,” he called to the girls, “looks like you gave me what I deserved, right? Took two of you, I guess, but still...”

Sola and Luna replied simultaneously: “Learn to watch behind you, Ghada,” Sola said, in concert with Luna's “Woulda been different if I hadn't been watching my edge.”

“Fine then,” Ghada said. “You win. We'll be going, if you all don't mind.” He looked for some acknowledgment from Edzie, who nodded her approval, and they lingered for a moment while Boyle picked up both pieces of his torn canvas.

Finally, Stray, Boyle, Edzie, and Ghada turned wordlessly and trudged out of the lot, followed by the gazes of some ten astounded Denorian children. All four were sweating and panting, and so they slowed down as they reached the path. Edzie and Ghada led, heading south to the bank of Splitmouth to recover; Stray fell a few paces behind. At length, he turned, and found that Boyle had lagged perhaps ten meters back. Stray stopped in his tracks and waited as the boy caught up.

“You okay?” Stray asked earnestly, responding to Boyle's troubled, distracted gaze.

“I... I don't know,” Boyle said, clearly caught in a rush of anxiety. “I think I'm gonna go home, if that's okay.”

“Uhh...” Stray was caught off guard, and failed to muster an appropriate response.

“Sorry, Stray. Tell the others, okay? I'll see you all later.”

And then he turned right, cutting across a rocky field to cross the stream just below the nearest ford. Stray watched him go, and then remained there, paralyzed by apprehension, until Edzie doubled back and found him, taking his hand and calling him back to the world.

“He went... home, I think,” Stray explained, as they hurried to catch up with Ghada.

Edzie didn't proffer a response. She could tell Boyle had Stray worried, and she shared his concern, but she had more perspective on Boyle's state of mind. Stray was only a year younger than her, but it was a significant year... he didn't listen as well, nor empathize as sensitively, and he was more readily caught up in his unformed emotions.

“Hey, Ghada,” Edzie said as they caught up to the older boy, “we lost Boyle. He went home, I think.”

“Hmm.” Ghada slowed his pace and looked back over his shoulder. “Is he okay? I don't feel like he should be wandering around on his own at the moment...”

“He can get home fine, I think,” Edzie said, calculating the layout of the settlement in her head. “But I think you're right to worry about him.”

They both glanced at Stray and found that he wore a troubled gaze. “He shouldn't have drawn those faces,” he said, his uncertainty plain on his face. “It's partly his fault.”

Edzie raised an eyebrow at him, letting out a quiet groan of impatience. She had already decided to go check up on their friend, but now, she could tell that Stray wouldn't make the best company for the trip. Unfortunately, she was also loathe to leave him with Ghada, who she didn't entirely trust with her adopted little brother.

Ultimately, she elected to follow them, hoping that Boyle would be okay for several hours. She spent the afternoon with Stray and Ghada, walking the bank of the Splitmouth and commisserating with adults, until Ghada was finally called away on some errand, and Stray decided he and Edzie should head home in search of a meal. As they passed Boyle's, Edzie told Stray to go on ahead, hoping that Elkansa would excuse her lateness.

 

It was shortly before sundown when Edzie watched Stray disappear into their home, and turned back toward Boyle’s. She approached carefully, remembering that she wasn't in his parents' good graces, but eventually swallowed her trepidation and announced her presence politely at the front door. Dredda’s voice issued from within.

“Hello, Edzie. Who else is there?”

“Nobody,” Edzie replied. “Just me. I just wanted to speak to Boyle for a few minutes.”

Dredda appeared at the door presently, his hands sticky from some unidentifiable food preparation. “I suspect Alynn would rather you not come in,” he said, “but something’s obviously bothering Boyle. Would you care to tell me about it?”

“One of the other kids got hold of some of his drawings, and showed them to Luna. She went off on him, and we had a bit of an incident at the empty lot, up by Mistra Septa’s.”

Dredda grew stern, but kept his composure. “We? Who’s we? And did they hurt him?”

“No, he’s fine. He was just pushed over a little. Stray and I were with him, and then Ghada came later. We stood up for him, but it was Ghada who really took care of it. He put Luna in her place, I think, so much that she needed Sola to come in and help break it up.”

Dredda scowled and shook his head. “Those damn girls. And all the rest of you Denorians, too… all pride and bluster. Thank you for telling me, Edzie, but for the moment, I think it’s best that you stay out. Alynn would probably just feel like you were causing more trouble for him, being caught up in this issue. I’m almost inclined to agree, but I don’t feel so entitled to cast judgment on Boyle’s behalf.” He waited a moment, sensing that there was more to this conversation, and then continued. “I’ll let Boyle stew for a while, and then I’ll go and try to pry the details out of him. And his mother will come and stand by him and help him learn whatever lessons there are to be found. If you did stand up for him, then… thank you for that, at least.”

Dredda looked eager to leave, but Edzie reasserted herself. “Dredda, please just give us a moment. I think it would really help him to hear that he’s got friends here… friends besides his parents.”

Dredda pondered this request, and then looked back into the shadows in the gathering room. Finally, he turned back to Edzie and consented: “Go ahead around the side and talk to him through the window. Try to be quiet. Alynn is in her room, doing her exercises… she won’t hear you, and you probably have a good fifteen minutes, if you need it.”

Edzie hurried around the side of the house, her steps naturally soft; as she approached the south side of the residence, she heard movement from inside. There was a shuffling of footsteps, and a single murmuring voice, speaking quietly enough that she couldn't make out any words. She reached the window and stretched to look over the edge, and there, a mere arm's length away, she saw the small, wiry shadow of Boyle's body in the warm afternoon light. She also smelled something burning, though it wasn't strong enough to alarm her.

“Boyle!” She kept her voice to an assertive whisper.

Boyle visibly started, turning his head toward the window with a jerk. “Huh? Edzie? What are you doing?”

“I missed you leaving after our little mess earlier,” she said. “Just wanted to see that you weren't hurt or anything.”

He sniffled a bit, and his words came out broken up. “Fine, yeah. You can go.”

“Well, you're welcome,” Edzie said, affecting a mild offense. “The others? Also fine.” She paused. “Hey, are your drawings okay?”

“Okay?” Boyle sounded both hurt and genuinely confused by this question. “I... I got rid of them. They're not worth all that trouble.”

“Ugh.” Edzie felt a wave of dismay pass over her. “Boyle, come on. Don't let Luna get to you so much. She... it's not your fault, she's just making trouble.”

“I knew I'm not supposed to draw the faces,” Boyle said. “We all know that. But I got to a point where... it was too much, leaving them out. I don't know... they have a point, all those kids. There's got to be something wrong with me.”

Edzie hoisted herself up and leaned over the ledge. “Boyle, you need to listen to me. There is nothing wrong with you. People from other parts of the world... even some people in our own settlement... they don't care about pictures of faces. The crazy thing is, Luna even knows that. She's seen pictures like that, and been okay with it. She just wanted a reason to be mean to you.”

Boyle's voice was still weak. “It doesn't matter, though, cause this is my tribe, and you saw how all those other kids looked at me. They all think I've got some kind of problem. You're the only one who's okay with it.”

“Obviously that's not true,” Edzie said. “Stray and Ghada both fought for you, and you know your mother will bring a storm of pitch and fire when she finds out what happened.”

Boyle refused to be reassured. “Stray was just as disgusted about those drawings as everyone else, and Ghada was just showing off. And if a couple other boys are my friends, what's it matter, anyway? I have to live with the whole tribe, not just two... or three... other kids.”

“Why?” Edzie was firm in her response. “Why do you have to stay around here forever? You'll get old enough to leave, if you don't like it... right after your initiation, if you want. Maybe the trespasser was right, in a way... maybe we're just a bunch of boggs.”

“Edzie, we're not all strong, like you and Stray. We can't all just throw off the opinion of every other person... go out and live for ourselves... you may be able to survive by yourself, but...” He paused, and the resignation settled into his voice. “I don't know.”

“Boyle...” Edzie had no answer, so she let herself slide into a squatting position below the window, along the exterior wall. “Hey, Boyle, it's stupid, what they think about the drawings. I know... I know... there's nothing wrong with you. And Stray knows it, deep down, and he'll learn after a while.”

There was silence, but she imagined Boyle nodding, trying to believe her.

“Hey, I know there's not much else to talk about,” she said, “but I'm just gonna stay here for a while, okay? I'll be here if you want to say anything. I'll be sure to leave quietly if I hear your mother come into your room.”

So Edzie sat in the dust as the salmon evening light turned to the blue darkness. Boyle paced a bit, and sniffled, and then she heard him settle into a sitting position directly on the other side of the wall, where he just breathed quietly. Edzie thought about Luna, and Eryff down by the fishing pier, and Ghada's mother who would be the next Elder of Harmony, and Mistra Baliban and his travels. She wondered what Boyle was thinking about, sitting beside her. He only spoke once more before his mother came to see him, and it was a simple, tragic, impossible plea.

“You should go, Edzie. As soon as you're ready, you should go.”


4.2

Edzie appeared at Ghada's front door, which was half closed, and announced herself politely. She heard Kosef's reply from the gathering room: “Come on in, Edzie.” There was a pause, and then a firm shout to the bedroom: “GHADA, SOMEONE'S HERE!”

Several weeks had passed since the row in the empty lot, and the hostilities between the children – a tangle of enmity around Sola and Luna, Boyle, Edzie, Stray, Ghada, and even Boyle's overprotective parents – had generally loosened, to the point where nobody presented a threat to anyone else. The childrens' injuries had mended, the Mistras' lessons were peaceful, and the boys were no longer sulking, and the girls weren't trying so hard to avoid each other. Though he had destroyed his traveling canvas, Boyle had stopped short of ruining the rest of his art supplies, and he continued to pursue his private hobby in the shadows of his bedroom.

Kosef was mending a woven mat on the gathering room table when Edzie entered. He gave her a disarming smile and a modest bow, and motioned to Ghada's room, welcoming her visit. There, at the end of the hall, she found his door open, spilling the ambient glow of sunlight from Ghada's windows. The room felt even bigger on this visit, with less company to fill it... Ghada, his lean figure diminutive in the center of the floor, was truly spoiled with an excess of personal space.

Ghada was adjusting his tunic hastily as Edzie arrived; he turned and said hello as his hands fiddled with the fabric. Edzie wondered, privately, whether this was some sort of permanent idle state for the boy... tucking, preening, matching, admiring, stitching, and compulsively arranging his appearance. Then, in her amusement, she realized he was probably just fixing himself up in a panic because he hadn't been prepared for her unannounced visit. He certainly couldn't be found half-naked, or just waking up from a nap, or anything like that.

At any rate, when he turned around to give her a more appropriate greeting, he looked as immaculate as ever, his outfit carefully fitted, his mohawk hanging at a jaunty droop on one side of his smooth head.

“Edzie, good to see you! How's everything out on the west end?”

“Fine, thanks,” Edzie replied, less theatrically cordial than her older friend. “How have your lessons been?”

“Productive, as always,” he replied. “Got news this week: Bellaryn is helping with the hunting for the Festival of Release!”

“Neat,” Edzie said, making her way around the edge of the room and sitting down on Ghada's cot. “We'd all like to see Bella, and your mother too, if she gets home.” She gestured to Ghada's effects, arranged in a pile in the corner. “Hey, is that the katsun you practice with? Can I see it?”

Ghada hopped up and retrieved his practice-weapon... it wasn't crafted with the same care as Edzie's, which hung from her thigh, being merely a polished stick with a marking to indicate where the handle would meet the blade. It didn't look perfectly balanced, but it was as large as an adult weapon, and Edzie could see its weight in Ghada's grip. He spun it in his hand as he walked over to Edzie, and handed it to her handle-first, his face alight with guarded enthusiasm.

“Yeah, it's from Mistra Eryn's collection. She says I can hold onto it until I get a real one.”

Edzie stood up as she tested the weapon. It made all her forms and gestures feel unfamiliar, as if her whole arm and shoulder had been replaced with a stranger's, but it was also satisfying... she could imagine its inertia as it passed through the air and struck a practice dummy... or an enemy's neck or torso.

“I keep thinking about your fight with Luna,” Edzie said, letting the weapon come to rest, “and you're really good. For a twelve year-old...”

“Thirteen,” Ghada corrected. “My birthday was last week.”

“Anyway, you fight better than any other kid our age I've ever seen,” she continued. “It's like you were born with the katsun in your hand. Where did you learn your forms like that?”

Ghada shrugged, trying not to grin in spite of himself, and gave an unintentional smirk instead. “I think Mistra Eryn has been giving me some extra attention. She says I've got good hands for katsun-fighting.”

“Great that she sees so much promise,” Edzie said, her tone touched with veiled envy. “I was wondering if you wanted to practice with me a little? Maybe some of your talent will rub off on me.”

Ghada considered the proposal for a moment, and concluded that he didn't really have much else to do with his afternoon. Edzie started off with a basic recitation of her forms, using Ghada's heavier practice-katsun. He watched appreciatively, occasionally offering some bit of advice he had gotten from the Mistra during his own training sessions. At times, he tried the same forms, but with Edzie's smaller katsun, making a show of precision and composure.

“This thing feels really nice,” he said, “but it's so light I think it threw me off. That fight would have been a lot different if I'd had Bellaryn's katsun to fight with.”

“Hey,” Edzie retorted, mildly offended, “lighter and shorter just means it's faster to maneuver.”

“Well, sure,” Ghada said. “I've seen real ones like this before... they make them kind of like this in the Pasim tribe. They call the shorter kind a tagger.” He flowed through an attack form as he spoke, pantomiming a series of short thrusts at full arm extension. “They also make longer, heavier ones that they call splitters.”

Edzie mimicked Ghada's thrusts, watching to see how his weight was different from hers. He jabbed at her knee from behind, and she fell forward, registering his laughter as she stumbled and recovered. She did her best to remember her training and keep the practice-weapon in a ready position in front of her, but she could tell she was moving clumsily.

“GHADA!” Kosef's voice came from the gathering room again. “STRAY'S HERE, ASKING FOR EDZIE! HE'S COMING BACK NOW!”

Edzie composed herself, and Ghada rested Edzie's katsun on his shoulder. A moment later, Stray appeared at the doorway, waving at them cheerfully.

“Hi, Stray,” Ghada said.

“Everything okay?” Edzie asked, though she saw no reason to worry.

“Oh, sure, I was just bored, and Boyle is helping Dredda with something, so I came looking for you. Kansa told me you came out here to find Ghada. What are you guys doing?”

“Come on in,” Ghada said, motioning to his bed. Stray hoisted himself up, sitting innocuously, his toes just touching the earthen floor. Ghada tapped Edzie on the shoulder with her katsun, and said, “We were just doing a little sparring, eh?”

Edzie turned, looking at the practice weapon in her hand. “Right. So, you think I should try with this?”

“Yeah, probably a good idea,” Ghada said. “Feel something a little different in your hands. I'll see how well I defend against a heavier weapon. Just be careful with me!” He smirked, and Edzie sensed the patronizing smarm in his voice. She assumed an aggressive stance, intending to beat it out of him.

Edzie, always a meticulous and talented katsun-fighter, had expected to be testing Ghada's skill, but after they exchanged a few blows, it became clear that she would be testing herself against him. She had an acute eye and a precise control over her movements, but compared to Ghada's proficiency, her inadequacy was almost embarrassing. He flowed from one form into another, withdrawing and intercepting and baiting her in one direction and catching her off-guard from the other side, like water flowing around a stone in its riverbed. He was tactful enough to avoid humiliating her in front of Stray... he never struck her hard enough to break their rhythm, and he made a point of complimenting her quickness... but he was in control of every touch, tap, and deflection.

Stray watched, mesmerized, and managed to identify most of the forms his older peers used, but he couldn't fully judge their respective skills, or the blatant asymmetry in their abilities. He occasionally gasped or cheered some touch or reversal by one of the combatants, but his comments only showed his lack of experience.

Not only was Ghada's technique dominant... he also conducted the whole match with a certain level of formality that Edzie wasn't used to in her sessions with Stray and Boyle, or even with her mother. Every one of Edzie's attack forms elicited a designated withstand or intercept form, and he never really broke the gradual cycle he and Edzie established. He remained calm and predictable in his attacks, always giving Edzie a chance to rally; when she resorted to one of the withdraw forms, he stepped back into his own space and reset their respective positions.

Ghada's techniques were so established, so scholastic, that Edzie started announcing his forms as he did them. She explained, between breaths, that this was for Stray's benefit, but she hoped Ghada could sense the mocking undertone... her subtler point being that Ghada's approach was, in itself, a sort of a recitation, flawless to the point of banality. Unfortunately, as they both knew, it was also absolutely effective... even when Edzie switched up her forms, or broke her stride to throw off her opponent, he simply reacted appropriately, choosing the right movement to neutralize her.

The first time Edzie cheated, it was mostly just for her own satisfaction, a harmless trick at Ghada's expense. After she defended against a few of his attacks in a row, she took three strides back, slumped over, and asked him to wait a moment while she caught her breath. He lowered his katsun and turned to say something to Stray... as soon as she saw his eyes were off her, she dropped her pretense of exhaustion and thrust her katsun in between his legs, pulling them out from under him. He cursed (mildly, of course) and toppled backwards, and she stepped over him, laughing, and prodded him in the kidney with the practice weapon.

“Too trusting!” she cried, letting him remain for a moment before she stepped away.

“Hey!” Stray's voice was audibly agitated. “You cheater!”

“Oh, come on,” Edzie said, momentarily disregarding his frustration. “He's better than me anyway.”

“I don't care, you're a sluicule, taking him down like that!”

“STRAY! Don't use that word with me!” Edzie's voice betrayed some shock at hearing the curse come out of Stray's mouth.

Ghada was already on his feet by then, and he spoke with care, recognizing the danger in Stray's sudden mood swing. “It's okay, Stray, don't worry... she can mess with me a little. I can take it. Edzie, you should say you're sorry for that, though.”

Edzie looked skeptically at Ghada. “Alright, fine, sorry. You're fine anyway. I'm ready to get back to it whenever you are.”

They fought for several more minutes, and Edzie watched Ghada closely to see if she had shaken his confidence. It seemed she hadn't... he was still fluid and sharp, all poise and protocol. If she had been more perceptive at that moment, more sensitive to Stray's stormy attitude, she might have avoided a good deal of trouble, and changed a great deal of subsequent history. But she wasn't concerned with her big-sister role at that moment... she was focused on Ghada, her friend and competitor, a mirror for her wit and martial skill.

So, at the beginning of the following match, knowing she couldn't prove her prowess by the use of the blade alone, she elected to cheat again. To some degree, it was a lesson for Ghada, who she felt could use a stroke of ruthlessness to puncture his formal perfection. It was also a test for Stray, whose overreaction to her previous offense had left her feeling uneasy. Mostly, though, it was for her own satisfaction.

To Edzie's credit, it took a fair amount of premeditation to arrange her second full assault on Ghada... over the course of three exchanges, she side-stepped an attack from the front, and then withdrew three steps, until her back was knocking against his table where he kept his cosmetics. Ghada had stepped back to allow her to regroup, and his face betrayed concern that she would knock over his things; she turned and steadied herself on the table, lowering the katsun to show that she had her balance.

When she turned back, she had an eagerness in her eyes that should have made Ghada suspicious. Stray vaguely recognized it, a glimmer of private knowledge that she coveted in the face of her opponent. She lifted her katsun again, holding it with one hand, and said, “Okay, ready? Stop me if you can.”

Ghada settled into an alert position, confident that he could intercept whatever approach she made, and Edzie charged, extending the most aggressive form into two strides and a lunge. When she was close enough that he wouldn't be able to react, she whipped her free hand around from behind her back, releasing a vial of softening powder she had acquired from Ghada's table. The vial itself, a light wooden bowl no bigger than a cupped palm, glanced harmlessly off Ghada's cheek as he moved to intercept her, but the powder spread outward in a cloud, billowing over Ghada's cheeks, upper body, and into his eyes and nose.

As he reeled, haplessly losing the flow of his intercept form, Edzie stepped inside his guard, grabbed her own wooden katsun blade with her free hand, and used the heavier practice katsun to whack Ghada hard in the ribs. His grip came loose on the smaller weapon, and she wrenched it out of his grasp and took it in her opposite hand. As he sputtered and tried to wipe the oily dust out of his eyes, she crossed the wooden swords and snapped them into place on either side of his neck, signaling her dominance.

She was on the verge of laughter, about to step back and help Ghada clean himself off, when Stray's voice reached her, bellowing louder than she had ever heard it. His body came out of nowhere, appearing in her peripheral vision and then crashing into her, and she released her grip on both wooden swords to keep them from hurting Ghada. Stray contented himself with a single push, putting his whole weight behind both arms, but it was enough to toss Edzie off her feet. She landed on her rump with a thud, and the pain of the impact rippled through her tailbone and butt.

“OW! STRAY! WHAT'S WITH YOU?!?”

“YOU CHEATED!” Stray screamed, now just barely comprehensible. Edzie registered Stray, coiled up over her as if to kick her, and then she saw a tiny rational spark take hold, and he restrained himself. Instead, he bent down and picked up her katsun, the lighter and better-crafted of the two weapons on the ground, picked it up, and stomped unexpectedly toward the nearest wall.

“GHADA WAS NICE THIS WHOLE TIME, AND YOU CHEATED! YOU ARE A SLUICULE!”

Edzie was almost to her feet, but she was too bewildered to anticipate Stray's intentions. He reached the wall, and with a sort of grunting, fuming ruthlessness, he propped the katsun up against it. Before Edzie could react, he stomped on the weapon, right at the center. It gave a couple centimeters, and there was a loud cracking sound. Edzie panicked and lunged toward Stray, but it was much too late... he stomped a second time, and the weapon splintered and broke into two sharp pieces, coming apart along the grain of the wood.

“NO!” Edzie reached Stray in a couple more steps... Stray, who still looked fiercely resentful, with traces of angry tears in his eyes. She grabbed him and threw him down to the ground, willfully rough, and crouched down to inspect her broken katsun. Ghada came up behind her and paused a few steps away, unsure of whom to comfort.

At that moment, as they were all caught in a moment of troubled indecision, Kosef appeared at the door, concerned about the noise. He instinctively moved to help Stray, who looked shaken, even in his rage; Edzie gathered the splinters of wood and lurched toward the door.

“What happened?!?” Kosef demanded, alarmed at the tension in the air.

“THEY can tell you,” Edzie barked, her voice wavering with a tangle of violent emotions. “I'M going to tell MOM.” She directed a scorching glance toward Stray, and then marched out Ghada's entrance, into the gathering room, and out into the paths of the settlement. She looked at the ground, wounded and ashamed, as tears streamed down her cheeks.

 

Elkansa did not disappoint her daughter. When Edzie arrived home, tears dried, bearing the corpse of a shattered katsun that her mother had secured by rare special request, Elkansa was provoked into full lecture and punishment mode. This ire was directed entirely at Stray, who she already felt was troublesome and irresponsible, so his punishment was instituted swiftly and mercilessly. He was subjected to an unprecedented lecture on honor and respect and self-control, he was told that he would be making his own food for the rest of the week, he was given a host of labor-intensive projects to complete under Elkansa's supervision, and he was kept isolated and confined for the best parts of several days.

Over the course of those several days, the full story began to emerge from a haze of discussions and reports: Ghada's and Kosef's, Stray's, and finally Edzie's. Edzie had great success, early on, in downplaying her own role in the incident, saying she was just being playfully mischievous and Stray exploded for no reason. However, when Ghada and Kosef confirmed certain parts of Stray's story, Elkansa realized she would need to address some issues with Edzie, as well. She would not tolerate a cheater and a troublemaker, mocking and antagonizing other people her age. She had spent her entire adulthood earning the esteem of the tribe, and she didn't want Edzie to spoil it before she could inherit it.

Edzie remained generally bitter about her lost weapon – it was many months before she stopped mourning for it – but her relationship with Stray repaired itself fairly quickly. After a few days, she was back to telling him about the stories she was reading, and within several more days she was back to practicing the sixteen forms with him. She wondered, briefly, if there was some way she could help him control his anger, but no clear solution presented itself, so she let herself forget the problem entirely. Luckily, Elkansa's memory wasn't so short.

A couple weeks after the katsun was broken and Stray was punished, Edzie was in her room, preparing for a trek across the settlement, when she became aware of Elkansa and Mistra Septa's voices in the gathering room. She paused, doing her best to hear their conversation, but it was too quiet... she could just tell they were speaking very seriously, and that Stray was a prime topic of their discussion. She tried to go back to reading afterward, but found herself distracted, wondering what was happening with Stray and the Mistra.

Her question was answered after their class session the next day.


4.3

"Stray, please stay for a few minutes after the others have left. I'd like us to speak about something."

Mistra Septa made the remark sound offhanded, as if it was just a passing thought, so the other kids didn't pay it any heed. Even Stray thought it was probably just a minor favor or a correction to some answer he had given. Only Edzie, sitting next to Stray in the pavilion, could tell that this meeting was purposeful, probably having something to do with Mistra Septa's recent conversation with Elkansa.

Edzie followed Stray up to the stage, as was her habit when she didn't have anything else to distract her. Stray stood a bit straighter than usual when he encountered the Mistra... her bearing seemed to demand it. The last of the other students had left, and Mistra Septa nodded to Luna, who took her leave of the stage.

"Stray, I wanted to talk to you about some of your affairs outside of our sessions. I think it would be best if we talked privately, and besides, I don't think it would interest Edzie much."

Stray looked back at Edzie and shrugged, effectively dismissing her. She hesitated a moment, her curious and protective instincts tethering her to this mysterious situation. Still, she knew the Mistra was an authority figure, and whatever was happening, it was sanctioned by her mother.

"Okay, I'll head home," she said finally. "Come find me later if you want, Stray. We can practice a little." With that, she departed through the front entrance, leaving Stray and the Mistra alone in the pavilion. Stray, now much more circumspect, returned his attention to the Mistra.

Septa led Stray to the edge of the stage, where she sat down in the chair normally occupied by Luna. Now nearly face-to-face with the boy, she spoke gently and deliberately. "Stray, your mother... Elkansa spoke to me yesterday and told me about your fight with Edzie. I know there was a lot of discussion about it among the grown-ups, but I'd like to hear your take on it, before I go any further. Would you care to tell me what happened?"

Stray took a moment to collect his thoughts, which were colored by embarrassment and resentment: annoyance with himself, anger toward Edzie, and bitterness toward Elkansa. He had put the situation largely in perspective, and he thought he was sufficiently contrite; nonetheless, he sensed that Mistra Septa genuinely wanted to listen to him, and it made some of those suppressed frustrations bubble up.

"Well, Edzie and Ghada were sparring at Ghada's house, and Ghada was better than Edzie, so she cheated. I got mad, and Ghada made her say sorry, but she just wanted to keep fighting, so..."

"How did she cheat?" Mistra Septa interrupted.

"She asked him to take a break, and then hit him when his guard was down." Stray paused to get his story back on track as the Mistra shook her head, both disgusted and amused. "Anyway, they kept going. And I was already kind of mad. But then she cheated again – she threw some of his makeup powder in his eyes – and I guess I went crazy, because I pushed her, and then broke her katsun."

"Tell me about that. How did it break?"

"I... grabbed it from her, and took it over to the wall, and stomped on it, and it broke in half."

"Okay. Did anything else happen?"

"No, Ghada's father came in, and Edzie ran away, and Ghada and his dad talked to me for a while, and then I went home and Elkansa yelled at me."

"Okay. Thank you for telling me. So why do you think you got so angry?"

Stray was momentarily bewildered by this question, which he had been made to answer so many times, on a point that he felt was perfectly clear. "Because she cheated! It was mean and pointless. Ghada was helping her learn, and being fair, and she kept tricking him!"

"Okay, I understand," Mistra Septa said, "but don't you think what you did went too far? Was that really the best way to handle it?"

"If I hadn't done it, nobody would have done anything. Edzie never does that stuff in front of Elkansa. Am I just supposed to let her break rules whenever she wants?"

"I understand, Stray. I've seen this side of you before, in small doses... you're very sensitive to cruelty and unfairness. But there are a lot of people... Elkansa, Boyle's mom, even Ghada and Kosef... who think your temper is a problem. So I told Elkansa I would try to help you with it."

Stray remained silent, processing this revelation, so Mistra Septa continued. "I told her we would have private lessons, twice a week, two hours each lesson. You can help me decide what days... on those days, our private meetings will be immediately after my last lesson of the day. I'm going to teach you some special techniques to help you control your anger, and maybe we can also figure out where it comes from."

Stray considered this, and found it agreeable... he found Mistra Septa severe, but unlike the other children in the tribe, he didn't resent her for it. Occasional private lessons with the Mistra might be fun, he thought, though he had no idea what they would entail. He agreed with little hesitation, and he and Mistra Septa selected two days each week for their meetings.

Edzie caught up with Stray as he walked from the pavilion back to their house. He told her about the private lessons to help him with his anger, and Edzie agreed that they would probably be interesting. She did her best to act surprised at the news, despite already knowing just as much as Stray... having been huddled by the pavilion's exterior wall, listening intently to their conversation.

... ... ... ...

When Stray and Mistra Septa met after her lessons several days later, she instructed him to sit down in the empty chair, right there in the pavilion, and she pulled a crate over from the other side of the platform and sat beside him. They chatted about her lessons for a few minutes, and Stray told her about his plans for the fall, and then Septa suggested they get started. Stray, filled with curiosity, evinced eager agreement.

The Mistra started by asking Stray to tell her again about the situation with Edzie, which was still so fresh in his mind. He did so, starting with his arrival at Ghada's house, recounting his interest in the sparring, remembering Ghada's good manners and Edzie's misdeeds, and finally culminating in his own show of retribution. He ended the tale with his arrival home to Elkansa's wrath. When he was finished, Mistra Septa told him (now with less deference) to tell her again, in as much detail as possible. Stray asked what it was about the story that she didn't understand.

"It doesn't matter what I understand," she said. "It matters what you tell me."

So Stray told her again, trying to reproduce, as accurately as possible, his own remarks, Ghada's minor points of wisdom and advice, Edzie's forms and tactics, Ghada's unassailable technical skill, and his own violent response to the whole situation. At the end of the story, he noted that he had apologized to Edzie, at Elkansa's behest, and that he felt ashamed about the whole thing.

"You say you're ashamed of it because Elkansa was mad, right? And because Edzie was unhappy?"

Stray nodded. Mistra Septa gave him an overtly skeptical look. "But do you actually feel ashamed? Do you actually think what you did was bad?"

"Edzie says she was just being playful," Stray said, repeating the account of the situation that his seniors had provided to him. "I got too mad, and destroyed her things. I was mean."

Mistra Septa accepted this rote confession without further comment. Instead, she asked Stray to tell her about the incident again. When he was finished, she started asking specific questions: what else happened that day, before he went to find Edzie? What did he do later that evening, after he suffered Elkansa's reprimand? Did he remember any smells, specific objects, any of his own private thoughts from that day, from the time leading up to the fight? Could he remember the weather, how warm it was inside Ghada's house, what sounds were in the environment? Why, of all things, did he choose to break the katsun? Could he pretend they were in Ghada's room, and demonstrate where he was sitting, and show her where Ghada and Edzie were standing, and point out the wall where he had stomped on the weapon?

Stray answered these questions, each in turn, patiently at first. When Mistra Septa asked him to repeat things he had already said, or told him his answers weren't clear enough and he should think harder, he started to feel trapped, as though this was some kind of interrogation or indictment. He started shifting in his seat and tapping his foot as he spoke. Exasperation slipped into his voice, and then defeat and frustration, and then resentful obedience, and these responses continued to follow one another, in a sort of a restless cycle. He started feeling an urge to ask impolite questions: where was this going? When would they be finished?

When Mistra Septa saw that Stray was sufficiently agitated, she asked him to describe the whole situation, one more time. He did so, meticulously, trying to bring this process to an end. In the middle of his account, she held up her hand to stop him.

"Now," she said, her tone stern and unequivocal, "I need you to close your eyes and pay attention to how you're feeling. Look very close. Note, especially, the tension in your muscles, the urge to move your hands, the tightness in your chest and stomach, the burden of drawing breath. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that should be a bit like – a very minor simulation of – the feelings you get when you get angry. Except in those cases, it happens much faster, and it gets much worse."

Stray didn't answer… his eyes were closed, and he was still as a stone, save for a rhythmic clenching of his hands. Mistra Septa continued. "There are a lot of techniques for managing your anger, but they all start with this awareness: knowledge of your own body, a complete understanding of these involuntary signals that you're always responding to. Hopefully we can train you to be very sensitive to these signals, to navigate the underlying process at a moment's notice. In the middle of a crowd, in the middle of a conversation... even in the heat of combat. If you aren't an active participant in your own body's behaviors, you will always be lost."

Stray nodded. "How long does that take?" he asked.

"We'll spend a few sessions on the basics... controlling your anger before you misbehave or explode at people. After that, I think we should take a longer journey together, to explore your emotional life. You're going to become an adult very soon, and these things will get very complicated... and I think, before you get much stronger or more violent, we need to isolate the point of contact between your conscience and your anger. There's some poison at work there, and we need to flush it out."


... ... ... ...

Taking a one-week break before chapter 5.


Ch. 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.


Ch. 6: Insights and Intuitions


6.1

“Mistra Eryn says you've been especially diligent lately, Stray.”

“I guess so. I think the exercises are good for me.”

“I'm sure you're right. I've noticed the same thing... you've been at three classes every week, even beyond our private sessions. Do you think they're working?”

“I guess... I mean, yes, I definitely think so. I've been practicing the tones a lot, though, and also the breathing and stretches, when I have time to myself. I don't think Elkansa appreciates it... understands it, I mean... but she just ignores me when I'm doing it around her.”

“And when is that? Don't you have a private space to practice?”

“Sure, my room is usually fine. But late at night, I like to do it in the gathering room, before the fire burns out completely.”

“And how is that different from doing it in your own room?”

“Well, first, there's a lot more space, so the sound is richer, riding the air currents around the room... and the warmth of the fire adds an extra frequency, too. Plus, it feels different. There's more harmony, and dissonance, so when I find my tone, there's more roundness to it... it's got more shape. Does that make sense?”

“Absolutely. In the gathering room, you should be able to feel the resonance of the other people who have been spending time there. Elkansa, first and foremost... at this point, you'd probably recognize her frequency without even having to tune against it.” Mistra Septa hesitated, measuring her tone. “Actually, I'm quite impressed at how you describe the resonance in your gathering room. Those are the kinds of nuances that some of our Prospects don't recognize until their second or third year.”

“You must be an excellent teacher.” Stray's smile was sly and charming.

“Thank you, Stray, that's very kind. So have your family and friends noticed that you spend more time with us these days? Are you still getting along with them?”

“Yes. They've probably noticed... Elkansa definitely has... but they haven't really said much about it. I don't see them every day any more... Boyle spends a lot of time with Varda, and Edzie has spent a lot of evenings lately at Ghada and Bellaryn's house. She says I shouldn't come unless we all make plans together ahead of time.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I mean, I'm not stupid... I know why they suddenly need all that privacy. I wouldn't want to be there anyway, obviously.”

“Well, of course, but that's not what I was asking. I was asking how you felt about them spending more time together. Is there anything unexpected? Is your body reacting? Do you feel any new tensions or sensitivities when you introspect?”

“I... I've thought about it a little, but not much. Something is different, but I can't tell what. It's a tightness, an abrasive sort of... hostility, I guess.”

“Stray, as much as you don't want to admit it, I think that's what we call jealousy.”

Stray tried to object... defensive words seemed to emerge spontaneously, reflexively, with a sort of submerged violence... and he adhered to his training and silenced them, forcing the part of his brain that was forming the words to go slack. He searched his mind, looking for a sign of himself, some authentic image beneath his self-defense mechanisms, and gradually managed to detach himself from his jealousy. He focused on this detachment, and allowed new words to rise from it.

“I think that helps me understand jealousy better, knowing that's how it feels. I mean, I always felt like there was a balance, between me and Edzie and Ghada... like a web strung loose between tree branches. But I'm realizing that some parts of it are tightening, now, and other parts are coming completely unstrung. I figured, if anything, Ghada might pull Edzie away and I would feel abandoned by her... but...”

“But it's the reverse.”

“Yes. Edzie still feels as close as ever, like our relationship can stretch and shrink and never really change. But I think Ghada was growing fond of me, and now he looks at me like something a little bit dangerous, or beyond his reach. Now that the situation is changing, I feel like the whole past year... or since summer, at least... is coming into focus differently. It's hard, seeing something you missed that you can't go back to.”

