Bitter tears rose in Ink’s eyes, obscuring her vision. She trailed behind Phoenix and the servant who had just bought them, willing herself not to burst into tears.
“Come on, pull yourself together. You know Phoenix must be hurting too, but she’s certainly not showing it,” she told herself, even as a few more tears rolled down her face. Through the short fringe of her hair, she watched as her friend asked the servant another question about their master, Prince something or another.
Master! Ink’s hands moved instinctively towards the black collar. She choked back a sob. She rubbed her eyes, trying to force away the tears.
Raven was gone, serving under another master. She remembered him pale with fever after pushing himself working so hard to save his sister and her, putting himself last. Phoenix had told her what to do, using her knowledge of healing, self-taught because Raven often got hurt. She frowned, remembering how furious he looked when he saw her trapped, with him and Phoenix.
“Ink, are you okay? You look pale.” Phoenix looked like nothing like her brother. If he was night, then she was fire. But their voices were similar, deep and slightly husky. Only in anger did they change, Raven’s deepening with barely suppressed rage while Phoenix’s scaled octaves with her rising anger.
“Sorry. Do you mean paler than normal or what?” Stupid self, rambling in her mind about voices while Phoenix and the servant watched her twitching, tearful face.
“Yes.” Phoenix tried to smile at Ink’s joke but it never quite reached her eyes.
“Just upset, I guess,” Ink said, shooting the servant a nasty look. He pretended not to notice.
“Well, we’re here.” Phoenix gestured to a large, but otherwise modest, house. She mentally compared it to the Feos home. Much more simple, she eventually decided. On the outside, at least. They entered the front door, but immediantly cut to a small greeting hall. Here, the floor looked like sand, but it didn’t shift around their feet, between their toes, like normal sand.
“Do you like it?”
She jumped, Phoenix jumped, even the servant jumped. A man, only slightly taller than her, stood in the entrance, a smile playing on his lips. Was this their new master?
“Viern, you’re dismissed.” The servant bowed low before leaving the girls to their fate, whatever that would be. The handsome young man turned to them. “Are you two my new servants?” he asked pleasantly.
“In a sense,” Phoenix answered. Ink tasted something metallic in her mouth, probably blood. She didn’t speak, letting Phoenix take over. “Who might you be, sir?” She was keeping her tone respectful, but her voice was husky. Ink found her hand and gripped it. She felt her fingers be squeezed gratefully.
“Oh, of course. Please excuse me. I’m not at the best of health ,” he inclined his head slightly. “I’m Caspia Amaranth. Welcome to my home.”
Phoenix gave a little gasp, clenching Ink’s hand tightly. Amaranth was the name of the oasis. That meant this prince was the heir to the crown! The prince was now inspecting them carefully. Phoenix found her voice.
“Uhm, well, I’m Phoenix Feos and this is my friend Ink.” She stood straight, except for the slight incline of her head, denoting respect. To their surprise, Caspia began to laugh. “What?” Her voice was sharp. She didn’t like being laughed at.
“I’m sorry,” he said, coughing a little to clear his throat, “but this is truly ironic.”
“How?” Ink still wasn’t speaking. It seemed she had swallowed her tongue.
Caspia motioned them to sit on the frozen sand, which was cool to touch. “Like it?” he asked again, “my father said it’s made from stone from the other side of the Forest.”
Phoenix ignored his diversion, “How is it ironic a Feos should come here, even as a slave?”
He sighed and crossed his legs carefully, like he was in pain. “Well, that is a great majority of the reason. I’ve never met a Feos that was too proud to be found in this situation. Most of the time they commit suicide.” He paused, looking thoughtful.
Phoenix blushed angrily. “I apologize for not following my ancestors’ footsteps, but I had Ink and my brother to worry about.”
The attack didn’t startle Caspia. “I’m sorry if I offended you,” he said before continuing, “The second part of this is that, recently we received a message from your homestead to my father.”
“Letter?” Phoenix asked, her brow creased with worry. Ink was staring at the floor, trying to make a pattern from the different colored dots in the floor.
