"Somebody pick up," Yaren said into the handheld, hoping to be heard over the laughter of the repair crew. There was a click almost immediately.
"Yaren?" asked Ulith. "That you?"
"It's us," Yaren confirmed. "And a bunch of your techs too, crammed in here like chatnara."
"Hey, you got them!" exclaimed Ulith, and several of the techs cheered raggedly on hearing his voice. "That was faster than we were expecting. What happened?"
"A lot, actually," Tama said into the unit. "Lesana will probably have us tell you the whole thing after we finish telling her."
"Yeah, chain of command and all that," Ulith agreed. "I understand. How close are you, anyway? I think I can hear how much those guys are betting."
"About" Yaren checked the readouts. "Yow, sixty paces."
"Good Mora!" yelled Ulith. "Haralin, get that door open! Now!" A great deal of clattering and yelling began in the background. "I'll see you in the bay, all right?" Ulith asked above the din.
"If you get the door open," said Yaren snidely. Tama cuffed him playfully on the shoulder.
"Funny man. I'll deal with you later. I'm off."
"Off too." Yaren clicked the comm unit off and looked at Tama. "Well," he said, "back to the mill."
Lesana perched on the edge of her chair, just barely stopping herself from rocking it forward. "Need-nothing?" she asked. "Makes me wonder what my name means."
"Maybe it says in the book," Tama suggested, nodding toward its location on Lesana's desk. "I was planning to try reading some of it later tonight."
"Actually, I wanted you to go over some personnel files, but now that I think about it, your day's been stressful enough," Lesana told her. "I can't say the books seem very promising, but if you want to do something with them, go ahead."
"Now about the rest of this," Lesana continued, her chair tipping slightly. "These people are at least affiliated with the original rioters, and a lot of them probably were rioters who got lucky and lived. Correct?"
"Correct," said Yaren.
"They were out to destroy oldtech and anything that upheld the old regime, correct?"
"Correct," Yaren repeated uneasily.
Tama knew what was going to come next without having to look for it. "But"
"So what in starak are they doing salvaging and fixing the very same oldtech that was upholding the old regime? And using it?" Lesana demanded, letting her chair thud back to the floor.
"They didn't tell us, and we didn't ask, because they seemed so unhappy about anybody knowing they had this stuff in the first place," Yaren explained. "We're only telling you because we know you won't go telling everybody in the world."
"That may be, but it still doesn't answer the question of whether they have other oldtech, and if they do, whether they know how to use it, or where more is. And you didn't happen to find out why they made the effort to send the big roller back instead of some vehicle of their ownand yes, I heard when you said that Irina woman said something about a 'cry for help,'" Lesana said, and Tama wondered if she was somehow broadcasting her thoughts without trying. "Which brings up the question of why they were asking for help. According to what you've said, they're pretty well established and self-sufficient. What could they possibly need from us? We need allies, not enemies, and we need to know which they are."
"They didn't kill us," Yaren pointed out. "I'd say that doesn't make them enemies."
"But they did kill a lot of other people, which I'd say does make them a threat," Lesana countered. "Even if they did think they had a good reason, and thank you again for finding out what that was, but two things are still bothering me. One, why send back the property of your possible enemy, and two, how did they know where we were?"
"Maybe they they were trying to make it up to us," Yaren suggested. "They could have figured out the roller belonged to non-enemies after the fact, and then tried to apologize by sending it back."
"And we already thought of a lot of ways they could have found out our location," Tama added. "The supply packages, ID's on some of the people." She hoped, belatedly, that Lesana wouldn't think too closely about that last.
"Or maybe the techs recognized some of the spoils of war," Lesana put in, "and told them where to send it. But we'll know in a few days anyway."
"How?" Yaren and Tama asked together.
"I'm planning to go back and talk to this Irina, leader to leader," she said. "It's the next logical step."
"But you don't know if they'll even talk to you!" Yaren burst out. "They might kill you and then where would we be?"
"You yourself would be taking over," Lesana said. "I'd have thought you'd be a little more confident."
"That's not the point and you know it," said Yaren, looking and feeling as if he wanted to shake her. "They don't know you. You can't contact them to warn them. They'll be totally unprepared and you'll be bait as sure as a slojin at takeoff."
"I'm going to take the same roller," Lesana told him, rocking her chair again. "They'll recognize that. Just remember they didn't know you either."
"I am going. You are not." Lesana's chair thumped the floor again. "Get used to it. And please don't keep making an issue of this, because it's just going to get me really angry. So long as it doesn't come to that, I don't really care what you two do." She moved the books away from her and pulled a pile of papers closer.
