That year, the snow arrived before the professors.
As far back as Reyan could remember, it had always been the other way around. The professors only came to Orloton in the warm months when the hardroad was clear and safe for their caravans. But a few days earlier, the air had grown unseasonably cold. A shin-deep blanket of snow had rolled down from the craggy peaks of the surrounding mountains and covered the small town.
When word spread that the professors’ caravan had been spotted on the hardroad, Reyan’s heart began to pound. She hoped the unseasonable weather would divert them. But earlier that morning, the air had warmed, and the snow turned sodden and sloppy. It would likely be gone before the morning.
It was not that she hated the professors. In fact, she liked the way the town of Orloton behaved during a visitation. But underneath all the considerations and niceties, the tiny town grew as tense and precarious as a pulled-back branch. She knew everything would snap violently back the moment the professors were gone. In less than a week, Reyan would fall back into the well-worn ruts of her normal life. If the professors could not stay, she wished they wouldn’t come at all.
Having found no way to forestall their arrival or shorten their visit, she ran off to her tree.
Reyan’s tree was a large pine that stood a dozen crow flaps from the edge of town. From the outside, her tree looked like any of the others that bordered the hardroad. But behind its shroud of needles were limbs worn to a dark and shining polish by the girl’s hands, bare feet, and the rough weave of her pants. Broken bits of scavenged metal and glass dangled in intricate constellations from branches and twigs on frayed bits of rotting string. Golden beads of pitch dripped from symbols and figures she’d carved into the trunk with her knife or thumbnail.
Her tree’s dim light and close embrace calmed her. She wanted to wait in here for the few days it would take for the professors to leave, and the town to settle, but she knew she could not hold out. Even the most obstinate girl needed food, water, and sleep.
Reyan had been hiding in that same tree ever since she could reach its lowest branch. Whenever the girl was angry, sad, or overwhelmed she would disappear under its protective skirt to sit in quiet solitude. She liked to believe that her secret sanctuary kept her well-hidden from the rest of the town. But everyone in town knew exactly where she was. The reason no one ever found her there was that no one bothered to look.
The views of the mountains, forest, and stream were obscured from her current perch, but she could clearly see the hardroad and the professors’ caravan as it lumbered toward town. Steam poured from the horses’ nostrils and hung in the still air for a moment before the beasts lurched forward to reclaim the swirling clouds of their own exhalations. The horses’ hooves churned the snow into an icy lather speckled black and brown with grit and newly fallen leaves. The trucks’ hammered metal tyres pushed up a bow wave of slush that curled over and sloshed into furrows left by wheels that had traveled the hardroad before them.
A group of children erupted from their hiding place in the brush on the far side of the hardroad. They advanced stomping and cheering through the slush until they were along side the caravan jumping up and down and shouting. Most children could not contain themselves at the sight of a caravan. It did not matter if the trucks brought a shipment of sweetroot or this season’s plague.
She tried to imagine a younger version of herself taking part in that boisterous scrum. But she knew she never would have run with a gang of soggy, snot-nosed, cackling children stabbing their noise out into the peaceful calm of the forest. Not even if they’d thought to invite her, which they never did.
The lead truck was almost under her. She could clearly see the professors’ unmistakable eye painted broad and unblinking across the top of the truck. Similar eyes decorated the front, rear, and both sides of every one of the professors’ trucks. Most people didn’t know about the eyes on the roof. You couldn’t see them from the ground. But Reyan, up in her tree, knew.
She counted four trucks. There were usually two trucks in a professors’ caravan. One for each professor. Sometimes there were three if they had a novice with them. But four was unheard of. Stranger still, this fourth truck had no eye peering up at her. Also, there were no reins reaching out from beneath the windshield to guide its horses. Instead, its horses’ bits were lashed by a long rope to the rear of the truck in front of them.
Those were Rolf’s horses. That was Rolf’s truck.
Ten days ago, she had hung in the dark corners of the stable as Rolf busied himself loading his truck and readying the horses in the sunshine. When he was ready, he patted Reyan on the head, climbed into the driver’s cab and disappeared down the hardroad.