“Yes. It said something along the lines of how his son kidnapped his sister and his slave, and, if we were to see you three, then could we please return you all.” Caspia looked at them, face blank as paper. Ink peered up at him, wondering what was about to happen.
“What was the reply?”
Caspia shrugged carelessly. “We didn’t send one. Didn’t think we’d ever see you three.”
“What about now?” Phoenix crossed her arms, releasing Ink’s hand. She watched the prince with wary eyes.
“I don’t know,” Caspia suddenly smiled, “Where exactly is Raven?”
Phoenix and Ink jerked painfully at the name. “Wha—how—?” Phoenix spluttered.
“How do you know his name?”
“Oh!” Caspia jumped, “You can talk!”
She glowered at him. “Of course I can. Now will you please answer my question?”
"Oh, um, of course." Caspia blinked away his surprise. "I saw him when he traveled here with his father. He always looked miserable."
"That's because our father beat him." The edge in her voice was back, "For nothing or because of me." Ink heard Phoenix's voice tremble. Caspia seemed to notice it too. He motioned for a servant, hidden in the shadows, to step forward.
"Could you take these girls to their rooms?" he asked, "and also, please take their collars off."
"Yes sir." The maid turned towards the two grief-stricken friends. "Please follow me." Phoenix and Ink trailed after her to a smaller hall that dead-ended into a garden. Gently, the older woman removed their collars and motioned them to the doors that led to their rooms before bowing and disappearing.
"Hey, did you see her hair, Ink?" She shook her head, staring at the floor with empty, distant black eyes. Phoenix resisted the urge to scream. "Look at me." The girl obeyed, but it was obvious her focus was elsewhere, somewhere deep inside. Phoenix pulled the tremulous girl into a rough hug, stroking her soft hair. "Don't worry. He'll find us. He always did."
Unsoothed, Ink pulled away. "Until now." She left a dumbstruck Phoenix in the hallway, barely taking note of the room she had entered. There was a basin of water; she bent to wash her face of the grime stuck to it and her bangs. Finished, she discovered a small chest filled with fresh clothes. After pulling some on, she crawled into the bed, staring at the sand-washed walls that surrounded her. When she had finally fallen asleep, she was curled into a miserable ball, tears running freely down her cheeks.
Dawn broke sometime later and Ink awoke thinking Raven was beside her, running his fingers through her hair like he liked to do. She lay still for a moment, her mind and body not wanting to remember the events of the past day, but, eventually, reality broke over her. It wasn't--couldn't--be Raven. Jerking her head back, she hit the other's wrist back nearly hard enough to break it.
"Stop!" She blinked away the sleep in her eyes, recognizing the intruder as the maid from the day before.
"I'm sorry, miss," the maid bowed again, keeping her head and eyes lowered. Ink sat up, studying the other intensely. The woman looked double her age, her heavy golden hair streaked with gray.
"Why did you come in my room?" Ink asked, toes brushing against the cold tile floor. The other raised her head slightly.
"I have a daughter about your age. Or maybe I should say had. I lost her when she was barely more than a baby." The woman knelt, pulling something from under the bed. "I'm from one of the mountain villages, one called the Hidden Village. Do you know of that place?"
"Yes." Ink curled her toes, waiting for her to continue. The hole in her chest ached. "What about it?"
"That is where I am from. The village is hidden because of our talents."
"I know of Inkweavers," Ink interrupted, "Are there more?"
"Many. Any skill one is born with that can be honed to a specialty is considered a weaving." She pulled the wrapping off what she had drug from under the bed. "I am called Akira, a charcoalweaver." She handed Ink the dark canvas she had unwrapped.
Ink barely had to glance at the picture to realize the truth, but Akira, never looking up, didn't notice the sudden change in the girl. She continued talking, "Her name was-is-Kaia. I drew this right before she was kidnapped."
"Akira." The soft tone in Ink's voice made the maid look up in surprise. Her eyes were the color of smudged charcoal, a shade lighter than Ink's own. It was like a thundershock went through her as realization struck. She flung out her arm's and caught the girl in a tearful hug.
