… no dalpre shall ever be provided public schooling without written consent from a count.
— Unified Codex of Kormar Law, Volume 4
“Worst trip ever,” muttered Kanéko under her breath. In front of her, Maris’s ears perked up and Kanéko tensed with the realization that even the smallest of sounds caught the dalpre’s attention.
Maris started to turn around but stopped when a butterfly flew past her. Her ears flattened and she lunged for the insect. The butterfly escaped, and Maris squealed as she jumped off the animal trail chase it.
Kanéko let out a sigh of relief. The anger she felt at Maris from their first encounter still colored her thoughts. But the dalpre fought to save her, and she still remembered when Maris gave her the Maiden Root at the inn. Kanéko didn’t understand the dalpre at all, and she was afraid of insulting or upsetting the girl.
Maris came back to the trail, and Kanéko averted her eyes to look at Ruben instead. To Kanéko, Ruben was as alien as Maris, but he surprised Kanéko by steadily leading them around the village. Even with short legs, he seemed inexhaustible in stamina and adept at moving smoothly along the rough terrain. His movements seemed more in tune with nature than Kanéko had imagined possible. She never saw him slap at insects buzzing around them or struggling with the roots that buckled the ground. He managed to slip through the brush and vines without even a scratch, whereas Kanéko tore her clothes every time they switched game trails. Shared rubbed her cuts and glared at the boy, wishing that he would break a leg or even just get a cut somewhere. At least then he would look like Maris and herself.
Ruben stopped and turned to her. His bright blue eyes stared directly at her and she blushed without realizing why.
Between them, Maris came to a halt. She followed Ruben’s gaze and her ears twisted. “What?”
Ruben smirked then turned to look at Maris. He spoke in a soft whisper. “Nothing, just thought I heard someone bitter.”
“There is a bunch of boars in the next valley over,” Maris supplied helpfully and pointed to the east. “But I think they are fighting.”
Kanéko scanned the hills, trying to find sign of the boars or anything Maris claimed she saw. On the very edge of her hearing, she thought she heard grunting but it faded after a second. “How… I mean, how do you know that?”
Maris beamed and pointed to her nose. “I can smell them around here.” She then pointed to her ears. “And I can hear the grunting.”
The desert girl glanced back to the rocky ridge. “How are you sure it is boars?”
“Because we are near the Boar Hunt Inn.” Maris giggled. “And they had a map in the great hall that said there were sounders around here.”
Kanéko frowned. “Sounders?”
“Packs of boars.”
“I didn’t know—” Kanéko found she didn’t like Maris knowing more than herself. More and more, she felt helpless around the two others.
“It was written on the map.”
Kanéko gave her a hard look before grunting. “Should have stopped before you told me that. I would have thought you were smart or something.”
A hurt look plastered itself on Maris’s face. “But, I am smart!”
“What, because you can read a map?”
Maris balled her hands into fists. “Yes, I can read. And it isn’t like all dalpre are il… illi… illiterate. At least I,” she spat out the word, “don’t get lost in the woods like a pup! Wandering around because some boy tried to kidnap you!”
Kanéko opened her mouth to snap back. But, Maris’s words struck deep and she closed her mouth. Her anger quickly faded. Instead of speaking, she shrugged in sheepish agreement.
Ruben walked up to Maris and put a hand on the dog girl’s hip. Maris’s tail stopped moving and she turned toward Ruben. For a heartbeat, she looked back up at Kanéko with her hurt look before talking to the other teenager. “I’m smart, right?”
Ruben grinned. “There are different types of smarts. I would wager that if we find a mechanical device, Kanéko Lurkuklan would be able to discern its function long before you could figure out how to remove it from its container.”
Kanéko smirked, but Ruben wasn’t done.
“But in the woods, I think you are far more capable of surviving than her…”
It was Maris’s turn to give Kanéko a self-righteous grin.
”… but then again, my knowledge exceeds both of yours combined.”
Both Kanéko’s and Maris’s faces fell. They looked at each other, and then at the smiling boy. Ruben shrugged, and then pointed to the rocky ridge. “Please remain at this location for four minutes, twelve seconds. This trail is curving east, the terrain has changed since my memories, and I require a bearing.”
