Chapter One: The Girl Who Crossed Worlds
Month of the Thief, 808
Janalack Nabaran had an idea. This was a dangerous thing indeed, for she was not long past her seventh birthday and had yet to encounter a catastrophe so grave as to temper her curiosity with caution.
Currently she sat on the floor of her bedroom with her possessions piled in a ring around her: towering stacks of books filled with pages of tiny black letters packed tight — really these belonged to her mother and father, but in Janalack's estimation they were hers, for she was the only one who read them, who spent hours and hours huddled beneath the covers when she was supposed to be asleep deciphering hand-drawn diagrams annotated in cramped, smudgy writing —; clothes of good quality though of little use to her current purpose, being better suited to sitting in a classroom or paraded before her mother's noble friends than to adventuring; dried fruit and flatbread stolen from the kitchen by way of food, and also a block of hard cheese purchased from the market with the scattered accumulation of spare change hidden beneath a pile of old stockings.
She skimmed her fingers over the leather- and cloth-bound spines of the books. Which to bring? There was the Botanical Compendium, most likely of little use; she doubted the other realms held the same plants as her own. Also it was nearly as wide across as her body and took both hands to lift. Beside it sat the Guide to the Foreign Realms, an ancient notebook bound in cracking leather. She tucked it into her bag behind her raincoat.
"Why are you sitting in the dark?" Janalack's eldest sister, Cassinat, with whom she shared a room in an as yet unsuccessful effort to keep Janalack out of trouble, stood in the doorway still dressed for court in a flowing blue gown to match her eyes, hair done up in thousands of miniscule braids — border-braids, in the Talthan parlance, though in Cepan they were common enough to have no special designation — swept up in an intricate complex on top of her head. Crossing the room in a few quick strides, she tugged open the curtains.
"I was sneaking," said Janalack, indignant.
"Not very well."
Cassinat sat herself in front of the mirror, where she began wiping away the colourful designs it had recently become fashionable for the young men and women of the court to paint around their eyes. Strangers on occasion informed her of her beauty, not so much because of her appearance — she was rather twiggy, her deep brown skin beset by the myriad of inconveniences brought on by adolescence, her face round, tapering suddenly to a pointed chin and decorated with features slightly too small and too close together for the space they were afforded — but rather because she carried herself in such a way that one's eyes skipped over her physical appearance altogether, or so she claimed. Janalack, who looked very much like her oldest sister only shorter and with more leaves in her hair, supposed this must be true, as usually when someone commented on her appearance it was to demand she take a bath.
"But you didn't know where I was," said Janalack. She had decided to bring the Botanical Compendium after all and was trying to fit it into her bag.
"I did know, on account of you weren't anywhere else," said Cassinat. She eyed the bag suspiciously. "Are you running away again?"
"It's not running away, it's adventuring," said Janalack.
"It's dangerous," said Cassinat, who was fifteen and thought she knew better than everyone. "What if you get bitten by a snake, or fall down a hole and break your neck? What if you get kidnapped and held for ransom?"
"Snakes only bite if you're mean first. Plus most kinds aren't even venomous, and also I read how to make the antidote and it's not even hard."
Cassinat sighed at her. "It was an example. Besides, I doubt you could make an antidote all by yourself in the middle of the forest while your leg is rotting off. Then while you're dying your last thought will be that you should have listened." She stood, face clean, border-braids hanging loose down to her waist. She flicked Janalack gently on the forehead with painted nails. "Come on. Time for dinner."
The family ate at a long oak table in the courtyard, protected from sun and rain by a green canopy that cast everything beneath it in the same colour — Janalack was rather fond of it, for all her mother complained it made them look sick, and also that red was more in fashion that season; it was like eating in the forest except Janalack hardly ever discovered interesting new bugs. Presently her mother, a stately woman by the name of Saranan, emerged from the house in court robes of silver and blue, having instilled a healthy fear of her wrath into the serving boy as was her custom before each meal. After her trailed her husband, Reya, a considerably less stately man who had begun his life as a tailor. They placed themselves at either end of the table, their children two to a side between them.
"Tavi and I will be away for dinner tomorrow. Lady Taranatic has a daughter near his age — a tolerant girl, or so I hear," Saranan said as the serving boy appeared hesitantly at her shoulder. She cast despairing eyes down the table at her son, a gawky, sullen boy of nine years who looked half that.
"I don't want to," he said to his empty plate.
"That attitude is precisely why this betrothal has been a trial for us all. With Nayonen I thought it could be no worse, but oh, how you insist on proving me wrong… and then of course there will be Janalack in a few years' time, if some accident is not merciful enough to strike me down before then."
Nayonen wiped theatrically at her eyes. At eleven years she was the second eldest of Janalack's siblings and had recently begun work as apprentice to the village clockmaker; accordingly she wore her hair short, in the style of craftspeople and labourers. She said, "Mother, I can't believe you demoted me to third-worst child. How will I live with the shame?"
"Nayonen, you know your mother doesn't think of you like that," said Reya.