Tama, who had been passively reading Yaren, caught something from Lesana then that nearly made her feel faint. "No," she said softly, "you do care."
Lesana looked up at an odd angle. "You're right. Go down and tell Ulith what you told me. Maybe he'll be able to dig up more information on these people, clear some things up. And then you can go do prophecy or do each other or do whatever you want. So long as you don't bother me, then I won't care. Much." She looked back down. "Dismissed."
Irina opened the hidden door with practiced ease, her fingers barely pausing at the pressure points. As the section of paneling shifted, seemingly falling into the wall, she wondered if she would find again in her private rooms what she had found the day before.
The woman was indeed there, tall and blonde and making Irina want to stare. She stood next to a glass case in the far corner of the front room, turning a small object over and over in her hands; Irina couldn't see what it was. The woman seemed fascinated by half of the things she saw in the stronghold, as well she should be if her story were half true. But the things in the case were different. Irina cleared her throat.
The woman jumped, taking a tighter grip on the object in her hands. "II must apologize," she said in that slow, precise accent. "I onlythought this was something else." She held out a hand, revealing a small, intricately carved wooden cube resting on a violet silk drawstring bag. "I owned a bag like it once, I think. But I cannot remember when." Her fingers closed as she gazed down in confusion.
Irina quelled a pang of sympathy. If this woman was who she said, she deserved it; but until it was certain, she wouldn't be getting any. "Could you just put it back, please? . . . Thank you." She sat in a nearby chair, but the woman stayed standing. "You can sit if you like . . . What was your name again?"
Her accent was too delicate for Irina's tongue. "Mireeth, yes," she said, and just as she had every time before, the other woman winced. "Go ahead and sit down. The chair won't sting."
Myrithe's hands reached out as if for skirts, and she looked down in muddled wonder at the borrowed pants and sweater she wore before sinking slowly onto a couch. "I must ask," she said. "Did you do as I asked?"
"I gave her the books, yes," said Irina, "but how did you"
"Now she must see for herself," Myrithe cut in. "You cannot tell her anything more of what you have found. She will see, or she will not, but if she is influenced by any of us, it will be wrong."
"Wrong how?" asked Irina, forgetting for a moment to be skeptical.
"The wrong power will take charge. She will defer in any case, but it must be to order and not rebellion, to the correct power." Myrithe looked at her hands. "You live in such divided times," she said, something with the weight of sorrow coloring her voice. "What must it be like to know only this?"
Irina sat, thinking. "Hard," she said finally. "Raska hard."
"So it's gone? Completely?" Lesana stared.
"One hundred percent." Ulith tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the grin off his face. "Comm systems, bank frame, everything. Completely Yarentama-free."
"Thank Mora," sighed Lesana, slumping over her desk. "I was beginning to wonder."
"You doubt me? I'm wounded." He took a seat in the chair facing the desk, trying to find a comfortable way to fold up without folding up the chair as well. "Yaren and Tama did tell you what happened at that Stronghold place, right?"
"Is that what they call it," Lesana said from under her hair. "You mean that they got half my questions answered and obligated me to make a really damning report to Council Central? Or was there something I missed?"
Her voice told Ulith to step carefully. It hurt to see her like this, which pretty much meant he was hurting a lot lately. "Actually, there are some things I found out based on what they said, but I don't know what kind of effect they're going to have on anybody."
Lesana looked up. "What'd you find?"
"That woman they mentioned, Irina," he began, settling back cautiously as the chair creaked. "She's about forty, from what they say, which matches up with the story that she's one of those original rioters. But there's no record of her before about ten years ago."
"Nothing at all?" asked Lesana. "You mean what, she wasn't born? Didn't go to school, never got sick?"
He had her interest now, but he squashed the tiny thrill that accompanied the thought. "That's what it looks like. Apparently not all people make it into the system after all. But it gets better." He took a piece of folded paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to her. "This is a picture of her. Bad, I know, but between her being in the background of a terrible quality shot and my printers being, well, my printers . . . " He grinned ruefully. "You'll notice some things, I'm sure."
"Like that necklace-thing," said Lesana, tapping the paper. "So at least that part of their story fits."
Ulith stood and rounded the desk to look on with her. "See the person in the foreground?"
"Sort of. He's out of focus too."
"He's a she, and she's Susania."
"Susania Peacechild?" Lesana blurted, twisting to face him. "They knew each other? Or was this just by chance?"
