Tragedy and Triumph
“The difference between tragedy and triumph is action.” –Ansauan Proverb
56th day of Okivla, 471 AC
Kai breathed out a sigh of relief when he tapped the gooseneck joint into place and the two boards fit together exactly, with no overlap or looseness. He blew off the layer of sawdust that covered everything in the workshop, and ran his fingers along all sides of the wood. The joint fit perfectly, even when he closed his eyes his fingers couldn’t find the seams.
“The question isn’t how it fits now, but how it will fit in ten years, or fifty,” Master Carpenter Ondan said from behind him.
Kai hadn’t considered how the wood might move over the years and the words stung. He pulled his hands away from the wood. Kai had been so focused on his work that he hadn’t noticed the old man approach. When he looked around, he noticed that they were the only two left in the shop. The afternoon sun was slanting in through the windows, which meant that everyone else had left early. Kai began to worry.
“Unfortunately, the only way to gain that sort of awareness is to spend years working with wood and going back to look at your earlier work. It’s easier if you’re already thinking about it in the beginning. Good work, Kai,” Ondan said.
“Thank you,” he said. “Where is everyone?” He had been working in the shop for nearly two months, and despite Alera’s reassurances, he had begun to doubt that he would be allowed to apprentice there.
“I sent them home early,” Ondan said.
Kai had no response, but folded his hands on top of the wood in front of him so that his nervous jitters wouldn’t be so obvious. If only there were something similar that he could do to ameliorate the unease in his stomach.
“Do you still wish to be a carpenter?” the old man asked.
“Yes,” Kai said.
“Good,” Master Ondan said. He extended his hand. “Welcome to my shop, Kai Traalan.”
Kai took the outstretched hand, and with it, the new name. “Thank you Master Carpenter.” The uneasiness in his stomach remained, but had changed from anxiety to elation.
“Take this to the Clerk’s office, and it will be official,” Ondan said. He gave Kai a small piece of paper that indicated that his name would change from Kai Olenki to Kai Traalan, apprentice carpenter. The paper was stamped with Ondan’s mark, the same stylized frog that was marked on his completed projects.
“Now pack up your tools and go home,” Ondan said. “I’ll see you after the festival.”
Kai opened his document case and carefully tucked the slip of paper between two sets of plans before folding it closed again. The elation had driven his heart into his throat and it was all he could do to not jump around in celebration. He carefully cleaned up his workspace sweeping up the dust he had created and depositing it in the dustbin. After that he wiped down his small but growing collection of tools with an oiled cloth, and rolled them up in their case. Finally, he was ready to leave.
Alera was waiting for him outside. “Well?” she prompted after a moment of silence.
“I’m an apprentice now,” Kai said.
Like a buoy suddenly broken free of its anchor she sprang towards him, catching him in a hug. “I’m so proud,” she said, giving him a long kiss. Backing away, she pulled something small out of her purse and handed it to him. He slid the wooden sheath open to find a marking knife. The metal was plain but polished to a mirror finish.
“I can’t–,” he started. The knife must have cost her half a month’s salary.
“Shut up and take it,” she said. “You need one and I couldn’t think of anything better to get you.” It was true, he had been using bits of charcoal to mark his cuts and had gotten to the point where the accuracy of his work had exceeded the capacity of his marking tools.
“I love you, Kai Traalan,” she said.
Kai’s heart skipped a beat, and so did his mouth. “I love you too,” he said. The words were true, but they felt hollow. He did love her, but he hadn’t been ready to admit it yet, not to himself, certainly not to her. If she noticed his uncertainty, she gave no indication.
“I know,” she said. “Want to get some food before the festival begins?”
After they had eaten, they went to the square where they had agreed to meet Rafi and found the statue that they had talked about. They were there when the sixth bell tolled, but Rafi didn’t show up.
“This isn’t like her,” Kai said.
“Don’t worry so much,” Alera said. “At least wait until the bells die down before jumping to conclusions.”
“You don’t understand, Rafi is never late,” Kai said.
Alera looked at him like she was about to say that everyone runs late sometimes, but said nothing. For his part, Kai returned his increasingly anxious gaze to the gathering crowd, sure that Rafi would show up any moment.
“Kai, I don’t think she’s coming,” Alera said a few minutes later.
“I think you’re right.”
