Together the pair made their way out of the Edifice, across the plaza, and down the crowded lane. At the weaving shed, Kira paused, greeted the women, and asked about Matt.
"Haven't seen him! And good riddance, too!" one of the workers replied. "The useless scamp!"
"When're you coming back, Kira?" another asked. "We could use your help. And you're old enough to be on the looms now! With your mother gone, you must need the work!"
But another woman laughed loudly and pointed to Kira's clean new clothes. "She don't need us no more!"
The looms began to click and move again. Kira turned away.
Nearby, she heard an oddly familiar, oddly frightening sound. A low growl. Quickly she glanced around, half expecting to see a menacing dog or something worse. But the sound had come from a cluster of women near the butcher's. They burst into laughter when they saw her looking. She saw Vandara in their midst. The scarred woman turned her back on Kira and she heard the growl again: a human imitation of a beast. Kira lowered her head and limped past them, ignoring the cruel laughter.
Thomas had gone ahead; she could see him far beyond the butcher's. He had stopped near a group of young boys playing in the mud.
"Dunno!" one was saying as she approached.
"Gimme coins and maybe I could find him!"
"I asked them about Matt," Thomas explained, "but they say they haven't seen him."
"Do you suppose he might be sick?" Kira asked, worried. "His nose is always running. Maybe we should never have cleaned him up. He was accustomed to that layer of dirt."
The boys, slapping their bare feet in the mud, were listening. "Matt's the strongest of the strong!" one said. "He never be sick!"
A smaller one wiped his own runny nose on the back of his hand. "His mum be yelling at him. I heared her. And she throwed a rock at him too, and he laughed at it and run off!"
"When?" Kira asked the runny-nosed boy.
"Dunno," he said. "Maybe two days ago."
"It were!" chimed in another. "Two days ago! I seed it too. His mum chucked a rock at him 'cause he tooken some food! He said he were goin' on a journey!"
"He's all right, Kira," Thomas reassured her, and they walked on. "He takes care of himself better than most adults. Here — I think this is where we turn."
She followed him down an unfamiliar narrow lane. The huts were closer together here, and close to the edge of the woods, so that they were shaded by trees and smelled of dankness and rot. They came to a foul-smelling stream and crossed it by a slippery, primitive bridge of logs. Thomas took her hand and helped her; it was treacherous, with her bad leg, and she feared slipping into the water, which was quite shallow but clogged with filth.
On the other side of the stream, beyond the thick poisonous oleander bushes that were such a danger to tykes, lay the area known as the Fen. In some ways it was similar to the place that Kira had called home: the small cotts, close together; the incessant wailing of infants; the stench of smoky fires, rotting food, and unwashed humans. But it was darker here, with the trees thick overhead, and festering with dampness and an odor of ill health.
"Why must there be such a horrible place?" Kira whispered to Thomas. "Why do people have to live like this?"
"It's how it is," he replied, frowning. "It's always been."
A sudden vision slid into Kira's mind. The robe. The robe told how it had always been; and what Thomas had said was not true. There had been times — oh, such long ago times — when people's lives had been golden and green. Why could there not be such times again? She began to say it to him.
"Thomas," she suggested, "you and I? We're the ones who will fill in the blank places. Maybe we can make it different."
But she saw how he was looking at her. His look was skeptical, amused.
"What are you talking about?" He didn't understand. Perhaps he never would.
"Nothing," Kira told him, shaking her head.
As they walked, an ominous quiet fell. Kira became aware of eyes. Women stood in shadowed doorways, watching them suspiciously. Kira limped along, trying to find ways around the garbage-strewn puddles in the path, and felt the hostile stares. It made no sense, she knew, to walk without a destination through this unfamiliar, malevolent place.
"Thomas," she murmured, "we must ask someone."
He stopped, and she stopped beside him. They stood uncertainly in the path.
"What be your purpose?" a hoarse voice called from an open window. Kira looked, and saw a green lizard slither into the vines at the sill; behind the fluttering wet leaves a gaunt-faced woman was holding a tyke in her arms and looking out. There seemed no men around. She realized the men, mostly draggers and diggers, would all be working, and she felt relieved, remembering how they had grabbed at her the day of the weapons.
Kira made her way through the thorny underbrush and went closer to the window. Through it, she could see the dark interior of the cott, where several other tykes, half-naked, stood staring dull-eyed and frightened toward her.
"I'm looking for the boy called Matt," she said politely to the woman. "Do you know where he lives?"
"What you be giving me fer it?"
"Giving you? I'm sorry," Kira told her, startled by the question. "I don't have anything to give."
"No. I'm sorry." Kira held her hands out, showing that they were empty.
"I have an apple." Thomas approached and to Kira's surprise, took a dark red apple from his pocket. "I saved it from lunch," he explained to Kira in a low voice, and he held it toward the woman.
