After the day’s sessions, Reyan was unsure of what to do with herself. Back in Orloton she might have gone to stand on the rocks and peer into the pond. She might have gone off to throw stones at the standing waves in the river. Most likely she would have spent her time inhaling the pine-pitch breath of her tree.
Deprived of her hometown comforts, she listened in as a stream of individuals and small groups came to avail themselves of the professors’ wisdom. Reyan was fascinated by the breadth and depth of the older professors’ knowledge. She was impressed by how easily they recalled relevant information every time someone brought them a new problem. Parr provided aid and instructions to help care for an infected cut on a girl’s arm. Sevv helped two neighbors come to an agreement about a property line dispute, then helped an old married couple decide how to amicably share the household responsibilities. Though Kavi never got to look at the cooling machine, or rig up a way to harness the river’s power, he was able to fiddle with other technological gadgets and doodads that the people of Rowe had already incorporated into their lives. He made sure to always look for and receive a subtle sideways nod from Sevv before agreeing to each repair.
Once the flood of townsfolk mostly dried up, Reyan grew bored with the professor’s company. She wanted to see what Avalina was up to. She wanted to visit the horses.
She found Avalina in the cool twilight of the stables. She was busy pitching hay and repeatedly blowing an errant strand of hair from her red face. When she saw Reyan watching her, she stuffed the tines of her pitchfork into the pile of hay and leaned her elbow on its handle. She wiped the long strand of hair back, fixing it in place with sweat. “How’s Rowe been treating you?”
“It’s fine. It’s good. Your people seem nice.”
“Do they now?” Avalina looked at her skeptically. “Must be nice traveling with the professors.” She took a deep breath and went back to moving hay.
“I mean, no one’s yelled at me or chased me away or anything like that.”
Between grunts Avalina said, “Sure. But I bet they haven’t. Been friendly. Either. Anyone offer you food? Show you the river? Take you to the tower platform?”
“Someone brought us lunch,” Reyan offered.
“They brought the professors lunch.”
It was true. There were three lunches wrapped in three cloth bundles. While Sevv thanked the boy for bringing the food, Parr divided his portion in two without so much as a word, and Kavi stepped into his truck and got an extra plate for Reyan, laughing and joking as he’d done so. No one had told him to do it, so she hadn’t really thought anything of it at the time. But now that Avalina mentioned it, she remembered the boy’s smile grew wiggly and thin when he saw the food he’d brought for the professors placed before her.
“Do you need any help,” Reyan asked. Avalina looked around for something that needed doing. “With the horses I mean. Anything I can do to help with them?”
Avalina smiled. “No. All done grooming the horses for the day. But a couple more stalls need to be mucked out and have the straw replaced. You want to help with that?” When Reyan didn’t immediately answer, Avalina shrugged, “It’s not as nice as grooming the horses, but it’s something to do, and the sooner I get it done, the sooner I can get out of here.” She smiled, “Then I could walk you down to the river or up to the tower platform.”
At the other end of the stables, they heard an angry voice. The words were fast and muddled and hard to make out aside from the words, “told,” “you,” and “stupid.” There was a slap and a loud groaning protest.
Reyan held as still as a deer and listened.
“That’s just Benj being Benj. Come on. Let’s get done and get out of here.”
Avalina disappeared into a nearby room and returned with a work apron for Reyan. They swept out the old straw and replaced it with fresh straw. They brought in hay and water. It was hard work for Reyan who had never really done anything besides tidying her room, which had almost nothing in it. This work involved moving and sweating and streaks of dirt on her face. She felt clumsy and confused, turning left instead of right, repeatedly bumping into Avalina, or dropping fork-fulls of straw in the aisle rather than the stall. Her arms were shaking after half an hour had passed. Still, she felt strong like a storm cloud opened, or a river undammed.
When they’d finished mucking out the stalls, Avalina let Reyan guide the horses back in. She had been around horses all her life, of course, but this was the first time she ever remembered leading one. All that muscle, all that power, willingly submitting itself to her. It made her feel expansive, calm, and—for some reason—magnanimous.
“Thank you,” Avalina said as they hung the pitch fork, shovel, bucket and broom on the wall. “You want to go see the valley? We should be able to get up to the tower before the sun’s fully set.”
