The girl who had never known hunger turned her back on that house and walked, her hands empty, right out of the city. She did not say goodbye to her mother. That first day, as the road stretched through farm villages, she found public wells to stop at for water. No one troubled her when she lay down for the night under a roadside tree. Even this far beyond the gates, the city’s luck protected her. In the morning, a farmer pointed the way to an orchard where tradition permitted gleaner’s pickings to people like her. Tart cherries, and not many of them this far into summer, but they were better than nothing. She spent all the coins in her pocket, though she kept her sewing needles in their little brass case, on a pack already loaded with needful things from an old man at a lonely farmstand. Last Chance Gear and Provisions for All, his sign read, Please Pay If You’re Able. “You sure?” he asked. But the girl told him, and herself, that she’d never turn back. “Well,” he said, “here’s everything I wish I had when I tried. Good luck.” She pretended not to notice his missing foot, his crutch. He didn’t mention them, either.
The second day, the road cut through timberland. It was more woodlot than forest, though, and she’d been taught to find creeks and berries. Her mother had expected her to leave when the time came and had made sure she was not entirely unprepared. This night, the girl who had never known hunger until yesterday made her bed well away from the road, hoping for softer ground. She woke damp and shivering, proud of all her little discomforts, swearing again that she’d never turn back. After seeing for herself what the blessed city did to win its people their blessings, she did not want to benefit from it a single day longer.
At sunset on the third day, the girl reached the edge of the blessed city’s hinterlands. A wild forest should have grown at the edge of the tame one, but fire had burned it black. The luck boundary showed as clear and deliberate as a quilt seam, where a vast green curve met an expanse of ash. The girl had stepped out through the city’s ancient gates without hesitation, but here she paused. She had not expected to find wreckage so soon. Had it always been always like this? Her anger wanted to run across that line and revel in the ashes, but for one last night she slept on the green side of the boundary, hating herself for accepting the price someone else paid for the blessing of her safety. This time she made a small circle of stones and built a little fire of her own. No one would follow the smoke to rob her, not here. The Last Chance Man had put flint and steel in the pack, but in memory of her mother, the girl practiced what she’d been taught. Rubbing a stick against a strip of bark until she produced a coal took the better part of an hour. At least she woke dry.
Now she did what she should have done first on her way out of the city. She dug up some tubers for her next meal, drank her fill at a creek, filled the waterskin the Last Chance Man had packed, and found a walking stick she could swing if she had to. She tried swinging it a couple of times and was ashamed at how it satisfied her to hear the thing cut the air. Like her countrymen, she regarded physical fighting with horror. But the other cities on this road were not like the one she had left behind.
That was good, she reminded herself. She would carry her own risks now. She tapped the stick across the line to test how thick the ash was—easily ankle deep—took one last clear breath, and stepped into the luckless world.
She’d never in her life coughed as much as she did in her first ten steps into the waste. Well before noon, she tore a wide strip off the bottom of her shirt to tie over her mouth and nose and keep the ash out. Uncovered, her midriff sunburned. Though the ground still stretched charcoal black to either side of the road, she saw fewer recognizable remains of trees now. The one stream she found was probably halfway to lye, running through all this wood ash. She knew that if she didn’t find the other side of the burnt land by midafternoon, she’d need to backtrack to the green side of the border to prepare for another try.
But a childhood friend who’d walked out had soon walked right back in, after a mistake like that. He’d wanted one more night in the luck, which had made him want just one more night under a roof, then just one more delay to pick apples, and then he’d wanted a last night in his own bed and a last family dinner, and next thing he knew he was married with a baby and never going to risk leaving while that child was young.
No, she would not fail as he had.
She walked a little faster. Ash stuck to her sweat, trickled into her eyes, stung. She walked faster still. The ash could not go on forever.
The road curved up a rise, and from the other side’s downslope she could see a river. On the far bank, grasslands stretched to the horizon. Before her, the ruins of a tall wooden bridge lay blackened and tumbled into rushing water.
