The wicked heroine, p.35
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.35

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Fifteen

  The caravan was late to start the next morning, but not by much; already the caravan servants and members were getting a feel for how long the packing and loading processes took.

  Once they were traveling again, Sanych invited the Shanallar to ride a bit further down the caravan with her, and Meena wordlessly accepted.

  Once they were riding comfortably within the supply wagons’ vicinity, the rumbling wheels masked their conversation nicely.

  “Meena, I know you must be upset at me,” Sanych began, after a deep breath laced with road dust. “After all that you said about the evils of this book, after you told me to wait at the Temple for you, it must feel like I betrayed your trust when I left to come on the quest.” There. She’d said the worst of it.

  Meena looked over in mild surprise, but did not immediately respond. Her green gaze took in the gathering grey clouds, the morning dew on the prairie grass, the plodding wagon horses. “You think you’re the first person to disregard my words because you think you know better? You’re smart, Sanych, but you’re not that smart.” Meena turned bored eyes on Sanych for a moment, then looked away again.

  Sanych felt like she’d been slapped.

  Meena continued, “You’re a savant who’s been coddled your entire life. But I won’t be so rude as to let you think you’re the gods’ own gift to humanity. That would be doing everyone a disfavor, and I try not to be so rude. I’ll tell you when you’re being a foolish little girl, and when your snap decisions to throw yourself into untold dangers may cost the lives of more people than you could possibly imagine.”

  Sanych’s eyes widened, and she glanced at Meena.

  Meena continued blandly, “But, as it turns out, I always planned to bring you to Shanal, with or without the caravan, so the exact manner in which we start off really doesn’t matter much in the end, does it? I’m here to save the world, after all.”

  Sanych felt tension leave her shoulders. Meena didn’t hate her after all, though her words didn’t make much sense, either. Yet Sanych felt the desire to set things straight about her motives.

  “I didn’t come to spite you,” she said, hating the quaver in her voice.

  Meena looked at her silently, waiting.

  “I came because someone needed to protect these people. And I might not know which end of a sword to hold, but I know you hate the book they’re after, and…well, I thought maybe I could reach the Dictat with what little I know of the truth, if I was patient.” She felt foolish, small, offering these weak excuses to such a great woman. “I…I just wanted to help.”

  The Shanallar stare was so focused, Sanych looked down in embarrassment, studying the thick, pale hairs in her horse’s mane. Her heart thudded; what would Meena say?

  “I’m impressed,” her companion finally said. “I didn’t figure you for the heroic type. I guess I won’t have to save everyone all by my lonesome.”

  Sanych looked over at her in surprise.

  “Now if you’ll excuse me,” Meena continued, “I heard it was going to rain today, and I need to find a suitable hat.”

  Sanych took several minutes to herself, adjusting to the new peace between her and Meena, before riding back up to join the front of the caravan. By the time she got there, only Geret and Meena rode with the caravan masters. The Shanallar now sported a wide-brimmed hat, and she and the prince both turned to her as she joined them.

  “Welcome back, Archivist,” Geret grinned.

  “Thank you. Where did everyone else go?”

  “They’re seeing to various things or riding with other friends in the caravan; there’s really a large number of people coming, for mercantile opportunities, research, you name it,” Geret responded.

  “Everyone’s got more than one reason to be on this quest,” Meena said, and shared an inside look with Geret. Sanych pressed her lips together, but didn’t say anything.

  In the afternoon, under a drizzling rain, the caravan stopped at the border between Vint and Hardyk. Geret showed the border guards their king’s permission seal on a Hardysh Letter of Passage, allowing such a large and well-armed party to pass through their lands, and the caravan was on its way again in mere minutes.

  Over the next few days, patterns of relations became apparent. Geret, Meena and Sanych usually rode together all day. The Counts were content to either talk amongst themselves or with Geret, and spent much of their time checking on the various aspects of the caravan that were under their direct supervision. Armala’s pale hair was easily spotted as he conversed with the caravan masters and wagon drivers in the back, and Sengril and Runcan were never far away.

