The hardroad did not plunge directly into the heart of Rowe. Instead, it traveled, straight as an arrow, along the top of the low hill that defined the town’s northern border. After the caravan had traveled past the eastern half of the town, they slowed and turned onto a normal road of shapestone potholes and patches of gravel. This road carried them into the town’s center.
The tall tower with “Rowe” painted on it stood at the center of the town square. Now that they were closer, she could see a flight of wooden stairs curling around the structure. The stairs led to a thin observation platform that encircled the tower at the bottom edge of the great white stripe. There was another platform that ringed the very top. A man was leaning over the rail waving down at them as they arrived. Kavi leaned forward so he could see the man through their front window, he smiled and waved up at him as they passed. The man stopped waving and headed down the stairs.
Once the caravan had curled around the edge of the town square, Kavi pulled back on the reins, and his horses stuttered to a stop. “Well, I guess this is Rowe,” he said. He smiled before hopping down from the cab and closing the door behind him.
Tentatively, Reyan stepped down from the cab as well. She stood a few yards distant watching Kavi deal with the horses. He pulled the reins back out through the slot in the front of the cab and began unbuckling the various straps and gear that connected the massive animals to the truck.
As Kavi was gathering the long leather thongs into loops, a young man came hurrying over to him. He was dressed in black woolen workmen’s overalls and leather boots. “Professor! Professor! Let me get that for you. Let me help.”
Kavi’s entire manner changed suddenly. He stood taller, he seemed calm and confident. He smiled beatifically as he hefted the bundle of straps and tack onto his shoulder, “Thank you. Go to the other professors, and see if they need help first. Then, if you could help me settle in my horses, I would appreciate it.”
The young man smiled and nodded as though Kavi had given him a gift rather than a job, and trotted off to the front of Sevv’s truck. Soon they saw the young man leading away Sevv’s horses.
When the young man returned, he had two other stable hands with him. Reyan guessed that the boy who’d come first was a year or so older than Kavi and was the oldest of the group. He was tight with muscles but was no taller than Reyan.
The other boy had light blond hair and blue eyes which he tried to keep cast down, but they kept wondering up to look at Reyan, the professors, and the caravan. He wore the same black overalls as the first boy. He was a few years the strong boy’s junior, but was a full head taller. She didn’t think his face had ever met a razor.
The girl was around Reyan’s age but stronger from work and a few inches taller. She had hay-colored hair braided into plats with fly-away wisps escaping. These caught the late afternoon light and formed a glowing aura around her head. She wore a yellow dress made of hardy woven wool and covered with a rugged apron of boiled cedar fibers mixed with wool. She had a smear of dirt on one cheek.
When the one in charge began issuing orders to the others, the light deferential tone he’d used with Kavi was replaced with a low growling sort of speech. Reyan felt he exuded a mixture of confidence, cleverness, and laziness. The sort who understood how a situation was, how it might be improved to his benefit, and how to make good use of those around him.
While Kavi raised his canopy and chocked his wheels, the team of stable hands saw to Parr’s horses. By the time Kavi was done, the stable hands returned and began freeing his horses. The strong boy piled tack and ropes and harnesses onto the other boy’s outstretched arms until the younger one’s face grew flushed and he let out a soft grunt whenever the strong boy added more weight.
Once the horses were liberated, the muscular boy grumbled something to the girl and each took two horses by the reins and led them away, followed by the tall blond boy laden with all the tack.
Once the crew of stable hands had turned their backs, Kavi lost his formality and smiled at Reyan, as though some secret had passed between the two of them, though Reyan had no idea what it was.
They followed the horses to a stable one block off of the town square. Each horse was given a stall, and the strong boy lifted bits of tack one by one from the taller boy and hung the gear on hooks on the stable wall.
Finally he turned to Kavi, “Will you be needing anything else, Professor?”
Kavi looked around as though trying to find some other thing in the stable in need of doing. Finding none, he said, “No. Thank you very much.”
The muscular young man smiled and nodded his head slightly.
