By Nick Johnson
This isn't the beginning.
This moment here, at sunset, as Ilu huddles with her sister behind a blackberry bush? They're on a hillside above a gully of gnarled sycamores, a mile from the river village of Lunan. The summer air is sweet with wildflowers and thistledown.
No, this is not the start.
Ilu's only twelve now. It'll be four years before she's running for her life, starving in a forest. Four years before she meets Bryce of Perulin. Before war. Before death comes to Lunan.
But in a way, this moment is the spark that lights the long fuse. So watch: the lovers are arriving.
They come in pairs at dusk, just as the orange eye of sunset begins to close. Ilu can only see them as shadows among the sycamores. Most are teenagers whose parents are strict, or don't approve of the relationship; a banker's son with a gravedigger's daughter, or some such scandal. Lunan isn't a wealthy town, but it is a proud one.
Other couples are older and married, though not to each other. Ilu doesn't understand this yet. They have lovers at home, so why meet here in Lovers' Gully? (That's her name for it.) But they do come, young and old, all pretending not to see each other. Lovers' Gully keeps its secrets, except from the girls on the hill.
Ilu sits cross-legged while her sister Stel fidgets and eats crisped kale from a knapsack. She has to eat very slowly so as not to crunch. There's nothing to see yet – just shapes in the dying light. But then a teenaged couple stops in front of the tree right below them, and the sisters peek between the blackberry brambles.
The boy of the couple glances around like a cornered rabbit. The girl listens for signs that anyone else might be too close. Then she kisses him with passion, her hands on his cheeks – he's stiff, like he's more scared of her than of being found out. Ilu knows this girl from prayer circle – she always looks at her shoes and her voice never carries over her neighbors' during hymns. Now, she's practically tackling this boy.
“I hope they do more than kiss,” whispers Stel.
“If they do,” says Ilu, in that same faintest whisper, “you should go home. You're too young.” Stel's only ten.
“So are you, I'.”
Ilu's a bad sister. She discovered this gully during her frequent wanderings – which her parents barely tolerate – and now she comes here to watch every week's end evening. One night Stel followed her and forced her into a dark bargain: Stel wouldn't tell their parents, but only if she could watch too.
“Ma says you have to listen to me,” says Ilu.
“Really? She said you're in charge even when we're being bad?”
Ma's policy on being bad is simply, Don't ever. But Ilu says, “Yes.”
“She did not!”
“Shh! If you keep arguing they'll hear us.”
“If you keep arguing, they'll hear us.”
But they stop when the boy, finally gaining courage, swings the girl down into a swoon. She laughs and they whisper, mostly out of earshot, though “Don't fear,” and “You forever” can be heard. The boy shoots his hand under her blouse and she gasps a happy note. Stel grins while munching kale.
Ilu's at least as interested in the plants as the people.
She's become an amateur gardener in the past year. She's been growing flowers in a little square behind the granary, much to her ma's chagrin as it's dirty, men's work. Fa reasons that it keeps her out of worse trouble (of which she's shown herself quite capable). But now that square patch of dirt has only holes where the flowers were.
That's because she's transplanted every flower here in Lovers' Gully – in fact, around the tree right below their hiding spot. The two teens have already stepped on one flower. Another bud, next to it, has yet to bloom. Ilu watches it. Is that the wind, or is the bud shaking?
The girl laughs, and then the two gaze at each other. She says something in his ear.
There! The bud pops open, into a wide-petaled flower of purple and white.
Ilu can hardly believe it. Neither lover is a terran artist. They have no special connection with the earth. And yet the strength of their love is enough to coax a flower to bloom.
“Did you see the flower?” Ilu whispers.
“No. Did you see her touch his nethers?”
“Where did you hear that word?” Ilu hisses.
“Nethers nethers nethers,” says Stel.
The girl begs the boy to walk with her, and soon they're out of sight. Ilu and Stel should go too. If they're late for bed and Ma notices, they'll be doing housework the whole next day. But they learn more about life here than from a hundred of Fa's rambling stories.
So they stay, and don't have to wait long for another couple. Here are two girls, both fidgety, their kisses stolen and fierce. Ilu knows from experience that they won't make flowers bloom. They look too anxious. Terran arts run on pure joy.
Stel sighs, loudly enough that the couple might hear. She only likes watching if boys are involved. It's funny, but even though Ilu knows that's normal, she's never felt the same way. She's started to have feelings for boys, but strangely enough has them for girls too. The energy of love always feels the same.
“You can watch two girls if you like,” says Stel. She stands up, so that if the lovers look up they'll see her easily. “I'm sleepy.”
“Get down!” Ilu hisses. “What about Tomo and Emerella?”
