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Telling Tales 241

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The Wind Is Itself

Juleidah stood at her full height and the pile of skins that covered her swayed, a column of tanned and worn leather, its frayed edges flapping gently in the fierce winds. No one saw her. “Cover yourselves!” she told them when it became clear the power that she would have to summon, and they listened, even the great gray wolf. The company huddled together as small as they could be while desert winds from far-flung places gathered around them. She cradled four tokens in her arms while Alexander crouched before her, wavering some ten feet in the air, his feet braced against nothing, one hand pressed down against the nothing, the other hand clutching to his chest the spiky red flower that Haraka had once carried, the token stolen by Hyena.

No wind disturbed Alexander’s face or hair, but it was so thick at his feet that Ivan, had he been able to watch, would have sworn that he saw earth, or water, or something solid. “I am ready,” Alexander shouted.

She did not respond with words, but she heard what he said. Her feet shuffled wider and she squared her shoulders and the dry winds shrieked violent joy. And Alexander rose higher into the air. He kept himself low so as not to fall. The air beneath him whipped and spun and pushed him left and right and back again, but always, always up, always higher.

“I have never done this before, but I see no reason why it should not work,” Juleidah had said. She removed herself to experiment with a heavy stone and returned to report her success. “But to keep the wind from your face so that you may work, I will have to direct it elsewhere. The rest of you should leave.” When the company refused to abandon her and Alexander, with Ivan pointing out that she would at least need Kou Ke and that Yi Min would not leave her husband’s side again in any case, Juleidah allowed that they could stay. “But you must protect yourselves. Cover your eyes, your ears, your mouths. The wind is not malicious, but it seeks any and all places to go. It is curious by nature, and the winds that I am calling do not know their own strength.”

The memory of her words played out before her as her companions shielded themselves while she directed Alexander above and beyond the reach of the giant, who flung himself from side to side, crushing trees and rocks. The wind bent the air before her face and suddenly the distant face of the giant seemed closer to her eyes, an idea the great gray wolf had suggested she try.

It seemed to Juleidah that she was as tall as the giant, equal in stature, and in a way she was. The winds bent a vision of the giant before her, while her winds created a larger version of herself that stood tall, enormous, and quick in a way that no living creature could ever be. Alexander was a speck, a tiny figure floating above, beyond the reach of the blind giant’s arms.

“It does not have to be for long,” she said when she told the wind to bind the giant’s hands, but as little time as she desired for Alexander, the wind was not able to stop the giant from moving. But the wind had another idea.

“Then do that,” said Juleidah. “Be yourself.”

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Telling Tales 240

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Dissatisfaction

It was Juleidah who had the most important job of all. Alexander did not need Ipiktokiyakovik’s sharp eyes to know where his brother’s senses needed to land and he did not need Haraka’s speed to arrive there. The blinded giant would not even notice if Scrobarnach Armtha sent the entire Underbrush Army to his ankles. It was an unlikely position for the three warriors, and not one that they were most comfortable with.

“Just give me the tokens,” said Ivan.

“Is there nothing more we can do?” asked the sharpshooter.

“Perhaps I could –” began the runner.

“You know what might work,” began the commander.

“Give me the tokens,” said Ivan.

It was not their first protest.

“This is like the dance at Tsar Pyotr’s castle,” explained Juleidah to Scrobarnach Armtha. “You must accept a different way to fight.”

“It’s not like that at all,” she disagreed. “I was part of the army then. Now I’m at the back of the lines – all three of us. We can’t simply turn off what we do and who we are.”

“Monsieur,” said Entendtout to Ipiktokiyakovik, “did you feel left out when our Monsieur Haraka negotiated with Yi Min?”

“I shot the arrows that guided him there,” said the bowman.

Entendtout inclined his head. “You took part. You were satisfied. You operate as a team. We all operate as a team.”

“Yes, but I did something. There is nothing for me to do this time.”

“There is often nothing for one of us to do. Not all of our skills are required all of the time.”

At length, it was Ivan who had to draw the three of them away so that Juleidah could stand with Alexander and Kou Ke. Ivan said, “When I met you all, the only thing you knew about me was that I was in a flying ship. I have never asked, but I assume you thought I was as gifted as any of you – as gifted as the rest of the crew upon the ship.” They agreed that this was so. “Yet I have no magic, no particular skill. I alone of our company have nothing to offer – no gifted sight, no speed, no hearing, no desert winds.”

“You’re quite strong,” said Haraka.

“But no more than another strong man,” countered Ivan. “You let me lead you not because I was the best leader, but because I was the one with the quest.”

“You’ve got a lovely steel-grass sword,” pointed out Scrobarnach Armtha.

