Chapter 18: Lessons Learned

The greatest of Tachìra’s gifts come not with silver or jade, but blood of horses flowing in the veins of men. They are the herutonùfi, horse kings, and the greatest of his champions. — Kimáni Ryoshìko, Death of the Horse Thief

“I’m thinking of something green.”

At first, Kanéko couldn’t identify the girl’s voice through the exhaustion blurring her thoughts. She didn’t remember falling asleep. She started to sit up, but then recalled slamming her head on a rock and stopped. She forced herself to relax, to become aware of her environment before moving again.

She almost missed the response to the girl, a boy’s soft whisper right on the edge of Kanéko’s hearing. “That deciduous tree by the boulder.”

“What?”

“The tree with the wedge-shaped leaves that fall at the end of summer. Right there, by the granite boulder you think resembles a cat cleaning itself.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Maris giggled, and Kanéko heard a thumping noise.

Kanéko opened her eyes slowly, staring into the orange-streaked clouds high above her and a much closer black tail wagging back and forth. Kanéko focused on Maris’s rear as the last of the fog dissipated. Next to Maris, Kanéko identified Ruben sitting on the left side of the wagon bench, his short form barely visible from where Kanéko laid on the floor of the wagon.

Maris’s tail rapped on the back of the bench for a moment. Then, she spoke up excitedly. “Oh, I’m thinking about something red!”

Ruben turned to look at her, his face serious except for a faint smile. “That red rubber ball hidden underneath your cot.”

The dalpre playfully smacked Ruben on the head. “Don’t cheat, Rub!”

“I’m not!” even speaking loudly, Ruben’s voice never rose above a whisper. “You are always thinking of that ball, Maris Germudrir. It’s like saying you like playing with the cats when no one is looking.”

Maris grunted. “I don’t like you. And I don’t like cats that much.”

Ruben chuckled dryly. “Do not lie. You love chasing them.”

“No, I don’t,” she said sharply, but Kanéko could hear a hint of amusement in her voice.

A brief pause. Then Ruben spoke. “Is that a squirrel?”

“Where!?” Maris launched herself off the wagon.

Kanéko closed her eyes in fear that Maris would see her looking.

“No need to pretend anymore, Kanéko Lurkuklan. You have two minutes, four seconds before she returns.”

Kanéko froze, and embarrassment burned her cheeks. She didn’t realize Ruben knew she was awake. When she opened her eyes, she saw him leaning over the back of the bench. In his hands, he held the reins and the horse continued to walk along the trail, but the short teenager didn’t even look over his shoulder to guide the equine. His blue eyes bored into hers. He didn’t seem to blink enough and Kanéko felt uncomfortable looking up at the smaller, but older, boy.

Clearing her throat, she sat up. “How long was I… out?”

“Approximately one hour, thirty-three minutes. We are not being followed at this point.”

She yawned, feeling more comfortable than the last time she woke up. “Where are we?”

Ruben sat back in the bench and pointed down the road. Kanéko peered in the same direction, spotting a plume of smoke rising up from above the trees. “Approaching Dalashon Village. After that, about five hours, twenty minutes until we return to the Boar Hunt Inn.”

Kanéko’s eyes widened as she stared at the plume of smoke. The events of the last village still burned brightly in her thoughts. She shook her head. “No, I-I don’t think that is a good idea. They’ll be waiting.”

“The mercenaries?”

“Yes,” sighed Kanéko, “Have you seen them?”

Ruben nodded slowly, and then turned around to sit down. Kanéko watched him as he tugged on the reins. The horse slowed down and Maris jumped on the wagon with a thump that shook Kanéko.

Leaves clinging to Maris’s hair, she stepped over Kanéko. Maris’s dress brushed on Kanéko’s head before the dalpre sat down heavily next to Ruben. She grabbed a leaf and tossed it aside. “That wasn’t fair, Rub, and it wasn’t a squirrel. It was a coon.”

She spoke with mock anger, but Kanéko could tell from her tail that the dog girl felt some excitement from her brief run. Up close, Kanéko noticed that the girl’s skirt had a slit in it so her tail could wag freely. The seam showed signs of being frequently repaired, judging from the three different colors of thread. Without moving, Kanéko inspected the rest of Maris’s dress, noticing the frayed edges and faded colors along the hem. Unlike Kanéko’s clothes—when she hadn’t swum across a river—Maris obviously wore hand-me-downs.