A steady wind blew toward her from the grasslands ahead. She was losing daylight. She’d get wet, inevitably. And she’d be a fool to try to light a fire in the dark in tall dry grass. The tubers she’d gathered weren’t safe to eat raw. She hesitated to break into the dried meat and fruits from the Last Chance Man, when she didn’t know where her food would come from after that. She hunkered down for the night in the lee of a stone pier of the fallen bridge and there knew hunger. It was much harder than the meal-skipping she’d been so proud of practicing back home. In all the world, only her exhaustion felt bigger.
She dreamed of eggs fried with bread and the light of her mother’s kitchen.
She woke hungry. Her anger at what her city was willing to do for its luck turned out to be bigger than her hunger after all. The one time she’d gone for her witnessing, in the dank cell where the luckbringer child was kept, she had tried to thank it—not to break the blessing but out of respect, as she would have thanked anyone for a kindness. But the city’s cruel blessing required the child’s misery to be absolute. It would not permit her even to open her mouth, as if a mighty hand covered it and gripped her jaw shut.
She would walk on.
Sooner or later she would need fire, so she dug through the wreckage of the bridge and found a big chunk of wood that hadn’t burned all the way through. No good to put it in her pack where it would dirty the little bit of dried food she was determined not to use, at least not as long as she had the fresh tubers. But she pulled out the coil of rope—bless that old man—and tied the wood to the outside of the pack. To pick her way across the river bottom’s rocks, she’d need one arm free for balancing.
She ventured ankle-deep into the water just a step upstream of the fallen bridge beams, picking her way across what she thought would be a shallow path and congratulating herself on her fine walking stick, until she stepped into a sudden drop, and the river’s fastest current caught her. She had learned to swim in ocean waves but in a place where no child could ever drown. Her mind split, half laughing at her efforts to keep her head above water, the other half animal panic, until the river dropped her in an eddy on the grassy riverbank.
How far downstream was she from the road? If she didn’t dry her wet clothes, the only ones she had, it wouldn’t matter where the road was. She’d learned as much from books. In books, people always cursed at times like this, but never having had occasion to before, she didn’t know how.
Wringing out her wet things took more time than she’d imagined possible, and then she had to find a place where she could keep a fire going without setting all the grasslands alight. At last she found a spot where some creature had crushed the grass down to sleep on, breaking the tough stalks enough for her to clear them. It was a big circle. A family of deer might have made it. Or something that could eat her, she wasn’t sure. Too tired to care, she took the little spade the old man had loaded in the pack for her and dug a hole, and a bare circle of earth around it, for her fire. She dulled the edge of the knife he’d sold her, cutting low the dried grass around her for kindling, and piled it against the charred chunk of bridge she’d carried. It was wet. It would smoke conspicuously before it caught. Nothing to be done about that. She tucked the tubers underneath, to have a ready breakfast. Her wet clothes she laid in a ring around her fire to contain it, and she sat naked on the blanket her pack had kept to merely damp. How was it sunset already?
The summer night buzzed with small biting insects that had no respect for her fire’s smoke. She knew these insects, had heard that they bit, but nothing could have prepared her for the itch. How dare they bite her, some voice in the depths of her asked. Did they not know where she was from? For the first time since she’d looked squarely at the price of her childhood’s luck, she laughed at herself. What a relief, to laugh.
That was when something leapt out of the uncut grass beyond her ring and onto her. It pinned her shoulders to the stubbly ground and called out, “Got her!”
Bandits—four of them that she could see. Maybe more out there. They’d followed her smoke. The one pinning her was so smudged with mud on the face that she couldn’t tell anything about them but their weight.
This was not a thing her teachers had prepared her for.
Another bandit picked through her pack. “Not much,” he said, “and all of it damp.” He was a young man, dressed in the familiar style of the blessed city. Was he still wearing the clothes he’d walked out in, or had he stolen them off some other walker? “All she’s got is the usual things from Old Man Last Chance.”
The girl couldn’t reach her own walking stick, but he’d laid his down where she could maybe just stretch to it.
“Better than nothing,” replied another young man’s voice.
Somewhere in the tall grass, a baby cried and a woman’s voice started cursing. The curses turned into a howl, and the bandit who’d held her pinned rolled off and grabbed her walking stick.