The two of them made their way towards the center of the square, where the ceremony would take place. Kai was still looking for Rafi’s face, hoping that there had been some miscommunication, but although he thought he saw her a few times, each time it turned out to be someone else entirely. He was so intent on looking for Rafi that he ran into a man who was cutting through the crowd in front of them. Kai began to mumble an apology but stopped when he got a better look at the man realized that he looked utterly familiar, although Kai had no idea who he was. Before he could say anything else, the man had nodded and slipped back into the crowd on his way back to his destination. Finally, they arrived at what appeared to be a solid wall of bodies and it was clear that they were going to get no closer.
The festival of Okivla was the most somber of the festivals, a time for reflection rather than celebration. But that wasn’t to say that it didn’t have its fair share of parties as people attempted to augment their reflection with alcohol. Like everyone else in the crowd, Kai and Alera were holding dolls made of bundled straw that had been twisted and bound so that it resembled a person. Attached to each doll was something personal. Kai’s held a sliver of wood that had split off from his first attempt at woodworking. Alera’s had a small leaf that had come off of the tea tree that she had been growing from a graft since early in the year.
Cordier’s square wasn’t the largest of Kinav’s public spaces, nor the most popular, situated as it was near the docks with no splendid view or magnificent architecture. Even so, it was Kai’s favorite. It had been carved out of the strip of warehouses that buffered the docks from the residences and commercial areas towards the center of the subisland. The knowledge that any one of the dozens of businesses that surrounded it would have liked nothing more than to put it to some profitable use gave it a vital feel, like it had earned its place in the world by virtue of having to fight for it every day.
Alera looked over at him. “I’m sure she’s fine,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, but it sounded unconvincing, even to him.
She was about to say more, but a silence spread throughout the crowd. The monk who had been meditating in the center of the square for the entire day had stood up. It was time. She stepped back from where she was standing and people began to make their way up to her in ones and twos. Each handed her their doll, which she bowed over before carefully stacking in the spot where she had been sitting.
The sun was nearly down by the time Kai and Alera reached the monk. They passed their dolls on to her and she said a short prayer over them before adding them to the growing pile. As they made their way back to the edge of the crowd Kai continued to look for Rafi.
“Listen, wherever she is, there isn’t anything you can do about it tonight,” Alera said, her annoyance starting to show.
Kai didn’t like it, but he knew she was right. Finding someone on the first night of a festival was a hopeless proposition. He told himself that Rafi was alright, and returned his attention to the center of the square, where the monk had begun her final preparations, walking around the stack of dolls and sprinkling a liquid on them.
“As the year draws to a close, we can look back with perspective on the things at which we have succeeded and failed,” the monk began. Kai had heard the words many times before, but they never failed to affect him. He pulled Alera closer, so that they were joined at the hip and side. “Some might say that we must cherish the good and cast off the bad, but to do so would diminish us, would deprive us of half of our soul. Likewise, others might say that we must keep both the good and the bad with us always. At first, this sounds like good advice. But to follow it would trap us, both in regret for things we cannot change, but also in the complacence of past achievements. So it is that we must cast off both the good and the bad, while retaining their memories, so that we may learn from them.”
With that, the monk set the stack of dolls ablaze. Through some mysterious system, other monks in other public squares on the Island were repeating the same words and performing the same rituals simultaneously. Pinpricks of light blinked into existence on the barrier subislands, and the buildings of Kinav were illuminated.
Kai hadn’t believed in the mythology about the burning dolls making a fresh slate since he was very young. His parents celebrated only in a formal way, more out of tradition than any sort of faith. Even so, as he watched the glowing embers were borne upwards by the heat of the fire, tracing red paths against the darkness, he felt a weight that he had been carrying go with them. Perhaps the dolls didn’t have any power in the real sense, but what if it was the gesture that mattered?
Kai and Alera stood together and watched the bonfire in silence.
The next morning, Kai and Alera were woken by a pounding at the door. They were both surprised, the first day of the festival was supposed to be a day of rest. But an Auditor was standing outside when the two of them got prepared enough to get the door. He was standing at attention, looking uncomfortable in his black uniform.
“Yes?” Alera asked.
“I’m looking for Kai Olenki,” the man said.
Alera gave Kai a questioning look, then stepped out of the way.
“What can I help you with?” Kai asked.
“I know it’s a festival, but can you come to the station with me?” the man asked.