  That left only Salvor. He remained by far the quietest member of the group. He occasionally spoke with the Dictat, and had several short, smiling conversations with Sanych, but he never spoke to Geret or to Meena, and often spent much of the day riding to and from the front of the caravan.

  One more border crossing, exactly one week after they had left Highnave, brought them into Kirth. They had been riding close to the ocean for a full day by this time, and its sparkling blue expanse grew larger on the horizon every hour.

  The early spring weather was warm and fine, bringing a salty zephyr across the caravan as it plodded on the raised road through sandy dunes that occasionally hid the sea view.

  Sanych, deep in thought, heard Geret say, “Did you hear that?” He looked around to his left, down toward the sea and the majority of the dunes.

  “What?” Sanych asked.

  “Some kind of flute, maybe?” Geret responded, eyes still scanning the bumpy expanse. The sea was still several miles away, but the caravan was trundling parallel to the shore now. It appeared there was nothing between them and the sea but dunes, dunes and more dunes of light grey sand. Somewhere out there, however, someone was making a sound.

  Sanych could hear it now. She squinted in thought, recalling all she knew of this area. With Kirth being their neighbor to the west, there was very little she had not read about the country.

  Geret breathed in excitedly. “It’s the sirens, isn’t it, Sanych?” he said. “The sirens of the silver sands! They’re calling!”

  Meena rolled her eyes in disdain. “Yes, princeling. You’re far too tasty a prize for them to let you pass by,” she said, snickering.

  Geret half-lidded his eyes at her for a long moment, but he could not keep the grin from spreading across his features. “Let’s go find them,” he urged, nudging his horse forward to talk to Brem.

  Sanych looked worriedly at Meena. “Is he serious?”

  Meena shrugged one shoulder. “Are they real?”

  “The sirens? Yes. They’re probably not what he expects to find, though,” Sanych grinned.

  “No threat to him, then?”

  Sanych understood what Meena was asking. She pursed her lips in thought. “Well…probably not, but–”

  “Yah! Let’s go, ladies!” Geret called back to them, urging his horse into a gallop. Four of the guards from the caravan rode with him, and their mounts sprinted off among the dunes.

  “We’d better catch up, Sanych,” Meena said, “or this part of the quest chronicle you want to write will be over by the time we get there.”

  Sanych’s blue eyes widened and she turned her horse to gallop after Geret and the guards. Meena rode alongside her, grinning into the salty wind.

  The caravan plodded peaceably along without them.

  The dunes had a ridge pattern that reminded Sanych of water-rippled mud, but on an enormous scale. The winds consistently blew in off the ocean, and all the ridges pointed toward the caravan, their short, steep faces lit by spring sunlight from the northern sky.

  The tracks of five horses were impossible to miss, even for Sanych. Geret and his escort were only a few moments ahead of them, but the constant zigzagging around the taller portions of the dunes quickly made her lose track of which way the road lay.

  “No wonder people get lost out here,” she called over to Meena.

>   Meena nodded at her in reply, then looked ahead and said, “Although, that might have something to do with it, too.”

  Sanych followed Meena’s gaze and reflexively hauled back on her reins, causing her horse to hop and snort as it came to a stop, hooves spraying sand.

  They had found the source of the whistling.

  Sanych gazed at the strange sight before her, realizing with a thrill how infinitely better it was to see this with her own eyes than to read it in a book.

  A large round red tent was pitched in the lee of a particularly large dune. Its cloth top and door flaps rippled in the light wind. Set in a circle a couple of dozen paces in all directions from the tent were boundary staves, each flying a long red streamer. Atop the large dune itself, bearing the full brunt of the wind, was a larger staff, its strangely twisted head whistling madly as the wind forced itself through narrow slits.

  Sanych also realized that Geret and his guards were facing three red-robed women whose long, curly hair was flying free in the wind. The women carried spears and were backing the mounted men away from the red tent and toward the boundary staves. Snatches of angry voices blew past her ears, and she realized they were not speaking Versal.

