“Oh, Thyerin!” The words tumbled from her lips before she realized they had escaped. “Is it … can it be a man?” She spoke aloud, though no one could have heard her over the waters raging over Thyerin’s Falls. Viveka remained frozen like a tree in the forest for a mene longer than was necessary because she simply couldn’t understand the scene before her. It was not that the river had never taken a life; it had. But Viveka had been so lost in the serenity of the morning that tragedy was the last thing on her mind. Then, as she had carefully picked her way along the slippery path next to the river, she had seen him: a dead man, washed over the rocks and tossed against the bank like driftwood.
Viveka guessed immediately that he was a soldier; none of the villagers, or anyone else around those parts, ever wore their hair cropped so short. He also wore, recognizable even at a distance, the dark trousers favored by the soldiers of Dargon.
She tossed her basket to the ground and slid on her bottom the rest of the way down the steep path that hugged the falls of the Run. As soon as she reached him she realized that he wasn’t dead after all; she saw his chest slowly rise and fall. He was alive, but his side and his head were bleeding sluggishly — he was terribly wounded. She raced back across the river and through the forest to the home that she shared with Nessa, the new village herbalist.
“Nessa, help!” she panted as she ran inside the cottage.
After Viveka’s father died, Nessa had taken over as the village herbalist. At first, Viveka had been moderately shocked that such a young woman would wear her long, raven hair unbound, but then she decided that perhaps Nessa had chosen to wear it thus in order to hide the dark brandywine-colored stain that covered the right side of her face. At Viveka’s sudden entrance, Nessa jerked her head around and all her lovely, dark hair fanned out from her upper body like a midnight halo.
“Slow down, Viv. What’s wrong?” she asked, and grunted in anger as the small pestle that she had been working tumbled to the floor.
“I found a man by the Run,” Viveka said as she began to wring her hands. “He fell down the riverfall, and he’s hurt. I couldn’t pull him out, and he’s not awake.”
“Is he alive?” Nessa rose and pulled down her medicine basket, checking its contents instinctively.
“Yes,” Viveka replied, her voice breaking on the one word. “He’s breathing. But there’s blood all over his head. Scratches everywhere, and there’s something wrong with his leg.” Her voice rose sharply toward the end.
Nessa took some folded fabric squares from an upper shelf against the wall and tucked them into her basket. Then she lifted several straight, hearty tree limbs from a pile in the corner by the shelf and said, “We’re going to need help from some of the men to bring him ‘ere.” As if trying to think of something she might have missed, she looked up and down at each of the shelves. Finding nothing, she continued, “Viveka, go to the village and get Rakti and Jace. Bring ‘em to the river. Tell me where the man is, and I’ll go ahead.”
“Go down the path that leads to the falls. He’s there, at the bottom.” Viveka’s voice became shrill yet again as she said, “Hurry, Nessa. He looked really bad!”
Nessa paused while stepping out of the cottage and smiled gently at her. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it. Straight?”
Viveka ran quickly to the village and collected Rakti and Jace. After showing the two young men where Nessa waited with the wounded river man, Viveka hurried back to the cottage to make up a cot for their new patient. As soon as she entered the cottage, she felt a tremendous sense of relief. The familiar comfort of her home and the ready supply of healing ingredients quickened her courage, which had been dwindling at the thought of the nursing that was sure to be needed.
With the exception of the common hearth, it was as if the cottage had been split in two by an invisible line. One side of the cottage, Viveka’s side, was neat and orderly with surfaces that were completely bare; everything was put properly in its place except for two wooden dolls lying on a table aligned snugly against the longest wall. Viveka could have sworn that she had placed those dolls in their proper places before departing from the cabin that morning, but since she didn’t have time to worry about dolls at that moment, she quickly gathered them up and set them back on the shelf. One doll was a man, the other a lady, both unfinished. The top part of the male doll had been fully carved with a clean-shaven face and close-cropped hair. The female doll wore flowing skirts over a big bustle, but the head was incomplete.
The left side of the room, Nessa’s side, was a riot of plants: dried herbs hung from the rafters, large and small bowls of stones and herbs lay scattered about, and her unmade cot was shoved carelessly into a corner. The clutter normally distracted Viveka, but not that day. She quickly made up a cot in front of the hearth and finished just as Nessa entered.
