Chapter 7: An Ally

The idea that teenagers need to see the world is a waste of money and time. They can learn everything they need in life by staying within a mile of home. — Duke Mortir Galasnom

Kanéko knew that her plans for running away were a little girl’s fantasy, but it didn’t stop her from amusing herself with the idea. After her decision, though, the fantasies were more focused and precise. She focused on specifics: scenarios to avoid Garèo, how much food and water she needed for her trip, and even the best place to escape. She knew the route, at least roughly, and the trip would take them through Raisen before heading up north. Raisen was the closest point to Jinto Panzir and her best option.

Doubt worried her though. She knew that she would never escape Garèo, no matter what she did. But the fantasy helped her pass the time and not pay attention to her other troubles: Maris, the water screw, and her father.

As she daydreamed, reality started to seep in through the cracks of her concentration. The aches and pains from her fight with Maris burrowed into her thoughts, reminding her of the dalpre behind her in the wagon. Kanéko gingerly pressed her lips together and felt the throb of her split lip ruining her fantasy.

Annoyed, she opened her eyes and stared out at the road between the horse’s ears.

“Joining us again, child?” Garèo’s voice was low but tinged with amusement.

She glared at him. She remembered how he humiliated her when he encouraged the fight and then bet against her. She knew it was a lesson she failed, and the realization only sharpened her dislike of the darker-skinned man. “Drown yourself in sands, old man.”

Garèo chuckled. “Sometimes I wonder if being Great Kosobyo Mioráshi’s daughter has infected you with her inability to communicate without swearing.”

“You are a rancid bucket of milk,” Kanéko snapped.

“Naturally, you are without the magic that comes from her swearing, which makes you just a crow screeching at its own shadow.”

“Rot in the seven—”

Garèo barked out a laugh, interrupting her.

The horse pulling the wagon shook his mane and snickered along.

Kanéko glanced at the equine then back to Garèo. She wasn’t sure, but it seemed the horse also laughed at her.

He didn’t need reins or a halter, only the harness to keep the horse attached to the wagon. She guess that he had some clan ability with horses, but he had refused to answer when she had asked him earlier. She could only assume his powers by the way the horses responded without him touching them.

Kanéko turned away from Garèo and looked around. They were at the edge of Rock River, a town of two thousand on the edge of her father’s bartim lands. She visited the town a few times, usually during festivals or tax season, but never just to explore. It was always as part of her father’s entourage and he kept her close. She vaguely recognized many of the smaller houses on the edge of town, but she usually spent her time among the two-story buildings packed in neat lines along the central streets that crossed each other in the town center. The village illustrated the modern theories of civil planning, something Kanéko never thought about until she started reading Emerging Wizardry.

Unlike the small village at the keep, Rock River was a bustling town, and loud. Not quite the overwhelming noise of Germudrir Mill, but still far busier than Kanéko remembered. Visiting the village during somber occasions with her father, like Founder’s Day, had left Kanéko unprepared for the village’s everyday commotion. Her mouth opened with surprise as she watched the elegant women stroll down the street. They wore dresses she only saw in her serials. The illustrations on paper couldn’t begin to describe the deep, rich colors or the flowing fabric. The cut of cloth accented narrow waists and moved beautifully to flared collars and sleeves. Kanéko felt a pang of jealousy at the women with curves, and she wondered how so many of them looked exactly like the pictures.

Like the women, the men strolling the street were dressed in their finest. They wore suits despite the dust rising up from the cobblestone roads and the heat of early summer. Kanéko gaped at their hats and canes, mostly worn for show but still a far cry from her father’s plain outfits.

“Why do they dress up like that?” she asked in a whisper.

Garèo grunted. “They read about fashions from the ocean cities. And then they pay too much money to bring in fabric from other countries just so they can waste money on a seamstress to make them a dress. To get some value in their useless outfits, they stroll up and down the streets, preening because they think they are someone just because they bought an outfit.”

Maris said, “But I think they’re pretty.”

Kanéko peered over at her shoulder at Maris. She didn’t say it, but Kanéko felt the same way.

