“Where you going Reyankaiya?” Tom’s familiar eager voice hurried along behind her trying to keep up.
“Away,” she said over her shoulder not slowing down. She knew it would be more kind to let the boy catch up and walk beside her, but she couldn’t bring herself to slow her pace.
“Away from the house? Away from the town?” She didn’t clarify. “Why are you doing that?” Tom could be exhausting. He was young and silly and needy. But he was also curious and nonjudgmental. Now that Rolf was gone, Tom was the only person in all Orloton who was at all interested in her.
He jogged up beside her and struggled to match his smaller strides to hers. She felt bad making him work so hard to keep up, so she relented and slowed. Tom smiled gratefully and took a deep breath. She said, “Rolf died yesterday.”
“Yeah,” Tom spoke slowly, his head turned down toward the ground.
“Today will be his last day. Today, they’ll share his gift.”
The boy grew excited and interested. “That doesn’t sounds so bad.”
“’Gift’ means they’re going to take some of his blood, do whatever they do to it, and then give it to everyone.” She stopped and turned to face Tom. “Look here.” She rolled up her sleeve to show three raised and neatly spaced scars on her right arm. “Those were just a couple of babies and an old lady. As a member of the leader’s household I had to partake. But this is Rolf’s last day, and Lyssa’s in charge. Plus, you see the professors roll into town? Now Lyssa has something to prove. The whole town will take the gift. She’s got the butcher sharpening the big knives as we speak. I’m not sticking around for that.”
She couldn’t help enjoying the way Tom’s eyes grew wide. Tom was fun that way. “But you can’t just skip Rolf’s last day. Aren’t you worried about The Eye?”
“I’m not hurting anyone. The Eye won’t care.”
Tom considered this for a moment. “So, what are you gonna do then?”
She shrugged. “Hide until it’s over.”
“Where?” The boy sounded panicked and desperate.
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be hiding.”
“Can I hide with you,” he pleaded.
She wished she could take the boy with her, but nothing was ever as simple as giving into the whims of the moment. She knew he would pay for that moment of avoided pain. If he hid through Rolf’s last day, he would be forever associated with selfishness, cowardice, and—worst of all—Reyankaiya Estermet. His interest in her already earned him the smirks and the teasing whispers of his friends. A sin of this magnitude would brand him forever. And it wouldn’t just be the children. Any parent would be ashamed of a child who would hide like a frightened bird. Like she did. The knowledge that there are those among them—not just that idiot Kaiya—who would refuse to mourn a beloved leader would fray the waft and weave of the social fabric Rolf had worked so hard to strengthen. What sort of leaders would such a town produce? Selfish, cowardly, necessarily factional. And if communities sent forth fearful selfish partisan representatives to potlatch, the world would return to chaos and war.
Reyan put all these considerations and concerns on the broad scale of her mind and did what she felt was best. She said, “But what about The Eye, Tom?” The boy’s face flushed. She felt bad teasing him.
“Besides, you’ll give me away.”
“But I don’t want to get poked or stabbed or cut!” The bottom rim of his eyes were beginning to wobble and glisten.
“I don’t blame you.” She heard Tom sniffle and knew it was the beginning of a full-fledged panic cry. She knew how he felt. She wished she could help. “Come on. Don’t listen to me. Don’t be scared like me. I would take the gift if I could.” She stopped and turned back to face the town and he stood beside her.
“Go home,” she said.
He took a few tentative steps then turned to look back at her. “Go home,” she repeated. He began to slowly walk up the hardroad into town. She called after him, “If you do decide to hide out, don’t tell anyone I told you to, because I didn’t.”
Reyan crouched through a gap in the green cloud of branches and pine needles and stepped into the waiting arms of her tree. Under the cover of the boughs, it was dark and dry and still. The air was laced with the dusty smell of rotted wood and the sharp turpentine taste of pitch. She climbed the smoothed branches until she was a dozen feet above the ground. From where she was perched, she could see Tom through a break in the needles. He had stopped again and was standing still and looking down the hardroad from town. He wiped his nose on his sleeve then turned back toward town to face his fate.
That was the other thing Reyan liked about Tom, he was a brave little guy.
A half hour or so after Tom had returned to the village she heard the panicked cries of children. She replayed her past memories of the stone-faced butcher walking down the line of their outstretched arms making small cuts on each. Then the keeper putting a drop of gift into each tiny wound. The adults made no sound as a show of respect. The older children stayed silent to prove that they were adults.
The cuts didn’t really hurt. The butcher kept his knives so sharp he could slice through a fly in midair. Nor was it the site of her own blood that bothered her, she’d certainly seen enough of that in her life. It was the anticipation she couldn’t stand. Watching a kid down the line get a slit, and then the next, then the next. Watching them wince and cry out one after the other until finally the butcher came to her. She had been told many times to just keep her eyes and mouth shut, but that just made it worse. She could feel the tension in the air like the heat of an approaching flame, but couldn’t tell when she’d be burned. She felt certain it was now, then now, then now…And each time she misjudged the moment, her terror grew.