“Of course,” Kai said, thankful that his mouth still worked even though he felt the floor drop from beneath his feet at the Auditor’s words. “Just give me a minute to get ready.” The Auditor nodded and Kai closed the door.
“Do you want me to come?” Alera asked.
“You should stay here and relax,” Kai said. Had someone found out about his forged Seal? The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became of it. What other reason could there be for an Auditor to show up at his door, and during a festival, no less. He didn’t want Alera to find out, and especially not like that.
“Don’t be silly, Kai,” she responded, tossing him a clean shirt. She was already mostly dressed.
He relented. “OK, but don’t blame me if it’s boring.”
She gave him a quick hug. “Come on, lets not keep the man waiting.”
The Auditor led them through the city in the predawn light. He refused to tell them what was going on, which only added to Kai’s anxiety. Kai was so focused on the people who were staring at the three of them that he only noticed that they had been heading downhill when they approached the water. What was going on? Why weren’t they heading up the hill to the Auditor’s central office?
As they continued, a new fear came to Kai’s mind. Had they already passed judgement on him and all that was left was exile? He told himself that he was just being paranoid, but even so he held Alera’s hand tighter.
Finally they came to the small stone building that served as the Guard’s station for that stretch of the waterfront. The Auditor opened the door and gestured for them to proceed inside before him. Three tired-looking Guards looked up at their entrance, but lost interest when the Auditor followed them in.
Kai relaxed. If he was in trouble, things would probably be going a lot differently. But what was going on, then?
The Auditor led them through the door at the back of the lobby. In the next room, Rafi was lying on a small cot. She was completely limp, like a rag doll, and her shallow breathing was the only evidence that she lived.
“What happened to her?” Kai asked, rushing to kneel by his friend’s side.
“A fisherman found her this morning, half dead. We gave her enough Ve to stabilize her, but the only thing she said was your name,” the Auditor said. “We didn’t want to do anything else until you got here.”
Kai touched her head; her hair was still damp, and he noticed that her clothes were stiff and wrinkled. “Will she recover?”
“We believe so,” a man said from the other side of the room.
Kai whipped his head around to see another Auditor watching him. The man must have been there the whole time, there were no other doors. The second Auditor was older than the one who had brought them there, and when he walked to where Rafi lay on the cot it was clear that he was in charge.
He shook hands with Alera, then Kai. “My name is Amir. How do you know her?”
“She’s a friend,” Kai said.
“Just a friend?” Amir arched an eyebrow. Kai noticed the man’s eyes flick to see Alera’s reaction.
“I’ve known her my entire life, she’s like a sister to me,” Kai said.
“I see,” Amir said. “What can you tell us about her?”
“Her name is Rafi Malin,” Kai said. He then proceeded to tell the Auditors about how he had grown up with Rafi and nothing had seemed wrong when he had last seen her. Throughout his explanation, they faces betrayed none of what they were thinking. When he stopped, they just looked at him, as though they were waiting for him to say something more. “So, do you have any idea of what happened to her?” he asked.
“Most likely, someone conned her into lending them a few Ve and they sucked her dry,” Amir said.
“People can do that?” Alera asked.
“It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen,” Amir said.
Kai looked down at his friend. Her breathing was shallow and her skin had gone from brown to an ashen tan. He could see her stomach rising and falling with each breath, but just barely, like her body wasn’t willing to commit to coming out of its torpor. He touched her face, pulling a few strands of hair off of her forehead, and she felt cold. He shuddered.
“How long will she be like this?” he asked. “Is there anything I can do?”
“She should be fine as soon as she gets some more Ve in her, we just wanted to get the full story before we did anything else,” Amir said.
“Well?” Alera asked. When Amir looked at her with surprise, she added, “You have the full story now, what are you waiting for?”
“You might want to stand back,” Amir said. “People can be . . . distraught when they wake up like this.” Alera and Kai both took a step back.
His unnamed assistant had moved around the edge of the room, and was standing over Rafi’s head. He put his hands on her shoulders, and leaned forward. Amir took a large denomination coin from a wooden container in his pocket and pushed it against one of the Skill Graphs on his arm. It immediately crumbled as he absorbed its energy. Taking Rafi’s wrist in his other hand, he pressed his Seal against hers. The effect was immediate, with Rafi jerking to life, almost throwing the younger Auditor off. It was like watching someone being pulled from the water after nearly drowning. She coughed and sucked in deep, gasping breaths. She continued to struggle until she saw Kai standing there, and then she relaxed. The other Auditor relaxed his grip and stepped back, allowing her to sit up. Then she vomited over the side of the bed, missing the bucket that had been placed there and almost hitting Amir.
