by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
So it’s one of them crystal mornings of early summer, and the sunlight coming in through the clerestory like it was poured from a pitcher. And I’m sort of thinking what to do about that one drainpipe on the eastern students’ dormitory that keeps coming loose at the same damn spot, but mostly I’m thinking that Frael is a beautiful country but you’d be hard-pressed the long and the wide of it to find someone don’t make a cup of tea tastes like they waved the leaves over the pot and put them away again for later.
I miss the commotion of him running in, but then there’s Master Caerel breathless at my elbow, saying, Goodman Stone, I don’t mean to interrupt your breakfast, but there is a situation in the entry hall in which we could use the assistance of someone like yourself.
Right off I figure it’s the damn cistern cracked again and they’re ankle-deep in water like happened at Midwinter. But his eyes are kind of wide, and it ain’t that far from the entry hall to the refectory so he must of really galloped to be out of breath. And when I stand up he takes off in a hurry, his master’s robes flapping out like festival day flags because he never tied them shut yet this morning, so as I run I’m still thinking something big broken or maybe somebody hurt bad, but if the second, why’s he come for me?
The entry hall’s meant to show how much they all know, if their knowing was made out of Rastary marble. It’s bigger than most of the lecture halls, and the floor’s all these little bits of stone making patterns, and there’s coloured glass, and the place echoes like some of the corners were built just to throw voices back. Right now it’s got to have thirty people in it, and so help me they’re all still as the statue of Sheela of the Library that you got to creep past to get to the stairs. And they all got their eyes on the floor, and the big doors, and all that pretty glass, and everywhere but the middle of the hall. And I guess I lived here too long already, because it don’t take me no time to see why they need me.
In the middle of the hall there’s this kid standing. I can hear him breathing before I even come out from the corridor, and he’s shaking like he’s climbed halfway to the top of Farthest Cliff and forgot it’s a bad idea to look down. In one hand he’s got a knife–the kind all the students keep to sharpen their nibs and carve their names wherever it’s the most pain in the ass to sand them out–but that’s not what’s got everybody frozen, because in his other hand the poor mad kid is holding all his beads.
I guess I got to explain about Fraelians and their beads. It’s a thing they all do, and I mean all of them. When I first came here I got some myself, just the thick plain ones they sell to foreigners by the river gates, because I got tired of people getting twitchy when I talked to them, like there was something nasty under my nose and they were trying not to reach for their own hankies. Then one day I saw–because you can’t go five steps on a festival day without somebody selling beads, and they’re pretty to look at–I saw a bead made out of grey polished stone with green through it, just the way Bron’s eyes were, and I don’t got nothing of his, and I wanted it. And after that I got a few more, not many, but enough to remember stuff I wanted to.
Anyway. So they got chains of beads, like the stories of who they are worn outside themselves. And then they got a heart bead, that they get given when they’re born, and it goes on its own cord, and it rests in that bowl at the front of your throat where your pulse is. And the chains of beads, they don’t take them off, I mean they do for bathing and sex and that, but you don’t never see people without them out in the world. But the heart bead, I thought it never comes off.
And this kid’s cut his off with his penknife.
And they can’t look at him. He’s shivering like a kitten pulled out of a millpond, and his teeth are clenched together and he’s making a sound like he’s hurting too bad to even cry, and they can’t–even Master Caerel, who always treated me decent even before we really knew each other–they can’t even act like he’s in the same place as them. I can see a few of the masters wetting their lips and working their fingers, like they’re turned to stone like in some fairy story, and their hearts are just about cracking in their chests because they know he’s breaking in front of them, but he’s got no beads now, and he’s not some ratty foreigner who don’t know no better, and they just can’t.
I figure the first thing is to get him from here to a place where there’s nobody to not look at him. So I step up to him and I use the voice Diggory used to use on the new horses, before we knew whether they were flinchy ones or solid ones. And he can’t look at me neither, but I put my hand on his back and kind of steer him over to the stairs, and he goes like he don’t care one way or the other. I keep talking, he keeps walking. And the only place I can think of to take him that’s quiet and closed is my room, so that’s where we go.
