"I could just drive off the cliff."
It would have been so much easier, she would reflect to herself in the days to come, if I had just kept my mouth shut and steered to the right. A few moment of glorious and terrifying flight before a sharp pain - the end.
The Land of Freedom
- Knight's Gambit
Kino was a scruffy vagabond astride a dinged and dusty motorbike. The bike happened to talk, and refused to discuss how a motorcycle learns to speak. But speak Hermes did. Mostly he used his voice to nag Kino or otherwise complain, but not today.
Kino had flirted with the idea of settling down and saying farewell to her nomadic ways before. For the first time since she'd fully matured as a traveler, Kino had chosen to stop, to live with a backward but good-hearted tribe of refugees for many months. The gentle, simple folk liked her and felt indebted to her for some easy favors she'd done them. So Kino succumbed to temptation at last and settled down for... well, forever maybe.
Even now, she wouldn't trade the experience away. The men were admirable, the women devoted to their families, the elders wise and the children adorable. In their company Kino felt her heart warm in ways she'd never known or even thought of before.
So when the lookouts sighted a whole dratted army coming that they'd called "the warriors of Koth-Shem," the very slavers these refugees had fled months before, Kino had surprised even herself. She donned her traveling gear and mounted Hermes for the first time in two weeks. Then she tore away before anybody could stop her.
Sure enough, the army had followed her, completely unaware of the plunder awaiting them just over the ridge line.
"Kino," Hermes had said, "That was so noble! This is maybe the most wonderful thing you've ever done."
"Thank you, Hermes."
"What are you going to do now? You have a plan, right?"
"Yeah," Kino answered wryly. "Run."
"Oh boy..." Hermes answered.
Together they ripped across the narrow path alongside the hills, defying the abyss to the right and the rough stone wall to the left. Death could come at any instant, for even the slightest mistake. Yet some sick, demented part of Kino's heart was enjoying this. Never had she pushed Hermes with such absolute abandon.
But then a bad landing bent the left front fork and the ride turned rough. Hermes howled in pain. It was all she could do to steer and she could see an angry, dusty horde in her rear view mirrors, growing ever larger.
They were going to catch her. It would be over soon; Kino wasn't about to surrender to slavers. But what a fine way to die, for the sake of friends, a whole village of 'em. Kino smiled a grim little smile. You really couldn't ask for more as deaths go.
Just a little flick to the right, and off the edge. She stared dreamily down at the trees below, so far away they looked like toys.
"I could just drive off the cliff."
However many times Hermes had uttered her name, she'd never heard him sound quite like that. He'd poured such misery into two syllables! It was only that honest, plaintive note that stopped her.
Instead, Kino jerked the bars the other way, skidded to a stop and dismounted.
"Hermes," she said as the cloud of dust they'd raised passed over them, "Thank you for everything, for saving my life and for making it worth living."
Then everything happened in an eye blink. Twin shadows materialized from the dust. Kino's weapons were in her hands and firing in a flash. Adrenaline pumping through her, she moved faster than she'd ever moved before.
Sadly, it wasn't enough. Anticipating her move, the bikers had spread a heavy net between them. Before Kino even understood what had hit her, she was being dragged along in the thick coils. Quickly their speed dropped, before the friction could burn through the net or some jagged rock could permanently maim her. Kino was completely immobilized and shaking from the shock.
She caught a glimpse of Hermes being dragged along too. His wheels had locked with the rightmost bike. The rider, she could see, was dangling, tied to the saddle, unconscious or dead.
Whether she passed out from the net's sheer impact or fainted she couldn't say. But the next thing she knew, brutish hands wrested her from the ropes.
They're trying to take me alive.
Her enemies' faces were wrapped, a thin layer of cloth protecting their noses and mouths from the dust, their eyes hidden by goggles.
This feels like a nightmare but it's really happening! I wish I could wake up.
Kino felt hands tear her trench coat from her and knew they planned to take her clothes, perhaps worse.
Alright... let's take another one with me. Her left hand slipped into a special pocket and out came a knife. This particular knife she'd purchased from a curios shop, for the hilt concealed a bullet. She'd used this odd weapon some years before on another slaver. Just like before, the round hit the slaver in the forehead and down he went.
Naturally she was as quickly dogpiled.
Oh, would you just kill me already? Kino moaned inwardly. I'm sick of this and I'd much rather be dead now, thank you. For the first time she regretted not driving off that cliff. It would not be the last.
The horde stripped her and Kino found herself wearing iron manacles and a brown tunic, coarse but surprisingly neat and clean. The horde of masked faces cleared her vision, and she at last saw her surroundings: several covered wagons and a phalanx of chained prisoners who were being made to walk. Of her firearms or of Hermes Kino saw no sign.
One of her jailers lifted her bodily into one of the wagons.
Inside Kino saw more bodies, three rows of them, both genders, all alive. The stink of sweating humans attacked her nose. Her captor jerked the chain attached to her shackles upward and linked it to the pole above her head. She was dangling like so much meat, her feet barely touching the wagon's wooden planks. On the whole, I think I'd rather walk. Already she felt her palms tingling, growing numb. Humans weren't made to keep their hands up for long.
Kino's mind was still racing. She took a look at her fellow captives, all healthy looking men and women around her age wearing the same brown tunic. The thing served as a uniform for the slavers' society. Some of the captives looked defiant, others wore a look of dumbfounded misery. All were sweltering in the enclosed dark heat of the truck. Kino suspected that even her long habit of stoicism couldn't hide the anguish on her own face.
Kino's thoughts turned back to another encounter with slavers, three of them. She'd managed to turn the tables on them that time. But the fact that slavery even existed in her world had troubled her because the chance existed, however remote, that she might meet their kind again.
These "warriors of Koth-Shem" didn't dress like the slavers she'd met before, which simply meant another tribe somewhere hadn't grown out of this sickening practice.
The wagon started moving, and Kino's shaky legs rode the slight rocking. Adrenaline gave way to exhaustion.
