As he approached, it was easier for Kira to watch without changing her position, since her chair faced the audience, away from the stage. Finally, as the intruder reached the edge of the first row, he stopped creeping, squatted, and looked forward toward the stage — toward Kira, Jo, and Thomas — with a grin. Kira's heart leaped.
Matt! She didn't dare to speak aloud but she mouthed the word silently.
He wiggled his fingers in a wave.
The Singer inched his fingers up the staff, feeling for the place, and continued.
Matt grinned and opened one hand to show her something. But the light was dim; Kira didn't recognize what he held. He held it up between his thumb and finger, displaying it to her importantly. She shook her head slightly, indicating that she couldn't tell what it was. Then, feeling guilty at her lapse in attention, she turned and began to watch the stage and the Singer again. Soon, she knew, there would be an intermission — a break for lunch. She would figure out a way to catch up with the tyke then, and examine and admire whatever he had brought.
Kira listened to the Singer's voice as he sang the serene melody of plentiful harvests and celebratory feasting. This part of the Song coincided with her own feelings at the moment. She experienced an enormous sense of relief and joy, now that Matt had returned and was safe.
When she looked back, he had crept away again, and the aisle was empty.
"May the little Singer have lunch with Thomas and me?"
It was the midday interruption of the Gathering, a lengthy gap in the day for food and rest. The tender pondered Kira's question and agreed. Leaving by the side door through which they had entered, Kira and Thomas, accompanied by Jo, yawning, went up the stairs to Kira's room and waited for their food to be brought. On the plaza outside, the people would be eating the food they had brought with them and discussing the Song. They would be anticipating the next section, a time of warfare, conflict, and death. Kira remembered it: the bright splatters of blood in crimson threads. But she put it out of her mind now.
While Thomas and Jo began on the large lunch that appeared on a tray, she hurried across the hall to Thomas's room to look down from the window and scan the crowd for a dirty-faced tyke and a bent-tailed dog.
But there was no need to search from the window. They were waiting for her in Thomas's room.
"Matt!" Kira cried. She set her stick aside, sat on the bed, and took him into her arms. Branch danced at her feet, his eager nose and tongue damp on her ankles.
"I been on a horrid long journey," Matt told her proudly.
She sniffed and smiled. "And you never washed, not once, while you were gone."
"There be no time for washing," he scoffed.
"I brung you a giftie," he told her eagerly, his eyes dancing with excitement.
"What was it that you held up at the Gathering? I couldn't see it."
"I brung you two things. A big and a little. The big be coming still. But I gots the little here in my pockie." He dug one hand deep into his pocket and pulled out a handful of nuts and a dead grasshopper.
"Nope. Be the other side." Matt put the grasshopper on the floor for Branch, who grabbed it with his teeth and consumed it with a crunch that made Kira cringe. The nuts rolled under the bed. Matt plunged his hand into the opposite pocket and brought out something triumphantly.
"Here you be!" He handed the thing to her.
She took the folded thing curiously and plucked the dead leaf pieces and dirt away. Then, while Matt watched with delight and pride suffusing his face, she unfolded it and held it to the window light. A square of filthy, wrinkled cloth. Nothing more. And yet it was everything.
"Matt!" Kira said, her voice hushed with awe. "You found blue!"
He beamed. "It were there, where she said."
"Where who said?"
"She. The old woman who makened the colors. She said there be blue yonder." He wiggled in excitement.
"Annabella? Yes, I remember. She did say that." Kira smoothed the cloth on the table, examining it. The deep blue was rich and even. The color of sky, of peace. "But how did you know where, Matt? How did you know where to go?"
He shrugged, grinning. "I recollect she pointed. I just followed where her point went. There be a path. But it's horrid far."
"And dangerous, Matt! It's through the woods!"
"There be nought fearful in the woods."
There be no beasts, Annabella had said.
"Me and Branchie, we walk for days and days. Branch, he et bugs. And me, I had some food I tooken —"
" —from your mother."
He nodded, with a guilty look. "But it weren't enough. After it be all gone, I et nuts, mostly.
"I could've et bugs if I had to," he added, boasting.
Kira half listened to his tale as she continued to smooth the cloth in her hand. She had yearned so for blue. Now here it was, in her grasp.
"Then when I got to the place, them people, they give me food. They got lots."
"But not a bath," Kira teased.
Matt scratched his dirty knee with dignity and ignored her. "They was horrid surprised to see me come. But they give me plenty of food. Branchie too. They liked Branchie."
Kira looked down at the dog, asleep now at her feet, and nudged him affectionately with the tip of her sandal. "Of course they did. Everybody loves Branch. But, Matt —"
"Who are they? The people who have blue?"
He lifted his thin shoulders and wrinkled his forehead in an expression of ignorance. "Dunno," he said. "Them be all broken, them people. But there be plenty of food. And it's quiet-like, and nice."