The girl approached one of the horse’s stalls. She slid through a broad gap in the boards and came out on the other side down near the horse’s knees. She went to work silently brushing out the horse’s mane. Reyan leaned on the stall gate and watched the girl work. The light coming in through a nearby window caught in the horse’s hide. The girl pulled the brush through the glossy spot and it stretched and retracted as if she was kneading the shine like dough. Reyan was transfixed. She reached out and ran her hand down the horse’s smooth cheek. He eyed her cautiously, but never pulled away.
Kavi quickly grew bored, “Come on Reyan, let’s go.”
Reyan didn’t answer. She kept stroking the horse, and watching the girl as she made her way toward the horse’s tail. Once the girl disappeared around the horse’s flank, Reyan turned her feet to follow Kavi, but it took a moment for her head to come around.
Reyan followed Kavi back to his truck. He drew the steps out from their slot below the deck and pegged them in place.
The short strong boy from the stables had followed them at a distance and was milling around at the edge of the square. Sevv called out, “Benj!” The young man snapped to attention and jogged over to the front of the old professor’s truck. A few moments later she saw him hustling away across the square carrying Sevv’s empty water barrel.
Kavi called to Reyan from deep inside the darkening interior of the truck, “When Benj comes back, could you ask him to fill this for me?” Kavi emerged into the evening light holding a lantern. “I think we’ll burn through what’s left of the oil this evening.”
Soon Benj came waddling back across the square with Sevv’s water barrel held close to his chest, the focus of his eyes jumping between the ground and the sloshing water.
After he had set the barrel down on Sevv’s front porch, Benj stood with his hands braced against his thighs bent over catching his breath. Reyan walked up to him and held out the lantern. He didn’t notice her at first, so she said, “Sir?” This startled him. He looked up confused, and when he saw her he seemed even more so. He didn’t speak, so she tried again. “Sir, Kavi asked me to ask you to fill this for us.” She offered him the lantern.
“Are you calling me ‘sir’?”
Reyan never did understand at what point a kid became a sir or ma’am. She thought it had something to do with their height or weight or age relative to hers, but there was also something about whether or not she knew them and how well. Even if she knew them well, it also seemed to matter how much they liked her, and of course how much they liked to be called “sir” or “ma’am”, and that was nearly impossible to tell. It was a lot to have to know before you could even say hello to someone. “I’m sorry, what should I call you?”
“Benj,” he said as though it were obvious. Then he whispered fast and low, “And you should call him professor,” and pointed at Kavi with his eyes.
“He’s not actually a professor.”
“That’s no matter. He will be soon, and when he is, you don’t want him having a memory of you disrespecting him.”
This made her laugh which she knew was wrong of her, so she stifled it with a frown and a hand over her mouth.
Benj looked as though he were talking to a complete fool, a look at once angry, annoyed, and pitying. He took a deep breath, straightened up, and snatched the lantern from her. He headed across the square in a slightly different direction than he’d gone to fetch the water, and in nowhere near as much of a hurry.
When he came back a few minutes later, she walked across to the middle of the square to meet him so he wouldn’t have to walk the whole way alone. This seemed to confuse him. He stopped and glanced around the empty square as though making sure no one was watching them. This made no sense to her at all and she tried to puzzle it together. She had seen things exchanged before and suddenly she thought she understood what was going on, “I’m sorry I don’t have any way to pay for it. Let me…” But before she could finish, his confusion turned to something in the same family as anger or horror or disgust. He thrust the lantern into her hands and walked past her without another word and headed toward Parr’s truck.
Reyan walked across the square with the lantern. When she got to the truck, Kavi met her in the doorway. She handed the lantern up to him and he disappeared with it into the gloom. “I didn’t have a way to pay him.”
He came back to the front porch. “What do you mean?”
“He ran off and brought back a lantern full of oil. I never paid him.”
Kavi chuckled. “You didn’t try to pay the poor guy, did you?”
“Don’t you pay for things?”
He continued working busily in the back of his truck as he explained. “Of course we pay for things. We pay all the time. We just don’t use money or barter to do it. We’re not like millers and fisherman, we don’t trade in goods. We’re professors. We are the fonts of knowledge, the purveyors of wisdom—we are the very foundation of society.”
“And ‘foundation of society’ is a role you can have?”
