by Francesca Forrest

“I have a song for you,” the girl said, appearing in Anj’s study unannounced. The two bluetails in the cage by the window trilled a welcome.

Anj looked past the girl to the outer chamber. Where was Shen? He was supposed to keep things like this from happening.

“Your servant is striking a bargain to get your roof repaired,” the girl said, joining Anj in looking into the outer room. Then she leaned across Anj’s desk, so the two were practically nose to nose. “He’ll probably overpay,” she said. She smelled of goat. Anj leaned back slightly, but then the girl herself pulled away and stood up straight.

“Here’s my song,” she said. She clasped her hands together and began to sing, full voiced, as if she were out on a hillside, among the goats and the clouds, and not in a tiny room filled with the accoutrements of a civil servant from the Empire of Cinnabar.

Anj considered herself fluent in the language of the tribes of the Cloud Mountains, but she couldn’t understand a word the girl was singing. The tune rose and then fell, fell, fell, turned and bounced like a mountain stream, fast and fresh. Was it the melody? The girl’s face as she sang? The knuckles of girl’s hands, white from the intensity with which one hand gripped the other? Whatever it was, it made Anj’s eyes sting with the threat of tears. She quickly turned her mind to the census and the requests from the commander of the Southwestern Army.

The song was over. The girl stood silent in front of the desk, hands still clasped and eyes distant. Then those eyes met Anj’s own.

Hastily, Anj pulled a couple of coins out of her jacket pocket, but the girl frowned. She took a step toward the window and opened the door to the bluetails’ cage. For a minute Anj thought the girl intended to free the birds, but no, now she was shutting the door again. She had taken from the bottom of the cage a feather whose bright blue hue matched her headscarf. She smoothed it, made it catch the light from the window, and smiled, then turned to go.

“That was a lovely song,” Anj said.

“I wanted you to know me,” the girl said, tracing the door jamb with the feather. “Now you know who I am.” Then she was gone.

Anj heard the creak of the outer door, then laughter and men’s voices. Shen entered, followed by two of the locals, one tall and broad, with a thick beard, and the other smaller in all dimensions.

“So Tilia Songbird paid you a visit,” said the larger man. “Sang for you, didn’t she.” Before Anj could respond, he continued, “It’s good luck when she does–not as good luck as some other things she does, though, eh Cousin Ezmah? That’s the real good luck.” He barked a laugh and gave the smaller man a clap on the back that ought to have made him stagger, but Ezmah didn’t budge, just clenched his jaw.

“Spirits move through Tilia Songbird,” Ezmah said, meeting Anj’s eyes briefly and then looking at his feet.

Women didn’t hold positions of authority here among the mountain tribes, and the only way the mountain people could accept Anj was to view her as a man, a fiction that was more difficult for some than others. “It’s a blessing when the spirits walk among us,” he mumbled.

“She blesses some more generously than others, that’s all I’m saying,” said the bigger man to Ezmah, and then it was his turn to meet Anj’s eyes, and he didn’t drop his gaze. “Not that I understand her choices. Like you, Your Excellency. Why did she pick you, I wonder. You people from Cinnabar don’t even believe in the spirits.” With each sentence his voice grew louder; the last rang like an accusation.

“Worthy Kehan and Worthy Ezmah will repair the roof,” intervened Shen. “We agreed on ten coppers each.”

Whatever storm had been brewing in Kehan dissipated at those words. He cleared his throat and said in an ordinary voice, “We’ll do it for you tomorrow. Have it finished by midday.”

“Very good,” said Anj. She rose and took a small chest down from one of the shelves along the back wall. Inside the chest were copper and silver coins, but also small obsidian disks, each with the imperial star chiseled in the center. Anj took out the necessary coins and also two of the disks, which she held up.

“These are for your families. Any service rendered to a servant of Cinnabar is service rendered to the Empire of Cinnabar. These disks are tokens of imperial acknowledgement.”

The men both bowed low, wished the spirits’ blessings upon Anj and the Empire of Cinnabar, and backed out of the inner room.

“Hah! I can’t wait to see that son of a jackal Nilma’s face when I wave this in front of him,” Anj heard Kehan say, and then the outer door squeaked shut. Anj and Shen smiled at each other. Each obsidian disk represented an increase in Cinnabar’s influence here in the wilds.

Shen paused by the inner door, and when he spoke, it wasn’t to mention the census or the arrival of a homing pigeon from the Western Capital or even to comment on the roof repairs.

“What was Tilia Songbird’s song like? Did you feel anything special?” he asked.

“Her song? It was– I couldn’t understand any of the words. I wonder if she was singing in some other dialect.”

“She doesn’t sing in words. Just nonsense syllables. But the people here say–well, you heard what they say. So I was just wondering. . .”

Anj thought back. The song. That liquid stream of sound. The tears they summoned to the gates of Anj’s eyes. But then there were Worthy Kehan’s insinuations. “I heard what they said. It’s shameful. The girl must be out of balance in the mind.”

“Well, if spirits fill you, you may not behave like an ordinary person,” said Shen mildly.

“’If spirits fill you’!” Anj scoffed. “You believe in spirits, now?”

