“Oh no!” Mae Moonstorm says, leaning her large body on a vine-covered boulder. “You shouldn’t marry a fae.” As if. As if I’d marry one of those. But stupid romantic Jula made the mistake of mentioning Flight. She hadn’t even been serious. She was just listing the pros and cons of my seven Suitors is all. Cause she had nothing else to do as we walked. And Old Mae jumped on it.
Old Mae looks behind us toward the village, lowers her voice in case the Suitors are nearby. “Faes are just included as a symbol, a concession to tradition like. They don’t find us anymore attractive than we do them. Of course love is funny and unpredictable. And stuff happens. When it was her junha, my cousin chose a fae. . . .”
And now here it comes...seemingly the only story this woman ever tells: her cousin’s disastrous marriage to a fae.
“By Founders’ Graves, I swear it!,” Mae goes on. “She had a hard time of it. And they were in love. And he was faithful. And he was a common fae, not a Prince like Flight. And her fae in-law’s had approved the match. But was it a happy marriage? No, dear me, not at all.”
She’ll chatter on and on about inter-marriages until she’s worn herself out. I should try to stop her. But she’s older than me. Older than my other two Companions as well. She’s the voice of region in this Hunt. So. . .how to get her to shut up?
But lucky for me Kinna Starcave pipes up: “Did Mirror Sunbright say she would choose a fae?” she asks Old Mae.
So Mae shuts up immediately. Cause Lady Kinna’s an aristo. And common folks like us don’t talk back to aristos, not even on junhas.
So Kinna turns to me. “As far as I know,” she says, “that artist from West Village is the one you want. The boy Luca? Isn’t that true, Mirror?”
“Uhm, yes, My Lady, “ I answer, being extra-polite. Cause that’s how you’re supposed to talk to well-borns. Cause I know she got dragged into this ritual just like Prince Flight did.
“And unless something unforeseen happens,” Lady Kinna adds, “you’ll probably choose your beloved, won’t you?”
“Yes, My Lady.”
“And he’ll choose you. So, in seven days we’ll all be in our beds and you’ll be married.” She gestures to Mae to rise from the boulder, smiles wearily, then continues deeper into the woods. “And that won’t be Prince Flight.”
But I’m tired and achy. The sun’s streaming down, and the heavy tall-boots, gloves, and head-scarf are making me sweat. I’m probably not the only one feeling the burden of all this excess clothing. But we’ve got to wear them now that we’re in dense woods. A ketak bite is painful, often deadly. I tug at my sweaty head-wrap but I don’t remove it. Ketaks love aiming at the head.
“Are you coming?” Lady Kinna asks. But it’s not asking really. Aristos don’t really “ask” common folks for anything. So I rise from the boulder and follow her, Jula, and Old Mae.
Normally common folk don’t hang out with either faes or aristos. Although the elders and the councils have rituals and ceremonies to bring all the clans and castes together. The Founders did all they could to prevent a repeat of the old wars when everyone was warring against everyone else. Hence, this ceremony, my three Companions, and the Seven suitors.
For the most part the system works. Although it’s not likely the Lady and I will become close buddies or anything after the junha ends. An aristo was needed, the lot fell to her, and she accepted. A fae was needed and well. . .Flight and I are friends. So I guess he volunteered.
Usually the bride and her companions would be in the middle as we approach the mountains but my Suitors are lingering behind us women. I’m thinking Pel and his lame leg are slowing them down. Poor Pel! It’s not as if he’s got a chance with me. But maybe he’s clinging to some desperate hope that I’ll see his heart. We’ve been friends since childhood, after a ketak made him fall and he had to stay in bed through fall and winter. I visited him everyday. Unlike the others who feared a ketak might have entered him. He got to like me after that.
But I always thought he liked me as a sister. Imagine my surprise when he volunteered for my junha. After I made it known that I wanted to marry Luca, Pel started acting real strange. I should’ve known something was up. For a whole month, walking beside me, his lame leg dragging, he kept hinting he was going to do something big. I thought: Yeah, it’s the season, isn’t it? For girls to declare their love. And maybe some girl in the village has been loving him all this time. Maybe he’s had a secret lover and has been keeping mum. But the girl he loved turned out to be me. And when I walked to the village to see who had asked for me, by Founders’ Grave! there he was looking down at the ground all shy and triumphant at the same time. It was just weird seeing him there wanting to marry me.
Of course, it’s always funny when a girl sees who’s been wanting her all along. At first it’s hard to guess how many of the suitors actually wanted you and how many were thrown into the mix by the elders. And sometimes a girl’s ugly or sickly or has something wrong with her and she doesn’t have seven guys who want her. Sometimes she has none at all and her parents just want to marry her off. But usually even the ugliest girl’s got one fellow who likes her, and the other six are chosen by the elders. I’ll say this for the elders: they aren’t usually wrong. Even with all this talk of fairness and equal opportunity, they usually match like to like. Whether you’re rich or poor or fae or human or dark or fair, the elders make it easy. So an ugly girl with no prospects will be paired with ugly boys who probably won’t reject her if she chooses them. The elders are compassionate like that.
Only four suitors wanted me. That’s about average. Luca Farlight. That’s the one I’m sweet on, my love, the one they’ll call “The Beloved.” He’s an artist from the west village, quiet and soft-spoken. He keeps to himself though, but if you need him for anything —anything at all— he’ll be there for you. Would give you the shirt off his back, people say.
