Until she was fifteen years old, Rien thought she had free will.
She was Prophecy-touched, which meant the invisible, inviolate Universe cared enough to watch over her, to offer its thoughts and its guidance, as it did for few others. She made her own choices, her own way. But even though she didn’t always like it, she always recognized—eventually—the wisdom her Prophecies contained. They offered sensible suggestions. There was no shame in following good advice.
It was a Prophecy that led Rien to Tia. You will live one year by the sea, the Prophecy had told her. Rien had been happy to live with her aunt by the sea, happy to stand every day with waves worshipping her ankles and bright fresh breezes whipping her hair across her eyes. She would have stayed forever, if she could. But the Prophecy said one year.
And after all, wasn’t there such a thing as being too content? Letting happiness settle too snugly in your soul, making you soft?
So she’d gone away again, back to the plains where only scratching grasses and bloodsucking bugs touched her ankles, where her hair stuck to her skin with sweat. But she’d dawdled too long leaving. There was a new Governor, young and spirited, and he refused to accept the fires that swept the plains every year as inevitable. He’d settled the train engines, with their roaring furnaces and dangerous sparks, in their stations for the summer where they could do no damage. Instead of a fast train, Rien had to wait weeks to join a slow caravan of unhinged boxcars, horse-pulled, dull and safe.
When the caravan came, she met Tia.
The Governor had given women free leave to travel when and where they pleased, but some families were still wary of letting their girls roam. Rien’s mother only let her do what she pleased because she was Prophecy-touched. Rien didn’t know where Tia was traveling or why, but she had been happy to think that the weeks wouldn’t be so lonely. And Tia had been friendly at first—cautiously friendly, until Rien explained why she had left the coast.
Was it wrong, that she was proud to be Prophecy-touched? That her pride crept out in her voice when she spoke of it, even when she complained?
Tia had looked at her the way Rien looked at ticks. Unfortunate, unpleasant, too ordinary for real disgust. She’d said nothing, and Rien had turned and walked away.
Aside from Rien and Tia, there were two old men in the car, who spent most of their time playing cards and wishing they could smoke, and one young man, who spent inordinate amounts of time asleep but when awake would leap from the car and run alongside the track for miles. On the first day, when Tia turned up her nose, Rien had played cards with the old men. Rien didn’t know how they could even see the cards where they sat in the shadowy corner of the boxcar; she had to squint and turn her hand this way and that to catch what light she could. She might have spent the whole trip carelessly tossing each carefully chosen card onto the boxcar’s dusty floor, but while coins flowed back and forth from one man to another like the tides, Rien’s own tide seemed only to go out. So she retreated to her bedroll near the open doorway, where the occasional whiff of air teased her, and she could at least see the sky.
But there in her line of vision, always, was Tia. When the first reach of dawn came into the car and the horses started moving, Tia was there in the doorway, and when the sun set, it turned her the tips of her curls to fire. For an hour every day, Tia jumped off the boxcar and walked beside it. After a suitable delay to demonstrate her wounded pride, Rien joined her. And soon they sat side by side on the hard floor, watching the world pass—first in hills and forest, then in lumpy tangled brush, and finally, lastingly, in flat brown grasses. Light brown, golden brown—even when the plains were green they looked brown through the haze of heat and sun.
Tia had long legs, and she let them dangle out of the open side of the boxcar as they rode. Rien kept hers tucked up inside the car. She didn’t want to lose a shoe, she told herself, but really there was something dizzying to her about watching the world move, even slowly, beneath her feet, too far to touch. Tia kicked her legs out, one then the other, and it made Rien lightheaded to watch. But she never retreated further into the boxcar.
They talked about small things. Animals glimpsed in the distance, the occasional flash of flowers that hadn’t yet withered in the heat, the irritations of summer and winter and autumn and spring. But eventually, Rien had to ask.
“Are you jealous? That I’m Prophecy-touched?”
