Kosòbyo’s venom fills the veins of his clan members. He grants them endurance to survive the desert and an endless will to fight against all odds.
— Waryoni Tesúma, The Feathered Serpent, Stanza 8
Kanéko’s rear ached from a long day’s travel. She groaned and adjusted the cushion underneath her in a hopeless attempt to reduce her discomfort. Her hair, braided to keep it bound from the wind, smacked the back of her elbow. She was tired of pulling it out of her face, the hard-board of a wagon bench, and everything else on the trip.
Next to her, Pahim snapped the whip against the horses’ flanks. One of the horses threw up his head, but neither the horse nor the wagon moved any faster over the rutted path. He just seemed to do it to relieve his own boredom.
“About how much longer, Pah?”
Pahim smiled. He rubbed his nose with his arm and peered down the road. “I’d say about another ten minutes or so. The campground is on the northern side of that group of trees.”
“Good, because I need a break.”
She glanced at the others in the wagon. There were eight of them. Most of them passed the hours by sleeping on the benches and the floor. The travel bags were all used as pillows and cushions.
The only two awake were a dark-haired girl and a boy with a farmer’s tan. They huddled in the far corner of the wagon, limbs intertwined as they touched and kissed.
Kanéko looked away quickly, uncomfortable with their intimate moment but drawn to it at the same time. She peeked over her shoulder until one caught her looking and glared. She snapped her head forward in embarrassment.
Desperate to keep her eyes away, she watched the wagon in front of her, pulled by a horse without a driver. It was Garèo’s but only Maris and Ruben rode it. Garèo was currently riding in a different wagon out of sight. He knew that Kanéko was in the wagon with Pahim, but when he changed the order of wagons only a bell ago, he said nothing to either of them.
A bark drew her attention. Kanéko looked to the wagon in front of her where Maris crouched on the edge of Kanéko’s trunk. Her eyes were closed, and her tail wagged violently. The sloppy smile on her face looked innocent but comical.
Behind her, Ruben reached out with his tiny arm and snatched her tail.
Maris yelped and rolled forward, plummeting off the wagon with a thump.
Kanéko gasped and held her breath. She didn’t think the dalpre could move before Pahim’s wagon struck her.
Maris recovered quickly, scrambling back on the wagon and then jumping over the chest to land on Ruben. She pinned him to the back of the front bench before purposefully licking his face.
Kanéko smirked as Ruben’s tiny arms flailed for a moment then they tumbled to the wagon floor and out of sight.
A heartbeat later, Maris’s tail popped up, snapping back and forth. Kanéko could imagine her entire body moving in time with the swishing limb.
Pahim pointed toward the two and muttered. “Like children. They shouldn’t even be here.”
“Why are they?”
“Well, Maris’s father probably bribed the town elders to get her in the school. If I had my way, she would be locked up with the rest of the dalpre.”
“You mean at the sawmill?”
“No, I mean as slaves like the gods intended them.” His voice grew tense and angry, “Dalpre don’t belong in schools and they sure don’t deserve to run businesses like the mill. A human could do a better job with that place than a bunch of dogs. In fact, when they forced us to allow Maris to school, she couldn’t even add two numbers or write her name.”
Kanéko squirmed in her seat, not comfortable with Pahim’s sharp tone. To distract him, she asked a different question, “How long ago was that?” She amended her question to make sure he didn’t misunderstand. “When Maris arrived?”
“Two, maybe three years ago.”
“Thirteen and she couldn’t read?”
He scoffed, “None of them can. I think only her father actually knows numbers. That was supposed to be the reason he sent her. Shouldn’t have bothered, I say.”
“How… how could they not? I mean, everyone knows their numbers and letters.”
“They just don’t have the ability to learn. They’re animals. It’s part of their breeding. Maris still can’t even read a book. That is why Garèo is Maris’s keeper, to keep them from the rest of the students. Ruben reads, and Maris fumbles through her tests.”
Kanéko thought back to the mill. She could see humanity in the dalpre’s actions. As much as she was uncomfortable near them, they weren’t much different from other people. There was something about Pahim’s words that felt wrong, but she didn’t want to speak up.
She watched Ruben and Maris wrestle in the wagon.
Maris caught Ruben and tossed him into the air.
He landed on the edge of the chest and bounced off, windmilling his tiny arms silently as he plummeted to the ground.
Kanéko’s heart skipped a beat, but Maris just hopped out of the wagon and grabbed him before he hit the ground. She tossed Ruben into the back and jumped in after him.
Ruben rolled over and made a grab at her tail again.
Maris barked and sat down on the smaller teenager’s head.
Kanéko gestured toward the two. “What about Ruben?”
“The dwarf? He and his father are the only ones around home. His father isn’t much taller than him. Garèo tells us to call them “little people” but I consider that a joke. They aren’t little, they’re deformed. Huge heads and tiny arms. Twisted by the Isle of Vo. Heard of it?”
Kanéko thought back to her adventure novels. The dark isle featured in many of her novels as a place of terrible curses and monsters. Very few of the heroes in that book came out unscathed from the terrible place. She shuddered at the thought. “Yes, they were in my Nash novels.”
“They say Vo changes people. I think it just shrinks their dicks and makes their heads too big.”
