Risa sighed as she gathered Hime's laundry in the sweltering heat, attempting unsuccessfully to wipe the sweat from her forehead with the back of her arm. If it had been any hotter, she was almost sure she could've seen the clothing steam.
Locking her jaw in firm determination, she began hanging the garments up one by one, pinning them slowly so as to prevent any from slipping. Laundry for Risa had always been so much more than just a chore; it was almost a science. The Law would crack down on her if so much as a single speck of sand got on the freshly laundered clothing, so Risa had to take extra measures to ensure that each garment was perfect every time.
She licked her lips, steadying her hand as she added another pin, then checked the line. Perfect.
"A lovely day, isn't it, Desideria Risa?" a voice rang out from nearby. Risa blinked out of concentration and turned to see a kindly-faced old woman standing nearby the laundry basket, her frail form bent over her cane as she watched the girl work. Her wrinkled face was curled into a tight grin.
"And to you, Celandine," Risa replied, returning to her laundry.
This woman was Risa's secret informant as to the inner workings of Maura. Their meetings were set up a few weeks after they had arrived; Celandine would come to Risa every other week to teach her of the problems surrounding the Reihimian people, or of the larger disputes, and Risa in turn would mention them to Hime in the hopes of a decent outcome.
She quickly scanned her memory for any mention of a visit, be it from her brother or another townsperson; but to her knowledge, there were none. The briefest of frowns lit her face and was quickly concealed.
"How are you faring?"
"Quite well, considering all that has happened."
Risa paused mid-fold and turned her head just slightly to the side. "Anything I need to know about?"
"Yes, if you don't already; it concerns the Kalpans, my dear girl. The Korish tribe from the north--there've been sightings of them near the Middle Sands. Not too far from here either, or so I've been told."
As though not having heard a single word, Risa folded Hime's heavy, unused cloak over the line, lowering it cautiously to the ground. It pulled the string so severely that Hime's longest dress dangled a mere two inches from the sand; but if it had been any tighter, the line would have snapped altogether. She allowed herself a brief, triumphant smile.
"Is this a problem that needs to be reported to our Lady, then?" was all she said.
"Spoken as a concern, and nothing more."
"What a shame, I was hoping for a nice long fight with those barbarians to keep me from the--"
"Consider your next words wisely before you choose them," Celandine scolded. "You and I share a common..." she struggled to find the proper word "...irritation, but unlike the rest of us, you are bound by Law. I am sure that there is punishment for speaking out of hand."
Risa paused. "You are right," she nodded. "Forgive me, I was not thinking."
"Oh, my dear girl, you've no need to apologize," the old woman chuckled. "It has been lovely to talk to you again."
"And you," Risa replied. There was a strange feeling that had begun poking in on her thoughts since the mention of the savages, and she was having a difficult time ignoring it. "Thank you for telling me of the Kalpans."
And when Celandine was out of sight, Risa relapsed deep into thought.
Kalpar was perhaps the most dreaded of the tribes from the Northwestern Sands, a village that resided entirely in the wall of a large stone mountain, originally designed as a protection from sandstorms and the more common of the desert monsters. They had come, over time, to be known as the most brutal of the Korish tribes, and the most violent due to their warring ways; so it was no surprise that they were the most feared as well. They had their own special brand of magics too, as Reihem once had, long ago; legend spoke of how their entire system was governed by it once, in a time before war. And though their magical power had diminished since then, they were still considered the greatest threat in Kor. The Justice herself couldn't stand a chance against them, even if it wasn't during her Stay.
Risa's mind whirled with thoughts of previous lessons, taught to her in school when she'd found the time to ask for them. Lessons of how the Kalpan never fought with the usual bronze swords, but instead with blades of rusted metal that caused all who were cut by them to die indefinitely--if not from blood loss, then from the excruciating pains of infection. Rumor had it that they loved torture as well, and would prolong it just to see how much the pain could be inflicted before eventual death.
She also remembered hearing once, in a frightened whisper among the townspeople, that they were the smallest of the tribes only because they were constantly killing their own kind; they shared stories of how they killed all thieves, no matter what it was they had stolen, even poor boys who hadn't yet come of age...and heaven only knew how harsh they'd be upon their enemies, if they were so exacting with their own...
