By the time this post is published, I’ll be taking the English CSET.
So I hope you all enjoy this chapter while I’m writing my brains out and sweating over literary movements and blocking techniques and schools of criticism and sentence diagrams. Only one of us needs to suffer right now 🙂
If you need them, you can find previous chapters here.
Moments before, Ira felt like it could fit on the eye of a needle. Now it feels impossibly large.
I used to think Pitka was safe. How much trouble could a little girl get into on such a small island, without coyotes or any other predators except the occasional hawk and rattlesnake? Now, the dangers seem endless. Whenever the ground dips, my heart jumps to my throat. I glance over at Saviayr, so close to the edge of the coast. In how many places does the shore drop down into cliffs dozens of feet tall? Pipit could so easily have wandered too close and slipped to her death.
“Pitka!” I call, desperation making my voice louder than ever before.
Saviayr shouts. He’s bending over a cliff face. Maylani takes off running toward him, which tells me all I need to know. I yell for Anik and Tatanda, wordless, and sprint after them. My skirt almost trips me. I yank up the hem and pump my arms.
When I reach them, Savi is on his stomach. His arms dangle over the edge. “Don’t move, Pitka,” he’s saying. “It’s okay.”
I edge up beside him. On a ledge below us, about three times as far away as she is tall, Pitka clings to the cliff’s side. She stares at the rocky shore yards below.
Maylani is crying Pitka’s name. I almost do the same. Then I catch myself. The ledge under Pitka isn’t big. If she moves too fast, she could fall. I can’t startle her. Instead, I crouch next to Saviayr and will the terror out of my voice. “You’re okay, Pipit. Stay right there. We’re going to save you.”
Pitka’s head whips up. Tears darken the dirt on her face. “Raiba?” Her voice is impossibly small.
Tatanda and Anik pound up behind us. I hold out an arm to keep them back. “It’s me, Pipit. Keep looking at me. You’ll be okay.”
“Raiba, I’m scared.”
“You’re going to be fine,” I promise. Please, Aia, let that be true. “Anik, we need rope.”
I don’t look away from Pitka, but footsteps sprint away. Anik is fast. He’ll be back soon.
Savi croons to Pitka, “Just hang in there a little longer. We’re going to get you out of there.”
We keep a ceaseless stream of reassurance up until footsteps announce Anik’s return. I glance away long enough to see Elesekk and Nihae are with him. Savi touches my arm and rolls away from the side of the cliff. I continue calming Pitka, but listen with half my attention.
“I’ll go down to her,” Saviayr says.
“No, it should be me,” Anik protests.
“I’m smaller,” Saviayr points out. “And I’ve done this before. We’ll need you, Tatanda, and my dad to pull us back up, maybe even the girls, too.”
There’s another couple heartbeats of protestation, but no one wants to leave Pitka where she is. Tatanda and Anik agree. When Saviayr reenters my peripheral vision, I scoot aside to make room. Then the other men slowly lower him over the side of the cliff.
When Saviayr reaches the ledge, I call, “That’s enough. Wait a moment,” to the men holding the rope.
The rope cuts into Saviayr’s waist, around which it is wrapped. He holds onto the cliff with one hand and holds the other out to Pitka. With one shuffling step, she is within Saviayr’s reach. He keeps a hand on her back. As she inches closer, Saviayr wraps his arm fully around Pitka’s waist. I see the muscles in his arm tense. Pitka wraps her arms around his neck and buries her face against his chest. Saviayr whispers something to her, then looks up. Our eyes meet, and he nods.
“Okay,” I call to Tatanda, Anik, and Elesekk. “Pull them up.”
The next moments are endless, though they probably pass quickly. Saviayr and Pitka slide upward at a torturously slow pace. Saviayr tries to keep his feet against the hill, but his hands are occupied with relieving the rope’s tension and clutching Pitka. Several times, he ends up banging against the cliff. He flinches, but he never loosens his grip.
At last, his hand reaches the top of the hill. Maylani and I lay on our stomachs and pull Pitka from Savi’s arms. When the little girl is safe, Maylani drags her away to the trail and drops to her knees. Both girls start crying, rocking each other in crushing embraces.
Tatanda looks like he would give anything to join them, but he digs his heels in and heaves Saviayr higher.
Nihae replaces Maylani beside me. We grab Saviayr’s arms and pull. Once his chest is above the hill, he is able to scramble the rest of the way up himself. He rolls over and lays with his arms stretched out, panting.
Relief smacks against me. I sob out a laugh. For half a heartbeat, I almost collapse on top of Saviayr. Then I remember myself.
On the path, Pitka is invisible underneath Maylani, Anik, and Tatanda’s arms. A rare smile and even rarer tear shining against his beard lessen the weight of Tatanda’s many rebukes. I slip up beside them and wrap my arms around Maylani and Anik. “Never do that again, little squirrel,” Anik begs.
Tatanda carries Pitka on his back to the villa, whispering in her ear the whole way, while she keeps her arms around his neck and grins. Anik thinks to ask one of the neighbors to tell Nadina and Sandat we found Pitka. Then we go inside to clean up.
