Escape from Aelang

This week, please enjoy an excerpt from THE TRAILS OF EXASIA, sequel to THE STATUES OF AZMINAN, due to be published in 2015:

“Gooooood morning,” sang Yester, emerging into the corridor.

“Morning,” muttered Shenneth, trying to find a smile for the only kind-hearted man among her jailers.

“Oh now, don’t be so glum, Shenneth my dear,” he smiled, “today shouldn’t be as bad as you think.”

He winked at her mischievously as he dug through the sack he’d brought, retrieving more fruit and rolls and fish than they could eat in a day, leaf fans, a necklace of small shells and a grass mat for each to sit upon.  Suddenly, an object dropped in through bars of the street-level window.  She glanced at Yester, but for some reason he’d shoved his entire head into the sack.  Shenneth quickly retrieved a folded paper from the floor of her cell, glancing over her shoulder.

“I swear there was one more thing,” he called.

Shenneth took the opportunity to open the paper and study it.  The drawing was done by a child’s hand, but the path out of the jail was clear.  Her friend, Wyndi, had even been thoughtful enough to draw a route that didn’t involve the front doors.  Even so, the escape plan had been constructed with all the stealth of a six year old, taking Shenneth past three sets of stick figures depicting guards.  She smiled privately at the gesture and tucked the map into a deep pocket.  Poor Yester still had his head in the bag.

“Did you lose something?” she asked.

He emerged, his face reddened.  “Could’a sworn there was something else at the bottom,” he puffed.  “Guess Melda’s done spoiling us for today.  Hungry?”

They placed their mats close to the bars and shared a portion of the feast.

“I don’t think I can eat much more,” said Shenneth a few minutes later, already full and eyeing the abundance before them with guilt.  “Please tell Melda that I appreciate her gifts, but wouldn’t want to waste the food.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Yester replied, shooting Shenneth another wink.  Shenneth put on the necklace and tucked it under the collar of her dress.  “Looks prettier out where you can see it,” he offered.

“I like it.  I don’t want them to take it away,” replied Shenneth.

Yester sniffed, his eyes flooding a little.  “You’ve had a hard life, haven’t you, baby bird?”

Shenneth gulped down a sob.  His question hit her hard.  She still had more holes than memories with this dumb amnesia, but based on what little she could remember, she had drawn the same conclusion.

“It was myir that did this to me,” she said, indicating the line on her throat.  “I couldn’t remember what they were called before.”

“I’ve heard of those,” nodded Yester gravely.  “Mainland creatures.  It’s said they’re monsters, drawn by fear.”

“I’m pretty sure I captured one,” added Shenneth.  She paused, collecting fragments of memory.  “A friend was with me, but I can’t remember who.  I think we may have let it go for some reason.”

“I’ve heard you shouldn’t do that,” whistled Yester.

She nodded agreement.  “That’s all I can remember before Nalfloren.  I kind of think we were hiding there, but I don’t remember what we were hiding from.  Probably that myir,” she shrugged.

“You’re too young for such a hard life,” Yester murmured tenderly.  “It’s Zan Shruck turning you over to the Nalflorens, you know.  He wants to be our next mayor and he’d do anything to get it.  Boosting trade with Nalfloren could mean prosperity for our people and all that froth.  You’ll remember Mr. Shruck from yesterday; the one who acts like he’s the golden gull.”

Shenneth nodded.

“They say the ship hasn’t arrived yet, though,” continued Yester.  “Little kink in Friff’s plan don’t bother me none.”  He grinned.  “Still, it is odd,” he added with a genuine frown, “Nalflorens are like clockwork when it comes to shipping schedules.  You could set the seasons by them.  Nobody’s seen a storm since the one that brought you, so there’s plenty of talk.  Lots of people think it’s wrong you know, keeping a child locked up, especially one called Shenneth, which means Shenin’s blessing.  Then sending you off without a trial… they’re saying Shenin disapproved and swallowed the Nalfloren ship whole.  And there may be a little rumor going around that you’re not even Nalfloren.”  He winked.