The dalpre sat on the far edge of Kanéko’s trunk, her feet dangling over the back end of the wagon. She had her eyes closed and nose up in the air, sniffing loudly. Her tail thumped against the top of the trunk, a steady beat in time with her sniffing. Kanéko saw a smile on Maris’s lips as the dog girl rocked her head back and forth.

“Garèo?” Kanéko whispered.

“Yes?”

“What is the dog girl doing?”

Garèo turned in the seat to look at her; the horse continued forward without his guidance. He smiled broadly when he saw Maris, and then turned to Kanéko. “Smelling the air, even you should be able to figure that out.”

“I know that.” She snapped at him, “Why?”

He shrugged and turned back in his seat. “The same reason you remain awake at night working on your machine. The same reason we do anything. She is being herself.”

Kanéko glared at Garèo but turned away before he caught her looking. She focused her attention on Maris, but then caught sight of Ojinkomàsu behind the wagon.

The desert horse walked along the side of the road, his shoeless hooves tapping on the cobblestones. Their eyes caught each other, and then he ducked his head behind a nearby barrel.

Kanéko chuckled at the sight of a stallion trying to hide beyond something a quarter his size. “Great Waryoni Garèo, Ojinkomàsu is following after us.”

“I know,” snarled Garèo but didn’t look back, “That sand-damned horse has been following us since outside of the mill.”

“How… how did you know? I never saw you look back.”

“I can feel him in my head, no matter where I go.”

Kanéko felt a chance to ask a question Garèo always avoided. “Great Waryoni Garèo? Why do you refuse to ride Ojinkomàsu?”

Garèo chuckled dryly. “You are polite when you want something.”

“You won’t, right?”

He sighed and rubbed his shoulder, his fingertips stroking along the leather of his weapon belt. “I don’t deserve to ride Ojinkomàsu. Not now, not ever. But, I can’t get rid of him either.”

She thought for a moment. “You tried, right? But Mama wouldn’t take him?”

“Despite your inexperience, you are quite intelligent. You would have been a credit to the sun.” He sighed. “I tried, but your mother knew that I didn’t have the right. There is only one being who decides who rides Ojinkomàsu.”

“Who?”

She wasn’t surprised when he didn’t answer.

Kanéko focused on Ojinkomàsu. The horse walked behind an elegantly-dressed woman, keeping his head below her feathered hat. But, Kanéko could still see the horse’s shoulders and tail around the woman’s deep blue dress.

The woman looked up at Kanéko, slowed to a stop, and then turned around. When she saw Ojinkomàsu, she let out a high-pitched scream.

The wagon slowed down and Garèo snapped his head around. “You worthless, sun-burned spawn of a mule!” He screamed in Miwāfu. Without waiting for the wagon to stop, Garèo vaulted off and ran back toward Ojinkomàsu, yelling at the top of his lungs.

Kanéko sat back to watch with a smirk on her lips. It was the first time she had seen him lose his temper.

Ojinkomàsu lifted his head, and then stepped back away. His rear slammed into another wagon and knocked it off course. The side of the wheel crashed into the boardwalk and a splintering noise filled the air.

The wagon driver fell off his wagon, and his two horses reared with panic. One ran straight as the other reared and the wagon threatened to tilt on its side.

“Gachímo!” Garèo belted out a word that Kanéko didn’t know, and the two horses settled down instantly. Kanéko could see them strain to move, but something held them down in place. Even their tails were still.

Garèo ran past the wagon and grabbed Ojinkomàsu’s mane.

Kanéko settled into place to watch Garèo’s struggle. She felt a fierce joy at his discomfort, and she knew she smiled but didn’t care. She watched as Garèo tried to interpose himself between the screaming woman and Ojinkomàsu at the same time grabbing for a horse with no reins.

Maris shifted in her seat as her ears perked up.

Kanéko tore her attention away to look at the dalpre.

Maris’s tail thumped loudly thrice before it grew still. Her ears jerked, and the girl turned around to kneel on Kanéko’s trunk.