He was headed East over the pass to Pesh. As Leader, he acted as the town’s emissary at potlatch. These things took an unpredictable amount of time, but even the most austere exchange of gifts and honors involved days of ceremony and celebration. Between the potlatch itself and the travel—which certainly would involve other visits along the way—no one expected Rolf to return for at least a few more days.
She looked at the horses. They were being led rather than leading. Their heads drooped at the end of their long necks watching the world move past their hooves.
The cycle of her breath grew short and shallow. A panicked heat flared in her chest.
The cab of Rolf’s truck was empty.
The children’s exuberance and the dread seeping from Rolf’s empty truck each took hold of half her mind. They twisted and wrung everything else out. She wanted to smash her head against the tree trunk just to feel something else, something she could control. She dug her fingers into her ears and shut her eyes so tight they squeezed out tears.
An idea came to her through the panic. These were fears not facts. She took a few steadying breaths. The mob sounds lessened. She opened her eyes and saw the caravan and the throng of children disappear into town.
She couldn’t let her fears ignite her. Fears were just questions. Once she understood them, she could start answering them one by one. She looked at each idea she had about the caravan and Rolf. She put the things she’d seen on one end of an open field which she labeled “facts”. On the other side of the field, she lined up her fears which she called “questions.”
She was halfway through ordering these questions by urgency, when her process was cut short by a moan from the leader’s house. It was subtle as a mosquito’s whine at first, but soon it swelled into a drone of pain and sorrow. It went on for an impossibly long time, and was finally broken when the person stopped to take a breath. The wail resumed and became a single word, “No”, repeated through a dozen variations hoping for the one magical version that might fix whatever had broken in the mourner’s world.
She began to hear names bubbling out from town as fathers called their children home. If Rolf was in his truck, if he had come home, she’d hear her name too. She held her breath and stared up toward the leader’s house willing her name to rise into the air.
She waited for a very long time.
Unlike anyone else in Orloton, Rolf understood that Reyan needed to be cared for and he worked hard to do so. Caring for the uncared for and taking them on as ward was fundamental to his role as Orloton’s leader, and Rolf always took his responsibilities seriously. It was part of what made him beloved both in town and around the circuit.
Things were different with his wife, Lyssa. She was always left to lead the town while Rolf was away. She would ensure Reyan was fed, clothed, and sheltered, but there was nothing in the Book that said she had to harsh her throat calling home idiot girls who didn’t have the sense to come in from the cold on their own.
It had been at least an hour since the caravan had passed into town, but Reyan still could not bring herself to return home.
Beyond the trees and hills, at the unseen edge of the featureless sky, the sun set. All the colors—the bright green of the trees, the berry-colored tunic of a little girl running through the silent spaces between houses—were converging toward the same shade of deep blue. The objects of the forest and the town lost their texture and depth and stood against the uniform blue-gray of the snow and the sky stark and flat as the shadow puppets in the shows that always came to town in late spring.
A cold mist rose from the snow, drifted through the pine needles, and conveyed its chill dampness through her roughly-woven tunic to her skin beneath. Her gloveless fingers felt fleshy and slow. Her worn out leather boots had not been oiled in years and drank up the cold and wet. The branch she sat upon had pressed a dull throbbing line across the backs of her legs.
She could endure all these shivering dripping aching feelings, but it was hunger that finally sank its hooks into her stomach and pulled her home. She dangled from one of the lower branches and dropped down to the soft cushion of needles below.
The snow mist filled up the spaces between the trees and brought a muffled silence with it. As she made her way to the hardroad, all she could hear were the chortling of a raven, the steady drip and trickle of melting snow, and the sheesh-SHAUWK of each step resting for a moment on the grainy crust before breaking through to the slop beneath.
The hardroad spilled into town and pooled into a small town square in front of the leader’s house. The professors’ trucks were gathered at the far end of the square curled into a half-circle that reminded Reyan of a sleeping dog. By now, Rolf’s truck had been unhitched from the back of the caravan and moved beside the house, and his horses had been put in the house’s attached stable.
