Outside, she could hear Tzi laughing. One of the guards had been amusing him with stories. She ached to be out there, on the other side of these cloth walls.
"Which direction do we head tomorrow? We're nearly to the fork in the trail," Lord Yuknoom said.
"Left." But only for a little while. Not that she had to tell them that, now.
Lord Yuknoom peered at her, disgust in his eyes. "You have been granted a chance to help your Lord, and you show this melancholy temperament?"
"Women tend to be attached to their children," Prince Kaloomte intervened. "You did threaten to kill hers."
Lord Yuknoom waved a hand, dismissing her. Ayin bowed, then turned to flee, but the Prince stood. "Perhaps I might divert you into a scholarly discussion?"
"Not in here," Lord Yuknoom grumbled.
Prince Kaloomte bowed his head politely to his brother, then escorted Ayin from the tent. Tzi sat on a fallen tree with the soldier. He waved enthusiastically. Ayin managed a half-hearted smile.
"I'm going to borrow your mother for a moment. Pitz, if you don't mind continuing to keep an eye on him?"
"An eye? We're trading warrior's stories!" Pitz, the soldier, grinned.
"I got a tarantula once!" Tzi chipped in.
Pitz clapped him on the shoulder. "A daring feat!"
Ayin exhaled. At least Tzi was fine, for now. Prince Kaloomte led her to his tent. She hesitated briefly at the threshold. She was a woman. He was of the royalty of Kab. But his face held no untoward intentions. The interior was only slightly less lavish than his brother's. He gestured her to one of the cushions. "It must be hard, to be forced to give up the last undefiled building of your people."
Her people? She'd been raised in Kab. Knew their customs better than she knew those of the Xook. "It's . . . more about dishonoring the memory of the woman who raised me. My grandmother."
"Sometimes, I wonder if the Xook weren't right, in banning magicians."
Ayin stared at him. Was this some verbal trap?
"We use a building a little while, maybe five years for a soul to develop, and then we burn it. Nothing is constructed to last. Few buildings are erected with beauty in mind. I visited the Xook ruins at Baaknal. The palace there is half-collapsed from looters exposing postholes, but I glimpsed murals, intricately carved roof combs. All hundreds of years old. All beautiful. In Kab, we don't have that kind of history."
Guilt gnawed at her gut. This Kab royal could conjure more grief over the destruction of Xook cities than she could.
"And yet they had one temple. Isolated. Rarely mentioned in texts. Do you . . . do you know why?" he asked, face cautious.
Prince Kaloomte wasn't what she expected. Lord Yuknoom had a reputation of quick cruelty; she assumed he'd be the same. "I don't. I didn't even see much of it."
He nodded, seemingly relieved. "Good. I'm sorry to keep you from your son -- you should go. Sleep well, both of you."
Odd, that he didn't have more questions to ask. Ayin bowed and left.
The temple is hidden for a reason.
Ayin stared into the darkness of her small tent, Tzi breathing loudly in his sleep next to her.
"What reasons, Grandmother?" she whispered silently to the night. She received no answer.
Maybe Prince Kaloomte was right to criticize her. To be Xook, yet aid magicians in destroying their buildings? But that all seemed so long ago. Grandmother, who smelled like mahogany -- that was her heritage, her past.
And that wise, fierce woman had told her to stay away. To never come back.
Ayin laid a hand on Tzi's shoulder. "Tzi."
He mumbled in his sleep. Ayin knelt by his ear. "Tzi, you must wake up. Silent now."
He tensed. Awake. Good.
"We can't stay here." Given Lord Yuknoom's threats, they couldn't stay anywhere near Kab once they fled. They'd flee northward, up the caravan road, and find Yunen. Surely they could remain in a northern kingdom, selling goods or some such thing. He'd be delighted to see them again, sooner than expected. Perhaps he'd already made enough to pay a magician to cure her wet lung.
"Why . . . not?"
"It isn't safe." Not that running through the jungle was particularly safe, either. She wished they had something more than sandals to guard against snakes. "We'll have to move quietly. Can you do that?"
He nodded. What a good son she had. "Where are we going?"
"To your father."
He sat up. It was too dark to see his face, but she could feel the smile radiating off the boy. "Father?"
"Yes." How they'd make it up the caravan road alone, she couldn't fathom. But they couldn't stay here.
Ayin took his hand and pulled him to the tent flaps. The canopy of trees let little starlight through, but she could make out guards encircling the camp, watching for bandits and beasts.
Ayin gritted her teeth. She was an looter, not a warrior. How to get through them? Her eyes drifted skyward. Perhaps if they were very quiet, they could climb up a tree in the middle of camp, then travel from branch to branch until they passed the guards. Perhaps the guards would mistake them for howler monkeys.