No. Hiding was all there was for it. Still, she should have been there for Rolf’s last day. She understood that sheltering her was part of the town leader’s role, but Rolf never let Reyan feel she was a burden. But his gift was more than she could endure.
Within twenty minutes, the cries had stopped and the town grew silent. But goats needed to be milked, chickens fed, and things had to be moved about from place to place. So, within the hour, the normal sounds of life began to furtively creep out from Orloton’s houses and shops. Normal children, with their maddeningly brief memory for fear and trauma, commenced running and playing.
Reyan climbed down from her tree and headed back to Lyssa’s house. When she slipped silently through the front door, the great room was arranged just as it had been the night before. Lyssa was in her chair near the fireplace. Leonid, the town’s keeper, was standing stiffly beside her. He held his straw hat to his chest with his left hand, and his right rested on Lyssa’s back.
Everyone was silent, their eyes cast down toward the void in the middle of the room where Rolf had lain. It felt as though he had been lying there so long that the sun had faded everything around him leaving the shape of his shadow imprinted on the floor.
The professors were also missing, being masters of manners and good grace, they must have decided to leave the locals to their grief.
Reyan stepped cautiously into the room. “Leader…” Reyan had to concentrate on her lips and tongue and force her jaw to form the word correctly and cast it in Lyssa’s direction. It came out slow and mousy.
Lyssa’s head snapped up. Her wet bleary eyes were suddenly acute and dangerous. Reyan felt she was staring down the points of porcupine quills. The girl looked down at the ground. “Leader. Lyssa. I’m sorry.”
Not wishing to bear witness to what was to come, the remaining guests quickly exited the room. They bobbed their heads in quick awkward goodbyes, leaving only Reyan, Lyssa, and Leonid standing at her side like a sycophantic courtier or jester.
In the empty great room, Lyssa no longer seemed like a pitiable widow exhausted and slumped in a chair. Now she seemed like a tyrannical queen gathered on her throne or like a storm brewing atop a mountain. “You’re sorry?” Lyssa scoffed. “I don’t think you know what the word means.”
Lyssa was wrong of course. It wasn’t that Reyan didn’t understand the word “sorry”, but that it meant so many things, each of which she felt deeply. “I meant it in different ways. I’m sad that he’s gone. I’m sad that you lost your husband, and Orloton lost our leader.” And I lost my benefactor, she thought but did not say. “Also, I regret that I was gone.” She wished she had been here to bury Rolf and help sing the drop of Rolf’s kind and generous soul back to the Great Gray Sea. And “sorry” also meant shame. She was ashamed that the thought of Rolf’s gift had filled her head with a rushing noise and a feeling like drowning. And she was ashamed that it had been her own cowardice that had brought about all these various sorts of sorrows.
Lyssa for her part reflected none of Reyan’s sorrows back at her. If anything, she honed her quill-tipped eyes to even finer points. “And where were you all day while you perfected this show of sorrow? In that tree of yours by the look of you. Off playing squirrel while the entire rest of the town showed their love and paid their respects to their leader, my husband, and your benefactor.
A wind began to blow outside. Not a strong wind, nothing anyone else would have even noticed. But it set a tree branch to moving against one of the front windows. Reyan stopped crying and listened to the tick of it.
“You have always been spoiled and ungrateful,” Lyssa hissed. “Always underfoot, always out of control, always demanding his attention, then running away in a panic when you received too much of it. Nothing was ever right for you. You came into our home and sapped all the joy from our final years together.”
Reyan kept her face turned to Lyssa to show that she was still paying attention, but her eyes turned up and toward the window as though watching the part of her mind that was keeping track of the branch’s ticking.
“You will never have the chance to make it up to him, or to Orloton. You’ll never be able to make it up to me. Rolf had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. He did his duty by you as far as that goes, but I feel no compulsion to keep up that pretense.” A snarl warped her face, then slowly flattened into cruel indifference. “Keeper,” she said flatly.
Leonid’s head snapped to look at her, obviously not expecting to be addressed. He brought his other hand to the brim of the hat he held to his chest and stepped before her. “Yes Leader?”
The twig was tapping out a rhythm. That meant that the breeze was steady and there was a perfect balance between the pressure of the wind and the tension in the limb so that it recoiled just after contacting the glass…
“I am no longer able to adequately provide for the child, Reyankaiya Estermet.”
Reyan’s attention snapped away from the twig, as she heard Leonid stammer, “But…But…Fear the Eye, Leader. Are you sure?” He asked weakly. Leonid understood what Lyssa’s words meant. He’d heard them before. So had Reyan. They meant change.
An idea came to her. “I’m older now. I get to have a say this time.”
“She’s right,” Leonid whispered as though speaking to himself.
