Chapter 17: Nobody

Honor, like all virtues, has many requirements. It is meaningless outside of the context of family, wealth, and title. — Tintin Tavoli, The Self-Made Storekeeper

Kanéko peeked out from the tree line with trepidation and scanned the road. Her body trembled from exhaustion. She could barely see through the piercing headache and hunger that growled in her gut.

Seeing the heavy brush on both sides did little to help her mood. The plants had already left their mark on her, and the scratches still oozed blood through the dried mud. She took a hesitant step from the trees, ready to dive back at the first sound of a horse or rider.

Walking for hours barefoot had done nothing to dull the ache that burned her inner thighs and sapped her strength. At the feel of the hard-packed dirt against her bruised and bloodied feet, Kanéko whimpered. She looked up into the sun, which only reminded her that hours had passed since she had found a small pool of clear water to drink from.

Wiping the sweat from her brow, Kanéko looked back and forth along the road. She wasn’t even sure which direction was north or south. After a few seconds of looking, she gave up and picked a random direction. She limped down the road.

It didn’t take long before she came to a milestone. The bright white marker gave her hope and she ran the last few chains before kneeling down in front of it. She had to brush the dirt off it to read it. Once cleared, the marker read "JP 29 mi". On the other side of the road, a second marker read "RS 25 mi". It took her a moment to decipher that “JP” meant Jinto Panzir and “RS” would be Raisen, the small village around the Boar Hunt Inn.

Kanéko looked to the south, toward Jinto Panzir. A shudder coursed up her spine, and she turned her back to the city. Pahim waited for her there, along with Cobin and whoever had posted a reward for her. She regarded the road to the north.

“Twenty-five miles? I can do that.” she said without confidence. The very idea of walking that far on bare feet left her feeling cold and alone, but Garèo’s words came back to her.

“Just keep moving.”

Two miles and an exhausted hour later, Kanéko could barely keep her head up as she trudged along the road. Every part of her body hurt, every breath came in long, shuddering gasps. The sun beat down on her left side, and her sweat kept her muddy clothes sticking to her body uncomfortably. Her feet slapped down on the road, one after the other. It took all her energy to just keep walking.

A faint smell tickled her throat. She looked up blearily and sniffed the air. Among the scents of leaves and grass and earth, she caught something else. Sniffing again, she felt a glimmer of hope and took in a deep breath of wood smoke.

Kanéko looked around for some sign of fire. She didn’t see anything, but a fresh breeze from the north brought a stronger scent of wood smoke. A moment later, she thought she smelled meat cooking, and her stomach rumbled.

She started down the road with a second wind filling her. She made it almost a half mile before she finally saw a tendril of smoke rising above the trees.

The sun started to touch the tops of the trees when she came up to her destination. Panting from her last-minute surge, she leaned against the sign announcing the village: Lassidin. Her eyes scanned the rest of the sign and she recognized Count Zantir’s seal but not the local bartim’s. Below, someone had painted the population of the village: 82.

The breeze brought more scents of cooking to her and Kanéko turned toward the village. Only a dozen houses clustered in the center. Even from the sign, she could see a single public house shingle—a crossed knife and fork over a plate—hanging in front of one door.

She headed into the village.

As she walked down the dirt lane, she kept her eyes glued on the restaurant’s front. She hesitated only when she realized that the villagers watched her with curiosity and poorly-veiled distaste. A small boy pointed at her with one outstretched but steady hand. For a moment, it looked like Ruben.

Kanéko frowned and felt her thoughts focusing on Ruben with an intensity that surprised her. She could almost feel the short teenager’s eyes on her. Just as quickly as she started thinking of Ruben, her thoughts returned to food and shelter.

She stopped at the door and peered into the pub. Like many public houses, the place sported a few tables scattered about in a small room. Someone had set up two more outside, but neither were occupied. Inside, people sat at all the tables, chatting, smoking, and playing card games. Most of the patrons looked in the latter half of their years, but she saw a few men in their twenties.

