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This beautifully written fantasy tackles the issues of slavery and freedom.
Twelve-year-old Cymbril is a slave on Thunder Rake, a gigantic wagon city that rolls from town to town carrying goods to be sold by its resident merchants. The Rake?s master purchases a new slave, a mysterious boy named Loric who is one of the magical Fey. Because he can see in the dark, Loric?s duty is to guide the Rake through the treacherous wilderness at night.Cymbril and Loric secretly join forces ...
This beautifully written fantasy tackles the issues of slavery and freedom.
Twelve-year-old Cymbril is a slave on Thunder Rake, a gigantic wagon city that rolls from town to town carrying goods to be sold by its resident merchants. The Rake’s master purchases a new slave, a mysterious boy named Loric who is one of the magical Fey. Because he can see in the dark, Loric’s duty is to guide the Rake through the treacherous wilderness at night.Cymbril and Loric secretly join forces to plan their escape—soon the two friends thread their way through a series of increasing dangers, encountering an enchanted market and deadly monsters as their one chance for freedom draws nearer.
Chapter 1 Moonpine Blue
To say that the Thunder Rake was a wagon would be to call the sea a puddle, for the Rake was a fortified city, full of workshops and stables, houses, towers, gardens—even a rippling canal. But it also had wheels rimmed with steel, each one seven times as tall as a man, and it had arms made of gigantic tree trunks that slid back and forth, three along each side. Metal claws on the ends crashed down and sank into the earth each time an arm came forward. Like a gargantuan living creature, the Thunder Rake crawled over hills and through valleys. The folk of towns and cities could hear the Rake coming, with its axles squeaking, with rumbles and booms, claw after claw. People flung open wide their gates and flocked out to buy exotic cloth, spices, glass, tools, and hundreds of other goods from the moving city’s merchants. All the world was a market, said Rombol, Master of the Rake. Everything could be had for a price.
Between selling journeys, when the merchants had finished their daily stockpiling and inventorying of goods, Cymbril’s evening duty was to sing as they gobbled the fine fare of the Rake’s main dining hall. Whether they listened or shouted over her voice with their bawdy jokes, her task was to sing.
Her voice filled the hall, drifting out through the narrow windows under the rafters. In her thoughts, she floated away with the notes, riding the warm breeze over forests and fields; but in reality, she could go nowhere. The huge wooden doors of the Rake were shut with her inside. I’m a slave, Cymbril reminded herself at times. I’m kept here just like the birds and the hounds in their cages. But at least she was warm and dry, clothed and fed, which was more than beggars had. She had watched them in many a town—thin, unwashed folk huddled in rags, pleading for scraps at the end of a market day, when the cooks dumped the dregs from soup kettles and threw bones to the dogs. Cymbril knew some people had much harder lives than her own. Though long workdays were exhausting, she loved to sing.
When the snow was gone and green shoots sprouted in the fields beyond the windows, the wagon-city awoke from its winter slumber. Carpenters hammered on the rooftops, replacing lost shingles, and the mighty wagon trundled down to the ocean.
It was the time of loading. Great ships crowded the harbor at Whaleroad, where the land fell in shelves of grass and rock to the sea. Wagons clattered up and down the streets all day, bringing bundles and barrels to the Rake, rolling away empty. Merchants haggled on every deck with traders from far-off places. Cymbril stood at a window hatch as Master Rombol’s people stalked along the wharves, talking with seamen in golden coats and crimson turbans. Some sailors had boots with curling, pointed toes, and curved daggers through their belts. Others had angular eyes, braided beards, or skin the color of bronze. The Rake’s folk marked in heavy ledger books as they negotiated, and the traders answered back with flourishing gestures and fingers indicating numbers. Sea captains would turn away, piqued at low offers for their wares; the Rake merchants would call them back, running a few steps to overtake them. All across the piers and up the streets, it was a dance in brilliant colors. Cymbril gazed down with her chin in her palms as the sky deepened to purple. Lanterns began to flicker in the bazaars and on the ships. Smoke billowed from cooking stalls, and the air smelled of spices. Someone unseen plucked a stringed instrument, the melody rising and sinking like ocean swells.
Cymbril squinted across the dark water to the nearest ships, softly creaking under webs of rigging that climbed to the stars. She imagined a girl just like herself hidden somewhere on each one of them, peering out from some tiny hatchway among all the ropes and ladders—a harbor full of girls on ships, all bound for different ports, for different lives far away. Cymbril waved a hand, knowing it was foolish, but always hoping one of the unseen maidens was waving back.