So this is how Kino's journeys end, she thought to herself. I should never have settled down. What was I thinking? Mere minutes ago she'd felt proud for making such a sacrifice. Faced with the reality, she now fiercely berated herself. If you hadn't settled down, you'd never have cared enough about those people to do such a stupid thing. Was it worth it? No!
No, the quiet joys she'd known living in a hut among the tall trees and the waving grass as a settled tribeswoman could never balance out the miseries and humiliations she knew awaited her.
Kino vaguely remembered reading some articles about the flesh trade. The group she was with would likely be sent to some sort of camp next, an isolated slaver colony, to be broken like horses. They'd beat her, crush her spirit, trample her dreams and her dignity. The process took about a year, and when they were done a whining robot would stand in her place. She remembered the gruesome details and wasn't so confident and foolish as to think she could withstand it. For the moment she was still the Kino who'd shot her way out of trouble again and again. But this time she was unarmed and surrounded by enemies. Even if she did somehow manage not to break, they'd simply kill her.
I'm never going to see Hermes again. No more riding into fields of blossoms.
In her mind, Kino rode Hermes into just such a field, crimson light beaming onto her face. Soon she sang a song she'd learned as a child, lying on her back amid the flowers.
"Encore," Hermes said. "Unless you'd like to... you know... pick me up and get going again?"
"I think I'll sing another song," Kino countered merrily, and she did. And while she sang she stared up at the blue sky framed by scarlet blossoms. The gentle wind whispered a counterpoint.
That was so noble. What are you going to do now?
A sudden halt yanked Kino out of her pleasant reverie. Mercifully she could no longer feel her arms, and her legs had grown so used to the rocking of the wagon that she could just stand and dream. How long had she stood there in a trance? Her world had shrunk to the inside of this cart. Had three days passed since her capture? This would be the fourth day.
But I'm supposed to leave on the morning of the fourth day!
Kino shook her head. I can't leave because I'm not a traveler anymore. I'm a slave. Some ghastly fog had clouded her mind over these three days, slowing her thoughts. She'd withdrawn into her own warm, protective little world and she dreaded coming out into the real one.
I should have driven over the edge.
Each of the prisoners howled in their turn as their manacles were lowered and normal circulation drove the numbness from their hands. Kino watched impassively as the bracket holding her chain was unclipped.
C'mon, wake up! Keep your eyes open for some chance—
But the second her arms lowered she too yowled and reeled. The pains in her hands as they returned to life were new and unlike anything she'd ever felt before. Kino somehow managed to force herself to observe her surroundings even as she trembled and panted.
But the scene around her only made her heart sink. The warriors all strutted happily about their duties, smiles on their faces. They barely kept their discipline while women and children, separated by a wide iron fence, shouted cheers and greetings to them. Obviously they'd come home.
"Home" was, as far as Kino could see, a startlingly beautiful city built of marble and pale granite, the whiteness relieved by colorful pennants. The city was obviously old, and more recent architects stayed true to the older style. Snow-capped mountains surrounded the towers and bridges. Nearby, a massive wall towered over them, bristling with cannons. It was as impressive in its old-fashioned grandeur as any city Kino had visited.
Kino's arms were shackled. Her legs were free but everything around her showed the futility of trying to run away. In despair she sat in the dust and spasmodically clenched blood back into her agonized fingers - the veins in her hands and arms were bulging grotesquely! - until the soldiers noticed her and yelled for her to get back on her feet.
She obeyed stoically and then scolded herself for showing that she understood the language. She resolved not to make that mistake again. Perhaps if she could feign ignorance she could manage some advantage.
Before long, the guards marched the sullen group of slaves out of the courtyard. Kino joined her fellow prisoners in rubber-necking at the street and the buildings rising on either side. Kino noted the architecture with interest. White stone surrounded well-tended gardens, giving everything a soft classical look, but there was nothing at all soft about the medieval designs. Everything showed evidence of military fortification, as if the same stone masons behind the walls had built the statues and fountains and everything else. The flowers and vines grew out of rich black soil. Despite the altitude these tiered gardens could easily be converted to grow food in time of a siege. Odd, even by her discerning standards, how warfare and art mingled here. Kino had once read a book about this sort of construction. The group was being led into a building. She looked up; if she was right—
...sure enough, there were holes just above the entrance wide enough for weapons to pass. "Murder holes" the book had called them. These warriors of Koth-Shem aren't kidding around.
They'd entered a barracks, a featureless corridor of stone with wooden shelves topped with mattresses. Kino had seen morgues so arranged. A pair of soldiers guided her firmly but without brutality through the slaves' barracks into an adjoining room, smaller but otherwise identical.
A woman was already there, curled up in one of the cots. She looked up to glare at Kino and her captors before grunting with unmistakable hostility and curling up again. The guards locked the door behind them.
Lovely, Kino thought. She chose a slot as far from the stranger as possible and slid inside.
She'd not laid down since... was it only four days ago she'd hopped out of her hammock and strolled out to see what all the villagers were fussing about? She'd been dangling from a chain most of the time since and her whole body craved sleep. Still, she couldn't resist.
"Hello?" She said toward the stranger. No response. Kino gave another greeting in another language, and was about to try a third when the woman growled, "what?"
Kino hadn't thought it through that far. She only wanted to start some kind of communication. Before she could answer the woman growled, "shut it!"
Kino shrugged and gave herself up to sleep. Feeling lonely and scared was the least of her worries right now.
Okay, this is painful!
Kino had been set to work in a quarry. Her captors gave her leather gloves and patiently explained how to hew the pale rock along straight lines with the pick, then load the massive rough brick into a little two-wheeled cart.
"And if you pretend not to understand what we're saying any longer, I'm going to hurt you," her instructor said at one point, brandishing a long, whiplike device. Kino winced inside at the thought of being on the receiving end of that fearsome looking whatever-it-was and meekly answered "yessir."
It was worth a try.