Perhaps that was not the best way to ask. Tia laughed, loud and harsh. The old men looked up from their game. The young man was off somewhere, running in the heat.
Rien thought Tia wouldn’t answer. Her eyes were on the rocks passing under her dangling feet. Her legs were deep brown, her knees narrow.
“Why would I be jealous of a slave?” Tia said softly. Not softly—quietly. Her voice was not soft at all.
“A slave?” Rien was truly incredulous. She thought that perhaps Tia didn’t know what it was to be Prophecy-touched. “A slave to what, or whom? That’s a ridiculous thing to say.”
“A toy, then,” Tia amended.
“I’m not a toy,” Rien said, stung by the indifference in Tia’s insults. Her arms were locked around her legs, a foot back from the boxcar’s edge. Tia lifted her arms and stretched lazily, her legs stiffening straight out, and even in her anger Rien wanted to grab her so she wouldn’t fall. She wasn’t sure why. It wouldn’t even hurt Tia so much to fall—she might bloody her narrow knees, bang an elbow, skin her palms. Maybe she deserved to fall.
Even so Rien tensed, leaned forward just a little. She didn’t relax until Tia had contracted, her legs drooping, her hands resting lightly, loosely on the boxcar’s hard edge. She wasn’t holding on, Rien saw. That was just where her hands happened to lie.
“You’re a toy in Prophecy’s hands,” Tia said, warming to the subject. “You’re a fool if you think otherwise.”
“I make my own choices,” Rien said. She shrugged as if she didn’t care what Tia thought, but Tia wasn’t even looking at her.
Tia studied one of her own hands, smiling a pointed little smile. “It’s just chance, that your choices always align with the Prophecies?”
“Who says they do?” Rien shot back, but it was the wrong attack.
Tia finally looked her straight in the eyes and held her gaze, and when she asked, “Don’t they?” it was beyond Rien to lie. She swallowed. Her face was hot enough to set the prairie afire if she even looked at it.
“And if your mother gave you good advice and you took it,” she said, trying to be caustic. “You’d be a toy? A slave?”
“Shocked,” Tia said drily, “is what I’d be. My mother gives famously bad advice. She’s . . . like you.”
“Maybe that’s it, then,” Rien said. “Maybe you just wish you were important, too.”
“Being shackled to the Universe doesn’t mean you’re important,” Tia said. “It just means you’re shackled.”
“I’m not shackled,” Rien said. “I’m noticed. If I become important, it’ll be because the Universe paid attention.”
Tia shrugged. “The Governor is important. He’s changing everything, all over. But he doesn’t have any Prophecies telling him what to do.”
Rien had no answer to that; the Governor clearly was important, and it was true—he was always going places, stopping just long enough to set some brilliant scheme in motion.
“I feel sorry for you,” Rien said.
Tia shook her head. “I’d feel sorry for you,” she said, “if I thought you’d understand why.”
They had already walked that day, but Tia leapt lightly off the boxcar anyway, stumbling slightly as she landed. She stood unmoving, waiting for the boxcar to pass her, and Rien didn’t move either, caught between hoping Tia would never come back and wanting to follow her and explain why she was wrong. After a few minutes, though, she stood and stepped to the edge and cautiously leaned out, holding tight to the door. Tia was four or five cars back, walking next to one of the horses, stroking its neck. She saw Rien looking and turned her head away.
Rien did the same and was startled to see the young man from their car sitting in the dusty grass, sweat-covered.
“It’s getting too hot to run,” he said by way of a greeting as he climbed wearily back into the car. Rien didn’t respond.
That night Prophecy whispered in her ear. Tomorrow when you leave the caravan, it said, its voice like the last echo before silence, you will be able to give someone the help they need.
She thought she heard Tia shifting in her bedroll, maybe sitting up. Other people could hear her Prophecies; usually this made Rien proud. Tonight she wished Tia slept more deeply.
Tomorrow when you leave. Part of Rien, a large part, wanted to stay, just to prove Tia wrong. How easy it would be to show her how awful she was.
