Joe rolled up the map and slipped it into the document case, which he strapped across his back. “South to Bardor, continue to Omar to hop a train to Frey, then an overnight stay before another train to the capital. So, what’s for breakfast?” The Eyan language was rolling off his tongue now. He must have practiced that speech a dozen times.
Suvira nodded her head. “We’ll find something on the way.”
Joe and Suvira met Renz at the hotel door and they all wandered through the market. Joe found fresh citrus fruits collected from a local orchard and Renz picked out some pungent cheeses from Soza Province.
They ate as they walked along the main road past the courthouse, library, and the domed condos and social buildings in the eyan suburb. An orange blossom skittered across the sidewalk on the breeze and Renz made his stride long to step over it.
Suvira smiled and raised a hand to get the boys’ attention. “This is a lucky place. Hail the next cart.”
Renz looked past her up the road. A massive contraption sputtered along with a grumbling engine and spouts of steam. It pulled wheeled cages of tusked pigs and flapping foul. It was not the ride Renz was looking for. He stepped back from the road and bumped into Suvira.
Renz felt a stinging pain and gasped, reaching for his ear. It felt damp and his fingers came back with a pink tinge of blood and saliva. “Ouch! You bit me,” he accused, wiping his hand on his travel bag.
Suvira shrugged. “You hesitated.”
Joe stepped out into the road just after the traveling barnyard passed and held up his hands. The next cart was pulled by oxen and the trader driving the cart was a grizzled Eyan missing half an ear. He stopped the ox team only inches from Joe and clapped his hands. “Brave lad. Where to?” His cart had seating for them all, plus a heaping mound covered in the back that smelled of lavender and clove.
Joe grinned. “Omar, to catch a train.”
The cart-man nodded. “I’m heading that way. We’ll spend an afternoon at the Bardor faire, then on to Omar. I’m Brew. You’re welcome to come along, but I could use a story or two.”
Joe nodded and introduced Renz, Suvira, and himself. “I’m learning the language.”
Suvira climbed aboard first. “I know a few stories that would be new to my traveling companions. Do you mind?”
Brew leaned forward and patted the rump of an ox. “Better to have the company than the quiet.”
As they set off rocking down the rutted road, Suvira began her tale:
Everything that was, is, and is yet-to-come has spun out of Chaos. She is magnificent and grotesque. She is creation, change, and destruction. The song goes…
The Universe is Chaos;
She bleeds you and heals you, in turns.
The more you shy from change,
The more she bleeds you.
Prepare for the teeth;
Relish the salve.
Chaos had many varied children, but the dearest was Eydan, the Grandmother, who is the solar system and the world. From Grandmother sprang the lady Soil, the lord Water, the lady Moon, the lord Sun and the lady Stars. From the Soil sprang the plants. From the Water sprang the animals. From the Moon sprang the people. From the Sun sprang the light. From the Stars may spring anything.
Brew interjected, “These pesky humans obviously come from the Stars.”
Joe chuckled. “You got that right.”
Suvira shrugged a shoulder. “We are all the dust of Chaos. The humans are different, but not made of different stuff.”
After a few breaths she continued:
The Moon’s first born were three girls, Tama, Frey and Nora. They walked among Soil’s first children, the Fern. They danced in the light of the Moon and slept in the heat of the Sun. They were frightened of the things which crawled out of the Water. There were things with many legs and things with none. Their variety and speed were amazing. Water’s children devoured the Fern as fast as the plants could grow. They began to devour each other.
Tama cursed the Water and all his creations. She threw stones at the Water every night, yelling in anger. She threw rocks at the serpents and crabs as they emerged on the beach, smashing her cousins to pieces. Water saved up the rocks, squeezing them together. After three years of abuse from Niece Tama, Water gave her back all of the stones she had thrown. The rocks rose up out of the Water, encasing Tama in a massive cliff face. These are the cliffs of Fe Rava.
