"Yes, it's slippery there." Kira knew. She had slipped herself sometimes at the stream, at the washing place.
The woman shrugged. "She broke her arm real bad. Can't be fixed. Can't be made straight. No more good for weaving. Her hubby tried real hard to straighten up the arm 'cause he needs her. For the tykes and such. But she'll probably go to the Field."
Kira shuddered, imagining the torturing pain of the broken arm as the hubby tried to pull it into a healing shape.
"She has five tykes, Camilla does. Now she can't care for them, or work. They'll be given away. You want one?" The woman grinned at Kira. She had few teeth.
Kira shook her head. She smiled wanly and continued down the aisle between the looms.
"You want her loom?" the woman called after her. "They'll be needing somebody to take it. You're probably ready to weave."
But Kira shook her head again. She had wanted to weave, once. The weaving women had always been kind to her. But her future seemed different now.
The looms clattered on. From the shade of the shed, Kira noticed that the sun was lower in the sky. It would soon be the ringing of four bells. She nodded goodbye to the weaving women and headed back along the path toward the place where she had lived with her mother, the place where her cott had long stood, the place of the only home she had ever known. She felt a need to say goodbye.
The huge bell in the tower of the Council Edifice began to ring. The bell governed the people's lives. It told them when to begin work and when to stop, when to gather for meetings, when to prepare for a hunt, celebrate an event, or arm for danger. Four bells — the third was resonating now — meant that the day's business could end. For Kira, it meant the time to report to the Council of Guardians. She hurried toward the central plaza through the crowds of people leaving their workplaces.
Matt was waiting on the steps as he had promised. Branch, beside him, was pawing excitedly at a large iridescent beetle, blocking its path again and again with a paw as the beetle tried unsuccessfully to waddle by. The dog looked up and wagged its crooked tail when Kira called a greeting.
"What you got?" Matt asked, looking at the small bundle Kira carried on her back.
"Not much." She laughed ruefully. "But I had stored a few things in the clearing so they missed the burning. My basket of threads, and some scraps of cloth. And look at this, Matt." She reached into her pocket and held up a lumpy oblong. "I found my soap where I left it on a rock. Good thing, because I don't know how to make it, and I have no coins to buy any."
Then she laughed, realizing that Matt, grimy and unkempt, felt no need of soap. She supposed Matt had a mother somewhere, and usually mothers scrubbed their tykes now and then, but she had never known Matt clean.
"Here, I brung these." Matt indicated a pile of objects wrapped haphazardly in a dirty woven cloth on the step near him. "Some things I took before the burning, for you to have iffen they let you stay."
"Thank you, Matt." Kira wondered what he had chosen to rescue.
"But you'll not be carrying it because of your horrid gimp," he said, referring to her crippled leg. "So I'll be your carrier, once they tells you where you're to be. That way I'll know too."
Kira liked the idea of Matt coming with her and knowing where she would live. It made everything seem less strange. "Wait here, then," she told him. "I must go inside, and they'll show me where I'll be living. Then I'll come back for you. I have to hurry, Matt, because the bells have finished, and they told me to come at four bells."
"Me and Branch can wait. I've got me a sucker I filched from a shop," Matt said, pulling a dirtencrusted candy from his pocket, "and Branch, him always loves a mammoth buggie to poke, like now." The dog's ears shot up at the sound of his name but his eyes never left the beetle on the step.
Kira hurried inside the Council Edifice while the boy waited on the steps.
Only Jamison was in the large room waiting for her. She wondered if having been appointed her defender at the trial, he was now to be her overseer. Oddly she felt a little twinge of irritation. She was old enough to manage alone. Many girls her age were preparing for marriage. She had always known she would not marry — her twisted leg made it an impossibility; she could never be a good wife, could never perform the many duties required — but certainly she could manage alone. Her mother had, and had taught her.
But he nodded in welcome and her brief irritation faded and was forgotten.
"There you are," Jamison said. He rose and folded the papers he'd been reading. "I'll show you to your quarters. It isn't far. It's in a wing of this building."
Then he looked at her and at the small bundle she carried on her back. "Is that all you have?" he asked.
She was glad that he had inquired because it gave her the opportunity to mention Matt.
"Not quite," Kira told him. "But I can't carry much because of —" She gestured toward her leg. Jamison nodded.
"So I have a boy who helps me. His name is Matt. I hope you don't mind, but he's waiting on the steps. He has my other things. I was hoping that maybe you would let him continue as my helper. He's a good boy."
Jamison frowned slightly. Then he turned and called to one of the guards. "Get the boy from the steps," he said.
"Ah," Kira interrupted. Both Jamison and the guard turned. She felt awkward and spoke apologetically. She even felt herself bow slightly. "He has a dog," she said in a low voice. "He won't go anyplace without his dog.
"It's quite small," she added in a whisper.
Jamison looked at her impatiently, as if he were suddenly aware what a burden she was going to be. Finally he sighed. "Bring the dog too," he told the guard.