So her days were spent swinging a pickax, lifting stone into the cart and then hauling it uphill. The path had stairs in the middle of the smooth ramp to ensure her footing, but the work was still hard as anything Kino had ever done. She strained to pull the rough stone block upward, knees trembling and thighs burning. Thank heaven they gave her plenty of water; sweat rained from her, plastered her freshly-cropped hair to her scalp. She wheezed in the crisp, thin mountain air. Once she reached the top, she lifted the block out, set it alongside the others and brought the cart back down into the pit.
While Kino labored, she observed those around her with some confusion. The men here were all young but thin and lanky, exactly the sort one wouldn't put to work in such a quarry. Indeed, why use her to work in such a place? Kino was petite. Who in their right mind would assign a puny little girl like her to this sort of heavy lifting?
Kino glanced over at the woman, the only other woman sharing the barracks with her. She stood only a little taller than Kino, but she carried all the muscle that could be packed onto a small frame. Despite the sprigs of gray in her hair, the woman was able to hew and carry two blocks for each of Kino's.
Her I understand. She looks like she's been doing this for years. Why me?
Kino had learned to use her size to her advantage. She could sneak through holes or brush most humans thought impassable, and do so silently. In confrontations she combined her natural agility with her talent and training as a marksman. It had made a formidable package, especially as predators so often underestimated her.
"You're quite the little genius, aren't you?" her master had said.
Master had clipped an old iron frying pan, now battered almost beyond recognition, to a rusty chain hanging from a branch of a lovely tree. The hillside just beyond made this an ideal shooting range.
Every day Kino emptied a whole box of ammunition from Master's vintage .44 caliber revolver. The first time Kino had fired it, the recoil threw her to the ground and the gun went flying.
"It's good that you train with a gun like that," Master said, shouting through the cotton wadding in their ears as she helped Kino up. "If you can use it, any other weapon in the world will feel like a toy."
Soon Kino made the hanging frying pan dance. She timed her shots to hit it as it swung. She even danced herself as she fired, a lethal pas de deux.
"I said, 'back to work!'"
Kino looked at the guard who'd struck her, confused. Is that all that thi—
...once it passed and she'd recovered her senses she thought, oh. So that's what that thing does. Alright, let's not give him an excuse to use it on me again. Ever.
For weeks, each day ended the same way: the slave drivers ran the whole group several kilometers over to a river at the edge of town, near the well-guarded gate. The pattering water, dappled light and birdsong almost seemed to mock the groaning throng.
Kino and her taciturn companion were allowed to go upstream a little way for some distance from the males. Together they gasped as they sank into the icy mountain river, and together they washed out the leather jerkins, gloves and boots that were their only possessions.
Kino looked up. The other woman had spoken.
"Before you always looked like you would fall over. You're better now."
"Everything still hurts," Kino answered, "but the icy water helps a lot. They take good care of their livestock here, don't they?"
A young engineer named Nimya was waiting for her, to ask for a little help fixing up her flying machine. The pair happily puttered with the engine. "Have you found it yet?" Nimya asked.
"Looks like some of your pieces aren't fitting together right, see?" Kino pointed a flashlight at the gears in question.
Nimya grunted and nodded, her blonde hair glinting in the sun. "Exactly!"
Kino moaned and opened her eyes. She was in the barracks. The muscular stranger had moved into the slot next to her.
"Everyone sleeps now. We can whisper. No one will hear."
Kino groaned. Now she wants to be sociable? She wanted to get back to Nimya and those ill-fitting gears.
"You are from far away," the woman said. It wasn't a question.
"People from far away know new tricks and see things with new eyes," the woman continued. "How you think we get out of here?"
"We don't," Kino said flatly. "This compound's solid."
"Every prison has a way out-"
"It's not the walls," Kino answered. "It's the guards. There're too many of 'em. We can't do anything without the guards seeing." Kino stopped to consider, then... "you?"
"No," the woman said. "I'm Corina. I have been here many years. I see no way out."
"I'm Kino," Kino answered. "Just got here."
"From where? Your voice sounds strange to me."
Has this woman never met a visitor from a foreign land... how long has she slaved away here? "Every region has accents like that. I think it helps people identify strangers like me. I'm a traveler, or was. So I'm not from anywhere."
"A Roamer? I've heard of your people."
"No. The Romani are a whole society of nomads; I just like to travel."
"Oh. You've seen many places? Better than this?"
"Many, and much better." Kino paused. "I'll give 'em credit, though. The city out there's magnificent. Doesn't take an expert to recognize beautiful work. The sculpture and architecture's first-rate."
"Built on the backs of slaves," the woman spat. "Like us."
"Slaves don't—" Kino abruptly stopped.
"...don't build like that. I need sleep, Carina."
The next day was almost done. Kino and Corina were swimming in the icy river. Kino said not a word the whole day, for the wheels in her head were spinning again.
Too many guards. Militaristic architecture. Good food. Ice baths after heavy lifting.
"The pieces aren't fitting," she finally muttered to herself.
Abruptly Kino strode out of the water and donned her still-dripping tunic. She squared each flap and buckle neatly, trying to make herself look as smart as she could under the circumstances.
"Okay, you can stop now," Kino announced, using the local language perfectly and speaking just loudly enough for two nearby guards to hear. "This is no fun and I'm done playing around."
In an instart the guards were looming over her, one holding that nasty, horrifically painful whatever-it-was. Kino dearly hoped he wouldn't use it again but she'd accepted the possibility with her usual stoicism.
Corina for her part was still in the water, startled by Kino's sudden proclamation.
"You use that on me," Kino said to the guard, "and I'll bellow it out to the whole group. 'Cause for whatever reason you don't want them to know, at least not yet."
"What exactly d'you think you figured out?" The guard rumbled.
"I was too tired to see it before. You've created an impressive illusion." She sat down on a rock, a bold move in the presence of the two guards. They did nothing. Kino smiled gently and plowed on.