Her fists tightened, and she gave the greatest mental shove she had ever dared to give. The thoughts still stabbed at her subconscious, and she could almost feel them growing and pulsing, but she fought to ignore them. There wasn't anything she could do about it now. It would just have to wait until after the laundry was done.
Risa gathered the empty wicker baskets into her arms and made way for the tent, careful not to show that she was rushing. She still wasn't entirely sure of everything the Law could do, and sometimes she felt as though it could read her mind; but even though that idea seemed impossibly absurd, she didn't want to risk it.
She called from outside the tent, and the curtain pulled back swiftly as though drawn by an invisible hand; and when she entered, it dropped silently back to the ground.
Hime was in the far corner of the room, having looked away while
the day momentarily invaded her tent. And when she heard the
crunch of the baskets hitting the sand and the swoosh of the
curtain falling back to the earth, she turned around again,
Immediately seeing that it was only her desideria and not anyone important, her expression changed quite drastically.
"Oh," she muttered.
"My Lady," Risa replied, careful to keep her emotions in check. She didn't want them unexpectedly spilling over and into her speech, which happened sometimes, and more often than she liked. She transferred the clothes from the basket to the nearby trunk, somehow aware that Hime hadn't stopped watching her from the moment she first turned around.
"Is everything dry already? You finished so quickly, for a change."
Risa bit her lip. "Yes, my Lady, your clothing is dry." A hint of annoyance and some sarcasm, so that nothing would seem out of the ordinary. "Wouldn't the Law have informed you otherwise?"
"Yes, yes, that's true," Hime answered, her eyes clouding thoughtfully. She chewed on the hem of her sleeve. "Still, you seem...agitated."
"Nothing out of the ordinary," Risa answered.
"You must've done something wrong that I don't know about," Hime declared, her head rising just a little higher. She grinned widely, as though expecting to see her desideria squirm.
"Just the...occasional concerns, my Lady."
"Concerns?" Hime echoed, raising an eyebrow. Risa fought a triumphant smile.
"It's...the Kalpans. There are rumors of sightings--"
"Oh, that. What of it?"
Risa stopped. "You already knew?"
"Of course I did." Her lips folded back into a sneer. "The Law informs me of these things, or don't you remember?"
Risa choked on the stream of retorts that had suddenly caught in her throat. "How do you propose we respond to it then, my Lady?" she finally asked.
"Respond? There's no need."
"No need!" Risa cried, then stopped herself. She took in a deep breath, glaring furiously at the sand. "No need?" she repeated through gritted teeth. "How can you say such a thing, being our Justice? Your duty is to protect us when--"
"I am the only one here who needs protecting, what happens to you Reihimians is of little concern so long as I am safe." She stepped daintily from where she had been standing, her dark eyes morphing into tight little slits. "I don't believe that I need anyone telling me what to do either, for as you just so kindly stated, I am the Justice. I am free to do as I wish."
"That's...that's not right!" Risa cried.
"Right? If that's not right, what is, then?"
"What is right is for you to care for your people!"
"My people?" Hime scoffed. "And what says that? If I define what is right by my Law, then why should I care about you, or your 'people'? You are nothing but servants to me."
"Servants!" Risa roared. Anger bubbled in her blood and pulsed throughout her voice before she could stop it. "You can't just go around treating everyone like scum because you can! Right or wrong, it doesn't make a difference; but this, this is a matter of human nature! of that part inside of each and every person that is repulsed by the death of another!--or can you even remember such things?" Her voice lowered then to such an extent that it was almost a whisper; but it was still so terrifyingly powerful that her fists were shaking at her sides. She lifted her head to look straight into her Justice's dark and empty eyes.
"What if the Kalpans attack and capture us all? Or kill us while we sleep?" she spat. "What use will your stupid Law be to you then? For our blood would be on your hands, Hime Lumina, you so-called noble--"
Just then her chest tightened to an extent she would've have ever thought possible; lights flashed behind her eyes and she gasped, dropping to the ground.
"How dare you use my name so informally?" she scolded. "I can treat these people anyway I want; for there is nothing here to tell me otherwise. And that, foolish child, is my Law."
And then, to Risa's surprise, she got up from her throne and walked slowly past Risa without so much as a downward glance; she turned her attentions to the time-dial on the wall.
"It is almost time for my midday snack. Go and fetch me some of those Pardonberries from that cliff you once spoke to me of."
