The Seer – Snippet 61
When Amarta saw Darad, as she must now and then, it still hurt, but perhaps a little less today than yesterday. He spoke to her occasionally, when he had to, a word or two, but it was cool and told her nothing.
Whatever she had done to push him away remained a mystery.
Bit by bit she felt herself heal. Nidem was right, though it seemed to Amarta that the girl’s companionship had helped make the prediction true.
Dirina, on the other hand, shone like a buttercup in the sun in the constant company of Kosal. Pas, too, was happily learning words and signs, charming the Emendi with his fast grin and sweet disposition.
Truly, they could not complain. They were warm. They had more than enough to eat. They slept on beds. One fickle boy did not change that.
Most of all, they were safe.
Or so she told herself, firmly and repeatedly, when she woke from snatches of dreams of fire and smoke, keening cries from the dark recesses of tunnels. Only dreams, she told herself, again and again, and nearly believed it. Until the day the flashes came to her when she was awake.
Arunkin soldiers, torches in hand, striding the corridors of Kusan.
No, that was impossible. Kusan had held fast and hidden for centuries. What could change that?
She knew the answer: she could change that. As she had changed the lives of others.
Hands grabbed the Emendi by hair and arms, dragged them up the levels, out into the sunlight.
No, no, no. It could not be.
She stood by the door to the gardens. The keeper nodded his permission for her to go out. There in the sunlight, blinking at the brightness, pushing away the memory of the last time she was here with Darad, she tried to think.
Around her small green plants were bright and tall, red and yellow buds starting to swell.
Amarta, do not bring it here.
She closed her eyes, the sun hot and red through her eyelids, and pushed herself to follow the trail of the horrific images.
Outside Kusan, soldiers hauled weeping Emendi into wagons. One grabbed at Ksava’s long, ropy hair. Another plucked strands from her baby’s head. They laughed, holding Ksava, pulling her baby away. Ksava howled. The baby wailed.
Amarta bent her over the seedlings, forehead to the ground, sobbing.
“No, no! Not to crush the seedlings!” The keeper knelt down next to her, lifting her hands and head gently off the young plants. He looked into her eyes. “Perhaps you’ve had enough sun for now.”
Wordlessly she nodded and went back inside to the dark halls.
Certainty settled inside her: Kusan would be invaded. If she did not do something, the Emendi would all be made into slaves.
She took her lantern and descended the stairs, one level and then the next, down the full nine levels, to the opening of the caverns where Darad had so long ago warned her to never go alone, where Nidem had taken her to watch the rabbit hunt. For a time she sat at the edge of the opening to the cavern, listening to the sounds of the night forest, owls calling, rodents scrabbling, and distant sounds that might be brush trod by huge nightswine.
If she climbed down the rope ladder and walked into the deepest part of the forest, where the nightswine ran, if she gave herself over to them to rend and tear and eat, would Kusan then be safe? If she were the cause of the trouble, could she save Kusan with her life?
The truth was that she did not want to die to save Kusan, not even if it were the only way.
But if it were…?
Perhaps they could leave, she and Dirina and Pas. Let the city fall, if fall it must. Knowing the threat existed, knowing this horror was coming, did that make her responsible for fixing it?
Do not bring it here.
I won’t. I promise.
But maybe the invasion wasn’t about her at all. Maybe the Arunkin soldiers had been coming all along, and she being here was only a coincidence.
She knew better. It was her doing. All her denial would not change that.
Brave. She must be brave.
She turned her thoughts to the night forest, imagining her own death. Would it save the city?
She put the question in her mind but held the answer firmly at bay while she filled out the image of what it would be like to go step by step into the vast caverns, down into the night forest with the tall, black trees and their spindly, pale leaves, the white lichen dripping down in thick strands. To call loudly in the dark for the nightswine to come.
To let them come. To stand as they ran at her. To die wretchedly. Painfully. Alone.
Because if she were not truly willing, there was no point to asking the future for an answer. That was what children did: ask questions they did not really want answers to, make grand gestures that were only for show.
Make promises they wouldn’t keep.
When she was as sure as she could be that she would do this awful thing if the answer were yes — when her breath came hard, heart pounded, and she was as sickened by her imaginings of her own violent death as she could make herself be — she threw the question into that place inside her where the future breathed back.
The answer, when it came, sent a wave of relief through her, followed in equal measure by shame. She gulped air.
No. Her death would not prevent the invasion. It would happen anyway.
She would not have to die.
But — Kusan. She had brought disaster to the city. Could she somehow prevent it?
Putting the lamp on the ground beside her at the edge of the cavern she thought of Jolon, his map in the dirt. With her fingers began to draw. She would not, she promised herself, leave here, not until she had a plan to keep safe the many Emendi who had sheltered them when they needed it most. For hours she sat there, making sketches.
By the time she climbed back up the stairs, she was hungrier than she had been in some time, but it felt good. It felt right.
She went to the kitchens.
Then she went to Dirina.
“No,” Dirina said.
“We must collect food, all this month and next. Hide it for the trip. Then, before the night of the following full moon –”
“– when everyone is asleep — I think I will know the time when it comes. I hope so. Then we –”
“Be silent. Your words are wrong.” Dirina said, and Amarta could hear the pain and fear twisted through her anger. “We are safe here. This is Kusan. Secure for a thousand years. It will not fall.”
“He tracks us here, even now.”
“You can’t know that. Nothing can be seen from outside Kusan. There are more protections and precautions here than you know. This time you are wrong.”
“Diri, he will find the city. He will come with an army.”
“An army! What grand things you foresee,” Dirina said harshly. “How is he to afford such a thing, this army?”
“The wealth of slaves,” Amarta breathed, hating the words she was saying.
“What a child you are to imagine such things.”
Amarta dropped her gaze to her feet. Her turnshoes were uneven where she had resewn them to make them a little larger for her growing feet.
Growing feet did not mean adulthood, did not mean understanding. If her own sister doubted her, the one person who understood her, who knew what she was, then maybe she really was wrong. “Diri, I –”
Dirina’s eyes narrowed. “You are not privy to all the elder’s plans, Amarta. Even if there is an attack, Kusan knows how to withstand such things. We go deep. We seal and lock the tunnels. In centuries past, Kusan has repelled armies. You are wrong.”
Amarta could barely whisper her reply. “He will find where the water comes in to Kusan and do something to turn it dark. It will sicken us. Some Emendi will say it is better to live in bondage than die in thirst. They will fight the others to leave and surrender. When enough Emendi have died from fighting or drinking black water, the rest will open the doors above.”
“How can you say such wretched things?”
She could not bear Dirina’s look, so she stared at her shoes.
Some of the pieces of the future were clear, but many were not. Some had yet to form. Many were still moving. Her head ached, trying to fit them together. She had been drawing in the dirt a great deal. “I think we still have time, Diri, but we must do certain things. Soon, if we are to –”