"But you can't hide the others." Kino continued. "Those scrawny men you've assigned to the quarry? Come to think of it, the fat ones... you made them run behind the wagon, and I don't see any sign of 'em now. Anyway, I'm not much of a slave. Slavers would make a skinny girl like me into a housemaid or a whore, not a worker. Why send me into a quarry?"
The two guards were still listening.
"A culture capable of making this city- you're too advanced to even need slaves." Here she looked over to Corina, who had emerged from the river and started dressing, unconcerned by the guards' presence.
"Slaves don't make great art like that. Also you have more guards than you need, and slavery's all about economics: the fewer guards the more profit. Oh, the food! Deliberately coarse but high quality. It tastes a lot like some of the concentrate bars I eat on the road. With all this exercise it's sure to put weight on us."
As Kino spoke and the guards listened, Kino felt more certain she was correct by the second, so she said the last words confidently.
"You're not slavers. You're a press gang. This is training. And Corina? You're the one in charge here."
"Me?" Corina actually sounded surprised.
"Yeah. You've been watching over me, evaluating me. Why the special interest? Somebody likes how I handle a gun?"
Corina smiled and said to a guard, "go and fetch my armor." Then she answered Kino. "One of the three men you gunned down was an old lover. No hard feelings though. And I'm not in charge of the whole compound - just of you. Only thing you got wrong."
"Huh! So where do we go from here?" Kino crossed her manacled arms with a look of impatience.
"Don't get cocky. Everyone figures it out eventually," Corina answered. "That you did so soon confirms you're as clever as we suspected. Leave her with me," Corina commanded. The guards handed her some clothes, saluted and left. Kino cocked an eyebrow.
"Not afraid I'll try something?"
Corina snorted and began changing into a uniform of a sort. "Oh, please feel free, just not so close to the others. It was wise of you not to reveal it to them. We'd have had to shut you up, and that would have been painful."
"You have all this down to a system."
Now splendid in chain mail and a rich-looking red tunic, Corina led Kino out of the slave compound – training compound - Kino corrected herself, into a busy street. Corina stopped, produced a key and unlocked Kino's manacles.
"Kino, out here you are still a newcomer and my trainee. In this city that is very much like being my slave. If you misbehave I'll be required to discipline you before somebody else does, though I promise as much lenience as I may, for now. Do you understand?" Corina hung the manacles from the metal links of her belt.
Trainee beats being property, at least. "Thanks for telling me." Kino looked around at the passersby. Everyone either wore colored variations of the leather vest or armor with elaborate cloaks and tunics. "Anything in particular I need to know?"
"You'll address me as 'Dame Corina,' a title I've earned. Otherwise mind your manners and remember that I outrank-"
"You're a knight?" Kino asked.
Whack! - "Don't interrupt!"
Kino rubbed her sore face and locked her temper into a strongbox. "Sorry... stupid of me. I was just surprised-"
"I didn't ask for an explanation. Can you cook?"
Kino followed the knight into the local equivalent of a restaurant. A cow, some pigs and a few things Kino couldn't recognize were slowly turning over an open barbecue. The raiders reclined on rugs and pillows as lackeys wearing the usual leather jerkins served them. Corina waved the servants away and pointed Kino to a smaller grill and an adjoining cupboard.
Another test, Kino thought, just of a more mundane variety. So Kino examined the food on the shelves and set about making one of her favorite noodle and vegetable dishes. Just as well... I'd like to have this myself.
"So, Corina began, "you're well educated but I see you weren't raised around servants. You can shoot a man from a moving motorbike and you're a girl. That's a very rare combination. Who are you, Kino?"
Kino glanced down at the hot oil bubbling in a pan over the grill. Corina sensed her peril immediately and pulled her arm out from under her rich silk cloak, revealing – a holstered pistol, a big one!
"Yours? You've modified it cleverly. Surprised me a little when I field-stripped it. Our armorer sends his compliments." Then Corina added more dangerously, "I asked you a question."
"I'm a simple traveler, Dame Corina." As she said it, a weight lifted from Kino. I've been thinking of myself as a slave. "I travel for the joy of it, and to learn what the world has to teach me."
Kino served dinner. Corina tried it and smiled her approval.
"Good. Oh, you may eat. Sit. Continue."
"Thank you. I'm a good shot, but that's only to protect me from highwaymen. And when I travel, I always ask someone to explain the land I find myself in, its history and culture."
Corina nodded at the hint.
Every prison has a way out.
The following morning, Dame Corina escorted her trainee through the streets on foot. Kino noted the obvious deference even fierce-looking Shemish raiders paid her. Either Corina has a high rank or she's a deadly fighter; I'd guess both.
"Magnificent," Kino said, and she meant it. "This entire city... I've seen fortresses before, but you've turned it into a work of art as well. This wasn't built by slaves."
"Ah, but it was!" Corina answered. "Freed slaves."
She'd led Kino to the base of a statue. "Our king," Corina said. "The sculptors made a point of making him life-size."
"Then he was a giant," Kino answered. The king wore long hair, had large rippling muscles and wolflike, deep set eyes. "All your raiders wear a personal variation of this man's armor, am I right?"
"Good eye. Two generations ago," Corina began, "our king was born son of a warrior-chief. He was captured and sold into bondage, and never saw his family again. When he'd reached maturity, his fool of a master brought him here, a fortress designed to defend this pass from the land's rivals to the east. The young slave immediately saw that this place was nearly impregnable, and guarded a mountain pass that allows trade to and from many lands. The young slave led a revolt that destroyed the garrison here."
Kino admired the statue. She could just imagine someone like this performing such derring-do. Strong hands wrapped around an axe haft, those eyes lurking under the shadow of that brow... here was a formidable and dangerous man!
"But as the land to the east also enslaves there was nowhere for him to run to. He could not hold this fortress without more men. So before news of the revolt could spread, he and his men raided the slavers' lands and liberated as many fellow slaves as they could. Shingka and Chai-dan, the lands to the east and west, tried again and again to retake this fortress. But slaves having once tasted freedom will fight like demons to keep it. They won every time, though they paid a high price in blood."