When the rope burns on the men’s hands and the scratches on Pitka’s arms and face are the only visible reminders of the afternoon’s adventure, Sandat and Nadina burst into the house. Their reactions are less overwhelming than ours were, but both grin to see Pitka safe. Then a servant announces dinner, and we welcome the distraction.
Pitka refuses to sit anywhere but between Saviayr and me.
At first, Maylani gives a brief account of the rescue to her friends. She kisses Saviayr, saying, “Thank you for saving my sister.”
But no one really wants to dwell on what just happened. I imagine that they, like me, can’t get all the images of what could have gone wrong out of their head. So Tatanda prompts Sandat to speak of Ira’s politics. Tatanda wants Anik to join the discussion, but Anik only adds flippant comments and teasing remarks. When Anik drawls, “Yeah, old Tankrok sure proves that age begets wisdom,” after a particularly mortifying tale about the island’s oldest man, Tatanda shoots him a silencing glare.
I ignore the discussion entirely. On a small island like Ira, politics are mainly local gossip. Instead, I eat and occasionally squeeze Pitka’s hand. Only when the talk turns across the sea to the mainland do I start paying attention. “Your father has been away for several weeks now,” Tatanda observes to Sandat.
“Yes,” Sandat agrees. “He writes me daily reports of his business. My family owns an estate in Izyphor,” he informs Saviayr.
“Really?” Saviayr’s emotionless tone must have been perfected in his service to the royal Yrin.
Sandat nods. “Oh, yes. He’s had to stay there on business for a while. Our slaves are getting very restless—why, our overseer was ready to renounce his post before my father went! I don’t know but that he’ll be forced to sell the lot of them and purchase better.”
My stomach clenches. Selling will mean breaking apart families, scattering a community. Mothers and fathers would be torn from children. Husbands and wives would be separated. Siblings might never see each other again.
Pitka says, “Ow.” I realize I’ve been squeezing her hand and force myself to relax.
Tatanda frowns and shakes his head. “They ought to learn their place in the world.”
Their place in the world. The food in my mouth suddenly tastes bitter. I return the flatbread to my plate and wipe my hands. How is it any human’s place in the world to be treated like an animal of burden? Old scars on my back twinge. I remember when I received the wounds that made them.
I was barely fourteen, the age at which the Izyphorns make their slaves begin heavy work. As long as the sun shone, I worked. The slave master had me making bricks with a score of other Maraians. We lugged water from the stream, churned mud and straw with our feet, and shoveled the mixture into molds. Each day, we broke out new sunbaked bricks and hauled them a mile to the building project. Wooden yokes cut into our shoulders and enabled us to carry more.
We trudged in a single-file line, eyes fixed on the footprints of the person in front of us, so I had a clear view when a sandal shot out in front of the woman before me. She tripped—and her yoke cracked in the process. The slave master, whose own foot caused the accident, drew his whip and rained lashes down on her.
Rage blinded me. I leapt in front of her without a thought.
“So you think you know better than me?” the slave master sneered. “Very well. You’ll receive her beating and your own.”
When Saviayr and his parents returned at sunset, I was curled on the ground shaking from a fever. Yorchan was laying a clean, damp rag over my raw back. Savi’s face was murderous.
He was about to storm out and attack the slave master when I croaked out his name. Had he not stayed with me, Saviayr would be dead.
I sneak a glance at Saviayr’s face now and think I can make out a shadow of that hatred.
“Your father is my old friend,” Tatanda says. “Let me know if he needs anything I can offer.”
“Thank you. Your support is invaluable when dealing with the rebellious Maraians. No offense meant.” Sandat nods at Saviayr and his parents.
The three force smiles that do not quite succeed. “If it’s all the same,” Saviayr replies, “quite a lot taken.”
Maylani squeezes his arm. “Now, Saviayr, don’t be that way.”
“Maylani, these are my people he’s talking about,” Saviayr defends. “If I spoke ill of the Iranines, wouldn’t you be offended?”
“What ill could you have to say against us?” Tatanda demands, his frown as fierce as the Izyphorn sun at midday.
Anik answers, “He didn’t mean it that way, Tatanda. It wasn’t about us, was it, Saviayr?” Anik laughs like it was a joke, but fails to relieve the tension.
Saviayr continues talking to Sandat. “You should be more careful how you treat your Maraian slaves. The Maraians will not be subservient forever. One day we will rise up and become a great kingdom.”
My free hand clenches in a fist. Passion stronger than I’ve felt in long time burns like a bonfire in my chest. “Let it be so,” my lips form the words in silent prayer.
Tatanda and Sandat laugh aloud. “Really?” Sandat says. “You wouldn’t know how. They’re entirely unorganized.”
“We have a council of elders,” Elesekk joins the debate. He somehow manages to sound more friendly than anyone else during this whole meal.
Maylani asks Nadina, “How is your baby brother doing? I can’t believe how big he is already!” The question is supposed to draw the table to a more peaceable, mundane subject. I don’t think even Nadina hears her, and the fractious men certainly pay her no heed.
Tatanda sniffs. “A council. More like a couple dozen feeble-minded old men who have no real power.”
