Kalauda reached out and poked his sister on the arm.
"Ow!" she cried, confused. "Kalauda...that hurt!"
But her brother didn't say anything; he only jabbed her in the arm again, twice this time. She turned him, but still couldn't seem to see his face.
She grabbed hold of his hand and held it firm so he couldn't poke her again.
But his finger was rough, solid, and cold as a rock. She screamed and threw it away from herself, frantically opening her eyes--only to find darkness. Panting almost hysterically, she reached up and ripped the cloth from her eyes, throwing it to the sand. A dream, she realized, her thoughts shaping too slowly in her mind. It had only been a dream.
Or had it?
"Taroh laan'karu, eh?" a voice asked. Risa squinted at the sudden sunlight, almost surprised to see the Ponne-boy staring down at her. He was smirking; there was a stick in his hand, and he was twirling it between his fingers. "Merka, je yna sharar ke Kalpar."
His voice was stronger today, commanding and harsh. Risa rubbed her eyes to ensure that she wasn't still dreaming. How much of that had been a dream?...and how much of it hadn't?
"Merka," he ordered again.
She nodded as though in understanding and sat up, hoping vainly that merka meant 'move.'
Her back stiffened suddenly as a searing pain spread throughout her body; she clenched her teeth in frustration, cursing herself inwardly. She had entirely forgotten about her knee.
Deciding to examine the bruise, she drew her dress back cautiously; but she soon wished she hadn't, for it throbbed visibly and looked hideous. She fought the urge to retch at the sight of it and glared dourly up at the boy.
"Ano yn ei?" he asked, smiling amusedly. "Ano yn ei ne brahka?"
Risa exhaled sharply. She thought the boy was being childish--using Korish, when he knew Reihimian perfectly well! And the Kalpan wasn't bothering to make the necessary potions for her knee either, when she was quite sure that he knew how to; so as far as she could tell, he was deliberately placing her in a position that she would have to ask for help if she wanted it. It was a battle of wills, one that she didn't plan on losing.
Risa turned her head away, her nose thrust up to the sky.
"I'm fine," she answered, hoping she'd given the correct response. She knew the boy understood her either way.
"Teila," he said, crossing his arms as his mocking smile spread. "De merka."
Risa clenched her fists tight to her dress and her eyes widened, more out of disbelief than anger. This boy was crafty and cunning, and he almost reminded her of the way she used to be around Hime. The shadow of a smile lit her face; and it might've shown through the anger, had her eyes not been empty. No wonder the Justice had always been so irritable.
And yet she was somehow certain that had met under different circumstances, they probably would've been friends.
She picked her leg up and moved it to the side, carefully letting it fall to the sand beside her. Her was jaw clenched as she began to push herself upward, leaning quite heavily on her arms; she could feel them shake almost violently with the strain.
And it took awhile, but she eventually stood. The blood rushed down into her leg as it straightened, and she almost gasped at the pain of it; but one glance at the boy's expectant sneer and she swallowed her complaints, beginning instead a rather unsuccessful attempt to breathe normally again.
"I'm just as stubborn as you are," Risa announced, more for herself than for the boy. His smile widened under the cloth that still covered his face.
"Teila," he repeated mildly. He turned and began walking effortlessly back toward the horses, taunting her with every step.
Risa gritted her teeth. She had never been good at self-motivation to begin with; normally she would complain if she couldn't seem to accomplish something, which strangely would help her to finish. But she didn't want this boy to see her complain, not even once; for it would be too great a damage to her pride to let him win.
She sucked in a tight breath and began limping her way slowly in the Ponne-Boy's direction, feeling her leg give a sickening lurch whenever it touched the sand.
As she neared the horses, realized suddenly that more than half of them were gone. Where there had been about eight the day before, there were only three of them now. She recognized the first, which the Ponne-Boy now rode; a deep red mare Risa guessed to be Shantari.
An old grey war-horse held the cloaked man Tanmar, whose face turned ashen-colored when he caught Risa was walking on her own, unassisted. His expression grew grim with a silent wrath as he turned to face his son, obviously expecting an explanation; but the boy was looking stubbornly in the other direction.
Risa, her face as red as an early sunset, was gasping with furious effort as she neared the horses. Her mouth was gaping open rather unattractively, and she knew it; but she was in too much pain to care about appearance.
"You seem to be doing...well," Tanmar said awkwardly. Risa snorted under her breath.
"Oja!" the boy hissed, leaning over. Shantari whinnied at the sudden movement and began shifting a little to the side, prancing light in the warm sand. "Dya Raiheem'yin!"