But if she left, she’d be able to help someone. Could she deny someone her aid just to make a point to a girl she barely knew? It made no sense. She didn’t have to prove herself to a stranger.
She packed her things early the next morning, before the caravan rumbled into motion. She brought as much of her remaining portion of food as she could carry, as much water, her bedroll and spare clothes and bandages. She didn’t know where she was going or what kind of aid she would need to give. And there was no reason not to explore for a while, and take advantage of her solitude. She had nothing to do, nowhere else to be.
Tia, of course, was awake when she left; the girl never slept, it seemed. Rien lowered herself carefully off the side of the car and hefted her bag. She meant to simply leave, but Tia was looking at her knowingly, some combination of vindication and pity on her face.
“I’m not going to refuse to help someone,” Rien said stiffly.
Tia cocked her head. “If you ever refuse anything a Prophecy suggests,” she said, “let me know.”
Rien flushed. Again, she wanted to stay; but that was pride, pride and foolishness. Generosity pointed her toward leaving.
“I will,” she said. She hesitated. “Don’t fall,” she added, gesturing at Tia’s precarious position. Tia raised an eyebrow.
“I won’t,” she said. And Rien left, walking along the still and sleeping cars until she came ahead of them, and then striking past on her own.
She let her footsteps steer where they would, curving away from the tracks, curving back in when the grass got so thick and sharp it was like wading through needles.
Midday, she found the young man from their boxcar, collapsed in the grass, ants crawling all over him. She rushed over, looking for injury, slinging her sweaty pack into the grass. But he was only overheated and underwatered, wilted in the sun. Cool water on his face revived him. Rien gave him bread, helped him sit up.
He looked at her, blinking. “Thank you,” he said.
“You said it’s getting too hot to run,” Rien reminded him, irritated.
“It is,” he said, unbothered. When they stood, he headed back in the direction the caravan would come from, walking slowly. When he realized she wasn’t following, he looked back in surprise; but Rien shook her head, and he shrugged and kept on.
Rien felt bile in the back of her throat. The tracks were only a few yards away; the caravan would be by in an hour. The idiot would have been fine without her. Someone else would have seen him, given him water and bread. There had been no need for her to leave.
She sat down where she was, dizzy, and decided to eat lunch. When she’d eaten, she knew she should get up and keep going, but she didn’t. She lay down in the prickling grass and tried not to mind the flies that buzzed around her.
If you reach Harsted within the week, there will be another caravan to take you to the Hygh River.
Another Prophecy—so soon. For a moment, Rien felt a flush of anger. Why Harsted? What was Harsted to her? It was southwest, almost back the way she’d come; if she’d had plans to go to Harsted, she would have left the caravan a week ago.
But it didn’t matter what the Prophecy said. It was a suggestion, and this time she wouldn’t take it. She didn’t want to go to Harsted right now. The Hygh River could wait.
Eventually the caravan would catch up to her. She would simply climb back into her boxcar, and sit next to Tia as if nothing had happened. She didn’t even need to tell Tia she was wrong; it was enough to know that she, Rien, was right.
The sun beat down on her head as Rien watched first one car and then another roll smoothly along the tracks behind the tired, sweat-streaked horses. Her own car approached. She saw Tia see her, and took a step closer.
Then a vision hit her: The Hygh River, cool and sweet. She could submerge her heated skin and emerge reborn. The river breeze would dry her skin and lift her spirits. Three weeks at most to get there, if she left now. Months, if she didn’t.
“Back so soon?” Tia called. She sounded almost happy. Her long legs swung back and forth.
Yes, Rien thought. But she stood still, half-paralyzed. Her head started to pound. It must be the heat. The damned heat. She couldn’t think.
The car caught up to her and passed.
“No?” Tia asked, legs stilling. Rien saw her grip the edge of the boxcar and then let it go. “Where are you going, then?” she asked.
