The Seer – Snippet 59
At the meal, Amarta looked for Darad, but he had slipped out some time ago, to where she did not know. Without even signing good-bye to her.
There had been a conversation the previous evening between the handful of them, the subject turning to the upcoming trip. Someone had pointed out that she and Dirina already looked like Arunkin, because they were Arunkin, and why, he wondered, couldn’t they be sent on the out-trips instead of sending Emendi?
“That’s a dumb idea,” Darad had said. “They don’t know what we need to get.”
“So give them a list. They can read, can’t they?”
“Not really,” Amarta admitted.
“Why not?” asked a younger boy.
“I just never had to learn, I guess.”
“I mean why can’t you go on these trips instead of us?”
Another girl spoke up. “We risk our lives on the trips. It’s no risk for you at all.”
Amarta could not — would not — tell her how wrong she was. But at this Nidem and Darad exchanged quick looks, making Amarta wonder how much they suspected about why she and Dirina and Pas were in Kusan in the first place.
“No,” Nidem said adamantly. She gave Amarta a brief, unfriendly stare. “I’ve worked hard for my place in the out-trip. She hasn’t done anything to earn it at all.”
Amarta nodded her agreement at this, feeling both relief and gratitude to Nidem. Darad gave her a thoughtful, unreadable look.
Which was why, now, with him gone early from the meal, she worried that she had said or done something he didn’t like.
The meal was finishing and Emendi were leaving. Some to the baths, some to the nursery, some to the music room, some to the coops.
Nidem caught her eye from the door. Come with, she signed.
Clean-up duty, Amarta signed back with one hand, holding a stack of bowls with the other, hoping she was properly conveying with the abruptness of her movements the frustration she felt at being stuck here. She desperately wanted to get Nidem alone so she could ask her where Darad had gone.
But no, it was beyond important that they be reliable here. To be worth the sanctuary and food the Emendi generously gave them.
Washroom Three Nidem signed back. Come soon.
Maybe she could get Dirina to take her clean-up duty, she thought, looking for her sister. She was with Kosal, a young man she had been spending a lot of time with. Judging by her happy look, her sister wouldn’t be in a mood to wash dishes for Amarta.
Again Kosal was trying to teach Dirina hand signs by holding her hand and moving her fingers. It seemed to Amarta that her sister was taking a very long time to learn. But no real mystery there; Dirina grinned foolishly as he slowly manipulated her fingers.
It was good that they were making friends among the Emendi. Still, many Emendi would not even speak to them, despite how diligently she and Dirina had worked these last months to find a place here in Kusan, to make themselves valuable and trusted to the suspicious Emendi.
After the Teva left, Nidem had warmed to Amarta, joking that it was best to keep enemies as close as possible. At Amarta’s hurt look, Nidem had rolled her eyes and cuffed her lightly. Joking, she signed.
Not long after, Nidem had taken Amarta on a night-rabbit hunt, the two of them standing well to the back of the group of adults who released the hunting ferrets to find and flush the rabbit warrens, where two of the hugest ferrets Amarta had seen waited. As the rabbits exited their holes, the ferrets clamped onto their necks, rolling hard to break them.
The rabbit stew had been delicious.
When conversation after that meal turned to Arun slavers, Nidem defended them, explaining adamantly that they had never owned slaves. Never even been to Munasee, let alone Yarpin.
Now Nidem flashed her a final sign: Hurry! and left the eating hall.
Amarta took dirty plates to the kitchen, passing by Dirina laughing with Kosal. She felt oddly uneasy. At the waterway where she soaped dishes beside others she wondered if it were premonition.
She had not looked for the visions these last months, nor had they come to her unbidden. She was not pushing them away — she had learned not to do that from her escape in the Nesmar forest — but also she did not ask for them.
No, she decided after a time, her unease did not have the feel of that other sort of knowing, the future scratching like tiny beetles in the back of her head, slipping in through the cracks. It was more that time was passing, and they were some kind of happy here. The happier they were, the more it hurt to leave.
And surely they would have to leave.
But if not vision, then perhaps it was not even true. Nothing bad had happened. The hunter had not found them. No one had suffered from her visions.
As soon as she felt she could leave the kitchen, she grabbed a lantern and ran to the washroom two levels down. There a crowd had gathered at the far end of the room, by the waterway. Nidem saw her and motioned her over, leading her close in. On the floor lay a boy, his head tilted back in one of the basins, Astru and another man kneeling over him.
“What –” Amarta whispered, but Nidem hushed her with hand squeezes.
The boy grinned at her, and with a shock she realized it was Darad, his hair dyed black.
“He goes on the out-trip next month,” Nidem said. “This is the first time for the dye, to test his hair to see how it takes. So — a ceremony, you see. He is more an adult today than yesterday.”
Was that pride in Nidem’s voice? Amarta looked at the other girl, and decided it was.
That the Emendi studied for this, she knew, but she hadn’t really understood how much it meant to them, this opportunity to leave Kusan for the world outside, even for a few days.
Darad sat up. The men surrounding him toweled his hair dry with a cloth already darkly stained.
“Enough,” said Astru, waving at the various watchers standing around. “The rest is for Darad only.”
Out in the corridor Nidem’s eyes were wide and bright, her look at Amarta intense. “I will go in the next out-group. The month after.”
“If you do well in the exams,” the elder Vatti said, standing near by, running her hands through Nidem’s hair, inspecting it.
“Your tests are harder than Astru’s,” Nidem said. “That’s not fair.”
“Fair is what you take,” Vatti said. “You’ll be glad of the extra study if you ever get caught.”
“Why?” Amarta asked.
“Because what Arunkin do to blond girls they do not do to blond boys,” Vatti said.
“None of us have been caught out in years,” Nidem said. “A decade and more. Maybe we need less preparation for a few days outside to the market than you think.”
At this Vatti said nothing, but she signed, once, sharply, a sign that Amarta didn’t know, and walked away.
Nidem lost her smile.
“What?” Amarta asked her when Vatti had gone. “What did that mean?”
Nidem shook her head.
“Come on, tell me.”
Nidem looked subdued as her eyes traced around the empty hall and back to Amarta.
“It is the sign for ‘slave.'”
“You didn’t recognize me,” Darad said to her.
“No, not at first.”
“I’m going on the out-trip next month. I look like Arunkin now, don’t I?”
“Not your blue eyes.”
“We look down,” he said. “Part of the training. No one will notice. You worry too much.”
“Be careful,” she said, now suddenly truly worried.
He laughed. “I’ll be fine.”
Would he? She tried to foresee the out-trip to the market and back. Would Darad be sound through all that, and return unharmed?
“When were you last up in the gardens?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer he took her hand, pulling her along to the stairs and up the levels. A black and white ferret followed them curiously. Amarta didn’t much like going outside, despite being encouraged to see the sun regularly, despite how hidden the gardens were, nestled among high rocks. It reminded here that there was a world beyond Kusan. A world in which she was not safe.
“It’s spring,” he said. “You have to, now.”
“What? No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. And now that I have dark hair, you can’t argue with me.”
At this she laughed. “Watch me argue with you.”