Tsuda tucked a stray strand of hair back up under the cloth around her head, and went back to pulling up the vegetables that would be used in the stew that day. She brushed the loose dirt off the bulging roots, and laid them on a clean cloth that she had spread on the ground. The sun blazed down overhead and she felt a bead of sweat make its ticklish way down her spine.
She heard the rustling of plants behind her, and turned to look. Mede casme through the foliage, a tiny infant cradled in her arms and swathed in cloth to protect him form the rays of the sun. “Are many of them ripe yet? I wasn’t sure how fast they might grow.”
“They look ripe, I doubt they’d get much bigger if I left them in the ground.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of a grubby hand, leaving a streak of damp earth across her brow. “And how is little Meikan doing today? Did he finally decide to take a nap?”
Mede nodded, and held out the little bundle to Tsuda, who took it carefully, and pulled the edge of the blanket back from the baby’s face. Two wide brown eyes looked up at her sleepily, and Meikan yawned, his breath smelling faintly of warm milk. She laughed, and gently brushed his thick brown hair off his forehead. “I don’t think I ever saw a baby with so much hair before! He looks so much like you, aside from the color of his hair.” She gently handed the baby back, and gathered up the cloth with the vegetables, and the two women walked back towards the small hut in which Mede and Judak had made their home.
She set a large wide-mouth jar on the small rock stone and lit a fire under it. She left the fire to heat, and drew water from the well and poured it into the pot. In a little while, the water was bubbling slowly, and she dropped the cleaned vegetables into the pot, along with a small bird that Judak had shot and cleaned.
“Meikan’s sleeping again, so I’ve got a few minutes. Is there anything I can help you with? I hate to have you doing everything,” Mede said, leaning against the wall.
“Oh, don’t be silly. You still need to be resting. Meikan was only born a week ago, and you haven’t quite recovered yet. The stew should be ready in an hour or so, I just need to make sure to stir every so often.”
They heard the sound of runnig feet, and turned towards the door in time to see Judak rush in. “That trading ship just landed again. I don’t know if this is a normal stopover for them, but if they are stopping for water, they will surely see our house. Mede, take Meikan and go into the forest, away from the lake. Just in case something happens, I don’t want them to know that you are here. Tsuda, you go with her; I can pretend that I am a fisherman making my home here for a few months.”
The women quickly slipped out of the door, and headed into the trees. They could hear the sailor’s voices, laughing as they came up the road. Tsuda stopped for a moment to look behind her, and saw a flash of bright blue through the trees, and heard a young woman’s voice calling out, though she couldn’t make out the words. She saw Judak come slowly out of the hut, and speak to the woman and the sailors for a moment.
Looking back towards the trees, she could no longer see Mede and Meikan. “At least they’ll be safe,” she thought, and retraced her steps. As she emerged from the trees near the edge of the clearing, the little group of newcomers turned towards her.
“Tsuda?” asked Kaedti, taking a tentative step forward. The women who stood before her had her friend’s bright purple eyes, but she looked older than she should, and her hair was hidden behind a scarf.
“Kaedti? What are you doing here?” Tsuda whispered. The slim figure in the blue skirt was no longer the uncertain girl that Tsuda had known on Mei; the two years under Vedek’s rule had sharpened her and brought her into adulthood. She stood straight, chin up, and looked directly into Tsuda’s eyes, something she had not done often when the two lived on Mei.
“I came because I have nowhere else to go. My father is dead; they made sure that everyone on Mei saw him set out for Ersa, then sank the ship before he could get halfway across the ocean.” Her voice was calm and measured, though Tsuda could see her eyes blazing. “I heard that you and Mede were here, and I wanted to be here with you.”
Tsuda turned away, and looked out over the island and out to the horizon, where the sea sparkled in the sun. “Kaedti, you have no idea how much seeing you here brings joy to my heart. You have grown into a beautiful young woman. But I live here to make reparation for the evils I’ve held in my heart, and to learn to free my soul from anger, fear, and hatred. It wouldn’t be like our classes again, Kaedti.”
