Rule – Ellen Goodlett

Zofi woke to the sound of her mother’s voice, louder than usual. She squinted at the tent interior. She’d been sharing it with her mother for the last two months, unable to sleep on her own. She saw blood every time she shut her eyes. “Can you tell me why you’re looking for her?” Mother said. Something rustled. Parchment? “All this says is we’re to bring Deena’s only daughter back with us to the capital,” a man replied. He had an accent. Something almost… Kolonyan. “You’re Deena. Can you tell us where she is?” Zofi bolted upright, shredding any last cobwebs of sleep. Sands. That had to be a Talon. Mother ignored the question. “This is highly unusual,” she said, just outside the tent.

“It’s the king’s request.” His voice grew quieter. Mother was leading him away. Buying time. Zofi shouldered her rucksack, an escape bag Mother had packed two months ago. The night Zofi brought this death sentence down on her head. Stall them, Zofi prayed as she drew her longknife and cut a slit in the rear of the tent. The Talons would be watching the front. Outside, the frigid night air of the Glass Desert stung her lungs. She breathed in deep anyway to clear her head.

If she could make it over the dunes, she could hole up in the crags, scavenge lizards for food, and gouge cacti for water. The desert would keep her safe for a few days, so long as she could reach it. For that, she needed speed. Zofi pressed the longknife to her forearm. The moment the blade broke skin, Zofi’s eyes closed, her senses turning inward. Every vein in her body lit up like a map in her mind’s eye. She watched her heart contract to drive blood through those veins, carrying air and nutrients throughout her body. Air, nutrients, and something else. An extra spark, drawn into her body via the cut she just made in her arm. The Blood Arts.

Describing the Arts to someone who had never tithed was as impossible as explaining an extra sense. The Arts tasted green, smelled like adrenaline, sounded cold. They first appeared in the Reaches four centuries ago, and no one outside this continent could tap into them. But for natives of the Reaches like Zofi—and, unfortunately, the Talons hunting her—the Arts made superhuman feats possible. Tonight Zofi harnessed that cold green adrenaline like threading a mental needle. It took concentration, willpower—some people whispered incantations as they did it, but that wasn’t necessary, just a trick to assist your brain. All you really needed to know to tithe was the anatomy of your body and the lengths to which you could push it. What your blood, your heart, your lungs, and your veins looked like when you strained them to the max. Zofi had done this often enough not to need any words. She held all the potential of the Arts in her mind and channeled it into one purpose, one command.

Watched her blood vessels expand the way they had so many times before, absorbing more air, flooding more power to her limbs. She opened her eyes. The world looked different. Sand hovered around her ankles. Mother’s and the Talon’s voices, still audible on the far side of the tent, sounded impossibly slow, as though they spoke through mouthfuls of molasses. A fly hung suspended at her elbow, wings moving a fraction of their normal speed. Of course, it only looked that way to Zofi. Because in reality, the world hadn’t slowed. She’d gotten faster. Zofi sprinted toward the dunes, feet barely grazing the sand.

In seconds, she crossed a hundred yards of desert to reach the base of the first dune. She leaped onto it, hands and feet darting from one handhold to another while the sand melted away beneath her. Halfway up, she checked over her shoulder for signs of pursuit. Three moons illuminated the landscape. Nox and Essex, the first two moons, hung overhead. Syx dangled at the horizon like a globe fruit. Glacie, the little oasis town they’d camped outside of, loomed in the background—a perfect circle of palm trees and thatch-roofed buildings. And in front of the town was the Travelers’ camp—several dozen tents around twin bonfires. A few members of her band still huddled beside the glowing coals, even though dinner ended hours ago. Up late swapping stories, a favorite Traveler pastime.

For a moment, Zofi’s heart ached. She grew up in this band, moving every few weeks, drifting around the outer Reaches. Her band was her family—more than family, they were home. The only home she’d ever known. She didn’t want to leave. Yet if she stayed, she risked bringing the Talons’ wrath down on everyone, not just herself. Focus. She scanned the camp. Two Traveler watchmen pretended to doze alongside the road. Another was positioned to watch the oasis itself—because even here, in a town that told Mother they didn’t mind Travelers, they still needed to be careful.