Lyssa’s face shifted through several annoyed shapes on its way to a beatific smile. “Yes. Of course. And what would you like to happen?”
She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want a specific outcome, she wanted choice. She struggled to get control of herself. She began thinking about what the possible outcomes might be. Lyssa wanted to be rid of her, that much was clear. But where would she go? Who could care for her? What other option was there? If Lyssa kept her, she would have to live for several more years in this house drinking and bathing from the woman’s bottomless well of disdain. Or…Or what? What other choice was there? The branching limbs of her possible future histories vanished into a black uncertainty. She faltered. She was silent.
“Noted,” Lyssa said coldly.
Reyan wailed with inarticulate frustration. She turned to flee the room determined to hide in her loft or return to her tree. But before she could leave, Lyssa stopped her. “Kaiya. Stay where you are.”
Sobbing, Reyan froze.
The keeper stuttered, “Leader, perhaps I should retrieve the professors.”
Lyssa stared at Leonid, the buds of several disdainful expressions threatened to bloom across her face, but she managed not to speak until she had nipped them. She blinked twice and said, “Go and get them then. This will effect them too.”
The frazzled keeper stepped past Reyan and out of the front door, putting on his hat as he went.
Once they were alone, Lyssa said conversationally. “Does this seem cruel, Kaiya? Is it painful for you? I think it’s best. When you’ve had some time to think it over, you will see I’m right.”
Reyan’s lips quivered as she fought to control her contorting mouth, and her whole body was heaving with the effort to contain her sobs. Her mind was flailing, grasping, like trying to snatch leaves from the air in an autumn storm.
Leonid returned with the three professors in tow. Sevv led the way. The keeper’s urgent request for assistance must have taken the professors by surprise. Most of Sevv, the lead professor’s, thin gray hair was floating around his head at odd angles. Though he was not actively scowling, his face seemed to settle into that expression when left to its own devices. He was wiping his hands on his robe as though drying them.
Parr had not bothered to tie back his hair. It framed his face so that he appeared to be peeking out from behind a pair of black curtains.
The novice, Kavianhar, just looked unsure of what to do.
“We’ve come to be of service. What seems to be the issue,” Sevv asked.
Leonid gestured stiffly to Lyssa. “Our new leader, has just asserted that she cannot care for her ward, Reyankaiya.”
The professor looked grave. “Is that so, Leader?”
Lyssa frowned and looked sadly down at her hands. “It is.”
Sevv blinked rapidly for a few seconds. “Could you help us understand why?”
“Reyankaiya is a wonderful child,” Lyssa answered, the lie syrupy and cloying, “but she’s not like other children. She can be difficult to predict, and if you miscalculate, her reactions can be hard to manage. It is beyond my abilities—or anyone in the town’s ability—to comprehend. Leader Rolf had a way with her, but I do not possess his gifts of patience and tolerance. Nor do I share his fascination with the peculiar workings of the girl’s mind. I do not believe I am well-suited to care for her. Especially in my current state of grief.”
“We are truly sorry for your loss, Leader. The burdens of leadership were thrust upon you tragically and unexpectedly. But the hardships are temporary. Within a few weeks, your keeper will draw up a selection matrix and Orloton will choose a permanent leader. Once that happens, the girl will become the new leader’s ward. Wouldn’t it be best for the child if you could continue to care for her until then?”
Lyssa’s eyes narrowed and she smiled as though someone had just whispered the cunning answer to a problem into her ear. “Who’s to say I won’t be that new leader?”
Sevv’s head made a subtle jerk of surprise. “But you just admitted that the most solemn responsibilities of leadership are too burdensome.”
“Well…yes. You have just stated quite clearly that you are not willing to support…”
“Am not able to support,” she corrected.
Sevv stuttered as he recovered from the interruption. “Leader, if you hope to be selected for the role permanently, it is all the more important that you show your ability to persevere in the interim.” He chuckled uncomfortably. “By declaring that you are overburdened by a single ward, you demonstrate that you do not possess a leader’s qualities.”
“You think so,” she asked casually.
“Well,” he huffed, “it certainly will not help you in the preliminary scoring.”
As Sevv and Lyssa talked, the old professor continued to grow more flustered. Parr’s face, by contrast remained calm, his eyes fixed on Lyssa. She looked up and seemed to notice him for the first time. She looked away. “Of course, as professors, you are the authorities on these matters, but my understanding is that the scoring reaches across many dimensions and weighting can vary greatly by context. Keeper Leonid tells me that it can be difficult to know the impact of any single consideration before the final calculations are run. Which would be the greater strike against me? A lack of strength in a single dimension of leadership, or a willingness to pass my burdens on to my successor unaddressed? I don’t pretend to know.”