“In a way. Without us, they wouldn’t understand how to solve for problems, or justly work through conflicts. They wouldn’t understand the best way to exist in the world. Without professors and our knowledge, there wouldn’t be any millers or fishermen. There wouldn’t be any trade or potlatch. They would be like those sorry people living in the swamps. We’re above payment. Or maybe below it. At any rate, we’re outside of it. When we’re out on circuit, everything we need is given to us. We keep our requests minimal, of course. We don’t want to be an imposition. Unfortunately, by trying to pay poor Benj, you implied that he requested payment, which he would only do if he didn’t realize or care that we were professors. Which implies he was being disrespectful. The poor guy is probably mortified.” He laughed.
“I should go apologize.”
“No!” Now Kavi was chuckling and was very obviously amused. “I’ll smooth it over in a few minutes.”
After the caravan had expanded and unfurled itself into the square, after Kavi had walked over and placed a hand on Benj’s shoulder and smiled while Benj nodded, after several waves of townsfolk had come over to speak with Parr and Sevv in up-pitched drawn-out tones of recognition and reunion, after the sun had bled out across the sky, three people arrived. They shook Sevv and Parr’s hands, nodded a quick bow to Kavi, and smiled stiffly at Reyan. Reyan guessed these were Rowe’s answer to Lyssa, Keeper Leonid, and one of the other heads of the town—the waterman, or butcher, or miller.
They formally invited the professors and Reyan to dinner, then escorted them across the square and two blocks down the main thoroughfare to the town leader’s home. Two finely-clothed and recently bathed children stood on either side of the front door, backs stiff and facing each other. On the left was a boy around twelve years old—ten named years if they followed the same traditions as Orloton. On the right was a girl of perhaps eight named years. As the small crowd approached, the girl smiled excitedly. The boy admonished her with a frown and furrowed brow.
When the procession was a few yards away, the boy opened the door and the girl entered ahead of them doing her best to match their pace.
She led them to a large dining room just off the main hall that smelled of beeswax, and pine boughs, and the vapors from open bottles of liquor. Four tables had been brought into the room and arranged in a square able to seat four to a side. Hanging over the opening in the middle of the table was a large chandelier with perhaps two dozen new candles, flames flickering brightly at their tapered tips. In each corner of the room, an oil lamp was placed on a shelf to keep the dark from gathering there. Between the massive table and the window was a smaller single table with three chairs pulled up to it. Just like the great room in the leader’s house back in Orloton, there was a fireplace and within it a fire, and above it a mantle. And upon the mantle, where Rolf had kept the trade shell, was a box the size of a small loaf of bread. It was inlaid with a swirling pattern that reflected the lamp light, but from this distance she could not make out whether it was vines or snakes or just pretty curlicues. Above the mantle was a woven image. In the foreground was a man in a broad-brimmed hat hoeing a field. The field spread to the horizon behind him and was dotted with other people. The border of the tapestry was adorned with various fruits, vegetables, and grains interspersed with pumpkin vines and leaves. There were sickles fixed to the two upper corners. Each tool had colorful ribbons streaming from their handles with beads knotted into them. Reyan tried to figure out the numbers the beads represented, but they were too far away.
Reyan followed Parr, Sevv, and Kavi as they made their way around to the far side of the table. A large man with black hair and a black beard, both streaked through with gray, inserted himself between the two professors. He was one of the three who had come to meet them in the square, the town leader she guessed. Once everyone had spread out to stand behind their eventual chair, it became clear that there was no room for her on the side of the table where the professors and the leader had staked their claim. The other side was also full, leaving Reyan chair-less and awkward as a hangnail. She was beginning to panic when she saw Sevv’s head duck around the side of the leader and look at her. He stood and whispered something in the leader’s ear that seemed to startle and embarrass him. “Jax,” he called and the boy who had held the door open appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
The leader whispered something to the boy and he looked straight ahead with blank concentration and nodded. Jax walked past her and tugged at her sleeve. He led her over to the smaller table, near the window, and motioned for her to stand behind one of the three chairs. Then he disappeared into the hallway.