"Kaia, my daughter! My daughter!"
Ink, now known by her real name as Kaia, slid to the floor under her mother's grasp. She was crying too, silently. She had found one missing link of her life, only to have another taken away merely hours-hours?-before.
Mother and daughter spent every waking moment together, Akira relating tales of Kaia's childhood for all to hear. Some of the other servants shook their heads, obviously having heard these stories countless times before, but most rejoiced with the virtually inseparable pair. Phoenix, respecting the newly found bonds between the two, only introduced herself properly as Kaia's future sister-in-law before leaving them alone. She spent the great majority of her time with the prince, who, as it turned out, was sickly and had frequent seizures. Time passed quickly for the four of them. Kaia's hair was over her shoulders, four moons growth, before she could bring herself to think about Raven.
It was overcast now, meaning soon it would rain, bringing the water the desert and its inhabitants so despertely needed. It was a time of celebration and rebirth, and the city was preparing for the annual festival of thanksgiving. All hearts rejoiced, save for Kaia's.
She had taken leave of her mother and was setting up her inks, a special set the prince had given her because she had lost her old ones. She was pulling up one of the soft, creamy white sheets to fasten into place when she remembered the robbers, how they had broken several precious flasks of colored inks when they had pulled her down, roughly shoving her into a moldy old sack--
"Oh, why'd I have to go and think of that again!" She quickly wiped her eyes, before her tears could ruin the paper. Once under control, she dipped a pin into her black flask, by far the largest, and began to sketch. She could draw in the shape of the face, the sweep of hair, but when she went to the eyes, her memory failed. "Oh." She turned away, tears reforming in her eyes as she strived to remember his face. The flask tipped and spilled onto his unfinished portrait. She ignored the spilt ink and climbed onto the bed, burrowing her face deep into her pillow.
"R-raven, where are you?" she cried out, biting her lower lip in a failing attempt to keep from screaming. It rose in the back of her throat and she buried her face even deeper. She felt the same pain as before, but a little sharper. She couldn’t take it anymore. Actually making the decision made her feel slightly better. She cleaned up the mess and fell asleep slowly, her mind already making the preparations in her head.
“You want to travel to the mountains to find Raven?” Caspia asked. Kaia nodded silently, smoothing the hem of her tunic nervously. Phoenix was sitting near the prince, staring open-mouthed at the girl, and Akira dropped a heavy tray with a crash.
“Lord, may I speak?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned to talk to her daughter, “Kaia, please reconsider your plan. You are not yet full grown and there are many miles between here and the mountains, with many robbers in between.”
“Akira, I understand why you are in distress,” Caspia interrupted quickly, his decision apparently already made, “That is why you she is not going alone. Three of my men are going with her, as well as yourself.”
“What?” All three females turned to look at him in surprise.
“Akira, you can guide Kaia and my men to the Hidden Village, since if Raven had made it to the mountains, they have probably heard of him. “ He stood as straight as his thin and weakened frame would allow, “No arguments. You two will leave in three days. I shall go personally pick the three men to send with you.” He turned and left the room with a slight bow. Phoenix embraced Kaia quickly.
“Thank you,” she said as she released the other girl, “I’m sorry that I can’t go with you.”
Kaia gave a slight grin, “Don’t worry. I’ll be coming back, with Raven. Meanwhile, you best behave yourself with the prince.” Phoenix blushed and gave a guilty grin.
“He has seizures, so I’m trying to help him,” she replied, a little too hastily. Kaia just gave her a satisfied, knowing smile. She turned to talk to her mom, but Akira had already disappeared.
“Guess I’m going to head back to my room. Go find the prince. He has a thing for you as well.” She left, leaving her door open as she dug her inks back out. With a brush and piece of canvas, she began to paint, using black slightly diluted with water from her basin.
“Kaia, are you busy?”
She jumped, nearly tipping the flask over again. “Um, no, just a minute.” Moving her jars to the floor, she hid the canvas and stood to see Akira carrying a large bundle of cloth.
“If you’re going to the Hidden Village, you aren’t going to be ignorant and dressed like a desert man.”