They left through the human-sized door built into the massive sliding barn door. They passed Kurn the stable hand shoveling manure into a pile, and mixing in old straw. His mouth was open and there was a large red splotch on his cheek. He wasn’t crying but was very intent on watching the blade of his shovel slide into the pile.
“Hey Kurn,” Avalina said, “how are you doing.”
He looked up and blinked a few times before his gaping mouth closed and began to twist into a smile. He seemed about to say something when Benj’s mocking voice said, “You slipping off early?”
“No Benj,” Avalina said, snarling but still looking at the ground, “The stalls are mucked out, the horses are back in, fed and watered.”
Benj chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment while he considered this. He looked over at Kurn who had wordlessly returned to his work. “What about helping him out. He’s slow as snot. He could use the help.”
“You help him. I’ve done my day’s tasks.”
“I have more work than anyone here, and I’ve been helping him all day. Now I’m left with a million things to do before the day’s out. Throw your little apron back on and help out Kurn for a while. It’s like your dad always says, ‘the horses don’t care who does the work.’”
“But we already cared for the horses, like I said.”
“Oh did you? You brush them and pet them, and tell them their pretty? I bet that was exhausting?”
Reyan felt his characterization of their work was inaccurate. It had been hard, they’d lifted and shoveled and scrubbed. They bent and strained and sweated. In that whole time, she had seen Benj walk past. She had seen him lean on walls and bark orders, and offer critiques, but she’d not seen him lift or move or repair anything at all.
“You just want me to do your shit work.”
“Like your dad always says, we’re a team, Avi. No one is above any one else in the stables.”
This made Reyan angry. She thought Avalina might be right. He didn’t want everyone to work together as she and Avalina had done, he wanted Avalina to do more work so he wouldn’t have to. And now he was trying to make her feel bad about it. It was unfair. And nothing made her more angry than petty injustice.
Avalina paused a while to thing. Her face expressionless and stony except for a nut sized knot of muscle flexing in her jaw. Finally she spoke, “No. I’m done for the day. We’re leaving.”
Benj stepped up to her close, inches from her face. “Go put your apron back on. Get a shovel and get to work.”
She turn her face away, and looked at the ground, but she still managed, “No.”
For some reason this excited Reyan. She wanted to cheer.
Benj stepped back. He relaxed. He shrugged. “You could always bring it up with your dad. You should. See what he says about it.”
“I think I will.”
Benj’s eyes widened for a brief moment. Then he looked angry. Then he smiled mockingly. “Yeah. I bet you will. I bet you always do. I bet, when you go home at night and eat your nice dinner with your nice family, you complain about how hard you have it here. How mean I am whenever I try to get you to do some work.”
That wasn’t at all what meals were like with the Stablemans. It seemed strange that someone who knew Avalina and her father so well, knew so little about them. It occurred to her that Benj was lying.
“I’ll bet he takes your side. I bet he says, ‘A stableman’s daughter shouldn’t have to work so hard. I’ll get Benj to take up the slack.’ Of course he will. I’d do it. I’d tell my dad if I could. It’s a lot easier than working.”
Reyan took Benj by surprise and went straight for his nose. He fell to the ground the first time Reyan hit him. His hand shot up to his face and came away bloody. He stammered some noise that was part surprise and part indignation. Before he could recover himself Reyan was down on top of him. She pinned his arms beneath her knees and began landing more blows to his cheeks and jaw and the sides of his head.
Her knuckles were hurting, and they were smeared with blood they’d picked up from his bloody nose. She was strong for her age, but still wasn’t very powerful. Not enough to do any real damage. But it felt so good, so right to be punching a bully in the face, she couldn’t help it. The anger and the power came out of her like a scream and she just wanted to keep punching until she was exhausted.
She felt arms wrap around her from behind and lift her away. But she still flailed her dangling legs and managed to get in two kicks to Benj’s ribs as he rolled away whimpering. He was holding a hand over one eye and the other eye looked at Kurn. “Are you just going to stand there, you idiot?” That was exactly what Kurn did. He just stood there watching, softly panting laughter, his mouth hanging wide but still shaped into a smile.
Benj’s insult to Kurn brought on another serge of rage and Reyan tried to pull away from Avalina, clawing and kicking at the air to get to Benj, but Avalina was strong and held her and began dragging her away. “You go tell,” spit Reyan. “You go run to the stableman. You tell him what happened.”