Then there’s Pel — handsome but lame Pel. I must give that boy a talking-to because he shouldn’t have been loving me all this time.
There’s Lord Jin Woo as well, an aristo from a nearby village. I often nod to him when I see him. Cause my cottage is on the edge of town and sometimes when I’m foraging for food I somehow end up near Jin Woo’s farm. Founders’ Graves! it’s more than a farm! He owns more than a half of this island and half of thirteen other islands. He’s the bastard son of a dead aristo and a merchant’s daughter. Folks say the reason Jin Woo’s family got so rich and Jin Woo and his siblings are so beautiful is because of a fae ancestor. Faes make their human families rich. And I guess it didn’t hurt that Jin Woo’s was one of the few sojourner families who owned slaves.
Imagine how my mouth dropped when I saw him standing in the village square among the seven suitors! Who would have thought he’d been wanting me all this time? He’s got the slanted crescent eyes of the sojourners and is ten year’s older than me. That makes him about twenty-seven. I’d think he and Lady Kinna would make a good pair, although she’s probably a good ten years older than he is. But apparently the woman has never fallen in love. That’s what folks say. Because she’s never had her own junha.
Hok is the last of my “real” suitors. He’s a son of sojourners, twice my age and good with a bow and arrow. He’s a normal, common man. A merchant who gives me baskets and baskets of food from time to time. I can’t say I like him but I can’t say I dislike him either. I suppose if I married him I wouldn’t starve.
As for the ones chosen by the elders. Prince Flight, a fae prince from the western forest. Kop-kop, Mae’s youngest grand-son. He’s sixteen, I think. Mae’s been saying she wants him to learn how to handle ketaks and there’s no better teacher than Flight. The last is Sangun whose ancestors were both slaves and sojourners. Nothing much to say about him except that he’s poorer than dirt. As poor as I am. So marrying him wouldn’t help my life any.
As for the bride’s companions, the elders pulled in Lady Kinna to represent the aristos. Jula as my age-companion. And Mae, cause Mae’s older and age is honored throughout all the clans.
In the twilight, Jula and I set pots to boil on a fire. We get the water from the lake, traveling through the brush by ourselves. I wasn’t afraid because ketaks usually avoid places where water faes are bathing and splashing about. Lady Kinna and Old Mae stayed behind cutting up leaves, gourds, and potatoes to make a pottage. After I set the pot to boil, I walk over to Luca’s blanket to make sure he’s comfortable.
The suitors are at different posts around the clearing, building Jiloki nets to catch ketaks should any attack. There’s a lot of friendly banter from those who are talkers. The only one not hanging Jiloki is Flight because like all fae’s he’s got to be perching above somewhere observing us humans. He’s making fireballs with his hands and throwing them to his hawk. Seriously, it’s like faes never grow up.
I lie on Luca’s bed to test how comfortable it is. I can feel every pebble and rock underneath the blanket. There’s an especially hard lump of clay near where he’ll put his feet. I roll the blanket over and find a rock and start pounding at the lump. After about ninety or hundred strikes, it gives way. I do this with all the other lumps, and when I lie on the blanket again, the ground feels a thousand fold more comfortable. As I’m lying there, Hok and Luca approach.
“You’re a good worker,” Hok says.
I smile but I think: Is that why you want me to marry you? To turn me into a slave-wife? Because no one has it harder than merchant wives.
He nods, taps my head, then walks over to his campsite.
Luca sits beside me on his blanket. “Comfy,” he says. “How’d you do it?”
“I broke up the clumps,” I tell him.
“I did that too,” he says, “but that didn’t work.”
“You should’ve tried longer and harder,” I tell him.
He shrugs and looks over toward the Jiloki which is being prayed over by those who believe in God or the gods. Those who don’t trust their gods are casting spells or looking up at Flight. I know one or two people usually get killed in these hunts. But I’m hoping everyone here will return to the village safely.
I rise to leave and catch sight of a bundle of yarrow plants beside Luca’s bed.
“And what’s this about?” I ask. “Didn’t you hear what the elders said? Ketaks seek out yarrow.”
“Exactly,” he says. “That’s why I picked them. To bait them.”
“But the elders said yarrow would lead them to us. Don’t you understand? By bringing yarrow inside the camp, you’re leading the ketaks to us.”
“Ah,” he says, leaning back on his blanket, “you worry too much. Isn’t your fae friend here?”
Even so, I gather the yarrow and throw them far into the woods beyond the clearing. He makes me so afraid, my Luca. Because he doesn’t listen. Or he hears things in the wrong way and twists his listenings to have them say what he wants them to say.
I’m trying to push my fear away when Flight climbs down from his tree perch and starts making an ice hedge around and above us — around and above our sleeping mats, our firepits, our travel packs, clubs, swords, lances, quivers, bows. It’s hard not to feel “protected” as he grasps the air and, with a flick, transform it into ice. Freezing icicles fall from his hand creating interlocking stalagmites and stalactites. An “ice fortress,” Lord Jin Woo’s calling it and he has this joyous appreciative smile on his face that makes me wish my Luca could show more emotion than he does.
Lord Jin Woo’s a beauty. I’ve heard some women say that men shouldn’t be so beautiful. Still, he’s not as lovely to look at as Prince Flight. But truly, who is? Prince Flight is as handsome a fae as any but still. . . he’s blue-green, for Founders’ Sakes!