“Yester, you’ve been wonderful to me,” sighed Shenneth.

“Aw, stop.  You’ll make an old man blush,” he chuckled.  “You all fed?” he asked.  Shenneth nodded.  “Good,” he said, wrapping the rest of the food into the sack and setting it next to his mat.  “There’s this meeting all the guards are at just now, except for me… in the sheriff’s office… up on the second floor.  Yep, all of ‘em; every guard in the building.  Also Mr. Shruck and his wagging tails, ‘course.  I’m guessing I just didn’t get the invite to come.  Thought I might pop my head in and make sure they’re not talking about me.”  After he left, Shenneth spotted the key ring on his mat.

Shenneth knew Yester wasn’t allowed his small comforts, so she shoved all traces of his kindness into the sack, leaving only Yester’s keys behind the door and a jail cell locked and empty except for its small cot.  Wyndi’s escape route worked like a charm.  The dismal halls of the jail cell level all looked alike, and Shenneth was sure she wouldn’t have found the way easily unaided.

Shenneth didn’t look back after exiting from the side door.  She kept her eyes straight ahead and walked down street after street as if she knew exactly where she was going.  Wyndi’s plan ended at the exterior door and Shenneth wasn’t sure how she’d find her friend.  With every person she passed, her stomach drew a tighter knot fearing they would recognize her and sound the alarm.  Her tired and dirty muted green dress certainly didn’t help her blend in to the bold and colorful array of local fashion.  She did her best to keep off what looked like main streets.  The alarms finally sounded when she was near the outskirts of the city, her eye already set on what looked very promisingly like the beginning of a forest.

It turned out the woods weren’t nearly as deep as she would have liked, hemmed all around by houses, but they were large enough for Shenneth to remain quietly snuggled in a hastily constructed nest well up one of the larger trees for the next few days.  Children were the biggest threat to her freedom, splashing daringly into the fabulous halls of their minds, constructed of air and imagination amongst the tree trunks.  They played hide and seek, built and competed enchanted worlds one against another and launched daring expeditions, exploring well-traveled paths boldly as if no living soul had laid eyes on such a wild and alien landscape, at least until dinner bells rang.  Shenneth spent her days tucked high overhead, watching in silence, trying to piece together the spotted history of her life.  Seeing them, she reflected on Yester’s sadness at her age.  Some of the laughing children chasing about beneath her looked like they were as old as or older than her.  All she could focus on was how careless they were with their noise.  They wouldn’t last a day around myir, that was sure.

Each night after dark Shenneth walked for a while, stretching her sore muscles and exploring the neighborhoods while families crowded the cozy rooms of their homes.  She expanded her exploration bit by bit, casually glancing in at evening rituals through open windows.

It took three days to find Wyndi, and even that was aided by chance.  Shenneth judged that the Sauvens were well-to-do.  With that in mind, she aimed her search at the nicer sections of the city.  Even that promised to be months of searching.  She had already been chased off from several of the finer gardens by territorial peacocks within the first night, and the city was large.  On her third night, however, she came upon an exceedingly proper home, standing in rigid defiance to its surroundings.  Instead of the warm tones of the other homes, it was painted a sad soft blue with straight black shutters.  The garden was orderly, every flower perfectly aligned with the next, as opposed to the remnants of the lush jungle not two houses away, eager to pounce and reclaim where it had been once upon a time.

Shenneth spied Wyndi in a room with books from floor to ceiling, sounding out words from an open volume.  An older girl leaned over her shoulder in assistance.  Shenneth crept into the shadows and watched.  Wyndi was exceptionally clean, her curls neatly pinned in rows and begging to bounce, a velvet ribbon the only free movement as she gazed up for approval at the end of each sentence.  Her dress was lovely; a perfect match to her ribbon, and shining shoes framed her feet.  A pang of jealousy sank into Shenneth.  Here she was, an outlaw hiding in a garden while Wyndi enjoyed the best of everything.  Shenneth had apportioned her food carefully, but it was gone now and her hungry belly threatened to give her away.

