Stifled beneath thick walls
Hiding the beast behind a
calm demeanor, pleasant tone
But the beast never sleeps
I force the snarl to leave my lips and groan inwardly in frustration. But the voice right. I need a smuggler, and this could be the only opportunity I get.
I take Chiqu’s hand, briefly, let her pull me to my feet, then yank my hand away in disgust. She looks bemused, as if she’s wondering why I’ve chosen an arrangement I’m obviously repulsed by. Fine. Let her wonder. All I need is her ship, then I’ll be gone.
“All right,” Chiqu says, her voice gruff. Behind her, Mehild looks pleased and gives me a shy smile. I return a sullen glower. I’m not interested in making friends with any of them, and the sooner they understand that, the better.
Chiqu’s turned away from me, muttering something to the other Jagaser from Mehild’s tribe, Sarofa. I kneel and reach out my arm to retrieve my knife, but Chiqu must have known I would try to get it back.
“No! Grab his knife!” she shouts to Mehild, who quickly runs over and snatches the knife away just as I’m about to touch the hilt. I grab her wrist, trying to force the knife from her fingers, and she struggles under my grip.
“Don’t touch her!” A blow lands in my ribs as Sarofa joins the scuffle. I’m put off my guard, and Mehild takes the opportunity to bite down hard on my forearm where the veins show through my skin. I howl in pain as dark blood trickles from the wound and rip my arm out of her grasp.
Mehild looks alarmed and reaches out to touch my arm as if she didn’t mean to inflict any damage, but I pull away, snarling. Sarofa shows me her teeth, then turns to Mehild.
“You did the right thing,” she murmurs, her tone endearing and eyes sparkling with pride. “He deserved that, and more.” She shoots me a glare. Somehow, as much as I resent her words, I’m grateful that she understands what I’m trying to communicate. Or rather, what I’m trying not to communicate. We will not be friends. There is no trust between us. And nothing, not even some fake agreement, will stop me from slaughtering them all if it suits me.
Sarofa and Mehild move away from me, over to the shadowed figure by the back of the hollow. Epiran, I think he was called. I watch, motionless, until I meet Chiqu’s gaze. She’s seated on one of the heavy, moss-covered stones, observing the wrestle with an impassive expression. I sit on the other side, across from her, and say nothing.
She raises her eyebrows. “I’m assuming you’re not with your tribe for a reason. Probably hoping for a way to get across the sea.”
“Are you offering?”
She shrugs. “I’ll have to judge that for myself, after I get to know you. So far, you’ve validated my inherent mistrust of strangers. You’re going to have to tell us your name eventually, you know,” she says. “I don’t need to know where you are from, but I will need something to call you.”
The question startles her, but her expression quickly returns to the apathetic mask. “You may not be interested in conversation, but we’re going over that sea, and it’s going to be a difficult journey. Always is. So whether you like it or not, we’re going to have to communicate, and I know I’ll need to call on you—specifically—at some point.”
Her point is reasonable, but I’m not about to tell them my real name. “Luzile.”
She observes me thoughtfully for a moment before speaking. “Luzile. Sounds like a name from Sviros.” She jerks her head at Sarofa and Mehild, who are talking quietly by the pool. “They had two names. Unusual in Sviros. Do you?”
I hesitate. I do have two names, but if she knows anything about culture in Jagas, it might be dangerous to tell her my second. But she’s a Sviroser, and from what Mara told me, she can’t have been smuggling refugees very long. Not answering might seem suspicious, and although I don’t care what she thinks, I don’t want to invite any more curiosity. “Lav. Luzile Lav.”
“Lav? That’s the same as Mehild’s,” says Chiqu. “Are you related?”
No. No, we aren’t related, but her ignorance is a reassurance; she doesn’t know anything. I shake my head. “Must be a coincidence.”
She nods, but the look in her eyes tells me she’s not convinced. I don’t care. She doesn’t ask any more questions. I wouldn’t have answered if she had.
A hoarse voice breaks the silence. “Your name is Lav?”
Dread washes over me as a hunched figure shuffles into view, pointing a gnarled finger at me. It’s Epiran, and now that he’s moved into the faint light, I can see him clearly. He is wiry and wizened, with a sagging face that is marred with old scars. His pale hair is wispy, matted, and twisted into tiny braids down to his waist. The braids tell me he has family. Somewhere. Or used to have.