Prince Flight, being both a prince and a fae, is doing what faes and aristos do. He’s taking charge. The others are letting him of course. Because he’s a fae, because he’s an expert on ketaks.
He’s describing how ketaks, who once slithered on the ground like normal snakes, became flying invisible serpents. They “evolved,” he says. He tells us that some ketaks have gotten so bold they not only come down to the inland villages but to villages on the coast. “Most ketaks fear the sharp scales and fins of the water faes,” he says, “but the bold ones have no fear of man or fae.”
It’s my wedding ritual and all the talk is about ketaks. I don’t mind, though. There’s a reason why the junha is also a ketak-hunt. We cull their population and the girl’s suitor proves his ability to protect her when ketaks attack our villages.
Prince Flight suddenly stops his lecture and reaches toward Mae. He gently touches her face. “You’ve gotten old,” he says. “Those wrinkles. Tell me. . .do they hurt?”
See, this is what always happens. I get lulled into thinking he’s like a real human being. Then he does something that is just plain odd! Still, he’s clothed at least. Really clothed instead of walking through the branches covered in leaves. So that’s something, I suppose.
As I think this, he catches my thought and turns to look at me scrubbing a stew pan. For a moment, I want to grab the hot pot and throw it at him. I catch myself though. Which is what makes me human. Faes are not really adept at “catching” themselves.
“Are you thinking of me, Mirror?” he asks. “Are they good thoughts or bad ones?”
“We’re all thinking of you, idiot!” I say, rolling my eyes. “Because you’re talking to us, right?”
“Is it proper to be impolite to a fae?” Lady Kinna asks me. And I tell myself she is seriously turning out to be someone who pisses me off everytime she opens her big propriety-filled mouth. “Surely, rudeness is not a thing one should indulge with when dealing with a fae?”
“It’s darn hard not to be rude to them, Lady Kinna,” I answer. “Especially that one. He may be four hundred years old but he looks like a kid after all, and in the human world...well, it just seems like he’s never learned good manners.”
I hear gentle laughter. It’s Jin Woo. He’s got this sweet loving smile that takes in all the world. “Well said, Mirror,” he says. “The faes are often quite impolite.”
“Especially that one!” I say again, pointing at Flight.
“They’re friends, Lady Kinna,” Mae says, sounding as if she’s about to melt away into nothingness because she’s challenging an aristo. “He lives in the woods near her. He’s been her playmate since childhood as he has been mine. True, faes are unpredictable and I, myself, have had a few terrifying moments but he would not willingly harm her. Truly, I think he will protect her from hurts great and small.”
I want to laugh at the way she’s talking. Because all us commoners fall into standard Yinglas when we talk to aristos.
But Lady Kinna replies, “Ah, that I did not know. Well, if they’re friends.”
“Yes,” Lord Jin Woo adds, “if they are friends. And yet, Mirror, be careful. Some faes have accidentally killed their friends.”
“Lord Jin Woo,” I say, “if you are really descended from faes, I hope you’ve managed to “evolve” out of that trait.”
He laughs. “Well, I am not immortal,” he says. “But other things? Uhm... no one’s said anything about me reading their minds or causing the death of a good friend by playing a stupid prank. I suppose I have evolved.”
I laugh, although his words make me remember the day Flight almost killed me.
And Lady Kinna has to mess up my joy by saying, “Mirror, be careful lest you become infatuated with Lord Jin Woo. Even if he’s here because he really does want you. You don’t want your married life to Luca cluttered with daydreams of the lord you could have had.”
Jin Woo and I look at each other but we don’t speak. These aristos are seriously annoying. Is she descended from faes too? I wonder.
I glance at Flight and he looks as if he’s stifling a laugh. He goes back to his lecture leaving Mae’s wrinkles for another time. He’s holding a branch and twigs. A branch so large no human could lift it. At one point, his fingers and hand seem to be lost inside the limb or to be a part of it. He’s teaching us how to “see” ketaks.
“Mark,” he says, “how the leaves shiver or hang when a ketak troubles them in its flight. Like the wind in winter.” He’s pretty concerned for everyone’s safety, which is his saving grace. Some faes don’t like us humans.
After the lecture, and after the pot scrubbing, I walk toward Pel. I’m supposed to bundle with one suitor each night. Ay me! Having our feet tied together all night. I’m not liking the idea at all. But Mae says it’s tradition and if any ketaks come by, my suitors will protect us.
I’d rather lie with Luca but I want to talk to Pel, to disabuse him of that hope of his. So tonight, Pel it is. I endure the indignity of being bound in a blanket while the others hover over us and make a joke of it. Pel says it’s fun, giggling and laughing.
“You’ll get a crick in your back if you try to do anything all wrapped up like that,” Old Mae warns. “Just talk then sleep.”
“For your information, Mae,” I retort, “I have no desire to try anything with anyone but my Beloved.”
“You’re a better woman than I then,” she answers. “In the old days, we girls took the opportunity to. .”
“What if I want to pee?” I ask cutting her off. And of course, Pel laughs at this.
“Just call Flight,” she says. “He’ll use his magic to unwind the ropes for you. They’re just like vines to him. Even in his sleep, he’ll hear you call.”
“I’d rather die than ask Flight for anything,” I say.
