The black ribbon at my waist seemed to twist to life. It was my consciousness springing into a disturbed frenzy as my fragile mortality stared me in the face, as again political disagreement threatened to pull the rug of life from under me so that I would fall onto the undetermined arms of greedy fate.
“Is that what this is?” I stood and yanked on the ribbon.
Thara flew from her seat. “Don’t pull it off!”
I hesitated, and the ribbon remained. “What is it? Why do you keep speaking of these dire consequences that no one has warned me about? This ribbon, it marks me! What do you mean by your bows and your condolences? I am marked to be killed, aren’t I? But why bother with the façade of hospitality? Why do you feed me before I face my doom?”
Thara tilted her head and gentleness like honey filled her eyes. “Sit down, sweet pea. You’re jumping to conclusions.” I missed Gia. She would have understood these questions. She would already have thought of them. I sat. “I don’t know why the chief has requested you wear it. I assume….Well, I do not know so I cannot say. We bow to respect you, Arcana. Your ribbon marks that you are carrying grief. I don’t know exactly which grief he means by that ribbon, though.”
“Chief Helmer wanted to meet with me today, Thara.”
“I know,” she said, and patted my hands across the table.
“Is that what they’re meeting about now?”
“I would assume so, sweet pea. Don’t be afraid. Now that Zaida’s had you in her home she won’t let anything happen to you.”
I thought of Judd’s resilience, how he had followed us here, how he had stood outside Zaida’s cabin before Gia ran away. “Judd won’t give up though, will he?”
Thara didn’t answer right away. “As long he’s convinced that you’re a spy, he will insist that you be prosecuted.”
“You mean killed?”
“Put to death, yes.”
“And Clea? If Yanir dies, then the punishment for murder is…death?”
“Yes, it is,” Thara answered. A certain thoughtfulness colored her voice. “Although, I suppose you could argue for lifelong servitude. Clea could choose to be a slave, and she’d be tied to serve until her natural death. That argument has never been made in my lifetime, but I’m fairly sure it’s still in the books. But anyone doubts that she’d stay with the Tribe to serve her sentence, then servitude would be out of the question.”
I sighed. This legal loophole was less than comforting. “So when Chief Helmer burned our packs and when he demanded that we stay here, he did that all for Judd’s sake? He wanted to assure Judd that we wouldn’t leave and that we weren’t spying for anyone?”
“It might be more accurate to say that he burned the packs for your sake, sweet pea. If you and Clea stay, then Judd might not be able to convince the Tribe that you must be put to death. None of us want to see the death penalty. You’ll find we are a very celebratory culture, Arcana. We don’t like the rotten foulness of death and revenge. We like feasts and marriage. If they saw us now, some of our forefathers might even say we’ve gone legally soft.”
“If we ran away…”
“Don’t do anything stupid, sweet pea. Your sister tried that. You know so little of our Tribe! Yanir is a respected and admired man. His friends are our hunters and warriors. After what she did, if a warrior found you or her running back to report to your superiors about our location you can be sure they wouldn’t hesitate to kill you on sight. I’d be wary of them even now if I were you.”
“But we’re not spies!”
“It doesn’t matter, sweet pea. You haven’t seen much of life if you believe that the world will wait for you to correct its preconceptions. Have patience. The Tribe will learn your intentions in time.”
“And if Yanir dies?”
“Don’t think about that. Maira is very skilled. As long as Yanir lives your sister will be alright. Well, as long as he lives and neither of you do anything that casts your allegiance into question, then she’ll be alright. Would you like any more breakfast?”
I shook my head.
Various individuals had begun to pass through the square. When they sat at the table they left ample room for me and Thara, as though I were diseased. I watched their faces numbly as my stocky companion lifted herself from her seat and joined the other women to begin preparations for the next stew. Some of the people made hasty eye contact. I saw fear, hostility, and curiosity in their hearts, and in few I even glimpsed a trace of sympathy.
Then one in particular caught my attention. His strong hands gripped a whip for the horses, and his smoldering jade eyes caught mine with a sneaky grin. I smoothed my hair self-consciously. Lazaro held my stare as I counted one…two…three…four slow breaths. Then he passed behind another building, abandoning his little otter as I twiddled my fingers at the table racking my brain for clues.
I wished that Lazaro hadn’t left me here. I wondered why he hadn’t stopped to say hello. He must have known that I was in trouble. He must have known of Gia’s crime. Why didn’t he come rescue me? Why didn’t he comfort me now? I just wanted someone to lean on. I wanted to lean on Lazaro. I wanted to find safety in the arms of my warrior. My warrior would stand up to Mud Judd. My warrior would fling Gia over his shoulder and toss me up onto a horse and we would escape together. He would protect us.
Ori! Suddenly my brother’s image leapt into my heart. I hadn’t considered him. Guilt assaulted me from within, stirring my organs and showing me a deflated heart. How had I forgotten my brother?
“I didn’t forget Ori.” I said aloud. I ran to Thara. “Tell me what happened to my brother. Don’t think I forgot him just because I didn’t mention him before. I was just preoccupied. Gia told me he was safe so I didn’t ask any more questions…Don’t think I had forgotten him! Tell me what happened to him.”
“You’re a bundle of nerves, sweet pea,” Thara said. Under her breath she added, “And rightly so. You’re brother’s a smart little boy, Arcana. He’s blended right into the family, I hear. They’re on the other side of camp, but I’ve heard that the other children just love to play with him already. It’s as though he was born here. And his parents adore him. Stir this broth, will you?”
I took the ladle. “Has he asked about us? Poor Ori! He’s probably dying of homesickness!”
“His parents told me that he only asked about you the one time. But besides that he’s been a perfect angel. And if you don’t want him to be tried as a trespasser, Arcana, you’d do well to consider him the smartest newcomer of the three of you.”
“He only asked about us once?”
“Yes, and if I were you I wouldn’t ask about him much either.” She leaned forward and whispered, “I’ll keep my ears open, though. I’ll tell you if there’s anything you need to know.”
“What did he ask about us?”
“They told me he asked if you and Clea got new parents too.”
“What did they tell him?”
“They told him that Zaida will make a great mother, and that you and your sister can even learn a trade from her. They told him you’ll be happy.”
Bitterness lashed within me. “They didn’t tell him, then, that their neighbors want us to be put to death? They didn’t mention that our alleged ‘happiness’ will only be valid as long as Judd is satisfied with our loyalty, that after he’s had his say we’ll be hanged or burned or sold as slaves? Why didn’t Ori ask them if he could see us again? Doesn’t he want to see us?”
“Arcana, your brother must have his reasons for the things he does.”
“Reasons? He’s just a little boy!”
“Right now you need to focus on survival. Any minute now Zaida will open that door and beckon for you to go inside and defend yourself for the chief. If you ask about your brother, Helmer will never believe that you’ve accepted this new life. Think about what you’re going to say! These words will determine if you live now or die.”
But even before the word “die” departed her lips, the chief’s cabin door swung open. Thara and I turned slowly towards it. That last syllable laced the air like poison. “Die.” Judd waited in the entrance. His expression was not angry, but confident. I went without looking at anyone, though I felt Thara watch me as I passed.
I walked through the threshold feeling that I was walking into death. I told myself they wouldn’t kill me because Zaida would not allow it, but a tiny voice compared her stature and influence with that of Mud Judd and I faltered. The room, sunny this time, felt just the same as before, but Zaida stood wringing her hands and Chief Helmer rubbed his face. Judd stood back, waiting and calm.
I would be strong. I would be. I would.
Mud Judd closed the door. Chief Helmer cleared his throat. “Take a seat,” he said.