Thuja Bou lit a match. It licked its fiery tongue against her face, but the whoosh of the rushing train snuffed it out seconds after it had been born, and she couldn’t keep the flame alive long enough to catch it on the tip of her cigar.
She pulled out another. She struck it blindly on a piece of rubble she had felt against her bare feet, and she cupped the light as tightly as she could in her hands to protect it from the wind. This time, she smothered the flame on accident. She jerked her fingers as soon as she felt a sting, and the head of the match went black.
It was the last one. She was alone on the wrong side of the train tracks, so she had no choice but to breathe fresh air as she watched the dark windows of the metal serpent speeding beside her. The glass reminded her of a murky river in the middle of the night. She could not make out any faces, but she watched tall shadows flickering with every passing railcar—until she realized that it was her own reflection that she was seeing. When the last window had sped by and the brilliant lights of the valley below finally struck her in the face, she stepped over the hot metal tracks and crossed into the city of Suda.
The journey from then on would be easy, she thought. It was all downhill, a midnight stroll into town—and she could not deny her good fortune because the angry train attendant had kicked her off not far from the final station. By some miracle, she had been able to stow away for days without getting caught. Her only regret had been….
Thuja looked down at her bare feet.
The road to Suda was all gravel, and she was not nearly calloused enough to keep from wincing as she stepped on sharp stone. It was too dark to avoid the smallest of hazards. She was also too exhausted to take her time, so instead she gritted her teeth and ignored the pain of her loss.
Her boots were gone.
They had been the most expensive thing she owned, and she had spent her two-week journey in deep paranoia, piling that old leather under her head every night before she slept. No matter how far she had walked, no matter which freight truck or railcar she had blindly jumped into, she had always been careful not to let those boots out of her sight.
They’ve taken everything else, but they’re not taking my boots, she had told herself. They were the last things she had left in the world worth hoarding and guarding and growling over. She had pressed them against her chest all night. She had watched the other passengers with suspicion.
And it had all been for naught.
When the attendant pushed her out, she had landed outside empty-handed and with bare feet. Nonetheless, she had kicked at the ground and spat in the direction of those spinning wheels. She had picked up a rock to throw at one of the windows of the seemingly endless train that had rushed off with her boots.
But then she felt a relief she hadn’t expected.
All of a sudden, she had nothing to lose. There was nothing to guard, nothing to fear, nothing left of her at all.
Her boots were gone.
She stared down into the valley, at the lights of Suda, towards the tower at the center of the capital. She sucked in the cool air as she grimaced and hastened her step. She had no choice now. She could only go in one direction.
She would meet The Goddess barefoot.
* * *
“The South Suda Administration building? Nah, that doesn’t open until morning, buddy. Don’t waste your time loitering over there tonight unless you want soldiers hassling you.” The bartender was leaning across the counter, offering Thuja the weak flame of her lighter. Just before it reached the tip of Thuja’s cigar, the light flicked out as if someone had blown on it. Scratching her head, the woman pressed the trigger a few more times, and sparks erupted like tiny fire crackers, but nothing came of it. “Huh. That’s weird. I thought I had filled it with fuel just this morning.”
“Not the weirdest thing that’s happened so far.” Thuja sighed and slipped the cigar back into her pocket. “When I stopped in Karo a few days back, I ran into my sisters by total coincidence. They gave me ten smokes and told me to make them last, but maybe I’m supposed to trade them for something else.” She looked around the hazy tavern, which smelled like stale liquor and fruit wine and the sweat of huge, unfriendly women who hunched over their dimly-lit tables. The floor was sticky under Thuja’s bare feet.
It felt like home.
“Do you have any rooms in the back open for rent tonight?”
“That depends. Do you have money?”
“I have ten cigars, half a bag of dried bohm fruit, and a piece of string. What will that get me?”
“Kicked out.” The bartender had raised an eyebrow, though she didn’t seem entirely surprised. “You look like you’ve been through a lot, kid, and believe me that I sympathize—but this tavern is for paying customers. If you’re not going to buy a drink at least, then get lost.”