“Gently boys, gently,” Nessa remonstrated as the two young men clamored through the low doorway, both having to duck. They moved to the cot and placed the man on it. “Thank you, Jace, Rakti.” Nessa nodded to them and said, “Jace, send Sona ’round and Rakti, send yer mum. I’ll give ‘em a couple of days worth of supplies for your ‘elp.” Then Nessa turned her attention to the wounded man.
“How is he?” Viveka asked, staring down at the patient, knowing full well that Nessa would be unable to answer that question immediately. The man’s hair framed a face with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and thin lips. He had broad shoulders and muscular arms, suggesting that he was no stranger to hard labor.
Nessa catalogued as if she were compiling a list of herbs. “Big bump on the head: probably hit hisself against a rock. It’s really bad — must’ve have happened when he went over the falls. Cut on the temple. Broken nose. Broken leg. Deep cut on the side. Scrapes and scratches.” Nessa looked at Viveka then, her countenance troubled, and said firmly, “He’ll need to be watched and cared for. Yer going to have to help me.”
Viveka’s heart filled with dread. When her father, Mushtaq, had fallen ill, Nessa had been living with them and working with Mushtaq for a year or more and had nursed him in the beginning. But Nessa’s growing duties to the village had taken her away more often than not. Nursing her father had fallen to Viveka without warning.
During one of Nessa’s absences Viveka’s father had died. His last rattling breath, the sudden cessation of his life force, the ominous silence in the hut, and the certainty that she now had no family left in the world had all sunk into Viveka like a freezing Deber wind. She had never been able to reconcile herself to the fact that her father, an herbalist, had died, even though a corner of her mind realized that people did die. He should have been able to cure himself. Yet, in spite of her fear, how could she refuse to care for this helpless soldier?
“Yes, of course,” Viveka answered slowly.
And she had helped. For two days she had nursed and cared for him as he lay sleeping. Then one morning, as Nessa was changing the bandage on the man’s head, he opened his eyes. “I see yer with us,” she said in her habitually low and steady voice.
Viveka had been making porridge at the fire. She turned and approached the cot. The man’s blinding blue eyes wandered to meet hers. Viveka stared into them and drowned, her breath suspended in her chest. She stood there, like one of her dolls, mesmerized by the brilliance of his gaze.
Dimly, Viveka heard Nessa say, “This is Viveka,” as if from a long distance away. She realized at some level that Nessa was introducing her and she thought it odd because, though the river man and Viveka had never been formally introduced, she knew him.
While caring for him, Viveka had become intimately familiar with every part of his body. Never having nursed a helpless a man in the prime of his life, Viveka had found the experience unsettling. The bodily contact and his dependence on her for such simple tasks as bathing and eating had created a strange feeling in Viveka. She knew every aspect of him as if he were a doll that she had dispassionately fashioned with her own hands. She could trace the map of the scars on his back in her head.
“Who are you, and what were you doing in Thyerin’s Run?” Nessa asked with her normally abrupt manner. After a long pause his eyes turned away from Viveka toward Nessa. Viveka took a deep breath and moved closer to the bed, anxious to hear his response.
He opened his mouth and only air came out. He cleared his throat and spoke. It was a nice voice, Viveka thought dreamily, like the honey Nessa used to mix some of her herbs.
“I am …” his voice trailed off as he met Viveka’s eyes.
Nessa coughed, the sound unusually loud in the silence.
He began again, “My name is …” There was a short pause as he gazed at Viveka and then he said, “I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
Nessa raised her brows and asked, “Can’t you remember what you were doing just before you fell in the Run? You don’t even know your name?”
“Um, well … ”
“Perhaps the bump on yer head,” murmured Nessa. “Would you turn on your side, please? I need to look at that bump.”
He obediently turned toward them, still keeping his gaze locked with Viveka’s.
“The other side. Turn towards the other side,” Nessa said softly. He smiled a bit sheepishly at Nessa and turned to the other side, letting his amusement touch Viveka as well. She felt her face redden and saw his smile widen slightly before he turned away completely.
