“The Children of the Revolution” by Kelly Jennings
This story is posted online for free as part of Post A Story For Haiti.
“My da’s coming for Spring Festival,” Dov insisted. “He promised.”
Ivy, her mumma, kept mixing nutbread, but across the fire, Sen made a rude noise. “Martin Eduardo never met a promise he wouldn’t break,” she said, “or a lie he wouldn’t tell.”
“Or the bunk he wouldn’t–” said Rivka, and Ivy said hey, now. Everyone laughed.
Dov knew what that joke was about, S-E-X, that’s what, how stupid did they think children were?
That was weeks ago. Now she and her mumma and Da Elvis had come over the mountains with some others to the bit of the Tovis which Will had held during the Rider Wars, and which he held still, now that they all were legal. When they came into camp, Dov hovered, waiting to crowd her way into the conversation. Ivy asked for her: “What about Martin?”
Will grimaced. “He’ll be in by morning, he says.”
Dov bounced in place.
“Course, you know Martin. What that means, it means he might be in tonight, and he might could show up three days from now, and maybe he’ll wander in next summer with that sweet smile, oh, was I meant to be at your Spring Fest, Will?”
Will had done an imitation of da’s field accent on the last words. All around, people laughed.
Dov scowled up at Will. “He is coming. He promised me.”
Will looked at her across the fire, its flames buttery against the gathering blue of the mountain evening. “Now how old are you again?”
“Will,” Ivy said.
Will shook his head. “He promised,” he mimicked.
Dov kicked dirt at him and ran off into the trees. Jael came and the rest of her crew came with–Emir, London, Taki. Jael was the oldest, but Dov was biggest and meanest. Taki was youngest, a baby, really. They had all of them been together since the Rider Wars.
They climbed up to the big rock, their place in this camp. Someone was there already. Dov moved to chase off the invader, except it was Keegan. Dov liked Keegan, and went to lean on his shoulder. He was jacked, watching something on a handheld. She tried to guess what. No text, and she couldn’t guess from the graphics. His shoulder was bony under her face. Keegan had always been lean. Dov used to think it was due to the Wars. He had been somewhere bad in the wars. Now she thought maybe it was just Keegan. She gave up trying to decipher his link and lay down in the gravelly dirt. Jael, her back against the rock, braced her boots on Dov’s ribs.
“I hate that shitting Will,” Dov said, reaching for a black burr needle to chew on.
Keegan ran his fingers through her hair. “I can hear you,” he said, though jacked as he was he shouldn’t have been able to.
“Like you never said shit.”
He cut his light-colored eyes at her. “What’s he done now?”
She undid the laces on Jael’s boots and knotted them together. “What you gone do for festival?” she asked Keegan. “A song, like last year?”
“Shut up, I’m listening to this.”
“Why ain’t you? It was funny.”
“It was stupid. Hush, I can’t hear.”
Jael pulled her boots back to herself, undid the laces, and retied them properly. “We could do a song, is it?” she asked Dov.
Dov chewed the needle, considering writing a song mocking Will. Except she was rat bad at songs. Everyone would laugh at her, not Will. Maybe she could get Keegan to write it. Only he stayed in Will’s camp all the time, ever since he had come to the hills. He’d never risk it.
“Or a riddle dance,” Jael said. Jael liked dancing.
London sat up. “I’ve got riddles!” London collected riddles like trousers collected burrs. “We can use my riddles! And–”
“No.” Dov would rather not put in at all than put in a stupid riddle dance.
London sulked, his round face stormy. Dov was considering concessions that didn’t involve riddles when they heard a scatter of leafmeal. They all crouched, their heads whipping round. Keegan unjacked. Dov saw the shape in the brush and let out her breath.
Keegan had picked out the shape as well. “Bunny. What did I say about sneaking around?”
A slender child emerged from the brush. Unlike all of them, she wore clean clothing that fit her tiny body: a little brown suit with lace at its neck, a long jacket of fine wool, slim slippers of dark leather. Her pale hair lay down her back in gleaming braids.
London stepped forward, fascinated.
Dov scowled. “In shit is that?” she asked Keegan.
“She’s a princess,” London whispered, aside to Jael.
Bunny smiled at him. Dov didn’t. She reached to grab London’s collar and gave him a hard shake. “That ain’t any princess. That’s a holder.”
London’s eyes went wide. He retreated; Dov let go. Bunny had stopped smiling. Dov wheeled to Keegan. “Why’s she here?”
Keegan wasn’t smiling either. “You should ask Mr. Will that, miss.”
Dov blinked, confused. It took her a moment to remember. Then her temper sparked. “That ain’t what I meant, Keegan! No one thinks you’re a holder anymore.”
“You may have forgotten,” Keegan said, in the perfect holder dialect he had used when he had first been captured, before he learned to talk like the rest of them. “Your father surely hasn’t.” He put his handheld in his pocket and went off through the brush.
Dov scowled after him, mortified. Then she spun on the holder. “What kind of name is Bunny?”
“It’s not my real name, of course.” The child was strolling around, looking over their hearth, their storage pit, the dugout they had made so they would have a place to sit when snow came. “Bunny is simply the name my father gave me when I was little, because I was so sweet and pretty.”
“Sweet?” Dov said incredulously. “Pretty?”
Bunny gave her a kind smile. “What did your father call you? Redback?”
Behind Dov, Jael let out a snort. Dov shot a glare her way. Jael, a hand clapped over her mouth, lifted apologetic brows. Redbacks, common in the North Country, buzzed loudly, bit hard, and left a nasty welt that itched for days.
“My mumma,” Dov said at Bunny, “named me Dov. After my Uncle Dov, who was killed by holders like you.”
Bunny’s smile widened. “Oh, you’re Martin Eduardo’s child! Oh, but I did think you’d be – oh.”
