When I rode into the camp of the Alashi spring gathering, I tried to sit tall and hide my fear. Lauria would tell me I was as good as they were--she'd tell me to look them in the eye. She'd say I had nothing to be ashamed of. And I wasn't ashamed. I was proud of what Lauria and I had accomplished. We had freed over a hundred slaves. The Alashi didn't free slaves because they thought those who deserved freedom would escape on their own. Well, the Alashi might not free slaves, but I did. Lauria and I did. I took a deep breath and raised my head.
What did the eldress want from me, anyway?
First, apparently, she wanted me to wait.
I had ridden back with Janiya, the leader of the sword sisterhood Lauria and I had spent last summer with. The rest of her sisterhood had stayed behind to escort the former mine slaves on foot. Janiya gave our horses to a girl to care for, then we sat down in the shade near the eldress's tent. I watched Janiya, and when she turned away from me, I looked around. Lauria and I had found the Alashi at the end of their big spring gathering, and we'd left right before their big fall gathering. I could smell lentils and rice cooking over fires made from dried animal dung. There were families nearby, with lots of children who weren't old enough to ride out with a sisterhood or brotherhood. Looking at them made my throat ache a little.
Janiya looked me over. She hadn't spoken much on our ride. Now she cleared her throat and said, "You look well."
I looked down at my muddy clothes and boots. Lauria and I had bought ourselves new clothes when we'd come into some money, but they were worn ragged now. My hands were filthy, and I thought my face and hair probably were, too.
"Oh, you could use a bath, but that's not what I meant," Janiya said. "You look very confident. You look like a woman who can stand on her own and defend herself. When I first met you . . . well, you looked like you'd fight until the last drop of blood left your body, but you didn't look like you thought it would matter."
I let out my breath in a short laugh. "It's good to see you again," I said. Janiya looked pretty much as I remembered--well, maybe a little more gray in her hair.
"It's good to see you, too." Janiya clasped my hand. "I wish . . ." She let the words fade. I thought she'd probably meant to say that she wished she could see Lauria, too.
"Why does the eldress want to see me?"
Janiya shrugged. I thought she probably knew but wasn't supposed to say. My guess was that this was about the slaves Lauria and I had freed and brought up. Well, the mine slaves really had freed themselves. I had nothing to apologize for. I chewed my lip, wondering if the eldress would like that argument. "How are the others from the sisterhood?" I asked. "Maydan, is she recovering?" Maydan had been badly injured in a fight with bandits, late last summer.
"Yes. Very slowly. She had to learn to walk again, as if she was a child, but she's still Maydan. She hasn't forgotten anything about healing, but her hands are very clumsy right now. She's frustrated, as I'm sure you can imagine. She's staying with the clan for the summer, not going out with our sisterhood. We'll have a different healer."
I felt a rush of longing at Janiya's words--going out with our sisterhood. I pushed the thought away. I belonged with Lauria.
Janiya glanced over at the eldress's tent, then stood. "It's time," she said.
The inside of the tent was dim and cool. For a few moments, I couldn't see. When Lauria and I had arrived a year ago, we had been brought to the eldress, who had listened to our story and accepted us as "blossoms," provisional members. This time, eight old ladies and five old men sat in a circle. The eldress I had met a year ago sat across from the door on a pile of cushions. Braided white hair wound around her head. She wore a long dress, a vest so covered in embroidery I could barely make out the black cloth underneath, and a necklace that looked like a spell-chain, though when I looked for a piece of karenite that would imprison a djinn, I didn't see one. These had to be the clan elders. Janiya and I bowed respectfully. The eldress pointed to a spot near the door and Janiya and I sat down.
"Good afternoon, child," the eldress said, her voice kinder than I expected. "You've come a long way since I met you a year ago."
I didn't know what to say to that, so I nodded, then said, "Yes, ma'am."
"I apologize for bringing you back against your will. Zhanna has told me the information that you and your blood sister have passed to her, but I wished to speak with you face-to-face." She fingered her necklace. "Zhanna said that when your blood sister was trying to bind djinni, you were able to stop her. Is this true?"
This was not the question I had expected. "For a little while," I said. "First I slapped her with a wet rag, so she hid from me. So then I went to the borderland and waited for her there. I was able to force her back out. Though later she tried again and was able to do it."
Murmurs, around the circle.
"I was a shaman's apprentice. Zhanna's, and before that, Jaran's."