She had to tell herself to grab the other bandit’s stick three times before her hand woke up and did it. By the time she stood and looked up, her little circle was boiling over with mayhem. At its center, a barefoot woman with a wailing baby strapped to her chest swung a long stick with a sharp rock fastened to the point. There was a word for that kind of stick. The girl stood there trying to remember the word for it while the woman smacked the butt of the stick across the back of a bandit’s head to knock him sprawling, then flipped the tip downward and drove it toward his gut. He rolled almost far enough. Dodged a gut wound, but the little stone blade cut into his side, and blood spurted out. So much blood.
The young man’s screams startled the baby into silence. His companions raised their hands in surrender and backed off a few steps.
The girl dropped the walking stick, fell to her knees, and heaved up all the nothing in her stomach.
“Just let us get him out of here,” said the muddy bandit, “and we’ll grant you safe passage.”
The woman with the spear—the word was spear!—looked all four of the bandits over. “Children,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re barely more than children. Very well. There’s a plant with little silvery hairs on the leaves, grows on top of the river banks wherever they get steep to let some sun in. You know the kind?”
“No,” said a young man who might have been the wounded one’s brother, never taking his eyes off the woman’s spearpoint.
“Easy to recognize when you know to look. Next place downstream where the road and river meet. Silvery hairs, remember. Put the leaves on. Don’t rinse them first. They’ll stop his bleeding and keep the wound from turning, if anything can. Now get away, and leave this girl alone.”
“Or what?” demanded the fourth bandit, who’d knelt to tend the fallen boy. Her voice choked back tears. “You’ll be hiding in the city’s luck, soon as you can reach it.”
“Or I’ll see by his blood on my spear, and I’ll come out to track down every last one of you.”
Without another word, they carried their companion out of the circle.
Now the girl knew by their hasty tracks the most direct path to the river, where the road would be. It was the one direction she could not take, if she wanted to avoid those bandits in the morning.
And they’d stolen her damp blanket.
“Thank you,” she said to the wiry woman. “You saved my life.”
The woman harrumphed as she pulled her whimpering baby out of its wrappings and put it to her breast. “I didn’t decide for sure to do it until my little one gave me away. Even odds you’d have joined them by morning. Around here, they all start out just like you. Good thing they’re not prepared for anybody who didn’t grow up soft like they did. Here.” She tried one-handed to untie the bulky knot that held the wrappings around her chest. Holding the wiggly baby took her other hand. “Cover up, child.”
“You like getting bitten by bugs?”
“Definitely not. Thank you.” The girl stepped toward her to loosen the knot. The woman’s wrappings turned out to be a single length of strong hempen cloth that went on yard after yard.
She’d made a ballgown once with less fabric than this.
“You got a name?” The woman turned slowly to help her unwind the cloth.
The girl had considered taking a new one, had refused to think of herself by the name her mother had given her. But just now she was thinking a little better of mothers, and her old name was a comfort. “Crocus.”
“Crocus, you made a good fire, for what you had to work with. If you don’t mind, my daughter and I could do with a place to rest until morning.”
“You’d be most welcome. To anything I have.”
“Not much, and most of it damp, I’ve heard tell.” Smiling, the woman handed off the hempen cloth in a tangled mass.
“So I guess we’d better eat whatever’s still good.” The girl, Crocus, shook the wrapping out straight and arranged it to keep the bugs off herself. “I was trying to make it last, but since it won’t now... I’m sorry there’s so little to share.” No point mentioning the tubers yet. Until they’d cooked for half the night, they would be poison.
The woman leaned her weight on the butt of her spear and sat on the ground. “Where you’re going, Crocus, that’s a feast.”
“A feast. Everywhere out there?”
“It’s eight days’ walk to the next farm town, and unless you’ve got some specialized skill they lack there, you’ll soon run out of money to buy with.”
But she had already spent the last of her coin. “I don’t suppose they’ve got much need for party clothes? I’m good at making them.”