Nessa paused for a moment, examining the abrasion on his head closely. “You will recover soon enough.” She rose and went to the herb shelf that took up the entire wall across from Viveka’s worktable. “Viveka, our patient needs to eat something. Can you give him a helping of the porridge, please?”
Viveka ladled some porridge into a bowl and approached the cot cautiously. He was still lying on his side and she walked around to face him. When he saw the food, he attempted to sit up but she quickly admonished him, “Oh, wait! Don’t try to sit up; you’ve had a nasty bump.”
As she leaned over to press her hand against his chest, her hair — as yet unbound for the day — brushed across his face. She heard him take a deep breath and she turned to look directly into his eyes. “Um, here, let me adjust your pillow and you can lean against the wall. I’ll feed you.” She pulled up a stool and sat down next to the bed.
“You’re welcome.” Viveka watched his mouth as she slowly began to feed him and unconsciously moved her lips to match the movement of his.
Between bites, he said, “You have a lovely mouth. Do you sing?”
“Sometimes.” Viveka blushed again, suddenly, when a vivid image of his broad, naked back flashed in her head. “Do you, um, remember anything of what happened?”
He hesitated for moment and then said in a rush, “I guess it can’t be that important if I’ve forgotten.” They both smiled at that, and she looked away.
“Don’t look away, please.”
Her heart thumped in her chest and she smiled down at him. When her eyes again met his, he said, “Perhaps it was my time to journey down Thyerin’s Run.”
She frowned and said, “Why do you say that?”
“Let’s just say I had cause to be reborn.” His eyes fell away from hers, letting her imagine that he was suffering greatly with regret, undoubtedly associated with his days of war.
In an attempt to change his mood, she asked in amusement, “Oh, yes? You don’t even remember your name. How could you possibly know what the gods desire for you?”
The young man laughed and replied with goodwill, “Aye. Well, you can call me whatever you like,” and his brows arched on the last word.
“Oooh, is that right, river man? I shall call you,” Viveka paused dramatically, her eyes wandering to his bright hair. Then she smiled at him mischievously, “Yellow.”
“Yellow?” His voice tightened and the smile disappeared from his eyes.
“What did you say?” Nessa asked and Viveka realized that she hadn’t even noticed the other woman’s approach.
“Nothing,” Viveka replied. She cocked her head to one side and looked at him questioningly.
“Viveka has decided to give me a name since I don’t remember my own.” He paused for effect. “She chose ‘Yellow’.”
“Viveka, that’s rude,” Nessa scolded.
“Not at all.” He smiled at Viveka and arched his brows again. “It was a natural choice, because of the color of my hair,” he said, staring up at Nessa this time.
Nessa looked at Viveka sharply. “Is that so?” she said noncommittally. Her gaze dropped slowly away from Viveka’s and she commanded, “Turn around, Yellow. I need to bandage your head.”
Yellow was not exactly what he appeared to be; it didn’t take a healer’s instinct to know that. I had known it since the day that we found him in the Run and I had seen the lash marks on his back. There was something about him that confounded and confused me: he was both tragically cruel and bewilderingly compassionate.
He had been with us longer than usual due to the severity of his injuries. As the days grew into sennights my concern for Viveka increased. It was obvious from the start that Yellow’s attentions toward Viveka were not honorable. Viveka was a very pretty woman, with perfect, bow-shaped eyebrows crowning green eyes that were fringed with dark eyelashes. But most of all, her long, brown hair which she wore in a braided coronet, gave her a certain patrician air and changed her from a pretty woman to a beautiful one.
It did not surprise me that Yellow desired her; rather it surprised me that he could imagine that anyone of his station would have the right to court someone like Viveka, if indeed that was what he wanted to do. Her father, the village herbalist from whom I had learned my trade, had been a man of great honor and integrity. I doubted that Yellow could ever live up to Viveka’s expectations. I was determined to bring an end to this calamity, if not for Viveka’s sake, then for Mushtaq’s, for what I knew he would have wanted for his daughter.
Therefore one morning when the three of us had just risen from our beds and I was busying myself with the mortar and pestle, I said, “Viveka, could you please cease your endless fiddling with those two dolls and gather the chamomile that you promised to collect for me?”
