The tall man dropped five silver falcons onto the rough wooden table. The coins clinked against each other, silver faces bright in the light of the single candle that Dirina had just sparked to flame.
“I want answers,” he said.
Her hand went toward the coins as if of its own volition. She pulled it back, tucked it under the blanket wrapped tight around her shoulders.
If he wanted answers, he wanted Amarta, asleep with the baby in the small back room of the shack.
Her gaze went to the bright coins. Three were bird-side up, the king’s profile was on the other two. A good omen?
His large palm came down flat, covering the silver, breaking her focus. She looked up at his bearded face and met his dark eyes.
Now was moments after being woken by his pounding that shook the entire structure, dragging Dirina awake and off the cot where her sister and baby miraculously slept on.
Her gaze went to his hand, then back to his face, trying to make sense of this.
His expression told her nothing, but his cloak and coins and smell of horse said plenty. That her sister’s reputation had spread, again, far beyond this small mountain village to which they had come only last spring, before the baby was born. Where they were still welcome, if barely.
Were there really five falcons under his hand? Maybe she had imagined them.
She would tell him no. Come back tomorrow. When Amarta was rested. When Dirina could see him clearly in the daylight.
“Your pardon, ser,” she said, ducking her head. “She is asleep. She’s only a child. She–”
He picked up his hand, revealing the five coins again. For a moment her mouth moved silently.
“Asleep. A child. I heard you. Get her in here.”
Outside the wind picked up, blowing a roar through the trees, scraping branches against the roof, hissing through shutters that never closed properly, sneaking under the door that had to be bolted to stay shut in high winds.
But Amarta was exhausted. She had foreseen three times today already. Next week’s weather, when the goat would birth, how many kids, the arrival of trade wagons. So, today, they had eaten.
Dirina liked eating. Feeding the baby from her own body always left her so very hungry. She always wanted more food.
Also, rent was due, the roof needed patching, and the stove ate peat voraciously.
Five falcons. She ached to touch them.
The candle flickered wildly in a puff of air. On the walls, shadows danced with the flame’s motion.
“I’m sorry, ser,” she said, pulling her hand back again. “She’s too tired. She can be ready in the morning. At first light. Then she would be happy to answer–”
Her breath caught at his look. He scared her, this large stranger whose face she couldn’t read, who had five falcons to spend on a child’s divination in the middle of the night.
Even his clothes were odd. Loose, as if he had so much material he didn’t know what to do with it. Some kind of wool, fine and thick. She wondered what it felt like.
He made a noise. Sharp, displeased. Taking hold of a nearby stool, he pulled it to the table and sat. It creaked a little.
“One of us is going to go back there and get her. She might prefer it be you.”
Dirina’s stomach tightened. She looked for the oak stick she kept in the corner, alarmed to not see it. There it was; it had slipped to the dirt floor. When she looked back at him, he was watching her.
This man had needed to bend to come inside. His loose clothes did not hide his bulk.
She should never have let him in.
Again his hand went for the falcons, and for a wretched moment she thought he might take them away. Instead he dropped another silver coin onto the pile.
A beautiful, terrible sound.
“A moment,” Dirina said softly and ran to the tiny back room.
Through the shutter slats, pale moonlight illuminated a straw-stuffed cot where Amarta slept curled around the baby. Dirina had named him Pas, after a tasty fruit-filled pastry she had once eaten because every time she looked at him she felt as if she had bitten into something wonderful.
On her knees she reached over him, breathing a quick prayer that he would stay asleep. She squeezed her sister’s shoulder.
Amarta muttered something into the layers of clothes and blankets, the muffled, flat tone telling Dirina just how exhausted she was. Then she opened her eyes.
“A man,” Dirina said. “He has seven falcons, Ama. Can you see for him?” She didn’t pause for an answer. “You must.” She brushed her sister’s dark hair out of her face. “Seven falcons. He won’t wait. My sweet, I’m sorry.”
Her sister struggled to sit up, blinking, then pulled a tunic over the light clothes she slept in and stood. Dirina hastily tucked the blankets around Pas and then followed Amarta into the other room.