“I’d be what?” Dov demanded.
Bunny lowered her eyelashes sweetly. “I’m Riniko Lord Efram. Lord Efram’s daughter. We’re here to talk to your father.”
“Aunt Keiko?” But she liked Keiko Lord Efram.
“Yes! Let’s go tell her we met!” Bunny reached for her hand. Dov stepped away. “Oh, come now,” Bunny wheedled. “Let’s be friends.”
Dov got her heel behind Bunny’s heel and shoved, sending the little holder tumbling down the hillside, smashing through the brush. Jael, who been expecting this, shook her head. “Holding idiot,” Dov yelled after her.
In the waxberry bush where she had fetched up, Bunny got to her feet, her pale face wary with surprise. Dov strode off, taking her crew in her wake.
Martin hadn’t come to the mountains for Winter Festival. He had sent presents, instead–jackets with hoods, boxes of honey cookies, animates about dragons. Her mumma said he had work to do, which Dov did not believe. Her Aunt Keiko said her da was having a rough time. The Rider Wars, Keiko said. Only who hadn’t gone through the Wars?
At Winter Festival, people gave gifts, ate sweets, and danced. Spring Festival was fancy meals and plays. In the cities, Dov’s mumma said, people did famous plays; but in the hills, you made the plays yourself, or it could be songs, or dances with songs, or, like London wanted, riddle dances.
That night, beyond the usual talk about who was bunking who and who was ill and that, it was lots of talk about who planned what for the festival. Though Will’s crew had six houses now, it was still the habit to cook meals outside, and gather around the fires to talk and drink. Dov and her crew wandered from fire to fire, listening to see what people had planned for the festival, in case they were doing might give them an idea. By the time they were too tired to stand, nothing had.
Dov woke the next morning in the front room of the house where her mumma and Da Elvis slept. The fire was burned down to embers. She elbowed Jael, sleeping cuddled around her, and crawled from under her blanket to find her boots. She poked Jael again. She had to poke her three times before Jael woke. Outside, dawn was bare and blue. Mist hung in the burr trees. Up at the main fire sat Will and her da.
Dov caught her breath. Jael, still lacing her boots, looked over. Dov moved to run, but Jael got her sleeve. Will’s expression was sour–which might mean nothing, since Will often looked hard-tempered; except her da looked merry, like he was about to bust out laughing. Dov knew Martin only looked like that when he was furious.
After a moment, she whispered, “But it’s Spring Festival.”
Jael shook her head. That didn’t mean no. That meant she didn’t know. She moved her head toward the side of the house. Dov chewed her lip, and stepped into the shadows.
They weren’t idiots, like that Bunny. They didn’t make a sound. They got right to the first house, right by the fire, settled against it to listen, and looked up to see Will standing above them. “During the Wars,” he said, “we used to shoot spies.”
Dov got up, scowling. “How are we spies? We ain’t even hear anything.”
“Interesting argument,” Will said.
Dov’s da was still by the fire, pouring tea. “Stop trying to scare my child,” he told Will. Dov went to nestle against him.
“I’d like to meet something what could scare your child,” Will told him. “I’d buy it in dozens and keep it in sacks.”
Martin hugged Dov close. She loved how her da felt, his heavy muscles, his square hands hard with callus from the years he had spent cutting stone when he had been in the contract labor system. She burrowed her face into him, breathing in his familiar smell, soap and smoke, rum and him.
“What were you trying to hear?” he asked.
“What’s wrong. What is wrong?”
“Nothing you need to fret.”
Dov always knew a lie. She slipped a glance up at him. He tightened his hug and told her about the horses back on his estate, about the presents he had brought, a dozen other things.
“Aunt Keiko is here,” she said, to see how he reacted. “Did you know?”
He gave her his wicked smile. “I did know, in fact. Quit trying to trap me.”
Dov went on, watching him. “She’s brought her kid along. Bunny.”
Martin laughed. “She brought her secretary and her nanny and her Security too.”
Will grunted. “I ain’t happy about that Security.”
“It ain’t the old days.”
“Which that matters how?”
Later, down in the river laying weir traps, Dov told her crew what she and Jael had heard. “Something’s up,” she finished. “I reckon we should find out what.”
“If Da Martin says we ain’t need to fret,” London argued. “They always say that,” Jael interrupted. “Then it’s us gets shot, is it?”
Her crew hunkered in the water, considering this. None of them had been on Oxford Estate when Riders attacked the sanctuary and shot sixteen contract children; but they had all linked the captures; and every one of them had been in camps attacked by Riders.
“They say we’re safe,” Jael said. “Then we never are. I say we find out what this is.”
They finished the traps, she and Jael working together as always. She could see Jael thinking. When they were done they climbed out of the river and got their clothes on. “Whatever it is,” Dov said, “it’s got to be why Aunt Keiko’s here. Will ain’t let Security in his camp just so she can see the plays.”
Jael nodded. “That’s what I think.”
“So…we start with Bunny.”
Jael looked startled. “What do you mean?”
Dov saw what Jael thought and laughed. “I ain’t mean torture her. I mean…be nice to her.”
Jael frowned. Emir and London had come up, still shirtless, skinny black-eyed boys, their skin as dark as Dov’s own. Dov thought of Bunny’s ice-pale skin.
“Be nice to her,” Jael repeated slowly.
Dov shoved at her hair, thick and inky-dark as Martin’s. “You know. Sweet.”
Jael’s eyes lit with understanding. “Oh. That kind of nice.”
Dov smiled. “My da showed me.”
They found Bunny up on the road near the ATTs–Martin’s Kanu was there, and big silver Java that, as Julian’s Prime Minister, Aunt Keiko traveled in. A Julian Full Security, looking awkward and unhappy, leaned against the Java’s side, watching Bunny and her tutor at a foldout worktable.