The conversations slowed as she felt their attention focusing on her. One of the men in the far back leaned into an open door and yelled out.

“‘ey, Sarom! There be a black girl for ya!”

Kanéko blushed and stepped up to the door as a thin man wearing an apron stepped out from the far side of the room. Black hair framed his slender face and his smile looked almost peaceful, but as soon as he focused on her, it dropped from his face.

Sarom shook his hand at her as he strode across the room. “What do you want, sandy?”

Kanéko stammered, “I-I’m hungry, could I please get some food?”

“No!” came the harsh response and some of the patrons laughed. Sarom stood in the door, shooing her away. “Now, git, I don’t have your food here.”

“Please,” Kanéko almost sobbed, “I-I’m lost and I just need—”

Sarom reached behind one of the chairs and grabbed a large stick. His face stretched into an angry mask. “I said git!”

“Please! I don’t have a lot, but my father is Bartim Ronamar Lurkuklan. He isn’t from around here, but all I want is a bit of food.”

He raised an eyebrow before grunting. Crossing his arms over his chest, he spoke sharply, “You saying you are a bartim’s girl?”

She nodded hopefully. “Yes, my father is—”

“Prove it,” Sarom interrupted sharply.

Kanéko dug into her pocket and pulled out her wallet. Mud dripped from the edge, and she fumbled to peel it open. She inspected her portrait with growing despair. The colors were washed out and smeared across the paper, leaving only the Stonewait’s gold seal. On the other side, water blurred the words leaving an unintelligible mess behind.

“You call that proof?” sneered Sarom. “You think some desert scum is going to fool me?”

Kanéko looked up helplessly. “No, this is mine. I swear. I just fell in the river—”

Sarom swung the stick at Kanéko’s head.

She ducked under it. “I didn’t do anything!” she screamed.

He swung again, almost hitting Kanéko. Her foot caught the rut in the road and her leg gave out. With a groan, she tried to retain her balance but a third swing from Sarom caught her in the arm.

He pulled hard, unbalancing her, and she collapsed heavily to the ground.

Sarom raised his stick to strike again.

Kanéko held out her hand to protect herself. Fear burned brightly inside her. She was helpless.

“Junior!”

Sarom winced. It came from an older man who looked like Sarom, but with decades of age weathering his face.

The older man stopped next to Kanéko as he addressed Sarom. “What do you think you are doing?”

Sarom finally lowered the stick. “Getting rid of some sand trash, father. She tried to pass herself off as a bartim’s girl. Desert scum.” He spat at her.

Kanéko flinched from the spit but couldn’t avoid it. It splattered against her arm before rolling down through the dried muck.

Sarom Senior interrupted him. “And how did she try to prove it?”

“Some bad picture.”

The older man turned to look at Kanéko. Without saying a word, he held out his hand. Kanéko fumbled as she picked it off the ground. Unfolding it, she handed it to him. The older man inspected it, clicking his tongue. “Not a very good picture, um…?”

Kanéko felt a strange prickling on the back of her neck. She cleared her throat and tried to look helpless while sprawled out on the ground. “My name is Kanéko Lurkuklan.”

“Hard to read, but I’ve seen that seal before.” The older man held out his hand for her. Kanéko took it, and he pulled her to her feet. “I’m Sarom Senior and the foolish boy here—”

“Foolish! You damn well know—”

Sarom Senior reached out and grabbed his son’s shoulder. Kanéko saw him squeeze tightly, and the words died in Sarom’s throat. Then, the father turned back to her. “I’m sorry for my son, he can be rather rash. We don’t have desert folk here often.”

Someone muttered from the restaurant. “We never have those scum here. Stay in the desert, I say.”

Sarom Senior glared inside the restaurant. Then, he favored Kanéko with a gap-toothed smile. “Come, the least I can do is get you some food. You look like you’ve been rolled in mud and baked over a flame.”

Kanéko ran a hand through her hair and a shower of dust poured between her fingers. She looked at the dirt clinging to her hand and sighed. “I’ve had a bad day.”