Kanéko found a rock to sit on. Fingers of blue-green moss covered the top and she used it as a pad for her aching rear. As she settled down, the delicate smells of flowers and dirt drifted up to her. She watched as Ruben turned off the trail and started to climb the side of the valley.
Across from her, Maris sat down heavily and pouted. “And I don’t like you.”
Kanéko focused on the dog girl. Maris’s anger was mercurial, and it didn’t seem worth the effort to get upset. “Okay.”
“You are mean and rude, and you insult me.”
“I heard you calling me bitch, idiot, and moron when you were talking to me.”
Kanéko’s mouth opened. She had changed languages when she was insulting Maris less than an hour before, somehow the dalpre knew the words. “And you understand those? Those are Miwāfu words.”
Maris nodded, but continued to glare at her.
“Where? Um, how?”
Maris scratched her nose. “Ruben is teaching me. I don’t know everything, but Garèo always said if you don’t understand something, learn it before you hit it. Because just hitting things gets you in more trouble.” Her ears came down. “At least that is what Garèo keeps telling me when I get in trouble. And I get in trouble a lot.”
Kanéko stared at her in shock. Besides her mother and Garèo, no one else spoke the desert language. “You started learning Miwāfu on this trip? In the last few days?”
Maris’s ears pressed to her skull, and she flinched at Kanéko’s sharp tone, but she nodded again. “I’m trying.”
Kanéko worried her lip for a moment. “How much do you know?”
Maris perked up. She struggled for a moment before she carefully said, “o i noshìma a kīchi midòni.”
Kanéko giggled. She could understand Maris’s words, but just like Kanéko only a few months ago, Maris missed some accents. With Miwāfu, a missing accent changed the word entirely. “The words understands the smell?”
“What?” Maris whimpered, “I didn’t say that.”
“You probably meant ‘a hichi midòni’ which means ‘some words’.”
“And, that’s the part I don’t get. And why all the funny sounding letters. You have four words for horse that all sound the same.”
Kanéko grinned and leaned back. “There is only one word for horse, heru. The rest tell you what type of horse. We use ‘héru’ for mare and ‘hèru’ for stall—”
“And,” Maris interrupted her, “I get that. But, they are really close to each other. I get confused if you mean mare or stallion. And then you add all those words together. I know that ‘king’ is ’tonùfi’ and ‘horse king’ is ‘heru tonùfi’. But I don’t know what a horse king is, but it’s important to Garèo because I hear him talking about it. Well, if it was a male because the word hangs down.”
Kanéko hesitated because she saw Maris in a slightly different light. For someone who didn’t know any words of Miwāfu a week before, she had picked up some of the complexities quickly.
Maris spoke up, “Kanéko?”
“Sorry,” Kanéko drew her thoughts back, “You’re right. Females have rising or mountain accents, males have falling or valley. Children accents rise and fall, a ridge accent, because they act like both at different times.”
Maris smiled, and her tail wagged happily. “Thank you. That makes more sense. Ruben knows the words, but he can’t really explain them. He memorizes. But he doesn’t understand what he knows. And he’s like a talking book.”
Kanéko struggled with a response. She wanted to thank Maris for saving her, but her pride refused to let the words come out. She decided to change topics. “Why did you start coming to class?”
Maris bounced on her rock for a moment. “Your father said I could.”
“Why not, um, why not everyone else?”
“You mean at the mill? Or the rest of the pack?”
Kanéko said, “You’re the only one at the mill who comes to school, right?”
Maris toyed with her skirt. “You remember that drought four years ago?”
“Well, the people in the bartim were having trouble paying your daddy’s taxes so he could pay taxes to the count. And my daddy had a really good year since we got rights to this hardwood grove that sold well up in the north… sorry, well, my daddy had some extra money so he offered to pay your daddy extra taxes for a few years to make sure your daddy could pay the count his money. And naturally, your daddy said he had to do something for my daddy so your daddy gave my daddy a, um, a boon.”