“Anyone could carry this. It has no special tie to me, any more than any of you do. You have been remarkably generous with your time, your lives, even. The six of you together, you are much greater to me than this steel-grass sword.”

“You see things in different ways than we do,” said Ipiktokiyakovik.

Ivan nodded. “That is true of all people, though. You must consider that every battle is fought with different skills. Not every battle needs warriors, or speed, or sight. The tsar had left his palace full of traps, uniquely associated with each person’s gifts. Boiling oil and flames for wooden soldiers. Trip wires for runners. He knew our strengths and he knew that how we rely on our strengths becomes our weaknesses. Do not let the fact that we – and I include myself in this – that we who are used to being on the front lines act according to our habits. Because habits are a weakness to be taken advantage of.”

The general in Scrobarnach Armtha saw what he meant. “We are not happy about it,” she said.

“You don’t have to be. You simply have to do it.”

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Telling Tales 239

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Love and Understanding Beyond Measure

The wolf touched her nose to Kou Ke’s chest. “What the giant has lost, you have gained, and not to your benefit. Even as his heart is lacking, yours is too full. This enchantment binds the two of you together. I expect that the giant will be restored to his normal size, but I cannot promise what will be the result for you.”

It was Alexander who finally spoke into the long silence that followed. “He is not your cousin nor your family. I would not expect you to sacrifice yourself for him.”

“No,” said Ivan.

“Yes,” said Yi Min, which shocked everyone into the silence they’d expected from her when the wolf began to speak. “My husband says his heart is not his to give, but that we share it. Very well. I share his goals and his beliefs. He and I have made mistakes in the past. Were that not the case, he would not have been cursed in the first place and I would not have pushed that curse farther along.”

“You can’t right some old wrong by sacrificing yourself now,” said Scrobarnach Armtha to Kou Ke.

The serpent-scaled man took Yi Min’s hand in his. “I cannot. This is not about correcting. This is about doing the right thing now.”

“But look at what you could lose,” argued Ipiktokiyakovik to Yi Min.

“The love of my life,” she said. “I know the cost, and I assure you that I do not desire it. My husband sees the opportunity to do good. The personal cost to us both is great – death for him, potentially, and grief for me. Do those costs outweigh what the people around here have already suffered at the hands of this giant, those who have already died, who already grieve their dead?”

Kou Ke added, “I do not wish to say goodbye and I do not wish to die. I wish to live and to love. Were I not to act here, however, there would be a canker in soul. I would always remember the moment I chose not to act, that selfishness kept me still.”

“And I the same,” said Yi Min. “I would not want him to be unhappy with me because he made a choice that ate at him from the inside out.”

“These are the things that corrode love,” asserted Kou Ke. “They rot and rust and some day what we feel is no longer what we felt and the moment that we realize this to be the case, we know that our love is already gone.”

Haraka shook his head. “Your sense of duty is very great.”

“Not always. My sense of duty is in the moment, and the moment is very grave. Therein lies the problem.”

“The action must befit the problem,” said Entendtout.

“Not always, but this time,” said the great gray wolf.

“When did they have time to discuss this?” whispered Scrobarnach Armtha to Juleidah, for the former knew nothing of love and the latter a great deal.

“Not all conversations require words,” she responded.

“Let us begin,” said the wolf.

“Let us say goodbye,” said Ivan. “Then we shall begin.”

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Telling Tales 238

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The Order of Things

The reunion between Kou Ke and Yi Min was truly an event to behold. Small as their company was, they nevertheless threw a feast the likes of which had not been seen. Haraka chased down game as fast as Ipiktokiyakovik could shoot it. Entendtout cooked as fast as Juleidah could call up the desert winds. Scrobarnach Armtha had her soldiers craft tables, chairs, and cutlery from the wood around them, and if they were not as skilled carvers as they were fighters, they were better carvers than they were card players. Alexander and Ivan helped everywhere they could in the middle.

The great gray wolf lay to the side and waited.

Kou Ke and Yi Min stared at one another, hardly able to believe that after so long a time they had been reunited. Tears ran down their cheeks and their hands rested in one another’s.

The company ate and told stories for two days and two nights, reliving their adventures for Yi Min, while she told them of everything that had passed to her. When they were sated in both body and mind, they delivered what was left of their food to the not-so-distant town of Chalm, who remembered them with less hostility than they remembered other strangers, although still with no joy. They would not be who they are otherwise.

“If we are ready?” asked the wolf.

The company had waited to see how Yi Min would react to a talking wolf, but she showed neither surprise nor fear.

“The order is important,” said the wolf. “It would do us no good to return to Nikolai his sight while his reason still lacks. Alexander, you must be the one to return your cousin’s lost senses.”