Dov climbed up to sit on the table and looked down into the screen on Bunny’s desk. “What are you studying?”
Bunny, her hair knotted into one long braid today, gave her a measured, measuring look. “Biology.”
“Earth or Julian?”
“Earth-source. Julian adaptations.”
“I like Julian insects. I don’t know much about Earth biology.”
“Do you–have tutors, up here?” Bunny asked.
Dov gave her a cheery smile. She didn’t reckon that had been what Bunny had been about to say. “Not like this here,” she said, with motion at the tutor, who was contract labor. “My mumma teaches me some. Da Elvis and Aunt Kira.”
“Lord Riniko,” the tutor said, “your mother said –”
“I can finish later.” Bunny shoved the desk aside. “I found some wild berries yesterday. Do you want me to show you?”
They were not, of course, wild berries; they were the blackberries Will’s crew had been cultivating years now, helping to grow by providing mulch, clearing out yellowfire and wax brush and other Julian-source vegetation, and by picking off insects that would have eaten their leaves to lace, with the result that what would have been a shallow patch along the stream now covered broad bands of the field. Lots of berries were ripe, even this early. Dov took off her shirt and began picking berries into it. Jael did the same, as did London and Emir–Taki was just eating berries. When Dov looked up, Bunny was frowning.
“Ain’t you have a shirt?” Dov asked. She did, Dov could see that from here. But it was white and had that lace. Pricey, likely. “Don’t fret,” Dov advised. “We can get enough. Taki can help. Taki! Stop being a baby and help. Listen,” Dov went on, stripping the bushes with both hands. “What I was thinking, do you want to do our play with us?”
Bunny’s frown pushed deeper. “What do you mean?”
Dov moved her head at her crew. “I thought, since you ain’t have a crew, maybe you’d want to come in on our play?”
Bunny went expressionless. “Why?”
Dov made her eyes big. “Because you’re alone otherwise.”
“Why would you help me,” Bunny said patiently.
Dov dropped the innocent look for a half-shamed smile. “My da’s making me. You’re a guest in this camp, I should act right, was I raised in an orphanage, like that.”
Bunny took this in. Dov knew it would work. It was one of the tricks her da had taught her–when you need them on the hook, don’t give them one lie, give them two, one that’s stupid and makes you look good, and one that is smarter and makes you look bad. Show them the stupid one first and the smarter one next–but don’t make it too smart. No one believes a really smart lie. And it has to make you look bad. Everyone always wants to believe something that makes them look better than you.
“Anyway,” Dov said, turning back to the berry bushes and starting to pick again, which was another of her da’s tricks, don’t dwell, just move on as if they had believed you, and they will have, “we’re need a play. I’m thinking dragons.”
Jael came in on cue, letting out a sigh. “You’re always thinking dragons.”
“Because dragons are best.” Dov ate a handful of berries. They were sharp-flavored, not as sweet as they would be come summer, gritty with seeds.
“We could write about bears,” Bunny said.
Dov grunted, to show how dull that was.
“Bears could be fun,” Jael said. Dov shot her a glare. “What did you have in mind?” Jael asked Bunny.
“I think your da would want you to let our guest have her way,” Jael said, all innocence.
“We could put a dragon in it too,” Bunny said nicely, and, when Dov turned, gave that sweet smile again.
That night after dinner she followed her da up the mountain. Martin was different from most hill-country, which Dov had always known, and one of the ways he was different was these long climbs to look at rocks and cliff-faces. He would always take her with, ever since she grew enough length of leg to keep up. He glanced back down the trail when she caught up this time. “Where’s Jael, then?”
Dov made a face. “She and that Bunny are messing on that desk.”
“You ain’t want to do that?”
“No,” Dov growled. She climbed on ahead, scrambled up onto a big outcrop rock. He didn’t argue. He was good at knowing when not to talk. They climbed along the river, Martin stopping often to sort through rocks along the bank, ending up at an alcove cave.
Her da climbed through the cave, collecting rocks, and went out to sit in the sun while he looked them over. Dov had been exploring the dark interior, wondering if contracts had hidden here during the Revolution, if it had been a storing place for weapons–probably not, she admitted to herself, not how it flooded. When he settled, she went to sit next to him. He had the rocks he had collected laid out on a sandstone outcrop. Agates, mostly, water-polished and pretty. She poked at the prettiest, some amber-yellow ones.
“So what has you worried, baby-cakes?”
Dov kept her face turned away from him. “Nothing.”
“Mmm. Do you reckon I woke up fool enough to believe that?”
She shrugged. He pulled her close and nuzzled her hair. “You ain’t said six words this whole afternoon. Ain’t asked me for a story since I made camp. Plus you and Jael fighting? Something’s wrong.”
Dov hunched her shoulders under his arm.
“Ivy says you were angry I didn’t come for Winter holiday. It’s that?”
Dov yanked away, getting to her feet. “I’m not a baby.”
“Well, what then?”
She stood by the river’s edge, her spine stiff. “Are you gone do that?” she demanded. “Send me off to that school, like the holders want?”
He made a sound, a kind of cough. “Good shit.”
Dov wheeled. “I know that’s what you and Will were talking about. I know that’s why Aunt Keiko’s here. And–everyone’s here! Sam, Kira, Da Jeff–everyone! Because the Riders put that up in Par–Par–”
Fury washed through her at his calm. “I know how to say it! That law to make you send us all to schools! I know about it all!”
Martin braced his arms on his knees. “You know more than I do then. Who gave you this data?”
Dov scowled, her breath coming hard.
“Little Lord Riniko, is it? Now how old is she again?”
“What’s that to do with anything?”
“Eight! Nearly nine. Same as me.”