“Oh no, not me. I know the foreign service code, and I value my job. But if you think as the people here do, then–”

“I don’t want to think as the people here do; I want to think as an effective adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary of the Cinnabar Empire, so I can get promoted to someplace more civilized. So let’s put aside Tilia Songbird and spirits and turn to business. Any news this morning from the Western Capital? Anything from Commander Tak?”

Shen shook his head. “Nothing this morning, but I-“ he paused, eyes on the scene outside the window.

“What is it?” Anj asked. She glanced out the window. A stranger was talking with Ezmah.

Shen sighed. “It looks as if we can’t turn away from Tilia Songbird just yet. Do you see that young man, the one talking with Worthy Ezmah? He’s from the Thunder Tribe, arrived yesterday. The chieftain himself is hosting him, and from what I understand, his business has to do with Tilia Songbird. I gather she’s from the Thunder Tribe originally, and this man wants to take her back with him.”

Shen frowned. Voices floated in through the window. Worthy Ezmah was all evasions, head shaking, hands raised, and finally, he started moving off, leaving the stranger standing alone, glowering.

“It appears the chieftain is reluctant to turn her over,” Shen continued. “So now this man from the Thunder Tribe is coming to you. To Cinnabar, as it were.”

Anj raised her eyebrows. As far as she knew, neither of her predecessors had had any dealings with the Thunder Tribe. And now one of their people was coming to seek a favor? It was possibly the first positive development since Anj had taken up her post.

Anj turned to Shen. “All right,” she said. “You go invite him in to the outer room. Have him wait there; serve him some of the best of the local tea but also break out some of the persimmon wine. That’s something he won’t have had before. And, hmmm . . . what else . . . I know: that palm sugar confection from the Jasmine Islands. Put that out too. When he’s had some tea, call me, and I’ll come in.”

Shen hurried out. Anj gave her medallion of office a perfunctory polish with the edge of her jacket and glanced at herself in the circular mirror hanging near the shelving on the back wall.

She was wearing local clothes, presents from the chieftain, men’s garments. The silky wool of the local goats had been woven into the fine, soft cloth from which her overshirt and trousers had been sewn; the goats’ hides, stitched together, made the long jacket. Strong yarn, brightly dyed, had been used to embroider geometric designs along the edges of the jacket–as much embroidery as on the chieftain’s jacket. In keeping with local custom, she wore a dagger in the sash at her waist, but a Cinnabar blade, not a local one.

Men here wore their hair shoulder length and loose, so Anj did too, though hers fell smooth and straight, while theirs twisted and curled. Anj turned sideways. She was of a height to look most of the men in the eye, but even with the goatskin jacket, she was slight beside them. She threw back her shoulders. Never mind. She had Cinnabar’s treasury and its imperial authority behind her.

Sometime later Shen opened the door and announced,

“His Excellency Adjunct Gubernatorial Undersecretary Anj.”

Anj entered the outer room and sat down on a cushion, local style, across a low table from the visitor. His eyebrows shot up when she had seated herself, and he looked over at Shen, standing by the door. Shen remained impassive and announced, “Worthy Siiar, from the Thunder Tribe, brings a petition, Your Excellency.”

“Worthy Siiar. May your days be reigned by balance. How can this servant of Cinnabar help you?”

At the sound of Anj’s voice, Siiar started. He stared openly at Anj for a moment, caught himself, shot another furtive glance at Shen, then dropped his gaze to the untouched sweet on his plate.

The Thunder Tribe must not know that the new adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary is actually a woman, Anj thought. And no one here bothered to inform this young man. Were they hoping he’d make a fool of himself?

Maybe the thought was occurring to Siiar, too; the visitor lifted his still sparsely bearded chin and spoke resolutely. “Your Excellency. May the spirits bless your days. I come on behalf of my brother, Chieftain Zara of the Thunder Tribe. There is one of our people here who needs to be brought home.”

Anj took a tiny bite of her sweet and tried not to cough. The vagaries of a three-month journey from the coast had rendered a supposedly chewy delicacy chalklike. She took a quick sip of wine. “The one they call Tilia Songbird,” she said.

“Tilia is her name, yes.”

“And you have taken the matter up with Chieftain Rosan, have you not?”

“I did, but Chieftain Rosan and Chieftain Zara are rivals. I didn’t expect satisfaction.”

“Chieftain Rosan refuses to turn over Tilia because . . . he wishes the blessings of the spirits she hosts to remain with the Freshet Tribe?” hazarded Anj.

“Blessings? It’s not spirit blessings that Chieftain Rosan or any of the others are after. It’s nothing more than . . . than the favors of a wanton vagabond.”

“I see. So why expend effort to bring such a one back home with you?” asked Anj, lacing her fingers on the table between them.

“Her behavior is a stain on my brother’s honor and a humiliation to the Thunder Tribe– Chieftain Rosan and all the worthies of the Freshet tribe mock us through her! And so.” Siiar reached for his glass of wine and downed it in a gulp. “And so she needs to be brought home. And dealt with.” Shen silently refilled Siiar’s glass, and Siiar took another drink.

Anj inclined her head. “Worthy Siiar, what are you asking of Cinnabar, exactly? You want me to compel Chieftain Rosan to turn the girl over to you?”

“Yes. Your Excellency.”

“I sympathize with your distress. The situation you describe is unpleasant, I agree. It does not, however, merit imperial intervention. Chieftain Rosan and the Freshet Tribe are Cinnabar’s hosts in this region. I’m afraid it would take an issue of somewhat greater significance to induce me to risk damaging the warm relations Cinnabar has established with the Freshet Tribe.”