Kanéko smirked at the thought and focused on Ruben.
The dwarf stood up on top of Maris’s chest, miming his dominance until the dog girl’s foot snapped out and tripped him.
“Can he… is he stupid like Maris?”
Pahim remained silent for a moment, then he shook his head. “No, Ruben might be weak and tiny, but he’s usually has the best scores in class. He also uses very big words when he speaks, and only the teachers understand him. Garèo paired him with the bitch as a tutor, probably hoping they would average out to a single person, and they’ve been together ever since.”
Kanéko let her eyes drift past the wagon in front of her to the entrance of the campsite as it came into view. Though the sun still burned brightly a few fingers above the tree line, someone had set up a line of torches to mark the opening. Three wagons had already stopped at the entrance. She watched teachers try to herd the teenagers further into the camp. She smirked as the boys and girls spread out instead, grabbing their bags and disregarding the clearly marked signs.
“I bet there will be singing,” said Pahim.
She gestured toward Garèo, who had come to a halt at the campsite. Unlike the other teachers, when he bellowed out a command, the teenagers obeyed. “Garèo will insist on it.”
They both shuddered at the thought. Pahim shook his head, “He keeps claiming he’s a great singer, but every time he opens his mouth, I want to bury my head underground.”
Kanéko grinned. “Every time I hear him, I just want to cut off my ears. Mama says he has talent also, but I’ve heard dogs howling that sounded better.”
Pahim’s eyes sparkled, and he favored her with a mischievous grin. Then he pointed to a hill with a large copse of trees on it. It stood on the opposite side of a road and well over a dozen chains before the campsite entrance. “Want to avoid song night?”
She looked at her keeper then over to Pahim. She answered with a smile and a nod.
Pahim grinned broadly and snapped out his whip, turning the horses and leading the wagon off road.
Behind them in the wagon, the others sat up with curiosity.
Pahim announced cheerfully, “Finding a better spot without the kids. You all game?”
No one argued.
He stopped a few chains from the road, close enough to hear the faint sounds of the other teenagers but far enough that only a hint of movement was visible through the trees. They grabbed their supplies and headed to a low spot near a pond.
Kanéko helped Pahim set up his tent. She clutched the mallet and pounded stakes into the ground. She noticed Pahim watching her, and she fumbled with the mallet, dropping it with a blush.
Pahim knelt next to her, and she felt a brief skip of her heart. He wrapped the rope around the stake, his fingers brushing hers.
She sat back and watched as Pahim finished pitching his tent. It didn’t take him long to get the musty canvas set up and catching the light breeze that coursed through their makeshift campsite.
Pahim’s friends began setting up their tents, pairing off as they prepared to share. One of the tents was obviously meant for the couple kissing earlier, but the other two were paired along gender lines.
With a start, Kanéko realized there was only one tent with room for her: Pahim’s. She gasped as she stared up at Pahim, unfamiliar anticipation burning through her veins. She was afraid to say anything.
Pahim smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Kanek, I’ll take care of you.” He returned to the wagon and grabbed another bundled tent from underneath the bench. He flapped it open right next to his with a grin. “It would be unseemly for a future bartim to be found sleeping with common men.”
Kanéko giggled to hide her discomfort and surprised relief. She snatched the mallet from the ground and helped him set up her own tent.
Garèo walked up before Kanéko finished pounding in the first stake. He looked unhappy as he peered at the tents around him. His hands remained in his pocket, but when he focused his green gaze on her, she felt a shiver down her spine. Around him, the other teenagers stopped pitching their tents and waited with guilty looks on their faces.
“Planning on staying here tonight?” He asked all of them, but his eyes remained locked on Kanéko.
No one answered until Kanéko spoke up. “Yes.”
“I am not happy with you.”
Kanéko could see that none of the others understood Miwāfu, but they responded to the sharp tone by backing away. She swallowed before she responded. “I want to stay here, Great Waryoni Garèo.”
He thought for a second before answering. “I won’t stop you, Kanéko, you are supposed to grow up. But this is not the way I would expect one of Kosòbyo’s to act.”
She said nothing, waiting for him to continue.
He didn’t say anything at first. Instead, he turned around and started to walk away.
She waited impatiently for him to leave.
He stopped at the edge of the clearing and her stomach tensed. Without looking back, he spoke curtly. “Kosòbyo Kanéko, I expect you for archery lessons in twenty minutes. You’ll bring back food and drinks here for your new friends. You all can skip out on the activities, but you will attend my lessons.”
Relief flooded through her. She let out her breath in a long exhale, unable to take her eyes away from the desert man calmly walking through the trees.
“Um,” Pahim sidled closer, “what did he say?”
Kanéko smiled at him. “He says we can stay.”
Around her, the others cheered and then went back to their activities.
Pahim frowned. “That sounded very serious.”
“Well, I need to be at archery practice in twenty minutes. But, I get to bring back food.”
“Great! Mind if I come along?”
She blushed at his request and found herself unable to look into his brown eyes. Staring at the ground, she shook her head and tried to fight down the burning of her cheeks. “No, I’d like that.”
“Well,” he said in a sly voice, “we better hurry and finish pitching your tent.”