Teth’s father Za’reth stood silent, his attention focused on the door. They heard the creak of a wooden chair from outside. Something in this sound must have satisfied him, for he turned abruptly back to Sh’ra. In three quick steps, he had her by the arm and was hauling her to the far side of the room. His wife Ka’ri trailed him, her features shrouded in the dark hood of her cloak. When they reached the far wall, Za’reth released her.
“Did you find it girl? Did you find the stone?”
Beside him, Ka’ri drew back her hood, revealing the auburn hair and green-amber eyes of the Earth clan.
“Speak. We do not have much time.”
Her face was strong as hard clay with sharp boulder edges. It bore the salt streaks of tears long dried, like the trenches dug by storm runoff. The silt was worn away, leaving behind only what could bear the torrent.
“Yes, I found it, but what does it matter now?”
“Did it work? Did you use it?”
“Y…Yes. Yes, I used it.”
“Describe it to me” Ka’ri insisted. “Tell me how it felt.”
Confused, but too tired to offer resistance, Sh’ra went back to the memory — the rush of excitement at feeling the stone in her hand, her heart beating in her ears, the mountain a servant of her will.
“I held it in my hand. I felt… the lines of the mountain through it — the stone lines. They spread out in every direction like the weaves of an intricate cloth beneath my feet. I clutched the strands, pushing them apart, and the passage opened before me.”
The wave of energy, of excitement, of power, passed through her, leaving nothing in its wake, leaving Shin’s face as he glanced back at her, eyes wide with shock and sorrow before he fell. Sh’ra staggered back, slumping against the wall. Suddenly cold, she wrapped herself in her arms and buried her head in her knees.
“But the stone is gone,” she continued. “Taken by that boy from the Air clan — Lorn.”
Za’reth waved away her statement as if it were an irritating fly, not worthy of consideration. He paced. His wife removed her cloak, revealing a deep black dress inlaid with a thousand minuscule obsidian shards. Kneeling, Ka’ri placed the cloak around Sh’ra. The heavy wool cover calmed her, slowing her heart and her breath.
“What is there to consider, Za? You know what we must do.”
Za’reth stopped pacing, meeting his wife’s eyes. He nodded. Then turned his back to them. Ka’ri stood and retrieved the bundle of garments Ril’ta had left. She undid the belt on her black dress, reached behind her neck to loosen a clasp, and then stepped out of the dress. She folded it neatly and placed it on the lid of the coffin. Then she took the bundle of garments meant for Sh’ra. Opened, it included a simple light gray smock with three quarter length sleeves along with some bandages and ointment. She put on the smock, pulling it down over her head. When she was done, she picked up the elegant dress she had just removed and brought it to Sh’ra.
“Come child, stand. Put this on.”
“What?” Was all Sh’ra could manage.
“There is not much time. Ril’ta will be expecting a knock soon. Za’reth will explain everything on the road. Right now, I need you to put on this dress.”
She heaved Sh’ra to her feet and helped her remove her clothing. For all her insistence on rushing, her fingers were gentle near each cut and bruise. Ka’ri used the bandages and ointment expertly while Sh’ra stood, dumbfounded. She was not going to die, but she did not feel free. Whatever was happening around her, the truth of it had not yet penetrated beneath the skin. She felt… empty. She held the black dress in front of her, the torch light flickering across the surfaces of the stones.
“Why are you doing this?”
But the woman only pressed a finger to her lips. When she finished with the bandages, Ka’ri helped her ease the dress over her body. It was snug around the hips and shoulders but the bottom floated an inch from the floor as it should. Sh’ra had never worn anything so nice in her life. It was disconcerting to look down and see it on her body. Ka'ri placed the cloak around her shoulders and pulled up the hood. Then removed her shoes and indicated for Sh’ra to put on the ones she had been wearing.
“Be thankful I chose to wear my slippers,” the woman muttered.
They were tight, but the fabric stretched around Sh’ra’s larger feet. Ka’ri stood barefoot in front of her, examining her.
“This will do. Now, just keep your head down on the way out.”
To her husband, she said, “We are ready.”
He turned around, examining them both, as if he were deciding which of them were his wife. It’s her. It’ definitely her, Sh’ra thought, looking at the beautiful woman standing beside her.
Za’reth gave his wife a long embrace.
“Goodbye, my love.”
“Go, I will be fine.”
They were out of the city before Sh’ra felt the courage to ask.
“What will they do to her?”
Their horses trotted next to each other. As best she could tell they were headed south. It had been hard for her to keep track of the turns they had taken on the way out of the city when all she could see were the cobble stones beneath her feet.
“I… I am not sure. It is a serious crime she has committed — to subvert the will of the High Priest. It did not used to be so. But, being high born, she will probably receive the lash and then be released. That is what we hoped for.”
“You hoped for the lash? Wait, what do you mean probably?”
“There is no way to know for sure with Ur’in. He might press for a death sentence. That one is hungry for blood, and there are enough of the council who fear him that he usually gets his way.”
“No.” Sh’ra stopped her horse. “I will not let her die for me!”
Za’reth smiled weakly at her. “That is what she thought you would say. Which is why she did not tell you. But it is too late now, Sh’ra. Whatever my wife’s fate, it has already been determined.”
To their left, the gray of a swiftly approaching dawn was blotting out the night sky. Sh’ra sat for a moment longer and then kicked her horse into a trot — ashamed at how easily she had given in, relieved at not having to face her own death, and guilty for feeling relieved.
“Where are we going?”
“South, to the Horn clan.”
“Why do we need the support of a bunch of hill people?”
Cutting his reins sharply, Za'reth stopped his horse, fixing her with a withering glare. For the first time, she noticed his hazel eyes. He started to speak, but reconsidered, no doubt when he saw the panic on her face. Instead, he shook his head and started forward again.
“Lorn headed north, back to the Air clan. Shouldn’t we go there first? Don’t we need to get the stone for this to work?”
Za’reth shook his head again, patting a pocket on his chest.
“We’ve already got one.”