I tense up as he moves closer, blink slowly, holding everything still. His eyes, almost hidden beneath the hood of his eyebrows, are a startling green. He knows the significance of my second name. It was foolish to say it out loud. Chiqu’s voice, introducing him, comes back to me. Epiran, who fled his tribe after another chief replaced him. He was a chief.
He places a trembling hand on my shoulder, and I freeze, tempted to shrink away or lash out or both. But he doesn’t move his hand to my throat and squeeze like I was anticipating. Instead, he just rests his hand there, so lightly I can barely feel it. I can’t read his expression, but I think he might be trying for sympathy.
I don’t need his pity. I jerk away so his hand wavers in the air. He frowns slightly and withdraws his hand, returning to his place at the back of the hollow once more.
“He was replaced when his tribe thought he was too merciful to a family,” Chiqu tells me quietly. “He was given orders to kill the children because their father wanted a different partner, someone other than the mother. Epiran refused, and they replaced him. When he woke the next day, they were gone. Abandoned him.”
I don’t acknowledge her, try to act disinterested, keep my mouth closed because I don’t trust what might come out. She understands that I don’t want to know who they are. Knowing makes it harder. At least, I thought it did. But she’s trying anyway. Why? I want to ask her. You will never know me. I will never tell you. And when I strike, because I know I will, it will hurt us all even more. But more importantly, it will hurt me.
Maybe I wish it would.
“Don’t you have any kind of respect for your elders here?” she asks. I can tell she’s making an effort to understand the culture here. The truth is, we don’t. Those who are weak are killed, outcompeted, or left behind. Only the strongest survive. But I’m not about to explain that to her.
I give Chiqu a cold stare and look away. Perhaps it would be better to leave. I’ll find another ship. Surely she’s not the only smuggler looking for refugees. But I know, if I do leave, I’ll have to face Mara’s wrath. She doesn’t think I can survive out here much longer, and I’m not sure I can bear any more twisted nightmares.
Chiqu stands and walks over to her custodies, speaking quietly. I catch snatches of their conversation and know she’s discussing a plan. They’ll take shifts, three sleeping while one guards. Their distrust for me is evident, but I was expecting something like this. I haven’t exactly made efforts to appear trustworthy.
I can’t keep track of how much time passes. A fog has settled over my eyes, unfocused, submerged into a hazy fuzz of pale lights that is my vision. Thoughts blur into nonsense, eyes open but unseeing. I’m sure there’s a level of exhaustion that equates to insanity. Heavy bones, frozen limbs, mind fervently tugging me into the oblivion of sleep, but there’s a tiny, constant voice screaming at me to stay awake, stay alive. The fatigue hangs me limp, slowly but deliberately draining my life, I can feel every muscle pulling to the ground, begging for rest…
“Why don’t you sleep?”
The voice jerks my head up. It’s Chiqu. Her shift has just begun. I glare at her through my weariness. “You know why.” She doesn’t know, not the real reason. She thinks it’s because I don’t trust them. That’s only part of it. The other part, I’ll keep hidden with me for as long as I live. I don’t know what she would think of someone who talks with spirits. The tribe would kill me for it. Especially if they knew one particular spirit saved me from their Ofre.
“You look like you hate life.”
“Who says I don’t?” I mutter. I’m fully awake now, but everything aches, and my eyes can hardly stay open without tearing up.
“We’re going to move soon,” Chiqu replies, pretending not to hear. “If you’re coming with us.” She slings a bag over her shoulder and moves to rouse her companions, then turns back to me. “But if you are, you’re going to have to sleep eventually.” She laughs to herself and bends over to shake Mehild’s shoulder.
I feel anger burning in my stomach. She’s doing it again, trying to manipulate me. Trying to show her control over me, just because she knows the things I’m resisting are inevitable. She wants me to bend, to trust. But it won’t happen, and she’ll soon see that.
I stagger to my feet, too quickly, and my head reels, the world swimming around me. Nobody’s looking at me, though, so they don’t see me sway, brace my hand on the jagged wall.
“Make sure you’ve filled your waterskins,” Chiqu orders, nodding at the pool. I haven’t touched it. but everyone else nods in confirmation. Chiqu looks satisfied, then turns and gets on her knees, crawling through a small tunnel previously concealed by hanging moss. I don’t remember coming in that way, but it must be the only entrance.
