In the Shadow of the Gods (6 page)

“We'll be okay,” she said against his hair, tasting mud, the maybe-lie tasting worse than mud. “We'll be okay.”

Time went away for a while, leaving Rora lost in the middle of
it. She slept restlessly and woke up in a cold sweat, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night. Aro was there most of the time, but not always. The times he wasn't, she lay awake shaking and sweating and—much as she hated to—crying as her mind thought up all the awful things that could've happened to him, all because she couldn't take care of him. When he finally showed back up, she always clung to him, blabbering like an idiot, and she could see the worry in his eyes.

He took the bandages off her arm one day and she puked at the sight of it, not that she had much in her stomach to puke up. The lower part of her arm was all bruised, black and green and ugly, and it looked flat almost, definitely more flat than it should've been. It was bent, too, just enough that you could tell it wasn't straight. She couldn't look away, even though it made her stomach roll. It was a sick sort of pull, and on an impulse she tried to lift the arm up.

When she woke up back up, Aro'd wrapped new cloth around her arm, even tied a stick to the side. That was good thinking. It made it look straighter, at least. The whole alley smelled like sour puke. Aro hauled her up, putting her good arm around his shoulder, and dragged her a little ways down the alley, burrowing in between two different trash piles. They didn't talk about her arm, and Aro didn't change the bandages anymore, at least not while she was awake.

She slept a lot more. Even when she was awake, sometimes it still felt like she was dreaming. Aro cried a lot more, but she couldn't even do anything to stop that, couldn't get her mouth to say the words crawling around inside her head. It made her want to cry, too, but it was just easier to close her eyes.

Aro's face swam up out of a dream and said, “I'm going to find help.” She tried to tell him, beg him, to stay with her, but he was gone, and the blackness pulled her back down.

She floated for a while. She and Aro used to talk about becoming birds, but if flying hurt this much, she didn't want to be a bird. She floated, and cried for the ground. She could hear people talking far below, thought she even heard Aro, but none of them would help her. Then the bigger was stomping on her arm again, and she plummeted screaming from the sky.

Sunlight danced on her face. She could feel it flickering over her
eyelids, softly warming her skin. It brought a smile to her lips, and she could almost taste the sun, too. Kala would start banging on the pots soon to wake her up, so she enjoyed the little moment of peace while she could.

“Rora!”

Aro stood above her grinning, scrubbed clean, face glowing and hair shining like polished bronze. He looked like a boy-god, without a care in the world; Rora would have to remember to thank Kala for the hundredth time. Aro threw his arms around her, and she hugged him back—and froze as pain shot up her right arm. As she gaped down at her black-speckled arm sandwiched between two slabs of wood, the illusion broke.

The biggers, and the beating. Aro screaming, blood
everywhere, her whole body hurting. A whispered, “I'm going to find help.” Wasting away slowly in an alleyway that smelled like vomit.

And now she was lying in a bed—a
real
bed, with soft blankets and a mattress that curled around her body—in some room, probably as far as you could get from a pukey alley. It was about the fanciest place she'd ever been in, and there wasn't even that much stuff. The bed, a big chair Aro'd been sitting in, a desk, two windows, trinkets and things scattered all around. Her first instinct was to get up and grab as much as she could fit in her pockets, but maybe Aro had learned enough to already do that.

“Where are we?” she asked. Her voice was scratchy, but it didn't feel too bad.
She
didn't feel too bad, almost normal except for the arm.

Aro grinned and said, “I
told
you I'd find help! He saved us, Rora, he even got your arm fixed! He says we'll be safe now, forever. Did I do good, Rora?”

“Who's ‘he'?”

His face fell a little, when she didn't tell him he'd done good, but he brightened right back up. “I'll go get him! He'll be so happy you're awake, he's been real worried.” Before she could tell him to wait, ask him more questions, he was out the door.

Rora sank back into the mattress, trying to plan, but she didn't even know what to plan for. Aro was too trusting, she knew that; if it wasn't for her, he'd probably've been lured into working in a dozen whorehouses by now. But she hoped, for both their sakes, that this time he'd done good.

The door opened and Aro bounced back in, followed by a tall man wearing all black. He didn't look at all happy to see
that she was awake, but he had the kind of face that she didn't think ever looked happy. He was pretty old, older'n most Scum got to be, though that wasn't saying much. Some gray in his black hair and beard, wrinkles on his face, enough to know he'd seen a good deal of life.

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” he said, his voice a deep rumble.

“Thanks,” she said, instantly cautious, just like she was every time she met someone new. Aro might trust everyone, but Rora trusted no one. “Who're you?”

The man bowed from the waist, but his eyes never left hers. “I am Nadaro Madri, humble merchant. Your brother asked for my help, and I am honor bound to help those in need. You, dear girl, were in dire need.”

