Deviations: Destiny

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Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny CHAPTER 1 Early Spring Crossroads TripStone awoke from forgotten dreams, her nose twitching from the smell of smoky tea steeping in a pot. She listened to a crackling flame beneath a modest awning. The sky beyond, a uniform gray, made it impossible to tell what time it was. At first she didn't remember where she was, either, but then her eyes adjusted to the light. BrushBurn sat breakfasting by the fire with his back to her, already dressed in traveling clothes, observing the rain. He had unfolded her coat and set it by the heat to dry. "You seem to have slept well," he said, without turning around. He lifted the pot from its tripod and poured her tea into a tin mug, turning back from the gloom. "It's warmer out here." TripStone bent to her pack to retrieve her own meat and slipped a small piece, hard and dry, into her mouth. The morsels in BrushBurn's hands were soft and succulent, and they were the last things she wanted to touch. Her muscles ached. She stood and stretched, grimacing. Her own clothes were still on her, muddy and rumpled but left intact overnight. Her feet sweated inside her boots. Blinking and unsure, she cast her glance about the tent. BrushBurn said, plainly, "Behind the curtain." She looked at a man preoccupied with his tea. Perhaps he always kept the chamber pot discrete, given the bartering that occurred here. The small, earth-toned sheet blocking it from view was a distressingly thoughtful gesture. When she had finished, she retrieved more Yata from her pack and stepped to the fire. The strong tea drove the cold from her fingertips. She drank deeply, both hands curled around the cup. "The roads will be bad." "At least two days to Rudder, even with both of us pulling. We'll have to camp." Rust-colored pelt peeked out from beneath his sleeves as he drained his mug. "Leaving for Promontory before the rains would have made more sense, but your numbers would have looked even worse." She glared at him. "Better to instill false hopes, then." 1 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny "False hopes accomplish nothing. I believe in being accurate." Bitterness rose. "More profitable that way." BrushBurn nodded. "Always." He licked the last trace of Yata from his lips and stood. "When you're ready, I could use your help with loading the cart." TripStone looked away as he shrugged on his coat and pulled up the hood, but she could still picture his outline beneath the fabric. Alone in the tent she found only clothes and furniture, camping necessities and structural reinforcements. His papers must be safeguarded in the cart, along with the relics her people had been forced to relinquish. She heard chains being unlocked outside, a hinge creaking. She could douse the fire and gather up the cooking utensils. If they were to leave before the Rotunda stirred, she would have to handle other objects as well. BrushBurn pulled up the cart as she uncoupled and lowered thick, striped drapes. TripStone looked upon an enclosed transport divided into sections. The compartment filled with bones remained secured. The other wagon, the one with the meat, gleamed in early morning light beside the smaller tents of BrushBurn's still-dozing accomplices. She chewed listlessly on Erta's remains. Her body would need the energy. The trader took the chamber pot outside, then returned and dismantled his pallet with efficient, well-practiced movements. Together they removed the other layers of curtains, shuttled the pillows, rolled up the rugs. TripStone focused on inanimate objects as she and BrushBurn passed each other. The more the tent emptied, the more crowded it became. They collapsed the frame. TripStone slipped into her coat and bent for her rifle and pack. "There's an open area in the front for those." BrushBurn dropped his own pack at the head of the cart and pointed to the harnesses. "That one's ready for you." He checked the gears a last time and came back around to strap himself in. TripStone worked buckles that needed virtually no adjustment. She hazarded a look at him from beneath her hood. One evening, two copulations, and already he had memorized her shape. He asked, "Have you pulled in tandem before?" 2 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny She coughed. "No." "Follow my lead, then," he said, "and we won't seize up. I'll keep my stride to yours." A yoke rested over and between them. BrushBurn slipped his hood back and nodded at her to do the same; they would need the visibility. TripStone positioned her hands by the levers. "You're doing the right thing, you know," he told her. "Your people need all the help they can get." "Tell me that when Promontory is in a state of servitude." He offered a wry smile. "We'll let the chains out on my signal." Drizzle matted thick curls to his head. TripStone looked away and out to the Rotunda, then to the thick clusters of squat houses that blocked her view of the hunters' training yards. She pictured straw Yata standing upright against the rain. Her hands responded to the sound of his voice, working the controls and advancing