“Hey, baby, don’t go in there by yourself!” Guardswoman Urapaliha called after me. “Come along now, we’ll find your brother.”
“Guardswoman, has it occurred to you he might have come down this alleyway?”
“Yes, yes, sweetie we’ll start asking again when we get around to the street on the other side.” I ground my teeth and tried to see some trace of Ili’s passage in the trash but once past the mud puddle it was dry and dust blew, swirling around and I couldn’t see anything through the faded brown lace. No footprints. Nothing.
I called, “Ili! Ili!” and hoped against hope that he could hear me, that he was in hearing. The rumble of cart and crowd noise, distant lowing of cattle from the livestock market. No Ili. Dear Gods, let him come running. Please, Gods. Let me find my little brother. Forgive me for approaching you, but for his sake, for his sake alone. He’s innocent. Keep him safe. Please keep him safe.
Gannara came up behind me and I could barely feel his hand on my shoulder through his veil and mine. “They’ll find him. We’ll find him, Minakas.”
“You cannot know that, but thank you.” I came back out to the street.
Guardswoman Urapaliha stood, leaning on her spear, clicking her tongue impatiently. “Sweetheart, baby, if I have to keep shepherding you I cannot be looking for the boy. You need to listen if I ask you to attend,” she said, as if to a slow child. “Why don’t the two of you get your things from the ship, since they won’t hold to wait for you, get a room somewhere and get some rest? We’ll keep looking, and the instant we find him we’ll send a runner to fetch you.”
“Come on, Min,” Gannara said quietly. His hand groped for my elbow, found it and squeezed. He had an idea of some kind, I thought. I swallowed past dry throat.
“Yes, Guardswoman.” I managed to hold onto my temper. “Why don’t we do that.”
We managed to fetch our things from the ship and the captain actually refunded part of our passage since we’d paid all the way to their home port in Yeola-e, Hryna... or something like that.
I held the Imperial book bag to my chest and felt the weight of the sword against my back and tried to take some comfort for that. I still had Kefasbear’s arm in my hand. “So, Gannara, what’s your idea?”
Gannara’s hair was plastered tight to his head with sweat from being under the veil. “I don’t know, Min. I figured I was young enough to pretend to be a girl, but I don’t know if you could...”
My jaw hung open. “Pret... pretend to be a girl?”
“Yeah but your voice has settled so deep...”
I sat down, hard. “Like a Jitzmitthra costume? I don’t know... if I could... a sleeveless shirt that would hide fake breasts? But... Um... I could wear the sword openly and go where I wanted...” The veil was like being in a cage, it made me less than invisible. “I could look for Ili unhampered.”
“You’re already straping yourself down so a crotch bulge wouldn’t give you away...”
“But you’re shaving already.” Gannara, even younger than I, had sprouted a luxuriant growth of beard with the start of his growth, though he shaved every day. Even though I was tall now, I was still not very hirsute and probably wouldn’t ever be.
“As much as it sounds like something a third-rate story-teller might hatch, I’m tempted. But I think the first thing is to get us lighter veils so we can at least see – and perhaps move more easily but keep the ‘girl’ idea for after dark. Unless they find Ili in the next few moments.”
At least in the port area it was possible to find veils that made grown men ‘respectable’ without smothering them completely. They were still hot and blurred vision and restricted movement but in the fitting room I found I could loop the fabric over my arms.
We went back to the park where we’d lost Ilesias’s trail and we searched every alleyway around and found no more trace of Ili. I stopped back by the Guard office to ensure their diligence with a few more chains, since it seemed to galvanize them into better action.
The sun was setting and I could see the sail of the Yeoli ship we should have been on, tinted orange with the sunset as they left the port. I sat in the window, searched out and completely exhausted, blindly looking at the white and red houses of the port. I couldn’t see the Rock. Thenai was north east and this window showed the homes of these enormous, muscular women, and the dark blue of the ocean breaking white in the distance.
Ilesias. Ilesias. Oh Gods. Ilesias. Little brother. Gods is there is something I can give you, something I can sacrifice? Is there something I may give for my little brother’s safety? Please? My own life if necessary. I’d be willing to go to my judgement and Hayel if he’s safe.
I stood at the Mirmida’s desk at sunrise next morning and she was just telling me they hadn’t found Ili yet. There was a burble of Hyerne that I could not understand a single word, but the guardswoman looked at me before speaking to her commander.
They spoke back and forth a bit and then she left. The Mirmida leaned forward and looked at me straight. “Lad. Listen. We’re doing our best. I have my best people out looking for him. You and your friend go back to the inn. The best thing you can do now, is wait.”
I leaned on the desk, head down. I hadn’t slept last night. I was filled with the need to do something, but there was nothing I could do. I left another chain on the desk when I pushed myself up. I didn’t care that I was spending chains like water, in these steady bribes, as long as it got Ili back. “Thank you, Mirmida. He’s only a little boy. My little brother. He’s all I have left of my family in this world.”
Was there the faintest flash of guilt on her face? I shook my head. It was probably the veil and my lack of sleep. I drew myself up and took a deep breath and had to draw on everything the Mahid had taught me to lock down on my emotion. I wasn’t going to let these man-women sneer at me for showing my feelings. “We will wait. If there is anything that I can do, please inform me.”
“We will, baby.”
“Mirmida. Thank you for your diligence.” I clenched my teeth over what I wanted to scream at her. I. AM. NOT. A. BABY. My getting angry at the official hunting for Ili would do nothing good and perhaps harm. If I needed to swallow my pride whole, for Ili’s sake, I would.
I’m in the crack between the two buildings, injured Kefasbear and I. I hold my hand tight over his wound to keep his stuffing in, so he not bleed to death. It’s dark. It’s cold. The market was wrapped up and everybody went home. I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. My pants are wet and stinky but this crack was already a place where people pissed so I just smell the same.
There’s no moon I can see. My hands and feet are cold. There’s a rattle and a clatter. Somebody in armour. A woman’s voice. She’s calling soft. “Ilesia Akam. Ilesia. You hiding, little boy? Come out, come out! Ilesia Akam!” She could be the guard from outside the silky man’s house, the bad guard.
I can hear her walking along, slow steps. She’s looking behind the barrels outside my hidey hole. I squish further back until I can’t squish any further. A grownup won’t be able to reach all the way back here, even if they can get their chest squished. And she’s a girl and has armour on. If she sees me. If she finds me.
I hear her stop outside my hiding place and I close my eyes so they don’t shine at all and hold my breath. “Ilesia Akam? Ilesia?”