"But those...those are the townspeople's," Risa gasped, cursing herself inwardly for ever having mentioned them. She rose shakily on unsteady arms. "You can't take that away from them too, they've hardly any decent--"
Hime turned and Risa spasmed, dropping back to the sand . "What will it take for you to learn?" she scolded.
Risa scraped at the sand with her fingernails, trying to muster enough air to respond.
"Yes...my Justice," she gasped, stiffly bowing her head even lower to the ground.
"There's a good girl," Hime answered, addressing her somewhat like a dog. "Go and get my berries now, and do make sure they're cold when I get them."
Risa glowered, barely catching the Justice's words over the sound of the blood throbbing in her ears. She rose uneasily from the ground, carefully shifting her weight from one side to the other, testing the strength of her limbs. The Reihimians were almost beginning to despise her as much as Hime; some went so far as to regard her as an omen, though they knew full well that she was only following orders.
Feeling the grip on her chest loosen somewhat since she started moving again, she limped toward the curtain, every muscle in her chest aching miserably.
"Do be sure to return before sunset!" she heard Hime call as the curtain fell, separating them both.
So Risa dawdled as much as she could without too much pressure from the Law. Irritating Hime was, of course, one of her more enjoyable pastimes; and, being as how Hime was who she was, irritating her was easier accomplished than most things.
Risa sighed and rubbed furiously at the sweat that had drained down into her eyes, but they were already stinging. Blinking furiously and exhaling in frustration, she tried to see how many berries she still needed before she could return. She was half a dozen shy of a basketful.
Pardonberries, or so the Reihimians called them, were fuzzy orange fruits the size of a person's fist; they had a juicy purple center and were sweeter and more satisfying than anything Risa had ever eaten before, even back in Reihem. But she rarely had them because of how difficult they were to pick; not only were they firmly secured to their vines, but the leaves had terribly sharp thorns, and they would send any or all of them flying at you if you so much as grazed one with the back of your hand. While a scarcity for these reasons, it was no surprise that they still remained one of the most coveted of the foods that grew on Kor.
But Reihem...Reihem once had many interesting things to eat. Risa's mountain had always been the place of her dreams; her heart had come dangerously close to breaking when Hime announced that they were to leave. For Reihem had always been more than just good food, and fertile soil. There was a sense of community there that Risa hadn't yet found in Kor, and that she longed for, even now; for though the title of desideria hung over her as clearly then as it did now, no one had changed their opinions of her because of it (although Hime didn't have quite the power there that she had here in Maura).
They would have dances and festivals in the old cobblestoned streets sometimes, always in the mornings so they could include the desiderias also; the men would gather in the town squares earlier than the rest, always excited and jittery and anxious as they awaited the partners that they had asked the day before.
And the women, dressed in their best gowns and skirts, would enter first to the sound of music, dancing and twirling down and around to their partners; and a fantastic dance would emerge, beautiful and strange and enthralling to all who beheld it. For, when viewed from the sky, (or a particularly large tower, as in Risa's case), it always seemed to form a series of complex patterns, resembling the flowers that grew on the mountainside. And the laughter would mix with the music, echoes of which still rang clear in Risa' mind...
And the teenagers...the teenagers (for dancing was a foolish act of children to them) would buy the magic trinkets sold by the merchants who always came into town around that time; they would carry with them wooden sticks that shot out flower petals, or threw sparkling colors into the sky. The smaller children would wave their homemade flags if they weren't dancing, or flew vibrant kites that threaded through the clouds; and there would be laughter, always laughter.
And there was plenty of food too, enough to feed them all for a week; and not just the common Reihimian crops but everything, from exotic fruits grown overseas to foreign meats the strangest of colors. For even with the monarchy ruling there as powerfully there as it did in Kor, there were never any problems--at least not as great as the ones they had now. Of course, more leaders were alive then, and helped to keep at least some of the corruption in check; but in Reihem, even if their people got a good sum of their crops taken from them, there was always plenty left over. That was just the way their mountain was.
Some claimed the countryside loved them, and wanted them to prosper; others said that it was their tireless work that made the plants grow when all else failed. But Risa had always believed it to be that the people's hearts were growing there in the soil, alongside whatever it was that they grew; and that was what made it give so much back, not anything else.
Everyone had their own ideas, of course, and no two were alike--but all anyone could ever seem to agree on was that Reihem was perfect, a mountain found only in dreams.
And Risa missed it miserably.
