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Xenolith, Page 74

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 62: Sibara

  The girl’s name was Feyit. She was no exile, but she spoke Kovalev’s tongue. “Russian,” Doctor Frank called it, when she tried speaking it to him. The Doctor’s incomprehension seemed to surprise and disappoint her. She apparently thought all good exiles should speak “Russian.”

  Once she got started in Giep’o, though, she gushed to Tezhay all about Kovalev, speaking of him in the past tense, like someone praising the recently deceased, though it was not clear whether the old Russian had been killed or even harmed.

  Feyit told Tezhay that Kovalev had lived in the neighborhood since before she was born and had taught basic, conversational Russian to as many of the children as he could get to sit still. Feyit and several others had learned enough to make small-talk with him and recite some of his poems. He loved hearing them spoken by young voices in his native tongue.

  “He knew my family well,” said Feyit. “Very, very well. He would come and eat with us. Sing with us. Take his medicine from us.”

  Tezhay suspected that Kovalev’s fame had precipitated his downfall. Feyit told him small crowds sometimes gathered for his poetry and storytelling sessions. This would have drawn the attention of the occupiers, and prompted them to send spies.

  Feyit proudly paraphrased a Kovalev poem in Giep’o confirmed some of his suspicions, with its mild metaphors of occupation.

  Spawn of cliffs and crags uncounted,

  Seven valleys, river stone tumble.

  Gentle chaos nudging seaward,

  Under snail and mayfly amble

  Landslide cleaves a single slab;

  Spawning shards to slash our feet;

  No cataclysms budge this table.

  No life dare harbor in its lee.

  The poem sounded innocuous enough, but Tezhay could understand how such verse might agitate the ultra-sensitive Venep’o. Obviously, something had bothered them, because a Polu’s deputy had warned Kovalev that a raid was brewing. The Russian had resisted the notion at first, but upon the urging of neighbors, agreed to discontinue his public sessions and go into seclusion. Feyit herself had helped him move his possessions into safekeeping, but the raid came down before he could leave town.

  “Where was he planning to go?” said Tezhay.

  “Out of Raacevo,” said Feyit. “But he left his works with Sibara.”

  “Sibara?” said Tezhay. “She an exile?”

  “He,” said Feyit. “And yes.”

  Feyit gave them explicit instructions on how to find Sibara in the city center. The stoniness settled back into Feyit’s face as they left Kovelev’s compound. Feyit’s mother, busy with a hoe, clearing a drainage channel leading from their compound, stood up and wielded the hoe like an axe when spotted her daughter with strangers. She called Feyit home, her voice cracking with strain. A neighbor stood behind a fence, watching them through the slats.

  They passed from this privileged district to neighborhoods of greater density and squalor, avoiding large thoroughfares, opting for informal paths and passageways through mazes of brick and mud. Harm kept scuttling ahead, peeking around every corner to ensure they held no surprises.

  Once the rain found its rhythm, every cobble became coated with sheen, their clothes weighty with dampness. The clouds grew so thick they could no longer discern the position of the sun. Dusk would surprise them when it finally descended.

  By now, Tezhay had hoped to have said his goodbyes and gone off alone, his preferred mode of travel. On his own, he could penetrate any barricade, blend into any crowd. With the boy and red-haired exile in tow he felt as inconspicuous as a circus troupe.

  Doctor Frank looked wan, worse than Tezhay had yet seen him. Exsanguinated warriors with arrows in their guts had rosier complexions. The Doctor plodded like a dead man walking, eyes fixed on the ground, displaying no curiosity or concern. Tezhay suspected his heart had gone off its cadence again.

  They passed a corpse crumpled in the gutter. Other passersby hovered a conspicuous distance away, too fearful to help lest they taint themselves by association with the victim. They waited to see who claimed it, and what fate the claimants met. Tezhay stepped up his pace, not wishing to be the test case.

  The mouth of an alley opened onto a plaza one block wide and several blocks long. A central market had occupied the site when Tezhay had last visited. Now, hundreds of Cuasar horses were corralled here, browsing on piles of fresh cut forage. Row upon row of Cuasar tents flapped in the breeze. All that remained of the market stalls were post holes and black smudges on the paving stones.

  “They destroyed the market?” said Tezhay.

  “It still lives,” said Harm. “I’ll show you.”

  Harm skirted the encampment and ducked into one of the many passages that opened into the plaza, and there it was. The market had reconfigured itself, squeezing like displaced water into the city’s seams. Mats and tables and stalls blocked walkways too narrow to host them. The rain had caused some vendors to pack up, but others huddled under oilskins as trickles wormed past their rain-glistened wares.

  Their offerings were sparse and homogeneous: Bolts of cloth, basic tools and household utensils, no serious weapons. Root crops dominated the foodstuffs, as the Sinkor-practicing occupiers were forbidden to eat anything that grew beneath the soil. Tezhay noted a conspicuous absence of meat or grain or fruit or greens.

  Harm turned about, confused. He backtracked, then stopped and looked about. Doctor Frank stood in a slouch, waiting for Harm to settle on a direction. The Doctor looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to vomit.

  “I think we went too far,” said Harm. “Feyit told me to look for the lady who sells the blue head cloths.”

  Tezhay inquired of a man holding a single plow share in his lap. The man pointed to a woman who had bundled up her wares in a blanket and was trundling off down the alley. “Sister, please,” Tezhay called.

  The woman stopped and turned. They ran to catch up with her.

  “Can you help us? We are looking for a man named Sibara,” said Tezhay.

  Her eyes shifted between Tezhay and Harm before settling on Doctor Frank as he came laboring after them up the passage.