Saranan fixed him with sharp, pale eyes. "Do not tell me what I mean, dear."
"Janalack is running away again," interrupted Cassinat. As one, the table turned towards her.
"Adventuring," said Janalack, and then, "you weren't supposed to tell them, traitor."
"You are absolutely forbidden from leaving this house," said Saranan. Reya waved a placating hand in her direction. He circled the table to kneel at Janalack's side.
"You are still a child, Janalack. You cannot go wandering about by yourself."
"Adventuring," Janalack reminded him through a mouthful of curried fish.
They were all, she thought, being horribly unfair: she'd never once been kidnapped, or fallen in a hole, or been bitten by a snake. Once she'd fallen out of a ketazin tree and had to hobble around with her ankle wrapped for a full three weeks afterwards, on account of, she was certain, her mother bribing the doctor to keep it wrapped after it had healed so that Janalack was stuck at home — the tree belonged to Lord Zenaravet, who was so enraged at Janalack picking and eating his ketazin harvest he'd called off his son's betrothal to Nayonen, even though the fruit had been very sour and also Nayonen once tried to drown her betrothed in a pond, an incident she insisted had been an accident — in the aftermath Saranac had been furious, vowing loudly to keep Janalack chained to her bed until she died of old age.
Reya said, "I know you're angry now, but I promise you will understand when you're older."
All at once Janalack came up with a plan, elegant in its simplicity: she puffed out her chest, put on her most winning smile, and lied. "I am convinced," she said. "Now I see that adventuring is dangerous. I must think about what I have learned. Please, may I be excused?"
Her father's face contorted strangely. He made a strangled noise at the back of his throat. "Why don't you finish your dinner."
Cassinat followed her up to their bedroom. She followed her in the garden. She "just happened" to drop something on the ground outside the washroom every time Janalack went in, or else develop a sudden fascination with the photograph of a scowling great-ancestor that hung opposite. She read her a bedtime story ("but I know how to read," protested Janalack) about a little girl who wandered off in the forest and got eaten by a giant.
"There are giants in the forest?" asked Janalack, who spent a lot of time there and could not think of anywhere big enough for one to hide. "They can't be that giant. Maybe they're just really, really tall people."
"The point is you should listen to your parents," said Cassinat.
Janalack patted her sister on the arm. "Don't be afraid of the giants. Probably they wouldn't eat you even if they were there, on account of it's cannibalism and they would get sick. Plus Morenet from school lives right next to the forest and she's never seen a giant even once," said Janalack. Her sister still looked upset, so she added, "It's okay if you're scared. I'll protect you."
"I am not afraid of giants. You're missing the point entirely," said Cassinat.
Janalack patted her again. "I won't judge you," she said. Their father sometimes liked to give lectures on how to treat people, and they usually included not judging people.
"Never mind, just go to sleep," said Cassinat.
Janalack rolled over to face the wall. Her bag sat at the end of the bed, fully packed. All she needed to do was wait for Cassinat to fall asleep.
"How come they live in the forest?" she asked.
"What?" said Cassinat.
"The giants. They should live on the plains, so they have more space to move around."
"Giants aren't real, Janalack."
She thought on this for a moment. "So I can go into the forest."
Cassinat groaned. "It means mother and father are older, and when people are older they know about more things that could hurt you, so you need to listen to them when they tell you something is dangerous."
"But I know more about the forest than them, so really they should listen to me."
"Quit misunderstanding me on purpose," said Cassinat.
"I'm not," said Janalack.
She lay very still beneath the covers, listening to Cassinat's breathing. Every few seconds she rolled over — usually she went to sleep much later than her sister. Janalack inched a toe out of bed to rest on the top of her bag. Maybe she would find giants, not in her own world but in some other. Or else something even better than giants, something no one else ever found before her. Something with lots of legs, or that could fly, or breathe fire, or all of those at once. One day she would see snow and walk on ice and climb to the top of a mountain and fill books with all her discoveries.
On the other side of the room, Cassinat snored. Carefully, Janalack pushed back her blankets. She laid her feet flat on the floor, gently to keep the old boards from creaking beneath her weight. Hands straight out in front of her as if pressing against an invisible wall, she reached. At first nothing happened. Then the air parted like paint peeled away to reveal the layers beneath. Behind her was the wall of her room, tacked with diagrams. Before her, a great open plain beneath a violet sky, contained within a flat, circular split in the air. Janalack swung her bag onto her shoulder and stepped through.
Dry, warm wind, oddly gritty, nearly pushed her over as the realm-path knit closed. Waist-high, wind-flattened yellow grass rippled out in every direction, on and on until finally it vanished over the horizon. Janalack righted herself, spread her arms out to the side so the wind rushed past, tugging at her clothes. Had she longer hair, it would have danced behind her. She breathed in deep the air of this strange world, and then she settled cross-legged onto the ground to make her notes.