"Yes. Jaran." The eldress raised an eyebrow, and now came the challenge I had expected. "The Alashi do not free slaves."
"I am not Alashi. I left when you exiled my blood sister."
Janiya, who was the one who actually had exiled Lauria, bit her lip and looked down.
"You chose to leave," the eldress said. "You could choose to come back."
"To teach." That was one of the other clan elders, a man I didn't know. His voice was a soft growl. "To teach the shamans how to guard the borderland and the djinni, so that we can lay siege to the source of the Sisterhood's power."
"I'm still not convinced that's a good idea." That was a clan eldress with only one eye, and a scar that stretched from forehead to chin. "That will just prove to them that we are a threat, and that they must move against us."
"They're coming whether we act or not."
"You don't know that."
"They're moving the army up! What else could it . . ."
". . . just guarding against our raids, and the bandits . . ."
". . . strike at the border, not the borderland, that's what I've . . ."
". . . could move all our herds north, find new grazing grounds, just get out of their way . . ."
The eldress sat back and let the others argue. I looked at Janiya. She gave me a quirk-lipped smile and a slight shrug.
"Let them come!" one of the eldresses said. "We'll back off and let the desert do our work. They'll never find our wells."
"They're not fools; they'll use their djinni to bring up water. That's why we need to barricade the borderland."
"So what if they can't make new slaves? That won't stop them from using the ones they've got. They have thousands, tens of thousands! More than enough . . ."
"All right," the eldress said. "I've had enough of this. Back to your clans, all of you. I want to talk to Tamar alone. No, Janiya, you can stay. Sit down. The rest of you . . ." She gestured, and after a moment or two, they rose and went out, still arguing. The tent was very quiet with them gone.
"It's been like this for days," the eldress said. "I'm sure you can imagine. Now. Tell me. Do you think you can teach other shamans to do what you did?"
"I don't know. I wasn't trying to close off the whole borderland, I was just following Lauria. I could never keep all the sorceresses out."
"The djinni must have wanted you here for some other reason, then," the eldress said.
"The djinni told you to bring me here?"
"Yes. Evidently, they thought you'd be useful."
I raised my chin. "I don't want to stay here. I want to be with Lauria. Are you going to keep me here by force? Or . . ." My voice faded, and I swallowed hard. "Or are you going to let her come back?"
"You have great faith in your blood sister."
"Though you know she was a spy."
"Was. Once. Not anymore. And she tried to undo what she did."
"Alashi do not free slaves."
"I'm never going to stop trying to free slaves, eldress, even if you make me Alashi. What did the djinni tell you about me, anyway? And Lauria?"
"They just said to bring you here."
"Why not Lauria? She can free bound djinni by touching them. If they come close to her, she can send them back to the borderland. That's what I wish I could learn to do."
The eldress became very quiet for a moment, her eyes still fixed on me. Then she said, "Perhaps her path is separate from yours, because the djinni said nothing about bringing her here. They told me to bring you. They said that you would know something that would help us."
"I know something that will help you?" I shook my head. "I don't know what they're talking about."
"Then tell me what you've done this past year. Tell me what you've learned. Perhaps when I hear about your journeys, I will know what the djinni were talking about."
A barefoot girl brought in cups, a kettle of tea, and a tray of salty little fried cakes. She ran in and out several times to get all of it. She bowed to the eldress as she brought in a white sauce to dip the cakes in, and left for the last time. The eldress watched her without speaking, a faint smile on her face. Janiya poured tea.
As we ate, I told Janiya and the eldress where Lauria and I had gone, and what we saw and learned. I told them the Sisterhood of Weavers was running short of karenite. I told them about the rogue sorceresses who called themselves the Younger Sisters, and the Servant Sisterhood that wanted control of the Empire. I told them about freeing Nika and Melaina, Uljas and Burkut, Sophos's harem, Prax and the others from the mine. The eldress listened to my story without interrupting. Then she looked at Janiya. "Do you think the djinni were right? Did she bring us something we need?"
"Information," Janiya said. "Our enemies have enemies of their own."
"We can't trust the Younger Sisters," I said. "Any more than we can trust the Servant Sisterhood. We have karenite. They all need it."
"But perhaps we could persuade them to fight among themselves," the eldress said. "Perhaps we could offer an alliance to the Younger Sisters--a gift of karenite, provided they move now against their 'elders.' "
"The Younger Sisters would become their own problem, in time," Janiya said. "But in the short term . . ."
