Jester’s Oath Excerpt
I hate the cold, but I hate the hot more.
Sweat clings to my back as I lean onto the crooked tree, languid arms and legs tangling in the dew-wet grass. Back in Salea, snowflakes settled onto rough-hewn peaks from September till March. Mother used to say the snow was the universe's way of telling us that it was sad and it was tired. The flakes were tears, she said. Maybe the universe needed a hug.
The clammy stickiness is foreign, strange. Maybe if the sweat came to life - it would be blond, with droopy eyes and a droopier mouth - we could have a conversation about how much it sucks to be completely alien, to utterly and truly not belong in a brand new place where nothing makes sense.
The trek from Salea to here, to Fer, took multiple sundowns and even more sunrises. We ventured through looming forests where my legs itched and bled, bustling towns where we snatched morsels of bread under the cloak of night, and scattered cottages interspersed through dying farmland. Rolling hills sang along with us as we hummed the Pauper's March; bellowing moos scared us from stealing bits of stunted corn from sallow fields. The Earth, like us, felt starved and drained. Babies wailed, mothers cried. Bodies stacked in scattered heaps lined the sides of the streets.
Life back in Salea was good, or at least as good as it could be. Teo and I went to school every morning and learned what we could. Useless tidbits like the history of the royal lineage inflated our brains, only to be popped like a lifeless balloon once we walked out the doors each afternoon. We dedicated the majority of our focus and effort to salvaging fish at the frozen creek, or climbing the massive tree near our disheveled hut. Mother prepared hearty soups in the winter and light veggies in the summer, and we were happy. But the happiness betrayed us. Like a too-hot ray of sun, it blinded us, because while our naive selves were scaling towering bark or sneaking up on thrashing fish, Mother fell ill. She wasn't the only one; the baker down the road, the family across the street, all coughed and flailed and burned with scalding fever. Sickness was spreading its dirty claws like a pungent phantom, and it snagged too many in its grasp.
So did the baker, and the family. After that, it was our teacher, the seamstress, the fruit-seller across the way. Businesses boarded up their windows. The streets, normally bustling, settled into a ghastly silence.
The sickness was not the end. Two months after Mother's death, the snow, and the rain, stopped falling. The corn crops failed first. Then the potatoes. After that, the drought drove out everything until only shells of mummified kernels remained in yellowed fields. People starved, and people died. Salea was no longer safe for Teo and I. So we began our journey here - to Fer - the promised land of lore and wealth whose towering, gold rimmed buildings Mother would whisper about at night, eyes ridden with misty longing.
"Lyra, you finished all the water," Teo mutters, lowering onto the wet grass. He pulls at his too-long curls and struggles to summon a drop from the - decidedly empty - wooden canteen. I exhale, the puff of breath moving a wisp of ratty hair away from my eye. Frustrated with his whining, and with our newfound lack of water, I spit back, "We split it evenly. I took my share, you took yours. We'll find more later."
Rather than responding, Teo simply stretches and yawns. "It's weird, not being at home. Here, the trees feel like they're watching you. Look, you see that one? Doesn't that piece of bark look like an eye?"
I suppress the urge to laugh at Teo's overactive imagination. Two years younger than me, he always manages to find hidden meanings in the ordinary. In Salea, he claimed a fish we caught held a conversation with him. Another time, he promised me that while relieving himself in the forest, a cluster of frogs encircled him 'with the intent to maim him.' To his credit, however, he can make light of the darkest situations. Times like now, his imagination feels like a welcome distraction. I decide to amuse myself.
"Teo! I think the tree just blinked."
He jumps up, a yelp accidentally falling out of his mouth. I laugh and clutch my stomach. "You're too gullible. It'll bite you in the back one day."
Huffing and puffing (Teo, for some reason, thinks this is intimidating. In reality, he resembles a winded, out-of-shape old man), he yanks at his curls once more and sits back down. I rake my fingers through the dewy grass, picking out clumps of dampened dirt.
I know we need to get up. I know we need to leave, need to keep walking. The city gates, according to the number of carriages passing through, must not be more than a few miles off. But already, I'm scared. Scared that we won't be able to find work, scared that somebody will discover we come from plague-ridden Salea, scared that Teo won't be able to eat and his terra-cotta skin will stain with the pallor of sickness. Times are hard. But I can't give up. Not because I'm brave, or noble, or fearless. I can't give up because if I do, we'll die.
I funnel energy from my brain into my heavy limbs, forcing my legs to hold me upright. My voice wavers as I turn towards Teo, whose tousled dark curls cover his eyes like an opaque curtain. I take a deep breath.
"Come on, Teo. We're going to Fer."