Martin raised his eyebrows. “Good shit, are you going nine already? Fine, eight. Here’s another lesson for you, sweetness. Your data is only as good as its source.”
Dov glowered at him.
“You can’t trust what Lord Bunny told you,” Martin translated, “because she’s not old enough to understand what she overhears. Is it?”
Dov kept glaring. If he didn’t think Bunny was old enough to understand, what did that mean about her?
Martin let out his breath. “I told your mumma we ain’t ought try keeping this from you,” he muttered. “When did we ever manage to keep anything from you lot?”
“Never,” Dov said.
“How’d you weasel it out of Lord Bunny?” Martin wondered.
“Acted like I already knew. We’re letting her make our play with us, and I acted like I already knew why her mumma was up here, and she just kept talking.”
Martin shook his head. “Aren’t you clever.”
Dov couldn’t help smiling. She knew how her da liked clever. He didn’t care about pretty or sweet. Clever, that’s what he loved.
“Here’s what I know,” Martin said. “The Unionists–that’s the holders that were linked with Riders in the Wars–they put up a proposal this last session. They claim the hill-country children aren’t being educated properly. They want the claim investigated, they want schools established, they want you sent to those schools. And yes, we’re all here to talk about this. But no one’s sending you to any school. Don’t fret.”
Dov straightened her spine, her mouth open with arguments.
“First,” Martin said, “they haven’t proved anything. Second, they won’t get schools funded. Third, ain’t any hill cot letting anyone take our children. I promise you. We ain’t.”
Dov scowled at him. He ran his hand through her hair, and pulled her close. She let him do it, but she did not relax.
This play was not the play Dov had in mind. She had given up arguing, though. Jael would normally listen, but Bunny and her fancy desk which would link to anything, not just the half dozen links their handhelds reached, well, when it came to pushing, Jael was siding with Bunny. So instead of being about dragons, their play was about bears–a hill-camp full of bears, and they find a dragon in a cave, and he’s evil–
“Dragons aren’t evil!” Dov interrupted hotly. “Dragons are heroes!”
Bunny hesitated, glanced at Jael, and backtracked. “The bears think he’s–”
“She,” snapped Dov.
“Think the dragon is evil. But they’re mistaken. And they chase the dragon into a cave, and they’re going to destroy it, but one of the bears,” Bunny bit her lip.
“During the night,” Dov said, “makes friends with the dragon, and realizes she isn’t evil.”
“And tries to tell the other bears,” London said. “Only they won’t listen… because….”
“They’re being attacked by other bears!” Bunny said, leaping up. “From the north. So they’re too busy to listen!”
Dov jumped up too. “And the friendly bear and the dragon chase the bad bears away–and the good bears realize the dragon is hero!”
Jael was frowning, blocking out action in her mind. “We’ll need a lot of bears.”
“We can bring in some other kids,” Dov said. “They’re just doing stupid riddle dances.”
Dov spent some of her afternoon recruiting other kids, and some spying on other crews. No one was much further along than they were. She saw her da, Will, Ivy and Aunt Keiko by the main fire, but they weren’t working on any play. She and Jael had slipped around them, the night before. She hadn’t liked what she had heard.
Aunt Keiko had been arguing at Martin: “How can I dispute with them? Fine, your children get tutoring. Yours do. What about these others up here that don’t have Ivy for a mother or Kira as backup? Half of these children don’t even have parents!”
“And whose fault is that?” Martin asked.
“I’m not laying blame. I’m talking what’s so. Of the ones with parents, how many have parents who can’t read?”
“Because you holders never taught us to read!”
“And so now your children won’t read, either? That’s how you want it?”
Ivy took over the argument: “We don’t want our children in your hands. We know where that road leads.”
Aunt Keiko had grimaced. “These would be schools, not orphanages.”
“It would be our children in your hands. Do you think we’ll trust our children to you, Lord Efram? After what happened in those orphanages? What’s still happening,” Ivy added, “for all you claim otherwise.”
“We run the orphanages openly now. If any sort of mistreatment–”
“Abuse,” Ivy said.
“If any of that was occurring…” Aunt Keiko paused. “That’s another discussion.”
“It’s the same discussion,” Ivy said. “My brother is dead because of what was done to him in those orphanages.”
“Oh, now,” Aunt Keiko said. “That’s a stretch.”
“I’m sure you think it is,” Ivy said. “I won’t give you my children as well.” She sat, her dark eyes looking straight into Aunt Keiko’s eyes. “None of us will. We’ll do whatever it takes to avoid that.”
Aunt Keiko had stared back.
“Ivy,” Will had said.
“Shut up, Will,” Ivy said, not looking away from Keiko.
Aunt Keiko had gotten to her feet. “Maybe we should talk some more tomorrow,” she said and went up the hill toward her ATT.
After a moment, Martin had stood.
Without looking up, Ivy said, “Don’t.”
“It’s what we mean,” Ivy said. “Don’t make her believe it isn’t.”
Martin had moved some dirt with his heel. “Possibly you’re missing the whole point to negotiation, sweetness.”
“Let them negotiate,” Ivy said. “Let them step back. Just once.”
Martin had stood looking at her. Then he shoved his hands in his trouser pockets and wandered off, not after Lord Keiko–off toward the river. Dov and Jael had scooted down to tell their crew what they had overheard, and spent the next hour discussing it. London was of the opinion that it was nothing to fret. If anyone tried to put them in anything like an orphanage, he pointed out, they would just run away, is it? Dov was not so sure. She knew her mumma and her Uncle Dov had been in an orphanage for years. If running away was all it took, why ain’t they done that?
She skirted the main fire this afternoon, thinking all this over, and nearly stepped on Keegan, under a black burr tree with his handheld. “Hey,” she said. “Why’re you up here? Ain’t you doing a play?”
