Chapter 11

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"Will anyone chase us?"

I swished a stick in the gritty road as we walked, ignoring the knot that swam up my stomach at Celvid's cheerfully voiced question. "They won't know where to look." And in spite of the knot of worry, I really did believe it. Nobody else even knew that Celvid had a sister. How could they trace us to her?

"How much longer till noon, Amli?"

I counted all the constellations I had learned under Atra's diligent tutelage, and all my ancestors up until the fifth generation, to keep my temper in check. "How much longer do you think?"

He huffed a little, and, to my relief, did not answer. After the first day's hurry, we had settled to an easier pace with a break over the early afternoon, when even couriers avoided travel. Celvid liked the rest stop so well that anyone would have thought he had stopped wanting to see his sister at all.

Today we found a shady grove to wait out the heat of the day in, full of the acacia trees for which I was named. I nipped off several leaves and embedded them like a flower-sprig in a hastily fashioned braid, except there were no flowers.

"Why did you do that?" Celvid asked, using the Arahadian word for why, which startled me.

"A celebration," I said. I spun around, feeling a hint of the same thrill I had felt before Saraji's betrothal dinner. "A celebration that today is the third day, and we are halfway to Kaza-Dimir and Cal."

"I knew that already," said Celvid.

I sighed, my enthusiasm ebbing with no-one to share it, and reached up to tug out the braid and acacia.

"You can leave them in," said Celvid. "They look pretty."

So I left the leaves in, and my heart was warm all over.

***

The next morning, I woke up to something tickling my chest and chin. I opened my eyes on the dimness of the barn we had crawled into and the bulging eyes of a muddy-hued, long-horned cow. The horns were very long, and very sharp.

I screamed and kicked out. The cow stood like a stone, only her head swinging lazily from side to side as I scrambled backwards and fled the barn.

Celvid was close behind me. "It sniffed you," he said in a small, nervous voice. I was glad he did not scorn me for my fear of the cow.

A man's voice echoed off to the right, and Celvid and I darted quickly behind the barn and circled around to the road. I reached up to my shoulder for the strap of the food-sack, making sure of its presence. "We are not sleeping in barns anymore."

"Why?" Celvid looked displeased. "Not all barns have cows in them, and it's cold at night."

But the cow was the excuse I needed. I did not like the underhanded feeling of sleeping in another's building without permission, harmless as it was. Many small tastes of deception I had had of late, and had not enjoyed any of them. I yearned to leave at least one secret behind.

"We'll travel at night," I said. "Sleep in the day."

Celvid hopped with glee. "Amli, really?"

I had to admit, even to myself it seemed an ingenious plan. I wondered why I had not thought of it in the first place.

We halted at another village that day to resupply the food. It took the rest of my money, and I realized we were going to have to skimp before the end. I had not realized that Celvid and I would eat so much.

"All alone, kishata?" asked the woman who sold me the flatbread. She had crinkly, sparkly dark eyes like Saraji and grey locks threading through her loose hair.

I had left Celvid behind again. "Yes, ditchi," I answered politely.

"Poor kishata!" She clucked. "And far to go, by the swelling of that bag. Your clothes are of good make, though; your father ought to be rich enough to send a guard with you."

"He doesn't know." The mistake was out, and as hard as I shut my mouth and as hot as my face flushed, I could not take it back. I whirled and fled the village. One more wrong answer like that and word could get out. I hoped the woman would think nothing of it, or if she did that she would draw any of the myriad wrong conclusions.

I told Celvid about the mishap as we rested under a thorny hedge by the roadside and ate our noon meal.

"She'll think the wrong thing," said Celvid. "They always do."

"Who do?"

"Old ladies. They make up horrible stories and tell them in the kitchens and my father threatens to flog them for gossip."

I blinked and sat back at the gruesome suggestion. "W-would he?"

"No," said Celvid calmly. "Nobody does it anymore. So they still gossip."

"Oh," I said, still appalled by the idea that anyone would scourge a person for a little indulging of one's tongue.

"Grandma says, 'The country is going to the Ruler of Night.'" Celvid produced a high, querulous falsetto. "And Father says, 'That's irreverent.'" He made an effort to deepen his voice, and the imitation, regardless of accuracy, was inimitably droll. I found myself giggling.

We lay under the hedge all that afternoon — Celvid dozed off, though I could not; and at evening, spirits high, we set out. It was fair going, despite the new moon. There were no masquäas out to cluster around us, no blazing sun to deaden our limbs and weary our eyes. The world seemed a new and marvelous place by night, full of softer noises and softer lines, and all the open fields were blurred into a gentle emptiness. Even Celvid's chatter was less vexsome under the night-world magic.

That is, until he asked on the second night of our night-travel, "Amli, will you marry me?"

I was too shocked to speak at first. "What on Zagha's green shores, Celvid?"

"Let's marry when we grow up," Celvid explained casually.

"You are ten. I will marry long before you do, and I will definitely not marry you."

Celvid sulked. "I'll ask again someday," he said at last. "Eventually you will say yes."

Looking up at the stars and whatever ancestors might be listening, I vowed silently that I would never marry Celvid, no matter if he kept asking till I was twenty and of the age my mother would consider allowing me suitors.

A trickle of sound came out of the fringe of trees on the road ahead. I paused, squinting forward into the darkness, wondering who else was out so late, as the sound distinguished itself into murmuring voices, rapid, disorganized feet, and metallic clinks.

"Amli," said Celvid loudly, "come on!"

The noise subsided for an instant.

And then I remembered the reason people did not travel at night.

Bandits.

***

Eeeeeeek guys. So this was mostly a filler chapter, but I hope it wasn't too boring. I don't think it's as good as it should be (feel like I lost Amli's voice over the past month of absence), but hey, I wrote SOMETHING, right?

I'm so sorry, you guys. It's been over a month and I haven't been able to write anything. I'm not letting it happen again. No amount of priorities is allowed to exclude writing from my life. You have a chapter and you will get more.

I'm really excited for the next one.

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