The front windows of the houses and stores around the square were all dark, except for the leader’s house. There the windows blazed. She could see grimacing people inside moving about the rooms as though they were avoiding broken glass or something sticky on the floor.
Reyan opened the front door and entered as silently as she could, guiding the door shut making sure to lift the latch so it would close without making a sound. She wanted food, not attention.
She did her best to make herself small as she stood framed in the archway that led into the room where the people were gathered. The air was full of sorrow and so many whispered conversations it sounded like walking through tall dry grass. Many people were seated in chairs pushed up against the walls and windows. Others stood clustered in threes and fours. One of these clusters contained the three professors from the caravan. They were still dressed in their long brown traveling robes.
She had seen two of the professors during visitations in previous years, though only at a distance. She’d never bother to attend a session, so she’d never actually met them.
The professor who appeared to be the oldest was also the tallest. He was thin and had a sharp nose and bright blue eyes that Reyan found both intelligent and disquieting. He had combed his thinning gray hair straight back in an effort to make it tidy, but as he talked and nodded, hairs fell out of place and wisped about on even the least provocative of breezes. As he reached a hand up to smooth the errant hairs back into place, his sleeve pulled back and Reyan noticed the metal bracelets on his right wrist. One steel, one bronze. She knew that professors wore a karaband. What did it mean that this old man wore two?
The second oldest was a few inches shorter than the first. Most of his coal black hair had been pulled into a tiny ponytail and tied at the back of his head. Any strands too short to be collected spilled like a river around the stone island of his face. There were no wrinkles around his eyes or mouth to give Reyan any clue about the man’s age or disposition. But his black eyes jumped around as though continually measuring the dimensions of the room and the distances between everyone and everything in it. He frowned and nodded as he listened to the tall gray professor pontificate. As he crossed his arms over his chest, light glinted off the pair of bands he wore.
Then there was the youngest of the three. She guessed he was only a few years older than herself. He had dusty blond hair that brushed his shoulders and a scar that warped the line of his mouth slightly so that it looked like his upper lip had momentarily stuck to a dry tooth. This one had a broad white stripe down the front of his brown robe. So not a professor at all. Not yet. Though everyone would certainly call this novice “Professor” out of deference to or fear of his future station.
As Reyan watched, person after person worked their grieving face into a welcoming smile and interrupted the professors with a greeting or some trivial question. The keeper and the other heads of the town always offered professors an overabundance of food, drink, and laughter at their stories. But Rolf had always treated professors with a familiar disinterest the way old men greeting each other on the street talk about their fields or the weather.
Normal townsfolk with questions needing answers or problems needing solutions, treated the professor with a desperate naked reverence which was remarkably short lived after their wisdom had been dispensed. Everyone else kept a respectful distance as though a professor was a horse who was liable to kick. Which was odd since she had never heard of a professor being anything but proper to the point of tedium. Reyan wondered what that was all about, and if she could make folks feel that way about her, and if so, how that might change her fortunes.
A fire was pulsing and spitting in the hearth. Someone had moved the leader’s chair next to the fire from its traditional place at the head of the table. Now Lyssa was sitting in the stout wooden chair with a plate of untouched food on her lap. She stared unblinking past her knees down at the floor.
At the other end of the woman’s stare, Reyan found Rolf. He was laid out on a thick woolen travel blanket on the floor in the middle of the room. The face had the white translucent look of a smear of tallow melting in a pan. Reyan’s eyes shot up and searched the walls for something else to see.
Hanging over the mantle were a scythe and an ax. Both were razor sharp and gleaming. Their handles were intricately carved with scenes of the people of Orloton working in the woods and fields. Each tool had a ribbon tied at the point where their wooden handles joined to metal. The ribbons were woven of every imaginable color and threaded through a collection of colored glass and metal beads. Having puzzled out how beads could mean numbers when she was very young, Reyan knew these indicated the year the tools had been gifted to Orloton.
Sitting on the mantle beneath the tools was a large spiral shell.
