“How are you feeling?” Zolmi asks as he sets down an extra glass of water on the nightstand and takes a seat next to the bed.
I don’t answer until I finish gulping down the first glass. “I don’t feel like hurling my guts out anymore, so that’s a start.” Apparently, the second side effect of Miss Xiou’s strange medicine after the crazy dreams is the need to expel as much from my body as possible, which meant horribly urgent bathroom runs for a full day and night. It wasn’t pretty.
While my stomach has mostly settled and my head is no longer foggy, my leg still throbs with pain, but less frequently and with less intensity. I haven’t dared try to move it, though. It’s barely stable in Zolmi’s makeshift splint, but I can’t even imagine how painful it would be to put weight on it.
“Well, your fever’s gone down,” he says, placing his hand on my forehead. “So it looks like the medicine worked. Miss Xiou told me that those masked hunters cause a fair amount of collateral damage on the people here. Sounds like most households in this town keep this medicine in case someone in the family gets cut. We’re very lucky she decided to share with us.”
“I’ll pay her back…” I trail off as I notice that Zolmi is still holding my forehead.
When I clear my throat, he pulls his hand back and quickly changes the subject. “Let me see your tongue...Hmm, I saw some dark spots a few days ago, but they’re gone now.”
“So observant.” I laugh at his intrigued expression. “You should be a doctor.”
Zolmi smiles. “Funny you should say that. It used to be my dream when I was little. I even got my mother to teach me how to sew so that I could stitch together my own doctor’s coat.”
“What changed your mind? A decade of training?”
He looks away a second too late as his smile slips. “Well, you know. There aren’t any Ithmyan doctors in the inner ring, and I wanted to stay close to my family, especially my sister.”
I don’t know what to say. Eventually, I murmur, “Is that really true?”
Zolmi shrugs. “I don’t know if there really isn’t a single one, but I know that I never saw one growing up. Even my adoptive parents thought I was joking. It didn’t take me long to get the message.” When he realizes how his tone has darkened, he turns to me again, his smile returning, though it’s clearly forced. “Now’s not really the time to talk about such things. We need to discuss our new plan.” He glances down at my leg.
“New plan? There is no new plan. The route I outlined before is still the safest route to Genshulan.”
“That route is almost completely off the road. You won’t last a day of hiking on your injury.”
“You’ll be taking the girls without me.” There really isn’t any other way. They can’t afford to wait around here for my injury to heal, and neither can I, for that matter. If I go with them and slow them down, I’ll just be putting everyone in unnecessary danger. It’s best if we go our separate ways. Zolmi might not be much of a fighter, but if they keep a low profile and stay away from other travelers, they should be alright. “You’ll have to be more careful with rations since you can’t hunt, but--”
“We’re not leaving you behind,” Zolmi says, as if the idea had never even crossed his mind. “Jeyna and I have already decided that’s not an option. Even Nari would be--”
“Don’t be stupid,” I snap. “You said it yourself, I won’t last a day with this leg, and it’s not like we can just jump in a carriage and be on our way! Any Knight or bounty hunter on these roads will know my face. Maybe Jeyna’s now, too.”
“What if we found another smuggler,” Zolmi tries. His optimistic tone exasperates me. “Like the duryon one? If we’re hidden well enough, and we use backroads, it could work.”
I shake my head incredulously. “It’s not possible. To hire a smuggler for the entire trip to Genshulan is out of our budget, for one thing, unless you’re hiding a fortune in your bag. Second, there are too many checkpoints, even if we use the backroads. The Knights will catch us. Trust me, I used to catch runaways as one.”
“But…” Zolmi searches for something more to say, but words elude him.
A knock on the door breaks the silence. The woman who made dumplings in the window before, Miss Xiou, lets herself in with a short bow.
“Please don’t bow,” I say, “I should be the one bowing to you. Your medicine saved me. How should I repay you?”