the gears. His instructions were clear and exact, her execution immediate. The cart moved easily behind them, clattering on the cobblestones, its passage remaining smooth until they began to climb. V A wild-eyed RootWing answered HigherBrook's knock, pulled him inside the Grange farmhouse, and forced him onto a chair. It was obvious neither of Ghost's parents had slept. "TripStone's gone with BrushBurn." RootWing pinned the Chamber leader's arms to his sides and knelt, bringing his weathered face close. Dark, plum-colored chops twitched. "We freed her. Now tell me about my son." The shock HigherBrook had expected curiously did not register. He felt dismay at the hunter's departure, but not surprise. "I have no news, other than what I told you before." He looked into eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Ghost had gone into the central valley and the Yata territory of Alvav. He was a guest on the Cliff and was being treated well. If you have other information, I'd like to hear it." RootWing pushed away from the chair and stood, disgusted. "Either your ignorance is dazzling or you are the vilest creature to cross my threshold, and I include the meat trader in that." 3 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny Ghost's mother DewLeaf sat half-collapsed on the other side of the table, exhausted. HigherBrook looked from her to RootWing. "I assume you know the real reason TripStone is headed into Promontory," he said, as gently as he could. He'd known that his pretense of her capitulation to that city might breed further distrust, and anger. He had not expected anguish. "She did not hide her mission to destroy Destiny Farm from me, but neither was she forthcoming about other things. What did she tell you?" "She told us to see Gria." DewLeaf struggled upright and walked painfully into the kitchen, returning with a velvety sack. The soft fabric muffled the clacking of bones inside. "You're going to take us to her." V HigherBrook ran them into Basc himself, momentarily relieved to employ his improved fitness in something other than hunting exercises. He took little comfort in the fact that TripStone had told Ghost's parents only enough to secure her own release. Their fugitive son and the Yata woman with him, pregnant with his child, had left the Cliff and descended into Alvav's prison, the Marsh. HigherBrook hardly believed the news, but TripStone would not lie to these people merely to bring them into close cooperation with Gria. The hunter might be impulsive, she might be secretive and obstinate, but she was not slanderous. That had been his job. The soldiers guarding Gria's door looked questioningly at the farmers, but deferred to HigherBrook's request for an audience and sent a message to their general. RootWing and DewLeaf were not complete strangers to Basc. As advisors, they had helped set up the planting fields. Gria arrived after a considerable wait, flushed and begrimed, her salt- and-pepper hair slick with sweat. She smelled of gunpowder. The warrior blinked away tears when DewLeaf proffered the soft bag containing Erta's bones. Gria turned smartly on her heel and led them to the inner chamber of her hut. There, she eased the bones down and lit a lamp beside them, whispering a brief prayer. HigherBrook frowned at her angular profile. Gria had led the massacre to destroy the Covenant. Her piety now was unsettling. She asked, "Has TripStone left Crossroads?" and then studied them all to establish agreement on their answer. A guard brought benches from an 4 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny outer room. "My lieutenant informed me that you are asking about Ghost and his consort, Piri." The tall Yata turned to regard HigherBrook, her mouth working, then faced the others. "Your leader knew nothing about the Marsh, or about conditions on the Cliff, because we chose not to tell him. We said the Yata from there had come to Basc to assist us and to help establish a trade route. HigherBrook didn't know they were escaped slaves." The new faces in the fields had been hard to ignore. HigherBrook had seen more and more people erecting sheds, bending their backs to break new ground. He'd heard strangely canted inflections, like Yata spoken with a Masari accent. The people from the Cliff had been cordial, even affable. They'd been industrious. He'd never suspected that they were part of a new and growing militia. He wanted to squirm under Gria's scrutiny as she made her disclosures. Even if he found where her forces trained, he couldn't stop them. If what she said were true, almost every able-bodied adult in Basc was contributing in some way to maintaining her army. More than that. Even diapers were collected with the chamberpots and their contents distilled into saltpeter for gunpowder. Crossroads might still be dependent on Promontory, but Basc kept finding new ways of declaring its independence. HigherBrook tried to mask his amazement. How distant were Gria's factories that they could hide even that kind of stench? Through her candor, Gria challenged him to subdue and perhaps destroy her entire village. She was demonstrating how well she knew him. "If the refugees had told your