Thunder cracked and I wanted so to pull the cover over my head. A childish thing to do, Selinae forgive me. Everyone else would be out in the wet already. I should get up. It would be tonight. Tonight we would get away from those horrible, horrible tag-ends of the old Imperium.
Tonight I would put on boy’s trousers, tie my hair up as tight as if I were okas shaved, and Gannara would be coming to cut me out of this tent. I had a bag ready to pack, I had everything I wanted to take innocently laid out or on top of the boxes, easy to hand. Two gowns… the heavy one with the silver chains on it. Auntie always said it was vulgar and shocking to sew them onto a gown, but they would be my funds if anything went wrong.
My tiniest sewing kit with expensive scissors and needles. Inensa quietly, secretly, told me once that if I were ever in danger, even an unpoisoned needle could help me and made me cringe instructing me how.
I will be going into danger but I will have the boys and Kaita and Ailadas to keep me safe. Ilesias would actually make it easier for us to hide from the Mahid, as a family party. Most people, as I understood it, didn't flee into the night with children tagging along. We waited so long for this. Minis was going to wear himself to a shadow waiting for this storm.
Inensa saw me settled into my cot, checked to make sure that there were no leaks that would fall on me, had a quiet word with the woman in the tiny outer room of the tent. Thank goodness she was not sleeping in the same space. I’m not sure how I would have gotten away from her if not for that. “Serina,” I said to her before she left me. “The storm frightens me, could you please leave the lamp lit?”
She looked at me with that stone face of hers and just nodded, setting it down on the box where it couldn’t get blown over. I pulled my quilt up as though hiding from the thunderous noise.
My mental list resumed. My slippers would be all but useless but I doubled two soft leather ones together hidden in my sewing a few days ago and that should give my feet some protection, I was guessing. I tried to think like the heroine in the old poem “The Hidden Aitza”, who fled from the disgusting old Aitzas her father wanted her to marry, running away for more than a year. Even if it was supposed to be a very proper allegory for girls keeping their purity, I thought she was very smart. Mama slapped me once for saying so and gave me the lecture on ‘proper girls’ all over again.
Double slippers. I slid out of my bed quietly, put my cold feet on the floor. I was going to get a lot colder, that’s all there was to it. Thank Mother Goddess I’d practiced putting on the boy’s clothes in daylight before, with Kaita to help me figure it out. I could slide my cringing legs into the clinging fabric trousers and try not to feel tightly bound between my legs with all that fabric bunched up there. I was starting to understand why the men found kilts more popular than trousers.
I took every bit of jewelry I had, everything not taken away and locked into the treasury, a few rings and necklaces and a gathering of various ear-over earrings that I had ‘lost’ over the past few days, complaining bitterly to Inensa of course. The dresses folded and then I ruthlessly rolled them up and put them in the bottom of the bag. They’d be soaked through with river water anyway. The jewelry went on top. My feet into the slippers. Where was Gannara? I picked up my big scissors and cut a hole in the back of the tent but I couldn’t see into the dark.
He’d see the lighter bit in the dark though. My big scissors went into the bag too. The silk stockings and sashes, extra gloves, not the fancy ones part of my gowns. A cotton shawl that would stand a soaking. My monthly wrap. Thank Mother Selinae I flowed at the full moon, not the dark. Underthings. All light things. All my best because they were the thinnest. Two unbetrothed women’s face veils. I didn’t want to carry much more.
“Psst.” A flash of soaking wet hand in through the tent beckoning and a flash of face. Gannara. I blew out the lamp and slung the bag over my back, feeling my way to the hole that Gannara cut a little bigger for me. At last. At last.
“Shh, Ilesias. Here, let me tie that belt on you really tight. You remember what we’ve got to do?”
“I remember. We’re getting away. It’s going to be really cold and we have to swim and if they catch us they’ll kill us.” Kaita nodded as Ilesias repeated, his little face set stubbornly as only a four year old can set. Then he added in a voice far too grim for any child. “And 2nd Amitzas gets us first. So I have to listen and listen hard.” She hadn't told him that, but he knew.
“Yes, dear. You’ll be all right. I have your things in your bag and your bear, it will get really heavy once it gets wet.”
Kaita plunged their tent into darkness, thankful that she’d been able to talk Ilesias into playing tantruming brat so that the Mahid women left her alone with her charge. In the flash of lightning she could see the silhouette of the Coronet’s guard outside.
She’d unpicked the stitches holding the tent wall to the floor during the day, again using Ilesias’s bad temper as a cover for her actions. He’d yelled and howled and then grinned at her, seeing the huge joke of it.
After a lightning flash she raised the tent wall and sent Ilesias squirming through the hole, passing him their bags before wriggling out, barely squeezing herself through into the rain, and set a rock on the tent flap to hold it down behind them.