“I'm glad you can see that so clearly, Stray. I'd say you're ahead of many people – adults, even – in facing your emotions and integrating them into your life.”

Stray scowled at this. “Funny you say that. The more I pay attention... the more mindful I am, the more I try to be sensitive to my emotions... the more I feel like I'm just getting lost in the woods. The more sensitive I am to those emotions, the more wild and mysterious they seem.”

“That's common. The first lesson in any great endeavor is to recognize your own inadequacy. All humans are treacherously, devastatingly limited creatures.” Mistra Septa indicated that she needed a moment's pause – how she made this so glaringly clear without any explicit indication, Stray had no idea – and tightened her topknot. When she was satisfied, she arched her back, restoring her posture to ensiform perfection, and finally continued, her voice keen and methodical. “So let's keep working on it. Where has your mind been going, at the depth of your meditation, when you finally let go? What have you been thinking about?”

Stray reflected on this question for a moment, and then said, “Well, there are three places so far.”

... ... ... ...

Edzie and Ghada's intermittent romance began in 3339, and by 3340, most of their friends and acquaintances were aware of it, though they were politely circumspect about it. It was the same way with Boyle and Varda, except that Varda wasn't close friends with Edzie or Stray or Ghada, and Boyle spent the better part of that year trying to keep it that way. Edzie and Stray only felt that relationship as a sort of undercurrent running beneath Boyle's various moods. When he and Varda were feeling productive and compatible, he was less available, but much more animated and cheerful. When there was distance or tension between them, his cynicism became almost unbearable, and he became (somehow) both clingy and unreliable.

Eventually, in the months leading up to the Festival of Emergence, Boyle realized he needed to merge his social circles. Between Varda, Stray and Edzie, and his crucial time alone with his canvases, he had too many parts to play, too many public faces to keep track of. Slowly, he started creating opportunities for Stray and Edzie to spend time with Varda, so that they could bond over their few common experiences: the trials of Denorian adolescence, the stresses of having parents and teachers, and the noteworthy privilege of having Boyle as a close friend.

At first, the three only talked in short bursts after their sessions with the Mistra, or when Boyle and Varda happened past Edzie and Stray's dromo. Even in these brief encounters, Stray and Edzie could tell that Varda was genuinely shy, taciturn about her own family, suspicious of in-depth questions, and reserved about participating in idle chatter and roughhousing. If you could get her to open up and look at you, she was quite handsome: her eyes were a brown so rich it was almost burgundy, her arms and shoulders were broad and shapely, and she kept her thick black hair folded up on the crown of her head. She tended to wear her brivsa hood up, but left the scarf loose over her upper body, which might have been taken as a sign of disrespect on a more precocious child.

Finally, a few weeks after Emergence, as the first floral weeds were springing up in the spongy earth around the settlement, Boyle arranged an extended rendezvous with Edzie, Stray, and Varda. He couldn't maintain his exclusion – his downright possessive segregation of his social groups – any longer, and so he gave Edzie and Stray a warning and an appeal: he wanted them all to go visit the merchants along Handworkers Row together, and then spend some idle time at the Chronoboros, so would Edzie and Stray please try to behave, and make a decent impression? He knew they had his best interests at heart, but mischief seemed to follow them like a calf after its mother.

The three of them – Boyle, Edzie, and Stray – attended Mistra Septa's session that afternoon. Her lessons were less useful than they once had been... all three of them had attended so many, they had flat-out memorized most of the material. Still, they made frequent obligatory appearances... Stray to help out the younger children, and Edzie and Boyle because they found the cadence of the lectures refreshing. After the lesson concluded, they gathered at the edge of the pavilion and headed northeast, toward Handworkers Row.

As they passed the rows of vendors, the three of them noted the changing atmosphere... the morning's dry breeze had passed entirely, and a heavier, more ominous stillness had replaced it, a humid chill in the shadow of thick clouds. The traders in the Denorian market were looking nervously skyward, ready for the onset of precipitation. Edzie pulled her brivsa's hood tight over her hair as she followed the boys.

Halfway along the market row, they reached Varda's parents' table. Varda's older mother was a stonecarver, and Varda helped her engrave tiles and bricks. She was presently smoothing the sides of a rectangular block, cut from some sort of sandstone; when she saw Boyle, she looked up just long enough to smile and wave, and then turned and said something quietly to the young woman behind her. The woman nodded, and then inspected the brick Varda had been attending.

“Who's that?” Edzie asked Boyle quietly.

“That's her younger mother,” Boyle said. “They sell the stone in the mornings, and then her older mother comes in the evenings to take special orders and finish up the day's business.”

The block apparently met with the inspector's approval, because Varda received an affectionate squeeze on the shoulder, which served as a dismissal. Varda hurried down and embraced Boyle, and then gave a polite nod to Stray and Edzie, who returned her greeting awkwardly. After a moment's discussion, the three of them turned back east, with Boyle and Varda leading the way and Stray and Edzie remaining a few steps behind.

The trip back along Handworkers' Row was a slow one... each of the four children were accosted by at least two or three adults, supplying idle compliments and demanding their regards be sent to the teenagers' parents. Varda knew almost all of the merchants, having spent by far the most time in the market, but they knew she was timid, so they were usually satisfied with a quick, silent nod from the girl. Edzie and Stray had fewer acquaintances here, but they proved annoyingly talkative – every woman who knew Elkansa made a show of admiring her children and asking how she was doing. All four, but Edzie especially, were relieved when the gallery of vendors finally tapered off.

Now that there was more space around them, Stray took the opportunity to catch up to Boyle and Varda, whose conversation seemed to be at a lull. When he reached Varda – a fast, focused walker – he spoke cheerfully and listened patiently, painfully earnest in engaging with her.

“Varda! So Boyle says that was your mother, back at your table?”

“Yes,” Varda said. “That was mother Obrii.”

“Is she the one who does all those intricate carvings on the stones? They look like the swirls on the Caesurites' robes!”

“No,” Varda replied, “That's mother Matrista. She won't be here for another few hours.”

Sensing Varda's shyness, Stray gave her a moment, and then tried to be as gentle as possible in making his inquiry. “So, can I ask about your mothers? Just tell me if you don't want to talk... about them, or anything.”

Varda glanced at Boyle, apparently looking for some kind of confidence from him.

“It's okay either way,” Boyle reassured her. “No need to go into it.” He turned to Stray, his tone conciliatory. “She'll tell you about them later, maybe.”

Varda seemed to perk up a bit with Boyle's encouragement, so she lifted her head and spoke a bit louder. “No, actually, it's okay. I'm just a little tired from the work.” She looked at Stray, forcing a smile. “Mother Obrii is the younger, and she's my birth mother, if that's what you wanted to know.”

“Sure,” Stray said, happy to have cracked the girl's defenses. “How did they meet? Did you know your father?”

“Stray, don't be pushy,” Edzie warned, still a few paces behind.

“No, it's fine,” Varda said, continuing to brighten as she acclimated to the company. “I never knew my birth father. He was an outsider, traveling with mother Obrii, but when they came to live with the tribe, he left mother Obrii for mother Matrista. She says he was a rake, though, so she drove him away, and ended up taking care of mother Obrii, who was pregnant with me. They both say it's complicated, but it sounds pretty simple to me.”

Stray nodded. “Yeah, it does. When they say 'complicated,' they probably just mean they don't want to think too much about it.”

Varda smiled and shrugged. “Fine with me.” They all hesitated a moment, and then Varda chuckled. Her mirth punctured the tension in the air, and finally all four of them laughed together, celebrating the strangeness of the adults who were raising them.

The four of them reached the Chronoboros shortly thereafter, making their way among a peppering of bystanders. It was late afternoon, so the court was dominated by the youth of the tribe, many of them free of their chores and sessions with the Mistras, and not yet engaged in their evening rituals. At the outskirts of the court, there was a great deal of playful prepubescent ruckus, but the Chronoboros itself called for some respect, so it became quieter as the four Denorians approached it.

They only paused once to consider the available space, and then they decided, seemingly in unison, to settle right beneath the tree itself, crouching over its roots. They were old enough that they could keep still and restrain their voices, so they didn't expect to attract any disapproval. Once they were comfortable, Stray renewed his efforts to charm Varda out of her defenses.

The conversation turned almost immediately to the pinti – the bone flute that Varda was learning to play – and Varda's interest in music and crafts. Varda said that her mother Obrii had come from a musical community before she had joined the Denorians, and that she had taken an interest in the pinti as soon as she had learned of its place in Denorian tradition. She had made friends with a craftswoman – Nordimae – who furnished Denorian artifacts and sold them to voraish travelers and merchants at exorbitant prices. Nordimae had taught Obrii to carve the flutes, and though Obrii didn't show an aptitude for hand-carving, she was able to pass the interest on to her daughter.

What she lacked in practical coordination, Obrii made up for in musical talent. Once Varda was carving flutes, drawing on Nordimae's occasional tutelage, mother Obrii was quick to teach her how to play. Varda was learning more slowly than her mother would have liked, but she was improving at a steady pace, and now she was initiating Boyle into the practice. Luckily, Varda had the patient disposition required of a teacher.

Stray asked Varda if she had one of her pinti with her. She didn't, but Boyle had one wrapped up in his portable canvas, along with his charcoals. It was rough, lacking the porcelain smoothness of the instruments that Nordimae made, but it was vastly improved by the etchings on its surface: overlapping curls, framed in rectangles and often spilling out of their borders, adorning the cylindar from tip to tip. There was a single opening to draw the breath, and then eight finger holes, as per traditional pinti construction... one for each of the formal harmonics. Delighted, Stray asked Varda if she would play something for them (he would have requested a duet, but only one instrument was available).

Varda nodded, and she and Boyle briefly discussed her song choice. Varda wanted to play one of the traditional Denorian hymns, whose steady, interwoven tones would unfold slowly and deliberately. It would be familiar to Edzie and Stray, who had heard many such songs from the gathered crowds at the seasonal festivals. Boyle considered this song choice, and finally opposed it, suggesting that she play “one of Obrii's songs” instead. Varda looked hesitant, but she agreed, and put her lips to the pinti.

The song she played used all the familiar notes, those eight formal harmonics from the tribeswomen's ritual chants, but they were employed in such a strange way, it left Stray and Edzie visibly baffled. The notes were so distinct, and came so quickly... they would seem to proceed like a birdsong, or a familiar phrase, and then suddenly they would turn aside like a tree-limb wrenched by a gust of wind. When Varda finished, no more than a minute later, they all felt like they had taken a long journey, and that hours must have passed since she blew the first note.

“Wow!” Stray was the first to speak. “It was... beautiful! So many notes!”

“Yeah, weird, isn't it?” Boyle said, a note of awe in his voice.

“I was looking for the tonic... or some kind of dominant tone, or resonant attitude... but it moved so fast, I couldn't track it!” Stray glanced at Edzie, and then back at Varda. “Where does that kind of music come from?”

“That one is from somewhere down south,” Varda said. “Obrii learned it when she was a child.”

Edzie nodded, recognition showing on her face. “Right. I've read about those songs, from the new kingdoms... lots of notes, with different emotional effects, like stories.”

Varda handed the pinti back to Boyle, who placed it neatly inside his canvas and rolled it back up. Edzie looked at Stray, and found him deep in thought, reflecting on the strangeness of this foreign song that had materialized before him. Finally, having made as much sense of it as he could, he started talking to Boyle about tones and frequencies, repeating the lessons he was learning from Mistra Septa about sound and stability. This conversation led to a discussion of balance and meditation, and before any of them knew what was happening, Stray and Boyle were standing up and trying to balance on one foot.

Boyle was perfectly oblivious, but Stray noticed when they started getting disapproving looks from bystanders. They were very close to the Chronoboros itself, and it was no place for foolishness. Highly conscious of these gazes, Stray suggested they move elsewhere, and Boyle, caught up in the discussion, was quick to agree. They ran off to the west side of the court to compete and make fools of themselves.

“Nice to see you and Boyle getting along so well,” Edzie said. “Me and Stray used to be the only people he seemed to like being around.”

“Yeah, I like him a lot,” Varda said, smiling modestly. She paused, watching them with a sort of paternalistic interest. “Stray seems great. I can see he really cares about Boyle.” She paused. “I'm sorry about Boyle's mother, and how hard she is toward you two.”

Edzie smiled. “Well, maybe with you on our side, she'll start being nice to us again. If enough people tell her that Stray is a good friend, she has to start believing it eventually.”

Varda scowled a bit, looking away from Edzie, and then her expression softened again. “No, it won't help. Alynn isn't changing her mind... if I were you, I'd stop worrying about it.”

Now it was Edzie's turn to scowl, registering her dismay as frustrated defensiveness. “But why? What's the problem?”

Varda checked to make sure the boys were out of earshot, and then leaned in closer to Edzie. “She doesn't see any point in encouraging the friendship. I've heard her argue with Dredda about it... they're not very quiet... She thinks of Stray as a typical boy, and an outsider, at that. It won't do Boyle any good to keep endearing himself to outcasts.” Varda paused and watched Edzie for some reaction, but Edzie's expression was stone, so Varda continued. “She knows Stray is a good friend, but... I think, for Alynn, the friendship is what she's protecting Boyle from.”

Varda finished her explanation and looked at Edzie with concern, but she saw no discernible reaction. She shifted back, giving the other girl space; Edzie's eyes were glazed over for a moment, and then they glanced at Varda, and then returned to a state of reflective emptiness. For Edzie, there had been a sudden change in the atmosphere... she still saw the people around her, Denorian children running around the markers, tribeswomen standing in small groups talking quietly, a few lone bystanders doing exercises and practicing advanced forms... but these figures dropped out of the foreground, becoming remote and flat and empty, drained of their personalities and animating principles. Edzie suddenly felt entirely alone in the center of the court, as if a mark of trespass had been placed upon her. The air felt colder, and the ground felt harder beneath her folded legs.

It only took Edzie a moment to shake off her disquietude, but the feeling remained. She tried to conceal it under polite conversation, but some of her sullenness must have been apparent, because Varda became less responsive, as well. By the time Stray and Boyle returned and sat with them, their conversation had tapered off almost to nothing, and there was no hope of rekindling it.

Stray did the best he could with an atmosphere that seemed to have wilted. Varda and Boyle talked with an inspiring intimacy, and Stray engaged in the conversation as much as he could, as Edzie remained quiet and disconnected, withdrawn into her own thoughts. She was profoundly distracted, but she had the presence of mind to realize she wasn't contributing, so she excused herself on some shaky premise and started the plodding walk homeward.


6.2

The first place I always go, that seems the most natural, is a warm, dark enclosure, embracing me on all sides. The warmth clings to me... I think it's actually coming from me, and staying on my skin as it seeps out... and there's something peaceful about the whole experience. It's not perfect, though... in fact, I know something is happening outside this warm pocket I'm occupying... but I can't get out to face it. Or I don't want to, maybe... my stillness seems involuntary, but mental and spiritual, not physical.

Something comes in from outside, though. First, I feel like I'm being watched. The eyes on me are sympathetic, maybe even affectionate, but also a little afraid. That feeling passes, and then I feel like I hear a voice. It's quiet and muffled, too soft to penetrate whatever's protecting me, but it's vaguely familiar. I don't know what it says. After that, I hear soft footsteps, and then I'm totally alone.

This place is inside me, and it draws me in when I'm fully meditating. Going there is fully intentional, and even though there's some dissonance, it's also soothing. It's like a womb, I guess. But after the gaze passes, and then the voice stops talking, and the footsteps go away, then I just stay there for a while, completely protected and motionless. Eventually, though, a bright light envelops me, and I move on to the second place.

 

Edzie arrived home in a sort of troubled fugue state, Varda's words still ringing in her memory: “It won't do Boyle any good to keep endearing himself to outcasts.” Tension rippled through her shoulders and neck, and her senses, normally so attuned to her surroundings, were all turned inward. She barely registered the sounds of her mother doing some sort of work in the gardens behind their dromo.

Edzie entered the gathering room, its fire reduced to embers in the central hearth, and headed straight for her own room. In the interior shadows, she loosened the tails of her brivsa and tugged the hood from her head. She stopped, motionless, in the center of the room, feeling strangely suffocated by the cool inside air.

She remained there for a moment, held in the grip of some emotional paralysis, and then moved toward the darker shadow underneath her bed, drawn by some unexpected compulsion. She had to crawl to get between the wooden legs of her furniture, but it only took a few seconds for her to reach the base of the wall, where she scratched at an irregular patch of earth. Her fingers found purchase, scraping away the dirt, and in a small cavity, she found what she was looking for.

She withdrew her hands, and in the shadow of her bed, she gazed upon the old plastic knife, her clandestine gift from a man named Dormoroy Gesk.

The plastic artifact was crusted with dirt, but Edzie only had to wipe it a little to expose the black shine of its surface. It seemed to pulsate in her hands, drawing the ambient light into itself. It was so absolutely alien, so otherworldly and forbidden, that her tactile response to its surface was a tightening of her chest, a loss of focus and a sudden drawing of her breath.

Good people miss out on a lot of beautiful things, it seemed to say, its voice an echo of a city she would never see. She drew it closer to her face, and caught sight of herself, looking back from its surface.

Footsteps... the sound of activity in the gathering room. A rush of anxiety struck Edzie, and she scrambled back toward the wall and stuck the plastic knife back in its crevice. Her hands moved with a panicked haste, shoving the earth back into the crack, and she extracted herself from the shadow of her bed and turned toward her doorway. A moment passed, and then Elkansa appeared, blocking the glow emanating from the hallway.

“Edzie?” Her mother wore a wrap, pulled tightly around her breasts, and a pair of weathered pants gathered neatly about her knees. “Is everything okay? You're covered in dirt.”

Edzie stood there for a moment, at a loss. She struggled to find some explanation, and then thought back to what she had been doing that afternoon – her time with Stray and Boyle, her conversation with Varda. She knew Stray would be returning home soon, and she was desperate for some kind of closure or reassurance.

“I'm fine, mom. But I was talking to Varda, and she told me about Alynn, and... do you know what she says about Stray?”

Elkansa frowned, stepping just through the doorway. “I don't... well, I have an idea. What did you hear about it?”

“She doesn't want him to be friends with Boyle because she thinks of him as an outsider. Nothing but a voraish.”

Elkansa groaned. “Argh. Ridiculous. She's being a sluicule. Sorry for the language. She never appreciated what Stray does for that boy.”

Edzie felt frustration growing in her voice. “Mom, she can't just treat him like that! You have to go talk to her!”

Elkansa folded her arms. “Excuse me? I don't have to do anything. It's not my business how she treats him... he's her son, after all.”

“NO! I mean STRAY! You need to go tell her that he's part of the tribe, just like the rest of us, and he deserves to be respected!”

Elkansa looked steadily at her daughter, and then shook her head. “Edzie, you need to calm down. We can't keep every person from getting whatever ideas they get.”

“People?” Edzie wanted to stomp on the floor of her room, but she knew it would make her look like a child, so she remained tense and motionless. “It's not people. It's one person, who happens to be our neighbor, and used to be our friend. And she should be set straight.”

“Edzie, stop yelling.” Elkansa remained stern, serious, and unflappable. “We're a small tribe. People know that Stray isn't originally from here. Some of them may judge him for it. The best we can do is be there for him, and he'll get through it.” She paused to see if she was getting through to her daughter, and then went on. “Everybody I know loves Stray. He's friends with the Mistras, he's patient with the other kids, he's growing into a fetching young man. He'll be fine.”

“UGH.” Edzie marched through her room and pushed past her mother. She was angry almost beyond words, but it didn't manifest as an outburst... instead, Edzie crafted her anger into daggers, furnishing the most hurtful attack on her mother she could muster. “You think he needs someone telling him to make the best of it? I thought you would be strong enough to stand up for him, like the mother you promised to be. Now I have to do that job, too.”

“EDZIE!” Elkansa was yelling now, trying—unsuccessfully—to keep some kind of hold on her daughter. “WE'RE ALL PART OF THIS TRIBE. BE AN ADULT.” She advanced a few steps. “IF YOU EVEN CONSIDER RUINING OUR FAVOR IN THIS COMMUNITY, THEN BY DISSADAE... YOU DO NOT EVEN WANT TO KNOW WHAT I WILL DO TO YOU.”

Edzie strode through the gathering room, past the soft fire, her head spinning with the shock of the argument. She couldn't hear her mother's footsteps, but she was confident that Elkansa was following, intent on averting whatever mayhem Edzie had in store. She reached the front door of the dromo, still imagining herself as a righteous avenger, confronting Alynn on Stray's behalf. In this frame of mind, she stepped out in the daylight.

It was at that moment that her calculating nature caught up with her indignation, and instead of embarking for Boyle's house, she veered to one side and knelt in the shadow of her own dromo, caught in an eddy of uncertainty. Her eyes drifted over the grass and dirt as she assessed the situation... first, she realized how little power she had in the face of Alynn's protectiveness, and the thought was devastating. All she would accomplish would be to anger her own mother, and cement her reputation as a miscreant, and widen the gulf between Stray and Boyle. She wanted, more than anything, to punish Alynn for her mistreatment of Stray, but she had no leverage... her anger was a blade without a handle, its edge pressed to her own palm.

“EDZIE.” Elkansa's voice emerged from the entranceway. At first, Edzie didn't acknowledge it.

“ED. ZIE.” This time, Elkansa's tone brought Edzie to attention. It wasn't her usual voice of reproach... indeed, there was something panicked and hurt in it, and it made Edzie shiver in spite of herself. She half-stood and turned back toward the dromo, suddenly concerned.

Elkansa's hand closed around Edzie's upper arm, so rough that Edzie thought it would dislocate. She didn't resist, but Elkansa was pulling so hard it didn't matter... Edzie found herself unmoored from the ground, practically thrown back through the entranceway. She stumbled, and Elkansa held her up, giving her only a moment to find her footing. When Edzie looked up, she found Elkansa was pointing at something on the ground near the fire pit.

There, lying in the dirt where Elkansa had thrown it, was the black plastic knife.

“Mom...” Despair washed over Edzie, and she stuttered, incoherent, paralyzed.

“I can't... I don't believe...” Elkansa, too, was beyond words. She pulled Edzie in front of her, and they walked toward the contraband together, Edzie fast in her mother's grip, feeling a desperation in her touch. She found herself standing over the knife, looking down at it, crusted with dirt, like a venomous lizard camouflaged as part of the floor.

“You would bring that... thing... into my dromo, poison my walls with its filth... how did you get it, Edzie? Who has these?”

“Mother...” Edzie was momentarily beyond defiance, so she lapsed into apologetic honesty. “Nobody has them. I got it from the bandit, Doromory Gesk, when we captured him in the woods, three winters ago.”

“And you kept it secret from me, all this time? What about Stray?”

Elkansa couldn't take her eyes off the knife, but Edzie could see that tears were beginning to form beneath them. She seemed so numb, so distraught, that Edzie found her own distress waning in the face of her mother's dread. Gradually, as Elkansa seemed to fall apart, Edzie began to regain her composure.

“Stray? Stray wouldn't abide something like this. I don't think he's even capable of lying.” Edzie leaned down to pick up the knife; Elkansa's grip on her shoulder tightened. “Mom, it was something special. A secret I kept for myself. You don't have to put me to trial for it.”

Elkansa's grip loosened, and Edzie knelt to pick up the knife. She did her best to look disgusted at its strangeness, but all she could muster was an expression of indifference. Elkansa remained motionless for a second, and then took the knife from Edzie's hand... decisively, but without violence. She looked Edzie in the eye as she spoke.

“Edzie,” she said, apparently calmed by her daughter's composure, “this is not just some trinket. It was a great crime to create this, and it is a great crime to have it in your possession... the kind of crime that can change the whole shape and culture of a society. These kinds of fetishes... the synthetic, molded and mass-produced infatuations of sick minds... these have destroyed too many lives to count.” She paused, making sure Edzie was paying attention to her. “Like Stray's father, who let himself be carried away by his damned fascination.”

“Tamlis...?” Edzie was struck by this sudden admission, though she had heard a few such rumors already.

“Yes,” Elkansa said. “I'll say no more about it, except that it is fortunate... perhaps a blessing from Dissadae himself... that he never made a co-conspirator of Stray.”

The word crime struck Edzie with significant force, and she redirected the conversation. “So what will happen to me?” she asked. “Can they exile me for having this?”

Elkansa scowled at her daughter. “Doubtful, but it's possible. At any rate, they would place a great curse upon you, and you would carry the ill will of the tribe for many years... perhaps your whole life, as long as the incident was remembered.”

Edzie felt a trace of desperation in her breast, but she remained steadfast, looking into her mother's eyes without flinching. Elkansa seemed to consider the topic for a moment, and then she made a decision. “That is if I were to let it happen. But you are my daughter, and I won't let you ruin your own life, no matter how hard you try. I'm taking that travesty and keeping it safe until early morning, when I will dispose of it well outside the settlement.”

Edzie almost raised her voice to object, but presently thought better of it. She had set these events in motion by revealing the knife's location, and now it was best that she let it go. Elkansa was probably right, now that both of them knew about it... it needed to be purged from their lives. Still, she was disheartened at the loss of her treasure, and her resentment for her mother burned in her throat, already inflamed by the earlier fight.

Elkansa was already heading to her room, knife in hand, when Edzie called to her. “So, mom, I just wondered... what would happen to you if the tribe learned I had this?”

Elkansa only hesitated a moment. “That's of no concern to you,” she said sternly. “You're the one whose future needs saving here.”


6.3

Now, instead of being impenetrably dark, it's as bright as a clear winter day, and I'm flying through the air. I'm very high... above the tops of the Witherleafs... and I'm passing over the settlement, going west. I feel the Crag Mountains at my back, but I never turn around to see them. I only see the landscape passing beneath me like clouds moving by before a storm.

I'm following some sort of bird. I think he's a banklite, or some other kind of raptor, traveling over the Pastures like a voice on the wind. I recognize all the places we fly over: the fields to the north of the settlement, then the Tenebre River, then Homestead Sur, out at the edge of our territory. From there, we cross the Range River, and the Stumbling River, and then we're above the Weary Road, and I can see all the travelers with their pack-horses and caravans moving east and west.

In this vision, it's not me that's the bird. I'm... nothing, I guess. I'm just a ghost flying along, following this banklite's tail feathers. I can't look away, though, and even if I try to turn north or south, I'm caught up, like I'm stuck in his slipstream. I start to feel a panic after a while, and it's hard to keep my focus. It's almost the same feeling as I used to have when I would get mad. I can almost feel that hostile energy rise up, just like back when I would get in those fights.

This all takes a long time, mind you, and I usually break the flow between the Range and the Stumbling River. I almost never make it to the Weary Road, and I've only gone past there once, in a moment of complete abandonment. That's how I got to the third place, where the sunlight disappeared again.

 

The year 3340 was Edzie's last year of childhood, and Ghada's first year of full membership in the tribe. Ghada had turned fifteen at the end of that summer, and when the Festival of Release approached, he glowed with desire and anticipation, ready to follow his sister and his older peers into full recognition. He allowed his wide and varied social life to slip a bit... instead, he focused fresh attention on Mistra Eryn's training sessions, and then on Edzie, who gladly accepted the benefits of his burgeoning enthusiasm.

Edzie had spent the days before the festival running errands for her mother and a small cadre of her close friends. All throughout the settlement, merchants needed to pass messages, request advances, and exchange materials, and Elkansa's gathering room seemed to be a busy hub for all this kind of activity. Whenever she had a moment, Edzie thought back to her previous years, when the festival was an occasion for novelty and fascination. Now, she was relegated to being an assistant to one of its de facto administrators, and she resented the change.

Her primary consolation was her excitement for Ghada. This was his initiation year... he was fifteen, and the hunters had captured a grasscat for his blade... and Edzie already felt a vicarious thrill, knowing she, his friend and paramour, would share in some of his glory. For several months, he had spoken of little else, even in their private moments, and she had occasionally gotten so tired of it that she had taken special measures to silence him. Even so, his enthusiasm was contagious, and she was waiting hopefully, watching the hours pass, eager for the ritual to begin.

On the day of the festival, Edzie found herself swamped with minor tasks. Elkansa didn't seem willing to let her pause, even for a moment, so when the time for the trial finally came, she was nearly caught up in some errand for Gransa the materials-trader. She noticed the time, and had the presence of mind to intercept Stray and demand he finish the courier run on her behalf. From there, she sprinted toward the Chronoboros court, where she knew Ghada was getting ready.

Their meeting was brief, furtive, almost desperate... the trial was surrounded with the kind of unsustainable, ominous energy that seems to suck all extraneous emotion into its vortex. Ghada was meditating, trying to steady his nerves, when Edzie settled into place behind him, wrapped her arms around his chest, and kissed him behind his ear. He smiled, clutching at her forearm, speaking to her without moving or looking back.

“Thanks for coming by, Edzie.”

“No problem. I'll be watching. Are you scared?”

“I was scared, but now everything is just smeared together: fear, joy, frayed nerves. You know.”

“Well, you'll be fine. If your mind gives you trouble, just let go. Let your body do what it needs to do.”

“Yeah, I know. Thanks, Edzie.”

They lingered there for a few minutes, and then Ghada's entourage led him away: his parents, Bellaryn, Mistra Eryn, and several younger students to whom he had given private tutelage. Edzie followed, far enough behind that she wouldn't attract attention. The companions led Ghada to a wooden platform, the ritual circle, which was entirely enclosed by wooden planks barely a hand-span apart. He stood outside the east gate, brandishing a katsun provided by Mistra Eryn. Edzie watched, nurturing an echo of pride and jealousy, and took her place in the open lot to the south of the enclosure.

At last, Ghada stepped into the guarded circle, taking his place at the east end and closing the gate behind him. He tested the tribe's katsun, slashing and thrusting with a flourish, and then stood at attention as Elder Amiaverta's assistants hitched the grasscat's cage to the arena's holding area. Ghada nodded to the elder, and she nodded, in turn, to her assistants. One of them dutifully pulled aside the barrier between the holding area and the arena floor, freeing the grasscat.

The grasscat leapt out of its enclosure, feigning a full-on charge, but she hesitated after a few steps, drawing back into a prone position, eager to pounce. She was a respectable specimen, two or three times a woman's weight, her fur matted from her struggle with handlers and cage bars. Her mane was little more than a puff of fur around her ears and neck, and there were bare patches on her back and underbelly. Her eyes were narrow, a piercing black, and already fixed on Ghada from across the arena.

Ghada advanced, as he was expected to do, executing attack form three with a fluid dip and a flourish. Absent a violently aggressive opponent, he was obliged to press the cornered beast and prompt it into a reaction. She didn't disappoint him... when he was within several steps, she sprang at him, rearing up on her hind legs and engaging with both paws and muzzle. Ghada switched into withdraw form two, taking generous strides back and to the grasscat's right, avoiding the bulk of her considerable weight, but she was faster than he had accounted for... her right paw clipped his shoulder, and he grunted audibly, feeling the claws rake through muscle. A sympathetic gasp issued from the audience.

The grasscat landed on all four paws, already turning in Ghada's direction. She didn't continue the attack, electing to revert to her stalking behavior. Her entire attention, the full focus of her black eyes, was trained on Ghada now, and she seemed to be moving to flank him. Ghada turned slowly, keeping his foe in front of him, holding the katsun at the ready in case the animal made another lunge. A bloody patch was spreading across his left shoulder, just outside his collar bone.

When the grasscat realized she couldn't outposition her prey, she made another attack, more hesitant this time: she tried to strike low, clawing at Ghada's calf. Ghada was quicker now, fueled and lubricated by adrenaline, so he avoided her claws cleanly, opening another few steps between himself and the animal. Having won some space, the grasscat backed up, cautious, hissing as she moved and doing her best to regroup.

Ghada wasn't used to fighting with a wide, swollen gash opened up on his shoulder, and as the pain mounted, flooding his synapses, he found his focus beginning to flag. This wouldn't do in an actual duel, he thought to himself... pain could very well be an ongoing distraction in an extended exchange of blows. If he was fighting a fully effective, capable human opponent, he thought, what would he do now to ensure his victory?

I would stop playing and finish her, Ghada finally realized. This was bloodsport, not a sparring match; the longer it went on, the more chances his opponent would have to land a single mortal blow. Ghada's frame of mind shifted dramatically: he realized he wouldn't have time to learn about the cat's rhythms, or to find an elegant way to slip under her guard. He should focus on killing her, immediately, in a way that was as crudely effective as necessary.

I can still have my dignity, though, he thought. His intended killing blow would still work, even if he had to expedite it.

The grasscat had receded back into a crouch, perfectly still, her fat tail flicking above her haunches. Her back legs quivered, ready to spring, and her ears twitched, but her spine and head and forelegs were absolutely motionless.

In that moment, Ghada's mind, spurred on by the natural stimulant of battle, managed to process a great many thoughts. He looked into the big cat's eyes, and thought: we're doing the same thing, the grasscat and I. There's a broad, sensitive surface spread out between us, and we've both got all our senses and instincts in contact with it, waiting for some vibration, some break in the other's rhythm. And from the beginning of this confrontation, she was already at the point that I've just finally arrived at: the point where she's desperate to kill me at the first opportunity, in defense of her own life.

Ghada made his next movement with all of these revelations in mind. At the height of a breath, he tensed up, and then he launched into a conspicuous charge at the beast, telegraphing his intention as clearly as he could. It wasn't subtle, but the feint worked: the grasscat was provoked into charging, and she came at him like a charging bull, barrelling across the arena.

The grasscat covered the whole space in a bounding leap, and Ghada had less than a second to react. He halted his own charge, catching himself on his toes and changing direction, and drew up his katsun. The grasscat rose to her hind legs, lunging at him, but because of Ghada's footwork, she was a stride too early. She came to her full height before her claws or teeth could reach him, and she teetered there for a moment, her forward momentum suddenly spent.

Ghada executed attack form four, flicking his katsun horizontally between himself and the grasscat, and the tip of the blade – its top four centimeters – slipped into the grasscat's hide, just above her breastbone, at the bottom of her neck. Her bite was arrested as she choked on her breath, and her claws didn't stay extended long enough to catch onto Ghada's neck or shoulders... instead of tearing into him, as she had intended, the grasscat fell into a convulsion and rolled to one side, caught in the throes of sudden suffocation and blood loss.

Ghada straightened his back, flicked the blood off his katsun, and watched the grasscat as she died on the orebark planks of the arena platform. He bowed his head with respect, trying not to smile as applause rose in a wave from the crowd.

Edzie was forced to wait until a whole menagerie of friends and family members congratulated Ghada on his courage and grace under pressure. He received their adulation with an almost childlike humility, his voice affected with a shyness that Edzie rarely heard in it. He knew how to manage this kind of attention... you were gentle with it, receptive without being needy or desperate, and it would continue following you. Some of the older Denorians, Ghada's friends who had been initiated in recent years, tried to pull him directly to the tables in the central court, hoping to get him started early with eating and drinking. Ghada promised he would join them shortly, and begged for a few minutes to himself, to let his nerves settle.

Edzie waited for him along the path behind his dromo, just out of the way of the spirited festival traffic. She embraced him and told him she was impressed and intimidated, and she thought he would make a fighter as capable as any woman, now that he was officially a citizen. They stole another half hour, pawing and caressing beyond the eyes of visitors, before Ghada remembered his obligations. He took leave of Edzie, asking her to come by his table later that evening, and headed back to the central court.

Three more hours passed, as meetings and trials and rites were held at various sites around the settlement, before the Denorians settled in for the feast of passing, the great meal that served as the centerpiece for the festival. The feast was preceded by an hour of casual drinking, leading to several drunken young tribesfolk, a great deal of noise, and a jubilant population, excited to hear from the elders.

Edzie did her duty, making an appearance at Ghada's table, but his older friends were the socialite warrior-women who jostled for parents' and elders' favor. Bellaryn was there, which was reassuring, but in general, it wasn't a crowd that made Edzie comfortable, and she was further bothered by Ghada's obvious disadvantage among them. To Edzie, Ghada seemed to be treated more as a mascot than as an equal or a competitor. She preferred him in his pure, beautiful glory, alone in the sunlight or reclining by a fire in a private gathering-room. She hoped he understood when she left his raucous table to return to her own family.

After the third course, the Gathered Feast of fermented fruit and root vegetables and wine, the elders appeared and called forth the initiates, reciting their names and sending out couriers to fetch them. Ghada was twenty-sixth out of ninety-four, and Edzie scrambled between tables to get a view of the ritual. At first, she could only see Treya and Kosef's heads, emerging from the crowd around the bonfire.