Tanmar continued, and Risa wondered if he'd heard the boy. "We are not far from Kalpar, so you will be able to rest again soon. The others have gone on ahead of us, and will meet us when we arrive."
Risa nodded in understanding as she rested her hand upon the third horse, an unattractive brown mare who was obviously the youngest of the three. She had just thought of asking Tanmar for help (most women needed it even when they weren't injured) when she realized, quite disgustedly, that the spare she had assumed to be hers was in fact a pack-horse. She glared up at the Ponne-boy and he met her gaze defiantly, as though daring her to complain.
Tanmar turned his head to see what was the matter, for neither of them were moving; he first noticed that Risa scowling, then followed her gaze his son's.
"Thali must not have asked Aasir for an extra horse," he commented, a hint of disapproval in his voice. "You may ride with me, if you wish."
"I'd rather walk," Risa answered.
Tanmar raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure?" He gazed at her thoughtfully. "I had meant before that it wasn't far for the horses."
"Oja!" the boy hissed again, louder this time. "Aasir ahntri dya Raiheem'yin!"
"Which was why we suggested that he leave early in the first place," Tanmar said, his scolding voice offset by a strange softness. "But that didn't seem to stop you earlier now, did it?"
The boy's eyes widened, and his face began to flush.
"Now, seeing as how Thali seems to have gained a bit of a likeness to Channa overnight--" the boy's eyes widened even further "--I shall insist that you ride with me, for you won't survive even a couple paces like that, no matter how stubborn you are."
Risa nodded, inwardly relieved (though she refused to let it show), and reached for Tanmar's hand. He pulled her up with almost no effort and situated her carefully in front of him, taking special care of her injured leg. Risa knotted her hands tightly into the horse's mane, almost to the point that it whinnied; she had never ridden a horse before in her life.
The boy looked as though he was going to be sick; but when he caught sight of Risa watching he glared, and Risa's expression altered to match his. She hadn't expected the start of the horses because of her attentions to the boy; so when Tanmar yelled "Merka!" her head slammed against his chest, catching the bottom of his chin. He grunted, and she apologized; but at least now she knew that merka did indeed mean 'move.'
There was an uncomfortable silence that followed the three of them upon their departure; Tanmar attempted once or twice to stab at what always turned out to be an uncomfortable conversation, but each always remained as unsuccessful at the last. His son ended most of them, silently glowering at the back of Shantari's head; and Risa would try to ignore him, but every so often she caught the boy watching her again, and would instinctively send a glare or two shooting back in his direction.
By the time it reached noon, when the sun was high in the air above them, the uncomfortable itching that begins at the burning of one's skin had returned, and Risa could feel it poking at her face and arms again. With it came the elusive hints of mirages, of things in the distance that never actually turned out to be there; and once or twice Risa saw things come and go--but this time, if she was seeing correctly, she was noticing hints of something visibly gathering in the distance--though she couldn't tell what to make of it.
"Ah...Iuste?" came a quiet voice from behind her head. Risa realized that Tanmar was addressing her and turned her head just slightly to the side, to let him know that she was listening.
"About your accommodations upon reaching Kalpar...am I right in assuming that you know of no other place to stay?"
Risa nodded slowly.
"Aasir and I were speaking, and we...I mean, I...I was hoping, or wanted to know, rather...if you would...I mean, if we could possibly..."
He was fumbling over the words so terribly that Risa could scarcely make out what he was trying to say. It contrasted his usual air of confidence rather sharply.
"I would...that is to say, we would--" he gathered himself a final time, sitting up very straight and tall "--We would prefer you to stay in Kalpar until your Awakening, as your country is no more. For there you will find all you could possibly need to suit your...requirements, and your skills would be of great use to us."
So they did know of the Law. Risa had to work to remain calm, feeling a mix of anger and despair bubble up inside of her chest. He had implied a great many things, which were all suddenly weighing on her heart; and she hadn't even managed with the first dozen thoughts that sprang recklessly into her mind when the Ponne-Boy cried out, startling them both.
"Oja!" he cried, a look of betrayal shining clearly in his eyes.
"Yes, Thali, she will stay in Kalpar." He turned to face Risa. "Am I right in saying this?"
Both of them turned their attentions toward her, and her face flushed almost immediately. She, of all people, residing with Kalpans? Living and--heaven forbid--depending upon the ones who murdered her brother, and all of her people? Had they no shame in asking such a thing of her?
