Ch. 3: Peaches and Promises
Zolmi and I burst out of our room and into the hallway with our weapons ready as the wailing from the girls' room continues. I'm about to kick the door down when Jeyna throws it open, and I almost fall over trying to stop myself from accidentally planting my heel into her gut. After I practically tumble inside with Zolmi a few steps behind, Jeyna shuts the door and sighs.
The source of the wailing is impossible to miss, sitting on the middle of the floor and yelling like she's trying to force her lungs out of her chest. Her dark, frizzy hair is a tangled mess that covers most of her face, but as she shakes her head furiously, I glimpse her glassy, teal-colored eyes with thin cross-shaped pupils much like Jeyna's, as well as the short, matching crystalline horns growing above her forehead. Her brown skin is now flushed with exertion, and her hands wave vigorously beside her ears.
"W-What's wrong with her?" I ask as I stare.
"Nothing's wrong with her," Jeyna snaps, "Nari is just upset because she woke up and she's tired and hungry. That's all."
"Then why is she screaming? Is she hurt somewhere?" Zolmi frowns, crouching down a safe distance away from her arms as he tries to get a better look.
"Well, she might be bruised from being locked up. I know I am," Jeyna says, showing us the purple patches that discolor her arms. "But I think she's just trying to tell us that she wants something to eat."
"Well, get her stop before the entire town shows up here!" I return, unable to hide my irritation. Jeyna rolls her eyes as she steps past me.
She nudges Zolmi aside so she can sit directly in front of Nari and maintains a decidedly calm and neutral expression. "Nari," she says firmly. Nari's voice wavers, but she doesn't stop crying. Jeyna repeats her name several more times until Nari finally makes eye contact as Jeyna begins to take deep, slow breaths. When Nari's voice gradually lowers, she holds Jeyna's gaze and, after a few hiccups, copies her breathing pattern. Jeyna smiles and continues to inhale and exhale rhythmically while counting down from ten.
"One…" Jeyna breathes at last. Nari sniffles, but her eyes are softer and more focused than before. Her sister keeps her patient, even tone as she asks, "We said that yelling isn't a good way to tell others what you want, remember? I need you to use your words."
Nari hiccups and shakes her head, her cautious glance flicking from me to Zolmi and back to Jeyna.
"Okay, can you use your signs?" Jeyna prompts again.
Nari stares at her for a long moment, and I start to wonder if she even understands her sister's words. Before I can break the silence, Jeyna holds her hand up to stop me without breaking eye contact. Nari nods slowly and pats her stomach. After Jeyna nods back, Nari then turns over her wrists to show us the rope burns that have become puffy and bright red.
"You're hungry and your wrists hurt?" Jeyna clarifies. Nari nods again. "Thank you for telling me. This is Mylo. He might look big and scary but he's not bad, see?" She mouths at me to smile. I do my best, but I'm still wrapping my head around the reality of the situation. Nari doesn't seem too convinced by my smile, but she doesn't look frightened, either. "He's going to get us something to eat, so we'll have to wait a little longer."
Part of me is irked that she made the decision for me, but I also know it's best if I'm the one who goes out into town alone, so I don't argue.
"Her wrists might be getting infected. Can I see?" Zolmi holds his hand out in the hopes that she'll show him hers, but she shies away instead. He tries for another smile. "I'll bring some medicine from my other pockets just in case."
As Zolmi and I return to our room, I grumble, "This whole thing just gets more and more complicated."
Zolmi raises his brow. "With that attitude, it's guaranteed to."
I shoot him an annoyed glare before changing into yesterday's clothes, which haven't gotten much more pleasant after being soaked in last night's downpour. Between the beating heat of the sun and the pounding in the back of my head from sleep deprivation and the morning's events, my walk to the market isn't a peaceful one. The smell of fresh bread that wafts out of the baker's door is enough to lift my spirits, however, and the warmth that lingers on my tongue after I bite into a breakfast crispel leaves me feeling generous enough to buy the others a pastry each along with a small basket of peaches and berries. After I pick up two more canteens so the girls with each have their own, I pause in front of an old woman's kiosk that displays a selection of handwoven ponchos of various sizes. No, I tell myself, it's not worth spending any more money today. I take a few more steps, before turning around again.
"Two girls," I say, using my hands to estimate their height. "About this tall and this tall." The woman nods without a word and pulls out a few options from her folded stash. After thumbing through them, I pick two matching, hooded ones with autumn leaf designs stitched along the edges.
"A lovely choice," she agrees once I've paid. "Your daughters will love them, I'm sure."
"They're not-" I start before deciding it's not worth explaining and thanking her instead. As I turn to head back to the inn, two men in familiar patterns of white face paint exit the armory several stores down and chatter with disgruntled expressions as they head in this direction. Before they can glimpse my face, I become extremely interested in one of the woman's camelia patterned ponchos.