When he didn’t answer, she settled next to him. Maybe he wasn’t. Who would have asked him? At thirteen, he was older than most kids, and too young for the adults. She leaned against his bony shoulder. “Come be in our play.”
He didn’t look at her. “No.”
“Please, Kee?” She hesitated, and said, reluctantly, “You can be the dragon.”
He glanced over, the expression in his light eyes obscure. Then he smiled with just the corner of his mouth. “Watch that. Someone might think you’re sweet.”
She scowled. “Well, the dragon needs to be big. You’re the biggest. It will work better if it’s you.”
He tugged a fistful of her hair. “You talked me into it.”
It was cooking and more cooking in the days before the festival–her crew kept sent to fetch firewood, or more berries, or just a few walnuts from the high field, and then someone had to shell those nuts, oh, hush that squalling, it won’t take a minute, get to it.
They did get some time for their play. Keegan helped with the songs and the dialogue. He was really good. Bunny had her nanny and her tutor working on costumes.
Meanwhile, by the big fire, Aunt Keiko and the others were meeting every evening, far into the night. Dov and Jael slipped out to spy on these meetings, though a deal of what they heard they couldn’t make sense of–this Lord and his crew, what could be leveraged against him, which Dov halfway understood, though she couldn’t follow the argument that ensued. She did know it made both Aunt Keiko and Will angry, for reasons neither would say. Dov already knew that about adults, though, how often they would not say what they meant.
Also she and Jael were so tired, usually, from climbing all through the hills fetching this and that, that they couldn’t keep awake very far into these meetings. Either Jael would start to snore, and Dov would have to drag her awake, or Jael would thump her in the ribs and she would find she had drifted into sleep, the world all wavery between her eyes.
They gained a few more details from Bunny–that the schools the holders had planned would not be in the mountains; they would be in university towns, so that university tutors could staff them; that contract children would attend the schools year round, that these schools would serve a double purpose, Bunny explained, since the contracts still in the orphanages could be sent to them, so that they would also solve the problem of the orphanages.
This worried Dov. Da Elvis, who sat in Parliament for Kenyon Estate, he had been trying to deal with the problem of the contract children still held in the orphanages for as long as Dov could remember. It was hundreds of posts about the orphanages and the horrible things that happened there. If these schools got sold as a way to fix that problem, she knew how sweet the Riders in Parliament could make that sound.
“Maybe you would like school,” Bunny said to her, one day, when they were hunting firewood in the high reaches. “It would be better than this. Living up here in this dirt? Not to mention you would learn to speak properly.”
Dov frowned at her. “I talk fine.”
Bunny raised her pale eyebrows.
“What?” Dov demanded.
Shifting her carry strap to her other shoulder, Dov ran ahead. Two days later, the plays began.
Julian’s twelve-day week had a three-day End; the Spring Festival was only one week long, officially, though most people stretched it out by taking part of the previous week as well. But it was during the three days of the End when the dances and the plays and the big feasts got held.
Dov’s crew had drawn ninth place, so they would likely play halfway through the second day–plays started at midday, and went on until the big moon set. The first afternoon, Dov and Jael and Bunny lurked about in the area behind the cabins, where folk were prepping, scouting other crew’s songs and dialogue, just checking, not thieving, but they got cussed at anyway, so finally they went out to the audience. Dov found her mumma and da together, sharing a pot of tea, and wiggled in between them. Her mumma hooked an arm around Jael and pulled in her to lean against her other side. Martin bent to kiss Dov’s head. It was a plate before them, piled with flatbread, honey-cakes, and tree-rat-on-a-stick. Ivy’s plate, Dov knew: Martin seldom ate meat in the hills. He had some odd notion against eating tree rat. She herself took the biggest, fattest rat and started gnawing.
The first play was an old story: the story of the Beggar who meets the Lord Holder on the road, and the holder is lost, and thinks the Beggar must be an idiot–else she wouldn’t be a beggar, is it?–and speaks to her so, and it’s very funny while the Beggar talks circles around the holder, insulting him so nicely he can’t tell he’s being insulted. The clever way to do this play was to put current jokes in, have the holder be some holder in power now, and the Beggar making remarks about idiot things that holder was doing, and Dov reckoned that’s what was up here–anyway, Da Jeff, who was doing the holder, had put a West Country holder dialect in his mouth, and was standing like a holder, all stiff; and everyone, when they laughed, cut their eyes toward Aunt Keiko and her Security. Aunt Keiko was laughing as much as the rest, and soon everyone relaxed.
Next was Lee with a song, all her songs were good. It was about how brilliant it was to come back to the hills after being so long in the cities. It was no more than that–just naming places and things in the mountains she loved, people she missed (this part was funny, because the music made it clear that she only half-missed some of these people, like Will, for example)– but the music danced and the clapping danced half a beat behind it and the rhythm and lilt of the words was great. Finally Dov couldn’t keep still; she jumped up and ran to dance with Lee’s crew, and soon all the children of the camp were in among Lee’s dancers. Everyone was laughing. Lee had to do the chorus over twice before people would let her stop.
Lee’s was the best that day; everyone was saying so at dinner. Lee protested, pointing to good parts of the other plays, saying it was Asia’s flute-playing that brought it off, and the dancers! Hadn’t anyone noticed how nice the dancing had gone? Very little to do with her! Dov knew this was what you were meant to do. She saw how bright Lee’s eyes shone. She saw Keegan watching her, too. She and her crew had gotten a whole berry-cake and were hunkered on the steps of one of the houses, eating straight out of the pan. Bunny sat off with her tutor–holder kids did that, stayed some adult, nearly always. During the plays today, Bunny had stayed with Aunt Keiko. She hadn’t even gotten up to dance with the rest of the children.