advisors the truth, it could have compromised our mission," Gria told Ghost's parents, frowning. "I'm sorry we had to withhold information about your son. The blame for that rests with me." "Not entirely with you," HigherBrook said, sourly. Gria's eyes blazed. "Entirely with me, HigherBrook." The practices in Alvav, and in Rudder by extension, shook him to his core. How often had the Chambers of Crossroads and Rudder met at barnĀ­ raisings and over ales, sharing in each other's civic holidays? How often had they talked innocently about the niceties of trade, the trails to be re-blazed, roads to be re-cleared, seeds to be exchanged? Even the frequent interactions 5 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny among the guilds had touched only on Rudder's bright surface and on the superficial resemblances between Masari neighbors. The StormCloud rifles now strapped to HigherBrook's back and to Gria's had been the first indication of how different Rudder was from Crossroads. But Crossroads was dying then. The powerful repeaters that Rudder's shooters employed at the border and then left behind had kept HigherBrook's village from extinction. To challenge their use would have been suicide. He was already half-mad by the time Gria retrieved Ghost's narratives from a far table. The loose sheets of parchment rested inside a badly-stained cloth bag frayed from brambles and scorched with gunpowder burns. "Your son was interrogated on the Cliff," Gria explained to the farmers. "No Alvav Yata had ever heard of the Covenant. The slaves came here looking for godhood." Her face pinched. "Our own godhood was long gone by the time they arrived. They took great pains to smuggle Ghost's testimony here, but that testimony had driven them to freedom." HigherBrook translated the dictation, alternating with Gria when each of their voices began to crack. They flanked Ghost's parents. He held DewLeaf, while the general nearly lost her fingers to the grip of RootWing's hand. Scant seasons ago, HigherBrook would have condemned to death the scientist who now spoke of the Covenant so eloquently and so agonizingly. This was what it was like to be a yatanii, rejecting Yata meat to the point of starvation. This was what it meant to be a fugitive, a heretic, an abomination experimenting on sacred body parts in an attempt to free Masari from Yata dependence. This was what it meant to leave one's family behind. To live alone in self-imposed exile, and then to criminally shelter a Masari runaway whose horrible death had helped save Ghost's life. From out of the pages, a voice HigherBrook could only imagine detailed the healing of a Yata woman who had come to Ghost half-dead, and his torturous restraint from killing her at the height of hunger. Fluid script, sober and unsentimental, described the loss of everything but her, followed by an act of ultimate indecency committed out of an almost inconceivable love. Inconceivable to the Covenant. Mix-children lived in Alvav, endangered though they were. 6 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny The mixture of joy and grief in Ghost's parents threatened to rip HigherBrook apart. They were beyond dictates and tradition, beyond philosophy or sacrament. This was their blood. This was their son. And this was Crossroads. Not just the stories of Ghost's life and of his family's, but of WindTamer and BrokenThread and NightShout and so many others. And of TripStone, who had slipped from HigherBrook's grasp on her quest for destruction. Who had worked to undermine him at every turn, yet submitted to a Yata warrior whose actions had already caused so many deaths. How could he lead his people and not have known this? He had been a scribe, filling pages with the details of Yata lives dictated by the survivors of prey. He could have written Masari stories down as well, not just from the mouths of hunters but from everyone. The Covenant had left no room for those. It had taken a pariah, a man whose hands had been worse than unclean, to give Crossroads its history and its unique, harrowed voice. More, so much more than the Rotunda's great tomes were at stake as his people faced Promontory's incursions. HigherBrook looked red-eyed at Gria and found her face haunted. Beyond the sack of Erta's bones hung a vast selection of scrimshaw. Those illuminated remains had come from Yata who had sacrificed themselves to TripStone's family. She had moved her household's relics here, out of BrushBurn's reach. On a high shelf lay the volume that HigherBrook had brought from the Rotunda as a peace offering. Beside that lay the stone box of Destiny Farm meat that TripStone had purchased from the trader to give to Gria as evidence. HigherBrook suppressed a groan as he realized the price she must have paid for it. The meat was sealed shut and covered in layers of wax, preserving the corrupted filth inside while protecting those outside. No, HigherBrook reminded himself. Not filth. That flesh had been a life, an intelligence. Someone who, like Piri, might have had dreams. He turned to Ghost's parents and choked, "I'll take you where you need to go." 7 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny CHAPTER 2 