Kanéko almost looked away, embarrassed to be staring at Maris, but Maris wasn’t looking at her. Instead, she looked past Kanéko and down the street with a frown on her face and her ears against her head. Kanéko followed Maris’s gaze, but didn’t see anything besides people on the boardwalks, wagons parked on the side of the road, and the normal life she expected in a village.

Then, faintly, she thought she heard a whistle.

“Ruben!” Maris’s sudden bark hurt Kanéko’s ears.

Kanéko twisted her body to identify what Maris barked at.

The dalpre jumped past Kanéko, smacking her in the head with her tail. There was a brief flash of red fabric and a black hair before the girl landed heavily on the ground. With a growl, she staggered forward until she planted one hand on the cobblestones to halt her fall. Regaining her balance, she sprinted down the street. “Ruben!”

Kanéko watched her in confusion, and then called out over her shoulder. “Garèo? Who is Ruben?”

Garèo turned to look at her as he struggled with the crowds gathering around him and Ojinkomàsu, and then his eyes widened.

“Where is Maris—” he looked up the road ahead to the running girl, and then called out to Kanéko. “Stop her!”

For a moment, Kanéko considered actually obeying, but the aches and pains from her brawl with the dog girl stopped her. She shrugged. “Why?”

“Girl! I said, stop her! Do it or she won’t go on the trip.”

Kanéko shrugged again but said nothing. The idea of Maris remaining behind seemed appealing. She settled down with a smile on her lips.

Garèo’s expression darkened. He pulled away from Ojinkomàsu, but the horse grabbed his sleeve and pulled back. Garèo struggled with Ojinkomàsu for a moment, and then snapped out sharply. “If she hurts someone, you don’t go!”

“What!? Why? I’m not doing anything wrong!” Kanéko crossed her arms over her chest and glared back at Garèo.

“I said stop her, Kosobyo Kanéko!”

She saw the dark look in his eyes, a storm about to break. It was the same look as her mother’s, right before she blew up. She spun to watch Maris race around a corner. Kanéko jumped out of the wagon. She managed to run almost a chain before she realized she would never catch up to the racing dalpre if she followed the same route.

Slowing down, Kanéko looked around for a shortcut through the block Maris ran around. It was a group of tall, two-story houses. Most of the brown stone buildings were built right next to each other, but Kanéko spotted a gap between two where the color of brick changed from a lighter brown to a darker one.

She trotted over to the gap and peered down it. A six-foot brick wall separated two large gardens and she could see a larger, more ornate building on the block beyond the houses. A sign hung over the front gate of the building and she could read "—k River Sch—". It was the school where Kanéko, Garèo, and Maris would meet with the other students before heading out on the trip. No doubt, it was also where Maris headed.

Kanéko decided to take the shortcut. She ran to the brick wall and scaled it. Her bare toes caught on the deep gaps between the bricks. It only took her a few seconds to regain her balance on top before she sprinted toward the far side of the block. A moment later, she got her first clear look at the school.

There were over half a hundred teenagers milling around ten large wagons and five adults trying to manage the peace. Most of the students were laughing, rough-housing, and generally being bored. She saw two dice games on the corner of the block and a card game near the gate opening.

She spotted a number of teenage boys circling around a smaller child. The child had black hair and a black vest over a white shirt. The larger, older boys pushed the kid around roughly. One of them, a blond boy with muscles of a farm worker, caught her attention because one of his arms was wrapped in bandages. She wondered how it happened, but then remembered Garèo’s comment about Maris breaking a boy’s arm; Pah was his name, or at least short for something.

“Ruben!” Maris screamed from the far end of the block.

Kanéko regarded the sprinting dalpre heading toward the front of the building. From the expression on Maris’s face, Kanéko knew that the dalpre was about to hurt someone, but Kanéko didn’t know who. She wanted to find out if Maris would get in trouble, but she also didn’t want Garèo to make her life worse until she could escape for Jinto Panzir.

Kanéko quickly looked for some way to safely descend. Below her, she spotted a cart filled with painting supplies parked up against the wall. The back end of the cart provided a clear spot to land.

She backed up. Kanéko timed Maris’s charge and her own plans. As soon as Maris came back into view, Kanéko sprinted forward and jumped from the wall to the cart. She intended to jump off the back and slam into Maris.

