Page 29

Sissy is in the middle of the otherwise empty room, laying in a contraption that resembles a dentist’s chair. But one with straps and constraints. Her arms and legs are splayed ungracefully apart, her eyes closed, mouth slack.

A faint odor of burnt flesh lingers in the air.

“Sissy!” Epap shouts as he rushes to her side. Her left sleeve is pushed up, exposing the soft underside of her forearm. In the middle of her smooth flesh, like a separate entity iron-pressed on, sits an X-shaped bulge of pus-oozing flesh. She’s been branded.

We don’t say anything, only move quickly to unstrap her from the constraints. Her breathing is quick and shallow, her lips murmuring nonsensically. Tenderly, Epap rolls her sleeve higher to keep the coarse wool from chafing the fresh burn. I move to pick her up but he shoves me aside. He lifts her with a strength and grace that belies his thin arms, cradling her securely against his chest. His eyes close with partial relief, and his lips begin to move against her hair.

“I’ve got you, you’re safe now, Sissy,” he whispers. As he hoists her up to get a better grip under her legs, her head bangs up against his nose. He doesn’t yell or cry out in pain; he only holds her with greater tenderness against himself until the wave of pain subsides.

A jab of unexpected jealousy strikes my heart.

Epap rushes out into the rain. It’s coming down with the force of a waterfall, drenching us completely in seconds. Despite the added weight, he’s running with a speed that’s difficult to keep up with. Or sustain.

“Epap!” I grab his arm to make him stop. “Where are you headed?”

“Back to my cottage.” He tries to pull his arm away.

“No.” I find his eyes. “Your cottage is on the other side of the village. Ten minutes away. Sissy shouldn’t be out in this rain for that long. Not in her condition. Bring her to my room. It’s much closer.”

His arms are beginning to tremble. Adrenaline has run its course and he’s completely drained. He nods, quickly. “Take us there.”

But I pause. A thought occurs to me. “We have to get the boys,” I say.

Epap understands immediately. It’s not safe for them to be alone. An attack against one of us is an attack against all of us.

“Give me Sissy,” I say. “You get the boys, Epap. You know where they are. I don’t.”

He shoots me a wary look. “No,” he says, “I’ll carry her—”

“All around the village?” I say. I put my hand on his shoulder. “I’ll get her back safely. I promise you this.” He stares at me, indecision rippling on his face. “Sissy will want the boys when she awakes. Go get them.”

That convinces him. He shifts Sissy into my arms. I did not realize how much I have wanted this: the sideways collapse of her head to nestle against my chest, the slight give of her flesh against mine. It takes everything in me to resist the urge to embrace her more tightly, to plunge my face into her hair and draw in her musk.

Epap is staring at me with suspicion. I tell him the location of my cottage and then we’re off, running in opposite directions. And I am suddenly tireless, as if drawing life force from Sissy, and my feet gather speed and urgency under me. I smash into falling raindrops, breaking them apart into a thousand million particles of mist.


BACK IN THE room, I work quickly. I lay Sissy down on the sofa, and she curls into it, arms shivering, blue lips muttering delirium. I pick the duvet off the floor and wrap it around her in a tight cocoon, laying her branded forearm on top. It’s not nearly enough; her body quakes with a deep-seated cold.

I slide quickly over to the fireplace. Some of the embers are still glowing, and in only a matter of minutes I have a fire blazing away. She’s still trembling. A film of yellow mucous oozes out of her branding wound, the skin around it a vicious red.

“Oh, Sissy,” I whisper through gritted teeth. I brush her damp hair back from her temple. Before this moment, I didn’t know fury and tenderness could coexist in the same heartbeat.

The boys arrive only minutes later, their feet pounding up the steps and along the hallway. They burst through the door, their faces pale, their hair windswept and damp.

“How is she?” Jacob says. They gather around the sofa, stroking her hair, not quite knowing what to do. David gasps when he sees her branded skin. Ben starts to cry.

“Get a damp towel from the bathroom,” Epap tells Ben, giving him something to do. “We need to keep that wound cool.” Ben scampers off. Epap pulls the duvet back, then glares at me. “You idiot! Her clothes are soaking wet. No wonder she’s still freezing.”

“Well, what was I supposed to do? Undress her?”

