Pilgrims always cried when they crested the hill and saw the spires of Miruna; they usually fell to their knees right in the middle of traffic.
All I saw was the gate that led to the Night Market.
We pulled barrels off the cart (salt, cinnamon, chilis, cardamom, and mazeflower safe in the center away from wandering hands), and when the moon rose and the women came it was as if we’d always been waiting.
They moved in pairs, holding back their veils, closing their eyes as the smell of mazeflower struck them.
“Goes well in baking,” Mark told a woman, “which you know all about, with those fine things in your basket.”
The whole night went well (Mark could sell spice to a stone), until I got peppered by a loose lid and staggered back, choking.
From behind me a woman asked, “Where are you going?”
“Who’s asking?” I snapped, and looked up into the ugliest face I’ve ever seen; teeth like old cheese, small black eyes, a thin mouth swallowed up by jowls.
“A passenger,” she said. “Where are you going?”
“South,” I said vaguely (never liked people knowing my business), then brushed pepper off my shirt and yelled, “Mark, so help me, I’ll sell your hide to the fur traders!”
The woman was still standing there, smiling, her hands folded in front of her politely.
“Did you need some salt?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Well, I wish you good journey,” I said, and then for some reason I’ll never know I asked, “Where do you travel?”
“South,” she said, and I realized exactly where she thought she was headed.
I’ve never known when to seal the barrel and shake on the deal. It’s how I ended up with a blue wagon and a partner like Mark in the first place.
“Not on any transport of mine,” I said.
“It’s for my husband,” she said. “A shoemaker in Okalide. I’ll join him there.”
I didn’t wonder why he’d left her behind. A face like that was bad for business.
Mark came around and stood behind me.
“I can’t take an unescorted woman,” I said. I didn’t care, but someone on the road would. This was a church state. “Find someone else to take you.”
As I turned to go she opened her hand and unfurled a necklace of sapphires as long as a man’s arm, flaming as they caught the dawn. Mark gasped.
It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I reached without thinking, and had to pull back my hand when I remembered myself. I knew the trouble a woman would bring on that road full of pilgrims and devout traders.
“I don’t accept bribes,” I said. Mark kicked my foot.
“It isn’t a bribe,” she said. “It’s a dowry.”
Mark stopped kicking.
“You want me to—” I paused.
She held out her hand draped in glittering blue, her eyes steady. “Sandal-brides are common enough on this road.”
“Not this common,” Mark muttered, and I surprised us both when I cut him off with, “Pack the wagon.”
Still muttering, he went, and then it was just the woman and me.
“Sandal-briding is dangerous,” I said. “Women go missing that way if the men get greedy.”
She smiled. “A greedy man wouldn’t have pulled back his hand.”
I found myself smiling, too, and by the time she said, “My husband has another when I am safely delivered,” somehow I had already decided to agree.
We went the back way; I didn’t want her to see Mark’s face until it was too late to object.
The ceremony was easier than border-crossing. I gave her a pair of sandals I’d bought on the way, and she showed the priest the necklace she was giving me in lieu of bed rights. I swore to release her at the end of the journey. He wrote my name down next to hers, marked us “Okalide,” and it was over.
Outside I said, “You could go pack your things.”
“I don’t have any things,” she said, and stopped to buy a blanket.
Mark was still packing when we got back, but he must have known what I was going to do, because he had made space in the back of the wagon for someone to sit.
I drove the oxen, which were fonder of me than of Mark (good salesmanship never fools oxen). Mark kept watch in the back of the wagon, when he was awake.
All morning I expected him to climb through and demand a seat away from the woman (my wife), but when we stopped in the scrub at midday and I let the oxen loose to find what they could in the stringy undergrowth, I saw him helping her down.
“We’ll rest half an hour,” I said.
Mark nodded and disappeared back into the wagon.
“Just kick him out of the way when we set off,” I said, unhooking my canteen.
She laughed and took a seat under the branches of the twisted pim. It was scant shade, but the flats were like this all the way to Okalide. There was a reason her husband made a living there; this ground wore out your shoes.
She shaded her eyes with one hand and peered out at the horizon, though there was nothing inspiring about it. It was three months of low scrub and low hopes.
“Expect more of the same,” I said, taking a drink from my canteen and trying to sound like a grizzled traveler and not like someone who used to live above an alehouse and still hated desert nights.