The Guide to the Foreign Realms had been written nearly a century earlier by a curmudgeonly old woman who was not herself a realm-walker but who had a great talent for tracking down those who were and, through sheer persistence, extracting their stories. Her prose could not be described as inspiring, and indeed her work was of little interest to anyone but realm-walkers, and even then, only those with the patience to crawl through it. Janalack had uncovered a copy a the bookshop in Kemataral, the village nearest her family's estate. Nayonen, who made pennies from her work as an apprentice clockmaker, had purchased it for her seventh birthday. Janalack had devoured it cover-to-cover in the span of two days.
For this reason she recognized the place where she now found herself: it was the easiest to reach of the realms connected to her home-world, the one where most realm-walkers landed on their first trip. After that it became more complicated: stronger realm-walkers crossed space in great swathes, from one realm to the next where another might take a detour of a half-dozen realms or more.
The Guide held no maps, nor any indication at all of the realm's topography besides a rough list of where past walkers had begun their journey in the home-world and where they had landed — this being, universally, in the great grassy expanse where Janalack sat, chewing her lip as she studied the book. She had less than a rudimentary understanding of map-making but imagined it could not be especially difficult. Now, lacking in the materials for it — or what she imagined were the materials for it — she would mark only the place of her arrival.
She knelt to pluck bare a circle in the plain. The grass stems were hard and hollow at the base, narrow and flexible higher up, where they bled sticky sap over her fingers when she broke through the surface. Grasses covered much of the countries in the north and east of her home-world, or so she had read. Cepan's tropical climate favoured expansive creepers and great flowering bushes; and so it was grasses, for all their lack of bright colours or interesting flowers, that she had taken to pressing between the blank pages of her notebook, and now she added another.
Soon her fingers ached, stained yellow at the nails, scratched from the sharp edges of the leaves. She'd left a bald spot the size of a dinner plate in the plain, revealing brown, crumbly soil, faintly moist though she could see no source of water, not even budding clouds in the sky. A handful of the dirt she slipped into the pocket of her raincoat.
To her disappointment she'd found no insects, these being, in her estimation, the best part of any exploration: Cassinat always discovered the treefrogs, and the snakes, and a beautiful yellow-striped spider the size of Janalack's hands cupped together — this last one had come to an unfortunate end, crushed beneath an encyclopedia; Janalack had held a proper funeral where she forced Cassinat to confess to her crime, then spent the following two weeks refusing to speak with her — but smaller insects she smuggled home in her pockets and built homes in glass bottles she hid in the closet or under the bed in face of her sister's approaching footsteps. No insects from this realm or any other would fall to Cassinat's wrath, she vowed. She would build them an impregnable fortress, with soil and plants from their home, and Janalack would watch over them and record everything they did in the proper scholarly fashion. But first she would need to find some.
Blinking against the harsh sunlight, she emerged from her reverie as her body listed to the side. Her eyes stung with exhaustion, but she could not sleep yet, not when there were maps to make and insects to find and sunsets to watch. A scholar did not sleep until her work was done, nor give in to petty bodily urges. All of this she thought firmly to herself as she lay down in the grass, just so she could watch the sky. Nothing more than that.
She dreamed of giants tap-dancing over endless yellow fields and woke to a lightening lilac sky, a sticky feeling in her throat. Slivers of grass barbed her clothes. A stalk dangled from her hair into her eyes; she flicked it away. The realm seemed very lonely, all of a sudden, eerily quiet without the wind that had died while she slept. Painfully, she swallowed a slice of dried mango, wishing she had water. Perhaps it was time to go home. Cassinat might even still be asleep. She reached for the realm path — and found a multitude. The air peeled away before her to reveal a vast expanse of rock, something glimmering and white drifting down over it. Snow. Janalack stretched out her hand only to pull it back at the touch of biting cold. Homesickness forgotten, she layered on her spare clothes.
Snow sunk into her shoes and stung against her face. She tilted her head up to catch it in her mouth, shovelled it up in great handfuls, eyes watering from cold. Then she pushed away layers of snow with the side of her shoe, knelt to scrape up the hard, pebbly dirt beneath, and put it in the empty pocket of her raincoat.
She picked her way through the snow towards an outcropping a little ways away. Each step broke through the thin crust of ice that formed the top layer of the drifts, soaking her to her knees. Her hands tingled then numbed; warmth leeched out even as she bunched them into fists tucked up into her sleeves. The outcropping loomed suddenly before her and she sank gratefully to her knees, body already aching with the effort of pushing through snow. Crouched in her makeshift shelter, she looked out, for the first time, on the world.
Jagged mountains pierced a slate-grey sky. In the valley, dusky green trees the shape of ballroom skirts bowed beneath the snow. She would have drawn it all, if she could — if her fingers were not so numb, if she could translate all that she saw around her into marks of a pen rather than formless scribbles. With one last longing look and another mouthful of snow, she split the air once more.
Janalack lay on her back in a land of hard-packed sand, notebook held open above her, head pillowed on her bag. Her map showed a half-dozen realms, crossed in she could not say how many days. She had slept four times, eaten all but the final crumbs of her rations. Her bag frayed where it shouldn't have for years yet; the leather being of good quality and well-stitched. Threads unraveled from her clothes as she walked, leaving behind a trail that soon vanished behind her.