At last, pushing past a bulky voraish in decorative blue chains, Edzie found a gap with full visibility. She looked up to see Ghada, his shirt already removed, his chest showing the slightest dusting of blond fuzz... a nubile feature with which she was already scandalously familiar. Ghada's parents stood on either side of him, holding his hands. Elder Amiaverta had already pulled a katsun – an unusual type, made entirely from metal – from the bonfire, where its blade had been heated to a dull red glow, with yellow sparks along the sharpened edge.

The elder and Ghada's parents exchanged a litany of pledges and promises, with Ghada acknowledging each in turn. Edzie couldn't hear them herself, but she could have repeated them by rote, she had heard them so many times before. Finally, there was a lull in the incantations, and Edzie saw Ghada nod.

Elder Amiaverta moved slowly, but not so slow as to be cruel – like an experienced butcher making a particularly sensitive cut. With the tip of the katsun, she traced a shallow V, from just below Ghada's left shoulder, to a point just above his solar plexus, to an endpoint just below his right shoulder. The design was precise, perfectly symmetrical, and absolutely fitting for a boy who had learned to fight with a katsun so technically, so aesthetically and immaculately, that he looked less like a human teenager and more like an illustration in a storybook.

Edzie could see the veins flare on Ghada's neck, and his jaw contort as his teeth clenched, and she saw his knuckles turn white as they gripped his parents' hands. She couldn't hear him groan with the pain of the wound, but she could confirm that he didn't cry out or try to turn away, and so his scar was as perfect and precise as any that had ever been inflicted.

Edzie watched him slump backwards into his mother's arms; when he opened his eyes, they were wet and red, but no tear escaped them. Finally, summoning the last of his dignity, Ghada stood up and left the altar, returning to his friends in the center of the feast. They would spend the night pouring wine on his chest and down his throat until he couldn't feel the searing pain of that scar. Edzie, who had spent so long reveling in his attention, found herself hoping that proud sleep would finally, mercifully, come to claim him.

 

I've only been to this third place one time, when I let myself follow the banklite as far as my consciousness would allow. As we flew past the part of the world that I really knew about, into the parts I don't even remember from looking at Mistra Septa's maps, the sun seemed to sink into a bank of fog, and everything was consumed in total, palpable darkness. I felt like I was falling for a moment, and then dizzy and reeling, and then I got hold of myself.

It felt like I had traveled a great distance, and ended up in this sealed chamber that I’ve never seen, but I was sure it was real. That fast, hazy feeling of flight was gone... now the surroundings were perfectly still and clear in my head, like an imprinted memory. It felt like I was taken there by force, and when it ended, it was just as strange and abrupt, like I was lifted out of it by some invisible hand.

It was a vertical shaft of black rock… obsidian, or something… it must have been carved out of the inside of a mountain. It was maybe a kilometer deep, and two hundred meters across, with a staircase spiraling down the interior wall. There must have been a door, up at the top of the cavern, but I couldn’t see it. I think it was closed, maybe for a long time.

There was no sunlight, but I could still see. In the center of the chamber, there was a single column, no more than a half-meter wide, that stretched, vertically, into the center of the chamber. And at the top of the pillar, there was something that gave off some kind of cold, dull light. In fact, the object itself was barely illuminated, which is why I don’t remember its shape. But it made all the cavern walls visible, and cast no shadows.

I was alone, and there was nothing except me and the chamber, but it was… terrifying. In that moment, I felt like the whole universe was there before me, and when I looked into it, I saw that it was… nothing. It was an empty surface, and at any moment… at the merest touch… it could collapse and we would all come to nothing. And then I looked back on myself, and it seemed like I was nothing, too. And I felt a wave of numbness wash over me, and the anxiety came with it. And for a moment, I was caught in the meditation. I had to turn my mind away from that feeling… that abyss… and tear myself back awake by force.

I know meditations aren't supposed to be dangerous, but this one felt like it was. I don't think I'll be letting it go that far again.


Ghada Initiation


Ch. 7: Inevitable Ruptures


7.1

That winter was unusually cold, so life in the settlement became more taxing. With the Splitmouth almost frozen through, the Denorians had to walk farther to get water, and the captive huskins needed to be watched closely in their pens, and fed with numbing regularity. Luckily, the food stores were ample, now that the tribe had stayed in one place for so long. The cold only led to a few deaths, generally due to the carelessness of caretakers, the frailty of the elderly, and the dangerous curiosity of young children.

When Stray crossed the open yards of the settlement, the ground cemented by permafrost, he always wore his heavy brivsa, but he often loosened it and let it fall back behind his head, as if he was out for a summer stroll. The frigid air on his nose and ears made him ecstatically aware of the movement of his blood through his temples, and he could almost feel his pulse in his fingers and wrists. A few years prior, he would have found it terribly uncomfortable, but now it felt like a sort of gift, or a challenge: the stirrings of his animus, the mournful song of the blood cowering in his capillaries.

On a gray afternoon, two weeks past the changing of the year, Stray made his walk to Mistra Septa’s, looking forward to his usual session with her. He passed Boyle’s dromo, locked down like a fortress, wooden planks covering every window, with no sign of light or life. As he approached the Splitmouth’s southern crossing, he felt a breeze against his cheek and the back of his neck, and he closed his eyes and let his feet carry him along. His skin felt dry as parchment, and he wondered, if he froze to death, whether he might solidify, standing up, into some kind of desiccated statue decorating the footpath.

The thought vanished from his mind when he reached the Splitmouth… he was lighter on his feet since he had started his movement training, but he still had to concentrate to keep a firm footing on the frozen water. Looking to the left, he saw two children, running and sliding along the north bank, wrapped tight in their winter furs, their faces and ears bound up in their brivsas like winter outlaws. One of the two children looked up and waved, and Stray waved back. He was glad the settlement still showed some sign of life.

Stray reached Mistra Septa’s pavilion several minutes later. He put up his brivsa’s hood and drew its scarf tighter around his face, and then, properly arranged, stepped inside. The warmth of the closed space enveloped him. He placed both hands palm-up, giving the traditional salute, and repeated Dissadae’s blessing. Scanning the room, he found Mistra Septa gathering up furs and cushions, obviously cleaning up after her previous session. Luna used to do this for her, Stray thought, but he hadn’t seen her around lately.

“Welcome, Stray,” Mistra Septa said. “I hope you’ve kept warm. Neither of us needs the company of some winter illness in this sacred space.”

“Warm enough,” Stray said, loosening the brivsa on his way up to the platform. He picked up a few cushions as he walked, and Mistra Septa rolled up the last Huskin fur, and they met at the far side of the pavilion, tossing all the furnishings into a pile to be put away for the evening. When they were satisfied, they found their usual places: Stray on an overturned wooden crate, and Mistra Septa in the assistant’s chair close by.

Mistra Septa asked Stray if he was ready to start, and he nodded. She commenced their chant: she found her tone, and he found his within a few seconds, and they remained in place for several minutes, cycling and synchronizing and rooting themselves in the resonance of the pavilion. When they finished, Mistra Septa called for silence, and told Stray to find his heartbeat and his pulse, and listen to the full song of his body. They spent a few more minutes on this exercise, and Stray ventured into his meditative space – the dark corner, the warmth, the womb – but didn’t go any further, wanting to remain alert and responsive in the presence of his teacher.

Finally, in unison, they returned to the present. Mistra Septa looked pleased, but Stray could also sense some sort of irregularity in her mood. He wondered about it for a moment, but wasn’t so audacious as to inquire. An extended silence filled the space between them, until finally, Mistra Septa made an unexpected suggestion.

“I thought we might try a different exercise today. Would you mind accompanying me down to where the Splitmouth meets the Prospect River, near the docks?”

Stray considered this for a moment, weighing the discomfort of another walk through the cold, but this concern passed almost immediately, and he agreed. Septa piled three layers of imported wool over her Caesura tunic, and she donned her own winter brivsa. The Caesurite monks' brivsas were styled distinctively, bleached an eggshell white, with brown curlicues adorning the hood and the ends of the scarf. Mistra Septa's was lined with fur from some shaggy mammal, and the scarf had a gold thread woven into it along the length. She pulled on furry legwarmers over her trousers, and finished her outfit with leather-soled slippers. At last, before she headed for her entranceway, she picked her katsun up from its place against the wall, sliding it into her beltstrap.

Stray and Mistra Septa retraced Stray's previous walk, following the road southwest. For a while, Mistra Septa drilled Stray on his recollections of the previous week... she asked him to remember particular remarks, reactions, specifics of conversations, and his own emotional valences in response to them. This was a common exercise during their private lessons, and Stray had gotten good at it... it was easy enough for him now, even while walking. When he ran out of details to relate, they fell silent, and thus they walked the last kilometer to the water's edge.

Where the Splitmouth joined the Prospect, there was a narrow rocky beach. To the north, Stray and Mistra Septa could see the small network of islands that marked the Splitmouth's breaking point. Normally, the water here moved hastily from the rapids just upstream, but now, in the dead of winter, the flow was interrupted by an accumulation of ice. The beach itself was bone-dry, and the water was frozen solid for thirty meters out over the river.

“Very quiet out here,” Stray said. “I guess anything that makes noise has taken shelter.”

“Something like that,” Mistra Septa replied. “So... we're here to play a game we used to play at the Envoclajiz, when the temple river froze halfway-over. Are you ready?”

Stray nodded, tugging his brivsa down a few centimeters to let a few breaths escape. Voluminous clouds issued from his mouth as he spoke. “Sure. What are the rules?”

Mistra Septa drew her katsun and reversed her grip, so that the blade pointed downward. “I'll take this out a few meters and plant it in the ice. Your goal is to go as far as me, pull it out, and then take it a little farther and put it back in. The winner is the one who's willing to walk the farthest.”

Stray asked a couple simple questions, but the game was entirely self-explanatory. Mistra Septa took the first turn, as she had promised... she left the bank, setting a rhythm for her steps, and got nearly halfway to the open water before she decided to plant the katsun. Its sharp point slid into the ice like a flag-pole, perfectly perpendicular to the frozen surface.

Stray took his first tentative steps toward it, and found that out here, the ice seemed relatively stable. It made crunching, scraping noises under his feet, but he couldn't feel any significant sagging, or any movement of the water underneath. His first moment of minor panic arrived when he pulled the katsun out, but there was no disturbance, except for the hiss of the treated wood sliding out of the ice.

Stray continued three more meters out, trying to step lightly. With his final step, he heard a crack in the distance, like an aquatic echo through the brittle air, but he didn't balk. His first attempt to skewer the katsun into the ice failed... it was absurdly hard... but on his second try, putting more weight behind the thrust, he managed to set the marker.

As he returned to the bank, Stray passed Septa, already heading out to accept the challenge. She was polite, only moving the katsun out another three meters, but Stray could tell she was getting bored.

So Stray approached again, trying to accelerate the game's progress, but three steps beyond the previous goal, he felt the icy surface shift beneath his right foot. The ice didn't crack, but suddenly, unexpectedly, he was vividly aware of the flow of water several centimeters beneath the sole of his foot. His senses sharpened considerably, and his nerves started reacting to the vibrations and displacements in the frozen surface: a moan, a shiver of stress, a shift in pressure, as if the ice was speaking to him through the marrow of his bones. His mind was flooded with anxiety, and he froze, trying to calm his panic response.

When he could breathe normally – three deep breaths, a clear sense of his pulse and heart rate – he locked his legs in place and drove the katsun back into the ice. Again, the surface shifted, but it didn't give way.

“Come on, you can do better than that.”

Stray jerked his head around, shocked: first, that the voice was so close... right over his shoulder... and second, that it wasn't Mistra Septa's voice, but Mistra Eryn's. He discovered her a mere meter behind, standing right in his tracks, her feet together and her hands behind her back. It occurred to him that, even in his high-strung state, he hadn't heard the slightest sound of her approach.

“I see you're feeling the ice, Stray,” she said. “Now keep going. It'll be more than the ice and the water... it'll also be the air, the sounds of the trees, even your own circulation. Above all, listen to your body, act with your mind, and don't be afraid.”

Stray nodded and stepped inside himself, fully inhabiting his own smooth sensory surfaces. He closed his fingers around the katsun's handle, exhaled, and pulled it back out. He took a step, felt a touch of cold wind around his calves, and suffered another twinge of panic. Exerting a great effort of will, he visualized the fear as a sensory organ, a sharpened prong that was making contact with the neutral surface of his animus. He shifted his weight instinctively, looking for an anchor point in the ice, trying to determine his next step.

The ice sagged, the water came closer, and his breath caught in his chest, but nothing gave way. As he sighed with relief, he heard Mistra Septa's voice from the bank: “You know, Stray, if you can touch the open water with the point of the katsun, you automatically win!”

Stray took another step, listening now to the shifting resonance around him, a whisper that seemed to warn him and guide him from one point on the ice to the next. Slowly, as he gained an intimacy with the patterns of stability in the ice, his consciousness of his steps became rhythmic. The anxiety faded, and he began to move more quickly. His verbal functions stopped engaging, except to observe, and commit to memory, the incredible feeling of levity, as if he was always at just the weight that the surface could support.

Even this reverie had its limit, however, and for Stray, it came when he was just a meter from the edge of the ice. His rhythm was interrupted by a crack just under his feet, a hiccup in the flow he had adopted, and he found himself suddenly unstable, trying to keep his toes on the patches of ice that would hold him. His body screamed to step back, to retreat from the inevitable disaster, but another part of his consciousness – the part that he had spent so long exercising – replied in kind, fighting against his instincts and holding him in place. Holding his breath in his lungs, he slid his hand to the very bottom of the katsun handle and stretched his arm out toward the water.

The tip of the katsun touched the water and made a ripple, just past the far edge of the ice, just as Stray felt himself falling forward. He braced himself for the shock of the cold water, but it never came... instead, he felt a strong hand on his upper arm, pulling him back and providing a counterbalance, infusing him with a miraculous stability that gave him the strength to stand back up. He looked back over his shoulder at Mistra Eryn, holding him upright, and wondered how this patch of ice could possibly support both of them.

“Impressive! Now find your footing, and follow me back... the ice here is about to collapse.”

Stray did as he was told, taking two breaths to find his balance and then pivoting without changing the position of his feet. Mistra Eryn was already three paces ahead, allowing Stray to follow meticulously, reproducing her exact footsteps. Mistra Eryn seemed to make the ice stronger, more stable, by some impossible effect of her very presence. Stray managed to reach the bank without allowing his pulse to rise up and run away from him.

“It's been many years,” Mistra Septa said, “since we met someone who could do that on the first try.” Both she and Mistra Eryn gave Stray congratulatory bows, and Mistra Septa took back her katsun.

Presently, Mistra Eryn turned and looked east, up the length of the Prospect River. Stray followed her gaze, and discovered a horizon that was softening and darkening, taking on a dusty orange hue. Mistra Septa was looking that direction, as well, and so she remained as she spoke.

“So, Stray... Mistra Eryn and I are wondering about your plans. Whether you plan to be initiated, how you feel about the tribe.”

Stray thought about the question for a moment. “Well, Edzie is getting initiated next Fall, and I have another whole year to get ready for it. I've been thinking about traveling, or visiting some of the other Concordance tribes, but... nothing beyond that.”

Now Mistra Eryn spoke, still gazing along the river. “Stray, do you know how the Caesura Prospectus works?”

Stray knew some rumors and hearsay about the recruitment ritual of the Order of the Caesura, but he didn't know the details. He said as much, admitting that he had always been curious, but had never thought to ask.

“Most of the adults in your tribe have a partial idea,” Mistra Septa said, “but only we Mistras really understand it. Every winter, just after the new year, a handful of youth from the eight tribes... no more than forty or fifty total... make the pilgrimage to the Envoclajiz, to test themselves in our initiation trials. They need the sanction of the Mistras, and they have to make the journey to the monastery alone, including the final climb up Gryffepeak. We call them Prospects, and this river is named for their journey.”

Stray's mind was quick, but it wasn't entirely ready for this conversation's implications. “So who can be Prospects? Is it only tribeswomen? How old do you have to be?”

Now Mistra Eryn spoke... the Mistras seemed to be alternating intentionally. “Anyone can be a Prospect... they come from everywhere... but because of our relationship with the Concordance, most new initiates tend to be from the tribes. Traditionally, the pilgrimage is made at the beginning of the year leading up to your tribal initiation... if you fail, you're welcome to return to your tribe and accept full tribal citizenship, just like normal. And on a side-note, most Prospects are tribesmen, not tribeswomen. The hermetic lifestyle tends to attract more males than females.”

“That's... surprising,” Stray said. “Why do we have three female Mistras, then, and only one male?”

“Most of the monks are male,” Mistra Septa said, “but the ones who return to the tribes as teachers are generally female. It's hard for males to earn your tribes' respect, and the men prefer the privacy of monastic life anyway.”

Stray nodded, understanding perfectly, and Mistra Eryn continued. “So, Stray, Mistra Septa and I both think you have an aptitude for our practices... your emotional stability and sensitivity, your perceptiveness, your attunement, your focus in your meditation... and we think you'd do very well as a Caesurite. It's rare to find someone who fits our profile so perfectly.”

“So...” Stray hesitated. “You want me to become a Prospect?”

Mistra Septa put a hand on Stray's arm, doing her best to be reassuring. “We want you to do what's best for you. But we'd like you to give some thought to Prospectus... you have the raw talent, you're capable of completing the trials, and there's a great deal we could offer you... acceptance, community, purpose, and our investment of faith. You would be a great force in Dissadae's service.”

Stray was at a loss, and the two monks allowed him to absorb the news. Finally, in lieu of an answer, he came back with another question. “So how long does Prospectus take? What are the trials like?”

“It's tough to explain,” Mistra Eryn said, “without really going deep into our teachings. The journey to Gryffepeak and the Envoclajiz would take a week, give or take a few days... once the new Prospects are gathered, the monks spend two more weeks teaching you the basics of Caesurite theory and praxis. The trials themselves come at the very end, and they're mostly designed to test your commitment. Forty years in the Order is a long time, and we need to know you're serious.”

“Yeah, that is a long time,” Stray said, largely to himself. Both Mistras nodded in unison, still looking off to the west, in the direction of their temple.

“You have time to think about it,” Mistra Septa said. “Your best chance would be a year from now, right around this part of the season.”

Mistra Eryn had grown bored of standing in one place, so she'd wandered a bit inland, to a fallen tree by the main path, and was balancing on its splintered trunk. “I can't believe I'm saying this, given how hopeless you were just two winters ago,” she said, “but I think you'd like it, Stray. I think it might be where you belong.”


7.2

The cold winter gave way to a hot, cloying summer. As Ghada settled into his citizenship, Edzie slowly drew closer – through those essential rites of combat and scarification – to attaining her own.

It was a humid late afternoon, and the smells of human and huskin musk had settled into pockets across the settlement. Edzie was hunched over the table in her gathering room, stitching a small patch to a ripped seam in her oldest pair of trousers, when Ghada appeared in the entranceway.

"Hey, Edzie, do you want to go?"

Edzie glanced at him without raising her head, fixing him with a sly smile. "Sure, just let me finish a few more stitches." She looked back down as he leaned in the doorframe.

"Good evening, Ghada," Elkansa said, looking up from sharpening a carving knife on the other side of the table.

"Hi, Elkansa. I told Edzie I wanted to go down to the Twilit Bridge."

"Sounds like a nice walk, I suppose. What's of interest down there?"

"Nothing, mom," Edzie said, now in a hurry to finish her stitches. "It's just cooler by the water, and there's nobody around at night, so it's nice."

"I guess." Elkansa looked at her daughter, and then at Ghada, and then put down the knife and the whetstone. "Well, go ahead, stop hovering around the gathering room. I'll finish your patch. Take care of him, okay?"

Edzie nodded, thanking her mother for the consideration, and hastened out of the dromo and into the night air. She walked slowly... she had only finished dinner an hour before, so she wasn't feeling very mobile... but there was no reason to hurry, anyway. The late afternoon light was still waning in the sky, casting a purplish hue over gray clouds, and though the warmth was still a bit stifling, it was far better than it had been in the depths of the afternoon.

Edzie extended her arm, and Ghada took it graciously.

They walked silently for a while, following a trampled swath of earth to the southeast. As they left the vicinity of the residences and the Splitmouth, the spaces between dromos grew, so that each little homestead seemed to stand guard over a whole rutted countryside all its own. The path passed through wooded groves and wound around steep inclines, ensuring it would be easy for Huskins to follow from the fields further along. Pools of shadow gathered beneath the orebarks, and the troughs in the landscape smelled of damp earth and Huskin musk.

"I don't think we'll make it by sundown," Edzie observed indifferently.

"Better that way, I think," Ghada replied. "Quieter, right? Fewer people out and about. Most of the travelers' market will already be gone."

"I guess it's called the Twilit Bridge, not the Sunset Bridge, right?"

Ghada didn't respond for a moment. Edzie glanced back at him, and she found he was looking down, watching his next step, in a sullen way that was uncharacteristic of him. "Everything alright, Ghada?" she asked finally, slowing her pace to make it easier for him to keep up.

"Fine, Edzie. Just tired. You know."

"Ugh, Ghada." Edzie scowled at her companion. "What are you going to do? There must be something you could try."

Ghada shook his head, smoothing out his tunic as he walked. " Edzie... I'm really truly stuck. I've asked every hunting guide I know to take me on an expedition, and none of them will do it, even with mom's sanction. They say it doesn't suit me." He scoffed. "... Which hasn't gotten any less stupid, however many times I've heard it."

"And you're sure you can't..."

"Sure, Edzie, go through the list again." Ghada was speaking more sharply than normal. He had obviously been stewing over this for a while. "First, no, I don't want to go up to the Hunters' Roost. Just because I want to hunt, it doesn't make me a mud-soaked, anti-social tree dweller."

"Right, fine. And you can't hunt for the tribe, because our guides are all jealous traditionalists. And you don't want to learn some kind of trade, because... ?"

"Edzie, I spent my whole life learning to fight, to use the katsun. To do anything else, I'd have to start from scratch. How should I even be bothered to pick one?"

"I still think you should help other boys in the tribe with wardrobes and cosmetics."

"Great, study a trade that only five people care about, two days a year."

"Okay, fine. Anyway, I think your solution's clear, however little you want to hear it. You spend the next few years learning a trade, maybe traveling with your mom, or helping Mistra Eryn with her lessons, and before too long you'll find your soul-mate... some strong, virile tribeswoman who wants to bear your daughters and help elevate you into the pillar of our community that you deserve to be."

"Great. The one respectable choice." He put his free hand back in Edzie's elbow. "And here I've gotten a great start: falling for the wildest and most confusing girl in the tribe. Useless to a Denorian boy, just like perfect katsun techniques."

Edzie thought about this as they walked, feeling Ghada's frustration vicariously, but also touched with pride that she could be of such interest to him. She searched her mind for some response that might console him, and when she finally found it, it chafed painfully.

"You didn't really fall for me, Ghada. We both know that."

Ghada shrugged. "Well, it would have been even worse with Stray... how would a couple men, locked into a romantic arrangement, ever find any kind of status around here?"

They were talking louder now, having to raise their conversation over the whispered rush of the Prospect River. When they reached its north bank, lined by a steep ridge imprinted with Huskin tracks and ruts from wagon wheels, they turned east and traveled along the river, opposite its flow. The sunset stretched across the sky before them, but its most intense light was obscured by a succession of hills and woods in the background. Still, the sky was vibrant... the setting sun tinted the clouds a rosy orange, and it cast a dramatic golden light on the lonely travelers.

The colors deepened, and then faded to an obscure blue, by the time Edzie and Stray finally reached the Twilit Bridge. It was a hundred and fifty meters long, and wide enough that four carts could have traveled abreast. The bridge was set upon a scaffolding of rough-hewn beams, driven into the ground and anchored with stonework, nary a trifle to the waters of the Prospect River that hurried along forty meters below.

The bridge had a guardrail at waist-height, beyond which there was another meter or so of stable surface. Edzie and Ghada climbed over the guardrail and sat down on the other side, their legs drawn up to their chests; they huddled close enough together that they could converse over the sound of the water, confident that the passing pedestrians wouldn't hear them.

Edzie was quiet, feeling defeated after the previous conversation, so Ghada turned his observations to the present moment: the cool air, moving along above the water, and the soft rise and fall of the Pastures in the distance, disappearing over the horizon at the foot of the Crag Mountains. They both ignored the clomping footsteps and grinding wooden wheels behind them. After a few cycles of idle talk, they found that the human sounds were finally fading away, gone with the daylight. The only movement left in their field of view was a figure far below, lingering on the bank of the Prospect and making splashing noises in the water.

Edzie and Ghada tried to see her in the fading light... she was probably in her forties, washing her naked upper body in the river, and occasionally splashing a handful of water on a huskin that was standing beside her. The two of them made a charming couple: her animated form in sharp contrast with the bored, motionless posture of the accompanying creature, which appeared to be semi-domesticated.

"I wonder if she does this every night?" Ghada said, massaging Edzie's lower back as he spoke.

"Not in the winter, I hope," Edzie replied, stifling a giggle, and then she mov/ed an arm up over her head, wrapping it around Ghada's back. She turned her head toward him, breathing lightly on his ear, letting her chin brush against his neck.

"She still does it in the winter, but only once in a while." The voice, normally so familiar, startled Ghada and Edzie, and they felt a moment of panic at being so close to the bridge's edge. They both turned inward to look back, and their foreheads knocked together painfully.

Edzie was the first to recognize the voice. "OW! Damn! Stray, is that you?"

"Yes, it's me. Don't tell me you've forgotten already." Stray was approaching from the north, balancing confidently on the guardrail. "And for your information, that is Belinda." He waved at the woman with the huskin.

"CAREFUL, VORAISH!" the woman yelled in response. "DOBBA AND I WON'T CATCH YOU IF YOU FALL FROM UP THERE!"

Edzie had been huffy at Stray's intrusion... now that she heard the woman refer to him so direspectfully, her annoyance was immediately replaced with defensiveness on his behalf. "Stray... what are you doing... no, more important, did she just call you a voraish? What a sluicule!"

"She's not a sluicule," Stray replied calmly, reaching Edzie and hopping down from the guardrail. "She lives on a farm with her daughter just up the hill to the north. She's a very nice woman."

"She is not nice!" Edzie was still fuming. "She just called you an voraish! Are you just... totally fine with that?"

"Yeah, it's fine, Edzie. Look, try not to be mad. We can talk about it later." He sat down next to her and looked across at Ghada. "Hey, Ghada, how's everything?"

"Life is but an endless summer day. As for you, Stray... I see your lessons with Mistra Eryn are not going to waste! How many hours does she have you practicing, to be so light on your feet?"

"She says I have an aptitude," Stray replied. "I think she just needed someone new to occupy her time now that you've left her nest."

Ghada laughed. "You think I'm cutting her free? Not a chance! I still have to practice with her every other day, just to stay a little ahead of you!"

Edzie, getting tired of their flirtation, tried to redirect the conversation. "You're right, though, Ghada, his balance has come a long way. He tried to explain it to me, the way she teaches him to do it, but I couldn't entirely follow. How did she explain it, Stray?"

Stray reoriented slightly, so that he was facing more in their direction. His face grew serious, and he concentrated on the details of his lessons. “Okay, so, the balance technique... she explained it like this..."

At this, Stray seemed to become Mistra Eryn, recalling her words verbatim, allowing them to issue from his lips as though they were being summoned through some fissure in time.

"It's actually a rhythmic form of meditation, focusing on the connection between the mind as executive, and the body as unconscious extension. Mistra Septa talks about that day five years ago, when I made a fool of myself in her class, balancing on one foot... that's where she first saw my talent for balance."

"So Mistra Eryn has me stand on one foot, and then loosen up my mind and lay it softly over my body, like my body is a small animal, being held gently in the grip of my consciousness. My body is an autonomous living thing, and I have to feel all its emotions and attitudes."

"At first, I was only aware of the broadest, most obvious effects of my body... when I felt myself losing balance, the process was already so far along that I was totally caught up in it. But she told me to call out as soon as I felt my balance start to slip. As early as possible, however minor the feeling of imbalance, I had to react to it. I did that for a couple weeks, about ten minutes a day, and she didn't care how long I stayed up at a stretch... all she cared about was that I gave a clear, decisive signal before I fell, and that I gave it as early as possible."

"Eventually, I learned to feel that imbalance long before it actually took hold of my limbs. The imbalance – the shifting of weight in one direction, the overcompensation in the other direction, the collapse of the axis – that's a pattern that starts building up as soon as I lift the leg off the ground, and left to itself, it inevitably took control of my body. So I had to learn how to disrupt that pattern and preserve my balance, using a sort of destructive interference to stabilize."

"Mistra Eryn called that the paradox of negative stability, a principle the monks of the Caesura have borrowed from another order that operates somewhere down south. She says it can be very useful for certain types of rhythmic meditation... she can only teach the basics, though. I'd have to find someone more experienced to learn any more advanced applications."

Ghada nodded, both fascinated and jealous at this knowledge that the Mistra had bestowed upon Stray. Edzie listened to the breath of these boys, sitting on either side of her, and let their warmth soak into her arms and rib cage. For a moment, she felt like a conduit for the energy between them, like there was a stream of heightened awareness passing through her body. She struggled to think of something to say, hoping desperately to break the spell.

“So, you never told us what you were doing here, Stray.”

“Oh, I came this afternoon, after I helped Elkansa carry water from the ford. I was just here chatting with some of the pilgrims passing through. I was coming home when I saw Belinda on the other side, and stopped to talk to her for a while... and then, when I was done there, I saw you guys show up, so I climbed back up here to see you.”

Ghada rejoined the conversation. “You were talking to the pilgrims? About what?”

“You know... where they were going, what they were carrying, how long it was taking them. There was one from all the way out in a town called Simper, which is on the far side of Horizon. He says people are always traveling through there on the way to the Citadel and Callibreath.”

Edzie and Ghada were aware of the geography, the vast distances that these pilgrims had to traverse. To get to Horizon, you had to travel twice the distance they had traversed to get to Resine, venturing to the far west border of the Pastures. Beyond that, you entered the region called Azure, a rolling, fertile stretch of farming outposts where the grass was known for reflecting blue in the moonlight. It must have taken these travelers six or seven weeks to make the journey, just to pay tribute to the wonders of the Envoclajiz Temple a bit further to the east.

Edzie and Ghada let Stray tell them a bit more about the travelers. They were heading both ways... earlier in the summer, they would almost all have been going east, and in the fall, they would have all been returning, but now, in the season's hottest stretch, both directions were well-represented. Those who were heading east looked weary and haggard, but hopeful... those heading west looked refreshed, blissful, the weight of their endeavor lifted and replaced with a bevy of fresh provisions. Those from Horizon, Azure, and Tempustide were on horseback, and most others were on foot, leading a donkey or an ox laden with their supplies.

Edzie and Ghada were patient, but they eventually grew tired of Stray's account, so they prompted him to balance on the guard rail some more, and challenged him to do tricks for them. He hesitated, trying to remain very serious about his special training, but eventually he acquiesced, showing them how he could stand on one foot, and perform small hops and slow turns without falling from the beam. At length, he invited Edzie and Ghada to try. They made their best effort... Ghada could manage a very stable, steady advance for a few meters, and Edzie could almost walk normally for the same distance before she started teetering... but neither of them had Stray's elegant, effortless touch.

Eventually they all stepped down, laughing, and acclimated to the bridge's surface. A cloud seemed to pass over the moon at that moment, and all at once, all three of them realized they didn't have anything else to talk about. Ghada tried to think of some quip or witticism to break the silence, but Stray and Edzie both understood that their sojourn at the bridge was coming to an end.

“Ready to head back?” Stray's voice made the suggestion, but it might as well have been any of them, since the evening's amusements had run their course.

They walked north along the main path into the center of the settlement, splitting the difference between their routes. As they walked, Stray and Ghada exchanged observations about Mistra Eryn, laughing at intervals, just barely audible to Edzie, who was walking a few steps behind. The breeze from the Twilit Bridge was gone, and the warm air put her in the mood for empty space, but at least it was dry and light on her skin.

Edzie walked in an absent-minded silence for a kilometer or so, and then she noticed that she was cringing a little bit whenever she heard the boys' laughter up ahead. It wasn't the sound itself... Stray's laughter had always comforted her, and Ghada's was almost musical in its gracefulness... rather, it was her sense of their natural chemistry, her awareness of the suppressed attraction between them. She recognized, in herself, the first traces of genuine envy: not for Stray, who was within her sphere of influence, but for Ghada. She would always be a little jealous of Ghada, merely because he could be something to Stray besides a big sister and a protector. Edzie knew that her promise to Stray – her long-cultivated sibling relationship – ruled out anything but a chaste loyalty, and there was something devastating in this knowledge.

Finally, when they drew near the Splitmouth, they said farewell to Ghada, who was continuing north to the Surcrossing. He gave Stray a strained, overly-formal goodbye, and Edzie granted him a modest caress, promising that they would have more private time together soon. Ghada assumed his characteristic stroll and departed, and Edzie and Stray turned west, following the Splitmouth toward their dromo.

After they had gone another kilometer, Edzie spoke up. “So, you knew that Belinda lady, huh? And you let her call you that nasty word? You're getting soft, Stray!”

Stray shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. The Mistras have taught me a lot.” He looked straight ahead, still and sanguine. “But I know more people than just Belinda call me a voraish.”

“Like who?” Edzie demanded, almost theatrical in her outrage. “They've got a lesson coming!”

“Come on, Edzie,” Stray said. It only occurred to him in that moment that Edzie might be genuinely surprised by this news... if there was anyone who inspired excessive politeness toward Stray, it was her. “You have to know, Edzie... lots of people call me that. Because that's what I am... an outsider. They all remember where I came from, or if they're too young, they hear their parents say it. Belinda might be the best about it... at least she calls me that openly, out of affection, instead of keeping it just out of earshot.”

Edzie tried to muster a denial, but she found her wit paralyzed, and suddenly it was all she could do to focus on walking... left foot, right foot, stay on the path, keep breathing. She felt her cheeks tense up, and her frustration slowly gave way to earnest, boundless pity for her adopted brother. She had no words to tell him what anguish it gave her, knowing that he felt this kind of estrangement from her tribe, so she continued in silence.

Stray listened for some sort of consolation or note of sympathy for a few minutes, and then realized that none was imminent... this was Edzie, after all. Edzie, meanwhile, let her brooding turn from Stray's misfortune to thoughts of her own mother, and of the elders, and to a frigid kernel of hatred within her breast, which had no object, and which she had no way to disperse.

By the time they arrived at their dromo, Edzie had managed to loosen her distressed nerves, and the solace of the gathering room consumed her and laid her to rest.

 

On the day of Edzie's initiation, Elkansa asked her – nigh pleading, beseeching – that she keep her tunic and brivsa clean until her trial that afternoon. It was a wise and honest request, given Edzie's tendency to neglect her appearance, but its only affect was to make Edzie think of Ghada, and to remind her that he was fighting in a festival exhibition duel. It was taking place at Mistra Eryn's pavilion, and Edzie was already dangerously late.

Edzie reassured her mother that her outfit would be fine, picked up her katsun and her brivsa, and hastened out into the early afternoon sun. It would be a significant walk... perhaps a half hour each way... so Edzie had to be careful to get back before her trial at the central court.

The Festival of Emergence was well underway, and so the road outside her dromo was unusually congested. Denorians escorted their family members from other tribes, touring the settlement on their way to the festivities. Many pulled carts or wagons, and there were even one or two foreign merchants on horseback – nearly unheard of in tribal settlements. A woman caught Edzie's eye wearing a red satin brivsa-like accessory, her body bound in maroon straps, her upper arms clad in leather armor... her face was marked with tatoos that resembled Concordance tribal scars, and (very much unlike a Concordance warrior) her nose, lips, and cheeks were perforated by myriad decorative chains and metal bits. Edzie slowed to a crawl and gaped at the woman as she passed, fascinated by her dangerous exoticism. She considered introducing herself, but dismissed the idea, knowing she needed to hurry to Ghada's match.

Edzie passed Boyle's dromo and crossed the Splitmouth over a makeshift bridge, assembled for the sake of visitors to the festival. On the north bank, she turned right, leaving the heavy traffic to hike along the paths beside the stream. Even here, where she usually found solitude, there were visitors bathing, devouring roasted bird and huskin flank, and resting against the orebark trees. Edzie glanced at them as she walked, but didn't heed them, consumed as she was in her own anxieties.