It was full dark, late in this spring night before the storm broke with a crack of thunder and a roar as the rain started. There was so much water falling out of the sky I wondered if we would be able to use the storm or if we would be stopped by it. I asked Gannara to put my hair into the tightest braid he could and club it up hard against my neck to get it out of the way. I clenched my hands together to keep them from shaking, or clutched the edge of the chair, hard. I can’t do this. No matter how many times I thought it, I didn’t say it, nor let it stop me.
Gannara had the two small packs he’d made up for us at the end of my bed. I had my dagger, the killing tool 2nd Amitzas insisted I learn how to use. He’d had me practice this kind of strike on straw-stuffed bags, animal carcasses and the dead body of the bandit before it was buried in the cave. He’d been planning to have me kill the man that way but had been thwarted by the man’s dying first. I can’t do this. I have to.
I stood next to the tent door and took a deep breath, nodding at Gannara who nodded back. This was it. He blew out the lamp and called the Mahid. It was 10th Iakobas. “This abject worm is desperate for the most honoured assistance of the exalted Mahid,” Gannara whispered. “It is desolate that the lamp has blown out.” He sounded appropriately fearful in the dark.
“The slave should be beaten for allowing it.” The wind puffed and bellowed making the walls crack, the boom of another peal of thunder covering up the rest of what he said and the snap of his fire-striker as he struck the spark. As the light before him bloomed I saw Gannara looking at the floor, I paused a heartbeat to be sure of my strike before drawing my hand back and jammed the knife in all the way to the hilt. It was a hair off, grinding against a rib but slipped through easily enough with the amount of force I used. I don’t have time to be sick. I remember. A living body fights back.
I could feel his heart quiver through my hand as it tried to continue beating around the steel that punched through it. I won’t think about that right now. Gannara skittered backwards with the lamp as the Mahid lurched, limbs spasming. There were more tremors as the cut pieces of his heart struggled to beat, then mercifully stopped. He gurgled, spat a gout of blood over his chin and fell. I left the knife in him as he went down, rubbing my hand against my trouser leg. The thump of him collapsing I couldn’t hear at all in the sound of the storm and I stood right behind him, inaudible in the noise of the rain. I will think about this later.
Gannara’s face, underlit by the lamp looked unreal, awful, a grin stretching his face. I wondered how this particular Mahid had hurt him. Now we must keep on. No going back.
I took his shoulders and Gannara his feet and we wrestled the dead weight into my bed, smearing the blood on the floor. Only once he was safely on the mattress, oozing blood out of his mouth, did I pull the knife out. I arranged his head on my pillow, pulled up quilt covering up the very small stain, considering. Only a still living body sprayed blood all around, I noticed absently, weirdly distant from what was going on. A cursory glance would seem to have everything in order.
The note went onto the table, weighted down with the lamp.
Gannara took the Mahid’s fire-striker and I gathered up the Mahid kit and his stiletto to add to mine. We picked up our things and I snuffed the lamp again, throwing us into pitch black, ducking out into the downpour. It was raining so hard it was almost hard to breathe. He was to head down to the riverbank and leave everything there, go and get Kyriala. The girls would hopefully be already wrestling their way into the boy’s clothes. Kaita would bring Ilesias and Ailadas would bring himself and head for the river.
It was my job to steal the treasury. In the pounding rain it was almost easier to slither my way under the deadfall behind 2nd Amitzas’s tent. My nose was full of muck and leaves and water and my hair, even braided as tightly as it was. I couldn’t see the tent wall and crawled right into it, bashing my hand against a drum-tight wall. It was bellied inward, pressed against the things inside.
The wind shifted and it flapped loose a moment before pushing hard against my palm. Where is the blasted box? A blaze of lighting and the thunder crash almost one on top of the other and I blinked, trying to get the greenish after-images out of my dazzled eyes, put my head down on my one forearm, my nose just above the rotten-worm smelling muck. So far falls the Spark of the Sun’s Ray… all the way to earth, there to fizzle out.
I closed my eyes and felt along the bottom edge of the tent… there. The wall snapped inward again. There was one box… and the other. There was no light shining out of the tent but I thought I heard something. I froze. A moan perhaps? A hiss? I couldn’t tell. Rain poured down my face, cold, but there was no sign of anyone inside noticing me.
The next crash of thunder covered the ripping noise when I poked my knife into the cloth and I carefully timed my sawing the slit down with the thunder, trying to be still for the wild flashes of lighting that warned me of the noise to come. A slit down, a careful… slow… achingly slow slit across the bottom to separate the wall from the floor. How long did I have? Everyone would wait for me at the river… they’d have the log ready to roll into the water, their packs slung on stumps of branches.
If I didn’t get this box out of here in another few moments I would have to abandon it, and with it Kyriala’s honour, her hope of an honourable marriage… since she wasn’t going to be able to marry the Spark of the Sun’s Ray… I couldn’t leave it behind and I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t see her shamed if I could help it. Another noise from inside stopped me again. It was a shriek into a gag. Then a gloating voice I knew. 2nd Amitzas. I thought my heart would break or freeze.