Through a welter of cirrus clouds the sunlight cast blue shadows where a round yurt was nestled at the end of the path and with a shed and fowl hut. The door of the yurt, a heavy animal skin with the edges still furry, was thrown back and a bearded man dragged a girl into the snow, striping her legs with a switch. “You don’t learn, Stroenuk. We could all be killed!”
“Leave her alone, Ocliv,” a woman called from inside. “She must obey her gift.”
“Like her mother?” Ocliv said. “Huh, Opeil? Like the Stroenuk who was stoned and burned in the square? Is that what you want for her? And for us?” He held a torn page before the crying child. “No more drawings. No more dragon visions. No more images of seastone,” mockingly, “who is the liquid center of light.”
Ocliv released the girl and searched his pocket for a match to burn the page. “Light doesn’t penetrate seawater. Light bounces off water just like it bounces off snow.”
An overhead noise made Ocliv stand alert, so different from mountain thunder or the crackle of northern lights. Opeil stepped outside shielding her eyes to glimpse a streaking light that led to the craggy outcropping above them. The skyship, rosy in the angling light and with a wide con-trail, shuttered and came apart before it crashed. The nose section tumbled down the cliff, exposing the passenger compartment where puppet-like figures jerked and bounced and finally were still.
They stared until the noise quieted. “Didn’t see that in your visions, huh, Stroenuk?” Ocliv accused. “Hitch the wagon.” He pushed the girl forward. “We must get there first.”
“Are survivors possible?” Opeil asked breathlessly.
“There’ll be supplies and shipments of jewels for their stock exchange. We must get there first.”
The blue and silver wreckage smelled of cold ashes and icy metal. Jagged edges were illuminated by the pitiless sun in the mountain air. Ocliv ducked out of the passenger compartment carrying rucksacks like schoolgirls carry. “These are the last of the goods,” he said. “We must go before the light fades.”
“We cannot leave the bodies,” Opeil objected. “Others will come; maybe offer a reward.”
“For us, you think? For the exiles who harbor a Stroenuk?”
“Alousha’s reward for kindness.” Opeil stepped past him into the round frozen space where the dead laid at different angles, their coats forced open and pockets emptied.
“Why do you always counter me?” Ocliv called behind her, but stopped short when a movement near the outcropping caught his eye. “You think to escape me?” He dropped the goods and hurried forward drawing his long knife just as a Chinese man in fur-lined coat and fur-trimmed cap rose in challenge. “Nu delaya!” the man shouted brandishing a rod. “Chi cylay!’
“I don’t speak your savannah gibberish,” Ocliv said. “And you know none of my words either. So if you die, who’s to say?”
“Ransom! Ransom!” another called from behind the desperate man.
Ocliv lowered his weapon. Here was a word he understood. A boy dressed much the same as his guardian stepped into the light. “They will pay a ransom for my safety,” the boy said in Striiduc, accented with sharp consonant sounds.
Ocliv squinted, noting a second guard crouching in ambush. “And who might you be?” he said to the boy who was maybe age fourteen.
“Wan Chu, son of Ambassador Wan Su who waits in Cochin for my arrival. You will contact him now with your plan for my safe return.”
“Ha! Where do you think you landed, boy? Contact him how?”
“By Stroenuk, your dragon dreamer who can see the actions of those who dwell on the savannah as clearly as I see you.” Wan Chu actually pronounced the word correctly as strew-knock.
“Ha! If only her visions were clear,” Ocliv said.
“Others will reach out to her when they see.”
“See this?” Ocliv indicated the wreck site. “How will they see this?”
“There is one who has the song.” He stepped back a fraction, gesturing behind him. “Here, a dreamer like your daughter.”
“She’s not my–”
Opeil came from the passenger cabin, stepping past him and past the Chinese guards. On a pallet on the snow, past the chunks of flaked ice spray from the impact, past the long shadows and glinting sunlight that indicated day was ending; Opeil found a women laying prone but moaning softly, covered with coats taken from the dead. Two Striiduc gypsies squatted at her feet, maybe forced there by the Chinese. On a nearby boulder a dark-skinned girl sat, a Putuki judging by her features, holding her arm and with an anguished look from the pain of a dislocated shoulder. “Where’s the Stroenuk?” she whispered through the pain.
“We saved the ambassador’s daughter,” Wan Chu claimed loudly, desperately. “We stopped the bleeding. Except for us, she would die.”
“The girl,” Bybiis whispered. “Bring the girl.”
Opeil turned and gestured past Ocliv and the Chinese guards. The child in boots and a heavy coat approached hesitantly, picking her footholds over the unforgiving ice shards. The two gypsies whispered together, “Stroenuk, Stroenuk.”
Bybiis gestured to draw her near. “What is you name?”
“She is Stroenuk,” Wan Chu said in a demanding tone.
“Your name?” Bybiis repeated softly.
“She is Opin,” the woman said, “daughter to my sister Opinal who was stoned and burned in the public square. Opin is hidden here due to the shame of seeing. Her night visions—”
“Her visions will save us,” Bybiis finished. “Opin, I need your strength. I need a little help to reach my friends on the savannah. Will you help me?”
“It’s forbidden,” Ocliv said.
“If she doesn’t,” Wan Chu said, “we’ll all die.”
“I won’t die today,” Ocliv told him.
“She can ransom us,” the boy returned. “You’ll be richer than a Borabean king.”
Ocliv squinted, glancing at the Chinese guards. “Richer than Rularim?”
“Richer than Daniel Chin himself.”
Ocliv stood tall and seemed to swagger a moment. “We can hide the goods and return for them tomorrow. This is for Alousha’s blessing.”