Siiar started to speak, but Anj held up a hand.

“But that’s not to say that I have nothing to offer by way of redress. I could, for example, perhaps arrange for the girl to be sent away somewhere where she would not cause any more harm to Chieftain Zara’s honor or the standing of the Thunder Tribe.”

Siiar scowled.

“No more harm? The damage is already done. She was my brother’s wife! And now, word comes back to us, how she carries on here . . . by rights I should find her and cut her down where she stands!”

Anj thought of the narrow-shouldered girl, her song, the bluetail feather glinting in the sunlight. Cut down? She felt sick.

“But if I do,” Siiar was saying, voice low, “my brother’s shame will be even more public. There won’t be a tribe in the Cloud Mountains that won’t have heard the story by winter’s end. So I have to take her out of here–which Chieftain Rosan won’t permit.” He turned the stem of his wine glass round and round between his thumb and fingers. “Cinnabar should stand for virtue, shouldn’t it? And justice?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the wine glass.

“Cinnabar does stand for virtue and justice, but also for power, Worthy Siiar, power based on judicious action. It’s by choosing the right action at the right time that Cinnabar makes itself invincible.”

“Helping me is the right action at the right time,” insisted Siiar, looking up at Anj again. “You’re mistaken to put your faith in the Freshet Tribe and its allies.”

Anj sighed inwardly. If Siiar only knew how little the Empire of Cinnabar cared about any of the tribes of the Cloud Mountains–which was why its adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary was left to while away her days in a tiny house with a leaky roof.

“These eastern tribes are all Cinnabar facing,” Siiar was saying. “If you want to advance in the Cloud Mountains, you should align with the Thunder Tribe. My brother knows all the mountain passes. He’s led raiding parties into the Gate of the Mountain itself. What if your Southwestern Army knew about those passes? Forget sea battles–Cinnabar could sweep down on the Kingdom of the Plains from the mountains.”

Anj stared at Siiar in astonishment. The sea war was beginning to seem like a stalemate–did he know that? How did he know that? But not even Commander Tak thought seriously of advancing over the mountains; no pass was large enough. But many small passes? Could it be done?

“So. Upon further consideration, is it maybe Cinnabar’s pleasure to help me?” Siiar’s tone was positively challenging. Anj bought time by taking a sip of her wine.

“Possibly.” From the corner of her eye, she could see Shen stiffen, but she ignored him. She took another sip of wine.

“I will consider the matter and return you an answer in two days. Please do not act before then.”

Siiar bowed his head. “Thank you, Your Excellency.” His voice shook slightly. Relief? Anj gave a slight nod. The audience was over.

“People here are full of boasts and big claims,” said Shen, clearing away the stale sweets and empty glasses once the two of them were alone again. “But reality is often smaller. I wouldn’t let yourself be dazzled by Worthy Siiar’s last-ditch offers. No one tribe controls all the passes, and he would have promised the moon if he thought it would incline you toward him.”

He followed Anj into the back room; she could feel him hovering as she opened the chest that had the survey maps in it and dumped them on the desk.

“Did Bis make any overtures to the tribes in the west?” she asked. “Or Hum?”

“Neither of your predecessors did. The western tribes were hostile to the survey teams,” said Shen.

Anj found the area, colored purple, indicating the wintering grounds and summer pastures of the Thunder Tribe, stretching west along the Cloud Mountains just north of the small kingdom called Gate of the Mountain. The Gate of the Mountain was the logical stepping stone to the Kingdom of the Plains; it was getting a force of any size as far as the Gate of the Mountain that posed the problem. But if the Thunder Tribe controlled even some of the passes Siiar claimed, if Chieftain Zara really had raided into the territory of the Gate of the Mountain . . .

If either of those things were true, then Anj wouldn’t need to bide her time until she could be promoted away to someplace more promising. She could make history happen here.

“You’re not really contemplating trading Tilia Songbird away for the phantom of a possibility of advancement for Cinnabar, are you?” Shen had perfected the art of remonstration: hard words, gentle tone.

Tilia, who sings mountain streams into small rooms. Anj shut the door firmly on that thought–tried to, anyway. “My duty out in this wilderness is to advance Cinnabar’s cause. Even if it involves sacrifices.”

Shen folded his arms. “Ruthless doesn’t suit you.”

“Weren’t you just saying something about thinking like the locals? You and I might think it extreme to condemn someone to death for unseemly behavior, but if. . .” It was no good. Shen was right; ruthless was a coat she couldn’t wear. Maybe cunning would fit better. “Maybe there’s a way to keep Tilia safe and still see if Worthy Siiar is more than empty talk,” she said. “He just needs to believe she’s dead; she doesn’t really have to die.”

“He’s not going to settle for your word on the matter. I’ve seen this sort of thing before–he’ll want to accomplish the deed himself. At the very least he’ll require incontrovertible proof.”

It seemed to Anj that at some point during this conversation an invisible band of metal had been fastened round her head, and now unseen torturers were slowly tightening it. She rubbed her fingers across her eyebrows, massaged her temples a little.

“I’ll figure out something. You work on the census totals for now. Commander Tak’s expecting them. I’m going to take one of the ponies and ride up the western road a bit. See what the way to Thunder Tribe territory looks like.”

