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Authors: J. Patrick Black

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ELEVEN

NAOMI

T
here is no time for grieving yet, and until that time comes, I must be strong. In this, Mama has been my example. She was waiting when we clattered into camp, and I watched her face as Reaper Thom told her what had befallen us in our scouting, of the raiders coming fast behind us. And though Mama had only just learned her exquisite daughter Rae was dead, killed in some trap of unknown treachery, she did not cry out or weep as I had done, only nodded, and said, “Then we must saddle the horses.” She had heard our bugle call, the signal for enemies approaching, and loaded her guns, but Thom's report made it clear our choice was to leave now or not at all. I knew then that whatever sorrow I carried must be sealed up and stored away. To be a limp and sobbing weight would only put everyone in more danger.

There were some who refused to go, disbelieving Thom's tale of hostile warriors beyond counting, a horde about to descend upon New Absalom, and others who believed but lingered to hitch their wagons, cleaving to the wealth they had spent their lives collecting. They are all gone now, dead or taken, as are many of those who rode out with us, bringing only their weapons and what goods they could carry on their backs. Of more than seventy in our coda who came singing into New Absalom some three days past, barely twenty remain.

We reside now on the outskirts of the last township we visited before coming to New Absalom, a place its inhabitants call Granite Shore. They are wary of us here, making no secret of their opinion that we are thieves by nature and will at the merest opportunity take anything not bolted to the floor. They have put us up in a warehouse, a tall and echoing structure with thin, drafty walls, lately used to store sugar but now holding only a
collection of hard pallets for my people to sleep upon. Even these sparse accommodations were offered only grudgingly, after we had surrendered ourselves and were already within the township fences, and it became clear something had to be done with us, as we could not be trusted to wander freely about.

We Ochres, once the smallest clan of our coda by far, now stand about middle in number. The families of Fisher and Silva have been cut down root and branch, and of the Sullivans only Marcus and Jenny remain. Apricot is our last Bose. But Mama's kin, the Hollises, remain strong, as do the Mancebos, and we have enough Simon Gardiners yet that nicknames still serve a purpose. As night comes in, we sit around a fire built of planks salvaged from broken crates, flames wavering in the chilly wind that pushes through our flimsy shelter, and argue through what sparse prospects remain to us.

Our only certainty is that we cannot remain here. We have been told as much by one of the township's magistrates, a man named Ghalo, who appeared this afternoon in a rumbling mechanical coach and demanded to speak with our leader. Reaper Thom was chosen to parley with him, and I was sent as interpreter, for Thom has never learned the language of the townships, and in any case, I had negotiated the cease-fire with these people, which made me something of an ambassador. Thom listened impassively as Ghalo explained how little there was to spare in his township, proclaiming poverty, though he was fat through the face and had strings of meat lodged in his teeth. “We will provide you what we can, but I am afraid we are not a wealthy settlement, and we must ask you to leave soon” was what he said. Through me, Reaper assured the man we would not trouble him long, and in that regard my coda is in full agreement. To subsist on what handouts these people deign to provide fills us with bitter resentment, and we take the little that is offered only because refusing would be to forfeit our lives. Though weary and wounded, we are resolved to set out as soon as we are able. Where we will go is a matter of less certainty.

Simon Grumble Gardiner and his cousins say we should head for the southern territories, where the weather is milder and we stand a chance of surviving in the open, sleeping beneath the sky and subsisting on wild game and forage. A different faction, headed by Gideon and Phoebe Hollis, argues that we ought to go north, making for another winter roost in the hope that others of our people will be settled there and willing to give
us succor. The two parties bicker back and forth, and voices speak up in support now of one and now the other, but never saying what we all know to be the truth: that both paths will likely lead to our death. The southern lands are overrun with hostile tribes, and we will be outnumbered and exposed on all sides. In the north, we would stand paltry chance of reaching another haven, and if there is no one waiting when we do, we might as well lie down on the frozen ground and give ourselves up to the cold. Either way, we will have to outrun a winter already prowling close behind, poised to fall upon us with its icicle teeth.