Eyan boys from the Moon Clan prove their devotion by leaping off of Fe Rava and battering the Water with their bodies. If they survive, they are men. If they do not, they join Tama in Water’s prison, keeping her company for eternity.
Frey and Nora cried for their sister, and walked in mourning for weeks, away from their wicked Uncle Water. They could flee from the Water, but not from all his children. Weeks later, new creatures spiraled above them in the sky. The winged beasts had needle claws and serrated beaks. They dove at the sisters, driving them farther north. Frey grabbed her sister’s arm and pulled her into the Fern.
“We must make a choice. We eat or we are eaten. What do you say?”
Nora cringed and shook her head. “We can run still.”
“And when we have run for days and are too tired to run or fight?”
Frey shook her head. “Tama was brave. I will not hide.” Frey picked up some rocks and stepped out of the Fern. It took several tries, but Frey hit a winged beast and knocked it out of the sky.
Frey turned to see Nora running across a field to the southeast. Three more winged beasts leapt out of the Fern and beat Nora with their wings. Frey ran after them with her rocks, but Nora hesitated, frozen with fear. Nora did not run or hide or fight. Before Frey could reach her sister, Nora was torn apart. What was left when the beasts were done wriggled into the ground and became the worms that eat only dirt and feed Soil’s children.
Renz nodded thoughtfully. “Interesting. It sounds like there is a moral.”
Suvira nodded. “Any choice is better than anger or hesitation. That is why we bite children on the ears when they hesitate. We train them to leap into action.”
Renz laughed with the rest, but he couldn’t help touching his injured ear. Brew pointed a long finger and laughed harder, shaking his scraggly mane. Renz crossed his arms over his chest, but he couldn’t look severe while he was grinning. “What about yours?”
Brew wiped away a tear. “Totally my fault. Three wives… one man can’t move fast enough. Thank you, Frey-child. I needed a good laugh.”
~ ~ ~
They reached the Bardor faire in good time and it was a bustling event with many times more booths and carts than Market Town. Brew set up in the middle of it all, turning a wide-open lane into a roundabout, with his cart at the center. Pulling back the tarp, Brew revealed sewn bags of herbs, bottled medicinal blends and corked wine bottles. Men and women made their way through the traffic, calling Brew’s name.
A sandy yellow Eyan gent stuck his walking stick out in front of Renz and Suvira as they dismounted from the cart. He eyed Renz, who bent forward in a bow. “Ah, it has manners. How much?”
Renz blinked. “Beg pardon?”
The gent shook his head. “No need.” He looked down his nose at Suvira. “How much for this one and the roan?” He waved his free hand toward Joe.
Suvira shook her head and pushed the cane aside. “Not for sale, Mardon.”
“Come now, everything has a price.”
“Everything, not everyone. They are civilized people, and I will not betray them or their network.”
Mardon scoffed. “What network? Other scraggly, hairless…”
Suvira growled low in her throat. “Careful. They are on Lord Bardor’s personal orders and they are diplomats of Xicon tribe at Nodae Eya. I suggest you nod politely and walk on.”
Renz tilted his chin up. “Before I find a more permanent place to stick your cane.”
Mardon stiffened and his eyes widened, unblinking. “As you were, then.” He nodded and shuffled away.
Suvira looked down at Renz, puzzled. “I don’t know what that meant in your language, but for us ‘finding a permanent place for one’s personal affects’ is a death threat. You just offered to find him a grave site.”
Joe whispered, “Should I explain the phrase, where the sun don’t shine?”
Renz shook his head. “Close enough.”
The ride from Bardor to Omar was more subdued. Renz brooded over the idea of open slavery. There was a precedent they could not allow. It would give Harding his own personal go-ahead to wage war. The sun was getting low on the horizon when Brew dropped the trio at the Omar train station.
Steam, sulfur and fish blended in the Omar air. Great gulls with black talons swooped through the crowd, grabbing scraps from the brick road and unwatched baskets. Workmen rolled wooden barrels along the mile-long platform and hooked them to the waiting crane.