It was good to be outside, to feel the breeze and watch the dancing light of the Cloud Mountains, always changing as the configuration of clouds passing over the sun changed. Yesterday’s rains had given the air a scrubbed-clean feeling, and in the ample valley that was the Freshet Tribe’s wintering ground, people were harvesting millet. Now that those who had traveled with the goats to the summer pastures were back for the winter, the village and the hillsides were more lively. Passing one homestead shortly after turning onto the western road, Anj found herself the object of interest and excitement for a knot of siblings, who ran up to the roadside.

“Look, it’s the outlander, the woman-man,” the tallest boy called over his shoulder to a brother and sister, who came running up, followed by a barefoot little one in just a shirt, who toddled after the others, hands uplifted, calling, “Me too, me! Meeram too!” They waved, then ran off shrieking and laughing when Anj waved back.

Anj smiled to herself, but the smile faded as her thoughts turned to Tilia. What to do. She tried to array the elements of this problem in her mind: Siiar, his offers, Tilia. But at Tilia her thoughts veered off. A blue feather. A song like water.

The world grew perceptibly brighter as a rack of cloud that had been covering the sun moved away, and with the sun came the liquid sound from Anj’s memory, following her up the road. Anj looked back, and there by the road, back at the homestead where the children had waved, stood Tilia herself, holding a chicken and singing. When their eyes met, Tilia smiled, singing all the while.

Anj turned the pony (named, wishfully, Fortune) around and headed back down the road. Tilia was handing the chicken to the smallest of the four children, whose siblings were nowhere in sight, but it fluttered out of the little one’s arms and back toward the house. The child’s eyes grew wide as Anj dismounted and led Fortune over to the tall poplar where Tilia was standing. He turned and ran in the same direction as the chicken, calling his siblings.

“That hen won’t lay,” Tilia said, watching as the child tripped over it in his hurry to get into the house.

“Will your singing help it?”

Tilia shrugged. “Maybe. I held it, and a song came out. Maybe the song will heal it. I don’t know.”

A breeze caught at the poplar leaves; they flashed their pale undersides like a thousand signal mirrors. Tilia’s eyes were on them. Her hands moved away from her sides, fluttered like the leaves. A response.

“Tilia!” One of the older children was trotting toward them from the house, but slowed to a walk when he saw Anj. “Mama wanted you to have these,” he said, passing three grape leaf rolls to Tilia while staring at Anj.

Tilia popped one of the rolls into her mouth right away. “Thank you! Tell her thank you,” she said between bites. The boy grinned, waited expectantly, hopefully. She rested a hand on his shoulder and bent to kiss him on his cheek, right by his ear. His grin broadened, and he put his arms round Tilia’s neck and kissed her back, then dashed back to the house.

“Are you always so generous with kisses?” Anj asked.

Tilia laughed.

“That? It’s no more than what the wind does, is it?” she asked, gulping down the next grape leaf roll. “A light, light touch.” She tipped her head back, and the breeze pulled at her headscarf. She closed her eyes, smiled, then opened them again.

“So light,” she murmured. “Would you like one?”

“I–”

Tilia’s lips brushed Anj’s cheek, barely touched it, but Anj felt the touch in the pit of her stomach, and gasped.

Tilia popped the last of the grape leaf rolls in her mouth, swallowed, and sighed.

“Those were so good. I was so hungry all yesterday and today.” She looked back down the road toward the valley, then took a couple of steps toward Anj and Fortune.

“I promised I would watch Worthy Ezmah’s goats today,” she said, stroking Fortune’s cheek and letting the pony nuzzle her neck and chin. “Maybe his wife will have something for me too. She usually does. I’m still a little hungry.”

“Have you ever given Worthy Ezmah one of your kisses?” Anj asked, thinking of the morning’s conversations.

Tilia ran a hand along the edge of her scarf, tucking in a stray strand of hair.

“I sang for him once,” she said. “It was when his wife was very ill, this past spring, after bearing a third child so late in life. She could barely take care of the baby, and their daughter had just gone as a bride to Worthy Sunan. His wife couldn’t plant the fields, so Worthy Ezmah decided not to take their goats to the summer pastures or go on any raids. When he announced his decision, the men all mocked him . . . They called him small, not much of a man. But that’s wrong. He’s small in size but big in heart. I went to see him, and a song came out from me–his heart called it, full of love for his wife and their new baby. No one calls him a small man now.”

“But no kisses?”

“Maybe one kiss. I don’t remember.”

“You may not, but other people do. Other people feel jealous.”

Tilia’s face clouded, and she hugged herself.

“I know,” she said, hunching her shoulders. “Why, though? The wind touches everyone’s cheeks, but they’re not jealous of the wind. The rain wraps people up with its wetness, but they’re not jealous of the rain. But a kiss . . . And the jealous ones don’t wait to be given one of their own; they just demand and take . . . I need to go watch the goats.” She started walking down the road toward the valley.

Anj hurried after her. “Here, you climb onto Fortune; I’ll take you to watch Worthy Ezmah’s goats,” Anj said. She got Tilia settled on the pony and walked alongside, holding the bridle. Three, four, five leisurely paces in silence. Time to broach the subject of Siiar. “Tilia,” Anj said, “did you know that a man from your tribe has come looking for you?”