The girl who had led them to the dining room came over and stood next to one of the other chairs. Soon the boy returned carrying a chair with the back tucked under his arm, and his hand gripping the cross rail. In his other hand he carried a knife, fork, and napkin on a plate perched upon the tips of his fingers like a serving tray. These he set down on the empty side of the table. Reyan recognized him then. He was the tall blond boy from the stables. He was cleaned and kempt now, and had lost the down-cast look that lingered about him as he worked.
Soon, another girl came into the room and made her way over to the small table. It was the silent girl Reyan had watched groom the horses. Judging by the rosy flush, her face had been recently and aggressively scrubbed. Her hair had been braided anew so that only a very few errant blond hairs caught the candle and lamplight. She had traded in her stable garment for a clean bright dress. Her eyes were still focused on the ground as she stood beside the chair on Reyan’s left.
Once everyone was standing behind a chair, and had stopped shuffling, the leader boomed, “Welcome Professors! Rowe is glad to have you back. May your visitation be insightful, productive, and enjoyable. Sit!”
And everyone did.
The room filled with the rumbling bubbling sound of people talking. Trying to follow any one thread of conversation was as hopeless as picking out a single splash against a single boulder in a river.
A woman came into the room. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a gray dress over which she wore a black woolen apron. Against her belly, she carried a large basket full of bread. She slipped her way around the large square table placing loaves between every other setting.
Finally, the woman came to the young person’s table and dropped a loaf onto the wooden cutting board in the center. Next to the board was a bread knife. They all stared hungrily at the loaf and knife. Reyan looked around the table. Even though the stable girl was a bit bigger than she, it was possible that Reyan was actually the oldest one there. It was expected that the oldest person at the table would cut and distribute the bread. But in all her life she’d never been the oldest. Also, she didn’t know these other children, so she couldn’t be sure. On one hand, reaching out and starting to handle the bread felt presumptuous. On the other, sitting by while the others waited for bread felt inconsiderate and rude. Bringing up everyone’s age seemed odd as a first point of discussion, and it felt like it would spoil a nice tradition to have it so plainly and crudely discussed.
After a minute with no one speaking and no one reaching for the bread she felt the mood grow awkward. It occurred to Reyan that the others all knew one another and knew each other’s ages. If no one had made a move yet, they must assume that Reyan was the oldest. Which means they had been waiting for her to serve and she hadn’t, which means they probably now all think she’s being mean or selfish.
Reyan was just about to reach for the knife when the stable girl sighed and pulled the cutting board toward her and began cutting off slices of bread and tossing them around the table. Reyan felt small.
The bread was soft and rich. The millers in Rowe must make finer flour than Harut did up in Orloton.
After everyone had their bread, the young man who had held open the front door asked, “So, what’s your story?”
“Leave her alone, Jax,” the stable girl said, as though she’d been making this same request of him for years.
He shrugged, “I was just asking.”
“I’m sure she doesn’t want to talk to you.” She didn’t look to Reyan to verify.
“I bet that’s true,” the youngest girl, whom Reyan had decided was probably Jax’s little sister giggled. “No one ever wants to talk to you.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk to me, Jesha.”
“I’m sorry about Jax,” the stable girl said. “My name’s Avalina. What’s yours?”
“Reyan,” she winced. It sounded like she was guessing at her own name.
Jax became annoyed, “How is that any different than what I just asked?”
“The person doing the asking,” his little sister grinned.
Jax became sullen and stormy. He tore bits of bread from his slice and popped them into his mouth and chewed them in silence, the muscles in his jaw working as he stared in unfocused silence and anger.
“How come you’re with the professors,” Jesha asked.
She could think of a half-dozen ways to answer that question, but none she wanted to tell to a bunch of kids she was just meeting. So she shrugged and simply said, “They’re taking me to Seal Tooth,” and hoped that would suffice.
Jax’s mouth opened as though he were about to speak when Jesha beat him to it, “Are you going to go to the University? Are you going to become a professor?”
Until that moment, she had only thought of Seal Tooth as another place to be handed off to, stabled, and ignored until the next hand off. She hadn’t considered how she would fit into life there, nor what it might mean to be the ward of the professors in the town where they are trained. She saw everyone gathered around the large table and noted how everyones attention, how their respect all bent toward the professors. She recalled the leader and how eager he had been to establish himself between Sevv and Parr. It occurred to her how different a professor’s life must be from her own. “Maybe.”