“They never do anything.” With that, Stel's off, and Ilu can't call after her. Which, Ilu supposes, is fine. She used to love watching alone, and Stel really is too young (although honestly Ilu doesn't mind the company). In any case, she settles herself among the brambles to wait for her favorite couple.
Emerella, the general miller's daughter, has a chilly beauty that rarely lets any emotion escape. She has no equal in social standing, and so should be visiting with the wealthy families of nearby villages in search of a husband or wife. But does she? No, she takes up with the fatherless son of a seamstress, and a prankster at that.
Tomo is beautiful too, in a scrappy, fox-eyed way. But he's more likely to carve swears into trees than poetry, and no one could have guessed Emerella would notice him enough to spit on his boots. Then she kissed him on the dance floor last Solstice Eve, at which point her parents threw a fit. They stopped the relationship before it could begin – as far as society knows. But here among the thickets and thistledown, at the midnight that starts the week over again, Tomo's and Emerella's love burns like sunset.
Here, they transform. Emerella's coldness melts and Tomo trades his pranks for poetry – really good poetry, as far as twelve-year-old Ilu can tell. She loves them both and cheers for them, like the heroes in bedtime stories. Nothing else in this town seems quite so special.
Except, not on this particular night. Because on this night, they never come.
Ilu waits long past the changing of days, her eyelids heavy, watching the stars swim slowly through the thin, passing clouds. She wonders: have Tomo and Emerella had words? Have they been found out? Or have they simply picked a new spot where she'll never be able to watch them again?
When she does finally go home that night, sleep is scarce.
After breakfast that morning, instead of doing her chores, she tells Father, “The clearwater basin is low. I'll have to go get more from the well.”
Fa frowns. “Really, I'?”
“I'm afraid so.” She doesn't mention that it was she, just moments earlier, who dumped out half of it.
“Well, be quick,” says Fa.
“I'm going too!” says Stel, who by now can smell Ilu's schemes like a duckhound.
“We only need one urnful,” says Ilu.
“I could get stuff at the market,” says Stel.
“You have enough 'stuff' already,” Fa points out.
Ilu gets up to go, but Stel glares at her. “You're up to something.”
“Yes,” says Ilu. “Doing an important chore for our family.” She picks up a water urn and rushes out before Stel can say more than Hey!
She runs to the edge of the herb garden and then down the gravel path to the village center. Soon the path clothes itself in stone and becomes Main Street. Ilu runs past pine trees and grain farms, and past several abandoned homes at the city's edge. The river village of Lunan is dying. It's not quite large enough to pay a solar artist to stoke an everfire, and so work has to be done in the old, harder ways – burning logs, and powering machines with water wheels. They don't even have a steady supply of mist. A terran artist comes one week a year to mold millstones and boost crops, so they have that at least. If she ever stopped coming, everyone in town with a mule cart might just pack up and leave.
Ilu crosses the bridge over the warbling Cartasi River, passing the great water wheel owned by Emerella's father. She makes her way to the town square, a blanket of cobblestones with benches and a statue in the middle. The statue is of Mother Earth, here a maiden in an apron wielding a blacksmith's hammer. It was made by the terran artist, formed by the power of pure joy, and so it's perfect in every muscle and fold of cloth. People gad about the square in weekend dress – silk jackets and suede trousers for the landed men, ribbons and beads for the women. They're looking in the windows of the shops that line the square, or laughing in groups of friends.
Instead of going to the well, Ilu hustles past it to the clark's office. The office front stands out from its neighbors because of its stone steps, and because the area around the doorway has been repaired with brickwork. The rest of the building, like the rest of almost every building, is wattle and daub. Ilu's heard that in the cities, nearly every structure is made with concrete or brick or shaped stone, below great iron chimneys. Here, though, these more modern materials only pop up in rashes, like this doorway. You might see clusters of slate tiles patching a thatched roof, or a stripe of shaped stone where the terran artist reknit a cracked foundation. It almost looks as if Lunan's houses are diseased, and spreading modern ideas like a fungus.
Inside the clark's office, behind a red-stained oak desk scattered with papers, Emerella sits scratching away at a scroll. She's taken an apprenticeship here.
Ilu hasn't thought her plan through. “How much for a letter to Qualqier?” she asks, just for something to say.
Emerella scratches for another minute, not even looking up. Then she fixes Ilu with her patented chilly stare and fishes for a chart of prices.
“Three forged pennies.”
Ilu pauses. Then she whispers, “I can help with Tomo.” She of course has no idea how to help, or if any is needed, but also has no other idea of how else to pry. She can't go on not knowing what happened. Plus at twelve she gets called “cute” once a day, and she's learned that her big smile smooths over most of the problems her big mouth gets her into.
Not this time. Emerella snatches her arm like a striking viper. She gasps, her heart pounding. The older girl leans in with blazing eyes, and for a moment they're nose to nose.