But, when her feet hit the wooden deck, she felt it lurch underneath her. The front of the cart snapped up, flinging painting supplies into the air. She tried to watch them but lost her balance again, and the ground introduced itself to her face.

Sprawled across the cobblestones, Kanéko heard a thick splashing noise.

The conversations near the school silenced.

She struggled to her feet and brushed her copper hair away to look at the results of her fall.

Maris stood in the center of the street with whitewash dripping off every part of her body. Rivulets of white rolled down her hair and soaked into her dress. More droplets clung to the tips of her ears before falling off with the girl’s shakes. Maris looked down at her hands, covered in paint. She blinked twice, and then looked at Kanéko with a look of hurt surprise.

Kanéko felt a smile growing inside her but she forced it off her face before Maris noticed. Standing up, she brushed the dust off her shirt and returned Maris’s hurt look with an impassive glare.

Maris’s bottom lip trembled, and then she burst into tears. “I hate you!”

The dalpre spun around and shoved her way past the gathered students. Kanéko could hear her crying in the stunned silence. Kanéko sighed and glanced up at everyone staring at her.

Students whispered, but no one made a move to help her or walk away.

Finally, the silence was broken as the blond boy with the broken arm came out. “Are you all right, um, Lady Lurkuklan?”

She wasn’t used to being called by anything besides her first name or the familiar “Kané.” She cleared her throat and nodded. “Yes, I-I’m all right.”

The blond boy was more slender than she initially thought, but the lines of his muscles showed that he was also strong. Much like the men at the mill, he was obviously someone who did labor when he wasn’t in school. He had an easy smile, which he focused on her. Kanéko didn’t know what to say and had to fight the urge to look away.

“My name is Pahim dim Maldor, but you can call me Pahim.” He bowed deeply. “And I’m at your service, Lady Lurkuklan.”

“Um, it’s Kanéko.”

“Kanek-o.” He struggled with the Miwāfu name.

Kanéko didn’t know how to respond. She peeked around at the people surrounding her, wondering what they thought of the dark-skinned stranger in their midst. She realized she didn’t want them to hate her like the dalpre at the mill did. She gazed at Pahim. “Kanek is good. Y-You can call me Kanek.” Kanéko hated that she stammered, but with so many eyes staring at her, she felt humiliated and on a pedestal at the same time.

Pahim held out his good hand. Kanéko stared at it, and then grabbed him the way Garèo and her mother did, at the elbow. They both fumbled with the gesture since he obviously wanted to shake hands but he grasped near her elbow with only the shortest of hesitations.

Kanéko blushed even hotter and looked everywhere besides Pahim. She focused on the bandage of his left arm. There were small runes written on the white fabric. As she watched, they crawled along the cloth and pulsed with power. The magical runes would keep the flesh and bone protected until the body could heal itself. She knew the creator of the bandage; the same old man had just rushed to the keep to heal Jinmel. He wasn’t a full healer, but he was the only thing Rock River had.

The memory of Jinmel and the explosion choked her. She felt an intense wave of guilt, but Pahim still held her arm. She released her grip and pulled her hand back, still unable to look at his face.

Both teenagers stood in the center of the street. Kanéko didn’t know what to do, and she toed the ground trying not to think about everyone staring at her. Then, rescue came from an unlikely source.

“Girl, where is Maris?”

She breathed a sigh of relief and peeked at Pahim.

The blond made a sour face at Garèo, one that Kanéko found funny. She resisted giggling. Pahim hurried away before Garèo could reach them.

Kanéko turned to watch as the desert man strode up.

Behind the desert man, Ojinkomàsu and the wagon horse followed quietly.

Garèo repeated his question.

Kanéko considered whether to answer in Lorban or Miwāfu, not sure which one would embarrass her more. She picked Miwāfu. “She went into the building, Great Waryoni Garèo.”

Garèo’s gaze focused on the splatter of paint on the road. His voice was terse and angry. “What happened?”