Tilia regarded her soberly but didn’t reply.

“You ran away from your husband, yes? The chieftain of the Thunder Tribe? He’s unhappy with the tales that travel back to him about you. Your songs and kisses–he feels disgraced. He’s sent one of his brothers to take you back, and from the way that one talks, I think he intends to have you pay for his disgrace with your life.”

Tilia murmured something inaudible.

“What?”

“Which brother?” Tilia repeated, only slightly louder.

“Siiar. Worthy Siiar.”

Tilia nodded, startling Anj with a flash of a smile that dissolved into trembling lips and closed eyes, but no sobs, no tears. Just wet lashes when she opened her eyes again.

“Siiar is my true love, and I’m his. He wouldn’t ever hurt me.”

“What?”

“My father did give me to Chieftain Zara. He couldn’t very well refuse the chieftain’s request. It was a huge honor.” Tilia shrugged. “I don’t know why Chieftain Zara wanted to marry me. He already has a wife, a rich and beautiful one . . . But some people, you know, every small thing that takes their fancy, they want to have for their own, and they won’t be denied.

“I went to stay at his house, in the women’s quarters, before the wedding, so I could get to know Adayla, his first wife, and learn what my duties in the household would be. I didn’t like it. The servants had hard eyes and spoke coldly. I spilled tea and Adayla slapped me . . . soon there were almost no songs in me at all–just, sometimes, when I would see the homing pigeons coming back to the dovecote in the evening, I’d find a song coming. Their wings are like leaves in the sun.” Her hands moved like the poplar leaves again, and she smiled.

“The birds are Siiar’s. He trains both the hunting birds and the homing pigeons. One time when I was singing, he asked me if I wanted to help feed the pigeons, up in the dovecote. I went with him up there, and–“

“I can guess the rest of the story,” said Anj, quickly.

Tilia nodded. Her right hand drifted to her face, her fingers finding her jaw, her cheek, her lips, as if either the hand or the face were someone else’s.

“I never knew, before, what ‘Tilia’ was,” she said. “Before, there were clouds, rain, leaves, birds, wind, sun, blossoms. . . Those things, they have songs, and when I come near them, their songs come out of me, too–there’s no boundary between us. But Siiar traced the exact borders of me. When he put his hands like this, when he held me, it was Tilia, just Tilia, he was holding. He said, ‘You are so precious. I will always treasure you.’ It was to Tilia he said it. Me.”

Tears were running down Tilia’s cheeks now, but her voice remained steady.

“Chieftain Zara has a sharp nose and a sharp mind. I was sure he’d sniff my scent on Siiar or his on me. So I ran away. I came here and went back to being Tilia without any borders.” She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Siiar can’t really mean to harm me.” A trickle of uncertainty dampened Tilia’s words. “I wish I could— maybe if I see him—“

“No, you mustn’t!” By rights I should find her and cut her down. Siiar’s words still rang in Anj’s ears.

“But if-”

“No! Listen,” said Anj. “Tonight, when you’re done helping Worthy Ezmah and his family, I want you to come back to the regional outpost–the house where I stay. All right? I’d like you to stay at the outpost, just for tonight and tomorrow. The next day Worthy Siiar will come back to see me. You sit in the back room while we have our conversation in the front room. If you feel like speaking with him after that, you may. All right?”

By now they were reentering the valley, and the fresh smell of the cut millet blew past on the breeze. Tilia didn’t respond; her eyes were on the millet.

“Worthy Nilma’s fields,” she said. “He takes his time and does things properly.”

“Tilia! Will you promise not to look for Siiar? And come to the Cinnabar outpost tonight, and stay there until I’ve talked with him?”

Still Tilia didn’t answer, or even meet Anj’s eyes. The splashing of Fortune’s hooves in the puddles seemed the louder for Tilia’s silence. Anj gritted her teeth. Trying to keep hold of Tilia’s attention was like trying to keep hold of water.

“Tilia? Will you promise?”

“I won’t look for him,” Tilia said at last. “And I’ll come to your house.”

Anj let out a sigh of relief.

“Look,” said Tilia, pointing. “There’s Worthy Ezmah, in Worthy Kehan’s fields. He’s indebted to Worthy Kehan, and Worthy Kehan never lets him rest.” She made a face. “And there’s Worthy Kehan, lording it over all the laborers. He always has to be the best and have the most. See how he’s already put the millet straw in his barns? It’s because he wants to be ahead of Worthy Nilma, but it’s been rainy, and I’ll bet the straw’s not all dry. It’ll molder, and then his goats will sicken in the winter.” She waved at Ezmah, who straightened up from his work and made his way over to the road, sickle still in hand.

“Look,” said Tilia, grinning. “His Excellency has put me on a pony!”

Ezmah smiled back. “You’re quite the fine lady.”

“Shall I take the goats to the meadow beyond the mulberry stand?”

“That would be a big help, Tilia. Thank you.” His voice was warm with affection. He glanced at Anj and frowned, hesitated, then spoke.

“The chieftain’s brother from the Thunder Tribe came to see you.”

“Yes.”

“I hope- I hope . . . whatever he asked . . . you’ll do nothing that would put Tilia in harm’s way.”

“I hope to ensure that harm doesn’t come to her, Worthy Ezmah.”