“Ah,” she says, “you don’t mean that.”
And, of course, I don’t. But I still wish he would realize he’s in mixed company and behave accordingly.
The other suitors and companions form a circle around us, the women inside and the men surrounding them. And for a moment, being in the middle, I feel special. . .like this is really about me and my love and not about ketaks.
It’s comfortable being with Pel. I got a little sad when that pale crippled withered foot of his was being bound to mine. But I hid my pity because he doesn’t like being pitied.
“Why’d you come to the junha?” I ask him. “I hope you don’t think I’ll take you out of pity.”
“Well, maybe there’s a bit of that in my head,” he says, finding my hand and squeezing my fingers. “I want you however I can get you. But I’d hate to have only your pity. I want you to see my bravery and my heart.”
“I already know your heart. Aish! What a bother you being here!”
“I was here several times before,’ he says, a sad tone to his voice.
“I know,” I say. “Before you got hurt, you were always disappearing to see how junhas battled ketaks. And what did it get you? You were always getting into trouble for that!”
I still remembered the day he crawled back into the village. He’d been on the mountain following a marriage group when a ketak flew past him as he stood on a boulder. The ketak made itself visible just before he struck. Pel was so terrified he leaped from the rock and into the snow-covered gulley-grass. He never said if he got bit or not. I suspect he was, though, because he got moody and sickly after that. Then he went away for awhile to one of the islands. Supposedly to learn how to walk with that stick he leans on. But most folks think it was to find a shaman who would remove the ketak venom.
“Do you think I want to marry a boy with a ketak in him?” I ask.
“I don’t think a ketak lives in me,” he says, frowning. “But even if it did. . .once. . . even for a little while, the fae removed it.”
I stare at him in the dim moonlight. “Really? A fae helped you? Well, this is the first I’ve heard of a fae helping you.”
He nods. “Mae’s cousin-in-law.”
“That a fact?” I say. “Some things you never know! And why didn’t he cure you entirely?”
He shrugs, glances over at Flight who of course turns around to look at us. “You know how they are.”
“For your own protection, best you stay with Flight, Jula, Luca and me,” I say. “You hear me? Don’t wander off. We’ll protect you. And we won’t leave you in a lurch if ketaks attack. Those other suitors I’m not too sure of.”
“Why?” he asks, leaning on his side and looking up at me with his pale blue eyes. “You think the suitors are dangerous? Then shouldn’t you worry about Luca?”
“No one’ll kill anyone on this junha,” I answer. “Not with a fae Prince around. He’s no regular fae who just doesn’t give a damn.”
He laughs. “True. Hadn’t thought of that.” Then suddenly serious he says, “Back in the village, chances are pretty small you’ll have to actually fight a ketak,” he says. “Ketaks tend to fly in, bite —perhaps kill — folks. No chance for you to see them coming. But here. . . well, if we hunt them. . .you know what I’m getting at. I wonder which of us will survive. Prince Flight won’t die of course. Faes don’t die.”
I burst out laughing. “It doesn’t mean they can’t get hurt — hurt enough to need mending. And the sting of a ketak’s bite is so painful.” I lower my voice. “I’ve seen faes weep, know that? And they get so nasty when they’re in pain. Like crying little babies. It’s so funny. Because pain is so rare for them. They just can’t deal with it.”
I’m laughing but I can’t shake the feeling that someone might get hurt. It happens so often in junhas. Here, near the mountains, we’re on the attack. But we’re also far from the healers. If you get bitten, you get this raging month-long fever. If folks get better, they’re forever changed. Sometimes folks go mad, but sometimes it’s subtler than that…and only family members know how you’ve changed. That’s why, unless the attack takes place in public, folks don’t talk about personal attacks. If the personality if your son or daughter or father suddenly changes after a bite, it could mean the ketak’s taken up residence in their body. And no one wants folks thinking that. The whole thing makes folks shudder. So there are always rumors about people hiding family members away, pretending they’re gone traveling, when all the while they’re trying to get one of the shaman or even a fae to cure them. The power of shamans are iffy to say the least. And their charges — outrageous! The faes are more powerful. But faes — well one never knows if they’ll help, does one? Sometimes they just stand by looking on in that indifferent curious way they have as your family member dies. They’re annoying like that.
I stay awake all night. Although Flight’s sitting in the tree branches, his quiver across his shoulder. I look out and watch for even the minutest hint that a ketak is hanging from a branch or limb. Several times I glance over to where Luca is. I’d like to go to him. But the elders say that kind of canoodling isn’t fair to the other suitors. Plus I’m all bundled up with Pel. Pel’s got good manners. Not once has he tried to touch me in any indecent way. I wonder if the other suitors will have good manners.
I feel Jula’s hand nudging my shoulder. Why in the name of Founders’ Graves is she up so early? She looks as if she hasn’t slept. She helps me wriggle out of the ropes that have bound me to Pel and we grab two water buckets. I follow her past the edge of the clearing to the lake, looking around for tell-tale signs of ketaks.
“You mustn’t marry Luca,” she says grabbing my arm. “Last night in a vision, the Good Lord of light told me to warn you. Don’t do it.”
I believe her because the Good Lord of light is a kind god and has always guided her. He sends me dreams sometimes but I don’t have visions the way Jula has.
“But why not?” I ask her.