“I don’t mind,” she said. “I’ve never been outside the walls before. I’m excited for anything.”
I was probably more grizzled than I thought, though, since the idea of being closed in by city walls made my skin crawl.
“Well, if you like scrub, we’ll have plenty.”
“How do the animals take it?”
I looked over at the two bony oxen, who had found enough roots for a meal and were chewing contentedly. “They’re tough beasts, though they look dead.”
“Tough beasts do surprise you that way,” she said.
She went back into the wagon, and only then I realized she had gone all day without so much as a drink of water, and I had offered her none.
“We’ll arrange a bed for you in the wagon,” I said the first night as she and Mark were trying a fire.
“Oh, no,” she said, “I love the sky.”
I wondered if she expected me to sleep at her side. I didn’t know what sandal-husbands usually did. “The wagon is really much better. More privacy.”
“Too late,” she said, “I already know what Mark says in his sleep.”
She handed him the flint, and Mark blushed and bowed his head to the sparks.
After the fire was going, Mark helped me pull rations out of the barrel.
“I hope she doesn’t eat much,” he said, staring at the salted beef and stale bread.
“What do you say in your sleep?”
Mark shook his head, and I hated that they should have been together in the back of the wagon with their secrets while I was sweating in the sun all day.
“Don’t lose your manners,” I said into the barrel.
Mark raised an eyebrow, sliced the meat into three pieces with his pocketknife. “Well, what’s her name, then, so I don’t have to keep calling her Goodwife?”
“You should call her Goodwife.”
“Don’t you know her name?”
She hadn’t said it and I’d never asked, but the priest had written it down. “Sara.”
Mark looked at me like I was one of the oxen, and took the skillet out to her.
“Tell me about your city,” she said to me.
“It was like your city. Like any city.”
“I don’t know my city,” she said. “Start there.”
And I must have made a face again, because she explained, “They have the market at night so we don’t see the city well enough to run away.”
I thought about the women picking their way home before it was light, about her thin purse, her refusal to go home and pack. The food turned to dust in my mouth.
“What do you want to know?” I asked, but I knew the answer before she said, “Everything.”
I told her about the alehouse; she asked how ale was made and listened as if she’d married a brewer. She wanted to know how many people could read. I told her about my schooling in the townhouse owned by a noble who lived in the country, and then I realized how it sounded to live in the country when the country looked like this, so I explained lakes and green trees and the soft wet snow that fell in winter.
I described the trader who sold me his wagon, his beasts, and Mark’s indenture in exchange for the alehouse. I expected her to tell me it was a poor trade, but she listened to this story the same as to the others.
When I got to the terms of the sale, Mark said, “This was worth an alehouse in a season city?”
I had no answer, gave him none.
After I ran out of my life, I told her the Tale of the Pearl, which seemed to make her sad, so I told the Tale of the Blind Flower-seller to smooth things over.
Then my throat hurt, and I said, “We should sleep.”
“You know, I grew up, too,” Mark said as he sulked back to the wagon.
She laughed; her voice was dry, and I handed her the canteen.
She laid her blanket on the hard ground and pulled half of it over her. I felt guilty for not having bought a pallet, a felted shawl even, in all the time I’d been sleeping on the ground. The wagon was as it had been delivered to me, as though I was just keeping it for the man who might want it back.
“We’ll buy you a pallet,” I said.
“No need,” she said, like someone who’s used to the worst bed. “Do you know the stars?”
She was quiet after that. When enough time had gone by, I made a bed a little behind her; it was cold that far from the fire, and it felt too familiar to be so close, but I wanted to be something between her and the night.
I wasn’t fond of other traders on the road (or ever), but a few evenings later I saw a fire and knocked on the side of the wagon to let them know we were stopping.
I brought a rasher of bacon to trade for a torch to light our fire. They were glass traders from Demarest, and after the pleasantries I found myself saying, “Let me bring my wife over; she has a little pepper to season it.”
Mark and the sandal-bride (Sara, I thought) were pulling bread out of the barrel when I hauled myself into the cramped quarters.
“Bring some pepper,” I told her.
I wasn’t sure how to go on, but she guessed and smiled, and reached for the right barrel.
Mark said, “That’s five coin worth—”
“Come on,” I said, and she carried the ladle like it was mazeflower and not some common thing.
