My jara came at me with a quick punch and sweep of her ban. We were practicing that morning with ban-vi-ri, which means "stick like self"--they're heavy wood staves cut to our height. The jara, taller than I, had better reach.
I was quicker for once, however, and feeling more aggressive. "Hai!" I shouted, and went over her sweep, already moving inside her defenses and punching with my ban before she could pull hers back to defend herself. "You overreached."
My ban smacked her ribs, and she yelped, and I spun the end overhand to catch her opposite shoulder a sharp downward blow. Done correctly, this will get through the padding of the rayan--the corded shoulder protectors that are a part of our penitent garb--and weaken the opponent's grip on her stick. Done perfectly, it will cause the arm to go numb and the stick to drop from the hand.
I, however, did it badly, because as I snapped my ban downward, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of an Obsidian stepping into the doorway to the fighting floor, then moving toward us. Which meant that my attention wasn't fully on what I was doing. My blow bounced harmlessly, and left me with my stick up and entangled in the back of hers for an instant. The jara, for whom my secret name was Redbird, grinned, and used the opportunity to sweep me again and take my knees out from under me.
So it was that I found myself lying on my back with my head ringing from the rap on the floor when the Obsidian stopped beside us and stared down at me.
I had to guess she stared down at me--after all, she bore Obsidian Eyes,and it's impossible to tell what those featureless, glinting black stones are looking at. Everything, maybe--or nothing.
"Senior Penitent Ter Light Ranwi?" she said.
I scrambled to my feet, and bowed. "Yes, sera."
My heart was in my throat. The Obsidians are the warriors of the Ossalene Rite--silent and terrifying, dressed always in unrelieved black. They have fighting skills that defy the eyes and the mind, and what we see when they demonstrate skills for us or spar with us is only a portion of what they can do; they are rumored to walk on water and disappear and appear at will, to be able to kill with a fingertip touch or a whisper, to be able to see not just our sins of commission, but the sins in our thoughts.
As I had lately occupied myself by committing all manner of both sorts of sins, I could barely breathe as I stood before the Obsidian.
But she did not say, "I know what you've been doing." She did not say, "I know what you've been thinking." And she did not mention tossing me into a cage filled with starving rats.
All she said was, "Oracle Hawkspar commands you appear in her private chapel next bell."
And that was worse. All hopes I might have had of surviving the day fled.
The only thing that could have made me more panicked than having an Obsidian single me out for attention was discovering she did so in order to command me to face an oracle. In the oracle's private chapel at that, where none entered unbidden, and where only some who entered later exited.
Nor would I be standing before just any of the Nine Holies. Oracle Hawkspar was the Eyes of War, the Living Goddess of the Blade, whose words brought kings and commanders, dictators and despots--all bearing the wealth of nations--to the Oracle Tower to beg for her true telling of their futures.
Hawkspar was the commander of the Obsidians. She was, to us penitents, like Death incarnate.
She knew what I'd been doing, I thought. But she couldn't; if she'd known, I would already have been fed to the rats. Or perhaps she meant to make a spectacle of me. It would make sense.
I said only, "Yes, sera," for if a penitent speaks to an Obsidian, the only acceptable answers are "yes, sera" and "no, sera." My voice shook saying merely that; I was grateful no more words were required of me. In my ears, the two words I had said screamed my guilt.
Redbird's hand rested on my shoulder, silent comfort.
The Obsidian turned next to her. "Jara Light Ranwi?"
"You will follow Ter Light Ranwi, and will see the Oracle Hawkspar when she is finished with the Ter."
Redbird's fingers tightened on my shoulder.
The Obsidian flowed away without comment, and Redbird and I exchanged panicked looks. She, now ranked Senior Penitent Jara Light Ranwi, had been my closest friend since the day they chained her into the hold of the slave ship next to me. When we staggered off that ship, we stood side-by-side on the slave block in the market of the city below the Ossalene Citadel; we'd managed not to faint when a stone-eyed monk had touched us and told us in our own language that we were going with her; and we had managed to stay together through years of slavery within the Citadel, through the choosing that brought us as lowly penitents into the Ossalene Rite of the Cistavrian Order of Marosites, more commonly called the Order of Ossalenes.
We'd risen through the ranks. We'd put together a fine, fine conspiracy.