“Don't EVER give yourself to a man and expect nothing in return,” says Emerella. “He will perfectly meet your expectation.”
Ilu gapes, not knowing what to say. Then, after a little eternity, Emerella lets go. Colder than ever, she returns to her scratching.
The next midnight of week's end, Ilu waits by her blackberry patch. Stel stays this time too, curious whether the pair will get back together. The breeze is cooler and restless, as if it's worried too about what will happen. Ilu begs the pair of them to come. And look! There's Tomo.
But that's not Emerella.
This girl is shorter, brown-haired, and giggling like one of Stel's friends. Her kisses are sloppy, big-mouthed, and Tomo's hands go almost immediately to places Emerella never let him touch. Ilu feels hot, and then sick. How could he? Emerella can't be replaced! Tomo looks perfectly at ease, though. He leans his new lover against the tree and squeezes her rump.
A thought sneaks into Ilu's head. If someone like Emerella can be tossed aside, how could Ilu ever trust a lover?
Tomo kisses the girl's neck and undoes a button on her shirt. Then a moth lands on his head. It's huge and shimmering green, and the girl laughs to see it perched on him. She moves to wipe it away, but screeches like an owl when a second moth lands on her cheek. Tomo pulls back, then jerks his head to see a moth also on each of his shoulders.
Then in a whirring of wings, the giant moths cover him like a new suit.
“Lunas!” gasps Stel.
“Are you a lunar artist?” yells the girl, stumbling backwards and swatting at them. The other shadows in the gully go still. “Why didn't you tell me?”
“Is he a lunar artist?” whispers Stel, her eyes lit up with excitement. “Look at how many moths there are!”
“Not that I know of,” says Ilu. If Tomo had that gift people would talk. Lunar arts, like all arts, are hard to conceal because they're triggered so easily. A lunar artist only needs to feel sad, and then to channel that sadness toward an object or area.
Now Tomo is resorting to rolling in the underbrush to rid himself of the moths. Still more of them come. The girl keeps yelling, and annoyed couples slink away. But if she isn't calling them, and he isn't, then who?
Suddenly, Ilu understands. She touches her cheek, and her fingers come away wet and salty. Because Emerella's not the only one on the losing end of this. Ilu's lost a love story. Tomo's poisoned his own poetry, and Ilu misses it with an ache already.
Even now, though, she knows she'll get over it some day. The bigger issue is that her tears summoned luna moths. That could only mean that she's been touched by the moon.
She doesn't tell Stel, though. Her sister won't find out for another year, and even that won't be the start of things. Still, hindsight matters. The past is the clay that forms the present. Everything has a history – especially war.
Four Years Later
River mud squelches between Ilu's toes. It's probably full of leeches, but at least some part of her body actually feels clean. The cold shock of the water in her boots makes her feel like she traded out her worn-out feet for fresh new ones. The swift current tugs at her calves. Meanwhile, sunlight splashes over the rest of her for the first time in hours. All around her the pine forest is thick and dark, but here at this odd bend in the river, the trees have backed off and the sun shines through. She could stay here forever.
“Why are we stopping?” asks Stel.
“We're not stopping,” says Ilu, but at the same time, she can't quite get her legs to move.
“This looks a lot like stopping.”
“I'm just a little tired,” Ilu says. That could win an understatement contest.
“A little tired and a lot running for your life,” Stel reminds her. “Let's hustle.”
She's been hustling for days though, and spending cold nights nestled between tree roots or in beds of leaves. Her last meal, at a wild fruit tree, was over a day ago, and she can't imagine when she'll have another. Is it possible, finally, that she's put enough distance between herself and the Plague Rat? Could she ever get far enough away from a man so powerful and determined to kill?
“I know,” she tells Stel. “I'm just not sure which way we go from here.” She's stalling. She bends down and cups her hands for a drink.
“Orbs alive, this was your idea!” cries Stel, who, in contrast, always seems to have energy to spare. “You said walking in the middle of a river makes it so dogs lose your scent.”
“Right.” The Plague Rat, spymaster to the Duke of Vallart, once told her about that trick. Now she's using it against him. It's why they've been following the burble of the river, as soon as they heard it fifteen minutes ago. “But do we go upriver or down?”
“Nobody cares! Just go! Well-” Stel's first reaction to everything is to be contrary, so she has to shift gears. “I guess downriver would be south, towards the war. The homesteads we find might be abandoned, which could actually work out for us as long as they left some food behind.”
Ilu slurps the chilly water. “Unless they were burned.” The Luscorite invaders aren't known for their mercy. Shivering, Ilu imagines walking for miles just to find a charred ruin, and collapsing of starvation in the ash. It wouldn't be particularly far-fetched.
“Okay, you pick the direction," says Stel. "If you keep just standing here, you'll end up as dead as me."