“I can imagine. Come on, Junior will feed you.”

“Dad—” Junior’s protest stopped when his father glared at him.

Sarom Senior returned his attention to Kanéko. “Go on in. I need to talk to Junior here for a moment.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Kanéko ducked her head and limped into the restaurant. Inside, nine men glared at her. Then, silently, the two at the nearest table picked up their plates and moved to join the others. Not a single word was said as she stumbled into one of the abandoned chairs and sat down with her back to the door.

A few minutes later, Junior came back in and stood stiffly in front of her. “I am sorry for hurting you,” he said in a monotone.

Kanéko thought through a number of responses she could use. She went with politeness and bowed her head. “Thank you.”

Junior pointed to the kitchen. “I will make you food.”

From behind her, Kanéko heard Senior speaking. “Goslin, your wife is calling.”

“My wife? She isn’t… oh, sure.”

Sarom Senior came around the table and sat down across from Kanéko. Kanéko looked up at him thankfully, and then got a strange double-image of Ruben again. He wore a black vest and a bowler hat but she never saw him wearing a bowler before. She blinked to clear her vision and caught only the tail end of Sarom’s question.

“… happened to you?”

Kanéko cleared her throat. “I… I…” The words were difficult to get out. She felt tears burning her eyes.

“Tell me about it?”

She began to start explaining her plight, but something stopped her. She closed her mouth and sighed. “I probably shouldn’t. I don’t know if they are still around.”

“Who?”

“Some uniformed guys, dark with a red armband.”

Sarom pulled a face. “I’ve seen their kind around here in the last few days. They are looking for someone and offering a lot of money, I hear.”

Kanéko’s mouth closed with a snap. She glanced over her shoulder toward the door. To her surprise, the rest of the patrons in the room disappeared in a matter of moments, leaving her completely alone with Sarom Senior. Her eyes flicked to the door, and she spotted shadows of people right outside. One of the shadows had what looked like Junior’s stick.

The prickling in the back of her neck redoubled. She turned her gaze to Sarom Senior and spotted the reflection of his son right inside the kitchen, holding a knife.

Kanéko’s heart beat faster as she focused on Sarom Senior while trying to listen for her attackers. She surprised herself by speaking smoothly. “A lot of money?”

He cocked his head in a nod. “Yes, ten thousand crowns is more than most of us make in a lifetime.”

Focusing her senses, she felt the air growing tense. Someone shifted outside and she caught the sound of something scraping against itself; she guessed it was a rope. Her eyes flickered to the walls, and then across the older man. She cleared her throat. “Are you going to take it?”

He hesitated for a moment, his brown eyes flicking back and forth as he looked into her gaze. Then, without a word, he nodded.

“W-Why?” she choked.

He folded his hands on the table in front of him. “My village needs the money. We need tools to fix houses that need repairs. We all have taxes to pay and Junior’s wife is sick. With ten thousand… well, we can take care of ours.”

Kanéko took a long breath, her legs tensing for a fight. “Have you no honor?”

“I can live with myself for this. I’m sorry, but we need the money.”

“Damn you,” she whispered angrily. Rage flared up inside her. Kanéko’s hand snapped out, grabbing a serrated knife from the table. Sarom Senior pushed back from the table as she slashed at him.

Kanéko sprinted for the door as she saw men stepping in front of it. She spotted an opening between their legs and threw herself into a somersault that brought her through the door. A hand grabbed her hair. She yanked it free and surged to her feet on the road.

A dozen men spread out from the restaurant in a circle. Most of them held ropes and chains in their hands, but she saw a few clubs bobbing on shoulders. None of them wielded sharp weapons, no doubt to capture her alive.

“You greedy, shit-filled bastards!” She waved the knife at the nearest of the villagers, backing away as quickly as she could. She furtively looked around her, but the men surrounded her.

Sarom Senior came up, holding out his hands. “Come on, girl, just set down the knife. We won’t hurt you.”

“You’re kidnapping me!”