She closed her eyes, and reached. The realm paths tingled beyond her fingertips. Now she sensed subtly different textures to them, enough to distinguish between them but not to know what hid beyond, nor to tell for certain which she had already tried.
The first was familiar: a vast expanse of blue rock, smelling faintly of spice — she had opened this pathway before, but it was not the one she came from. Then a single tree, bowed branches sweeping down to red dirt. A new realm. She added it to her map with shaky fingers. Sweat beaded at her forehead. Chest aching, she opened another. She would have cried, had she any tears left, but her body had become a dried, shrivelled thing. Black spots danced before her eyes but she would not sleep here, not another night.
Blindly, desperately, she reached. Cold air knocked her back. She opened her eyes to snowflakes wide as her thumbnail swirling down over a sheer mountain face. Shaky with relief, she stumbled through the realm-way to collapse in a white drift.
Curled on her side, she chewed snow until her stomach ached from it, until her insides shivered and tears carved frozen paths down her cheeks. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. Already snow covered her like a blanket. Soon she would be buried entirely. She'd played at being buried, back home, deep in the pages of the Guide to the Foreign Realms and enamoured with the idea of snow; cut up the old linens to make flakes and made Tavi stand on the table to drop them over her, only there hadn't been enough to dig a burrow.
Janalack shot upright. Numb fingers plunged blindly into the nearest drift, scooping out armfuls of snow. She forced herself into the space, curled tight with her hands tucked beneath her arms. The realm paths danced on the edge of her awareness, but she could not reach them. Slowly the cold receded to a dull ache. Soon she would find her way home. She only needed to regain her strength.
Sleep eluded her: a heavy, sick pit sat in her stomach, and when the feeling came back to her fingers, she could focus on nothing but the bone-deep cold. She wished her mother were there, or her father, to scold her and carry her home like they had when she fell from the ketazin tree, or Cassinat with her lessons, Nayonen with her sharp tongue or Tavi with his silences. But they could not come to her, so she would come to them.
She focused on the feel of the realm paths: a trace of warmth here, the scent of soil after rain, the sting of sand blown against skin. Lungs aching with cold, she breathed in. And out. And in. And pushed. A fracture split the air. Wavered, contracted, then grew, wide enough to see the expansive field of grass beyond, endless beneath a purple sky. Janalack crawled towards it on hands and knees, dragging her bag by the strap. The gap was barely wide enough to fit her shoulders.
At first the heat burned: fire prickled through her arms and legs, then down into her fingers and toes. She stripped off her damp outer layers and lay there on her back, stretched out beneath the sun to soak up its warmth. There, she slept.
When Janalack Nabaran returned to her own realm, the sprawl of mud-brick villas and towering, wide-leafed vetavi trees assured her she was, at least, in the correct country, though she did not recognize the village. She stood at the edge of an open-air market, deserted until the scorching midday heat died away into the afternoon. She regarded it curiously: Cepanese winters were seldom truly cold, tending instead towards a rainy coolness that allowed the markets to remain open throughout the day. It was not until mid-spring or even the start of summer that the heat grew truly intense.
Already she felt dried out and dizzy from the sun. Tucking herself into the shadow of a merchant's cart, she flipped through her notes. These had suffered towards the end of her journey, at first smudgy and illegible, then absent entirely. She filled in the gaps hesitantly: the hours blurred together, details slipping away like sand through her fingers. Someday she would return, better supplied, to make her observations properly.
Her stomach squeezed with hunger, a familiar feeling after the last few days and not one she had means to fix, even when the market reopened — merchants were not well inclined towards charity and beggars rarely humoured when they stopped by one's door. All the same, she set off towards the cluster of low-slung houses across the square. Halfway, she spotted a young bird laying limp in the ruddy dirt, orange-speckled wings askew, eyes wide open and cloudy. Janalack settled on the ground, cross-legged. Gently, she cupped it in her hands.
At five years old, Janalack had found a frog in her family's garden: a tiny thing, barely the length of her smallest finger, morning light reflected off the deep, blue-speckled black of its skin. She had sat, motionless, waiting for it to move, until finally Nayonen found her there and told her it was dead. Death had been a strange, murky concept to her then, something that resided in books she read under the table when her tutors and schoolteachers paused for breath, not as an end but as the condition that allowed for dissection and the consequent revealing of the body's secrets.
The cook left his knives out in a row on the counter when he cooked. Janalack stole the smallest, a paring knife the length of her palm, as he prepared the noon meal. At first she could not cut the frog's skin: it dipped beneath the pressure and she pushed down until all of a sudden it broke and the blade plunged down, slicing through organs. The books said she needed a scalpel to make incisions fine enough not to damage anything beneath. Her parents would not buy it for her, nor even Nayonen, who liked to put what little she had by way of independent wealth to use in blatant disobedience of their parents. The markets had ornamental knives, blades dull but carved with elegant designs. In the end, she'd made do with her stolen paring knife.
