I woke up four times, worried that someone would enter and find us. I did not want to be awakened by a stranger's hand and a voice demanding my business in this stable that was not mine. The fourth time, when the sky outside the doorway was pale, I shook Celvid awake (he was not at all pleased) and shooed him out the door.
The sea-smell hung in the cold air, and I could catch a hot yellow glimmer over the sandhills in the east as Celvid and I scrambled through back lots and away from the city fringes. I refused to stop until we had left all the houses behind. Grass stuck up, dead and trapped, in the cracked edges of the mud flats, the no-man's-land between the tideline and the desert.
"Which way is your sister?" I said.
"I don't know," complained Celvid sleepily. Dirty-gold straw flecked his ruffled hair.
"You said you knew!" The boy I had understood and wanted to help yesterday seemed worlds removed already. I was so, so very tired of his whining.
"You muddled me all up, pulling me 'round like that," he retorted, his lip pushing forward in that eternal pout. "I don't know where we are!" A plover's call squawked loud and lonely after his words, and his eyes popped in surprise; and somehow he looked so funny that I giggled.
I felt better after the giggle. "You little masquäa," I said, ruffling his hair more awry still, "I had to get us away from the city. People will be looking for us all over. Look back there, towards Zagha-Awb. You can see the three great roads running into it from our side." I crouched down beside him and pointed them out in a sweep, one running almost toward us, the other two cutting farther east across the desert, their pale strips almost washed out in the early haze of sun.
"We didn't come in by those roads." Celvid was thinking for himself again. His small voice sounded measured, confident. "I think Dovurti came from the other direction."
That was sound enough. After all, they would have been traveling south. Celvid and I would have to go north. "Will you know the road you took when you see it?"
"Yes," said Celvid with increasing energy. "It was a big road, with quite a lot of people," he confided, digging his head into my ribs, "and there were white stones beside it." I realized he was seeing me as a friend once more, which irked me for some reason that I could not tell, except that his friendship was almost annoying as his sulkiness.
But I thrust down the feeling. It was, objectively, much better to have Celvid as an ally than an unwilling brat — even if he was a brat. "Let's go find your road."
"You called me a pest," he said, skipping beside me on our way across the empty flats.
I blinked, and remembered. "Who told you that masquäa meant pest?"
Without looking, I could sense the devious smile making its way across his little face. "I found out. I'm learning your language, Amli."
"So?" I had no intention of nursing his pride.
"Cal used to call me a pest, too."
"I wonder why," I mumbled.
"Never mind," I told him.
Celvid talked unceasingly all our way around the city, until I told him that twenty masquäas could not equal the pest he was making of himself. He giggled. I told him to hold his tongue or I would feed it to the gulls.
"You would not," Celvid declared.
"There are many gulls by the docks," I said. "Saraji and I feed them sometimes. They are always very hungry."
I think he pretended to believe me after that.
We reached Celvid's road in two hours. I tried not to think of my parents panicking and searching in the city behind me, but I looked back at its shining, bronzed silhouette in spite of myself.
"Amli, my head hurts," came Celvid's voice like the irritating drone of a fly.
I breathed in, breathed out. "How many days did you travel after your sister was sold?"
Celvid mumbled and fiddled with his fingers for a long time, getting red in the face with his efforts. "Six," he said finally. "One of them I rode in a cart; the rest we walked."
I shrugged. Carts rarely covered ground faster than walking speed, especially on such a crowded highway as this one. "Six days it is, then. Do you know the name of the town?"
"No." His eyes stared straight up into mine, unnervingly. "But the man who bought her was called K-k-kaza — Kaza something. Dimir."
I gripped his hand tightly and walked faster. "We're just going to see her."
"Just going to see her," repeated Celvid happily.
Six days. Kaza-Dimir. I said the words to myself, over and over, and they made a resolute, somehow comforting rhythm in my head.
Early in the afternoon, to my relief, we reached an outlying village. Celvid and I had not eaten since yesterday evening, and Celvid's exuberant spirits had suddenly died at midday; he dragged his feet, and moaned, and begged to stop walking. I pulled him aside from the road when the buildings appeared ahead, and hid him behind an acacia thicket. "I'll be back with food," I told him. I had no intention of walking into a curious small town with him; intuition warned me that a girl as young as I with a foreign slave child was going to get more questions than I could handle.
I unknotted about half the money from my chita and headed into the dusty, cow-smelling streets. The market was peaceful but not too lazy, a pleasant hum of conversation around, and I drove my bargains well and quickly. I was worried in the back of my mind that Celvid would not stay where I had left him.
As a matter of fact, when I returned, he had fallen asleep.
I shook him awake and showed off my spoils: flatbread, oranges, salted fish, and a drawstring sack to carry it all in. He perked up at once and devoured three pieces of bread at an alarming rate. After satisfying my own hunger, I took us both to the common well outside the village and we drank. The water had an unusual taste, and I guessed that they watered animals here. If Atra knew I was drinking at a common well, she would scold my ears raw.
Celvid's cheer evaporated instantly as soon as I suggested moving on again. "My head hurts in the sun," he protested.
I did not know what to say, because — for once — his complaint was a fair one. We had been walking in the sun for hours, and even my temples had begun to twinge a little. Few people traveled in the glare of midday like this, but I was urgent to put as far a distance as possible between us and Zagha-Awb. The search for us would not wait, and we could not wait either.
At last I untied my chita, dumped the money into the food sack, and settled it loosely over his fair head and sunburned cheeks. He recoiled. "That's girl's clothes!"
"Men would be smarter to wear them," I said. "If you want to keep your headache, you can take it off."
He stumped along beside me, scowling and swathed in the white folds of the chita, and looking in truth quite laughable, but I kept my laughter on the inside. We walked slowly in the sleepy hours of afternoon, until I forgot my laughter and Celvid forgot his anger and the silence between us was sleepy and content. The food was a reassuring weight against my shoulder.
Six days. Kaza-Dimir. I could do this.
*looks around nervously* It's been a month... but one month is 15x better than 15 months, soooo...
What did you think? I'm stuck between feeling like this is a horrible mess and feeling like it's actually okay. Feedback appreciated!
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Swirls of SandFantasy
"Everyone has an important story to tell. Some stories are about reclaiming a kingdom, or winning a great battle, or saving a life. This is the story of how I did a very foolish thing." Fourteen-year-old Amli, daughter of a middle-class merchant, ha...