“No need,” she laughs softly, handing a bundle of clothes to Zolmi. “Nari and Jeyna have been making so much food and cleaning that I can’t accept any more payment. These clothes belonged to Miuma’s father. I think the size should be about right for both of you.”
“You’re too kind.” Zolmi smiles as he runs his fingers through one of the wool sleeves. The garments are almost too nice to accept.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your predicament,” Miss Xiou says slowly. She fetches a small brush and some ink from her nightstand. “Do you have a map?” When Zolmi hands her my map, she carefully unfolds it on the floor. The two of us watch in curious confusion as she paints a new path that leads to the town neighboring Genshulan. “There is a road that some of us who deal with spices use in these parts. Well, calling it a road is being generous, but it’s not impossible to hitch a ride with a spice trader who knows how to navigate the way.”
“Are you certain? I’ve never heard of this.” I frown. That map is one that all Knights are given. I can’t imagine there would be an entire trade route left off.
“It’s an old business secret,” she says with a faint smile. “If one wants to avoid taxes, one will find a way.” She stands up again and hands the map back to Zolmi. “A number of livelihoods are dependent on this hidden road. I trust you won’t announce it to the world.”
“Of course, we won’t,” Zolmi says, glancing at me. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. Just because I was a Knight doesn’t mean I’d rat everybody out to earn a pat on the back from my superiors as soon as I became one again.
Miss Xiou nods. “It’s an unspoken rule to not question anyone’s business on that path, so I don’t think anyone would cause you trouble. I can ask around for anyone willing to take a few hitchhikers.” I take the map from Zolmi and trace along her winding brush stroke. If there truly is a road like this, one that Knights are completely ignorant of, it might actually work. Is it worth taking the risk? In truth, I probably wouldn’t make it very far on my own. With this, I may actually see our deal with Jeyna to completion.
Zolmi clasps her hand. “We are forever in your debt.”
When she smiles back, I can’t help but think of my mother. She used to smile like that, too. “I was barely an adult when I had Miuma, so I empathize with young parents. You two have such a beautiful family, I just had to help.”
“Family? Oh, we’re not--that’s not,” I say until my tongue trips over itself.
“No?” Miss Xiou laughs as she takes her leave. “You could have fooled me.”
“Are you sure you want to go so soon?” Miuma’s gaze is heavy with concern as she twists her braid. “You can stay a few nights longer! I don’t mind sharing my room…”
“We can’t ask you two to keep hiding us. If we’re caught here, who knows what could happen to you,” Jeyna says as she slings her new satchel over her shoulder. She and Zolmi will have to carry as much as they can now that I can barely carry my own weight with the crutch Miss Xiou found for me. Even Nari will have to lug our rations on her back. She doesn’t look too pleased, but she doesn’t complain. I wait at the base of the stairs where Zolmi left me until it’s absolutely time to leave. My dread of accidentally falling onto my broken leg makes me reluctant to even try to hobble anywhere on my own, but my pride doesn’t want to let Zolmi carry me more than necessary.
“Besides,” Miss Xiou says as she tucks another loaf of bread wrapped in banana leaves into Nari’s already overflowing bag, “We don’t know when we’ll find another wagon willing to take four passengers. They have to leave tonight.”
“I know…” Miuma looks away dejectedly until Jeyna pulls her into a hug.
“One day, it’ll be safe enough for me to come back and visit. When that time comes, you can show me that lookout point that you were telling me about,” she says. I can’t help but notice her smile seems bittersweet. I wonder how much she believes herself.
“Okay, our ride is ready to go, and the coast is clear,” Zolmi says as he returns from the road and beckons us outside. Before he can decide to carry me again, I get up with the help of my crutch and prove that I can take care of myself, albeit slowly. Nari follows close behind, half-mimicking me by jumping on one leg and then the other as if we’re playing hopscotch. The cool breeze sifts through my hair as we step outside. The night sky is especially clear, filled with a half moon and winking stars. I say a quick prayer to them in my head. If we escape this town without being caught by Knights or bounty hunters, then it will be because of the night’s protection.