Alexander agreed that this was so.

The wolf said, “Feeling and temper should be first, so that he can experience pain and empathy, and so that he is not so angry. That is Ipiktokiyakovik and Haraka.”

The hunters nodded.

She went on, “His reason next, so that he understands what he is doing and what he has done. Entendtout.”

The old servant agreed as well.

“His will next, so that he does not despair overly long, and then his sight. Were those backwards and he to see the damage he has wreaked before his will is restored, he may do harm to himself.”

“No!” said Alexander.

“That is why we must be careful,” said the wolf.

“At least I’m not last,” said Scrobarnach Armtha, holder of the rusty metal that was the giant’s will, though she would have preferred to have been with the hunters.

The wolf shook her head. “You are not last. You cannot be. Last must be Kou Ke, who holds in his being the giant’s proportion. It is precisely why your love is so expansive. Your thirst.”

“I told you that was creepy,” whispered Scrobarnach Armtha to Juleidah.

“Alexander, tell us how you return your cousin’s senses to him,” said the wolf.

“I have to place each talisman in the place from whence it came. Usually it’s not so hard, but he’s never lost so many things at once and never for so long. His feeling could be anywhere on his skin.”

“I can find the place,” said Ipiktokiyakovik.

Alexander said, “His temper between his eyes,” and he named place after place until he arrived at the giant’s sense of proportion. “That belongs at his heart.”

Kou Ke understood what that meant.

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Telling Tales 237

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The Instructions

The reunion between Kou Ke and Yi Min was truly an event to behold. Although their company was as small as it was, they nevertheless threw a feast the likes of which had not been seen. Haraka chased down game as fast as Ipiktokiyakovik could shoot it. Entendtout cooked as fast as Juleidah could call up the desert winds. Scrobarnach Armtha had her soldiers craft tables, chairs, and cutlery from the wood around them, and if they were not as skilled carvers as they were fighters, they were better carvers than they were card players. Alexander and Ivan helped everywhere they could in the middle.

The great gray wolf lay to the side and waited.

Kou Ke and Yi Min stared at one another, hardly able to believe that after so long a time they had been reunited. Tears ran down their cheeks and their hands rested in one another’s.

The company ate and told stories for two days and two nights, reliving their adventures for Yi Min, while she told them of everything that had passed to her. When they were sated in both body and mind, they delivered what was left of their food to the not-so-distant town of Chalm, who remembered them with less hostility than they remembered other strangers, although still with no joy. They would not be who they are otherwise.

“If we are ready?” asked the wolf.

The company had waited to see how Yi Min would react to a talking wolf, but she showed neither surprise nor fear.

“The order is important,” said the wolf. “It would do us no good to return to Nikolai his sight while his reason still lacks. Alexander, you must be the one to return your cousin’s lost senses.”

Alexander agreed that this was so.

The wolf said, “Feeling and temper should be returned to him first, so that he can experience pain and empathy first, and so that he is not so angry. That is Ipiktokiyakovik and Haraka.”

The hunters nodded.

She went on, “His reason next, so that he understands what he is doing and what he has done. Entendtout.”

The old servant agreed as well.

“His will next, so that he does not despair overly long, and then his sight. Were those backwards and he to see the damage he has wreaked before his will is restored, he may do harm to himself.”

“No!” said Alexander.

“That is why we must be careful,” said the wolf.

“At least I’m not last,” said Scrobarnach Armtha, holder of the rusty metal that was the giant’s will, though she would have preferred to have been with the hunters.

The wolf shook her head. “You are not last. You cannot be. Last must be Kou Ke, who holds in his being the giant’s proportion. It is precisely why your love is so expansive. Your thirst.”

“I told you that was creepy,” whispered Scrobarnach Armtha to Juleidah.

“Alexander, tell us how you return your cousin’s senses to him,” said the wolf.

“I have to place each talisman in the place from whence it came. Usually it’s not so hard, but he’s never lost so many things at once and never for so long. His feeling could be anywhere on his skin.”

“I can find the place,” said Ipiktokiyakovik.

Alexander said, “His temper between his eyes,” and he named place after place until he arrived at the giant’s sense of proportion. “That belongs at his heart.”

Kou Ke understood what that meant. “Will there be anything left of me afterwards?”

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Telling Tales 236

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Weaknesses

“I could not procure these boots for you.”

She agreed that he could not.

“But I could be these boots for you.”

Yi-Min did not understand.

“I believe we have the opportunity to do one another a service. If you can help me, I will be in your debt, a debt which I will be able to repay by delivering you to your husband’s side as quick as the wind.”

Yi-Min agreed that this was acceptable.

