At the door Kira turned and came slowly back to her place. Pain started in her foot and seared through her twisted leg. She longed to sit.
"She does drag her leg, and she is slow," Jamison pointed out needlessly. "I concede those points.
"Yet her work at the weaving shed is competent. She goes each day for regular hours, and she is never late. The women there value her help.
"Does she eat a lot?" he asked, and chuckled. "I think not. Look how thin she is. Her weight refutes that accusation.
"But I suspect she is hungry now," he said. "I am. I suggest we take a break for a meal."
The chief guardian stood. "Do you wish to speak?" he asked Kira for the third time. For the third time she shook her head no. She felt terribly tired.
"You may sit," he directed Kira and Vandara. "Food will be brought."
Gratefully Kira lowered herself onto the nearby bench. She rubbed her throbbing leg with one hand. Across the aisle, she saw Vandara bow —I forgot again! I should have bowed! —and then sit, stony-faced.
The chief guardian glanced down at his own stack of papers. "There are five more charges," he said. "We will deal with them and make a decision after the meal."
Food appeared, brought by the door guard. A plate was handed to Kira. She saw and smelled roasted chicken and warm, crusty bread scattered with seeds. She had not eaten anything but raw vegetables in several days, and had not tasted chicken in many months. But she could still hear Vandara's voice, shrill with vindictive accusation: "She eats a lot."
Fearful of the consequences if she showed her ravenous hunger, Kira willed herself to nibble at the tempting meal. Then she set the half-empty plate aside and sipped water from the cup they had brought. Tired, hungry still, and frightened, she stroked the scrap of cloth in her pocket, and waited for the next round of accusations.
The twelve guardians went elsewhere, leaving through a side door, probably to a private eating place. After a while guards came to take her food tray away and announced a rest period. The trial would resume when the bell rang twice, they told her. Vandara rose and left the room. Kira waited for a moment. Then she made her way to the door of the Council Edifice, walked through the long hall, and went outside.
The world was unchanged. People came and went, working at various jobs, arguing loudly. She heard shrill voices at the marketplace: women shouting outrage at the prices, vendors shouting in reply. Babies cried, tykes fought, scavenger dogs growled and menaced each other as they vied for dropped scraps.
The boy Matt appeared, running past with some others. When he saw Kira he hesitated, then stopped and came back.
"We got saplings for you," he whispered. "Me and some other tykes. We put 'em in a pile. Later we be starting your cott if you want." Then he paused, curious. "If you need a cott, that is. What be happening in there?"
So Matt knew about the trial. No surprise. The boy seemed to know everything that was happening in the village. Kira shrugged with feigned nonchalance. She didn't want to let him know how frightened she was. "A lot of talking," she told the boy.
"And she be in there? Her with the horrid scar?"
Kira knew whom he meant. "Yes. She's the accuser."
"She's hard, that Vandara. She killed her own tyke, they say. Made him eat the oleander, they say. Sat with him and held his head till he et it, though he didn't want to."
Kira had heard the story. "It was judged an accident," she reminded Matt, though she had her doubts. "Other tykes have eaten the oleander. It's a danger, having a poisonous plant grow wild everywhere. They ought to pull it all up, not leave it where the tykes can get at it."
Matt shook his head. "We be needing it there to teach us," he pointed out. "Me mum, she slapped at me when I touched it. Slapped my head around so horrid hard I thought my neck would crack. It's how I learnt about the oleander."
"Well, the Council of Guardians judged Vandara and said she didn't," Kira said again.
"She's a hard one, anyways. They say because of the horrid wound. Pain be making her cruel."
Pain made me proud, Kira thought but didn't say.
"When you be finish?"
"We'll work on your cott. Some of my mates'll help."
"Thank you, Matt," Kira said. "You're a good friend."
He made a face, embarrassed. "You be needing a cott." He turned to run after the other boys. "And you tell us the stories, after all. You be needing a place for that."
Kira smiled, watching him scamper off. The bell at the top of the Council Edifice rang twice. She turned to reenter the building.
"'She was kept, against the rules, because her grandfather was still alive and had power. But he is long gone.'"
Jamison read the next accusation on the list.
They had allowed her to sit for the afternoon session. And they told Vandara to sit too. Kira was grateful. If Vandara had stood, she would have forced herself to ignore the pain in her leg and stand as well.
Again the guardian who was her defender reiterated that exceptions could be made. By now, frightening though the accusations were, the repetition was tiresome. Kira tried to stay alert. With her hand in her pocket, she fingered the small scrap of woven cloth and pictured its colors in her mind.