Ruben spoke in his quiet voice. “Kanéko Lurkuklan required a moment of silence to join the conversation. Distracting you provided a much needed quiet to allow social entry.”

Maris peeked over her shoulder at Kanéko, her eyes widened, and her inhuman ears perked up.

Kanéko glared up at her, but then couldn’t remember why she would be angry at the girl who just rescued her. She saw a dark emotion rising in Maris’s expression and quickly forced herself to smile. Kanéko rolled on her knees before leaning back on her heels. “How did you find me?”

Ruben pointed to the north. “We were driving to Three Firs and stopped for a meal one hour past midday. If you remember, we usually ride alone because…”

“And no one likes me,” pouted Maris, “and they say I’m stupid. And a bitch.”

Kanéko said nothing, but she felt uncomfortable at Maris’s words because Pahim had said the same things to her. More importantly, she didn’t disagree with him.

Ruben cocked his head and paused. A heartbeat later, he continued. “We were passed by a trio of mercenaries on horseback. Maris identified them as coming from the Boar Hunt Inn.”

“And they smell like grease. And old water.”

“One hour, nineteen minutes later, they returned going the opposite direction. They were racing. I discerned they were searching for you.”

Kanéko felt confused. “How did you know that? Did they say anything?”

Ruben cleared his throat. “Yeah, something like—”

Maris interrupted him with a wide smile and a wagging tail. “And he feels them in his head.”

Kanéko saw Ruben shoot Maris an angry glare, and then his eyes caught hers. As fast as the anger showed up, it faded, and Ruben looked away.

“In his head?” asked Kanéko.

Maris’s ears rose up, and she bounced in her seat. “Yes! And he can tell when they are obsessed with someone. And they were…”

Ruben glared at her, and her voice trailed off. Maris whimpered and held her hands over her mouth to silence herself.

Kanéko looked back and forth between the two teenagers, confused by their half-sentences.

Ruben cocked his head. “Well, I perceived you were in trouble and concluded that since you didn’t pass us, you were either at the Boar Hunt Inn or took an alternative route. When we backtracked, Maris caught your scent along this road, so we turned toward it. We spent the night north of this approaching village, Dalashon, and then resumed searching at first sunlight.”

Kanéko worried her lip. “Why?”

“You were in need.”

Maris’s ears drooped and she looked sad. “And Ruben said you were in trouble. And Pahim smelled like he wanted to fuck you. But he was also not in the wagons. And he’s mean. And I don’t think he liked you. And I don’t hate you.”

Kanéko opened her mouth and then closed it. She found herself unable to look into Maris’s wide eyes and looked away.

Ruben responded softly, “It was also the morally correct action, regardless of flighty canine reasons.”

“Bah,” pouted Maris.

“And,” Ruben grinned, “she knows I’d tell her masculine progenitor.”

“And you tell my daddy, and I’ll hit you again.”

Ruben gave Kanéko a sly grin but said nothing.

Maris grumbled and sat on her hands again.

Kanéko leaned on the bench, watching the road as she tried to think of where to go. She thought about Falkin and the comforts of the inn, and then realized that the men from the Burning Cloud Queen would be looking for her there. She considered running to the ocean, but she couldn’t figure out how to escape the mercenaries. Finally, she thought about fleeing for home, but ten days on wagon seemed like an eternity. Not to mention she didn’t know how to hide from the mercenaries.

Ruben broke the silence. “How do we convey you through Dalashon Village without detection? The road goes through it, and there are no trails around the village that can handle the wagon and horse.”

Kanéko looked at the contents of the wagon. She spotted a threadbare blanket and two travel packs. “I could hide under the blanket?”

Ruben shook his head. “That would not be sufficient. One of those uniformed mercenaries stopped us this morning and insisted in upturning the wagon’s contents. They didn’t recognize your travel trunk or your father’s seal, which I feel demonstrates a poor education on their part, but I think they’ll catch you if we try to simply hide you.”