When she was done, she lay back in the cot, her eyes closed but her breathing no longer shallow. Kai started to move towards her, but Alera put a hand on his shoulder and Amir shook his head. Finally, Rafi opened her eyes. When she finally opened her eyes, she looked at the two Auditors in confusion. Alera’s grip on Kai’s shoulder tightened as she guessed at what he was feeling and tried to comfort him. Then Rafi looked directly at Kai. Her eyes widened with fear and her breath caught in her throat, she was scared of him.
Kai felt something give way inside of him as he realized that everything was not going to be alright. Why did de frighten his lifelong friend? He would rather be facing the Auditors over his forged seal than have Rafi look at him like that.
The look on Rafi’s face didn’t last for long, however, as her expression went from fear to recognition. Her face softened as got out of the cot and took a couple of shuffling steps towards Kai. Unsure of what was happening, Kai didn’t move. She half fell, half reached out for him, and wrapped him in a hug. He pulled his arms around his friend and let her face rest against his neck. Even though she was holding him as tight as she could, he still had to support most of her weight as she shivered with quiet, dry sobs.
“If you don’t mind, we need to ask her some questions,” Amir said.
“Of course,” Kai said. He led Rafi back to the cot and lowered her until she was sitting precariously upright. “We’ll be back soon with some food, okay?”
Rafi nodded and Alera led Kai out of the station. During their time inside, the sun had completed its climb above the horizon, and people were starting to come out. The waterfront street still lacked its usual chaotic energy, with the festival no one would be going to work.
“Have you seen anything like that before?” she asked once they were out on the street.
“Never,” Kai said.
“The way she looked at you, it was–”
“I know,” Kai said, both relieved and worried that it hadn’t just been his imagination.
The two of them walked in silence for a while. Kai had hoped to pick up some rolls for Rafi, but none of the bakeries were open. Instead, they stopped to buy noodles with clams from a small boy who had set up his cart on one of the piers. They ate their noodles right there before buying a serving that Kai put in his wooden travel bowl to take back to Rafi. At the station, they found Amir and his assistant waiting for them.
“She seems to be recovering, but if anyone thinks of anything . . .” Amir said, handing Alera his card.
“We’ll do that,” Alera said.
The two Auditors left and Rafi slurped down the noodles, nearly finishing by the time they reached the door.
“How are you feeling?” Kai asked.
“A bit better, but I’m still feeling wrecked,” she said as she pried the clams out of their shells. “Thanks for the food, the Ve on an empty stomach makes me want to puke, again.”
“So what happened?” Alera asked. Kai gave her a stern look, but Rafi didn’t seem to mind.
“It’s all pretty fuzzy. I was coming back late from inspecting some hives on the other side of the island and decided to take the scenic route around the waterline rather than going straight over the hill. It was dark, and I remember someone approaching me. After that, nothing.”
“What did the Auditors say?” Kai asked.
“They said that it looked like someone had stolen all of my Ve, sucked it right out through my Seal,” she said.
“That’s what they told us, too,” Kai said.
“That sounds awful,” Alera said. “Do you want to stay with us tonight?”
“Thanks, but no. If you could take me to the barracks, I would appreciate it,” Rafi said. “Besides I want to change before the ceremony tonight.”
It took Kai a moment to process what she was saying. “Rafi, the ceremony was last night,” he said when he figured it out. Rafi looked like she was going to cry.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” Alera said, and it was her turn to glare at Kai.
It was a beautiful day outside, with a light breeze keeping the heat from becoming oppressive, and Kai found the juxtaposition of the blue sky with Rafi’s tragedy disconcerting. Apparently, it had a similar effect on Rafi, despite her continuing weakness she began to cheer up. She insisted that they stop and buy chicken skewers from one of the sidewalk vendors that were beginning to set up in anticipation of the night’s celebration.
“The strange thing is, all I remember is a man saying hello to me last night–two nights ago, and then waking up in the station down there,” Rafi said when the three of them neared the barracks.
“The Auditors said something about amnesia being common in this type of situation,” Alera said before Kai got over the shock of his friend’s sudden willingness to talk.