Epap doesn’t answer. He turns his attention to directing the younger boys. He points to the chest of drawers, and Jacob is up on his feet, pulling out a set of dry clothes. David runs to the bathroom to retrieve a towel. “And put socks on her feet, too,” Epap tells them as they start to unbutton and peel off her sodden clothes.

Epap and I walk out to the hallway, closing the door behind us. He rubs the back of his neck.

“They drugged the food,” I tell him. “It knocked out both Sissy and me. That’s when they took her.”

He nods. I’m expecting rancor, and perhaps accusation, but his voice is surprisingly soft-toned. “Are you okay?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” I say after a few seconds.

Epap nods, walks across the hallway, and leans against the wall. He rests his head back, closes his eyes.

“They wanted to search her,” I say, “and she said no. A strip search, Epap.”

Epap’s eyes snap open. “What?”

“They wanted to remove all her clothes. To examine her skin.”

He blinks. “Why?”

“They think the Origin might be an inscription or something tattooed on us. An equation, a formula, maybe. Something to do with lettering.”

He mouths a silent what? He turns to me. “But why only her? Why not you or me, or the boys?”

“They’ve already examined us. Me when I was sick. And you guys probably when you were bathing in the bathhouse.”

Epap’s eyes turn inward, widening with realization. “They had the girls wash us. And towel us down. Every inch of us.”

“You didn’t protest? Or complain?”

His face turns crimson, his eyes fall to the ground. “No, I mean, what was there to complain about? We thought it was good hospitality.”

I scoff at his answer, but silently. I pull back the curtains on the hallway window. Nothing moves out there but dark sheets of rain. “You’ve really had the wool pulled over your eyes,” I say. “You have no idea, do you? About this place.”

He folds his arms across his chest. “I know about the branding. It’s not what you think. Just takes a little getting used to. As with all their other … quirks. These quirks … they’re like beer froth. You just gotta get past it to get to the good stuff.”

“They branded Sissy, Epap. That’s not a quirk I could ever get used to. That’s not froth.”

The floor creaks under Epap as he shifts his feet. He doesn’t say anything. Behind the door, we hear the boys speaking in hushed tones as they finish changing Sissy. A long minute later, Epap asks, “What do you think we should do next? Are we in danger? Should we leave?”

I shrug. “I should be the one asking questions. I’ve been sick and unconscious for days, you ought to know this village better. But you’ve been so busy cozying up with the elders, ignoring the ‘froth.’ You know squat about this place.”

He paces a short way down the hall, comes back. “That’s unfair.”

“I’ll tell you what’s unfair. Leaving Sissy all alone at the farm. That’s what you and the boys did. You deserted her. She led you safely to this village, through the Vast, up the mountain, protecting you guys from dusker attack after attack. And what did you do in return? As soon as you set one foot in this place, you dropped her like a sack of potatoes. Off you went, running around, carousing with—”


“—all the local girls, not giving a moment’s thought for Sissy.”

“Sissy can fend for herself! She doesn’t need hand-holding—”

“It’s not about that! It’s about sticking together, it’s about—”

“I said enough! I don’t need a lecture from you about loyalty!” His face is filled with anger. But it’s not directed at me. His clenched fists thump against his side. Self-hate and guilt tighten his shoulders.

“You left her alone,” I say, softer now. “You shouldn’t have done that. The younger boys, okay, I can understand them getting caught up with everything here, losing their heads. But you. You should have been more collected. And you should never have left Sissy to fend for herself, Epap. What were you thinking, going off with all those girls? You did it to make her jealous, didn’t you?” I say, my voice rising with accusation.

His lips tighten. He paces down the hallway again, with small, tight strides. He stares disconsolately at his boots. When he walks back, it’s with slower, meditative strides. He leans against the wall and kicks backward, his heel smacking against the wall.

“I didn’t do it to make her jealous,” he says quietly. “Spending all that time with the village girls, hanging around with them, it wasn’t to play the jealousy game. I’d never do something so … juvenile.”

“Why’d you do it, then?”

His eyes mist over, and he turns them downward. “To prove to myself that I could get along fine without her. That I didn’t need her. That in the company of other girls, I would forget her.” He sniffs. “And in the beginning, I thought I would. All that female attention, it was intoxicating, see. But I was wrong.” He stares down at his hands, exhales angrily through his nose. “And you’re right, I should never have neglected her. I totally dropped the ball on that one.”