I run my fingers along the flower design as if I'm considering another purchase, until the woman snorts and says, "It's okay, they're gone."
After looking over my shoulder to see that she's telling the truth, I bow my head and make myself scarce before anyone else shows up. The two men didn't say anything while I was in earshot, but I'm certain they were part of the group that was at the auction last night. This is bad. We are still very much within their grasp.
At the inn, I find that Jeyna has returned to the comfort of her sheets while Zolmi sits very still at the desk with Nari on his lap so she can be tall enough to reach the spare parchment. She traces a simple drawing of a cat that Zolmi must have made. Though he's no artist, she adores its oversized eyes and repeatedly colors them in until I set the pastries on the table. The instant she sees them, she jumps down from her seat and swipes the nearest one with an ear-to-ear grin.
Zolmi frowns, exasperated. "I just got her to sit quietly. Do you know how long it took me to get her attention like that?"
"Oh, good, you got peaches," Jeyna says through a yawn as she rolls out of bed and takes a tart for herself. "Save one for the road. It'll keep Nari busy."
"You mean she can't eat and throw a fit at the same time," I muse, but apparently, Jeyna doesn't appreciate my comment.
"No, it's because she likes the texture. She's not 'throwing a fit,' she's telling us something. If you only see it as a tantrum, then you won't understand what she's saying."
I'm so taken aback by her sharp tone that I can't think up a reply. It's not every day that I'm lectured by a teenager, but what strikes me is how she says it, as if it's something she's had to say many times.
Because I don't know what else to say, I tell Jeyna and Zolmi about the men I saw at the market. They exchange worried glances and agree that we'd better start heading out as soon as possible. Once we've packed our meager belongings and Jeyna is finished fixing her hair and Nari's (a process I was forewarned not to rush unless I wanted to hear another bout of complaints from both Skylings), I hand Jeyna the canteens and ponchos. Surprised by the gesture, and unsure of whether or not to be touched, she slips it on over her head hesitantly before admiring the intricate pattern. Nari is more impressed by how the wool feels and rubs the cloth between her fingers and against her cheek.
As we file out of the room, Jeyna mumbles a quiet but audible "Thank you." I smile to myself. If things go smoothly, we'll be in Genshulan before we know it.
It doesn't take long for my optimism to leave me. When I was traveling alone, remaining discreet and prioritizing efficiency were at the forefront of every thought and action, but traveling as a group, especially a group with kids, is a different story. I had sorely underestimated the vigilance necessary to watch over them as we moved through the thick foliage of the woods. Now, I am constantly checking over my shoulder just to make sure the group is still together, that no one has tripped or fallen behind or gotten a hold of something potentially dangerous. When Jeyna plucks a vibrant, round yellow fruit with purple spots off a bending tree, I almost have a heart attack before slapping it out of her hands. How could she be so careless? I don't know what kind of fruit it is, but anyone with a little knowledge of poisons could tell that it was fatal with one bite. It hasn't even been a full day of traveling on foot, and I already know I never want to have kids.
Every fifteen minutes or so, Jeyna has to remind Nari to stay close to the group, but even then, Nari wanders off whenever a colorful flower or butterfly or bird catches her eye. Jeyna or Zolmi chase after her each time, while my patience slowly dwindles. Thankfully, when Nari gets excited about something, I quickly learn, she lets out an emphatic announcement of her joy and continues to make captivated sounds until her attention is drawn elsewhere or Jeyna leads her away. Otherwise, it would be even more troubling to worry about her silently disappearing on her own. On the other hand, traveling in peace and quiet is virtually impossible, between Nari's vocalizations and Jeyna's complaints.
"Why are we going through the woods when the road is so close?" she huffs as she carefully ducks under a wide spider web that bridges two branches. "The road would be faster, and Nari would have less distractions."
It's true that our pace is hindered by the extra effort of stepping over the boughs of twisted tree roots and through the tangles of the underbrush, but I'm tired of having to state the obvious again. "Because the road is more dangerous. Those guys from the auction are still looking for you two. If we use the road, we're more likely to be caught."
"But it's so close. We're practically following it anyway-" Jeyna starts until Zolmi interrupts.
"Mylo wants to use the road just as much as you do. Even if it's a backroad, there's still the chance that others will think to search this way, too. The people involved in the business of abductions must be quite cunning to get away with it as often as they do." He adds with a shudder, "We can't be too careful. If they find us, who knows what will happen."
Jeyna doesn't respond. Nari sings a song without words. For a moment, I think I hear birds passing in the trees overhead chirping the same tune, but I dismiss it as my imagination. We continue weaving around the tall trees as the ground begins its steep upward slope that signals we are nearing the edge of the valley. Hopefully, we can make it to the top of the tallest hill before nightfall, where it will be easier to keep watch over our camp and more difficult for anyone to ambush us.