Viveka had — adding to my already troubled mind — begun to fashion two of her latest efforts into a pair of dolls that I thought bore a remarkable resemblance to the doll-maker herself and to Yellow. Viveka had never before created her dolls in the image of anyone that we knew; even the most ignorant of souls knows that to capture the image of a living person within a dead object is very bad magic. Why had she started now? I didn’t know; I didn’t want to find out, and I intended to put a stop to it as quickly as I could.
Viveka opened her mouth and then shut it. I could easily decipher the emotions flitting over the other woman’s face. She wanted to refuse to go, or at least invite Yellow to go with her. Little did she know that, in fact, that was the exact thing I wanted to prevent. But habit forced Viveka to assent: a habit developed from years of gathering herbs for herbalists, first her father and then me. I watched her push the last hairpin into her coronet with unnecessary force, pick up a basket and leave. This time she did not even look at Yellow.
I crossed the length of the cottage in a few quick strides, grabbed the dolls that Viveka had left on the worktable, and stuffed them into her basket. At the hearth, I hastily emptied the contents of the mortar into a large pot and bent to pick it up. Yellow was beside me at once. As his wounds healed, he had picked up a lot of the heavier work around the cottage. I found his apparently genuine offers to help confusing.
“Let me.” He picked up the pot with ease and placed it over the wood laid for the fire.
“Let me? Let me! Thyerin be damned, Yellow. Why are you such a snupper? You can stop the infernal pretending with me, eh?” I demanded abruptly. “I know perfectly well what you are doing.” He looked up at me warily, and I knew he understood what I meant.
I sighed and began again. “You cannot do this, Yellow. You will heal from your wounds and you will leave this place to go back to your … whatever life you’ve led. Viveka will be left to deal with a broken heart. Is that all you can give her?” That Yellow was hiding from something in his past, I knew; that the secret was dishonorable, I suspected.
It was his turn to sigh. “What the fark is that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t break her heart, Yellow. She’s innocent, but she is also very stubborn. She needs the kind of man to whom the means are more important than the end. I know who you are, Yellow. Those lash marks did a lot more than just flay your skin.”
He frowned, and walked to the window. Although it was almost spring, there was still a bite to the air. Bare-chested, he shivered.
“Wrap a blanket around you. It’s on the bed,” I said roughly, the healer in me concerned about the health of a man who was still recuperating from nearly drowning, even though I disapproved of what he was doing.
“Yes. I know who I am. I know who she is,” he said, an edge of anger in his voice that I was unaccustomed to. “A beautiful woman, too good for the likes of me.” He lifted the blanket from the cot and turned to me then with a look of cold contempt, saying, “And for the likes of you, Nessa. I’d venture to guess that, like the scars left on my back, the stain on your face has marred more than your skin, eh?” His gaze did not waver from mine as he continued, “I made a mistake, a long time ago. And I paid for it with several miserable years as a mage’s apprentice!” He spat the last word out of his mouth as if it were slug of poison. “What do you think about me, Nessa? Is that your big secret, that you think I’m not good enough for her?” He laughed, and it was a short, bitter sound. “I’m actually a thief!”
I turned my back on him and stirred the pot furiously. When I looked back I was surprised to see that he was standing by Viveka’s workbasket and that he had removed the male doll which now lay at his feet. “Gods! Now you’re obsessed with those damned dolls as well,” I snapped, walking toward him.
He looked down to where my gaze fell and replied, “Huh? What are you talking about?”
“The doll. You took it out of the basket didn’t you?” I bent down with some annoyance, picked up the doll and set it on the top shelf.
“No! I never touched the blasted thing.” He dismissed the issue abruptly and I saw his eyes move to the large dark stain that covered the left side of my face. I sighed and stared out of the window, remembering the past, stirring the pot absently. “We are not always who we think we are, Yellow. I learned something from Viveka and her father. Mushtaq was a wonderful man. He taught me to give kindness so that I could receive compassion, for that was what I most longed for. What is it that you want, Yellow? What is it that you long for, that you want above all else?”
