Neave found Kira hanging from the stable rafters, a week after her father sold her to Garek.
She had been a skinny, sallow thing, with hollow eyes and high cheeks. Her father swore she was sixteen years, although she looked no older than Neave's fourteen.
She'd never spoken to any of them. Not to the other girls of the house, not to the boy who looked after the horses, not to him. Neave had tried. He'd tried to talk her into eating, sneaked her some wine, tried to get her to talk to Mara. She'd swallowed the wine readily enough, but ignored the food. Neave warned her that Cook and Garek wouldn't put up with her shirking work.
Kira had spent the week serving in the taproom, but last night one of the customers had taken a fancy to her. Took her up to his room with him.
Neave had seen her in the early morning, as she passed through the kitchen where Neave slept near the fireplace. He'd assumed she was getting herself some wash water from the well in the yard as she'd taken a bucket. He'd hoped she wouldn't get underfoot in the kitchen and get in Cook's way. The old woman didn't take out her temper on the girls much, but he was fair game
After a very long time Kira had not reappeared. Cook sent Neave to look for her, worried perhaps, that the girl had tried to run away, although she had taken no cloak for the cold. The little yard was empty and Kira's footprints led through the thin snow to the stable door.
The door hadn't been properly latched and swung open at Neave's touch. The winter sunlight shone on the wooden bucket that lay on its side. A few inches above that, the toes of Kira's slippers dangled beneath her ragged skirt hem.
The rest of the morning was a chaos of officials. The law keepers had to come to investigate the death. To that end, everyone in the house was to be interviewed.
Garek was not happy at the prospect of having it pronounced a suicide in his house, but the girl couldn't have been hung by accident. He didn't want to be implicated in a murder charge, so he was quite cooperative with the law keeper's investigations. The priests took Kira's body to give her proper, if perfunctory, rites. The angry shade of a suicide could cause no end of bad luck.
"Neave? She wasn't very bad, was she?" Mara asked him in Valdemaran as they stood waiting for the law keepers to get done investigating the yard. Garek was out there with them. and they'd all been told to stay in the main room.
Trembling with deep cold, and feeling quite sick, he remembered (or almost remembered) a day last autumn, when Kira's cheeks had been apple round and her blue eyes had laughed, rather than just gazed into the distance. His aching ribs burned. He had a sudden flare of temper at the ridiculous question and turned to tell Mara that, yes, she had been bad. And no, he was not all right. Not at all.
Mara put her hands on his shoulders as he faced her, "She wasn't too bad, was she?" she said again. A statement this time. Neave looked into Mara's face, feeling the rage of a second ago leave him. The pain in his ribs ebbed to a vague ache.
Mara had taught Neave her native Valdemaran mostly out of loneliness, he suspected. She looked out of place in the plain woolen day gown she wore. It was the one gown that she had that made her look matronly. She wore it when she went to market to avoid being bothered, she said. Today she wore it to talk to the law keepers.
"No, she'd just gone blue. She hadn't cut her throat or anything." he replied in her language. Really, it hadn't been that bad. He couldn't even picture her face now. His shivering eased and then stopped. "No. It wasn't too bad."
"Ah, it's a hard business when they get into this life unwilling." she sighed, releasing his shoulders. She looked so tired, suddenly.
"There's any other way?" he muttered sourly in Hardornen.
Her face went hard. "For some of us, it's better than what we left." she said, still in Valdemaran. She pushed her black hair over her shoulder, her face softened again, "I was a woman grown when I got into this life, not sold into it by a drunkard who needed to pay his debts." She finished in Hardornen
Mara was better off than most of the girls. She wasn't in debt to Garek for either drugs or drink, so that gave her a certain independence. She also had a string of regular men (and one or two women) who asked for her and no one else. She was skilled at her trade-depending on what her customer wanted, she could jump from giggling, nervous virgin bride to world weary jade in the blink of an eye.
One of the other girls, Jassera, clutched Mara's elbow, "Are the they going to let us open today?" she asked anxiously, "If we don't open, we don't eat!" Jassera didn't mean eat—she was one of the ones who drank up her pay. Neave had found her more than once with her head in the horse trough outside.
Neave shrugged, that was for Garek to figure out. He assumed that if the law keepers found that Kira's suicide was a true one, there would be no reason for them not to open. O
Mara said, "Its pretty clear what happened, I'm sure they won't find fault with us."
Neave had seen Kira's face when the man had led her away last night. He'd also seen that the man had enjoyed Kira's obvious revulsion, else he'd have taken one of the more experienced girls.