On Reyan’s very first day in the house, Lyssa had pointed at the shell and said, “This shell is one of the most valuable things in all the world. Do not touch it.” Out of respect for her new benefactor, Reyan made sure to not get caught on the many occasions she ignored the warning.
The shell looked like one of the tiny snails in the nearby pond had lived and continued to grow for a thousand years. Spikes like a castle’s crenelations irrupted along its ridges, growing as the shell’s chamber swelled. Its surface was a chaos of artistry and beauty. In one area there were inlaid jewels, another polished stones. Across the lid of the eye-like opening, there was a lightening-forked crack which had been repaired and filled with aluminum. The lip was leafed with gold, and fine-lined symbols were etched into the different surfaces.
She never tired of running her fingers down its curling spine and trying to find the very place where the line of tiny rough granules near the tip became the lumps and spikes near the base. She would close her eyes and pass her thumb across the borders between the natural shell and the various inlays.
Inside the shell was a rolled-up strip of leather with letters and numbers burned into it. She spent hours trying to parse their meaning.
One spring morning, Rolf and Lyssa came home and caught Reyan laying on her back on the floor holding the shell up into a beam of sunlight and gazing at it. Lyssa yelled and threatened to beat her. But Rolf saw how lovingly she had been handling it and laughing told his wife to give Reyan peace.
He sat down beside the terrified girl on the floor. He took the shell from her and held it in the light for her to see. “This shell is very special. It is not special because it is beautiful, it is beautiful because it is full of meaning. It is a symbol of unity, good faith, and trustworthiness. I carry it with me when ever I go to trade or to potlatch. When I’m in a node, I give this shell to the leader. While they have it, they make repairs or add decorations as they see fit.” He turned the shell slowly and let the light jump off of the different facets.
He pulled out the leather strip and opened it. “This is a list of all the leaders who have received the shell. The event during which they held it, and the adornment their node provided.”
“Is it really one of the most valuable things in the world?”
Rolf looked at Lyssa, smiled, turned and offered the smile to Reyan. “I think it is. Every one recognizes it. It’s been touched by every leader in every node as far as the trade routes have carried me.”
“Even across the River?”
Lyssa’s eyes grew wide. Rolf’s eyes twitched toward Lyssa so Reyan would get the hint that his worried wife was listening. Then he winked at Reyan and said, “By the Eye, I would never think of crossing the river.”
Cold and sorrow had squeezed a tickling drip from Reyan’s nose. She sniffed more loudly than she intended. All the heads in the room turned to her. The neighbors and relations standing in chatting groups or sitting in the chairs quickly lost interest in the girl and turned back to whatever conversations they were having. But the Professors kept their eyes on her. Soon, they began to look around the room, no doubt trying to interpret everyone’s complete lack of interest in this wet sniffling child who had walked in from the cold and dark. Soon, the room’s active disinterest in Reyan became awkward. The tall professor with the thinning gray hair began blinking more than necessary, his smile became twitchy and forced. Finally he spoke. “And who might you be?”
Reyan couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge the stranger. She let her hunger guide her to the table. Someone had pushed it up against the wall and it was crowded with unfamiliar pots and crockery.
“That’d be Reyankaiya.” Reyan made a quarter turn toward the voice that had just spat out her full name like it was a curse. She craned her neck the rest of the way so she could see Lyssa and the professors over her right shoulder. The grieving woman was looking at her now, eyes squinting, mouth screwed up as though she had sipped something spoiled or sour. “But you can just call her ‘Kaiya’.”
The tall professor looked uncertainly from Reyan to Lyssa and back, then cleared his throat and said with forced confidence. “Hello, Kaiya, my name is Professor Sevv.” His voice was soft, his eyes pitying. “This is Professor Parr,” indicating the dark-haired one. “And this young man is Kavianhar. We’re all very pleased to meet you.” Sevv stepped forward with his hand out, but stopped short when Reyan winced and shied away from him, shrugging her right shoulder as though the professor had touched her neck with a cold hand. She heard the jangle of his karabands in the silent room. Sevv looked a question at Lyssa. The woman’s eyes met his, moved to point at Reyan, then returned. Her answer was a smirk. Sevv lowered his hand haltingly and the karabands slid into a clinking stack at the end of his wrist.