And now we had been found out. Hawkspar would not see mere penitents for anything less than the sort of overarching criminality that we'd committed.
"You haven't much time," Redbird whispered. She looked as pale and sick as I felt. "You can't go looking like that."
"Neither of us has much time."
I needed to present myself, clean-showered and in formal garb, in less than a bell. Redbird would have a little longer--as long as it would take the oracle to sentence me to death.
"I'm sorry," I told her.
"You'll never make it unless we run. I'll help you," she said.
We fled the fighting hall, and when we were clear of the Obsidian paths, raced to Ranwi Hall, up the spiral staircase from the common area into the cells, and into the cell we shared with two other Lights, Fawi Light Ranwi, and Ghoteh Light Ranwi.
Penitents are designated by bed color, cell name, and hall name. These change each time a penitent moves on, either to become an acolyte or to be sent from the Order; all the other penitents move up a bed, and their designations change. Bad months, when a sera or two dies, or something unspeakable happens with a group of acolytes, our designations changed half a dozen times. We learned not to get attached to names--but we'd alreadylearned that when we were slaves. All slaves are called Slave. Nothing more--ever.
We were beaten for speaking our real names, for using nicknames for each other. But Redbird and I had developed a system. We found common items around the monastery: wild animals, birds, flowers wild and domesticated, bits and pieces of cookware. We marked each other and our other coconspirators with these hidden nicknames, and by so doing, managed to hold on to news of each other, to stay in touch, to pass messages, to keep friends--the very things I suspected the ever-changing rank names had been designed to prevent. Our hidden nicknames could be passed in casual conversation, along with a specific movement of the face. Whatever magic their terrifying Eyes gave them, the blind Ossalene sera, we had discovered, could not read facial expressions.
In our cell, which Redbird and I shared with two other penitents, we pulled our formal robes from the shelves. Then Redbird and I raced to the ground floor and to the penitents' bath, a large open room with one wall dedicated to showers. Water poured constantly from twenty dragon-shaped showerheads, then down a drain and into the garden irrigation system. We placed formal robes on the long, narrow changing table, stripped off our work clothes, and tossed them into the basket where the penitents assigned to laundry would gather them up. And we plunged into the icy downpour. I scrubbed quickly, soaping body, face and hair with the harsh lye-and-ash soap we penitents used, that the slaves made. When I was a slave, I had hated soap-making days.
Even terrified, though, I kept to my ritual. I sent the magic into the water. If all hope was gone for me, it still might remain for some of the girls in the monastery. I put everything I had into the little spell. And I prayed to a forbidden god that rescue would come in time to save even me. For the love of Jostfar, by the hands of the Five Saints, save us before we perish.
I did not let myself think about Oracle Hawkspar, or what she might want with me. I had served her for a season my second year as a penitent; I could be said to know her better than most, yet she remained a mystery to me, and she terrified me. With her stone Eyes that replaced her sacrificed human eyes, she saw what had been, what was, and what would be in the dealings of the great men of many nations, and if she was so moved, she would tell those who petitioned her what she saw.
Oftentimes she sent the mighty and the rich away with nothing. She was a harsh woman, cold and demanding, and if her visitors displeased her, she turned her back on them.
Most things displeased her. She did not like children at all, and the girlswho were assigned to serve her, slaves and penitents alike, cowered at her slightest whisper of displeasure. In the season I spent serving her, I had wished one of the two of us dead every single day. The longer I served her, the more I didn't care which of the two that might be.
I stepped out of the shower shivering, and Redbird tossed me a coarse hemp towel pulled from the rack. A few flicks took care of my hair, what little of it there was. Slaves' heads are shaved, penitents must wear a fuzz no longer than the first joint of our first finger; acolytes' hair is cut as long as their longest finger. Seru wear a single twisted rope braid capped at the end with a hedu, or little metal ball. Oracles wear their hair in whatever fashion they like. The Oracle Hawkspar shaved her head like a slave. I could not guess what she meant to say by doing this.
Damp but with no time to get completely dry, I tossed my towel into the laundry bag. The seru were unforgiving of messes left lying; slaves and penitents kept ourselves and our quarters neat as a simple matter of survival.
Redbird helped me put on my formal garb of the Order of Ossalenes, which consists, even for one of my low station, of layers of cotton and silk, each wrapped precisely, every piece requiring a special tie or named and complicated knot or the precise and ordered crossing of bands. There are prayers to be said as each piece is donned--but neither Redbird nor I had time for that.