Promontory "We must go to Skedge." DamBuster frowned across the table at Ghost and shook his large head, looking pained. "I'd take you there myself if I could. It's not safe here, especially for Piri and TelZodo. But she needs to heal first, otherwise that trip would kill her." He picked at his food. "Then DevilChaser would kill me." Travel would be difficult for them all right now. Ghost looked past his heavily-bandaged feet balanced on a chair and toward the birthing room, where DevilChaser and MudAdder tended his family. TelZodo's birth had driven out all other considerations, and no one had noticed the swelling from Ghost's long run until later. Adrenalin had kept him numb until DevilChaser sliced off his boots. Then DamBuster had lifted Ghost up and rushed him from the room before the smells of putrescence sickened Piri further. To hear the doctor tell it, he was lucky he'd kept his feet at all. Once again, Ghost was reduced to using a walking stick, this time a crutch, and sparingly at that. DamBuster added, "Conditions are bad here. We'd leave if we could, but conditions are bad everywhere right now." Ghost fished a chunk of Yata from his many-pocketed burlap, noting soberly that most of the pockets were empty. "Piri told me several days ago that MudAdder is from Destiny Farm, and I've seen his branding since then. You've given clothing to us but not to him. Why?" The large man grimaced. "Don't ask me about MudAdder." Ghost chewed thoughtfully as he surveyed the dining room. Cabinets held DevilChaser's medicinals, but the boxes the black marketers delivered sat in another room whose door remained closed. If the chameleons were transporting medicines, then why the secrecy? Ghost had spotted the naked Yata slipping behind that door, with DamBuster following closely behind. The two men stayed inside, joined on and off by DevilChaser, for extended periods. 8 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny "A man comes here from time to time." The apothecary took a swig of his tea and frowned. He hesitated, then drained the cup and advanced to the cabinets. He plucked a bottle of spirits from the shelves and brought it to the table. "Name of SandTail." He poured two fingers into the ceramic cup and downed the drink in a single gulp. "Don't ask me to tell you what happens in the lab, but know this. When SandTail's cart pulls up, you must keep your baby quiet. Absolutely silent; Piri, too. He would cart her back to Destiny Farm and kill TelZodo if he found them." He poured another shot. "I wish to hell I could take you to Skedge." Ghost eased his feet off the chair and levered himself up. "Give me the bottle." DamBuster up-ended the cup and wiped his mouth. "Go ahead. I don't blame you." "I'm putting it back." DamBuster quirked a sad smile. "Bastard. Sit, then. I'll put it away. There are plenty of good reasons to be lame, but self-righteousness is not one of them. I won't have you hurting yourself on my account." The large man had grown increasingly restive in the days since TelZodo's birth. Circles darkened further under his eyes, correlating with the frequency of his visits to the lab, but Ghost had tempered any further theorizing. Any more extrapolation would entail a larger margin of error, and now nausea accomplished what caution could not. There was scientific method, and there was gut instinct. Ghost murmured, "I'm headed that way." He grasped the bottle by its neck, shifted his weight to the crutch, and hobbled to the cabinets. "I had my own laboratory, once. Some day I'll tell you about it." First he had to consult with Piri and see his son. He made the slow, difficult trip to the birthing room, pausing outside the repaired door to smile at her dulcet humming before pushing his way inside. DevilChaser scowled and motioned curtly for him to sit. "That's your third walk today. Don't make me take that crutch away from you." He squeezed Piri's shoulder, then rose from the blankets. "She's healing remarkably well, but it will take time." 9 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny "She's healed remarkably well before." Ghost beamed at Piri and at the nursing TelZodo. The child's eyes opened, a match to hers. His hair and portions of his down began to darken, taking on a ruddy violet tinge. Ghost reclined gingerly beside her and rested a hand on TelZodo's back, letting his fingers brush Piri's arm. Her face was drained, straw-colored hair slicked to a forehead of dulled bronze tones. He waited for DevilChaser to switch his attention to unwrapping foot bandages, then drummed, How do you feel? Piri held their son to her and waited for Ghost to slide his palm beneath her fingers. I'm told I could be better. She nodded toward MudAdder, who gathered poultices under DevilChaser's direction. He can tap his name, and mine, but little else. He can't read. He needs to hear a voice. "Ghost, your infection is not clearing as fast as I'd like." DevilChaser accepted the herbs from MudAdder. He wrapped and re-packed clean gauze around red, swollen skin, his thin face pinched with concern. "I know you're conserving the Yata you brought with you from the Marsh, but you can't afford to shortchange yourself now. We're