"I think I understand now," Kino nodded. "You took such heavy losses you were forced to impress people even from far away lands. And you just kept it up."
"Thus the raiders of Koth-Shem were born," Corina nodded. "And those who throw in their lot with us fight for that which is most precious: freedom, dignity, humanity. And there is this city... families, fine art, a library assembled from across the continent and beyond."
The pair began walking again, toward the city walls. "Freedom? But Dame Corina, not everybody here is free. Those servants at the restaurant—"
"Not everyone is suited to fight, Kino, no matter how much they might wish it. They serve best by serving the warrior-class. Everyone else - administrators, scholars, teachers, artists, they make our lives worth living, worth fighting for! And we warriors protect them at any price. That is our way. For the moment our neighbors have given up. But if they ever sense weakness they'll be back. Our presence means they must always watch their slaves, who dream of coming here."
Kino nodded. "Yes, that follows. And all the wealth? This is not an impoverished town."
"As I said, we control a trade route. Tariffs. Reasonable, but they do add up. We've gathered all the best things in the world here, Kino."
Dame Corina stopped walking. "And if you'll help defend it, all that you see... is yours."
Kino took a breath.
"I see. So that's why you pursued me almost to suicide? Abducted me, hung me up like a piece of meat, forced me to sweat in a quarry and... and robbed me of my life."
"Poor baby! You've had a little taste of what we endured. Now you'll understand what you're fighting for, what's worth killing and dying for."
"I understand, Dame Corina. Your city is worth fighting for, perhaps even worth forcing others to fight for. But that's not my fight. I'm not a soldier."
"You're a superb shot and you're bright. A few years and you'll be officer material, perhaps even a knight." Here Corina drew herself up proudly. And Kino had to admit, she did look splendid in her gleaming armor and shimmering tunic and cloak. For a moment Kino pictured herself Corina's heir, noble and passionate defender of the city's walls - oh how grand!
Then Kino shook her head. "No. It's not in my nature. I'm a traveler."
"And what is a traveler?"
"There's a whole world out there to see. It always surprises me and humbles me and sometimes its cruel. And I don't want to miss any of it."
"But what use is a traveler?"
"Must one be useful?"
"How do you make your living? Are you a thief?"
"Of course not! I work odd jobs—"
"A vagrant? A tramp living a pointless life. Is that what you really want? How long until it pales and you are left with nothing? Or can it be you've already grown weary of it? You could be much more."
Kino blinked. Nice shot! I did stop traveling, didn't I?
"Sit, Kino. Let me tell you my dreams. I was born here, as a servant like all the children. I was even smaller and punier than you; everyone thought I was destined to remain in the serving class. But as you know, our size can be turned into our greatest strength."
This woman keeps surprising me! "Meaning you accomplished your fondest dreams, and now you want to share them because you're... getting older, and you see yourself in me? Dame Corina, that is generous."
At that, Corina took Kino's arm. "Take a good look at yourself! You're changing already."
Kino looked herself over. No doubt about it, the controlled diet and weeks spent in that pit had changed her, or was it months now? She was stronger and an unsightly bit of flab around her belly had vanished.
"I can hold my own against any man here," Corina's eyes glittered in her reverie. "I am respected by my peers and revered by those I protect. I command men and I guard my city from any who dares attack it. That is what it means to be a knight here - lovers, wealth, prestige, power! You could have all these. And you could even know you deserved them." Then the knight whispered into Kino's ear, warming it with her breath, "Come, let me show you the joys of this city."
Kino betrayed herself with a soft moan. Then she grimaced. Shame on you, Kino! "Now you're just trying to bribe me!"
Corina chuffed in frustration. So she led Kino to the arch over the city gate. Kino dimly remembered this sort of salient in a city wall was called a barbican. That was a surprisingly useful book, Kino noted to herself.
"Over there is Chai-dan." Corina pointed, and Kino could just see, in the valley beyond the rocky pass, a neighboring city beside the sea. "They're real slavers, Kino. Tell me, what do you suppose would happen to you if you left these walls?"
"So long as no one knew I was near, I'd sneak around until I got well clear."
"You think you could?"
"Hmm. Alright, you might manage it, if you got out of here alive." With that Dame Corina drew the massive Persuader at her hip. Kino's eyes widened but she remained silent.
Corina withdrew all the rounds from the revolver's drum. Then she replaced a bullet and spun the drum as she snapped it into place.
"Kino, will you accept your place as my squire?"
Kino took a breath.
"I decline, with much respect."
In a smooth motion, Corina pointed the barrel at Kino's face and cocked the hammer.
"Kino, if you refuse you'll serve as a mere foot soldier."
"No, I won't." Kino stared down the rifled barrel of her own gun. She knew all too well what it would do to her head.
"Then I'll kill you where you stand, coward."
"I'm not a coward," Kino croaked.
Corina pulled the trigger. – Click! –
Kino's breath caught, but she held her ground.
Corina lowered the weapon.
"...why...?" the knight finally asked, and Kino heard real hurt in the question.
"I'm a traveler."
"Open the gate!" the knight bellowed. She turned on her heel toward a stairway. Kino followed quietly. She felt her knees quivering and forced them to stop. When they reached the gate, it had already creaked open, pulled by massive iron chains.
Corina produced a tidy package. "You'll need your clothes. If you're found wearing that jerkin you'd be lucky if enslavement's the worst they do to you."
Kino accepted the package. "You're letting me go?"
"Oh, don't act so surprised! The majority stays; the rest would just cause trouble. You're dismissed."
"Oh! Yes, that was sold. We didn't think you'd need it. You can collect it in Chai-dan."
Kino knew vile curses in several different languages. She didn't use them as it could become an unattractive habit. But this time... Corina raised a gauntleted hand to hide a laugh.
Her venom spent, Kino said, "my weapons?"
Corina smiled like a cat. "Take them from me, if you can."
Kino paused. Corina was stronger than her by far, despite the gray in her hair.