The man’s face relaxed. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

“Cousin!” called Worthy Kehan. “I didn’t sow grain in the road and don’t need you harvesting what you find there. Let’s have your sickle back where it’s of some use.” Ezmah returned to the field, but Kehan continued to stare at Anj and Tilia. Time to move along. Anj set a brisk pace, and soon they had put Kehan’s fields well behind them.

Eventually they turned onto a side path that climbed again into the hills, and arrived at Ezmah’s homestead. Tilia slid down from Fortune, waved to Ezmah’s wife, who was hoeing a patch of vegetables, her baby tied to her back, then went to collect the goats, several of whom she greeted with hugs.

Anj watched Tilia drive the goats up the slope behind Ezmah’s house, then mounted Fortune and headed back past the fields and houses of the Freshet Tribe, this time at a canter. She was nearly back to the western road when she became aware of hoofbeats behind her. She reined in, wheeled round, and was face to face with Siiar, who pulled in so close that their shoulders practically touched.

“Decided against helping me, then? Cinnabar’s ambitions can be put aside for a song? Or was it more than a song?”

“On the contrary, I’d still very much like to advance Cinnabar’s ambitions, and I’d even be willing to help you with your current predicament. Your actual predicament, that is, not the disgraceful fabrications you wove for me this morning.”

Siiar growled and lunged for Anj, who leaned into him with the aim of grabbing him by the sash and arm and unseating him–but Siiar threw his free arm around Anj’s shoulders and they fell together to the ground, where they rolled free of their startled ponies’ dancing hooves and into the roadside flowers. Siiar had the advantage of weight, but Anj moved quickly, and just as Siiar managed to fling himself across her chest, she brought her dagger up beneath his jaw, cutting, but not too deeply. Just enough to startle.

Siiar gasped and fell back. Anj slipped free, and the two of them faced each other again, crouched and panting, Siiar with a hand pressed to his neck. “You’re playing with me,” he said. “You say you would be willing to help me–then why were you escorting Tilia through the valley today?”

“Who’s playing with whom? You neglected to mention to me that you were Tilia’s first indiscretion. You came to me as an aggrieved brother when really you’re no more than a jealous lover.”

Siiar looked as if Anj had struck him. “Tilia’s behavior among the Freshet people is still wrong, still shames my brother,” he said, voice unsteady.

“More wrong than yours? You betrayed your chieftain and your brother. Whatever she’s done since coming here, Tilia may well have saved your life by leaving your brother’s house when she did. She certainly could have ended it by denouncing you. Isn’t that worth anything to you?”

Siiar pressed both his bloodied hand and his clean one to his forehead, shut his eyes.

“I loved her,” he said, his fingers closing round his hair as he spoke. “And then one day she disappeared without a word. And later, the stories that came to us from the Freshet Tribe. . . my love must have meant nothing to her. Even knowing that, sometimes I fear I might still love her–but I refuse to! I refuse to. I can atone for the wrong I did my brother, wipe out the stain on our family’s honor, and cut out the disease from my own heart, all at once.”

Spoken like a general who promises victory in the face of an overwhelming enemy, thought Anj. Then, thinking on generals, she asked, “Your offer–access to the passes–was that Chieftain Zara’s idea, or yours?”

“Mine. But my brother will honor my promises. He’ll understand what an alliance with Cinnabar means–but he’ll do it as much to spite Chieftain Rosan as for any other reason.”

“How did you know about the sea war? These mountains are months away from the sea.”

He didn’t respond.

“You would have to have seen the messages from Commander Tak. Tilia said you raise hunting birds. And homing pigeons. That’s it, isn’t it. You were intercepting our messenger birds.”

Now a corner of his mouth quirked upward, almost a half smile.

“Yes. I trained one of my falcons to catch your birds without killing them. I read the messages, then sent the birds on their way.”

Anj nodded. “Clever. So you can read the Cinnabar tongue. I guess we’ll have to start using code.” Commander Tak had been wrong to dismiss encryption as a needless precaution. Clearly not everyone in the Cloud Mountains was unlettered. Anj sheathed her dagger and sighed.

“You have the wisdom to see the importance of Cinnabar’s plans and the perseverance to make yourself part of them. I won’t give you Tilia, but you don’t need Tilia to persuade your brother that the stain on his honor has been removed. A torn and bloodied headscarf, along with your testimony and mine, will be enough. If you can put aside killing Tilia, I can help you bring your brother true fame and glory, enough to make him forget any injury he suffered because of her.”

“And you’ll hide Tilia away somewhere, as you said before.” The hint of a smile had disappeared from Siiar’s face; it was bleak now, his voice bitter. “Somewhere only you know– your own private prize.”

“That is a ridiculous idea,” said Anj, heat rising in her cheeks.

“Oh? You don’t want her? You don’t love her? Then maybe it will take another song, or maybe two–or maybe you all have wooden hearts, in Cinnabar. All the better for you if you do. Better than to love, when the love can’t be returned.” He shook his head. “You might as well love the wind, that doesn’t care where it bestows its caresses.”

“But Tilia does love you,” murmured Anj.

“Yes, like the wind. She loves everyone. Anyone.”

“She loves you differently.” Anj felt a tickle on her cheeks, went to brush it away and found her fingers wet. Tears. Siiar tilted his head, his eyes lingering on Anj’s damp cheeks.

