The chain is the basic unit of measurement at four rods or sixty-six feet. Ten chains make up a furlong and eighty make a mile. For shorter distances, there are one hundred links in a chain.
— Basic Children Education
Over an hour later, she was gasping for breath as she shoved the trunk the last few links over an exposed root. It bumped against the boulder and she slumped over the sun-baked wood. Sweat poured down her face as she stared at the rough, pitted surface. She was thankful it was in the shade instead of the sun that bore down on her back. Everything about her hurt: her arms, knees, and bare feet.
She struggled to pry her fingers off the handle. When she did, it took her a minute to get her digits to straighten without pain.
Still panting, she turned and leaned into the trunk. A mile didn’t seem like a lot when she had walked it over the years. She knew most of the larger features, those weren’t hard to miss, but it was different when she struggled to drag the chest even a foot. Every rut, rock, and swell of stone turned the heavy chest into an unbearable weight.
Dread filled her. She could never drag it to Rock River, the other village on her father’s lands. It was too heavy and the idea of carrying it another few miles was too much for her to bear. She lifted her head and peeled her hair from her face to look back at her father’s tower.
“Sands!” she swore and slumped back. She didn’t even fight the tears as she berated herself for not coming up with a better lie for her mother. Sliding down, she sat on the ground and rapped her head against the side of the trunk. “Sands! Sands! Sands!” The last two utterances were in Miwāfu. It always felt better to swear in her mother’s language.
Kanéko stopped swearing after a few seconds. It wasn’t helping her. Slowly, she leaned back against the warm wood and considered her options: she could head back to the keep to get Jinmel’s wagon or find some place to stash the chest until she got back. In the woods, there was less chance her mother would stumble on it. She smiled grimly and stood up with a groan.
As she peered around for a hiding spot, she heard a terrible noise. It was midway between a man being tortured and the wailing of a drunk. She groaned, only one person sang so badly, her tutor Garèo. The desert man claimed he was one of the greatest singers in the world, but in the few months he had been around, Kanéko had yet to hear a single note in tune. She cringed as the volume grew louder. Maybe by greatest singer, he meant loudest.
Garèo rode a bay mare but didn’t bother with a saddle or bridle. Instead, he rode with one hand resting lightly on the horse’s mane. To the side, a brown mare that Kanéko didn’t recognize walked obediently with her head even with the bay’s hindquarters. Like the bay, there was no rope holding the brown in place, but she paced as neatly as if there had been one.
Kanéko had read of desert clans with a close connection to horses. They communicated with their mind and hearts—telepathy—but Garèo never said he was one of those clans. Then again, he didn’t talk about the desert or his clan, the Waryōni.
Garèo waved his hand in wide circles as he continued his song, moving every part of his body. He did the same thing when he was talking.
Despite the horrid tones coming out of his throat, both horses only flicked their ears in response.
He trailed off singing as he drew closer. His gaze dropped from her to the wooden trunk. His upper lip twisted for a moment, the black chevron mustache titling slightly. It matched the green-tinted darkness of his hair and contrasted with the light green of his eyes.
Kanéko held her breath as he pulled his horse up to her travel chest.
Lifting his gaze, he slipped off his bay and crossed over to the gap to land on it. The wooden trunk shifted under his weight.
She heard a faint clink and winced at the sound.
The bay continued to walk past the chest, followed by the other horse. She wondered if they would turn away, but they stopped at a low bush and began to pick small fruits from the branches.
“Kosobyo Kanéko.” He used her formal desert name: Kanéko of the Kosòbyo clan.
It took her a while to distinguish the lack of accent on the name, it meant “member of”. The complex rules of the language weren’t second nature to her. She struggled with the response and couldn’t remember the proper words. “Garèo.”
His jaw tightened. “Because I’m your elder, the proper way to address me is Great Waryoni Garèo. It is a sign of respect.”
She felt a flicker of annoyance. Garèo demanded her respect, but she didn’t understand why speaking formally was important to him. Her mother swore at him constantly and didn’t even have a shred of respect for the dark-skinned man. She answered even though she knew it would only antagonize him. “What if I don’t respect you?”
For a moment, she wondered if she went too far.
His eyes flashed, and a scowl crossed his face. “Answer in Miwāfu, girl. Your mother hired me to teach you of the desert ways and that includes speaking in a proper language.”
She struggled with a response. It was just one more thing on a day that started off so brightly. The memories flashed through her mind, and she found herself focusing on everything she did wrong in trying to prevent the explosion. She turned away as she fought a sudden wave of tears.
“What happened, girl?” He spoke in a sudden concerned voice, “Are you injured? Are you unable to go on this trip? I was under the impression you were required to go which is why I’m here to escort you.”
She tried to answer him. “I, um,” she didn’t know the right word, “broke it.”
She fought her own emotions, reliving the explosion and seeing Jinmel’s injuries. She took a deep breath. “The… the…” She gave up trying to speak Miwāfu, “water screw. I got it working, but then something burst on the boiler and it,” she sniffed and realized she knew the next word, “exploded.”
His dark eyebrow lifted. “Exploded?”
“Yes, took the roof off the stables, damaged the back keep wall, and shattered windows in the tower.”
Garèo whistled with surprise.
She took a deep breath, fighting against the sobs. “Papa is tearing it down. I can fix it! I know I can! I can make it work.”