“So what d'you want?” No one, especially not grown-ups, ever did anything nice without wanting something in return.

Aro's face looked pained. “Rora . . .”

Nadaro smiled, but it didn't go to his eyes. They stayed a flat gray, unblinking. “You're a smart girl, Rora. Nothing is ever free. It's a valuable lesson, and I'm pleased you've learned it early. Everything has a price.”

“So what d'you want?” she asked again.

“I am a lonely man. I have only servants to keep me company in such a big house—it is a big house, isn't it, little Aro?”

The boy nodded eagerly. “It's
huge
!”

Still smiling that dead smile, Nadaro rested a hand on Aro's shoulder. “I wish for company. That is all. Stay here while you continue to heal, dear girl. You two, I think, have not had an easy life. I would make it somewhat easier.”

There were truths, and there were lies, and Rora could tell
them apart pretty well. But there was a space in between a truth and a lie, a space where the words weren't either. Rora could tell when it was a half-truth, too, and those were even more dangerous than a lie.

Aro was near bouncing with excitement. “It's perfect here, Rora! It's so nice, so much better than Kala's. Can we stay, Rora? Can we?”

She looked from her brother back to Nadaro, still staring with his flat eyes. Almost like it was a challenge. “Yeah, Aro,” she said, even though the words tasted like mud and left a heavy feeling in her stomach. “We'll stay.”

CHAPTER 4

A
nkle-deep in the river, arms flung wide as he faced the mob, Keiro begged yet again, “Please, don't do this.” Another rotten fruit flew through the air, hitting his knee this time, bursting with a sick squelch and dripping red into the water. “They've done nothing, they're innocent.” There was uproar at that, shouted denial. A rock—small but still a rock, hard and unyielding as Keiro prayed he could be—hit his shoulder and spun him half around in a stumbling step. “Just give them to me, please!” he cried as the hands reached for him. They dragged him stumbling and sobbing from the river, the same three men who'd spent the days since his arrival watching and glaring and hefting their cudgels. They pulled him away to let the others surge forward, the mob and their sacrifice.

Two of the big men held Keiro's arms, keeping him from collapsing or running, and the third grabbed a handful of his hair, yanking his head up so he would be sure to see it all. Aya stood there, not far away, in her blue gown, the same color as
the sky, streaked with terrible red. She spat toward him, said clearly, coldly, over the chanting and the roaring and the desperate wailing, “This is your fault. You done this.” Venna, who had sat with him in the night and heard his words and said she would follow him, wouldn't look at him now. She stood with the rest of the crowd, her face a mask.

“Please, no!” Keiro begged, his heart crumbling as the midwives stepped forward, into the river, carrying their burdens like so much trash. “I'll take them, you'll never see them again. Please!”

The oldest of the midwives, the heartless one, held the boy upside down by one leg, the babe's face as red as the swollen fruit that had splattered against Keiro's knee, his fragile body shaking with the force of his wails and his fear. The youngest midwife held the girl as far away from herself as she could, her face rigidly composed as the tiny fists clutched at air, at anything, at nothing.

The midwives knelt, and the mob roared, and Keiro whispered, “Fratarro forgive me.”

And the babes' wailing stopped, cut forever from the world, as the midwives plunged them beneath the water.

A jagged cry of grief tore loose from Keiro's throat, swallowed by the cheers of the mob. Aya watched with stony eyes as they drowned her newborn twins. Keiro, a stranger in this place, was the only one who cried for the innocent ones, the only one who could cry.

After the midwives had risen and walked away, leaving their burdens floating pitifully in the shallow water, the three big men laid into him with their fists and their clubs. Keiro curled into a ball on the unforgiving ground, and through the
merciless rain he prayed to his gods, not for salvation or for succor or for love, but for forgiveness, and for them to do what they could for their poor, lost avatars.

It was later, much later, after the sun had gone down and the stars had given their sultry light to the world, after the two bright points of Sororra's Eyes had cast their red gaze out over the Parents' earth and driven all god-fearing folk inside, that Keiro pushed himself slowly to his hands and knees. He crawled achingly to the water's edge, where the two bone-white mounds still floated, caught up by the reeds and weeds. He had tears for them yet, enough tears to last him to the end of his days, all the tears they would never shed. With an aching tenderness he pulled them from the river, from the green ropes that had caught them, and held them close, cradled them to his chest as he whispered the words of love they had never had the chance to hear in their unbearably short lives.

“None of it's true, is it?”

The words were soft, the voice familiar. They had sat whispering together under the stars, and her quiet voice had swelled with hope. That note of hope was gone, now. Gone as quick as a breath cut off.

