Risa had never prayed before.
She was sure, because of how anxious and rushed they were, that they now made up easily for the previous seventeen-and-a-half years worth of silence; and they helped to distract her mind from the guilty feelings that often find a person when they are caught. For all she knew was that she couldn’t let Hime realize the amount of control she’d gained within a single moment.
“Kalauda, go,” Risa whispered, leading her brother toward the curtain. He moved it aside without so much as a backward glance and limped away, where he was met by the hushed and hurried whispers and the scuffling of sandals from more than just his parents this time.
When she could hear no other sound than the frantic beatings of her heart, Risa turned to face Hime, her feet planted firmly in the ground.
“So you have a younger sister?” Hime asked. She looked as though her Awakening had come early.
“Brother,” Risa corrected. “I’ve always told him that he needed to cut his hair.”
“And there’s something wrong with his legs.”
It wasn’t a question. “You’re very observant today.”
Hime beamed. “So that means...he wouldn’t be much use fighting, would he?”
Risa felt her face grow hot.
“And your father and mother...they’re still young yet, aren’t they?”
“Then that means there’s no one to protect your precious family here but you, hmm?”
Risa kept perfectly still, glowering at the ground near her Justice’s feet.
A sickly smile spread across Hime’s sharply-featured face. “You must be very important to them, then.”
“As important as they are to me. Wouldn’t you have given anything to save your mother back in Reihem, had you the chance?”
“No,” Hime answered tightly, and Risa stopped. “She was supposed to die for me, not the other way around. I’m only to carry on what she left behind for me--the Law of the Justice, and nothing more than that.”
Risa didn’t quite know how to respond.
“I have been waiting here ever since my faithful Law woke me, deliberating upon what to do...so now I suppose I need to forbid you from talking to...no, from even seeing or speaking of your family until my Awakening.” She sighed, folding her fingers daintily onto her lap. “This is, of course, your due punishment, as you have disobeyed the Law.”
“Disobeyed...?” Risa cried. “I have done no such thing!”
Hime’s snake-like mouth curled into an even tighter smile. “You said that your brother was the most important person to you, and not the Justice. You would protect him over me. Such a statement is a defiance of the Law.”
Just a simple string of words that had seemed so very important at the time--and yet they had just cost her five months worth of visits from Kalauda.
An acidic feeling had entered the pit of her stomach and was slowly making its presence painfully real, rising through her lungs and tightening in her throat. It was stabbing at the back of her eyes.
“You can’t do that. I must be allowed to see my family.”
Hime laughed, a nasty sort of whooping noise that made Risa’s hair stand on end. It almost reminded her of the sound one of the rogits made when she killed it the other day, for breakfast.
“If you love them half as much as you say you do, five months won’t seem nearly so long. And just to make sure you don’t do anything silly, I’ll send you on a little journey today...for some fresh air. How does that sound?”
Risa’s eyes darkened. “Journey?”
“Yes, doesn’t that sound exciting?” Hime grinned and gathered her skirts as she glided down to the trunk where her more prizedpossessions were stored. “I’m afraid I’ll be needing a new ceremonial gown, my old one isn’t nearly as...nice as it once was. Fashion does change rather quickly out in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t it? It’s quite the surprise. And since the Caravan is nearby I thought I’d send you to them. The journey isn’t so far that you wouldn’t be back before nightfall; you needn’t worry about violating the Law again, so long as you hurry.” She retrieved a silk pouch full of coins and tossed it at the ground near Risa’s feet. “Do be sure to watch for Kalpans,” she said with a sneer, “I hear they’re running about up there.”
The acidic feeling was melting now, forming instead into a massive flame that seemed to swell all over. She stooped down and took hold of the pouch, her hand tightening into a fist around it. Hime couldn’t keep her from her family; not now, when they needed her most. Her heart ached powerfully for what she wanted, though she knew it did absolutely nothing; and yet, it was all that she could seem to do. It was a very helpless feeling, sort of like falling; and she didn’t like it much.
“You can’t send me away, in case the Kalpans attack. I’m your desideria, remember?
“I can do whatever I wish,” Hime retorted. “Besides, I don’t need you to protect me. There are plenty of able-bodied people in this town besides you."