At the best of times, dressing is difficult to do well, and an appearance before the Oracle Hawkspar could never be considered the best of times. My hands shook so badly I ended up holding lengths of the thick brown silk away from my body while Redbird did the knot and tucked the ends, and both of us whispered Tonk curses. When all of my attire was perfect, I threaded the top edge of my beaded cepa, my rank apron, which is of the brilliant bloodred we call ter, beneath the outermost layer of my bo--my wrapped silk belt--and then folded it under the innermost layer so that both ends hung even with the skirt of my tabi.
"Is it straight?"
Redbird stood on tiptoe and peered out of one high ventilation slit. "It's going to have to do," she said. "The bell-slaves are heading into the tower now."
"Already?" My body went rigid with fear. I looked to Redbird, my mouth dry. "How about you? Will you be ready in time?"
So the slaves and penitents and seru and oracles meditating in the central garden watched me hurtle over the cobbled paths, leaping flowerbeds thatimpeded my race to Oracle House, while I clattered like a mule in my wood-soled shoes.
Word of my behavior would no doubt reach Oracle Hawkspar well before I did.
And then the bell rang, and I was no longer merely indecorous, but also late.
I took the steps up to Oracle House two at a time, dodging Bloodstone seru who cluttered the broad stairs like great red birds--one walks in the Citadel, but most especially, one walks wherever oracles might be.
I had no doubt I would pay horribly for my sins, but there is no greater sin to an oracle than to present oneself late. I skidded into the vast entry hall, gasping for air.
One of the white-eyed Seru Moonstone crossed her arms over her chest and said, "You're late, and you've been running."
"I could have you taken away this very minute and given ten lashes for being late, and a week of solitary prayer in a silent cell for the running."
The Moonstone sighed heavily and turned away from me. "I have no doubt the blessed oracle will be able to do a better job of punishing you than I could ever hope to."
"Go in, then. You've kept Oracle Hawkspar waiting, but she still wishes to see you. You know which quarters are hers?"
"Yes, sera." But my feet dragged.
"Go." She made shooing motions with her hands. "She said you were not to be announced."
I bowed the deep bow of a senior penitent, and the sister gave me the head nod that is all one of her station is required to give when dealing with one of mine.
Aaran av Savissha, tracker for the Haakvaryn pack of Tonk wolf-ships, sat on the higharm, legs wrapped around the foremast, hands clutching ratlines. With his eyes closed, he tracked the fleeing slaver. "Two degrees northwest," he bellowed over the scream of the storm.
The runner slid down the ratlines, careened across the deck to CaptainHaakvar, and repeated Aaran's directions. Within moments, he was back on the ratlines, and Aaran felt the Windsteed aligning itself with the slaver. "Dead on," he yelled to the boy, a child who was one of the captain's multitude of nephews, and the boy gave him an excited smile. Then the child clambered back into the riggings and settled below Aaran on the lines, waiting the next message to the captain.
Aaran, his eyes once again open, squinted through the sheeting rain that battered him. He watched the Windsteed climb up one towering wall of water and slide down the next. They were close to their quarry. He hadn't caught sight of the slaver since it ran headlong into the storm, but he knew from the tracking spell he'd cast within the Hagedwar that the enemy and its cargo were less than half a league in front of them.
On deck and up in the lines, the sailors fought the storm--but it was less of a storm than the slaver fleeing them struggled through. The Tonk wolf-ships had an advantage. Aft in the steersman's castles, the windmen kept the worst of the storm at bay. The Windsteed 's windmen, bending the air with Hagedwar magic, surrounded the ship with a shield that filtered and channeled the storm--keeping the gale always behind and the sails always filled; smoothing the surface of the water, if not by much; making the waves the Windsteed fought less vicious than those ridden by the slaver.
Every advantage the windmen could confer brought the Windsteed closer to the holdful of captured, chained Tonk children bound for slaver markets in Sinali and Bheki.
Aaran and the trackers on the other three ships conferred within the Hagedwar--how best to bring the pack in for the attack, how to coordinate with the windmen for the safest arrival.