It took a moment for Kanéko to parse Maris’s sentences. She frowned as she thought back to the drought. She remembered her father struggling with the taxes; actually she recalled the screaming fights about money. When he stopped yelling, Kanéko had forgotten about it. She never even thought that the Salcid or the mill would factor into that silence.
“And that is why you started school?”
“Yep!” beamed the dalpre, “I’m the first at the mill to ever go to school. And I’m the only other one that understands numbers like daddy. But, that was before the school.”
“Salcid never went?”
“No, my daddy taught himself. And he has trouble with bigger numbers, like over a thousand. That was because he grew up a slave and they didn’t teach dalpre numbers.”
Kanéko continued to struggle with the concept. “But, if your papa paid that many taxes, couldn’t he ask for a lot more than just sending you to school?”
Maris nodded. “I think so. But, if my daddy asked for too much, and then he would be hurting your daddy. So, he asked for the one thing he thought was important… me being smarter. And your daddy had to ask the count for permission too, so that ended up being really expensive, but not with money.”
She frowned, “And I don’t really understand that. And, the count said only one of us could go because he don’t like us.” Her ears pressed against her head again, “Everyone was so smart when I got there. And they pushed me around and were mean and nasty and rude. And they called me an idiot. And I don’t like them.”
“This was before Ruben?”
Maris’s tail began to wag again. “I met Ruben a long time ago, when I was six and he was, um, eight. Right after they moved into the area, and his daddy started working for your daddy. When Tagon, that’s Ruben’s daddy, found out I was going to school, he asked Ruben to tutor me because I was… not smart.”
“Because you never went to school before that?”
“Yeah,” pouted Maris, “so I had to work really hard to catch up to the others at school. Daddy let me skip cutting days and Mommy said I didn’t have to cook so I could study with Ruben. Bor didn’t like it, but daddy told he had to stop grumbling. And, I still don’t get everything, but I try so hard.”
“You—” Ruben whispered suddenly from Kanéko’s side.
Kanéko jumped and lashed out.
He leaned to the side, and she missed. There was a sly look on her face. “—have acceptable progress in adapting quickly.”
Blushing, Kanéko lowered her hand even though she missed him. She looked away as she sat back down on the rock. A sharp edge dug into her backside and she shifted slightly to find a more comfortable spot.
Maris grinned. “Thank you, Rub.”
Ruben studied Kanéko’s face for a moment. Then he grinned broadly. “You resemble someone who has realized a lot more happens in the world than you see from your bedroom window.”
She blushed. With one finger, she scraped at the dirt-stained bandages over her palms.
Maris spoke up in the silence that followed. Her tail thumped against the ground. “I’m hungry. Are we leaving now?”
Ruben grunted and pointed to the west side of the valley. “I think we should climb that ridge. If we cut through the next valley, we can use the following ridge to walk almost the entire way to our destination.”
Kanéko looked at the rough rocks and steep cliffs. “That looks like a hard climb.”
“The next one is difficult, but there are trails along the peak that will alleviate much of the further discomfort. I can get us to the easier places to climb, but it will still be strenuous.”
Kanéko looked at the gently sloping valley they sat in. “How much longer is the long way?”
“A day, maybe two. And it puts us through the territory of at least some territorial boars. Unfortunately, there are no really good ways to avoid climbing and still make reasonable time. I don’t think I can find enough food to feed all three of us for long. I’m… not good at finding meat, and we’ll lose a lot of time if I have to forage.”
Maris said, “Rub and his daddy won’t kill animals. Because it hurts them in the head.”
“Oh,” sighed Kanéko. She looked down at her lacerated palms and felt the aches and pains in her body. Lifting her gaze up, she regarded the rocky edge of the hill.
Ruben said in his soft whisper, “I don’t know how to avoid it. I’m sorry, Kanéko Lurkuklan, I tried to find a better way.”
Kanéko grunted as she stood up. “Better get it over with.”
Maris whimpered. “What about your hands? Don’t they hurt? Won’t you fall?”
Kanéko really didn’t want to climb, but she didn’t have much of a choice. She favored Maris with a smile she didn’t quite feel. “I’ll heal.”