" —and the women need the space where their cott was. There is no room for this useless girl. She can't marry. No one wants a cripple. She takes up space, and food, and she causes problems with the discipline of the tykes, telling them stories, teaching them games so that they make noise and disrupt the work —"
The chief guardian waved his hand. "Enough," he announced.
Vandara frowned and fell silent. She bowed slightly.
The chief guardian looked around the table at the eleven others as if he sought comments or questions. One by one they nodded at him. No one said anything.
"Kira," the white-haired chief guardian said, "as a two-syllable girl, you are not required to defend yourself."
"Not defend myself? But —" Kira had planned to bow again, but forgot in her urgency. Now she remembered, but her bow was an awkward afterthought.
He waved his hand again, signaling her silence. She forced herself to be still and to listen.
"Because of your youth," he explained, "you have a choice. You may defend yourself —"
She interrupted again, unable to stop. "Oh, yes! I want to def —"
He ignored her outburst. "Or we will appoint a defender on your behalf. One of us will defend you, using our greater wisdom and experience. Take a moment to think about this, because your life may depend upon it, Kira."
But you are strangers to me! How can you tell the story of my birth? How can you describe my bright eyes, the strength of my hand as I gripped my mother's thumb?
Kira stood helplessly, her future at stake. She felt the hostility beside her; Vandara's breath was quick and angry though her voice had been silenced. She looked at the men seated around the table, trying to assess them as defenders. But she felt from them neither hostility nor much interest, just a sense of expectation as they waited for her decision.
As Kira agonized, her hands pushed their way into the deep pockets of her woven shift. She felt the familiar outline of her mother's wooden comb and stroked it for comfort. With her thumb she felt a small square of decorated woven cloth. She had forgotten the strip of cloth in the recent confusing days; now she remembered how this one, this design, had come, unbidden to her hands as she sat beside her mother in the last days.
When she was much younger, the knowledge had come quite unexpectedly to her, and she recalled the look of amazement on her mother's face as she watched Kira choose and pattern the threads one afternoon with a sudden sureness. "I didn't teach you that!" her mother said, laughing with delight and astonishment. "I wouldn't know how!" Kira hadn't known how either, not really. It had come about almost magically, as if the threads had spoken to her, or sung. After that first time, the knowledge had grown.
She clutched the cloth, remembering the sense of certainty it had given to her. She felt none of that sureness now. A speech of defense was not within her. She knew she would have to relinquish that role to one of these men, all strangers.
She looked at them with frightened eyes and saw one looking calmly, reassuringly back. She sensed his importance to her. She sensed something more: awareness, experience. Kira took a deep breath. The threaded cloth was warm and familiar in her hand. She trembled. But her voice was certain. "Please appoint a defender," she said.
The chief guardian nodded. "Jamison," he said firmly and nodded to the third man on his left.
The man with the calm, attentive eyes rose to defend Kira. She waited.
So that was his name: Jamison. It was not familiar to her. There were so many in the village, and the separation of male and female was so great, after childhood had ended.
Kira watched him stand. He was tall, with longish dark hair neatly combed and clasped at the back of his neck with a carved wooden ornament that she recognized as the work of the young woodcarver — what was his name? Thomas. That was it. Thomas the Carver, they called him. He was still a boy, no older than Kira herself, but already he had been singled out for his great gifts, and the carvings that came from his skilled hands were much in demand among the elite of the village. Ordinary people did not ornament themselves. Kira's mother had worn a pendant hanging from a thong around her neck but she kept it hidden, always, inside the neck of her dress.
Her defender picked up the stack of papers on the table before him; Kira had watched him marking these papers meticulously as he listened to the accuser. His hands were large, long-fingered, and sure in their movements; no hesitancy, no uncertainty. She saw that he wore a bracelet of braided leather on his right wrist, and that his arm, bare above the bracelet, was sinewy and muscular. He was not old. His name, Jamison, was still three syllables, and his hair had not grayed. She judged him to be midlife, perhaps the same age that her mother had been.
He looked down at the top paper of the stack in his hands. From where she stood, Kira could see the markings that he was examining. How she wished she could read!
Then he spoke. "I will address the accusations one by one," he said. Looking at the paper, he repeated the words that Vandara had said, though he did not imitate her rage-laden tone. "The girl should have been taken to the Field when she was born and still nameless. It is the way.'"
So that was what he had marked! He had written the words so that he could repeat them! Painful though it was to hear the accusations repeated, Kira realized with awe the value of the repetition. There would be no argument, afterward, about what had been said. How often among the tykes fistfights and battles had begun from You said, I said, He said that you said, and the infinite variations.
Jamison set the papers on the table and picked up a heavy volume bound in green leather. Kira noticed that each of the guardians had an identical volume.