The community cloth was drab, all no-color; the formless shifts and trousers worn by the people were woven and stitched for protection against the sudden occasional rain, thorn scratch, or poison berry. The usual village fabric was not decorated.
But Kira's mother had known the art of dye. It was from her stained hands that the colored threads used for rare ornamentation were produced. The robe worn each year by the Singer when he performed the Ruin Song was richly embroidered. The intricate scenes on it had been there for centuries, and the robe had been worn by each Singer and passed from one to the next. Once, many years before, Katrina had been asked to replace a few threads that had torn loose. Kira was only a small tyke then, but she remembered standing in the cott's shadowed corner when a guardian brought the fabulous robe and waited while her mother made the small repair. She remembered watching, fascinated, as her mother pushed a bone needle with thick colorful thread through the fabric; gradually a bright gold replaced the small frayed spot on one sleeve. Then they had taken the robe away again.
At that year's Gathering, Kira remembered, both she and her mother had peered from their seats at the stage, trying to find the repaired place as the Singer moved his arms in gestures during the Song. But they were too far away, and the repaired spot was too small.
Each year that followed, they had brought the ancient robe again to her mother for small repairs.
"One day my daughter will be able to do this," Katrina had said one year to the guardian. "Look what she has done!" she said and showed him the scrap that Kira had just completed, the one that had composed itself so magically in her fingers. "She has a skill far greater than mine."
Kira had stood silently, embarrassed but proud, as the guardian examined the threading she had done. He made no comment, simply nodded and returned the small piece to her. But his eyes had been bright with interest, she could see. Each year following, he had asked to see her work.
Kira always stood at her mother's side, never touching the fragile ancient cloth, marveling each time at the rich hues that told the history of the world. Golds and reds and browns. And here and there, faded pale, almost reduced to white, there had once been blue. Her mother showed her the faded places that remained of it.
Her mother did not know how to make blue. Sometimes they talked of it, Kira and Katrina, looking at the huge upturned bowl of sky above their world. "If only I could make blue," her mother said. "I've heard that somewhere there is a special plant." She looked out at her own garden, thick with the flowers and shoots from which she could create the golds and greens and pinks, and shook her head in yearning for the one color she could not create.
Now her mother was dead.
Now her mother is dead.
Kira startled herself out of the daydreamed memory. Someone was saying those words. She made herself listen.
"'— and now her mother is dead. There is even reason to think that her mother may have carried an illness that will endanger others —
"'— 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.'"
It dragged on. The repetitions of Vandara's accusations were recited, and the defender again and again reiterated the amendment that said exceptions could be made.
But Kira noted a change of tone. It was subtle, but she perceived a difference. Something had taken place among the Council of Guardians when the members had withdrawn during lunch. She saw Vandara shift uneasily in her seat and knew that her accuser noticed the difference too.
Kira, clutching the cloth talisman in her pocket, became aware suddenly that its warmth and comfort had returned.
During her infrequent leisure times, Kira often experimented with colored bits of threadings, feeling the excitement in her fingers as her surprising skill grew. She used bits of discarded woven cloth from the weaving shed. It was not a violation. She had asked permission to take the scraps to her cott.
Sometimes, pleased with what she had done, she showed her work to her mother and received a proud, quick smile of approval. But more often her efforts were disappointments, the uneven products of a girl still learning; usually she threw her experiments away.
This one, the one she held now in the nervous fingers of her right hand, she had done as her mother lay ill. Seated helplessly by the side of the dying woman, Kira leaned forward again and again to hold a container of water to her mother's lips. She smoothed her mother's hair, rubbed her cold feet, and held the trembling hands, knowing there was nothing more she could do. "While her mother slept restlessly, Kira sorted the dyed threads in her basket and began to weave them into the cloth scrap with a bone needle. It soothed her to do so, and passed the time.
The threads began to sing to her. Not a song of words or tones, but a pulsing, a quivering in her hands as if they had life. For the first time, her fingers did not direct the threads, but followed where they led. She was able to close her eyes and simply feel the needle move through the fabric, pulled by the urgent, vibrating threads.
When her mother murmured, Kira leaned forward with the water container and moistened the dry lips. Only then did she look down at the small strip of material in her lap. It was radiant. Despite the dim light in the cott — it was night-start by then — the golds and reds pulsated as if the morning sun itself had slid and twisted its rays into the cloth. The brilliant threads crisscrossed in an intricate pattern of loops and knots that Kira had never seen before, that she could not have created, that she had never known or heard described.
When her mother's eyes opened for a final time, Kira had held the vibrant piece of fabric so that the dying woman could see. Words were beyond Katrina by then. But she smiled.