The young woman stepped closer, until her face was only inches from Tsuda’s. “I don’t want it to be like classes again. I want to know more of what you know. I want the monks gone as much as anyone. I pity them, and they disgust me, but I do not hate them. Do you know what I saw in your statues? I was too young then to know how to tell you what I saw, but I had two years to think about them. I saw life, and joy, hope, and a hint of the glory of the gods. The monks had always told the Astaldi that spirit cannot and must not be portrayed in earthly things, and I had almost begun to believe it myself, but your statues did away with all of that. It was as if goodness, beauty, even truth, had been made rpesent to my eyes in a way that all the words in the world never could have done. I don’t know what it was that inspired those works, but whatever it was, I want to learn it.”
Tsuda put her finger tips to her temples, trying to think. This was no place for a refined young woman like Kaedti; she was used to servants and dinner parties, not manual labor and cooking. And she held roughly to the beliefs of the Astaldi, since they were similar to those of the Ersans. What would she think about the ancient ways of Suktis? And would she understand about the past lives? Would she be willing to look back into herself?
“I want to say yes, Kaedti, since you are so eager to be here. But why not go home? Why not go back to your own people on Ersa? Surely they would be eager to receive you again. You would even be able to tell them about wht the monks are doing, and even do some good that way.”
Kaedti shook her head. “The monks carefully patrol all large ocean-going vessels, and even those they let pass through are often attacked by raiders. It is not safe.” She let her eyes drift out towards the ocean, and the outlying islands in the distance. “Besides, I have more memories here than in Ersa. I have accepted the Astaldi as my people, and I would not leave even if I could.”
Her voice dropped down into an intense whisper, and for the first time, Tsuda noticed the brightness of her eyes, as if tears were waiting to burst forth and it was taking all of her energy to hold them back. “Please, Tsuda. I will go where you go, stay where you stay. Your people have already become my people, and whatever gods you serve will be my gods.”
Mede had quietly come out through the trees to see what was happening, and was surprised to see Kaedti standing there. She could not hear the conversation that took place, but she could see the torn look on Tsuda’s face, and the expression of pleading on Kaedti’s. She sent up a wuick prayer for she knew not what, and watched quietly.
Tsuda stood in silence for a long time, thinking. Finally, after what seemed like ages to Kaedti, she turned and gave a small nod. “It is not the way that I would have planned for you, Kaedti. It will not be the life you were accustomed to, and many parts of what you want to learn will be very painful.” She sighed, and placed a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “But love does not happen in isolation; if you have come to us, then we need you as much as you need us. So, welcome to the island.”
Mede saw a look of relief flash across the young woman’s face, then she sank to the ground by Tsuda’s feet, and clung there, trembling.
“Kaedti! What’s the matter? Isn’t that what you wanted?” Tsuda helped her get to her feet again, and supported her with an arm around the waist.
“Yes! Yes, it is what I wanted. I just..it has been a long time since I was at home anywhere, and I have been through so much to get here. I am so happy!” She smiled radiantly and the two made their way slowly up the hill to where Mede, Judak, and Meilan were waiting.
Vedek watched the water slip by under the keel of his ship. In five years, he had no been able to find the Ersan or the Selidian, much less the Suktisian consciousness he sought. They had disappeared into the central islands, and there were hundreds of islands where they might be hiding. He had begun to hear rumors of a religious order, newly risen in the heart of the Astaldaki lands, but he had yet to capture any of its members. Every time he would deduce a possible location for the order, his men would storm an island, to find nothing but ashes in fire rings, the ashes sometimes still warm.
“Bring her ashore at the next island, Nekisti. We need more water, and I want to question the islanders.” Vedek shouted across the desk to the helmsman, who nodded.
