For the second time in two days, Adlis and Za watched civilization disappear into the bleak emptiness of the Taksten, with only the groaning of the wagon and the occasional caw from one of the kashnilas to break the silence. Kulgan didn't say a word to either of them.
It wasn't until Adlis' stomach growled, and Za's grumbled its agreement, that she finally moved. Turning to look at the Twister driving them, she took a deep breath. He hadn't slowed the kashnilas, even though the town had long since been lost to sight. She shuddered again at the thought of having to talk to him, but the growling of her stomach won out in the end. She and Za couldn't cross Tassendile on an empty stomach, after all.
"Um, Mr. Kulgan?" she said tentatively, sliding closer to the front of the wagon on her rear so that she wouldn't have to test her balance by standing up.
"Yes, ma'am?" he asked without turning around.
"Do... Do you..." her voice faltered, and she found herself staring at him instead. The hat he'd pilfered the night before hid most of his gray hair, but if there had been any doubt of who he was, it was made moot by the poncho he now wore. It was the same shade of gray as his hair, and so tightly knit that it almost seemed to be a solid object instead of a bunch of individual threads stitched together. The gray was broken in the exact center by a black circle. It was a rough depiction of one of the Forbidden Gates, and the Gray Rangers' sign.
"Driving these things may not take a lot of concentration, ma'am," he said, still staring intently at the kashnila's scaly backs, "but I'd still prefer you not steal what little I have."
Adlis' ears turned yellow with anger. "I just want to know if you plan on feeding me and my friend, or if you're just going to let us starve!"
Kulgan laughed at this. "It's been, what, twelve hours since you've had a meal, and you think you're starving?" He shook his head, grinning. "You two are about as hard as hot water, you know that?"
Adlis' ears turned an even brighter shade of yellow, and her cheeks flushed pink. "I don't recall asking you what your opinion of me was, Mr. Kulgan. I asked if you had any food!"
Kulgan jerked his thumb over his shoulder, toward his bag. "There's some cheese and sausage in there. We've got to make that last until we get to the next town, so try not to make a pig of yourself, okay?"
Adlis glared at the back of his head. "Make a pig of myself, indeed!" she hissed under her breath as she fumbled with shaking fingers to open the pack. After a bit of rummaging, she found the food wrapped in a dirty old cloth. "Embin save me from the indecency of men!"
Still, her stomach wasn't going to be satisfied with insults and sharp words, so she broke off a piece for her and Za, wrapped the food back up, and scooted across the wagon to Za's side again.
"Thank you, Miss Adlis," he muttered, taking the food. With the scorching sun up above them, not to mention the light of the green moon, Za had to hunch over almost double before he could raise his mask up to eat. Watching him, Adlis felt her own appetite fade a little.
Maybe I shouldn't have brought him, she thought guiltily. A desert is no place for a simmk.
She shook her head. No, leaving him behind wouldn't have been good either. He would still be in Tolk if she had, and Madam Caruzo would have just assigned him to one of her other girls. That is, if she hadn't thrown him out in the sun for losing Adlis. Bringing him along had definitely been the right choice. That made her feel a little better, though not much.
Her stomach growled again, and she finally ate her meager breakfast. The cheese was good, if dry, but the sausage was salty and made her dry throat burn. Coughing, she began to look around the wagon.
"Water's in the canteens," Kulgan said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder again. "Take a drink whenever you need one."
Adlis looked at him in surprise. "You're not worried about running out?"
"This is the desert," he answered grimly. "You don't take your chances with water out here. Drink."
Adlis hesitated for a moment, but then nodded at the back of his head. There were four canteens, each filled to the brim from Everdry's only well. Taking the cork out of one, Adlis drank from it. The cold water helped the dryness in her throat, but she still didn't let herself take as much as she wanted. She knew Kulgan probably knew what he was doing better than she could ever hope to, but she still couldn't banish the lingering fear that they would end up stranded in the middle of the Taksten, with nothing but dry, hot sand as far as the eye could see, and not a single drop of water.
"Here," she said, carrying it back across to where Za still sat and handing it to him. "You have some too."
Za nodded and took it without saying anything. Drinking from the canteen was even harder for him than eating was. After struggling for a couple minutes to hide from the sun while simultaneously keep the canteen from spilling, he settled for taking one arm out of his sleeve and wrapping the coat around him. Adlis heard the cork pop from underneath the pile of black fabric, and then a moment later Za reappeared.