“You must know that I am faster than any seven-league boots,” began Haraka. “Cheetah gave me her feet along with this red-spiked flower, which is a great more than it seems to be, and in exchange I am to hunt Jackal, who not only tricked me but likes to trick everyone he sees. I joined a flying ship with seven other travelers because until that moment I had not been successful. I am very, very fast and I am a good hunter, but I am not as good a hunter as Jackal is a runner. I joined this group in the hopes that I could learn from them, become a better hunter, and successfully capture Jackal on my own.

“You see, I understand that you must do exercise your own will to find your husband. My friend who shot the arrow, the arrow that I chased and fell to the earth by your side, he has the sharpest eye of any hunter alive. He could shoot the glint out of Jackal’s eye for me, but then it would not be me who hunted Jackal and I would have Cheetah’s legs and paws for nothing. I owe Cheetah the letter of our deal, that I would find Jackal, and I owe myself its spirit, that I will succeed by my own skills. Had I my friend’s skill with a bow and depth of vision, I would do it myself. He has taught me and he is patient, but I fear it is not enough.”

Yi-Min agreed. It would not be enough.

She explained, “I have met Jackal not once, but many times in these days that it has taken me to wear through three pairs of iron boots. Some days he helped me. Some days he stole from me. Some days we talked, and some he refused to speak.” She considered her words. “You are hunting Jackal. As a hunter, what is the most useful thing you could know about your prey?”

Haraka thought. “His weaknesses. Jackal eats many things, including dead things. He is fast and he is the color of the ground and the dead plants around him. He is cunning and can see through poisons and many traps. He is a very smart adversary.”

“You admire him.”

“I do.”

“Then I will tell you his weakness as I understand it. Jackal is very smart, this is true. This is part of his weakness. He is also proud. This, too, is part of his weakness. But most of all, the thing that is always and every time Jackal’s downfall? He cannot help himself from talking and doing. He must always be busy. His mind is faster than his legs. That is his weakness and that is how you will catch him.”

“I see,” said Haraka. “Yes, that will do. Now you have done me a good turn. May I be your seven-league boots?”

For the first time in three pairs of iron boots, Yi-Min smiled.

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Telling Tales 235

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An Introduction or Two

Yi-Min had never seen anyone like the man who introduced himself to her as Haraka. Her own skin was not so pale as the nobility in her country, those people who aspired so much to be porcelain that some of them, the highest of them, had become porcelain. The Empress was so rigid and delicate that she must sit on only the finest of silk pillows, their fabric woven from tame spiders, lest she break a leg. That was delicacy.

She was not sheltered, Yi-Min, either, no indeed. She had not been sheltered before she began to look for her enchanted husband, and even if she had been, she would not have been now. She had met the people of the mountains, with rougher and darker skin than hers. They had fashioned for her her first pair of iron boots.

She received the second pair from the plains traders, mighty warriors whose men and women alike rode on horseback and used no reins, guiding their steeds only with their knees so that their hands were free to string arrows to their mighty bows. Her own people had a long-standing dislike of horses, but Yi-Min in her current state had no more reason to fear them than most, so she kept her opinions to herself.

The mountain people were coarser than she and the plains traders were darker, but none so dark as Haraka. Beyond them, to the north where the Master of the Taiga held sway, iron-pitted blacksmith spiders had fashioned her third pair, the soles of which had finally given way, rusted through, even as the smoke of a village rose in the distance. Yet in all her travels, she had seen no one and nothing like this man, if he was a man.

Yi-Min had seen enchantments aplenty in her relatively short life, so she was not inclined to assume that this Haraka even was a man, or if he was, that his dark, dark brown skin was his own. Simply, she kept her mind open. There was also the fact that he was very, very fast, and had arrived pursuing an arrow that flew from the heavens.

There was also the fact that he knew her husband, Kou Ke.

“Let us walk to the village,” she said, once he had said his piece and once she had declined his offer to speed her to her husband’s side. She held up the bodies of her iron boots and collected the soles so that she would have something to show the local smith. “You do not mind moving at such a poor pace?”

“No, indeed, my lady,” he said with a smile. His teeth stood out against his face. Yi-Min thought it looked marvelous. “I enjoy a walk and I enjoy a run. There is a time and place for both, just as there are moments for celebration and moments for gravity.”

“As you say,” she said, and they fell into a companionable walk, one next to the other.

“I understand that you wish to demonstrate your love to your husband,” he began, reiterating their conversation from a moment before.

“It is the least I can do, having been responsible for our separation,” she insisted. “My feet must perform this duty.”

“As you say. Yet you would not turn away from, for example, a pair of seven-league boots, were you to find them?”

She considered. “Not if I achieved them through effort that indicated my love and my responsibility, no.”

“Indeed,” said Haraka.

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