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I was marking some inventory in our little storehouse that had been set up in Yamurik’s compound. It was evening; too early still to go hunting. The snows had returned and the sky was thick with cloud, so it would be a bad night to be out, and hard to see, and hard to hunt. A good night for refugees to run from Onappa-ka. My hands shook and it took extra concentration to write the numbers on my list correctly. I passed a trunk without looking behind it and smiled. There were fine things behind there, a few bows I had traded from another company and some manacles, in belt pouches, to make it easier to transport my prizes once I caught them. There was nothing wrong with having these things, of course, except that I had not gone through the proscribed procedures. I didn’t want word getting out. Who knew if the smugglers might be getting aid from one of us? I didn’t want to risk a traitor destroying my chance to further myself.
The door opened. The storeroom was small enough that I had to move to avoid being struck by it. I shifted aside and Estevo stuck in his head, grinned, and then entered and shut the door behind him. He stood with me in the dark and I scowled.
“What is that stupid smile for, shitlick?”
“Just happy to see my best friend.” He pushed past, deeper into the storehouse, and perused a shelf of preserved fish, packed in jars. “Checking the stocks?”
“You seem to be feeling better.”
“Much recovered, thanks.” He struck a cigarette and the fumes filled the room. I tapped him and he passed to me and we stood for a few minutes, sharing the smoke.
“Why did you move me to morning shift?” He went to a barrel and used it as a table to began one of his rituals: unrolling the butt of the cigarette and saving the bit of tobacco there by rolling it into another, part-constructed smoke.
Before he could fully untwist the end, I said, “Hey, I’ll take the rest of that. I want to share it with Tash.”
He gave me a sly smile. “You trading her for something?”
I turned back to a shelf to cover my embarrassment. “No. I owe her. I think she’s still mad over the river thing.”
He didn’t say anything for a long breath, then “I’ll give you a fresh one.” I turned back and watched him. Standing awkwardly to allow the light of the one lamp to pass him, he took a little pouch from under his hat, extracted a half-full cigarette, and untwisted it. He laid the paper and weed atop the barrel and began shaking the remnants of the one we’d smoked into it. Bits of ash mixed into the dry leaf. He claimed, in jest, that the charcoal taste added character.
This done, he returned the half-full one to his pouch, then produced another, completed roll and held it out to me. I made to take it, but he didn’t let go at first.
“Morning shift,” he said. “I know you’re up to something. I want in.”
I gave him a single nod. He let go and I hid the cigarette in my own hat. “The refugees. I have a plan, but I need my nights free.”
“So you’re cutting me out?”
“No. I’m giving you a better shift and time to recover. And responsibility.” I’d learned the word recently and was gratified to see I hadn’t used it incorrectly. However, I didn’t want to tell him more than I had to. “What about your recovery?”
“I’m fine.” He waved dismissively.
“I never heard what happened.”
“But you can guess.”
The image, stripes of red on dingy sheets, came back to me. One wound made that kind of mark.
“What did you do?”
He returned his attention to the shelves, moving along them with a finger out as he read the labels on the jars and pot s and wooden boxes. “What do we need saffron for?”
“Gorbez uses it. For his Skertah.”
“Damn alchemists. How much do you think it’s worth?” I didn’t answer. He kept moving along the shelf, till he got to the tobacco. “You know I do morning inventory, right? Now that that’s my shift. Hey, why don’t you get the Tash tobacco of your own?”
“I don’t have any.”
“You’ve got a whole box right here.” He opened the box, then the paper wrapping inside, and inhaled deeply.
“That’s not mine. It’s not for us.”
“Who’s it for then? It’s been sitting here for months.”
“It’s not ours.”
He took the box and inhaled again, then sat on the trunk. The trunk behind which I’d hidden my supplies. He leaned back against the wall, then glanced down and back up disinterestedly. “I got found out. Taking extra food from the line and then trading it or selling it,” he said. He put the box down, leaned forward, and pulled his smock away from his neck. In the deep shadow cast by the lamp on the very top of his shoulder, I could just make out the whorled, scabbed flesh where a whip wound was still healing. “Food,” he said, “that was going to be pig feed if we didn’t eat it.” He let his smock fall back and then leaned against the wall again with an uncomfortable expression.
“You stole from Lonireil,” I said. “What did you think would happen?”
“What do you think will happen?” Absently, he let a hand fall behind the trunk. He picked up one of the little leather manacle pouches and inspected it. I said nothing. He waited and finally met my gaze again. My face burned. Rage flared behind my eyes.
“I’m not interested in being a rat,” he said. “But you’re going your own way, too. I can help you. I want to help you. Lonireil–do you really think they care about you?”
“This is my life,” I began.
“It wasn’t always.”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“They hate you. They’re using you. At least me they consider a real Lonireilan, even if I am just a laborer’s son.” He patted his shoulder. “And look what they did when I took a few biscuits. They owe us. We need to look out for ourselves, because they’d just as soon kill us as pay us. What do you think they’ll do if they find out you’re stealing weapons?” He leaned forward. I saw genuine concern and pity in his eyes. I knew what was coming and yet I suddenly, fervently prayed to Salat and Oulesur that he wouldn’t say it.
He spoke. “Don’t you remember what happened to you?”
My efforts were futile. Tears stung my eyes. I spun away rather than let him see, but I couldn’t hide the sudden sob. It was the first anyone had mentioned what had happened in a long time, not since de Trastorces had first been kind to me. Memory flooded back, memories I didn’t want. My pain. My parents. My sisters and brother. They’d killed Punam. Weckar had killed Punam right in front of me.
I heard his footsteps. His hand met my shoulder and I spun away, a curse on my lips. Instead of striking him, I fell and hit my head on the door.
My vision went wild with bright flares. When it cleared, Estevo was crouched beside me, shaking my shoulder and saying my name. “Il Lonireil. Hey. You alright?”
I nodded. His hand felt nice for a moment, and then I withdrew with sudden revulsion and horror. He stayed crouched and I forced myself to breathe, breathe till it passed. Finally, I got up, refusing his hand, and he rose.
He went back to his box of tobacco and picked it up. “You and I can watch out for each other, il Lonireil.” He faced me again, holding his prize. “You and me. Hang the rest.”
“Hang the rest,” I repeated.
“I’m taking this. I’ll help hide your supplies when I take inventory. You and me, we’ll protect each other. Here, you need a better hiding place.” He showed me how I might hide the supplies in the rafters instead. It was better. There was old sailcloth and wood stakes and some other junk up there, and when it was done you couldn’t see anything was amiss. He hid the tobacco in his smock and trousers, then went to the door. “Hey. With your plan. Tell me if I can help.”
I nodded again. He left, and I was alone with my stolen things and sorrows and many new thoughts.
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