* Weaver’s Road *
“Ash, you awake? We’re about to eat breakfast.”
Ashley lurched up from the bed with a start. She looked around furtively and realized that she was back in her bedroom in Salov’s manor. The morning sun was streaming in through the large windows to her right.
There was a knock on the door. “Ash? You okay?” Wayne’s voice sounded concerned.
“Uh, yeah, I’m fine,” Ashley called. “I’ll be down in a bit.”
She scrambled out of bed, her bare feet hitting the cold wooden floor, and she quickly headed to the small bathroom attached to her room, her mind still buzzing with everything she’d experienced in the Waiting Room as she quickly showered and got ready.
Just as on the previous day, Ashley dressed in clothing provided for her by Salov. She was wearing a cream-colored sleeveless sundress, her favorite type of outfit. Only thirty minutes after waking, she left her room and headed downstairs, her thick blonde hair still wet from the shower.
“Hey Ash,” Wayne called.
He was sitting at the long dining room table with Derrek, Tarak, Nina, Rachel, Lizzy, and Salov. Like Ashley, everyone had new clothing provided to them by the tailor. The table was laden with pastries, smoked meats, fruit, and juices. Everyone was eating and talking exuberantly.
“Wow, where’d all this food come from?” Ashley said in awe.
“Well, I figured everyone would be hungry after the adventure we had yesterday. Fortunately, Lizzy here helped with the shopping and cooking this morning,” Salov gave the young girl’s shoulder an appreciative pat. “Couldn’t have gotten it done without her, she’s quite the little helper.”
“Thanks, I used to help my mom with cooking and housework all the time.” Though she was clearly happy at the praise, there was a hint of sadness in Lizzy’s voice.
Ashley took a seat next to Wayne and started piling food onto her plate before she turned to him and asked, “Where’s Amber?”
“I figured she must be exhausted so I didn’t wake her.” Wayne leaned into her ear to whisper the next part. “She couldn’t sleep last night and came to my room. She asked to sleep there, so I let her have my bed. I’m worried about her; she seems really traumatized.”
Ashley was about to press him for more information, but Salov spoke again from the other end of the table. “That reminds me, Wayne, you and the others were asleep when Constable Mitchell came by early this morning. Apparently, the desert rangers sent word about our mission last night, and Mitchell had some questions. He also gave me our share of the reward. The thirty slavers we caught all had bounties on their heads and we each received five thousand centars.”
“Really?” Wayne was stunned by this pronouncement. Though he had no idea what a centar was worth, he was still glad to have some money.
“I can transfer it to your orcruses after breakfast,” Salov offered.
“I don’t have an orcrus,” Tarak said immediately. “We can’t use them in the desert.”
“Right, of course.” Salov thought for a moment. “I’ll give you five, one-thousand centar coins and you can take them to the bank before you go and exchange them for desert notes.”
“Um, we don’t have an orcrus either,” Wayne could only partially understand what an orcrus was based on context, but he was used to making excuses by this point. “Like I said yesterday, when my friends and I were attacked by monsters; we lost everything.”
“I have a spare I can give you, but I only have one though,” Salov said, looking between Derrick and Wayne.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Derrick said immediately. “Wayne handles the money anyway, so just give the, uh, orcrus thing to him and he can hold my share too.”
Salov gave Derrick a curious look but then continued. “Well anyway, if either of you have the time, you should stop by the constable’s office. Mitchell wants to ask you both some questions. It seems they’re taking an interest in this ringleader you guys saw. You said his name was Kingston, right?”
Tarak nodded. “Yeah, he was the one gathering up all of the slavers, trying to form some sort of big network.”
“Well, his plan’s done for now,” Derrick said brightly, “since we’ve caught pretty much all the slavers.”
“Hardly,” Tarak scoffed.
“What do you mean?” Derrick asked.