"Thank you, Miss Adlis," he said. Instead of handing it back to her, he scooted across the wagon and put it away himself. He stopped while he was there, with one hand holding the bag open. "Is... Is there anything else you need, Miss Adlis?"
Adlis smirked and shook her head. "I need you to stop acting like a servant. I'm fine."
"Yes, Miss Adlis." He scooted back over to sit beside her.
For the next hour, Adlis watched the dusty landscape pass by in silence. The steady squeaking and rattling of the wagon, along with the occasional squawk from the stolen kashnilas, took on an almost musical rhythm in her mind, and she found herself tapping her fingers against the blackened wood. Boredom wasn't long in rearing its ugly head.
Jaminska slowly meandered across the sky before finally disappearing over the southeastern horizon. Adlis closed her eyes and dozed off at least three times even before the position of the sun told her it was noon. She frowned. Was this how her whole journey across Tassendile was going to be? On the one hand, she knew she shouldn't complain. She had found someone willing, and even more importantly, able, to guide her and Za all the way across the country. On the other hand... she was bored out of her d'yargo mind, and she hadn't even been on the road half a day!
What do people normally do on long trips like this? she wondered, toying idly with her hair. They probably talk to each other.
She looked at Za, and then at Kulgan, and quickly discarded that idea. It wasn't that Za wasn't friendly, but the way he continued to defer to her in everything like a servant made him a poor conversationalist. There was no fun in talking to someone who just bobbed his head and agreed with everything she said. Kulgan was... well, he was Kulgan. She would let him escort them across Tassendile, but she would rather kiss their kashnilas than fraternize with him.
It wasn't just because he was a Twister, either. Not anymore. Now it was because she knew what a horrible person he was!
"Miss Adlis?" Za asked, breaking her free of her angry thoughts.
"Hmm?" she asked, noting with irritation that her ears had turned yellow again.
He looked at her with those big, innocent painted eyes. "This place we're goin'. Arborough. Can you tell me what it's like, Miss Adlis?"
Adlis blinked in surprise, and then smiled. "That's right, you've never been out of Tolk, have you?"
"I have now, Miss Adlis. I've been here in the Taksten desert."
Adlis rolled her eyes. "Fine. You haven't been anywhere civilized. How's that?"
Za shrugged. "I dunno, Miss Adlis. I guess I don't know what civilization's like."
"No, you don't," she agreed with a shake of her head. "Let me see... Arborough is in a forest. That's a place with lots of trees."
"Tolk had trees, Miss Adlis."
Adlis couldn't help but laugh. "Those could hardly be called trees, Za. They're more like, I don't know, bushes that are pretending to be trees. Oh..." She sighed and leaned her head back against the coarse wood of the wagon. "These trees are hundreds of feet tall, and the shade their leaves are so dense that we have to light lanterns on the forest floor."
"Because it's so dark. That’s why it’s called the Shadetower Woods"
"Anyway, most of us never even touch the ground," she went on. "Arborough was built in the trees."
Images of home began to drift through her mind as she told Za about it. Of the magnificent houses built within the trees themselves, the branches that were wide enough for five people to walk on side by side, the rope and pulley elevators that carried the non-climbing races of Tassendile up to their hidden paradise. There were places where the trees grew so close together that their branches pressed against each other and made entire fields where they could keep their livestock. She told him about the ocean of leaves that covered the forest floor every autumn, and the way travelers had to walk on stilts to keep their heads above the surface, and how the children could be seen daring each other to make daring leaps between trees.
"It sounds nice," Za said once she'd finished.
"It's an amazing place," she agreed softly as an unexpected wave of emotion rolled over her. Her ears turned blue with homesickness. "I just... never realized it until I wasn't there anymore."
"You never do," Kulgan said.
Adlis' head perked up in surprise, and she looked at her guide. He was still facing forward, driving the kashnilas, and when he didn't say anything else she slowly looked back down at the wagon floor again. That made sense, she supposed. Who would know what it was like to lose everything better than a Twister? For a second, a bit of sympathy fluttered through her heart.
Then she remembered him calling her a pig, and the sympathy vanished.
He made his choice, she thought solemnly, refusing to look at him again. Whatever he gets now, he deserves it.
Za shifted beside her, bringing her attention back to more pleasant matters.
"Do you really think they'll let me in, Miss Adlis?" he asked meekly.
"Of course they will," she reassured him. "Once I become the governess, they won't be able to say no!"
"And I'll really be a… be a..." He began to stutter, as if the very thought was too much for him to comprehend.
