I don’t want to open my eyes. Opening my eyes means I have to go out into the real cold. The real cold means snow on my skin and begging for something to eat. I don’t like the way other people look at me.
The cold presses up against my face. Did I fall asleep in a snowbank again?
No. There’s something wrong.
I don’t sleep outside anymore. The pyremen took me in. If I have snow on my face, Cedric is playing a trick on me. And if I wake up angry or sad or startled, he wins.
Wait. There’s something else going on. It doesn’t smell right. I take a shallow, shallow breath. Can’t let them know I’m awake yet. If I let them know before I figure out the best thing to do, they’ll make fun of me again. I don’t want them to laugh at me. Especially if Tala’s around.
“You can stop faking it. I know you’re awake.”
The voice is female, but it doesn’t have Tala’s husky tones. The voice is light and kind and tired. Did we take someone else in?
Do I keep faking it to try and prove her wrong?
The cold pressure on my cheek vanishes. “If you prefer, I can just let the infection take over your body. That would make everyone happy, wouldn’t it?” the voice asks.
I open my eyes to see a girl looking down at me. She’s young – maybe eight, nine years old. “Your cut got infected. We’re going to get the infection out, but I had to slow it down until Mother Tann could get the right herbs from the co-ops. So, it’s ice on your face until she gets back.”
OK, maybe she’s a little older. It’s hard to tell. I can tell she doesn’t belong in the sanctuary – or at least, she doesn’t live here. She doesn’t have the hard lines that come to a face that grows up like that.
“I’m Sareh,” she says.
I grunt. “Aydrik.”
She puts the cold up against my face again and picks up my hand. “Here. You’re awake; you can hold it yourself.” As she places my hand against my face, I realize that it’s not ice but a pat of snow pressing against me. I couldn’t tell. My face must be really numb.
She turns away to fiddle with something I can’t see, but it lets me look around at the cave I’m in. A single electric light burns dimly in the corner. It’s a small room; I recognize the type. Room for a cot and not much else. A narrow passage with an actual locking door to get out. It’s where they put people they want to take in but aren’t sure of yet.
Or people that they’re thinking about kicking out.
Well, I guess my ability to get kicked out of a place that’s supposed to welcome pretty much everyone is getting more and more keen. That’s a skill worth honing, right?
Sareh turns back. She has a dingy damp cloth in her hand. She places it on my forehead. It’s warm. “Eli was really worried about you.”
Her face is blank. “He thought it was important enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. I had to sneak out without my dad finding out I was gone. That’s not easy. I could get in big trouble. And Eli knows it.”
Someone clears his throat. We both turn – well, really, I lift my head – and we see that a stooped man has entered the room. He has gray hair and strong, strong hands.
Sareh smiles. “Patr!”
I roll my eyes.
The man shuffles forward. “Good morning, Sareh. I’m glad you came, our little Lydia.” His eyes twinkle. He reaches out a hand and caresses the back of her head like a fond father. “And you, Aydrik. It’s been a long time. Have you come to your senses?”
I clear my throat. “The girl needed help. I knew you’d help her.”
“We’ll help you, too. We already have. Sareh has done well to keep you stable while Mother Tann gets your medicine.”
“I’ll take her help. And the medicine. I don’t need you.”
“Of course not.” He kneels on the floor. “Oh.” He breathes in sharp. “I hope that you are blessed with knees much better than mine.” And he grins again. “Sareh is quite fond of me.”
The girl looks at me again. “I’m as old as you are.”
“No. You’re younger.”
“Just because you’re a jerk doesn’t mean you’re older than me,” she spits. She removes the warm cloth from my forehead. She stalks to the other side of the room and crosses her arms, leaning against the wall. “I’ll take care of you after Patr’s done. And if he takes a long time, well, I guess I can live with that.”
“Sareh. Your temper. If you do not find a way to dampen it, another will.”
She rolls her eyes.
“And I warned you of the same thing before you left. Tell me, Aydrik, what have you learned in your time away?”
I huff. It’s hard to be effectively indignant when you’re holding a chunk of snow against your face, though. I match glares with him. I try to burn my way through his skull with my hatred. He doesn’t seem to notice the holes I’m drilling into his face, though. In fact, he smiles.
“Oh, Aydrik. You have come home too soon, I fear. You have not learned, and your anger will burn down more than yourself if you continue as you are.”