Her thin arm reached out from the open window and grabbed the fruit. She bit at it and began to turn away.
"Wait!" Kira said. "The cott where Matt lives! Can you tell us, please?"
The woman turned back, her mouth full. "Further down," she said, chewing noisily. The infant in her arms grabbed at the bitten apple, and she shoved its hands away. She gestured with her head. "There be a busted tree in front."
Kira nodded. "And please, one more thing," she pleaded. "What can you tell us about a tyke named Jo?"
The woman's face changed and Kira found it hard to interpret the look. For a moment, a brief flicker of joy had washed across the thin, embittered face. Then hopelessness replaced it.
"The little singing girl," the woman said, her voice a hoarse whisper. "She be tooken. They tooken her away."
She turned away abruptly and disappeared into the shadowed interior of the cott. Her children began to cry and to claw at her for food.
The gnarled tree was dying, split almost to the ground and rotting. Perhaps it had once borne fruit. But now its limbs were broken, dangling at odd angles, punctuated by occasional wisps of brown leaves.
The small cott behind the tree looked damaged and neglected too. But there were voices inside: a woman speaking roughly and a sharp-tongued child answering her in an angry, spiteful tone.
Thomas knocked. The voices became quiet and finally the door opened slightly.
"Who you be?" the woman asked abruptly.
"We're friends of Mart's," Thomas told her. "Is he inside? Is he all right?"
"Who be it, Mum?" the child's voice called.
The woman peered at Thomas and Kira silently, not answering. Finally Thomas called to the child, "Is Matt at home?"
"What's he done now? What you be wanting him for?" the woman asked, her eyes glinting with mistrust.
"He runned off! And tooken food too!" A tyke called to them; his head, thick with tousled, unkempt hair, appeared beside the woman. He pushed the door open wider.
Kira looked in dismay at the cott's dark interior. A pitcher, overturned on a table, lay in a puddle of some thick liquid through which insects crawled. The tyke at the door picked his nose with one finger, scratched himself with the other hand, and stared at them. His mother coughed wetly and then spat something to the floor.
"Do you know where he went?" Kira asked, trying not to show how shocked she felt at the condition of these people.
The woman shook her head and coughed again. "Good rid to him," she said. She shoved the tyke to the side and pulled the heavy wooden door closed.
After a moment, Kira and Thomas turned away. Behind them, they heard the door open. "Miss? I know where Matt goed," the tyke's voice said. He emerged from the cott despite his mother's scolding voice and came to them. He was clearly Matt's brother. He had the same bright, mischievous eyes.
"What you gimme?" His finger went into his nose again.
Kira sighed. Life in the Fen was apparently a series of barters. No wonder Matt had become such a clever manipulator and entrepreneur. She looked helplessly at Thomas.
"We don't have anything to give you," she explained to the tyke.
He eyed her appraisingly. "How about that there, miss?" he suggested, pointing to Kira's neck. She touched the thong from which hung the polished stone.
"No," she told the tyke, and her fingers curled protectively around the stone. "This was my mother's. I can't give it to you."
To her surprise, he nodded as if that made sense to him. "That there, then?" He pointed to her hair. Kira remembered that she had tied it back that morning, as she often did, with a simple leather cord of no value. Quickly she pulled it loose and held it out.
The tyke grabbed it and thrust it into his pocket. It seemed to be a satisfactory payment. "Our mum, she thrashed Matt so hard he was horrid bloody, and so him and Branchie, they goed on a journey and they not be coming back, not to the Fen," the tyke announced. "Matt, he got friends who be taking good care of him, not thrashing him never! And they give him food, too."
Thomas laughed a little. "And they make him take baths," he added, though the tyke just stared, not understanding the word.
"But he meant us!" Kira pointed out. "We're the friends he meant!" She was concerned. "If he tried to come to us, where is he? It was two days ago that he left here, and no one's seen him since. He knew the way to —"
Matt's brother interrupted her. "Him and Branchie, they goed someplace else first. He be getting a giftie for his friends. That be you, miss? And you?" He looked at Thomas.
"Matt, he say that a giftie makes a person like you best of all."
Kira sighed in exasperation. "No, that's not the way it is. A gift —" She gave up. "Never mind. Tell us where he went."
"He be getting you some blue!"
"Blue? What do you mean?"
"Dunno, miss. But Matt, he said it. He be saying they got blue yonder, and he be getting you some."
The woman reappeared in the open doorway and called in a shrill and angry voice to the tyke, who retreated inside. Thomas and Kira turned away and began to retrace their steps on the muddy path back toward the village. Silent watchers still lurked in doorways. The fetid air still hung humid.
Kira whispered to Thomas. "When Matt disappeared, I thought perhaps we would find that he had been taken too. Like Jo."