“Yeah? And where am I supposed to go until morning? I have urgent business in that administration tower and I have to survive the night for it, or else this whole trip will have been useless.”
“You’re babbling at me like your survival is my problem to solve. If you need somewhere to sleep, why not head over to the bathhouse a few streets down? It’s a couple of coins to get in, but if you slip in through the back, no one will notice that you didn’t pay.”
“But I hate bathhouses. People always try to get fresh with me.”
“Isn’t that what they’re for? I don’t know anyone who goes there to actually take a bath—but it’s your best bet. Since it’s open all day and night, it’s not like anyone will kick you out for overstaying.” The woman leaned over the counter a little harder to give Thuja a more thorough glance. When her gaze landed on the dirty fringes of Thuja’s trousers and her naked feet below that, she made a face. “By the looks of things, you’re not in a position to be picky, anyway. Maybe if someone does get fresh with you in the baths, you can turn that into a handful of silver and afford a proper room.”
Thuja pointed at her own face. “No one’s going to pay for this.”
“Don’t be so sure. Everyone likes something different, and there’s always something for everyone. Remember that! It’s good business sense.” Though her voice had grown softer, she still pointed towards the door. “Now get lost before people think I’m starting a charity over here. You’re stinking up the place.”
But the place already stank. Nearly every patron was nursing a cigar, even though the central Middleland government had sent out a notice the year before that indoor smoking was banned in places that sold distilled spirits. It was a fire hazard, they said—but enforcement was always sparse at night. It was the time when soldiers tended to pull off their uniforms and frequent the bars themselves, and so the law became more of a theory than a practice.
Seeing that she had no choice but to leave the familiar stench behind, Thuja headed towards the curtain that covered the threshold, but as she lifted her hand to raise the flap, a single finger tapped her on the back of the head.
“I’ll pay for that face,” a voice murmured from behind, though it was almost lost in the gust of wind that blew in through the open doorway. It was soft. Its pitch didn’t match any of the robust women that Thuja had noticed sitting at the tables.
When she turned, she was met with a pair of eyes that looked far too awake for the late hour. It made Thuja wonder if the tavern served something other than alcohol after all.
“Come back to my room with me.”
“I…uh….” Thuja was speechless at first. The woman was very beautiful, but this in and of itself only stoked suspicion in her heart. “If you’re planning to lure me somewhere private and rob me, lady, I have nothing of value, as you might already see.”
The stranger’s little smirk deepened. “Don’t sell yourself short. I see a lot of value in you.”
“Well, maybe you need to get those huge eyes of yours checked because—”
The woman had already brushed past her, though—and it seemed that she had decided that Thuja should follow her out the door, because she took her by the arm and yanked her into the dim alleyway outside.
“Hey! You’re too small to be manhandling me, lady.”
“And you’re too big to complain about it.” She was walking briskly, like they had somewhere important to go. She had clasped Thuja’s wrist and her determination alone made Thuja feel a little helpless as they ambled deeper into the shadows. “Are you a woman of the second kind or of the first kind?”
“If you can’t tell just by looking at me, then it’s none of your business,” Thuja spat. She was sick of all the questions from people. She fell between so many of the polar extremes in life—and between so many cracks—that she didn’t want to explain herself anymore. She had spent her whole life explaining.
“Fine, fine. It’s not like it matters. I was just curious to know, since I’ve found it a little hard to tell who is fertile and who is not in this city. Everything is all mixed up.”
“Learn to embrace the mystery, then. And leave me the hell alone; I don’t sell the kinds of services you seem to be looking for.” Thuja managed to wrestle her hand from the woman’s tight grasp. She spun around to face the opposite side of the alley, the side that led to the closest main street, but as she took her first step, she saw that two people were already trudging down the narrow passageway.
They were huge women in soldier’s uniforms, undoing the buttons of their sleeve cuffs, arguing with each other in the Southern dialect. Their steel batons swung from their belts with each hard stride. Thuja could not take her eyes off them. They looked off-duty and hadn’t spotted her yet, but she hadn’t had much luck with authority so far.