“What’s wrong with Rolf,” Reyan asked the old professor.
Sevv looked around for the right person to answer, but everyone else’s faces had hardened, leaving the task to him. Sevv said, “He caught a disease, dear.”
“How?” Reyan thought knowing might help others avoid his fate. But the room became tooth-grindingly tense, and when she saw the look of bewildered disgust on Lyssa’s face, she knew it had been a stupid thing to ask. She turned back to the table and began filling her plate with enough food that she wouldn’t have to return for more. She added a small hard roll to her mouth for good measure. Then, she turned and escaped back through the arch.
Lyssa spoke smooth and cruel to Reyan’s retreating back. “He asked for you Kaiya, while you were out there playing in the dirt, never coming here to greet him. He was there in the cold, in the back of his truck. He asked for you last of all.”
Reyan stood stiffly framed in the archway waiting for Lyssa to lash her with more words. The woman could be cruel on the best of days, and now she was in pain. Reyan had long ago come to terms with the injustice of the woman’s treatment toward her. She had learned to focus on holding her ground and holding her tongue. If she did that, it would be over soon enough. When a few breaths passed with nothing more said, Reyan continued up to her room.
Reyan didn’t have a proper room because—to Lyssa’s thinking at least—this was not her proper home. She occupied the space between the top of the stable and the rafters of the pitched roof. There was a straw-filled mattress up against the lone triangular wall, and in the middle of the floor was a single wooden chair. Most children would have hated this space, and no doubt Lyssa had expected that to be Reyan’s reaction when she had offered it to her. But Reyan was quite fond of it. It was warm and dry. The smells of fresh hay and manure—which Reyan thought smelled like life itself—filtered up through the floor boards from the stable below. That she had to climb up and down a ladder and crouch low to move about made it feel secret and special. Protective.
She sat down on the chair with her plate balanced on her lap and began to eat her supper. Down the ladder, down the hall, she could hear the rumble of voices as the adults began to talk again.
The world of adults and their roles was a mystery to Reyan. But now that Rolf was gone she thought it best to give her future some thought. She doubted Lyssa would. No one was ever going to seek her out for an apprenticeship. She had no skills to speak of, nor any interest in any specific role. She didn’t like the hot monotony of field work. She didn’t think she could pretend to like people who so obviously disliked her, so running any sort of a shop was off the table. She did have a profound interest in trees, but that made her want to protect rather than fell them. What Reyan did best was to think down to the very root of a problem until she understood it. But she doubted anyone would ever pay her for her insights. But, now that she considered it, that sort of described a keeper’s role. Aside from the few days a year they spent assisting the professors during their visitation, keepers mostly read old books and dispensed advice no one wanted to hear. That role might be perfect. Maybe, once the professors were gone and the town settled back to normal, she would talk to Leonid about apprenticing.
Reyan picked and poked at the jumble of wake food on her plate. The two clashing preparations of fish, the contrasting mounds of orange and white pulp, and the cloying pile of berries all melted and slid and mixed together. She tried to keep everything in its place by erecting dams of bread, but all the flavors soaked and seeped through. If she hoped to fill the aching hollow in her gut she would have to deal with the unfortunate mixture.
As she choked down soggy bites of dinner, she noticed something growing in the back of her mind like a swelling dirge or a deepening bruise. Curiosity drew her toward the feeling. She followed it down deep, past the place where thoughts had words. Her head slumped to one side, her mouth slacked open, and her breath seeped in and out. Anyone seeing her would have sworn she was staring at the planks of her wall, but she was looking inward where there was no wall to see.
When she arrived at the source, she found Rolf’s supine body. Her breath jerked in her chest, her throat tightened and she wanted to look away. But she knew there was a reason this image had drawn her to it. She made herself look.