Kanéko swore in Miwāfu and slumped. The bench creaked with her movement and she tensed in fear it would crack. She struggled with her thoughts as she made a show of balancing herself, but she knew he was looking at her for an answer. She looked up, hating the words about to come out. “I could walk around.”

Ruben glanced at her, his eyebrow rising with a question. “Are you skilled at traveling without markers?”

She thought back to the hours of wandering the woods. Her shoulders slumped. “No.”

“Probably not safe then. I cannot leave you alone without the appropriate skills.”

Kanéko sighed and leaned back, a Mifúno curse on her lips.

Maris glared at her. “And stop swearing!”

Kanéko snapped back, “And why don’t you drown in sands?”

“Stop it!”

“No, I won’t, you empty-headed cow.”

“Stop it!”

“I’m sure they’ll find us faster with you two yelling at each other.” Ruben spoke softly but with a voice that cut through their yelling. His eyes remained riveted on the road.

Kanéko’s mouth closed with a snap.

Maris grumbled. “Just let her walk around. I’m sure she’ll get lost, and then you won’t have to tell daddy.”

Without thinking, Kanéko reached up and smacked Maris on the top of her head.

The dalpre grabbed her head and whimpered. “Ow!” Her tail curled up under the bench of the wagon, pressing tight against the wood.

Maris looked at Ruben with wide eyes. “Aren’t you going to say something smart?”

Ruben said, “You deserved it. Stop pushing her.”

Maris whimpered loudly. “She is saying mean things about me!”

He sighed, “And you are both presenting yourselves as spoiled brats. Now, please be quiet, I am trying to route a path through the area.”

Kanéko felt a blush rising in her cheeks. Her shoulders slumped and she sighed. “Sorry.”

As they rode in silence, Kanéko thought about her options. It didn’t take her long to realize the inn was the safest place. She spoke up. “I think the Boar Hunt Inn is the best place to go.”

Ruben flicked the reins. “What if they are there? It would be reasonable to assume they are going to use the inn as a central coordination point until they locate you.”

“I can hide or something, maybe in the woods around it. Maybe in the garden behind it. You can stay in the inn and wait for Garèo.”

Ruben thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Better than nothing. Waryoni Garèo would come back as soon as he found that four of us are missing, presuming Pahim Maldor doesn’t return.”

Kanéko felt a surge of anger at Pahim’s name. Her lips pressed into a tight line, and she scraped her ragged nails on the deck of the wagon, pretending it was Pahim’s face.

She felt an itch in the back of her mind. Looking up, she saw Ruben watching her with his concerned blue eyes.

Ruben turned away. “I am regretful that we could not save you from Pahim Maldor earlier. His mind is… cloudy to me. More so than usual. Teenage males lose much of their cognitive abilities while in the presence of females they wish to mate with.”

It took only a moment for Kanéko to comprehend Ruben’s complex response. She blushed hotly.

Maris made a high-pitched whine and stood up sharply, sniffing the air. Her tail snapped out and smacked Kanéko in the face.

Kanéko started to rise up herself but she stopped when she saw Maris poised on her toes to reach higher.

The dalpre sniffed loudly. She cocked her head and did it again.

Kanéko stared up in confusion, and then took a hesitant sniff of her own. She could only smell earth and plants. Kanéko tapped Ruben on the shoulder, and then pointed to Maris. “Ruben?”

Ruben’s eyes came into focus, the blue somehow sharpening in a heartbeat. “I know.”

Kanéko looked back and forth. “Know what?”

Ruben turned to her. “The mercenaries are looking for you again. They are on this road.”

“I know that already.”

He turned toward her and spoke seriously. “No, they are approaching now.”

Maris pointed to her nose. “And we are downwind of their horses. There is at least four of them. Maybe… twenty minutes away. A quarter bell at most.”

Kanéko stared at her, trying to comprehend how anyone could smell something so far away. As she thought, a light breeze washed over her face and she had to resist the urge to sniff like Maris.

The dalpre sat down, and the bench creaked from the impact. To her surprise, Kanéko felt a small measure of jealousy and the sharp blade of humility as the two teenagers seemed to perceive things so far away. She stared between Maris and Ruben and tried to come up with a plan. “Look, can you stop? If they are coming, I need to get off the road now.”