Jesha’s excited curiosity came through in the loudness of her voice, “How do you become a professor?”
Reyan didn’t know. She was about to admit as much when Jax chided his little sister, “No one knows that, dummy.” Jesha scowled. “And those that do will never tell anyone.” He leaned in toward the middle of the table and dropped his voice to a whisper, “If they did tell us, then anyone and everyone could be a professor. If that happened, they’d be out of a job. That’s what dad says.”
Avalina looked scandalized but not uninterested. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”
Jax sat up and his voice returned to normal. “I don’t care. It’s true. Everyone knows it. They just won’t admit it out loud because of what would happen to them.”
“What would happen to them,” Reyan and Jesha simultaneously asked wide-eyed.
“Yeah, what,” Avalina asked, the weight of suspicion slowing down her words.
Now that Jax had their attention a smile tugged up half his mouth. He sat back and nodded confidently. “They seem good, the professors. They know how to do everything, how to fix anything that’s broken, how to solve for any problem, and answer any question. And they come around and share all that with us. But what would happen if we made them angry? They’d stop coming here, they’d stop teaching us and helping us. If that happened, the whole town would fall apart within a couple of years. Everyone knows that. And the professors know we know it. And if they ever got really angry? Then they have the Eye and probably a bunch of other really bad things that they don’t tell us about.”
“They do not,” Avalina scoffed.
“You don’t know that. You can’t know that. They don’t want us to know anything.”
“Then why do they come back every year to teach us,” Avalina wanted to know. “Why do they bring our keepers a new little book each year full of information? Why do they leave it behind for us to keep in our library to read at our ease? Why would they do all of that if they didn’t want us to know things?”
“Those little books are nothing. I hear there’s a big book that they copy all the little books from.”
“So,” Jesha wanted to know.
“Well, why don’t they just give us the big book? It’s because they don’t want us to know everything, just what they decide to tell us. Because if we knew everything, we wouldn’t need them anymore.”
“I don’t know,” Reyan said, quietly. Everyone turned to look at her. They’d obviously forgotten she was at the table. “I road with Professor Parr a bit today, then with Kavi, the young one. They don’t seem like they’re trying to hide anything. Kavi seemed nice.”
“He’s a novice. He doesn’t even know the things he’s not supposed to tell us yet. They say the young ones all start off that way, but at some point right around when they get their second band, they change. What about the older ones, the actual professors? I bet they aren’t as nice.”
She thought on this for a moment. Sevv was fussy and Parr was aloof. But did that make them different than anyone else? Was being particular or tight-lipped evidence of malice? If so, what must people think of her? That she already knew. But she wasn’t mean or malicious, and people thinking she was was unfair. She resolved to not harbor any bad thoughts about the professors, whom she suddenly felt a kinship with. So she didn’t answer Jax’s question directly, and asked instead, “If they were so bad, why would they be willing to bring me along?”
“That’s a really good question,” Jax smiled.
After they had finished the bread, the server brought an earthy orange-colored soup. That was followed by roast fish, and a heap of bitter greens tinged with vinegar which she had to choke down.
Once Jax had exhausted his theories about the malevolence of professors, the kids didn’t have much to talk about. One would bring up some seemingly innocuous thing, and the others would find some way of turning it into a critique of the teller. For example, Jesha mentioned she walked home from the field with Enoch the other day, to which Jax said, “You don’t even like Enoch.” Avalina talked about tending to the professor’s beautiful horses and the two said she only ever talked about stinky horses. And no matter what subject Jax brought up, he was accused of being annoying. Reyan, of course, had nothing to say on any of these matters and so stayed largely out of the conversation. Every once in a while, one of the others would ask her whether she had any friends back in Orloton who were so disingenuous, or obsessive, or thick-headed and she would have to admit that she did not.
Dessert was served. It was a white cake drenched in sweet cream and decorated with real flowers which were the color of flames and tasted vaguely spicy. No one talked during dessert.