But then a thought entered her head so suddenly and deviously that she could scarcely believe it to be her own. Wouldn't this be the perfect way, her mind whispered, to take your revenge? To pay them back for all the grief they've caused you? Suffer them long enough to gain their trust, then strike them down when they least expect it. Wouldn't it be simply divine, to hurt them as they hurt you?
Risa grasped tightly to the idea, which seemed to give her the first sense of direction she'd had since she learned of Maura's demise; and she ducked her head shyly, nodding as she did so.
The boy slumped back onto his horse almost immediately, grumbling loud enough to be heard but not understood; and Tanmar relaxed a little, setting his horse walking again. Risa kept her head bowed so as not to be seen, fearing that her eyes would betray her thoughts.
"Ah, there she is. Look," he said, softly nudging her shoulder. "Kalpar."
Risa did as she was told, her eyes flickering slowly in the direction of the mountain.
Before her stood perhaps the most glorious thing she had ever witnessed in her entire life. The mountain, stretching beyond even the heights of her beloved Palace at Reihem, stole away the horizon, appearing powerful and ominous as in the stories of the Reihimians when the Kalpans were only a lesson taught in school. It stared down at her forebodingly; and she could feel the reality of it weighing upon her, heavy and great and almost too much to bear.
They were closer now, and she could see it fully--the mountain, whole at one time, looked as though it had been cut in two, half of which was no longer there. It was darker than the sand, though it had a similar texture; and in darkness it would be indistinguishable from the rest.
"See that great dark shadow at its center?" Tanmar asked, pointing up ahead of himself. Risa could almost see it if she squinted. "That's where Zarkera Niche is, the largest of the cities of Kalpar--the pride and joy of our people. More than half the population lives there now--for that's where the Library is, and the Palace too."
"Library?" Risa echoed. She saw the boy freeze out of the corner of her eye.
"Juris works there," he said, glancing back over at his son, who looked fit to burst.
"Juris?" Risa asked, casting a curious glance at the boy.
"He's the wisest Kalpan who ever lived!" he finally blurted, a massive grin breaking out on his face.
"Wisest," Tanmar added lightly, almost teasingly, "except for perhaps the Yonshu, and the Seer Mordevi."
"No, I'm sure he's wiser, even than them! Juris taught me everything I know about Ponne, and we all know how vast and great that is." He leaned toward them with a passion in his eyes. "Think about it, honestly--how many people would be still lying on their deathbeds if it weren't for me?"
"And how many more are still suffering from the side effects of your 'experiments'?" Tanmar teased.
"Fifty-three!" the boy cried as what skin was visible turned a light shade of red. "Fifty-three lives I've saved. Fifty-four, if you wish to include that." He swung his arm around to point dramatically at Risa, who glared back from beneath the arms of her captor.
Tanmar chuckled. "It seems as though my Thali, who just this morning was a bright ray of sunshine, has chosen to become a fiery wielder of hate."
"Hate?" the boy said, his bright eyes clouding over. "You accuse me of hate, Papa?" And then his words lowered to the point that Risa couldn't have understood them even if they hadn't been in Korish.
But Tanmar only shook his head sadly. "I have neither the right to meddle in her affairs, nor the wish to; but I do not blame her, for I do not know her story. But you--you I understand, and it is because of this I try to stop you before you inadvertently grow to be as those you so generously despise. But hatred leads to nothing more than hate, Thali; and if you learn nothing more than that, then I will be satisfied. For hatred what started this all in the first place, is it not?"
A heavy sadness fell upon them like a blanket; and Risa looked back and forth between the two, confused under the weight of something she didn't understand. Neither Tanmar nor his son said anything after that, shifting awkwardly in the silence; for Risa alone was content with it.
They had come close enough now to the flat-sided mountain that Risa had begun to take note of something rather curious. Dark patches, similar in shape to the one that Tanmar had pointed out earlier, were dotting the side, each irregular in form and easily distinguishable from the rest. She counted twelve at first; but they were appearing too quickly now for her to keep up with them. She could see the shadows of something moving through them also; and while they were much too large to be mistaken for birds, she couldn't think of anything else to explain them.
She wished earnestly that she could ask about whatever she wanted; never before had her curiosity burned so, as a foreigner in a foreign land. But she did not have the nerve to break the icy silence that had formed between the boy and his father, so she kept quiet, careful not to settle back against the cloaked man Tanmar (for the heat had made her tired).
"There they are," Tanmar said suddenly, pointing straight ahead to something at the base of the mountain. "The Kalpan Gates."