Thuja ducked back into the shadows to join the woman who had accosted her. “All right, I’m not going to lie: I could use somewhere to hide for the night, since I’ve been a magnet for trouble lately. But I’m not in the business of selling…private entertainment, so stop asking about it.”
“Good, because that’s not what I wanted at all.”
Thuja tilted her head with curiosity, though her eyes darted back towards the alleyway entrance as she felt the footfalls of the soldiers advancing. “Well, fine,” she said quickly, “but like I told you already, I have nothing else of any worth to give. I’m quite worthless, actually, so if it turns out that you’re lying to me, then you’re asking for a fight.” She grasped the woman’s shoulder and nudged her deeper into the dark, hopeful that the officers might disappear into the tavern, and hopeful that the woman would believe her puffery, too.
It had been a lie, of course. Thuja had never hit anyone in her life—well, except for that one person. Otherwise, the thought alone nauseated her. She hated the sight of blood.
“Do you always talk about yourself like that?” The stranger asked instead. They had walked far enough that the soldiers’ steps had turned faint, and when they passed by the glow of the nearby bathhouse, Thuja stole a glance at her companion’s face.
“I’m only telling you the truth. Don’t insult me with your pity, as if I’m some kind of self-flagellator. I’m not. I’m just a realist.”
“It’s not pity—and if that’s your reality, then maybe you need to craft yourself some new beliefs, my dear.”
“Fine! Let reality change, and then I’ll craft my beliefs to fit, but until then I’ll remain as sober as possible in the face of the truth. My family is already full of drunkards as it is. Someone needs to stay awake for the rest of us.”
“Do you always talk about your family like that, too?”
“Again, you’re treading too close to my business now,” Thuja huffed as they turned a dark corner. “Who are you, anyway?”
The woman didn’t answer. Instead, she led Thuja into a dingy path beside two shuttered buildings, one that ran along a drain leading out from the bathhouse, though the air smelled moist and earthy, cleaner than Thuja would have thought from the piles of litter thrown by. The only lit-up doorway in the narrow side-alley sat at the very end; it belonged to a tiny inn that looked only one story tall. The sign out front read:
1 Hour – 100 Bronze
3 Hours – 200 Bronze
Overnight – 2 Silver
No animals, No criminals, No Northerners
Thuja slowed her trudge. “You claim that you’re not up to anything undignified, but you’re staying in a place where the rent is by the hour and they’re openly prejudiced.”
“Now you’re putting words in my mouth. I never said I had any dignity.”
Dignity or none, the woman’s will was stronger than Thuja’s hesitation, and they rushed through the curtained door into the small lobby. The innkeeper looked up from the front counter as they whipped by. Upon glancing at Thuja’s face, she furrowed her brow and opened her mouth to say something—but Thuja’s new acquaintance carried her along and shouted over her shoulder:
“Relax, she’s my wife.”
Too stunned to say anything, Thuja let herself get caught up in the current until the stranger had pushed past a door down the hall and locked it behind them. When the lights came on, Thuja jerked her gaze around the small room, unsure of what had just happened.
“Did I miss something?” she said, glancing from the bed, to the night table, to the world-worn desk and chair. There was not much else in there. “Did we get married somewhere between the tavern and the inn?”
“Yes, just outside the bathhouse. You don’t remember?” But the woman barely smirked as she pulled out a sack from under the bed and began rummaging with urgency. “You’re from the Northern Middleland, aren’t you? I can tell by your appearance and your accent. So can the innkeeper—she has eyes like a hawk and ears like a fruit bat—but if you’re my wife then it’s against the law for her to kick you out.”
“What if she asks for a marriage certificate?”
“Then I’ll show her the one I’ve got and you can pretend that my wife’s name is yours. I really did marry a Northerner, so the surname and birthplace will be convincing enough—but that’s not even important right now. I need to show you something, and you need to tell me if you can help me.” Seemingly not finding what she was looking for, the woman dumped the contents of her bag on the bed. Most of it was paperwork, but a bright metal container caught Thuja’s eye. She wondered if it might have been a hand-sized tinder box, but when the woman picked it up, she couldn’t hear the jostling of any ash.