They were surprised to see her, and I remembered she was ugly.
She didn’t notice, or didn’t react, and they made room for us, and when there had been quiet for a moment she said, “Where have you come from?”
They looked to me like she had spoken out of turn.
I thought about the city walls and the night market closing around her again in Okalide.
I said, “Do you know about the stars?”
A week later we found someone who knew the stars, and he went through each constellation, jabbing his finger at the sky.
We found a botanist after that, wasted out in the scrub, who described flowers I’d never seen.
A silk trader liked her. He opened up his caravan of wagons and had his servants bring the best. We held up our lanterns and looked at the embroidered fountains that spit silver spangles along the blue silk.
Pilgrim women never spoke; the men only spoke to me. We stopped trying. Pilgrims could season their own food.
Once when I stopped the wagon for the night I found her sleeping with her cheek pressed against a barrel of cinnamon, like she could hear how it smelled.
I rarely said anything at strange camps; what was there to say when you were always the ignorant one?
But I listened, and I saw how people changed as they spoke of things they loved, and with every story I felt the world opening before us as if my oxen walked on the sea.
A metalworker and his wife sharpened our knives for some chilies, and the sandal-bride’s eyes gleamed in the dark as he explained how to power the wheel, how to shape a blade.
“Where did you learn it?”
“At my father’s feet,” the man said, and tears sprang into his eyes, but even as he cried he told her about the illness that had carried off his parents. He wanted a home by the sea, where the salt air dulled enough knives to feed a metalworker for the rest of his life, and where the fish was fresh.
That night she cried softly, mourning the parents of some man she’d never see again.
I counted the stars: the great ox, the three cubs, the parted lovers, the willow tree.
The wagon got lighter as we went.
Mark winced every time I opened a barrel, and though I kept the ladles skimpy, I couldn’t blame him. We would never make it to a port city before we ran out.
I closed my hand around the sapphires in my pocket as I drove. The day was coming when I’d have to break the clasp and sell them off.
Twice we stopped in tent cities and set up in their open squares, and Mark and Sara and I handed out envelopes of mazeflower and filled people’s burlap bags with what was left of the cumin and salt.
By then the nights were cold in earnest. Mark made beds amidst the barrels, little fortresses to keep out the wind. Sara and I kept separate blankets, but I slept between her and the wagon flap. I would listen to the wind hissing past the canvas and think: This much, at least, I can do for her.
One night it was birders, and I scraped the last of a barrel of cinnamon to make enough for an offering.
“I don’t know what you’re hoping for,” Mark said, “but you’re ruining yourself this way.”
I didn’t answer; there was nothing to argue.
When we reached camp I said, “This is my wife Sara,” and took her arm to present her, and she looked at me for a long moment before she smiled at them.
She told my stories, always. People were kinder if they thought she wasn’t from Miruna.
We met the girl with the shriveled leg who made cages, the boy who made paints that turned a thrush into a sweet-anna. Above us the little beasts hopped back and forth in the bentwood cages, and of everyone we met on that long journey, that family was the happiest.
That night she sat and looked out past our circle of light to their camp, where the birds were calling.
Silhouetted by the fire she looked like a camel, a beast who had always been wise, and I watched her until the birds went silent.
The last long stretch to Okalide was four nights of nothing, not even scrub for shelter, and in the pilgrim town we bought up vinegar-wine (only thing that won’t go brackish) and decided to travel at night and rest in the heat of the day.
Mark drank whenever wine was offered, and he took it as badly as ever, so he was still asleep when the sun set and it was time to go.
Sara and I sat in the shade of the wagon and watched the night crawl over the dust.
“Will I ever hear your story?” I asked, and she looked at me as if she knew why I was asking.
She did know. She knew, and Mark knew, and I was the only one who was just waking up to why.
Her thin mouth pressed tighter as if she was afraid of the words getting out. “I have no story,” she said. “I was born hidden, and grew hidden, and I married hidden, and now I go to Okalide.”
“And your husband? Is he kind?”
“I hope,” she said after a long time. There was a breeze moving in ahead of the moon. “But if not, I’ll be unhappy in Okalide, which is better than being unhappy in Miruna.”
I wanted to say, stay here and risk unhappiness with me, but “here” was a wagon and a raggedy trail around the desert cities. You met the same sort of people wherever you went, and one day she would regret asking someone his story and learning what he really was.