“Slavers are like desert ants: just ‘cause you only see a few, don’t mean there aren’t hundreds more just beneath the sand lurking about. We’ve only put a small dent in the slave trade. They’ll probably lay low for a while, maybe not traffic through the edge towns, but we haven’t seen the last of them,” Tarak said gravely.
“Is it really that bad?” Ashley asked.
Tarak nodded. “It used to be the raiders would just steal food and supplies, but in the last few years, they started kidnapping people: mostly kids and young women. There are lots of places where they can sell slaves. The boys are usually sold for labor. I heard Marshroot is buying up slaves to help with the reconstruction, and there are tons of towns in the mountains that use slaves in their mines. Girls are usually sold to brothels or wealthy clients as servants or concubines. Slave traders thrive in the crystal sands; there’s a lot of poverty and homelessness. Plus, most people born and raised in the desert don’t gain any adimus abilities even after they get taken out. Makes them easier to control.”
“That’s awful,” Ashley said. “What will happen to the kids we rescued?”
“The Sunnin Social System will take care of them, I imagine,” Salov said. “They’ll help them find family members, or in the worst case, house them in one of their orphanages.”
“I don’t know about that,” Tarak said. “There are plenty of homeless kids in the sands and Sunnin’s never done anything about it. Probably afraid of being out in the desert for a long time, just like everyone else.”
“Well, I know Panson has contacted them, so hopefully it won’t be an issue at least taking in the kids here in Weaver’s Road,” Salov reassured.
Tarak stood. “I hope so. Well anyway, we need to get going. I know mom’s gotta be anxious. I sent a quick note by calor bird message last night to let her know we’re safe, but I don’t want to keep her waiting. Come on Nina, Rachel.”
The two girls gave noises of ascent and then both stood and said their farewells to everyone at the table. Rachel was especially grateful to her rescuers and hugged Derek, Salov, and Wayne in turn.
Thanks again, Mr. Wayne, for helping us,” she said after giving him a brief hug.
“Good luck Rachel,” Wayne said. He knew that her parents had died during her kidnapping, so now, Rachel would live with Nina and her family for a while until her aunt and uncle could take her in.
After saying her goodbyes, Nina went to Ashley and unexpectedly gave her a hug. “Good luck. I know you’ll be able to help the orphaned children. Just trust yourself,” she whispered in Ashley’s ear.
Ashley’s eyes went wide. No one else had heard Nina, and the young girl gave Ashley a knowing smile before leaving the room with Rachel.
“Tarak, let me get your staff,” Wayne said before Tarak could follow the girls.
“No, you keep it,” Tarak said. “It might come in handy some time.”
Wayne doubted that he would ever use the staff but didn’t refuse the gift. “Thanks. I hope you and the girls have a safe trip home.”
Salov stood as well. “I still need to give you your share of the reward. Will you have enough time to go to the bank?”
Tarak nodded. “Yeah, it’s still an hour before the next ferry leaves. I might even stop by the constable’s office like you said.”
“Let me walk you out then,” Salov said before turning back to Wayne. “I’ll bring you that orcrus after I see them off.”
“Are you still going to let me see your shop today?” Lizzy called to Salov before he could leave with Tarak.
“Right, of course,” Salov said as if just remembering. “Well, if you can help me clean-up first, then I’ll take you there. I need to work on some designs anyway.”
Lizzy beamed, clearly excited. “Okay, I’ll start now.” She grabbed the plates of everyone who had already left the table and followed Salov out of the room, humming happily.
“Wayne, do you have a plan for where we’re going to head to find the others?” Derrick asked.
Wayne shook his head. “I’m going to do some research today to figure out what our next step should be. Salov agreed to let us stay one more night, so my plan is to leave first thing in the morning.”
Derrick stood. “Good, I want to head to the Warrior Guild and get some training in before we leave.”
Wayne nodded before turning to Ashley. “What are your plans for today?”
Ashley came out of her musings. “Oh, um…Derrick, you just said you were going to the Warrior Guild, right? Can I come with you?”
Derrick eyed her curiously. “Sure, if you want. Plan on doing some martial arts training?” He chuckled.
