Chapter 28: Change of Clothes

The play continues even when you are not on stage. Your secrets may be laid bare when you have no chance to distract or speak for yourself. — The Invisible Blade, Act II

Kanéko woke with Damagar’s and Ruben’s thoughts still in her mind. They echoed repeatedly through her dreams, one after the other but never at the same time. They were quieting, but not fast enough to stave off a pulsating headache that throbbed in the back of her head.

It was morning, too early for the sun to be up and too late to pretend it was still night. She stared at the cloudy sky and listened to the rain splashing on the ground next to her. Their shelter, a makeshift canopy crafted from a few trees, large leaves, and tied with one of Cobin’s trousers, had kept them mostly dry through the night, but the humidity had plastered her clothes to her body.

Kanéko yawned. She tried rolling over but her bladder and the moisture made it impossible to get comfortable and sleep again. With a groan, she pushed herself up into a sitting position.

The other two were still sleeping, wrapped around each other with Ruben’s head buried between Maris’s breasts. She had completely curled around his smaller body, her tail thumping lightly on his back.

Amused, Kanéko crawled out of the canopy and hurried down an animal path to relieve herself. She struggled with her stolen clothes—Cobin was large, and there was too much fabric in the way. She made it in time, but the effort to redress herself was just as difficult.

She took her time to return to their shelter. The water against her face felt good and helped clear the echoing thoughts from her head. By the time she returned, the rain had soaked into her clothes and bore down on her like fishing weights.

Kanéko stood near the canopy, water streaming down her face. She looked at her stained and ripped clothes and then to the bag she had stolen. Cobin was much larger than her, none of his clothes would fit unless she used his knife to cut them down. Reaching in, she grabbed the bag and walked a distance away to a relatively dry spot so she could adjust her clothes in privacy.

It took her a while to finish. She had never done it before, and her cuts were ragged. She would have been embarrassed to be seen in them but she doubted that either Maris or Ruben would care. Standing up, she dressed in her outfit and inspected the results.

His shirt still hung off her shoulders, but the arms were cut down close to her shoulder. It was the only way to remove the black band that identified Corbin as part of the mercenary group. She also cut the bottom of the shirt but accidentally cut too high and her outfit exposed her darker skin and her belly button. She considered trying again but she didn’t have many other shirts to experiment with.

She had better luck with his pants, cutting the bottoms off them and cinching them with a rope. There was enough material to redo the bandages around her feet and give herself more padding for the long walk ahead.

Kanéko wished she had some color to add to the outfit but the only bright cloth in the bag was his underwear which she refused to touch. She didn’t want to get rid of it either, just in case it became useful. She gathered up the larger remains of her attempts at alteration and jammed them back into the bag.

Her fingers brushed against the leather wallet inside the pack. She had forgotten about it. Pulling it out, she returned to the camp and sat underneath the shelter to avoid the rain. She glanced over to Ruben and Maris and then smirked; Maris was licking his ear in her sleep. Her tail and one leg twitched with her dreams. Kanéko shook her head with amusement and returned her attention to the wallet.

Unwrapping the string that held it together, she pulled it open. Papers of all colors greeted her. She found a thick, folded piece of paper and teased it out. Pulling it open, she flipped it over and read her own wanted poster. Fear rose inside her and she stared at a likeness of herself, except for a few streaks where water had soaked the image.

Clenching her jaw tightly, she flipped it over and spotted a sketched map on the back. With a grin, she tilted to get more light and inspected it. The Boar Hunt Inn had been hastily drawn, yet the sketch showed a surprising amount of details. Various villages and roads were all marked in, with people’s named written near them.

Remembering the trip approaching the inn, she recalled various villages they passed and guessed that the mercenaries waited for her at every stopping place for thirty or forty miles in all directions but mostly focusing on the roads heading back to her father’s keep.

She memorized as much as she could about the map before she folded it back up. While the poster terrified her, the map would be useful. She pulled out another piece of paper and whispered to herself as she read it. “To my cousin Cobin, how is darling Sinny? Is he taking care of himself? You know that he gets focused on being a captain and not sleeping enough. Please, make sure he sleeps at least a little at night? And what about the Queen? Is my airship okay? You are taking care of both of them, right? I hope things are going well with your adventures and I wish I was with you and Sinny every day. Love, Las.”

She could only guess that “Sinny” was Sinmak, the captain of the Burning Cloud Queen. He was the bastard whose name was written on the wanted poster, the man offering the reward. She pulled a face and wondered who “Las” was and what type of woman would fall for a bastard like Sinmak.

