“I’d forgotten from how far away you could see it,” Raulin said.
“I remember that. It took us days to reach the city from the point when we first saw it. My siblings and I went crazy with anticipation,” Anla said. “Looking back, I feel sorry for my parents.”
“That is the capital of Gheny?” Tel asked.
“Sort of,” Al said. “Shingden is the capital, where the king and his family live. It’s walled in and surrounded by New Wextif, which is charged with protecting the royal family.”
“They need protection?”
“Maybe, once long ago. Now it just makes the Duke of Courmet extremely influential and powerful.”
“New Wextif is the leading city in the world as far as technology goes,” Raulin explained. “Some Noh Amairian cities are just starting to get trains. Gheny has had one for twenty years.”
“Trains are not everywhere? Only in Gheny?”
“So far. I believe Arouk and the Kintanese Empire are just beginning to connect cities with them.”
Tel seemed to consider this more in depth. Anla, on the other hand, had seen something that caught her eye: caravans. And they were hard to ignore. A dozen or so sat cradled against a river, lines of laundry extended to the trees nearby and full of dun-colored clothing.
They passed the camp and continued walking. Anla assumed they wanted to make for Levinlace, the southern most neighborhood in the sprawling metropolis, before dark. If that were the case, she’d lose her chance to find her sister. “I think we should camp for the night.”
“What?” Al asked. “But…we’re almost there!”
Tel looked at Anla for a moment. “I’d like to stay here as well.”
“But…beds! Food! A roof! Raulin?”
Raulin sighed. “If we’re putting this to a vote, then I’d like to abstain. Sorry, Wizard, but majority rules.”
Al’s shoulders slumped. “I wanted a pillow,” he whispered.
“I can try to find a sack of pine needles for you…”
“I’m going for a walk,” Anla said. “I’ll be back shortly.”
“I guess I’m making ham and pea soup again,” Al said, unshouldering his pack.
She walked south, passing the caravans on her right. She walked slowly and closed her eyes, not caring how she looked to the many other travelers on the road. Anla needed to concentrate.
And there, somewhere on the wind, she heard her sister’s voice. It was tempered and oddly complicit, but it was Raidet’s voice. She felt her heart racing as she walked back to the caravan site and stood near a copse of trees to observe.
There were a few people milling around the edge of camp. They spoke with men in dark slacks, white shirts, and gray, tassel-less chechia hats, who sold handmade goods or took items to the center of the camp. There were pots, clocks, knives, vases, crystal, and candlesticks that were being polished, repaired, sharpened, wound, or cleaned by several other men. In the back, by the caravans, several women were tending to the cooking. In between, children ran and played, shrieking with laughter or crying over skinned knees.
The women wore white kerchiefs around their hair, which was again covered by a tawny-colored scarf. They all wore the same shapeless dress that covered everything from neck to ankles, minus their forearms. Everyone, even the children, was dressed plainly, which contrasted with the brightly colored caravans of pinks, yellows, reds, purples, and aquas.
Anla watched the women, looking from face to face. Everyone seemed to be from different races, some with dark eyes and others with hazel or blue shades, some round, others more almond-shaped. She didn’t see her sister. Raidet would be easy to spot, with her feral, uptilted eyes and sharp cheekbones. Riyan had once commented that comparing the two of them was like looking at an alley cat and a lynx, one being much more approachable than the other.
“Line’s over there, miss,” a man said, startling her.
“No, I’m…looking for my sister.”
“Sister?” he said, his eyebrows furrowing.
“Her name is Raidet. She looks like me,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ears.
“Ah, you mean Sanlara.” He turned and barked something before moving back to the group of people waiting with items.
Amidst the movement of women at their crafts or cooking and children playing, a door opened to one of the caravans. It took Anla a moment to notice her, draped in the same drab clothing as the other women. She moved somberly, with her head down and her hands clasped in front of her.
Anla’s breath caught in her throat. It was her. It was Raidet. Anla had been dreaming of this moment for years, of when her sister would meet her gaze and recognize her. Her eyes would widen and she’d run to her. “Anla, I missed you,” she’d say. “Thank you for never giving up.”