Amarta looked at the man, at the coins on the table, then back at the man.
His eyebrows furrowed. “You are the seer?”
Dirina recognized the tone. It was easy to understand, with Amarta’s hair a dark, fluffy mess and her child’s eyes lidded with sleep.
Amarta nodded and sat across the table from him on another stool. Dirina stepped back, leaning against the wall by the stove, a grab away from the oak stick on the floor.
The man put his hands on the table and leaned forward a little. In the light of the candle, Dirina could make out odd white lines crossing the backs of his hands and fingers. Scars, she realized suddenly. They were all scars.
Amarta put a finger on the pile of silver coins.
“We don’t usually ask that much,” she said.
“Then do good work, girl.”
Her sister crossed her forearms on the table and lowered her chin atop them, squinting into the candle flame. Dirina gnawed a knuckle.
The silence lengthened. “Ama,” she said, summoning her most encouraging tone, “what do you see?” She gave the man a quick smile. “Sometimes she needs a moment.”
He tapped a fingernail on the table in a slow, annoying beat. “I don’t have a lot of moments.”
“Amarta?” She hadn’t fallen asleep, had she?
Those who came to them for answers were desperate, their problems having pushed them to spend money they didn’t have in the hope that someone else might know what was good for them better than they did. Usually she reminded her sister to say only good things to them. So often the future was not what people wanted it to be.
As the silence continued, her stomach went leaden, chest tightening. They needed this man happy with his answers.
The wind knocked a branch against the side of the house, and for a moment the candle flickered furiously, threatening to go out.
Then Amarta sat up, looking into the distance at something beyond flickering shadows and wood walls. Dirina knew the look, felt a flush of relief.
“There’s a man,” Amarta said easily. “He’s looking for you. And you– you’re looking for him, too. He’s your brother, isn’t he?”
The man nodded, very slowly, his attention now entirely on Amarta.
Dirina knew this look as well. No matter what people had heard about Amarta, no matter what they believed, this was the moment of shock, when she told them something she couldn’t possibly know.
“Where is he?” the man asked.
“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.”
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.
Dirina had told her that it was only a dream and to go back to sleep.
To know what would happen and still not be able to change it was worse than not knowing. Dirina no longer wanted to hear about the future.
Amarta stared into the light of the burning candle. Perhaps they should save what was left of it — they could not afford them as it was — but it comforted her sister, and—
He was coming back.
“Ama, is he–”
A sudden noise outside the thin walls of the cabin. An animal, perhaps, or–
She strained to hear, helpless to stop herself envisioning which of the many night sounds might be a man’s last struggle for breath.
This was the last time, Dirina told herself. No more of Amarta’s visions.
Then they would starve.
No, then she would–
There was a loud pounding at the door.
“What should I do?” Dirina asked, frightened enough to blurt out the question.
Amarta shook her head with a child’s lost, fearful look. She didn’t know. Or wouldn’t say.
The pounding came again, rattling the door-frame and walls. Dirina could too easily imagine him breaking the door in if she waited much longer. She dashed to unbolt it and let him in.
He pushed past her into the room, breathing hard, hood thrown back, hair and face smeared with mud. At his look, Dirina backed away.
From the other room came Pas’s freshly woken howl. Before Dirina could move, Amarta darted to the back room, returning with Pas cradled in her arms, now quieted. Dirina felt a sick jolt at seeing her sister and son here, so near this dangerous man.
“You were right,” he told Dirina, his voice low. “I broke his neck. Hold, twist, snap.” His hands moved in the air, as if to demonstrate. “As we were taught. And yes–” He fixed a look on Amarta. “He hesitated, my brother did. As you said he would. He should have known better.”
Dirina put a hand over her mouth.
For a long moment, the only sound in the room was the stranger’s hard breathing.
His gaze wandered the room, as if seeing it for the first time. When his look came back to Dirina, he seemed to be weighing a decision.
It was slow, the motion of his hand moving out from under his cloak. He was shaking, she realized, despite that his face showed nothing. His hand went for the pile of coins.