I’m the last to go through the tunnel. The faint glow from the hollow quickly fades, and near the middle, it’s so dark I can barely tell which direction I’m supposed to go. The tunnel is small and claustrophobic, and crawling through is particularly uncomfortable. I wince as the rock scrapes my knees and palms but don’t stop. I know Chiqu won’t wait if I’m too slow. She has an objective, and it doesn’t include me.
When I finally make it to the other end, the cold air hits me in the face. We’re fighting against the harsh, biting wind, but I relish the freshness. I hadn’t realized how musty the hollow had been. Chiqu and the others are waiting for me.
“The sea is a few days’ journey away from here,” says Chiqu, squinting at the sky. “If days even exist here. Why is there no sun?”
“We don’t know,” replies Sarofa, her voice bitter. “One night it faded and never came back.” Then, as if an afterthought, “It has been getting colder ever since.”
So, it wasn’t just me. They have noticed it too. Perhaps I am saner than I thought.
“Then we must go as fast as possible,” says Chiqu gravely, leaving no room for questions. We know this is her last journey here. We know she will not come back after this. We are her last cargo.
Chiqu moves quickly. I manage to keep up with her, but the others struggle. Sarofa seems strong to me but refuses to leave Mehild’s side. Epiran is old and weak. It’s no wonder their tribes left them. None of them are fit for the hunt.
I can tell Chiqu’s patience is waning as Sarofa pauses and kneels beside Mehild, who has dropped to the ground. She isn’t saying anything, but I can see tears streaking down her face, body quivering with exertion and perhaps emotion. Sarofa murmurs something to her, encouragement or comforting words. Chiqu doesn’t comment, just sighs wearily and stops for them.
But I can’t do this anymore. I am not about to die for them. “What’s wrong with her?” I snap, and something within me wakes up, gnashes its teeth. “If we keep stopping, we’ll freeze to death before we can get away from this place.” Coldness creeping up in me, behind my ribs and frosting over my tongue. I feel someone’s hand on my shoulder, Chiqu’s saying something but I ignore her, ignore the quiet sobs I’ve dragged out of Mehild. Keep talking, tone even and calm with a vicious undertone. “Are you going to keep up, or should we just leave you right here? Either way, it won’t matter, because you’ll both be dead.” I laugh, a laugh that is horribly flat, devoid of mirth. “Maybe we’ll be better off that way, won’t we? At least we’ll be moving faster—”
A sharp crack splits across my face as a fist collides with my nose. White fizzes before my eyes and I feel dark warmth splashing down my chin as I stagger backward, the pain erupting, blood smearing everywhere. Sarofa is yelling, something sharp collides with my shoulder and my head bangs against the cold ground. I try to sit up but she’s already over me, kneeling on my chest and whipping out a cold, glinting blade.
A slice and a burn and our voices merge into one sound, angry and broken and fire roaring in our veins. Blood spurts from the slash, cascading down my face. She raises the blade and I’m thrashing in desperation, trying to throw her off, but it’s too late, what have I done—
I see a hand close over Sarofa’s arm, yanking her away, and it’s Mehild. She makes motions with her hands, but Sarofa doesn’t look her way, just keeps her blazing eyes fixed on me. Wanting to kill and rip and tear apart the monster that has hurt them both.
The shock coursing through me fades, and I let my head fall back, chest heaving. Why didn’t she kill me? Why did Mehild stop her?
Chiqu bends over me, tearing a strip of fabric from the bottom of her coat and dabbing it on my cheek. Blood begins to seep into my eyes and mouth, bitter, stinging, and warm. I don’t wipe it away. Let it seep into my skin.
“You’ve ripped his face apart, Sarofa,” I hear Chiqu murmur. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to fix this.” Sarofa doesn’t answer. At first, I think she’s contemptuous, but I catch a glimpse of her motioning with her hands. Talking to Mehild without words.
I try to say something, but my throat is raw. Scratched from swallowing my blood. Only a faint moan escapes as Chiqu presses harder on my cheek, clenching my jaw at the hot, blistering agony. She’s talking but just to distract me.
“You know, I’d ask if you had a soul, but it’s obvious you abandoned the notion a long time ago.” Her tone is light, but she’s not entirely wrong.
I smirk. “Who are we,” I mutter, “if not unfortunate slaves of our own morality? It’s not a real thing. Neither are souls. Once you abandon those two ideas, you’ll find you’ve gained a lot more freedom.”