“They told me the same thing,” Rafi said. “But from what they said, it sounded like it would be like falling asleep in the middle of class, where everything just gets fuzzy but you can’t quite pin down where exactly your memory ends. This was different.”
“Different how?” Kai asked. They had crossed through the mostly empty campus, and were almost at Rafi’s door.
“I know exactly what the last thing I remember is,” Rafi said. “I can still see his face, and then my memory just ends, clean as a knife.”
“What did he look like?” Kai asked.
“That’s the thing. He looked like you.”
Listening to her words was like having wind knocked out of him. He could see Alera stiffen in the corner of his vision. She stepped in close and hugged him.
“You know I could never . . .” Kai began, and trailed off as his mind finally caught up with her words, with the look of horror that she had given him when she had first woken up in the station. He was in shock, unsure of how he felt, but some part of him knew nonetheless, and he started to cry.
“I know,” she said, her voice soft. After a while, she pushed back from him and said, “I need to get some sleep. See you tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Kai said.
Alera didn’t say anything until they had left the Vaarplikt entirely. “She’s like a sister to you, isn’t she?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
The second day of the festival had always been Kai’s favorite. In keeping with the theme of renewal, everyone on the Island spent the day working on community projects. Neighborhood leaders would get together and come up with lists of things that needed to be done, everything from maintenance to beautification. It didn’t matter if you were a fisherman or a Clerk, you could work on any project you chose. Growing up, it was one of the few times that Kai had the opportunity to talk with strangers.
Kai volunteered to work on the paving of one of the neighboring housing blocks while Alera went to help with the roof of their housing block. The large flat stones were still in good shape, but the ground had eroded underneath and the stones had shifted, forming a dangerously uneven surface. A man and a woman were waiting when he arrived, introducing themselves as Nohen and Haani, respectively. Kai introduced himself and accepted Nohen’s offer of a steamed bun filled with sweet bean paste.
“So what’s the plan?” Kai asked between bites.
“I was thinking that we could just pull up the uneven stones and level out underneath them,” Nohen said.
Kai looked at the narrow path that led to from the street to the hollow center of the housing block. Almost half of the stones were out of level.
“It looks like it might be easier to just pull all of the stones out and level the entire thing,” Kai said after thinking about it for a moment.
“I don’t know,” Nohen said. “We’d have to move them all out into the street or the courtyard.”
Nohen had at least a decade on Kai, and Kai was getting ready to concede the point when Haani spoke up. “I’m with Kai, if we’re going to do this, we should do it right.” She was older than both of them, and Kai had expected her to side with Nohen.
“So much for laziness,” Nohen said, and Kai was relieved to see him smiling despite being outvoted.
The three of them set to work prying up the stones and moving them out of the path. Kai had worried that he would end up doing most of the work, but after a few stones they had developed a method, with Nohen using a long stick to pry up the stones and Kai and Haani working together to carry them away. Haani was a potter, and was much stronger than her greying hair and slight build indicated; Kai had to use some Ve to keep up with her. Nohen, on the other hand, had strong legs from pushing his food cart up and down Kinav’s hills, but couldn’t carry a stone to save his life.
They worked through the morning and into the early afternoon. After they had removed all of the stones, they broke down the ridges of soil and grass that had formed in the cracks over the decades. After adding several barrows full of fine gravel, raking and tamping it level and firm, they replaced the stones, one at a time. Finally, they added sand to fill in the gaps. Covered in a paste equal parts sweat and dust, they sat and looked at the path.
“I think you may have had the right of it at the beginning, Nohen,” Kai said.
“What do you mean?” Nohen replied.
“That was a lot of work,” Kai said.
“But it looks amazing,” Haani said.
“It does,” Nohen said. “Thanks for insisting on doing it right.”
“One more thing,” Haani said. She stood up and walked over to the stone on the corner between one of the walls and the street. She produced a Ve coin from somewhere and pressed it into her arm, then crouched down and pressed her hand onto the face of the stone. From another pocket she pulled a small chisel and mallet. With a series of precise taps, she had inscribed something in the stone’s face. “Nohen, Kai, you should sign this as well,” she said.
The two of them did as she said and chiseled their names into the rock with the surprisingly heavy chisel. Whatever she had done to the rock had made it easy to work, and Kai found that his chiseled name looked nicer that when he wrote it. She used another coin and pressed her hand into the stone again, presumably returning it to its normal state.