“What? Oh, no. The kids we rescued from the slavers are staying there. I thought I’d visit them.”
“That makes more sense. Let me grab my stuff and then we can head out.”
Ashley turned to Wayne as Derrick headed upstairs. “Would you walk there with me? I want to talk to you about something.”
“I would, but I want to be here when Amber wakes up. She might panic if there’s no one familiar around.”
“Right, that makes sense.” Ashley went silent for a few moments. “So, she came to your room last night? Did she say anything to you about what happened?”
“She was with those slavers for a few weeks. That’s all I know so far, but…I think they really abused her, maybe even—”
“No,” Ashley’s hand shot up to her mouth, “You don’t really think…”
Wayne shrugged. “I don’t know. She didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t want to press. I really think you should talk to her; she’ probably feel a lot more comfortable talking to a girl.”
Ashley shook her head. “Amber practically idolizes you; you’re like a big brother to her. If she’s going to talk to anyone, it’s you.”
“Some big brother I am. When she needed me the most, she thought I completely abandoned her.” Wayne looked miserable.
“Hey, this isn’t your fault,” Ashley said sharply. “You’ve got to stop putting everything on yourself.”
“I know, I know,” Wayne said. “She just seems so broken. Those slavers wanted to beat the spark out of her; I think they succeeded.”
“No,” Ashley said resolutely. “Amber’s strong. I know she can get through this; she just needs our help.”
Derrick returned with a brown drawstring bag slung over his shoulder and the black band tied around his forehead. “You ready to head out?”
“Yeah.” Ashley grabbed the last uneaten pastry off her plate as she stood.
Wayne took her free hand before she could step away. “Hey, wasn’t there something you wanted to tell me?”
Ashley thought for a moment. “It can wait until I get back.”
Wayne eyed her suspiciously. “Okay; well, be careful. The last thing I need is for something to happen to you.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she doesn’t get into any trouble,” Derrick said with a grin.
“I’ll be fine, I promise,” Ashley gave Wayne a long hug before leaving with Derrick.
Ashley was far from fine. Her mind was still buzzing with everything she’d learned from Ester, but chief among those thoughts were the vague instructions to visit the Warrior Guild. Although she was curious as to what might happen, she also didn’t like the fact that she was being led around with only a hint to go on. Was this some sort of test, some way for Ester to see if she was worthy of being the Daughter of the Sun? That thought annoyed her. She didn’t even want the job, and now she was being forced to audition for it.
As they walked through the entrance of the guild, Ashley wondered, not for the first time, how she would even know what it was she needed to look out for, but almost immediately the answer became clear.
“This is madness! You duffers are worse than the slaver scum we just fought.”
“Sir, we understand you’re upset but—”
“Upset? That ain’t the word for it, missy. We did our job rescuing these young’uns now it’s time for you to do yours. What are you Sunnin folk good for if you can’t help these kids?”
Panson was red-faced and yelling at two women in yellow robes in the lobby of the Warrior Guild.
“No need to get all riled up Panson, that’s just the way it is.” A stout, tan-skinned man spoke up from beside the guildmaster. He was wearing an elaborately designed red and white robe and matching red fez. Panson looked like he might hit him.
Derrick immediately went to intervene, Ashley at his heels. “Panson, what’s going on?”
Panson rounded on Derrick but then realized who he was. “It’s this lot!” He pointed angrily at the two blonde-haired women. “They’re sayin’ they can’t take the kids!”
“What? Why?” Ashley turned to them confused. “You’re from the Sunnin Social System, right?”
The two women gave each other hesitant looks before one of them stepped forward. “Yes, we are. I’m Sister Jasmine and this is Sister Patrice.” She gestured to her companion.
Both women were slim with long, honey-blonde hair, and bright blue eyes, but they were distinct in other ways. Though they both seemed young, Jasmine looked to be the older of the two. She was tall with ivory skin, an oval face, and her hair in a high ponytail. Patrice’s face was more heart shape, and her skin was a light beige. Her thick hair cascaded past her shoulders and down her back, and she looked far meeker than her partner.