At this point Avalina stepped between Reyan and Benj. She held up her hands and gently placed them on Reyan’s shoulders. Reyan’s attention snapped from Benj to her friend as though the other girl had just appeared out of nowhere. Avalina turned Reyan around and marched her away.
Then something seemed to rise to the surface of Reyan’s mind. The anger and rage subsided. In its place came the overwhelming recognition of what she’d just done. She began to panicked. She was scared of what she had done, of what might be done to her. She wanted to run away. She took a few long strides away from the stables toward…her tree. It was gone and she needed it. Now she was breathing harder.
Avalina caught up to Reyan, stepped in front of her, and bent down to get into her line of sight. Her eyes were wide with surprise but she was smiling. “Are you alright, Rey?”
Reyan held up her hands. They were still balled into fists. She wiped her knuckles on her dress and most the blood came off. Every one of her knuckles was raw and was turning an angry purple color. There was one cut over her right pinkie where she’d hit something hard and sharp, one of Benj’s teeth she guessed. But she opened her hands and closed them again. She flexed them and, though they were certainly aching and stiff, noting was broken. “Yeah. Fine. My hands hurt a bit.”
“Not as much as Benj’s face I bet.” Avalina giggled and put her arm around Reyan’s shoulder. The arm was heavy as a wet rope and tingled her skin skin like it was covered with ants. Reyan shrugged it off. “Sorry,” Avalina said.
“Sometimes I don’t mind. But not now.”
Avalina nodded that she understood.
They made their way to the foot of the wooden stairs at the base of the tower in the town square. They spiraled up and around the tower as they trudged up the stairs. Soon they were higher than the roofs of the houses, then they were above even the taller buildings like the stable and the grain silo. As they curled around she was able to watch the entire town slowly fall away and more of the surrounding area cam into view.
When they finally reached the observation deck that ringed the tower’s belly, they were as high as the tippy-tops of the nearby fir trees. They walked around the deck until they came to an iron ladder which passed through a cage that formed a long tube and went straight up the remainder of the tower. Reyan’s heart sank to look at it. Avalina smiled. “Come on, don’t be a chicken.”
Reyan noted to herself that Avalina had not said, “it’s safe,” or “there’s nothing to worry about,” or even “I’ve climbed this dozens of times.”
Avalina led the way. When she was about ten rungs above Reyan’s head, Reyan followed. Her arms and legs felt like daffodil stalks left out of water. She worried that her hands would lose their strength and simply let go. She decided to mirror the motions of the girl over her head. When Avalina moved a hand, Reyan did like wise. When she moved a foot Reyan did as well. Soon they came to a small platform that stood like an eagle’s nest atop the old tower.
This wasn’t the highest Reyan had ever been—that honor went to a craggy peak she’d climbed near Orloton—but this view was the most she had ever seen all at once.
The stark line of the hardroad described Rowe’s northern border. To the east, the town stopped at the line where the foothills dove beneath the level surface of the plain. The broad lazy river defined Rowe’s southern edge. It was hard to believe that this was the same water that tumbled past Orloton. But as the caravan had traveled down the pass, she had watched the stream incorporate its branches and absorb innumerable tributaries until it became a frantic trapped weasel of a river that only broke free from the sloping confines of the pass here in Rowe. From here, it spread out fat and calm as a snake in the sun. The rest of the town spilled out across the flood plain to the west. In that direction, the streets gave way to trails which gave way to pastures and fields, which vanished into the rising fog of the coming dusk.
She was unaccustomed to seeing anything at so great a distance. She had to will herself into understanding that, what appeared to be mottled moss clinging to a far-away stone, was actually an enormous forested hill, and that the tiny trees that carpeted its slopes were the same as the giants near enough by that she could hear the squabbling of their crows.
The sky, which she had only ever seen as a single blue ribbon with serrated borders of stony ridges and trees, was broad and immense over Rowe. As she struggled to comprehend its immensity, she imagined that she had shrunk down to the size of an ant and was gazing up at the inside skin of a soap bubble. This hallucination only lasted a moment. Her mind adapted quickly to the expanding dimensions of her world. Once it had its bearings, it grew thirsty. It wanted to pull in examine and comprehend everything she could see. Her curiosity unfurled across the plain. Its momentum carried it up and over that distant forested hill and vanished into the world beyond. Reyan drew it all in on a deep breath. She tried to prolong this moment of awe by holding it in until it swelled and thrashed like the captive part of the river and threatened to crack her ribs.