  Meena laughed. “So these are your ‘sirens’, are they?” She stopped several paces ahead of Sanych and dismounted, walking ahead toward the boundary staves.

  “Meena! Angry women with weapons–?” Sanych called, but Meena didn’t even pause to look back. “Not even listening to me,” she muttered, nudging her horse into a walk until it caught up with Meena’s. She dismounted, leaving the animals to each other’s company, and ran through the shifting sand to catch up with her companion.

  Geret was trying to apologize loudly in Versal, but it only seemed to anger the women further. They had stopped at their boundary, and two still held their spears pointed at the intruders. The third was gesticulating wildly and talking just as loudly as Geret. His guards all had hands on their swords, ready to draw and defend their prince if he commanded them to.

  Sanych caught up to Meena just as she reached the group and stopped at the outside of the boundary staff.

  “Sanych,” Meena asked, a twinkle in her eye, “do you know their language?”

  “It must be Al-beyhan,” Sanych returned.

  “Can you tell them I didn’t mean to trespass?” Geret asked Sanych in desperation. “They don’t seem to speak any Versal at all.”

  The Archivist frowned a moment. “I’ve never spoken it. I’ve only read the notes on translations–”

  “Good enough; give it a try. Please.”

  She took a breath. “Quan derai gann il a na quey,” she began.

  The three women looked at each other and lowered their spears. One coughed in what appeared to be amusement.

  Meena rolled her eyes. “Stars and darkness, Sanych. Your accent is terrible.” She turned to the Al-beyhan women. “Q’an darai ganil an ‘a q’ey,” she said, giving the women a chin-lift gesture.

  Again the women looked at each other, but with pleasure this time. They all began speaking at the same time, gesturing at the tent and at Geret. Meena exchanged a few more sentences with them and then turned to Geret, who had been watchfully silent on his horse.

  “It is the Al-beyhan tradition to set the women apart from their men for one week out of five, Geret. All men are forbidden from crossing the boundary of the red tent, lest they be required to perform atonement. The whistling staff on the dune is supposed to be a warning, not a lure.”

  “You’d think they’d put a sign by the road, then,” one of the guards commented.

  “They’re sand nomads; theirs is strictly an oral tradition. They travel the coasts in small bands, fishing and gathering seaweeds and shells. They told me they usually stay further from the road during the red week, but this time they couldn’t find a suitably large dune any closer to the shoreline.”

  Geret wrinkled his forehead. “Red week?” His eyes scanned the long red streamers and the bright red tent. Several curious female faces were peeking out at them from its door flap. “Oh! Right.” Geret’s face flamed nearly as red as the streamers, and Meena made an aside to the three Al-beyhan women, who laughed melodiously. “How do I make this atonement, then?” he asked Meena, his face desperate for a change of topic.

  Meena spoke to the red-clad women for a minute. The Al-beyhans cast inscrutable glances at Geret from time to time. Sanych had a hard time following the conversation; this secretive group had certainly never discussed the atonement ritual with any outsider before, and most of the words they used were completely unknown to her.

  “You have to spill your blood in the sand,” Meena said, casting a quick look at the grey grains beneath their feet. Geret gulped. Sanych gasped.

  “Um, how much?” the prince asked nervously.

  Meena grinned. “Only a few drops, my quick princeling.”

  Geret sighed in relief and dismounted. The four guards dismounted as well, and one of them moved the horses over to join the other two. Then the men all drew a little blood from their arms, letting a few drops of their blood fall onto the grey sand.

  “Is that sufficient for them?” he asked Meena, while looking at the nomads. They nodded, not needing a translator. “Superb. It’s been nice meeting you lovely, spear-wielding ladies. I’ve got a quest to get back to at the moment, but trust me, I won’t forget this experience anytime soon.” He turned to go, and one of the nomads spoke to Meena again.

  “I’m afraid there’s more, Geret,” Meena said.

  Geret turned back; he knew he’d have to complete it, since he’d admitted guilt by beginning the ritual. “What’s next, then?”

  He didn’t like the nomad women’s wicked grins.

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