Risa’s head snapped up at the retort, and even Hime winced at her glare.
“Good luck getting them to do anything for you then, when they aren’t even bound by Law as I am!--I’m sure those ‘plenty’ would give their very lives just to take yours, had they the chance!” She rose abruptly and threw the curtain aside, barely taking into account the mortified look that swallowed Hime’s pinched face, and stormed out into the blinding sunlight.
Risa was somewhat grateful that she’d left before saying anything further, and given the Law a chance to react. She hadn’t even bothered with listening to whatever it was that Hime had screeched to her after she left, for she knew it might’ve compelled her to return. As it was, her heart was already wrenching in her chest; she could feel the old urges to complain rising to her throat again, mingling with the acidic taste still left in her mouth. But even that was at a loss now, for she wouldn’t know where to begin.
The Northern Deserts where she knew the Caravan would be really weren’t that far, as Hime had said; but they were still quite a ways, so she laced up her only pair of sandals to prepare for the journey. Risa normally wouldn’t have used them; but the blisters she’d gotten from picking the Pardonberries hadn’t yet had time to heal, so she didn’t feel like adding new ones. She wrapped her scarf around her head, hoping to shield her eyes from the sunlight and dust-wind, though they burned already; but she knew that this had nothing to do with those. So long as she kept her mind blank, she knew it would go away eventually.
A flask was filled with water and strapped to her thin leather belt, along with Hime’s pouch and some dried meat and vegetables; and now that she was satisfied with her preparations, she turned to look back at the quiet town one final time. Not wanting to leave, and yet not finding a reason to delay any longer, she set off slowly but deliberately, her worn brown clothing fading quickly into the billowing sands that now lay all around her.
The sun was hot as ever, and the sweat from it poured down Risa’s face, neck and arms, seeming at times like an extra layer of clothing. Whenever she wiped some off, more would form in its place; and so after a time all of her clothing had been removed, except for her work-dress and sandals. Even the scarf had gone, now tied with her belt around her waist--for she had discovered soon after Maura had melted out of sight that there was no dust-wind in the air.
There were no sounds in the vast desert save the lonely crunches of her sandals in the sand, so Risa had taken out a few of Hime’s coins just to hear them clink noisily in her hands. Before, she would’ve gladly sang a few of Kalauda’s songs to drown out the silence; but singing made her think of him now, and without her realizing it. Her throat would tighten in this times, which had never happened before; and she found after a while that she couldn’t sing at all.
Whenever she allowed her thoughts to drift to Kalauda fully (which was usually when she was too tired to stop them), Risa would tell herself (and him) that had the Law not existed, she would’ve done away with the Justice herself, for practically ripping him and their parents from her side. She had no right...
And then the urgent thoughts of the Kalpans would resurface in her mind and she would push them back out, not wishing to acknowledge them any more than she already had. Were no thoughts welcome in her head? She would just have to trust her family to be safe.
Perhaps Father could learn how to fight. Anyone could be taught; it had never been such a difficult skill to master. You just had to be quick. She knew that he was faster than Kalauda, which was a start; maybe she could find someone to teach him for her, when she returned Maura. She would have to talk to Celandine about it.
And Mother, Mother was always good at losing things in the strangest of places. She’d find some decently obscure place for Kalauda to hide if they ever found the need for him to...
She thought of battle, and of the long years she had trained to be a desideria before actually becoming one. Swordsmanship had always been her best class then, and she was her tutors favourite, despite being a girl; and she’d even been given a blade of her own upon passing. She cursed herself silently for not having remembered to bring it along. I could’ve gotten some good practice out here, she thought, where no one else could see.
But the memories of the work it had taken to train made her thirsty again; and much to her chagrin, she realized that her water flask was empty this time, its contents having dried fully into the animal skin that once held it. She glared at it furiously and tried to rein the craving in; so she steered her mind toward more distracting thoughts (whatever they might be) and continued trudging her way forward, her feet now dragging somewhat in the sand. All she could think of to amuse herself was what to get for Hime, whether to choose a truly beautiful gown or a hideous and murky-colored one. Wouldn’t that be simply the best trick, out here where the Law couldn’t reach her?