The woman laughed so hard she dislodged the baby from her breast and had to soothe it back on. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh. You were brave to leave home. It was a noble thing to try.”
The word try didn’t sit well with Crocus. “I’m never going back there.”
“You might not. But if you ever have a child of your own, you’ll consider it. It’s a shocking, wretched thing to find out what you’re willing to do for your children.”
Her mother had said much the same. She cut more of the grass from the circle’s edge and fed it slowly into the fire, piece by piece. She wouldn’t drag a stranger into a family argument that wasn’t her fault. The woman let her have her sullenness a while before she spoke again.
“My name’s Paper, and this is Gentle.”
Paper shrugged. “My parents named me for something rare and costly, or at least it was in our village. Like people in cities name their children after gems.”
“They do that?”
“Lots of places.”
“Where are you headed, Paper?”
“Same place you left, of course. May I?” She reached toward the little pile of river-dampened jerky.
“I already offered. Why would you ever want to go there?”
“So Gentle might live to see your age.”
“She would, there. But it’s not a gentle place.”
“Gentler than where I come from.”
“Not really. Do you know what happens to the one child who buys us our luck?”
“I know what happened to the four children I buried back in my village. And all the other children we buried with them. You got any clean water to drink?”
“I’m sorry.” Crocus passed her the waterskin. “I went to see the child. If you ever go see... When you go see, because everyone does eventually, you’ll want to burn the whole place down. Except of course you can’t, it won’t burn, it can’t burn. Because of that one child. Nobody can ever come set the child free, because the luck it buys for the rest of us keeps us safe from anything good ever happening to it, I mean, to the child. The spell loops, see.” The words tumbled out faster and faster. “No army can come make us stop doing that, because our walls will never fall again. The founders thought of everything. The only way the child’s suffering could end is if everybody left at the same time. But even if all of us who grew up understanding walked out at once, there would still be people who don’t understand, walking in to take our places.” She decided to let herself cry this time, but nothing came. “Don’t go there, Paper. Please don’t go there.”
Paper handed back the waterskin. “Only one thing I need to know for now.”
“How do they choose the child?”
“You mean, could they choose Gentle?”
“No, it has to be one of us, born to the blessed city, or it wouldn’t be a proper sacrifice. But of course a child can’t be taken within the city or its hinterlands, because our luck would protect it. And its parents can’t still be alive and at home, or their luck would protect it. It’s tricky. But the spell loops, so there’s always someone traveling and orphaned to take when the last one’s dying.”
“Clever. Ugly and cruel, but clever.”
“And you can live with ugly and cruel?” Crocus considered telling every detail of the luckbringer child’s sores, to hurt Paper as the sight had hurt Crocus, even if no one could hurt as that child itself did.
“Ugly and cruel are everywhere. If you’re lucky, you get some say in what kind you live under.”
“So I might as well have stayed, is that what you’re saying? Let that child who started out as innocent and loved as Gentle pay the price of everything for me?”
Paper wiped her eyes with her free hand, but her voice was steady. “No.”
“Why put up with ugly and cruel? Why not try to make things better? With our own work, our own suffering, to pay our own way in the universe?” It was the argument Crocus had had with her mother since she turned thirteen. Now that argument was over. She’d never have it with her mother again. And now she could cry, small angry tears.
“That’s one thing I’ll credit to the walkers from the blessed city,” said Paper. “What you want is virtuous. And you do try, so that’s two things. Oh, you’re smug, you think you know better than all the rest of us what a well-run city looks like. You’re constantly trying to build a city just as blessed, only where nobody pays any price at all.”
Crocus wanted to protest that she intended to make up for the price that had been paid for her, that to do so had been her one goal for as long as she’d been able to read by herself. But she knew Paper had seen things she hadn’t, so she set it aside and listened.
Paper looked long at her, as if to assess her silence, before she went on. “Can’t entirely blame you people. It’s a pretty dream. I tried dreaming it once, too. Every few years, the walkers give it another go.”
“And what happens?”