“It’ll be bad, bad,” she says. “Whatever he does, however brave or loving or wealthy he is. . .that one is not for you.”
“But did the Good Lord say whom I should marry?” I ask.
She shakes her head then hoists her water bucket into the lake. “Just whom you shouldn’t.”
“Well, that’s useless,” I mutter under my breath and fill my bucket.
And that’s all she says which is just pretty useless as far as I’m concerned. I want her to tell me exactly what she saw but she never describes what she sees…just the impression and interpretations. A part of me thinks her mother’s influenced her to lie against me and Luca marrying. Luca’s a White skin. Jula’s mother doesn’t believe Brown skins and white skins should marry. It “muddies” her people, she says. Not that Luca’s related to the woman or anything but that’s how some White skins are. They dislike Brown skins or those they call the muddled people —people like Jin Woo, SanGun, or Hok. Still Jula’s mom wouldn’t mind if Jula were to marry a rich sojourner like Jin Woo. Even though Jin Woo’s got fae blood in him.
I follow Jula back to the middle of the clearing and immediately Pel greets me, smiling so wide, like he’s been waiting for years for my return. I frown at him. “You’ve got to stop loving me,” I tell him. “Ay me! Why do you get yourself in this mess? You can’t say I deceived you or forced this love on you, you know. I’ve always been very responsible about that kind of thing.”
“I know,” he says, “but I’ll win you even so.”
“Ay me,” I moan and tap him hard on the forehead. I walk to the center of the clearing where everyone’s planning the day’s hunt.
It’s quite an array, as the old folks would say. The tunics of the western and eastern villages, the tribal garments of my people, the silks of the sojourners, the rich vestures of aristos like Jin Woo and Lady Kinna, and the cotton royal weaves of a fae Prince. Neither Sangun or I are rich but somehow we both managed to get dressed up for the occasion. Sangun probably borrowed his tunic; it looks old. Mine was woven by a female fae, a servant of Flight’s. It’s so lovely and ethereal I feel like a princess in it.
It’s morning and the first day of actual hunting and although I generally don’t think of clans or castes, I’m noticing how groupings occur. Luca and Pel are waiting for Jula and me. Because we’re always together in the village. Lady Kinna’s by herself. Lord Jin Woo’s with Sangun and Hok. Kop-kop’s with his grandmother.
They say the friendships formed on these hunts last forever. That’s another reason for the junha. It’s the reason for some of the strange friendships in our village. Friendships that make folks both hopeful and wary; you don’t want to insult a beggar who’s pals with an aristo or a fae because they met at a junha. But sometimes junha friendships don’t last and people return unchanged to their villages and their old caste-aware selves. It’s only seven days after all; not exactly conducive to permanence. Jin Woo’s hunting with descendants of sojourners, his own caste, but I get a feeling he’ll befriend all of us. Lady Kinna, on the other hand, seems pretty untouchable. And yet, at least for these seven days and the seven following, I will be dressed better than even she. Thanks to Flight and fae seamstresses. I suppose I should thank him for going to all those lengths for me.
When I think this, Flight begins laughing behind me. Apparently he’s going to spend the next seven days messing with me.
“And what exactly is it now?” I ask him. “I was hoping you’d let up for once. Cause, you know...I’m getting married and all.”
“Is everything I do about messing with you, Mirror?” he asks, throwing his quiver across his shoulder. “For a little tiny thing you’re awfully conceited. My world does not revolve around you.”
“Well, since it doesn’t, you can just get along then.”
“But now that we’re chatting,” he says, “I was thinking we’d go for a ride. Selbi or Kratta?”
Darn it! He knows my soft spot. I want to say ‘Neither.’ But I so like rides. Still, I can’t let him win entirely. “Both,” I say.
He furrows his brow. “Both?”
I cross my arms. “Because I don’t trust you as far as I could throw you, Flight. And I don’t trust Kratta either. The both of you almost killed me three years ago. Or have you forgotten?”
“That was entirely your fault,” he says and whistles twice. Selbi’s whistle and Kratta’s.
They emerge out of the morning sky, Kratta’s shadow darkening the forest around us. Selbi is not exactly a small horse but Kratta makes even the aristo mansions look like a pebble.
Most of the suitors and Lady Kinna are of course awestruck. It’s not everyday one sees a dragon and a flying horse. But Jin Woo’s awe is filled with joy.
“Amazing!” he shouts. “Can I try one day?” He’s like a little kid, this aristo. Not that most aristos are cold but they’re like Lady Kinna. Way too serious and class-conscious. I try not to worry about this infectious joy Jin Woo carries with him because darn it, it could be pure human joy or it could be some recessive fae-trait like...I dunno…irresponsibility.
“Do you wish to try today?” Flight asks.
And just as I’m about to warn Jin Woo not to, our giddy joy-filled aristo says, “Yes! Yes! Surely, yes!”
The only thing I can do is warn him. “Ride with me on Selbi, Lord Jin Woo,” I say. “Selbi’s gentle. And he doesn’t play stupid tricks with human lives.”
“Not the dragon?” Jin Woo asks, putting on an exaggerated frown.
“Lord Jin Woo,” I say, “are you out of your mind? Don’t you know that dragons and faes together cannot be trusted?”
“Lord Jin Woo,” Flight says, “you and I are distant relatives. I have no doubt that as soon as you take the reins, you will instinctively know how to use them. It seems to me that you are a man who understands flight.”