She envisioned her initiation trial, later that day. She had seen the grasscat that had been chosen for her – a young huntress, entering her most fertile years, that had given her trappers a great deal of trouble. Edzie felt the giddiness of anticipation, but she also felt strangely removed from the event. It had been hovering over her for months, occupying all her idle thoughts and practice-sessions, but today, it seemed no closer than it had seemed yesterday, or even last season. This sense of remoteness made Edzie feel off-balance, and it discouraged her, but she was intent on performing well.

A bit of solitary meditation might help, she thought to herself, as she hopped over muddy patches and wove around bends in the dirt path. She might be more confident if she had spent the morning in private, collecting her thoughts, planning her approach. She even considered, for a passing moment, returning to her dromo and foregoing Ghada's match so that she could be fully prepared. He had told her, after all, that it wasn't that important for her to attend. Again, Edzie dismissed the idea... she knew how excited Ghada was for his public appearance, and besides, she was already halfway to the pavilion.

Edzie passed the orebark grove where she and Stray and Boyle had once tried to perform the emanences of the Order of the Caesura. She barely looked up as she walked... still distracted by thoughts of her trial and the eventual scarring ritual... but a slight smile crossed her face as she noted the orebark stump she had sat on. Further along, she entered one of the quieter residential areas, an enclave of dromos where a few Denorian neighbors were currently skinning fruit and gossiping in their yards. When she reached the broader path, she turned north, and within a few meters, the crowd seemed to grow exponentially: from sparse and subdued to dense and harried.

She followed the traffic a short distance north, and then turned right, off the main path, into a spacious field. Two rows of posts had been erected here, guiding visitors to the site of the exhibition matches, and they were obviously having no trouble finding the pavilion: the crowd here was thick enough that Edzie had to push people aside to get close to the stage.

The pavilion's walls had been taken down, and its floor had been raised by two meters, so that the audience could see the fight. Two young women in brivsas were currently circling, scanning one another for vulnerabilities. The visiting woman wore a yellow bandeaux and a brown brivsa, and the local fighter – a girl Edzie knew as one of Baliban's students – wore the familiar cool gray brivsa and a snug athletic tunic.

The fight didn't entirely interest Edzie, so she turned her attention to ground level. An open space had been cleared on the west side of the arena, and the next scheduled competitor was warming up. Edzie lingered and looked closely at him as she passed... it was a boy approximately Edzie and Ghada's age, with frizzy brown hair pulled into a plait that fell over his upper back. He was thin, for a Concordance warrior, but his narrow arms were obviously toned and coordinated. His brivsa and tunic were a muddy green, and he had a yellowish complexion and heavy-lidded dark eyes.

As she inspected the fighter, Edzie almost tripped over another bystander, a stocky woman who didn't seem to be paying much attention to the current match. Edzie noted that she had the same green linen brivsa as the next competitor, and tugged at it gently to get her attention.

“Aye?” The woman looked at Edzie with guarded interest.

“Hey, that's the next fighter, right?” Edzie said, pointing to the boy in green. “Do you know anything about him?”

“Aye, we're from the Hexcalor, down south. Heard you Denorians throw a good festival, came up to celebrate and compete a bit, help get your huskins in the mood to fuck. That's Thistleroy. He's actually an old friend's nephew, so I'm here to see him win a couple!”

Edzie raised an eyebrow, but didn't react. “So he's pretty good?”

“So you're fightin'?” the woman inquired, wondering how much she should reveal.

“No, I can't... I have my initiation trial later today. I know some people fighting, though.”

“Well, Thistleroy is a mean fighter. Quick, clever, one of our best. Comes from a hard family, but he's trying to make good, be a respectable tribesman. Hopefully he meets a good Hexcalor girl and she can keep him in line.” She grinned. “Or maybe even one of you Denorians! After you see how he fights, at least. The boy can stand up to most women, blow for blow.”

“Well, I'm sure it will be a good fight,” Edzie replied. “Hastan bris ramsa tarvanay! (May our blades meet in sisterhood!)” With a polite nod from the Hexcalor woman, Edzie departed for the opposite side of the arena. As she approached, she heard a cheer rise up from the audience – the current match had concluded – and she hurried on, afraid Ghada might get up to the platform before she could wish him good luck.

Ghada was finishing his preparations in the opposite annex, fixing his brivsa and pulling an absolutely unnecessary decorative sash down over his sporting vest. His trousers were wrapped snugly, down to his knees, and his slender shoulders were bare and just barely tanned. His katsun was an impressive specimen, loaned to him by Rodra the craftswoman... it was crafted from some very light wood, its handle glossy and almost white, and the blade was polished to a striking shine. Edzie couldn't entirely see Ghada's face, but she could tell there was some greasepaint accentuating his eyebrows.

“Hey, what's with the makeup, little galeed? This is a fight, not a promenade!”

Ghada glanced up at Edzie's voice, and pulled his brivsa scarf down just enough to grin at her. He reached out to grab at her waist, but she slapped lightly at his outstretched hand. “No flirting, now, get your head in the fight. Don't make me regret coming out here.” She brushed his brivsa hood aside just enough to caress the hair by his ear. “You know who you're fighting? This Thirstleroy?”

“A little,” Ghada said. “Won his last couple today, but he was up against slower kids. I'll give him a good swatting.” He fixed his hood and pulled his scarf tight, making himself look as respectable as possible. Somebody up above was gesturing impatiently, doing their best to get his attention. With a final tap at Edzie's shoulder, he mounted the wooden steps to the platform.

The formalities were short... Warryn, the elder of severity, was off presiding over the main stage at the central court, so it was Keldra, elder of Accord, who had the pleasure of introducing Ghada and Thistleroy to the crowd. Edzie backed away enough that she had a good view, and then she turned to look around the audience. She caught sight of Baliban, who was engaged in a conversation with one of his students, and she saw Kosef whispering to Treya, the two of them dutifully attending their son's exhibition match.

Elder Keldra was reading an Old Concordage blessing, followed by the rules of the match: the first combatant to score three touches to the upper body or head, or to disarm their opponent, would be the victor; only strikes with the wooden edge were allowed, and any serious wounds inflicted would be punished appropriately by both tribes. After each successful touch, both combatants had to return to their sides of the stage, and Elder Keldra would tell them when they could rejoin the fight. The two combatants both acknowledged the rules, faced one another, bowed, and touched blades.

“Hey, Edzie!” Edzie started at the voice, jerking her head around, and found Bellaryn standing beside her. “Nice of you to come, with your initiation coming up so soon! Some extra good luck for my little brother, I think!”

They both turned toward the stage. The formalities were ending, and the two fighters took their respective starting positions: two meters apart, both arms outstretched, katsuns held vertically, point-down, so they would have to be reversed before their handlers could wield them effectively. Ghada was a picture of Concordance dignity, his strong, sculpted arms perfectly still, his brivsa tied up and pulled back neatly. Thistleroy was an entirely different creature: his moss green tunic was long and loose, hanging down to his upper thighs, and his trousers were billowing all the way down to his calves, like an acrobat's uniform. His brivsa was tossed over his shoulder... drawn up enough to cover his face, marginally respectful, but intentionally, arrogantly bereft of seriousness or discipline.

“Looks like a sluicule,” Bellaryn murmured, as Elder Keldra put a hand up to signal the engagement. The space of a full breath passed.

All at once, Elder Keldra gave the signal, and Ghada tried to step back cautiously, taking a vigilant position. Thistleroy moved unexpectedly, with shocking speed: without even reversing his grip on the katsun, he flipped it up, rotating it so the blade was down and the wooden edge whipped through the air into Ghada's space. The movement had no grace or rhythm... indeed, it looked downright clumsy, as the boy's hand seemed to entirely release the katsun in order to turn it over... but it started Ghada so much that he missed a step, and his stance folded into an awkward stumble.

Thistleroy used the confusion to find a comfortable grip, and before Ghada could entirely recover and assess his situation, Thistleroy was pressing the attack, whacking unevenly at Ghada's chest and stomach. Ghada managed, almost supernaturally, to block the second one of these strikes, batting it away with his own blade as he tried to regain his footing and his position. Unfortunately, the third strike slipped between Ghada's katsun and his knees, and it thumped audibly against his ribcage.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd – a resounding grunt of disapproval, despite the fact that only a third of the bystanders were paying much attention to the match.

Nedaja!” Bellaryn cried, exploiting a curse that Edzie had never even heard before. “I was right, he is a sluicule. Ghada, send this voraish home! Ugh.”

“Ugh,” Edzie groaned. “Ghada should know better. That's exactly the type of trick I might have pulled on him.”

She watched as Elder Keldra made the signal for a touch, and Thistleroy patted Ghada on the shoulder. There was a smile in the Hexcalor boy's eyes that seemed playful... not the gloating, self-satisfied attitude that Edzie might have expected... and Ghada hesitated, and then nodded to him, trying his hardest to be polite. The boys retreated to their starting positions, and though his face was covered, Edzie could see that Ghada's eyes were suddenly wary and irate.

Elder Keldra waited a moment, and then gave the second signal to engage. Thistleroy feigned the same trick, flipping the katsun forward again, but it was clear that Ghada was ready for it... Rodra's katsun was already turned over a quarter turn, ready to deflect any quick openings. Thistleroy hadn't expected any less... a trace of a smirk appeared under his brivsa, and he turned his katsun over into a ready-position and stepped back. The two boys circled for a moment, and then Ghada struck out with a tentative attack form, testing Thistleroy's reaction time.

As the subsequent round unfolded, Edzie and Bellaryn discussed their observations. Thistleroy was no amateur... his movements were loose, but effective, and he could launch an attack, and then disengage when he lost his rhythm, without letting a conspicuous gap open in his defenses. Still, Ghada's immaculate forms obviously dominated the match: he seemed to anticipate his opponent's attacks so well that he started his defensive forms before Thistleroy even engaged, and when Ghada withdrew, it was always calculated, into an advantageous position, so that he could mount his own counterattack.

The round lasted for almost ninety seconds before Ghada deflected Thistleroy's overhead strike, pivoted around to his flank, and executed a clean, graceful slash across his lower back. Mistra Eryn made the signal for a touch, and a wave of applause rose from the vicinity of the platform.

“I think his luck's run out,” Bellaryn said with a grin, looking toward Thistleroy.

Edzie scowled in the direction of the platform and noted Thistleroy's sanguine expression. “Maybe so,” she said, “but he doesn't look too worried about it.”

In the third round, Thistleroy didn't try his opening trick, so the usual dynamic of a katsun duel – the advances and retreats, the parries and replies – ensued almost immediately. Ghada was still dominant, but Thistleroy was learning quickly. He saw that Ghada favored the backhanded strike, and that he was sometimes slow to switch hands; he cycled through different attack patterns, occasionally repeating one to throw Ghada off. He quickly discovered that Ghada was predictable, but almost completely impenetrable... no matter how aggressive or clever Thistleroy's attacks, Ghada seemed to foresee them, like some kind of a choreographed oracle.

It took almost two minutes of futile exchanging of blows for Thistleroy to test the rules of the duel. Exhibiting some evidence of fatigue, he stepped into a rough attack form, taking a wide, telegraphed swing at Ghada's shoulder. As Ghada raised his katsun to parry, he saw a glint of sunlight, and realized, in the middle of his maneuver, that Thistleroy was striking with the blade forward, as though he was going to cut Ghada in half. Ghada didn't have time to adjust, so he simply parried, and he felt his opponent's blade take a splinter of wood out of Rodra's katsun.

A wave of uncertainty struck Ghada. Was this kind of attack even allowed? Was Rodra's beautiful katsun permanently damaged? Over these thoughts, he heard the crowd's reaction: again, a murmur of shock and disapproval. It wasn't much, but all these emotions – all the sudden indecision and deliberation – left Ghada unresponsive for a split second, and Thistleroy took advantage of the pause, striking Ghada under the arm with the wooden side of his weapon, scoring his second touch.

Ghada lowered his weapon and turned his eyes directly to Elder Keldra, outraged and imploring. She looked at him with concern for a moment. “Are you hurt?” she asked.

Ghada looked at his bicep and his fingers, and shook his head. Relieved, Elder Keldra turned her eyes toward Thistleroy.

“Sorry, it was an accident,” he said. “If I'd have cut him, Dissadae's mercy, I'd be forfeiting and begging the tribe's forgiveness right now.”

Elder Keldra replied with severity and scorn in her voice. “There is no rule that you can't be clumsy, Hexcalor. But you must know... if you slip up and injure our tribesman, you will sorely regret it.” She looked at Ghada. “Are you willing to continue? If not, we all understand, but it will be considered a forfeit.”

Ghada straightened up. “No,” he said, “I'm happy to play this one through.”

The two squared off again, and Bellaryn leaned over toward Edzie. “He's showing off, as always. Maybe a little more than usual, since you're here!”

The fourth round began, and Ghada seemed to have recovered, but he had clearly lost some of his aggression... his attack forms were careful, and he had almost entirely abandoned his intercept forms in favor of withstand and withdraw forms. He absorbed three assaults from Thistleroy before he ventured a more aggressive advance. Thistleroy deflected the attack, executed an intercept form, and visibly rotated the katsun in his grip.

Thistleroy's next strike was a short slice, barely enough to reach Ghada, but he led with the blade of his weapon, and Ghada stumbled back from it in shock. Thistleroy wasn't stepping at full speed, or striking at full force, but he made his advance with cold deliberation, striking twice with the wooden edge, and then swinging again with the metal blade. It knocked against Ghada's parry, and Ghada continued retreating, not sure whether to turn his own blade over or not. His situation suddenly seemed deadly, and his steps and his parries were becoming desperate and clumsy.

“Dissadae, what's the voraish doing?” Bellaryn blurted out.

“He's being a sluicule,” Edzie said. “He won't cut him, though. Come on, Ghada, stuff it back in his gut.”

Bellaryn was less confident than Edzie: Thistleroy's next swing at Ghada was right at neck-level, and Bellaryn swore, if Ghada hadn't jerked his body back, the blade would have opened up his throat. Ghada was falling into a full, panicked retreat now, his movements off-balance, his own katsun useless. He finally fell back, landing on one hand, and raised the katsun in inane self-defense, terrified of the metal edge that could unbind his flesh from his bones.

Thistleroy stopped, like a blizzard suddenly subsiding, and turned his katsun over in his grip. With an insulting gentleness, he brought it down on Ghada's neck, tapping him just below the hair-line. Satisfied, he lowered the katsun and offered Ghada a hand, ready to pull him to his feet.

Ghada's brivsa had fallen open, and Edzie could see a fiery frustration on his face, his jaw tense and his eyes glazed. He stood up on his own, refusing his opponent's help, but he wasn't turning his anger outward... Edzie could tell he was in the process of closing up on his first defeat, directing all his shame and disappointment into his own psyche. He didn't look at Thistleroy, and he didn't look at Elder Keldra. Instead, he caught Edzie's eye, for a fraction of a second.

Elder Keldra hadn't officially given the signal for a third touch, or a victory. She seemed to be caught in a moment of uncertainty, unsure of whether to allow blatant threats of injury as a strategic play. Luckily, she didn't have to make a decision on the point... before she could speak, or furnish a gesture, Edzie was pulling herself up on the platform, to the delight and confusion of spectators on every side. Ghada and Thistleroy were standing up, now, side by side, and they were both looking at her through suspicious eyes.

“I'm fighting him!” Edzie proclaimed to Elder Keldra, her hand already on the handle of her katsun. “That was a shit match. Let's see if this voraish's tricks work for another three rounds.”

“It's okay, Edzie, it was fine for my first exhibition match,” Ghada said, his impeccable sense of honor returning.

“That was your first fight? Damn right it was good!” Thistleroy exclaimed. He turned to Edzie. “What's your problem, then? Can't control that temper? You think I'm not good enough to beat a girl?”

Elder Keldra was already shaking her head. “No, Edzie, each match has to stand on its own. Frankly, I'll need to give some thought to how I score this one. Having another one won't help me.”

Edzie scoffed and turned to Thistleroy. “Fine. You seem game, though. Tell you what... if I win, we count it as even. I won't even take the victory... I'm not officially a member of the tribe yet, anyway. We just scratch off your win, and we all go to feast together.”

Thistleroy raised an eyebrow. “And if I win... I get both victories? Make the deal sweeter for me? You really want to risk it, Denorian?”

“Fine by me,” Edzie said. “And like I said: we all go to feast together.” She looked at Elder Keldra. “What do you think? Can you certify the match?”

Elder Keldra looked at each of them in turn. She glanced at Edzie's katsun – an old, proud specimen, Elkansa's favored implement for so many years – and she felt a swell of pride in her breast, the vanity of a tribeswoman who had spent her life serving a single great family. She looked out at the crowd and opened her arms, signaling for their response.

The roar that rose up was properly modest, but it was enough to signal the interest of the audience.

“Alright,” Keldra finally said, “take ninety seconds off the platform to prepare yourselves, and then take your positions.”

Thistleroy returned, stretching, to his corner of the platform; Edzie and Ghada walked in the opposite direction, silent until they reached the fenced-off annex on the east side. Ghada kept his eyes on the ground in front of him as he walked, effecting an unusual brooding sobriety. They stepped off the platform, and Edzie started stretching.

“Damn, I thought I was better than that,” Ghada grumbled. “It's harder than I expected, facing a sharp edge. Don't get yourself hurt, Edzie. It's not worth it on my account.”

“I'll be okay,” Edzie promised. “Meanwhile, the voraish wants a war, so let's have one. We'll see how he likes being on the other end of my katsun.”

Ghada nodded, his spirits warmed by Edzie's protective confidence. He offered her a hand, and they reached in and grasped each others' wrists, exchanging solidarity in their shared grip. Edzie nodded to Ghada, and Ghada smiled back and released her arm. She mounted the platform and found Thistleroy, already waiting in the center, swinging his katsun in front of him.

Elder Keldra gave the blessing, and added, “This is an unscheduled exhibition match, a special provision to Edzie of the Denoria and Thistleroy of the Hexcalor, and the rules remain in force. Do you both agree to fight honorably within Dissadae's circle?”

Edzie and Thistleroy nodded, and Elder Keldra told them to take their positions. Edzie projected confidence, even indifference, to match Thistleroy's cavalier demeanor. Still, she remained wary of his tricky opening, not wanting to start the match a step behind. Finally, at the draw of the third breath, Elder Keldra gave the signal to start.

For the first two rounds, Edzie could have been mistaken for a timid novice, or a trainer intentionally going easy on her opponent. She spent the vast majority of the time defending, making short and tentative advances, and moving around the platform. Thistleroy was conservative at first, protecting his flanks and keeping his vulnerabilities clamped down, but as the asymmetry in tactics became clear, he became bolder, testing out various approaches to undermine Edzie's nerves or penetrate her guard. She wasn't nearly as precise as Ghada had been, but she seemed to be calculating, conserving energy... Thistleroy had no doubt that she was holding something in reserve.

Throughout both of these rounds – each taking a full four minutes, each eventually won by Thistleroy – Edzie remained patient and observant, sticking to her objective: to learn Thistleroy's patterns, to see whether he was stronger on his right or left side, to learn his most common attacks and his defensive tendencies. In particular, she was looking for a certain kind of opening: a drop in his guard, or an over-extension or overcompensation, that would ultimately become the starting point for her strategy in the pivotal third round.

The crowd had quieted down by the beginning of round three, feeling the match had lost its drama. Thistleroy's confidence had plateaued, and at the start of the round, he tried to goad Edzie into an attack, intentionally dropping his guard and exaggerating his own clumsiness, laughing as he beckoned to her. She took a couple whacks at him, forcing him to close up and reengage, and then she executed her first serious attack form: a feint from the left, a step across his field of view, and then an aggressive slash from the right.

Thistleroy behaved as Edzie predicted: he parried, dropped his katsun low, and tried to take a hack at Edzie's ribs... a successful strike would have brought the match to a clean end. Instead, he found that Edzie had already passed by on his left side, thrusting her katsun high past his head. Her next movement was completely alien to Thistleroy: keeping one hand on the end of her katsun's handle, she whipped the other hand back, levering the wooden edge of the weapon into the back of his head.

The crowd heard a “thwack,” loud enough that it interrupted their conversations. Thistleroy, on the other hand, heard nothing... instead, he saw a flash of multicolored light, and he felt his head jerk forward with the impact of the wood. Pain washed through his whole head, centering especially on his temples, and then it was overtaken by an agonizing smarting on the back of his skull. When the dizziness had subsided, he discovered that he had lost his balance and fallen to the platform, losing his grip on his katsun and catching himself on his palms.

“Ugghh... ow.” He stood up and stumbled a little, and then finally found his footing.

Elder Keldra made the sign for a touch, but she looked at the Hexcalor boy with some concern. “Are you okay, Thistleroy? That was a hard hit... rest for a few minutes if you need it.”

Thistleroy took a minute to recover, lowering himself to his haunches and putting his free hand to his forehead. He sensed Edzie standing over him, uncomfortably close, and he made a point of ignoring her. Finally, when he felt that his head was clear and his eyes weren't casting colors over his visual field, he stood up and returned to his starting position.

“Looked painful,” Edzie said through her brivsa. “Good thing I kept to the wooden edge!”

“Good luck getting that close again,” Thistleroy said, reminding himself to stay vigilant.

The fourth round was devastatingly quick for Thistleroy. He hadn't entirely recovered from his dizziness, and suddenly he felt viciously, painfully aware that Edzie was willing to inflict serious bruises. It also didn't help that she switched tactics radically, launching a barrage of aggressive attack forms, one after another, giving him no time to stabilize or counterattack. He had gone from fighting a nervous huskin calf to dealing with a charging bull, and he only managed to deflect a few attacks before he let a strike under his guard.

Elder Keldra signaled Edzie's second touch, and Thistleroy found he was just happy it hadn't hurt as bad as the first one. “Honorable elder,” he said, “would you mind if I accepted your offer to take a few minutes to recover? I can still feel the ringing in my head.”

Elder Keldra graciously agreed, and Thistleroy retreated to his annex while Edzie stood, motionless, on the platform. Two friends offered Thistleroy a gulp of cold water and a firm kneading of his shoulders, and he tightened up the folds of his tunic and mentally reviewed the last two rounds. He would have to be fully committed, self-possessed, and willing to employ whatever strategy was available... his most significant hope, he thought, was that all these Denorians shared the same deficiency: a fear of the katsun's naked blade.

When the general ache had left his head (the sharp soreness was still there, but wasn't so distracting), Thistleroy stepped back up to the platform, thanked Elder Keldra, pulled his brivsa tight around his face, and took his starting position. Edzie mirrored him, and Elder Keldra signaled the start of the final round.

Thistleroy settled into a moderate defensive pattern, keeping alert in case Edzie shifted back into an aggressive frenzy. Instead, he found the round starting out more like the first two rounds, with Edzie giving ground, being careful, venturing an occasional attack form. Thistleroy tried to intercept, but it was useless – Edzie was too clever, almost prescient, about his range of possible responses. He delivered his own sequence of attack patterns, and found his attitude almost perfectly mirrored in Edzie's forms: she met his aggression with calm defense, and when he settled back into a conservative mode, she pressed him carefully, testing the boundaries of his movement.

At last, after three minutes of this cycling, posturing behavior, Edzie got the chance she was looking for: she saw Thistleroy turn his katsun over and present the blade to her, looking her in the eye as he did so. She sensed Elder Keldra tense up behind her, preparing to put a stop to a potentially dangerous development. All three of them hesitated, and then Thistleroy made his move, delivering an assertive strike to Edzie's torso.

Edzie could tell he was moving slowly enough to stop the weapon before it seriously cut her... his intention was to upset her, to break her rhythm and trigger her panic response. Instead of retreating from the blade, Edzie stepped decisively into it.

There was a gasp from the spectators, many of whom had returned their attention to the match. Thistleroy reversed his movement so suddenly, it was akin to a spasm of the upper body, and in trying to stop the blade from reaching Edzie, he actually lost his footing and stumbled backwards with comical clumsiness. He managed not to completely fall over, but he had to put his arms out to steady himself, and the katsun went limp in his grip.

Edzie was now focused, entirely in control. She brandished her katsun in her right hand, stepped around Thistleroy, and drew the wooden edge gracefully across his belly, demonstrating a maneuver that might be used to ritually disembowel an opponent. When she had completed the strike, which constituted the final touch of the match, she locked her left bicep under Thistleroy's shoulder and planted herself, firmly, to hold him upright.

The two combatants – one now victorious, the other defeated – hung in that position for a second, and Edzie looked into Thistleroy's eyes from a few inches to his left. An echo of forgotten emotions rippled through her mind and into her body: a memory from earlier that day of a terrified, hungry grasscat that was awaiting its mortal blow; a memory of Luna, clutching a strip of canvas in her hand, spittle spraying from her mouth as she yelled; finally, deep below Edzie's consciousness, the memory of Dormoroy Gesk's eyes, alternately frightened and swollen and bulging with mortal intent. Here was Thistleroy, acting out so many parts, his ear so close to her lips.

She moved her right arm around, whispering as she did so: “Thistleroy... here's what somebody who's not bluffing looks like.”

Her katsun rolled over as she moved it across her body, pressing its sharpened blade hard against the back side of Thistleroy's knee. Thistleroy didn't even have time to notice before she yanked it across, splitting open the joint and nearly severing his hamstring.

Thistleroy let out a sustained, voice-ruining scream of agony as his leg suddenly stopped supporting him; Edzie pulled her katsun away and jerked her head back from the scream, but she stayed rooted to the platform, keeping him on his feet. She only let him down slowly, allowing him to crumple to his knees; as she finally released him, she saw blood pouring from the wound, covering the side of her leg and pooling on the wooden platform. Finally, a burst of activity overtook her, a veritable frenzy of bystanders and authority figures trying to react.

Ghada was the first to the platform, diving to Thistleroy's assistance, placing a hand over the gaping wound and trying to keep it there as the boy slumped over and gasped for air. Keldra arrived a moment after, helping to move Thistleroy's prone upper body, barking at another bystander – someone she knew, Edzie assumed – to run and get Greya the healer. Having dispensed with these necessities, Keldra turned toward Edzie, giving her a look that was somewhere between horrified and acridly bitter. She started moving toward her, apparently wanting to confront her immediately, but seeing that Edzie wasn't running away, Keldra turned her attention back to Thistleroy, as several others reached the platform: Bellaryn, Kosef, Treya, and the Hexcalor woman Edzie had spoken to previously.

There was such a jumble of activity, such a disorganized rush of instructions and demands, that Edzie started feeling overwhelmed, and escaped into a private fog. She was only half-aware when Greya arrived and attempted emergency surgery on the boy, making an incision behind his knee, using a tiny clasp to hold the separated muscle together, and sewing the damaged tissue with thread so tiny as to be invisible. The leg was splinted, some foul-smelling liquid was pressed to Thistleroy's face under his brivsa, and he was borne from the platform on a stretcher, semi-conscious and groaning.

The next series of developments were focused on Edzie herself. Several more visitors from the Hexcalor tribe had arrived at the arena, and they were barking things at one another, at Edzie, and at the older Denorian tribeswomen who were trying to keep everything under control. To keep them calm, Elder Keldra called forth two Denorian warriors to watch Edzie, and two of the Hexcalor stood by to supervise (the others ran off to attend to Thistleroy at Greya's infirmary).

Edzie's various guards – both Denorian and Hexcalor – were irritable, ill-at-ease, and indecisive. After a few minutes, it became clear that they were stuck waiting for some new development, having no particular procedure or authority to handle this kind of offense. Their stasis was finally broken by the arrival of two additional figures: first, a Hexcalor tribal representative, called forth from the contingent watching the matches at the main stage; second, Elkansa, looking disheveled and intense as she arrived from the southwest.

The Hexcalor representative arrived first. She wasn't much taller than Edzie, but she was broader, with muscular shoulders and square jaw. Her brivsa and tunic were a shrill dark yellow, lined with silver thread along the hood and ends of the scarf, and she had several decorations that weren't characteristic of a Concordance tribeswoman: a cluster of piercings on the right side of her eyebrow and nose, and a facial tattoo that resembled a tiny compass rose on her left cheek. When she arrived at the platform, she gave Edzie naught but a glance, but there was genuine hate in her eyes. She turned almost immediately to Keldra, speaking quietly, but emanating fury in her gestures and expressions.

Elkansa arrived presently, interrupting the two tribal authorities and making her presence known. The Hexcalor woman was preoccupied growling something at Keldra, and so they waved Elkansa away, freeing her to stomp over to Edzie, jaw set.

“I can't believe you would do this,” she said, her voice a rasp of disgust.

“I just overdid it,” Edzie said, trying to collect her wits and return from her troubled reverie.

“Don't just wave this away, Edzie. The woman who came to me said the boy may be crippled. What happened? How did you lose control of your blade?”

The Hexcalor woman had obviously overheard, and she yelled in their direction: “She didn't lose control of anything! The match was already over... this little sluicule hobbled a promising fellow tribesman, just out of spite!”

Edzie raised her eyebrow at the ranting woman, and the latter turned back to her negotiation with Keldra. Elkansa's eyes remained on her daughter. “So? What happened?”

“I gave him some special treatment,” Edzie said. “I wanted to show him he wasn't better than us. I think he gets it now.”

Elkansa looked baffled. “Why, Edzie? Why did you do that to that boy?”

Edzie remained silent at this question. Responses rushed into her brain, and then refuted themselves and disappeared. She thought back to the time that Stray had retaliated against her by breaking her katsun... he may have been overreacting, but his reasons were crystal clear: he wanted to balance out the scales of fairness. Edzie looked into herself for something similar, and couldn't discern anything comparable. She didn't have any reason that she could cite, or repeat, except that she had felt a rush of violent reactionary emotion, and it had guided her katsun's blade. Deep behind this impulse, she couldn't find an ideal or a higher purpose, or even an echo of regret... in fact, she found nothing at all.

And so she said nothing at all.

Her silence was broken, presently, by Elder Keldra's arrival. The Elder's news was as good as any news could be at the moment. “That's the chief of the visiting Hexcalor, invested... for the purposes of our festival... with the authority of their elders. She agrees to let you go home in your mother's custody, if you promise not to flee. We'll gather a couple of the others... Elder Hylidae, at the very least... and discuss the situation. You'll get a visit later tonight.”

Elkansa nodded, doing her best to appear dignified and respectful. “Thank you. What about Edzie's initiation trial? She was supposed to be thirty-fourth tonight, before the feast.”

“The trial is hereby suspended. By me. That topic will require some more discussion. Edzie, can I trust you... in spite of your offense today... can I trust you to cooperate with us?”

Edzie nodded, unable to muster anything but an indifferent frown. Elder Keldra dismissed the two Denorians at attention, and then she walked over to continue talking to the Hexcalor chief. Edzie kept her eyes unfocused, suddenly profoundly afraid of seeing disapproval in Ghada's face, or his parents'. She only glanced up as she and Elkansa were leaving the platform behind, pushing through a sea of concerned and anxious and frustrated faces. She found, to her relief, that Ghada and his family were nowhere to be seen.


7.3

Elkansa's speech to Edzie, begun when they were out of earshot of the platform and only completed long after they had arrived home, was an epic, righteous, redundant, exasperated masterpiece of moral instruction. At times, Elkansa seemed to swing into baffled, almost merciful leniency, suggesting that Edzie's crime was an inevitability of youth, or that she herself had failed in raising her daughter. At other times, Elkansa agonized over Edzie's character, as if her meanness was some sort of virus, or a crack in a wall that needed to be fixed. And of course, during some particularly vitriolic passages, Elkansa laid the blame squarely at Edzie's feet, demanding to know why she had broken so many established conventions, and why she had dedicated her life to sabotaging her relationship with the tribe.

Edzie was fairly sure that this third attitude was the fairest one. I did that, she said to herself, and I either need to learn to control that part of me, or I need to learn to live with it. Or perhaps both.

In the gathering room, dimly-lit through the side windows, Elkansa eventually ran out of things to say, and she fell to pacing and shaking her head and sighing. Edzie excused herself, glad at least for that small consolation, and found several hours of solitude in her room, paging through two borrowed books without absorbing a word of either of them.

Through the entranceway, Edzie heard Stray come and go. She tried to keep her attention diverted, not wanting to think more about her transgression, but she couldn't help but hear Elkansa give Stray a brief overview of the situation. He made all the expected sounds of shock and dismay, and asked if there was anything he could do, or if he should try talking to her. Elkansa told him there was nothing he could do, and so Edzie finally heard him depart, returning to the festival with a troubled and heavy heart.

When the elders finally arrived, the sun was just dipping down beneath the horizon, and Edzie was feeling drowsy. Elkansa called her out into the gathering room, and she shook herself awake and joined the small conference that had gathered there. Aside from her and Elkansa, the entourage included Elder Keldra, Elder Hylidae, Elder Amiaverta, and the Hexcalor representative, who was finally introduced to Elkansa as Ifris.

The four of them had come to a tentative solution, an attempt to spare Edzie the embarrassment of a full trial and a temporary extradition to be punished by the Hexcalor. The elders... Keldra in particular... had purchased mercy with promises, apologies, and pleas. Edzie's status as an uninitiated daughter was a significant factor, as well, as it was considered bad form to hold a girl accountable as a fully-initiated woman.

First, the trial would be delayed by two days, so that it didn't interfere with the festival. It would be a private tribunal, consisting of the current assembly, plus Ghada, and one additional Hexcalor woman, a close friend of Thistleroy's family who was currently attending the festival. Depending on the findings of the tribunal, Edzie's punishment might be as lenient as a gesture of shame to the victim, or as harsh as extended restraint and punitive branding. Whatever was decided, it would be inflicted by a member of the Hexcalor: either Ifris herself, or a fellow tribesperson chosen by Thistleroy.

The other matter, an internal consideration, was the handling of Edzie's initiation. The council agreed that Edzie's initiation would be delayed... that she would be evaluated the following year, and if she was sufficiently contrite and respectful, she could be initiated a year late, in the same festival as Stray.

All five of them looked to Edzie for acknowledgment, and though her emotions were a raging storm of frustration and resentment, she managed a nod, her face cast in stone. The tribal leaders excused themselves hastily, ushered off by Elkansa's token words of esteem. The three Denorians headed for the sunset banquet, rushing to deliver the ceremonial address on time; Ifris declined to join them, preferring to take some time alone and make herself available to her own discontented tribespeople.

When they left, Elkansa and Edzie remained standing in the gathering room. Elkansa's eyes were downcast, and Edzie's remained focused, trained straight ahead, unwavering. At last, Elkansa spoke, breaking up the tension.

“By Dissadae, Edzie, what did you think was going to happen?”

Edzie let her eyes settle on her mother's face. “I didn't think anything was going to happen. And I still don't.”

Whether she meant this as empty defiance, or as a way to downplay the punishment that had been proposed, neither of them was sure, but those words bore a portent of unrealized irony and violence... a curse whose consummation was already approaching, a shadow on the settlement's outskirts.

 

The Festival plateaued late into the night, as always, illuminated by a yellow moon and a multitude of mismatched thresh lamps. The central court was a slow storm of celebration, home to hundreds of Denorians and their Concordance kin, caught up in idle conversations with old friends and new loves and total strangers. There was some troubling talk of a problem at one of the exhibition matches... an unusual injury, a possible diplomatic complication... but it was barely a flicker of concern within the vast glow of kinship that engulfed the settlement.

Boyle and Varda were standing at a table on the west side of the central court, picking at baskets of root vegetables and blusterwheat bread, when a stranger happened by them and asked them a question.

“Hey, Denorians... do you know who it was that fought Thistleroy of the Hexcalor today? I want to talk to him.”

Boyle glanced up at the stranger and immediately recognized him as an outsider. He wore something like a brivsa, except it was made of some hybrid textile that looked like muddy gray fish-scales. The scarf was down, loose, over the man's broad, slumping shoulders, and the hood was pulled up so far it cast a shadow over the man's eyes. On his upper body, he wore a ratty gray tunic that failed to obscure a suit of protective leather pads, belted on and fastened over his frame with a web of leather straps and tarnished buckles.

“Who?” Boyle asked.

Varda interjected. “He said somebody from the Hexcalor tribe. Thistleroy? I heard Ghada's match was somebody from that tribe.”