Kanéko tried to find some way of explaining it in a way that would blame Maris. She lied, “She was running down the street and tripped on the cart. The cans spilled and she got paint dumped on her.”

Garèo’s green eyes bore into her, and Kanéko fidgeted under the glare. She wondered if he would call her on her lie, but then Garèo gestured to the school with his chin. “Go help her, girl.”

“Why? I didn’t do anything.”

“Because you, she, and Ruben are going to be in the same wagon for the entire trip, and I want you to be at least civil. You don’t leave anyone alone, not now, not ever.”

“But—”

“Listen, Brat! I said, go help Maris!” His voice echoed against the buildings. The surrounding teenagers backed away at the fury in his tone. She watched as they hurried back to their games and groups, glancing over their shoulders at her and Garèo as they fled.

Kanéko experienced a flashback at the sight of their backs; it reminded her of the mill only a few hours before. She focused her attention back on Garèo as she fought with the growing desire to lash out at him.

Garèo’s attitude changed in an instant. He gave her the same dangerous look as at the mill.

Her lips tightened as she considered her options. Finding none, she spun on her bare feet and stormed toward the school. She would obey, at least until she had the chance to escape. A few students in the front split apart as she walked up. None of them looked at her. She ignored them, lifted her chin slightly, and smacked open the front door before charging inside.

Since she was tutored in the keep, Kanéko had never entered the school before. She slowed down a rod’s distance from the door and looked around in an attempt to orient herself. There was a wide hall that ran the entire length of the building. She spotted hallways at the front, middle, and back that branched off into what she assumed were classrooms.

Unsure where to go, she headed down the main hall while looking around curiously.

Like most rural schools, the Rock River School taught all students within an hour walk of the village. The pictures in the hallways ranged from the scrawled drawings of a young child to the slightly more refined landscape of an older child. One picture caught her attention when she recognized the Germudrir Mill. The scrawls looked like the work of a five-year old but she saw Maris’s name printed roughly on the bottom. Kanéko frowned because Maris seemed far older than she would have guessed from the picture.

She peered into classrooms, at the rough wooden benches and chalkboards covered with perpetual dust. She stopped at one door and wondered what it would be like to be in a class every day, learning with others instead of spending her days alone with tutors, Jinmel, and her books.

Kanéko continued to walk down the hallway. She reached the back of the school when she heard running water and Maris’s humming coming down the side hallway. Curious, Kanéko padded to the end of the hall, her callused bare feet scuffing on the wooden floor. At the end, she spotted an opening with a sign hanging on the right side of the arch. The sign said “Showers” with a droplet painted to the right of the words. Below the sign was a disc with “Girls” written on it along with a stylized image. Kanéko flipped the disc over so it said “Boys” with a corresponding picture. With a grin, she flipped it to “Girls” and went inside.

The water rained down in the shower area as Kanéko inched forward, pressing her hands along the wall to peek around the corner. She froze when she saw Maris sitting on a bench with her back to Kanéko. It took only a heartbeat for Kanéko to realize Maris was naked.

Maris’s dark hair ran down her back, following the curves of her shoulders before ending near the middle of her back. Her ears were perked up, splashing water whenever she moved around. The rivers of water continued down along Maris’s tanned skin, along her curves, and over her wide hips.

Kanéko looked down, fighting unfamiliar emotions growing inside her.

Maris’s tail continued from the end of her spine, dipping straight down but then curving up. It wagged back and forth slowly, water sluicing off it with every movement and droplets of water splattering in a line behind her. Even with the sluggish movements, Maris’s entire body wagged with it.

Underneath Maris, a pool of water and paint reached out for a drain, circling around the grill in a white vortex before disappearing. Flecks of water splashed down into the puddle, thrown off Maris’s wagging tail.

The dalpre hummed cheerfully as she cleaned her dress. Her hands worked steadily, rubbing the fabric together as she held it underneath the stream of water. Kanéko didn’t see mist rising up from it and knew it was cold. To Kanéko’s surprise, Maris didn’t shiver and her spirits seemed high for being recently doused in paint and now soaked.