“As I’ve been trying to explain to Guildmaster Panson, we currently don’t have the room to house forty children in any of our orphanages.” Jasmine continued. “We’re beyond capacity due to the fallout of the Marshroot civil war, and because of the recent monster attacks, we’re having to take extra precautions, so we don’t have the necessary resources to help in this situation.”
“So, what’s going to happen to those kids then?” Derrick asked.
Sister Jasmine looked down. “Honestly, we just don’t know. It will be up to the Weaver’s Road officials to decide their fate at this point.”
“I’m sure the council will figure out an appropriate solution,” said the man in the fez confidently.
“They’ll end up urchins and you know it!” Panson roared again. “You know that this town doesn’t have the means to take care of forty homeless kids.”
“Are you from the Sunnin Social System too?” Ashley asked the elaborately dressed man, though her tone was skeptical.
He had a completely different air about him than the two sisters. With his portly figure, bushy black mustache, and elaborate jewelry, Ashley couldn’t help but think of the stereotypical sultan pictured in Earth media. He even wore some type of cologne, a woody scent but with distinct notes of vanilla. For a brief moment, she wondered if he might be a member of the Stokenshire family that Ester told her about.
The man smiled broadly. “No, my dear, I’m here as a representative of the Merchant Council. My name is Isaac Banion.”
“Representative?” Panson’s laugh was like a bark. “You ain’t do nothing for us while you was head, and now that they’ve done thrown you out, you decide to come here and stir up trouble?”
“Even though I am no longer chairman, I’m still an active member of the council, and as such, I cannot turn a blind eye when these issues arise,” Banion said seriously. “I spoke directly to Sister Heather about this situation, and when I heard Sunnin’s position, I of course came here at once. After all, it’s quite the ordeal if these kids have nowhere to go.”
“Okay, well there’s got to be something we can do,” Ashley said. “We can’t just let them live on the street. What about helping them find their parents or other family members who can take them in?”
“Under normal circumstances we would certainly do that,” Jasmine nodded sadly, “but it would take too long. We’d also need a place for the children to stay in the meantime and we’d need someplace permanent for the ones that we can’t find family members for.”
Ashley turned to Panson. “Can’t the kids stay here until we find their families?”
It was Banion who answered though. “I’m afraid that’s just not possible. According to the agreement on file with their registration, the Warrior Guild building is only licensed for official guild use and must remain open for guild members during normal operating hours. This would put them in direct violation of that.”
Ashley looked back and forth between Panson and Banion, clearly confused.
Panson gave her a dejected look. “I’m sorry, lil’ missy. I want to help, but those young’uns take up the entire gym and with the main guild building gone, there’s no other space. Housin’ them for the night was one thing, but I can’t shut down for weeks while we try to find ‘em a home. I’d be in a right bit of trouble.”
Ashley was about to object but Patrice interrupted her. “Even if the guild could house them, as Sister Jasmine mentioned, our resources are stretched thin. We don’t have the staff to devote to such a project right now. For one thing, we’d need people familiar with the desert towns as well as—”
“I thought the Sunnin Social System was supposed to help people,” Ashley stepped forward, passion in her voice. “I was told that the Daughter of the Sun built it. Wasn’t one of the main reasons to help children in need? How can you just let these kids live on the street?”
Patrice looked down. It was clear she was having difficulty with what she had to say. “We can bring you some supplies to help in the short term. I’m afraid that’s the best we can do for now.”
“Completely understandable,” Banion nodded solemnly. “Hopefully once this crisis is over, we can reassess.”
The two women bowed and headed for the door.
“Wait!” Ashley shouted before she even knew what she was going to say.
Her voice was loud enough to make everyone turn, including the two Sunnin sisters. Her mind was racing, and she felt a tightness in her chest as she realized all eyes were on her.
She took a deep steadying breath and turned to Panson. “One day.”