Lyssa turned a wicked smile to Reyan, then waved her hand in a theatrical dismissal of Sevv’s concerns. “But honestly, my future role is not important. My chief concern is the girl’s wellbeing. You professors wouldn’t understand, you’re so rarely here, but I have known Kaiya for all of her short tragic life. I was there on the sorry day she became Rolf’s ward. And now I am forced to make a similar choice. It pains me. But the girl,” Lyssa couldn’t be bothered to lift a hand, instead, she pointed to Reyan with her chin, “has needs which are greater than I, or any leader but Rolf, could fulfill. I am willing to risk my score to give the girl a better life. In the end, perhaps that will prove decisive in the tally.”
Sevv looked appalled. “Surely, Leader…” he turned to Parr looking for some help, obviously annoyed to be fighting this battle alone.
Parr’s face had remained unchanged this entire time. He looked at Reyan, his expression maddeningly calm. She had learned that this sort of non-expression generally meant someone was furious. His eyes rested on her awhile. They seemed to stare deeper and deeper into her skull by degrees, until she wanted to squirm away and hide. At last, he broke his gaze. He took a step forward and whispered something to Sevv which Reyan did not hear. Sevv grunted in reply. He smiled at her briefly before leaving the room. It was a pained and pitying sort of smile, but it had been a smile, which was a thing she rarely saw. That gave her some hope.
Next, Parr turned and spoke something into Kavianhar’s ear. Reyan watched the boy wearily as he came across the dining room to her. He did his best to reassure her with a smile, but the corners of his lips trembled, and his eyes blinked with the effort of it. “Reyankaiya,” he asked. “How about you and I take a walk, maybe you can show me around the town?” He reached out a hand and gently touched her arm.
“No! No! No!” was all she could think to say. She yanked her arm away and collapsed onto the floor. She pulled her knees into her chest, covered her head, and shielded her face as though the boy were attacking her. From a gap she’d left in her fingers, she saw Kavianhar begin to glance around for someone to give him guidance. His hands began twitching as though looking for something to do. His cringing uncertainty made her humiliation burn brighter. It wasn’t his invitation she was refusing but the uncertainty of the future taking shape in the darkness just beyond the reach of her sight.
Lyssa’s voice was full of cruel bemusement. “And now you and our Reyankaiya have had a proper introduction.”
She wanted to stop. She wanted to stand and nod a stoic greeting to her fate. She wanted to show Lyssa that she was wrong. But she could not will her back to straighten or her legs to lift her. Which meant Lyssa was right about her. And the shame of it made her sob with self-loathing.
Parr sent Kavianhar aside with a flick of his eyes. The professor approached Reyan. He seemed like a pall of smoke or a black storm. Reyan pressed her eyes shut and curled her body even tighter as he approached, the way they had found Korwyn Ableman’s boy in the corner the morning after the fire. She expected to hear the angry roll of Parr’s thunderous voice or feel the lightning crack of his hand. Instead, he placed a heavy hand on each of her shoulders. He firmly but slowly pressed her down into the floor. It was exactly what Reyan needed—to be smaller, to disappear. Somehow, things began to feel better. Her muscles loosened a little and Parr’ was able to uncurl her just enough to let some air in. She relaxed her puckered eyes and wincing cheeks.
She pulled her face away from her knees and looked briefly into the professor’s dark eyes. They showed no affection or judgment or curiosity. The professor whispered in a deep rumble like a cow’s low. The sound seeped through and soothed her like cool water down a dusty throat. “Reyankaiya. Kavianhar will lead the way. Follow him. He will not touch you again.”
He looked back to Kavianhar to confirm he’d understood. The boy eagerly nodded his agreement. He put his hands behind his back to reaffirm that he had no intention of ever touching the soggy whimpering girl again.
Then Reyan began to slowly uncurl like a fern. She sat up and looked around the room. It was as though she had been underwater drifting downstream and had resurfaced to find that the world had changed while she’d been under.
Kavianhar turned and made to leave. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder, wordlessly inviting her to follow.
The way Kavianhar took his half-steps and looked back over his shoulder to see if she was following, reminded her of someone leading a wild creature into a pen. But Reyan stood and followed him anyway, believing that whatever cage these professors had for her had to be better than the one from which Lyssa was expelling her.
She walked past the novice out the front door. He closed it softly behind them. “Come on. This way.” He motioned for her to follow him. They walked in silence across the square to where the professors’ three trucks were parked, never once looking back, though she could tell by the subtle twitches of his head that he wanted to.
Because he was a novice, Kavianhar’s truck was at the rear of the caravan, he also rode in the oldest and most worn of the trucks. Over time, its wooden frame had begun to relax and slouch so that the corners had grown slightly obtuse and the sides were bit out of plumb. Which wasn’t to say it was shabby. The side walls were constructed of a lattice of blood-red crossbeams, and daffodil yellow panels. Green vines and decorative curly queues were painted into each corner as though the truck had been swarmed by artistic spiders. The hubs and rims of the wheels were red, and each spoke of each wheel seemed to be painted a different color. Colored glass lenses surrounded the running lanterns that hung from poles on the front and the rear of the truck. The driver’s canopy was painted a deep forest green. Since the truck was currently set up for lodging, the canopy had been raised high and pegged in place to form an awning over the front porch. Curtains had been pulled over the canopy’s glass panes to provide shade. In the middle of the porch was a skinny front door painted the same deep green as the canopy. The general feel of the novice’s truck was that of an old man who had grown overly comfortable with himself and didn’t much care if he let a few things slip.