All the time I got one eye on that knife. But when I get him inside the room and sitting on the bed, I say as how we might both breathe more easier if there wasn’t a blade around, and his knuckles go white on the hilt and I get ready to do something maybe stupid, and then his fingers soften and he lets me pull it out from his hand.
I don’t even try to touch his beads.
I don’t know what I should do next, but I don’t think I should leave the kid alone, so I sit on the windowsill and wait to have an idea. While I’m waiting, the kid just slowly goes limp and shrinks in on himself, like a garden after the first bad frost.
Then somebody knocks on the door, and I never been so grateful for anything in a long time. It’s Master Caerel, and he tells me I have a visitor, like it’s something that needs explaining.
And she walks in, looking at the kid like I’m not there. They have some fancy name with lots of words, but even the Fraelians call them beadworkers. She’s small and round, and wearing nothing but white. And beads. Beads in the braids of hair around her head, beads dripping down from around her neck, gauntlets of beads up her arms, a belt of beads with this overskirt of beads clacking as she moves.
I look at Caerel, and he tilts his head like he’s inviting me out to the hallway. And I figure she’s gonna make things all right, but I guess they got to talk first, and I mean, it’s a good room, it’s got a glass window and a door that bolts on the inside, but it’s about twice the width of the bed, and it ain’t a big bed.
So I come out to the hallway, and the beadworker shuts the door soon as I’m out.
Master Caerel takes a breath and pushes it out again, and he presses his lips together and raises his eyebrows at me like he wants to say, How about that shit, except never ‘til the end of time would he say that. And then he smiles and says, You are the only one of us who could have helped that way, thank you.
And they breed ‘em lanky in Frael, and I never much went for the bony ones, but damn his smile fills out his face nice.
Then he says how he has students waiting for him, and he’s off down the hallway.
I figure no use cooling my heels waiting for I don’t know what, and I got stuff to do, so I go spend the morning rehanging this bastard of a door to one of the common rooms that somebody knocked off its hinges a few weeks back, don’t even ask me how, thing near weighed more than I do.
I go back to my room before noon dinner, because I can’t not. The kid’s laying on the bed in a knot like he’s trying to pull himself smaller into nothing, and he don’t look up when I talk to him. There ain’t nobody else around.
On my way down to the refectory I look out for the beadworker, but I don’t see her. I’m heading for my usual place with my bowl when Master Caerel puts his hand on my shoulder and says, Goodman Stone, do me the favour of sitting with me.
Which is good, because I got lots to ask, like where’d the beadworker go, and when’s she coming back, and what happens next, and why can’t he just put the damn beads back on now. But I don’t get the chance, because soon as we sit down, something weird starts happening.
Master Peirce comes up to the table, and he’s got a folded blanket over his arm. And he says to me, Goodman Stone, these spring nights are still cool, perhaps you could find a use for this. And he puts it on the bench beside me and goes.
I look at Master Caerel, and he pulls up one shoulder and let it fall back down, and eats his soup.
Then one of the end-year students comes up and says, I brought this for you, and hands me a feather pillow, and walks away.
And then one of the middle students stumbles up and shoves another blanket at me and near runs in the other direction, and I hope it ain’t from his own bed, because he’s thin as straw and he probably needs it his own self.
They come one at a time, some of ‘em blushing like it’s their first Midsummer Night, some like, oh, I thought you could use this thing, some like they’re returning something they borrowed. A couple more blankets, and a clean shirt, and a pair of socks, and a little cake of soap, and a comb, and candles, and I don’t know what all.
When we get done our soup, Master Caerel puts down his spoon and says, Will you need some help carrying that? And I want to bring the kid some noon dinner too, so I say Sure and I load him up. On our way out the refectory we get a handkerchief and a pair of the gloves with no fingers the students think it makes ‘em look smart to wear, and on our way up the stairs someone tries to give me a scarf as long as I’m tall like all the students were wearing this last winter, but that’s where I put my foot down.
The kid ain’t moved.
I put the soup bowl down on the chest where I keep my clothes in, and I get Master Caerel to heap all the rest in the space between the end of the bed and the wall. I say, I brung you some soup, you don’t got to eat it but I bet your head’s busting, and eating’ll help with that.