"Who would we go to?" I asked. "Do you know who the leader of the Younger Sisters is?" Janiya and the eldress both looked at me. "Oh, no. I don't know. I wouldn't even know where to start."
"With the corrupt steward of the Weavers' farm, Lycurgus," the eldress said. "Lauria tangled with the Younger Sisters when she went to rescue Burkut. Or perhaps the sorceress you approached in Daphnia."
"We almost got ourselves killed in Daphnia!"
"Last time. Surely you'd know how to be discreet if you went again."
It would have been disrespectful to shout "you're mad!" at an eldress, so I bit my tongue and lowered my eyes.
"We can give you karenite, enough to enslave an entire army of djinni if that's what the Younger Sisters choose to do," the eldress said. "Use it to sow discord among our enemies."
My stomach twisted at the thought of all those new spell-chains. "I don't want to help anyone enslave an army of djinni."
"Even if it saves the Alashi?"
I looked away again. I had tried my hardest to keep Lauria from binding a single djinn, even though she was sure it was the only way to free Prax. I knew I should refuse now. But I also knew the Alashi really were in danger. So instead I said, "Alone? I'd be robbed by bandits."
"Of course not alone. Janiya can go with you."
Janiya's head snapped up. She hadn't expected this. "But my sisterhood . . ."
"I will arrange for another to lead it in your absence. You walked among the Penelopeians once, Janiya. You can do it again."
"We'll need a third," Janiya said. "Someone who could pass as Greek."
"I will consider it," the eldress said.
"You're forgetting something." I raised my chin. "Lauria."
The eldress narrowed her eyes. "I did not forget your blood sister." She rose and opened a wood chest. From deep inside, she drew out two black felt vests. Mine, and Lauria's. "I had Zhanna give these to me some weeks ago." She handed both to me. "Yours is yours again, if you want it. Lauria's can be hers again, if you give it to her. Her fate is yours to decide."
"She can come back?" I asked, just to be sure.
"Yes. She can come back. As eldress of all the clans, on my authority, I grant a pardon to Lauria. She came among us as an enemy, but I believe she had turned against her old master and was ready to become one of us in truth." She leaned back and looked at me appraisingly. "You will be initiated as one of the Alashi before you go. If you choose, Lauria can be initiated in absentia, just as Burkut was."
That night, I held Lauria's vest and tried to find her in my dream. I'd tried to find her while traveling with Janiya and hadn't been able to. Tonight I saw her, but far away. She looked like she was made from smoke. I feared she'd blow away before she heard me.
"Come back," I said. She didn't hear me, so I shouted. "Come back! Come back to the Alashi, they will take you back!"
Lauria shook her head. I couldn't hear her words, but I thought I saw her lips move to say, too late.
"I'll help you free Thais, but come up to the steppe first," I shouted. "You can come back. The eldress has pardoned you."
The wind whipped across the steppe. I saw Lauria stop shouting and close her eyes in concentration. For a single heartbeat, the wind died, and I found myself in Sophos's courtyard. Lauria stood before me as I'd seen her the night Sophos raped her--shaking with cold, her torn clothes bloody. She looked into my face and her lips parted. "I love you," she said, and vanished from the borderland like the flame of a blown-out candle.
Tamar," I whispered, though I had found myself in mist and shadow and had searched for Tamar in vain. Someone was nudging my ankle. Kyros.
"We're almost there," he said. "I thought you might like to see Penelopeia from the sky."
I blinked and looked around. I'd nodded off against the cushions of the palanquin sometime during the afternoon. I'd started out feigning drowsiness to avoid talking to Kyros, but I must have fallen asleep for real. I sat up and stretched. The cushions under me were damp from sweat. All the curtains were drawn; Kyros feared flying and hated looking out of the palanquin. Well. He doesn't have to. I drew the corner of the curtain aside and peered out.
We were still high up. Looking down, I could see golden fields. Farther away, something vast and dark caught the afternoon sunlight in rippling sparkles. I caught my breath and squinted, wondering what it could be. Blowing sand? Some sort of shiny rocks?
"It's the sea," Kyros said, though he hadn't looked out, only at my face. "Penelopeia is near the shores of a sea."
"That's all water?" I stared at the glittering expanse.
"Salt water," Kyros said. His voice was a little amused. "You can't drink it."
Still. I looked out again. All that water.
Excerpted from Freedom's Sisters by Naomi Kritzer. Copyright © 2006 by Naomi Kritzer. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.