Reaching out, Adlis put her arm around his shoulders and pulled him in closer for a hug. "The people in Arborough are better than in Tolk, you'll see. Once they hear about everything you did to help me get home, you'll be a hero!"
Adlis wasn't able to see under his mask, but she swore he must be smiling.
"I think I'd like that, Miss Adlis. I really do.”
Kulgan rolled his eyes as the zik girl gushed. A simmk living alongside other creatures, not as a servant but as an equal! It was... well, it wasn't quite so farfetched as a Twister doing it, but the very idea was still absurd.
He cracked the reins, spurring the kashnila on even faster. They were well bred and in their natural habitat. Even separated from their masters, Kulgan expected they were happier now than they probably had been in months. The Everdryers tended to only leave town when they needed something that they absolutely, positively could not produce themselves. That led to trips to their neighboring towns about once or twice a year, and they were always quick to return to their quiet, secluded little hovel.
That, in itself, could prove to be a problem. The nearest town was Hammeth. Kulgan had stopped there briefly on his way to Everdry. The small town was farther out in the Taksten than most sensible people would ever want to go, but they had one of those new telegraph lines to connect them with the rest of the world. If someone were to come from Everdry, hollering about Twisters, it wouldn't take long for them to connect it to the three traveler in the half-incinerated wagon. Even if they had already left, all it would take was a few taps of the telegraph machine to put all of Tassendile on high alert. They wouldn't be able to so much as set foot in civilization without having the law on them.
"And that would be the best possible outcome," he grumbled, flicking the reins again. He had managed to stay out of the Ministry of the Purge's sights so far, and he had no intention of ever changing that.
He kept all of this to himself, though. Adlis tittered on to her simmk behind him, seeming to be in a good mood for the first time since he'd met her. Not that he blamed her. As much grief as he gave those two about how soft and helpless they were, he couldn't in good conscience hold it against them. Not everyone was cut out for a rough like he was. Whether it was on the battlefield with a weapon in hand or lounging in an overstuffed leather chair with a cup of wine, there was a place on Haroz for everybody.
Everybody except Twisters, of course. But that went without saying.
The hours crept by as slowly as a glue-coated snail, and it wasn't until the setting sun was painting the horizon with a rainbow of dark colors that he reined in the kashnilas. There was still nothing to see in any direction except for endless plains of sand, and that comforted Kulgan more than anything else. He fully expected somebody from Everdry to come after them, and they would probably travel faster on a single kashnila than the three of them could with a wagon slowing them down. If their pursuers hadn't caught up by now, that meant they wouldn't be see hide or hair of them until tomorrow.
"We're stopping here?" Adlis asked after Za had roused her from her nap.
Kulgan hopped down from the driver's seat, his legs muscles stretching luxuriously after sitting in one place for so long, and started to unhitch the kashnilas.
"I told you last night," he said. "It's too dangerous to travel through the desert after sunset. Simmk! Do you know how to build a fire?"
"Uh, y- yes, sir," Za answered, bobbing his head up and down.
"Good. Do it."
Za hopped from the wagon and eagerly began unloading the wood from the back. Most of it was old, dry lumber he had taken from the ruins of the buildings that had been destroyed during the bandit siege, but it would work well enough for their purposes. Kulgan planned on reaching Hammeth the next day, and they could restock their meager supplies there.
Or, rather, he would restock them.
Adlis hopped down out of the wagon a moment later, her ears yellow with irritation. At least, he assumed it was irritation. The fur on her ears seemed to change colors depending on her mood, and after watching her for a while Kulgan felt like he was beginning to understand them. Pink was for embarrassment, darkening to red the more humiliated she felt. Yellow was for anger and annoyance. They turned green when she was disgusted or felt sick, and gray when she was nervous. White meant fear, and blue was for sadness.
All I ever see are yellow, white, and green, he thought with amusement. No surprises there.
"I would appreciate it, Mr. Kulgan," she snapped, raising her dress a little so it didn't drag across the sand as she came to confront him, "if you didn't order my friend around like a common servant."
Kulgan shrugged. "If you want to survive out here, everyone has to pull their weight."
"Be that as it may," she huffed, "he is not your servant. He is a free simmk, and you would do well to ask him politely rather than give orders."
"Sure, I'll keep that in mind." Kulgan turned to look just as Za struck his flint and tinder, lighting the small pile of wood ablaze. Making his way back to the wagon, he said, "Oh, and when I said everyone, that included you."
"And what, exactly, do you expect me to do?" Adlis asked, following behind him.