She was only my sandal-bride, and by the time the leather wore out she would be happy or unhappy with some other man, and I would still have a wagon and a wide circle of road.
I said, “You’ll find a way to be happy,” because that was the only thing I really knew about her, and we sat in the shadow of the wagon until the breeze turned cold.
She sat beside me, wrapped in her thin blanket, all that night as I drove toward Okalide.
After we were stationed in the morning market, Sara my sandal-bride stepped out from the wagon without even her blanket and said, “I’m ready.”
Mark came out behind her; when he was on the ground he held out his hand and they shook like it was a business deal.
“My wishes for a good life,” he started, but abruptly he turned his back and crawled into the wagon as if he had forgotten something important.
I almost took her elbow, but when I held out my hand she looked at me. Under her gaze I dropped my arm, held it against my side.
She looked around until she saw some landmark her husband must have given her.
“This way,” she said, and I followed her out of the market.
Okalide was under church rule, too, but here I saw women in daylight, at least, buying bread and reading the notices posted in the open squares.
The crowd that had been a nuisance before was overwhelming now. I wanted to know about the old man carving spoons on his doorstep, about the three young girls running along the edges of the fountain in the square.
Here no one noticed Sara (my wife). Her face was one of a thousand faces, not some apparition with a ladle of pepper in her hands, but somehow walking beside her I felt like the Empress’ Guard.
At a corner she looked at the words etched into the clay walls, then turned to me.
“Which one reads South?” she asked quietly, and my heart broke.
I pointed, and after she looked at the word to memorize it we turned down the shady street.
His was the sixteenth door, and when he answered her knock he said, “Sara,” as if she didn’t know her own name, but she just smiled and embraced him.
I looked back at the main road, where a shaft of sun crawled across the dust.
He introduced himself, but as he did he wrapped his arm around her waist and I didn’t catch his name.
“How was your journey?” he asked, and, tripping over himself, “—and of course you’ll come in and have some cold water and some fruit.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“He has an apprentice,” Sara explained, “and they have work.”
He nodded. “Of course, of course,” he said, and then he turned to her and smiled. “And how was the journey?”
I held my breath and waited for the first story she would tell him, the first words that would make it one big story sewn with little ones as a wedding gift to him.
She smiled and said, “A lot of brackish wine.”
He laughed so hard he had to drop his head, and for a moment she and I looked at each other.
I saw the bars of her cage bending around her, saw why she had wanted those stories; she’d needed something that was hers, to hoard against a life with some dull boy to whom she had given her word.
When he had recovered from his laughter he saw I was still there, and blinked. “You need your bride-price, of course, so sorry for forgetting,” he said, and a moment later there was a little ruby bracelet in my palm.
I was still looking at Sara. I had forgotten I would be paid.
The priest at the bastion wrote “safely delivered,” and wrote down all our names, and it was over.
She said, “Come visit as soon as you can.”
“We’ll be back again,” I said, which was the only lie I ever told her.
When I got back to the market the wagon was still packed and Mark was waiting in the driver’s seat.
“What did he look like?”
“Let’s go,” I said, took the reins.
We were five miles outside the city when I said, “What do you want to do after your indenture?”
“Trade!” he blurted, choked on a mouthful of dust.
I got his story; he had a woman in Suth he’d promised to come back for, and he’d heard about the botanist from Sara and wanted to find new spices. “From the East, maybe,” he said, “if they can be had by ship.”
I gave him the ruby bracelet. “Payment for the spice I used on the journey. Your indenture is over.”
The oxen would warm to him; he knew how to drive the wagon.
I moved through and questioned anyone who would answer. I wanted to know everything about the world. With the first sapphire, I bought a book to write in.
Some old man married a woman with six red-haired sisters. The youngest got black hair, and set about cursing them all, poorly, and he and I laughed into our beers until we cried.
Three brothers pulled aside a riverbed to keep their village from flooding, and they bought wine and sang songs in three parts, and I marked the words as fast as I could.
When the first book was full I bought another, for the botanist and the birders and all the stars I knew.
I listened to everyone, wrote down everything.
You have to write down everything. The world is wide, and you never know what stories someone is waiting to hear; maybe someday, someone will have bought a pair of boots from the shoemaker and his ugly wife, down a dusty street in Okalide.
Spread the word!