A Liaden Universe® Adventure
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Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Inside the duct, it was hot and wet — nothing new there, thought Kezzi, shifting her weight carefully. The metal snapped in complaint, and she made herself be still.
The space felt smaller than it had last time. Pulka would scoff if she said so, and ask if her shoulders yet touched the walls. They didn’t, but she had several times bumped her head as she’d crawled to the leaking seam, and scraped her elbows against the metal while she was applying the sealant.
Pulka said it was only her weak heart that made her clumsy. He would tousle her hair as if she were Very Small, and tell her to ask the luthia for a prayer and a potion.
After the last repair, when Pulka had laughed at her, Kezzi had done just that. The luthia, Grandmother Silain, made her sit at the fire, and poured tea from her kettle for them both. She asked many questions about the ducts, their purpose, and their importance to the kompani, sipping; listening with witch’s ears while Kezzi explained that the ducts were the path that the boiling water took along the bottom of the floor above their heads, that at once warmed the soil of the garden, and the kompani’s living space.
When she had finished, the luthia poured more tea into Kezzi’s cup, and bade her drink; that a strong head was not a weak heart.
Now, waiting on hands and knees in the damp heat, the little light in her work hat flickering like a flame in a draft, she tried to breathe slow and calm, like Silain had taught her. It was not a sin, that she disliked the ducts; she did not have to like them. All that was required of her was that she do her given-work well.
It was said of the kompani by the elders of the kompani that what Bedel hands built rarely needed repair.
The ducts, and the steam-plant — those had not been built by Bedel, but they had been rebuilt by those capable hands, and Kezzi’s trips inside were not frequent.
Still, she thought, taking another breath, and thinking, not of water so hot it would boil the skin from her bones in an eyeblink, but of Malda, waiting for her at the access point, sitting exactly where she had told him, quivering from pointed nose to skinny tail. She had promised him a run in the upper level, when this work for her elder was done.
What was Pulka doing? Kezzi wondered irritably. Had he fallen asleep?
As if he had heard her thought, Pulka spoke, his voice loud through the metal skin.
“Tolerances check. You may return to us, little sister.”
This was the worst part. She had long since grown too big to turn around in this small space, which meant she had to crawl backward to the nearest access point. As slow as it was to crawl in, it was twice as slow and slower to back out.
At last, though, she made it. A breeze cooled her sweaty cheeks, and she bit her lip, forcing herself to keep an even pace. If she went too fast, she risked another seam parting, which would mean she would have to go back inside. . .
Strong hands grabbed her around the waist, pulled her free of the last inches of the duct. Pulka swung her around high over his head, like she was a baby, then set gently on her feet.
“Well, done, little sister. I am grateful for your assistance, and now I give you leave to go.” Pulka pulled the work hat from her head, and gave her a swat on the rump.
“By all means, do go! And take your blessed servant with you.”
He meant Malda, who sat as she had pictured him, quivering with joy at her return, his pointed snout wrinkled in a smile. Pulka, Kezzi thought, didn’t much like Malda, but, then, Malda didn’t much like Pulka.
She pulled off her gloves and hung them on the loop of her belt.
“Malda,” she said, snapping her fingers. “Come.”
The little dog leapt up and ran to her, made one tight, wriggling turn around her ankles, and looked up into her face expectantly, as if he was afraid she’d forgotten her promise.
As if she could. Kezzi took a deep breath of cooler air, and another, hearing the clatters and clanks Pulka made, as he sealed up the hatch. As soon as that was done, he would go to the wheel and turn it, flooding the place she had just been with scalding water.
Kezzi swallowed, and turned hastily toward the ramp, snapping her fingers at Malda to follow.
They were hardly three steps into freedom when a bell sounded, high enough to pierce the ear, soft enough that it would not be heard — outside.
Kezzi groaned. She thought, fleetingly, of running on; of pretending that she hadn’t heard.
. . .but she had heard. And even if she hadn’t, Pulka had, and he was calling her.
“Little sister, come! The Bedel are rung together!”
They gathered ’round the common fire, all who had been in-kompani, and heard the call. Nearest the fire sat Alosha, the headman, and Silain, the luthia. At Silain’s right hand was Torv, whose given-work took him often among those outside, to repair what had not been built by Bedel hands, to watch, and to listen.
Kezzi slipped into her place between Vylet and Droi, and gathered Malda onto her lap, hoping that Torv would speak quickly, so that she and Malda could get their run, before dreamwork took her.
The bell rang again, and all the talk and chatter and laughter among the kompani quietened.
Alosha the headman rose and looked around at them all, gathered in the half-circle before the fire. Such was the strength of his soul, that Kezzi felt his gaze touch her face, and move on, until he had seen them all.
“Torv of our kompani has news from the City Above,” he said then. “Listen well, Bedel. After, we will talk.”
Kezzi wilted where she sat. Talk. Talk could go on for hours. Malda would have no run today.
And neither would she.
The headman stepped back from the fire and sat on his rug. Torv rose to his lanky, considerable height, and looked out over them as the headman had done, though his soul was not so strong that Kezzi felt him see her.
“I come,” he said, “just now from the City Above, where there is unrest among the gadje — Those Others.”
Kezzi dropped her chin onto the top of Malda’s head and sighed loudly enough to win Vylet’s frown. Unrest in the City Above was a common thing. Why had the headman gathered them to talk about a fact of life?
“Some kompani of Those Others have entered into dispute,” Torv continued. “They break each the tools of the other, and dismantle those things built and valued by the rival kompani.”
Again, Kezzi sighed, though this time not so loudly that Vylet heard. Who cared if gadje disputed with each other, or broke each other’s workings? So far as Kezzi knew, gadje existed to break things. Had they not broken even Malda, leaving him for her to bring back to the kompani so that he might be repaired by Silain, the most potent pair of hands among the Bedel?
“There is more,” Torv said, as if someone among them had voiced what Kezzi thought. “A blood feud has been opened against The Folk of the Tree. An attempt was made on the life of the headwoman. An answer is expected — is, I will say, brothers and sisters, feared. The gadje are in a time of turmoil, and nothing is safe from them.” He took a breath, and looked to the headman, who moved his hand in assent.
“Yes. Having seen what I have seen, and heard what I have heard, I advise the kompani, most strongly, to remove for a time from the City Above, in order that we not be caught by or made victim of the gadje’s madness.” He held his arms out as if he would embrace them all.
“Brothers and sisters, ask what you will. I will answer as best I might.”