The Seer – Snippet 02

“One of you will be dead before sunrise,” Amarta said.

Dirina’s stomach clenched agonizingly. That was not the right thing to say. What was Amarta doing?

That times might be difficult. That people would need to be strong. That things would get better. Yes, all that. Not this, never this.

Because people rarely changed their actions, no matter what she told them, because that was how people were. Small things, like where and when to plant, that they might do, but big things, like not going to market next month, or insisting that someone leave and never come back, that was much harder.

Some things couldn’t be changed. Better not to speak of those things.

And yet the man did not look surprised.

“Where is he?” he asked.

“There’s a woman,” Amarta said. “She’s going to be very upset with whoever lives tonight.”

The man gave a humorless half-laugh. “He’ll be spared that, at least. Will her father keep his word this time?”

Amarta tilted her head back and forth in a gesture that spoke of scales that had nearly come even.

“I think yes. The spring after next, or the summer following. Then…” she nodded. “He will — I don’t know what it’s called. Give her the crown?”

Dirina heard her sister’s words but could not make sense of them.

“She will marry me,” the man said. Not quite a question.

Amarta nodded again. “If you live.”

“Where is he?” he demanded a third time, his voice strained.

Amarta glanced at the shuttered window.

“Not far. Four lanes to the north.”

The man stood up, fast, and there was a knife in his hand. The flash of metal caught Dirina’s gaze as surely as the coins had before. Her breath stopped in her throat.

“Tell me how to win against him.”

At this Amarta shook her head.

“Tell me,” he said in a tone so compelling Dirina ached to satisfy it herself with a reply.

“I don’t know,” Amarta answered.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” he growled. “Look wherever it is you look and tell me.”

Amarta was breathing fast and shallow.

“It’s not clear. I can’t see it.”

The man tightened his grip on the knife, the tip pointing toward Amarta. Then, laying the knife on the wood, he rotated it, hilt toward her.

“Does this knife draw blood tonight?” he asked.

He was clever. Most people never understood that Amarta could answer the small questions easier than the big ones, or that touching an object could help foresee its future.

Amarta brushed the bronze and leather-wrapped hilt, tracing her fingers along the flat of the blade. She pulled back and shook her head.

His eyes narrowed. “Try again.”

“No,” she answered, her child’s voice unsteady but certain. “No blood on this blade tonight.”

He scowled. “If I wanted to, I could change that.” He took the knife again.

Amarta cringed away from the table. Dirina knelt down and picked up the oak stick.

“Tell me, girl,” he said, his voice full of threat. “Is there blood on this knife yet?”

Amarta’s shoulders shook. “No blood,” Amarta whispered.

Dirina thought frantically. She would throw herself at him. Get between him and Amarta.

But if she sacrificed herself, who would protect them then? What should she do?

“Put it down,” he said to Dirina, as if answering. “You don’t want to challenge me. You wouldn’t last two breaths.” His knife vanished beneath his cloak, hands empty again. “I don’t want your blood or hers. I said put it down.”

Dirina’s hands were trembling violently. The stick fell to the floor with a dull thud.

“Advise me,” he told Amarta. “What must I do to live through tomorrow’s sunrise?”

Once again Amarta was looking far away.

“Don’t hesitate. Because he will.”

The man followed Amarta’s gaze to the wall and slowly nodded. He stood, turned, and walked to the door, seeming to have already stepped into the future Amarta had seen. He paused, glanced back at them both.

“You had better be right, girl.”

He shut the door hard behind him, the walls shuddering with the force of it. Dirina hurried over and bolted it. Then she went to her sister.

“Ama?” After a moment her sister began to shake. Dirina held her until the ragged breaths turned calm, then pulled back, searching her sister’s brown eyes.

“Why did you say that? About killing and dying?”

“He paid us. We need the money.”

“But why him? Why not the brother?”

“He was here,” Amarta said, her voice cracking. “Was I wrong? I tried to see further, but I couldn’t.”

“My sweet. You can’t know everything.”

“It was too far away. All I could see was tonight. I’m sorry, Diri,” Amarta said, beginning to sob.

Dirina murmured reassurances, stroking her sister’s hair, swallowing her own growing unease.

A mistake to let him in, perhaps.

She had made so many mistakes, their difficult lives the consequence. Like forcing them to leave the village of their birth with nothing in hand. Or selling Amarta’s visions and needing to flee those who didn’t like the answers.

Like getting pregnant.

He was so beautiful, Pas’s father. She had known better, but in the wanting had somehow ignored the knowing. He made her feel sweet and warm, put laughter into her bleak world, implying with every kiss that he would stay.

It had been a hard lesson to discover that he had gone. Harder still to discover that she was pregnant.

She loved the baby, fiercely, every finger and toe of him. But she should have known better. Had known better. Had been taught by her own mother to count the days of the moon, to mark time from blood. Her mother would be ashamed of her.

Except her mother was dead. And that, too, was Dirina’s fault.

There had been solutions to the pregnancy, but they couldn’t afford any of them. They couldn’t afford the baby, either, but there was no choice about that. So they went hungry.

And sold Amarta’s strange ability.

She hugged her sister close, the girl’s body tight.

“It’s over now, Ama. Let’s go back to bed and get warm.”

“No. He’s coming back.”

“What? Tonight?”

Amarta nodded.

Dirina bit back her next question. There were things it was better not to know.

Which was why she had not let Amarta see their parents’ broken bodies in the canyon, now four years ago. She’d seen enough for both of them. She remembered her uncle’s hand tight on her arm. Yes, he would take them in, he said, words soft in her ear as his grip tightened, and all their parents had owned, but they had better be worth the trouble. He shook her for emphasis, holding her back from her parents’ bodies. An obligation, he said, watching her closely. Hard work. Did she understand?

She had not. Not then.

When he had let her go, Dirina fell to the ground, her arms around the still-warm bodies of their mother and father as she wept. Her uncle collected the baskets of rare crevasse honey her parents had harvested from nests along the high rock wall, where overhead, so many lengths above, ropes and pulleys had somehow failed.

The next morning, Dirina had woken early with a suspicion of what her uncle meant to do with her and her sister and a sick certainty that he had set the ropes to unravel. There was no proof, but she could feel it in her bones. Before dawn she had gathered Amarta and had left on forest paths under a quarter moon to they knew not where.

Days later Dirina remembered how Amarta had woken her in the middle of the night before that terrible day to tell her of a vision of wall-nests and slipping rope, begging her for help.