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How does a choice affect a life?
When we are asleep in a tent and it begins to rain, the rain may bead and tap and soak the outside. Inside, we remain warm and dry, but a compulsion leads you to reach out to that thin layer of canvas stretched above us. Is it simple curiosity? Is it a caress, an expression of gratitude to the protective cloth? Is it the impulse of our own destruction?
When your fingertip meets that delicate wall, it draws the water through. Soon, you and the inside of your tent will be soaked. And it was all due to a single droplet, a single touch from a curious hand, or a loving one, or a destructive one.
* * *
It was midsummer and the south of Serehvan was hot, the road dusty and stifling. Sweat soaked my turban and beaded on my brow only to run into my eyes. It was my turn to walk and share the camels, and my spear and shield and bow grew heavy on me. My breath was rank and sweltering behind the thin scarf with which I covered my face to keep the dust out.
All around, camels and oxen stank and grunted. Wagons grumbled and thumped. Guards, Yamurik’s guards, shouted back and forth as they changed out the advance scouts. They didn’t ask my guidance, for I was there as much to watch Yamurik and his caravan as to watch over them.
Ahead, the mountains of northern Lonireil, the province of Avandeil, loomed up, and I prayed they’d offer some respite from the heat. It was the 26th Year Provided, and I had been il-Lonireil for four years. I was eighteen years old.
A piece of grit got in my eye, making me wince and blink. Grumbling, I dug at it with a dusty knuckle and my curses disturbed the oxen pulling the cart beside me. With their bellows ringing in my ears, I stopped long enough for them to pass me, then dashed through the fraught gap between the groaning wheels and beasts and laden, sagging carts.
I shouted for Ahdan. He, somewhat ahead, scarcely slowed his march, but gave me a lazy salute as his gaze roved over Yamurik’s teams of aides and laborers. Ahead of us, Ecena balanced atop the tarp-covered, swaying load of the largest cart. A few more of ours were scattered through the convoy, watching.
“Ahdan!” He stopped and I caught up only to breeze past so he had to follow. We ploughed through the dust at the side of the caravan path, skirting shit and stones and deep rutted holes in the packed earth.
“Report?” I marched, squinting about us.
“Still out there, sergeant.” He hustled up beside me. “East this time.”
“And they’re keeping their distance?”
“Seem to be.” He swiped futilely at his eyes through the narrow opening in his scarves and wrappings.
Saying nothing more, I dashed ahead and once again dodged into the road. One of Yamurik’s cart drivers shouted at me, but I paid him no heed. I caught up to Ecena’s cart, spraing to the back, and hauled myself up by the straps holding down the tarp.
On top, the air was a little clearer. I pulled down my scarf and drew a deep breath while I balanced. Ecena gave me the same lazy salute that Ahdan had.
“Can you see them?” I asked.
I held out my hand and she passed me a short silver spyglass, covered all over in early Lonireilan-style etchings. This I put to my eye and cast about over the plains and the coming hillsides. My view rocked and tilted with the lurchings of the cart.
“Maybe they got eaten by a suliard.” I said. Ecena snorted. I looked east, scanned the rolling grasses. There were no farms this far south. I turned a slow circle, looking south, toward the hills and mountains beyond. Not far. We’d make camp at the base of the mountain pass. Then I swept west, paused, squinted. I gave the glass to Ecena.
She held it up and followed my direction and gestures, and she confirmed what I saw. “The same ones.”
“I count four. On camelback,” I said.
“Five. Another just came up a rise.” She gave the glass back and I looked again.
There were indeed five silhouettes, little black spots with clouds of dust around them as they moved. They were too far to make out in detail, especially with the cart’s rocking. I lowered the glass as my stomach turned over.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think we should ignore them. Stay with the caravan.”
But who were they? If they never came close, we’d never know. They could be secret contacts of Yamurik’s. I looked ahead on the road. Near the front, out of the worst of the dust, Yamurik’s private carriage trundled along with its shutters and filigree and plumes.
“We’ll be at the next camp soon enough, and it won’t matter who they are.”
I agreed, but chewed at the inside of my lip. There was sense in what she said, even if I didn’t want to believe it. I sent her down to join the others walking on the road, but after taking the glass. The silhouettes followed us, holding their distance.
A sound came from the front. An animal cried out in sudden pain. Someone screamed.
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