“What’s that?” Panson said, confused.
“Can you let the guild be closed for one day?”
“Well…” Panson hesitated.
“Just give us today to try to find homes for all these kids. My friends and I will only be here for that long anyway.” She turned to Derrick. “If we don’t do everything we possibly can to help them, what was the point of rescuing them from those slavers?”
Derrick shrugged. “I can’t argue that.”
“Nor can I,” Panson decided. “I can give you the day, lil’ missy.” He looked to Banion. “I have some latitude as guildmaster, after all.”
Banion gave a small frown but then nodded. “I suppose if it’s only one day…but any more would definitely be a breach. I’m not sure what you think you can accomplish, young miss, but I wish you luck.” He tipped his hat to Ashley before walking past the conflicted looking Sunnin workers and exiting.
“Quartz-brained dudder,” Panson murmured. “If it weren’t for his incompetence, we’d have our main guild building, and we wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with.”
Ashley walked up to the two Sunnin sisters. “What about you? Will you stay just one day and help us try to get these kids homes?”
Patrice and Jasmine exchanged hesitant looks again. “We could tell her we got held up arranging for supplies,” Patrice whispered, a slight plea in her voice.
Jasmine finally nodded. “Okay, we’ll stay and help you.”
Ashley beamed. “Thank you.”
“Still, I’m not sure how much help we’ll be,” Jasmine added. “Neither of us are familiar with the desert towns.”
“Don’t worry about that; I have an idea,” Ashley said brightly before turning to Panson again. “Can you lead us to where the kids are?”
Derrick headed for the main entrance. “Well, I should probably go get Wayne. We’ll need all the help we can get.”
“No wait,” Ashley stopped him from leaving. “Wayne’s looking after Amber. There’s someone else I need you to get though.”
Thirty minutes later, Derrick arrived in the Warrior Guild gym with Tarak, Nina, and Rachel in tow. Fortunately, he was able to reach them before their sand ferry was set to leave. Ashley rushed forward the moment she saw them enter.
“Tarak, thank you so much for coming. I know you wanted to get home.” She clasped Tarak’s hands in her own.
“Derrick said you needed my help with the kids we rescued,” Tarak said, slightly surprised by Ashley’s gesture. “Something about not having a place for them?”
“There’s nowhere for them to go and they can’t stay here more than a day,” Ashley said.
Tarak nodded in understanding. “I had a feeling something like this might happen. The desert always gets ignored.”
Ashley frowned slightly. “Well, I want to help. I thought maybe we could find family members they can go to, sort of like what you’re doing for Rachel. I was hoping since you know more about the desert than any of us, you’d be able to help.”
Tarak put a hand to his chin. “It’s not a bad idea. Even if we can’t find family, friends or neighbors from the same town might take them in. Desert communities are very close knit. The problem is that we only have one day to do it.” He thought for a moment, well aware of the pleading look Ashley was giving him. “Okay, I have an idea. Let’s find out where all the kids are from, then I can send letters to people I know in those towns asking them to help find the kids’ family members or someone who can take them in. We have a lot of connections from my dad’s days as a miner. There’s a calor bird messenger station in town. Calors are desert birds and really fast. We can use them to get messages back and forth quickly. So hopefully we’ll get answers back within four to six hours, and then we’ll at least have a better idea of what we’re working with.”
Ashley nodded along with the explanation. “That sounds like a perfect plan. I knew you’d be able to help. Thank you so much!”
“No problem,” Tarak shrugged.
Jasmine and Patrice joined the group. “We’ve check over all of the children for injuries and we have a list of supplies we need to get. We should also pick up some food for them to eat.”
Ashley noticed the scowl that appeared on Tarak’s face when the Sunnin sisters appeared. “Okay, how about this: Jasmine, you go get the supplies. Take Derrick with you to help carry everything.” She turned to the two girls with Tarak. “Nina, Rachel, can you help too?”
“Okay!” both girls said in near unison, clearly excited to be helping.