“It is, Venna,” Keiro said over his shoulder. He didn't want to let himself look away from the poor pale babes, whose deaths he would carry with him always, but he made himself look up at her. She stood in the shadow of a tree, barely visible, where none of the townsfolk would see her easily should they come looking. “It's all more true now than ever.”

“How?”

She was so young, so new to the world that she didn't yet see the way of things. She had probably never been more than
ten miles outside her small village in her whole life. Knowing so little, but so eager to learn. Her eyes had gone wide with all the things she'd never known, and endless questions had poured out of her as she and Keiro had spoken beneath the stars. She'd heard all the answers he'd given to her questions, heard them and taken them into her heart, and begun to believe. Instead of giving her another answer, now, he asked her a question: “What kind of loving god would call for the death of two innocent babes?”

She didn't answer, not right away. “The priests would say they're not innocent. That they've the taint of the Twins. Born for evil.”

“The priests would say that,” Keiro agreed tiredly. “What would
you
say, Venna? Did these children deserve the death they were given?”

“No one
deserves
death . . .”

“Some people do. People who commit such wrongs in the world that they cannot be allowed to walk its surface.”

“Like people who kill babies?”

A soft sigh escaped Keiro. Truly, he was too tired for this, too tired to guide this poor girl when he still had the babes to tend to. He was a Preacher of the Long Night, sworn in ice and blood, but he was so very tired.

“I don't know how you can do it,” Venna said finally, and Keiro could hear the tears behind the words. He hadn't been the only one crying that night, though the thought hurt more than it comforted. He wanted to reach out to her, to offer some comfort, but his arms were full of the babes.

“It's not easy. But I know the world can be made better. That people can be better than this.” She wouldn't look at him,
her hands twining in her skirt. “I can bear this because I know, one day, it will not be this way.”

“Once the Twins are freed.”

“Yes, Venna. They will set the world to rights, and no more children will die needlessly.”

She slipped into her silence again, until finally she looked up to meet his eyes. They had gone hard, older than her fifteen years. “They say Aya would've had just one babe if it wasn't for you,” she said, her voice raw. “They say you brought poison here. That it's your fault this happened.”

“That's not true, Venna.” He couldn't bear the accusation in her eyes, and so he looked back down to his arms. “These children were meant for this world, regardless of me or you or Aya or any gods. They were given life, same as the rest of us. And that gift was stolen from them.”

It was quiet for a time, waves lapping gently at the shore, wind flicking leaves lightly against each other. A breeze ruffled the baby girl's hair, plastered to her brow in sticky curls. Keiro shifted the babes awkwardly in his arms so that he could brush the girl's hair back from her pale, sad face, so the starlight could see her as she was. It was part honor, part recrimination. This, all of this, was a thing that should not have been.

“Abomination,” Venna said, just loud enough for Keiro to hear, and her steps moved away from him forever.

Three lost this day. The number grew so quickly, far faster than the number of those he had saved.

Sororra's Eyes watched him as he got slowly, painfully to his feet, cradling the cold, limp bodies in one arm. He found his walking stick at the edge of the river, where he'd dropped it chasing the mob. He carried the twins upriver, away from the
town and into the shelter of the trees. Turning from the water, away from that which had taken them too early to the gods, Keiro walked deeper into the forest, not knowing where the heartache ended and the physical pain began. He walked until he stumbled and fell, walking stick slipping from his fingers, catching himself against the ground with one arm and keeping the other tightly about the babes. Above, Sororra's Eyes watched still, dim and distant through the forest canopy. It was a good spot, as good a spot as he could give them. Gently, so gently, he laid them down on the ground, and he began to dig.

With his hands bruised and his body weak, it was slow going, but it was the least he could do for them. The last he could do for them. The ground didn't give way easily, and his nails shattered against the dirt, his hands scraped raw and bloody. Sororra's Eyes watched him work, and as the shallow hole grew slowly deeper, he almost heard a voice, as if on the edge of consciousness, the edge of reality. Just a breath of sound, not even a whisper, nothing so substantial as that. But as his bloody hands scraped away the earth, he heard it sigh,
Find me,
and when he glanced over at the poor dead babes, he noticed for the first time that the boy's eyes were open and staring sightlessly into the night sky.

Keiro laid them to rest in that small open space beneath the sky, under the watch of Sororra's Eyes. He cried for them again as he scooped the dirt over their pale flesh, and he stayed kneeling next to that saddest little grave until the stars and the Eyes faded from the sky and the sun touched his cheek. Only then did he move again, pulling his cowl up to hide his face from the sun that had watched the babes die and done nothing. He rose, and could not bring himself to say farewell to the
babes he hadn't saved. “I'm sorry,” he told them instead, and would tell them until the end of his days. With his back to the sun, he began to walk. And he left them, the poor babes he had never and would never know, alone as they could always only ever be.

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