Kavianhar walked to the front of his truck and pulled on a knotted rope that dangled from the underside of the small front porch. A step ladder that hinged in the middle, slid out and unfolded to the ground. He put one foot on the bottom rung then turned back to look at Reyan. He smiled. “You’re welcome to come in if you’d like.” When Reyan didn’t move or smile or speak, Kavianhar shrugged. “Okay. I’ll just pop in and grab some things to eat. Would you like to eat with me?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“That’s okay, I am. I’ll get you something just in case.” She remembered Rolf explaining that eating isn’t just about being hungry. Sometimes, food is a way to plant the seed of friendship. She knew adults sometimes used food in this double way, but she’d never known another young person to do it. It made her hopeful, but still, she couldn’t bring herself to smile at Kavianhar. Instead, she began excavating a hole in the dirt with the toe of her boot.
“You just stay here then. I’ll be right back.” He vanished through the skinny green door. He came out a few minutes later with a folding wooden table. He retrieved two wooden three-legged stools from the assortment of odds and ends lashed to a rack on the side of the truck. He set up the open-air dining room without saying a word, but he smiled reassuringly to her at every step. He went back into the truck and returned with dried meat and smoked fish, and a lump of hard cheese all laid out on an old, chipped plate. Finally, he brought a clay pitcher and two mugs.
They made an odd image, the two of them sitting down for a meal alone in the bright chilly town square. And she understood that Kavianhar had set up this awkward scene to distract her and avoid another fit. She experienced both halves of what, to her, was the single emotion of gratitude-shame. Her eyes fell to her hands in her lap.
Steam curled around Kavianhar’s nose as he silently chewed a piece of fish. He swallowed, took a sip of water, and asked, “What was your name again?”
Conversations where hard for her, especially with strangers, not knowing where it might lead. She decided to pull off a tiny bite of jerky and force it down with a sip of water. She looked up at the sky, painfully aware that it was rude not to answer him.
After waiting for a couple of minutes in silence and blowing on his pinkening hands a few times, he tried a different tactic. “I thought I heard that woman, the widow, call you ‘Ray and Kyah’. Is that right?”
She took a sip of water and whispered, “Reyankaiya. It’s all one name.” Then, with more ferocity than she’d intended, she added, “Don’t call me that, I hate it.”
This seemed to startle him. “Is there something else I should call you? I heard her call you Kaiya?”
“No. Not Kaiya.” The word burned in her mind and soured her stomach. The older boy’s cheeks slackened slightly as some of the hopefulness left his face. He shifted his weight on his stool. He waited and didn’t reply.
“Reyan,” she offered at last. “Lyssa, and everyone else, they use my full name, or they just call me ‘Kaiya’. I don’t like it.”
An almost tangible silence appeared in the empty space above the table. The boy left it floating there undisturbed. After a moment she found herself filling it. “Everyone knows, ‘Kaiya’ means ‘chaos’. That’s why they call me that. They might say ‘Reyankaiya’ when they want to sound fancy, like when there are professors around. But mostly they just call me ‘Kaiya’.”
“And ‘Reyan’? Does it mean anything?”
“‘Rises above’,” she explained.
Kavianhar smiled. “Should I call you ‘Reyan’ then?”
“I don’t want you to call me anything.”
Though he tried to hide it, she noticed his face fall a little. It had been a mean thing to say and she wished she hadn’t said it. He crumbled a bit of cheese off the lump and tossed it in his mouth. By the time he had swallowed, he had regained control of his smile and pressed it into service.
“I’ll tell you my name,” he offered.
“Your name is ‘Kavianhar’.”
“You could call me ‘Kavianhar’.” He shrugged. “That’s fine. The professors call me that. It doesn’t mean ‘eater of rats’ or anything awful like that.” Her own lips surprised her with a smile. She tried to hide it by holding her mug to her mouth. “It’s just that ‘Kavianhar’ is a lot to say. I think of myself as just ‘Kavi’. It’s not especially interesting or secret, but if you wanted to call me that, I would answer you every time.”
“What happened to your lip?”
This took Kavi a second to work through how to answer. “It’s always been that way.”
“Does it hurt?”
Now he looked annoyed, but he didn’t sound so, “No. It never hurts. Not really.”
“Okay.” She shrugged and picked up a sliver of dried meat.
As they picked away at the rest of the food, Kavi kept all his movements slow, careful, and precise. He smiled his imperfect smile and didn’t talk. The longer he smiled and didn’t talk, the more she found she liked him, and enjoyed sitting with him in the cold town square in the shadow of his joyful truck. She kept expecting him to ask about her situation, or why the people in Orloton didn’t want her, but he never did.