He opened to a page he had marked during the proceedings. Kira had seen him turning the pages of the volume as Vandara had made her accusatory presentation.
"The accuser is correct that it is the way," Jamison said to the guardians. Kira felt stricken by the betrayal. Hadn't he been appointed her defender?
He was pointing now to a page, to its densely written text. Kira saw some of the men turn in their green volumes, finding the same passage. Others simply nodded, as if they remembered it so clearly there was no need to reread.
She saw Vandara smile slightly.
Defeated, Kira felt again the small cloth square in her pocket. Its warmth was gone. Its comfort was gone.
"Turning, though," Jamison was saying, "to the third set of amendments —"
The guardians all turned pages in their books. Even those whose volumes had remained closed now picked them up and looked for the place.
"It is clear that exceptions can be made."
"Exceptions can be made," one of the guardians repeated, reading the words, his fingers moving on the page.
"So we may set aside the assertion that it is the way," Jamison announced with certainty. "It need not always be the way."
He is my defender. Perhaps he will find a way to let me live!
"Do you wish to speak?" the defender asked Kira.
Touching her scrap of cloth, she shook her head no.
He went on, consulting his notes. "She was imperfect. And fatherless as well. She should not have been kept." The second repetition hurt, because it was true. Kira's leg hurt too. She was not accustomed to standing so still for so long. She tried to shift her weight to ease the pressure on her flawed side.
"These accusations are true." Jamison repeated the obvious, in his steady voice. "The girl Kira was imperfect at birth. She had a visible and incurable defect."
The guardians were staring at her. So was Vandara, with contempt. Kira was accustomed to stares. She had been taunted throughout her childhood. With her mother as teacher and guide, she had learned to hold her head high. She did so now, looking her judges in the eyes.
"And fatherless as well," Jamison continued.
In her memory, Kira could hear her mother's voice explaining it to her. She was small then, and wondering why she had never had a father. "He did not return from the great hunt. It was before you were born," her mother said gently. "He was taken by beasts."
She heard Jamison repeat the words of her thoughts as if they had been audible. "Before her birth, her father was taken by beasts," Jamison explained.
The chief guardian looked up from his papers. Turning to the others at the table, he interrupted Jamison. "Her father was Christopher. He was a fine hunter, one of the best. Some of you probably remember him."
Several of the men nodded. Her defender nodded as well. "I was with the hunting party that day," he said. "I saw him taken."
You saw my father taken? Kira had never heard the details of the tragedy. She knew only what her mother had told her. But this man had known her father. This man had been there!
Was he afraid? Was my father afraid? It was a strange, unbiddden question, and she did not ask it aloud. But Kira was so afraid herself. She could feel Vandara's hatred as a presence by her side. She felt as if she were being taken by beasts; as if she were about to die. She wondered what the moment had been like for her father.
"The third amendment applies here, as well," Jamison announced. "To the accusation 'She should not have been kept,' I reply that according to the third amendment, exceptions may be made."
The chief guardian nodded. "Her father was a fine hunter," he said again. The others at the table, taking their lead from him, murmured in agreement.
"Do you wish to speak?" they asked her. Again she shook her head. Again she felt, for the moment, spared.
'"But she has not contributed,'" Jamison read next. '"She cannot dig or plant or weed, or even tend the domestic beasts the way other girls her age do. She drags that dead leg around like a useless burden. She is slow,'" he continued, and then Kira saw a hint of a smile as he concluded, "'and she eats a lot.'"
The man stood silent for a moment. Then he said, "As defender, I am going to concede some of these points. It is clear that she cannot dig or plant or weed or tend domestic beasts. I believe, however, that she has found a way to contribute. Am I correct, Kira, that you work at the weaving shed?"
Kira nodded, surprised. How did he know? Men paid no attention to the work of women.
"Yes," she said, her voice soft from nervousness. "I help there. Not with the actual weaving. But I clean up the scraps and help prepare the looms. It is work I can do with my hands and arms. And I am strong."
She wondered if she should mention her skill with the threads, her hope that perhaps she could use it as a way of making a living. But she couldn't think of a way to say it without sounding vain, so she kept still.
"Kira," he said, looking toward her, "demonstrate your flaw for the Council of Guardians. Let us see you walk. Go to the door and back."
It was cruel of him, she thought. They all knew about her twisted leg. Why did she have to do this in front of them, to submit to their humiliating stares? For a moment she was tempted to refuse, or at least to argue. But the stakes were too high. This was not a tykes' game, where arguing and fighting were expected. This was what would determine her future, or whether she had a future. Kira sighed and turned. She leaned on her stick and walked slowly to the door. Biting her lip, she dragged her aching leg step by step, and felt Vandara's contemptuous eyes on her back.