Something red hurtled through the air toward them, resolving itself as a valiant in red armor only when he whistled sharply at Raya. Seri drew up short, startled, as he landed on the ground in a crouch. She was surprised to find she recognized him. Tarim, who had always had an easy smile and a friendly word for the settlers. He had been one of the valiants that had guarded them during the march.
Tarim paused to give Seri a grin.
"I see she's put you to work already." He spoke to Seri, but she had the distinct sense the comment had been meant for Raya.
Raya sniffed. "Everyone needs to work. And the commander said I could have Seri help me with the water."
"Is that what she told you?" Tarim cupped his hand over his mouth and said to Seri in a stage whisper, "Raya won't do her chores unless she bullies someone else into doing them with her."
"At least I do my chores at all, Tarim," Raya said. "Unless hopping around for the settlers' amusement is on the duty roster now."
"I'm 'patrolling'. The commander doubled the patrols, or haven't you heard?"
"If you're patrolling, then get moving. It's not like a beast is going to fall on us here. Seri and I have work to do."
Before Seri could say anything, Raya grabbed her by the arm, maneuvering her around Tarim. Fully armored as she was, her grip was like iron. Raya hardly noticed when Seri stumbled before catching up.
Seri looked up at Raya's face, expecting to see her angry, but Raya was smiling. No, not just smiling. Chuckling, as softly as possible to keep the sound from reaching Tarim.
"Fates, he can be an idiot sometimes."
"You two are friends?"
"We trained as valiants together. I don't know if that makes us friends." She snorted, waving dismissively, but Seri wasn't convinced. Raya released Seri's arm quickly, as if she were surprised to find that she was still holding it. "Oh! Sorry about that. Now, about the water&"
Grass faded to silt at the lake's edge, the smooth surface of the water reflecting the sky. Seri stood a little apart from Raya, watching as the valiant dropped the buckets she had been carrying to the ground. There were four, each tied to one end of two poles Raya had slung over her shoulders. She had brought them from headquarters, but while a valiant's strength meant carrying them filled would be easy, 'Seri' wasn't a valiant. She didn't think she could lift one of them full, let alone climb with it, and she had no idea how Raya would manage to carry both by herself. Strength aside, Raya wasn't very 'big', and four full buckets of water took up space.
Raya stretched her arms up over her head, rubbing at a knot in the small of her back. She grinned at Seri.
"Now," she said, picking up one of the poles and handing it to Seri. "Here's how we're going to do this. You're going to fill these buckets for me."
Raya nodded. "Yes. And while I run this set back, you're going to fill the other. If we keep going like this, we can fill up water stores for the entire settlement. We could go faster if Tarim would help, but—" She shrugged.
Seri looked at the buckets skeptically. "You're going to drop these off & and come back?" she repeated. "Are you sure we shouldn't just get a cart?"
Raya grinned, a flash of teeth. "'Never' underestimate a valiant. Now, if you don't mind, the water?"
Seri was still uncertain, but she nodded, taking the buckets from Raya. She stripped off her shoes and rolled her trousers up past her knees, wading into the lake. The lake's sandy bottom squelched between her toes.
Filling buckets for someone else to carry was a child's job, and every child of the People knew the best water was farther out from the shore. In the eyes of the People, Seri was an adult, but she hadn't been an adult very long. She still remembered going down to the water with—with Ithim. With her mother.
No. Don't think about that.
The buckets sliced through the surface of the water as she dipped them in, first one and then the other. Raya didn't wait for her to return to shore, instead wading in after her to take the pole. She hoisted it over her shoulders with one hand, raising her other hand in a mock salute before kicking up a spray of water and leaping into the air. By the time the water settled, Raya was almost to the spreading tree, faster than Seri would have thought possible. Although she'd lived in a border village, she hadn't really seen valiants move until now. Elaya had been a quiet, sedate place. Maybe there was a lot Seri still didn't know about the world.
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book GABE IN THE AFTER by Shannon Doleski.