Squinting into the fire, Paper said, “They flail around trying to live up to whatever they felt when they walked out, but there are so many ways to fall short. Maybe they start a new religion, it lasts a generation, and then their children turn on each other. Or they try to take over some city that’s been running messily but half-decently without them, and they wreck it, any of a hundred ways. A few of them over the centuries became spectacularly cruel tyrants in their efforts to fix the world. Most often, they try building a city from scratch, but they never have money to get beyond the beginning, and nobody wants to do the messy, dangerous jobs. The walkers are always surprised about the danger part. Villages would be cheaper, but apparently villages don’t scratch the itch. I don’t even know how many new cities walkers have started and abandoned. At least they left you a lot of ruins to shelter in.”
Crocus shook her head. “Is there no good story to tell? Have none of my people done anything useful?”
“Some have.” Paper’s baby had fallen asleep. Carefully, she laid the child on the driest of Crocus’s garments and set about working the kinks out of her shoulders. “Here’s a story I grew up with. Once long ago, there was a terrible earthquake in the capital of the land where I was born. People traveled from all over the world to offer aid. A hundred walkers came to our new ruins to help dig out the wounded. Only they’d never seen broken bodies before, and half of them fled before they did a lick of work. The other half stayed until all the survivors were either saved or not, and did work that won them the whole world’s respect. But most of that half who stayed to help, they never wanted to see another wound again, so when the rebuilding was well underway, they fled, too. The few who remained started a school and spent the rest of their lives learning and teaching medicine. Actual heroes, that bunch. They built something that outlived them by a couple hundred years, and the school’s still running, teaching all kinds of things now.” Her brows creased. She shook away some unwelcome thought. “Or a year ago it was, anyway. Out of the original hundred, there were seven walkers who stayed. Seven. So, if you were one of a hundred like that, would you be one of the fifty, one of the forty-three, or one of the seven?”
Crocus dried her eyes. “Surely there’s somewhere I could go and make clothing to keep people warm and shield them from sunburn, and maybe sometimes make them feel pretty, too, and not add to the harm in the world? If I never let myself hope for anything bigger, can I hope for that?”
“I’m sorry, child. I shouldn’t blame you for your predecessors’ mistakes. You set out to make fresh, different mistakes, or you wouldn’t be here in the first place. And maybe you would have been one of the seven.”
Crocus watched Gentle sleeping. Gentle was a lanky baby, nothing chubby about her. “How old is she?” Surely that was a safe subject.
“A little over a year.”
“Really?” It seemed impossible. Much too small.
“We’ve been traveling to the blessed city since she was barely a month old.”
Something was odd about that. Crocus took another swig of water, then found herself thinking out loud. “It would take a powerful misfortune to make a mother start a year-long walk with a month-old baby.”
“It would take a powerful misfortune to make a mother who knows about the luckbringer child set out for your home. It’s not as if anyone, anywhere, approves. There’s a reason nobody else has tried to replicate your city’s results. But. But this is the last child I will ever have. There’s only one way to be sure she grows to outlive me. And if I have to join in the terrible wrong your countrymen do, to do this one right for her, well then. I will spend twenty years as a villain, and if she walks out of the city, I hope she will accept my companionship when she goes. Whatever I need to expiate, I will expiate then.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “Expiation will make a fine life’s work.”
Crocus blurted out, “What happened to you?”
Paper harrumphed again. “Crocus, that’s not a question to ask, out in the world. Nobody you’ve ever met yet had a story too bloody for telling. But a lot of us do. Our suffering is not yours to ask for.”
“I’ve given up more than you or I will ever know, because I saw that other people’s suffering wasn’t mine to take.”
“Yes, you did. And in saying this I am trying to help you, freely. To ask for another’s suffering is different from taking, but it’s not as different as it might be. Let people offer, unasked.”
“Fine.” Only her own mother had corrected her so insistently. Your life could depend on it, she would say, when they would talk of the world outside. Mothers were worst when they were right.
In the long silence, Paper picked through the remains of the provisions, chewed more dried things that hadn’t stayed dry enough. Crocus prodded at her wet belongings and her inside-out pack, checking their progress toward dry.