Rien met her eyes. “Harsted,” she said, her voice hoarse. The river will be cool and sweet, she thought, pushing the thought down like a lid over everything else. The river will be cool and sweet. She knew it was true, and not the truth.
Tia held her gaze, frowning, as the car pulled away. Rien stared back at her hard, straining her eyes as if she were painting a mental picture, as if Rien’s memory of Tia would fade if the painting weren’t done by the time Rien looked away. Dark curls round Tia’s head like a halo, dark skin faintly sheened in the sun. Rien wanted to kiss one of Tia’s stupid knobby knees. She wanted to run up and steal one of Tia’s shoes, so Tia would have to come after her. She wanted Tia to jump down and drag her back to the boxcar, and hold her so she couldn’t escape to Harsted or anywhere else.
She wanted none of that. She turned away before the heat could bend her thoughts in any more ridiculous directions. She needed to clear her head in cold water. She couldn’t wait to reach the Hygh.
“Good luck, Rien,” Tia called from behind her. For the first time, her voice was soft.
“If you ever refuse anything a Prophecy suggests, let me know.”
Rien lived with the taste of the words in her mouth, always. Oh, how she wanted to spit them back at Tia. Let her taste their bitterness.
She had gone to Harsted, telling herself all the while that she wouldn’t follow the next Prophecy; the game was up. She caught the promised caravan and took it to the Hygh River; and oh, the river was sweet and it was cold. The Governor had just opened a new iron bridge and flower petals from the celebration still drenched the shoreline; they smelled of spring, of promise, of life.
But then the next Prophecy came, all too soon, and she didn’t fight it. Hadn’t the flower petals made her crave the rich creamy peaches just ripening in Deston? Why not go there, why not pluck them from the trees herself? What did she have to keep her on the shores of the Hygh River?
Nothing. She had nothing to do and nowhere else to be. And when she left Deston – nothing again. She convinced herself that the Prophecies made sense, that she was making the wiser move, the better choice. She could see the wrongness of her own logic, the way it pushed forward at awkward angles, but still she left, and left again.
She was traveling now for the third time in a year. She had spent the last three years on the move, pushing forward from place to place. In the autumn she took boats down the little rivers as they swelled with rain; in the winter she took trains. In the summer, caravans. She was eighteen years old, now, old enough by the Governor’s law to own property, to start a business, to marry. But where would she buy a home or start a business, knowing that every second Prophecy was another leaving? Whom would she marry, when she knew no one?
Rien wiped at the sweat on the back of her neck. She hated the heat, but she sometimes felt like sweat was all that kept her from drying out hollow and blowing away. She sat at the edge of the boxcar in the dripping heaviness of an especially bad summer, idly looking down the caravan line for Tia’s dark hair—as if Tia would always be on a caravan simply because they’d met on one.
Rien had no idea where she lived, where she went, what she did.
And if she had seen Tia . . . You were right, she would have had to say. They would sit side by side while the sun turned Tia’s hair to fire and Rien still wouldn’t quite let her legs dangle off the edge, even though she’d know deep down that it wasn’t really falling she was afraid of.
The caravan stopped in Rourk and Rien disembarked; this was her destination. The fortune-teller in Rourk will give you a gift, the Prophecy had said. Rien didn’t want a gift, and she had more than enough fortune telling in her life. But—she thought—it didn’t make sense to turn down a gift; and anyway, she had nowhere else to be.
Rourk was bedecked with ribbons, its windowsills set with fruit and wine, its front doors all crooked open. Rien thought for a moment that this was her gift, but that was foolish; such hospitality was intended for someone far more important than she.
The fortune-teller had birdlike eyes and tiny hands that held Rien’s own tightly. Her thumbs stroked Rien’s wrists as if she were precious.
“It’s so good you’ve come,” she said, smiling at Rien too closely, too sweetly. She touched the side of Rien’s face with her smooth fingers and Rien shivered. “So good you’ve finally come. Wait here; I have something for you.”