“Truly?” So much hope and doubt in one word.

“Yes.”

Simultaneously the two of them got to their feet, brushed themselves off.

“Come to the Cinnabar outpost the day after tomorrow, as we arranged,” said Anj. “Perhaps you can see Tilia one more time, before we carry out our vanishing act.”

First the sun left the valleys, but the hills and high peaks of the Cloud Mountains still glowed rose and violet, and then the light left the mountains too, and Tilia still did not arrive at the Cinnabar outpost.

“You’re likely to wear a groove in the floor,” remarked Shen, as Anj paced the length of the outer chamber.

“Siiar was persuaded,” Anj said. “He wouldn’t suddenly have changed his mind. Would he?” She chewed a thumbnail. “Or perhaps Tilia’s wandered off somewhere? Or forgot?” Anj was at the door. “I’m going to find her. I’ll take Glory this time.”

A near-full moon gave the landscape a ghostly brilliance, and the air shimmered with the tones of a multitude of unseen insects. Tilia probably sings with them, thought Anj, and urged Glory to a trot, aiming for Worthy Ezmah’s homestead. He might know where to find the girl.

Passing Worthy Kehan’s fields, a different sound caught Anj’s ear: movement, cautious, deliberate. Anj slowed and scanned the road and the surrounding fields, but the sounds had ceased.

The hairs on the back of Anj’s neck rose to attention, pushing at her shirt collar.

And what was this? A slim shadow, moving down a hillside track up ahead, crossing the road, descending into the field, and heading for the barn.

Tilia?

“Tilia!” Anj called.

The figure hesitated. Anj dismounted and hurried to meet her.

“What are you doing out here? You were supposed to come to my house tonight.”

“I know,” said Tilia. The moonlight shone in her solemn eyes. “But I had to come here first.”

Her voice shook. “It’s Worthy Kehan. I heard him tell Worthy Ezmah that he was going lure Siiar out to the big barn. He said . . . he was going to stop Siiar from making any trouble. He’s going to hurt him, Your Excellency, maybe even . . . I have to warn him.” She pressed her hands, one clasping the other tightly, to her chest.

The notion of Tilia trying to protect the man whom everyone else was intent on protecting her from might have made Anj laugh, if just then the door to the barn hadn’t opened. Four men jumped out, two tackling Tilia and two heading for Anj. Anj threw herself to the ground, drew her dagger, and sliced the ankle tendons of one assailant, who howled a curse as he fell, then curled up, moaning. The other aimed a kick at Anj’s head that she narrowly avoided. She caught his foot under her free arm and wrenched him down, but before she could take her dagger to him, a blow from behind caught her in the small of the back, winding her, and as she lay gasping, strong arms pulled her into the barn.

A heavy, rank scent, almost alcoholic, enveloped her. Coughing, she squinted into the murky dark. The large shape over there, that must be Worthy Kehan. The shape on the floor, still whimpering, with another kneeling beside him, must be the man she had wounded. And that must be Tilia, twisting in a fourth man’s grasp, heedless of the dagger he was attempting to hold to her throat.

“She’s cut herself; she’s bleeding!” the man whispered, frantic.

“Foolish girl doesn’t understand what’s good for her. No sense! Seeking out a boy who wants to kill her.” There was anger and impatience in Kehan’s voice. “Tie her feet and put something in her mouth; that’ll shut her up. Sorry you had to wander into this, Your Excellency, but now I’m afraid you’ll have to stay too, until we’re done with that Thunder Tribe boy. Then we’ll send you back to your little house and you can just forget all this ever happened.”

“That’s a bad plan, Worthy Kehan,” Anj said, speaking in level tones, though she too had a blade pressed to her throat. “You don’t want to start a blood feud with the Thunder Tribe, do you? Let me handle Siiar.”

Slowly and deliberately, she pushed away the threatening dagger.

“You don’t want a feud with Cinnabar, either,” she added, glancing at the man who held her. Then, to Kehan,

“Untie Tilia. How can you mistreat someone you seek to protect? You should be ashamed.”

“I don’t need your scolding or your orders, Your Excellency,” Kehan sneered. “You think because you’ve gotten cozy with Tilia that you know what’s best for her? Well, you don’t. Freak.”

Anj coughed again. The alcoholic odor was becoming overwhelming, and there was something else now, a sharpness that tickled her nose. . .

Smoke? Tilia had said that Kehan put up the millet straw too early, and wet straw was known to catch fire unaccountably sometimes.

“I think we’d all better get out of here,” Anj said. “I think your straw’s about to–”

“Father, listen! It’s him,” whispered the man by Tilia, nodding toward the barn door and drawing his dagger.

Anj could hear the crunch of millet stubble beneath footfalls. Then a pause. Anj started forward, but the man holding her yanked her back and clapped a hand over her mouth. The door to the barn swung open, and for the barest fraction of a moment, Siiar was visible, silhouetted against the moonlight. Then there was a sudden whoosh, like an invisible flock of birds taking wing, as the straw in the barn burst into flame.

The man holding Anj screamed as fire seized the edge of his jacket. He released her and ran for the door, but the flames there, fed by the rich night air, were dancing the fiercest.

“The back, out through the back,” someone shouted, and another voice cried, “Uncle, Tavat, help me with Sarban!”