“Do I?” Lord Jin Woo asks. “I cannot say that I do. Perhaps if you explained. . .”
“As it is written in the Scriptures of the good God of Light, ‘It is not in man who walks to direct his steps.’”
“And that means?” Lord Jin Woo asks, looking way too interested.
“You humans are all trapped in your own perspective,” Flight says. “You can only see your own thoughts. You can only know what is one footstep away from you. You come up with answers to your needs, then years later those answers are proven entirely wrong. You choose a medicine which later proves to be your poison. You are like a sheep without a shepherd, stumbling around in your ignorance because you do not see as a good or a fae sees. This is why you need a god or a fae to help you see from on high. But you, Jin Woo, you already understand this. You are open to what the humans call ‘intuition’ or ‘spirit.’ You put your mind away easily and enter into flight. So tell me, have you had any dreams since you entered into this journey?”
“I suppose I have. But my mind was on other things. . .I did not pay too much attention—”
Flight is shaking his head. “Such human words from a man with fae blood in him!”
“It is shameful, isn’t it?” Jin Woo says and chuckles.
So that’s that. Typical fae conversation. And Jin Woo totally went with the weirdness. That only makes me even more wary. Soon enough, his arms are around my waist while I hold Selbi’s reins. Interestingly, both Jin Woo and I have quivers. I, because Flight taught me how to use them. But why does Lord Jin Woo have them? Is this yet another fae trait?
I want to ask him. But Flight interrupts my musing. “Over there! A swarm of them!”
He’s flying ahead of us on Kratta, winging across the sky as if it belongs to him. Which I guess it technically does.
“Idiot!” I shout. “How do you expect us to see invisible snakes? Seriously, it’s as if you have no ability to see things the way we humans do.”
But Kratta belches out a grayish blue smoke and through the mist, I see ketaks. A swirling entangled mass in a snakepit. My stomach turns. I hate ketak pits.
“Do you see them, Lord Jin Woo?” Flight shouts.
“I do, Prince Flight. I do!”
“Mark their position. By human measure.”
“That I will, Prince Flight.”
Flight then turns right and Selbi follows. We ride over other junha groups and past faes spending their days doing whatever faes do until several miles away, near a cave-mouth, Flight shouts to us again. “Over there!”
Again the belching of smoke, again the momentary sight of the invisible, again the marking and measuring of distances. We do this all morning, then turn toward our campsite.
“Now I understand why it is necessary to have faes on these hunts,” Lord Jin Woo says. “In addition to the truce tradition, I mean.”
“Every once in a while Flight is actually of some use,” I have to admit. “But please, Lord Jin Woo, be careful if you befriend him. Forget that he’s four hundred years old. Think of him as you see him just now, as an impetuous sixteen year old. It’s best. Because I swear. . .he sometimes forgets that we are humans.”
“I shall be careful,” he says, “but you must grant me a favor as well.”
Oh, no! I think. Here it comes: he wants to bundle with me tonight. Perhaps worse; these aristos are known for having their way with common girls. But what I say —slipping into standard yinglis— is: “If it is within my hands to grant it, I will, Lord Jin Woo. What do you request, my lord?”
“Call me only ‘Jin Woo.’ I’m afraid the ‘lord’ title makes you as uncomfortable as it does me.”
“I find that surprising, my lord.” Again standard yinglis, not the Yeboonik patois the villagers from my neighborhood use.
“I’m my father’s only child,” he answers. “But he died. His mother took me from mine. But I still remember my childhood running and playing with the common lads.”
“Ah,” I say, “well then, ‘Only Jin Woo.’”
He squeezes my arm playfully and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of I burst out laughing. As we approach the campsite we see two groups from our wedding junha. And one walking alone: Luca.
Solitariness is one of Luca’s worst failings. He likes people well enough but he does not like being with them, or sharing his thoughts with them. I rather like the company of others but Luca plans his days alone, plans our lives alone. It is not that he is selfish, but his mind allows for few to enter it. In the woods, however, with invisible snakes, being alone is not what one should be. I remind myself that frogs can become princes.
“Fool!” Flight shouts down to him.
But my beloved does not hear, or rather he does not listen. And we continue toward the campsite.
We dismount from winged horse and dragon and race toward the lake. Flying is a thirsty endeavor.
“You must not marry Luca,” Flight says, as Selbi disappears into the morning. “You will not be happy. Marry Pel. Or Jin Woo. Or Sangun. Or Hok. Or even Kip-kop. But do not marry Luca. He will bring your head down to the grave early early.”
“Early early?” I echo.
“Your life will be a living death,” he says and walks toward a flirting water fae.
We rest by the water until a voice calls from our campsite: Sangun’s been hurt.
It’s bad bad. Sangun’s been bit on the neck and the blood’s trickling down. He managed to grasp the viper as it bit, cutting it halfway through with his knife. The thing turned visible as it died and it hangs about his shoulder a perverse trophy. Scattered yarrow petals are scattered along its long body.
“We must cut the hunt short,” Hok says. “Bring him to the healers. . .so they can.”
“No,” Jin Woo says, turning to Flight. “What use are healers when we have a fae among us?”