“Patrice, could you stay with me so we can talk to each of the kids and find out as much information as we can about where they’re from. Tarak is going to write letters to send to the towns and find family members.” Ashley explained quickly. She picked Patrice to stay since she seemed to have the meeker personality of the two and would most likely not do anything to annoy Tarak, even unintentionally.
For a moment, Ashley wondered if the two Sunnin sisters would be amenable to taking direction from her, but both women gave brief bows before Jasmine headed out with Derrick and the girls.
“There are a few children who believe their parents might still be alive, but most are unsure,” Patrice said as she led Tarak and Ashley through the crowd of children.
“The slave traders never leave parents alive if they can help it,” Tarak said. “It’s easier to steal a kid if no one is going to come looking for them later.”
“I see.” Patrice nodded sadly. “In addition, there are a couple of girls we couldn’t get to speak to us. They look like they might be siblings, but it’s hard to tell.”
She guided them to the back of the gym where two little girls were huddled against the wall looking scared. Both had olive skin, dirty black hair cut in a short bob, and the characteristic green eyes that were prevalent among all who were born in the desert. As the trio approached, the two girls gripped each other closely, terror clear in their eyes.
Ashley knelt to get on the girls’ level and gave a warm smile. “Hey there. Are you two okay?”
Immediately the two girls lit up as if relieved, and they both nodded.
“That’s good,” Ashley said. “Can you tell me your names?”
“I’m Sky,” the older of the two girls said, “and this is my sister, River.”
“Sky and River, those are really nice names,” Ashley said. She didn’t notice the confused stares both Tarak and Patrice were giving her. “My name is Ashley. How old are you?”
River spoke now. “I’m five!” she said exuberantly.
“I’m seven,” Sky added.
“Five and seven, okay, and can you tell me where you’re from?”
Both girls looked at each other as if confused by the question. “We’re from home,” Sky finally answered.
Ashley smiled indulgently. “Okay, but where is home?”
“Home is where we live, where our parents are,” Sky said, still looking confused.
Ashley’s eyes furrowed. She looked back to Tarak. “Any clue?”
“Uh…” Tarak shook his head. “Any clue of what? I can’t understand them. I’m guessing they must be from the nomad tribes in the north since they don’t speak Common. I’m surprised you can speak their language.”
“I…” Ashley paused, slightly taken aback.
She suddenly remembered the one other time she could speak freely to someone while those around her couldn’t. It had been when she met Fantasma for the first time. Ester told her that she could speak and understand any language. Apparently, she didn’t even know when she was doing it.
“Well, it’s similar to a language I’m familiar with,” she said finally, hoping that would be enough of an explanation. “Anyway, they can’t tell me where they live. They just keep saying that they’re from ‘home.’ Do you know what they mean?”
“Oh.” Tarak nodded. “That makes sense. Like I said, they’re probably from the nomad tribes. They move around the northern part of the desert and don’t stay in one place very long.”
“So how can we find out if they have any family?” Ashley asked dejectedly.
“Well, the good news is: the nomads will most likely take them in regardless. I doubt they’d abandon one of their own. It’s just getting a message to them that will be hard.” Tarak thought for a moment. “I think I have a friend in Kasburg that could help. I’ll write to him.”
Ashley perked up. “Really? Great!”
Tarak chuckled at this.
Ashley gave him a quizzical look. “What?”
“It’s just…you’re very expressive,” Tarak said with a smile.
“Is that a bad thing?”
Tarak shook his head. “It’s just interesting. It’s sort of fun to watch.”
Ashley didn’t know how to take this, so she shrugged. “Well, I’m glad I can keep you entertained while you help us. Come on, let’s talk to the other kids so you can send out those letters as quickly as possible.”
Patrice, who’d been silent during the entire interaction, smiled warmly as Ashley and Tarak walked off to another group of children. In that moment, she redoubled her commitment to their endeavor. She would do everything in her power to serve Ashley’s vision of helping all of the children.