Hopefully, the weather will be kind to us in the coming days, as our ride is nothing more than an open wagon drawn by two horses. The jars of spices and bags of fine silks have been meticulously arranged to make as much room for us as possible. Jeyna climbs inside as Zolmi gives Nari a boost, before lifting me as gently as possible. Even with his greatest care, a jolt of pain races up my leg when he sets me down, but I manage to contain my reaction to a shaky breath.
The spice trader smiles back at us from the driver’s seat at the head of the wagon. She is an older woman with grey-streaked hair who Miss Xiou affectionately calls Auntie, though I doubt they are related by blood. She signs something to Zolmi with her hands, before patting the seat beside her. Zolmi nods and signs back, leaving me twice surprised to see the trader is deaf and that Zolmi knows sign language.
“I’ll sit up front with her so there’s more room for your leg,” he says to me. “Auntie can only take us part of the way before our paths diverge, but she said she’ll help us find another ride before then.”
I nod. It’s more important that we get away from this town discreetly and as soon as possible rather than wait for someone who is both willing to take us and going straight to Genshulan. Nari and Jeyna wave silent goodbyes as the wagon pulls away from the dumpling house. As Miuma waves back, Miss Xiou bows her head and then looks up toward the stars to mouth a prayer of her own to them. She really is too kind.
By daybreak, our wagon has traded the dark streets for the gentle lull of rolling hills. Miss Xiou wasn’t kidding when she said it wouldn’t be much of a road. It’s more of a well-beaten dirt path, with two continuous divots that fit the wheels of the wagon perfectly. It must have taken years of traders riding along this route to have created this into the hillside, but the fortunate result is that it is less work for the horses to pull us along. The soft wind moves the cloudlike grass like waves in a green ocean down the hill. As I watch, I can’t help but pinch myself to make sure this isn’t all some fanciful dream. After being tied up and beaten and left in the dark for almost two days, and then suffering through that hellish fever in Miss Xiou’s room for a week, I can’t believe the four of us are sitting in this wagon, bumping along in this picturesque scene. Maybe I’m still bound and helpless on the floor of those bounty hunter’s hideout, and this time the drugs they gave me allow for pleasant dreams.
No, if this was a dream, then my leg wouldn’t punish me like it does every time our wagon hits a stray rock. I’m truly lucky enough to have been rescued from that place before the Knights could have my head. Lucky that Zolmi had the sense to return to the dumpling house to ask for help with Nari that day, and that Jeyna was able to find them there, too. Lucky that they were able to find me with Miuma’s help. Apparently, Wolf Mask’s hideout isn’t much of a secret one. Most of the town knows to stay away from the hunters’ general territory, or risk being poisoned by them. I’m luckier still that both Jeyna and Zolmi survived their reckless decision to get me, but what worries me is now the Knights will know I’m traveling with a magic user. If we’re caught, it won’t be enough for them to arrest just me, and I can’t protect anyone with this injury.
Because of this, I can’t relax until we are miles away from the town, miles away from anyone else outside of the wagon. By the mid afternoon, we have only been greeted by grazing cows and the occasional, curious deer watching us from afar. While my circling thoughts finally simmer down, Nari grows more restless. Though there clearly isn’t enough room in the wagon to pace around, she gets up and does so anyway, pausing only to watch the bees hover from poppy to poppy whenever we pass a flower patch. Jeyna’s eyes move back and forth with her sister as she sits cross-legged at the end of the wagon, ready to catch Nari if the wagon hits a bump big enough to toss her over. Honestly, I’m more worried she’ll accidentally step on my leg.
“Okay, Nari, why don’t we sit down,” Jeyna tries, but when Nari ignores her, she sighs. “Too bad we’re all out of peaches.”
