Now, secret in her hand, the cloth seemed to speak a silent, pulsing message to Kira. It told her there was danger still. But it told her also that she was to be saved.
Kira noticed for the first time that a large box had been placed on the floor behind the seats of the Council of Guardians.
It had not been there before the lunchtime break.
As she and Vandara watched, one of the guards, responding to a nod from the chief guardian, lifted the box to the table and raised its lid. Her defender, Jamison, removed and unfolded something that she recognized immediately.
"The Singer's robe!" Kira spoke aloud in delight.
"This has no relevance," Vandara muttered. But she too was leaning forward to see.
The magnificent robe was laid out on the table in display. Ordinarily it was seen only once a year, at the time when the village gathered to hear the Ruin Song, the lengthy history of their people. Most citizens, crowded into the auditorium for the occasion, saw the Singer's robe only from a distance; they shoved and pushed, trying to nudge closer for a look.
But Kira knew the robe well from watching her mother's meticulous work on it each year. A guardian had always stood nearby, attentive. Warned not to touch, Kira had watched, marveling at her mother's skill, at her ability to choose just the right shade.
There, on the left shoulder! Kira remembered that spot, where just last year some threads had pulled and torn and her mother had carefully coaxed the broken threads free. Then she had selected pale pinks, slightly darker roses, and other colors darkening to crimson, each hue only a hint deeper than the one before; and she had stitched them into place, blending them flawlessly into the edges of the elaborate design.
Jamison watched Kira as she remembered. Then he said, "Your mother had been teaching you the art."
Kira nodded. "Since I was small," she acknowledged aloud.
"Your mother was a skilled worker. Her dyes were steadfast. They have not faded."
"She was careful," Kira said, "and thorough."
"We are told that your skill is greater than hers."
So they knew. "I still have much to learn," Kira said.
"And she taught you the coloring, as well as the stitches?"
Kira nodded because she knew he expected her to. But it was not exactly true. Her mother had planned to teach her the art of the dyes, but the time had not yet come before the illness struck. She tried to be honest in her answer. "She was beginning to teach me," Kira said. "She told me that she had been taught by a woman named Annabel."
"Annabella now," Jamison said.
Kira was startled. "She is still alive? And four syllables?"
"She is very old. Her sight is somewhat diminished. But she can still be used as a resource."
Resource for what? But Kira stayed silent. The scrap in her pocket was warm against her hand.
Suddenly Vandara stood. "I request that these proceedings continue," she said abruptly and harshly. "This is a delaying tactic on the part of the defender."
The chief guardian rose. Around him, the other guardians, who had been murmuring among themselves, fell silent.
His voice, directed at Vandara, was not unkind. "You may go," he said. "The proceedings are complete. We have reached our decision."
Vandara stood silent, unmoving. She glared at him defiantly. The chief guardian nodded, and two guards moved forward to escort her from the room.
"I have a right to know your decision!" Vandara shouted, her face twisted with rage. She wrested her arms free of the guards' grasp and faced the Council of Guardians.
"Actually," the chief guardian said in a calm voice, "you have no rights at all. But I am going to tell you the decision so that there will be no misunderstanding.
"The orphan girl Kira will stay. She will have a new role."
He gestured toward the Singer's robe, still spread out on the table. "Kira," he said, looking at her, "you will continue your mother's work. You will go beyond her work, actually, since your skill is far greater than hers was. First, you will repair the robe, as your mother always did. Next, you will restore it. Then your true work will begin. You will complete the robe." He gestured toward the large undecorated expanse of fabric across the shoulders. He raised one eyebrow, looking at her as if he were asking a question.
Nervously Kira nodded in reply and bowed slightly.
"As for you?" The chief guardian looked again at Vandara, who stood sullenly between the guards. He spoke politely to her. "You have not lost. You demanded the girl's land, and you may have it, you and the other women. Build your pen. It would be wise to pen your tykes; they are troublesome and should be better contained.
"Go now," he commanded.
Vandara turned. Her face was a mask of fury. She shrugged away the hands of the guards, leaned forward, and whispered harshly to Kira, "You will fail. Then they will kill you."
She smiled coldly at Jamison. "So, that's it, then," she said. "The girl is yours." She stalked down the aisle and went through the broad door.
The chief guardian and the other Council members ignored the outburst, as if it were merely an annoying insect that had finally been swatted away. Someone was refolding the Singer's robe.
"Kira," Jamison said, "go and gather what you need. Whatever you want to bring with you. Be back here when the bell rings four times. And we will take you to your quarters, to the place where you will live from now on."
Puzzled, Kira waited a moment. But there were no other instructions. The guardians were straightening their papers and collecting their books and belongings. They seemed to have forgotten she was there. Finally she stood, straightened herself against her walking stick, and limped from the room.