“Those are just words, Nessa,” Yellow said scornfully. “I’ve done things that I wasn’t ashamed of, but which would horrify you.”
“Stop it!” I interrupted him, shaking my head angrily. “Don’t say another word. I don’t care if you’re a part of the robber brotherhood, or a part of the town guard. You regret your actions now, don’t you?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know, Nessa. I am who I am. I’m not going to pretend to be a soldier simply because Viveka thinks soldiers are honorable. Not all soldiers are honorable, and not all robbers are knaves.”
“That isn’t the point, Yellow. The question is, are you an honorable man, or are you a knave?”
Silently he stared out into the forest, until a sound at the doorway signaled Viveka’s arrival.
In the following days, I continued to watch the growing closeness between Yellow and Viveka, deeply troubled in more ways than one. I wished to stop it, but I didn’t know what to do. The medic in me rebelled at the thought of sending Yellow away before he was fully healed. Finally, in an attempt to divert his mind from the doll-maker, I decided to teach him herbal lore. Much to my surprise, he took to it like a cheetar to running. I suspected that he knew some of the more lethal herbs better than I did, yet I did not ask; there are some things better left unasked and unanswered. I taught him the benign qualities of the herbs that grew around us, and those that I grew in my own garden.
To my delight, he had a better manner with patients than Viveka did, that I clearly saw in his interaction with one of the village children. The little boy had hurt his knees and his mother had brought him to the cottage. Most of the mothers in the village did not go running to the healer when one of their children fell and scraped a knee, but Truus was overly protective. Her daughter, Aliya, was sickening with something that I did not recognize. She was fine on some days and not so fine on others, but that she was wasting away was something that I knew. And so I understood Truus’ fears and made allowances.
“Truus, what are you doing here?” I asked, smiling at the red-haired woman who entered through the door. A sudden fear struck me. “Is Aliya all right?”
“She’s fine, Nessa,” Truus hastened to reassure me. “It’s Aziz.” The woman stepped aside to reveal a small boy about four years old.
I said, “Oh, look who’s here: Aziz! Oh, poor baby, are you hurt?” I bent and lifted up the small child, whose knee was badly scratched and bloodied. He knuckled his eyes, hiccupping. As I petted him, he sat trustingly in my arms, for he knew me well from my frequent visits to his sister. “There, there, Aziz, we’ll fix you up.”
Yellow asked quietly, “May I?” He stood near Viveka’s worktable with a bowl of water, clean rags and a small pot of one of my decoctions spread out before him. I sat Aziz down on the worktable and Yellow began to clean the boy’s knees.
“What’s your name, little one?” he asked.
“A-Aziz,” the child hiccupped again.
“Well, Aziz, my name is Yellow. You’re going to be fine.” He looked up at me. “I’m going to clean his knees with the tincture.” I understood: the tincture he referred to had a sting.
“Aziz, see, Yellow is going to clean your knees because they’re full of dirt,” I said, patting the child on his back.
“Aaah, hurts, it h-hurts,” Aziz began to cry again.
“There, there, Aziz, everything is going to be fine now,” I soothed, hugging the boy. He cried some more into my shoulder before subsiding. Truus extended her arms to the boy and he leapt into them.
“Thank you so much, sir,” Truus said to Yellow, smiling at him. He returned her smile but I sensed that it was a bit forced. I wondered why. It was yet another puzzling contradiction in the river man.
“You’re welcome. Aziz, see, you’re going to be fine. I told you, didn’t I? Now I have something for you, for being such a good boy.” Yellow brought out a small sweet and popped it into Aziz’ mouth. The sweet was nothing but some dried apple pieces rolled in honey, but it made the child smile.
“Fank you,” Aziz lisped, smiling up at Yellow, his tears magically gone.
“You’re welcome,” he repeated. “Now be off with you. And be careful.”
As we watched the woman leave, still carrying Aziz, he asked me, “Should I go with them? Will they be safe alone?”
I stared at him in surprise. “Yellow, it’s the second bell after midday; the sun is still out and they’re going home. What could possibly happen to them?” He stared down at me with a strange expression in his eyes but did not respond. I sensed that his question had a deeper significance: that in a sense, it was a key to his past.