Kulgan reached inside and began rummaging through one of his bags. "To start with, you could lower your voice. Didn't I tell you there are monsters out here?"
Adlis took a step back, and her ears turned from yellow to white in less than a second.
"Secondly," he turned around and presented her with a frying pan, "make us something to eat."
The zik maiden blinked in surprise, stared at the pan for a few seconds, and then clenched her fists. Her ears were already yellow again.
"You have a lot of nerve, Mr. Kulgan."
He shook the pan at her. "What I have is an empty stomach and two layabouts who expect me to do all the work."
"I promised to pay you, didn't I?"
"And I will happily accept that payment upon arrival in Arborough. For now, though, I'll settle for some of that sausage."
He thrust the pan at her, and she instinctively took it.
"Be sure to fry it up good," he said walking off.
Adlis voice was shrill with anger. "And where do you think you're off to?"
Kulgan patted pistols hanging from his belt. "I'm going to scout out the area. If there are any monsters nearby, the smell of food cooking will attract them. If I find them, I'll take them out."
He started walking again.
"Wha- monsters?" Adlis called after him. "And you're going to leave us here alone?"
"Stay by the fire," was all he said before he vanished into the darkness.
Adlis watched as their guide abandoned them, the night swallowing him up faster than should have been possible. She opened her mouth to call out to him again, but then shut it without saying anything when she remembered all the horrible things Kulgan had told them lived out here. How many would come running, or slithering, or crawling, if they heard Adlis caterwauling like a lost little kitten? Hugging the frying pan to her chest, she turned tail and sprinted back over to where Za had lit the fire.
The simmk was already trembling. "Did he really leave us, Miss Adlis?"
Adlis swallowed hard and sat down in the firelight. "Of course not, silly," she said, trying to sound confident. "He went to secure the area, just like he said."
"Your heart's beatin' pretty fast, Miss Adlis."
Adlis felt her ears turn pink at that. D'yargo simmk and his incredible hearing!
"Just keep your ears open," she said, loosening her grip on the pan. "If your hear or smell anything coming near us, tell me."
Za nodded hesitantly, and Adlis knew he was thinking the same thing she was: if anything did attack the camp, be it monster or bandit, what could they possibly do? Kulgan hadn't left them so much as a single bullet. Without the Gray Ranger, they were helpless.
That's probably exactly what he wants, she thought angrily, her ears turning from pink to yellow again. The more defenseless we are, the more we'll depend on him. The more we depend on him, the less likely it'll be for us to betray him.
She snorted a little at the thought. As if they would double cross their guide. Monsters or not, without him they'd never cross the Taksten, much less make it all the way to Arborough.
Za must have sensed something in her, because he turned to look at her quizzically. "What is it, Miss Adlis?"
Adlis hesitated, but then shook her head. "Nothing, don't worry about it." She stood up. "Mr. Kulgan wants dinner ready by the time he gets back, and I expect you're hungry too, Za."
He nodded. "You want me to do the cookin', Miss Adlis?"
"No, I'll do it. We don't need to give Kulgan a reason to treat you even more like a servant."
Setting the pan on top of the fire so it could heat up, she made her way back to the wagon. Her thoughts became darker the farther she stepped from the ring of firelight.
Maybe we should betray him, she thought, her ears turning gray with anxiety. We're bound to pass through a town sooner or later. What if...
Her stomach turned over at the thought, but she didn’t stop.
What if we found somebody else to take us home? If Kulgan doesn't like it... well, we can just tell everyone what he is.
Her hands were shaking as she withdrew the sausage from the bag of rations. The very thought horrified her, but at the same time it felt right. Kulgan was a Twister, the worst kind of creature on Haroz. Who would blame her for turning him in? It simply wasn't right for a poor, lost young woman like her to have to be subjected to this kind of... evil.
You made him a promise.
The stray thought, passing through her head almost of its own accord, stopped her in her tracks and nearly made her drop the sausage into the sand. She gripped it more tightly, her sweaty hands indenting the soft meat. After a moment she squared her shoulders and marched resolutely back to the fire. So what if she'd made him a promise? She was Adlis Arbor, daughter of Arborough's governor and future governess! One would expect her to do such things in events like this, especially when dealing with creatures as loathsome as Kulgan.
"Is everything all right?" Za asked when she sat back down.
Adlis looked at him for a few seconds, and then down at the sand. She wanted to tell him what she was thinking, but kept her mouth shut. Za was as loyal a friend as anyone could ask for, but he was a nervous wreck. If she let on that she was planning on double crossing Kulgan, he wouldn't be able to keep it to himself. Even if he didn't say anything outright, he would act even more skittish around Kulgan, and that would be more than enough to tip off the sly Ranger.