“What’s wrong with my clothes?” She looked at the tunic she was wearing. It was one of Raven’s, the last thing she had of his. It was marked with his insignia is dark brown on one shoulder.
“Our people are deeply rooted in tradition and don’t take lightly to change. There are too many rules for you to learn them all, so we’ll have to go with the basics and hope for the best. Hopefully, you’ll be accepted without too much trouble. Now, I’m going to make you a dress.” Akira shifted the cloth in her arms.
“A dress?” Kaia panicked, “I’ve never worn a dress before! How am I supposed to walk in one?” Even as she spoke, Akira draped the cloth over the bed. Kaia stared at it in silent awe. It was finely spun, a dark grey that seemed to change in the light.
“Stand still so I can measure you.” Kaia obeyed, holding her arms out and trying not to blush at her mother’s comments, like: “Dear child, no wonder this boy is smitten with you! Just look at the size of your chest!” After the measurements were measurements were transcribed to a scrap of paper, Kaia got her first lesson in Weaver etiquette.
Three days passed rather swiftly in a mirage of cloth, sharp commands to stand straighter, and charts of hierarchy. The small group left without much ceremony, for the rains had begun, distracting the whole desert kingdom. Kaia and Phoenix had a brief dance in the rain, shrieking as the icy fat raindrops ran under their tunics and drenched their faces and hair. It was raining so hard that Phoenix couldn’t tell that her friend was crying as well as laughing.
Kaia continued her lessons on the road; slowly an image of the villagers formed in her mind. Arrogant and aloof, the men and women kept mostly to themselves in the two or three small mountain villages as well as their unofficial capital known as the Hidden Village. They shied away from curious onlookers, keeping themselves independent from any country.
She practiced her manners at night, wearing the dress or tunics her mother had made. She was clumsy at first, but it was like another hidden skill she long had, but had grown rusty from lack of use. By the time she had reached an acceptable level, they were at the foothills of the Border Mountains. The ground, sheltered from the withering sun by the columns of imposing grey stone, was much cooler than the sand, so they rested in the longed for shade.
“Akira, how much longer until we reach the village?” Kaia asked as she unfolded her body from the kneeling position she had been practicing.
“Not too much longer.” The soldiers followed the older woman’s movements, standing and grabbing the camels’ leads. They began to walk again, watching as the valley they had entered was growing steadily narrower. Akira suddenly stopped and turned.
“Nacisa, is that you?” she called out, her eyes locked on a little cliff further ahead.
“Akira?” a low, obviously feminine voice exclaimed, bouncing off the walls and echoing. A shadowy figure leapt from the cliff to the ground, transforming into the figure of a woman around the same age as Akira. “It is you! Only you could tell where I was when I was shadoweaving!” The two embraced like old friends. “Where did you disappear?”
“I told you, I had to find my daughter.” Akira sounded reproachful.
“Did you?” Nacisa looked past Akira to fasten on Kaia’s face. “Yes! Little Kaia, look how much you’ve grown!” She pulled the girl close into a tight hug.
“Um, hello?” Kaia shifted her head so she could look at Caspia’s men. They were staring at them in shock, mouths agape.
“Nacisa, Kaia can’t remember anything from before she was kidnapped.” Akira pulled her daughter back to her, hugging her close to her, protectively. Nacisa nodded understandingly and turned to motion them further into the canyon.
So they entered the village, Nacisa and Akira talking like old gossips, Kaia following behind silently and their guards even more slowly, leading the placid camels in astounded silence. Nacisa had already asked if they were trustworthy and found them satisfactory.
The village consisted of thatched huts grouped in circles around a clearing. One such building was much larger than the others and served as a meetinghouse. Further back there were stone huts, where livestock were kept. There were three dirt paths, including the one they were on, that led out of the village. They were completely surrounded by the mountains.
“Okay,” Nacisa began, “We have to—Hey! Kaia, stop!”
“Sorry!” Kaia called back, running ahead to the larger hut. She was grimy and dirty from over a week of travel across the desert, but she couldn’t wait. If she waited, she’d never see him again, her line of thought went. So she had to see him now.