The stranger seemed to perk up at the name, and he reached toward Varda in his excitement. She recoiled slightly, a vicious look in her eyes, and he withdrew his hand. Boyle caught a glimpse of something as the forearm passed... four centimeter-wide white circles, like scars, but too perfect to have been accidental.

“Ghada! Yeah, that's what somebody else said. You know him? Can I talk to him?”

Varda's eyes burned with suspicion, and she remained absolutely still, suddenly feeling like she was dealing with a dangerous predator. Boyle wanted nothing more than to get away from the situation, so he was quick to offer up the only information he had.

“You're out of luck. He decided to skip the banquet, said he wasn't feeling well. Probably at home sleeping, I think. You can probably talk to his parents if you want, but...” He craned his neck and looked around. “... but I don't see them. They should be somewhere around, though.”

“Can you tell me where this Ghadja boy lives?” the stranger asked.

Boyle started to speak, but Varda grabbed his arm and answered for him. “No, we don't know. We don't know him that well. Sorry.”

The stranger remained at their side for a moment longer, looking at them from the shadow of his hood. Then he uttered a word of thanks, turned, and fled into the crowd. Boyle, always perceptive, caught sight of a flash of silver under the stranger's tunic, and then the figure was lost.

 

An hour later, Edzie was lying, awake, in her bed, the covers tossed on the floor so she could feel the autumn air. She was still thinking... obsessively, involuntarily... about her transgression that day, and whether Ghada would forgive her, and what kind of a person she would be when she was finally initiated. The wind whistled by her window, but she didn't hear it.

Thistleroy was lying awake, as well, trying to move, grunting in pain with each exertion. His back and working leg were stiff, and the headaches that had throbbed in his head all evening were not going away, and he hoped the pain would be better by morning. His mind, stretched out and worn raw by the agony, kept flirting with violent impulses... fantasies of finding the girl that had injured him, of inflicting some crippling wound upon her, even thoughts of killing her, though those disgusted him as soon as they entered his head, and he always turned away from them when they arrived.

At Ghada's dromo, a figure moved the wooden plank aside and entered the front entrance. The interior was pitch dark, and it was clear nobody was awake and active in the household. The figure still walked quietly, but it didn't slink like a fugitive animal... it walked purposefully, checking in one room (empty) and then turning down a long hallway. As it approached the entryway to Ghada's bedroom, it drew a tool from the back of its belt.

Ghada awoke with a start, drawn out of an anxious dream by a flood of conflicting sensations. Something extremely heavy pressed down on his chest, and something else yanked his arm away from his body, and a hot gust of pungent breath washed over his face.

“This is for Thistleroy's leg, you redge,” said a voice that chafed at Ghada's ears like broken glass.

Then Thistleroy felt something drastic and unfamiliar in his hand: first a sort of folding in the crook of his thumb, and then a shooting, cutting, mind-bending agony, unlike any pain he had ever experienced. His hand couldn't move for about four seconds, and then it was suddenly let free. Ghada, locked in mid-scream, tried to throw his hand in front of his face, but it deflected harmlessly off the vast weight sitting on his chest. Something wet splattered across Ghada's face, and he caught his breath for a moment, and then resumed his scream.

He tried to thrash... even to breathe... but it was impossible, and he suddenly felt like he was going to asphyxiate. With some less panicked part of his mind, he felt his other arm – seized up, trying ineffectually to free itself – jerked up from under the weight, and he felt the same sensation a second time: the folding, the pain that burst into his temples and diffused through his whole body, the helpless thrashing and swinging.

Suddenly, the weight was lifted, and Ghada lunged out of bed, crumpling to the ground and trying to bury his hands in his own chest. Rivulets of blood ran down his arm, and as he jerked and screamed, they left splatters across his covers, his floor, his chest, and his face.

He heard laughter... it seemed distant and indistinct now... and he heard somebody moving toward the entrance to his room. The figure was sheathing some kind of small blade on the back of its belt, and it was tucking something else into a pocket beneath a ratty gray tunic. It wasn't talking, and Ghada couldn't see its face; its stride was leisurely, almost buoyant, as it left his room, his dromo, and finally the whole Denorian settlement.

 

“Edzie, wake up. Come.”

There was an urgent note in Elkansa's voice, an intensity that Edzie hadn't heard since their fight over Boyle's parents. She blinked, shaking the sleep out of her eyes, and sensed that the air was chilly, soft with early morning light. She considered objecting to the rough treatment, but decided to wait and see what was happening.

“Come on, Edzie. Get clothes on. Your brivsa is in the gathering room. We have to go.”

“Why?” Edzie grunted, swinging her legs to the floor. “I barely slept last night. Can you please tell me what's going on?”

“Something happened last night, and it has to do with us. The messenger couldn't say any more. There's a meeting with the elders in the central court.”

Edzie and Elkansa stumbled out the door a minute later, jogging side by side up the path past Boyle's house. The fields and lots were littered with evidence of the festival, small campsites and discarded debris, but the visiting parties had been kind enough to stay off the path, so Edzie and Elkansa could safely ignore them. They reached the central court a few minutes after the messenger who had summoned them, and found that it was already occupied and buzzing.

Near the smoking remnants of last night's bonfire, five elders congregated: Amiaverta, Warryn, Keldra, Yogo, and Hylidae. A few meters away, a small group of outsiders were gathered, conversing in low tones. Ifris was present, and appeared to be driving the conversation. Near the elders, Treya stood, attired in sloppy evening robes, holding her head in one hand.

Elkansa and Edzie approached from Treya's side. “What happened?” Edzie demanded, alarmed by the tone of the gathering.

Hearing Edzie's voice, Treya's demeanor changed radically. She put her hand on her katsun handle and jerked her shoulders up to attention. “Stay away from me, Edzie,” she said, her voice raw and her eyes red and wild.

Elkansa thrust a protective arm in front of Edzie, reaching toward her own katsun with the other hand. “Treya,” she said, her tone taut with warning.

“Stop this,” Elder Warryn said, moving into the space between the three women. “Treya, don't forget yourself. This is tribe business now.” He looked at Edzie and Elkansa, knowing they were entirely at a loss. “Ghada was attacked last night,” he said. “Somebody assaulted him in his own dromo, while his family was at the central court. We suspect it had something to do with your match yesterday.”

Treya let out a bitter laugh. “We don't suspect... the redge said it! He said this was for the boy whose leg was cut!”

“Is Ghada okay?” Edzie addressed the question to the open air.

“THEY TOOK HIS THUMBS, EDZIE.” Treya was screaming now, as if she was feeling her son's pain. “BOTH THUMBS. HE HAD TO WATCH THEM TAKE THEM.”

Edzie's chest constricted, as if Treya's words had struck her in the ribs. She had never heard of this kind of cruelty... what did it mean for Ghada's beauty, his ability to work, his ability to fight? She almost swooned for a second, and when she recovered her senses, she found she was looking at her own hands, flexing her forearms, dizzy with the awareness of her own bones and muscles and nerves. She lost track of her hands, then, but she remembered her surroundings, and the nervous expressions on the faces of the Hexcalor tribespeople. The thought of their faces suddenly snapped her back to attention, and she looked at them with wild tears in her eyes.

“WHO? WHICH OF YOU DID IT?”

Elkansa tried to calm her daughter, and Treya simply shook her head. Edzie was already crossing the court, drawing her katsun, when Elder Warryn stepped up to her from behind. She didn't even hear his footsteps... she only felt her head draw back, and her arms fold, and a streak of pain flash into her shoulder. It hardly took more than a touch from Warryn... Edzie crumpled in his hands, finding herself caught by the wrists and neck, unable to move any limb without some kind of pain answering in her joints.

“Stand down, Edzie,” Warryn said into her ear.

Edzie thrashed for a moment, not because she hoped to escape, but simply because there was something reassuring in the pain... an inescapable resistance, a tension that called her back into her own body, a constraint that she could test herself against, and indeed, a point of physical failure that she could fall back on. Finally, after three more seconds, she let her muscles relax, arms going limp in Warryn's grip, breath evening out.

When he was sure she was calm, Elder Warryn released her, and the grim silence of averted disaster washed over the court. Edzie looked across the array of Hexcalor faces, wanting to meet a gaze, but she found no purchase. When the representative finally spoke, she addressed Elder Warryn, though he had already been appraised of this information.

“We are fairly certain we know who did this,” Ifris said. “Looks like it was Thistleroy's half-brother Crastin, a thug from somewhere out east.” She paused, glancing at Elkansa, and then elaborated. “He used to be Hexcalor, but we exiled him... nine years ago, give or take... for violence and subversion. His family has officially denounced him, and we keep him out of our settlements.”

Elkansa and Treya continued glaring at the Hexcalor. Only Edzie managed to speak, looking to her own elders for answers. “So here they are, with an excuse all ready. How do they know? How do we know?”

Elder Hylidae replied with admirable, futile gentleness. “We spoke to several Denorians... four, to be more specific... who said they saw an outsider asking questions about Ghada last night, during the banquet. Their descriptions match Ifris's description of Crastin. We also managed to follow his tracks this morning, before the sun rose... Ghada's blood led us to his bootprints... but they disappeared along the bank of the Prospect. We think he got at least two hours lead-time on our trackers, and the darkness slowed us down.”

Edzie was still seething. “And he happened to be here, ready to attack a rival tribesman. Still seems too easy to me.”

Ifris spoke directly to Edzie now, trying to maintain some dignity. “He didn't just happen to be here. He's been known to come to other tribes' festivals, specifically for the purpose of checking up on old family members... Thistleroy among them. We are ashamed that he still lurks in our shadow, and we sorely regret what happened to your friend. We only wanted a just punishment, not this bloody travesty.”

Silence held for another moment, and then Elkansa stepped into the breach. “So where is this Crastin, now that we know who he is? The longer we wait to send out a hunting party, the harder it will be to find him.”

“They don't know where he lives now,” Elder Warryn replied. “They suspect it's near Horizon, or further east, maybe as far as the Bhijan River. We're scouting our territory, and sending messengers to our neighboring tribes... we sent out six parties this morning... but if he escapes our lands, there's nothing else we can do, except send word to the Protectorate central office.”

Edzie's face contorted with disgust. “You...” She turned her smoldering gaze on the elders. “You won't even follow him? He can destroy one of your own children, and just walk away, and Ghada gets no justice?” She spat at her feet, and then turned to the Hexcalor. “And you... you're willing to accept this? Your own bad blood, bringing shame to your tribe, mutilating children, and can't spare so much as a few hunters to bring this redge what he deserves?”

There was silence in response to Edzie's outrage, a dismal reticence shaded differently for each participant in the conversation.

“Well?” Edzie demanded.

“Edzie,” Elkansa finally said, “the elders have spoken. Their judgment is sound.”

Edzie's eyes were red and wet as she turned from her mother to Treya. Treya met her gaze with a stony contempt. “I think you know, Edzie... we have no righteousness to stand on here. Thanks, in part, to you.”

Ifris spoke up, then, making an unexpected contribution. “Crastin's crimes are not your fault, Denorian, and we don't intend to foist this responsibility upon you. In light of these crimes, we hereby rescind our demand for a shared tribunal. Your elders may punish you as they see fit for Thistleroy's injury... it's safe to say that Crastin has undermined any moral claim we might have held in the matter.”

This did not have any kind of calming effect on Edzie, whose face betrayed her continuing anguish. “THAT is NOT ENOUGH. My slip had nothing to do with Ghada, and now he's crippled.” Her words rushed out in a torrent, like a backup of swamp sludge bursting through a break-wall. “PUNISH ME however you want, you sluicules. When that's done with, I'll still be spitting in your faces, and we can get on with punishing YOU for what your huskin-cursed children did to my friend.”

Ifris met Edzie's gaze with a spiteful eye. “I think you should pinch those lips, Denorian. We resent Crastin's methods... we refused to tolerate them... but if it hadn't been for your wantonness, he would have stayed in the shadows, and you would have your initiation scar by now. As it stands, you are still a child, and I am losing patience with your childish lectures.”

Edzie prepared to respond when she felt her mother's hand on her arm.

“Go home, Edzie,” Elkansa said, calm and unequivocal.

Edzie almost refused... almost unleashed another torrent of disgust... but then she felt tears welling up in her eyes and sobs gathering in her jaw, and she made the strategic decision to turn away.


Ch. 8: Noisy Departures


8.1

For the Denorian settlement as a whole – its influential families, its open community, its excited adolescents – the Festival of Release proceeded as it always had, with victuals and distractions and visiting friends and family. The outsiders trickled out over the course of three days, and many of the traveling merchants remained for another day to handle lingering business concerns. It was so unremarkable, so banal in its celebratory rise and fall, that Edzie found the whole denouement almost insulting. For her, a vast, irreplaceable fulcrum seemed to have collapsed, and the settlement that was emerging from those tumultuous days had a different aspect from the one that had entered.

The trackers who had been sent after the criminal returned empty-handed, with only the thinnest scraps of news: he had gone directly west, diligently avoiding the Aerimus, and had apparently picked up a steed at one of the roadside enclaves, because his tracks ended abruptly. A few of the travelers had seen him, but he had given each of them a different story about who he was and where he was going. The trackers had no better information than the account given by Ifris, who suspected he was returning to the westerly cities.

As for Ifris and the other Hexcalor, they gave Thistleroy an extra day to recover, and then fixed him to a specialized litter that stabilized his leg. They commissioned a pony... a rare rental for the unriderly Concordance tribesfolk... and began their toilsome walk back southwest, toward the Range River and its tributary, the Huskin Draw. Their parting was stiff and formal, but the tribal relations were only raw, not ruined beyond the power of time to repair.

In the ten days after the festival, Edzie tried to explain her behavior to Stray, going over the events of the exhibition match several times. At first, she thought she would simply describe it as an angry outburst, and he would understand and sympathize. In the course of their conversations, she quickly realized this wasn't the case... she and Stray harbored very different violent impulses, and when they talked about the emotions beneath their rage, they seemed to be speaking different languages, or the same language learned with entirely different denotations.

Edzie learned, in particular, that Stray seemed to regard his anger as something wholly outside himself, like a dark stranger following him through his waking life. He fought the anger in his dreams and in his meditation sessions, so that he could maintain his dominance – his stalwart, sympathetic reasonableness, the statesman's demeanor for which he was now so admired – without his psychic struggles ever appearing on the surface.

Edzie herself, on the other hand, did not separate herself from her temper, or even see it as a burden. Her attack on Thistleroy had been a decision, a show of force and an assertion of control, that she'd felt was justified in the heat of the confrontation. She certainly didn't begrudge herself that decision, or feel compelled to regret it. She didn't need her own forgiveness, nor that of the tribe as a whole... for some reason, only Stray's blessing seemed to carry any weight, and in the dark days after the mishap, he wasn't inclined to offer it.

Elkansa's reaction to the incident was severe, though not unexpected. Within days, she looked like she had aged considerably, and she often fell to silent, vacant rumination, trying to sort through a sudden abundance of anxieties that wasn't traditionally her style. Her relations with Edzie remained cold, and in this mood, she orchestrated a numbing punishment: She ordered Edzie to spend her days with the Mistras, either attending lessons or helping to conduct them, and she further demanded Edzie be home for dinner every evening, and that they spend two hours every night practicing her forms. This was intended as a program of disciplinary habit and social engagement. To Edzie, it seemed like retaliation and persecution.

 

While Edzie fought against her mother's sanctions and her own resentment, Stray kept his schedule, attending two regular Mistras’ lessons each week, and logging an additional four hours in his private sessions, plus at least an hour each day in private meditation and exercise. During private meditation, he practiced visualization and immersion; he only thought about his own life, his emotional state and his plans for the future, while his hands were busy doing chores, his muscle memory caught up in the mundane and repetitive. These times were productive, but his conclusions were always tentative and indistinct, caught in a limbo of indecision until he let them out into the world by talking about them to a friend or acquaintance.

A week after the disastrous Festival of Release, Stray walked across the settlement to Ghada’s dromo. It was one of the first truly wintery days, chafing under a frigid wind that kept threatening to yank his brivsa off his head. He wore a light deer-skin and a pair of lined sleeves, tied over his shoulders, and he kept his hood down and his scarf tight, doing his best to keep the gusts out of his eyes. It was early morning, overcast, like the sky was scabbed over, nursing a wound.

Stray was acutely aware of the sensitivities he might trigger by visiting Ghada. Treya, Kosef, and Bellaryn were still caught up in an emotional crisis mode, and though they knew Stray was innocent of wrongdoing, they were too protective of Ghada to let him get near. Edzie's transgression had tainted him, marking him as a threat by proxy, just as Stray's misbehavior had once done to Edzie in the eyes of Boyle's parents... and like Edzie, Stray was forced to play the role of the fugitive, approaching from outside Ghada's window to avoid the family's attention.

Stray had to pull himself up a few inches to see through the window. Ghada was invisible from his vantage point, but he could hear the shifting of weight and fabric outside his field of view. He pulled himself up high enough that he could poke his head further in, and in a voice between a whisper and a rasp, he called Ghada's name.

“Stray?” Ghada's voice caught in his throat as he suppressed his volume.

“Yeah, it's me, Ghada. I came to visit.” He paused, sensed Ghada's hesitation, and reassured him: “It's just me. No Edzie. How about some company?”

Stray heard Ghada stand up and take a few tentative steps toward the window. The air in the room shifted, and Stray suddenly sensed the boy's position and proximity, his pulse and presence a few meters away.

“This probably isn't the best time,” Ghada said, and then almost immediately corrected himself. “Well, I guess there won't be a best time for a while, and you're probably right that I could use some company.”

Stray rested on the windowsill, his legs still hanging out into the empty air behind the dromo. He was suddenly short of breath. “So, should I come in?” he grunt-whispered, feeling momentarily awkward.

“No, best not. I don't know if mom will hear us, but Bellaryn definitely will. Safer for me to come out there, I think.”

Ghada appeared suddenly, directly in front of Stray, and shoved his hands at Stray unceremoniously. Stray twitched with shock, seeing the hands bound in linens... they didn't look much different from normal hands, wrapped too tightly to count the digits. Still, something in Stray's mind was aware of their incompleteness, and so he reflexively visualized the bloody stumps of the thumbs, and recoiled from the image. Momentarily, he realized Ghada was just asking for help in getting through the window.

Stray braced himself with his left hand and reached out with his right, grabbing Ghada's opposing wrist. “It won't hurt?” he said as he tightened his grip.

“No, it hurts,” Ghada said, grunting out the words as he pulled himself up against Stray's weight. “Hurts... every second... and almost... unbearable... right now, ... doing this.” He struggled for a few more seconds, and then finally got his own weight into the window, and used his arms and upper body to pull himself out, jerking and wrenching himself over the threshold. Finally, he landed in a crouching clump, tipping over onto his right arm. He managed to take a deep breath. “It's okay, though, it's all part of healing it up.”

They arranged themselves against the exterior wall of the dromo, the coldness of the dirt penetrating through their pants. They sat in silence for a moment before Stray finally spoke.

“Is it healing, at least?”

“Well...” Ghada considered this, and then answered with uncharacteristic honesty. “That question doesn't even have an answer yet. They're cauterized, but they still bleed every day, and Greya has to change the bandages and apply salves and remedies.”

“Does it help?”

“I mean, they must be helping, but not that I can tell. Most of the time, it still feels like my hand's just been torn in half. I get a little relief when I can distract myself, but even then, it's wickedly painful.” He glanced at his left hand, but looked away almost immediately. “I can keep telling myself that the pain's going to go away, and that helps, but that just makes room for something even worse... for all the fear and disgust to come along.”

Ghada looked at Stray, and Stray noticed that his eyes were red and sunken. Concern washed over Stray, but he had nothing to say, so he waiting for Ghada to continue.

“I slept for the first time since that redge attacked me,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “For four days, I couldn't sleep, mostly because of the pain. Then last night, I finally got some sleep, but it was only for a few hours at a time, cause I kept waking up. First I woke up thinking I could hear someone in the room, and I almost screamed, but I couldn't even draw enough breath for it. Then, later in the night, I woke up again, this time having groggy dreams about holding things... clothing, sewing needles, greasepaint pens... and having them disappear when I tried to use them.” His voice cracked, and suddenly he was wrestling with whispers and sobs. “I woke up thinking it had been a nightmare, and the scariest part of the nightmare was that I had somehow lost my thumbs, and then I looked down and remembered that it actually happened, and I...” He closed his eyes. “I couldn't sleep any more. That's all the sleep I got for the past week.”

Stray reached out and took Ghada's hand, indifferent to the wrapping. Ghada hadn't expected this, and he tried to jerk it away, but Stray kept his grip on it. “Ghada, I'm sorry,” he said. “I know this doesn't mean shit right now, but I want you to hear it anyway: you'll be okay.”

Ghada's face contorted into something vile for a moment, and then relaxed a bit as he controlled his grief. “I know. I mean, I don't see how... I can't do regular work, I can't cook or sew, I certainly can't fight like before, and as soon as people realize I'm missing half of both hands, it won't matter how sophisticated I sound... they'll forget everything but pity for me. But... I don't know. What's left to do but wait?”

“Nothing,” Stray said, shifting closer to Ghada. “For now, do nothing. Let the future come on its own. Your katsun and your tailoring were just decorations. You'll be okay because even without them... even without thumbs, even if they'd taken your arms and legs, you'd still have the love and faith of this whole tribe, well-earned and deserved.”

Stray was starting to cry now, just a little, so he retreated into his meditative space for a moment, smoothing out the folds and fissures of emotion in his psychic topography. When he opened his eyes, he found that Ghada was leaning into his space, hoping for an elbow, a caress, a bit of physical affection. It was bold – almost desperate – and though Stray had been inviting it, he hadn't expected Ghada to make the move so suddenly.

Stray put a firm arm around Ghada and let Ghada's head come to rest on his shoulder. When Ghada tried to raise his head toward Stray, looking for Stray's lips, Stray recoiled, embarrassed, as though out of shyness. Ghada looked back down, eyes tired, mouth numb, mired in self-loathing.

“Ghada,” Stray said, trying to be gentle, “I'm sorry, but this isn't the kind of love you need right now. You need to recover on your own, with the support of your family, and figure out how to move forward.” Ghada didn't react to this assertion, so Stray continued. “And you know how impossible it would be, after you and Edzie were so close. I can't just step into the shadow of that relationship, however cursed it turned out to be.”

Ghada didn't move, but Stray felt a tear – or a drip of snot – seep through his tunic. They stayed there for a few more minutes, silent, as Ghada processed Stray's wise, cruel rejection. He didn't move, but Stray imagined he sensed a nod of assent, or a breath of understanding. It gave him the courage to deliver his next bit of news, having no idea how it would land.

“Ghada, I thought I should tell you... you first, before anyone else... I'm going east after the year changes, to be a Caesura Prospect. Maybe I'll fail the tests... maybe I won't even like it. But I want to see what the Order might be able to offer me.”

Ghada didn't move his head, but he breathed in and out. Finally, he said, “I kind of want to vomit right now.”

Stray just pulled his deer-skin off his shoulders and put it over both of them, though it was only large enough to cover their abdomens and half their legs. They sat there in silence for a few more minutes, cursing the cold air, but largely indifferent to it.

 

“Edzie. That’s not attack form two. It’s not one of our forms. I don’t know what it is. DO ATTACK FORM TWO.”

Edzie shook her head. “Mom, I AM doing it. I can do the attack forms as easy as blinking my eyes.”

“Edzie, I’m telling you… STEP FURTHER. The point is to advance on your opponent.”

“It’s an attack form! The point is to deliver the payload! I need both feet on the ground!”

Elkansa rolled her eyes again, for the third time in the last fifteen seconds. “Well, you need to be lighter on your feet. Edzie, I’ve been doing this for thirty years. Stop fighting with me over every little detail.”

“I’m not twelve anymore, mom! I know how the forms work! If you came at me with that long step, I'd have you on your back in a split second.”

“With your forms looking like this, I could skewer you before you could even reach me.”

“Mom, I can go blade-for-blade with any redge in this village. I’d have you disarmed in thirty seconds.”

“First of all, Edzie, have a little respect. Second, I wouldn’t let you near me with that katsun. For all I know, you might cut my arm off, just out of carelessness.”

“Mom, I’m not CARELESS. My forms are PERFECT. If I cut somebody, it’s because I WANTED TO CUT THEM.”

Elkansa looked down, arms crossed over her breast, shaking her head. “Your arrogance will get people killed, Edzie, and then it will get you killed. I know you’re just going through your hardest years, but I’m honestly getting very tired of it.”

Edzie sheathed the katsun and yanked her brivsa hood off her head. “I’m getting tired of… I’m getting tired of it, too, whatever it is.”

“What are you doing, Edzie? Stowing your weapon in the middle of practice?”

“Come on, mom. It's well after dark. I think we can be done.”

Elkansa turned away, restless and defeated. “Fine, I guess you're the one who decides that now. I hope you're more respectful to the Mistras than you are to me. It's humiliating.”

“Feel however you want about it, mom. I need some air.”

Elkansa said something about the cold weather, and about having to get up for household chores the next morning, but Edzie wasn't listening. She picked up a furry brivsa from the gathering table and pulled it on over the lighter brivsa she already wore, and then she stormed out the front door. Elkansa, stewing in disappointment, turned toward the storage cabinet to find something to eat.

It had been cloudy a few days prior, but a deeper cold-front had pushed the clouds away east, so the night air was sharp and crystal-clear. Edzie could walk briskly by moonlight without stumbling over anything, and she didn't have to think particularly hard about where she was heading. She passed Boyle's dromo and crossed the Splitmouth, making a concerted effort to keep her wrapped feet out of the freezing water, and then she turned right and headed along its bank. She would pass the grove of orebarks shortly, and she had to decide where to go from there.

These walks were becoming very frequent, now numbering four or five a week, including the ones late at night that Elkansa didn't know about. Edzie was supposed to be at the Mistras' sessions every day, but every second or third day, she would skip a few lessons and go take cat-naps in the empty dromos near the eastern storage buildings. It was getting too cold for this, but she could usually keep warm enough by huddling in a corner.

In the two-score days since the festival, Edzie's attitude toward the settlement as a whole... its hoary elders, its tight-knit politics, its Caesura missionaries... had soured, and it hadn't even started recovering. As she walked, watching her breath condense into little puffs, she thought about the other Concordance tribes, but she had seen their towns and their representatives, and they already seemed like familiar faces, as stale as her own mild-mannered neighbors. Her thoughts ranged further, and she thought about Resine, and wondered what kind of life... what kinds of lives... she could discover in a city that big, where so many roads crossed.

The feeling of discontent she harbored was troubling, considering her only reassurance, the only light that shone within the wide shadow of her resentment, was Stray. They had grown subtly apart, especially since the fiasco at the festival, but she still kept a tight hold on her memory of more carefree, intimate days. She expected that her younger, more naïve attachment to the tribe was gone forever, but she felt she could reforge her relationships and learn to tolerate this lifestyle again, as long as Stray was a part of her life.

It would help, she hoped, that the tribe had finally decided to move. The new herd of huskins was skittish, and there were wide open spaces to the south and west. It hadn't even required a council of the elders this time... the consensus came easily, and they had already sent out the scouting parties to stake out new territory for a springtime migration. It was possible, Edzie thought, that a new settlement, a new landscape and scenery, would make it easier for her to embrace life as an initiated tribeswoman.

She wandered through the orebark grove as these thoughts faded and flickered through her mind, echoes of joy and anger and fear that were still resonating in her subconscious. In the dark of the night, she could barely see the stump she had once occupied, but she remembered vividly: herself sitting there, Stray and Boyle trading blows in the open clearing, the whole grove charged with the sound of his voice trying to replicate a Caesura chant. Edzie let herself imagine, in a moment of willful fantasy, that the grove would still look exactly the same when the sun rose the next morning.

Edzie considered sitting by the orebarks, and then she thought about taking a quick detour to the north, to curl up in one of those empty dromos. She considered going further, past Ghada's house, just to see if his light was still on. These all sounded preferable to being trapped in her own residence for the rest of the evening, but eventually the cold won out. Edzie started trudging back along the Splitmouth, walking slowly, listening to its noises. Aside from a couple skittering animals – probably swimcats or shade hares – the settlement seemed entirely deserted, and this was a solemn relief for Edzie, who would have felt a poisonous pang of resentment at the sight of another late-night pedestrian.

Boyle's parents' light was on, but Boyle's was off, so either he was sleeping, or they were doing something together in the gathering room... or perhaps he was staying later at Varda's dromo, now that she had earned some of Alynn and Dredda's trust.

Edzie guessed she had been gone for an hour and a half when she finally passed through the front door of her dromo. In the light of the thresh lamps and the dim glow of the fire, she could see that Elkansa was sitting at the table and Stray was across from her. Elkansa had an half-empty dish of food in front of her, looking limp and cold, and they both had their eyes turned towards Edzie. She sensed that she had interrupted a sensitive conversation.

“Hey, Edzie,” Stray said, watching her take off the winter brivsa and unwrap her feet. He looked back at Elkansa presently, and she reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. When this cryptic gesture was finished, Stray stood up, picked up Elkansa's dish, and stowed it away by the counter to be washed the following morning. He then gave Edzie a polite apology – sheepish and suspicious, Edzie thought – and headed for his room, apparently wanting an early sleep.

Elkansa followed a few minutes later, leaving Edzie to pace, and try to read, and warm herself by the dwindling fire.

 

On the third day of the year, early in the morning – amidst a parched and bitter frost – a small gathering of Denorians stood on the pitted earth of Cragstep Road, just across the Twilit Bridge, a refreshing walk from the settlement's residential centers. Most had come from the western quarter of the settlement, but there were also a few from the central dromos. They had made a small circle around one particular individual, and now they were variously rubbing their hands, tightening their winter brivsas, and holding one another by the hands and waists and shoulders.

Stray felt a certain stable energy, a calm, unfamiliar warmth, emanating from the gentle, melancholy gazes of his friends and family. He was the one in the center of the circle, and he was dressed more warmly than any of the others. His brivsa (a gift from Rodra) was made of layers of fur and wool, and his coat had been taken from the tribe's shared cache, in exchange for some significant promises from Elkansa. At his feet was a backpack, heavy with small equipment and dry food... everything practical and necessary, except for the freymane statuette, his gift from Edzie, which was wedged in between layers of underclothes. Upon his thigh he wore a katsun that had been donated by Mistra Eryn.

The Denorians gathered around him were a colorful motley bunch. Mistras Septa and Eryn stood together, and next to them, Elkansa stood a couple steps closer, wearing a sad smile. Ghada had made it out... his hands were still bound, but the majority of the pain had passed... with a stoic Bellaryn and an impassive Kosef, politely suppressing his shivering and impatience. On the right-hand side of the circle, Boyle and Varda had come with Mother Obrii, who kept a protective arm around her young daughter.

“Oy, have I not gotten enough presents already?” Stray was saying, his hands turned up in resignation.

“We only just finished it last night,” Boyle replied, handing Stray a very small object wrapped in a linen cloth. Stray unwrapped it and found a freshly-carved pinti, looking like it had been made from a sizeable huskin bone, with Boyle's distinctive swirls and warped animal figures carved all around the pipe barrel.

“Beautiful!” Stray said, an earnest wonder in his voice. “Next time I'm here, you can help me learn to play!”

“Maybe one of the monks knows,” Varda said. “Or, knowing you, you might just learn to play it by yourself, and you'll already be the best in the tribe when you get back.”

Elkansa looked over them skeptically. “Lovely work, but are you sure you can carry that, and your little bird statue? You don't want to get weighed down with... memorabilia.”

Instead of responding, Stray just laughed, tucked the pinti into his backpack, and wrapped his arms around both Boyle and Varda, kissing each of them on the cheek. He turned to Ghada next.

“Strength, love, honor, beautiful prince,” he said. “Dissadae keep you.”

Ghada was doing his best not to shed tears as he spoke. “Go make peace with the world, Stray. You'll be here in my good dreams, chasing away the bad ones.” They embraced, Ghada pressing his head to Stray's shoulder. Bellaryn reached out and gave Stray a squeeze, and then the embrace ended, and Stray turned, passing momentarily over Elkansa, to speak to the Mistras.

“I think I'm ready,” Stray said.

Mistra Septa hardly looked convinced. “Do you remember the word of sanction?”

Iproma val trastis bronton dragnin avre dribidis ben ritasna (I am the words uttered by your voice in the world returning to you),” Stray recited, pronouncing the Old Concordage with inflection that evoked the deep histories of the Caesura sect.

“Very good,” Septa replied, refusing to betray any pride or approval in her tone. “Do you know the way?”

“Of course,” Stray said. “East along the road, past the Marker's Perch, the Drake River, and Chisel Finger Road, and then along the Andromous Front hewn along the river's north bank. In the roots of the mountain, I'll reach the ruins of Gryffe, and there will be a road cut into the stone that leads up the mountain to the temple. I go alone, I do not join any of the others who travel the same route, and I have to be at the front arch – Dissadae's Relief – at dawn, seven days hence.”

“Right,” Mistra Eryn said, “and take care of yourself on your travels. Use your rations sparingly. Hunt or gather food when you can. Remember the six ways of keeping warm without shelter. Be alert for hungry animals... grasscats, bristlebears, drolven, and anything that looks more than half your size... and be especially alert for fellow travelers who seem too friendly or desperate.”

“I will.” Stray grasped each of the Mistras' wrists in turn. “Thank you for sharing your wisdom with me, and choosing me for this honor. I won't disappoint you.”

Mistra Septa smiled beneath her brivsa. “No matter the outcome, Stray, we have no intention of being disappointed. We are just glad you're considering our Order as part of your future.”

At last Stray turned to Elkansa. He outmatched her in body weight, but he was still a few inches shorter than she, and he suspected he didn't have much more growing to do. As he looked up at her, he saw that her eyes were just slightly wet. He embraced her as he spoke.

“Elkansa, you've been the best mother I could have hoped for. To me, you are the tribe... the tribe that's accepted me, a hopeless outsider, and taught me what it means to be loving and generous and strong. I think, because of you, I'll be able to do this.”

Stray stepped out of the embrace, and Elkansa put her hands on his shoulders. “Stray, I think you know how much the tribe favors you... sometimes it doesn't deserve such a Denorian as yourself... but at any rate, I don't need to speak for the tribe. I can only speak for me and Edzie. We'll miss you hopelessly, Stray, whether you're gone for a mere season, or for the better part of a lifetime. Here in the settlement, or up there on the mountain, or somewhere else out in Pantempus... wherever your inclination takes you... you will always have us, your family, traveling with you, and you'll always be safe and warm in our dromo... your home. You have made all our lives more beautiful and more free.”

Stray and Elkansa embraced one more time, and then Stray picked up his backpack, waved, and started walking east. The gathered Denorians watched wordlessly, paying the tribute of their presence, until he was nearly out of sight. The Mistras left first, full of casual confidence in Stray's inevitable success in the Order. Most of the Denorians left a few minutes later: Elkansa and Mother Obrii, walking and chatting quietly, and behind them, Boyle, Varda, and Kosef. Ghada remained a few minutes longer, silent and inscrutable, until his sister finally took him by the arm and led him home.

 

“Mom?” Edzie stumbled from her bedroom into the gathering room, tunic hanging open, no brivsa to cover her head. She reached the basin in the corner and splashed a bit of its cold water on her face. “Is it still early? Why didn't you wake me up?”

Elkansa sat at the table, idly shredding getherroot and tapping one foot. “Of course it's not early, Edzie,” she said. “It's already afternoon. I thought I might give you a chance to sleep for once, since I don't even know when you get home from your late-night walks any more.”

“Well... thanks,” Edzie stammered, understandably suspicious. She sat down at the table across from her mother. “Do we have any fruit?”

“If you want to cut it,” Elkansa said, nodding toward a small basket of pastapples in the corner.

As Edzie approached the basket, she started noticing some extraneous details in her surroundings. Both of Stray's brivsas were missing from the space on the floor where they usually resided: his winter brivsa, and his formal indoor brivsa. All his foot-wraps and winter shoes were also missing. In fact, the area around the front entrance was noticeably bare.

“So, uhhhh...” Edzie said as she returned to the table with a pastapple, “where's Stray? Out with one of the Mistras?”

Elkansa looked up at Edzie with a piercing seriousness in her eyes. “Well, Edzie... I suppose we should discuss that. I guess you haven't looked in his room yet?”

Edzie just shook her head, one eyebrow raised.

“Stray is gone, Edzie. He left a bit after sun-up this morning, to undertake the Caesura Prospectus. He wanted me to say goodbye to you, once you awoke.”