She shook her head. "Just... Just a little worried about Mr. Kulgan. He's been gone a while."
As if waiting for her to say something, a gunshot rang through the desert night. Both of them jumped so hard that Adlis almost thought her skeleton would pop free of her skin. The fire sputtered a little when Za kicked some sand into it. Neither of them moved for a few seconds, but when no further sounds came, Adlis released the breath she'd been holding.
"I guess that means he's okay," she said, her ears as white as snow. Trying to steady her hands, she picked the sausage back up, which she'd dropped without realizing it, and dusted it off.
Having nothing to cut it with, Adlis scratched at it with her nails until she was able to peel free a somewhat even slice. She threw it onto the pan, and was rewarded with a tantalizing sizzle. Two more quickly followed, and the scent of cooking meat filled the air.
Adlis' stomach growled with hunger, but at the same time did a somersault. Kulgan had said that the food would draw monsters to their camp. They could be out there right now, watching, waiting, sizing up their prey before they—
"Is that sausage ready yet?"
Adlis and Za both shrieked and spun around to see Kulgan meandering back into camp as casually as ever. Adlis put her hand to her chest, gasping for breath.
"Don't you ever do that to me again!" she snapped.
Kulgan shrugged and came to sit next to the fire. "I asked if supper was ready."
Still glaring at him, Adlis glanced at the sausages. "Just a few more minutes," she grumbled.
Kulgan didn't say anything else, just tilted his head back to look at the stars while the meat cooked. Adlis looked up as well. The Nameless Moon was up, as it always was. It was the only moon that kept a consistent course. Jaminska, Wurstram, Lishara, and Atroyo wandered around the skies almost with a mind of their own, oftentimes even making abrupt U-turns to go back the same way they had just come. There was disagreement in the Church of Embin as to their true nature. Some said they were mere hunks of rock, going where Embin directed them. Others claimed that the moons were alive, and their paths were self-dictated. Adlis didn't know which was true, and frankly she didn't care. She had more important things to worry about.
"What were you shooting at out there?" she asked a few minutes later, finally judging the sausages to be ready. Not having anything but their hands to hold it with, Adlis had to remove the pan from the fire and set it down in the sand to cool.
"A couple of spinsels," he answered nonchalantly. "Didn't even have to kill 'em, just scared 'em off."
Adlis' ears whitened a shade more, but fought to keep her expression neutral. Embin curse her ears and how easy to read they made her!
"I've heard of those," Za piped up, his voice barely a whisper. "Don't they wait till you're asleep and then make it so you can't move?"
Kulgan looked up at the simmk and smirked. "Yep. Their venom paralyzes you, and you can't do anything but lay there and wait while they suck out your blood until you're nothing but an empty—"
"Mr. Kulgan, that is quite enough!"
Grinning sadistically now, Kulgan turned to look at her.
"There's no need to go scaring people," she said, glaring at him. Her ears were a bright, fiery yellow now. "We're all already nervous enough, don't you think?"
Kulgan shrugged again in that infuriating way, and then got to his knees and reached out toward her. Sucking in a breath, her ears turning white yet again, Adlis scrambled backwards out of his reach. "You keep your filthy hands off of me, Twister!"
Kulgan paused, giving her an angry look, and then snagged one of the now-cool slices of sausage from the skillet.
Adlis' ears turned red with embarrassment. "Oh."
"As much as you dislike me, ma'am," Kulgan said with his mouth full, "and as irritating as I find you, you're still my employer. It wouldn’t do me any good to drive you off."
Adlis ears reddened even further. She gave a tentative nod, unable to look him in the eye.
"Y- Yes, of course. I know that."
When she glanced up again, a chill ran down her spine when she saw the look Kulgan was giving her. Was she just being paranoid, or did he look... suspicious?
He didn't say anything, though, so she put it from her mind and picked up a piece of sausage herself.
Kulgan didn't say anything for the rest of the night. He didn't have to. He had seen the look on Adlis' face. It was a look he had seen countless times, even before he'd gotten his black pendant. That look of guilt, fear, and an underlying sense of determination. He knew exactly what was going through that pretty little head of hers.
Adlis was planning to betray him.
NEXT TIME: One day. They made it one freaking day before deciding to turn on each other. I’m impressed, aren’t you? I thought Adlis and Za would be walking home before lunch!