“If you’re already married, won’t your wife be bothered that an imposter has taken her place?”
Thuja’s eyes widened. “Oh. I’m sorry, I—”
“No, it’s all right. She left me plenty of wealth, so it’s not like I’m in need. Actually, that’s kind of the problem, you see. She died a year ago, and I have yet to go through all her things, and a lot of them are a real mystery to me.” The woman flipped the lid of the tin box and tipped it in Thuja’s direction. “What do you make of this? I asked around and someone told me that a Northerner would know.”
Thuja peered into the tin box. Even with the relatively low light, she could see the intricate spirals, the familiar abstract carvings. It was the back of a wooden card, the top of a deck. It was varnished and it smelled ancient and it brought back a flood of memories. She hadn’t seen a set of cards like that in years, but she tightened her mouth and did the best she could to hide her surprise.
“I have no idea what those are,” she said. She turned away and sat on the only chair in the room, pulling a crooked cigar from her pocket. “Does it bother you if I smoke in here?”
“You’re not even going to look at them? You barely gave them a glance.”
“I told you, I don’t know what those are, and even if I hypothetically did know, I wouldn’t act like it. Not in a city like this.”
“What do you mean?”
Thuja remembered then that she had run out of matches—and though there was a candle sitting on the nearby desk, it was out—so she sighed and pressed the herbs between her teeth so that she could at least chew on them. It eased her anxiety. “I may be a Northerner, but I was raised right. Both my mothers are very religious and disapprove of any sorcery.”
“Sorcery? It’s a tiny deck of woodblock images with ancient writing on them. It’s art, isn’t it?” The woman turned them over into her hand and began spreading them out, but Thuja stretched across the space to cover them with her palm.
“It strikes me,” Thuja said, snatching all eleven cards out of the woman’s grip and dropping them back into the tin, “that maybe these could be traditional Northern divination cards. People use them in my home town, where a lot of blasphemy is still overlooked, but here in the South it’s illegal. If I were you, I wouldn’t go flashing those around in case one of these idiot soldiers realizes what they are and puts you in confinement.”
The stranger smirked at her. “I thought you said you didn’t know what they were.”
“I don’t. I said it strikes me. It’s just a wild guess, but that could be what they are, and if they are indeed that, then it’s best you shave them up into little pieces and use them as kindling.” Thuja flicked the metal box with her finger. “Actually, that would make a pretty good tinder box. Do you have some flint that I could get a spark with at least?” She looked around the room, but saw that it was nearly empty of belongings and the only place a lighter might have been hiding was the drawer beside her. Turning away from the woman who still questioned her with a glance, she began rummaging through the desk, finding that it was filled only with useless papers.
“Huh. You have some nerve,” the woman said, though she sounded amused.
“What? Are all these yours?” Not finding what she was looking for—as had been the trend for her lately—Thuja shoved the wrinkled sheets back into the drawer and slammed it closed. “Sorry. I figured since this place is more for…temporary accommodations, that you had just showed up tonight. I didn’t realize you’ve been settled in. I’ve intruded in your home.” Thuja began to stand up, but then she saw that a blank sheet of paper had rustled onto the floor. “But if you’re not going to use that one, then can I have it? It looks dry and chewed up by firebrats. I might be able to kindle a flame with it later tonight.”
“Are you that addicted to cigars that you can’t pay attention to anything except finding a light?”
“Addicted? Hardly. I wish I could afford an addiction at a time like this, lady. I haven’t smoked for three months. Mind your own business.” Once again, she stuffed the cigar into her pocket—bending it in a new place accidentally—and she set herself towards the door. “I’ll find a patch of forest somewhere near the city where I can lay for the night. Things are too weird around here.”
But the woman grabbed her by the sleeve. “Stop. Look, I’ll be straight with you: I know what these cards are. I was playing dumb to measure your reaction—and by how much you’re denying it, you’re obviously familiar with them. Now, I don’t know how to use them myself, but I’m willing to pay a lot for someone who does. Do you?”