Then, bound by magic to his enemies, Aaran felt the slaver ship suddenly founder. At the same time, the tracker on the Long Fang gave the urgent message that they had men overboard from a rogue wave; that tracker stayed linked to the other three trackers, but his attention diverted to locating the men for the Long Fang.
Aaran shouted to his runner, "The Sinali mainmast has torn away, and we're closing fast! Tell the captain we'll be on top of them in minutes."
The boy launched himself down the lines again, and just a breath later, Aaran heard Haakvar shout the "Ready to board" order. The marines streamed up out of the lower decks and formed up, crouched at the center of the deck with boarding grapples and swords at the ready. Sailors reefed in the ringsails, snapsails, and squaresail, and the Windsteed slowed and crawledup the next wave on pillar and fansails. She crested to find herself almost on top of the slaver, a modified three-masted Sinali war frigate that was fighting to keep its prow to the onrushing water, with broken main and foremasts and sheets dragging through the sea like anchors, pulling the ship's port side toward the waves and dragging her starboard side downward.
Aaran could see sailors aboard the slaver fighting to cut the lines.
He closed his eyes--like most Tonk trained in the foreign magic of the Hagedwar, he could work within the patterns of sphere, cube, and tetrahedrons with open eyes, but coordinating with other trackers required deeper, more intense concentration. The Sea Hawk, running even with the Windsteed, had planned to board the slaver from forward starboard while the Windsteed boarded from forward port. Sea Hawk could not approach on the starboard side, though--the sails and masts that were sinking the slaver would foul her. The Ethebet's Dagger would board at aft portside, but like the Sea Hawk, the fourth member of the pack, the Long Fang would not be able to take her place on the aft starboard. But the Long Fang was still chasing down her missing sailors. With luck, she'd catch up quickly, but the tracker was sure the lost men could be saved.
The displaced Sea Hawk angled down the crest of the wave and fought her way to the port side of the Windsteed and the Dagger. When the Sea Hawk came even with the Windsteed and the Dagger, her marines crossed decks--a risky maneuver in bad seas.
The marines--tough, nimble men, went up the tall side of the frigate like spiders up their webs. From his viewpoint atop the crow's nest, Aaran could see them swinging over the top onto the deck. This was always the worst point--the place where the most men were lost--but because the slaver was foundering, few of its men could be spared for fighting. Most of the crew were cutting lines to free themselves from the broken mast and tangled sails.
The marines killed those few who opposed them, but most slid to the listing starboard side fast as they could and began working with the enemy to cut away the entangling lines, while a handful of the nearly sixty men who boarded went belowdecks to find the captives and free them.
The marines knew where the captives would be. Sinali slaver ships--even the modified ones--followed the same basic design. And that design kept chained slaves lying flat in a lightless, low-ceilinged hold one floor above the bilge.
Knowing where to find the stolen Tonk children wasn't the problem.
Getting them to safety was.
Just as the marines belowdecks located the captive children, the marines and Sinali sailors above succeeded in freeing the slaver from the deadly tangle of masts and spars and sheets and lines, and the slaver righted itself--lower in the water than it had been and taking the waves badly. But upright for the moment at least.
Aaran, his job done, sent his runner down to the captain, who would most likely send the boy into Haakvar's quarters to wait out the storm. Aaran began to slide down the lines to offer his own services to the captain, whether to fight or to assist the windmen aft in keeping the storm at bay.
It was at that moment, hanging halfway down the ratlines in the midst of a gale, that pain screamed through the Hagedwar--sucking pain that almost pulled Aaran and the trackers of the Ethebet's Dagger and the Sea Hawk down with it.
He didn't have time to think--only time to react. He broke away from the connection he shared with the other three trackers to save his own life. And, unguarded, wide open, unprepared, he fell to a wave of magic unlike anything he'd ever felt. It blasted through the Hagedwar that enveloped him, slamming him in lungs and gut and heart all at once. A cry, unearthly and powerful, rose up out of the sea and wrapped itself around his brain, blinding him to all but the space between the worlds in which the Hagedwar lay. Aaran found himself in the danger zone between the relatively safe Feegash magic of the Hagedwar and the deadly magic of his own people. He hovered at the point where protected space bled into the View, where the siren songs of eternity flowed through him. The faint, fragile buffering of the Hagedwar shield didn't keep them out--they called to him, luring him toward solitary ecstasy and annihilation. Over their sweet music, which was nothing less than the breathing of the universe, a trail of desperate rhythms, of terror and pain and despair, pulled him north and east.