Paper yielded first. “You want another story? Once there lived a village schoolteacher,” she said. “In harvest season she worked the fields same as all her neighbors, but in the winter months, she gathered the children, and anyone else who wanted to come, around the meeting-house hearth, where they learned letters and sums together. She owned ten books, and had visited three cities in her life. Messy, wondrous, dangerous, mostly good cities. Lived in the capital for a year of her youth even, cleaning chamber pots in trade for learning at the biggest school in the world. By all reasonable accounts, she was rich. Best of all, she had a good man and five children of her own.”
Crocus huddled tighter in the loops of hempen cloth. Until, that was the word that would come next.
“Until an army came marching toward the capital, which was a week’s walk down the valley from us. Us.” She ripped up a hunk of grass and took a turn feeding it into the fire. “All right then. No more cradle stories. I’ll lay it out plain. Everything we had, piled together, was less than the army needed to provision it for a day’s march. As soon as we saw them coming, we emptied our houses and piled our belongings outside our doors, hoping it wouldn’t be worth their bother to torch the village. I was emptying a root cellar on the cold side of the hill when the call came that we were all to gather in the village square. I carried the turnips with me, because I knew from my studies what happened to people who tried to hide their goods from armies. But my baby was sound asleep, and I didn’t want her to wake near the soldiers. Invaders can’t abide wailing babies. So I swaddled her in that cloth you’re wearing now, to keep her warm, and closed her in the root cellar. And I held to the hope that I’d leave the village square alive, because if I didn’t, I wasn’t sure who would be left to find her.”
Until. Crocus plucked at the grass stubble with her fingers and tried to make no noise.
“They picked over our household goods, broke half of them in front of us because it amused them to see us watch. They took the turnips, and the whole harvest, and all the animals who had been led out of the barns. We thought we’d starve for a year and that would be the worst of it. But then they killed all our men, and all our boys, and all our girls too young to follow orders. And then some wizened person wearing a mound of dirty wool said some words over all us girls and women who were left, and we bled. The general told us we’d never have any more children, because he and his countrymen hated us so much they’d rather see us die out than have the extra source of slaves. Since the village belonged to his army now, we had to go dig graves for our dead. It wouldn’t do to leave piles of our corpses littering their land. So we dug.”
Crocus wanted to hear anything good happen. “How did you—”
“Don’t interrupt people when you’ve asked them to spill their misery for you.”
Paper rocked a little. “I’m not mad at you. You’ve only ever met one miserable person before, and I hear luckbringer children are too far gone to speak.” Crocus nodded. “Just, remember this rule. It’ll serve you well no matter where you go.”
“I won’t forget,” Crocus whispered.
“To the army, our babies were all interchangeable, but my neighbors had seen that Gentle wasn’t among the dead, which meant she was somewhere else. All the women wanted to save the only child they still could. So when the sun was just set and we were nearly done filling in the big pit, some of my neighbors clustered around me so the soldiers couldn’t see. It was a terrible risk they took for me. They laid me down on the ground and covered me with the thinnest layer of dirt. Nobody had counted us, so nobody noticed I was missing when it was time for all the women to go cook our harvest to feed our conquerors. I lay there until full dark, buried with my good man and four of my children and most of my people. My breasts were swollen and painful with the milk I hadn’t fed Gentle since midday. When the sound of the late-season frogs was louder than the sounds from the resting army, I dug myself out of the grave and went to my baby. My milk leaked all over my bloody clothes.
“The root cellar walls were thick enough, nobody had heard her. As soon as I opened the door, she gave the worst of the hunger cries newborns have, the one that breaks with little gasps and bleats. I hid with her there in the cool and perfect darkness. Hungry as she was, she refused to nurse again and again. I had to scrub the grave dirt off with my own dripping milk. It was the only thing I had to clean up with, but when was I going to find food again to make her more? I kept her nursing as long as she could, because if I took sick with an infection from all those hours backed up, I might die on the run, and then what would become of her?