She put down the mug as her nascent smile flickered out. “Kavi? Am I going to come and live with you and the professors?”
“I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “I honestly don’t. But I am sure that’s what Parr is talking to your leader about.” Kavi tried to reassure her. “Don’t worry, Parr is amazing at sniffing out optimal results. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but whatever it is, I know it’ll be the best possible result for everyone.”
“You aren’t a Professor at all, are you?”
Reyan worried the question might have been rude. But he laughed and seemed more relieved than offended. “No. I’m not.” He brushed the back of his hand down the front of his robe indicating the broad white stripe. “But I’m well on my way.”
Kavi picked up the now empty plate and carried it to his truck. When he returned, he said, “Hey, help me put this stuff away.”
He lashed the stools to the rack on the side of the truck, while Reyan collapsed the table. He opened the skinny green door at the top of the folding stairs. She followed him in.
It was hard for both of them to fit inside, especially with Reyan carrying the table. “Here, let me take that.” There was a bracket attached to the ceiling which he slotted the tabletop into. Then Kavi turned a latch and the table was stowed up and out of the way.
Every surface inside the truck was made of old polished wood. There was a small desk, scarcely more than shoulder-width. There was a tall chest of drawers with foot holds carved into the spacers between the drawers, that led up to the bed which lay across the top. There was a small shelf for books, another shelf for crockery. A cast-iron pan hung from a nail on the wall and was strapped down to keep it from swinging while the truck was moving.
“Well, here it is, a professor’s home-away-from-home. What do you think?”
She ran her hand down the side of the bookshelf, it reminded her of the well-worn limbs of her tree. “I like how everything has a special place.”
“Well, we’re out on circuit for months at a time. Everything we need has to fit into this truck including us. There’s a bit of an art to it. I must say, I haven’t missed a thing from home.” He smiled at her. “Except for friends of course.”
Reyan considered how to react. She wasn’t sure if he was implying that he was lonely and wanted pity, or that he considered her a friend, which seemed a bit premature.
After a moment with no reaction at all, Kavi pretended to have an idea. “Would you show me around Orloton? This is my first time on circuit. It’s my first time here.”
She marched him up and down Orloton’s streets unsure what sorts of things a novice professor might find interesting about the little town. She talked as little as possible. What was there to say? The bakery was the place that smelled like bread, the butcher the store with meat in the windows, the grocer had boxes of vegetables out front. Nothing a semi-intelligent person couldn’t figure out on his own. Sometimes she would warn him about a particularly mean shopkeep by stating the person’s name. “Daruum,” as they passed the tailors, “Michael” as they passed the glazier’s.
Within twenty minutes they had covered all the major points of interest in the town. She ended their tour in the large grazing field overlooking the bluff and the bend in the river. “That’s it then,” he asked?
“What do you do?” She looked at him, puzzled. “I mean as a kid in a town like this. What do any of the kids do?”
“They do little versions of their parents’ work.”
“I mean for fun.”
“They run about and yell. They seem to shove each other a lot. Sometimes they throw rocks and try to hit things or they sit together in small groups and whisper.”
“And you? What do you do?”
“I don’t do any of that. I have a place I go. Mostly I’m there.”
“Can I see it?”
“Oh. Okay,” Kavi frowned.
“It’s all the way on the other side of town. You might be able to see the very top of it, but it’s hard to be sure with the buildings and houses and other trees in the way.”
Kavi smiled. “Would you take me there.”
They walked back through the town square, and down the short stretch of hardroad until they got to the tree. “You need to duck a bit. Don’t hit your head.”
It wasn’t until they were inside the tree’s petticoat that Reyan wondered what Kavi would think of it. She looked down at the ground and bit her lip and waited for him to say something. Lots of people had been to her tree over the years, but she’d never invited anyone in. Except for Tom, but he didn’t really count.
“Did you do all of this?” He looked around at the constellations of flashing spinning flecks of litter. She nodded. He walked over and rubbed a hand over the worn spots on the branch. “You come here a lot?” She nodded again. He surprised her by quickly shooting up the branches like a squirrel; like her. About six branches up, he stopped and ran his hand over the golden drips oozing from the trunk, careful not to break through their thin skins to the sticky pitch inside. “I like this place, Reyan.”
She followed him up and stood on the branch just below his and pointed out through the gaps in the branches. “From here you can see down the hardroad pretty far. That one up there,” she pointed a few levels up then cricked her finger to show she was pointing around the trunk, “lets you see the town square. You can actually see all the way past the town from there.” She pointed to other branches as well. “Then there’s the mountain view, and the bit of river.”
Kavi frowned and bobbed his head. “I can see why you spend your time here.”
“It’s quiet,” she offered. “And hidden.”
“I see that.”