Kanéko knew she should go in and apologize. Seeing Maris working in good cheer, even though the dalpre was crying moments before, she guessed that Maris had already forgiven or forgotten Kanéko. But, even with that, Kanéko couldn’t find the courage to step into the shower. Her pride and humiliation stayed her feet. Not to mention, she was blushing and wasn’t sure why. Her heart pounded in her chest as she fought with her guilt and other emotions.

Maris, not responding to Kanéko’s presence, finished scrubbing her top. She spread it out flat on the wooden bench and bent over to grab her skirt bottom. Her large breasts hung in Kanéko’s view, pale and larger than Kanéko’s fist. The tips were darker than Kanéko expected.

Kanéko’s blush grew hotter and she turned away, trying not to compare herself to the dalpre. She concentrated on sneaking away and came up with a story of how she couldn’t find Maris but stopped when she saw someone standing in front of her.

It was the black-haired child Pahim tormented, but things seemed wrong with him. He was short, maybe slightly over a yard in height, but his head looked large for his arms and legs. His body was proportional to his limbs and she realized he was probably her age, just much shorter.

Kanéko gulped and, for the second time in the day, she faced something utterly foreign to her upbringing. Then, she caught sight of his eyes. Unlike most of the country, he didn’t have the browns of the Kormar folk or even the green eyes of the desert. Instead, he possessed a piercing blue gaze that bore directly into Kanéko.

She trembled, unable to tear her eyes away from him. Her hand still clutched the edge of the wall leading into the showers, but she didn’t know where or how to move. His eyes had her trapped. A whimper rose in her throat, and her breath grew shallower the longer their gazes matched.

Then, in the back of her head, she felt a strange itching sensation, like something tickling the back of her thoughts. She frowned and tried to step in any direction besides the blue-eyed boy. He didn’t even blink as he stared at her, which frightened her almost as much.

As soon as she thought about his blinking, the boy blinked once, slowly and deliberately.

Kanéko wondered if he could somehow read her mind.

The boy stepped to the side. He gestured with one hand for her to pass him.

Kanéko pushed herself off the wall and hurried past him. She looked over her shoulder, and he stared back at her. Embarrassment and humiliation burned inside her; they were two feelings she had grown accustomed to that day. She ran down the hall, slowing down only near the center of the school. She stopped and peeked over her shoulder, but the boy was gone.

She breathed a sigh of relief, and then winced when she heard Maris cry out, “Ruben!” A moment later, barking laughter.

Kanéko needed to escape. She turned down the side hallway and ran toward the door she saw at the far end. It would come out at the side of the school, but hopefully away from Garèo and the others. She didn’t know what to do or where to go. The door banged open as she ran out. Coming to a stop, she spun around and slammed the door shut behind her.

“You look—”

Kanéko shrieked with surprise when Pahim started to speak. She fell back against the door and a strong hand grabbed her to prevent her from falling. She looked up at the blond teenage boy, her mouth working silently as she struggled with fear and her pounding heart.

Pahim chuckled and set her against the wall before releasing her. “You look like you were chased by a monster.”

Seeing his smile, Kanéko gave him a hesitant grin. “No, just Maris and… and… the short boy.”

Pahim rolled his eyes. “Garèo’s other little freak, Ruben. He’s a vomen.”

Vomen, the short people from the Isle of Vo, a forbidden place of secrecy and corruption. The isle was known for many things, including powerful magic where everyone worked in perfect unison and silence. In her books, nothing good ever came out of the isle, and she suppressed a shiver at the thought.

Pahim continued, “You don’t want to be around them. They are outcasts and monsters.”

“But, Garèo—”

“Garèo isn’t much better,” he grumbled. “The only reason Maris and Ruben are assigned to him is because the bartim told the school to give him a job and none of the other teachers want the bitch and short one. Monsters.” He finished by leaning on the wall next to Kanéko.

She watched as he looked out over the city.

“Some days, I can’t wait to get out of here.”

“The school?” she asked.

“No, Rock River. As soon as I hit seventeen, I’m going to see if I can join my father’s airship.”

Kanéko gasped with surprise. “Your father owns an airship? A real ship?”