It took only one superstitious idiot raving about how Travelers ate babies to turn a whole village hateful. They’d learned that the hard way. Next to the roadside watchmen, the Talons’ wagon was parked. Two draft horses were yoked to the wagon, with three more grazing around its wheels. But only one Talon sprawled on top of it, smoking. Where were the others? Her veins itched. She only had a minute or two before this tithe wore off. Mother will handle the Talons. Zofi’s job now was to get as far from camp as possible. She spun around to continue climbing.

How did they find her? More important, if they’d come for her, what happened to Elex? He’d never give her up. Not willingly. They’d have to torture a confession from him. Stop thinking. Emotions would slow her down. Ten feet to the peak of the dune. Her fingertips tingled—the tithe was fading. The Arts could make a person stronger, faster, immune to harm, but only for a time. Once a tithe wore off, your blood needed time to rebuild before you could tithe again. Unless you knew the Travelers’ secret.

Zofi’s fingertips grazed her rucksack. Five glass phials—boosts as she called them—were tucked inside. If necessary, she could keep this sprint going. Though she’d rather not if she could help it. Sands knew she might need those boosts later. As she hauled herself onto the peak of the dune, the last of the tithe trickled out of her veins. Her muscles slowed back to normal speed. It left her limbs shaky, her body sore. That’s when a rope snagged her waist. “You Travelers,” a man said.

“So predictable.” Zofi flung her arms wide to stop the rope from cinching tighter. The attacker tugged, and she skidded toward him across the dune’s peak. He’d been crouched on the far side, waiting. She had sprinted right into the trap. Stupid. She should’ve stayed on flat ground, run away from the road. No time for regrets. She raised her arms and threw off the rope. The Talon stepped toward her, and she swung at his face.

He blocked the hit with his forearm, her hand crunching painfully against his bone. “Whoa, calm down.” He lifted his palms in surrender. Zofi punched him in the nose. He clapped a hand to his face. “Bloody drifters—” He broke off as she kicked his knee. Only then did he shove her backward. She stumbled, teetered on the edge of the mountain of sand. Then she eyed the drop, thoughtful. It wasn’t that steep.

If she caught the sand at a roll, it’d be no more painful than skidding down a snowy slope in the Dawn Mountains. “I’m trying to help,” he said. Zofi jumped off the dune. With a frustrated yell, the Talon dove after. They rolled in a blur of leather and limbs. Sand filled Zofi’s mouth, her eyes, her ears. At the bottom, the Talon landed hard on top of her, driving the air from her lungs. She reached for her boosts. Sands. The rucksack was gone.

She glanced back and spotted it halfway up the dune. “Listen.” The Talon climbed to his feet, palms extended. “King Andros sent me.” In the triple moonlight, he looked Kolonyan through and through, from his rich brown skin to his broad, regal nose. He also looked young. For a split second, she felt a pang of something like guilt. Could she do this again? She must. He was in the way. He smiled, mistaking her hesitance for surrender.

“I don’t bite.” Zofi drew her longknife and leaped to her feet in one fluid motion. “I do.” Then a pinprick bit into her chest, no more painful than a bug bite. An instant too late, she spotted a second, older Talon a few yards away, a blow tube to his lips. Poison. She grasped at the dart. Next, nothing. Zofi was on a ship. Zofi was a ship.

She rolled with the waves, sailed through an empty black sky devoid of stars. Sometimes the sky spoke. It sounded like Elex. Elex, who’d finally kissed her, his lips soft and perfect and everything she’d ever wanted. Right before he took the fall for her sins. She reached for him but the ocean tore them apart. The world swam. She was drowning, vomiting seawater, the sky black then twilight then black again. Finally, after what felt like years, one particularly hard wave threw her body against solid wood. Then she heard the rattle of wheels, the trot of hooves, and it all came flooding back, too much too fast: the desert, the Talons, the chase across the dunes.