When it was all over. Jax wiped his mouth and said, “It was good to meet you Reyan,” she was beginning to wonder if Jax was truly as mean and annoying as the others said. Then Jesha and Avalina agreed that it had been nice to eat with Reyan.
A change came over the clique. They seemed to have exhausted their disdain for each other. They were starting to laugh at each other’s stories and jokes, and none of them seemed in a particular hurry to leave the table.
The adults all stood up and began slowly making their way across the hall to another large room. The noise shifted from the rumbling river sound of dinner talk to the rain falling on puddles sound of small groups.
“Time for drinks,” Jesha exclaimed. “Come on.”
Reyan’s three dinner companions all stood up at once, and Reyan followed suit. Jesha led the way, and Avalina and Jax followed, walking side by side and a little closer than Reyan would have expected given how much they disliked one another. She followed them across the main hall. The room was already full of adults clustered in groups of two and three. Each had a mug in their hands.
On a table pushed up against the far wall were two tapped kegs. A large one where the adults were filling their mugs, and a small one, so far untouched.
Jesha headed straight for the small keg. She picked up a white glazed mug from a stack next to it. She filled the mug and—much to Reyan’s surprise—offered it to her. “Blackberry beer,” she explained before turning and filling another mug which she handed to Avalina, one for Jax, and a final one for herself. Reyan hesitated. When Jesha noticed, she reassured her, “Don’t worry it’s not liquor.”
“I think you meant, ’Sorry, it’s not liquor,’” Jax said. He looked around to see that no one was paying attention. He half-filled a mug from the larger keg and took a quick swig before refilling it with the blackberry beer. Avalina rolled her eyes.
Just as Reyan was about to take a tentative sip of the blackberry beer, she heard her name. “Reyankaiya!” She winced and turned to see a cluster of adults had opened up toward her. Sevv was in there beckoning her to come over and join the group. Besides Sevv, the group consisted of an expressionless woman in a black dress, and a stout rosy-cheeked man.
Sevv beckoned again and Reyan came over.
“Reyankaiya, I would like you to meet Mr. Brimm Stableman.” The man smiled and raised his mug with a meaty calloused hand. “And Ms. Chrissa Stableman.” The woman’s shiny black hair pulled back tight and was worked into a perfect braid that fell over her right shoulder like a rope of raven’s feathers. When Sevv said her name, the woman’s chin dropped half an inch at most in acknowledgment.
Sevv presented Reyan with an open hand. “And this is Reyankaiya. She’s the one I mentioned. The one traveling with us to Seal Tooth.”
“I see you’ve already made friends with our Avalina,” the stout man said. Reyan gave a nod and looked down into her mug for want of a better place to look. “Avi,” the man called cheerfully, “come over here.”
When Avalina arrived, Sevv said to Reyan, “I’ve been looking for a place for you to stay…” Reyan tensed, her eyes shot up to glare at Sevv. The old professor chuckled and patted the air, “No, no. Just while we’re in Rowe. You can’t very well sleep on the floor in my truck, now can you? So, I’ve asked Avalina’s family if they’d be willing to house you for a couple of nights. Would that be okay?”
Avalina’s mouth twitched into a quick smile. The girl looked appraisingly at Reyan for a moment before answering on her behalf, “That’ll be fine, I’ll see to her.” Avalina held out her hand and Reyan took it hesitantly.
Avalina’s father beamed, but her mother looked as though her daughter had brought a wild animal into the house. The woman blinked and forced a smile.
“Wonderful,” Sevv said. “Very much appreciated.”
The two girls downed their remaining blackberry beer and left their mugs in a large tub full of sudsy water near the barrels and walked out into the night. Once they’d left the crowd and the house, Avalina must have decided Reyan no longer needed and escort and dropped her hand.
There was a small oil light burning over the doorway of every house or store they passed on the two blocks to the town square, but these offered very little light. Luckily, the stars were out, and the half-full moon was pouring light down into the town.
“Here we are,” Reyan said as they approached Sevv’s truck. She opened the door. The windows over the bed and on the wall over the desk both had their curtains drawn. It was as dark as a cave inside. Reyan lifted one of the running lanterns from it’s hook on the porch post. There was a spring-loaded lever on the side of the lantern. She pulled it and let it snap back into place. A flash of sparks ignited the wick which threw pulsing orange light into the interior of the truck. She found her small bundle and returned to Avalina waiting for her on the porch. She closed the door, snuffed the lantern and replaced it on its hook.