“To bed, darlings,” called Mrs. Sauven, gliding into the room with practiced grace.  Two girls and a young boy formerly hidden from view rose and filed before their mother for a kiss on the forehead, Wyndi and her tutor rushing to make up the tail of the line.  Once kissed, the children shuffled obediently down a hall and up a flight of stairs, out of view.  A man walked into the study and Mrs. Sauven quickly closed and latched the door behind them.  Shenneth crept closer.

“Shenin has nothing to do with it,” Mrs. Sauven was saying.

“Whatever you want to call it,” replied the man, “I’m down two ships.  Something is out there.  I need to worry about feeding the mouths of my real children…”

“Oh don’t you dare, Rich,” snapped Mrs. Sauven, “don’t you dare.  She is a little, little girl, and she needs a good home.”

“We don’t know where she came from, or what sort of dealings she had with that other one!” said the man.

“Volume,” warned Mrs. Sauven, listening at the door to be sure they hadn’t roused the worry of the children.  “Darling,” she took his hand lovingly.  “Darling, please let’s keep her.  She’s progressing in her manners and the children have so taken to her.  For me,” she purred, “for your flower?”

“I was irrational,” relented Rich with a sigh.  “I’m sorry, petal, it’s just been a terrible day.  The Nalfloren ship, Labor and Strength, arrived this morning to pick up the one they’re calling Shenneth.”

“Poor Zan must have had quite a lot of explaining to do,” laughed Mrs. Sauven, rubbing her husband’s shoulders as he settled into a chair and removed his shoes.

“Zan Shruck is possibly the only man on this island who had a worse day than mine,” replied Mr. Sauven, leaning his head back so Mrs. Sauven could work on his temples.  “The crew confirmed my fears.  The Crusenda and the Vissette never made it to Nalfloren.  They’re a week overdue and considered gone.  I had to borrow against our reserves to pay pensions to the captains’ wives.  I’m just not made for conversations of that nature.  The tears…”

“Of course not, darling,” cooed Mrs. Sauven, “you poor thing.”

“Geoff was good about handling the other families.  When things turn around, remind me to raise his salary.”

“Happily, darling.”

“There’s something out there, petal.  The Labor and Strength had to swing south by two days and come around the far side of Cai just to avoid it.  They’d been on the path of Wallace’s ship, Beatta, when they saw her disappear.  Just shot straight down into the sea.”

“Surely they imagined it!”

“The Beatta is five days late.  Poor Wallace is beside himself.  You know he can’t sustain any more losses after the storm.”

“There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation.  Perhaps there was a problem and it simply sank.”

Mr. Sauven withdrew from his massage to stare pointedly at his wife.  “Simply sank?” he repeated scathingly.

Mrs. Sauven folded her hands and dropped her eyes.  “Of course that’s foolish,” she said.

“There’s something else,” Mr. Sauven hesitated, “and I’ve tried to twist my mind this way and that to find a way to believe it…”

“What is it, darling?” asked Mrs. Sauven, resuming the massage.

“Well, it’s the Brandish, Coya’s ship.”  He shook his head in disbelief.

“Yes?” coaxed Mrs. Sauven.

Mr. Sauven formed his words with difficulty.  “The Brandish shipped out yesterday with a full load of fruit, and, well, they arrived back to port today loaded with timber and stone from Bishmasfa.”

“That’s not possible, darling,” laughed Mrs. Sauven.

Mr. Sauven turned a withering gaze on her, and not only did she cease the massage, but she drifted toward the door in retreat.  “Tulip,” he said carefully through his teeth, “that is precisely my point.  The crew swears that their journey to Nalfloren and back took three weeks, and that nothing seemed amiss.  It makes no sense, no sense at all.  It’s nearly impossible now to hire a crew, for any price.  No one wants to go near the water.  Ever since the storm that brought that Shenneth girl, as well as your…”

“That’s enough.”  Mrs. Sauven, apparently, was able to be just as stern and intimidating as her husband.  Her voice left no room for discussion.  “Whatever the story is with the Shenneth girl, I don’t know it.  I saw her for myself, and she had a wild look about her.  Our darling girl has had no trouble adjusting to polite society, and seems to have forgotten her connection to the other one already.  We are keeping her, and that is the last word on this subject.”  She smoothed the front of her skirt primly.  “Excuse me darling, I must see that the children are tucked in.”  Her long skirts swished finality to her exit.