The poisoned dart. She wasn’t in a ship at all. She was in a carriage. Zofi sat up so fast her forehead struck an armrest. She groaned and doubled over. “Aim for this.” Someone nudged a metal bucket under her chin. A surge of nausea rocked through her. Zofi heaved, but her stomach felt wrung dry. Nothing came up.

“Motion sickness. At least you slept through the worst of it.” She cracked one eyelid, then recoiled. Sitting across from her was the Talon from the dunes. She grabbed her belt. Alas, her longknife was gone, the scabbard empty. He sighed. “You were out for three days. I’m sorry. My superior only used the phantasm venom because he thought you were about to stab me.

” I was, she thought. Aloud, she said, “Phantasm venom?” Her voice came out scratchy and thin. She licked her cracked lips. “How am I alive?” The Talon’s mouth quirked. “It’s only lethal in large doses. The darts we carry merely render our opponents unconscious. No lasting damage, though again, I’m sorry we had to resort to it.” None of this made sense—a shot that wasn’t meant to kill, a Talon apologizing to a Traveler. “Where are you taking me?” “We’re almost there.” He drew aside the window curtain.

Zofi’s eyes widened, and she leaned forward to press her nose against the glass pane. A child of the deserts and the ocean, Zofi had never seen a jungle. Trees with trunks as fat as the carriage towered overhead. Vines twined through the branches, interspersed with flashes of color—fruit or birds, she couldn’t tell. Thanks to the thick canopy, it was dark as twilight on the forest floor. Humans, birds, and monkeys all chattered so loudly that Zofi wondered how she’d ever slept at all. This must be the merchants’ road—the main artery of the Reaches. It ran from the Northern deserts down through the Ageless Jungle. Farmers trundled past, pulling handcarts laden with fruit and abraca beans. Passersby wore kaleidoscopes of color—red and pink tunics, green and blue pants.

Even the occasional passing Northerners wearing full-body robes were sporting bright fabric rather than the traditional black dress you’d see in the oasis towns. Most people looked like the Talon next to her. Tall, lean, muscular, with oval faces and smooth brown hair either drawn back in buns or cut sharp at their chins, making their high cheekbones stand out even more. Their skin was deep brown, almost the same shade as hers. Otherwise they looked nothing alike. Nobody here had her black tumbleweed hair, her narrow face or small features. And she was about a foot shorter than everyone. She stood out. A passing merchant caught her eye through the window and held up his fingers in a warding sign, teeth bared, as though she were a demon. Zofi bared her teeth right back and felt a tiny surge of pleasure when he jumped away, startled.

There was no doubt where they were headed. The Ageless Jungle sprawled across the Reaches, beginning at the Dawn Mountains in the east and petering out in the Western swamps. Right at its heart, where the jungle grew densest, stood Kolonya City, capital of Kolonya, the Central Reach. The only Reach that mattered anymore. Her stomach rolled again, not from motion sickness this time. “If I’m under arrest, you have to tell me why. That’s the law.” The Talon actually laughed. Bastard. Then he rapped on the ceiling.

“You aren’t under arrest, Zofi. You needn’t worry about some petty theft accusation.” Zofi frowned. Petty theft? Mother. She must have invented a story to explain why Zofi had run from the Talons. If they didn’t know about her actual crime, they would have wanted to know why she was acting so guilty. But if the Talons didn’t know what she’d really done, then why had she been summoned? “Is she safe?” Zofi finally replied, after a careful hesitation. “My mother.” “Deena is fine. She said to remember her counseling, whatever that means.

” Zofi knew. It had been all they’d talked about for the last two months. What to do if the consequences of her actions ever caught up with her. Play their game. The carriage jolted to a halt and the door burst open, startling her. The older Talon, the one who’d poisoned her, rode outside, two stallions in tow. “Now that you’re awake, we can ride,” said the young Talon. “I thought you might prefer that.” The older one offered a hand. Zofi ignored him and climbed into the larger stallion’s saddle.