She disappeared, not further inside but out the front door. Something rose in Rien, fear or agitation; she wanted to leave. I could find Tia, she thought, all of a sudden. I could look for her.
But she didn’t move. She was waiting on a Prophesized gift; her patience was infinite.
She stood when the door opened. She turned around to face it, bracing herself, not sure why.
“You must meet Rien,” said the fortune-teller, ushering someone in behind her. A man, tall, lean, in a blue suit with a golden flame over his heart. Rien stared at his suit, at that golden flame, and felt the first spark catch in the dry prairie, the first smoke spin out over the grass.
“This is Rien,” the fortune-teller said, gesturing. “And this, of course . . . ”
Rien looked up and met the Governor’s eyes. It was only a moment; she barely had time to register his face, no time at all to decide if she liked it. Certainly no time for any stronger emotion.
Then a Prophecy boomed out, loud and strong, not a whisper at all: Your love will last a lifetime, strong and deep.
Rien’s breath froze in the back of her throat.
“Oh, it’s destiny!” the fortune-teller gushed, and Rien looked at her sharply, the glee that suffused her expression, the shrewdness in her eyes. Her stomach heaved. Was this her destiny, then? Was this his destiny? The Governor wasn’t Prophecy-touched; the Universe couldn’t tell him what to do.
She remembered Harsted, Picyute, Evenat, Slie—the Governor had just passed through, the towns were abuzz with it. She had never seen the Governor before; she had always been a step behind him, a shadow nipping at his heels.
Only she was old enough to marry now. Just a month ago, she had turned eighteen. And the fortune-teller had been waiting to meet her. And here they were, she and the Governor, with a Prophecy splitting open above them like a raincloud. And a wife could tell a husband what to do, after all. Nothing wrong with sensible suggestions. No shame in good advice.
The Governor was staring at her, shocked. But Rien saw him look at her more closely, saw him intrigued, saw him interested. And then he smiled at her, and her heart quickened. Was it love? Was it fear? “That was a rather dramatic announcement,” he said ruefully, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He had beautiful eyes, she noticed reluctantly. Thoughtful eyes. The whole shape of him seemed right.
“Rien, was it?” He reached out to shake her hand but held it instead, and the fortune-teller pressed her own hands to her heart and sighed, and Rien shivered but she didn’t pull away. She didn’t move at all.
You’re a toy in Prophecy’s hands, she reminded herself, but the words didn’t prick her heart like she meant them to. Wasn’t love like that, after all? And wasn’t the Governor the best of men, changing everything? Everyone she met had told her of his brilliance. Rien felt like she was sitting at the edge of the boxcar, legs tucked tight, arms wrapped round. Safe. She might as well love him, she realized. Their love would last a lifetime, strong and deep. Could she ask for more?
The Governor glanced around at the fortune-teller’s sitting room and then back at her. “Would you like to take a walk?” he asked, still holding Rien’s hand, still smiling. He was curious. She was drowning.
“If you ever refuse . . .”
“I would love to,” Rien said, but at the hollow sound of her own voice she shuddered. This wasn’t the edge of the boxcar at all, she realized—this was lying on the tracks, bleeding and bruised, thinking she was safe just because she couldn’t fall any further. Every time she let the Universe redirect her she gave something of herself away, and now the last bits of her were leaking out, her last free breaths were leaving her lungs, and the Governor would take her heart too if she let him.
Suddenly there was a voice inside her, bigger than everything else, demanding her attention. Not the Universe, not the Governor, not the fortune-teller. Not even Tia’s voice, this time. Rien’s own voice surged up inside her, shaping a prophecy, hoping it was true.
You’re not so beat you can’t get up. You’re not so lost you can’t find your own way.
She yanked her hand back, shaking her head. They wouldn’t be taking a walk. Finally, finally, Rian had something else she needed to do. And there was somewhere else—with someone else—that she desperately needed to be.