"Dame Corina, I need those. Is this a knight's honor?"
Corina quietly removed the gun belt, and then her armor. "Well played! Alright, no armor, no weapons... just us. Take them from me."
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Kino lunged and landed on her back before she knew quite what had happened.
Oh... I am so outmatched!
Kino got up and swung, trying to steer the fight toward the holsters lying on the ground. Corina was having none of it. She effortlessly blocked or dodged Kino's best and gave her a bloody nose for her trouble.
"Giving up already, Kino? I'm glad to see you at least know the basics."
"I stay out of this kind of fight."
"In a year you'd have a chance. There's so much I could teach you."
Kino lunged again, more for her self-respect than for any hope of success. This time Corina hammered her fist several times into Kino's midsection and she realized the knight had pulled that punch to her nose. Then she was pinned, and Corina ground Kino's face into the rough stone.
"You like this, 'traveler?'" Corina hissed into Kino's ear. "In two years no one outside these walls could do this to you again - ever!"
"I'm... not... staying!"
"Then we only have time for this one lesson, Kino: the brave do not keep their courage in a holster!"
She yanked Kino to her feet and sent her through the gates with a hard boot to the posterior. Then Corina tossed the package of clothes and a single knife after her. With that, the gates clanged shut.
Kino's voice cracked when she shouted, "you didn't hafta kick me like that!"
No answer came from the impassive stone and iron.
Kino picked up her last knife and the package of clothes and walked downhill, on the road away from the city. Naturally the brush had been cleared well away from the wall. Her last shred of dignity demanded she wait until she'd reached the brush line before massaging her aggrieved anatomy.
She knelt on the ground beside the road, shaking. She knew she ought to feel lucky. She was free again. She had no stake in that town's fight. Why should she fight for people who'd done such cruel things to her?
And why, after all she'd suffered, did Corina's parting gift hurt so much?
Kino mechanically opened the package and found her clothes. Various bits of useful equipment were still in their pockets, and even various souvenirs. But they had taken her weapons and her money. Abruptly her breathing hitched.
Oh, nobody's looking. Why not?
So Kino let herself collapse to her knees and wailed. She wallowed in self-pity and let herself face that she was lost, broke, and alone. Worst of all, Hermes was long gone!
And when she felt a little better she wiped the tears from her eyes and blood from her nose. She angrily threw away that leather jerkin and put her own clothes on again. And as she strapped her riding gloves on...
"My name is Kino. I'm a traveler."
Just saying it made her feel more like herself. So she started traveling again, on foot, down toward the distant city.
The walk did her good. The cadence of her boots in the dirt calmed her. Master had taught her exercises to still her thoughts and rein in her feelings. Now more than ever Kino needed them, needed peace and reflection. Corina had shaken her to the very roots. This is gonna take a while.
She started by listening to the world about her, the wind through the trees and the rhythmic crunch of her footsteps until her breathing settled. Then she focused inward, feeling the sensations of her body. Skin rubbed against skin in novel ways at her armpits and thighs and butt, evidence of her new fitness. She felt sore all over but she recognized the healthful soreness of exercise. Her nose still felt tender, but even in her fury Corina had inflicted no serious damage.
When she completed this inventory she asked a simple question. How are you, Kino?
Sometimes the response took a long time, but not now. An image bubbled up from deep inside her: a motorcycle's wheel, but the axle was missing and all the spokes hung awry.
Journey, arrive, learn for three days, depart, journey again. Her life had been a cycle, a wheel turning in harmony with Hermes' wheels. The vast wheel of the horizon always centered 'round Kino and Hermes, and the sun and moon and stars wheeled around it. In the circle she found peace. Now the wheel was broken.
My center's gone. My life is in chaos.
Could she travel without Hermes? Kino pictured herself on a mute motorcycle, a mere machine... and the thought filled her with loneliness. Traveling alone was no fun.
What to do then?
An hour before sunset, Kino crouched in the tree line and watched from a safe distance the proceedings at Chai-dan's main gate. Trucks and merchant carts were all searched as they exited, but not as they entered.
After all, who's going to sneak into such a place?
And was she seriously going in? With only a knife as a weapon, how could she defend herself? She didn't escape the false enslavement of Koth-Shem just so she could be enslaved for real.
It's Hermes. Hermes isn't just a bike; he's my closest friend. Without my guns I'm still me. It's a shot in the dark, but without him...
A truck labored and shuddered down the road. Kino got up. She could jump down onto it and get into the city. But her resolution dissolved into fear as some silent alarm went off inside her head. Instead she crouched to watch.
The truck stopped. Men emerged, and the moment she saw them she realized how familiar their clothes and their truck looked, and she knew what they carried.
They were from here, those three slavers I killed...! Here!
Kino wilted, and felt angry hot tears welling up in her eyes. This was too much. The last - the very last place in the whole world she'd ever wanted to visit. Kino pounded her fists into the dirt. She trembled and shook.
Corina, what have you done to me? Oh, this won't do at all! Master would be so embarrassed if she could see me now. Kino took several breaths and fought to calm herself all over again.
The most important thing to hang on to is your life.
The sun was setting. Another cart was clattering by...
The brave do not keep their courage in a holster. The two thoughts warred in Kino's head.
Unable to stand it, Kino recklessly leaped into the back of the passing cart and found herself surrounded by apples. Kino pulled her trenchcoat around herself and felt an insane urge to bury herself in the fragrant fruit. She glanced up just in time to see the cart's drivers. The pale-haired man remained oblivious as his companion turned about to look back into the cart. Kino's gray eyes locked with the hooded woman's uncanny red-hued eyes in a paralyzing instant...!
The tawny haired woman sized up the trench coated intruder without comment, then smirked as she reached back to pluck an apple from the pile. The cart halted, started again and Kino saw the interior of the city gate.
We're in! The reality of that sank in on her. Kino got up, pocketed a few apples, smiled sheepishly to that eerie woman and jumped down out of the clattering wagon without daring a backward glance.