It would be dangerous even in daylight. But Ayin couldn't imagine it was more dangerous than the temple.
She stepped into the warm, humid night. A few quiet strides brought her to the base of a large tree, well shielded from view by tents and greenery.
"Up," Ayin whispered, boosting Tzi. He clung for a moment to the trunk above her head, unmoving. Then he climbed, lithe limbs pulling him surely up, more than twice her height above the ground.
Then he screamed and fell. Ayin scrambled to catch him. He crashed into her; they collapsed in a heap on the loamy ground. "Did you break anything?"
"N-no." His voice shook, crying. "Something bit me."
Before Ayin could say another word, the deadly tip of an obsidian spear pricked her throat. "Trying to escape, and clumsily at that. We'll see what Lord Yuknoom wants to do with you."
But apparently no one dared wake Lord Yuknoom until morning. The guards tossed her in her tent, then surrounded it. She didn't have enough light to look at Tzi's hand, but she ran her fingers over the bump there.
"It burns," Tzi whispered, voice small. "All up my arm."
"Did you see what it was?"
"No. Just this sharp pain and . . . fire. It's spreading to my chest."
Ayin bit her lip. Likely a gray caterpillar sting. He'd feel like he was on fire for three days, but with enough water, he'd survive. She pulled back the tent flap. "Guards, I need --"
A spear butt cracked into her ribs. Ayin fell back, gasping.
"Mother!" Tzi yelled.
The guard snorted. "Didn't we tell you to stay put?"
Ayin spluttered, felt her ribs. Nothing broken. "I'm sorry, Tzi. I'm sorry."
There was nothing else for it. She made him drink the last of their water flask, then cuddled him, stroked his hair, and told him everything would be fine. Tzi didn't seem convinced; she'd never been good at lying.
The guards dragged her and Tzi into Lord Yuknoom's tent. Tzi collapsed onto the floor, rubbing his arms. Two dirty trails of perpetual tears ran across his cheeks. He whimpered quietly. Ayin knelt and gathered her son in her lap.
"What's this?" Lord Yuknoom demanded, disgusted. Prince Kaloomte sat by him; each had a steaming cup of atole.
"She tried to escape last night with the boy by climbing up one of the trees in camp."
Pity welled in Prince Kaloomte's soft eyes; derision hardened Lord Yuknoom's face. "Worthless wench! I should have your head here."
"We'll never find the temple if you do," Prince Kaloomte said. "Aren't you determined to get the better of those who cursed you?"
Ayin peered at the empty shoulder anew. Cursed? The postholes of a butchery shop could sever an enemy's limb -- but that's why all such buildings were banned. If someone wanted to skin a deer or pluck a turkey, it had to be out of doors or under a lean-to.
"I'd prefer knowing their names and crushing them," Lord Yuknoom muttered, eyes hot with hate.
He hadn't seen them? Only the most talented magicians could affect a person from any distance. Perhaps she shouldn't be surprised that Lord Yuknoom had made powerful enemies.
Prince Kaloomte nodded. "My men are searching for illegal postholes as we speak."
Ayin held Tzi close. He was feverish, shaking. But she didn't dare ask for anything for him -- not at this moment.
"You'll continue with us," Lord Yuknoom snapped at her.
Ayin tried not to audibly exhale. He wouldn't kill them outright.
"Your son, however, will be tied up in a tree. Isn't that where you were trying to go?"
Tzi, in his feverish state, didn't seem to hear, but Ayin's throat turned into a desert. "You can't --"
You seem fond of that word. Of course I can. I could have him gutted here in the tent if I chose." He stared at her, daring her to contradict him again.
Ayin bit her lip hard.
"For his sake, I hope the temple is close. Once you take us safely there, we can return here and let him down."
"A jaguar, or another gray caterpillar, or --"
"Did I give you the impression we were negotiating?"
Ayin clutched Tzi tight. Her boy. Her child. They couldn't have him. She turned to Prince Kaloomte, but his eyes only held sad resignation.
"Guards. Take the boy," Lord Yuknoom commanded.
Panic welled up in her gut. With it, came the cough. She doubled-up, pain flaring from abdomen to throat. Tzi's small hands grasped at her; other hands yanked away. She struggled to hold onto him, to force the cough away, but when she finally regained the ability to breathe, her arms were empty. The orange mucus rolled off her enchanted clothes to the floor.
"You're disgusting," Lord Yuknoom sneered. "Get out."
Her against Lord Yuknoom's four dozen guards. She had no chance.
"I'm sorry, Grandmother," she whispered to the trees.
Ayin took them to the left fork, then turned from the path. The porters set down the palanquins, then all continued on foot through the dense jungle. Perhaps, if she moved fast enough, they could return to Tzi by nightfall. Lord Yuknoom puffed near the rear of their party. She wished she could inflict more suffering on him.