Avalina looked at the bundle. “That’s it?”
They headed toward the stables. There they turned and headed toward the river. A few blocks later they came to a house, modest by Rowe standards, but which would have rivaled the leader’s house back in Orloton. They walked up to the porch. Avalina opened the door and found a lantern on the stand just inside. There was the snap and crack of the flint switch. Warm light swelled into the room. It squashed and stretched their shadows across the walls and lit up the hall before them. “This way. Our room’s down here on the right.” Along the way Avalina stopped and opened a door. “Washroom, if you need it in the night.”
Once they were in Avalina’s room, the girl placed the lantern on a high shelf near the door. She lit another lantern which sat on a low table next to her bed. The whole room was filled with warm light and trembling shadows. Aside from the bed and table, there was a shelf with several books, and assorted odds and ends from a girl’s life. A wooden duck with wheels for legs that could be pulled with a string, some flopsy dolls, the sorts of things she had likely grown too old to find interesting, but of which she was still too fond to get rid of.
There was a desk, with pencils and a small stack of paper. In the middle of the desk was an expertly carved and painted horse with one of its front legs lifted as though it were pawing at the air.
Avalina came over and stood near to Reyan. She sniffed then whispered, “You stink a little.” Reyan looked down at the ground in shame. “It’s okay. I work with horses. I stink a little every day. But you definitely stink. Let’s get you washed up. I bet there’s still water in the reservoir. Not a lot, but probably still warm enough if we’re quick about it.”
Avalina led her back to the washroom. “I’ll leave you here. When you’re ready, there’s the soap, and here’s a washcloth. I would use the water sparingly. I would hate for you to have to rinse off with cold water.” Avalina smiled and left, leaving a lantern in the room and closing the door gently behind her.
Reyan stripped off her clothes and piled them on the floor. She collected the soap and washcloth and climbed into the tub. She opened the faucet and water spilled out onto the washcloth. As soon as it had soaked through, she was careful to turn the water back off. She used the cloth to wet her skin. Avalina had been wrong. The water was cold, but that didn’t matter much. Even the leader’s house in Orloton didn’t have a sun-heated reservoir, so cold baths were all she’d ever had. She lathered the soap on the cloth and covered herself with suds. She shivered. She opened the faucet back up and splashed the water over her goose pimpled skin to rinse off the foam. At last, she held her head under to rinse her hair and only then did the warm water arrive. It must have taken that long to travel through the pipes from the reservoir. It felt wonderful as it spilled over her scalp and face. She plugged up the drain so that she wouldn’t lose any of it. She used the soap to lather her hair, and rinsed it. Then she lay back in the few inches of warm gray water.
She wanted nothing more than to drain the tub and refill it with clean warm water and soak, but that was wasteful and felt a little too close to theft. She drained all the dirty water and gave herself a final rinse.
There was a knock on the door. “I couldn’t find your night clothes.”
“I only have day clothes.”
“What, the one’s you wore at dinner?”
This was one of those situations where the answer was plain enough that she worried it was a trick question, one where her response would get her ridiculed, so she didn’t answer. She stood up in the tub and began to towel herself off. Footsteps moved away from the door and returned a moment later. The door opened just enough to allow a hand to slide through the gap. Dangling from the hand was a long white shirt. “Here you go. Put this on.” It was big and loose. The sleeves ended halfway down the backs of her hands, and the hem touched her ankles. But it was soft and clean. The shirt did not smell like her. As a rule, Reyan did not care for other people’s smells, but there was something about the scent of this shirt that made her want to bunch it up and press it to her face.
She dropped the wet cloth and damp towel into a basket near the door and carried the lantern back to Avalina’s room. Avalina was in bed reading a book when she entered. She looked up over the top of the book and laughed. This made Reyan’s neck stiffen and she clenched her fists. But then Avalina said, “Come here. Sit down.” She put down the book and opened a drawer in the table next to her bed. She pulled out a comb and ribbon.