Junior snapped back, “We need those crowns.”

"Drown in sands!" she snarled.

Junior lunged forward, his stick coming in an overhead blow. Kanéko watched it arcing toward her and dodged at the last moment. She whipped her knife around and brought it up, catching him in the chest. The cut parted his shirt and left a bloody line from rib to shoulder. Junior fell back.

Someone grabbed her shoulder. Kanéko spun around to slash again. She saw the frightened look in Senior’s eyes, and she froze. Her blade stopped with the sharp point nearly touching his skin. She couldn’t kill him.

Hands grabbed her and pulled her back. Someone twisted her wrist until she dropped the knife, and another person wrapped a rope around her neck. She screamed and kicked out with all her strength, but the exhaustion and trials weakened her and the kick did nothing to save her. She managed to slip her head out from the rope.

“She cut me!” screamed Junior as he towered over her and brandished a bloody palm.

Kanéko tried to lash out, but hands pinned her down to the hard-packed ground. The smells of sweat and violence suffocated her. Then she saw Junior holding a knife in his hand and a mask of rage on his face.

His father stopped him by grabbing his wrist. “Junior! She’s worth ten thousand alive, but nothing dead.”

“They won’t notice another cut, Dad! An eye for an eye, you said those desert scum follow those rules.”

Kanéko tried to break free again, but they held her down too tightly. Pinned to the earth, she felt vibrations coming through the ground. At first, she thought it came from Senior’s yelling, but then she recognized it as the pounding of a horse. She pictured Ruben coming to save her, but she didn’t know why she would ever consider the tiny teenager in the middle of her terror.

She threw everything she had to break free. It was a one in a million chance, but the adrenaline gave her the strength to break free one arm and leg.

Hands fumbled to pin her down.

She punched and kicked them away.

Sarom Senior bellowed. “Stop her!” The older man leaned over her. “Look, stop struggling, and you won’t get…” his voice trailed off as he looked up.

Kanéko watched his face hopefully.

The man peered out from the side of her vision, and then his eyes grew wide. “Look out!”

Hands dropped her as everyone fled. Kanéko looked up to see one of the school’s horse-drawn wagons racing toward her. She could see Maris’s ears above the horse and realized that the image of Ruben was disturbingly accurate; she could picture him at the reins as clear as day.

The horse swerved at the last minute, and the wheel caught her hair, yanking her down and clipping her head. Kanéko jerked away before the second wheel struck her.

“Kanéko!” Maris barked, jumping off the back of the wagon. The girl wore a black dress with white trim and looked out of place next to Kanéko’s muddy outfit. Her tail wagged as she raced to Kanéko. Maris grabbed her arm and pulled Kanéko to her feet. “Come on, stupid. And we need to go!”

Over Maris’s shoulder, Kanéko saw Junior run toward her. He held a knife over his head. She gripped Maris and cried out.

Maris dropped Kanéko and spun around. Her lip curled back and she took two steps toward Junior and kicked forward. The bottom of her foot caught Junior in the stomach, and he folded over. Maris shoved him back, and he hit the ground.

Kanéko gasped and grabbed the wheel of the wagon. Shuddering with exhaustion, she pulled herself up. A small hand presented itself and she looked up to see Ruben holding it out. The bright blue eyes burned in her mind and she somehow knew that there was no anger for her in his sapphire gaze. She took the hand and he helped her up with surprising strength.

“We need to flee, Kanéko Lurkuklan, and we do not have time for hesitation.” His voice was soft, a whisper of a noise, but she could hear it as clear as day.

Kanéko planted her hands on the wagon and hauled herself up with the last of her strength. She flipped over the edge of the wagon and landed heavily in the space between the bench and her trunk.

Maris stood between the wagon and the village men. She snarled loudly, a remarkably canine sound that resonated with the growl from her chest.

Ruben snapped the reins and the horse pulled on the wagon. As soon as the horse started to move, Ruben whistled three sharp blasts.