Thuja had already taken a step towards the door, but the sound of money made her pause mid-stride. Her face twitched. She turned around. “What would you even need to use these for? You’re a Southerner. These solve Northern Middlelander problems, like navigating in the wilderness or dowsing for water in a forest that constantly shifts and changes. They’re not going to help you live life in the pits of a planned city.”
“That’s exactly my problem. I need to go into the wilderness, and I need a diviner who can guide me on my path. I’ve never wandered through the woods in my life.”
“Then why start now?”
The woman let her go, but lifted a finger to tell Thuja to wait. Falling to her knees at the bedside, she grasped around beneath the platform once again and pulled out a small wooden chest. It was not much larger than a suitcase, and since it had a handle at the top, it looked to Thuja like an oversized tackle box—but there was a lock hanging from the front latch.
“What’s in there?”
“It’s a parcel that I need to deliver to a recipient in the South woodlands—somewhere along the river, in the wilderness between here and Samma Valley.”
“Are you insane? Getting lost is the least of your worries, then. That’s dangerous territory near the border. What if a savage crosses over from the Lowerland and attacks you?”
“Someone told me that they never come over to our side.”
“Then someone is an idiot. How can you know that for sure? Just because we’re wary enough not to get cannibalized over the border doesn’t mean that those savages aren’t willing to come meet us on our side. Have some sense. Keep to what you know, and whoever is foolish enough to live in those woods can come to the city and pick up their stuff themselves—whatever it may be.” She waved her hand at the wooden box, but asked again after a pause, “What’s in there, anyway?”
“It’s the key to my inheritance.” The woman sighed and sat heavily on the floor beside it, ignoring Thuja’s look of confusion. “Like I said, my wife left me plenty of money—but there’s a reason I’m staying in a place like this as if I’m some kind of pauper.”
She gestured towards the speckled walls, but to Thuja the place didn’t look much different from home, so she couldn’t find a lot of fault in it.
“When my wife was younger, before we married, she made a fortune from an import venture in the Outerland. As a result, she was quite wealthy, but she was also stingy as all hell because she grew up in poverty. She kept less than twenty percent of her wealth in our home and in small investments, and she squirreled away the rest so that it could never be taxed.”
“I see. Is that what rich people normally do? I don’t know much about money.”
“Neither do I, but I do know it turned out impractical. She wouldn’t even tell me where it was. She kept directions on how to retrieve it locked away in a safe, only to be opened by me in the event of her death. When she died all of a sudden last year, I pored over all her papers, but I couldn’t make sense of the instructions. They were so complicated, it was like trying to solve a riddle, and I wasn’t even allowed any of the wealth unless I complied with her final wishes—which are similarly ridiculous, to the point where I doubt you would believe me if I told you. It involves delivering this wooden chest to a part of the country I’ve never dreamed of going, close to the border of the Lowerland.”
She heaved another deep sigh, but after a moment’s pause, she reached into the pocket of her robes and pulled out a cigar case with a lighter—much to Thuja’s surprise—and she lit up a smoke.
“I realized the truth too late, I guess: I had married an eccentric. After she died, I became addicted to smoking—and you’re right, it’s not very affordable. It’s not the only way I burned through the small stash of money that she kept for me in our house, but it sure didn’t help. Smells awful, too.”
Seeing the glow of that ember, Thuja felt herself sucked in like a moth. She sat down on the floor next to the woman and leaned over with her own cigar, which the woman allowed. Thuja pressed the tip of hers against the burning end of the other, and from that smoldering kiss, she was finally able to draw some life into it.
But as soon as the smoke hit her lungs, she coughed and spat the cigar out of her mouth. She had forgotten how foul it really was. She had forgotten how long it had taken her to get used to it the last time. She could find no pleasure in the taste of it anymore.
The woman laughed at her and pressed a thumb to a spot where some ash had greyed Thuja’s face. “You look young. It’s best to not start a habit like that at the dawn of your life, hm?”
“I’m twenty-one,” Thuja grumbled, “and you don’t look much older than me, so I don’t know why you’re lecturing.”