He frowned again, then surprised her by responding in Lorban instead of Miwāfu. “I’m sure you’ll find some new project when we get back.”
Kanéko’s tears burned her eyes. “He’s banned me from working with Jinmel again. I loved it. I love trying to figure out those designs. When I, I…” She choked on the words, then switched languages again to finish. “When I’m working out the design, it feels so good. I got it pumping water and all those gears, they made me happy. And now, now he is going to ruin everything! My life is over.” She sobbed with her face buried in her hands.
“Did you die in the explosion?”
Kanéko looked up, confused. She shook her head.
“Did someone else die?”
She started to shake her head, and then stopped. “Jinmel got hurt.”
Garèo stared at her with a look of disbelief and then sighed. “I’d think that’s a lot more important than a mere pump. Is he all right?”
Feeling guilty, she looked away. “Papa says he’ll be fine, but I have to pay for the healer. He broke his leg. And… probably the stables.” Kanéko let out a fresh sob and covered her face. “It’s over. It’s all over.”
“Are you dead?” He sounded impatient.
She looked up through her fingers. “No.”
“Then it isn’t over. Get up and move on.”
Kanéko whimpered, “I can’t—”
Raising his voice, Garèo snapped back, “You can! You are Kosobyo Mioráshi’s daughter and the heir of Ronamar Lurkuklan. You are intelligent and creative and stubborn. I’m sure your father gave you something also. Last I checked, either one of those parents would ensure your success, even with those traits.”
Garèo grabbed Kanéko’s hands and held them tight. His skin was darker than hers, the color of freshly tilled earth and without her red tones. He squeezed her for a moment. “Girl, your song only ends when the desert takes you.”
She had heard her mother use that saying more than once but she never understand it.
He released her and then held up his palm. “You made a mistake. And then you were given a second chance. No one died and repairs will only take time and money. Both of which are available.”
She tensed to disagree, but he shook his hand.
“You need time. If anything, to clear both your father’s and your head. Do you understand?”
Kanéko looked at him, her eyes searching his face. The tears slowed, and she took a long, deep breath. She thought about his words. They gave her a bit of hope, something she didn’t expect from Garèo. She nodded.
“Good,” chirped Garèo. He released her hands and stood up. He hopped back and jumped off the trunk. He gestured to it. “And what is this?”
“My clothes?” she lied with a blush.
“How did it get here?”
“I dragged it.”
Garèo whistled as he looked down the path to the keep. His eyes scanned the fields. Then, before she could do anything, he reached down and picked up one end.
Kanéko inhaled sharply, then realized she couldn’t give away her secret. She gulped and forced herself to calm down.
He dropped the chest and looked up at her. There was a brief flash of confusion, then he reached down and picked it up again.
She almost whimpered.
He dropped it once more, then stood up and brushed his hands off. “Well, too heavy to lug five miles to Rock River, in addition to the other stop we’re making. Are you planning on dragging it?”
Kanéko let out her held breath in a rush. She gasped and inhaled, flushing hotly when she realized she was about to reveal her secret.
Garèo didn’t seem to notice. He pointed to her father’s tower. “I’m going to see if I can borrow a wagon from the keep. Do you want to go?”
That was the last thing she wanted to do. “No. Can I stay here?”
Garèo looked over his shoulder and glared at her. He looked like he was waiting for something.
Desperate to placate him, she cleared her throat. “No, Great Waryoni Garèo.”
Garèo jumped back on the trunk and balanced on the edge lithely. He gave her a sweeping bow. “This is just one setback. Just focus on the steps before you. You are going on a glorious adventure far away. After eight weeks of visiting the ocean and lots of singing, you’ll be back with new ideas and new adventures.”
Kanéko looked pained. “You’re going to sing?”
He cocked his head. “You mean, are you going to sing, Great Waryoni Garèo? And yes, I’m probably one of the greatest singers in the desert.” He spoke with a confidence Kanéko knew could never be true.
As she tried to fight the growing despair, the bay walked up.
Garèo gracefully stepped back and landed on the horse. Without touching her mane or giving any sign of direction, the bay and the brown started off toward the keep as if he gave an order.
She stood still, watching as they made their way to the keep.
About a half mile down the road, a loud neigh cut through the silence of the fields and a horse raced around the tower. It was Ojinkomàsu, a red roan stallion that ran wild near her father’s tower. The enigmatic horse arrived a few days after Garèo first showed up, but Kanéko never saw him ride the horse or even tend to it. In fact, no one cared for Ojinkomàsu, but every time she saw him, he was freshly brushed and had no marks.
Ojinkomàsu raced down the length of the road, coming in a wide circle to turn around and then come up even with Garèo’s bay. The roan shook its head and slowed down, matching the speed of the other two horses smoothly.
Garèo glanced over at him and then returned his attention to the tower.
Together, the three horses and man continued along their way.
Kanéko sighed and smiled. She managed to keep her secret for a little longer. Turning around, she headed back to her chest and lifted the end of it. When she dropped it, she heard the clink of metal and groaned. If Garèo was a little more observant, she would have been forced to lie again. Now, she didn’t know if he knew or would notice if she emptied it out. Either way, she was trapped.
“Sands,” she whispered angrily. Garèo might ask her mother about the chest and it would be suspicious if she got rid of it before he returned. She opened the chest to repack her tools to avoid them shifting and making more noises. She had to take it with her now.