As Nari becomes more agitated, I’m reminded of her little earthquake display in the bazaar. Was that a rare occurrence or would she be prone to using magic again? How would the spice trader react? I can’t imagine we would kick us off her wagon, but who knows. We were lucky that the chime seller didn’t realize the tremor was Nari’s magic. She must have really wanted that rainbow chime.
“Oh,” I say as the thought comes to me. I reach into my pocket and show Nari my pendant. Once I’ve caught her attention, I angle the gem in the sunlight so that it showers the spice jar closest to us in tiny rainbows. Instantly, Nari stops pacing and moves to sit next to me, her palms open and her wide eyes shifting from teal to bright orange.
Even Jeyna scoots over to get a better look. “Wow,” she murmurs, reaching out to touch it. “It’s like a star that fell from the sky. Is this a real diamond?”
I shake my head. “I doubt it. She wouldn’t have given it to me if it was worth that much.” I still remember the day Lady Koharu placed it around my neck for the first time. The day I was to leave for the beginning of my Knight’s training. There was no telling how long it would be before the two of us crossed paths again, and she wanted to give me something to remember her by. The gem is cut into a four point star encased in an onyx ring, big enough to dazzle anyone, except maybe the Queen herself.
“She?” Zolmi asks, turning around from the driver’s seat upon hearing our conversation.
“My...former employer,” I say.
“Your boss gave you this?” Jeyna asks incredulously. “Were you always paid in gems?”
I laugh. “No, this was a one-time gift. She wasn’t just someone who hired me. She pulled me off the streets and sponsored my schooling. I owe her everything.”
“Wow, you must really look up to this person.” Jeyna smiles.
“She taught me how to stand on my own two feet,” I say, though, as soon as it comes out of my mouth I catch myself in the irony. “That’s why I have to clear my name, so I can be by her side again. But for now, this pendant is all I have left of that life.”
Nari holds her hands up higher impatiently. As I drop the pendant in her hand, Jeyna says, “You know she won’t give that back until she’s lost interest in it, right? That could be days from now.”
“It’s fine, as long as she doesn’t lose it. Better than her tumbling out of the wagon.” Or falling on my broken bone.
The first day passes uneventfully. Once the sun has set, Zolmi lights Auntie’s lantern and offers to drive so she can rest. She gratefully hands him the reigns and curls up against the silks. I hold some of the spice jars in my lap so there’s room for Nari to lie down and rest her head on her sister’s lap. Eventually, Jeyna dozes off against the wagon wall, and Zolmi waves for me to sleep as well, but in all honesty, I’ve slept more than anyone else this past week.
“It didn’t look like restful sleep,” Zolmi laughs.
“True, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was lying around causing trouble for you all. I suppose a thank you is in order.”
He shakes his head. “No...if it weren’t for your quick thinking back then, we would have been in bigger trouble.” His voice is so low I can barely hear him over the crickets hiding in the grass. He’s turned toward the horses, so I can’t see his face. “When we found you, I was so relieved, but...I didn’t realize how hard it would be to see you like that. Jeyna was so angry, she wanted to burn the whole place down, but I stopped her. Though, when I think about how much you must have suffered, I wonder if I should have let her.”
“No, you did the right thing. For her to use her magic at all is no small matter, but to use it for the sole purpose of destruction...that would change her.”
“Still, I can believe those monsters would do that to you. Those drugs, if Miss Xiou hadn’t given us her medicine, they would have surely killed you.” Zolmi’s grip on the reins tightens. I almost feel the need to apologize for his quiet rage, but I know that’s not what he wants to hear. I could tell him that the hunters could have been so much worse, and probably would have if they didn’t need to hand me to the Knights in one piece. Perhaps I should consider it a miracle that I still have all ten fingernails, but Zolmi doesn’t need to hear that, either. I’ve known from the beginning, but his soul really is too gentle for things like this. If possible, I would like to keep it that way, at least until the end of our journey together.