After a few minutes—far too short by Reyan’s estimation—Kavi seemed to grow restless in the tree, and they returned to the caravan. As they crossed into the town square, Sevv came loping across the cobbles toward them. He pulled Kavi aside and they had a brief whispered conversation. Kavi smiled sadly and nodded then left her with Sevv. Reyan watched the novice walk away, when he was out of earshot Sevv startled her by speaking. “Well young Reyankaiya, it seems you will be coming with us.” His voice was a bit like too much honey mixed into a bitter tincture. It was the tone adults used to convince a child that a broken thing was not so.
The old professor looked pained. He drew in a deep breath to steady himself, then reached out to place his hand on her shoulder. She rolled it away and stared at him. The professor seemed to remember something just then and put his hands behind his back. “Your leader feels she can no longer provide for you. As such, the responsibility moves up the hierarchy—family, town, circuit, you know?—and you’ve become our ward.”
“Well, the University’s. The Host’s. But as professors, Parr and I are their representatives. And so—for the time being—you will be our ward. We’ll see you safely to The University at Seal Tooth, we’ll figure things out once we’re there.” He seemed to have run out of things to say and frowned piteously at her. “I’ll have Kavianhar help you collect your things.”
There was not much for Reyan to collect, certainly nothing she needed Kavi’s help with. Still, the house had a haunted feel now, and having him with her made her feel a little more brave. She need not have worried, no one interfered with or even talked to them.
When she climbed the ladder to her loft, Kavi stayed below. A host of questions gathered behind his expressions which he never voiced.
It did not take her long to pack. All she owned were a few changes of clothes—two pairs of canvas pants, and an extra tunic—and a dirty limp pillow that smelled like her own hair and had become essential for sleep. She placed these few things in the middle of her blanket, pulled in the corners, and tied them together. She dropped this bundle over the edge of the loft where Kavi was standing ready to catch it.
They made a small space like a nest for Reyan and her things in the chair well beneath the small desk in the back of Sevv’s truck. Reyan hid there through the remainder of the day as the professors taught their curriculum and prepared the caravan to leave the following morning.
She stayed tucked away that evening while Lyssa and the heads of Orloton hosted the professors at the traditional banquet held in their honor.
At some point after dark, Kavi knocked gently on the door and tip-toed in. He left a plate of food on the floor next to her then slipped back to the main house without a word.
She didn’t know she was hungry until she took a trial bite of cold venison. The salt and spices woke her tongue, and the congealed fat quickly melted in her mouth. The mouthful ignited a deep almost painful hunger when it landed in her gut. The remainder of the food was consumed in a rapid undignified manner well suited to dining alone in the dark.
The next morning, Reyan stayed among the caravan’s wheels and leaf springs like a fish sheltering in the weeds. None of Orloton’s adults would look at her. As they passed the caravan, their talk took on the airy, overly-casual, and loud quality of the guilty trying to appear not so.
Reyan’s true mother passed. She was talking to another woman about a cluster of morels she had found not a quarter-mile from town. The other woman’s face lit up and she asked how to find the patch. A laughing “and why would I tell you that?!” were the last words Reyan ever heard her true mother speak. She never so much as glanced Reyan’s way.
The other children ran around in the bright sunlight, oblivious to the chill, tossing handfuls of snow they scooped from the wet patches that hid near the walls in the shape of the town’s shadows. Then, like a swarm of starlings, the children flocked in unison around a corner leaving only Tom behind.
Reyan was sitting on Sevv’s front porch, her pant leg pulled up to her thigh picking at a scab on her knee when Tom came over. The boy squinted up at her, the fingers of his right hand absentmindedly twisting and tugging at a bit of yarn that had frayed from his sleeve. “You’re leaving?”
“You gonna miss it here?”
They were quiet for a minute not looking at each other, Reyan feeling about on her leg for new things to pick at, Tom searching the ground for a stone in need of kicking.
The crowd of other children exploded, flapping and squawking, back into the square. “Okay then,” Tom said still looking at his toes, “guess I’ll see you later.” Then he ran to join the flock. The tallest boy looked over at Reyan, said something to Tom, and punched the boy on the arm. They all laughed and Tom hung his head in shameful silent reply. Then, they all took off again chasing each other down the main road, then down toward the stream and out of sight.
Sevv returned to the truck. He was carrying what appeared to be a worn down bundle of sticks over his shoulder. He leaned them against the side of the truck and began untying cords from the rack. “We’ll be leaving soon. You ready?”
She jumped off the porch. “I want to see my tree.”
Sevv’s mouth twisted with consideration. Finally he said, “Fine. We’ll be leaving in a quarter hour. Be back by then.”
Up in the shady stillness of her tree, she looked for some memento to bring with her. The ornaments and decorations that spun and flashed in the breeze were captivating as a whole, but individually they were just bits of broken glass and scrap metal. None of them would remind her of this place once they were wrapped in a cloth and tucked into a box or drawer. She rubbed a long pine needle between her thumb and forefinger until the sharp green sent of it came. The needles would dry to brown in a matter of days.