Dov looked for Aunt Keiko, now, and didn’t see her. She didn’t see her da, either. Sucking berry juice and sugar off her fingers, she thought this over. Then she nudged Jael and jerked her head. They crept through the shadows of the houses and the trees, up the hill toward the ATTs, which Dov reckoned was the most likely place. If they hadn’t been there, she thought to try the river next–her da loved the river at night– but they were by the Java, Aunt Keiko on its steps, Martin leaning against the table where Bunny worked. They were angry, and neither was being quiet. She and Jael didn’t have to get very close.
“–try that.” Aunt Keiko snapped. “I know you run every contract in these hills like a truck.”
Her da snorted. “Your belief in my powers is charming, Keiko. It’s like you think I’m, oh, Prime Minister of Julian.”
Aunt Keiko raised her fist, and then hit the side of the ATT. “You speak to my point. We both know I’m Prime Minister because you put me there.”
Martin straightened, turning away. “What I know,” he said. “What I know is you’ve let those Unionists gain too much power. You back down on this, you won’t recover.”
“Oddly, my advisors tell me the same thing about you dogs in the hills.”
Martin glared at her.
“And it is not as though the Unionists don’t have a point about your children.”
“In shit they do. Those Riders ain’t want our children educated. They want them enslaved.”
“If they wanted these children educated, they’d send us tutors. They’d open more links. They’d ship us handhelds. They’d fund Elvis’s free university–he’s had that proposal up how many times now? They’d fund more scholarships. You shitting well know they don’t want us educated. Don’t feed me lies and tell me it’s jam.”
Aunt Keiko straightened off the ATT. “Then come down to Parliament, get on the investigating committee with Elvis, help him fight. Work up a compromise that I can get behind. Stop sulking on that estate. You weren’t the only one hurt in those wars, Martin. Stop acting like you were.”
Her da was silent. Dov held her breath. She could feel how still Jael was beside her.
“I’m sorry,” Aunt Keiko said eventually. “But we need you.”
Her father took a deep breath. “Like you would know anything about getting hurt.”
“You’re right,” Aunt Keiko said.
Martin shook his head.
She came to lean against the table beside him, her shoulder against his. “I miss them too,” she said, and added, “I know it’s not the same.”
Her da said nothing. When Aunt Keiko reached to put her hand on his, and he stepped away, and then turned to embrace her briefly, before he walked off down the road into the dark.
Dov had trouble getting to sleep that night. When she did sleep, she kept having dreams about being caught by Security and locked up in a school where the children lived in cages. She woke when the sky was still half-night, and went down to the river alone, shivering with the chill of the dawn. She was wandering the shore when she saw Keegan ahead, climbing the big rocks. Breaking into a run, she caught up and scrambled after him. He was hunting firewood, tossing deadwood toward the path that went through the rocks so he could collect it on his way back. She began to help him.
“When you lived with the holders,” she asked, “did you go to school?”
Keegan looked at her sidelong. He never talked about his life before. He was hill-country now; he was supposed to forget he had ever been a Lord Holder. They were all supposed to forget it. It was that or shoot him, Will had said, and he had meant it. Dov didn’t want Keegan shot; but she was scared.
After a moment, Keegan said, “Lord Holders don’t send their children to school. They buy contract tutors instead.”
Dov thought about this.
“For instance,” Keegan said, “I knew a boy who had one tutor who taught him math, and one who taught him languages, and another for sciences. So every day he would spend two or three hours each with each of these tutors, wherever his family was living, then.” Keegan looked off across the river. “This was when he still had a family.”
Dov stared at him. She had known Keegan was a prisoner from the Rider Wars. She had just never thought what that must mean. Like you would know anything about getting hurt, her da’s voice said. She moved up to Keegan and hugged him tight.
After a hesitant moment, he hugged back. “Listen. Don’t worry about these schools. Your father wouldn’t ever let anything happen to you. You know that’s so.”
Dov hugged him harder and didn’t argue.
Right before them was a riddle song. Also Dekker, on the flute for that crew, wasn’t doing well. Dov’s crew, and Keegan, and Asia, doing their flute, along with Lida on the drum, were all back of the house, getting geared up. Dov was nervous, but mostly excited.
Dekker’s crew cleared off, and they were up. Lida and Asia went off onto the porch and began to play. Dov caught Jael’s eye–they were handling scenery–and they danced the cave out into place as the first part started. This part was mostly the bears complaining how long winter had been, how good honey would be if they could get it. Since you only got honey by raiding holder estates, this brought mild laughter.
Then, as the bear song built to a pitch, going in a merry circle, the flute music and drums rising, BANG! Keegan emerged from the cave (two lean-tos of branches woven together) swinging his dragon wings high.
Now these were nice wings. Bunny–playing the chief of the bears–had gotten her tutor to do a fine job on the costumes. The dragon, for instance, besides his silver face paint and his long tail, had wide silver wings (made of sheets off the ATT) and they were impressive, flung wide like that.
Keegan flung his wings wide and sang his first line and the audience drew back, catching their breath. Dov bit her lip to keep from bouncing in place, because that was so exactly what she had wanted to happen. The bears had ducked and roared and squeaked, just like they were meant to, tumbling off into hiding. Keegan paced the empty stage, singing his dragon song, how he had slept so long, wondering where everyone had gone, singing how lonely he was. Dov, still hunkered by the cave, in case it fell over, caught sight of her da watching in the audience. She felt her own mouth smile, at the love on his face.
London crept around to take Dov’s place, and she scooted backstage for her bear costume: ears and a drawn-on nose. On stage, the dragon had retreated to the cave and the bears were sneaking up, discussing the situation. Dragons were evil, the chief bear said earnestly. Other bears agreed. You know dragons, one said. Well, everyone knows what dragons are, a third agreed. We should kill it before it kills us, the Chief of the Bears said firmly. The bears began to nod. Yes. Kill it. Let’s make a plan!