Kanéko carefully set aside the letter and pulled out the next. More letters from Cobin’s cousin. Each one was signed “Las” instead of giving a more useful name. She found a card dividing the sections of the wallet and replaced the letters to move into the next section. She pulled the first one and read it. It was a report from Cobin, dry and tedious. It was addressed to Las, which surprised her. She would have thought Cobin would have been more formal, but he signed each report with “Cob” which implied a very familiar relationship. She put the report back and flipped through the remaining pages.

She spotted Pahim’s name on one and stopped. Another report from Cobin on Pahim’s hiring. It was mostly positive details about how well he handled orders and his willingness to obey even the more tedious commands. Kanéko snorted with disgust. Pahim might follow orders now, but she knew he would stab anyone in the back, if he could.

Below, there was a comment that interested her. “Sinmak plans on keeping Pahim’s father’s death a secret. Sooner or later, Pahim will find out that Sinmak killed his father. I mean, it was for a good cause since he was a spy, and Sinmak had to test that new sword he picked up in Panzir. Do you have suggestions to manage Pahim? You know how Sinmak is with his new toys.”

Kanéko’s anger for Pahim faded slightly as she read about Pahim’s father. She crumpled the report, not wanting to ever forgive Pahim.

The rest of the reports were dry, just detailing Cobin’s activities, so she skipped to the next section. To her surprise, it wasn’t Lorban lettering that she read but correspondence in Miwāfu.

Her curiosity peaked, she shifted position and struggled through the sweeping letters and unusual symbols. She could read them; she just had to mouth out each word before she could understand it.

With every whispered word, her curiosity grew. They were letters from various members of the Tofugéru clan. Kanéko had never heard of them but that didn’t surprise her. The surprise was they wanted Garèo, her teacher, and they wanted him murdered at all costs.

Kanéko sat up straight and read the sentence again. They wanted Garèo dead. She couldn’t imagine how the brusque desert man could have done anything that would have justified a half million pyābi bounty. She knew that a pyābi was money in the desert but she didn’t know how many crowns it was worth, but that much seemed like a lot.

The terms of his murder were also specific: the clan wanted him killed on a nameless sword or with the dagger she now had strapped to her thigh. She stared at the weapon and wondered why it was important.

“Kan?” Kanéko jumped at Maris’s voice. “What’s that word?” Maris’s breast pressed against Kanéko’s shoulder as she pointed down at the letter.

Kanéko peered at it. "Poronēso? It means kin-killer. Someone who killed their own clan members. One of the worst of all crimes in the desert."

“But, it says Garèo is a poronēso. Did he kill his mommy and daddy?”

Kanéko worried her lip, realizing that Garèo’s past was far darker than she could have ever imagined. “I don’t know, Maris, I don’t know. If my mother knew, then she wouldn’t have let him live. I remembered her telling stories about how killing your own clan was blasphemy in front of all the spirits, how the desert herself demanded their death.”

“And that word,” Maris pointed further down, “that’s the word for horse king, right? Heru tonùfi? It says he’s one of them. But, Garèo isn’t a horse king. Is he?”

Kanéko scanned down the page. She stopped on a familiar name and read the sentence. “No, they want the horse king’s mount… Ojinkomàsu?”

A cold shiver ran down Kanéko’s spine.

“That’s Garèo’s horse, right? He comes by the school some days. And Garèo always chases him off. And he likes carrots and sugar. And having his tail brushed.”

“No,” Kanéko said, her voice trailing off as she read, “Ojinkomàsu is Garèo’s son’s mount. Oh sun, I think Garèo’s son was the horse king.”

“What is a horse king?”

“Um, they are, well… I’m not entirely sure. According to what I was told, Mifúno, that’s the desert, and the sun, Tachìra, bless the greatest of riders with the ability to talk to horses and with a divine companion, a horse born from the desert winds and rays of the sun.”

Maris cocked her head and asked, “He can think to horses? Like Ruben?”

“I think so, but there are no heru tonùfi in the Waryōni clan. Garèo told me that when I was learning. But, um, according to this…” She held up the page. “Ojinkomàsu is one of the sun’s horses, and Garèo’s son is a horse king.”

“Why did Garèo lie to you? And you know what? I’m going to ask him when we get home,” announced Maris.

Kanéko looked up at the dalpre. “I’m not sure that is a good idea. Being a horse king, or even the father of one, would be a point of pride. But, he never talked about it. He doesn’t talk about his family at all. He has to have a reason, right?”

“I guess…” She paused. “And I’m going to ask him anyways.”

Kanéko didn’t respond. She folded the paper and placed it back in the wallet. Closing it, she replaced the tie. A disturbed feeling bothered her as she flipped it over in her hand, and then jammed it into the pack.

“Come on, let’s hunt some breakfast.”