Anik mutters, “What happened to the wisdom of elders?”
“Only because Izyphor beats us to death,” Saviayr says. “Our people respect the elders.”
“They could have power,” Elesekk suggests. “All they need is a voice, someone to speak for them, and Izyphor could have a revolt on their hands.” The way he says it, it sounds like a reasonable theoretical idea. From any other mouth, Tatanda would surely consider those words a threat.
Lev pops into my mind, and his infuriating question. Do you believe your name?
“But where on Orrock would they find such a leader?” Sandat sweeps his arms wide. H knocks over a cup of water in the process, but is too agitated to notice.
All the Maraians need is a leader, and they will revolt.
Leader of a revolt.
Do I believe my name?
“It’s me,” I gasp. My eyes bolt upward, desperate to make contact with anyone, to share this realization that makes it feel as if the whole world is shifting.
They’re too preoccupied by politics to pay attention. Sandat continues, “Maraians are too sniveling and weak to produce anyone worth following, and everyone else despises them. And rightly so!”
Saviayr jumps to his feet.
“Will you stop?!” Maylani finally squeals. Her brown eyes glisten and her lips tremble. All eyes turn to her. Sandat stops mid-sentence.
“Pitka could have died,” Maylani reminds them, rising. “And it’s two days before my wedding–you’re ruining everything!” She turns and stalks out of the room, a hand lifting to cover her face.
Pitka’s lip quivers. Everyone else sits frozen in shock. Then Tatanda says, quiet and almost like a request, “Raiba, go after her.”
I scoop Pitka up and obey.
We find Maylani in the hall. She stands with her back perfectly straight, but I see her shudder.
“Mayli?” I ask softly.
Maylani wipes something from her cheek and turns. Her smile is thinner than I’ve ever seen. “I’m okay, honest.”
She doesn’t look okay. Pitka looks exhausted and miserable. I’m juggling at least a dozen emotions and feel about ready to fall apart. So I ask, “Want to help me put Pipit to bed?”
Pitka doesn’t even protest that she’s not tired.
The three of us retreat to Pitka’s room. Maylani helps her change while I straighten the covers and fluff her pillow. While I tame Pitka’s curls into two braids, Maylani grabs her harp and plays a quiet lullaby. Then we tuck Pitka in. Maylani kisses her sister’s head. I haven’t seen her do that in years.
We sit on the bed, one on either side of Pitka, while the younger girl falls asleep. Maylani strokes Pitka’s head. In the dim evening light, Mayli looks more like her mother than ever before.
When Pitka’s breathing slows, Maylani murmurs, “I don’t remember Tatanda and Sandat being that anti-Maraian. Especially Sandat. He’s always been idealistic, but he’s never been bad like that.”
I hum, though not to express opinion. Sandat’s never had as ample opportunity to speak Izyphorn politics around us.
“That’s why I always say you should marry him, you know.” Maylani looks at me, forehead furrowed, begging me to understand. “He’s opinionated and says what he thinks, which would be good for you because you’re so quiet. But you’re so patient and always see the good in people, which would balance out Sandat.”
I sigh. “I guess I understand that, but–Mayli, we’re just too different. And he hates my people.”
She looks away. “That’s right. You’re Maraian.”
Guilt for lying to her for years weighs on me. “I’m sorry I never told you.”
Maylani’s quiet for a while. “I understand why you didn’t. I’d like to think we would have taken you in anyways, but honestly…And it’s not like I ever asked.”
Tears prick my eyes at her forgiveness.
“Raiba,” she starts, then chews her lip. “Were you and Saviayr close, before?”
I take a while to answer. This is a time of honesty. But I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want her to doubt Saviayr, not so close to their wedding. At length, I settle on, “Yes. He was my best friend. And when my parents died, Elesekk and Nihae took me and my sister in.”
She starts at that, and stops running her hand over Pitka’s head. “You have a sister?” she exclaims, just quiet enough to not wake Pitka.
I give her a sheepish smile. “Yes?”
Maylani shakes her head and settles back against the headboard. She stares ahead. I can’t tell what she’s thinking, so I just wait.
She surprises me by saying next, “I’m not a good sister, am I?”
My heart aches. “You’ve been distracted by other things,” I say gently.
Maylani frowns fiercely. “You haven’t been. You’ve been a better sister to Pipit than I have.”
I hate that I can’t disagree with her.
“That was all I could think about when she was down that cliff. Well, I’m going to change. I’m going to be better. I…I almost lost her today, Raiba. All because I never even thought about if she’d want to come.”
“She loves you, Mayli,” I promise her.
“I know. But I have to make sure I deserve her love.”
We sit in silence for a while. Voices far away bid goodby to Sandat and Nadina. The rest of the house will be going to bed soon.
After all she said tonight, I didn’t think Maylani could surprise me any more. But then she says, “You should come with us to the mainland, after the wedding.”
I open and close my mouth a couple times, trying to find a response. At last, I just say, “I’ll think about it.” My voice sounds choked to my ears.
Maylani looks back down at her sleeping sister. The sun has set, and we never lit a candle. The shadows conceal Maylani’s face when she murmurs, “I just want you to be happy.”