But Sangun says, “Don’t waste your time taking me home. Don’t disturb the hunt. After all, marriage or not, the snakes have to be killed. That’s why the Founders ordained this, isn’t it? That the girl might know the value of her beloved. That her lover can prove his worth. That the ketak could be controlled. Why return to the village without killing them? Only, kill hundreds. Kill them for me. Tell the villagers I killed the one who killed me. Make my name great even in death.”
“Stop talking nonsense,” Hok says. “The wound is not so deep. Others have been hurt more than you and have survived.”
“Yes,” I add, glancing toward Luca’s bed. “You’re too tough to die. Your life is more important than any old ketak. So the Maiden has declared the ritual must end. “
“Yes, you are dying.” Flight’s Voice. “The venom has gone deep into your reins. You will not survive even if one such as I tried to aid you.”
I’m seething and I want to kill Flight because he’s taking away Sangun’s hope. But of course faes have no idea about the etiquette of giving a dying man useless hope.
“Make your peace with your gods,” our cold-hearted fae goes on, “if reconciliation is what your gods require.”
I reach for Flight’s arm and start yanking him away but he calmly removes it. “You humans,” he says, turning around to look at all of us, those kneeling beside Sangun and those standing around wringing their hands uselessly. “You have a bad habit of silencing each other for supposed good intentions.” Then he raises his voice at me. At me specifically, as if I’m the wrong one. “If the man thinks he’s dying. . . no, if the man knows he’s dying. . .do not contradict him! Can you not refrain from speaking and hearing only your own thoughts?”
A silence descends on us. I want to run after Flight who’s just stormed off. But, before I can move, Old Mae says, “Flight’s words are true. We do silence each other. Perhaps out of good will but that still does not make it right.” She turns to Sangun. “Speak your peace, dying one.”
So, we lay him carefully among his meager belongings. There, with Flight guarding us carefully from his perch in the trees, we listen to Sangun’s history and fears.
He is afraid to die, he says. He has not been a good man. The gods know this. He had wanted to kill a hundred ketaks, to bring them in his hand into the village. Then his name would have been great, so great his sister would’ve found a good husband, so great the gods would allow him into their eternal feasts. But now, it is all too late. He will go past the gates of death without having done any good for anyone.
If he served my god, I would have told him to trust the Light God’s mercy. But he serves a harsh god and what can one say about the mercies of such a god that would not be a lie?
But Jin Woo holds his hands. “I will find your sister a good husband,” he reassures him. “This is my solemn promise.”
“She’s a kind thing,” Sangun says, “but her heart is bitter, bitter. Because life has proven itself hard.”
“Never you mind,” Old Mae says, “Lord Jin Woo is as good as his word.”
The day falls away and Sangun dies. I tell myself I should not have loved. How dare I love and cause men to venture into the woods?
And yet, it is our way. If a girl is to marry, she must call men to the woods. Or what is she worth? What is her husband worth?
I walk to Luca’s bed to cry on his shoulder and there I see yarrow springs, returned to our campsite.
“Yarrow?” I ask Luca, my voice low. “Why did you bring yarrow into our campsite? Didn’t the elders warn you not to? Your sleeping blanket is beside Sangun’s. You’re the one responsible for his death.”
But he doesn’t see his guilt. “Why do you blame me?” he asks. For Luca, the fault always lies in other people. Even when he deliberately disobeyed a caution. I walk away fuming.
While the men bury Sangun, Old Mae calls to me.
“Don’t be so angry at Flight,” she tells him. “It’s the way of faes. They speak their mind. All the time. All the time. They are unable to lie. Which. . .well, it can be distressing.”
I don’t tell her that it is Luca I’m angry with. “If Flight had given Sangun hope, Sangun might not have died.”
“Perhaps. But I think Flight knew Sangun was dying and nothing could prevent it.” She sighs, a long sigh. “And what he said about us humans silencing each other. . .it’s quite true, you know. I knew a woman. I won’t say if she’s dead or alive. But the god of Light told her she should not marry her beloved. But she did. She and her lover were both human. They both loved each other. But they were incompatible. They did not think and dream alike, and all their children had strange illnesses, which even the faes could not cure. This woman would often say to her friends, ‘I should have listened to the god of light. I should not have married my husband.’ But always they would silence her. . .even before she began speaking. They would tell her not to say she should not have married her husband. I don’t think she would’ve divorced him. I suppose that was the trouble. Some people in bad marriages love each other too much and will not divorce each other. But the marriage made her ill. Because her husband was so silent, so cold, so unable and unwilling to fight for the family. Yes, he was inept. But loveable. A woman cannot live long with such a man. Such men make women die early deaths. But whenever she tried to speak, her friends silenced her with their joking and their comforting. No one listened to her. And really, all she wanted was to speak about her heart. But they thought they were encouraging her. When he died, she grieved with all her heart. But she also breathed easily because she had been freed from him at last.”
And I know she is speaking of herself, because I knew her husband and I know what others have said to her.
It seems a hard cold thing to think of my future marriage when someone has died. But perhaps this is why the elders ordained junhas — to let us understand that marriage is a hard and difficult thing.
The next morning and who can think? Grief is so heavy no one can breathe.
“I had two cousins, a sister, and a brother killed by ketaks,” Hok says.
“And I a sister,” Lady Kinna says.
“And I a child,” Old Mae says. “Dead in its cradle.”
“And I a father,” Jin Woo says.
“And I a father,” Jula says.
“And I a brother,” I say. “But he didn’t die. He just lost himself.”