The kid’s eyes look like somebody’s rubbed sand in them, and his face is all blotchy and raw. I hand him the handkerchief. He sits up slowly, hunched over into himself. His beads are wrapped around one wrist, heart bead too, and tied there with red string. It looks all messy and wrong even to me.
Master Caerel touches me on the shoulder, and says quietly that he has to go. I think the kid relaxes a little once it’s just me and him, and he eats a few mouthfuls of soup, even though his hand shakes so bad the spoon’s half empty by the time he gets it up there.
I hear a noise behind me, and at first I think it’s somebody else bringing a towel or a pair of shoes or whatever. But the kid goes the colour of tallow, and I swing around expecting I don’t know what, but it’s Raece, with eyes the size of full moons, staring back at the kid.
Raece is, I guess a friend of mine ain’t exactly right. He’s a end-year student, mother’s in Parliament, father trades silk and whatnot, and they might as well all be made of solid silver. But he’s a good kid, bright and kind-hearted, one of them ones you know all the masters’ll remember. I help him with his Northern, because the languages master here don’t teach it like you could actually talk it to somebody, and he helps me a bit with my Fraelian, and sometimes other stuff too. Like he’s the one I was gonna ask about that damn drainpipe, and how maybe they could find another way out of their rooms after sundown ‘til I fix it so somebody don’t break their neck.
He’s got a red blanket over his arm, and I can tell just by looking that it’s a treasure, light and soft and warm. So I know he’s heard about the kid. But knowing and seeing ain’t the same thing, because you never know how a thing’s gonna hit you, and all the blood drops out of his face and he looks like he’s near about to fall over.
He shoves the blanket at me and fair runs out of the room. But I can hear he’s still out there, so I follow him. He’s leaning against the wall, head down, breathing like he’s run all across the university from the entry hall to the top of Lindhorn’s Broken Tower.
He looks at me, and then he looks down the hallway and up it, and his face goes red as the blanket. And he whispers, How is he really?
So I say, They got a beadworker come see him.
I don’t want to say he’s gonna be fine, because I don’t know, but Raece presses his lips together and nods, and I guess he knows better than I do about this because his shoulders kind of soften and he stands up straighter.
If he needs something, he says, if he needs…silver, or anything, tell me.
Then somebody comes up the stairs at the end of the hallway, and he peels himself off the wall and heads the other way.
It’s the beadworker, and though she says Good afternoon she don’t have time to talk to me or answer any questions, and she goes into my room and shuts me out of it.
That’s the way it is for the next bunch of days. She comes and goes, and Master Caerel comes by once or twice, and Raece brings a nice linen shirt and then a bowl of roasted nuts and a string of honeyed dried apples and some sticky buns from this bakery the students all keep in silver, because I tell him the kid ain’t hardly eating. The kid don’t say much, and nobody tells me nothing.
And look, that feeling of when your own life is so heavy you got to lay down under the weight of it–I know that feeling inside and out. But it ain’t so easy sitting beside somebody who’s in that place. And I guess nobody thinks they should find the kid a different room, because Fraelians, who knows? So I don’t spend more time in my room than I got to to sleep. Evenings, I go down to the refectory, like I used to do in the winter, because my room don’t got a fireplace and I might be Northern and all but it ain’t like we grow pelts like bears.
What different from the winter is, Master Caerel seems to be there a lot.
The first night, he’s with a table of students, helping one side argue the other, and they all get hotted up and yelling and laughing, and I listen while I knit on my sock, because I like to keep my hands busy. Old Rose Grayling taught me that, knitting I mean. Spinning too, though I probably lost the knack of it by now. Lots of people taught me all kinds of things, because I never really fit neatly anywhere, so they tried to be sure I could fit anywhere I had to. That’s how I know hanging a door, and sewing a wound, and stopping a leaking roof, and baking bread, and making turnings on a lathe, and all that. And the Lady had her daughters’ tutor take me on too for a few years, I guess because she felt halfway liable for me, even though I was no blood of hers, because after all it was the husband she chose that got me on a woman he shouldn’t have. So I got reading and figuring, and parts of history, and maps, and even some Fraelian, though pretty much the same as Raece’s Northern, which is why I can tell you the first part of Lord Siel’s address to the 236th Parliament but when I got here I couldn’t ask how much for a room or tell nobody my name. And surprise, the people in the places I could pay to stay at then didn’t give a rat’s ass about how to talk fancy to Parliament. But after I got done learning the thing words and the doing words everybody knows by the time they’re out of nappies, I guess I done okay.
