The Seer – Snippet 39
“I don’t welcome them at all. Who knows what they will say once they leave? To trust the Teva is one thing. To trust Arunkin is folly. We should know this by now.”
“It’s a little late to curse the door for letting in the wind,” Ksava observed mildly from where she sat, her baby at her breast.
“Why would we say anything at all about you?” Amarta asked.
The room fell silent, looks exchanged.
The one-armed man sat down next to the young woman with the lap-harp. She handed it to him. Closer now, Amarta saw that his arm ended in a sort of crater, out of which poked a thumb’s width of yellowed bone. She struggled not to stare.
He began to strum with his one hand, then stopped, meeting her look squarely. “Because we’re worth a fortune, girl.”
“Oh,” Amarta responded, trying yet again not to stare at his arm. “But we would never do that.”
“We know how to keep secrets,” Dirina added earnestly.
“Go on, look at it.” He held up his stump for her to see. “The king’s law and justice, girl. Take a good long look.”
Amarta was tired of being attacked, tired of being polite. “What did you do to earn it?” she found herself saying.
Dirina hissed. “Ama –”
He shook his head, negating Dirina’s reprimand. “It’s good she asks, woman. Some things should be said aloud.” He fixed Amarta with his startling blue eyes. “I escaped my owner, is what I did. When I was recaptured, he brought out his axe. Smiled while he cut my arm.”
“But…” Amarta trailed off, confused.
He waved his stump slowly in the air for her to continue.
Amarta felt herself warm again, wishing she’d stayed silent.
“Go on, girl. Ask your question.”
Everyone was watching her. No one was smiling. She swallowed, hoping she wasn’t blushing too redly. “Don’t slaves need hands?” she asked.
He barked a loud laugh that seemed to echoed off the cave walls, and then looked around the room, meeting the eyes of the others. When he looked back at Amarta, his eyes were dancing in dark amusement.
“Some sorts of slaves need hands. Some don’t. It all depends on what kind of slaves they are. Me, I was used for –”
“That’s enough.” Dirina said harshly.
Startled, Amarta looked at her sister. “Diri?”
“We don’t want to hear about it.”
The man’s incredulous look matched Amarta’s. “Woman, this is the truth of the matter. We are all old enough to hear such truths. Why do you object?”
“None of your business, man,” Dirina said, standing and grabbing up Pas from where he lay. Pas frowned furiously at being woken, his arms now wrapped around his mother’s neck, staring his displeasure at the room. Then Dirina grabbed Amarta’s hand and drew her along to the opening of the cave.
“Diri,” Amarta whispered, resisting.
“There are things it is better not to know. Yes?”
Amarta thought about her visions. “Yes, of course, but –”
“This is one of them.”
Darad joined the three of them with a lantern.
“I’ll take you to the sleeping room where the Teva are staying. You must be tired after your long journey.”
Amarta abhorred his polite tone, ached for his teasing wit, and gave her sister a hard, resentful look.
“Yes, we are,” Dirina answered Darad, ignoring the look. “Thank you.”
That night and the next day, Dirina looked so tired and downcast that, as annoyed as she was, Amarta could not bring herself to say anything about the night before.
In truth, it was not her sister’s fault that they had come here, that they had been forced to leave the farm, that they were on the run again. That was entirely Amarta’s doing.
She would, she resolved, hold her tongue. Treat her sister kindly. It was the least she could do.
After the first silent meal of the day was done, Amarta happily fed with more wonderful food, she listened as the Teva discussed what goods they would leave here for the Emendi and what they would take forward with them to market. They mentioned cured nightswine jerky, which she found reassuring. Darad had been telling the truth about that, at least.
“Let me do something useful,” she begged Jolon when he had a moment. He smiled and brought her to a well-lit room that had a loom and hand-mending tools. “I saw what you and Dirina did with the rips in our wagon covering. I think you can help them.” The other Emendi sitting there knitting and working the loom made her quietly welcome.
For hours she sat there, absorbed by the work, relaxing for the first time since she had arrived. She repaired one shirt’s torn seam, then another. She picked up a sock and darned it, then looked for more work.
“There you are,” Darad said from the doorway. “Come on, I want to show you something.”
She leapt up to follow him into the hall.
“How is your ankle?” he asked.
She had not even thought of it today. “I think it is all better,” she said with surprise.
“Nakaccha is skillful.” Then he took her hand, leading her along the stone tunnels. She was suddenly, keenly aware of the warmth of his fingers on hers. It felt very good.
“Have you lived here your whole life?” she asked to make conversation, to cover the awkward feeling suddenly coming over her.
“Kusan-born, yes. My grandmother came here after she was blinded by her owner. He wanted her eyes.”
“Gold flecks in the blue, you see. Some of us have them. Look.” He stopped suddenly and held up the lantern. She looked into his eyes, which gave her an odd and not unpleasant feeling in her stomach.
Until she remembered why.
“Yes,” he agreed, simply, taking her hand again, resuming their walk. “She was lucky to find Kusan at all, blind as she was. Brave. So brave.”
“Where are we going?”
“You talk too much,” he said. But she could hear the smile in his voice that belied the words, and felt the squeeze of his hand.
More minutes passed. They went from one tunnel to the next, and she wondered, though not very seriously, if he was going to lead her around in circles and leave her here in the dark. She quietly hummed the distress signal, and he laughed, squeezing her hand again, a reassurance.
They entered a lamp lit room lined with shelves of folded burlap where some ten children sat around at a table. Nidem was among them.
A silent conversation between Darad and Nidem commenced. Amarta was sure he could have more effectively used both hands, but he insisted on keeping hold of hers. At this she felt a sweet sense of something she had not felt before. He wanted her there. It was almost like belonging.
Then she met Nidem’s look. She looked away at an open chair, then back to Amarta again. As Amarta watched this repeat, she realized that it was a direction, an invitation. Darad drew her with him to two open seats.
“It is a game,” Darad said softly, his the only voice in the room. “A silent one. You’ll learn. I’ll help you.”
With a combination of eye flickers and blinks and hand signs, they taught her the game, which turned out to be about moving each other from seat to seat with eyes and signs and rules that became clear to her as they played.
Before she knew it, she was smiling. And now she did feel as if she belonged.
Finally Darad let her hand go, but she was engrossed enough in the game that she hardly noticed.
The next day and the next the two of them helped in the kitchen, cleaning and preparing vegetables, and then set about to help mend clothes.
Every now and then she saw Dirina smile. So unusual, Amarta realized. Both of them were starting to relax, to breathe more easily. At meals Darad sat by her, teaching her more signs.
At the evening meal of the third day, the annoying and ever-present Nidem broke in between his instruction, interrupting with her hands. Resentment flashed through Amarta, so it took her a moment to realize that Nidem was telling the very joke that she’d made the day Amarta arrived, when they were first introduced. That she was telling it now for Amarta’s benefit, repeating it slowly, making sure that Amarta understood.
Then the three of them laughed, soundlessly, together, and Amarta felt a joy she had never felt before.
She realized she hadn’t thought about her hunter since she had arrived.
“Somewhere safe,” Jolon had said. Maybe he was right.