For Kor...Kor was hopeless. Scorching summers, parched winters, always heat and never rain. No water pits to be found for miles. Nothing from Reihem grew in its humid weather either, so they had to eat Korish food instead--shriveled and flavorless vegetables, or the occasional fruits, which were often dry and wrinkled as well. Kor was predictable, except for rare and unexpected wonders, like the Pardonberries.
Risa hefted the basket up now that it was full and balanced it carefully against her hip. She walked out a little ways until she was at the edge of the cliff and stared straight out into the sun.
It was perhaps the most powerful thing she could imagine. The
sun, in all of it's glory, could wipe them all off the face of
the earth if it wanted to, including the high and mighty Hime.
But all Risa ever did was complain about it, and about how it
fried their food and burned their skin, never once realizing all
that it had given them. She still couldn't decide whether it was
a blessing or a curse--for it felt like both sometimes--but
either way it was really rather strange, and not something easily
Her mind wandered back to a conversation she'd had once with Kalauda, as it often did when she thought of the sun.
"You know, the sun really is beautiful, even though no one admits it," he'd said.
"I always think that it's silly that you only ever want to see the moon, when you already have the most beautiful star in your presence." He turned over, folding his arms behind his head so he could gaze more comfortably at the ceiling. "Stars are very underappreciated, did you know that?"
"If all stars are like the sun then I'd understand why."
He laughed. "Of course they aren't, or we'd notice them more. Besides, if there were thousands of suns out at night, why would we ever need a moon?"
"I still wish I could see it," Risa sighed.
Kalauda turned back over. "Sister, I want you to promise me
"What?" Risa replied, turning to face him.
"Promise me you'll only look at the stars the first time you see the night. You'll realize what I meant when you do. The moon is nothing compared to them; people are often so easily distracted by the bright and shiny things of life that they never realize they were nothing special to begin with."
"The stars can't be all that amazing."
"They are, sister, they are. Think of the sun, except so far away that it's not nearly as hot; and it's so small that you could hold it in your hands if you wanted to." He motioned up to the ceiling, spreading out his hands so she could understand him better. "Hundreds of them, just like that, looking almost like holes in the sky. They make the beauty of the night what it is, and not the moon. And sprinkled in among the colors of the night-clouds--"
Kalauda sighed, his arms dropping back to his sides. "You'll just have to see what I mean, when you get the chance."
Risa smiled faintly as the rest of their conversation trailed off in her mind, none of the other things he'd said that night standing out to her as much as that had. Kalauda always did have a way with her, cheering her up and distracting her from the things he knew she'd rather not be thinking about. He was her sole consolation most of the time; and whenever she was sad, or didn't wish to work, she would think of him, and of what he'd say. She had almost wanted to see the stars more than the moon that night, almost. And the night-clouds.
"Kalauda, I won't ever forget our promise, okay?" she whispered to the sun. And after clutching the basket even closer to her chest, she ran for the town.
Hime's Pardonberries were delivered to her impatient hands somewhat on time, and she was slurping on the contentedly as Risa tended to the new set of blisters that had formed on her feet. The only reason Hime was allowing the smell of the salve inside the tent while she ate was because the sun was setting over Maura; and apparently, even the ghastly stench was better than a desideria being allowed to witness a dying sun for a couple of minutes.
After an eternity of silence in which Risa found something of an uncommon rest, Hime spoke, entirely at once and without the usual warning of a cough or a sigh. Risa jumped in spite of herself.
"You know, you shouldn't worry as much as you do about the Kalpans."
"And why not?" Risa asked, relaxing somewhat.
"Because they're not coming after you people, they're coming after me. I should be the one who's worried, and not the lot of you."
"I suppose that's true." She paused, allowing these words to roll around in her head for a moment. "But then again, we are the ones who hazard our safeties just to secure yours. That counts for something, does it not?"
"Mmmm," Hime murmured through a Pardonberry. "Which is why I'm
not worried in the least, as you should be."
Risa frowned and continued wrapping the blisters.
Just then, a rustling sound caught Risa's attention; something was moving behind the curtains, causing them to quiver unnaturally. Her eyes widened, first out of surprise, then alarm; and, in an attempt at being inconspicuous and quick at the same time, she inched her way toward it.
A pebble dropped from the time-dial on the wall, and Risa froze, eyes wide as the sound echoed dismally around the tent. Hime yawned, tossing the remaining Pardonberries in the pit to be burned.