As her heart settled and her breath steadied, the image sharpened. The fire cast deep and shifting shadows down his face. As she focused in on the rises and hollows and lines that defined him, the light stopped flickering, the shadows lessened until Rolf appeared lit within by a steady golden warmth. Rolf’s glow intensified until it overwhelmed the candles, lanterns, and fire.
The light became a golden dome encompassing the whole town and radiating out into the cold darkness. Reyan knew that she was seeing a long-standing truth for the very first time. This man had treated her like a first born. He had worked to make a space for her where she could speak her thoughts without shame or fear.
But it was not for her alone. Rolf drew pleasure from being kind. He radiated his benevolence out into the world. She watched it expand like an inflating soap bubble. It enveloped the snowy caps of the mountains, and reached down the other side of the pass. It encompassed all the towns on the northern spur of the circuit until the whole world seemed illuminated.
Then it burst.
Her mind rushed back to the reality of this cold and joyless house and the gray waxen man lying still before the fire.
His chest did not rise and fall. The lumps of his eyes did not lurch behind their lids. His fingers did not twitch to grasp whatever his dreaming mind placed within reach.
Rolf was dead.
She felt something that wasn’t quite pain. It didn’t poke or pinch. It was the feeling of a collapsing void, like the moment a rock punches a hole through the surface of a pond and the water comes flooding back in. She felt the blow of the rock and the emptiness and the rushing drowning feeling all in the same moment.
Reyan made a single gasping sobbing sound. Then her belly tightened into a fist and it didn’t let go. But that seemed right somehow. It was the strain and flex needed to rearrange things in the back rooms of her mind. She began to sense creaks and scrapes as her understanding of her place in the world shifted about to accommodate this new reality.
When everything settled, this new sadder stronger version of her, grew curious about what was happening in the room down the ladder and down the hall. The professors were still here. She could hear the rumble and wobble of a male voice and the hissing high notes of Lyssa’s sparse replies, but she could not pull any meaning from the whiffs of their conversation.
She wiped her greasy mouth on the sleeve of her tunic. She lay down on the floor and pressed her ear against the boards. The deeper voice traveled well through the house’s wooden skeleton. It was louder now, but no clearer. Lyssa’s high tones were lost altogether.
Reyan took off her damp boots, and clinging socks, set the boots side by side and lay the socks flat on the floor to dry. Barefoot, she carefully and quietly inched down the ladder from her loft carrying her dinner plate in one hand.
She crept into the kitchen and gently set the plate on the counter by the sink so as not to draw unwanted attention. Then slid along the hallway wall toward the living room. She waited until Lyssa’s voice sounded as though her head were turned away, then chanced a quick peek around the corner. Just at that moment, Lyssa turned back to face Reyan. She looked directly at the girl, but her eyes were focused elsewhere and she did not see her. Reyan decided to stay mostly hidden behind the wall, but kept her head peeking around the corner so she could see what was happening.
By now, most of the mourners had gone home to their families, but there were still a few gathered in the room. Lyssa was exactly where Reyan had last seen her, sitting in the chair close to her dead husband’s head. The heads of the town—the butcher, the water man, and the local keeper—were gathered around the recent widow holding their near-empty plates in front of themselves like shields against her grief.
The professors stood in a clutch a few paces away from the others. The three seemed to want to lean in to provide solace, away to show respect, and forward to the business at hand. These opposing forces guy-wired them into a stiffed-back formality, which struck such a perfect balance between concern, deference, and competence that Reyan was certain the posture was taught at the University as part of a professor’s practice and art. It was what made them perfectly suited to any occasion best approached with a thoughtful pout and a furrowed brow. Reyan caught herself trying on their posture and expressions and looked around self-consciously to see if anyone had seen her. Luckily, no one had so much as glanced at her.
The young novice professor, Kavianhar—the one with the dirty blond hair and twisted lip—stood furthest from the circle of town leaders. He was tense and on his toes as though at any moment he expected one of his superiors to send him off to fetch something and be quick about it. Until then, he seemed resigned to stand at his awkward distance, listening intently.