Outside, the jungle noise doubled. Even from horseback, she was drawing stares—some curious, others outright hostile. She lifted her chin, ignored the passing mutters of “drifter” and “curseworker.” Zofi had heard every insult out there by now. They rolled off her skin like raindrops. “Bat wings!” cried a shopkeep. Dried pieces of meat, half of which she’d never seen before, dangled from the eaves of his vine-woven store roof. Zofi grimaced. “Do people really eat those?” The younger Talon laughed. “You’d be surprised.

Bat wing is pretty tasty.” Zofi was still contemplating how desperate someone had to have been to eat the first bat when they rounded a bend in the road. Ahead, the jungle fell away. Suddenly, Zofi forgot about the Talons, why the king wanted her. She forgot about everything because, sands alive. All the ballads and poems in the world did not prepare her for this view. In the center of a vast clearing stood Kolonya City. One thousand ancient trees, grown trunk to trunk, fused into a solid brown living wall around it. At its foot lapped the River Leath. Ten stories above, the trees’ dark canopy masked the strongwall behind them, the city’s true defense.

Soldiers patrolled the strongwall in leather armor. Beyond the wall, the ten towers of Ilian Keep pierced the sky. Each one was carved from different colored stonewood, from beech-white to deep ebony. The colors glowed in the sun, resplendent. Zofi had spent her whole life moving around. By now, she’d seen every other city in the Reaches. None compared. Thousands of people flowed in and out of the city gate—more people than drops of water in the river, it seemed. It was the kind of place that could swallow a person whole. Yet despite the danger those walls held, Zofi could not help admitting: It was beautiful.

“First time?” the young Talon asked. “The view always surprises new visitors.” Zofi scowled. She hated letting him see anything, even inadvertently. Instead of replying, she spurred her horse. He kept pace as the road wound through fields of wheatgrass, chatting away the whole while. “You know, after the Reaches won their independence from Genal four hundred years ago, King Ilian himself seeded this wall. The trees have stood all these centuries, proof our city hasn’t been assailed since. ‘A crown for our body’s beating heart.’” Zofi cast him a sideways glance.

She’d read The History, for sands’ sake. Mother made sure of that—educated her the same way any Kolonyan girl would have been. So you know exactly what the world thinks about people like us. “Personally, I find it telling that King Ilian dubbed Kolonya ‘the heart of the Reaches’ just before he set about conquering the other four,” she replied. The young Talon blinked in surprise. “We didn’t conquer the other Reaches. The kings and queens of the four outer Reaches elected King Ilian of Kolonya to serve—” “After the Second War, as a provisional ruler should the need to fight Genal arise again,” Zofi interrupted. “As you just said, it’s been four hundred years since Ilian’s reign. How provisional does that sound?” “You’re forgetting the part where we have spent all those years fighting Genal.” Zofi shrugged one shoulder.

“On and off. Often with decades of peace between. Besides, Kolonya City and her unassailed walls aren’t exactly the ones suffering.” Zofi had seen the wreck the Seventh War made of the Eastern Reach just last year. “The outer Reaches are our body, our front line of defense,” the Talon replied. Zofi scoffed. “Ever ask those body parts how they feel about being disposable limbs?” “I don’t know why you despise Kolonya—” “I might be angry because the king sent anonymous minions to kidnap me, drug me, and drag me against my will to this sands-blasted city,” she snapped. Then she winced. Play their game, Mother had warned. Arguing with a Talon was hardly playing smart.

“Vidal,” he said. Zofi frowned. “What?” “My name is Vidal. Now I’m no longer an anonymous minion.” He tried for a smile, which only deepened her frown. It was more irritating when he acted nice. “We didn’t mean to drug you. You’ve got the wrong idea—the king intended to invite you here, not drag you.” “Whatever he intended, I was dragged. And you’ve yet to explain why.

” “Ask them.” Vidal nodded ahead. Zofi realized with a start that they’d reached the city gate. The bridge under the portcullis was crammed with farmers, merchants, and visitors. But in the center, parting the crowd like a dagger, was another carriage, bright gold. The stormwing crest of King Andros glittered on its doors. The carriage halted before them. An impeccably dressed serving lady opened the door from within. “Lady Zofi. I’ve come to escort you to Ilian Keep.

” Lady? That one word gave her more pause than anything else she’d yet heard.

.

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