rationing our own supply, but we have enough to go around." A glance at MudAdder showed him unperturbed at the mention of meat. The man's nonchalance was not surprising. Piri had given Ghost enough of an education in those matters. Ghost's fingers wandered over TelZodo's curls until he realized the child was asleep. "I'd be in worse shape if we ran out too soon. I know why I ration Yata, but why do you?" "Shortage." The doctor cut and tied gauze before lifting Ghost's other foot. "Both the Farm and the angels are overtaxed right now, thanks to the Chamber's uncompromising stupidity." "I don't know about angels." Ghost sucked in a sharp breath as DevilChaser probed a tender spot. "They collect the dead from Skedge. This foot's worse." He leaned over and snatched the crutch away. "Sorry, Ghost. I'm taking away your walking privileges." MudAdder caught the healer's attention and made pushing motions. DevilChaser shook his head. "If he's this reckless with a crutch, he'll be that much worse in a wheelchair." 10 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny Ghost looked from one to the other. "What if I promise to behave?" "You haven't behaved from the moment you got here." The doctor frowned at the trio on the floor and shook his head. "Or from long before then." He heaved a sigh. "But I don't behave, either, so I'll do as MudAdder suggests. Do anything to jeopardize your feet and I will strap you down for good." MudAdder watched DevilChaser leave, then hurried to the blankets. He held out his palm and pointed to Ghost's mouth and hand. A quick thinker, that one, probably another breaker of rules. Ghost nodded and took a deep breath. "I'll teach you in Masari. I know they don't speak Yata at the Farm, or here. Each touch is a sound. I'll show you the sounds and then we'll put the words together. How long before he comes back?" He pursed his lips at MudAdder's show of fingers. "Good. We can start. When you can communicate it, I want you to tell me about SandTail and the laboratory." V MudAdder did not know touch-speech, but he could pantomime. Before DevilChaser returned with the wheelchair, the Yata had pointed clearly toward the lab, then reached back and touched the tattoo on his neck. Then he had mimed the restraining chair. The straps around him, his inability to move. "The bottles in the crates." Ghost had fought to keep his bile from rising. Next to him Piri was propped half-upright, quietly attentive as she swaddled TelZodo in a blanket. "They're for making Destiny." He searched MudAdder's face. "They're for trying to make Destiny." The Yata answered with a slow nod. "You're not restrained now," Ghost whispered. "Why do you stay?" MudAdder tried one gesture and then another, before he took hold of Ghost's hand and motioned to be taught more sounds. Not long afterwards, they heard the clack of wooden wheels on the pine plank floor and DevilChaser's thin voice calling out to DamBuster. The Yata gave Ghost's arm a light touch and knelt by Piri. The look that passed between them made Ghost wonder if they knew each other's thoughts. More than stoicism crossed their faces. The gods only knew what experiences they had already shared. 11 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny MudAdder stood, smiling generously at TelZodo as DevilChaser wheeled in the chair. Then he left the room to answer DamBuster's mournful call. Now, seated and with his feet raised, Ghost held TelZodo in his arms and massaged tiny shoulders. Were it not for the child, he would be gripping the armrests, white-knuckled. He watched helplessly as Piri inched toward the chamber pot, unable to keep the muscles around her eyes and lips from twitching. "You need more analgesic." She offered a shallow smile and squatted, wincing. He'd medicate her if she would let him, but the painkillers were made for Masari. They traveled through her skin and tissues with a force that left her reeling, no matter how much Ghost reduced the dose. "At least let me treat you when you're ready to sleep. DevilChaser is right. You need to relax or things could get worse." She knew. He saw her resolve, her stubbornness. All he could do now was coo lovingly at their son and study the equipment in the room. Now that he could wheel around, perhaps he could create a calmative better suited to her constitution. Then there was TelZodo, about whose constitution Ghost could only guess. Given time, he could use the lenses here and see what he could learn from the contents of the child's diaper. More than anything, he wanted not to think about what was happening in the lab down the hall. He caressed TelZodo's tiny form, marveling at the strength with which the infant grasped his finger and hung on. I understand you completely now, NightShout. I know why you did what you did and how you must have felt and I forgive you. He would do the same, given half a chance. If the crutch were back in his hands, Ghost would hobble to the lab even if it killed him and smash everything in sight. Eliminate any chance of recreating Destiny. Shatter to splinters the many bottles he had assiduously, blindly packed. "I thought I was a criminal before," he whispered sweetly to the child. "How