The Seer – Snippet 38
“I’ll be in the trade wagon by year’s end, sister. Watch and see.”
She reached over to him and rubbed his head affectionately, laughing a little. “We’ll see how your hair likes the walnut dye. Take Amarta to see if Nakaccha can look at why she’s limping.”
“I’m fine,” Amarta said quickly. “It’s nothing, really.”
“Then it won’t take long,” Ksava answered. “I’ll show Dirina and her young one the baths.”
“She’s good at seeing things that you don’t want seen,” Darad said to Amarta as they made their slow way up the stairs.
“But I’m fine.” Amarta glanced back to see if Nidem was following, felt relief that she was not.
“Not me you need to convince. Oh, here,” he said, pausing at the door of a room and bringing out from the darkness a flat, hand-sized rock, handing her the rock. “A pillow for you to sleep on tonight.”
“This? A pillow? What?”
“Well, after it’s been softened, of course.”
“What?” Amarta said, bewildered, examining the rock more closely.
“Yes,” he said, taking the rock back, knocking his fist lightly against it, then knocking his own head. “Our blond hair, you see. It’s magic. It softens the rocks until they become so soft they’re pillows. Tell you what: I’ll give you my already-softened pillow for tonight and sleep on this one until it’s ready.”
Amarta’s mouth hung open for a long moment.
He grinned wider.
“You’re fooling me?” she asked, stunned.
He laughed. “Of course.” At her expression, he sobered, adding. “I’m playing. Don’t you play, sometimes?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer that.
“Perhaps later,” he said, giving her an odd expression. “Down this way to the hot springs. The soaking baths. Clothes washing. When was the last time you had a bath?”
“You mean to be submerged in water?”
“Warm water. You’ll like it. Now here, see this huge opening?” He waved his lantern so she could see over the lip of the opening, which dropped down sharply some ten feet. “This is the lesser canyon, which opens way back there into the greater one. We hunt in there, but only in large groups. Don’t go in here alone.”
She peered into the darkness, for a moment thinking she saw distant movement, black on black.
“What is that, back there?”
“The ruins of old Kusan, now taken over by the night forest. It goes a long, long ways. There’s a lake back there. Cavewillows and white trout. On the hills we harvest mushrooms and nightberries. That’s where we hunt nightswine.”
“You must have heard. No? Ah. Pigs. They get fat on cave-truffles, white thistle, the fruit of spider trees. They taste better than any pig in the world.”
“You’re toying with me again.”
“No, no. This is true. The Teva take our salted nightswine to the great markets in Munasee and Garaya. Sell it for us.”
In the lamplight she gave him a suspicious look. “Truly?”
“Ask the elders.” At that, his face broke into a grin. “You can ask them about the pillows, too.”
At the meal, Amarta realized she had never before seen so many people gathered together in one place. Hundreds, it must be, all sitting around the large, low, circular tables.
Ksava directed them to a table where the Teva and Darad and Nidem sat. The remaining open spaces were bounded on one side by Nidem, on the other by the Teva.
Well, Nidem already hated her; no sense in putting Dirina in her path as well. So she chose the seat nearest to the other girl, letting Dirina sit by the Teva.
They had come from visiting the woman named Nakaccha, who had taken Amarta’s ankle in her lap. She’d pressed gently in places, turned it a little, and told her that it would be fine in a day or two. To Amarta’s surprise, it felt better immediately.
When she had thanked her, Nakaccha had responded: “It is what I am called to do, girl. That is the best any of us can hope for, to be called to our work. What is it you are called to do?”
Amarta had mumbled that she didn’t know. The encounter left her unsettled. Whatever it was that she did, she must make sure to do it very quietly here. She felt watched keenly.
Despite the hundreds gathered here in this cavernous room, there was no noise other than the soft sounds of wooden spoons against bowls, the brush of leather-clad or bare feet on stone floors. No one spoke.
Nidem pushed a large, full bowl of something that smelled wonderful in front of her, somehow making the gesture convey no warmth.
Mara crouched down behind her, hand on her shoulder. She said softly: “The Emendi are silent at meals, using only hands and eyes to speak.”
“What should we do?” Dirina asked her in a whisper.
Now that Amarta looked, she saw the fluttering, flickering motion of hands and eyes across the room. Silent, perhaps, but there was plenty of talk.
“Speak if you wish,” Mara whispered, “but they will not, here at the meal. As slaves they were forced to hide voice and thought, and this practice honors their ancestors who gave their lives in silence and obedience. After dinner there will be other rooms, where there will be plenty of voices and singing.”
At her side, Nidem was laughing voicelessly at something Darad had signed to her. Amarta felt a twinge of envy.
After dinner, after the clearing and cleaning, the Emendi left in groups in various directions. Ksava invited the three of them into another, smaller room, while the Teva went with the elders.
The Emendi began to array themselves across the floor on blankets. With a laugh, Darad offered her a pillow, a real one. A kind laugh, as if they shared a joke between them, not as if he mocked her. She smiled back, feeling herself warm.
A woman with hair in loose curls around her face put a long, thin, stringed wooden box across her lap and began to pluck out a tune. A young man about Dirina’s age brought out a small drum and began to lightly tap it with his fingers in time. Nidem sat in a corner, watching.
“Do you come from Yarpin?” asked another girl, not quite Amarta’s age.
“No,” Dirina answered, looking as ill at ease as Amarta felt, with the Emendi all watching them. Pas climbed off her lap, found a thick pile of blankets, and curled up there, asleep in minutes. At least one of the three of them was relaxed here.
“My uncle is still there. At House Helata,” an older boy said. “Do you know it?”
Dirina and Amarta shook their heads.
Another spoke. “My mother escaped from transport when I was still in her belly.” His voice dropped. “My cousins didn’t. I hope they’re still alive.”
“We’ve never been to Yarpin,” Amarta said again.
“How about Munasee?” asked another eagerly, a boy, perhaps nine. “We had to leave my sister there. At the governor’s palace. She was young then, like your boy. She’d be eight now. If she — if she…” He fell silent.
“We have never been to Munasee, either,” Amarta said, feeling oddly as if she should apologize.
The room was quiet a moment.
“Perripur, then? Sometimes they take us down there; some of the merchants there own us. They –”
“They say they don’t,” said a young man with a scraggly, pale beard. “It’s a lie.”
“They lie. They all lie. All Arunkin lie. What do you expect?” asked another.
“No,” Amarta said. “We have never even been to Perripur –”
“Yes, yes,” Nidem cut in from across the room. “We know now. You’ve never been anywhere. Why are you here?”
Amarta started to blush, saw Darad watching her curiously. It was his look that decided her. Guests they might be, but Nidem was treating them as if they had enslaved all her people singlehandedly.
Well, they were only here with the Emendi, whom she had never seen before, until they left with the Teva.
“Why do you have marks on your face?” she asked Nidem. “With all the water you have running through Kusan, don’t you ever wash?”
“Ama,” Dirina said, shocked, a hand on her arm, but it was Darad’s amused smirk at her response that she sought, that gave her some satisfaction.
Nidem held up an index finger to the right side of her face. “Two generations free from my mother’s side.” She moved the finger to the other side. “Three from my father’s. How many lines of freedom would you have, Arunkin?”
Anger flashed through Amarta as she struggled and failed to come up with a clever reply. She pulled her arm out of Dirina’s tightening, warning grip.
“You have an odd way of welcoming strangers, Nidem,” said a man standing in the doorway, one of his arms ending in a stump above the elbow.