But knowing Hime, she would probably be sent out again because it didn’t meet with the Law’s satisfaction; and Risa would find herself once again under the wrath of the townspeople of Maura. Though theirs was an understandable response, of course; most of Hime’s spending funds came straight from their pockets. So she sighed and forced herself to think of another way to annoy Hime, some other loophole in the Law that she could find so she wouldn’t have to continue thinking about Kalauda and Mother and Father, and everything else she had lost.
By the time noon rolled around, Risa was not only tired and thirsty, but also having to deal with the sun beating down on her from almost directly above. Not to mention that her head felt swollen to ten times its original size, and itched furiously. A dull ringing sound had stirred up somewhere in her ears as well; she was starting to get a throbbing pain in her temples because of it, and it was difficult to keep herself from walking to its beat.
When she was almost certain she was to go mad from itching because everything that was exposed had turned scratchy and red, she suddenly realized that the movement she’d spotted several minutes ago was not another mirage but the Caravan, with its enormous load of wares.
“Hey!” she yelled after it, waving her orange scarf high in the air. She half-ran toward it, skipping partly with relief (but mostly because of the blisters).
“Ah, Desideria Risa! How is you?” a darkened man called out when she was close enough to be heard. He was perhaps the only person in the Caravan who spoke understandable Reihimian--and even then it was still thick with the rugged Korish accent.
“Doing quite well, thank you very much, Kadin,” Risa replied, grateful to hear a voice other than her own. She lowered her scarf, a weary grin spreading on her tired face.
Kadin nodded, pleased. “Be there any things I can for you do?”
“For Hime, of course; I wouldn’t have come all this way for my own sake.”
But at this comment his eyes darkened; so she added, “I’m out of the Law right now, so there’s no need to worry about demands.”
His expression altered somewhat. “What needed her?” he asked flatly.
“A new ceremonial gown. It doesn’t have to be expensive; it just needs to look like it is. I’ll still pay full price for it, of course.” She pulled Hime’s money pouch off her belt and wound its string around her index finger, twirling it a couple times in the air. “I might buy something too, though,” she added before Kadin left to find the fabric.
The Caravan wagons were strung out into a long line as they usually were, trailing off somewhere far in the desert, toward the horizon; it had grown so large that Risa could no longer see where it ended.
It was said that the dozens of peaceful tribes that were displaced by Kalpar and the other warring territories had formed this Caravan many years ago; the families that no longer had homes to return to became wanderers who sold their possessions in order to provide for their families. Whenever news of the newly displaced tribes reached their ears, they traveled specially to those areas; so oftentimes the people that had once lived there also followed them, selling wares of their own.
After about five years, when they had grown to a more formidable size, people began to acknowledge who they were, and what it was that they did; many came to buy the goods they sold, and that was the start of the Caravan.
The people that lived in it worked tirelessly day and night to create the wares they either sold or traded, their products ranging from colorful and intricate baskets to meticulously carved swords and daggers. There was not a single person in all of Kor who didn’t know what the Caravan was, for it was like a nation in itself; and it was a powerful one. It had been something of a symbol of hope for Kor, and Risa had always thoroughly enjoyed her visits there, from the first time she had arrived.
Risa weaved her way through Kadin’s section of the Caravan, careful not to lose her place amid the thousands of other tribes that marketed there. They had gained two wagons more since the last time she had visited; one of them sold scarves (not at all a rarity, soRisa skipped past it) and the other held what looked like a dozen or so small wooden sticks.
She wandered over, mildly curious, and quickly realized that it was manned by a girl perhaps half her age. She was darker than Kadin, her short black hair curling fiercely, and somewhat frazzled by the sun; and it contrasted rather sharply with her smooth and jewel-like eyes. The sticks she sold were actually handmade flutes and whistles, each of them carved with a simple yet appealing design; and they reminded Risa very much of Kalauda.
Intrigued, she walked over to them at once, ignoring the girl’s wide-eyed stares as she approached. She appeared to be frozen in place, or else quite unsure of what to do.