little I knew." The baby gripped the fur of his chops, yanking hard. The pain felt good. 12 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny CHAPTER 3 Outside Rudder BrushBurn never saw so much mud that sat implacably still, swamping his wheels. He had seen it rushing in torrents off the mountain slopes, drowning Promontory's streets and citizens. He had seen it fully alive and exacting vengeance, not existing for the sole purpose of gumming up a major thoroughfare, like a child's prank that wouldn't end. Their first night on the road, his shoulders had ached from the weight of the yoke and his legs from the constant slogging. He and TripStone had done more lifting than pulling on their first day of travel. He'd grumbled, "There are ways to pave this." "Yes, and then to maintain it, but you've remarked yourself how shorthanded we are." If anything, the fanatic's exertions had made her glow with renewed vigor rather than with exhaustion. "The route is less mired up ahead. Until then, we lay wood boards down during the rainy season and move slowly over them for as long as we have to." Even softened by lamp light, her smugness irked him. "You could have told me this." "You could have asked." TripStone's clothing remained the same, day and night, as when they had been at RootWing's farm. She left her muddied boots by the flap and her rain-drenched coat by the flames and let the rest wrinkle and ferment. Her vest pockets still bulged with aromatics, but those were losing potency. Behind the dirt and sweat, her other odors were asserting themselves. BrushBurn smiled to himself. She was trying so hard to drive him away. And failing so miserably. He had gone to his pallet without a word that first night, leaving her to sort it out. She wasn't as cramped or as wearied as he, and his recuperation had been more important. He could blame the hard labor in Crossroads for her endurance. Its surviving citizens exhibited a rugged health borne of desperation. In a village reduced from its own archaic ignorance to stark primitivism, the fittest prevailed. 13 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny On one level it was enjoyable to watch. On another it was disheartening. She had burrowed, nostrils flared, into her blanket on the other side of the tent, leaving BrushBurn thankful that he was too tired for frustrated arousal. The next morning she awoke first, preparing tea and mouthing a hard crust of Yata with the color and consistency of slate. If that was what the hunt offered, no wonder BrushBurn's sales had increased. She'd remained aloof as they breakfasted, but so had he. The terrain might try his patience. Other delays proved more enticing. She had a superb feel for the controls despite the deplorable road, reacting to his guidance as quickly as his own hands. At first he ascribed it solely to her hunting reflexes, but then BrushBurn remembered the massive books in the Rotunda, glimpsed on his way to meetings with the Crossroads Chamber. TripStone's memory and her processing of words had been trained into a highly-proficient machine that worked just as well in her flawless responses to his commands. Somewhere, amidst all those words and memories, was the information she continued to hide from him. The rain let up. He watched her from his end of the yoke, her unruly mass of fiery hair tied back with still-dripping cloth. "Has the road become solid, or am I just fooling myself?" The lines around her gray eyes crinkled as she relished his discomfort. "If the weather keeps to a drizzle, we'll have one more day to Rudder. If we get another downpour, I suggest you chop down a tree." V TripStone listened to bird song and squirrels chittering in woods shadowing the side of the road. She held onto their cacophony, but soon those distractions would fade above the treeline, leaving her on her own against nature. BrushBurn was everywhere. The humid air wrapped his scent around her. The yoke vibrated with every movement of his muscles. His voice commanded her fingers as she manipulated levers and chains, bypassing her brain and sinking into her nervous system. Let him think her heavy breathing came from the steep incline, that the swivel in her hips came from combating the mud. 14 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny No. She knew better and so did he. The way to the Warehouse lay through both their groins. As with passage into the Rotunda, she would have to spiral her way in, leaving herself exposed in the open air. I'll keep my stride to yours. TripStone had almost laughed at his arrogance, as though his longer legs could outperform her pace. He hadn't complained as she'd driven heedlessly through the muck. Perhaps he was winded. He should be thankful. Her speed had kept the wheels from choking on more than one occasion. He had left her alone afterwards. She'd retired to the blanket, her clothes sticky and itching against her skin, the mass of pillows beside his pallet a constant reminder of their prior appointment. BrushBurn had set up the cushions, casually ignored them, and dismantled them in the morning without comment. TripStone had helped transport them back to the cart after breakfast, before