It was this knife she now fished from the depths of her bag and set neatly beside her. First she plucked away the feathers on the bird's chest. Then she collected them together and tucked them into the lower pocket of her raincoat, with the dirt from the first realm. The wings she pinned in place with loose pebbles, stretched out to either side of the bird's body. She pressed the knife-tip gently into the bare skin.
"Did you kill it?" The speaker was a woman older than anyone Janalack had ever seen before, bent deep over a walking stick clenched in wide, knobbly hands.
"No," said Janalack. She poked her tongue between her front teeth in concentration as the bird's flesh parted beneath her knife.
"Have you ever cut into a person?"
Janalack shook her head. "I only dissect what I find dead, and I've never found a dead person. My sister says the constables take them away, and you can't have them back afterwards, unless they know you're family, and also an adult."
"Would you like to?" asked the old woman.
"Yes," said Janalack, then, "do you have one? A dead person, I mean. Can you teach me how to do dissection on them? The books only have instructions for frogs, and I tried asking the butchers but they wouldn't tell me."
The old woman's stick snapped out, lightening fast, to crack her on the knuckles. "Stop that, child. I do not have some poor soul for you to chop up for your little games, and I am getting tired of watching you torment that bird."
"The bird is dead," said Janalack, rubbing her stinging knuckles.
"And you shall respect it," said the old woman.
"But it's dead," said Janalack, who, despite her father's best efforts, struggled to understand how dissection was not respectful — she thought it would be very exciting if someone cut her open to find out how she worked when she died, and told the old woman so.
"It is your parents' role to teach you such things," said the old woman. She cast a critical eye around the square, as though noticing for the first time Janalack was unaccompanied. "Where do you live? I will tell them of your behaviour." Janalack shrugged. Ordinarily she would have argued, but at the present moment she wanted very much to see her family again and did not especially care if that meant a thorough scolding.
"Kemataral," she said.
The old woman's eyes narrowed. "That's reaches from here."
"I took the realm paths," said Janalack. "Only I got lost and ended up here instead of back home."
The old woman heaved a great sigh. "I suppose you expect me to do something about it," she said.
"No." Janalack crouched down to flick a fly off the bird's corpse. "I'm going to take the realm paths, once I have more food and water."
But the woman had already caught hold of her wrist and began tugging her. "A great inconvenience, going all the way out to Kemataral. That's five days of walking. You had best make yourself useful."
"I don't think it's five days by the realm paths," said Janalack. "If you aren't lost, I mean. Which I won't be, because I made a map."
They reached a small mud-brick house at the edge of the market.
"What's your name, child?" asked the old woman as she pushed Janalack inside. Out of the sun, the temperature dropped to a more comfortable level.
"Janalack Nabaran." When her eyes adjusted to the dark, she saw the house comprised a single room, sparsely furnished but for the crates packed against the back wall.
"Minor nobility, then. I would have thought they would keep better track of their children."
"I try very hard not to be kept track of, so really it isn't their fault," said Janalack. Talk of her parents reminded her of their insistence on proper manners. She added, "what is your name?"
"You may call me Viratel."
Viratel had her draw water from the well at the centre of the village to fill a wooden tub. When Janalack was sufficiently free of dirt, she was fed a bowl of cold broth and put to sleep on a narrow cot shoved between two of the stacks of crates while Viratel scrubbed and mended her clothes. At dawn, she was shaken awake to load the crates into a long, flat-bottomed cart drawn by a rusting bicycle. For all she stooped and creaked, Viratel lifted the crates as if they weighed no more than a particularly cumbersome book, while Janalack panted and sweated and got shouted at for not being careful enough. Not allowed on the cart or the bicycle, she walked alongside as they departed the village. Viratel seemed to have lost interest in her; taking on an expression of vague surprise whenever she came into view. They did not stop at all on the first day, except for the occasional sip of water or bite of food. At nightfall, they camped on the side of the road.
The next morning, Viratel left the cart at the roadside— she did not seem especially concerned about this, though the guard posts set up along the trade routes had not done away with banditry — and led Janalack into the thicket of vetavi trees.
"Do you know what this is?" she tapped her stick on the ground beside a gnarled, spiny, black-wooded bush, the leaves narrow and orange.
"Dog Leaf," said Janalack.
"Good. And this?" Viratel tapped another plant, this one vibrant green.
"Emeraldwood. When the roots are ground and mixed with Dog Leaf, it forms a tonic to lower fever. Consume too much and the body cools to the point of death." She lowered herself painstakingly to the ground. "Come. I will show you to harvest it."
Janalack knelt in the dirt. Under Viratel's watchful eye, she brushed soil from the roots of the emeraldwood, then cut through the fibrous root a finger-length from the base, far enough along that it would do the plant no permanent damage. Viratel handed her a waxed drawstring bag and she placed the sample inside.
"What do you know of the gods?" asked the old woman as they moved on to the next plant.
"There aren't any, except in stories from the east," said Janalack. Above her, Viratel shook her head.