With a sigh, she tipped her face up to the stars, so blazingly bright. A breeze riffled her hair. Where am I going? she wondered. Does life lead anywhere—or only around and around, from town to city to town, and back here in another year to start all over again?
The hubbub of loading days went on well into the night. Lines of workers passed bales while merchants shouted and argued. Cymbril yearned to explore the seaport, but she was never allowed off the Rake at Whaleroad. Still, it was easy enough to become lost in the chaos aboard and take up her pastime of wandering the endless pathways of Rombol’s city. Strictly speaking, her skulk-abouts were not allowed—but as long as she wasn’t poking into salable goods, the reproof was typically a gruff "Get to bed!"
Corridors on the Rake had names, like streets: Anvil, Longwander, Tinley, Inbrace, Barrel Corner . . . Cymbril took Ferny Way and ducked beneath a grape arbor. If she stayed out of sight, she could probably get through the evening without having to stock a storeroom or haul parcels into a hold.
Putting up the hood of her cloak, she huddled back into the shadows as a wagon rumbled past, drawn by four horses, down a wooden street inside the Rake. This was Grandway, the major bow-to-stern thoroughfare, with shaded lanterns glowing on its pillars. Three stories high it rose in some stretches, its vault crisscrossed by bridges, its balconies a whirl of activity. She pattered swiftly across the avenue, watching for traffic, and darted toward Fender Lane.
In a track like an alcove with no top, a crank basket hung on its chain. She unfastened the gate and stepped into the basket’s round interior. The woven walls were about as high as her elbows. She glanced up at the chain leading away into darkness. The shaft smelled of oil and dust. After rolling her sleeves to keep them well clear of the gears, Cymbril turned the crank. The pulleys were well maintained, like most of the Rake’s mechanisms. It took no strength at all to make the bas-ket ascend with a whirring of metal teeth and sprockets. The basket trundled up to the next level and the next. She glided past a fat spider in a web, past an abandoned bird’s nest in a triangular junction of beams. Slowing, she stooped to peer into dim crawlspaces between the floors. The Rake had no shortage of mysterious passages, each one begging to be plumbed.
Some people said the colossal wagon had five stories, some said nine, and some said thirteen, for several of the decks were hidden within the walls or couched in balcony half-levels. Despite her explorations, Cymbril had not found a way into three of the inner galleries—yet.
No one waited to use the basket on any of the floors she passed, which suited Cymbril fine. A slave in a crank basket would surely have to explain herself. When she bumped to a stop at the shaft’s top, she hopped out into a side portico of Clerestory. She watched and listened.
On the right, the doorway of a teabunk stood open. Inside, the Rake’s richest folk sipped from gleaming cups, smoked delicate silver pipes, and lounged on couches. The many-paned windows gazed out across the wide lands, offering spectacular views from the summit of this city that moved. Cymbril knew, for she’d sung in the teabunks, too, in clouds of perfumed vapor. "The King fancies he owns all this," she’d heard Rombol say, pointing out through the leaded glass in a gesture that took in mountains and meadows, castles and towns. "But it belongs to us." And all those present had laughed with their Master, Rombol the Magnificent—all but Cymbril, whose task was to sing.
Anything could be had for a price, and the mighty Rake could provide it all: in the merchants’ minds, they could sell icicles to the Queen of Winter, the moon’s dancing reflection to the sea.
Two giggling women drifted from the open doorway, one fanning herself with a painted fan. They turned in Cymbril’s direction with a rustle of silks. The worst sort to meet—tipsy and with the leisure to take note of her, they would see her golden hair, her shining eyes in the gloom of her hood, and they would recognize her—the high ladies of the Rake always did, and they seemed to hate her with one accord. They would not give Cymbril boxes to stack or bundles to carry; rather, they would drag her with their cats’ claws into the den of heat and perfume. They would smile sweetly and demand a song she did not know—or knew imperfectly—and they would smirk and cluck their cruelties, taking care to remind her that she would never own so much as a single patch on the oldest threadbare dress in her trunk.
No, these were not the sort to meet, and Cymbril regretted coming anywhere near the teabunks. To avoid the pair, she wriggled into the nearest gap in the wall, a space so narrow she had to edge in sideways. Only the faintest reflection of the hallway’s lamp light found its way here. Under her leather slippers, the tiled floor sloped toward the Rake’s outer wall. There was a stench of rotten food—she was standing in a channel for slop water. The kitchens on both sides of her had hatches for dumping out bucketfuls of a greasy, soapy tide. Though the footing was dry, she might be wading at any moment. The women were about to pass the mouth of the space. Cymbril moved deeper into the dark, her skirt snagging on a nail head, her hand breaking through cobwebs. Something tickly crawled across her face. Clamping her lips to suppress a whimper, she reached down to touch the reassuring hardness in her pocket. If she needed light, she could have it.
