He was not an innocent man. He didn’t have to be. It had been half a decade since he had taken law or morality into consideration. Maybe longer. Maybe much longer. It was hard to remember exactly when those hard edges had stopped eating into him, worrying him out of sleep, hedging him in.
There was a bloody sword under the bed, kicked there as if a person’s instinct to hide it had only briefly overwhelmed their apathy for getting caught. The mis-matched blankets on the bed fell far enough over the sides to hide it, but the breeze from the window threaded the smell of it out into the open.
Dovev had walked into the room, and felt the wrongness of it before she had settled the door shut again. Inside three shallow breaths, she had found it and pulled it out. Then she sat back on her knees and stared at it, trying to understand who had put it in her room.
It was not her sort of weapon. It was too long, too hard to hide, impossible to slip up a sleeve. She had a knife she always carried with her, long and thin in its own right, but it had always fit in a sheath beneath her knee, and now that she was taller, it lay well between her wrist and elbow. She picked up others as she found them, and threw them away as she needed, but they were rarely bloody, and she would never let them grow a stink like this.
Caled liked Heydi, the same way he liked any of the kids that turned up under his roof. She was young, maybe six and short for that, but she’d already lost the uncertain weight that most kids carried in their hands and feet. Her hair was dark, her skin was a sun-turned bronze, and she looked as if she had been shaved out of a shadow.
Jerdan brought her in, took her straight into Caled’s office. Her head stopped a little higher than the boy’s elbow, and she stayed behind him, not to hide, just following him smoothly, turning when he turned, stopping when he stopped.
Jerdan glanced back at her, nodding when he found her waiting just inside the door. Looking to Caled behind the desk, he met his eye questioningly. The fact that she was with him was the most eloquent recommendation Jerdan could offer. He knew he couldn’t say anything more.
“What is she?” Caled asked.
Jerdan shrugged. “Nothing. Yet.” His mouth tilted into a smile. “But she could be a sneak.”
Holy Mother was just coming in from the practice yard, leather armor half removed and its straps clanking freely, when Garard found her. He smiled, a little wearily, and she paused, sticking her wooden sword point down into the dirt to lean on.
“Good morning, Mother,” he said.
She glanced over her shoulder at the yard, and the handful of children clearing the fence and stripping out of their armor as fast as they could. None of them were much taller than the fence, but every one of them managed to throw themselves over, with only a hand hooked on the top. In the other hand, they held their practice swords high to keep them from banging against the slats.
“It is a good morning,” she said. “Though the young ones get wilder the longer I live.”
Garard spared her another smile, then she faced him squarely again, and nodded for him to go on.
The prison was a low stone building, built onto the edge of the hill. Someone had known that it belonged there, near the judging house and the voting house and the guards’ barrack, but no one really wanted it there. No one had bothered to leave space for it. So it sat, peering over the edge, as if it were considering jumping off.
Inside it smelled like the summer-house right when they came back after a long winter in the city: disused, not dirty. Stale, not rotten. For the first yards past the entrance guards, it felt as if no one lived there. The feeling receded once Aria passed the first prisoners, but did not disappear.
Aria’s father was near the back, and Aria walked with her head down, her hand and the packet of food as hidden as possible against her side. He had been there long enough, that she knew her way without looking. She hated to accidentally catch the gaze of the other prisoners. Half of them had families who brought them food regularly. The other half were hard to look at, hard to pass while they begged in rancid silence. The hardest were the ones who had just recently been abandoned, the ones whose sons had come the day before the last – the week before last, the month before last – and were only reaching for a mouthful to tide them over to the meal they really wanted.
Aria kept her chin tucked and her ears deaf.
Where I am from, there is no latitude for thieves. There is no room for liars or cheats, no space for violent men or murderers, no allowance for law-breakers of any kind. There are no cells to hold them, no workhouses to keep them busy, no homes for them to rest their feet. We are sent away. Sent away and locked out.
We are only given one thing when we leave: a wooden box with a tight seal, filled with dirt. They didn’t call it dirt when they handed it to me. They called it earth, a piece of home, a buoy and an anchor and a reminder. I called it dirt, because that is what it is. Grit to stick up under your fingernails. Brown. Ugly.
I have carried that box for hundreds of miles, at the bottom of one travel sack and then another and then another as they wear out. I have carried clothes, mended them, lost them and bought others. I have carried trinkets and abandoned them. I have traded cloaks and boots and books and bread and knives, picked up some and left others behind, but I have always carried that box.