"Don't wake me now, you understand? I'm tired I had extra studies today."
Oh, you poor child, Risa thought. An almost undetectably wry smile spread across her face; she was very nearly tempted to crash something particularly catastrophous on 'accident', just to ensure that Hime woke again.
But instead, she sighed and said "sleep well, my Justice," hoping to appease the Law. She heard a grunt in reply and let well enough alone; she was satisfied for at least a response.
Risa sat completely still for what seemed like a very long time, just watching Hime and listening to the whispering sounds of the nightwind from outside; and when the rise and fall of her chest steadied and a slow and shallow breathing could be heard, she jabbed at the bump that had formed in the curtain.
"Kalauda!" she hissed. "Not so early next time, she wasn't even thinking of sleep when you called!"
"Sorry," he whispered, and the curtain lurched suddenly forward, giving out a pitiful yelp. Risa gave an irritated sigh; Kalauda couldn't ever be stealthy, even if he tried.
Fabric wrinkled and folded every which way as she wrestled with the curtain, trying to loosen its grip on her brother. She was careful not to look outside as she untangled him from the mess of cloth and led him in; and once both her brother and his crutch were safely unraveled from the knot, she arranged some pillows and blankets for the two of them to lie on.
"Well, Kalauda? What is it?"
She lit a candle and moved it toward his face so she could see him better; but instead of the warm smile she'd been expecting, she found that there were tears streaming down his cheeks, small and pearlescent, shining as the fell to the floor.
"Kalauda! What's the matter? Are you hurt?" she asked, alarmed.
He sniffed, giving a weak smile. "No, I'm not hurt. But...you've heard of the Kalpans by now?"
She nodded slowly.
"Oh, sister!" he cried. "What'll we do? You're the only one in our family--out of all our neighbors, of everyone!--who can fight even halfway decently...but instead of protecting us, you're stuck in this...this..."
"Careful," Risa warned.
"Place, then, there isn't even a terrible enough word!" His bottom lip was quivering with determination as he stared at her boldly with his watery-blue eyes. "You've got to help us, you've just got to!"
"I know," she whispered, raising a hand to brush a few of the wilder strands of hair out of his face. They curled stubbornly back into place, as they always did. "And I will. You, and Mother, and Father...you are the most important people in the world to me. I would trade the chance to see a thousand moons for the sake of my family. I would never let you die; I'm almost hurt that you would suggest such a thing."
Kalauda wiped his nose, which was red, and smiled. "You are?"
Risa nodded, gathering him into her arms. "Don't worry. I'll always be there for you."
She nodded softly. "Promise."
And she sat there, holding him for what seemed like a very long time, though she knew it wasn't really; the feel of having someone close was more comforting than she'd remembered, and she soon found herself unable to move, sleep having come upon her at last.
Risa awoke several hours later to the sound of a pebble dropping from the time-dial. At first she found the tent startlingly warm; but she realized rather quickly that it wasn't the tent, but her sleeping brother still caught in her arms. She smiled softly at him and sat up, bleary-eyed and disconcerted from her rest; yawning, she noticed a glimpse of something bright glinting under the curtain to the outside.
Startled, she crawled over to it. There were floods of the light now; and they were quickly melting the night away, erasing the shadows and everything else she once had to hide behind. Morning had crept up on her, and she hadn't even seen it coming.
She whipped the blankets off of her brother and threw them into the corner. Her thoughts became more and more frantic as she rushed, hiding the spare pillows, gathering her brother's belongings. "Kalauda, get up," she whispered, shaking his shoulders. He stirred. "Up," she urged.
"I'm awake, really I am," he mumbled, turning over.
"You've stayed for far too long this time," she scolded under her breath, watching as the light grew brighter, illuminating the far corners of the tent.
Kalauda threw his hand out blindly for his crutch, but instead of finding it, he found his sister, who thrust it toward him with a low and impatient grumble. He sat up, yawning.
"Quickly," Risa prodded, grabbing him by the arm to help him stand. "You need to get outside before Hime--"
"Before Hime what?" came a voice from somewhere deep inside the tent. Kalauda's eyes grew wide and he froze mid-stretch; he looked as though a snake had just stared him straight in the face.
"Well, well, what have we here?" Hime sneered, creeping toward them like a lioness would her prey.