Anyway. Master Caerel goes and gets himself a cup of the weakass tea they keep in a vat by the main fireplace to keep it warm, and then instead of going back to his students, he comes up to me and asks if he can sit. So I say Sure. And we talk a bit, and I want to ask him a few things about beads, but I kind of feel like I don’t want him looking at me like I’m soft in the head or one of his new-year students, so I don’t.
The next night, the students ain’t there but he is. He sits and nods at my knitting, and asks me how I learned. So I tell him about that, and then I tell him the funny story about Old Rose and the dye pots, and he tells me about how when he was a student him and some others coloured a sheep green and left it in the grand master’s study.
So then I start looking for him when I go there, and he’s not there all nights, but he is most, and we don’t always talk for so long, but it’s nice.
So things go on for a bit like this, and then it’s coming up Midsummer Night.
I ain’t done Midsummer for a few years. After the worst plague winter, there was some people seemed bound and determined to breed back the North all by their own selves. It took me the other way, and for a long while after losing Bron and the rest I never wanted no one to touch me at all, seeing as anyone ever had their hands on me was dead now, and knowing that took my mind bad places, and I wasn’t right in the head for a long time after I left anyway.
And look, this is Frael. They got the artists and the university and Court–except they call it Parliament–and because of the rivers everybody comes here. Westerners with skin like polished birchwood and this amazing hair stands out like halos, southerners who got cheekbones you could cut yourself on, far easterners with eyes and hair like houses on fire, even the Fraelians themselves, all pale winter sunlight. What I mean is, they’re beautiful to each other, and I’m pretty much clover among roses.
Midsummer Night at the university is always a bag of cats. The ones who it’s their first time are jumpier than fleas, and the ones who it’s their second ain’t much help with that, and there’s a lot of not very well hid drinking. I sit around in the refectory for a while after evening dinner, in case of things getting spilled or busted. I still ain’t decided whether I’m going. I don’t see Master Caerel, so I figure he either got the night to his own–the masters draw straws for that–or he’s making sure the younger ones get put to bed and stay there. After a few hours things calm down for a while, the students are either going out or giving up, and it’s too early for the straggling back and hooting and boasting, and nobody asks me to stay, so I head up to my room.
But when I get there I can’t go in. Just the thought of it, laying down on all the folded blankets on the floor, because I been letting the kid have the bed, it just makes me feel low.
And it’s Midsummer after all, the groves ain’t the only place to go, there’s players and fortune tellers and games, and people selling beads and fried cakes and everything down in the town. So I go.
But it looks like part of me is trying to fool another, ‘cause a couple days earlier, I asked one of the cooks where there was a men’s grove nearby, just in case. And I listen to the music and I look at the beads, but before I know what I’m about I’m spending silver on a cheap paper half-mask, and I’m walking back to that grove.
They put up enough lanterns that you can see what you want but pretend not to see what you don’t. It’s a warm, clear night, and there’s men there, though probably not as many as later. At home I never minded doing the choosing, but I’m still not sure if I want to be here. Also I never done this in Frael, and maybe it’s different. So I find a tree, a fair bit back of the gates, and I stand there in my mask and wait.
A couple men give me the eye as they step through on the paths, but I look away before they come too close, and they keep walking. I hear some moaning on the other side of my tree, and most times that would get me going, but tonight it ain’t doing nothing. A few trees over, a Fraelian’s untying an Easterner’s pants. They’re both in enough light I figure they don’t mind being watched, so I do. When I notice I’m looking more at how the Easterner’s hair shines under the lantern than I am at his cock, I stop watching.