Long after I assume the conversation to be dead, Jeyna speaks with an even but somber tone. "I know exactly what will happen if Nari and I are caught again. You don't have to remind me to be scared of the Talons. I just want us to get to Genshulan as soon as possible."
Zolmi and I stop in our tracks to look back and meet her gaze. While her expression is steely calm, she can't hide her trembling shoulders. I hold out my hand to help her over the small boulder wedged in the middle of our makeshift path. "Don't worry about the Talons," I say once she's climbed on top of it. "If, somehow, any of them catch up to us, I have a sizable debt of revenge to pay. By the time I'm done with them, they won't be able to lay a finger on you or your sister."
Jeyna gives me a warm smile as I pull myself up beside her. After Zolmi passes Nari to me and joins us, she asks curiously, "So why are you getting mixed up with the Talons?"
"They got mixed up with me," I answer after thinking for a moment. "They set me up. Someone I care about was almost murdered, and whoever was responsible made it look like I was to blame." As I speak, my mind wanders to the familiar, grand halls of the castle that I once walked every morning while making our rounds. I can picture every wondrous tapestry and glistening marble bust that flanked my routine path. I remember exactly how the sun's rays graced the lush rose bushes of the courtyard as the gardeners finished their meticulous work before anyone from the royal family could risk catching their robes on a stray branch or thorn.
"It's strange," I say, "To fall asleep one night with everything you could have asked for, only to wake up and find that you've lost it all." When I realize I've spoken that last part out loud, I turn away from Zolmi and Jeyna's concerned stares and shake my head. "No, not lost. It was taken. They're going to regret interfering with my life, I swear it."
Jeyna takes my hand and squeezes it gently, startling me with her sudden expression of kindness. No one has shown me such a gesture in years, and to be honest, I don't know how to respond. Luckily, she doesn't expect me to and turns to Zolmi. "What about you?"
Zolmi is even more reluctant to talk than I was. After all that's happened, I had guessed that Zolmi was something of an amatuer detective who had caught wind of the Talons' illegal dealings and potential trafficking operation, which he had set out to confirm at the auction. To expose such organized crime would no doubt earn him a pretty penny from the Palace as a reward. I was not expecting his curt answer.
"They killed my sister."
The air seems to grow a few degrees colder. Jeyna and I are speechless. Nari picks up on the change in the atmosphere and reaches for Jeyna's hand with an uncertain frown. Eventually, Zolmi fills in the silence, but his voice becomes distant. "She had just become a scribe. It's almost impossible for an Ithmyan to get a position like that, especially in the Royal City, but she worked hard. Her job was to record proclamations from the high courts, but she wanted to do more. A few months ago, she sent me a letter saying that she was investigating several mysterious deaths and disappearances that had recently occurred in the city. Her last letter after that simply mentioned that she had discovered the name of the organization she believed was responsible. A few weeks later, my family was informed that she was found dead."
Zolmi's voice is barely loud enough to reach us by the time he finishes speaking, but several observations make sense now. Why he was so adamant on ensuring that the two girls made it to safety, even if it meant losing the trail leading to the Talons. Why he was so offended when I accused him of working for them. And why someone like him would be chasing criminals at the Mud Auction without the resolve to kill. I can't even call him an amatuer.
"I'm so sorry," Jeyna whispers, but this time, she doesn't make any attempt to take his hand. Perhaps because she knows that physical touch will never be enough to console the loss of family. Both of them are experiencing the same pain, I realize, and it makes me wonder if I would have felt the same if Lady Koharu's attempted murder had been successful. I dismiss the thought as soon as it comes to me. She and Seychelle are the closest people I have to family. It's been that way for more than a decade. Of course, I would be upset beyond measure.
As Zolmi continues up the hill, which is gradually becoming more of a small mountain, he says, "When I learned that she was gone, I knew I had to finish her work. And I will."
Jeyna starts to respond, but Nari tugs on her arm and points to something in the distance through the woods. The glossy teal hue of her eyes shifts to that of golden honey as she pulls on Jeyna's arm nervously again. The stark change entrances me for a brief instant. It's common knowledge that Skylings' eyes can change in response to their feelings or their environment, but I'd never seen it up close. Almost like watching drops of dye fall into a glass, swirling until it has completely changed the color of the liquid.
A woman's jarring scream reaches us from the direction Nari had pointed. Zolmi takes off to find its source before I can tell him to wait. I curse.