"I'd say not," Ulith said. "This is part of the only known visual record of the Peacemaking. It's the first time Irina shows up in the combined available records of the entire country so far as the Thirty Points' collection is concerned. And she's only in it because the person taking the picture knew her." It still didn't answer the question of how she'd managed to be at the meeting that stopped the wholesale rampaging of street gangs across the city and its environs, but he hadn't found anything on that.
"Anyone I've heard of?"
"Ralis Kolver." He waited to see if it registered, and when it didn't, said, "Quite possibly the same Ralis that they said Irina mentioned."
"The portrait guy," Lesana realized. "Who painted that picture"
"that looked just like Tama," Ulith finished in unison with her. "But all that proves," he went on alone, "is that Tama's family may have been involved with the riots, even if her particular branch stayed out of it. Irina, on the other hand, most certainly has family connections."
"When I found that photo, I found her last name. Berellin."
"Berellin as in the co-founder of the Underground?" Lesana squeaked.
"The same, unless I'm very much mistaken." Once the riots had passed, their history had become public knowledge, all the way back to the first and most famous organizations formed to keep people with Powers out of the clutches of the government. All the names were there, but the faces hadn't been matched up yet.
Lesana fell back into her chair with an audible thump. "So Irina, who comes from a long line of activists, manages to stay out of the system until after it falls, and somewhere in the middle she leads part of the assault that brings it down. And now she's given Tama a piece of her library so she can find out exactly . . . what?"
"That's just it. I don't know."
Lesana reached for the comm handheld on the desk, then paused, her hand hovering over it for a moment before returning to her lap. "No," she said, "I won't call her yet. She probably doesn't know what it is she's supposed to be looking for either, or she'd have told us."
After a moment of mutual staring into space, Lesana sighed. "That, and I don't really want to talk to her right now. I'm just sort of afraid of what I might say."
"What for? She wasn't the one that blew up."
"No, but that's not what the problem is. Not all of it anyway."
Ulith thought carefully about whether he should ask the question he wanted to, and asked it. "Any idea what the rest of it is?"
"Much as I hate to admit it," Lesana said at length, "I think it's some kind of jealousy. Just every time I see her with Yaren, no matter what they're doing, it hits me again that I don't have that" Her voice broke, and it was all Ulith could do not to reach for her hand. "Damn it, I promised myself I wouldn't do that," she muttered, forcing a smile.
"Don't worry about it," said Ulith. "But you really should talk to her. She can help. Mora knows she's helped the rest of us."
But Lesana was shaking her head. "I can't do that," she said softly. "She'd know how I felt. I can't hurt her like that."
"But you have to talk to somebody," Ulith insisted, and at first didn't comprehend the look that Lesana gave him. Then, as she looked down, he followed her gaze with his own and saw that, against his best control, he had finally done it: his hand rested atop hers on the desk. It felt so much like he had imagined that he hadn't noticed. Now it was next to impossible to ignore, and just as hard to let go.
"I . . . imagine you had yourself in mind," Lesana said slowly, not looking him in the eyes. It reminded him of Tama.
"Not if that's not what you want," he said. Neither hand was moving, and he reminded himself to breathe. They sat for a few moments more before either spoke.
"I don't know what I want," Lesana told him quietly. "So I think that until I do know, I'd better not choose to do anything that might be wrong."
Ulith stared at her, not caring that she would see. It was all lost, now; of course he was too old for her and she had no feelings for him, and she'd never want to see him again. But she hadn't moved her hand.
"I want to know," she continued, "that whatever I do decide to do, it won't be out of grief or loneliness, or some thought or feeling that isn't the truth. It needs to be because it's what I truly want." She stood, slowly sliding her hand out from under his, and started for the door.
Ulith managed to stand without knocking anything over, searching for words that would help. "Lesana," he croaked.
She turned, fixing him with a look of pain that he knew he must be mirroring. He waited for his throat to feel normal again before trying to say anything. "If . . . when you do know, could you tell me?" he asked, trying to control the quiver suddenly attacking the half-smile he had put on.
Lesana blinked, more of a squeezing-shut of her eyes than a true quick blink, and nodded. Then she slipped out the door, closing it with a jerk. Even through the walls, her running footsteps were audible for several moments. Ulith waited for them to be gone before leaving the office himself, and for the door of his quarters to be securely locked before he let any tears fall.
Tama was getting the hang of coordinating the two books. She had tried the smaller one first, just because it was smaller, but had quickly put it down when she realized how little sense it made. The other book was much more coherent, even if it did start much earlier in history than she wanted to know about. A little bit of reading about birds made of shadow and souls of life was enough; she had quickly skimmed ahead to a section where the phrase "nothing and need" caught her attention. She still needed the original book, though, since each piece of prophecy in the original book was referenced by page and line numbers, but not quoted, in the interpretation. She had to look up each sentence to get the original phrasing, and where it made any difference, the context as well. Most of the bits were jumbled in with each other beyond her ability to sort out.