The fire didn’t illuminate; it blinded, and each breath Anj drew seared her lungs. She pulled her jacket over her head and crawled toward Tilia. “Let’s go–this way!” she shouted, cutting the twine around Tilia’s ankles. “Use your jacket as a shield.”

There was a noise like thunder as a portion of the roof gave way. Flames leapt up to greet the stars.

“Hurry!” said Anj. The flames hissed and snapped; somewhere up above, something groaned and creaked. Then came a loud crack, and a thick beam, flames running its length, fell to the ground, striking Tilia and pinning her. The girl screamed and struggled, but couldn’t pull free.

Wrapping her hands in her jacket, Anj tried first to lift and then to push the beam away, to no avail. She looked about in desperation, but Kehan and his sons and nephews must already have made their escape. And now Tilia was no longer struggling; no, she was lying quite still.

“Tilia . . .” But there could be no tears in that furnace. And now the flames were coming to claim Anj’s jacket.

Anj let the burning jacket fall. She covered her face with her hands and peered out through her fingers, searching for the rear door.

And there, coming through the inferno toward her, was familiar silhouette: Siiar.

“Help me free Tilia,” Anj croaked.

Together they were able to lift the beam enough to pull Tilia free. They managed to stumble several paces away from the barn before Anj collapsed, coughing. Even after the coughing ended, she didn’t move, just lay with her face pressed to the cool and dewy ground, with no thoughts beyond the miracle of breathing.

“I think . . . I think she’s gone,” she heard Siiar say.

With effort, Anj sat up. Siiar was kneeling beside Tilia, ear to her chest. He raised his head and turned to Anj. “I let myself believe in your scheme,” he said, in wretched tones. “I found reasons, excuses, for putting aside my brother’s dishonor and shrugging off my own guilt. But then, when that swaggering loudmouth approached me, saying he could arrange for Tilia to meet me this evening–as if she’s at his beck and call–all my doubts and shame returned. So I came, vowing I’d be true to my original purpose.

“And now this. She’s been snatched away even better than you could have managed. My brother’s honor is avenged, and I haven’t lifted a finger. And all I want, all I want with all my heart and all my strength and all my will, is to have it not be so.”

His last words were barely audible, lost in soundless sobs.

Something like a ripple passed through Tilia, erupting into a spasm of coughing. Siiar sprang back an arm’s length, eyes wild.

“She’s alive–she’s just swallowed too much smoke,” Anj cried.

Siiar drew near again and extended a trembling hand toward one of Tilia’s.

Tilia’s eyes opened. Another wave of coughing claimed her, but at last she caught her breath. Her gaze traveled from Anj to Siiar.

“Your Excellency . . . Si- Siiar.”

Siiar gripped her hand tightly.

“His Excellency said you wanted to kill me,” Tilia whispered.

Siiar’s face contorted, as if many different answers were battling for his voice. “I won’t ever harm you,” he said at last.

“Tilia,” said Anj, watching the flames of the engulfed barn reaching for the dome of the sky, “Do you feel well enough to get up? Do you think you can walk? No broken bones?”

Tilia pushed herself up on an elbow. “No broken bones,” she said.

Remarkable. Anj felt a pang, but said, “Good. You need to leave here right now, before anyone–”

“She can’t go anywhere yet,” Siiar protested. “She–”

Anj spoke over him. “–before anyone from the Freshet Tribe comes to investigate the fire. Then Siiar can tell your husband you died in it, and no one will know otherwise.” It had, after all, very nearly been so. “No one will come after you ever again. But you have to stay unknown and unremarked on–I want you to go into Cinnabar.”

“No!” said Siiar.

More painful was Tilia’s own refusal. “I can’t go there. I can’t ever leave these mountains and skies.”

Anj felt arguments rise to her tongue, but what good was arguing with Tilia? Anj swallowed them. “All right. Go west, then, but stay clear of Thunder territory.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Siiar. “Just for a little bit, a little way–just to see you safe, just–”

“You’ll only endanger yourself and Tilia if you do that,” said Anj. “People will be suspicious if you disappear, after being sent here on this task.”

“Even just for a day,” said Siiar. Was he insisting? Pleading?

“Feel the breeze right now!” said Tilia, head tilted back. “It’s gone all soft.”

“Tilia,” said Siiar, touching her cheek. “You’re already floating away from me on that breeze, aren’t you. Will I ever find you again?”

Tilia put her hands over his and closed her eyes. “Without you, there wouldn’t be any me. Only you know where I begin and end. Of course you’ll find me.”

Somewhat unsteadily, she got to her feet. Siiar caught her in his arms, an embrace that was one last plea. But then he let go.

“You’re wrong, Tilia,” he said, speaking slowly. “There is a you, even without me. It’s the you I fell in love with–you, without any beginning or end.”

Tilia became very still for a moment, then leaned toward Siiar and kissed him full on the lips. She turned to Anj.

No, Anj wanted to say. No kisses! But there it was, a light touch, just by the ear. Then Tilia was off, turning back once to wave before disappearing into the darkness.

____
Copyright 2012 Francesca Forrest

Francesca Forrest has lived near the coast of Dorset, England, and by a bamboo grove in Japan, but has spent the last ten years within walking distance of the Quabbin Reservoir, in Massachusetts. Her short stories and poems hide out in various corners of the Internet.