A slow chorus droned as the barrels gathered on the waiting flatbeds. “Rua borda akka dae. Rua borda akka dae.”
Renz leaned against a structural beam, chewing on queen-tree candy. The tangy sweet aroma relieved the sulfur and fish stench while he waited with Joe for the call to board.
Joe adjusted shoulder straps, bumping leather cases together. “We’ll get into Frey late. Do we have a place to stay for the night?”
Renz shook his head. “Suvira said she could arrange some rooms.”
A drumbeat rumbled through the depot. Passengers filed into a line. Renz and Joe slipped into the towering crowd. Suvira strode up, toting sacks of sap and ginger candies.
Almost everyone in the crowd moved in a slow rhythm to the beat of the drum. Beat, step, beat, step. A golden furred gentleman, dressed in an emerald waistcoat, moved with a click-click sound at twice the pace. Travelers stepped back and nodded.
Suvira pulled Renz and Joe back by their belts as he clicked past. They bent awkwardly in a forced bow. Suvira clicked once from the back of her mouth.
The gentleman paused, momentarily frozen. He surveyed the group of three. “Bright day, cousin Suvira. It’s a bit early for children on holiday.” His placid face did not betray the sneer in his voice.
“Bright day, Lord Jovin. I am escorting the Xicon delegation, as a favor to Lord Bardor.” Suvira raised her chin.
“As if we owe him anything. Carry on.” The gentleman slid forward again, gaining the front of the line.
Joe wrinkled his nose. “Interesting family. Your cousin is poised, but a bit oily.”
Suvira barked out a laugh. “We call slippery fish ‘oily,’ Joe.”
“Then I used the right word.”
“He didn’t use the right word. That’s my oldest Uncle, not my cousin.”
Renz shook his head. “We call that creepy.”
Suvira tilted her head. “Like vines growing in wrong places?”
Renz leaned out to look up the side of the line. “Sure.”
~ ~ ~
The chug of the engine and the clack of the rails blended into an overpowering, vibrating lullaby. Evening mist descended on the train, echoed by condensation on the inside of the windows.
Renz swept a hand across the chill surface, water drops reflecting the pink and orange sunset. Déjà vu. His eyes slipped closed. He shivered.
Lawrence woke, quaking from cold and chemical sleep. He called out to the cryotube’s computer, but the panels did not spark to life. “Help,” Lawrence choked.
He drifted in blackness. His world shook and shifted to the sound of crunching metal. Orange glowed through the frosted window in front of his face, evidence the ship’s emergency systems switched on. “Help,” he shouted, banging a palm on the lid.
A long-fingered hand wiped a clear path across the window. Supple, pink pads scrubbed at the frost. Lawrence shrank back and wheezed. Not human. What happened to ‘orbit and observe?’
Wide-set eyes peered at Lawrence, then withdrew. Clamped seals released and flushed out excess pressure. The lid swung open.
Whatever this creature was, it had him now.
~ ~ ~
The City of Frey bustled, even in the late evening. Curved and domed buildings clustered along roadways. Pennants fluttered in the misty breeze. Travelers jumbled along the winding roadsides, in various states of merriment.
Renz felt hyper-aware after his flashback. He watched the crowds, seeing details he would usually miss. A woman carried twins in one arm and a basket of fruit in the other. One of the twins stole trinkets from her customers, dropping jewelry and coins into their mother’s pockets. A beggar in rags with a steel cup carefully counted out half his gathered coins and dropped them in a donation box at a corner shine.
Renz noticed a man following them on the other side of the street. The ruddy brown eyan worker kept pace and watched them around carts, beggars, bikes and the occasional steam contraption. Renz nudged Joe. “Company.”
Suvira’s ear twitched, and she glanced around. “Rae. Guild boss.”
