By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
Zheldesa’s light made a path down the empty street for Butu, whose back rose straighter with every step he took. He’d have to work very hard, he guessed. The boys who usually joined the guard were bigger and stronger than he was.
And figure out what he means by “keeping my eyes open.”
As if by magic, Jani appeared beside him, brushing his arm. As silently as the wind, they disappeared into a narrow gap between two tents. She still wore the dress and most of the jewelry from earlier in the day, the silk smooth against his bare chest as he pulled her to him. She had just enough time to let out a slight squeak before he kissed her.
When he let her go, Jani was laughing. She pushed him away playfully. “What did my uncle say to you? I didn’t want to get too close.”
Butu struck a heroic pose and grinned. “I’m to be a sordenu! I’m going to Gordney tomorrow.”
He moved forward to kiss her again, but she turned her face aside. Butu brushed one of the braids away from where it had fallen across her cheek. “What’s wrong?”
“Daren el’Kadrak came all the way from Mnemon to see Jusep, and now they’re sending you away to Gordney.” Tears glistened in her eyes.
He took her hands in his. “Hey, I’m not going far. We’ll still find a way to see each other.”
“Oh Butu, you can be so blind, sometimes,” she said with a tearful smile. “You don’t think my sister married that Zatkuka el’ because of his wit, do you? Jusep got a favorable deal on grain trade.”
Jusep is marrying off Jani to some Kadrak! A knife of jealousy stabbed Butu. He grasped at her and pulled her against her chest like a child clutching a favorite toy. She was taller than him, but now her wet cheeks rubbed his shoulders.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” he whispered, kissing her neck.
We could run away together, he thought. We could leave right now and go to another clan as kus. They would need a good story, and they would need to stick to it, or no other clan would take them in. The Clanless would more likely look at a pair of lovers as vultures looked at camel corpses. Not that either of us would want to be Clanless.
“Who is he?” Butu asked. If he’s just an un’, maybe I can find a way to change Jusep’s mind.
She sighed and slumped against him. “It isn’t certain, yet, but Daren el’Kadrak means to present me to his brother as a potential bride.”
“Which brother?” Butu asked, stroking her hair soothingly, even though he doubted he’d ever win out over an el’.
“Their kluntra?” Butu asked, amazement outstripping jealousy, though his heart sank beneath the impossiblilty. He’s the kluntra of the most powerful of the Turun clans. She’s not even Jusep’s daughter. To get a marriage proposal from Aesh al’Kadrak ... “You must’ve made quite the impression on his brother, Jani.”
“You’re taking this very calmly.” She pushed back, and he released her. They played with each other’s hands. “I expected you to suggest we run away together and make a life for ourselves as kus.”
“You deserve better than that, Jani.” Butu swallowed hard. Aesh al’Kadrak? How can I compete with him? “I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed what we’ve had.”
“What we’ve had?” She snapped her hands from his and hugged herself.
“Aesh is one of the most powerful men in Turuna. Your uncle isn’t going to choose me over him!” Butu had intended to sound reasonable, but his exasperation at his misfortune flooded his voice. “We can run away, but where would we go? Aesh will make sure every clan knows I’m a tem who betrayed the Ahjea, and then no one will take us in. How does that help you?”
“Butu, you’re shouting,” Jani told him softly.
He flushed, took a quick breath, and continued in what he hoped was a more neutral tone. “Jusep is your uncle, Jani. If you get to Mnemon and decide you can never love Aesh, the kluntra will find some way to politely refuse the marriage proposal.”
Jani kept her voice so low Butu had to lean forward to make out the words as she hissed them. “It’s not a marriage proposal, Butu! Don’t you see? The kluntra of the most powerful Turun clan doesn’t marry the niece of a minor clan’s kluntra. He wants the Ahjea to do something for him — something Jusep doesn’t want to do — and he means to use me as a hostage to increase his leverage over us.”
Butu took a step back. “I’m sorry, Jani. I didn’t think of that.”
“That’s because you’re just a tem.”
The words fell on him like marbles — cold and hard. It was something Zhek would say. She had never treated him like a tem, much less talked about it. In the dim light, she probably couldn’t see his hurt expression, but she knew how to read his silences.
“You’re right, Butu.” Her smile was sad. “I have to figure this out on my own. You can’t rescue me. Even if you could, you shouldn’t.” She vanished from his magical senses as well as from his sight, but her voice floated back to him. “And you won’t need to.”
“Jani!” he cried, but she was either gone already or pretending to be.
Butu stared at nothing. The absence of her presence like a warm blanket had been pulled off him. He took a deep breath and went out into the street, but he couldn’t help but look back into the shadows between the two tents. They had spent a lot of time in places like that, cuddling and kissing like third-cyclers do.
He couldn’t help but wonder if he had made the wrong choice or maybe just said it the wrong way. He shook his head and walked toward the fosterlings’ tent. Even if her marriage to Aesh never happened, Jusep would never allow Butu to wed Jani.
Unless I can be more than a tem, but to do that, I need to prove myself as a sordenu.
That was also true, and Butu was suddenly grateful to the kluntra for giving him this opportunity to prove he could serve the clan. Miners and farmers never won glory for themselves the way sordenu could. At least as a sordenu, there was a small hope of becoming an un’ or even an el’ through blood adoption — a rare event, to be sure, but not an unthinkable one.
Three pairs of eyes became his friends as they stepped out of the tent.
Butu hesitated. Everything is changing. Maybe Jusep did punish me. He’s taken away all my friends.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he said, and they gasped.
“Where?” Remi asked.
“I’m going to be a sordenu.” He kept his voice firm.
Hatal blew out his held breath and threw a blanket at Butu. “You’re not leaving, you’ll be right here.”
“How often will you come visit?” Butu asked Hatal. “How long before Remi goes back to your family?” It was the way he said family. Paka’s eyes grew soft, and the cousins’ faces turned bitter.
“We don’t care that you’re an orphan, Butu,” Remi said. “We’re your friends.”
Butu said nothing, stepping into the tent and going to his corner. He rolled onto his side, his back to them, so they couldn’t see his tears. After tomorrow, they’d probably not see him again, or speak to him. It would be years before any of them would be a warrior like he was going to be. Even then, they were of different clans. They would be gone, and not even know him anymore.
If I meet them again, it will be on the battlefield, and we are nearly as like to be enemies as allies.
Behind him, he heard the other boys settle for bed, and he adjusted himself more comfortably.
A hand touched his shoulder. Butu pretended he was asleep.
“I’ll come visit,” Paka whispered. “If you need a brother, I’ll be yours, shumi.” Then he was gone, and Butu was alone.
This is my chance to prove that it was worth adopting me. I’ll be the kind of sordenu that makes history — another Terzik, the Ahjea kluntra who was also an orphan.
That Jani would no doubt be married by that time, Butu deliberately ignored.