"Stay here," I tell Jeyna as she scoops Nari into her arms and over her shoulder. She doesn't listen, of course, and by the time we catch up to Zolmi, we are standing where the rocky edge of the rising hill tapers into a steep drop off that overlooks the road we had been tracking. Not too far below us, a carriage has been stopped by half a dozen soldiers with gilded armor and golden pauldrons that glisten unnaturally in the fading afternoon sun, which can only mean they've been imbued. In this country, imbued armor is a protection granted to the Knights and them alone.
The woman from before chokes out another shrill combination of a sob and a scream as two of the Knights restrain her companion, who I can only assume is her husband. Her small child clings to her waist, watching the event unfold in silent horror. It would have been hard to see their eyes from our distance, but the family's long, slender horns are enough to mark them as Skylings. The Skyling father tries to stand from his knees against the Knights' grip, but ultimately gives up as three other Knights force open the door to the carriage and rummage inside, throwing piles of clothes and supplies out onto the road. The last Knight remains on horseback to keep watch. As he turns towards the ridge, I pull on Zolmi and Jeyna's hands until all of us are safely crouched behind the woodland undergrowth.
"What are they doing to that poor family?" Zolmi stammers.
"They're searching for something." I peek through the ferns to make sure no one saw us. "Smuggled goods...or people. This is exactly why we avoided the roads."
"We have to do something," he whispers with an expression that almost matches the Skyling kid on the road. "This isn't right."
"We can't. Besides, as long as they don't find anything suspicious, the Knights will leave them alone."
"You mean you won't," Zolmi shoots back. "It doesn't matter what they find, they're clearly harassing them!"
"Be quiet," I hiss. "You don't know who started what. It's better not to get involved. We have our own lives to worry about."
Jeyna's gaze flickers between us as she purses her lips, unsure what to say. Nari watches the scene below with wide eyes that grow brighter the more she fidgets with the broken twigs at her feet. One of the Knights pulls the child away from his mother so that she can be patted down, but he bursts into tears, shouting and flailing against the Knight that holds his collar.
Nari wails at the sound of his voice. I clamp my hand over her mouth, but it's too late. Several of the Knights look up from the road in alarm.
"Don't!" Jeyna cries, prying my hand away. "If you use force, you'll make it worse-"
Before she finishes speaking, the bush in front of us erupts into a column of green fire, mimicking Nari's cry with a resounding roar that rings in my ears and almost certainly reaches the carriage down below. I recoil and scramble to my feet, but Jeyna stays and kneels before her sister.
"Shh, it's okay," Jeyna says with the calmest voice she can manage as the flames race up the adjacent tree. Heat spills on top of us in waves that grow increasingly fiercer, but Jeyna still doesn't move until Nari sees her face through her tears. "You're okay. Deep breath with me. In...and out...Like that!"
The fire flickers and wobbles as Nari joins Jeyna's rhythmic breathing. Soon, her tears subside, and the green flames slowly shrink and extinguish themselves. Zolmi hands the peach he had stored in his satchel to Jeyna, who quietly asks Nari if she wants to hold it. Nari nods.
"Will you promise to be calm and safe?"
Nari nods again.
"Is magic safe?"
After a brief pause, Nari shakes her head.
"So are we going to use magic?"
Nari shakes her head.
Jeyna exhales and drops the peach in Nari's palms. "She's very sensitive to other people's emotions," she says. "When she gets too stressed out, she can't regulate her own. Then she loses control of her magic, too."
"The Knights are gone," Zolmi says as he looks over the burned remains of the bush. On the road, the Skylings hurriedly collect their things and escape in their ride.
"They can't climb the ridge, so they're circling around." I check the sword I stole from the sellers at the auction. The glimmer from before still remains, indicating that it was properly imbued by its previous owner. If I didn't have at least this, then fighting Knights would be suicidal. "They saw someone use unauthorized magic. They won't let that go unpunished."
The color drains from Jeyna's cheeks as she glances down at Nari, who preoccupies herself by rubbing the peach fuzz against each of her fingertips. I make my decision with a heavy breath.
"Take them to the top of the hill and wait there," I say to Zolmi. "I'll lead the Knights away and meet you guys after nightfall. If I don't make it by daybreak tomorrow, keep going without me."
Zolmi stares at me in disbelief as I place the map in his hand. "You're going to fight six Knights by yourself?"
"Don't worry, I have a plan. Trust me."
He hesitates, but apparently, he's convinced by my steady conviction and clasps my hand. "Good luck. We'll be waiting."
"Y-You better not make us wait until daybreak," Jeyna stammers, trying to hide her anxiety with a pointed frown as she takes Nari's hand. "I can't stay up that long."
"Yeah, yeah," I say as I shoo them away. "I'll see you soon."
Zolmi leads the way as Jeyna follows with Nari in tow. With the peach pressed against her cheek, Nari looks over her shoulder, puzzled, when she realizes I won't be going with them. As I watch them go, I almost congratulate myself.
When I need to be, I am quite a good liar.