Hold on. My wrist. My wrist should be hurting right now.
If I look down at it, he’ll see. And maybe he’ll wonder. Or do they already know? Have they seen my torn wrist? If they carried me up here, they might have checked me over.
Then again, if they believe it’s just an infected cut on my cheek, they might not have bothered.
But I can’t even look to see if they bandaged it.
They wouldn’t send Patr in here – or the girl, Sareh – if they thought I had plague. Wait. Patr used to go to the Plaguer Camp a long time ago before the officiants said he couldn’t anymore. He wouldn’t be scared even if I have the plague.
Which I don’t.
But I can’t even look, because then he’ll know. I need to keep my eyes locked on his.
Patr snorts. “You know, there was another who fought with anger. A long time ago. I’m named after him, actually. Did you know he thought he could take on an entire army with just one little sword? Oh, sure, he was angry, and anger makes us do stupid things. Doesn’t it, Sareh?”
The girl rolls her eyes.
Well, maybe she is good for something. Even if she is younger than me.
“But you know who he attacked? He didn’t attack an enemy. He didn’t go for a soldier. No, he attacked a little servant boy. The one who he thought he could actually take. And the Master stopped him. ‘No, no,’ the Master said. And he healed the servant. Things done in anger, things done to cover up fear or to protect pride, never end in blessing for anyone.”
“Shut up, old man,” I say. His stories. Always with the stories.
He opens his mouth to respond, but turns toward the door. How does someone so old still have better ears than me?
The door opens and a young man bolts in. “Sareh, dad’s freaking out. You need to get home!”
She backs away. “Denal, they need me here. Tell him I went to the co-op early.”
The guy shakes his head. “I can’t. The Pits are in an uproar. Someone killed an officer last night. Except the officer didn’t die right away!”
“So? The Pits are rough. Officers die.”
“You don’t get it, Sareh! The officer said that he was attacked by someone who kidnapped Tavriss’s daughter – the night that Tavriss died! The Pits are in an uproar!”
Sareh shakes her head. “All right. What does that have to do with me?”
Denal finally grabs her wrist. “We need to get home. Everything’s going into lockdown. The officer said he spotted blood on his attacker’s cheek. He thought it was someone from the Plaguer Camp.” He takes a deep breath. “Sareh, everyone things the Plaguers are gonna attack the Pits.”
I can see it click in Sareh’s head. “Someone with blood on his cheek? And he had Tavriss’s daughter with him?”
She looks at me.
I keep the snow on my cheek.
“Aydrik. Did you come from the Plaguer Camp?” Her voice is calm. Way too calm. When a woman is that calm, it usually means she’s about to try and beat you senseless. At least, that’s what that tone means in Tala.
“No.” I can say that without any problem. I never went there.
Doesn’t matter if the dogs tried taking me out. Doesn’t matter if I should have gone there. Going there is a death sentence. So what if a dog bit me? I don’t have the plague.
I didn’t put anyone else at risk by coming here!
Patr places both meaty hands on either side of my face. “Aydrik. Now is not the time for anger or pride to get in the way. Speak the truth. Are you the one the officer was talking about?”
I can’t look away. He won’t let me. I still don’t know if they know about my wrist. That would blow the entire thing. They can’t know about my wrist if they’re asking me about this, though. Then they’d know for sure. What can I say? What can I say? Do I lie to Patr?
“I didn’t kill him,” I manage to get out.
Patr’s hands seems so gentle against my skin. “Aydrik, I didn’t ask that.”
I can’t breathe. I can’t look away from his eyes. I can’t even close my eyes. He stares at me, into my heart, and I feel so ashamed.
No. I am not ashamed. I didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t have plague. The officer attacked the girl. I’ve only done what is right and fair and good. Even back when I left Tannen with the pyre. He was the stupid one doing the wrong thing. I won’t apologize for anything I’ve done.
I steel myself. Fine. If I’m going to be damned, I might as well be damned for being me. “Yeah. I shoved him over the side of the pit when he attacked the girl. And he saw the cut. And I guess he thought it was plague.”
Patr releases me. “Sareh. Denal. Go home. Thank you for your service.” He looks back at me. “This one. I do not know what we will do with him, but I suspect he will be unhappy no matter what. He is burning, and I fear I cannot put out those flames. No one can as long as he continues to feed them.”
Whatever, old man.
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