Maris’s ears perked up. She dropped her stance and spun on the balls of her feet. She sprinted after the wagon, her black skirt fluttering in the wind. The horse continued to accelerate, but the dalpre caught up and jumped smoothly into the back.

Ruben brought the wagon around the center of town and aimed it north.

Kanéko gasped and stared at the two teenagers in shock. “What are you doing?”

“You need assistance. Maris and I are providing it.”

Kanéko focused on the dalpre. Maris crouched on the trunk, her lips still curled back and a glare burning in her eyes. She sniffed the air and a growl vibrated in her chest. “Rub, they’re chasing us.”

Kanéko lifted herself to look over the edge of the wagon. Behind her, four of the villagers had retrieved their horses. They chased after them, quickly eating up the distance to the wagon. Sarom Senior whipped his horse frantically at the front of the group.

Maris sat down heavily on the trunk. “Well, at least we just made them angry.”

Kanéko stared at her. “W-Why did you save me?”

“Rub heard you. And you needed help. And you are hard to find,” she grumbled, “And I’m tired. And we’ve been riding all night. And I want food.”

Rube spoke calmly, “I said you could slumber while I navigated. Maris Germudrir. We need to lose weight, or we won’t be able to outpace our pursuers.”

“How about this? You want me to dump it?” Maris patted the trunk.

Kanéko remembered something Sarom Senior had said about needing tools. “The trunk!”

“I just said that,” said Maris in a grumpy tone.

Kanéko leaned on it as she got to her feet. She dug through her wallet until she found the key to the trunk. Fumbling, she managed to unlock it and shoved Maris away.

“And what are you doing now? Changing?”

“Shut up,” snapped Kanéko.

Maris’s mouth dropped open and her ears flattened on the side of her head.

The wagon jerked as it drove over a rut. Kanéko dug into her clothes and felt around. When the steel of her chisel fit in her hand, she let out a gasp of relief. “There!”

Looking up, she saw Sarom less than a chain behind them. She pulled out the chisel and held it up. “Here’s your damn tools!” She yelled.

Sarom Senior looked confused and Kanéko tossed the chisel at his chest. It missed and hit the ground. Before it finished rolling, the horse raced past it.

Kanéko realized he wouldn’t stop for one tool. She decided to give him all of them. She crawled over the trunk to the back of the wagon. Her hands, bruised and aching, fumbled to the bolts holding the back of the wagon together. She managed to pull one pin. She reached for the other but Maris was already there, pulling the pin free. The wagon gate fell off and clattered to the ground.

Sarom’s horse jumped over it as it spun on the dirt. The other horses easily avoided the tailgate.

Maris, a confused look on her face. “What are we doing?”

“Pushing the trunk off. It has my tools. It’s heavy and big.”

“Okay.”

Both girls crawled back over the trunk and into the space between the trunk and the front of the wagon. Kanéko planted her feet on the trunk and her back on the side of the wagon. With her flagging strength, she pushed with all her might.

Maris joined her. When the dalpre shoved with her feet, the trunk slid toward the edge of the wagon. With a final surge, they shoved it off the wagon. It hit the ground and cracked in half. Tools and clothes spilled out into the mud.

Sarom saw the trunk in front of him and yanked on his reins. The horse tried to jump over it but couldn’t get its back legs high enough. Kanéko jerked as she heard a loud snapping noise and a high-pitch squeal cut through the air. In agonizing slowness, she watched the horse collapse to the ground with Sarom underneath.

Maris turned on her. “Why did you hurt the horse? She didn’t do anything!”

“I didn’t mean to!” snapped Kanéko.

Behind them, the other horses slowed before turning back toward Sarom and the shattered chest.

“What, like what you did to my dress?”

“Yes, exactly like your dress! I’m not perfect!”

“And I don’t like you now,” Maris snarled at her, stood up, and then crawled over the back of the bench, leaving Kanéko alone in the back of the wagon.

Kanéko waited until her tail disappeared before letting out a long sob of relief and anguish. She buried her face in her hands and started to cry.