Shenneth crept back to her nest for rest, the only evidence of her stay in the Sauvens’ garden a small stack of flat pebbles along the side of the path.  When she returned the next evening, her stack of pebbles no longer stood alone.  Two more trembled beside it, and nearby under a shrub was a round lump of cloth.  Shenneth unwound the cloth to find a small loaf of bread and a block of rich cheese.  A few ants had discovered the feast, but Shenneth brushed them away hastily and tore herself a healthy chunk of bread.  She rewrapped the food and stowed it in the largest pocket of her dress.  Checking a few of her other pockets, she came across a strange tangle of roots with odd holes.

“I knew you’d find me,” Wyndi whispered from the window.

“Thanks for the food,” whispered Shenneth, dropping the root ball into a new pocket with a mental note to come back to it.

Wyndi nodded.  “I only have a minute,” she whispered, glancing toward the hall.

“That’s fine,” assured Shenneth, “I don’t want to get you in trouble.  I’m glad you’re safe.”

“It’s nice here,” agreed Wyndi, “though they do have an awful lot of rules, and it’s hard being a lady.”

Shenneth hesitated.  “What’s my name?” she asked.

“Well, it’s Anna, of course,” frowned Wyndi.

“And you’re Wyndi?”

Wyndi nodded, still frowning.

“I only remember pieces of things,” admitted Anna.

“My new mommy won’t help me anymore, so now you have to find Karen and everybody,” Wyndi instructed hastily, flinching as Mrs. Sauven’s voice drifted closer from within the house.  “She doesn’t let me talk about it after she saw me drop the map through your window.”

“I guessed that,” whispered Anna, remembering the conversation the night before.  “Thank you for your map,” she added.  “It was perfect.”  Wyndi grinned proudly.

“Did you find Mister Yester’s house?”

“No,” said Anna in surprise.

“That was at the corner of the page,” replied Wyndi in concern.

“Anyhow, I don’t want you to worry about me,” hurried Anna, hearing the little boy speaking in the hall.  “I know where to find you.  You’re safe here.”  She ducked under the window as the boy entered the study behind Wyndi.

“What are you looking at?” she heard him ask.

“Do the flowers get any taller?” improvised Wyndi.

“No,” he scoffed, “we would have the gardener cut them.”

They began their reading and Anna meticulously deconstructed the pebble towers before she crept away.

Back at her tree perch, she retrieved Wyndi’s map.  There was indeed a miniature map at the corner.  She had thought it an embellishment before, but looking closer she saw a rough idea of streets and trees.  Unfortunately, the finer details had not survived smudging and moisture.  Anna reasoned that it was for the best; that Yester and Melda would most likely fall under suspicion.  She erased all traces of her presence in the woods and set out.

Night was nearly over by the time she stood at the water’s edge eyeing an island that seemed relatively close.  She had spent the night skirting the city, knowing that eventually she would find a beach, and taking the time to try to make her name feel like it fit.  Anna.  It was frustrating only having access to slivers of her mind.

The beach she found was stony and private and she claimed a small boulder, finishing the bread as the sun rose and watching the silent industry of fishermen drifting away from land in small boats, busily checking crab pots.  She barely had an appetite considering what she was about to try, but she knew the bread wouldn’t survive the journey.  She had at least remembered the purpose of the knot of roots.

At some point she dozed, because she had the dream again.  She rose and stretched at the water’s edge after jolting awake, the roar fading still from her ears as she let the small waves nibble at her toes.  The only sense she had of the dream was that her friends were in it, but she couldn’t place even one solid image.  She was left with the feeling of vertigo, that awful sensation that the world is spinning and collapsing on you when you approach a terrible fear.

She put the strange bit of wood to her mouth, took a deep breath, and stepped into the ocean.