The three of them were led down a corridor. They were an odd trio, with Kira first, stumbling against her stick, dragging her leg with its broom sound: swish, swish; then Matt, silent for a change, his eyes wide, taking in the grandeur of the surroundings; and finally, toenails tip-tapping against the tiled floor, the bent-tailed dog, happily carrying a squirming beetle in his mouth.
Matt put the bundle of Kira's belongings down on the floor just inside the doorway, but he wouldn't step inside the room. He took in everything solemnly with his wide-eyed, observant gaze and made the decision himself.
"Me and Branch, we'll wait out here," he announced. "What this be called?" he asked, looking around the wide space where he stood.
"The corridor," Jamison told him.
Matt nodded. "Me and Branch, we just be waiting here in this corridor then. Me and Branch, we don't go in the room because of the wee buggies."
Kira looked over quickly, but the beetle had been consumed now. Anyway, the beetle had not been wee. Matt himself had described it as mammoth.
"Wee buggies?" Jamison was the one who inquired, his brow furrowed.
"Branch got fleas," Matt explained, looking at the floor.
Jamison shook his head. Kira saw his lips twitch in amusement. He led her into the room.
She was astonished. The cott where she had lived all of her life with her mother had been a simple dirt-floored hut. Their beds had been straw-filled pallets on raised wooden shelves. Handmade utensils had held their belongings and food; they had always eaten together at a wooden table that Kira's father had made long before her birth. She mourned the table after the burning because of the memories it held for her mother. Katrina had described his strong hands smoothing the wood and rounding its corners so that the coming baby would not be endangered by sharp edges. All of it was ashes now: the smooth wood, the soft edges, the memory of his hands.
This room had several tables, skillfully made, carved and delicate. And the bed was wood, on legs, covered with lightly woven bed coverings. Kira had never seen such a bed and supposed the raised legs were to make one safe from beasts or bugs. Yet surely there were none here, in the Council Edifice; even Matt had sensed that and consigned his dog's fleas to the corridor. There were windows, with glass, and through them she could see the tops of trees; the room faced the forest behind the building.
Jamison opened a door inside the room, and Kira saw a smaller room, windowless, lined with wide drawers.
"The Singer's robe is kept here," he told her. He opened one large drawer slightly and she saw the folded robe with its bright threaded colors. He closed it again and gestured toward the other, smaller drawers.
"Supplies," he said. "Whatever you need."
He moved back into the bedroom and opened a door on the other side. She caught a glimpse of what at first seemed flat stones; it was a floor of pale green tile. "There is water here," he explained, "for washing and all your needs."
Water? Inside a building?
Jamison went to the doorway and glanced out to where Matt and Branch waited. Matt was squatting on the floor and sucking on his stick of candy.
"If you want the boy to stay with you, you could wash him here. The dog too. There is a tub."
Matt heard him and looked up toward Kira in dismay. "No. Me and Branch, we be going now," he said. Then with an expression of concern, he asked, "You don't be captive here, do you?"
"No, she's not a captive," Jamison reassured Matt. "Why would you think that?
"Your supper will be brought," he told Kira. "You're not alone here. The Carver lives down the hall, on the other side." He gestured with his hand to a closed door.
"The Carver? Do you mean the boy named Thomas?" Kira was startled. "He lives here too?"
"Yes. You are welcome to visit his room. You must both work during the daylight hours, but you may take your meals with the Carver. Familiarize yourself with your quarters now, and your tools. Get some rest. Tomorrow I will go over your work assignment with you.
"I'll lead the boy and the dog out now."
She stood in the open doorway and watched them retreat down the long corridor, the man leading the way, Matt walking jauntily just behind him, and the dog at Matt's heels. The boy looked back at her, waved slightly, and grinned with a questioning look. His face, smeared with the sticky candy, was alight with excitement. She knew that within minutes he would be telling his mates that he'd barely escaped being washed. His dog too, and all the fleas; a close call.
Quietly she closed the door and looked around. Kira found it hard to sleep. So much was strange.
Only the moon was familiar. Tonight it was almost full, flooding her new living space with silvery light through the glass of her windows. On such a night back in her other life, in the windowless cott with her mother, she might have risen to enjoy the moonlight. On some moonlit nights she and her mother slipped outside and stood together in the breeze, slapping at mosquitoes and watching the clouds slide past the bright globe in the night sky.
Here, through a slightly opened window, night breeze and moonlight entered her room together. The moonlight slipped over the table in the corner and washed across the polished wooden floor. She saw her sandals paired beside the chair where she had sat to remove them. She saw her walking stick leaning in the corner, its shadow outlined on the wall.
She saw the shapes of the objects on the table, the things that Matt had brought, bundled, to her. She wondered how he had chosen. Perhaps it had been rushed, with the fire starting; perhaps he had simply grabbed what he could with his impetuous, generous small hands.