she and the trader collapsed the tent. Now they spun the lower gears, pulling their cargo over smooth cataracts of granite rising steeply to the pass. Low clouds eddied about them, feathering the way. Other wagons already dotted a wide clearing, preparing to spend the night before the easy descent into Rudder. BrushBurn directed her to a secluded spot. Together they lifted the yoke from their shoulders. Hands at her buckles, she watched him slip his harness from his limbs. She could spring upon him, grab the straps, and cinch them tight. Opposing instincts warred within her as to what to do next. TripStone looked away and then climbed into the cart's open compartment, toward the tent frame. They lashed and secured poles, hung the roof and walls, spread rugs. After BrushBurn's constant direction on the road, the silence as he passed her made her muscles jump. One by one they lit the lanterns, transferring items of soft comfort and stark functionality from cart to tent. Opulent pillows. Tin cups. She stepped out into the first hints of dusk as he locked the cart down. Rudder sparkled below, a pleasing glow of newly-lit hearths and wicks touched to flame. West of the tightly-clustered settlements flowed the river's darkened waters. Beyond its far banks sat the Marsh. Remote waterfowl honked, but thick clusters of forest hid the prison from the pass. Light from the setting sun illuminated bridges the escaped slaves from Alvav had described. TripStone scanned the clearing and the 15 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny distant, upthrust Cliffs fading to purple, the same marbled expanse she had passed while tracking SandTail and the wretch who was now her traveling companion. What if Crossroads' carts had come through here during Rudder's Meat Days? Everyone TripStone knew had assumed Rudder followed the Covenant's enforced ban on commerce during those times. You didn't come to trade while your neighbors either served the hunt or sought solace in prayer before communing with the dead. You certainly didn't travel to their private, sorrowful spaces. The people of Rudder had seen fit not to challenge those beliefs. What would have happened if someone had chanced upon the Games and learned the truth? She tried to look beyond the thick-leafed groves, worried and aching. Then she turned her back on it all and walked through increasing darkness, ducking back inside the tent. Her tea waited, sending smoky tendrils up from a squat table. TripStone eased off her boots and coat and bypassed her pack, bereft of appetite. On her way to a featureless chair she studied BrushBurn. He sat at a table twin to hers, preoccupied with sheets of parchment and easing a juicy chunk of Yata into his mouth. She looked away. "You run a disgusting business." His nib scratched with short, even strokes. "Most business is." She sat with her back to him and raised the tin cup to her lips, savoring the air of pungent leaves that, for a moment, masked everything else. Eyes closed, she sipped, relaxing into the heat of liquid and lamps. When the nib stopped scraping, when the pen was lifted and set aside, she was too enmeshed in meditation to notice. She didn't feel his hands on her shoulders until they began to knead, seeking out and loosening knots. Her voice rose, thick and deep. "You said you wouldn't touch me." "Yes. If you did not want to be touched." BrushBurn's fingers came around her vest, dipping into a pocket and drawing out aromatics. They were brown now, and weak. Only the moist air kept them from crumbling in his palm. He dropped the dead leaves and flowers to the ground. "Push me away and I'll go." 16 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny The teacup's warmth spread against her hands. She couldn't move them. He eased from one pocket to the next, teasing out the herbs and powdering the rug with decay. He inhaled deeply, and then more deeply, uncovering the air. Her own lungs began to quiver. Only the chair back prevented her spine from arching, her head from settling against his stomach. He extended his fingers into her breast pockets, pressing the cloth. He cupped her through it, continuing to knead until her pulse filled her throat. The fingers of one hand dipped lower, seeking and remembering, assuming. She felt his smile in the way he grasped an edge with a light touch, drawing out the sheath with exaggerated care. He took his time as he pulled its full length from her vest. His hands left her suddenly and he stepped back; she inwardly cursed her flash of dismay at his absence. She heard cloth open, ministrations, the friction of membrane. Her own hands dropped away from the tin cup, palms up and open. Her prayers fled from her but she could plead. Stay with me, Erta. Don't leave me. Her brows knitted in concentration, then relaxed as BrushBurn lifted her gently out of the chair. He turned her to face him, leaning in. "No." TripStone spun from him. "Not like that." Her hands fluttered. Fumbling, she peeled off her vest and unwrapped her shirt, flinging them aside. She pulled apart the laces on her breeches, slid them off, and tossed them against the rest. Foot wrappings uncoiled and she kicked them away. Without