In a few hours the boat was docked at one of the channel islands, and the monks quickly disembarked. Vedek directed a few of the younger monks to work at restocking the ship, and made his way with a band of his closest associates to the market place. As they strode through the streets, black robes fluttering in the wind, the eyes of the islanders followed them.
“Astaldi, I am looking for two young women! They have incited riots, and caused the deaths of many of their countrymen, your own people. One woman is pale-skinned, with ginger hair and brown eyes. She is originally from the Selides, and has introduced a foreign religion into your lands. She is easily recognized by her appearance. The other woman is far more insidious. She is Astaldi born, but she has the white hair of the water spirits and the purple eyes of the Suktisian witches from long ago. She can blend into any village by covering her hair, and she may walk among you even now. These women are a danger to you!” Vedek’s voice rose and echoed off the stones and wood of the crude plaza, the men and women pausing to listen. There was something sullen in their gazes, but Vedek did not notice.
“Anyone who turns these women over to us will be doing their people a great service, and you will be paid well for it.”
At that, a ripple of disgruntled mutters broke out, and Vedek looked around at the faces nearest to him.
“You think we would turn over one of our own to you, for money?” spoke one man. He stood calmly, leaning on his bow. Vedek noted the long scar that ran down the left side of his ribcage, and turned towards him.
“I think it is your duty to rid yourselves of someone who has caused you nothing but trouble. I merely wish to compensate you for the information we need.”
A gasp behind him caught Vedek’s ear, and he whirled around just in time to see two of his men fall as knives were pulled out from between their ribs. Behind them stood two women, dressed in men’s pants, a wild look in their eyes. Vedek and the remaining monks instinctively backed into a circle, with Vedek at the center.
More of the rugged-looking men and women made their way through the crowd as the man with the scarred chest nocked an arrow. “These are not your people, Temaltan. These islands are no longer under your control. We live free and we answer to no-one.” He walked forward slowly as he spoke, until he stood just out of range of the monks’ swords. “We have tried to tell you that, of course, but your people seem to be rather thick-headed. We’ve decided to try again; perhaps if we kill the military governor, your homelands will understand that we are not to be trifled with.”
Vedek started at the mention of his position, and the Astaldi laughed coldly. “Oh yes, we know who you are, Master Vedek. We know who our enemies are, and we do not underestimate them. It’s a lesson you should consider learning.” He let the arrow fly, and Vedek could feel it fly by his cheek as he moved to one side. It lodged itself in the spine of the monk behind him, and the man sank to his kknees, groping frantically behind his back, trying to pull the object from his back. The other monks closed the gap, but the Free Astaldi were already upon them. The swords of the Temaltans were little use fighting in such close quarters, and the knives of the Astaldi did not take long to find their marks. The scarred man drew a blade and swiped at Vedek’s neck; the monk swept the blow aside with his sword, and plunged his short knife into the man’s chest.
“This will give you a matched pair, Astaldi,” the monk sneered, but the retort was cut short by the blade that slipped into his own belly. He could feel the warm blood pouring out and down his legs, and he fell, the dead Astaldi beneath him. In a few moments, the monks were all dead, and only three or four of the Astaldi fighters remained standing.
A pale body twitched on a cold bed. Wires that linked into neurons hummed as information ran up and down their length, and into the walls of the room.
One of the Astaldi got slowly to his feet, holding a hand over a wound on his side. “This is the price of tyranny! You cannot dominate us! We may submit for a time, but we will do whatever is necessary to maintain our freedom.” He spat into one of the pale faces of the monks, slowly growing cold on the ground. The saliva mixed with the blood that ran from a deep gash on the man’s forehead, and spilled to the ground.
The Astaldi sank to his knees; he pulled his hand back from the wound, and a gush from the wound stained his side and leg with crimson. He fell forward, face laying on the hard stones of the pavement; his last breath exited his body with a laborious wheeze, and his eyes grew dim. The flies buzzed for a moment in the late afternoon heat, then settled on the dark skin and the pale.