It is not easy to hold back the despair that grows in me as I listen to my coda weigh one manner of death against another. Nor do they remark upon the ravenous tribesmen who chased us from New Absalom, now likely waiting just beyond the township fences, Nworkies and Leafcoats and Niagaras and What-Whats, and still others I could not name by sight, all gathered into a warriors' confederacy unlike any we have ever known. To get even a few miles past the fences would be no small miracle; to survive longer would necessitate still greater wonders. I listen, relying on the trick I have devised for when fear or sadness threatens to overtake me: I put on the face I wear whenever Baby is acting up and I need him to mind me or Mama or his manners. Only now it is not Baby I intend to get in line but my own trembling spirit. Yet I cannot help envisioning the grim road before us, and that is what I am doing when from the warehouse door comes a commotion of shouts and banging.

Simon Rumble Gardiner has discovered a stranger outside our warehouse and pinned the interloper against the metal wall with his big brawler's fists. When I see who Simon has in his grasp, I leave my place by the fire and rush over. “Simon Gardiner!” I shout. “You take your hands off that man, or I'll put a knife your gut!”

“They took our knives,” Simon replies. “Took them with our guns.”

“I expect I'll make do with a spoon, then.”

Simon looks over his shoulder, and I am relieved to see him wearing a grin. “Caught this one prowling outside,” he says of his captive. “No telling what manner of mischief he's about.”

“Do as she says, Simon,” calls Reaper Thom. “That boy means no harm, and I prefer not to give his people cause for quarrel.”

With a shrug, Simon releases his grip on the townsman, who staggers back, wearing a look of bemused humor, as if to say being handled so
roughly was all in good fun. “Just the girlie I wanted to see,” he says to me in the language of the townships. “That's twice you've rescued me now.”

It is the man from the woods, the soldier who negotiated the surrender of my coda. He is without his gun and vest, wearing only the formless garb of most township men. “If you wish to continue in my acquaintance, you may call me by my name, which is Naomi Ochre,” I inform him.

“Fine with me, Naomi Ochre,” he says, smiling. His face is not uncomely, dusky and square of jaw, with white teeth and a bristly cap of dark hair. “My name's Torro, in case you're wondering.”

I think to ask what sort of person names a child Torro, but in my experience all township people bear similarly nonsensical names. Instead, I say, “Tell me your business, Torro.”

“I brought this for you.” He reaches past the warehouse door and presents me with a heavy burlap sack. “You can share it with your people. It's not a huge feast or anything, but it's all edible at least.”

The sack is full of canned food. We Walkers occasionally trade for preserves like these, and I recognize portions of meat and fish and vegetables, even bread. I hand the bag back to him. “It is kind of you to offer, but I will not accept your charity.”

“Hey, it's not charity,” he says, still smiling. “It's kind of like a thank-you, you know? My kiddos were all real happy you didn't just shoot me in the head like you could've. Like, they would have been pretty upset if you had. So when I told them about you, they all wanted to throw something in to bring over here. I think they'll be mad at me if I just bring it back.” He shrugs. “If you don't take it, I'll probably just throw it away.”

“That would make no sense at all,” I say, looking back at the sack. It would be a shame to waste good food, and with my coda going hungry. “Very well. You have my thanks, Torro. Please convey my gratitude to your kiddos as well.”

“Yeah, I'll do that,” he says, and with one more smile, ducks back into the night.

My coda is at first mistrustful of such unwarranted generosity, nor does the explanation that Torro's gifts are in a sense a blood payment ease their minds. Once I have opened the first can, however, others join me, hunger trumping their caution. What few rations we took from New Absalom amounted to only a mouthful for each of us, and until now, this township has offered only cans of thin broth to warm over our fires. But welcome as
this food is, it presses upon us the urgency of our departure all the more, for we know we can expect no more such gifts. If we stay, we must either starve or be reduced to begging and thievery.

