Nobody escapes Naigha. Even when they think they have.
We spent all of the next day on the boat, going to the west. The boatmen told us all kinds of interesting things, about the boat itself, where they came from (Veray), where they were going (Tilis, and then back, they did that all the time) and what the boat was loaded with (things made of iron, like scissors and knives and other tools, all packed in greasy wool so they wouldn’t rust). We could sleep on the packs, the wool packing was so soft! That evening Rhanion had a new game for us: again he closed a jar, but this time he made the water in our cups so cold that it became solid!
“Is that ice?” I asked. “Because mother says ice is water that it’s so cold that it forgets how to move.”
Rhanion laughed and said yes. Then Dayapati clutched at my arm and said “I’m really cold! I can’t get warm any more! And I have to … well, the thing you don’t talk about.”
“Do you want to go in the bushes for that?” I asked, and went into the bushes with her, and she pooped a lot of thin poop. “And I’m so thirsty!” she said, so I got her water from the river, from another place where it was still clean, of course.
That didn’t help her, she was becoming sicker all the time! “She needs someone who knows what to do,” Lydan said, “we’ll go on through the night. Come on, Rhanion, you in front.”
Then Lydan and Aldin were pushing the boat forward from the back with long poles, and Rhanion sat on a bench at the front and when it got dark he made a light with his mind. The light was so strange, it looked as if four or five people were poling! Jerna and I held Dayapati’s hands all the time but it didn’t help, her skin got a strange greyish colour and that wasn’t only from the light.
It was still night when we arrived at a place on the north side of the river that had a sort of floor on pillars where a lot of boats were already tied up. There was a house, too, with lights on and music coming from it. “Is there a party?” I asked, but I never got an answer, because Lydan called “Ferin!” and the biggest and ugliest man I’d ever seen came out of the house. Bigger and uglier than my father! Lydan talked to him for a bit and then the big man got a woman, and the woman was Khas! “She’s very sick,” I said to her in Khas, and the woman picked Dayapati up in her arms and carried her into the house. And the big man grabbed the boat, pushing out Aldin who was still in it, and pushed it with the pole so fast that he was gone before I realised what he was doing.
“Ferin’s off to town to get the doctor,” the Khas woman said.
Dayapati wasn’t really awake now, but she was moaning and squirming. The woman went to get a thing that looked like a flask with a nipple on the end, and she made Dayapati drink from it. “What’s in it?” I asked.
“Water with honey and salt,” she said. “The doctor says that it helps people who poop all the time. You do it, it might be the last thing you can do for her.”
That scared me! But I kept at it until I saw a woman who could only be Naigha come in and beckon Dayapati and she went with her. Naigha looked friendly, motherly even, and it looked like Dayapati really wanted to go, Then, when I looked at Dayapati in the bed, she was really gone, there was just a body that didn’t have her in it! It wasn’t fair, the priestess called Raisse had said that Naigha didn’t want us yet, had she changed her mind so soon?
The Khas woman came and held me while I cried, and then my belly rumbled and I couldn’t help shivering! I could just make it to the outhouse before I had to poop as much as Dayapati had done. I don’t know how long I sat there, but then Ferin came back and he had some people with him who looked very rich, a man with grey hair and a grey beard, a woman with grey hair, a handsome and cheerful young man, and the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen! She was smaller than me though she was grown up (not old, though, perhaps eighteen or twenty). “Right,” she said, “you’re in the right place, I see. Aidan! We have a cholera epidemic on our hands, you ask that other girl where her village is and find out if it comes from there. Take my apprentices.” And the young man kissed her and went away.
“Are you the priestess?” I asked.
“No, I’m Cora,” she said. “I’m the doctor.”
“Am I going to die?”
“No, not now I’m here. I couldn’t do anything for your sister, though.”
“I know,” I said, “I saw Naigha come for her.”
The doctor looked at me and asked “You’re eleven years old?”
“Eleven and a half,” I said.
“And you’ve never been with a man?”
Then she put her hands on me and I could feel that she was doing things inside my body. I think that made me fall asleep, because the next I knew I woke up in a bed and the man with the grey beard was sitting beside me. “Thirsty?” he asked.