Edzie twitched, drawing her head back. “He left? For the Envoclajiz? Wha... why? And why didn't he tell me?!?”

Elkansa considered, and then answered the second question, apparently ignoring the first. “Well, Stray didn't tell you because you are dealing with your own problems right now, hoping to redeem yourself before next autumn. And further, he didn't know how you'd react, and he considered the possibility... bizarre, I know... that you would actually find some way to stop him from going, either by persuasion, or by delaying him through some deception until it was too late.” She paused, letting that suggestion sit in the air for a moment. “Of course,” she finally continued, “Stray insisted on telling you, whatever the consequences. I'm the one who convinced him not to, for your sake and his.”

Edzie scowled at her mother. “Well, I wish he had found the nerve to tell me, instead of just being afraid of me. So why did he want to do it?”

Elkansa shrugged. “I'm not entirely sure. I think, because the Mistras have taken such a shining to him, they've convinced him he's got some special talent for their rituals. He probably feels like this is something he can excel at. That's a powerful draw for a boy like Stray.”

Edzie was quiet for a few minutes. Elkansa watched her closely, prepared for some kind of outrage or indignation or exaggerated offense, but Edzie was surprisingly sanguine about the news. “Maybe he's looking for something better than all us murts,” she said under her breath, and then, catching Elkansa's baleful gaze, she said, “Sorry. It's just a shock. I hope he finds whatever he's looking for, if he's gotta go leaving our dromo.”

Elkansa complimented Edzie on her maturity in the face of Stray's departure, and tried to offer her a bit of consolation, in the form of a speech about how she had been a wonderful sister. Edzie smiled and nodded, looking introspective, and eventually, both Edzie and her mother lapsed into silence. Edzie finished her pastapple, excused herself, and left for her next session with Mistra Septa.

The day was generally uneventful: Edzie helped Mistra Septa with two sessions, returned home to help Elkansa with dinner, practiced her forms for several hours, and left to take a walk, as had become her habit. It was mortally cold out, but Edzie had taken her warmest furs, so Elkansa wasn't worried about her. When Elkansa decided to turn in for the night, Edzie wasn't home yet – another common occurrence those days.

As Elkansa curled up on her wooden cot, she felt something unsettling in the air. The house was warm, as always, from the dying fire in the gathering room, and Elkansa's room was dimly lit by moonlight... nothing seemed noticeably out of the ordinary. Still, Elkansa remained awake for another hour, shaken by some deep-seated anxiety. It must be Stray's departure, she thought to herself... funny, I didn't even stay awake like this the night Tamlis left me.

Eventually, she heard Edzie return... a bit of shuffling and activity in the gathering room, her daughter's unmistakable footsteps, and a slight increase in the glow of the gathering room fire. Feeling inexplicably reassured, Elkansa closed her eyes, and finally dropped off to sleep.


8.2

Stray spent the first day traversing the pitted, cracked fields to the east of the Denorian settlement, his journey landmarked by groves of bare trees and the gentle rise and fall of the Pastures' contours. Cragstep Road and the Prospect River were twin katsun blades, cutting through the fallow, brittle Pastures, like slicing open a butchered huskin. Every few hundred meters, a grove of orebarks clung to the riverbank, and in the distance, the lean, lofty witherleafs guarded the horizon where the overcast sky met the rolling landscape. The whole morning and early afternoon – from those fleeting hours after dawn, until the vast empty stretch after his stomach started aching – the sky was overcast, spreading the light evenly over the landscape, shadowless; Stray felt exposed, as though the clouds were leering at him, bitter and ill-tempered.

When he was out of sight of the settlement, Stray pulled off his brivsa, exposing his ears, hair on his neck bristling with the chill. There was no sign of human traffic, on foot or by horse, and animals were scarce, presumably sheltered from the cold and nursing their young. Birds flew overhead from time to time, surveying the pastures for small prey, and Stray saw one banklite swoop down and alight on a fallen tree across the Prospect River, scanning the water hungrily. His only other wildlife sighting was in his third hour of walking… a small family of bounder passed him going east, perhaps returning to their wintering territory, each springing step a pulse of graceful rhythm in the mortal stillness of the empty fields. Stray felt himself dissolve into the featureless terrain as he walked, his consciousness becoming a frigid squall plunging eastward.

In his reverie, Stray felt as though the sounds of his surroundings were originating within him, echoing through his body and escaping through his sensory organs. He felt his head immersed in a billowing, rushing din as the wind blew past him; occasionally, it was punctured by the shriek of a raptor flying overhead. These resonant sensations were tactile, as much as aural, and Stray shuddered with each sound in turn, internalizing the sonic landscape. He began to feel dizzy, overwhelmed by his sensitivity, and finally he compensated by drawing up his brivsa and wrapping the scarf tight around his mouth and chin. This seemed to fix the relationship, exiling the sounds from his head and returning them to the landscape. His walk became steadier, more confident, and he indulged in some idle meditation as he trudged eastward.

Stray's consciousness kept cycling back to the people he had left behind: first, Elkansa, and that difficult discussion at the gathering room table, where she had asked him,

“Why? Why would you want to leave the tribe that has raised you and taken care of you?”

And he remembered his response, which had been as earnest as he could muster: “I've realized I can never repay your kindness. The tribe's kindness, I mean. So I've decided I'd rather devote my life to something honorable, to make my life worthy of all the love you've given me. I think the Order of the Caesura will allow me to do that.”

He didn't mention his sense of permanent displacement, his disillusionment with his status as a voraish... his desire for a community that would accept him without reservation. Elkansa, for her part, seemed skeptical, but Stray advanced the only argument that had a chance of persuading her: he became a paragon of confidence and determination, demanding respect, so that she couldn't dismiss or demean him.

He thought about those final difficult months with Ghada, who seemed to oscillate dangerously between despair and stoic self-sufficiency, and who refused to admit the loneliness and abandonment that Stray had inflicted.

Finally, he thought about Edzie, his lifelong mentor and confidante, from whom he had kept such a vital secret, leaving her to her perilous reconciliation with her tribe. He knew she would be furious with him at first, and he imagined that her anger would either dissolve into acceptance, or harden into a permanent estrangement from him. He dearly hoped for the former, but Edzie had rarely behaved precisely as he preferred.

Stray walked alone, seeing no sign of human life, through the whole length of daylight. It was nearly dusk when he finally reached Marker's Perch, a rocky outcropping over the river, and the highest point between the settlement and the foot of the Crag Mountains. By that time, the gray clouds had broken up, making space for the piercing sunlight and the frigid air that turned Stray's breath into little puffs of fog. He paused at the marker for a few minutes, catching his breath and pulling his brivsa up over his head... the marker was a score of meters off the road, a slab of granite nearly as tall as Stray himself, marking the resting place of some forgotten traveler whose companions buried him overlooking the river. Turning back, Stray could barely see the eastern watchtower of the Denorian settlement, and turning forward, he could see an advance guard of woods and ridges that heralded the Crag Mountains another hundred kilometers beyond.

Stray kept walking as dusk turned to twilight, and all the daylight seeped out of the sky, and suddenly it was barely light enough to watch the road for ruts and tree limbs. Stray scanned the features near the road by moonlight, and finally, at the bottom of a modest hillside, he found the road turning right to circumvent a sudden rise in the landscape. He moved off the road, gathered some fallen brush and twigs, and spent half an hour building a small fire, his fingers and face growing disconcertingly numb as he worked. After some patience and coaxing, the flames sprang to life, and in the flickering light and admirable warmth, Stray unrolled and constructed a canvas fly tent, spread his spare outfit on the ground, and gave himself over to his exhaustion.

Every few hours, Stray awoke in the frozen air and scrambled to throw more splintered tree limbs on the cinders of his fire. On the fourth cycle, he finally awoke to the first hint of sunlight, a drab blue pall over the bare trees around his clearing. He gave his fire some extra attention, making sure to warm his hands and body thoroughly, and then he scoured the ground around his campsite for something edible. Ultimately, he assembled a lean breakfast of raw Concord Mushrooms and Pungentroot. By the time the sun had fully risen, he was back on his feet, starting his second day of travel.

For the first three hours, the scenery was the same – rough, undeveloped earth, patches of leafless woods, a gradual slope down into a barren vale. At the height of the day, Stray passed the little split in the Prospect where the Drake River flowed into it from the north. Along the bank, he discovered a grizzled, panting cranaste tearing apart a boundeer carcass, its fawn lying, disabled, several meters away. Stray poached the fawn from the lurking predator, and because Stray was a fairly large competitor who didn't seem interested in the main course, the mangy canine bristled and growled, but left him alone. Stray carved the flank of the boundeer, hung the strips of meat from his backpack to freeze, and continued walking east.

A few hours later, Stray reached the Bravasturn Bridge, which crossed over a southward dogleg in the Prospect River. The bridge was formed from wooden struts reinforcing a stack of stone blocks, its surface a tight assembly of orebark planks designed to hold the weight of a wagon and the oxen pulling it. When Stray stepped out over the water, an oppressive, icy wind pressed on him from the north, and he ended up jogging across as fast as he could. Cragstep Road continued on the north side of the Prospect, and Stray walked for another half-hour before he paused to eat some of the pungentroot left over from that morning.

As Stray walked, the ground grew rockier and less forgiving, and the sunlight turned orange, and then blue. He continued trudging onward, wishing he could see the sunset behind him, until he reached a split in Cragstep Road. There was no sign or marker, but Stray surmised that this was where Cragstep met with Chisel Finger Road, the last longitudinal road before the Crag Mountains. He continued past the fork, bearing right, and almost immediately found himself before a facade of evergreen trees towering above him. The dark was almost absolute... only a trace of dusky glow from behind, and a trickle of moonlight from ahead, allowed Stray to see the homestead tucked into the trunks of the trees.

Just beyond the first line of trees, Stray found a single house, modeled on a dromo but larger and more permanent, with a soft light burning in the front window. Alongside the house, easily accessible from Cragstep Road, there was a large, artificial clearing. It was obviously cleared away for use by travelers... it was large enough for a small caravan and its bivouacs, and it had a massive fire pit in the center. Stray also saw, to his delight, a small wooden lean-to, big enough for three or four people. Stray imagined that this place was an extraordinary luxury for travelers during the summer months, and there were probably fights over the space. Now, in the middle of the winter, it was deserted. Stray pitched camp, made a fire, and cooked his meat. Whoever lived in the homestead stayed inside, leaving him in peace.

 

The larger fire and the better dinner led to a deep, uninterrupted sleep. Stray woke fully refreshed, warm in his layers of winter clothing, and only a bit sore from lying on the unforgiving earth. He cooked and ate the last of the meat from the previous day, assembled his belongings, and started eastward into the evergreen woods looming before him.

The air had warmed a bit since sunrise, and moisture had descended from the north, so a blanket of mist had settled around the trunks of the trees. They weren't as dense, Stray discovered, as they had appeared from outside... as he walked, they seemed to gather for a few meters and then disperse again, creating small alternating spaces where the sunlight could infiltrate the woods. His nose was dry and brittle from the cold air, but he could still smell the potent forest aromas.

The Cragstep Road wasn't a spectacular highway, but for the previous two days, it had at least been even and level, ground down by frequent travel and impromptu maintenance. However, once you passed the fork where Chisel Finger Road met the Cragstep, the road suddenly became much rougher, sometimes practically disappearing under brush and ground cover. A road was still a road, and this one still had to support occasional pilgrims' carts and diplomatic parties, but there were stretches where the rocks punished Stray's feet, or where he had to scramble ten meters off the path to circumvent a deep muddy trench. Stray couldn't imagine how a set of wagon wheels would have traversed this degenerate trail.

Here, at least, there was more variety to the scenery. The road, still following the Prospect, passed ridges and crevices in the landscape, bluffs with the loose stone sheared off, small cliffs and frozen creek beds and unpredictable shifts in the terrain. Stray also spotted a few boundeer, springing past him on his left, making soft rustling noises when they touched the forest floor or brushed against the needled branches. These sights entertained Stray for several hours as he walked, corralled and protected by the stoic evergreens, path lit by sunbeams shining through their limbs into the mist.

The sonic landscape of the woods had its own signature rhythm, a slow tide of rises and swells that reminded Stray of his tribe’s music. The evergreen needles didn’t rustle like leaves, but they still whispered in the subtle breezes, and it didn’t take long for Stray to learn their cycles. It also didn’t take him long to recognize an outlier, a pattern of sound that was decidedly non-arboreal: crunches of dead foliage being compressed, rustles and stresses of wood being pushed aside, a distant aural imprint that resembled his own: footprints and path-finding, unmistakably alien, indubitably human.

Stray’s pursuer kept her distance, managing to be silent for impressive stretches between the betrayals of fallen twigs and loose dirt. Whenever Stray paused to listen, the sounds stopped, and when he turned to look back, he only saw the phalanx of tree-trunks, austere and immobile for kilometers behind. It obviously wasn’t an animal, because it was following him with ruthless, calculated restraint, keeping just out of sight. Stray bristled at the asymmetry of this game, but he had no reason to run or fight back. As far as he could see, he wasn’t at a disadvantage.

The road was pitted and ill-maintained in this wooded stretch, and Stray had to climb over more than one fallen trunk. He was loathe to slow down, but there was no other option… he certainly didn’t want to lose track of this lurking presence, whatever its motives. At some point, he was sure he heard a second set of footsteps far to his left, and then he thought he heard something in one of the branches, as well. He imagined a small army suddenly appearing from the evergreens and falling upon him, and he laughed to himself at the notion, releasing a little of his anxiety in his private joke.

It was almost an hour of fitful vigilance before Stray decided he was tired of this game. He was still hearing the pursuer behind him, and there were still sounds off to his left… if there were two pursuers, Stray reasoned, the one on the left was probably more skilled, because their sounds were infrequent and irregular.

Stray calculated carefully, and finally settled on a plan of action. If the pursuers were tracking him by the sound of his footsteps, as he was doing to them, he could undermine them by getting closer to the Prospect River… the bank was overgrown, but the waters were shallow, and the riverbed appeared to be composed of flat stones. Stray veered to his right, trying to make a fair amount of noise… he wanted his pursuer to know he was masking his noises… and at the water’s edge, he squeezed between two tree-trunks and surveyed his surroundings for some sort of obscure vantage point.

The best Stray could do was to climb halfway up a rotting resipine trunk and situate himself behind some brush. It wasn’t perfect, but he had a reasonable view of Cragstep Road, and he could keep watch over the bank of the river in both directions.

He waited in the tree for half an hour, his fingers and face growing numb. Just as he started thinking that perhaps the pursuer had given up, he heard a series of rustles and splashes on the far bank of the Prospect, and he jerked his eyes toward the source of the sound. There was a swaying of underbrush and a disturbance in the icy water, but still, no figure was visible. He kept his eyes fixed on the spot, remaining motionless.

All at once, there was a rustle of leaves much closer… a mere two or three meters away, just up toward the road… and he whipped back around to face the sound. He turned just fast enough to see something rushing toward him – a bulky, limp object, like an animal flung from a catapult – but he wasn’t fast enough to avoid it, and it struck him full-force in the face. He grunted, suppressing a curse, and leapt down from the tree to draw his katsun.

Laughter followed the thrown object… familiar laughter, a rustling and parting of underbrush, and a female figure drawing up to full height, her brivsa flopping around her shoulders and her scarf wrapped around both arms. Edzie extended her open palms as she spoke.

“Look at that! All this time, it was just a silly shade hare, following you all this way! And then it got you, despite all your cleverness!”

It took Stray a few seconds to register Edzie’s identity and lower his katsun. “EDZIE! By Dissadae, what are you doing here?!?” His voice wavered, caught between relief and confusion and outrage.

“I followed you, you redge!” she exclaimed, picking up the shade hare carcass that she had thrown. “You think you can just run off to join some ancient Order, and leave me with that tribe of murts? You left me out of options!” She hitched the shade hare to her pack, and when she turned back toward Stray, her expression was more solemn. “Of course, I could barely believe you’d actually go without telling me. I thought you had more substance than that.”

Stray groaned. “Uuuggghhh, Edzie! This is exactly what I was afraid would happen! They said I have to go alone, undertake this task as a solitary tribute to Dissadae! You have to go back. You need to fix things with the rest of the tribe.”

Edzie leaned against the resipine trunk as she spoke. “Oh, you can keep your angst and reconciliation. I’m not petitioning for the tribe’s favor any more, and cause of all that, the tribe’s not interested in me, either. Our goals may be different… you may be looking for a home, and I may just want to lose one… but it’s put us on the same path. Or road, I guess, so to speak.”

Stray’s fingers tightened around the handle of his katsun. His voice rose, only slightly, but he felt an unparalleled frustration rising as he spoke. “That’s all fine for you, Edzie, but you’re going to ruin this for me! This is my pilgrimage! It’s not yours to take!” He fought with himself for a moment, and then clarified his position. “You have to go HOME. You have to find your own path to follow. GO. By Dissadae. GO.”

A small shock of rejection struck Edzie… she hadn’t expected so much resistance… but she kept her composure as she rallied. “Fine, Stray. You know I wouldn’t join the Order anyway. I’m not the type. So if your big plan was to shut me out of your life, you’ve already got it covered. When we get to the mountain path, I’ll turn around and let you go on alone. But I still want to make the trip. I want to see the road, so when you’re a monk and I have to come visit you, I can find my way to the temple.” She sniffled, starting to feel the effects of the still air hanging over the Prospect’s gurgling waters. “And also, they’re not going to cast you out because some bored sibling followed you. You’re, like, the best Prospect the Mistras have seen in years, right?”

Stray was justifiably skeptical. “You’ll leave before we reach Gryffepeak? … Will you go home?”

“Maybe. Not inclined to it right now, but who knows. I’m sure there are other places.” She looked up, sensing his determination fading away with his anger. “And anyway, if you don’t let me accompany you, I’ll just follow you anyway. And I might find a way to make real trouble for you, instead of just this moral angst you’re feeling now. I’ve already cost you, what, almost an hour’s worth of traveling, altogether?”

Stray groaned again, feeling like an older sibling beset by a clingy little brother. “Probably so,” he said, and Edzie thought she could see the moment when the outrage in his eyes was replaced by resignation. As if to confirm it, he sheathed his katsun and started clamoring through the brush toward the road. “So can we get going, then? We’ve already wasted the whole morning.”

Edzie checked her bag, caressed her katsun, drew up her brivsa over her ears, and fell into step behind Stray.

 

The woods were light, but went on, unbroken, for several more kilometers. The bitter cold air kept the aroma to a minimum, but it was still there, sharp and unmistakable: trampled earth, resipine and pitchfir needles, the soft cloak of evergreen sap. Afternoon clouds had obscured the piercing morning sun, and the sky was now a flat light gray above the treetops. The mists had dissolved, as well, so visibility was good, both along the path and between the trees on either side.

Edzie kept a few paces behind Stray at first, knowing he needed his space, but after a couple kilometers, they both had to clamber over a fallen tree trunk. After that, she kept apace with him, waiting for his mood to soften, just as the light in the forest had done. It wasn't long before she ventured a question.

“So how close would you say we are?”

“Well,” Stray said, “we're half a day past Chisel Finger Road. I'm a little concerned that we haven't reached the rapids... it takes almost two full days to get across the Andromous Front, those rock faces along the water below Gryffe.”

Edzie looked confused for a moment. “Two fulls days? Are you planning to the take Cragstep straight over the front? Come on. You'll barely make your deadline that way.”

“Yeah, that's why I'm concerned,” Stray said. “There's no other way to the ruins, or Gryffepeak. It's going to be a long day, if we're going to catch up.”

Edzie laughed. “Well, I have a suggestion. How about we don't do that? … If you're right that we're getting close to the Andromous Front, then we should start looking for Assay's Cut. It should be right along the western edge of the rock face when we get to the front.”

Stray looked at Edzie as they marched over the carpet of needles, his eyes narrow with skepticism. “What's Assay's Cut? We don't have time for detours.”

“It's not a detour, it's a shortcut,” Edzie said, her voice full of flippant confidence. “I saw it mentioned in Mistra Septa's guide... hardly even a sentence... but I was curious, so I asked her about it. She had to look it up in one of her older books. Turns out there's a pass around the back of the Andromous Front, like a little ravine between the bluffs. It was kept secret, specially reserved for Concordance tribespeople doing the Caesura Prospectus... gave us a little bit of an edge over pilgrims from outside the tribes. It bypasses the winding, rocky part of the Cragstep, and then meets back up with it before it turns north to Gryffe.”

Stray was already shaking his head. “Come on, Edzie. We can't waste time on old rumors about shortcuts that aren't on any maps from the past twenty years.”

“Hundred years,” Edzie corrected. “That's how far back in Mistra Septa's literature we had to go to find a detailed description.”

“Great. Hundred years. Anyway, I can't jeopardize my arrival like that. There's no way we could get back if it was wrong, or if the trail was blocked, or whatever else.”

“Stray!” Edzie's voice was humorless and insistent. “I've already lost you hours of walking. Also, what have you read about Andromous Front? Can we even make camp there?”

Stray groaned at Edzie's point. Mistra Septa's travel guide said Andromous Front was a narrow, tightly-coiled section of the Cragstep, bordered by jagged bluffs and bare rock faces. He was hoping to get past the Front, all the way down to Fraternus Island, so that he could make camp in the woods there, but he was now significantly behind that schedule. Camping along the front would be brutal, perhaps even dangerous.

“Edzie,” Stray said, trying to sound as serious as she did, “I refuse to be thwarted in this journey. If this is an attempt to slow me down and keep me from the Order...”

Edzie scowled and turned her eyes away from Stray. She knew her personality and reputation, and she knew he was right to be suspicious, because she felt, deep down, a genuine flicker of despair that Stray would be leaving her side. Even so, she was hurt that he would trust her so little... she had always been his protector, his mentor, and... as Elkansa had once demanded... his first friend, and his best. She still felt, looking at Stray, that glowing ember of devotion and admiration, and at that moment, she felt the need to honor it.

She controlled her tone as she responded. “Stray,” she said, “I know I can be mean and stupid, but I see that you're determined to do this, and I promise you... this is for your sake, not mine.” She thought about that for a moment, and Stray, sensing that she wasn't finished, allowed her to continue. “Actually, maybe it's also for me,” she admitted. “Maybe it's cause this might be the last time I see you for a while, and I guess I want to leave you with something worth remembering. So this can be my chance to prove myself.”

Stray kept his eyes on his feet for another moment, and then put his arm over Edzie's shoulder. “Okay, Edzie,” he said. “So what is it we're looking for?”

 

The instructions for finding Assay's Cut were straightforward. At the western end of the Andromous Front, the road would run into a rock face and turn sharply to the right, sidling up to the bank of the Prospect. The Concordance traveler would turn left instead of right, following the rock face into the evergreen trees, and within five hundred steps, they would reach a gap in the wall. This is precisely what happened... Stray and Edzie turned off the road, navigated through a few thick groves of trees, and found what appeared to be a wide ravine in the rock face, perhaps fifty meters across.

Stray was ready to head into the breach when Edzie informed him: this was a false cut. It would lead directly back to Cragstep Road, half a kilometer further along, and they would be stuck on the same path he was planning to take. The original instructions, a century old, told them to bypass the gap and follow the rock face until another path appeared, this one curving northeast around the back side of the bluff as it gave way.

It took some close observation, and some encouragement from Edzie, before she and Stray found this second, smaller path, now overgrown with brambles, blocked by generations of harassing tree-limbs, covered ankle-deep in dry needles and decaying moss. They clambered along it for several hundred yards, pressed up against the landform's grimy, spongy mineral flesh, and then it opened up into a forgotten walking path, girded by brush and pine trees, taking a gentle northeasterly contour around the flank of the Andromous scarp face.

Stray sensed another rock face approaching from the north, hearing his footsteps resonating against it long before it came into view. To Edzie, it seemed to appear out of nowhere... one moment, there was an impassible cliff on the right and naught but light woods on the left, and the next moment, she and Stray were walking between two massive mountain walls, humbled by the shadows at the bottom of a daunting ravine. The space wasn't narrow... they had thirty meters berth, more than enough for trees to grow on either side, and the path kept approximately in the middle... but it still felt as though they were being hemmed into a channel by the local topography.

The sound of the Prospect River was entirely gone now, and Edzie and Stray could hear their breathing and footsteps, loosely synchronized in the late afternoon air. There was a distant whistle of wind, but the air along the path was absolutely still, and the tree limbs were motionless.

Stray and Edzie walked through the afternoon, and were still making steady progress as the evening shadows started rising on the southern cliff wall. At one point, the ravine spread out into a secluded field, lined with an array of evergreen trees, hemmed in by stacks of boulders fallen from the ridge above. Stray slowed down long enough to climb one of the boulders along the south wall, where the rock face seemed to part, and he found a gap wide enough that he could squeeze through... a cleft in the front leading to a tiny precipice halfway up the cliffs. From there, Stray could look down over the Cragstep Road, rutted and uneven, desperately clinging to the embankment overlooking the Prospect River. Here, the river flowed rapidly, loudly, over a treacherous course of rocky protrusions, and the road above it didn't look much safer.

Squinting in the twilight, Stray could see a distant figure struggling up the road, dragging a tiny cart holding a modest collection of personal effects. The lone traveler wore a heavy fur garment, and their head was wrapped in a scarf from crown to shoulders; Stray couldn't even tell the gender, much less the features. He felt a glimmer of solidarity, recognizing the figure as a likely fellow Prospect.

When Stray returned to Edzie's side, she remarked that they could camp anywhere, really... the space was wild, empty, and sheltered, and she still had her shade hare, so they wouldn't have to hunt for a meal. Stray actually felt liberated by this news... if they could stop anywhere along the Cut, then he was comfortable pressing on as long as possible, until exhaustion and pitch darkness claimed him. Edzie grumbled at his ambition, but she indulged it.

The dusk had given way almost entirely to moonlight when Edzie found a hollow in the cliff on the south side of the trail. After several cracks and folds in the mountain, they came to an open grove of evergreens, grown further apart than the ones lining the cliff face. In the space between the trees, Edzie saw a pile of ancient, rotten logs and debris, sprouting moss and thorny underbrush, that seemed arranged intentionally, to obscure a section of the cliff wall. Stray stood back, hesitant, and Edzie investigated, prying limbs loose and kicking aside old wood. Behind the overgrown barrier, she found a cave, human-height and perhaps five meters wide, protected on three sides by a foundation of impermeable stone.

Working hastily, they fashioned a torch from some of the wood and dried ground cover, and Edzie lit it using a starter she was carrying in her pack. With this small flame as their vanguard, they advanced into the cavern, and to their surprise, they found signs of former habitation: a fire pit near the open wall, a single primitive stool carved with some skill, and a makeshift table and cupboard littered with personal effects. These were dry and dusty, obviously untouched for decades, and as Stray and Edzie penetrated further in, they discovered the floor was strewn with trampled sheets of paper, all apparently covered in script, scattered so widely about the space that it seemed a hurricane must have distributed them.

Edzie struggled to wedge the torch into a crack in the nearest wall, and then she scrambled to find kindling for the fire. Stray, meanwhile, made a closer investigation of the furnishings and debris. He tapped the stool with his foot, and found it so brittle that he was compelled to put it out of its misery, crushing it under his heel. Moving some of the scattered papers and stiff scraps of clothing, he discovered the abode's previous owner, propped up against the wall beside the old table: a blackened skeleton, its skull drooping to its shoulder, picked clean by vermin. It had been totally dismantled by foraging animals, and was now missing both legs below the pelvis, one arm below the shoulder, and several ribs.

Edzie had gotten the fire started by then, and the torch was extinguished and placed near their belongings for possible future use. The travelers, reeling a bit in the smoky air, took a few minutes to clear out the entrance for ventilation, and they checked all around the interior to make sure there were no other residents – no hungry drolves or canastes – agitated by the influx of visitors. Feeling confident in their privacy, they prepared for a relatively comfortable evening.

Edzie volunteered to skin and cook her shade hare, largely out of contrition for imposing herself upon Stray. Stray, meanwhile, checked some of the papers that were scattered like autumn leaves around the floor of the cavern. They turned out to consist almost entirely of personal correspondence, and he ended up reading twenty-five different letters without finding any sort of pattern... no common sender or recipient, no consistent place of origin, no similarity of content. A few were from monks of the Caesura to their families, or to diplomatic contacts in other cities... one was from a husband living in Dror, fishing for reassurance from a long-absent wife in Evarelay... one was from a merchant in Bhijanica to a supplier in Tarrytoil, demanding compensation for a lost shipment of praycock feathers. Stray and Edzie puzzled over this for the greater part of an hour, and the only answer they could come up with was that this hermit had been collecting correspondence from passing travelers and hoarding it, perhaps simply to assuage his own loneliness. Whether he stole it through trickery, or bargained for it, or whether he brought it all with him from some archival vault, they couldn't determine.

At the very least, the letters allowed the travelers to place the hermit chronologically. No letter was dated before 3263, and none was later than 3281... the resident seemed to have been reclining here, mercifully undiscovered, for three score years.

Edzie and Stray settled at opposite sides of the fire, doing their best to keep out of the lingering smoke. They were both famished, and the shade hare was gone in a few short minutes. Both had filled their waterskins shortly before they left Cragstep, and they drank enough to flush down their meals and hydrate their muscles. The light from the fire played off the cavern's uneven walls, folding and unfolding the stone like crumpled silk being molested by the wind. The cavern grew warm, the air grew heavy with the smell of burning orebark, and the anonymous tenant stared, lifeless, from behind the two visitors.

Edzie spoke, finally, over the fire's hissing and crackling. “So, you've talked to Ghada?”

Stray nodded. “A couple times. He wasn't real available.”

“He's going to be okay?”

Stray scowled a bit at this inquiry, but after a moment's consideration, he realized it was unfair to weigh Edzie down with endless disapproval. When he replied, it was fully earnest. “I think so, eventually. He says he knows there's a path forward, even though he doesn't see it. That's all we can ask of him right now, I guess.”

Edzie nodded, and then immediately shook her head, as if she was staging an interior debate. “What a goddamn waste,” she said. “So much promise thrown away, and for what?”

Stray scowled again, and this time, he couldn't talk himself out of his bitterness. “Well, nothing that happens is truly a waste,” he said, almost accusatory in his tone. “At least there was a lesson in it.”

Edzie paused for a moment, and then looked up at Stray with steely contempt in her eyes. “Isaja ilmis privjiy? (Is that so?)” She paused again. “And what lesson was that, Mistra?”

“If you don't know, you're not looking hard enough,” Stray said, feeling suddenly under siege. “For instance, you might have learned that wanton cruelty is forever returning, always hungry and wild, never satisfied. That your vain katsun-stroke opened our dromo to calamity. The universe trades in reciprocity.”

Edzie sneered at this, but didn't speak immediately. She had a great deal to think about. Finally, she gave a short rejoinder: “That's a fine lesson, Stray. I think I learned a different one, though.”

Stray knew she was baiting him, but he had no qualms. “And what was that?”

“I learned that there is no sanctuary... not in a tribe, or a family, or a romance. No matter where you are, no matter how strong your bonds, there will always be predators ready to descend on you. Life is struggle, solitude, and ultimately resignation.”

This proclamation precluded any further conversation for a few minutes. Edzie and Stray both poked at the fire, heedless of the war between the flames' heat and the cold wind seeping in from outside. Luckily, they shared too many years, and had survived too many petty arguments, to let the strain of this disagreement come between them. After a few minutes, Edzie asked Stray if he remembered the story of Misvillia, the witch-hero who could enter a cave in the Crag Mountains and step out in the Buckles, halfway across the world. Within a few minutes, they were sharing familiar stories, repeating the Mistras' words verbatim over the hush of the fire.

Their conversation carried them deep into the black hours of morning, and when they finally retired beside the waning flames, sleep pounced on them like a hungry grasscat on a mouse that's come skittering into its paw.


8.3

Stray woke first, dizzy with a vague memory of movement in the dark, and something cold caressing his legs. It took him a few seconds to identify the rock walls and the stack of debris protecting the entrance to the hermit's cave. The soft light of morning brought new clarity to the cave's hollow dimensions and jagged contours, trading its nocturnal drama for a crisp salience.

Stray roused Edzie, and they both dressed quickly and devoured some of Stray's rations. They scrawled their names on the cave wall, next to the melancholy skeleton, and then departed in haste, hoping to come near the ruins of Gryffe by that evening.

“I think there was a snake in there with us last night,” Stray said as they continued east. “I felt it slithering around my legs.” Edzie made a disapproving face, but kept her theatrics to a minimum.

The path along Assay's Cut was forgiving for the next hour or so, passing through spacious groves in something like a very small valley. Aside from a few small foraging creatures, called from hibernation by pangs of hunger or the cries of their young, there was very little wildlife, and the evergreen woods on either side seemed like a scenic gallery rendered entirely for Edzie and Stray's benefit. Eventually, the trees became sparse, and the rock faces on either side drew much closer together. Stray and Edzie found themselves scrambling over ridges and boulders that protruded into the path, and there were times when they feared they had lost it entirely, only to have it reappear as a furrow and a gap in the underbrush ahead.

Soon, the north wall, on their left, began to lower, and then it fell away below the level of the path, and Stray and Edzie were on something like a narrow, mossy ledge, clambering laterally along a steep slope, navigating between resipine and pitchfir trees that seemed to be clinging for dear life to the stone. It was only after two hundred meters of this desperate scraping along the cliff that Stray, leading Edzie by a few arm-spans, cried out in celebration. Far ahead, a few meters down, he could see a cleft in the rock where this rise met another, and through that cleft, he could see the level surface of the Cragstep Road. By the time they reached it, Edzie and Stray both wanted to collapse and expire with exhaustion.

For those first few minutes, Edzie and Stray felt withered and defeated. They huddled in the crevice alongside the road, the outlet where Assay's Cut deposited them, and finished a few scraps of Stray's rations. Finally, feeling barely rested, they stood and scanned the landscape around them. They were among the sharp spires at the eastern end of the Andromous Front, surrounded by bluffs and escarpments that looked like they had burst forth from some infection in Pantempus's craggy flesh. To the west, they could see the stretch of the Cragstep that ran parallel to Assay's Cut, a tangle of bumpy road twisting through rugged terrain, over two bridges (the Fraternear and Fraterfar) which they had entirely bypassed. They could see a small figure on the further bridge, barely a dust mote from this distance: another lonely Prospect climbing toward the temple, perhaps the same figure they had spotted on the road the previous day.

Turning the other way, they could see that the road traveled back into the ridges and bluffs that formed this part of the Crag Mountains' foothills. The mountainous pinnacle gave way to a valley of evergreens on the east side, and Stray and Edzie would be descending into its forested reaches, the last stage in the journey to Gryffepeak. The clear sky gave the sun a piercing command of the afternoon, and Stray and Edzie barely noticed the gray clouds casting a diffuse shadow a few leagues to the north. Their survey finished and their energy somewhat replenished, they started the walk through the cliffs, and within an hour's time, they were scrambling down needle-carpeted slopes, dizzy from the smell of resipine sap.

The sun was high overhead, just at the threshold of that gray cloud-front, when Edzie and Stray reached the bottom of the valley, thick with evergreen trees, following a road that was little more than a flattened footpath between boulders. Under a canopy of needles and cones, they reached a low wooden bridge over the Draught River, the narrow, swift stream that ran down from Gryffe and the surrounding ridges. Almost immediately after they had crossed the Draught, the road turned sharply left, following the stream north. The earth became soft and flat, and the road widened almost beyond recognition, as the foothills receded on either side. The valley gradually became a forested vale, bordered on the west side by the Draught River, with a gradual uphill slope as they drew nearer to the Crag Mountains proper.

Edzie and Stray walked steadily, satisfied at the progress on that long day. The dark cloud overhead loosed a smattering of flurries, and with the snowflakes drifting down between the evergreen trees, the woodland took on a furtive, fragile quality, a stillness that seemed to brush Edzie and Stray with its cold fingers as they walked. It was nearly evening, Stray observed... he had hoped they might reach the ruins of Gryffe before that day ended, but he was prepared to make camp regardless.

Stray's hopes turned out to be reasonable... as the shadows turned magenta and blue in the twilight, he and Edzie came upon a wide clearing in the trees, and on either side, they found rows of wooden markers placed by the pilgrims who had traveled this path. They were made from wooden boards, stakes, and whittled tree-limbs, and they generally consisted of a single vertical stake, one or two meters high, with an “X” near the top, made from two boards fastened together at the center. The figure was sometimes called the Standing Hex, and though the Caesurites themselves made no claim on it, it was commonly associated with their crucial role in the history of the Pastures, and was seen as a fitting tribute to the fallen city of Gryffe. Stray had heard about this grove from the Mistras, and he knew that the ruins themselves weren't much further along.