looking back at BrushBurn, she strode to the mass of cushions and leaned her full length against them, pillowing her cheek. Then she waited. "I agree," BrushBurn murmured. "Better not to be intimate too soon." His hands caressed her waist. They positioned her, gliding between her legs. They confirmed readiness. "You let me in deeper, this way." He pressed his palms against her buttocks, massaging her, unhurried. She felt the warmth of his pelt against her back, tried to remember the sounds of his own undressing and couldn't. He reached between her and the pillows 17 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny and explored her pectoral fur, abdominal fur, following the red swatch downward until she could barely keep herself still. Finally, he moved. TripStone suppressed a wild grin as he filled her. Drizzle pattered against the tent intermittently; lamp light flickered with shifting air currents. He rested swollen inside her, pulsing, keeping to small movements before he drew back and plumbed her with long, slow strokes. Then he withdrew again, almost completely, hesitantly. TripStone quaked around rhythmic, almost imperceptible thrusts, the merest kiss of his tip. The pillows filled her fists; she could not keep the moan from her voice. "You're a seducer," she rasped. "This is a game to you." His legs pressed more firmly against hers. BrushBurn eased his hands up her sides and along her arms, enclosing her wrists. His breath warmed her ear. "It is a discipline, like hunting." His hips began their maddeningly slow push until she could hold no more; he ground in a circle against her until she tasted blood. "And, yes, it is a game." Her muscles abandoned her reason as the demons took hold. The sound arising from her was that of a beast. The trader answered and grasped her more tightly, groaning sweet encouragement. Pulling, plunging. Let him think TripStone called wordlessly to him. She was splayed on a Soala of fattened cushions, her place of need, entreating the demons. She petitioned, begged for their strength, surrendered. They bayed back along her spine, guiding her. Filling her with bright red furious light. Her hips answered BrushBurn's, thrusting back. Her fists opened as he grasped them and their fingers interlaced, closing like traps. TripStone clenched, drawing out his gasps of praise; she would squeeze the life from him if she could. His teeth came down hard on her shoulder and held fast. He no longer pushed her; now she was pushing him. Up the mountain, through the mud, roaring toward the summit. She freed her fingers and grasped his arms, clutching him against slipperiness. Higher and harder, breaking through the rutted road until she had secured the yoke about them both, screaming with delirious greed and explosive rage. V She was the first one up, wrapped in the blanket and busying herself over the teapot. Watching coolly as he pushed up from his pallet to rub his eyes. "Good morning, BrushBurn." 18 Elissa Malcohn Deviations: Destiny He chuckled softly, shaking his head. "So. You have kept to your credo. You have not tried to kill me with your gun." TripStone filled a tin cup and placed it before him. Her clothes, freshly scrubbed in the rain, dried beside the fire. The blanket about her was still warm, though her hair dropped to it in wet crimson rings. "You've washed." "You chose a private spot," she said. "The weather was generous." He scanned the rugs. She must have buried the sheaths outside as well. Her back to him, she lifted breeches, testing the fabric between her fingers. Her blanket dropped to the ground before she stepped into the pant legs, drawing their thickness up. Her fur remained matted around his bites, the exposed skin scabbing over. "How is your shoulder?" She didn't turn around. "How are your balls?" "As you might expect them to be," he answered, mildly. The tea felt good going down. TripStone tied her laces before reaching calmly for her shirt, taking a moment to attend the sounds outside. The rain had been falling lightly; now it let up again. She paused in her dressing to refill her cup. A nipple peeked at BrushBurn from between unsecured ends. If her movements were not deliciously deliberate right now, they should be. He should dress as well or they might never get to Rudder. BrushBurn let his own blanket drop behind him as he moved carefully to his traveling clothes. TripStone took one look between his legs. Her laughter was more amused than derisive, a good sign. She still hated him, but not entirely. He almost wished she were more severe. The sooner he deflated, the sooner he could relieve himself. He secured his pants with loose knots, retrieved his cup, and joined her by the tea. "We'll be spending the day in Rudder while the cart is cleaned and serviced. The main road to Promontory will be less punishing." His tired smile answered the lines crinkling around her eyes. "I will get us a room at the Milkweed for the night because I prefer a hot bath to a chilly rain." He poured, warming his hands around the cup. "You've purchased my silence. If you'd rather not be seen with me, I will rent a second bed." 19

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