“Fair enough. We’re almost the same age, then, even if experience has stretched that time for me a bit. I married when I was nineteen and it was only three years before my wife abandoned me for the next life. She was young, too. Older than me, but much too young to die.”
Thuja scratched the back of her head and stared at her discarded cigar, whose tip had already turned black. “Were you close to her?”
The woman’s smile turned sad, a bit nostalgic. “Yes, very much so. Don’t spread this around, of course, but I was absolutely crazy about her, even though it was an arranged marriage. I had to hide my excitement when my mothers told me who they had chosen, because I had been eyeing her for a couple of years before we were formerly introduced. I know it’s not typical, but I wanted to do everything with her—spend every hour working beside her, tend to the garden together, bathe together, sleep in the same bed, everything. And she allowed it. She was never cold to my advances. She was very pleased with me.”
“Yes, it was. So when she died, it was like the Goddess had reached into my chest and ripped out my heart. But you know how cold we Southern Middlelanders can be: I had to hide my sorrow from my family. I had to pretend that all I cared about was money and processing the paperwork. Sure, it’s not strange to have some affection for one’s wife, but they never would have understood that I was in love with her, that I was heartbroken after only three years. It would have made them gravely uncomfortable. For us, such feelings are seen to be almost incestuous.”
“It’s not too different in the Northern Middleland, to be honest. My mothers set me up with a neighbor’s daughter when I was born and it was awkward for a long time. She was a good match, though, once I got to know her. We grew up together, so after a time we were like family. It’s kind of a shame, but I had to break off the engagement eventually for…other reasons.”
Thuja ignored the woman’s curious expression and instead reached for the deck of cards that her new acquaintance still held. The tin container was warm. She ran her fingers over the embossed etchings in the wood, triggering a few more memories, but when her thumb brushed against the side of the stranger’s hand accidentally, she pulled back again.
“Look,” Thuja said, “I can’t help you. I’m not a diviner. The only reason I even know what these are is because I was a mapmaker, and we work with diviners to scout new territory. Even if I knew how to use the cards, it doesn’t work with just one person like that. Northern-style divine navigation happens in a triad of three people. It can’t be done differently.”
“Yes, there are three roles: The channel, who summons a raw mental picture of the surroundings; the diviner, who makes sense of what the channel has seen and advises on the best step forward using the cards; and the mapmaker, who solidifies what the diviner has determined and plots the course forward. The mapmaker will also ask the channel specific questions to better focus the entire group, and so the process goes in an unbroken circle. You can’t do without any of the components. They are specialized roles that require training and you don’t just happen upon people like this casually.”
“I happened upon you, didn’t I?” The stranger placed her deck of cards softly on the floor, then pressed her cigar tip on the edge of the bed platform until it died in its own smoke. She was acting like she was getting ready to stand up. “My wife’s will was very clear about one thing: I was to locate a diviner and use these cards to navigate to the recipient of her parcel. This was her final wish. After I deliver it, the receiver is supposed to give me directions to my wife’s wealth as payment. I will share the inheritance with you if you help. Just tell me: Where do we find your two counterparts? Do you know a diviner who can use these cards, at least?”
Thuja started shaking her head before the woman had even finished. “It’s an ancient art that has fallen into disuse for a long time now. I only know one diviner our age who would be strong enough to trudge through woods, and she left our hometown a year ago, and I have no idea where she is now.” Thuja made a face. “Besides, even if I knew, we don’t get along very well. People who are quarreling can’t do this kind of work together. It takes a lot of trust, which I don’t have anymore.”
The woman stared at her for a long time. “What on Earth happened to you?” she finally asked.
“If it’s not already clear, I’d rather not talk about it. I’d rather not think about it.” She glanced over her shoulder to face the door again, then began to stand up. “I came to the city for a reason, and I’m not about to stray from that intention to get lost in the wilderness again.”
The stranger did not stop Thuja from shuffling towards the exit, but before she was out of arm’s length, she did offer her a parting gift: “Here,” she said, holding up a match, “in case you change your mind about which addictions you can afford.”
Thuja did not thank her, but she was careful not to slam the door too hard on the way out.
To be continued…