The light was almost gone, and Stray and Edzie were comfortably within their window... perhaps even a little ahead of schedule... so they left the path and found a crevice between two boulders. They created a makeshift torch, chased away a family of arborrats, and made camp in the stone shadows, building a small fire and hanging a fly tent from a drooping pitchfir branch. In the dead of night, when the cold became bitter, they used some of Edzie's twine to expand the fly-tent, and they created a second small campfire inside its confines. The arrangement wouldn't protect against aggressive bristlebears, but it kept the wind off, and as it grew warm in the firelight, it came to feel like a gathering room in a very small dromo.

Whose twine did Edzie have, Stray wondered? That was from Gransa, Edzie informed him, along with the two rolled blankets that she had used to expand the fly tent. What had she used to catch the shade hare, Stray asked? A deadfall trap she had dug with a small trowel on her last day in the settlement, Edzie answered: she didn't want to steal away with too much of Elkansa's winter provisions, so she had made an effort to secure her own.

Did she have anything else useful, Stray asked?

Some fishing gear from Eryff Afekt, Edzie answered, plus her own firestarter set, a map of the Cragstep Road leading into the mountains, a second, smaller map of the approach up Gryffepeak, a small guide to edible plants from Mistra Septa, and some small utensils to prepare them.

“So,” Stray finally ventured, after she had recited this list, “how long have you known I was leaving?”

Edzie shrugged. “Since I caught you and mom talking about it, that one night in the gathering room. You spent a lot of time talking to the Mistras, taking those walks to the bridge. It wasn't that hard.” She took a sip from her waterskin. “I think I did pretty well keeping my preparations secret... I think only Eryff figured out that I was planning to leave.”

Stray nodded, smiling at his own incompetence. Edzie always said he couldn't keep secrets. “Who's this Eryff Afekt?” he asked presently. “I don't think I've met him.”

“One of our transients. Been with us half a decade now, lives by the docks with a woman named Pithri. Quite the galeed.”

“Would I like him?”

“You'd have mixed feelings.”

Stray and Edzie continued in this vein for a bit longer, speaking quietly over scraps of Stray's rations and foraged root vegetables. They left the fire to burn as they felt their own wakefulness waning, and curled up on the ground, padding it with whatever soft thing they could find. Stray fell asleep almost immediately, his breathing suddenly audible and glacially rhythmic. Edzie, lying on the other side of the fire, kept watch over him for several more minutes, wondering if she could lie closer. She thought, for a brief moment, that the dying fire and the winter air might give her an excuse to curl up against Stray, her adopted brother and illicit companion. When she imagined his waking moments, with the confusion and strained words that would follow, she abandoned the thought and tried to make herself sleep.

 

At some point during the night, the temperature rose a few degrees, and the moisture in the air became a wet mist, freezing as it touched the needles of the evergreen trees. When Edzie and Stray awoke the next morning, their fly tent was damp and growing heavier, barely suspended over their exhausted fire. Striking camp was a disheartening experience, but they were prompt and dutiful about it, returning to the road with the onset of the gray morning.

As they reached the road, which was more of a wide, soft, murky footpath, they peered between the tree trunks to the north. Stray took Edzie by the arm, arresting her momentum, and pointed: there, some hundred meters ahead, they could see another figure, bound up in brown winter attire, trudging through the wet forest.

As they looked on, Stray seemed to twitch, distracted. He whispered, after a moment, “There's another one behind us, probably back at the Standing Hexes. Walking slowly. Shouldn't see us for another five or ten minutes.”

Edzie raised an eyebrow, not sure how to react to this news. “Other Prospects?”

Stray nodded. “It's time for you to head back, Edzie.” He spoke quietly, but insistently. “I was told to take this journey alone. It's part of the ritual. If they see us walking together, I don't know how it will be regarded.”

Edzie scoffed, trying to keep quiet, though with resounding contempt. “So they're not even allowed to see me?”

“I don't know,” Stray said, “but they're all walking alone. I think I need to take that cue.” He looked impatient. “Come on, Edzie, you knew we would have to part ways eventually. Step a bit off the road, we can say our farewells, and you can start back to the settlement before you're so weary you can hardly travel.”

“I'm not going back until I see the temple, or at least the road up the mountain.” She left no room for argument in this declaration. “Tell you what... you go ahead. I'll wait until you're almost out of sight, and then walk behind you, and nobody will know we're associated. They'll just think I'm another Prospect.”

“How long...”

“Until the foot of the mountain. Once we get there, I'll turn around.” She grasped Stray's hand. “Don't worry about looking back, until we get to Gryffepeak. I'll be a shadow in your wake. Go on ahead, and think about your initiation.”

Stray conceded to the arrangement, and the two of them resumed their walk. The vale opened up, and the two travelers... Stray walking ahead, his mind on his goal, and Edzie a few minutes later... arrived at the southern edge of the ruins of Gryffe, the town at the base of the mountain that had once been a supply hub for the Crag Mountains and the Envoclajiz Temple.

It had been almost two millennia since the Break War and the invasion that had destroyed Gryffe, so most of the ruins had vanished completely, reclaimed by the landscape. The most obvious sign of a former settlement was the empty, rocky field that interrupted the soft earth of the vale. Stray stepped carefully over stone fragments, mere corners and shards peeking out of the mud, and he tried to identify former structures across the landscape. Only a few outlines of old buildings were visible, rings of sunken stone and sudden deep depressions in the ground. These signs would seem to disappear entirely, and Stray would think he had passed through, when suddenly he would trip over another broken hearth, or see the obvious remnant of a side-street cut across the road in front of him.

There were only three structures left in town that were complete enough to deserve the name. Two were unrecognizable... probably large houses or places of worship... but the third looked like it had been a watchtower, stripped of all features, now the merest calcified framework tottering along a path leading alongside the Cragstep. Stray tested its integrity, and though some stones were loose, it had generally been reduced to its stablest substructure, so he felt safe in scrambling up its exterior wall. On the top, at a height of fifteen meters off the ground, he could see over the sparse woodland, into the mountain peaks that surrounded the ruins. There were vast, white-capped ridges wrapping all the way around the ruins, with only two breaks: a lower, more ragged gap to the southwest, where Edzie and Stray had crossed the foothills... and a visible fold in the mountains to the north, revealing a single, monstrous peak a couple of leagues ahead.

This was most certainly Gryffepeak, the sentinel mountain, and somewhere in its upper reaches, Stray would find the Envoclajiz, his destination.

 

The final stretch of open ground north of the ruins, soggy and gray in the wet midday air, proved to be the first test of Stray’s emotional stamina. After the evidence of habitation finally ceased, the slope of the valley floor turned gradually upward, and for several kilometers, the trees seemed larger, leaving darker pools of shadow over the Cragstep Road’s final stretch. The matted yellow grasses grew thin, and Stray could feel, from the shape and consistency of the earth, that the dirt was shallower in this part of the forest. He marched dutifully on, knowing Edzie was a few hundred paces behind.

Gryffepeak loomed closer with each passing hour, and by early afternoon, its sharp, jagged cliffs obscured Stray’s view. He could pick out a few features now… he couldn’t see the trail itself, but he could trace the thread of level ground that ascended the mountain, frequently disappearing behind some spur or irregularity, eventually vanishing into the higher reaches. At a few breathless moments, Stray looked up between the pitchfir needles and thought he could see the silhouette of the Envoclajiz itself, a geometrical blemish wedged into the mountainside, too small and hazy to discern any particular features.

Closer to the mountain, the trees became more sparse, suddenly having to compete with large rocky outcroppings and boulders split into fragments the size of whole dromos. The trail was no longer soft and earthy… it became a thin layer of mud caked over solid rock, still sloping upward, punishing the soles of Stray’s feet. He occasionally passed another Prospect, huddled up and resting by the side of the Cragstep, massaging her feet or digging through her supplies, and when he could see the road ahead, he always saw three or four others at regular intervals along it. Like Stray, they seemed to be timid and weary, keeping their distance from one another, enduring the climb alone.

Stray realized that he didn’t technically know what constituted the “foot of the mountain,” so he decided he would stop at the last bit of large-scale terrain, so that he and Edzie could confer in private before he started up the long, bare, brutally exposed final stretch of mountain road. In the meantime, he started to see the first signs of the Order’s presence… coming around a boulder, he found the path marked by a primitive sculpture of a human form, waist-high, polished perfectly smooth, with no features or detail. Its legs were joined into a single column, and its arms formed an unbroken circle raised above its head. The flatness of its chest suggested it was a male, but its groin was a triangle, vaguely yonic, leaving its intended gender to the viewer’s imagination.

Peering around a pile of geologic debris, Stray saw, beyond the slightest doubt, that it was time for Edzie to abandon her pursuit. From here, he could see directly up the side of the mountain, and aside from a couple conspicuous wooded depressions, there was no longer any crevice for refuge or commutation. From this point forward, Stray's solitude had to be genuine, or Edzie would certainly draw suspicion. The androgynous statue seemed to announce it: the partnership had to be severed.

Stray stopped and sat down on the nearest boulder, sorting through his belongings, trying to look inconspicuous. He stole a look back at Edzie... she had stopped, as well, and was stretching near the shadowy pool beneath the nearest tree-line. Both of them lingered there, a mere hundred meters apart, biding their time... four minutes later, another prospect passed them, and then another in their wake. Edzie glanced back, peering through the trees; when she saw that the road was empty behind, and that the most recent traveler was too far ahead to see them, she turned and hastened toward Stray, leading him into the shadows of the stone rubble beside the Cragstep.

Edzie knew why Stray had stopped. She smiled inanely, with all the humor of a wilted flower. “I guess it's time for me to go,” she said.

“Right,” Stray confirmed. “It's not much further, and it's really time I made this journey my own.” He paused a moment, and then offered a hand. “Thank you for all you've done for me, Edzie. You've been the...”

He hesitated, and Edzie filled in for him. “The worst teacher possible, I know. And the meanest big sister imaginable. It was the least I could do.”

Stray laughed with his eyes, and the warmth seeped out into his words. “Yes, Edzie, and also the best possible friend and mentor and guardian spirit. Too many things to count, really. Now go make a life for yourself, and once I'm settled, I'll come find you, and we'll be long-parted siblings, embracing and crying.”

“In the meantime, I forgive you,” Edzie declared, turning her tight smile to a wry smirk. “I forgive you for trying to leave me back there, with the Denorian boggs. My way was fastest. I'm happy.” She hesitated, and then said, “Go on. Vorlis Dissadae bestir roprista (Dissadae is tired of waiting).”

They shared a long embrace, and Stray transferred his remaining rations to Edzie's pack, trying not to think about her long, lonely walk back to the settlement. Finally, he left the shadow of the boulder and started up the rising slope. His pace slowed immensely, but still, it only took him a few minutes to pass entirely out of sight of the boulders and the statuette. He glanced back, just at that last moment, but Edzie was still out of sight... or she was already gone. He shook his head and forced himself to take his first step up Gryffepeak.


Chapter 9: Fissures


9.1

We are all a thousand people, but they only show their faces

In the dust of different days, in the light of different places

 

… … … … …

 

With Edzie's parting, Stray came to the final, withering, arduous denouement of his pilgrimage. The cold, wet air darkened the mountainside, and the soil vanished from the slope entirely, leaving rough road and bare stone. Stray felt the presence of that fecund, fertile valley behind him; ahead, he saw only a steep stone path, weaving back and forth over the mountainside, always skirting some ridge or precipice. Here, he could see the first signs of the permanent mountain winter: the dusting of snow highlighting the bluffs and ridges, the frozen droplets suspended from cracks in the stone. He did his best to keep his eyes forward, lest the relative warmth and shelter of the valley soften his resolve.

As he climbed, and the descent behind him yawned and stretched into an impenetrable void, he became incessantly aware of the pain in his feet. The stone pathway, just smooth enough that a sturdy cart might traverse it with difficulty, pounded against the soles of his feet, and his legs started feeling like threshweed stalks beating against an anvil. He did his best to keep himself distracted... to his left, he fixated on a pair of waterfalls pouring out of channels in the mountainside... but his feet always called his attention back, reminding him with every step that this was his fifth day of walking.

The path grew steeper rapidly, until Stray felt himself leaning uncomfortably into the mountain, lest he topple over backwards and tumble into oblivion. The path was weaving up the mountainside, lurching to and fro in a succession of folds, each marked with a small statuette. His pace was regulated conveniently by the speed of the next Prospect, several hundred steps ahead, who was trudging along like a century-old tribeswoman. In a few places, the mountain fell away completely, and the path was extended by wooden scaffolding until it could pick up again on solid ground.

Before the ninth twist in the path, there was a short expanse of evergreen trees, some species that Stray didn't recognize, except in that it resembled pitchfir. In the shade of the trees, he stopped and unwrapped his feet... a few toenails were dislodged, and the grit of caked blood rubbed between the toes of his left foot. He did his best to remove the loose toenails, wipe off the blood, and secure his footwear, and though both feet still felt like they were being ground in a mortar, they were more tender now, and less disconcertingly numb.

Leaving this final, misplaced stretch of soil and trees, Stray found himself doubly exposed. He could see the entire vale of Gryffe below him, including the tower he had climbed several hours before, and he wondered if he might catch a glimpse of Edzie. He watched for thirty fruitless seconds before he returned to his climb, feeling vaguely heartbroken.

Stray crossed a swift, narrow stream on what appeared to be a natural stone bridge, wide and strong enough that it would have supported the weight of a whole caravan. He veered around another switchback turn and crossed the same stream again, passing another statuette. His senses were dull from the pain of his listless stride, but he managed to survey his surroundings, piercingly sharp in the cold, muted air. To the west, he could see two icy sheets of water tumbling down the mountainside from some unseen spring. The eastward mountain was so irregular that he couldn't see much further forward, so he followed the path with a sort of numb blindness.

Stray noted, at the next turn, a branch of the road splitting off to the right. He was apprehensive for a moment, shaken by the choice of direction, but then he saw that the path to the right, continuing east, was blocked by three chains, thick and heavy enough that he doubted he could have lifted them. The path to the left was more promising: after kilometers of steeply-graded road, it suddenly leveled out, and the surface was smoothed and polished. The Mistras had told him to go straight up to the temple's front gate, and this left-hand path beckoned him onward, signaling the final approach.

Twenty meters on, the path broke suddenly to the right, making a perfect right-angle around a bend in the rock. There Stray discovered, leading upwards like a promise, a massive flight of stone stairs, wide as five wagons side by side. It seemed to fade away into nothing in front of him, continuing for hundreds of steps, but at the top, he could just discern the lip of a plateau, flanked by a pair of barely-visible stone towers, and in the center, a stone arch fixed with a massive wooden door, its surface engraved with a silhouette of a bird hovering above a tilted square.

Dissadae's Relief, Stray thought. And he still had a night and a full day to spare.

 

Edzie waited until Stray was out of sight, and then scowled and stamped her feet, trying to keep her eyes dry and her cries quiet. She shivered, suddenly tense with the cold, and turned back toward the shadows of the forested valley. She took ten steps in that direction, shuddering with each one, and then reconsidered, retracing them exactly and returning to the shelter beneath the boulder, just out of sight of the road. Feeling less visible, mercifully obscured by the lifeless stone, she curled up, hunched over, and buried her face in her elbows. Aside from an occasional sob that escaped her brivsa, she might have been mistaken for a sleeping child.

Edzie's mind cycled as she sat, motionless, and seconds stretched into scores of minutes. She thought about the settlement, about her mother's indictments and Ghada's helplessness, and she remembered the faces of women from the other tribes: unfamiliar, and yet perfectly, precisely identical to her own neighbors and elders. Her thoughts shifted to the swarming crowds and massive, unified stone edifices of Resine, and she felt some momentary comfort in its palpitating strangeness and anonymity... but in every passing image, in every reassuring flight of imagination, there was a poisoned barb, a toxic intrusion that corrupted each promise: Stray's absence, the relentless, voracious awareness that he wouldn't be beside her.

Edzie passed from despair to disgust, directed at her tribe, and her enemies, and herself for being so helpless. When this became too exhausting, she slipped into a troubled half-slumber, drifting in and out of consciousness without breaking her protective huddle. After a particularly disorienting lapse in consciousness, she found her emotions calming (perhaps numb from the strain), and so she finally looked up into the evening shadows.

Feeling the cold of the mountain air, Edzie willed herself to start back the way she had come, walking languidly into the forest. She passed a single fire, far off the path, but aside from that lonely campsite, there was no other sign of life in these woods. Walking in complete solitude, Edzie got as far as the ruins of Gryffe before she felt her determination waver once again.

It might have been the depth of nightfall, or the drop in temperature, that broke Edzie's nerves. It might have been the ruins themselves, a voice on the wind, telling her that the world was passing slowly into oblivion, and that her sole prerogative was to follow the light source that had become her beacon. At the first moonlit glimpse of the fallen watchtower, Edzie turned around and headed back into the forest. She was resigned to her impulses, shackled by her own emptiness, and finally, she embraced her purpose: she would follow Stray, even in defiance of his rejection. It was the only role that was left to her.

Edzie had to stumble and grope her way through the forest, but once she was back out the other side, she found that the bitter midnight cold had pushed away the clouds, so she could follow the path by the moonlight. The climb up the mountain was not easy... she counted nine turns as sharp as stitches, five successive waterfalls cleaving channels in Gryffepeak's stone, and seven smoldering campfires, attended by silent pilgrims, pressed up against the edges of the road. She was glad she had secured padded soles for her footwraps, but she still felt like her legs were going to buckle and collapse with every step.

After three hours of this punishment, she finally succumbed, ducking under the first natural bridge and clearing herself a small nest in a tangle of brambles. She rested there for a few more hours, unthinking, half-asleep... when she awoke and resumed walking, the pre-dawn atmosphere was prone, breathless, ready to give itself over to the morning sun.

At last, Edzie – sick from the thin air, buffeted by a stern westerly wind – found herself at some sort of split in the path, whose main branch was clearly turning back northwest. The branch heading to the east was blocked by three chains, each as thick as Edzie's arm, but the barrier was a statement, not a physical obstruction. Knowing she had no plan, and not wanting to be noticed at an inconvenient moment, Edzie decided that deviance and curiosity were her only reliable guides. They pointed her east, along the blockaded branch of the mountain path, and as the first traces of light started bleeding into the sky overhead, she slipped under the chains and vanished around the far side of Gryffepeak.

The path, Edzie found, was wide and fairly level, a welcome change from the preceding struggle up the mountainside. Its surface was strewn with stone, crushed into dust and gravel and gouged with ruts from wagon-wheels. From this path, Edzie could see south and east, into the boundless face of another ridge. A word came to her from a dormant memory of some long-forgotten book – tsushayma – a term originating with the barbarian Fisher Kingdoms, referring to a mountain rearing up like a massive wave, ready to sweep away the world.

After a short stretch, Edzie came upon a ravine cutting across the path. It was only about five meters across… far enough that it would be impossible to jump over, but close enough that the idea was dangerously enticing. Edzie could see a well-organized pallet of planks and timber on the other side, a bridge that had been dismantled and left out of reach. She approached the precipice with careful steps, and when she saw the bottom, thirty meters below, she reeled a little from the sudden consciousness of its depth.

Edzie looked left, and two things impressed themselves upon her. First, she saw a slender breach in the mountain, wherefrom there flowed a steady stream of crystal-clear water. Second, Edzie saw a single, sagging, dilapidated tree, clinging by its roots to the stony dirt a couple steps from the mountain. It was stout and gnarled, perhaps a relative of the orebark, but without its leaves, she couldn’t identify the species. The root system was large, plainly visible, and mostly dead and cracked, but some of the roots had grown back into the fissure, where they could soak up the water trickling out of the stone. The half of the tree nearest the mountain seemed alive, though dormant for the winter. Its trunk bifurcated at Edzie’s eye level, and one large spur extended over the ravine like a hand reaching out to pilfer a piece of fruit.

Edzie lingered at this obstruction for half an hour, her brivsa pulled tight around her face, as the dawn twilight turned into an overcast morning sky. She dared herself to step closer to the drop-off, and then she tested the tree’s integrity, and then she glanced along the path behind her. Finally, unwilling to abandon her capriciousness, she resolved to make the crossing. The lower limbs of the tree were easy to reach, and footholds were plentiful, but she still took a few seconds to test each step, terrified of the yawning depths below her.

Between waves of panic, Edzie managed to advance along the tree limb, clutching the bark with her arms and thighs, moving handspan by handspan. The tree limb sagged considerably as she moved away from the trunk, and though this was expected and favorable (getting her closer to the far side), it still sent shivers of anxiety through Edzie. At one point, she allowed her eyes to drift downward, and she was so overcome with terror that she had to close them and remain motionless for a full minute. From that point onward, she moved by touch alone, feeling every shift in her body weight, focusing intently on the contact between her muscles and the tree’s fiber.

The fear seemed to build as she moved over the ravine, until it finally climaxed with the last departure from the tree-limb, a clumsy half-lunge and protraction of her upper body. She landed hard on her knees, her calves hanging over the chasm, and the tree branch leapt out from under her, creaking and cracking as it returned half-heartedly to its upright position. Edzie was consumed with giddy, nauseating relief, and she lay on the road, panting, for another ten minutes before her strength returned. She stood and glanced back with pride, fully aware that she had denied herself any recourse but to move forward.

Edzie didn’t have far to go: the road looped back on itself as it climbed the side of Gryffepeak, and after two tight turns, she found the path leveling out and suddenly widening into a small terrace, hacked artlessly into the mountain. Beyond this platform, the road ended suddenly, terminating in a sheer rock face. Edzie approached slowly, warily, wondering why this path, with its wide berth and dismantled bridge, would lead to an abrupt dead end. When she finally stepped into the open terrace, wide enough that she felt the wind pick up around her, she discovered a tentative answer: on her left side, the path continued into a cave, wide as a small dromo, that bore directly into the mountain. It was chiseled from the bare stone, rough-hewn, with sconces just inside the threshold, their torches cold and wilted.

Edzie stood on the terrace for a moment, contemplating her path to this strange, lonely outcropping, and then turned toward the tunnel.

The tunnel's first blessing was its shelter from the wind. Even a few paces inside, the oppressive air became mortally still, though it was still frigid. It was a simple matter for Edzie to gather some dried twigs and foliage and make herself a small fire, and once it was burning, she felt surprisingly secure in her stone refuge. The air around the fire grew just warm enough that she could curl up and let her muscles loosen, and she found she was bone-tired. Sleep took her, and she didn't wake up for several hours.

When Edzie finally stirred, she could see it was the middle of the day. She felt physically refreshed and mentally sharp... the only drawback was that her muscles, back, and kidneys all seemed to have gotten sore at once, and when she stood up, it was like trying to push a sledge up a hill through black mud. Fighting through the ache, she plucked one of the torches from its sconce and lit it from the last embers of her tiny campfire. Whatever oil coated its head burned brightly, with a flame whose yellow tongues were cold, almost white.

Like the path outside, the tunnel remained fairly level, curving to the right a few meters into the mountain. Shortly thereafter, it opened into a small chamber, around the size of Elkansa's gathering room, where the rhythmic clefts left by some human delver flowed into the natural folds of the rock. At the rough corners of the chamber, the stone had been sculpted into sinuous lines that seemed to be growing from the floor to the ceiling. There was an upright pedestal where another long-snuffed torch was propped up, and Edzie lit this one, as well, feeling oddly cavalier about claiming this whole stretch of tunnel. The pathway branched off to the left, and she continued along it.

Edzie followed the chipped and chiseled walls deep into Gryffepeak, her torch casting a dancing light on the rough culmination of many laborious hours. The floor seemed particularly well-fashioned, having been ground down to the remarkable flatness of a mansion's banquet hall. Only the walls remained tortured and angular, crumpled into folds and crevices and depressions. Edzie passed a couple of narrow corridors on her left, and she was tempted to deviate, but she was determined to follow the spacious main tunnel until she could go no further.

It turned out, after the second side-path she elected to ignore, she didn't have much farther to go. There was one more antechamber, and then the tunnel suddenly became perfectly straight, its walls polished, its artfully sinuous pillars suddenly appearing at consistent intervals. This tunnel, which seemed more like a ceremonial hallway, ultimately opened up into a vast empty space, large enough that Edzie's modest torchlight was entirely devoured by the darkness. She could hear a sound here – a whisper that resonated through the atmosphere – and she retreated to the nearest wall, suddenly nervous that this cavern might have another resident.

Following the wall, Edzie found another pedestal, holding a significantly larger torch, which she promptly lit... and a few paces further on, another. In the glowing diffusion of torchlight, Edzie could see deeper into the chamber, which was broad and exquisitely empty, its walls exhibiting all the natural rock formations that a delver might expect to find in the bowels of the earth. In the center, starting a few meters in front of her, there was an expansive underground lake, its waters perfectly still, like a black mirror. To her left, the light fell away into the abyss, but to her right, she could see the source of the whispering noises: a wall that hosted a series of cascading waterfalls, each taller than Edzie, but whose flow was unbroken, and thus barely audible. Intertwined with these waterfalls, weaving around them up the wall of the cavern, there was a staircase fashioned from massive stacked stone blocks, connecting natural ledges and shelves as though they were landings in an architect's petrified dreamscape. Edzie strained to see where the stairway led, but the light didn't quite reach.

Edzie spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the cave and the mountainside near its entrance, still intending to stay entirely out of sight. This didn't turn out to be a problem... it seemed as though this side of Gryffepeak was entirely deserted, at least for now. Returning to the underground lake, she discovered a sturdy wooden bridge, gently elevated in the center, that led across the very center of the still water. She tried to explore the two smaller corridors... the first one led to the fissure above the ravine, overlooking the half-dead orebark and the dismantled bridge. The second corridor led to a tiny antechamber, barely large enough for a human shoulder-span, and this opened up into two more corridors. At that point, Edzie turned around, not wanting to get lost in some endless branching maze of featureless subterranean hallways.

At dusk, Edzie tried to climb the staircase by the waterfalls, but as the light of the torches behind her began to fade, she felt a profound fatigue settle over her, informing her that she was too exhausted to make the full ascent. She was satisfied with her situation, however, and felt secure in this well-prepared, absolutely deserted underground tunnel that seemed to pierce the bowels of Gryffepeak itself. She returned to her small fire pit at the tunnel entrance, and with a little effort, she raised a more comfortable little camp, with a torch at the ready and a small nest, assembled from dead leaves and personal effects, giving her a soft place to sleep. She allowed herself a few of the rations she had taken from Stray... a cache that would not last very long, she realized... and when her hunger was sated and the moon was high in the sky, she closed her eyes and slept the sleep of annihilation.

 

The colossal door of Dissadae's Relief opened at the expected hour, more or less. The Prospects on the stairway couldn't really tell if it was “dawn,” precisely, because the upper reaches of Gryffepeak entirely blocked the sun. Nobody cared much... the opening of the doors brought a surge of relief, the kind of shiver that only comes after long hours of anticipation. The Prospects... thirty-four of them in all... climbed toward the doors serenely, wonder in their eyes, feeling their long journey finally coming to an end.

Stray had spent the final day resting and meditating, nibbling the last of his root vegetables, and observing the other Prospects. They arrived all through the intervening night and day, some settling on the steps, some making camps under the lonely evergreens. Most were apparently tribespeople, their heads bound up in brivsas, their bodies bundled in wool and huskin fur. A few wore more exotic garments: ornate traveling cloaks from distant cities, or awkward cotton robes that didn't seem appropriate for the cold midwinter. When Stray caught glimpses of faces, they had the glazed eyes that came with an interminable, torturous journey.

The entire group had conceded to an informal code of silence, keeping their distance from one another, presenting fierce disinterest in their campfire light. Stray had seen one boy moving from camp to camp, desperate for food, and though one of the other Prospects reluctantly supplied him with a spare ration, she refused to converse with him otherwise. Any pilgrim who wasn't familiar with the custom – the requirement of complete isolation during the journey – was quick to learn it, as any attempt to socialize was met with a wall of refusal.

The spell seemed to break when the door opened. Nobody spoke, but the Prospects suddenly looked at one another, their eyes bright and hopeful, their mutual interests aroused. They had all gathered their belongings, and were preparing to surge up over the top step – many had already gathered into a crowd at the threshold – when a monk's shadow filled the archway. The Prospects were all suspended in place, as if a spell had been cast on them, and the monk spoke.

“Welcome, Prospects. Your journey is over. You are in Dissadae's hands now, and your period of compulsory solitude has concluded. Rest, talk, admire our lovely grounds. You're safe and among friends.”

Stray took note of the monk. He was short and square-bodied, with thick eyebrows and a dense black beard cut into a neat rectangular slab below his chin. He robe was simple, and though he was obviously shivering in the cold, he kept his stance wide open and his arms proudly upon his hips.

“Thank you for receiving us! What should we call you?” asked the perky young Prospect who stood directly behind Stray.

“I am Miggish,” the monk replied. “Now be still, galeed, we will have time for better introductions at the Arrival Banquet.”

Through the open gate, the Prospects could survey the ample grounds, larger than the eye could take in, with a carpet of thin mountain grass turned fallow in the winter cold. At some distance on their left, they could see a small cluster of one-family homes, like a tiny hamlet along a country road. Just ahead, on the east side of the grounds, they drank in their first glimpse of the Envoclajiz itself, a temple-fortification embedded in the dauntless face of the mountain. The Envoclajiz was mostly obscured by a massive wall of quarried stone blocks, presided over by three watchtowers. The part of the Envoclajiz that was visible above the wall was an angular bastion made from the same blocks as large as huskin-drawn carts. The temple was stout, multifaceted, and sunken into the mountain behind it.

The outer wall of the Envoclajiz was accessible by a wooden double door, thrice human height and wide enough for three carts to fit through abreast. As Stray and the other Prospects approached, the doors swung outward, confoundingly silent, like they were floating open on a breeze.

“Wait here until I signal you,” Miggish said, “and approach the doors alone. Say your word of sanction, clearly and proudly, before you step through the threshold. Once you've spoken your word, you are free to enter.”

Another Prospect, a younger boy standing to Stray's right, called out, “Who are we saying it to? Will somebody tell us if we get it right?”

“You are saying it to Dissadae,” the monk replied. “You won't see any guards or overseers... but we are all listening. If there's a problem with your appeal, we'll know.”

Stray lingered near the Relief, where he could watch the Prospects step up, one by one, and approach the door to the Envoclajiz. Each of them paused there, looking small and brave before the yawning temple entrance; Stray could only see the backs of their heads, and they were too far away to hear their words, but he imagined them all recalling their Mistras' dispensations, condensed into a single phrase that would open the way to their future.

When Stray was called – the seventh Prospect to enter – he tried to stand up proudly, walking steadily under the morning sun. He couldn't see much through the open door... shadows shrouded the architecture and geometry within... but he felt a strong, unsettling presence as he neared the threshold. He stopped at last, looking up, and said his words.

Iproma val trastis bronton dragnin avre dribidis ben ritasna.”

The presence in the air seemed to suddenly dissipate – Stray wondered if he was just imagining it – leaving the air thinner and cooler, and the interior of the temple less ominous. Stray strained to see the Prospects before him, but they were already out of sight. He glanced back at the other petitioners, pondered the great, silent procession that had absorbed him, and took his first step into the Envoclajiz.

 

Edzie woke slowly, groggily, and uneasily, with a remote impression of footsteps and prying eyes. Her fire was cold, and the light through the tunnel entrance was soft and misty. She couldn’t tell whether it was morning or evening.

Presently, her eyes were drawn to a dark recess at her flank… not so much to movement or volume, but to an apparent absence, as if a hole had opened up in the cavern wall. She watched it for several seconds, and eventually, unable to shake off her discomfort, she approached warily, reaching toward the shadow.

“WHOSE FOOTSTEPS HAVE SOILED MY CAVERN?” came a voice from the recess, loud enough that she felt the tunnel struggle to contain it. Edzie stepped back defensively, fighting panic… she mentally accounted for her katsun, though she didn’t take her eyes off the dark corner.

Her eyes adjusting, Edzie could make out a figure, barely silhouetted in the dim light... a tall, gangly physique, hunched over under the weight of years, apparently naked except for a wisp of gray hair and a loincloth. The figure had stood up – making its presence visible – but it wasn’t coming any closer, so Edzie didn’t make any rash moves.

“Who are you?” she demanded, doing her best to sound authoritative.

“YOU HAVE NO CLAIM UPON ME, INTERLOPER. I DEMAND YOU… MAKE… ANSWER…” The voice hesitated. “YOU FIRST.”

“I’m Edzie, a refugee from the tribes.”

“SO YOU ARE ONE OF THE PROSPECTS?”

Edzie struggled, perhaps too obviously. “No, but I followed them up the mountain. I didn’t really have anywhere else to go.” She waited for a response, but none came. “And who are you?”

“I AM THE GUARDIAN OF THE CAVERN. YOU HAVE TRESPASSED UPON MY SOVEREIGN SOIL. THE PRICE MUST BE PAID.”

Edzie glanced down, looking for her katsun... it wasn't by the the campfire, where she remembered leaving it. “And what is the price?”

“YOU MUST BE REMOVED! CAST DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN! YOUR FATE IS SEALED!” The figure shuffled a bit forward, taking form in the soft light: it was indeed an old man, at least sixty, whose white hair had left his head and sprouted from his eyebrows, ears, and upper lip. Edzie would have relaxed, but the stooped body that presented itself was so completely at odds with the booming, all-consuming voice that spoke, she was afraid to trust her own eyes.

Also, this old man was holding her katsun!

Edzie, feeling disoriented and vaguely furious, hesitated a moment, and then lunged, closing the distance between them in three steps. The Guardian moved surprisingly fast, pivoting away from her like a dancer and withdrawing the katsun from her reach. She nearly stumbled as she landed, but she was quick to catch herself and turn back toward him.

He grimaced, showing an array of uneven teeth. “YOU ARE SPIRITED, FOR ONE WHO IS ABOUT TO BE CAST INTO THE VOID!”

Edzie remained taut as a harpstring, ready to spring. It struck her that she was now separated from her campsite and supplies, stripped of her katsun, and feeling more exposed with each passing moment. Still, she doubted this old man could possibly catch her and throw her off the side of Gryffepeak, so she kept her composure.

“And is there any... alternative? To my sentence, I mean?”

“YOUR BREATH SPOILS THE AIR OF THESE SACRED CAVERNS, YOUR FOOTSTEPS INSULT THE STONE. IF YOU HAD A FRACTION THE WISDOM OF THESE ANCIENT CATACOMBS, YOU WOULD HAVE ALREADY CAST YOURSELF OUT, MERELY IN DISGUST.” The Guardian paused, apparently considering Edzie's question, and then continued. “HOWEVER, AS YOUR MEAGER DESIRE FOR SELF-PRESERVATION HAS CLEARLY HAMPERED YOUR JUDGMENT, SOME PROOF OF YOUR WISDOM AND WORTHINESS IS DUE.”

Edzie waited in silence for the outcome of this digression. Finally, it came.

“YOU CAN EARN ANOTHER DAY IN MY CAVES BY ANSWERING... THE GUARDIAN'S RIDDLE!”

“And what's that?”

“WHAT DO YOU CALL A TRIBESMAN WHO'S BEEN DISEMBOWELED, STUFFED, LAQUERED, AND MOUNTED?”

“That's not a riddle,” Edzie replied, trying to suppress a sneer. “That's just a dumb joke. And yes, I know the answer: drislis pramistae, the perfect husband.”

“WELL DONE,” the Guardian's voice boomed. “YOU MAY REMAIN IN THE CAVERNS UNTIL THIS TIME TOMORROW, WHEN I SHALL RETURN TO RENDER MY JUDGMENT ANEW.”

Edzie was perplexed by the whole situation, but before she could think it through, a practical consideration came to mind. “What if I don't have enough food? I might die in here anyway, even with the... uhh... guardian's mercy.”

The old man shrugged as the Guardian's voice thundered through the cavern. “THE GUARDIAN SEES ALL. HE ALSO HAPPENS TO HAVE CHECKED IN YOUR PACK. YOU'LL BE FINE FOR AT LEAST A COUPLE MORE DAYS.”

Edzie frowned at this, but before she could proffer a reply, she saw the Guardian doing something with her katsun. His arm cocked across his body, and without warning, he hurled the weapon out of the cave entrance. It landed in the scrub a mere meter from the edge of the cliff. Edzie gasped and sprinted after it.