She was currently paying for her impatience, in the form of having to look up a piece that was undoubtedly explained in the pages she had skipped but referenced in the section she was reading. It is possible that one of the four mentioned in 43:15 belongs to the hundreds mentioned in Appendix 1:5; it is even possible, however remotely, that more of these are members of the hundreds, up to and including all four, said the passage. Tama found Appendix 1 and read the fifth item on the page. Healer of the flesh, untouched by death. Hundreds will follow.
Interested now, Tama went back to the interpretation to discover that there was really nothing more on the subject in the next few pages. Grumbling, she marked her placeshe was rapidly running out of bookmarksand turned to the index of references, checking each of the listed page numbers until she found passages that explained both the appendix and the "hundreds." It seemed that the bits of prophecy listed in the appendix were things that the transcriptionist, the older sister of the girl who had foreseen all the things in the book, had written down from memory after the two had begun recording in earnest. That particular snippet had been directed toward the doctor treating her, who had ended up marrying the sister in question. "Hundreds," according to the interpreter, most likely referred to the pair's descendants. Tama made a mental note and went back to her place. She had already looked up the passage about "the four:" From the blood of the innocent there will come nothing. The bird flown, there will come help from four places. Nothing and need, knowledge and power, and all will share. Knowing that she and Yaren were two of them made it a natural conclusion that Ulith and Lesana were, respectively, knowledge and power.
"So one or more of us are descended from those people, maybe," she said aloud. "I wonder who." She wished there were something more about them somewhere, a family tree or the like, though if it had ever existed, it was probably twenty years destroyed. But suddenly she felt an odd kinship with the transcribing sister, the one who knew things that were going to happen and remembered all the lost bits even after the other person who knew them had forgotten or died. It made her shiver, to think of that.
A knock at the door startled her out of her reverie. "Come in," she called, flicking out her sight as the door opened. It was Yarenshe could tell before the web even settled completely, by the shape of his earsand she sent her greetings directly into his mind, letting herself drink his presence like light. She felt him smile, mentally and physically, tinged as always with the wonder of the experience and his sadness at being unable to respond in kind.
He reached the bed where she was still curled in a ball, and only then did she see that he was carrying something with him. Food. Tama felt herself go hollow in the middle, remembering that she hadn't eaten since that morning. "My hero," she said teasingly, reaching for the tray.
"Let me at least put it down first," Yaren protested. "You have no idea how hard it is to get a full glass of roseapple juice up here without spilling." He set the tray on the table by her bed, then curled up next to her on the other side. "Find anything interesting?"
"That all of us are exactly where we should be," she said, snatching some spears of raw vegetables. "You and me, Lesana and Ulith."
"Is that with respect to our political positions or our physical ones?" he asked, wrapping an arm around her.
"In our cases? Possibly both." Tama took another bite, trying to crunch and talk at the same time. "In theirs, who can tell?"
"You'll have to tell me about everything you find, and I'll tell you what I find," he said, "so we don't overlap and waste time."
Tama sat up, taking the prize glass of juice. "How would you like to read about the past? I started with the stuff that was talking about now, but I keep having to go back and find things that got explained earlier."
"Sure, I'll do that," Yaren agreed. "Sounds like fun. I wonder if Irina read the whole thing?"
"She never said," Tama said around a bite of sandwich. "I think she did, though, mostly. Maybe she skipped some parts. Like me."
"We can ask her later," Yaren said. "If Lesana lets us."
Tama paused, considering her next words. "I think Lesana has more on her mind with us than she should," she said.
"How do you mean?"
"We make her feel bad, I think."
"Why? What are we doing?"
"Being with each other," said Tama. "Think about it. She lost Laric differently than the rest of us, without anyone else to cushion it. Even if she had let me talk to her, it would have been a tough job helping. Bonds like that take a very long time to start healing."
"And while it still hurts like starak, here we are, around each other and around her all the time." Yaren raked his fingers through his hair. "Mora, I didn't even think of it. So what do we do about it?"
"We could try not both being around her at the same time," she suggested. "And hope she feels ready to talk to someone before we all go crazy."
Yaren made a noncommittal noise, and as Tama bit into the sandwich again, she heard pages begin to turn.
Beer had quite the opposite effect of varala, Ulith thought. He had never drunk more than one bottle at a time before, so while that first one hadn't had much effect, the second had kicked in about halfway through. He was now about the same percentage through the third, and his mood was ceasing to be pleasant, giving way quickly to morose.
