The sylvas on this continent were definitely less reclusive than the ones back home had been. There, one might come across a sylvas merchant traveling with goods every few years or so. Here, a sylvas family had set up a vegetable stand right beside the road as they started into the hills.
For the day’s second surprise, one that nearly left Essenin’s jaw in the dust of the road, Rolli dismounted and spoke to the vegetable sellers. Not the shocking part. Rolli would talk to anyone. But he spoke in sylvas, in a particular dialect of sylvas that Essenin had never heard.
Rolli wandered back over munching on a taya fruit, the purple juice running down his chin. He stopped when he saw Essenin staring. “What? She thought I looked too thin.”
“I’m not shocked by your ability to make maternal people pity you. But since when have you spoken any sylvas?”
“Since always.” Rolli waved the taya for emphasis. “Fine. Not always. I learned early on. The merchants all speak trade, but they’re kinder to you if you make the effort in their own language.”
“Uh-huh. And what did you talk about?”
“Oh. Yes. I was asking if they knew if the Tzak matriarch was at home. She is, so we’ll head up to the compound.” Rolli took a last bite of taya, gazed at it mournfully as if wishing it would regenerate, and tossed the pit. “It’s not far.”
After a few minutes riding along the main road, they turned onto a steep and narrow track that led up into the hills. Here, the dust of the road gave way to stone and determined scrub plants that clung to every possible surface. To Essenin’s eyes, the track vanished entirely, but Rolli kept going. They had to hope that Rolli actually knew where he was going.
Around a curve in the trail, the Tzak compound suddenly appeared. Essenin knew it was a clever use of the planes and curves of the landscape, but the not-here then here of a village of stone felt uncomfortably close to magic. They’d only encountered sylvas settlements previously in drawings and stories. Neither did the architecture justice.
Southerners like Essenin tended to think of the sylvas as tribal, loosely related clans living in their isolated compounds in the far north. If the sylvas compounds back home had been anything like this? Anyone who had seen them would never think of the sylvas as half-feral again.
Most of the buildings were partially built into the hillside, stone arches both round and pointed, soaring columns that held up porticos and promenades, stepped buildings of seven and eight stories—and not a seam in sight. As impressive as the buildings were the gardens, both terraced and hanging, an abundance of fruits and flowers everywhere. Doubtful that the northern clans had managed all the outside vegetation, but perhaps they had grown indoor gardens instead.
They thought of asking Zie, but realized that would be cruel, expecting him to talk about a home that had been destroyed. I hope they’re both all right. That the Shadows haven’t caught up yet and that they’re not quarreling. Though it seemed more likely that Davs would be making sure Zie ate enough and didn’t have nightmares. Mother of waves, Essenin missed them.
When they had reached a spot in the path where a line of white pebbles lay embedded across the road, Rolli stopped and dismounted. Puzzled, Essenin followed his example.
“We can’t just barge in,” Rolli answered the question they hadn’t asked. “Rude. And we might get skewered if the young people on watch are jumpy.”
“Ah. Skewering wasn’t on my list of things to do today, so thank you for that.”
They waited while Sidle walked to the end of her reins and started munching on a bush and Bramble shifted nervously from hoof to hoof. The wait ended up being short and soon two heavily armed young sylvas were escorting them into the compound. Weapons stayed sheathed, but the message of threaten our clan and you die was quite clear.
Their silent guides took them not to one of the largest buildings, but to a modest house with a single doorway and a balcony on the second floor. Vines cascaded from the balcony, bright with pink and deep red flowers that gave the house a cheerful, welcoming face.
Rolli knocked on the doorframe and stuck his head inside. “Ulla Tzak?”
Even while standing on the front step, Essenin could’ve sworn they heard a deep sigh from inside the house. Of course, that was a common reaction to Rolli, so they weren’t shocked. Footsteps clomped toward them and soon the oldest sylvas Essenin had ever met was frowning up at Rolli. She pointed a claw at him and said something sharp. Rolli gestured toward Essenin and said something that sounded conciliatory.
Ulla Tzak—Essenin was unsure if this was a name or a title—turned her sharp eyes on them. Deep purple eyes, like Zie’s, though her hair was frost white. “Young selak. Are you his lover?”
“Me? No. He’s just a guide.” Essenin felt bad about being so dismissive, but he didn’t want anyone getting the wrong impression.
“Good. Don’t be. He is not a responsible human.” She rapped her knuckles against the hall table three times. “Now. Tell me.”
Essenin blinked at the abruptness of the demand, but he wasn’t speaking to selak aunties. He had to remember that. He told her, more of a summation than a story, about Zie and the Shadows, and the need for an older mahk.
Her expression became more worried with every sentence. When he’d finished, she stared at a point on the floor, speaking softly. “The shaktz haven’t been summoned in my memory or my grandmother’s. They were only stories. We have a mahk. Only one. But she is far too young.”
“Is there an older mahk?” Essenin asked while his heart sank to his feet. “Someone who might be willing to help?”
“I can’t promise another clan’s help, child. But Ke is here from Skita to help train our mahk. Maybe she will hear you.” Ulla Tzak snapped at the youngsters hovering in the doorway and they both ran off, presumably to carry the message. She shook her head and waved toward the interior of the house. “Come and sit. Keep me company while we wait.”
Ah, good. Hospitality. Essenin hoped that meant she was on their side. He followed her in, determined to be charming and polite so she wouldn’t change her mind.
Angel writes (mostly) Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around queer heroes. Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware and full time inside her head, she has one husband, one son, two cats, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.