"A shameful thing, how they teach you children, to imagine erasing the gods from memory would rob them of their power. No, girl, they are real. Our months bear their names. Our new year dawns on the day of their fall." She handed Janalack another bag. "Would you hear a tale?"
"Is it supposed to teach me a moral?" asked Janalack. "My sister always tries to teach me morals."
The corner of Viratel's mouth twisted upwards at that. "Every tale has a moral, if you seek it." She settled herself onto a tree root, stick laid out on the ground in front of her. "It is said the Traveler found this world, crossing the realm paths, and that the eight others followed after, criminals and outcasts one and all, driven from a home long lost. It is said the Traveler discovered humans — for the gods did not create us, though some stories will tell you it was so — and the gods refashioned themselves to look as humans look, and to walk among us, and it was like this they gained power, first as tyrants, then as deities.
"It was the gods who formed our seasons — once, the weather did not change with the dawn of the new month. And it was the gods who brought about their own downfall, for it was they who taught us war, fashioning human armies into weapons in their petty squabbles.
"It is said that when the gods were toppled, damned to be reborn human lifetime after lifetime, to live without memory of what they once were and to die together on the anniversary of their fall, the power shorn from them formed the tresset, and that is why all the children born in that time hold a gift."
"I was born in the tresset," said Janalack. "Does that mean I'm part god?"
"It means your curiosity may doom you as it did the Traveler."
The streets of Kemataral were thick with activity. Viratel had bid her farewell to set up a stall in the market square, while Janalack took the long way through the town, which was uncommonly busy for the time of year; ordinarily the winter rains — strangely absent during her journey — turned the roads to soupy mush and kept visitors sparse through the winter.
Occasionally she caught one of the locals watching her intently. She shrugged it off on the basis she had been gone some days longer than usual; her parents might have been asking after her, a prospect that filled her with dread. At least if they banished her to her room they could not stop her opening the realm paths, though probably she would not be able to gather supplies to go properly exploring again. Maybe she could use them to get to the market square so Viratel could teach her more before she left.
The vetavi trees thickened as she climbed the winding road to her family's estate, a construction of burnished wood overlooking the village. Soon she veered off into the press of vetavi trees that made it seem the house was alone in an oasis, rather than one of several on the ridge. It was only a few minutes' walk through the forest from one house to the next, but Nayonen said the adults all liked to the take the long way on the road so they could pretend their property was bigger.
Janalack emerged from the forest at the back of the house, by the door to the kitchen: in his better moods, the cook let her wash up using his sink. Her mother must have scared away the serving boy while she was gone because she did not recognize the girl who opened the door when she knocked.
"If you're here to apply for a position, I'm afraid we aren't hiring," she said. Janalack held out her hand to press her palm against the girl's in greeting.
"My name is Janalack. I live here, but I was out adventuring when you were hired. Can I use the sink?"
The girl gaped. "Wait here," she said, and took off running.
Janalack came inside to find the kitchen empty of the cook, who usually spent mornings at the market. She washed her face and arms in the deep-basined sink used for cleaning the dishes and washing clothes, sluicing off a thick layer of dust.
Behind her, someone made a noise like air being squeezed from a bag, and then she was swept off the ground and crushed against someone's chest and her mother's voice was murmuring, "Darling, darling, you're safe," over and over and over. Janalack squirmed against her.
"Mother, it wasn't even that dangerous," she said. Finally Saranac lowered her to the floor. She was thinner than Janalack remembered, cheekbones sharp against her skin and eyes sunken.
"You were gone nearly half a year. We thought you dead."
And then she started to cry, silently, tears snaking down her face to drip onto the kitchen floor. Janalack froze, uncertain, her initial spark of excitement at learning time in the realm paths did not match with time in her own realm dampened by the shock of seeing her mother cry — ordinarily Saranac expressed her disapproval at the first hint of tears from any of her children, and certainly did not engage in such displays herself. Janalack patted her on the elbow. Probably she should say something, but she did not know what.
Later, she vowed, she would find a pair of pocket watches and she would measure time in the other realms against time at home and calculate how they differed so she could go adventuring as long as she liked without anyone ever noticing she was gone. Now she stood with her weeping mother in the kitchen of her home with an uncomfortable feeling in her chest, newly burdened with the knowledge she could cause her mother such pain as to make her weep.
Miraculously, Janalack had not received even so much as a scolding over her latest adventure. Her mother had bundled her upstairs, where the rest of the family, looking somewhat careworn but otherwise no different than when she had left, circled around to express their teary amazement.
"I'm sorry," cried Cassinat, Janalack's face cupped between her palms. "I should have been watching, I was supposed to be watching."
"Don't feel bad," said Janalack.
"You must have been so afraid," said her father.
"I wasn't," said Janalack. In the comfort of her home, fed and watered and surrounded by family, desperation and hunger and bone-deep cold softened to something wild and exciting, like something out of Nayonen's adventure stories, and she was eager to return the moment she found a pair of working pocket watches.
Currently Nayonen stood with her back against the wall, arms crossed, a ferocious scowl upon her face. Tavi was nowhere to be seen; he'd enveloped her in a bone-crushing hug then stomped out of the room, a transgression that went curiously overlooked.