Pahim grinned but shook his head. “No, he’s on the deck crew. The Burning Cloud Queen is run by Captain Sinmak Bilmour. It flies out of Jinto Panzir.”

Kanéko sighed as her dream of running away came back. “I heard Panzir has the largest air dock in a thousand leagues.”

Leaning his side on the wall to keep looking at her, Pahim said, “It does. There are these four buildings with decks between them, at least ten stories tall. Airships of all sizes, from the small boats to the frigates, come in and dock. And the town itself… well, I don’t think I’ve seen more—”

Kanéko couldn’t help but interrupt him. “They have engineering? Machines? Cores?”

Pahim’s brown eyes stared into hers and he smiled broadly. “They have everything. There is a crafting quarter where they design and build machines. There are even three workshops off the main road that make steam cars. Just last year, the city council allowed them on the streets without resonance permits.”

“Really? What about the laws? I thought most towns still arrest the drivers for using artifacts in city limits.”

“Not Panzir. They have three builders on the council and have proven that driving a steam vehicle won’t cause every artifact in town to explode. And no one has gotten even a headache in the presence of a machine.”

“Wow,” she sighed, “I wish I could see it.”

He didn’t answer.

Kanéko leaned back on the wall and stared out into the school yard as she listened to the noise. She liked Pahim, but she wasn’t sure why. He was the only person she met that day that wasn’t upset with her. Or it could be the first time she ever met a teenage boy alone. She smiled, wondering if her dreams would eventually include him.

“Come with me,” Pahim said.

Kanéko gasped and looked at him, a flush growing on her cheeks.

Pahim’s smile broadened but he held up his hands. “No, no, not like that. I mean, on my wagon to the first campground. I’m the driver.”

“Oh,” Kanéko said in an embarrassed tone, “I thought… what about Garèo?”

Pahim shrugged and leaned his head on the wall. His blond hair caught on the bricks. “Garèo’s going to stick you with Ruben and Maris in wagon ten. I think he’s planning on driving that one since he hasn’t assigned one of the older students to it. Ruben is older but he can’t handle horses at all with those tiny arms. So…” He turned to her. “Come with me.”

Kanéko’s heart skipped a beat. She thought about Garèo’s threat to train her every night, Maris attacking her, and even Ruben’s unblinking eyes. It didn’t take long to make a decision.

“I will.”

He pushed himself off the wall. Reaching down, he plucked something off the ground.

Kanéko watched as he separated the dirt from around a seed. With a grin, Pahim closed his hands. A moment later, green leaves peeked out of his palm. A dandelion pushed up between two fingers and blossomed in a few seconds. He held out his hand. “For you.”

Kanéko looked down at the flower, stunned and flush with the offering. She took it and stroked her fingers on the warm petals. She saw movement and looked over to see Pahim holding out his hands for hers.

She transferred the dandelion to her other hand and then rested hers on his palm. Her darker skin contrasted with his tanned grip, but he was gentle as he drew her from the wall. Kanéko blushed as Pahim guided her to the front wagon.

There were already six other students in the wagon. They were all older than Kanéko by a year or so, much like Pahim. She tried to remember the names of the boys and the three girls, but by the time Pahim finished introducing her, she had already forgotten. It didn’t help that they showed no interest in her. As soon as Pahim introduced them, they returned to their private conversations.

Pahim crawled up on the wagon and sat down on the bench. He patted the seat next to him, an obvious request for Kanéko.

She continued to blush hotly as she crawled up on the wagon next to Pahim, settling down on the thin cushion. She was excited and terrified at the same time.

He grabbed the reins and snapped them. The two horses started forward and the wagon jerked as it began to move.

Kanéko froze as she saw Garèo on the far side of the road, trying to wrangle a bunch of younger teenagers into a wagon.

He caught her gaze and stood up, a quizzical look on his face. Without her saying anything, she saw his green eyes darken and a frown cross his face.

She held her breath, waiting for him to call her.

After a few tense seconds, he shook his head and returned to his job.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Kanéko settled down on the bench. She smiled with the first sense of freedom she had gotten ever since the stables exploded. It was finally going to be a good trip.