Raidet spoke quietly with the man who called her while Anla rocked slightly on her feet. She looked up quickly at her, then spoke with him again before walking over to the trees that obscured Anla slightly. She looked up at her little sister and said, “Leave.”
Her neck snapped back just before her mouth went dry. “What? Raidet, it’s me. Anla.”
“I know who you are. Do you think I’m stupid?
“No! I just…I don’t know why you want me to go away. I thought you’d be happy to see me.”
Her sister scowled. “Is that why you found me? To see how if I’m happy or not? No, I’m not happy. But, I have a roof over my head. I have food at every meal, clothes, and I’m clean. No lice, no starving, no cold, no looking like a dirty street child, no being hunted for who I am.”
“But…Rai…I have money,” she blurted. “You can come with me. I can take care of you, give you all those things. And you can be happy.”
Her eyes met her younger sister’s with that burning ferocity she remembered. “What? Do you think just because you’ve saved up a couple of gold that you can take care of me? You think because you somehow managed to crawl out of that hellhole and found me that I’m supposed to drop everything and leave? This is my life now.”
“Okay,” Anla, finding it hard to speak. “I just wanted to see you. I missed you.”
“You’ve seen me, now go.”
“Why are you so angry? I’ve been looking for you for so long…”
She folded her arms. “Do I really have to answer that? This life is because of you. You gave away our secret. You were always so useless when it came to making money to keep us alive. Every day you would come home with pennies and I would have to make it up by…” She sighed between her teeth. “I wouldn’t have to live like this if you had kept your mouth shut.”
“I know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. Please, let me make it up to you. I can bring you gold. If you won’t go with me, maybe you can leave at some other time. Raidet…I know you can’t be happy. I can see your face.”
Her sister began to reach for the yellowed skin around her eye, purple and red marks crackling down her sharp cheekbones. She straightened herself quickly. “I have a husband and two children. I can’t leave.”
“Sanlara! Who do we have here?” A younger man, dressed like the others, approached from her left.
She turned quickly. “No one, Akirad. She was just leaving.”
“That’s odd. Draskil said she was your sister.” He stood beside his wife and eyed Anla. “I can see the resemblance, though she doesn’t look as strange as you do. What’s your name?”
“Anladet,” she said quietly.
“Pretty name for a pretty girl!” He put his arm around her shoulder and gently moved her towards the caravan. “Come, sister. We have much to talk about.”
“Not this family,” Raidet said quietly.
“I didn’t ask you, did I?” Akirad said.
“She’s right,” Anla said, stopping. She felt very uneasy all of a sudden. “I need to be leaving.”
He pushed her along. “You won’t stay for tea?”
She stopped again. “No. I was…about to have dinner.”
Akirad turned and moved his face next to her ear. “It would be very rude if you didn’t come in and discuss things. Your sister has made promises for you.” He grabbed her wrist and began to tug hard.
“What promises?” She turned to look at her sister, who was scowling and looking away. Things felt very wrong in that moment, so she dug her heels in. “What promises did you make, Raidet?”
Akirad suddenly stopped and Anla turned to face him only to see Raulin behind him with two knives at his back. “You pilgrims travel well between the plains and sea, yes? Answer me a question I’ve had for some time: is it better to butcher a man like cattle or like a fish? Or maybe it doesn’t matter if he’s dead and the pieces are cut out.”
“You are on our lands, Ghenian,” he said. “My family will not stand for this.”
He turned to look at the rest of his men. Instead of collecting weapons, they stood pale and still as pillars, save one who stumbled backward. “Knight of Kriskin,” Draskil said.
Akirad’s back stiffened as everyone in the vicinity quieted, even the children. “I didn’t know,” he said, dropping Anla’s wrist. “She’s under your protection?”
“Her and her husband. For one year. We leave and everyone forgets this.”
“Yes, sir,” Akirad said, clenching his jaw.
“Cattle, I’m thinking,” he said, snapping his knives at his side. “If any pilgrim touches her or anything she owns, I’ll find which part of you should be the flank and take that as payment.”