I’m thinking, that’s it, maybe I’m broke for good, when I see him. I know right away it’s him, because an eighth-silver’s worth of paper don’t make any real difference on nobody. He looks my way, and then he looks again. Then he’s walking towards me, and I feel like I’m dipped in icy water and hot wax at the same time. I can’t look away, and I don’t got enough thought left in my head to know if I want to.
Master Caerel stops in front of me. He puts his arm out, and touches me over my heart.
Of course I’m supposed to put my hand over his, but I can’t move, and all I hear is my own fool voice saying, Yeah.
He grins like I never seen him do before, and takes another step closer. He puts his other hand on the tree to hold him, and he leans in and kisses me like this ain’t our first time.
Looks like I ain’t broke after all, more like something inside me was bound up and it just got cut free. I grab him and drag him close, and he leans me against the tree with his whole body. My cock decides it’s done with two years of nothing, and everything it missed it wants it all right now. I make a noise in my throat like I’m a kettle coming to a boil, and I don’t even care.
Caerel pulls away, and I shiver. He puts his mouth close to my ear and says, We can honour Midsummer just as well in the comfort of my bed, if you like.
Lying down sounds real nice, but I don’t think I can hardly walk to get there.
Caerel looks at me and hums a little, and then he kisses me on the neck and starts untying my pants with one hand, and if I ever again want to laugh how he’s all polite and formal, I’m gonna remind myself he knows how to do this too.
No cool drink I ever got on a hot day of work in my life felt as good as him putting his hand on my cock. He holds me firm, and strokes me steady, and leaves me enough room that I can move my hips how I need to. I don’t last long, I don’t even try, and when I come, the whole grove knows about it.
After I can breathe again, I tie my pants back up and put my hands on Caerel’s hips. He’s half-hard, and I’m ready to get on my knees and give as good as I got. But he kisses me more, like he’s making a little bit of time for something, so I say, You still want that bed?
Caerel’s room is almost the size of one of the student common rooms. It’s so big it’s got parts, like the part where his desk is against the big windows, and the part with the two soft chairs beside the little iron stove. He’s got one of them Fraelian beds that are like rooms, with doors, and low stools to climb up in them.
He lights a lantern, and we take off our masks, and there’s a second where we just look at each other and kind of laugh, like Oh so this is what we’re doing. Then I go right for his ties, and we pull each other’s clothes off. His sheets are soft linen, and he’s got a feather tick and about six pillows, and I’m looking forward to messing it all up a little.
My favourite thing to do in bed was always use my hands, so I can watch. But some men don’t want what they think they can do for their own selves, and I want to make Caerel as hard and hot as he made me. So I use my mouth, and I do him slow. He digs his fingers into his pretty white linen pillows and lets me. Near the end I get him to say Please, and we both like that. He makes hardly any noise, just this little broken sound when he comes, and it goes to my cock like the grove never even happened.
He ain’t done panting when he grins at me again, and scoots down the bed, and takes me in his mouth. I don’t go off so fast this time, but I hang on the edge for forever. When I’m done all I can do is lay there like I got no bones left.
I don’t mean to fall asleep. Just, when I’m wondering how soon he wants me out, he puts his arm around my shoulder and kind of rolls me over closer to him. It ain’t so warm this late at night, even at Midsummer, and he pulls the blankets up around us.
Next thing I know, I’m waking up. Everything’s got that quiet you can feel, when it’s deepest in the night.
I sit up. Caerel makes a little jolt like I woke him up too.
I say, I guess I better go.
He puts his hand on my arm and says, Of course, if you wish, but you could stay.
I say, That’s okay?
He says, I’d like you to.
So I lay back down, and he settles his arm around me again.
I don’t got another round in me tonight, but hey, looks like Caerel does. This time I get to use my hands. He tilts his neck and closes his eyes and says, Talk to me.
I say, Talk like how?
He says, Anything. Tell me what you’re doing. I like to hear your voice.
It don’t take much time to say how I’m stroking him off. So I tell him what me and Bron and the weaver’s nephew done up in the hayloft that time after we got caught in the thunderstorm. I don’t know the polite words for any of that in Fraelian, but turns out that’s just fine.