For a horrible moment she was sure he would take all the coins and leave. It had happened before. Instead he put another coin on the table.
A gold souver. Dirina’s mouth fell open.
“My life is worth this and more to me, so I’ll give you some advice as well.” He looked at Amarta and settled a weightier look on Dirina. “Charge more.”
With that he left.
Heartbeats passed. When the cold night air finally broke her shock, Dirina went to the door, shut it, dropped the bolt. As if it would protect them from anything.
Her sister was sitting on the floor, curled around Pas, rocking, murmuring to him.
Dirina dropped down next to her, put her arms around them both.
“He’s gone now, don’t you worry,” Amarta was telling Pas.
“We’re safe,” Dirina said, knowing the lie of the words as they left her mouth.
She helped her sister stand and drew them both back to the cot and under blankets. Dirina waited until she was asleep, then wrapped Pas in a blanket and took him back to the table. She gave him her breast to feed as she stared at the coins on the table.
All they had done was to answer the man’s questions.
No, that was a lie, too; they had helped him kill his brother, a man who probably also had fine clothes, a horse, and a good deal of coin. Whoever he was.
It didn’t matter who he was. Both men were gone and the coins remained. Coins that would buy them food to keep them from starving through the winter. Perhaps some tar and straw to seal the roof and stop the drafts. Peat for the stove. Blankets. Food and shelter and warmth.
Or maybe a start somewhere else.
That’s what they would do, she decided. At first light they would pack what little they had and leave. Begin again elsewhere, somewhere no one had heard about Amarta and what she could do.
When the coins ran out, Dirina would mend or clean or cook or whatever was needed to keep them alive. But no more answers for strangers. No more stumbling over long-held secrets or making enemies by telling people things they didn’t really want to know.
For a moment she planned furiously, thinking of what they could take on their backs.
She stopped. It would not happen. Not this season, not the next. She could not take a child and an infant on a mountain trek to another village with ice on the ground and snow on the way.
Then, she decided fiercely, she would find another way. When the money was gone, she would rent herself to the village men for more. She would count carefully this time, and there would be no more mistakes.
That is, if the village men had any extra coin in the winter months at all. Well, she would find out, she decided.
Pas reached for her then, clutching the cloth of her shirt tightly in his little fist. She raised his hand to her mouth and kissed it, allowing herself this moment of sweetness. She tucked the fallen cloth back around his little body and his head dropped onto her chest as he fell asleep.
She was his future. His only future. She would do what she must.
In his sleep, Pas made a small sound. She rocked him gently as the room lightened with the first hint of dawn.
Gold. They had a gold souver. Dirina took the coin in hand and looked it over closely.
Larger than the silver falcons and heavier too. Nothing like the dirty, scratched copper quarter-nals chits she knew, that if you had the right four, you could piece together to make a picture of the Grandmother Queen with her moon-in-sky through the window and dog at her feet.
It was a wonder, this coin, heavy and smooth like a river rock. She brought it close, rubbing her finger over the shining detail.
A soldier on a horse, front legs high in the air, sword raised. Behind him were snow-capped mountains divided by a river. That would be the Sennant, the great river that ran through the empire, that they had crossed to come here to this village. Behind the horse, a palace. The Jewel of the Empire, which her mother had told her stories about when she’d been small. So many rooms. Food in every one of them.
What had Amarta said to the man who had given them this coin? Something about a woman who would be upset. Something about her father keeping his word.
Dirina turned the coin over. A bearded man stared back at her with an imposing expression on his face and a circlet on his head.
A crown. That was what Amarta had said. Something about a crown.
Dirina stared at the coin in her hand, her breath coming hard and fast. She dropped the coin to the table, where it rattled and went still.
What had they done?
In the dawning day, Dirina clutched Pas tight and watched gold and silver coins take on rich color as the prisms of her tears blurred them into wild, luminescent shapes.
- Read Chapter Two here.
- Want the whole thing? Order at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Baen Books, and University bookstore.
- “Touchstone”, a prequel to SEER, about two rural kids thrust into palace intrigue.
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