Lyssa drew in a deep breath. There was a stuttering sound when she let it out. “Early in the day tomorrow,” she said, her voice suddenly too steady and strong to be believed.
The lanky gray professor—Sevv she thought he was called—looked at Parr who nodded with his black eyes more than his head. Sevv moved over and slowly lowered himself on one knee next to Lyssa facing Rolf’s stiffening corpse. “If you’re sure that would be best, Leader.” In his voice there was the peculiar practiced pattern and tone of one well-versed in dealing with grief. It was a mixture of sympathy and firmness that, until now, Reyan had only witnessed in doctors, veterinarians, and Rolf himself when he had to tell a father that his child had been swept down river while tending a fish trap. Sevv waited for a moment to make sure Lyssa understood whatever decision he had just helped her make.
Lyssa affected an air of strength by forcing herself to look steadily at the kneeling professor for a moment. But then sorrow weighed down her head and she returned to slouching and staring slackly at the floor. Sevv reacted as though it had been a nod and, like an obedient dog finally released from his held position, went to work. “Kavianhar,” he called and the young novice somehow straightened up even more.
“Professor,” Kavianhar replied as he approached. Sevv stood up to meet him. The old man leaned over and said something to the novice that was too quiet for Reyan to hear. Kavianhar nodded his understanding. Reyan stepped back from the room’s entrance and out of Kavianhar’s way as he hurried past.
Sevv gathered professor Parr over to a corner for a quick whispered discussion. He placed his hand on Parr’s shoulder as he leaned his head down to talk. Parr listened, but as he did so, he slowly and gently removed the old man’s hand from his shoulder. Neither his expression nor his words revealed any emotion, and he offered only a single nod after Sevv finished speaking.
Kavianhar rushed back into the room with a writing pad and a pencil and walked over to the Professors. “Ready,” he said, and the professors rejoined the group of lesser town leaders that was gathering around Lyssa.
Sevv began gently, “Where shall the event take place, do we think? I would imagine that this room is too small. I know that it is cold, but should we consider the square out front?” When Lyssa didn’t react, he looked at the keeper, the waterman, and the butcher who each nodded in turn. Sevv then looked impatiently at Kavianhar who dutifully jotted something on the pad. “And for food, Butcher, will you be helping with that?”
“I’ll dress a pig this evening,” he looked over to Kavianhar, “You’ll need to work with others to get the rest of the food. I would talk to Manisha. Blue house, third on the right on the road south of the square. I know it’s late, but go to her tonight.” Kavianhar nodded and wrote that down.
“As for the ceremony itself,” Sevv began. There was a tip-toeing lilt to his voice. “Who will be…”
“Leonid will do it.” Her eyes came up from the floor and focused on the keeper. Leonid nodded. Lyssa declared with unshakable certainty. She turned back to the professors. “I understand that you and Rolf have a history, but Orloton’s leader will have his final day in Orloton’s town square, faired-well by Orloton’s keeper. And then all our people will show their respect and receive his gift.”
“His ‘gift’ Leader? How do you mean?” the tension in Sevv’s question apparent.
Lyssa straightened her back and frowned. “Partaking of the gift has been a custom in Orloton ever since the time of the scab. During the worst of it, Rolf brought in a woman from the East. We all thought she was a professor at first, she seemed wise, and just as foreign.” She looked at the professors and her lips tightened into a smirk. “But she wore no robes, and when she left, the scab left with her. So, I suppose, she wasn’t very much like a professor at all.” Her voice cut like a blade. “She told us that, for the dead and dying it was too late, but within their blood they held a final gift that could save everyone they loved. She collected their blood and extracted their gifts. Our keeper at the time did his best to write down everything that the woman did and said so that we would not forget. And we never have.”
Sevv stammered, “Rolf died of an infection. Surely a wise leader such as your husband, would not wish to be honored with anything so ill-advised as sharing an infected man’s blood.” He laughed uncomfortably as though hoping to inspire others to make a joke of it.