"Can I go read now?" she asked. Her mother and father locked eyes above her head. Reya rested a warm hand on her head, then after a moment nodded.
To her surprise, her side of the room remained exactly as she had left it, books piled on the floor and clothes strewn across the end of her bed — Cassinat ordinarily spent a great deal of time telling her to clean and then moving all of her things around anyway when Janalack failed to put them in the places Cassinat thought they should go.
"We worried you were never coming back," said Cassinat in a tone that suggested this was an explanation, though Janalack was not sure how.
"Do you have a pocket watch?" she asked, settling cross-legged onto her bed to rewrite her notes, this time cross-referenced with the Guide to the Foreign Realms.
"Why do you need it?" asked Cassinat.
Janalack poked her tongue between her front teeth as she copied her map onto a fresh sheet of paper, leaving space for new discoveries. "I'm going to measure how time passes on the realm paths," she said.
The map had turned out crooked but usable. Probably she would need to make a new one later anyway, once she found enough new realms.
"Then I won't give it to you," said Cassinat.
Cassinat went quiet for so long Janalack thought she had forgotten the question. Finally, she said, "Why don't you want to stay here? Mother and father treat us well. We have education, food, opportunities."
"It's boring," said Janalack. "You can't learn anything properly sitting at home."
"We worry for you," said Cassinat. "Every time you leave, we worry you won't come back."
Janalack shrugged. "Eventually you'll realize it isn't dangerous."
"Or you will realize that it is, and when you do, it will be too late."
Janalack was restless. No one would lend her a pocket watch, not even the cook or the new serving girl, because Cassinat told them why she wanted it, so all she got was seven lectures on the dangers of adventuring. She had not officially been forbidden from leaving the house, but whenever she made a move even in the general direction of the front door someone appeared suddenly at her shoulder with some task that happened to take place indoors. Even when they pretended to leave her alone, she caugh them watching.
"It is no secret that she was tresset-born," said Reya that evening, perched on the edge of Janalack's bed after she feigned sleep.
"I don't want attention drawn to it," said Saranac. The bed dipped by Janalack's feet as she sat. "Nor do I want it thought I cannot keep control of my own daughter. We have precious little status to lose."
"Once you told me such things did not matter. That we would not raise our children as you were raised by your parents."
"I was young and foolish," said Saranac.
"I will not have my daughter be part of a conspiracy," said Reya. "Besides, she has no talent at deception." A moment of quiet, during which callused fingers brushed over her cheek. "She may need to return to school with the children in the year below."
"That won't be necessary," said Saranac. "She is intelligent enough, for all she insists on disobedience."
"It is from you, that stubbornness," said Reya. Saranac laughed, lightly; the mattress shifted as they stood.
Once their footsteps had faded down the hall, Janalack climbed out of bed. She crept across the room, footsteps careful on the old wood, and slowly pushed open the window, wincing each time it creaked. She had one foot outside when it occurred to her to leave a note, which she leaned back to scrawl on the nearest scrap of paper.
A vetavi tree stood an arm's length from her bedroom window. Sitting forward on the sill, she latched her arms and legs around the nearest branch, then swung her feet down so that the tips of her toes came to rest on the thickest part of the branch below. She crouched. Hands gripping the smooth wood, she dropped, dangled a body-height from the ground, and let herself fall onto soft soil.
With hours left before the noon heat, the market presented a thick mess of humanity, merchants crying their wares beneath bright awnings as shoppers squeezed through overcrowded isles. Janalack bounced excitedly on her toes: her parents never let her in the market, though Nayonen sometimes brought her when they came into town together. She plunged in.
Viratel sat at her cart at the edge of the market, where the crowds were not so thick, glass jars glittering in the sun. The air smelled of fruit and sugar from the vendor adjacent, who sold tarts.
"Will I never be rid of you?" asked Viratel when she spotted Janalack.
"I was adventuring in the realm paths for half a year," said Janalack, eager to have someone to tell who would not go quiet and sour at the subject. "It was the month of the Thief when I left, but now it's the month of the Soldier. Can I borrow your watch?"
"If you work for it." Viratel gestured towards a crate beneath her table. "Go on. There are jars that need labelling."
Janalack settled herself on the dusty ground at Viratel's feet, carefully tracing out labels in her neatest letters before she attached them to the bottles with twine. Viratel spoke as she worked, on the function of tonics but also on the gods, in their lives as humans and as deities. She talked as the sun set and as Janalack ran out of glass bottles and instead sat silent to listen, pausing only when a customer came to the table — for all she refused to cry her wares her business did not suffer. There they remined until the stars climbed high in the sky, and as they towed the cart to Viratel's rented room at the edge of the market square she pressed her watch into Janalack's palm.
"I need two," said Janalack.
"Then you must work until you have earned another."