“Pretty, right?” Reyan started. So much of her understanding of the world was suddenly changed, she was surprised to find anything in all this vastness could be so near to her. She couldn’t find words so she made a weak affirmative grunt. Avalina leaned against the rail. “All the same, I plan to leave Rowe the moment I can, see what’s past the lonely hill.” She turned and smiled slyly at Reyan. “Maybe I’ll hop on the back of a professor’s truck and follow you to Seal Tooth.”
After a few moments of silently contemplating the view, Avalina seemed to conclude some internal conversation. “Come on. It’ll be dinner time soon.”
Reyan didn’t want to leave. The sun was inching closer to the horizon. She thought it would land just to the right of the lonely hill and she felt certain something amazing would happen when it did. But Avalina tugged on her sleeve and headed back toward the ladder. Reyan managed to turn away and reluctantly followed.
They stopped by the caravan before heading to Avalina’s house. The last of the townsfolk had gone, and they found Sevv tidying up around his truck.
“Good evening Reyankaiya. Ms. Stableman. What are you plans for tonight.”
Reyan didn’t have any idea what any plans there were to be made. Avalina spoke for her, “Good evening Professor. Reyan and I were just headed back to my house to clean up before dinner.”
Sevv turned to Reyan. “Were you planning on eating with us? We’ve been invited to dine with Keeper Shalynn. If you’re coming we will need to let the keeper know.”
Reyan let slip, “Will that acolyte be there?”
“I’m sure she will be. I thought I detected a certain camaraderie between you two.” Sevv smiled. Reyan felt cornered. The last thing in the world she wanted was to spend an evening at another young persons’ table with Tamura. She was trying to find a good way to say as much when Sevv asked, “Ms. Stableman shall I tell them you’ll be joining as well?”
When Reyan looked at Avalina, she found her friend studying Reyan sideways through half-closed eyes. It was a measuring look, a judging look. She smiled and said, “I would love to, if you don’t think it would be too much trouble, Professor.”
Sevv managed to reshape his surprised expression into delight. “I’m sure they would love to have both of you.”
“That’s wonderful,” Avalina said. She grabbed Reyan’s hand, “Come on, let’s get ready.”
As they walked across the square, Reyan said, “I bet the keepers don’t really want us to come.”
“Of course not. They certainly don’t what me to come. Professor Sevv figured I knew that. He didn’t expect me accept. But there’s no way I’m leaving you alone with Tamura. She’s awful. And since there’s no graceful way for the professor to uninvite me, and there’s no way Keeper Shalynn would say no to a professor, it will all work out. Mom will be happy. She’ll think I’m finally trying to move up in the world.”
Reyan felt unsure, like Avalina was setting up trip lines and traps instead of dinner plans, but the girl seemed to be enjoying herself and Reyan decided to trust her.
Avalina had been right, her mother was very excited to hear that the keeper had invited her daughter to dinner. Neither Avalina nor Reyan corrected her mother’s misconceptions of how the invitation had come about. The woman ran around pulling various dresses from Avalina’s closet and holding them up against her daughter while the girl calmly brushed the tangles out of her damp hair. The woman fluttered her right hand at Reyan and said, “Try the green dress. The green dress.”
When the girls were clothed and brushed, Mrs. Stableman stood the two girls next to each other and looked them up and down. She bit her lower lip when her eyes got to Reyan’s old boots. She dove back into the closet and came back out with a pair of soft brown ankle high shoes. They had wads of old clothe stuffed into them and they were dull with dust. She smiled down at them pulled out the wadding and used it to brush away the dust. “Here. Try these.”
The shoes were the right length and yet they didn’t feel right. They were loose around the wide part of Reyan’s feet, and tight in the heel, and the soles had been worn down by someone else’s steps. Still, they were the nicest things Reyan had ever put on her feet. Mrs. Stableman wet a rag and made a final pass over Reyan’s face, stretching out a cheek as she tried to rub away some speck of dirt that was probably a mole or freckle. Then she stood back and admired the girls. She sighed, “That’ll have to do,” but she smiled when she said it.