No one asked if I was fine. They didn’t wish me warmth when I got back. For all they knew, I was dying and they didn’t care.
Not even Tala.
I lay down on my cold cot and wait for my mentor to get back. He’ll probably kick me out. He never had a warm heart toward me. “Honor the dead! Honor the dead!”
I don’t care about the dead. I might be so poor that a pyreman is the only thing I’ll ever be, but that doesn’t mean I have to care about the corpses I have to burn. They’re dead. Who cares about them? If their relatives cared, they’d come to the pyres. But no, it’s easier to hide the dead and the poor together. If they could mix us in with the plaguers, too, they probably would. Throw all the little ones they’d rather not deal with together.
A banging at the door. Cedric answers. I hear his voice resonate through the dark tunnels. The inner hatch opens, and I hear a young voice. I can’t place it. All the messengers blend together after a while.
“It’s mom,” the voice sobs. I can’t even tell if it’s a boy or a girl. It does tell me I don’t need to know this one; it’s family, not a messenger.
“Can you show me the way?” Cedric asks.
“Yeah,” stutters the answer.
“Wait between the hatches. I’ll gather my things and be ready to go in a minute.”
The inner hatch booms shut. I hear Cedric pad away; he’ll have to grab Cleo, his mentor. Cleo will be sleeping by now; she doesn’t like going out after dark any more unless it’s to a burning.
A blizzard of thoughts whips through my head.
Tannen is going to throw me out. I won’t have anywhere else to go. Tala just proved she won’t protect me. She probably couldn’t if she wanted to, anyway.
Here’s someone who needs a pyreman. And I know what to do with a dead body.
Cedric’s away from the door. I heard Tala head back to her rooms earlier. Pin’s wandering around somewhere, but knowing him, he’s thinking about hunting bears or something else ridiculous.
I could go. I don’t sound like Cedric, but no one would ever question a pyreman.
Should I? Should I get out there and take the job?
I’m not a real pyreman yet. I’ve observed fifty burnings. Well, forty-nine and some of the fiftieth. I know what to do, even if Tannen didn’t teach me the last few things I need to know.
How hard could those last few things be?
I slip out of my cot and reach underneath to get the flares, the coal, anything else I’ll need for a job or two. I’m still in my coat and boots, of course – it’s still so cold here in the tunnels. It’s hard to walk quiet on the stone floor, especially since my feet are always bigger than I think they are.
I scuff along the floor to the hatch.
It’s Pin’s high-pitched voice.
“You really shouldn’t do that.”
“Tala said you should wait on your cot, not outside.”
“I gotta go, man.” And I’m not lying.
“Oh. Well, pee good.”
Pin really never made sense.
I pull open the hatch. I hear the boy – the girl? – pacing inside. I step in without saying anything, pulling the inner hatch closed behind me.
The air cycles. As it does, I say, “I’m going to take care of your father. What’s your name?”
Well, it’s a girl’s voice, then. “I’ll take care of him and honor his memory for you.” The words come automatic; I’ve heard Tannen speak them so many times. I don’t even mean them.
The sound of a sob echoes over the cycling air. The outer hatch hisses open. “Come on, Kaynie. Guide me to your home, and I’ll guide your father away.” I try to make my voice gentle, like Tannen’s always was. It doesn’t work so well. The girl’s about to have a meltdown.
I reach out to put my arm around her slender shoulders. I put my arm down before I touch her. I put my arm back out again, wait, and finally make contact.
She turns and shoves her face into my shoulder. Her entire body is shaking.
And we’re standing between the hatches. Tannen will be back soon. If he sees me here, with the bereaved, things will go very badly for me. If Cedric makes it back with Cleo and finds the hatch is being used, things will go very badly for me. If anyone finds out I got bit by a dog tonight, things will go very badly for me.
I’m sensing a theme, and I’m not very fond of it.
What the hell.
“Kaynie,” I say quietly. Even if I can’t do gentle, I can do quiet. “Kaynie, we’re going to walk now. You show me where to go, and I’ll stay by your side the whole way, ok?”
She nods into my shoulder. I take a step. She comes with. We pass over the threshold of the hatch. I push it shut behind me, and we begin up the scaffoldwalk. Four spirals, and up onto the Lattice, the raised space between pits.
She’s still sobbing, and my arm’s still around her, but at least she’s walking now. The snow’s coming down lightly. There aren’t many people out at this time of night, but I can hear the ‘shovels working on the other end of the Pits. They never stop.
She’s still bawling. If this keeps up, her tears are going to freeze her eyes shut. That’s never good. I need to distract her.
Yeah. That’s great, Aydrik. Keep talking like that and they’ll make you an officiant. I clear my throat and try again.
“So, Kaynie, what caused your father’s death?”
Smooth. That’ll get her to stop crying.
“He worked the coalmines. Got blacklung,” she’s able to gasp out. Apparently crying takes a lot out of you. I wouldn’t know.
“Was he at home?”
What were the things Tannen always asked? “Did you get to say goodbye?”
She sniffs. She shakes again. “I was at the co-op. In the bamboo. When the word came. Beladin let me leave early.”
I really don’t have anything to say. My mind’s already going through the steps, though. He died of blacklung, so I don’t need to do anything to cleanse the home. He’ll probably still be heavy, though, and that could be a problem. There’s a reason pyremen usually work in pairs. How am I supposed to get the stiff out of her home?
I already know what I’m going to do. Take him out and burn him right away. Get it taken care of. But I don’t think I can handle carrying a body that far.
“Show me your cards.” The strong voice comes out of the darkness behind us. I turn to see a lantern floating in the darkness. In a few second, I can see the body holding it.
Oh. It’s a redcap. Fantastic. Well, hopefully no one registered me as a rogue pyreman. Or contagious.
I take out my card. It won’t do any good to fight the officer. He scans it on his reader. “Right. You, miss.”
Kaynie hands her card over. He frowns. “Miss Tavriss. I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you in the dark. What are you doing out so late?”
She sniffs. “My father died.”
I blink. Wait, she said her father worked the coalmines. I assumed he was a miner, but –
The officer responds, “My condolences. Only one pyreman? I’d expect all of them would come to honor your father.”
She shrugs. “This is who they’ve sent.”
The officer nods. “All right. I’ll walk with you. It’s not every night the owner of the coal mines dies. Aydrik? Was that your name? Lead on.”
I start walking.
Yeah. This wasn’t good.
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