  “Come,” she said, continuing down the alley

  Dwellings packed together, with contiguous walls and no yards or compounds. The woman stopped before what looked like an unoccupied ruin. Rain seeped through gashes in crumbled and eroded stucco, wooden posts and wattle protruding like bone through rotting flesh. The small door was secured, windows shuttered.

  “Sibara!” the woman shouted. “There are peregrins here to see you.”

  No answer, though a thin plume of smoke rose from a hole in the thatch.

  “Sibara! Don’t worry,” she said. “These people look harmless.”

  Something scraped against the floor inside. “What do you want?” came a creaky voice. An eye glinted through a crack in the wood.

  “I bring an exile,” said Harm. “He wants to visit with you.”

  “Why do you bring him here? How did you find me?”

  “We come from Kovalev’s,” said Tezhay. “The girl, Feyit, told us—”

  “Kovalev?” said the man. The name caught in his throat and made him cough. “You came straight from Kovalev’s place? I hope you weren’t followed.”

  “We took care,” said Tezhay. “Our route was not direct.”

  “Master Sibara, open please! It rains and we have walked a long way,” said Harm.

  Silence. A heavy bolt slid, unbarring the door. It swung open.

  “Get in,” said the old man, his voice creaking like old timbers. The man’s face was dark, with deep wrinkles etching the corners of his eyes and mouth. His sleek black hair bore only a few strands of grey.

  Oil lamps and fire glow illuminated the windowless interior. The walls rippled as if plastered with loose mud that had flowed before setting. A ring of posts supported a conical ceiling with a fire pit in the center, surrounded by a hearth of clay, vented through a
triangular gap in the thatch. A frayed-looking hammock suspended between two posts along the wall.

  Sibara put his hand on Harm’s shoulder and withdrew it quickly. “You’re soaked. Come warm yourself by the fire. I will make some tea.”

  Stacks of shingles were piled on the floor, bundled together in groups of ten or more with ribbon or twine. Sibara tore a ribbon from a stack and tossed them into the fire. He fetched a kettle and hung it over the embers by a metal hook.

  They sat around the hearth on rickety stools, Harm shivering, Doctor Frank looking lost, as if he kept one foot in another world. The Doctor hadn’t spoken a word out loud since they left Kovalev’s. He avoided eye contact.

  “What is wrong with him?” said Sibara.

  “He is … not feeling well,” said Tezhay. “He is an English man, this one. Do you … speak English?”

  “I do not,” said Sibara.

  “But you speak Giep’o like you were born here,” said Tezhay.

  “Gi is all I know,” said Sibara. “I was brought here when I was very small. I remember nothing about Ur. Not even my mother.”

  “You are … friends with Kovalev?” said Tezhay.

  The old man frowned. “More like his servant … or baby sitter. Not any longer, it seems. I warned him to quit with his storytelling, but he is too vain. He must perform. And then he brings me all his writings and makes me a target.” Sibara sighed. “At least they burn well.” He tossed more shingles onto the fire.

  “Does Raacevo have other exiles, besides you?” said Tezhay.

  “Scattered,” said Sibara. “Many in hiding. The Venep’o have taken a sudden interest in us. Me not so much, because my skin helps me blend. But some exiles, I hear, they have sent them back to Venen with the caravans.”

  “For what purpose do they take them?” said Tezhay.

  Sibara inhaled through his teeth. “Nothing good, I am sure. Slaves? Maybe for study, or in the case of Kovalev – if he was lucky – for entertainment. The Alars love their jesters.”

  “But it is not just Kovalev?”

  “No. He is not as special as he thinks.” The spout of the kettle began to sputter and steam.

  “How do you think this one would fare if I left him in Raacevo?” said Tezhay, nodding towards Doctor Frank.

  Sibara looked Doctor Frank over and snickered. “How long do you expect him to live?”

  “Oh, he is much stronger than he looks,” said Tezhay. “He is just having a bad day.”

  Sibara shifted on his stool and put a pinch of powder into a row of handle-less mugs and reached for the kettle with a pair of singed wooden tongs. “Life in Raacevo is not good for anyone anymore,” he said. “Not just exiles.”

  Sibara filled each cup to just below the brim and distributed them. He fed the fire with another handful of shingles. They tinkled like tone wood, like fiddle tops tumbling into the flames. But oh, how they burned, their resins flaring orange, tinged green and blue, not unlike a convergence.

  In the shadows along the wall, Tezhay noticed a familiar shape. A guitar.

  “Ah! This one is not for burning, no?” Tezhay shot up from his stool and fetched it. It had only three intact strings and less than a full complement of frets, but the fine-grained top was free of cracks.

  “I was saving it for a cold night,” said Sibara. “That belonged to Kovalev as well.”

  “Oh, please do not burn this one!,” said Tezhay. “That would be such a crime. I will fetch you ten times its weight in firewood to replace it.

  “No need. If you want it, it is yours,” said Sibara.

  Tezhay plucked a string and turned a peg to raise its pitch. The string snapped. Undeterred, he finger picked an off tune melody on the two remaining bass strings.

  Shouts and footfalls came from the alley. Tezhay muffled the strings with his palm. Sibara cocked his head, listening carefully.

  “It is nothing,” said Sibara, relaxing. “Just Polus enforcing the curfew.”

  “I should have mentioned,” said Tezhay. “A Polu and his deputies followed us all the way into Raacevo.”

  “Do they know you are here?” said Sibara, raising one eye.

  “I do not think so” said Tehay. “I am pretty sure we lost them on the outskirts.”

  Sibara dismissed Tezhay’s admission with a smirk. “Polus do not worry me,” he said. “Cuertis, on the other hand … there is no soldier crueler.”

  “Cuerti? Are there Cuerti about Raacevo these days?” said Tezhay.

  “More than ever before,” said Sibara.