A captive Tonk girl begged for rescue, and--bound to her by blood and pain--countless others cried out in wordless horror.
The girl's plea was cast by intent, though, and it was clear in his mind as a dagger drawn across flesh: For the love of Jostfar, by the hands of the Five Saints, save us before we perish.
She was Tonk.
Desperate for rescue.
Aaran shook himself free of the powerful spell she'd woven to find thathe hung upside down in the ratlines, his legs tangled in rope, while two sailors and his cousin Tuuanir fought to free him.
"I'm all right," Aaran yelled over the screaming of the storm. "I'm all right. Av Yaddar, the tracker on the Long Fang is dead, though--he bound himself to one of the men overboard so he would not lose the lot of them, and he didn't pull back in time when sharks hit them and the man he'd marked died."
"Tracked him into death?"Tuua asked.
They got Aaran down quickly, and he steadied himself as best he could in the churning seas and vicious winds. He dragged himself by steady-rope and rail to the captain."I've located more slaves," he shouted, and Haakvar, at the tiller holding the ship tight to the struggling slaver, stared at him in dismay.
"Yes, Captain. I cannot be sure of precisely how many, but nearly a hundred. Possibly more. One of them has a good grip on the View. She's used it to send out a rescue call that near knocked me senseless when we floated through its current."
"Her plea ... has a current?" Haakvar frowned, clearly bewildered.
"She bound magic to the sea. I do not know how she did it, or how she holds it together, but it's a powerful current. We've passed it now, but I marked it before we moved beyond it. I could get us back to it again. We could find them."
Up on the deck of the slaver, Tonk marines fought with Sinalian sailors. In the Windsteed's rigging, half the sailors hung from the ratlines, acting as a secondary force of archers, taking clear shots at the enemy when offered. In the slavehold below, other marines were gathering the freed children below the aft hatch that opened onto the archers' platform. No archers occupied the platform because while they fought with their masts and rigging, the Tonks deployed their smaller but better-trained forces.
When the fighting finished, the marines belowdecks would move the rescued children to the four waiting ships, and would strip the slaver of any worthwhile cargo it carried, as well.
Aaran said, "We could let the other three ships take captives and cargo from this slaver, and go after the slaves to the north on our own. They're desperate--something horrible is about to happen to them."
Aaran couldn't ignore the look of dismay Haakvar sent in his direction. "Aaran, lad, think about it. Can we, alone, run north, perhaps near the FallenSuns, certainly across Sinali shipping lanes, to rescue more than a hundred slaves from their unknown situation? We've taken storm damage, we've lost men, we'll have injuries. How am I to tell these men risking their lives right now to forgo their shares in the loot from this ship, or their share of the reward for the successful rescue of the captives, to run up north into Jostfar knows what?"
One massive wave crashed over the deck of the Windsteed, and everyone grabbed lines or masts or rails lest they be washed into the ocean.
The captain clung to the crew companionway rail, holding his footing. Rya Haakvar was a good man, but practical. He saw not grand goals, but the obstacles that stood before them; not a bird's wings, but its feet. He patted Aaran on the shoulder and said, "Am I to take tired and injured crew and exhausted windmen into the northern hells without a resupply, rest, or a chance to stand on dry land? What sort of captain would I be if I did that? Saints' sorrows, what sort of man would I be?"
Aaran sighed. He knew that Haakvar was right--that he stood on firm moral ground in refusing to chase Aaran's newest trail.
But Aaran could still feel the girl's desperation vibrating beneath his skin like the metal of a hard-rung bell. He couldn't stop feeling her. Just as her pain and terror had bound itself to the water, so it had bound itself to him.
He clung to the rigging and stared to the north. "I understand," Aaran said. "But I can feel edges and shards of their situation. I don't think they have much time."
At the back of his mind was the thought, never absent, that Aashka might be among them. That she might be almost out of time.
Haakvar said, "When we're on our way back to port with the children tucked away safe, come into my quarters and we'll chart your trail out and see where it leads. It might be that we can take the pack after these slaves you've found as soon as we've had a chance to resupply and refit. But perhaps not. No matter how desperate the situations of those who need us, we cannot save them all. We are too few, and those in need of rescue are too many."