Emerging from the Council Edifice into bright sunlight and the usual chaos of the village central plaza, she realized that it was still midafternoon, still an ordinary day in the existence of the people, and that no one's life had changed except her own.
The summer-start day was hot. Near the Edifice steps, a crowd had gathered to watch a pig-slaughter behind the butcher's. After the choice parts were sold, scraps would be thrown. People and dogs together would shove and grab. The smell from the thick mounds of excrement beneath the terrified pigs and the high-pitched squeals of terror as they awaited death made Kira feel dizzy and nauseated. She hurried around the edge of the throng, making her way toward the weaving shed.
"You're out! What happened? Do you go to the Field? To the beasts?"
Matt was calling to her in excitement. Kira smiled. His curiosity appealed to her — it matched her own — and behind his wildness he had a kind heart, she thought. She remembered how he had acquired his pet, his little companion dog. It had been a useless stray, underfoot, scavenging everywhere for food. On a rainy afternoon it had been caught and tossed by the wheel of a passing donkey cart. Badly injured, the dog lay bleeding in the mud and would have been left to die unnoticed. But the boy hid it in nearby shrubbery until its wounds had mended. Kira had watched from the weaving shed each day as Matt stealthily crept in to feed the animal while it lay healing. Now the dog, lively and in good health despite a tail as crooked and useless as Kira's leg, stayed constantly at Matt's side. He called it Branch, named for the small tree part he had used to splint its damaged tail.
Kira reached down and scratched the homely mongrel behind his ear. "I'm let go," she told the boy.
His eyes widened. Then he grinned. "So we still be getting stories, me and my mates," he said with satisfaction.
"I seen Vandara," Matt added. "She come out like this." He scampered to the steps of the Edifice and stalked down them, face haughty. Kira smiled at the imitation.
"She be hating you now for certain," Matt added cheerfully.
"Well, they gave her my piece of land," Kira told him, "so she and the others can make a pen for their tykes, the way they wanted.
"I hope you didn't already start on a new cott for me," she added, remembering that he had offered.
Matt grinned. "We didn't start yet," he said. "Soon we would've. But if you be sent to the beasts, then there be no need."
He paused, rubbing Branch with his dirty bare foot. "Where you to live, then?"
Kira slapped at a mosquito on her arm. She rubbed at the little smear of blood from its bite. "I don't know," she admitted. "They told me to come back to the Edifice when the bell rings four. I'm to gather my things." She laughed a little. "I don't have much to gather. My things were mostly burned."
Matt grinned. "I saved you some things," he told her happily. "I filched 'em from your cott before the burning. Didn't tell you before. I waited to see what be happening to you."
Down the path, beyond the pig-slaughter, Matt's mates called to him to hurry and join them. "Me and Branch must go along now," he said, "but I be bringing the things to you when the bells go four. To the steps, aye?"
"Thank you, Matt. I'll meet you at the steps." Smiling, Kira watched him go, his thin, scabbed legs churning in the dusty path as he ran to join his friends. Beside him, Branch scampered, his broken stub of a tail wagging crookedly.
Kira continued on through the crowds, past the food shops and the noise of bickering, bargaining women. Dogs barked; a pair of them snarled, facing each other with bared teeth in the path, a dropped morsel between them. Nearby, a curly-headed tyke eyed both dogs warily then deftly leaped between them, seized the bit of food, and stuffed it into his own mouth. His mother, intent on her business at a nearby shop, glanced around, saw the tyke near the dogs, and seized him away, yanking at his arm and administering a sharp slap to his head when he was back at her side. The tyke smirked, chewing eagerly at whatever he had picked up from the path.
The weaving shed was farther along, mercifully in a shady area surrounded by large trees. It was quieter there and cooler, though the mosquitoes were more numerous. The women in the shed, seated at looms, nodded to Kira as she approached. "There's plenty scraps to gather," one called and gestured with her head as her hands continued work.
It was the job that Kira usually did, the tidying up. She was not permitted to weave yet, though she had always watched carefully how it was done and thought that she could have, if they needed her.
She had not been at the weaving shed in many days, not since her mother's illness and death. So much had happened. So much had changed. She assumed that she would not be returning now that her status seemed different. But because they had called to her in a friendly way, Kira moved through the shed, through the clatter of the wooden looms at work, and picked up the scraps from the floor. One loom was silent, she noticed. No one was working there today. Fourth from the end, she counted. Usually Camilla was there.
She paused by the empty loom and waited until a nearby worker had stopped to reset her shuttle.
"Where is Camilla?" Kira asked curiously. Sometimes, of course, the women left briefly, to wed, to give birth, or simply assigned to some other temporary task.
The weaver glanced over, her hands still occupied. Her feet began to move again on the treadle. "She fell, took a clumsy fall, over at the stream." She gestured with her head. "Doing washing. The rocks were mossy."