“How much are you asking for one of these?” Risa asked without turning, pointing to the flutes; but the girl didn’t respond. Instead she shook her head very quickly; and when Risa turned to look, she scampered behind her wagon, peering out very cautiously at what Risa guessed to be her first foreign customer.
She smiled softly and examined the whistles, blowing quietly into a few of them, trying to see which sounded best. And when she had decided on the grey one that had stars carved into its sides, she left five shiny gold coins on the stand (which she knew would be more than enough). She looped it with some of the threads that had frayed off of her scarf and tied it very loosely around her neck; and after staring at it awhile, smiling very slightly, she began to explore the caravan once again, gawking at all of the curious and interesting things that were sold there.
“Ah! Desideria Risa!” Kadin called above the mull of the people. Risa yelled after him, following the sound of his voice past a stand of arrows and mysterious bottled potions.
“What did you find?” Risa asked, finding him near a stand that sold shiny sword-sheaths and wooden arm-braces.
Draped over his arms were several fabrics of ostentatious colorings, ranging from blues more vibrant than the oceans to yellows that rivaled the sun. All were very expensive looking, so Risa was skeptical at first; but after hearing that they were really only (as Kadin put it) ‘deceptively hand-crafted,’ she chose a combination of the Pardonberry-dyed purple and a green like the grass that once grew back in Reihem.
Fixing the dress to an appropriate size for Hime based off Risa’s features had never been an enjoyable experience. In the past, Hime had complained that the clothes were too thin, too long and unshapely; she whined of how unappealing Risa was, and how it came across in the dresses and affected the way they were made. This always made Risa feel miserable, tall and gangling and common in looks, with too thin and calloused an appearance in a world of soft and ivory skin; and not even her hair or her eyes could compensate for all that she lacked, for she had dry and overly-curly hair that always looped in the wrong directions, and homely desert-brown eyes. She was ordinary and she knew it; and though she would never admit it, she still got a stinging feeling each time she remembered Hime’s ignorantly blunt remarks.
The seamstress let out the fabric quite drastically in the middle; and instead of estimating how short Hime was compared to Risa (she’d been making dresses for the Justice far too long); she let the fabric pool on the floor, creating an elegant train of sorts. The sleeves were too short, and the only part that fit decently enough; for everything else seemed baggy and large. She struggled with removing the gown after the seamstress had finished, feeling at times as though it were alive and fighting back; and it eventually took three additional girls besides herself to get it safely removed. Everything about the dress was heavy and not at all what she was used to, so when it was finally off she couldn’t wait to get back into her light and convenient work-clothes.
“Hope have I that Hime dress is good for she,” Kadin remarked upon seeing Risa again.
Risa nodded, dropping the silk pouch into Kadin’s hands. “As have I. And I’m sure that many others besides you would be disappointed if it didn’t meet to her satisfactions.”
Kadin smiled, more out of understanding than amusement. Word of Hime’s noble pick-pocketing had spread to farther places that the Mauran surroundings, though no one did anything more than sympathize.
Risa shifted around in her dress, getting her belt and things resituated.
She looked up when she had finished and paused; the young girl who had worked the wagon with the flutes was running toward them, a water skin tucked under her arm. Kadin began speaking to her at once; he introduced her proudly as his daughter, who had just begun working this past year. The girl then presented the water to Risa with a wide and toothy smile; and she accepted it gratefully, not ever having realized that it had gone. Once the cold water was rushing down her throat, she remembered just how thirsty she had been; for it was like quenching a fire. She had to stop herself from drinking it all at once.
“Kara ne,” she said when she had finished, carefully sounding the Korish words for ‘thank you.’
The child beamed, appearing to have understood, then ran back in the direction of her wagon, quickly disappearing within the crowds of foreign people.
“You good sound have, for Korish speak.”
“Kara ne to you too, Kadin,” Risa grinned, turning to face the merchant once more. He was smiling.
“No mention,” he laughed. “Safe travel home. Careful no Kalpan.”
“I’ll be alright, don’t you worry.”
Kadin nodded reassuringly; and Risa, with Hime’s dress folded over her arms and Kalauda’s whistle secured around her neck, left in the direction of Maura.
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