“I couldn’t stay and wait out the invasion, because if the army caught me with a child, well, they’d already shown what they would do. If I tried to race the army to the capital, I’d have to go through it all again when the capital fell. The watch officers in the capital’s towers would see the army coming before I could get there to warn them, anyway, so my help would be for nothing. The invaders would have scouts and outriders—I’d read about things like that at the school—but I might have a chance if I made for the wooded foothills and followed the mountain range out of the army’s path. I thought about every place I’d heard about, every place I’d seen on a map. Where could I be sure an invading force would never go? I knew where, though the road was long. My schooling gave me some skills to trade with, and a few folks here and there took care of us for kindness’s sake. A couple of walkers, even, to be fair. So here we are.”
Crocus tried to guess what people said after hearing a thing like that. “Thank you,” she said, though she halfway felt as if the story were something Paper had done to her in punishment for judging. But no, that wasn’t fair. She had asked.
Stars drifted overhead. The waning moon rose, the coming autumn’s sickle for the first harvest.
“Fire’s nearly out,” Paper observed.
“If we cut more grass, we’ll have to stay awake to tend it. And we have to sleep sometime.”
Paper quirked her head at an angle, curious. “You ever heard of taking first watch? Second watch?”
“Oh.” She’d read about it in books. She was going to have to get better at remembering things like that without waiting for someone to remind her. “What would you do if it were just you and Gentle? There’d be nobody to trade watches with.”
“Smart question. You might well live to the next town without resorting to banditry.”
Crocus shrank further into herself.
“I’m sorry. I meant it as a compliment. Now I think further on it, with no shelter, tonight’s too cold to trade watches. We’ll have to huddle. All three of us, if you don’t mind. Remember what I said to the bandits about tracking them by the blood on my spear? Watch this. We do other magics, outside the luck, and you can learn them if you listen to things. Try to remember this tune.” Paper stood and took her spear, point-down, in one hand. Humming a simple sequence of four notes, she walked a circle around the fire, following the outline Crocus had first found where some creature had crushed the grass for comfort. “If anything comes to hurt us, that’ll wake me before it gets too close.”
So Crocus put her now-dry clothes back on, humming the tune to memorize it. Paper lay curled around Gentle, and Crocus curled around Paper. The long winding wrap, they zigged and zagged to cover all three of them and pinned its pivots under their weight against the night breeze.
Morning came, mercilessly bright. Grass stubble prickled through Crocus’s clothes all up the length of her. Gentle laughed, while Paper tried to shush her. “Let the girl sleep,” she whispered, but the child laughed on.
“It’s all right, I’m up.” Up, stiff, and sore. Crocus wished for the great bathhouse by the square in the center of the blessed city. It was safe to wish for that, she decided, because she was in no danger of turning back to follow the wish. She brushed bits of grass off her face, stood to get the waterskin. It was nearly empty. She sat on the ground and drank a carefully estimated third of what was left, then remembered the tubers. She dug her walking stick into the cool ashes of her fire. Underneath, breakfast was still warm. “Surprise!” she said, handing the larger one to Paper.
“Oh!” was all the reply the woman managed before Gentle grabbed it and got a mouthful, and then eating was all anyone could think of until the tubers were gone.
Salt, then. Crocus remembered salt. She checked the pack, the arrangement of her gear. Maybe she could earn some salt in that farm village ahead.
“I’ve been afraid to ask,” said Paper. “How much farther to the city?”
“To the gates? Three days.”
The wiry woman beamed. “So close! Did you hear that, darling? Almost there!” She lifted Gentle up over her head.
“You’ll be safe sooner. The blessing reaches out past the farms, and then past the orchards, and then around the woodlots. Everything the city needs to sustain all its people. You’ll see the border plain enough. At my pace, it was just over a day’s walk from here. But you’ll have to cross the river I got soaked in, pretty much right away.”
“We could sleep in safety tonight? Tonight?” Paper laughed right along with Gentle.
“If the river doesn’t get you, and the bandits don’t get you. I bet you make better time than I do. Maybe tonight.” The thought that Paper might have traveled so far yet not reach the protection of the city’s luck almost made Crocus want to walk back with her as far as the green edge, to watch over her. But Crocus was probably more trouble than she was worth out here—who would end up protecting whom? “No doubt my trail’s easy enough to follow, and then you’ll see the road.”