“Thanks,” he said, and Nohen echoed the sentiment.
“Do either of you want some lunch?” Nohen asked.
“Thank you but no,” Kai said. “I’m supposed to have lunch with my family.”
“I’ll take you up on that,” Haani said. “So long as you make good noodles.”
The two of them began to argue about the best way to serve noodles and Kai went off to get Alera. She was just climbing down from the roof and was stretching her hands, which were covered in dirt and specks of green moss.
“Have fun?” Kai asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “But I’m glad that I don’t have to do that every day.”
Kai silently agreed and said, “Do you want to go and get ready for lunch?”
“This is it, isn’t it?” she said. “Time to meet the parents.”
“It’s strange for me, too,” Kai said. In the distance, a bell rung twice.
They hurried back to their flat and quickly cleaned themselves off. As dirty as they were, Kai would have preferred to go to a bath house and soak the dirt out of his pores, but that would have to wait. When he went to his trunk and started to look at his outfits, he froze. None of his clothes were anywhere near as nice as the ones he had taken with him when he had moved out. He finally picked out a blue shirt and his black sarong, thankful that he hadn’t worn them since he had last had them pressed.
“You look great,” Kai said when he turned around to see Alera in a long green dress, ready to go.
“You too,” she said. “Ready?”
The two of them left the flat and began to walk towards Kai’s parents’ house, which was perched halfway up Council Hill, clinging to the steep rock like a barnacle. They arrived a few minutes after the third afternoon bell had rung, late but not rudely so.
“This must be Alera!” Kai’s mother was waiting by the door. “We’re so excited to see the mysterious woman who has stolen our son away.” She opened her arms and hugged Alera who was either unintimidated by the overwhelming show of affection or was hiding it well.
“Kai, can I speak to you for a moment?” Kai’s father asked.
“Of course,” Kai said. He looked over to Alera, but she was already lost in conversation with his mother and waved him off.
As his father led him through the house that had once been home, Kai felt as though he were sleepwalking. He knew every step, knew where they were headed. All that had changed in his absence were details, a new obsidian figurine in his father’s display cabinet, a new cushions in the sitting room, all combining to give the house a surreal, dreamlike quality, clearly the same building that he had lived in, but just as clearly not. Finally they were in his father’s study.
When the heavy door had been shut and latched, Kai’s father turned to him and spoke. “Have you told anyone?”
“Of course not,” Kai said. He looked down at his arm and at the false Seal tattooed there.
“Not ever Alera?”
“Not even her.”
“Good.” Kai’s father sat down and gestured for Kai to do the same.
Kai sat. It was clear what was coming next. He had hoped that this conversation would never come, a hope in which he had been so steadfast that it had begun to coalesce into belief. That hope had evaporated the moment his father had shut the door behind them. In his father’s study, which hadn’t changed in the least since Kai had last seen it, the house lost its dreamlike quality and it became the interceding time, choosing the Carpenters over the Clerks, meeting Alera, finding what felt like happiness, that felt like a dream. Part of him wanted to take the opportunity to ask if his mother knew about the false Seals, but he knew that whatever the answer, it would only bring pain. Kai waited for his father to speak again.
“Do you enjoy working with the Carpenters?”
“Yes,” Kai said. “It feels . . . real.”
“Good, I have heard that you have been acquitting yourself well there,” Kai’s father said. For a moment it seemed like he was done talking, but he cleared his throat and spoke again. “I hope you realize that I couldn’t tell you what was going to happen prior to the Binding. But now I realize that when I had you assigned to the Clerks that I was perhaps being inconsiderate. For that I am sorry. Even someone with a future as bright as yours needs to spend some time following his heart.”
Kai was stunned. When he had rejected a position with the Clerks and chosen the Carpenters, he had done so to rebel. He certainly hadn’t cared about carpentry then, it had simply seemed the best way to break free of his father. After hearing his father’s perspective on it, however, it felt as though his pride had been dragged into an alley and beaten half to death. Stunned, Kai lapsed back into the subordination of childhood. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Of course, as much as I want you to pursue your heart, at some point you will need to grow up. Starting next week, you will need to start meeting with others in your situation.” Kai’s father handed him a slip of paper. When Kai unfolded it, he saw an address and a time.
“Others?” Kai asked.
“You didn’t think you were alone in this, did you?” Kai’s father asked. “Be there, and you will get a chance to meet your peers.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “Dinner should be ready, come on.”