Neave himself felt numb. The image of Kira's feet hanging in space was stubbornly imprinted in his mind, but the rest of it went into the same cupboard as the rest of this horrible winter.
The lawkeeper's interviews were short and succinct. They didn't even want to talk to Neave-which was fine by him. The captain spoke to Mara privately right after they finished with Garek. Whatever she said to them must have been the right thing. Afterwards the captain gravely told Garek it would be filed with the city magistrate as a "misadventure". Garek was so relieved that he hugged Mara when the lawkeepers had gone.
They were able to open, although they had fewer customers than normal. Late that night, Neave took two mugs of ale upstairs. Cook was already dozing by the fire. She opened one eye, but probably assumed one of the girls had asked for the two mugs. She merely closed her eye again and turned over on her pallet of rags.
Neave climbed the stairs up to top floor. There was a small attic storage room he could climb up to through a narrow staircase. The chimney went through it, so it was relatively warm. Not as warm as the kitchen, but he was more interested in safe than warm right now. No one other than him came up here and the customers didn't even know it existed
He drank his two ales and wrapped up in the blanket he'd snagged from Kira's things, before the priests had taken them away. She hadn't had many things he could have used, but she did have this blanket which was better than the one he owned.
He stood looking down at the street outside the inn from the tiny round window of the attic. This had been a difficult day.
The moon was half full and shone brilliantly on the snow cover. There was almost no one moving about on the street now, the few torches in their holders were long since burned out.
Neave looked upward at the sharp stars and wondered if Kira could still see the stars from wherever she was.
A movement in the street below caught his eye. In the street below him, walking slowly, was a riderless white horse.
If moonlight could come to life and take form, it would have been this form.
The horse was the same color as the surrounding snow, glittering even as it did. If the horse had been still, Neave would have taken it for a snow sculpture. But she (he wasn't sure how he knew it was a she) did move. She moved like the liquid silver a merchant had once showed him or like the dress Mara owned made of something called silk. Like nothing Neave had ever seen.
She was riderless, but saddled and bridled in rich, expensive tack. Neave wondered whose stable boy was going to be whipped tonight, for letting such a beast wander off. She seemed to be moving with purpose-perhaps she was headed for her home stable over a well known route (although he would have remembered seeing her if she passed by regularly).
He continued to watch her and the horse stopped, uncertainly looking around, right under the small window he was looking out of.
She looked up. Straight at him.
The blue moonlight engulfed him. Something escaped from his heart. Something warm took residence in its place. A warmth that drove out the chill of today's events and even those things that he steadfastly refused to think on.
:Oh, at last. I Choose you:
Neave knew that madness sometimes made people hear voices. He wondered vaguely if today had just been too much. The voice was a young woman's, but at least it wasn't Kira's. He half expected that she would be coming back to haunt him, looking for vengeance.
The Companion (where did that word come from?) still stared up at him. Now her head was tilted quizzically. :Vengeance? What do you mean? What's happened?: It was her voice inside his head.
Neave's breathing began to speed up, making his ale addled head feel even lighter. The image of Kira's feet as they dangled was forced to the forefront of his mind. There were other things lurking behind that image too.
The pain in his ribs redoubled, making him gasp, "Stop."
:Chosen? What...?: The image of feet dangling faded, :You're hurt?: Kyldathar (Was that her name? It was beautiful) asked, sounding frightened and upset. :Can you get down here?:
Strangely, as if some other steered his thoughts, he thought of and discarded a half dozen ways of leaving the inn and the town.
Leaving during the day was impractical since it would be clear that he and the white horse didn't match. The law keepers would question them at every turn. Kyldathar didn't want to take back ways with Neave in this cold. He thought of just hiding somewhere until dark, but again, the cold and his thin clothing were against them. Then there were his injuries. He was fine as long as he had Mara's medicine, but he was doubtful he'd make half a day on his feet without it.
That thought seemed to decide the Companion. :I'm going to go get some help, Neave.:
He was anguished at the thought that she would go. He felt unaccustomed tears fill his eyes.
:I swear to you, Chosen, I'll be back with help. Look for us tomorrow night. Either me or a white horse that looks like me. That's how you'll know us.:
Neave felt as though his heart was breaking.
::Shhh. It will be all right. Sleep now. I love you:: The gentle voice urged him out of his hiding place (where he might be whipped if he was discovered)and back down to the kitchen where he fell into a sleep filled with white horses and hoof beats that sounded like bells.