She considered sneaking into the great room and taking the shell from the mantle. Rolf wouldn’t mind, in fact he would want her to have it. But she knew the shell represented honesty and trustworthiness. What would it mean to steal such a thing? Besides, she knew Orloton’s new leader would need it to succeed in her role.
She wrapped her arms around the tree and rested her head against the trunk like she was going to whisper something. She didn’t find any words that made sense to say to a tree, so she just held a mashed up farewell-and-thank-you thought in her mind until she felt it make its way from her into the tree. Then she scrambled down through the branches and left.
As she approached the caravan, Sevv was kneeling down to remove the blocks from his wheels. He had changed into his brown traveling robe. When he saw Reyan approaching he called out, “There you are!” He stood and leaned an elbow against the top of the steel tyre. “You can ride with whomever you’d like. So, who’s it going to be?” as though he had offered a choice from a tray of sweets, but had a very strong opinion about which choice she should make.
She envisioned spending hour upon hour riding next to this ancient professor and enduring the forcefully cheerful and endless conversations about the trees and flowers they passed and questions as to whether or not she’d ever seen a particular bird or insect.
Parr was standing near his truck silently hitching up his horses. The beautiful beasts blew through their lips, nodded their heads and twitched the flesh of their withers. She thought he might make a preferable travel companion. She imagined he would barely speak a word all day. “I’ll ride with Parr” she decided.
Sevv’s face fell just a little, but he said, “Wonderful.” After a brief moment to recover himself, he called over his shoulder, ”Parr!” The dark professor walked out from between his horses, wiping his hands with a rag. “Parr, Reyankaiya has decided to ride with you.”
Parr chuffed once.
A male voice called out. “Professors!” She turned and saw Lyssa and Leonid standing together in the middle of the square.
“Leader,” Sevv nodded. “Keeper. One moment.” He called Kavi over and whispered something to him, and the boy disappeared into Sevv’s truck.
Reyan walked over and put her hand on the shoulder of one of Parr’s horses. She began stroking it one way to make the hair go rough and stand on end. She didn’t much like how that felt, but the creamy feeling when she reversed and smoothed it all back down was one of the most satisfying things she knew.
Kavi emerged from Sevv’s truck with a black book about as thick as Reyan’s pinkie finger. He joined the senior professors were they stood in the town square across from Lyssa and Leonid. A few dozen townsfolk had gathered near the edge of the square to watch their town leaders and the itinerant professors exchange handshakes, head nods, and a few words which were pleasant enough but which Reyan thought sounded forced and stiff.
Kavi handed the book to Sevv, and took his place next to him. Sevv held the book out, and Leonid took hold of it. Sevv raised his voice so that Reyan and the others gathered around could hear him. “Keeper. The year’s compendium. Learn its lessons. Keep it’s knowledge. Share its wisdom.”
Sevv released the book, and Leonid gathered it to his chest and inclined his head. “Thank you Professors. Have safe travels. We look forward to next year’s visitation.”
Sevv and Parr gave tight curt nods. Kavi made to raise his hand to wave goodbye but then retracted it awkwardly, and gave his own nod which made him look like a boy working hard to seem a man.
They each returned to their trucks. Sevv patted his horse’s flank and looked back along the length of the caravan. “Alright,” he said, and bounced his head once.
Parr readied his truck for travel. He turned a tab on the inside wall of his tiny front porch and a riding bench folded down. He removed two pegs jammed in the workings of the canopy’s spring-loaded arms, and it came down to enclose the front porch and turn it into a driver’s cabin. He patted the side of the cab. “Well, climb in then.”
Reyan reluctantly left the horse’s side. She opened the newly-descended cab door, and climbed the four steps of a ladder built into the side of the truck. She slid all the way down the riding bench to the other side of the driver’s cabin.
The curtains that covered the glass windscreen were still drawn so, though there was plenty of light to see by, she couldn’t make out what was happening. The ends of the leather reins suddenly appeared through a long slot in the front of the cab just below the window. “Could you grab those for me,” she heard Parr ask. She took the reins and he climbed into the cab and drew back the curtains. He gathered up his robe and sat on the wad like a cushion. He took the reins from Reyan and tied a loose knot in the middle so that they wouldn’t slip back through the slot.
Sevv’s truck begin to move. A moment later, Parr said, “Y-up,” in a loud, stern voice. The horses’ hindquarters rippled and the truck lurched forward.
Reyan’s former neighbors momentarily stopped their lives to watch the caravan pass. They lined the road, balancing baskets of fish or laundry on their heads or hips, or wincing under the weight of the bamboo poles or ladders teetering on their shoulders. No one waved.
There was something about the scene that felt peculiar to Reyan. At first, she thought it was her new vantage, but she had looked down on these people from her tree many times. Then she understood.
This time, she was the one moving.