In the morning, Thom takes me to speak with one of the armed men who are always posted just in sight of our warehouse. I inform this guard that we intend to leave the township and ask him to summon someone of authority to make the arrangements. Shortly thereafter, five mechanical coaches draw up outside of our warehouse and empty a dozen tall, broad-shouldered men onto the street. All carry guns, though by their bearing it is plain they comprise an honor guard for the woman who emerges from the center coach. Her face and figure are equally stout, and she wears her yellow hair in a tight bun. Ghalo stands behind her, bending to speak into her ear as she surveys those of us who have come outside to witness the spectacle of soldiers and sleek township machines.

I know by now what is expected of me and go to Reaper Thom's side as Ghalo and the woman approach. Ghalo is plainly subservient here, his deference much in contrast to the bluster of his previous visit. “Prefect Qu,” he says, “I present Thom, headman of the bivvie caravan, and Naomi, his interpreter.” I have noticed that township people have no family names and do not seem to understand their purpose.

Thom replies, and I translate, leaving out most of the scorn his words convey. “Reaper Thom Mancebo wishes to inform you that the time has come for us to leave,” I say. “He thanks you for your hospitality and asks that you return our weapons and allow us passage to your borders. If we have anything that would be of value to you, we will gladly trade for ammunition, as our own stores are low.”

Qu the Prefect has keen, intelligent eyes, and as I speak, they examine me and Thom in turn. “If you are determined to leave, you are, of course, free to go,” she says when I have finished my speech. Her tone is unaccountably solicitous. “But you must be aware of how cold the weather has become, and I'm afraid there may be hellions still camped beyond our fences. You would be far better off remaining at our settlement, at least until winter is over.”

Reaper's reaction to hearing our troubles laid out as though we had not yet considered them is ungracious, and I must rephrase carefully. “We have already burdened you too much, and it will be better for us to leave now, before the worst of winter sets in.”

“Your concerns are thoughtful, but quite unnecessary,” the Prefect says with stalwart cheer. “Here at Settlement 225 we all have a duty to share what we produce. It is not a luxurious life, but we are comfortable enough. You will have shelter and all the food you need.”

This offer is so surprising that it takes me some time to form the right words for Thom. His response, though, is plain enough. “What would be required of us?”

“Only that you become citizens of our settlement and share in all the responsibilities of citizenship. Those old enough to work will be asked to work, those of schooling age to attend our schools. You will train with our militia and help defend our settlement from the hellions of the outer wilderness. You will be subject to our laws, and to punishment under those laws if you disturb our peace, the same as every other citizen here, myself included.”

Reaper Thom regards the Prefect for a long time, so long that I wonder if he is trying to compose some response in her language, but then he says to me, “Tell her we will consider her offer.”

When Prefect Qu has gone, we gather around the ashes of last night's fire, and Thom lays her proposal out. The discussion that follows is fierce. My people are loath to relinquish the sovereignty and freedom of our walking, even for the ease and plenty of township life. Not long ago, I would have named them all fools. As a little girl, my envy for the people of these places, with their fine houses and high walls, was so powerful that I would dream of staying behind after one of our visits, of becoming a town girl myself. But as I grew older, I came to understand that there is something not right about the townships. There is a strange air of fear to these people, and no matter which township you visit, it is always there, this same dread, lurking behind their eyes. It is one reason we never stay long. Nor do we fully credit the Prefect's tale of equality and fairness for all. We can see that some here are high and some low, just as everywhere, and we know we will be among the low. Some in my coda shout that it would be better to die free than live as slaves, but this very argument reminds us what awaits should we refuse the Prefect's offer. It takes the balance of the afternoon, but in the end we are of one mind: We will becomes citizens, yes, but at the first sign of spring, we will put this place to our backs and never return.

BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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