Couple days later, I’m working on the cracked railing in the gallery that’s over the entry hall when I see white in my eye. I look down and for a wonder it’s the beadworker walking in on that fancy stone floor. I drop my mallet and run down the stairs. By the time I get there, Caerel’s there too, come to meet her. The beadworker gives me the eye, like here’s the guy fixes things nosing in on a talk with her and a master, but I don’t care if it yanks her tail, ‘cause it ain’t her room the kid’s lying in. Caerel gives me a little smile says and says, Goodman Stone, this is a convenient chance, it will save me from having to tell you this separately. So she shrugs and he gets on with it.
Seems like the grand master’s wondering how long the kid’s gonna be here, or as Caerel tells it, how the situation in Goodman Stone’s quarters is progressing.
The beadworker presses her lips together and says how the kid’s struggling and it’s a hard thing. And she tells us some stuff that makes me think the kid’s family’s no great festival day prize, and maybe the crazy thing he done that brung him here was just the butt end of a lot of other stuff he didn’t have no choice but to swallow, ‘til he couldn’t choke no more down.
Now I finally got the chance to ask why he don’t just put his beads back on. Turns out he can’t, it’s complicated, there’s ceremonies and that, some people even get new names. So I ask, Don’t he want to do that? And she says, like she can’t believe how slow I am, He cut his heart bead off his throat while people watched, right now there’s as much chance of that as of one of his cousins doing a giving for him.
I heard Fraelians say this before, doing a giving, but I never understood it. So I ask that too, and the beadworker looks at me like I’m a chicken just walked up and talked to her, and even Caerel blinks, and he has students saying stupid shit at him every day.
When they try to explain it’s like they don’t really got the words so they’re using ones that don’t fit right, but it’s something like this:
You can let a beadworker take your beads off you for someone else. It’s not giving them to them, it’s more like you do it for them, and when people get broken in their minds or their hearts, it’s a thing that helps them heal. It’s like how the railing’s cracked, so I’m fitting another piece of wood under it and pegging it in, and it don’t make the crack go away, but now the railing’s not gonna break clean through. Except it don’t really happen much, because–they don’t say it this way–to a Fraelian, it’s pretty much like chopping your own hand off.
I ask, Does it have to be family?
No, she says.
I don’t even think hard. I say, I could do it.
I hear Caerel pull in a breath, and the beadworker shakes her head and says, They have to be real beads.
That ticks me off, because once I got started I picked my beads with as much care as any Fraelian, and I don’t got a lot but they mean something. I lift my chain up from where it’s hanging against my shirt, and I tell them how this one is Bron’s eyes, and this one is the blue threshold stone of the kitchen door all worn down with being walked on since the start of history, and–
Caerel clears his throat, and it looks like I’m being a know-nothing foreigner again. He puts his hand on the hollow of my back, and he says, Stone, I believe you, but I don’t know if you understand the implications of what you’re offering to do.
I say, It means I give up my beads, and the kid can get himself feeling right again.
The beadworker looks at me for a few seconds like she’s trying to push me over. I can feel my face going red, but I let her.
She says, It’s not that simple, but it would help him.
I say, I want to do it.
Because it’s like this: When I left home I brung pretty much the clothes on my back. I don’t got a thing from there, except for my own self. And the kid don’t even got that.
The beadworker nods once and says, I will give you two days to think more on it.
I’m about to say, I thought, I’m doing it. But Caerel presses his hand on my back and says, Two days is traditional. So I know she’s not making up stupid stuff just for me.
Then I go upstairs again and finish fixing that railing before somebody leans through it and breaks their fool head.
That night I look out for Caerel in the refectory. Because I still mean to do it, but I had a real nasty thought, and I got to ask him so I can get used to it.
He comes after a while and sits down. I’m thinking how to start when he says, I’d like to ask you something.
I say, Go ahead.
He says, Let’s find somewhere with some privacy.
I figure he don’t mean talking, but that’s fine. We go to his room. There’s late sun coming in the windows, and I can see all the colours of his chair cushions and curtains, and it might as well be a different room from last time.