“Plenty easy. Six months from now, you’ll look back on the signs you left behind and you’ll laugh with embarrassment.”
“You assume I’ll still be alive to walk in six months.” So many ways to get killed. She’d read about wolves. With the quality of luck available out here, wolves would probably turn out to be real.
Paper sat to face her. “I won’t tell you not to despair. But will you believe me if I tell you that you can despair and keep going?”
“I believe you.” Crocus risked a smile to thank her with. “You’d be an authority on that.”
“Yes. I would. What kind of place do you want to go? After that first farm village, I mean, because really, you won’t make it anyplace farther if you don’t stop there for rest and resupply.”
“Someplace cold enough that people need clothes? Someplace where people don’t make all the clothes for themselves. It’s the only practical skill I can offer in a town.” Her eyes went hot, but she didn’t want to burden Paper with her tears.
“You’ll learn others. But all right, that’s a start. You ever see a map of the world?”
“My mother made me memorize it. She knew I’d walk someday.”
“All right, here’s what’s dangerous this year, as best I can figure out the rumors.” And she drew a remarkably accurate map in the stubbly ground with her spear. About three quarters of the world Crocus had heard tell of was home to more trouble than she thought herself ready for.
“No wonder the other walkers want to start from scratch and make new cities,” she said. “Everything out here is a mess. Is there anyplace that isn’t tainted with misrule and war?”
“Well,” said Paper, “on this whole stretch of coast over here, everybody got completely wiped out by plague. Rumor says no survivors at all, even in the little villages.”
Crocus shocked herself by laughing. “That’s what passes for good news?”
“Not in itself, no. But hundreds of walkers are headed there. They think if they can start with a city already built, they might be able to skip ahead to how to run it and feed it. There’d be nobody already there to displace or presume on or embarrass themselves in front of. It’s a walker’s dream.”
“Because the plague they might catch from burying the dead, or from not burying the dead, killed everyone who lived there.” Crocus shook her head. In a year, she might be desperate enough to think that made sense.
“It’s not the stupidest thing walkers have ever attempted.”
Crocus considered. “Better plague than war.”
“I’ve only tried the one,” said Paper, “so honestly, I’m not sure. Here, let me trade walking sticks with you.” They stood.
“But you might need it!”
“For one more day? A blunt stick will do for the bandits around here. And it seems ungrateful to walk into the luckbringer’s city with a weapon that’s drawn blood.”
“And you. We’d have been colder and hungrier without you. And slower, without the hope of a night inside the luck to draw us on.”
Crocus took a breath. “Could you do one thing for me? Could you find my mother and tell her I made it this far? It’s not much comfort, but it’s all I can send her today.”
“Of course.” So Paper repeated the name and address with her three times to memorize them. “Three is enough for me to remember,” she said, when Crocus asked her to do it again. “Where paper’s costly, we memorize a lot. You’d do well to practice.”
“Ma will have my old room empty, if you arrive too late in the evening for the refuge assignment office. I wish... I wish the world outside the luck were fit for Gentle to grow up in.”
Paper looked hard at Crocus, right into her. “I think you’d have been one of the seven,” she said. “After the earthquake.”
“I don’t think I’d have joined the bandits, but I don’t think I’m a hero.”
“You can decide to be one of the seven,” said Paper, “if that’s what you want. It took them years to become what they became. They watched and listened. That’s what got them started. You can decide to do that. You do it some already.”
“The city’s luck...” said Crocus. “I’ll never want it for myself, but right now I want it for you. I can’t help it. Who am I to ask this, and of you? But please, remember the luckbringer.” Her voice caught on angry tears. “Someday, someday, I will make the world outside the walls so beautiful, and so bright, and so... irresistible that everyone from the blessed city will put aside whatever they tell themselves so they can stay, and they’ll all walk out at once to see the amazing world I made.”
“I want that for you, too. I want that. You keep walking. We’ll listen for news from all the wind’s twelve quarters.”
They stood together in a long parting embrace, the baby warm between them. It was a different blessing.