The only thing that is real is pain.
Chiqu looks thoughtful for a moment before changing the subject. “As I’m sure you noticed by now, Mehild can’t speak,” she remarks, dropping her voice. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but Sarofa told me she was being punished. Her tribe mutilated her throat, cut out her tongue. She and Sarofa ran away.”
I want to clamp my hands over my ears but I can’t seem to move them. I don’t want to hear this. I manage to get out one word. “Why?”
Chiqu knows what I mean. “Why am I telling you this?” She laughs bitterly. “I’ve been thinking about why you’re so…distant,” she goes on. “When you don’t know someone, it’s easier to hurt them.”
It’s almost as if she speaks from experience. Then again, perhaps she does.
She leans back and begins to hum. It’s a low, warbling tune, upbeat but with a melancholy undertone. I feel a shiver creep down my spine, try to gesture for her to stop, but she doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.
“No…stop,” I croak, and Chiqu glances over, her melody pausing. “They…don’t like songs here,” I explain, voice ragged in my throat. Susaka Alfa was fond of chanting at rituals, perhaps to increase the suspense or appease the spirits she always believed were there. But she never liked listening to songs, no matter the tone or subject.
Chiqu observes me curiously. I can tell she’s fighting back the impulse to ask why, but she knows I won’t explain it to her. Instead, she settles for musing.
“In Sviros we sing at festivals and celebrations,” she murmurs. “Often, when someone has died, the family sings something to honor or celebrate their life. My favorite songs were always the ones that told about myths of the past. The one I hummed just now….” She trails off, and I see her eyes grow cold. She’s told me something personal but doesn’t want to go deeper. I’m thankful for it.
“You may have that in Sviros,” I say, “but here, we have no fanciful tales to spin. Get out while you can.”
We lock eyes, and for a moment I glimpse in her eyes what I’ve been feeling this whole time. Hunger for the hunt. The selfish desire to survive no matter what it takes. No, it’s not a desire. It’s a demand. And I think perhaps there’s something she’s hiding behind those cold, dark eyes that I didn’t see before.
She breaks her gaze away and opens her back, pushing the contents around and drawing out a thin, glinting thing. It’s so small I can hardly see it, but it’s there. Then she takes out a clump of long, thin threads, pale gold in color.
“What are they?”
“These are the threads from a maslakha,” Chiqu says. She must see I’m confused at the unfamiliar word, so she continues, “It’s a plant that grows in Sviros. Deep round roots that grow into branches underground, waxy outer shell, and inside it grows these threads. We use them for weaving blankets, clothes—they’re quite soft and durable. I’m going to use them to stitch your face back together.”
“Stitch my—?” I pause, watching as she slips one of the threads into the long, thin object. Then I realize what she’s going to do.
A noise somewhere between a cry and a grunt escapes my throat as I crawl away, fingers scrabbling at the frozen ground in my attempt to flee. Blood streaks the ground as my hand clamps on a serrated shard of rock, but I keep moving, finally scrambling to my feet. Chiqu must have been expecting this reaction and is following, chasing, but I’ve got a head start and I’m faster anyway—
“Get him!” Chiqu shouts, and I can hear her footsteps advancing, gaining on me, perhaps she’s faster than I thought. Dark liquid spills over my face, obscuring my vision, the cuts haven’t healed but I didn’t expect them to. I glance back and that’s my mistake, it slows me down just a fraction and gives her the opportunity to clamp both hands on my shoulder, halting me in my tracks and spinning me around to face her.
“Why,” she snarls, “are you always running?”
She says the last word slowly, and the exhaustion crashes down on both of us. My legs buckle and I sink to the ground, crumpling in on myself, so tired. Now I couldn’t move a step even if I wanted to because now, now I’m realizing how tired I am of all of this. Of running. I feel like the whole of me is draining away, seeping into the earth beneath me.
I let Chiqu stab the thin blade under my skin and weave the thread under, over, pull tight, pain shooting tiny gnawing sparks up my cheek and under my eye. Salt stings the wound and I wonder if we’re near the sea.
Finally, it’s over. She cuts the thread with her knife. “That’s all I can do for you,” she says quietly. “We’ll stay here for the night.” And I know that tonight I’ll sleep. Maybe it’s a mistake, but I can’t stay awake any longer. I hate myself for it, but I am too weak.