Ruben pulled to the side. He set down the reins. “Come on, Maris, gather up the travel supplies.”

“And we are all going?” Maris bounced hard on the wagon, shaking it, before hopping off.

“It would be remiss to leave Kanéko Lurkuklan alone in the woods. I can extrapolate the terrain from what I remember. I suspect that knowledge would make it easier to keep her safe.”

“I could go with her,” said Maris.

“In terms of brutality, you excel. However, you are unskilled in the woods.”

Maris looked like she would argue, and then she sighed. “I trust you, Rub.”

Kanéko slid off the wagon. As her aching feet hit the ground, she groaned. Even if walking was a good idea, she couldn’t handle more miles on her bare soles. Before leaving home, she spent her entire life without shoes, but she had never walked so many miles over rough ground. She needed something to protect her soles. Glancing around, she found a blanket and pulled it out of the wagon. With her teeth, she tore into the edge and then ripped off a long strip.

“What are you doing?” asked Maris.

“Wrapping my feet,” announced Kanéko. She continued to tear the blanket into long strips before bringing the ruined remains of the fabric to the edge of the wagon and dangled her feet over it. One strip at a time, she wrapped the cloth around her feet. She tried to move as fast as she could but she almost ripped the fabric the wrong way. More straps circled around her calves and she tied it off. Cautiously, she slipped off the back of the wagon and landed on her feet.

The fabric padded her feet and she let out a sigh of relief. She turned to see Maris watching her curiously. The dalpre carried three bags and next to her, Ruben carried a smaller one.

Kanéko took a hesitant step, and then a second. After a moment to balance on the balls of her feet, she leaned back.

Ruben came around the wagon, his short legs giving him a sway to his step. “Is that sufficient comfort and protection?”

Kanéko nodded.

Maris whimpered. “Ruben, they are getting closer. And moving really fast. And their horses are sweating. They’re hurting those poor creatures.”

Ruben pointed toward a bank of trees. “If we head in that direction, we will avoid the roads entirely. We’ll come up from the south of the inn and maybe have a chance to find a safe route. It will take longer, and we’ll be traveling at night, but they probably won’t find us.”

Kanéko looked around and the horse’s movement drew her attention. She thought about the one she injured a few hours before and felt her heart spasming from the sorrow. She wasn’t sure where the sympathy came from, but she thought the hours of her mother and Garèo driving the desert lore into her head. Maybe their lessons had finally started to affect her.

Standing by the wagon, she could see a trail leading in the direction Ruben pointed. She returned her gaze to the wagon and saw it in a different light, a large sign pointing to where they fled the road.

She turned back to Ruben. “We have to do something about that.”

“Let me.” Ruben hurried in front of the wagon. He reached up for the bridle and the horse obediently lowered its head. He stared into its eyes but said nothing. Kanéko thought she saw his eyes glowing for a moment.

Ruben released the horse. “Completed.”

The horse pulled away from them and accelerated into a trot. The wagon bounced after it as the horse ran down the road.

Maris whimpered softly. “Why did you do that?”

“How,” Kanéko asked, “did you do that?”

Ruben cocked his head for a moment. “That will increase the difficulty of following us. Come, we need to depart from the road.”

Kanéko knew that Ruben didn’t answer her question, but she could feel the sands of time hanging over her.

“Oh. I…” the dalpre sighed to Ruben’s response, “And I didn’t think of that.”

Kanéko started to give her a sardonic reply when Ruben patted her on the arm.

“I know,” he said, “but there are many things you do not think of. That is why I’m here, remember?” He took the lead and headed straight for the trees. He moved easily through the tall grasses despite his short legs. Kanéko could only see his hat, a black bowler, above the frayed ends of the grasses.

Maris grinned and stared after him. “Because you need me to defend you, right, Rub?”

Kanéko watched the two teenagers walking into the tree line. She turned and looked down both directions of the road. From the point Maris sniffed out her pursuers to standing on the road was only a few minutes, but it felt like a year had passed. She returned her gaze to Maris just as the dalpre disappeared behind an oak tree.

Swearing softly to herself, Kanéko hurried up the bank of grass to the trees. She didn’t know what would happen, but she felt a lot safer having Ruben and Maris with her.