They went off into the woods in a huddle.
This was Dov’s cue. She came climbing over the edge of the porch–Asia’s flute music changed, became lighter–dropping, bear-like, bumbling, to the ground. She was supposed to be a baby left behind by accident. She rolled in the dirt, being a baby bear. Keegan came from the cave again, and she sat up, making an awed bear face.
He was looking off at the other bears, his own face exaggeratedly sad. He shook his head, and then caught sight of Dov. He smiled, and she reached toward his wing. He took her paw with his long dragon claw. (The claws were of sticks, painted silver.) “They think I’d eat you?”
“Pretty!” Dov said in a baby bear voice.
“Thank you,” Keegan said, in a deep dragon voice, and swept his wings wide.
She made a bear laugh and swept her bear paws wide in imitation. “Can you fly?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Keegan said. “It is too soon after my waking.”
“I want to see you fly!” She bounced in place.
Behind Dov the other bears shouted. Keegan made his eyes wide with alarm and ducked back into the cave. The bears swarmed Dov, battering her with their concern, their voices piping out demands–what was she thinking? Didn’t she know that was a dragon? Didn’t she know dragons were evil? Dragons ATE bears!
“No,” Dov piped in her baby-bear voice. “He was good–”
Only just then another bear–Jael–came rushing up from the river, wailing that she had heard from the herons that a flood was coming, the winter had been so hard, the snows so high, the snow melt was worse than usual, and all the rivers were overflowing, all the upstream valleys flooding. The bears danced in a circle of panic and then ran toward the river.
Keegan the dragon emerged again, shaking his wings.
“It’s a flood,” Dov told him. “It will fill our valley. Will you drown?”
“If I can’t fly before then, I will,” Keegan said. “I’m just like you, after all. I breathe, I weep, I die.”
He spread his wings again, let out a sigh, and began his little limping dance, meant to show how he was trying to fly and couldn’t, as he sang the dragon song, finishing with the bit at the end, where the tune dropped flat and half-limping, like his limping dance:
“…although I’ve got enormous wings and a voice that rings
I’m just like you, just like you
Although you know that know that my tail will flow
And my eyes will glow
I’m just like you, just like you
For in my way, through night and day
I’m just like you, just like you–”
Dov, as the baby bear, sang the last bit over with him again, and bumbled close to hug his leg. “Then we need to stop the flood,” she said. “Ain’t we?”
She had been meant to say, don’t we, because you always did proper talk in plays, but the hill-talk slipped out.
Keegan tucked his hand around her head, which closed his wing around her, and said his line about floods being easier to start than to stop.
“But you’re a dragon,” Dov said. “You can do anything.”
He sang part of the song to her again, gently, changing the words slightly: “I’m just like you. I’m only like you.”
She looked up at him. “Then I’ll do it. We’ll do it.”
She turned to see–it was meant to be a surprise to her, so she acted surprised, but of course she knew they were there– Jael and the other bears back from the river. “We’ll do it,” she told them. “Turn the river. Can’t we? Find a way? If the dragon helps us?”
“Dragons don’t help fix problems,” Bunny-Chief-of-the-Bears said. “Dragons are the problem!”
“He will help,” Dov said, stepping back to stand by Keegan.
The bears all stared. Asia’s music wound among them.
Jael said, “Why wouldn’t he help us?”
“He’s just like us,” Dov agreed, not singing the words, just saying them.
“He’s a dragon,” argued Bunny.
“But except for that,” London said, very droll, and people in the audience laughed.
“Anyway, we can’t turn a river,” Bunny snapped, over them all, and Dov said, “Oh, you never know what you can do until you try it,” and Asia stepped up the music, and they went dancing, round and round and down toward the river, taking Keegan the dragon and the cave with them, which was how the audience was meant to know it was over, and everyone whistled and cheered.
People kept telling them how fine their play had been, and even though Dov knew they meant fine-for-a-children’s-play, she didn’t mind. They had done well enough, she knew, and better than she had hoped for. Lots of it had even been almost good. “Your songs,” she told Keegan, lying up above the camp with him on the last day of the End. “They were really good.”
He shrugged. “They might be, someday.”
He was jacked to the handheld, listening to something. Dov wondered what. She wondered if Keegan wanted more education than he was getting up here. If he missed those tutors he used to have. She braced her boots against his hip. “Do you want that school the Riders want for us?”
Keegan blinked, startled into looking away from the handheld. “Are you high? Ain’t you hear one thing your mumma said about those schools?”
Dov rolled to her belly. “Well, but.”
“Well, what? You know what the Riders are. Those won’t be schools. They’ll be prisons.” He sat staring at her, his light eyes wide. “I’ve been in one prison,” he said. “No. I ain’t need to spend any time in another.”
Dov picked at the stones in among the burr needles. “I was just thinking. You like studying so much.”
He snorted. “Not enough to get sold for it.”
Dov sighed, and got up to go find Jael.
It was only a few more plays that day, and one last feast, and everyone getting ready to leave. Her da was leaving too. Dov had a hard time not wailing like a baby when she found this out. “Why can’t you stay?” she demanded. It was late afternoon, and she had followed him to his ATT. She was trying not to cry. “I haven’t even seen you since–since–you’ve not even been here a week!”
He sat on the steps of his ATT. “I’m going to Port City. This with the schools. You know about it.” Dov pushed her face against his shoulder, refusing to answer. “I need to go help. It’s a job, love.” He rubbed her between the shoulders.
She whimpered, though she tried not to.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he promised.
She jerked from his grip and ran away.