After a block, Rae shook hands with another man in coveralls, and they walked together. Two blocks farther, as Suvira led Renz and Joe to the Turning Wheel Inn, the Eyan workers were joined by two more. They clasped hands and stamped feet.
Suvira grabbed Renz’s elbow and forced him into the Inn. Joe strode in the door, hands in his pockets.
Suvira leaned on the bar. “Two rooms and three meads.”
The bartender did a double take but nodded. “Will do. Take the top floor.” He tossed a pair of brass keys on the counter.
The four Eyan workers barged through the door, bellowing and waving to fellows inside. Rae came up next to Suvira as she picked up the keys. He leaned close but bellowed. “Hello there, little Sira. Been a long time, hasn’t it?”
Suvira shrugged. “A few years, at least, Rae. I’ve been busy.”
Rae looked Renz up and down. “That’s obvious.”
Renz raised a hand in a sarcastic salute.
“Lord Bardor wanted me to watch our visitors. Couldn’t refuse.” Suvira grabbed the drinks the bartender thumped down and steered Renz and Joe to a corner table, with their backs facing the wall. A bad sign in any society.
Renz whispered, “Why don’t we go up?”
Suvira shook her head. “Can’t show weakness. These guys were my father’s friends. They think I owe them, because he did.”
“No, dear.” Rae planted himself at the bench across from Suvira. “We own you, because he owed us. Who else would want a stripy little doll anyhow?” He twisted a large steel ring off his finger. “Especially if you’re in deep with Bardor.”
Suvira shook her head. “Mother expects me back when Bardor has had his way.”
Joe laughed and put a hand over his mouth. Renz kicked him under the table.
Rae barked out a laugh. He pulled a lighter out of a pocket and flicked it until it lit. “Well, until then, you can stay here with us.”
Renz took a swig of strong mead, honey mixed with cinnamon and fire. “Interesting ring. I don’t recognize the letters. What does it say?”
Rae held the raised letters of the ring over his lighter, letting the fire dance across the surface. “The pattern is inverted.”
Renz squinted. “It looks like ‘hardworking fool’.”
Rae nodded, staring into the flame. “Sira’s got herself a literate little pet.”
From the way her left ear twitched, Renz figured that was an insult in present company. “I’m a ditch digger and teacher. I’m representing the Xicon clan in Nodae Eya. I need Suvira there because I’m useless at politics.”
“Then why would they send a little brat like you?”
Renz leaned on the lacquered table and whispered, “Because our politicians are scared brats who don’t speak the language.”
Rae smiled and closed the lighter. The raised letters in the steel ring glowed red. “I like your honesty, boy. But once a brand is lit, it must taste flesh, and this little girl is ours.” He stood and leaned over the table.
Suvira crossed her arms and waited. “If you wanted me to join the guild, all you had to do was ask.”
Rae took aim. “That’s a brave girl.”
As Rae lowered the branding stamp at Suvira’s arm, Joe shoved the bench they shared backward and forced himself between them. “I’m the biggest fool in this bar.”
Rae brought the brand down on Joe’s arm. Joe shrieked as the characters burned into his flesh, but he stood still until Rae pulled back. He collapsed into Suvira’s lap, and the bar erupted in hoops and jovial shouts.
Rae dropped the ring in a metal mug of water. Steam whistled. “I suppose we’re even. Barkeep, a round on me.”
Suvira ran a hand through Joe’s ruddy hair. “More than even, Rae. You’re the only crew in all of Eydan with a human. Joe should get his portrait on the wall.”
Rae nodded. “First thing in the morning. And you’ll have an escort to the train after lunch. I’ve got some papers Joe needs to deliver to the guild house.”
After they drank a toast, Rae made rounds to all the tables. Many of the guild crew came over to clasp Joe’s hand.
Renz leaned close to Suvira. “You brought us here on purpose. If you have your own agenda, I’d like to know.”
Suvira laughed into her ale. “I thought the two of you would be my end, but Joe did well. That was brave and clever. We might just make it back alive.”