The ladies lingered, their shadows blocking the light. Cymbril’s toes found the grill of a drain, and she realized she was trapped in a dead end. The crack didn’t go anywhere. Of course it didn’t. The only thing meant to come this way was filthy water.
A hatch at shoulder level burst open between Cymbril and the hallway, the rim of a bucket tipped outward, and wa-ter gushed thunderously into the channel. She cringed as it splashed her, warm and fetid, flooding around her ankles.
"Is someone there?" said one of the women in the corridor, no more than eight paces away. Cymbril turned her hooded head just enough to gaze outward with one eye.
She’d seen the round-faced lady before—one of the Rake’s richest, who controlled most of the pottery and glassware trade.
"How could there be someone there?" whispered the other lady, the one with the ornate fan. "What do you see?"
"Hello?" called the first, her smug face showing flickers of uncertainty.
She can’t see me, Cymbril thought, glad she hadn’t pulled forth her source of light. I’m wrapped in a dark cloak.
"Come along, Hysthia!" said the fan lady. "Unless, of course, your heart pines to meet some rogue in the shadows!"
But Hysthia would not be distracted. Her nostrils twitched, and her eyes bulged as she tipped her face left, then right. When she raised a bony, trembling hand as if to feel the darkness, Cymbril began to frown. Just whom—or what—did this jewel-draped woman think she had seen?
"It’s—it’s her," Hysthia whispered. The rings on two fingers rattled together as her hand shook. She stared directly at Cymbril, all color gone from her face. The woman’s free hand clutched her tasseled throw more tightly.
Cymbril narrowed her eye that was watching past the hood’s edge.
"Whatever are you saying?" asked the fan lady.
"Her, I tell you—her! She won’t stay in her grave. She’ll never give me peace—she’ll stop at nothing!" Hysthia’s whole body quivered as if she were riding over a very rough road.
"Hysthia!" cried the other in alarm. "Seven saints!"
Then Hysthia sucked in her breath, and her eyes widened beyond what Cymbril would have thought possible. The woman’s vision, Cymbril supposed, was beginning to adjust to the darkness. She was starting to make out a small, slender figure in the tight black space. And whatever that figure meant to her, it clearly filled her with horror.
The women weren’t going away. There was nowhere to run—no chance for a peaceful retreat. As Cymbril saw it, there was nothing to do now but make an end in glory. Flinging her arms as wide as the walls would allow, spreading her cloak, she exerted all the power of her well-practiced voice.
Lunging toward Hysthia, voice like silver lightning, she screamed.
One level below, as Cymbril was later to hear in blistering detail, two sisters were laboring well into the evening. They were dyeing a batch of bed curtains in Moonpine, a hue blended in secret only on the Thunder Rake—a color famed for its evocation of moonlight in soft, needled boughs on summer nights; a dye prized for its indelible quality, its vivid brightness in the cloth even after years of launderings.
These sisters were twins named Gerta and Berta Curdlebree—wellborn, the daughters of a merchant family, but not particularly bright. Cymbril had felt sorry for them two years previously, when a peddler in an unremembered town had sold them a concoction promised to curl their hair into perfect ringlets. It had burned the hair completely from their heads, leaving the girls bald as eggs for several months.
Now, cap-free at last and relieved to have their unruly hair back, the sisters had been nearly finished with their appointed batch of curtains when a sound rent the air just over their heads: the cry of a banshee. In a wild fright, Gerta leaped toward her twin, though the drying line hung between them. A still-dripping curtain enfolded her.
Berta, for her part, reared away from the toppling blue cocoon. But Berta’s escape was blocked by the bubbling pot in which the last curtain still steeped.
While Cymbril heard these details from Master Rom-bol, the sisters watched her without expression. Gerta’s face and arms blossomed with patches of Moonpine blue that might have been bruises, though the bruises extended into and throughout her hair. Berta’s feet rested on the softest footstool the Rake could produce; when the bandages came off, Cymbril was informed, the skin on Berta’s feet and lower legs that was not newly regrown would also be the hue of the summer night sky.
And Hysthia Giltfeather, though thankfully still alive after the spasms her fright had induced, would not be traveling with the Rake this year. At her physician’s advice, she had decided to take a long and quiet rest at her ancestral manor by the sea.
It was not the most auspicious beginning to a market season.
Posted March 7, 2014
Posted November 27, 2012