He offers me tea, and I say I don’t want none, and then he puts his arms around me and kisses me.
When he lets me go, I say, because I can’t wait, When the beadworker takes off my beads, does that mean nobody can see me or talk to me no more?
Caerel’s eyes go wide. He puts his hands on the sides of my face and says, No. No, of course not. A giving is an act of great courage and worthiness, and you will be treated with honour for it. Stone, do you mean to say we left you thinking–oh, forgive me, forgive me, I didn’t think–
He pulls me close. I’m so relieved I can’t do nothing but stand and just breathe for a while.
After we’re both steady again I kiss him back, and one thing and another we end up in his bed. Which ain’t no big surprise, ‘cause I done my share of Midsummer Nights, and me and Caerel, that was honouring Midsummer.
After, he leans up on his elbow and says, May I ask you something?
I say, Sure.
He says like he’s shy, which is funny with what he was doing to me a minute ago, I wouldn’t ask so soon except I may not have another chance. Would you do me the privilege of telling me your beads?
I say, Yeah, of course.
I lift them down from the hook at the top of the bed where I hung them with Caerel’s, and I move them one by one through my fingers and I tell him all about them, about Bron, and the kitchen stone, and Old Rose, and the sunset from the top of Farthest Cliff, and all of it. I never done this before with somebody else, and it’s like all them things come to the front of my head, and they never been so clear.
When I’m done, he kisses my chest over my heart, and he curls one of his hands into mine, where I’m holding the beads wrapped around. He says, Are you sure you want to do this? It’s not a small thing, doing a giving. You’ll be losing a lot of your life.
I say, I lost my whole life once already, I ain’t afraid of it.
Anyway. Two days later we’re in one of the quiet rooms, me and Caerel and the beadworker and the kid. She’s pushed the table and chair to the walls so it’s all a clear space. She’s got a bunch of stuff, a couple basins and a basket of tools and I don’t know what all. She’s lit candles, even though it’s full daylight, and I can smell them sweet like honey.
We’re standing side by side, me and the kid, not looking at each other. The beadworker says some things but I don’t hardly hear them, it’s all about sacrifice and things being new and whatnot. She takes some water on her finger and touches our hearts, and our lips, and between our eyes.
Then she takes this little knife with a white handle and a tiny blade, and she starts cutting the red threads that are keeping the kid’s beads on his wrist. One cut at a time, pick, pick. I can see the strings getting looser and looser, until bits of red are dropping off him onto the floor. Then she starts to unravel the chain of his beads, the cord of his heart bead too. When she pulls them off him and his wrist’s bare, the kid shudders once like a shade’s walking over the earth where he’ll be buried.
One of the basins on the table is made of white stone, so polished it almost has its own light. It’s full of water. She lowers the kid’s beads in there, slowly like she’s resting them gently on the bottom, and when she comes to me, her hands are wet.
She’s got a little pair of snips, and she lifts up my chain of beads, right near Bron’s grey and green stone, and she puts those snips to a wire link. When she closes them, the wire sounds like a branch snapping after an ice storm.
I try to swallow but my mouth’s dry as old bone. I tell myself, it’s bits of stone and glass, just stone and glass, it ain’t nothing more important than that.
She puts my beads in the basin. I think of them cool and pretty in the water, touching the kid’s beads, and the kid’s why I’m doing this, so it’s okay, it’s a good thing, it’s fine.
Then she comes back with the little knife. The white handle glows like the basin. She touches my heart bead, and when she lifts it up, the spot where it was on my skin goes cold. I can feel the back end of the blade where it touches my throat. There’s a tug, and the ragged end of the cord drags across my skin as she takes it away from me.
I don’t hardly got the words to talk about what happens next. It’s like dropping something where you can’t never get it back, down a well or off a boat into deep water, and you feel like the ground’s gone from under you and you’re what’s falling. I pull in a breath like it’s sand and ashes, and it feels like broken glass in my chest. I start crying and I can’t stop. I cry like everybody I loved is dead, like I ain’t got no home, like everything in the world ended but me. I fall down on my knees because I ain’t got the strength to stand, and I sob and sob and sob until there ain’t nothing left in me.