Gods, I was thirsty! He gave me a cup of the honey-and-salt water and I drank it right down. “Cora said you’ll do,” he said. “I don’t remember her ever being wrong.”
He told me that he was called Vurian and I told him my name. Then he asked me a lot of questions, but very gently, and it was clear that he listened to what I said! I told him that Dayapati and I had been best friends all our lives, that we’d been babies together, that her parents had both died and she lived with her uncle who wanted to fuck her (then he went very quiet for a moment and looked away into the distance) but had never managed to do it, how we’d been on the beach saying that we’d like to go away together and Timoine had stood between us and told us to go northwest to tell Raisse about the village.
“But then we came to Jerna’s village and the priestess was called Raisse and she said she was the wrong Raisse, Timoine meant the queen!”
“Then it’s a good thing that we’re here,” Lord Vurian said, “because we’re on our way to the queen. She’s our daughter. We can take you to Valdis.”
Then I told him about our journey. “Timoine said I had to name all the names! No, Mizran said that. Anshen gave us sheep stuff, white sheep stuff with herbs in, and Archan (Lord Vurian winced when I said that) gave us a sweet thing, sweeter than honey,” I made the shape with my hands, “and then we met Jerna, and Mizran came and shot a goosegoose and that was very good to eat! He sent the dog after it, Jerna’s dog that she had for the flock.”
“Hmm, Mizran. Was there anyone else?”
“Yes, Anshen, at least I think it was him because he didn’t say anything. Dayapati and I sang sailor songs, and Mizran made music but I don’t remember what with, and Anshen danced with Jerna and he kissed her and then she’d been touched by the gods too, and she hadn’t been before.”
“Touched by the gods. Yes, I can see that.”
“The priestess said that Jerna should go with us to Valdis because of that. So we went, and it was going to be five days to the river but we met Naigha and Jerna made her donkey go and we were at the river on the first day, at night. I’m telling it all mixed up, aren’t I?”
“It’s perfectly clear to me,” Lord Vurian said.
“Why did Naigha come to take Dayapati?” I asked. “She said she didn’t want her yet!”
“Naigha doesn’t actually kill people,” Lord Vurian said. “She waits until someone is done with life, and then she comes to take them.”
“She did look … friendly,” I said.
“Oh, she’s not always like that! When someone has been very bad, done all the things that they know they shouldn’t do, and they die, then Naigha isn’t gentle at all, and that person knows they’re getting everything they deserve.”
“Dayapati never did anything bad in her life,” I said.
“Yes,” Lord Vurian said, “and that’s why Naigha was so gentle with her. — I think we have some more talking to do, but you should sleep first.”
I did that, couldn’t do anything else. When I woke up Jerna was next to me in the bed. She’d been sick too but not as badly as me. A woman in grey came into the room and said she was the priestess, and were we the family? I understood she meant Dayapati’s family. “We’ve been best friends since we were babies,” I said, and that was good enough, we could come and be her family now.
“Can you walk?” the priestess asked. I could, sort of, my legs were like wax, and it was the same with Jerna, but the priestess and her apprentices helped us to go to the room were they’d put Dayapati’s body. She really wasn’t in there, and still it looked like her, it was creepy!
“Can anyone lend me a knife?” I asked, and the priestess gave me the one that was hanging on her belt. I cut off a big lock of my hair and put it into Dayapati’s hands. When Jerna saw me do that she did the same.
Then the priestess took Dayapati’s body in her arms and carried her outside, where there was a kind of mat made of grass floating in the water. She put the body on it and gave us little candles, “light them!”
“With thinking?” I asked.
“If you can, yes.”
“You and I will have to do it together,” I said to Jerna, “because we can’t do it with the three of us any more!” And we managed to light the candles with only thinking, but the priestess’ apprentices had to light their candles from ours. There were some children too who had candles, and we all put them on the mat around Dayapati’s body and gave the mat a push so it floated away on the water. Then it caught fire! And it sank, in the middle of the river.
“We don’t have any caves or hills here to bury our dead,” the priestess said.
“But this is just as good!” I said. “Where I come from we have rocks that have holes in them already, but I see why you use the water.”