“If you’ll forgive my saying, Professor Sevvran, this has nothing to do with you, or your notions of propriety. You professors roll into town for a few days every year armed with whatever secret knowledge you have buried deep in your minds. You tell us how to be systemic and proper. We, for our part, listen close and show our respect. But do not for a moment think that we do not respect other things as well. In Orloton, we show respect to our beloved dead by giving them a last chance to show their generosity and bestow a gift of protection upon us. As professors you are honored guests. You are welcome to partake in Rolf’s gift. If you choose not to, no one will be offended. No one would even notice or care.” Her words turned hard, “But by The Eye, if you have a mind to disrespect our town’s greatest leader in any way, I suggest you consider how far from your University you are.”
Sevv’s jaw stiffened, and he drew his old frame up into a caricature of honor and principals, “I’ve heard about your gifts. How are we ever to improve life in the nodes if we have to accommodate hysterical heretical Erynite nonsense?!”
She turned and spoke directly to Kavianhar and the attention startled him. She smiled wickedly, “So, you want to be one of these, huh? Be careful what you wish for, boy. There’s something about that second band that can make a man arrogant and inflexible.”
Parr stepped forward calmly. With a glance, he moved Sevv aside and sent him to go stand next to Kavianhar. The dark professor spoke to Lyssa, his voice deep and quiet and clear so that Reyan did not have to lean in to make out his words. “How many are you, Leader?”
The fire left Lyssa’s eyes and she became businesslike. “Orloton has a population of four hundred thirty-seven.”
“Thirty-six,” Reyan said under her breath.
Lyssa lifted her chin to give the impression of strength, “Thirty-six as of today.”
Professor Sevv’s jaw was flexing and his lips were squirming as he listened to Parr calmly discuss preparations with Lyssa. He turned his expression on Kavianhar which seemed to break the boy free from some distracting thought and the novice began to take notes again.
“We have seen so many children playing in your streets,” Parr said. “It is a shining testament to Rolf’s leadership that you’ve been able to keep so many.” This seemed to sooth Lyssa to the point where she was able to offer a sad smile. The professor continued. “It is late in the evening now, and the ceremony will be early tomorrow. Will the butcher have time to prepare a meal for so many? Will there be time for your people to forage and boil and bake enough to feed them all? Parr’s face gave away no opinion or emotion on the matter. “Of course it is up to you and your wisdom, Leader,” he conceded. “They are your people now. It is for you to help them choose how best to fulfill the Governing Assert, how best to improve life. Still, perhaps it would be better…less disruptive to your town…if we selected a representative sample of adults to attend the ceremony, and receive Rolf’s final gift.”
What tranquility the professor had managed to impart upon her had vanished, and was replaced with a cold calm anger. “Anything less than the town’s full measure would be disrespectful, Professor,” she snarled. “My husband was a leader among leaders.”
Sevv chimed in trying to be helpful, “He was one of our own.”
Lyssa raised an eyebrow. “Was he?”
“He was a systemic man,” Parr explained, “He performed his role with dedication and skill. The system flourished under him.”
“Yes, well, I’m glad to learn that, after all these years, the professors finally approve of my husband.” Then her voice lost its forcefulness and wobbled like a kite in flagging wind. She paused for a moment, and when she continued speaking her firmness was restored. “He was loved by his people. He turned enemies to friends and collaborators.” An idea seemed to occur to her, “Thinking on it now. Perhaps we should wait another day or so, and send word to our neighbors in Bar and Rowe and invite them to pay their respects as well?”
“No, leader,” the professor said quickly as though he had already considered the idea and was simply waiting for Lyssa to bring it up. “I’m afraid there will be no time for that. You said the gift was in Rolf’s blood,” there was an apology folded into his words, “a person’s blood will thicken beyond extraction within a day. Rolf has been gone for several hours already. Orloton’s neighbors will not have time to come, nor should you wait for them.”
Lyssa appeared to be searching for a trap in his words. Not finding one, she agreed. “Then we had better drain some blood tonight before it thickens and prepare it for tomorrow. Butcher, sharpen your knives.”