Three sennights later, with a basket of completed dolls on her arm, Viveka entered the village common. The peddlar, Ezra Molag, hailed her.
“Mistress Viveka, how nice to see you again!” Ezra usually made two trips a year to the village and he always bought her dolls. Sometimes he even sent word requesting a special doll that a wealthy customer wanted.
She crossed quickly to the other side of the street and stood before Ezra’s stall. “Hello, Ezra. How are you?”
“Oh, could be better, could be worse,” he offered. With his eyes on the basket she carried, he asked, his voice eager, “So, what do you have for me this time?”
Viveka rested the basket on the small makeshift counter he had put up, and lifted out the dolls one by one. The first one was a big bear, painted in a dark color. She smiled down at it proprietarily, remembering how she had achieved that particular shade of blue-black: by adding a tincture of blueberry to the basic pigment.
“Very nice,” Ezra murmured. “I like it. I’ll give you two Bits.”
“Two Bits? That’s robbery,” she said, settling down to some hard bargaining. Ezra liked to haggle and if she wasn’t careful, he would send her home with a pat on the back and some loose change. Viveka needed to replace at least two of her tools: one of them had been begging for a decent burial for a while. The tools wouldn’t last for the extra dolls she always made for Melrin. As for Nessa, Viveka knew she needed another knife.
Ezra examined each of the dolls she had brought for him that day. Viveka’s brows knitted together as she noticed that two of the dolls lay side by side a little away from the others, as if they were a pair that couldn’t be separated. Ezra’s pudgy little fingers moved slowly over the two dolls and Viveka felt an unexpected wave of fear grip her throat. She snatched them away before he could touch them and said, “Not those. I’m … I made a mistake. Those aren’t for sale.”
He looked at her pointedly as she shoved them back into her basket, and asked as his gaze fell back to the remaining dolls on the table, “Only eight? You usually have more than ten for me when I come after winter.”
Viveka blushed guiltily. “We have a patient I’ve been helping to take care of,” she offered by way of explanation. Finally, he decided to buy all of her dolls at a fair price and after making a brief stop to deliver some herbs to Truus, she was soon on her way home.
When she arrived, Yellow was there, standing at the door with Rakti. “What’s the matter? Where’s Nessa?” she asked.
“Sona’s had the baby, and Jace is out in the fields somewhere. Nessa asked me to come and get some more herbs, she said she needed more; but I can’t find them, and even if I did, I wouldn’t know what they were,” Rakti paused for breath, obviously rattled.
Viveka glanced from him to Yellow, wondering what they had been talking about. Rakti didn’t get nervous that easily, yet here he was so edgy that he was running his sentences together. “What herbs did Nessa want?”
“Thistle down, silver weed and myrrh. The eight-herb decoction, and the chamomile.” Rakti’s speech slowed to its normal cadence under her gaze, and once again, Viveka wondered what had upset him.
Yellow stepped aside to allow Viveka inside the cottage. “I was just about finished gathering what he needs, when we heard you coming. Nessa’s been teaching me some of the lore and I think I’ve got them all straight.”
She glanced into the basket Yellow had placed on the worktable, nodded and smiled, “Yes, you seem to have managed quite well.”
With a smile at Viveka, and barely a nod to Yellow, Rakti snatched up the basket and muttered, “Aye, I’ll be goin’ then.” He rushed out the door only to return immediately, poke his head in the door with a grin that stretched from ear to ear and say, “It’s a boy! Sona’s had a boy!”
They both smiled for a moment, but Rakti’s leaving left a strange silence inside the cottage. Viveka pulled out the two rescued dolls from her basket and looked up at him. “So you didn’t go to Sona’s with Nes?”
“No, I was hoping that you’d make it back soon and that we could have a moment alone.” The look that he gave her caused the tiny hairs on her arms to stand on end and the ball of heat that had been lodged in her chest for several sennights slowly spread throughout her body, settling with a distinctly pleasant sensation between her thighs. The values that her father had given her had kept her, until now, from becoming too intimate with Yellow, but values had a way of becoming diluted in the face of passion and Viveka knew that she could no longer resist Yellow’s advances. She didn’t want to resist them. And he seemed to know that, just by looking at her.