Reyan sat down with her back to Avalina. She felt the other girl gather a handful of hair. She tried to run the comb through it but it immediately became stuck. Avalina began teasing the comb through each knot in Reyan’s hair. “When was the last time someone put a comb to this?” Reyan didn’t know, so she didn’t answer.
Avalina slowly worked her way through Reyan’s hair. This caused a slow steady storm of crackling pain. There was part of her that wanted to run, and another that wanted to turn around and slap Avalina for hurting her. She did not want those parts to win out and she didn’t let them. She sat as still as she could with her fists clutching her night shirt to keep them from flying.
They heard the front door open. There were a lot of fumbling sounds, periodic clangs, and a few dropped things before a series of inconsistent foot falls made their way down the hall and stopped at the door. There was a light knock and a few seconds later a round head popped in. “You still up de…?” He stopped when he saw Reyan sitting on the bed. “Oh yea, you! Forgot about you. How you girls getting along?”
“Just fine dad. Go to bed.”
The man beamed like he had at the banquet. “Okay then. Good night dear. And good night…er what was your name again?”
“It’s Reyan, dad.”
“Ah. Right. Good night then Reyan.”
When her father was well out of ear shot, Avalina growled. “He’s the worst.” Reyan was confident that Avalina’s father was not the actual worst. He didn’t even seem a little bad. But then again she was very stupid, and there were so many things she did not understand about people. Especially parents.
As the grooming continued, it slowly became less painful. Avalina asked, “Have you ever been to Seal Tooth?”
When Reyan didn’t say anything more, Avalina grew impatient. “Well, are you excited to be going?”
“Why would I be excited?”
“Oh, I don’t know, because it’s the pop-center. Because you’ve never been before. Because it’s an adventure.”
“Do you think it will be dangerous?”
Avalina laughed. “No.”
“Do you think there are parts of it I’ll be the first to discover?”
“What are you talking about?”
“What would make going to a safe place that everyone already knows about an adventure?” She wasn’t arguing, she was genuinely curious.
“I don’t know. It’s just a different place for you to be in. It’s not new to the world, but it’s new to you. I guess it’s an adventure because you get to discover how you feel there.”
“I think I’ll feel like myself no matter where I am.”
“Well, isn’t there any place you want to go?”
Reyan wanted to mention her tree but guessed that didn’t answer the question Avalina was asking. “No.”
“I do. I want to go to Seal Tooth. I want to cross the Great Eastern River. I want to go everywhere.”
“Why? What’s on the other side of the Great Eastern River?”
“Who knows? That’s the whole point. All I have to go on is the stories made up by annoying over-confident boys who think that just sounding smart means you know something.”
Now Avalina was making slow passes through Reyan’s hair and finding only a few snags at a go.
“Boys like Jax?”
“Jax? What do you mean?”
“You don’t like him.”
“Jax?” She thought for a moment. “I’m not sure I don’t like Jax. I mean yeah, he’s a dumb boy, and he says dumb things, and he’s always around just being dumb. But, he’s not so bad. I’m not talking about Jax.”
“The other boy in the stable?”
Avalina was quiet for a minute. She stopped combing out Reyan’s hair. “Yeah, I guess.”
“The short one?”
“Benj. Yeah, he’s an ass. He makes Jax do all the hard work. And he bosses me around like I’m his helper.”
“You’re the stableman’s daughter,” Reyan said, as though that would clarify everything.
Once Avalina’s brush could find no more snags, she divided the damp strands into cords and began braiding them into a rope. She tied the end with a ribbon to keep it from unraveling. She patted Reyan’s back. “There you go.”
Avalina put the comb back into the drawer and pulled out a hand mirror and handed it to Reyan. Reyan moved the mirror around her head straining her eyes to the sides to see as much of herself as she could. She didn’t know if she liked what she saw, but she did find it interesting, like exploring a new trail or finding a new sort of bug.
When Reyan made to curl up on the ground with her pillow under her head, Avalina laughed and made her climb into her bed. Reyan did this with a sizable degree of discomfort and anxiety. But the bed was large so that Avalina did not touch Reyan. And the bed was soft and warm and the air in the room had grown cool.
Soon Reyan was asleep.