I don’t know how long I’m down there. When I come back to myself, Caerel’s arms are around me. He’s rocking me slowly and stroking my hair, and saying Shh, shh. I shake my head and wipe my face on my sleeve. He helps me stand, and he keeps at my back so close I can feel how warm he is.
The beadworker stands in front of me, and holds her hands so I can see what’s across them: a white bead on a white cord, knotted in patterns. She says, From this day you start a new chain.
She ties it around my neck with three knots, and slides it so the heart bead stops in the little dent at the front of my throat, right where the old one was. Then she brings a chain, and lifts it over my head and around my neck. It’s all made of the wire links that go between beads, but it ain’t got no beads at all. It’s all spaces for things I ain’t found yet.
I ask, because I got to know, What happens to the old beads?
The beadworker says, I will take them to a fountain in my grove, and put them in the water there. And they will freeze and thaw, she says, and the metal will rust, and in time they’ll join the sand of many colours in the bottom of the fountain.
So I guess that’s okay. Bron always liked the water.
But I ain’t never gonna forget him, beads or no beads.
When the beadworker steps away, the kid’s in front of me. I ain’t looked at him closely today, and he looks terrible. His eyes are red as mine probably are, and he’s got circles under them the colour of twilight, and nobody should be that thin. But he’s got a heart bead on, grey as a cloud on a grey cord, and an empty chain like mine.
He takes both my hands and holds them over his heart. He says, whispers almost, My first bead will be named for you, Goodman Stone, and every time I tell my beads, I will honour your giving.
I say, I guess I need a bead for you too, but I don’t know your name.
Leicis, he says. He lets my hands go, and takes a breath and says it again. My name is Leicis.
Turns out the beadworker’s done with me. Caerel puts his arm around me and opens the door and walks us out to the hallway. And there’s Raece chewing on his thumb. He hardly looks our way. He goes up to the door like he ain’t sure he’ll see what he wants to. Leicis looks over and I can tell when they first see each other, it’s like somebody pokes them both with a sharp stick at the same time. And Raece is walking in, and Leicis takes a step towards him, and they get slower, not faster, as they get closer. Then Raece reaches out and they’re wrapping their arms around each other like a gale’s trying to whirl them apart. The beadworker smiles a little, and Caerel makes a sound like it’s the end of a play, and I guess I been more scattered in my head than I thought because I just never seen that coming at all.
Caerel takes me up to his room and sits me down in one of his big soft chairs. He makes tea, even though I say I don’t want none, and he brews it ‘til it tastes like something, and puts in a big spoon of honey, and hands it to me. He’s got some little fried cakes from that bakery the students go to, and he sits in the other chair with his own tea and eats three cakes, so I eat some too, and after a while I feel like I’m not made of wet paper no more.
Caerel goes over to his desk and opens a drawer and takes something out. Then he comes and sits down again. He’s looking at the thing in his hand, and he says, The first beads on a new chain usually come from people the wearer is close to. I don’t wish to presume, but I saw this, and it made me think of you.
He holds it out. It’s fancy paper, folded all in on itself the way Fraelians like to give presents in.
I take it and fold all the points out. The bead’s like a little burning coal against the white paper. It’s about the size of my smallest finger to the first knuckle, and when I lift it up I can see through the red glass, and in the middle there’s swirls of gold and darker red like they’re bits of fire that got caught there.
I can’t even say anything, because nobody never gave me something so beautiful, and I ain’t gonna slap him down by telling him how I ain’t like that at all, but it makes it hard to breathe for a minute.
Caerel clears his throat. He says, If it’s not a bead that fits on your chain, I won’t be offended.
No, I say, I want it on here. I want to think of you when I look at it.
He twists a link open so I can fit it on. When it’s ready I move my chain so I can look down and see that piece of red hanging there under my heart bead.
Caerel runs his hand down my chain, and touches the bead like it’s something alive. I can feel the heat of his fingers through my shirt.
He smiles. First bead, he says.
Yeah, I say, yeah, it’s a good start.