Raulin held out his arm and guided Anla away from the group. She turned and looked back at her sister, who wore a look of horror. Anla didn’t think it was over what occurred, though. She thought it was because she realized she had made a terrible mistake.
They said nothing until they crossed the Birchik Highway. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“That was…quite a situation. Why didn’t you say where you were going?”
At that her resolve broke and her eyes watered. “Sorry,” she said, sniffling.
“Hey, no. I’m not upset,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “Everything’s fine. If anything we can consider ourselves even. Well, okay, I think you’re still ahead, but I can try, right?”
She turned into him and cried against his chest. Like she had hoped, he put his arms around her and held her. “She hates me.”
“Who? Who hates you?”
“Ohh,” he said, holding out the syllable. “Things make more sense now. I’m sorry. I would have handled that with more tact if I realized what was going on.”
“I killed our parents, Raulin. I didn’t think she’d love me for that, but I thought family was more important. She didn’t want me there.”
“If it’s any consolation, I think she was trying to protect you.” She looked up at him. “I’ve dealt with the pilgrims before. When one member joins, their whole family joins. She knew that and she was trying to send you away before what happened happened.”
Anla moved away, wiping her eyes. “What if it’s the same for Sildet and Garlin?”
He began to slowly walk back to their camp. “My brother used to get upset with me for being irresponsible. He’d grow angry and yell at me, tell me to stop goofing around and to do better. And though I thought, and still think, he took himself too seriously, I was always worried I’d lost his love. So, I’d slink up to him a half-hour later and ask quietly if he hated me. And he’d sigh and say, ‘No, I don’t hate you. You’re my little brother and I will always love you. I just want you to be better.’ I’ve always thought that that was the way older siblings should be towards their younger ones. No matter what they do, they will always have that love. And I think it speaks volumes when someone rescinds that affection.”
“It was my fault, though.”
“You don’t know that for certain. No disrespect to your parents, but their story had a lot of holes in it. I know Ghenian upper society well enough to know that an elven family with enough money to afford a guard would be spoken about by everyone. An elven women and her children, who don’t look totally elvish, vacation in luxury town with many other rich people, and people aren’t going to comment ‘Who is she? Why isn’t her husband with her? Oh, what if he is?’ The rich love to gossip about anyone that isn’t as rich or successful as themselves. I bet it was all over town four hours after you arrived.”
“You don’t think it was me?” she asked, looking up through her wet eyelashes.
“A half-elven girl yells ‘Dada!’ over the waves and seagulls and people talking and yelling for shaved ice and someone’s supposed to hear it and figure out she means the human guarding the family is her father? How would they know who you were yelling to? How would they know it wasn’t a mistake, like calling your tutor ‘Mama’ accidentally?
“What happened to you was tragic, Anla. I’ve known people who’ve had to deal with things of that magnitude. And they put the pieces of their lives back together with things other than the glue of forgiveness or motivation to survive. Some people use guilt. If that’s what you need in order to move on from their deaths, then I won’t judge you, but I don’t think it’s correct or fair.”
“I’m sorry, Raulin. You’ve had to go through that, too.”
“Yes. And I don’t recommend you wind up like me, burning with anger and vengeance.”
She thought about this for a few moments. “They were Arvonnese, the ones who killed your family.”
She nodded to herself. “They were soldiers in Walp,i to help fight against the Merakians?” she guessed.
“I assumed you were Walpin, seeing as you’re sensitive to how people speak about them.”
“Walpi was my home, before I was brought to Merak. I have fond memories of the place and I don’t like people speaking poorly of them.”
“I understand. I won’t say anything unkind about your people.”
“Thank you,” he said, stepping into their camp. “I don’t trust the pilgrims. Is it all right if we go now?”
“Okay,” he said louder. “We’re making for Levinlace.”
“What?” Al said. “No. I already have my tent set up and the pot boiling with the ham and peas. Tel already ate dinner!”
“Pillows,” Raulin said, gathering his things.
Al’s shoulders sunk. “Well, okay. Pillows.”