He was at her side immediately and she found it mildly amusing that he knew exactly which of the pins to remove in order to release her hair from its coronet. He pushed away the dolls that she was still clutching against her chest and buried his face in her neck.
Truus’ child, Aliya, had taken a turn for the worse and while Viveka had been ferrying herbs to the family on my behalf for some time, I knew that convincing her to continue doing so in the face of impending death would be difficult. Unfortunately, Viveka had rigid ideas about lying: she had no tact and no conception of softening the truth so that it was bearable. One of my responsibilities as the village healer was to make the truth palatable. This quality Viveka lacked. Perhaps this was why she had chosen to be a doll-maker rather than a healer, even though her herbal lore was quite good.
“Aliya has worsened,” I said softly. “Will you go and give some medicines to her mother, Viveka? Aliya asked for you; she wants to see you.”
“No! I don’t want to. I can’t. Don’t make me, please, Nessa!”
I sighed. Viveka had asked me about Aliya’s health very pointedly one day — she was a healer’s daughter, after all — and I had told her the truth, a truth that I had not told the child’s parents; as a result, Viveka had begun to avoid the entire family.
“Why?” I asked gently. “Your visit will give Aliya a lot of pleasure.” I never failed to try to teach her that facing the truth was not like a coin with only two sides; facing the truth was like a rainbow, with as many emotions. Thus far I hadn’t succeeded.
Viveka sighed, stirring the contents of the pot hanging over the fire. “Every time Aliya’s mother sees me, she asks me how Aliya is doing. I can’t lie any more, Nessa. Every time I lie, something dies inside me. I won’t lie any more.”
“Viveka, imagine how Aliya’s mother will feel if you tell her that her daughter is going to die. Is it more important to tell the truth or save a mother’s feelings?”
“My father taught me never to lie. A lie isn’t something I can live with.”
“Didn’t Mushtaq ever lie?”
“No. Even when someone was too hurt to survive, he told the truth,” Viveka said with a stubborn jut to her chin.
I was silent. I knew that Mushtaq had been a diplomatic man who had placed the well-being of the living above all else. “Truth and lies are not like land and ocean, Viveka. Real life isn’t like that. Truth isn’t a god at whose altar you need to worship. The truth is like clouds: sometimes they bring much needed rain and at other times they bring too much. Sometimes you have to bend the truth a little so that the living can have peace. If you don’t learn to relax your truths, Viveka, you will be hurt.”
Abruptly Viveka shrugged her shoulders. “We are not going to have this argument yet again, Nessa. I–”
“Lady! Lady! ‘elp, ’tis me son. He’s taken an arrow in the leg!” One of the area woodsmen rushed in through the door, gasping out the words, his fear preceding him like noxious fumes.
Infected by his urgency, I snatched my basket from the shelf and rushed to follow the woodsman to his cabin a league away. Fortunately, the young man’s wound was a lot less serious than his father had led me to believe. I completed my task and returned home much quicker than I had anticipated.
Yellow and Viveka had not heard my approach to the cottage. It was no wonder really; they were otherwise engaged. I halted abruptly as I entered the cabin, the scene before me all the more shocking because I had been fearing and imagining the potential dangers of such an event.
Viveka’s skirts were rucked up far too high on her thigh, her head was thrown back exposing the soft white flesh of her throat as she leaned back against the massive worktable. Yellow was ravishing her mouth as if he wanted to devour her bit by bit. He was bent upon consumption.
I stepped back quietly into the shadows as I heard Yellow say, “Come on, Viv. Nessa won’t be back until sunset, and besides, you know you want to roll with me,” and some of my suspicions of him were confirmed.
“But I … can’t,” Viveka replied as she pushed away his hand, which had decided to take on a mind of its own and had begun to crawl up her waist like a hungry spider intent upon its dinner. I heard a peculiar mix of desire and fear in Viveka’s voice, but it was the fear that convinced me.
I stepped fully into the room and cleared my throat. The look that Yellow gave me was frightening in its menace, but I wasn’t one to back down and he quickly moved around until he had placed the huge worktable between himself and Viveka.
I looked directly into his eyes and asked, “So you’ve told her then?”