“NEXT TIME, KEEP IT CLOSER BY YOUR SIDE!” she heard the Guardian call after her, but as she emerged from the cavern entrance, the voice was blunted in the thin mountain air, losing all its majesty. She snatched the katsun from the ground, inspected it for damage, and turned back toward her campsite, her jaw tense with indignation. The expression was wasted... peering back into the cavern's shadows, she found the Guardian had disappeared.


9.15

Edzie at the Tunnel

she closed her eyes and slept the sleep of annihilation


9.2

Stray had been to many feasts, large and small, and as far as he was concerned, the "Arrival Banquet" didn't qualify. Each Prospect was served a modest cut of huskin flank that didn’t taste particularly fresh, and each table had a shared bowl of preserved fruit, and that was the extent of it. Stray found a place among the other Prospects, but he ate in silence… he felt detached, hypnotized, like an empty dromo suddenly opened up to the cold air. It took a particularly determined young Prospect… the same one, in fact, who had asked Miggish’s name… to crack open Stray’s reverie, which he did by offering him an extra serving of huskin.

“What? Why? Don’t you want it?” Stray asked, suddenly alert, dimly aware that the other boy had been trying unsuccessfully to talk to him for several minutes already.

“No, I’ll just eat the fruit. Maybe have some bread later. I’m a forage-boy… no eating animals but what I kill myself.”

Stray looked the boy over. He was not beautiful in any principal sense of the word, but his face had a charming openness to it: gently-set hazel eyes, an expression like a child looking for approval. He wore a dark reddish tunic with a plunging neck-line and a square hood, lowered to show a neat crown of curly auburn hair. He was more pale than the tribespeople, Stray noticed… almond-skinned, only as swarthy as Stray himself. Stray couldn’t entirely judge the boy’s physique, but he seemed tall, sturdy, and lean.

“Forager?” Stray raised an eyebrow. “I think I remember something about that… from the woodlands way out west?”

“Aye, Alcovale, myself. First time among you tribesboys.”

“You must have been on the road a long time. I can’t believe you’re not famished.”

The Alcovalean shrugged, speaking with disarming candor. “I am, but hunger and me are old friends. Wasn’t bad traveling, back before Horizon and the Range River, but spoils are more scarce out here, where the chill drives it into the soil.” He paused, apparently shy for a moment, and then asked: “So, is it like they say out here, that you have beasts that just stand idly by for you to kill and eat them?”

Stray scowled at this. “No, I don’t think so. The huskins will put their horns straight through a herder’s gut if she gets too close.” He paused. “I mean, we’ve domesticated a few of the herds, so we don’t have to hunt them down every time we need some meat, but… that’s not what you’re talking about, right?”

“No, I suppose not. I don’t know much about your big slow animals. On the way out here, I passed through the supply cities... that was the first time I ever saw cattle... but those aren’t wild, like yours.”

“Yeah, probably a little different.” Stray took the cut of huskin meat. “Thanks for the second helping, at any rate. I’m Stray, of the Denoria tribe, bulwark of the eight.”

“Bastris Corvish of Alcovale.”

Stray and Bastris spent the rest of the meal discussing big, slow animals… the nuances of wildness and domestication, the appeal of a food supply without the thrill of the hunt. Stray noted Bastris's fetching red tunic, and Bastris boasted that it was specially-made and packed for his arrival at the Envoclajiz. Bastris offered an account of his town, their means of hunting and trapping small game, their fears of large animals and their distaste for big hunting parties. He was talking about tracks and trap-setting when Miggish returned to the dining hall and summoned the Prospects to their quarters.

... ... ... ...

There was a time, when our spirituality was in its infancy, that we – the followers of the wise, obscure spirit of the world – could only understand that spirit in terms of presence and absence, being and non-being. That was the age when all were of a single sect, living in a stronghold near the source of the Tempus River. You all know this as the Age of Names, and you know this sect as the Precaesurites.

Those who have studied history also know of the schism, and the exodus of the Caesurite faction. Led by Exile Luxus, revered servant of the fevered earth, we left the riverbank and crossed the plains. Several hundred followers joined us along the way – tribeswomen, freed slaves, exiles from the barbarians who roamed the prairie – and at the foot of the Crag Mountains, they built the town of Gryffe, and we built this monastery, the Envoclajiz: the organ of the world's voice.

Through our studies and meditation, carried out in isolation from the archivists and bureaucrats of the river kingdoms, we discerned a new nature in the world-spirit. We called him Dissadae, and by focusing our meditation and worship upon him, we have found a path, however tortured and furtive, to a higher unity: oneness with the earth, communion with the sky, integration of mind and body, the four paths as our scaffold, the mantle as our site of convergence. These are the things you will learn over the next twelve days, and this training will culminate in your final trial. If you pass, you will undergo the Caesura Prospectus, becoming a councilor of Dissadae.

Today, we will start with Dissadae's first principle, the recognition of a rhythmic world: the principles of pattern and break, of continuity and disruption, of articulation and aggregate. The simplest way to see into this unified aspect of the universe is to study your own body, which is a minor masterpiece of rhythms and repetitions and disruptions. Today we will learn to listen to those rhythms: the breath, the pulse, the heartbeat, the cognitive cycle.

Here in the Caesura, we call this the path of Viscitae the silent. Viscitae teaches us to listen to ourselves, first and foremost, and to exercise those rhythms and patterns in a way that's beneficial to our mental and physical performance. Today we will take the first step in the first length of the first lap of your journey: we will examine the surface where your mind makes contact with your body, and we will try to find your baseline resonance, which we call your tonic.

 

Stray sat, legs crossed, in a recess in the mountain, under a jagged protrusion hanging low enough that he couldn't stand up. He had sat for two hours already, and he had watched the afternoon turn into late evening; the light was almost entirely gone now, and from the darkness, a cold wind rushed into the niche, roiling around his head and shoulders. His eyes remained shut tight, and he dissociated himself from the roar in his ears, focusing instead on the stillness of the stone beneath him.

The day had been eventful... Miggish had shown the Prospects to their communal bedroom, a cavernous dormitory called the Eyas Quarters, situated directly beneath Envoclajiz's large garden. They stowed their belongings – for some a single pack, for others a small cart – and they were promptly led back through the cramped stone corridors, up the stairs, and on a tour of the first floor of the temple. This first floor seemed to consist primarily of four spaces: the dining room, the garden, the salon, and the Dissiduary.

The garden was enclosed by the temple's outer wall, and it was inert and depressing in the winter cold: the loose groves and paths, so spontaneously placed, looked like they belonged in abandoned ruins. The dining room, the Prospects had already seen... it was lit by a row of tall west-facing windows, and it might have been grand and stately, but in the cold air, with most of its torches still barren, it seemed like a songstress's throat closed up tight by a coughing fit.

The salon was a massive, windowless interior courtyard, lightly furnished with crude wooden seats and tables. Its ceiling, five human heights aloft, was supported by rafters as large as tree trunks, with monumental chains still dangling from anchors in the wood. This salon was also home to an enormous circular stone hearth, complete with bellows and metal racks, that Miggish called the Daeforge (“or just The Forge, if you're in a hurry”).

The Dissiduary was a large auditorium with a bronze pedestal in the center, surrounded on three sides by pews raised up on lofted platforms. The pedestal held a ceremonial firepit, its embers still glowing red; a few meters past, the Dissiduary's back wall was bare mountain stone, lit by ambient daylight seeping in through an aperture in the ceiling. In the thin air of the Dissiduary, Stray could feel the density of the mountain... it seemed to brace itself with the Prospects' every breath, an impermeable shell around the fragile atmosphere. Any sound in this room, Stray thought, would cut into us like a predator's cry to a nursing mother.

Miggish informed the Prospects that this – the Dissiduary – was where their final transition into the Order would take place, if they made it that far.

Stray let the wind back into his thoughts for a moment. After the temple's vast, volumetric silence, the sound of the wind out here was positively deafening. He looked for his tonic, as Mistra Septa had taught him, and though it was drowned under the fury of the atmosphere, he could still sense traces of it, a comforting hum emanating from his center of gravity.

In the grasp of his tonic resonance, Stray let his mind fall back into its memories of the day's lesson. After they toured the ground floor, the Prospects were all herded, like unruly animals, into a spacious underground practice room, a few twists and turns away from the Eyas Quarters. There, they were introduced to Fedra, a stately young Caesurite Monk with round cheeks and a disorderly skein of black hair, loosely curly where it fell in locks around her ears. She was a specialist in the emanences of meditation, she told them... Aaraya (the cry) and Viscitae (silence). She spent the afternoon instructing the Prospects in the art of listening: first to the ambient rhythms of the environment, and then to their own bodies, so rich in interior echoes. This culminated in each Prospect looking inward for their tonic, their private resonance, by approximately the same method that Stray had once learned from Mistra Septa.

Stray returned to the present, and found himself, for a moment, teetering on the edge of introspection. At one moment, he would sink into that warm, dark place that he had visited so many times in his exercises with Mistra Septa. This would consume him for several minutes at a time, and he would start to feel himself falling upwards, into the clear sky of his imagination… then suddenly, there would be a vibration in the stone, or an unexpected gust over the mountaintop, and his body would take back control of his consciousness, sending him a thousand overlapping messages in a tactile barrage.

Eventually, a few of these sensations converged, and he became aware of approaching footsteps, tentative, coming down from the bluffs above.

Momentarily, he caught a glimpse of another Prospect passing by his niche, making their way carefully over the unrefined terrain. They were slender legs clad in standard tribal attire: thick canvas trousers, feet bound in cloth. Without thinking, Stray reached out as the legs passed by, touching the Prospect’s calf. The Prospect jerked around in Stray's direction, leaning in to see him.

Prystia oestis, greetings.” The glow of the evening light illuminated a pair of dark eyes beneath a light gray brivsa. “So some of us are still out here, after all this time?”

“Well, you’re not the last to give up,” Stray said, “but certainly not the first, either. But you haven’t missed the signal to return… that I can promise. They just haven’t given it yet.”

“So do you think I should go back up the mountain?” The Prospect was trying to whisper, but the keening wind was forcing her to shout.

“I doubt it matters now. We’ve both already broken the rules. I think we may as well stay here and wait for the signal together.”

The Prospect raised an eyebrow. “You are not in violation, or at least, not to the same degree… you only tried to help me. It is I who let her patience wane, and lost her nerve. I should go back up.” She hesitated.

“If that’s what you want,” Stray said, “but like I said, I don’t think it matters. It’s not like we know what they’re thinking, right?” He pulled his brivsa down to his throat. “This seems like as good a place to wait as anywhere.”

The other Prospect hesitated another moment, and then sat down against the rock, facing Stray. She pulled down her brivsa, revealing a stern face, strong in the jaw and chin. “I saw you on the staircase, before Dissadae's Relief. It looked like you were here early. Did you travel a great distance?”

Stray shook his head. “No, not compared to some of the others, like the boy from Alcovale, or… any of them, really. I’m from the Denoria, the closest Concordance tribe. I’m Stray.”

“I am Grave, of the Solavera,” she said. “Thank you for helping me.”

“Grave?” This amused Stray, but he tried to sound unassuming. “Like, a dead person's marker?”

“Indeed. I am named in honor of Dissadae's death-aspect, in hopes that it will watch over me and spare me its embrace. You are named for Dissadae's wandering heart, are you not?”

Stray shook his head. “No, I think somebody just liked the sound of it.” He let the conversation pass, and then pressed on. “So you're of the Solavera, the reverent… I haven’t met many of you. Do you come to our festivals?”

“No, we don’t send ambassadors to any festivals, nor do many come to ours. We’re too small a tribe, I think… we often escape notice.”

“What brought you to the Order?”

The girl gave a wry half-smile. “Fate. My parents petitioned me for the role before I was brought into the world.” Stray looked confused at this, so Grave elaborated. “That is our manner of choosing Prospects in the Solavera tribe. Each season, the favor is given to one of the child-bearing mothers, and the child, once born, is groomed for the Prospectus, given special attention by the elders and the Mistras, and taught the behaviors necessary for a life in the Order. Honestly, until two years ago, I didn’t even know that all the other Prospects come of their own accord.”

“Your Mistras have been tutoring you your whole life?!? You must be better than half the monks by now! Hardly fair to the rest of us!”

“No, not quite so,” Grave corrected him. “It is contrary to Dissadae’s custom for a child to learn the emanences. We're merely conditioned for discipline and self-possession, and kept from spending too much time with the rest of the children. Solitude and self-control are our virtues, they say.”

“And how did you take to it?”

“I was exceptional, or so they reassured me. Now that I’m here, I’m less confident.” She arched her stiff back. “So, my tale is told… now for yours.”

Stray struggled to put his journey into words. He considered telling Grave about his father's departure, about his debt to the tribe, about his growing uncertainty and his search for some solid ground to stand on... but this all seemed too intimate, so he gave a simpler answer. “I became close friends with some of the Mistras, and they told me I should come. I guess I always felt like I needed something else, beyond what the tribe could provide, but they're the ones who opened the door for me.”

“Your experience seems common,” Grave acknowledged. “Of the few Prospects I've spoken to, most seem like they needed to find a new home, and this seemed to be a way of choosing one for themselves, rather than allowing fate to choose it for them.”

“That must be strange to hear, coming from a situation like yours.”

Grave turned an incisive gaze toward Stray, as if she felt threatened, but then it softened and turned to resignation. “I was almost bitter, for a time, but I've given it some thought, and I've realized... Dissadae chooses all of us, whether through our own restlessness, or through the hopes and ambitions of our parents. Choosing the Order... it may give us some small satisfaction, some feeling of control, but the other Prospects don't know the future, any more than I do... we are all being cast by the hand of fate into this trial, and Dissadae has cleared a path for each of us alike.”

Stray nodded, feeling reassured by this answer. The wind blew into the crevice, battering his ear and cheek, discouraging him from talking any further, and when he glanced back over at Grave, he saw that her eyes were closed, and she was breathing evenly, focused inward, ready to return to the strange work of solitude and concentration. Stray turned inward, as well, absorbing back into the night air.

It was several more hours – nearly morning – when they heard the sound of a brass bell, their signal to climb back down the mountain and return to the temple.

 

Stray awoke to an obscure voice, like tree limbs creaking in the wind, coming to him through the walls of the Eyas Quarters. It seemed to bypass his ears entirely, absorbing directly into his mind. It was saying his name.

The Prospects had returned to the Envoclaijiz after the private meditation sessions. Those who had held out, lingering in the higher reaches – Stray and Grave among them – found a significant contingent of Prospects waiting at the temple entrance, watched over by Miggish and Fedra, some silent and timid, some whispering amongst themselves. Some lecture or reprimand had been delivered, it seemed... the Prospects who had endured the entire exercise were congratulated on their patience, and everyone was led off to secure a few hours of sleep before they commenced their second day.

Stray listened for another moment... hearing the even breath of sleeping adolescents, the occasional creaking of the beds' frames... someone muttering something from an anxious dream... and then the voice said his name again. He pulled himself out of his bunk and dropped to the floor, and without a second thought, he followed the voice that beckoned him.

The sound, which seemed to converge upon Stray alone, might as well have been coming from the stone itself. He guessed the dawn wasn't far off... none of the other Prospects woke, or even stirred, as Stray slipped past toward the hallway. The voice continued calling, leading him along the narrow passageway, up a staircase that seemed fastened in the vice grip of the surrounding stone, and finally up into the garden, writhing and disfigured in the moonlight, where two silhouettes waited for him under a leafless tree. Stray approached cautiously, shivering in the wintery air.

The figure on the left was Fedra... Stray recognized her by her height and hair, tied back behind her head. The other monk was a male, looking significantly older... perhaps in his sixties, bald except for a splash of thin hair around his ears and the crown of his head. His beard hung down to his collarbone, and then ended abruptly, as if severed by a single clip of a pair of shears. His robes hung loose around his chest, revealing a mat of gray hair, and a wide sash bound the garment closed above his indelicates.

“Greetings, my lords. Hello, Mistra Fedra.” Stray spoke cautiously, choosing to employ the traditional teacher's title.

“Greetings, Stray,” she replied, as the older monk looked on with a vacant stare. “We'd like to talk about the exercise this evening... your meditation in the upper reaches.”

Stray spared the older monk a curious glance, then turned and spoke to Fedra. “Of course. I suppose you've spoken to Grave already? I pulled her aside, and we meditated together for a while. I'm sorry if this was... an offense.”

“You are quick to admit the mistake. I appreciate that. But you knew that it was an exercise in solitude, and you knew the signal hadn't been given to return. Did you think we wouldn't know?”

Stray shook his head, trying to look contrite. Fedra didn't respond immediately, so Stray continued: “No, Mistra, I didn't. I knew you could hear us.”

“Very good,” the older monk said unexpectedly, his voice as deep as a ravine and expansive as a riverbed.

“The exercise was to teach patience in the face of uncertainty,” Fedra said. “Those who came down early – after the evening passed and they lost their composure – we had words for them, so the exercise would be meaningful. Now at least one of them... the Solavera warrior named Grave... will be denied that meaning. What would you say to her, then?”

“I apologize again.” Stray looked into Fedra's eyes. Anxiety quickened his heartbeat and pulse, and he fought against its inevitable rise. “I don't think my transgression will ruin her training... she's a strong candidate, my lords. I think, if anyone deserves censure, it's me.”

Fedra's expression didn't change. “My concern, Stray, is that you seem to understand, better than anyone, the purpose of the exercise... and you knew we could hear you. So why did you stop her?”

Stray was silent for a long time. He reflected on the question and tried to listen to his instincts, caught between deference and honesty... and in some other part of his consciousness, he struggled with his strategy: was this a test of some sort? Was it an ethical juncture? These considerations, which seemed to take a lifetime to Stray, stretched out over a silent half-minute.

At last, Stray chose candor. “Mistra, I stopped Grave and begged her company because I thought it was the right thing to do... wiser, I figured, than blind obedience to the test. We've come a great distance in solitude... for some, it's been a few weeks... for others, months. For many of us, this solitude has chased us our whole lives. What made this test challenging was that we were misled... we were led to believe, if only by implication, that the exercise would be a few hours, not an entire evening and night passing into the morning. For our first day to end in isolation, and trickery... inflicted by the very Order we've come so far to honor... that challenge inspired neither joy, nor loyalty, Mistra.”

Fedra continued looking impassive, but the older monk allowed himself a guarded smile.

In the face of the silence, Stray continued. “I am sorry, Mistra. I hope I still have the chance to prove myself.”

Fedra allowed the question to linger for a moment before she spoke. “There is sense in your defiance, Stray, and you've spoken well for yourself. I will discuss it with Prima Pradjiss, and we will let you know if there are any consequences.”

Stray nodded, keeping his head down.

“You can return to the Eyas Quarters, and get tonight's last morsel of sleep.” She paused for a moment, seeing Stray's downcast eyes. “And Stray... it's okay. Mercy warrants mercy. Dissadae's hand guides you.”

Stray lingered a moment, until it was clear that the monks were done with him. They remained motionless, statues by the gnarled tree trunk, and Stray finally turned away from them, passing under a sinuous stone arch and returning to the temple corridors.


9.3

Edzie spent that first day surveying her newly-claimed domain, passing from corridor to corridor, idly considering her limited range of options. She investigated the exterior path, from the impassible ravine to the cave entrance, marking anywhere her hands might find purchase in the rock. Escape wasn't impossible, she decided, in case of starvation or sudden danger, but it would be hazardous, and it wasn't worth the attempt, unless self-preservation demanded it.

She noticed, almost immediately, that the lonely terrace was disconcertingly devoid of animals. Perhaps, in summer, a few might make their nests here on the barren mountainside, but in winter, it was still as death. Aside from a few large birds of prey, black slivers pitching across the gray sky, the only movement on the mountainside was Edzie herself, and the occasional rustle of dried scrub, jostled by the cold winds.

Edzie returned in the afternoon, resuming her survey of the empty tunnels. She made deft use of Eryff's fishing-line, tying it to one of the sconces to lead her back to the main tunnel, and she carried a torch in front of her, checking the walls and floor with each step. As it turned out, most of the narrower side-corridors led to tiny, featureless stone chambers, or they terminated in unfinished cul-de-sacs, pockets of stale air where delvers had apparently gotten tired of delving. She couldn't explore every offshoot... some were too small, or too hard to climb through, and some went deeper than her fishing line would allow... but she got a good sense of the caverns' extent.

Edzie did find one notable landmark within that network of narrow tunnels. At the end of one corridor, she saw the torchlight disappear from the walls, and she realized that the walls themselves had vanished. She had stumbled upon an extraordinary chasm, like Dissadae's pinprick driven into the heart of the earth, and if she had been less careful, she might have fallen right off the precipice into the depths of the mountain. She thought, far in the distance, she could see the firelight flickering against the opposite wall, but there was no sign of any floor, nor any ceiling.

Edzie considered shouting into the depths of the mountain, but the thought made her uneasy, so she refrained.

Edzie returned to the main tunnel later in the afternoon, intending to investigate the waterfall staircase leading up from the underground lake. She spent a few minutes in the chamber, admiring the placid beauty of the black water, before she mounted the first step and began to climb.

The stairway wound around the cascading riverwater, skipping from platform to platform without breaking the falls themselves. Every few minutes, Edzie glanced down, and each time she felt a disorienting shiver pass through her. She thought of her passage over the ravine, clinging to her tree limb, and she almost swooned from the rush of vertigo. Still, she kept climbing, pushing through her anxieties. It took her twenty minutes to reach the top, not because it was so high... it was only a bit higher than the tallest buildings she had seen in Resine... but because she advanced with extraordinary caution, checking her stability with every step.

At the summit of the stone staircase, Edzie found a generous platform with a massive iron door in the far wall. The platform also hosted a pulley system, its chain coiled around a massive winch, whose crank was as long as Edzie's arm. The pulley hung over the side of the platform, presumably allowing very heavy objects to be hoisted up to the temple entrance.

Edzie tried the door and found it locked and immovable, as she expected. She surveyed the platform once more, and then started back down the stairway, taking each step with grave discretion, wondering what she would do when she got back to her campsite. She didn't even make it as far as the highest landing before she heard a booming voice ring out from above her.

“YOUR DISPENSATION IN MY DOMAIN IS NEARING ITS END, YOUNG INTRUDER. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF IT?”

Edzie turned around, mildly startled, to find the old man sitting on the platform above her, his dangling legs kicking idly, his toes wiggling. She recoiled a little, unnerved by his shameless nakedness, and privately she thanked Dissadae for his loincloth. She was dumbstruck for a moment, but he seemed to be patient enough.

“Just getting to know it,” she said. “Better than the mountain air, certainly, especially with the torches lit.” She hesitated, still unsettled by the arrangement. “I'm going back down, if that's okay? Not used to such high places.”

“WE SHALL CONTINUE OUR DUOLOG BELOW, THEN.”

Edzie shifted her focus back to her steps, taking them one at a time. Reaching the bottom, she turned to see if the Guardian was following her, but there was no sign of him. She sat down on the third step from the bottom, and after a brief pause, he appeared from her left side, emerging from the darkness outside the torch's range.

“How did you get down here?”

“I COMMANDED THE STONE TO BEAR ME HENCE, AND HERE I AM.” The Guardian folded his legs and sat beside the torch, which lent its fickle illumination to his right side. “SO NOW WE MUST DECIDE, YOUNG TRIBESWOMAN, WHETHER TO GRANT YOU ANOTHER DAY OF REFUGE IN THE GUARDIAN'S CAVERN.”

“Fair enough,” Edzie said, knowing she had nothing better to do for the moment.

“I PUT THE QUERY TO THEE: WHY SHOULD I LET YOU STAY?”

Edzie held the Guardian's gaze. “Do you really think it would be so easy to remove me?”

“DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE... THE MEANS OF...” The Guardian faltered as he tried to articulate a threat.

“Please, you can stop talking like that,” Edzie interrupted.

“Ahh, praise Dissadae,” the old man said, his voice suddenly gentle, if a bit uneven. “So to answer your question: I may not be the burly beast I used to be, but I have a whole temple full of monks above us who would probably not be nearly so patient or understanding as I am. So yes, I suspect I could remove you, and honestly, it's probably wiser of me.”

Edzie wasn't sure what this treatment would entail, but she had some distasteful ideas: being locked away while they investigated her tribal affiliation, being forced into the service of the Order, or simply being cast out and having the doors barred to reentry. Worst of all, she imagined how furious and disgusted Stray would be if he saw her, still hovering in his shadow. For now, diplomacy and deference seemed her best options.

“I hope we can come to some kind of understanding, just for a little while. I'd rather not be thrown back to the wind.”

The old man raised a skeptical eyebrow. “We will see, my lord... Edzie, was it? A refugee of the tribes? May I ask which tribe?”

Edzie's mind raced through all possible responses. She drew up several plausible lies, but recognized the danger in getting herself caught up in a web of falsehood; she considered being fully honest, but for the moment, it seemed a careless approach. Finally, she settled on a forthright sort of evasion, something cautious, with at least a modicum of respect.

“I'd rather keep that to myself, if it's all the same. It's not my first choice for small talk.”

The old monk nodded, folding his arms across his chest. “Fine. Be as reticent as you want... you won't stop me from guessing.” He inspected her, and he was silent for long enough that it made Edzie mildly uncomfortable. “Aerimus, maybe? Entrane, the nomad? Denoria?”

Edzie gave the old monk a wry smile, but didn't give any other sign. Presently, he seemed to give up, and asked an unrelated question. “So you've followed the Prospects to Gryffepeak, but you don't want to partake in the Prospectus yourself. May I ask why that is?”

Edzie shrugged, trying to look ambivalent as she sorted out her reasons. “I'd make a terrible monk. I have no respect, restraint, or benevolence. Like I said, though... I needed a place to go, and seeing all the Prospects coming up the Cragstep, Dissadae just moved me in the same direction.”

The guardian monk pondered this. “Well, I suppose the seed must find its soil. So there are several things you'll need to think about: what kind of life you're willing to live, now that you've left your tribe's protection... what you want... where you can go to find it.” He walked up to the next landing, his leathery skin brushing against her as he passed. “Those are your burdens, of course, warrior seedling. As for me, I just need to know how long you plan on taking advantage of my hospitality, so I can decide how long to allow it.”

“Well, I would like to stay at least these next twelve days, if it's okay,” Edzie suggested impulsively, thinking of the duration of the Prospectus. “If I don't starve by then, at least.”

Edzie felt, as she said this, that she had made a subtle mistake... asking for too much time, or revealing too much of her motivation. She couldn't repair the damage, so she tried to pass over it quickly, continuing: “Thusly do I beg your forbearance, oh monk whose name I have yet to learn.”

The monk was already halfway up the stairs. “I'll consider it,” he said, his voice receding. “You'll have to wait until our next meeting for an answer, and for my name, also. Unless...” He gave her a mocking grin. “Unless you're willing to see me up the stairs! Maybe I'll introduce myself on the way!”

Edzie considered the offer, but she thought of that slow climb and the emptiness of the elevated air, and a tremor of anxiety ran through her. “No,” she said, “I think I'll go back to check on my campfire,” and a few moments later, the naked monk had vanished beyond the torch's reach.

 

Stray had never imagined so many books could fit in one place.

The Prospects had spent the day in meditation and lectures, first focused on their tonic – a review of the previous day’s lessons in frequency and introspection – and then moving on to their focus word, a topic in which Stray didn’t have such a head start. Their teacher, a towering monk named Djest'ra, conducted the Prospects through several memory exercises, reflecting on the names of their oldest friends and replicating sounds from their childhood sanctuaries. They were asked to combine and explore these sounds… to find inversions, or simplifications, or responses… and through these tasks, they were each led to a single, complex utterance that combined their strongest aural memories. This, Djest'ra said, would eventually become their focus word.

After individual sessions with Djest'ra, consisting of clumsy attempts to physically "interpret" their focus words, the Prospects were given an early supper of bready vegetables. Leaving the dining room, they were corralled by Miggish and led back through the garden, up a narrow staircase, and finally to the Envoclajiz library, where they were now standing.

The Envoclajiz library was situated on the second floor of the temple, wedged in between a dusty workshop and a row of monks' shared quarters. The second floor lacked the majestic high ceilings of the cavernous ground floor, but still, those shelves – stacks rising to twice Stray's height – were enough to dislodge Stray's mind from its moorings, leaving him a gaping ghost drifting through the solemn study.

In the Envoclajiz, with its poverty of mineral facades and brutal articulations, the library was the closest thing Stray had seen to opulence, or at least indulgence. Its floor was padded in woven mats, and instead of crackling torches, it was lit with rows of candles set into gaps in the shelving. There were enough benches and tables for all three-dozen Prospects to sit, with some space to spare for organizing into small groups. The furniture was sanded and finished, presumably fashioned by craftsmen from the cities far to the west.

When the wooden doors closed behind Stray, the sounds from the hallway -- grinding and tapping and hissing from the workshops across the hall -- suddenly ceased, as if Stray had plunged into still water.

Stray gazed up at the stacks, his brow furrowed. “Respiris oquay... how many of each book must they have?”

Grave approached from behind on his left. “Enough for each reader to have her own copy, I would imagine. Maybe hundreds!”

Bastris approached from Stray's right. “No, each book is different. There's one of each.”

Grave frowned in the shade of her open brivsa. “No, that can't be right. There's no way this many books have been written. You'd have to record the whole universe, thrice over.”

Bastris chuckled inexplicably at this remark.

Once their awe had subsided, the Prospects were welcomed by three monks, the library's attendants. They were Drydiss, an ageless muscular woman whose leather belt and straps featured prominently in her uniform... Pendro, a ruddy red-headed male barely beyond his boyhood, whose eyes had a chronic distracted glaze... and Brett, a rough-shaven man whose robes fell heavily over a frame that seemed wretchedly hunched, considering his face looked younger than forty winters. They were a curatorial fellowship, standing at attention before their verbose sanctuary, vigilant as they admitted the new harvest of Prospects. With the formalities concluded, Brett took leave to return to his meditations. Drydiss and Pendro stayed to supervise.

Pendro, his voice a gentle tenor, led the Prospects around the perimeter of the library, explaining the organizational scheme and reciting the rules of the space: nobody but the curators should place books back on the shelves, and the books were one of the great treasures of the temple, so they had to be treated as sacred objects, spared from abuse and neglect. In fact, Pendro noted, the Envoclajiz had a few rare tomes of language scholarship and geographic survey, including some of the most ancient documents ever found to use the transitional common tongue. These were kept in a vault on the top floor, safe from constant use.

Pendro said the library itself... this single room of phrase and shadow... was large enough that it had books of every standard sort, but small enough that it had to adhere to some specialties. In particular, it was well-stocked with histories, poetry, and scientific texts (biology, optics, physics, acoustics). Under Pendro's close scrutiny, the Prospects took a few minutes to pull individual volumes from the shelves, page through them, and share what they found amongst themselves.

After a few minutes of this idle exploration, the Prospects were set to their task for the evening: researching the early history of the Order, starting from its roots in the Precaesurite sect of the Upriver Kingdoms. They were urged to look in many places... books of history, certainly, but also collections of poetry, anthologies of folk stories, and studies of art and architecture. Stray conspired with Grave and Bastris to check three different corners of the library, find anything that might be appropriate, and meet at the open table furthest from the entrance door.

Stray managed to find a book of cryptic parables and advice from historical spiritualists, and he began to leaf through it, mildly bewildered in the face of such density. As he scanned the pages, he kept a discreet eye on the other Prospects, observing the social dynamics that were forming. They were already self-segregating, building loyalties through a steady process of identification and exclusion, and though some of these seemed entirely random, most were based on superficial commonalities: they came from similar parts of the Pastures, or they had spent time in the same city, or they recognized each other's accents. The Concordance youth were reproducing some of the tribal affinities that were already established, and one tribe – the Ellakay – had enough Prospects that they formed a significant social group all by themselves.

As he surveyed his colleagues, Stray became aware – only very gradually, as if his eyes were adjusting to dim light – that there was another presence in the library, a figure seated in a recessed back corner. Though the room seemed evenly lit, the newcomer had managed to find a sort of ebb in the glow of the candles, effectively concealing herself in plain sight. She wore a hood, like a brivsa, and Stray couldn't tell whether she sat in a very low chair, or whether she was simply perched on a hassock and leaning against the wall. She was as still as a stone carving, and Stray could feel her eyes upon him... not upon the room, but upon him, specifically, reflecting his curious gaze back at him. None of the other Prospects seemed to notice the observer, but Stray was trapped, gaping, like a wide-eyed boundeer skewered on a spit.

The spell was broken, at last, by a rise in activity at one of the intervening tables. Stray's attention was wrenched aside, and his gaze settled on a tribesgirl, a granite slab of a warrior with hair cropped to a few shaggy inches, who had gathered several other Prospects around her. They were bent over a book, pointing at a picture... a few of the tribesgirls looked severely uncomfortable... and they all seemed so riveted, it drove Stray to crane his neck to see what they might be looking at.

He wasn't disappointed... the short-haired girl held up the open book, and Stray saw that the pages had a whole gallery of faces, all illustrated in a loose realistic style. The tribesgirls recoiled and gasped and grunted, throwing up their hands as if to ward off their disgust, and the short-haired girl laughed crassly, waving the tome around a bit before closing it and setting it back down. Bastris passed by on his way back toward his own table, and he looked baffled by these proceedings. Grave, separated from the laughter by several disinterested bystanders, was making a visible effort to ignore the ruckus.

“What so interesting over there?” Bastris asked, once Stray and Grave had rejoined him.

There was an extended pause as Stray and Grave exchanged glances. Stray wondered, fleetingly, how much Grave knew about the sensibilities outside her tribe, and then he wondered whether he needed to educate Bastris, or Grave, or both. Part of him still felt a twinge when he saw those drawn faces… a deep-seated nausea, as though some elusive equilibrium had been disturbed… but he had talked with Edzie about this, many times over, and had come to terms with the nature of the taboo: its convention, its artifice, the tribal solidarity it represented.

“You don’t see anything wrong with the drawings?” Grave asked Bastris, keeping a measured tone.

“No. They seem fairly skilled, but nothing brilliant... or odious, for all that. Is there something I’m not seeing?”

“It’s the face,” Stray said.

“Aye, the animus, we call it,” Grave elaborated, and she couldn't keep the contempt entirely out of her voice. “In the tribes, we respect the animus, we don’t go scratching it in dusty old tomes.”

Bastris was obviously still confused.

Stray spoke to Grave, firm and polite. “He doesn’t know, Grave,” he said, and then turned back to Bastris. “In the Concordance, it’s one of our rules: we don’t draw faces. The face is a sacred symbol of Dissadae, and marking it on any surface – wood, paper, leather, stone – is an obscenity. You’ll want to be careful about that, being around all us tribesfolk.”

Bastris nodded, but raised a skeptical eyebrow. “So how do you learn better? How does anybody draw a person, or… an animal?”

Grave interjected, straining for patience, trying her hardest to navigate this social terrain. “We are taught through a story, as small children. It’s one of the stories about how the eight tribes were formed. Maybe we can find it in one of these books.”

Stray touched her forearm as she began to rise. “I think you can just tell him yourself, right? You might do a better job, anyway… the voice of the tribes, as it were?”

This sounded reasonable, so they agreed: that evening, after their studies were complete and the Prospects were gathering for the night, they would reconvene, and Grave would tell the story of the animus. Stray barely remembered it, lost as it was in the fog of his early assimilation, but Grave had studied its origins and its historical precedents, and she knew several variations, verbatim, from the elders of the Solavera tribe.

They returned, presently, to their assignment, poring over books and isolating valuable passages. When Pendro visited their group to assess their progress, he seemed pleased, and he asked them to choose a representative to present their findings to the group. Stray volunteered, glowing with the pride of recognition. He practiced his presentation a few times, hungry for Grave and Bastris's approval.

His pride faded considerably when Pendro started calling up various Prospects to participate in a short group lecture, revealing a discouraging fact: every group was expected to present, not just Stray, and not on the basis of merit. Despite this disappointment, Stray did his best to listen to his colleagues' presentations, and when it was his turn to read a few passages, he performed the task with sagely seriousness. Of all the presentations, his was probably the most heartfelt and dramatic, but also, judging by the quiet shifting of seated bodies, it might have been the most boring.

Stray looked for the shadowy onlooker a few more times, but the figure had vanished, and apparently nobody else had even noticed it in the first place.