The street offered plenty of hidey-holes, and Kino moved from one to the other until she spied a ladder. She ascended to the rooftops, leaped from one to another, and found a quiet, dusty little niche.
It was dark and she was in an unfamiliar city. Best to wait until morning, observe the goings-on from this safe spot and learn what she could.
All that would wait until tomorrow. Kino was worn out, footsore and frightened and she needed sleep. Tomorrow she'd find out if she even had a chance...
"Those are real?" Kino said as she picked herself off the cobblestones.
The strange girl rose from her enthusiastic inspection of Hermes, rustled her gray winglets neatly back into place and, in lieu of an answer, handed Kino a fallen feather.
"Either that or I'm hiding a swan back here," Kana joked.
"You can't fly with those."
"Of course not," the girl answered. Her scruffy brown hair reflected the glow of the golden ring hovering over her head. "Much too small."
"Kana, you are already one of the most intriguing persons I've ever met. But right now I'm in dire need of a hotel."
"A hotel? Hoo, are you out of luck!" She gave the traveler an appraising look. "You seem decent enough. How about staying with me? We have plenty of spare rooms."
"You have real beds? I've slept under one too many trees."
"And a hot bath, too."
"You are my new best friend."
Kana laughed a sweet, guileless laugh that startled Kino awake. Kino opened her eyes and found she'd overslept. It was late in the morning and she could hear noise in the street from her warm little niche on the roof.
At the moment Kino wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, to return to that mysterious, vanishing village if only in her dreams. A little fear jolted her up and she unbuttoned a breast pocket.
It was still there: a long ashen gray feather. Kino brushed some sand from it affectionately and put it back in its place. It made her feel a little more hopeful.
Kino stretched, then carefully crept out of her niche and peered out over the street. Again her hackles rose as she recognized the general pattern of clothing and hats favored by the slavers she'd slain. But otherwise this looked like any other city.
Kino saw men in foreign clothes walking about freely. So they didn't pounce on visitors right away... was it possible she could do the same? She had no money, but if she dusted off and tidied herself up a little no one would suspect her of being a vagrant. There was no sign of local police around.
So she hopped back to the ladder and climbed down. Then she walked to a street corner and waited as if she had every right to wait there.
Nobody paid any attention.
Relieved but still paranoid, Kino put on her poker face and began to stroll about. The city was nowhere near as prosperous as Koth-Shem. The buildings were a hodgepodge, and piled one on top of another. The random noises of trucks, machines and workers grated in her ears. How city dwellers could stand it, Kino didn't know. She'd go mad. She had to get out of here.
But it looked like any other street and Kino felt the tension start to ease, until she saw a poster advertising a slave auction. She read the words with care, disgusted by their gruesome matter-of-fact pragmatism.
She fell into some of her usual practices as a traveler, seeking out libraries and museums to learn what she could of this place. She never stayed long, though. She wanted to be out on the streets, raking them for any sign of Hermes, though she knew the odds.
She munched on one of the precious apples she'd filched. They'd need to last her; Koth-Shem had confiscated her money as well as her weapons. And Kino didn't dare seek out work. In fact, Kino said not a word to anyone for two days, and she walked like a ghost through the streets.
On the morning of the third day, seemingly of their own accord, Kino's feet brought her to the slave auction. She watched quietly, silently. And what she saw was businesslike, routine, without ceremony and without sympathy. The ritual stripped both slave and slaver of humanity, turned both into robots. Kino again noted that of all the ugliness in the world, callousness was somehow the worst of all. Her horror of standing on that stage to be sold like cattle had left her, replaced by a deep depression. She had to get out of here!
Bereft of Hermes, she had few choices. She couldn't just walk. Well, this was a port city. With luck she might find a place on a ship and go half a world away. On a ship she could travel without being alone. She'd never been over the ocean before. Yes. Yes, it was high time to start.
She'd sleep better at night with an ocean between her and Chai-dan, not to mention vile places like Veldelval. She had no way to find her tribe, still less phantasmal Guri. Safest to put this whole continent behind her.
So Kino wandered the waterfront area, ate her last apple, looked for a likely vessel and hid her cracking heart behind a neutral expression. Forgive me, Hermes. I have to get out of here!
I stay three days and then I move on.
If I stay longer, I might stop being a traveler.
"Welcome back, Kino."
Inasha, a pale and frail looking little girl, got up out of her bed and hugged Kino.
"Thanks. Good to be back, decontamination procedures and all."
"You have more stories to tell me?"
Kino nodded, "some incredibly happy ones, some scary ones and a sad one too."
"Let's start with a happy one!"
So they sat down at a little table over tea.
"Alright. You know I used to tell myself I didn't want to get involved with people. But one day I found a magical land, a place where the lies we tell ourselves don't work."
Inasha beamed. "That sounds like a good story. But you know, you never really did avoid getting involved. Like with me."
Kino considered. "Huh! Well, so then I tried not traveling for a while 'cause I just craved being around people. It was wonderful and I'm sad that's over. But now I don't know what to do with myself."
"Kino? Listen. Your bike!"
Kino heard the noise of Hermes' engine and she jumped up out of her dream like a diver surfacing from deep waters. She was sitting on a pier in the dead of night, lying against a small pile of timber. The moon was just setting and she felt cold even wrapped in her long coat.
The sound of Hermes' engine echoing in her dreams just made her feel sadder, but she was strong enough this time to resist the urge to feel sorry for herself and start crying again—
...the motor's sound hadn't stopped. That's Hermes!
Kino jumped up and listened. She could hear the engine and there was no doubt. She literally knew that sound in her sleep! It echoed in the hush just before dawn.
She ran toward the sound as fast as she could, away from the waterfront, past streets and intersections without care, just following the echo. Her legs were pushing her faster than they ever had, with new, hard-won strength.
She couldn't lose him now... it would be too cruel!
There! There he is! She ran up the hill with her eyes fixed on Hermes. A man was just dismounting him. What are the odds of another Brough Superior? Oh please, please be Hermes!