Before I can change the subject, Jeyna jolts forward with a yelp so shrill that I almost drop one of the spice jars. As she struggles to catch her breath, she reaches up to feel her own face and looks down at Nari, who remains unperturbed and sleeps soundly in her lap. Her hand hovers over Nari’s cheek, as if she needs to touch her to be reassured of her presence, but eventually her hand falls back to her side.
“You okay?” I frown. The answer is clear in her spooked, glazed red eyes, but she lies anyway.
I decide not to push it as she readjusts her position and tries to fall back asleep. It takes a while, but eventually she does.
“Ever since you were captured, she’s been having nightmares,” Zolmi says once we’re both sure she’s out. “I think...it must have reminded her of the night they were taken and lost their parents.”
I don’t say anything. There’s nothing I could say that would be an appropriate or satisfying response. What happened to Jeyna and Nari should never happen to anyone, but they’re really just two kids. Not only did they lose their family and their home, but they were kept in that tiny, cramped casket and tied up for who knows how long. They weren’t even given a proper chance to process their parents’ death before they had to worry about their own survival. I at least got to bury my parents. Whoever is responsible for destroying their family truly has no soul.
After a long silence, Zolmi adds, “Are they really going to be okay in Genshulan?”
“Jeyna says there are people there she trusts, and I trust her judgment.”
“Do you? She’s fifteen. Just because we bring them to Genshulan doesn’t mean the Talons won’t find her again.”
“What other choice do we have? We can’t protect them forever. The best thing we can do for them is to go after the Talons ourselves once we deliver them to their new home.”
“Deliver them...They’re not packages, you know.” Zolmi’s voice quivers softly.
“Fine, escort them.” Obviously, I don’t think of the kids as packages or just another job to complete, but if Zolmi is going to nitpick my words instead of giving me a real answer, then I don’t have the energy to refute him. It’s clear that he doesn’t know what he wants or what the right thing to do is, but that’s for him to sort out, not me. Saving the girls for good, and clearing my name, requires more than watching over them. To do both, I have to find out who the Talons are and what they want, as well as how they’ve been able to evade the Knights for so long. It’s best that we separate with the girls at Genshulan, and if Zolmi doesn’t get it by then, I’ll leave him behind, too...As soon as I can walk again, that is.
We travel for the next two days and nights without any hiccups. Nari busies herself by making rainbows with my pendant on the different colored spice jars. Whenever the rainbows strike the sides of the jars at just the right angle that they curve like they would in the sky, Nari flutters her fingers by her cheeks and beams at the rest of us. When she’s not doing that, she plays hand games with Jeyna or Zolmi and hums a song I haven’t heard before. Zolmi and I don’t talk anymore of what comes after we arrive in Genshulan, but the more that I think about how long it will take my leg to heal, the more anxious I become. It will be weeks, maybe months, before I can walk again. How can I defend myself like this? Tracking down the Talons will be impossible.
The truth that I’m struggling to admit to myself is that I probably can’t afford to separate from Zolmi in Genshulan. Maybe I should be trying to get him to like me more, after all. No, the other truth is that I don’t even need to ask. I already know Zolmi won’t abandon me as I am now, a character flaw of his that is as frustrating as it is comforting. His brand of kindness is rare and reckless and worth preserving.
And it is sure to get him killed.
Filipino American student treading the changeable waters of graduate school, neuroscience research, and family dynamics, and thus uses writing and creative fiction as a outlet to get away from all that and to fulfill my emotional projection needs.
-The Venator's Mark: A novel that I have already written to its conclusion, but still needs a round of edits on each chapter before I release them. Thus, I will be posting a chapter or two once a week (still deciding which day to do so!).
-Glass Arrows: This piece is one I started while sheltering-in-place and is most reflective of my current writing style. The idea for it was inspired by a conversation I had with some friends that we would like to read about more characters of diverse backgrounds (i.e. characters that belong to various ethnic , LGBT+, disability, and neurodivergent communities, etc). Because this is still a true WIP, I can't guarantee its release every week, but I will try my best so stay tuned!