It was Haralin's fault, he thought. An hour or so earlier, when he'd ventured out to grab some food, he'd asked her favorite method of dealing with rejection. "You could always get drunk," she'd said with a shrug, and bought him a four-pack. He hadn't remembered that before it got betterif it got betterit usually got worse.
He was an idiot. An utter skrakking idiot who couldn't even control his own feelings. What could have made him think that way? What possible interest could a woman almost ten years his junior have in him? Especially after losing someone closer to her than anyone had ever been to him. And yetshe hadn't pulled her hand away. The only hope he dared keep. He'd just have to find some way to let that go, and then
His comm handheld whined, and he reflected that not only was he in no state to answer it, but he'd also forgotten where exactly it was. With his dirty clothes, he deduced from the sound, and dug it out. "Ulith here. What's the problem?" He should never have listened to Haralin. Even if she was his second.
"Ulith? It's Lesana." He froze, nearly lost his balance, and shifted, waiting for more. There wasn't any.
"What's going on?" he asked carefully. He didn't know what her position was on drinking.
"I . . . I thought about . . . what we talked about," she said. Did her voice sound thicker than usual, or was it his ears? "And I think . . . I think you're right."
"About talking, you mean?" There was no answer, so he continued. "All right, um . . . where are you? I'll come to you."
"Open your door," Lesana whispered.
He wondered for a moment as he went to the door whether it would be a note or a basket of something edible that would be outside, or whether it would be her. It wasn't a basket. Lesana, however, looked considerably worse than he had ever seen her, with scraggled hair and red-rimmed eyes. A halfhearted smile flickered across her face. "Hi."
They stood until Ulith remembered that it was his room. "Would you like to come in?"
"I guess so." Lesana stepped inside and closed the door. "Do you have any varala ready?"
"No," he admitted. "I'm . . . trying to cut down."
The smile flickered again. "You probably shouldn't try replacing it with beer."
Ulith wondered for a split second if he really looked drunk, then remembered the bottles on his desk and felt stupid again. "I'll get the varala," he said, busying himself with setting up the machine, and reminding himself to go slowly so as not to truly skrak it up.
"I never knew it could be like this, leading I mean," Lesana said quietly as he was measuring water and grounds, so quietly that he had to turn down the tap to hear her clearly. "It's just horrible. You . . . lose so many people, and it's so stupid how. And it's next to impossible talking about it because"
"Nobody really understands," Ulith put in.
"Not even Tama," Lesana continued, seeming unsurprised at the interjection. "And I'm not sure whether I'm more afraid that you won't understand, or that you might."
She looked up at him then, and he wondered when exactly she'd sat on his bed. "What if I don't?" he asked.
"Then I'm right where I started."
The alcohol made him go on. "And if I do?"
Another knee-quaking look. "I don't know."
He sat down in the desk chair, swiveling it to face her. "You do know that either way, I'm always here to talk."
He shouldn't have dared, he thought, watching her look studiously elsewhere. There had to be a way to fix it. "II'm sorry for the way I acted earlier. If I . . . offended, hurt you in any way, I'm . . . sorry."
Lesana was so silent that he was tempted to talk just to fill in the dead air, but he held his tongue. It was startling when she spoke again. "I said I had to be sure of what I wanted before I did anything. That it wasn't going to be out of grief or loneliness or just the need for a warm body." She looked at him again, straight on this time. "What did you think I was talking about?"
"I . . . thought you were trying to be kind," Ulith stammered. "Like when parents say they'll think about it and then . . . don't," he finished lamely.
"I wouldn't know. And I wouldn't do that." She made a noise that was almost a chuckle. "Do you realize that if Laric were still here, and if you hadn't just put your hand out, we could have gone round and round each other and never known?"
Ulith was finding it difficult to breathe. This wasn't supposed to happen. He would wake up the next morning with a nasty headache and the memory of a dream. He was sure of it. "Are you saying"
One of her hands captured one of his, making him more acutely aware of his pulse than he had ever thought possible. "You're not moving," she said, catching his eyes as well. "I didn't move. That's what I'm saying. I'm not sure I really let myself think about it before, that I wanted what I want, but it feels like I always have."
Ulith needed more confirmation to believe the impossible. "And that would be"
"You. Silly." Lesana reached out her other hand and brushed it across his cheek; where it touched, he felt moisture. "What can you be sad about?"
He caught her free hand as she began to pull it back. "I just . . . feel like this isn't real, like it's all a dream."
Lesana smiled, for real this time. "I think we're just waking up."
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.