The two of them made their way back through the house to where Alera and Kai’s mother were already sitting at the dinner table. Both were laughing at something.
Once everyone was seated, the food was served. Thankfully for Kai, most of the conversation was focused on Alera, with his parents asking about her childhood, her work in Ondan’s woodshop, and how she met Kai. She managed it all with aplomb and if Kai’s silence was noticed, it was not mentioned.
In the evening, Kai and Alera left bearing a gift of a bottle of wine.
“That went well,” Alera said once they were well out of earshot of Kai’s parents’ house.
“They seemed to like you,” Kai said.
“Even so, I’m glad it’s over with,” she said.
“Me as well,” Kai said, knowing full well that it wasn’t.
“And your father, you look exactly like him,” she said. “What happened between you and him anyway?”
“Nothing,” Kai said, startled. “He was just telling me that he was happy that I was doing well at the shop.”
“Then why the silence at dinner?” she asked.
“I sat down and I just felt it go out of me, that’s all,” Kai said. “I guess I didn’t realize how tired I was.”
“You should have used some Ve,” she said.
“I know, but I think they would have noticed,” Kai said.
“They adore you, I have a hard time believing that they would have thought any less of you for it,” she said.
“You’re probably right.”
The third and final day of the festival was a day of rest, and for that Kai was thankful. Despite the Ve that he had used the day before, he was still sore when he woke up, and when evening came, little had changed. Alera was in much the same condition, though she seemed to handle it better.
After resting all day, Kai felt even more stiff than he had in the morning, but by the time he and Alera had walked most of the way to the Barracks, he felt a little better. He knocked on Rafi’s door, and he saw Alera echo his small sigh of relief when Rafi opened the door for them. She looked much better, still tired but no longer like she was on the verge of passing out. Her eyes lingered on Kai’s face for a moment
“How are you feeling?” Kai asked.
“Still a bit weak, but better,” Rafi said. “Come in.”
Rafi’s room was cramped with the three of them, but after she had been attacked it would have been impractical for her to have come to Kai and Alera’s apartment as originally planned. Kai sat down next to Rafi on her bed, and Alera took the desk chair. He took the three bundles of straw that he had purchased before the holiday. The tradition was to grow your own grass or rice or wheat and use the straw for that, but for young people and many in the city the practice was to purchase it from peddlers that swarmed Kinav prior to the festival.
Once each of them had a bundle of straw, making the doll was relatively easy. The straw was bent in half, and a string was tied a little way down from the end, tight enough to make it bulge out a little, forming the head. After that, a small bunch was pulled off from each side and bent in half, with the free end tucked back against the dolls body and tied there, forming the arms. A string was tied at the waist and then pulled apart into two more bunches, which formed the legs when they were tied. Although each of them had made the festival dolls more than a dozen times and the process was familiar, no one talked. The dolls would be placed on a shelf or alcove in their homes, patiently observing them for the next year, supposedly absorbing their energies and attitudes. It was one of the first things that people looked for when they entered a house, and no one wanted to be judged because they were unwilling to concentrate fully on something for ten minutes.
Of the three dolls that they made, Rafi’s was the nicest. Kai had tied the neck string too high, giving his doll a tiny head, and Alera’s knots were a little sloppy. In contrast, Rafi’s proportions were just right, not so uneven or so symmetrical as to make it look fake. When Kai looked at it, it was like she had infused it with some tiny spark of life.
“Wow,” Alera said, turning Rafi’s doll over in her hands. “This is amazing.”
“Thanks.” Rafi blushed. “Could you put it in the top drawer for now?”
Alera put the doll in the drawer, and Kai put their two dolls in the bag that he had used to carry the sheaves of straw. The dolls’ job wouldn’t start until midnight, when the festival ended and the new year began. Until then they were blind, and tradition had it that it was best if they didn’t have the opportunity to witness the revelry of the festival’s third night.
Rafi pulled a bottle of wine from under the bed. “Anyone feel up to a drink under the stars?”
Kai took the bottle from her and Alera helped her up. Together, the three of them made their way into the empty courtyard in the middle of the Vaarplikt barracks.
“You know, if you had come to our flat, it wouldn’t be this peaceful,” Alera said. She was right, almost everyone in the Vaarplikt was spending the festival with their friends or family.
They shared the bottle as three friends blissfully, if temporarily, alone in the world.