"What do you mean, broken?"
He gestured toward her twisted leg. "Like you. Some don't walk good. Some be broken in other ways. Not all. But lots. Do you think it maken them quiet and nice, to be broken?"
Puzzled by his description, Kira didn't answer. Pain makes you strong, her mother had told her. She had not said quiet, or nice.
"Anyways," Matt went on, "them got blue, for certain sure."
"For certain sure," Kira repeated.
"I suppose you like me best now, aye?" He grinned at her, and she laughed and said she liked him best of all.
Matt pulled away from her, and went to the window. On tiptoe he peered down and then out. The crowds were still there but he seemed to be looking beyond them for something. He frowned.
"You like the blue?" he asked her.
"Matt," she said passionately, "I love the blue. Thank you."
"It be the small giftie. But the big one be coming soon," he told her. He continued watching through the window. "Not yet, though."
He turned to her. "Got food?" he asked. "Iffen I wash?"
They left Matt and Branch in Thomas's room when they were summoned back to the afternoon section of the Gathering. This time they were ushered in and took their seats with less formality; there was no need for the chief guardian to introduce them to the villagers.
But the Singer, looking refreshed after lunch and a rest, made a ceremonial entrance again. He held his Staff as he stood at the foot of the stage, and the audience applauded him in acknowledgement of his remarkable performance in the morning. His expression didn't change. It had not changed all day. No proud smile. He simply stood gazing with intensity at the populace, the people for whom the Song was an entire history, the story of their upheavals, failures, and mistakes, as well as the telling of new tries and hopes. Kira and Thomas applauded as well, and Jo, watching and imitating them, clapped her hands enthusiastically.
Through the noise of the applause, as the Singer turned and mounted the stairs to the stage, Kira glanced at Thomas. He had heard it too. The dull, dragging sound of metal. The same sound they had noticed in the morning before the Song began.
Kira looked around, puzzled. No one else seemed to notice the abrupt, heavy noise. The villagers were watching the Singer as he breathed deeply in preparation. He moved to the center of the stage, closed his eyes, and fingered the Staff, looking for the place. He swayed slightly.
There! She had heard it again. Then, almost by accident, just for a second, she glimpsed it. Suddenly Kira realized with horror what the sound was. But now there was only silence. And then the start of the Song.
"What's wrong, Kira? Tell me!" Thomas was following her up the stairs. The Gathering had finally ended. Jo had been led away by tenders but not before she had had an exhilarating moment of triumph.
At the end of the long afternoon, when the audience stood and sang, in chorus with the Singer, the magnificent "Amen. So be it" that always formed the Song's conclusion, the Singer himself had beckoned to little Jo. Though the tyke had wriggled and dozed during the long hours, now she looked up at him with eagerness, and when it was clear that he was summoning her to join him, she scrambled down from her chair and ran enthusiastically to the stage. She stood by his side and beamed with satisfaction, waving one small arm in the air, while the people, released now from their solemnity, whistled and stamped their feet in appreciation.
Kira, watching, remained motionless and silent, overwhelmed with her new knowledge and a heavy feeling that combined dread and terrible sorrow.
That fear and sadness stayed with her as she limped laboriously upstairs and Thomas urged her to explain what was wrong. She took a deep breath and prepared herself to tell him what she knew.
But at the top of the staircase, they were interrupted by the sight of Matt in the corridor outside Kira's open door. He was grinning broadly and dancing impatiently from foot to foot.
"It's here!" Matt called. "The big giftie!"
Kira entered the room and stopped just inside the door. She stared curiously at the stranger who sat slumped wearily in her chair. She could tell from his long legs that the man was quite tall. There was gray in his hair, though he was not old; three syllables, she thought, trying to categorize him in some way that would perhaps explain his presence. Yes, three syllables, about the same as Jamison; maybe the age of her mother's brother, she decided.
She nudged Thomas. "Look," she whispered, indicating the color of the man's loose shirt. "Blue."
The intruder stood and turned toward her at the sound of her voice and at the continued bursts of Matt's barely-contained excitement. Kira wondered briefly why he had not risen when she entered. It would have been the expected gesture for even the most inconsiderate or hostile stranger, and this man appeared to be both friendly and courteous. He was smiling slightly. But now she could see, to her distress, that he was blind. Scars crossed and disfigured his face with jagged lines across his forehead and down the length of one cheek, and his eyes were opaque and unseeing. She had never seen anyone with destroyed vision before, though she had heard of such things happening through accident or disease. But damaged people were useless; they were always taken to the Field.
Why was this sightless man alive? Where had Matt found him?
And why was he here?
Matt was still prancing about with anticipation. "I brung him!" he announced gleefully. He touched the man's hand and demanded confirmation. "I brung you, didn't I?"
"You did," the man said, and his voice was affectionate toward the tyke. "You were a wonderful guide. You brought me almost all the way."