Risa's eyes widened, seeking them out with a sudden sense of urgency. Here...here was where she would have to leave all her memories behind. She ducked her head, hiding in Tanmar's shadow.
But no. If she truly wished to continue on the path she had chosen, she had to do more now than simply leave her memories behind. She could no longer be herself. For she had chosen to become like Hime now, and Hime showed no fear. She would never have cowered in the shadows like a child.
A horse was thundering toward them; and now was the time to act, if ever. Risa hesitated for a second, breathing a sigh so shaky and slow that she could feel Tanmar's head tilt to look at her; and she slowly lifted her eyes to face the rider, her chin jutting definitely forward. For Lady Hime, pride would stoop to no one. She would carry no regrets.
The rider, another Kalpan soldier whom Risa judged to be in charge of the gates, rode quickly up to them, steering his horse expertly next to Tanmar's. The two of them shared a few words; and if Risa had been at a better position, she would've noticed Tanmar's brow darken more than once during the conversation. The Ponne-Boy called after his father in Korish; and when the man replied, the boy's eyes grew wide with shock.
"Oja, dya!" he gasped, drawing a hand to his mouth.
"Ei is the brohna way," he answered softly. "Dya Kalpan will jahra her, dyar fhin the Yonshura morar."
Risa's head tilted upward; and Tanmar noticed, nodding. "Yes, Iuste. You have been rejected by the Yonshu, the leader of Kalpar. So you will be brought with me to the Kuro Niche, to the city of my people, to live with Thali and Channa until such time as we can find you a more...suitable place to stay."
Risa glanced over at the boy, whose face was buried in the mane of his horse. A deep sinking feeling had entered the pit of her stomach, which was dropping rapidly every second.
"Is there nowhere else?" Risa asked quietly.
"No, there is nowhere else--for now. But," he added, "if you prove yourself worthy of such a grace, and are grateful for what you have now, perhaps the Yonshu will reconsider."
"I have nothing to be grateful for," Risa spat, more out of fear than anger, like a cornered cat or dog. For on the inside, she was trembling at the silence and the thoughts of the place she would have to call home; but then Tanmar laughed, and startled her out of her misery.
"We'll just have to try a little harder then, won't we?" he chuckled.
Risa's heart stopped. This man is so strange, she thought. Why won't he dislike me? And it gave her an unsettling feeling; for it was somehow more difficult to be vengeful toward a person who cared.
As they neared the gates, they were told to halt by several soldiers, who seemed to be guarding a procession of some kind. Tanmar's son was craning his head over the top of his horse to see what it was; but Risa was still too lost in her thoughts to care.
"Ano is eitu?" Tanmar asked, pulling his horse to the side.
"Djuler ne Djan'ardria. Teira Raiheem'yin," one of the soldiers answered. Risa felt Tanmar stiffen behind her.
"Ana?" he asked, his voice betraying no emotion though Risa noticed his hand tighten on the reins.
"Yonshura morari. Brahki ji Iuste."
Risa wished she understood Korish. Perhaps she would ask Tanmar to teach her; she couldn't sulk forever. It wasn't healthy, and it was too damaging to her new appearance. Besides, she now had too much honor to protect now; and no captive with any sense of pride at all would hang their head for a lack of courage at learning things they didn't know. She sat as straight as she could, as though understanding every word perfectly; and she wished that her heart wouldn't beat so loudly.
"Iuste," Tanmar whispered, "One of your people is beyond the soldiers. They want her to identify you before they let you inside."
If winter-water from the lake at Reihem had been suddenly poured down the back of Risa's neck, she could not have been more stunned. She wished the world would stop, stop to let her think; but it didn't, and she found herself unexpectedly unprepared. They rode past the soldiers without so much as a pause (though Risa had willed them not to) and she found herself praying silently for the second time in two days as a woman with a sack over her head was presented to her.
Tanmar lowered her slowly from the horse; the ground was spinning, and her leg was throbbing again, but she still somehow managed to hold her head high. The sun beat down on her as always, and she was strangely aware of it though her thoughts lay somewhere else; for it felt at times as though it was only her shadow securing her to the ground. She willed herself to fly with the dust-wind, to soar beyond all the problems she had yet to encounter; but she couldn't seem to will it hard enough to make it happen.
For such things only happened in the silly stories she once made up for her darling Kalauda--legends from a different time, which now seemed so very far away. Stories where the outcome was never a question, where good and evil were as sharply defined as night and day; stories where the heroes always won.