On her third day with Viratel, Janalack returned from the forest with a bundle of herbs tied with twine and a beetle cupped in her hand to find her parents standing at the stall, out of place in their sweeping court clothes and elaborate hair. Janalack stopped beyond their line of sight, chewing her lip. It occurred to her suddenly that she had not been home in days, having spent her nights curled in a plush chair in Viratel's room and her days at the market. She did not think they had call to be angry — she had, after all, left a note — but doubted her parents were of the same opinion.
"I returned your daughter. It is no fault of mine if she does not wish to stay returned," said Viratel as Janalack edged closer.
"She is a seven-year-old child, she cannot make her own decisions," said Reya.
"I can," protested Janalack, to be met with no more than a cursory glance.
"Then you will be pleased to know she is not making her own decisions. She follows my directions well enough, and cheaply, too — there are few pairs of hands I could hire for the price of a watch," said Viratel.
"Must we pay for her return? Is that the way of it?" asked Saranac. Without waiting for an answer, she took Janalack by the wrist and slapped her pocket watch into her palm hard enough to sting. "There. Have I purchased your affection?" She towed her away, wrist aching, herbs still clutched in her left hand, pocket watch in her right.
The window in her bedroom had been padlocked. Janalack would have asked why — she could creep through the rest of the house well enough when need be, not to mention no lock could stop her accessing the realm paths —, only her mother had been bright-eyed and trembling by the time they reached the estate, and she had pushed Janalack inside so hard she stumbled. She had stared down at her daughter with some unreadable expression for a long moment, mouth flexing as if fixing to speak. In the end she slammed the door without a word, the thump of her footsteps reverberating through the wood as she strode away.
Janalack bit her lip, eyes welling with tears. She marched across the room, deliberately hitting every creaky board, and threw herself face-down on her bed. Everyone was so angry with her and she could not understand why — she had not meant to be gone half a year, and all she had done since her return was try to keep it from happening again except no one would let her.
Only she didn't need permission, because now she had privacy and two pocket watches. Janalack sat up, tears dried and forgotten. Fingers trembling with excitement, she set her notebook on the corner of the bed, then checked the watches were set to precisely the same time. She opened a path to the first realm, the one with the purple sky, checked once more the watches were synchronized, then balanced Viratel's watch upright in the grass.
When a minute had passed in her own realm, she took back the other watch to record the time — half a minute more had passed. She tried again, now measuring by the time on the watch in the other realm. Once she had completed the trial a third time, she stepped through the realm path to find a circle of stubbly grass where she had picked the plain clear, now grown back to half the height of the grass surrounding it. Where exhaustion and dehydration had dulled her senses when last she had visited, now she felt a half-dozen realms beyond her fingertips. Janalack settled cross-legged in the grass and got to work.
No one would speak to her the next morning. She had woken late but contented, her realm-map filled with new details and annotated with time differentials. Her experiment had cost her no more than half an hour in her own realm, short enough that she was cautiously optimistic her absence had gone unnoticed.
She skipped downstairs for breakfast to find Cassinat hurrying Nayonen and Tavi out the door for apprenticeship and school, respectively. She had fixed Janalack with a strange expression, not unlike the one she wore when the theater companies came to play tragedies in the town square. Tavi and Nayonen stared fixedly in the opposite direction, and in the end Cassinat had ushered them outside without so much as a word.
Saranac and Reya were not so important by the standards of nobility as to attend court daily; they sat together at the table with a late breakfast arrayed between them. Both turned towards Janalack as she entered. The room fell to silence as their eyes fixed on hers. Her father turned away first, an unusual hardness to his expression, and resumed the conversation as if there had never been an interruption.
Janalack seated herself at the end of the table, a strange, empty feeling in her stomach that did not go away with what little food she forced past the lump in her throat. Eyes stinging, she slunk away, down to the garden then through the forest, hardly noticing where her feet carried her until she found herself in the morning bustle of the market, staring at the empty spot where Viratel's cart should have been.
"Where did she go?" asked Janalack to the vendor in the spot adjacent.
"On to Talaket, or so she told me last night. I gather stopping in Kemataral was not in her original plan."
If Viratel was traveling she would already be reaches from the village, preferring, as merchants often did, to set out before the sun had truly risen. Janalack could never hope to catch up to her following the same road, though she knew which one led to Talaket.
Instead, she opened a realm-path. Craning her neck, she spotted the shorn circle in the grass a handful of feet to her left — so left corresponded with the direction of her family's estate and the direction opposite the road to Talaket. She turned away, walked forwards three arm-spans, then re-opened the realm-path to find herself at the edge of the village, slightly off the main road. Good. She edged to the side until the realm-path opened directly over the road, then sealed it closed and set off in as close to a straight line as she could manage.
The sun had begun to set in her home realm when she spotted Viratel's cart at the side of the road, the old woman resting beside it. Janalack's legs trembled with exhaustion as she stepped from tall plains to hard-packed dirt, scratched and prodded by fragments of grass that clung to her clothes.
Viratel glanced up at her, corners of her mouth twitching upwards. "Truly, girl, is there no getting rid of you?" She handed Janalack a waterskin and a skewer fresh from the fire. "You had best be willing to work your keep."