Volume Four


Lois McMaster Bujold


The Drowntown day market was in full spate. Fawn’s nostrils flared at the strong smells: fish, clams, critters with twitching legs like giant crawdads packed in seaweed; frying funnel cakes, boiling crabs, dried fruit, cheeses; piles of used clothing not well laundered; chickens, goats, sheep, horses. Mixed with it all, the damp tang of the river Gray, stretching so wide its farther shore became a flat blur in the winter morning light.

The lead-colored water shimmered in silence beyond the bright busy blot of folks collected under the bluffs that divided Graymouth’s Uptown from its noisier-and, Fawn had to admit, more noisome- riverside. The muddy banks were lined with flatboats at the ends of their journeys, keelboats preparing new starts, and fishing and coastal vessels that came and went more in rhythm with the still-ten-milesdistant sea than with the river’s moods. The streets dodged crookedly around goods-sheds, rivermen’s taverns, and shacks-all built of dismantled flatboats, or, in some cases, not dismantled but drawn ashore intact on rollers by oxen and allowed to settle into the soil. The owners of the latter claimed to be all ready for the next flood that would try, and fail, to wash the smells and mess of Drowntown out to sea, while Uptown looked down dry-skirted. It seemed a strange way to live. How had she ever thought of the rocky creek at the foot of her family’s farm back north as a river?

Fawn shoved her basket up her arm, nudged her companion Remo, and pointed. “Look! There’s some new Lakewalkers here this morning!”

At the other end of the square, where all the bigger animals were displayed by their hopeful owners, two women and a man tended a string of half a dozen leggy horses. The three all wore Lakewalker dress: riding trousers, sturdy boots, shirts and leather vests and jackets, not so different in kind from the farmers around them, yet somehow distinctive. More distinctive was their hair, worn long in decorated braids, their height, and their air of discomfort to be surrounded by so many people who weren’t Lakewalkers. Upon reflection, Fawn wondered if anyone else here realized the standoffishness was discomfort, or if they only thought it high-nosed disdain. She would have seen it that way, once.

“Mm,” said Remo unenthusiastically. “I suppose you want to go talk to them?”

“Of course.” Fawn dragged him toward the far end of the market.

The man pulled a horse out of the string and held it for a farmer, who bent and ran his hands over its legs. The two young women looked toward Fawn and Remo as they approached; their eyes widened a bit at Remo, whose height, clothes, and long black braid also proclaimed him a Lakewalker patroller. Did their groundsenses reached out to touch the stranger-kinsman, or did they keep them closed against the painful ground noise of the surrounding farmers?

The southern Lakewalkers Fawn had seen so far tended to lighter skin and hair than their northern cousins, and these two were no exception. The taller woman-girl-she seemed not so very much older than Fawn, anyhow-had hair in a single thick plait as tawny as a bobcat pelt. Her silvery-blue eyes were bright in her fine- boned face.

The shorter woman had red-brown braids wreathing her head, and coppery eyes in a round face dusted with freckles. Fawn thought they might be patrol partners, like Remo and Barr; they seemed unlikely to be sisters.

“ ’Morning!” Fawn called cheerfully, looking up at them. The top of her own dark curls came up just past the middle of Remo’s chest, and not much farther on these women. At almost-nineteen, Fawn had given up hope of gaining further inches except maybe around, and resigned herself to a permanent crick in her neck.

The reddish-haired woman returned a nod; the bobcat blonde, seeming uncertain how to take the odd pair, addressed herself to a height halfway between them. “ ’Morning. You all interested in a horse? We’ve some real fine bloodstock, here. Strong hooves. One of these could carry a man all the way up the Tripoint Trace and never pull up lame.” She gestured toward the string, well brushed despite their winter coats, who gazed back and flicked their tufted ears. Beyond, the Lakewalker man trotted the horse toward and away from the farmer, who stood hands on hips, frowning judiciously.

“I thought Lakewalkers only sold off their culls to farmers?” said Fawn innocently. The redhead’s slight flinch was more from guilt than insult, Fawn thought. Some horse traders. Suppressing a grin, she went on: “Anyhow, no, at least not today. What I was wondering was, what camp you folks hailed from, and if you have any real good medicine makers there.”

The blonde replied at once, in a practiced-sounding tone, “Lakewalkers can’t treat farmers.”

“Oh, I know all about that.” Fawn tossed her head. “I’m not asking for myself.”

Two braided heads turned toward Remo, who blushed. Remo hated to blush, he’d said, because the awkwardness of it always made him blush worse than the original spur. Fawn watched his deepening tinge with fascination. She could not sense the flick of questing groundsenses, but she had no doubt that a couple went by just then. “No, I’m not sick, either,” Remo said. “It’s not for us.”

“Are you two together?” asked the blonde, silver-blue eyes narrowing in a less friendly fashion. Lovers together, Fawn guessed she meant to imply, which Lakewalkers were emphatically not supposed to be with farmers.

“Yes. No! Not like that. Fawn’s a friend,” said Remo. “The wife of a friend,” he added in hasty emphasis.

“We still can’t help you. Medicine makers can’t fool with farmers,” the redhead seconded her companion.

“Dag’s a Lakewalker.” Fawn shouldered forward, keeping herself from clutching the Lakewalker wedding braid circling her left wrist under her sleeve. Or brandishing it, leading to the eternal explanation and defense of its validity. “And he’s not sick.” Exactly. “He used to be a patroller, but he thinks he has a calling now for making. He already knows lots, and he can do some, some amazing things, which is why he needs a real good guide, to help him along his next step.” Whatever it is.

Even Dag did not seem sure, to Fawn’s concerned eyes.

The blonde turned her confused face to Remo. “You’re not from around these parts, are you? Are you an exchange patroller?”

“Neeta,” said the redhead, with a proud gesture at the blonde, “is just back from two years’ exchange patrolling in Luthlia.”

The blonde shrugged modestly. “You don’t have to tell everyone we meet, Tavia.”

“No, I’m not exchanging, exactly,” said Remo. “We came down from Oleana on a flatboat, got here about a week back. I’m, I’ve…”

Fawn waited with grim interest to see how he would describe himself.

Run away from home? Deserted? Joined Captain Dag No-Camp’s muleheaded campaign to save the world from itself?

He gulped, and fell back on, “My name’s Remo.”

A tilt of the braid-wreathed head and a bouncing hand gesture invited him to continue with his tent and camp names, but he merely pressed his lips together in an unfelt smile. Tavia shrugged, and went on, “We came down from New Moon Cutoff Camp yesterday to sell off some cu-horses, and to pick up the week’s courier packet.” Clearly identifying herself and her partner to this tall, dark, northern stranger as patroller women, carrying mail between camps being a patrol task.

Fawn wondered if she’d recognize patroller flirting if she saw it, and if it would be as dire as patroller humor.

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