“As I lost myself,” Pel says.
When my brother lost himself, my mother brought him to Flight and asked him to cure him. Flight prevented him from dying but even so, my brother never returned to himself. That’s why my mother asked Flight to watch over me after that. Because we were poor, we lived near the edge of the village near the woods. Mother did not want to lose another child and knew having a fae protector would shield my life from harm.”
I wait for Luca to speak. He lost a sister to a ketak. But he doesn’t say it. He doesn’t share his grief as others do.
The anger at Sangun’s death fuels our hunt, and when Flight tells the others about the ketakpits, the fire in their heart burns even greater.
So for Sangun’s sake, and for the sake of all our loved ones who were killed by the ketaks, we rise and venture past the clearing toward the two ketakpits.
* * *
Our fury is so great that we rage through the mountain like fire. And it is fire we use most often. Kratta’s fire burns so many ketak snakepits that the odor of their sizzled flesh fills the whole countryside. In other locations, cold icicles rain down from Flight’s hand. The ketaks freeze immediately, materializing like frozen twigs in the hot forest. Jula, Lady Kinna, and all but one of my suitors hack at ketak heads. . .raging even at their frozen bodies. Some seventeen thousand ketaks are killed today. The only one who does not strike at the ketaks’ heads is Luca. He stands by, not once, not twice but ten, twenty, times.
Watching him from atop Selbi, I know what he’s thinking: The killing blast of ice is enough. Why do more than is necessary?
“We don’t need to finish all seven days,” Old Mae says. She’s riding on Selbi with me. “Or are you content with your Beloved? Isn’t Jin Woo a likable man?”
“That he is,” I say. “And yes, we’ve killed more ketaks than any other marriage group in a whole decade.”
“So who will you choose?” Old Mae asks, pointing to Luca as he walks behind my other suitors. She points to Jin Woo. “Jin Woo is as brave and kind as your beloved. But he soars, don’t you think?”
“But Luca’s the one I love.”
And as I say this, an arrow flies past me, lodging into the lungs and through the heart of my beloved: Flight’s arrow. I turn in shocked surprise to look at Flight atop Kratta. The look he gives me — I’ve seen it before. The look of a prince who has given an unchangeable cMammand, the look of a parent breaking a useless toy a child must outgrow. He puts his quiver across his pale blue shoulder and melts into the sky. I turn my gaze back to my beloved who has slumped to the ground. Pel is the first to notice that Luca has fallen. He limps hurriedly to Luca’s side.
“Flight was studying Luca all day,” Old Mae says, as Selbi flies downward. “I think. . .when he saw that you would not relent, he thought it best to step in. . . He should not allow you to destroy your life. . . as I destroyed mine.”
At the campsite, no one speaks. It is not necessarily a collusion but communal wisdom. It is murder, yes. At least humans think in this way. But one cannot say that faes and rulers murder; they are different from common folk.
I cannot stop weeping. Old Mae is trying to comfort me but she refuses to say that Flight is wrong. Which is what I need to hear. Lady Kinna approaches us.
“The one you loved is dead,” she says, “but the ritual is still unfinished. You must choose a husband. That is the tradition. You cannot leave the forest unmarried.”
“Yes, my Lady,” I answer. “I understand.”
“I suspect Hok wanted to marry you because he thought it might be good thing to have a wife who had a fae protector,” she goes on in her cold way. “However, he is avoiding you now. If you were to choose him, he would no doubt refuse you. He has seen the dark reality of such a privilege.”
“Privilege?” I ask.
She smiles and shakes her head at me as if I am really quite naïve. I do not respond because she is an aristo. If Flight were here, she probably would not have so freely insulted me.
“Your marriage choice?” she asks. She is so coldly practical that I no longer doubt that she has fae blood in her. “Pel? He loves you. And you and he are good friends with a common background. Or Jin Woo? Whom do you like better?”
“Choose Jin Woo,” Old Mae says.
“I choose Pel,” I say.
They both shake their heads.
“Frogs do not turn into princes,” Lady Kinna says.
“Your heart leaps when you’re with Jin Woo, does it not?” Old Mae asks.
“It does, yes. But I want nothing to do with faes. Or with humans who are remotely related to them.”
“How naïve you are!” Lady Kinna says. “Has Flight so protected you all your life?”
Yes, I tell myself, I have been protected. And privileged. Merchants have given me food and clothing without asking for payment. Other poor girls were raped by aristos and rich merchants. Thieves stole from the weak and the wounded. But I have lived untouched. Who would have dared to harm me when a fae prince was my protector? And yet, Flight allowed me to starve as well. He could have prepared a great table for me in the wilderness every day. But he didn’t. He wanted me to live like a human of my caste and clan he said. So how privileged was I really?
Old Mae takes my hand. “Child,” she says, “what can a poor boy with a large impoverished family and no wealth do for you? He loves you, yes, but you do not love him. Jin Woo is rich, related to faes, and owns countless lands over which you will rule as Lady. Put aside your heart for once and choose wisely.”
“And if you marry Jin Woo, Flight will not worry so much about you,” Lady Kinna adds.
I married Jin Woo and I have been loved and happy. But I was angry with Flight for a long time after that. A long time. But as the years grew on, I began to understand what he meant by “flight.” And Flight was, in spite of his appearance, my elder and that the elders often know best.