"Kino?" Hermes said.
Kino screamed in pure joy and only just averted crashing right into the bike.
"Who're you?" Hermes' rider asked, a hefty man with a hearty belly and graying beard.
Kino ignored him and started checking Hermes over. She actually hugged the handlebars.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?" The rider bellowed.
"That's... my bike." Kino said past her burning lungs. And again, "This is my bike."
"I bought it fair and square." The man pushed his way between Kino and Hermes and stood his full intimidating height.
"He was stolen from me. You've purchased a stolen motorcycle."
"Which doesn't change the fact that I spent perfectly good money—"
"Hermes is mine!" Kino roared, now genuinely angry. It took a lot –a lot!- to make her angry. Never mind that she was unarmed and alone, a stranger standing between her and Hermes like he had every right to—
"Kino, don't hurt him."
The man looked around, startled.
"I mean it. He's a nice man with a big family."
The man looked at Hermes with widened eyes.
Nice move, Hermes! "Oh hooo!" Kino gloated. "You didn't know he could do that, did you?"
"It talks?" the man asked.
"I like to wait until I know my rider better before speaking up. I'm a little shy."
Kino laughed for the first time in weeks. She'd missed Hermes.
"Kino, was it?" The man said as he straddled Hermes again. "Look, he's right. I need this bike. I have a family to feed. I paid for it, so it's legally mine." With that he kick-started the engine.
...and nothing happened.
"Don't bother. I hit a kill switch." Kino crossed her arms and smirked smugly.
"Like I'd start for him now anyway," Hermes countered.
"See? Hermes really is my bike. So how much did you buy him for?"
"Fifty... that's two months rent."
"Mister, you bought from a crook, 'legal' or no."
"Well fine! Let's go take it up with the police."
Uh oh! Careful how you play this, Kino. "I have a much better idea."
The man looked at her with suspicion.
"You fixed the front fork, didn't you?" Kino said with approval. "You kept a receipt for that?"
The man scratched his bearded chin and smiled. "Kino, was it? I'm Gant." He touched the brim of his hat. She nodded. And just like that, the tension between them vanished.
"We'll be six months to Yardheath. How many times have you been at sea?"
"Everyone has to start somewhere," Kino shouted back brightly. She stood with Hermes and her bearded rival on a pier beside an impressively large merchant ship. The romance of tall masts, wind in the sails and creaking timbers stirred in Kino's heart.
She pointed at a chalkboard posted on the dock. "You still need a cook, right?"
The mate strode down the gangplank to meet her. "That we do. Mind, a good cook makes a happy crew; a happy crew means a happy first mate. Don't be lying if you can't; we take no passengers."
Kino smiled and nodded.
"The men expect a breakfast. Go cook up enough for fifty hungry souls before the hour's done. You're hired if they say you're hired."
"I'll need sixty in advance, sir." Kino gestured to her companion. "A debt to this guy."
"In advance? That—"
"Speaks highly of the boy's sense of honor, mister Belk," interrupted a tall man from the highest deck on the ship's stern. Kino fought to remember the name of the structure... a 'poop deck'? "I like a young man who doesn't try to sail away from his debts," the man concluded.
The Captain, I presume. And doesn't being confused with a boy work to my advantage sometimes?
"I'll need just a little cargo space to stow my bike."
The mate shrugged and counted out sixty coins to Kino, who passed them on to the bearded man.
"The space'll cost you one. And just so you know, you try to go ashore now before we cast off, I'll use you to clear the barnacles."
"My word is good, mister Belk sir." Kino answered.
"I'm sorry to lose your Hermes," said Gant. His eyes watched mournfully as sailors pulled Hermes up onto the ship. "Don't feel right to use stolen goods, but I needed that bike. I really did."
"Then I'm sorry too. But we're square now, and you've made me think a little better of the people here."
"I liked your family, mister Gant," Hermes called out. "Good luck with them."
"Heh! I'll need it. Good-bye, Hermes." And then his booted feet echoed on the pier's wood.
It's over now. I made it.
Kino bounced up the gangplank.
Almost a whole day later, Kino walked down the stairs to the great creaking cave beneath the rocking decks, currently packed literally to the ceiling with cargo. She listened to the eerie sound of the sea rushing all around the hull.
"Over here." And Kino saw Hermes' front tire peeking out between two crates.
"Wow, they really packed you in!" She squeezed herself into a narrow space to get closer.
"Could you find a waterproof tarp? Salty air causes a lot of rust, you know."
"You won't have much left when the trip's over, Kino. You're sacrificing six months to get me back. I'm really touched."
"That's nothing. You have no idea what I went through," Kino answered. She kneeled on a crate and peeked over, down at Hermes.
"Though it's funny, Hermes. Maybe I'm dreaming but... when things got really bad, it felt like the good people I've met on the way were helping me through it."
"Huh. Was I there too?"
"Every time. We'll trade stories soon, okay? Right now I'm beat."
"Yeah, but that's never scared me off," Kino answered jauntily. "Hey, can I ask you a question?"
"I dunno if I can find the time just now," Hermes answered. "I'm very busy."
Kino stifled a laugh. She'd missed this verbal fencing. "You said you usually like to wait before talking to your riders. How many riders have you had before me?" Kino had almost said "owners" but given what she'd witnessed in Chai-dan...
"Lots!" Hermes answered. "I'm old."
"Can't be that old. They started making Brough Superiors in—"
"I was reforged then, Kino. I'm much older than that."
Strange that I never thought to ask before. "Just what are you, Hermes?"
"That's a very personal question," Hermes answered. "Did you hug me when you found me or was that just an excuse to hit the kill switch?"
Kino felt glad the darkness hid her blush. "Both. Your turn now."
"That's a very long story, and I promise to tell you someday when you don't look ready to fall over."
"Good." Kino got up and made her way to the stairs.
She turned back to say, "good night, Hermes."
"Good night, Kino," Hermes answered warmly.
Everyone else... they make our lives worth living...
...worth fighting for.