“Excuse me!” She tried to avoid running into a girl that had just come out of the house, sliding into the open door. Once she came to a stop, she knelt in the way she’d been practicing.
“Stand up.” To her surprise, the voice not only came from behind her but was young. She obeyed, keeping her head tilted and eyes lowered in respect. “Who are you and why are you here?”
Kaia raised her eyes slightly so she could look at the other without being noticed. She blinked. It was the girl from barely a moment before. “My name is Kaia. I’m an Inkweaver. I was kidnapped when I was younger and forced to be a slave. My owner’s son and daughter set me free and we ran off together, but we were caught a few moons ago and sold back into slavery and separated. I’ve come here to fulfill our promise to meet in the mountains so he can meet my mother and we can marry.” Her voice caught on the last part; she prayed the other girl hadn’t heard the change. A slow blush spread over her face from her neck. She fumbled as she reached to unclip something from her belt and unrolled it. “This is a sketch of him.”
It had taken her days to recall every detail that she had painstakingly copied, trying to make her picture look as real as possible.
The girl glanced at the sketch, before speaking in a regal and bored voice. “You seem to have no knowledge of our customs, but that can be placed on ignorance due to slavery. So, I’ll grant what you so obviously desire. About three months ago, a stranger stumbled across our village, asking for a girl named Ink. There was no one here by the name, so we locked him up, trying to figure out who he is.”
“I can’t remember my past, so my former master called me Ink, for my talent. Please, may I go see him?” She worked hard to keep the pleading tone out of her voice but a bit of her hope and want crept in anyway.
“I already said yes. My name is Sedayne, by the way. I’m a shadoweaver.” Sedayne led Kaia to the back of the meetinghouse, where there was a tiny little hut, barely better then a dirty hovel. It was guarded by two men with dark blue eyes, not green or black like shadoweavers or inkweavers.
“Stand down please, Eric, Benji.” The two obeyed the girl, allowing Sedayne to unlock the door. It swung slightly inwards as she stepped back. “Go on inside.”
“Thank you,” Kaia whispered, turning towards the door. It scraped through the dirt as she pulled it outwards. Blinking to adjust her eyes to the light, she noticed a shadow on the floor. A pair of dark eyes stared up at her in startled recognition.
“Ink?” His voice was hoarse, like he’d been yelling. She bit her lower lip as she knelt by Raven, close enough so that their knees touched. He began to babble. “I’m sorry. You weren’t here so they locked me up. And nobody here knows anything about your mother. I—“
Kaia leaned up into his face, kissing him to shut him up. “I’ve missed you Raven.” She leaned into him, his chest rising and falling and his heart beat faster.
“I’ve missed you too,” he said into her hair. “You know, you look like crap.”
“Oh, thanks a lot,” she said sarcastically, “You don’t look too great either, you know.” She reached around him so she could untie the ropes binding his wrists together. “ I found my mom.” The ropes fell away.
Her world jolted as Raven tackled her into a fierce bear hug. She tapped on his shoulder, unable to breathe. He loosened his grip but didn’t move. “Sorry. So you found her?” As he spoke, he was stroking the side of her face, his breath in her face.
“Yes,” Kaia shifted so that she couldn’t smell what he’d eaten; it smelled like fish. “She told me my name is Kaia.”
Raven looked surprised. “Kaia means ‘dove.’” Kaia began to laugh. “What?” He leaned away so she could squirm to sit up.
“We’re all birds, like in the story,” she said. “Remember, the dove and the raven finally were together and they lived happily ever after.” She remembered something, “Oh, Phoenix is with Prince Caspia. They like each other. It would be so cool if they got married, don’t you think? So pretty in the castle, with pretty white flowers and maybe even a cake.”
Raven could see and hear her excitement as she talked about a potential wedding. He pulled her into a hug, unwilling to let her go. “Looks like their will be two happy endings then, won’t there?”
She laughed, the sound unnatural in the tiny dark room. “It does sound like it.” She leaned into his arms.
And the rain began pouring down outside, turning the pathways into mud and bringing new life.