Jael came with her, though she stayed out of range. Dov, sullen, thought this was baby of her–Dov hadn’t actually hit anyone in months. Not so they bled. She scowled at Jael, and Jael very obviously moved further down the river. Dov picked up rocks and threw them into the water.
A bit later, Ivy found them. She sat down on the bank near Dov. “Your da says you’re upset.”
Dov threw another rock. “I ain’t. He wants to leave, who cares?”
Ivy reached for her.
Dov moved away. “Ain’t ever see him anyway. Is it?”
“He only came here to talk to Will and Aunt Keiko,” Dov yelled. “He ain’t even come this time except to see them.”
“Dov,” her mumma said, in that sharp voice that meant she was going too far, which she was not, and even if she was, so what?
“It’s true, though,” her da said. Dov wheeled to find him standing by her mumma, his hands shoved down in his trouser pockets. Ivy frowned. He shrugged his wide shoulders. Dov watched through narrowed eyes while he and Ivy communicated, as they often did, in that way that infuriated her–by simply looking at one another. So far as she could tell, neither changed expression when they were doing this, and certainly neither said anything, but all the same they seemed to speak buckets to one another. It made it want to howl.
In the end, Ivy exhaled, turned her back, and strolled off down the river. Martin smiled ruefully after her, as though she had just made some sort of unkind joke. Then he glanced upriver toward Jael, watching all this, to smile a different smile toward her, before he came out to stand next to Dov.
“I can’t argue,” he said. “I leave you the scraps of my life. It’s not right.”
She refused to look at him. The river ran past, steady rippling water, and over across it the mantis bugs screeched in the thickets. Martin reached for her and she moved out of range. “No,” she said.
He took his hand back. “No?”
“No! You ain’t get to–to hug me and keep on!” She glared. “If it ain’t right, then make it right!”
He stood looking at her, his face absolutely still. Then his wide mouth smiled, and his dark eyes lit, and she saw she had made him happy. She couldn’t help loving that, having pleased him, even if she was still so angry. “My little hill-country,” he said, grinning. “My Revolutionary.”
“Stop that,” she said sternly.
He pulled her close and kissed the side of her head.
“Quit!” she said, shoving him away.
“If it ain’t right, make it right,” he agreed. “Don’t you forget it either.”
He settled on his heels, getting his eyes level with hers. “Here’s what we might try. We have to clear it with your mumma. But how if you spend, say, half the year with her, and half with me? Summer and spring up here, in the hills, and winters and fall with me? It’ll mean cities, a deal of the time,” he warned, “and tutors and nannies, and I do travel, and I’m in Parliament. But I’d be around when I ain’t on the job.”
Dov frowned, taken aback. Live somewhere besides the hill-country? Live among the holders?
Her da was watching the river, thinking something over. “Easier to get good tutors for you this way,” he said. “Get to work on that dialect.”
Dov stared at him.
“I ain’t,” she said, and swallowed hard. Her da looked at her, his dark eyes steady. She swallowed again. “What about Jael and them?” she asked. “They come along?”
He smiled, pleased with her again. “Of course.”
She set her teeth, looking off at the sun through the trees, the black burr needles, the path that led to the high meadows.
“You think about it.” Martin got up.
“No,” Dov said. “I mean, I need to ask Jael and them. But yes. We’ll do it.”
Martin cupped his hand around the back of her head. “I’ll talk to Ivy, then.”
“Da,” Dov said. He paused. “These Riders, and the schools, and that. What about them?”
He gave her the sweet, lying smile he used with Will and her mumma and all the rest. “We’ll handle the Riders, baby-cakes. Don’t you fret.” He smiled sweeter and went on his way.
Jael came to stand beside her.
“Did you hear?” Dov said, after Martin was out of earshot.
“Course,” Jael said.
Dov glanced at her. “You’re fine with staying with him half the year?”
Jael nodded. “The tutoring part,” she said, which was the part that had convinced Dov too. She sighed, though, hoping their tutor would be less annoying than Bunny’s.
Bunny came running over the rise, her face brightening when she saw them. “Hello! Hello! I mean goodbye! My mother sent me to say goodbye! Goodbye! I had the best time!”
“Um,” Dov said. “Well. Good.”
Bunny hugged her tightly, and hugged Jael, who was not the sort of person you hugged. “Will you come visit me? I live on Efram Estate. D’you know where that is? In East Country?”
“We were there once,” Dov said. “During the Rider Wars.”
“Oh! I was living with my grandmother–” Bunny choked the words off.
To keep her away from contract rabble, Dov was sure the missing phrase she had just swallowed went. Smiling nicely, Dov said, “Well, we might not go anywhere, will we, if certain holders have their way? Except those schools?”
Bunny flushed, biting her lip. “My mother is working on that. She’s Prime Minister, you know. That’s a powerful position.”
“Oh,” Dov said. “Reckon I ain’t should fret then.”
Bunny didn’t seem to know how to take this comment.
Dov relented and returned her hug. “We’ll post, is it?”
Bunny brightened. “Yes! Will you? Oh! That will be such fun!” She hugged Dov a last time and went running away.
London and Emir and Taki came crossing the ford, bringing carry-sacks, just as Bunny and Ursa were leaving, and Jael told London he had just missed it, hugs from his princess, and London said something rude back, and it was splashing and giggling in the water before they all headed upstream, to see if the plums along the West Fork were ripe yet.
“So,” Jael said to Dov, as they climbed along the river. “You ain’t plan to fret, is it?”
Dov shifted her carry-sack to a better position on her shoulder. She knew she was just a kid. She knew it wasn’t really much she could do about anything. She knew her da and mumma and the rest really would do everything they could to keep her safe. But all the same…
“I plan to pay attention,” she told Jael. “I reckon I will.”
Jael nodded. “Me, too,” she said.
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