Secret and Shelter
The days were bright and busy, long but always joyful.
The nights were different, and she knew it.
The girl wakes with a start, clutching the too-thin bedsheets with her fists, her knees pulled tightly into her chest. She had the same dream again. Tears sting her eyes and blur her vision, but slowly, she remembers where she is.
The girl's gaze slowly travels over the crowded bedroom of Keramzin, drifting through the maze of rickety cots and bedrolls. She wants to cry aloud, but the only sound is the patterned breathing of the other children, and she dares not disturb the silence. She rolls over, and buries her face in her pillow, and sobs into the rough fabric. No one else will hear a sound.
In a room full of children, the girl is alone. She wonders if the tears will ever end, but after a seemingly endless stretch of time, they do stop coming. The pillow is soaking wet. Her heart still pounds, and the shreds of a forgotten moment of time dance and whirl at the edge of her mind, taunting her with a past she will never remember.
The cot shrieks in protest as the girl stumbles to her feet, feeling her way in the dark with one outstretched hand. She finds the door, and she slips into the hall. Her heart skitters with fear, and she shivers, the nape of her neck prickling with cold. The dark is absolute. Sometimes, when she walks the halls of Keramzin at night, she thinks of the Unsea, and she imagines something leathery and grotesque, its rugged wings spread wide, its eyes pale and sightless, its claws like kitchen knives, its gaping mouth crowded with too many teeth.
But even in the dark, even as she shudders, the girl's steps do not falter. She knows the way to him.
The girl is young, and the boy is young, and so they are both blessed with the beautiful innocence of childhood. The girl thinks nothing of it as she glides into the boys' bedroom, barefoot, wearing only a thin nightgown. She doesn't even have to search for him – his obnoxious snoring comes from a cot in the corner, and she shuffles to his side without hesitation.
"Mal," she whispers. "Mal."
The boy groans, but he opens his eyes. "Alina?"
The girl nods.
The boy sits up slowly, his cot squeaking beneath him. He is used to the girl's waking him in the night. He doesn't complain. Instead, he asks her, "Was it a nightmare?"
She looks down. "No."
He gets to his feet and heads for the door, heading out into the darkness of the hallway. The shadows have always frightened the girl - a cold, piercing fright, like icy needles along her skin - but the boy has learned not to fear the gathering dark. "The theater room?" he offers.
The girl nods. "The theater room."
They call it the theater room because the mice are their audience. A whole family of the rodents lives in a little hole in the wall, nestled in a dusty, unused bedroom, hidden in an unkempt corner of the Keramzin orphanage.
The boy and the girl play here on cool rainy days, on snowy winter days, on hot summer days, on days when the older children are restless and looking for trouble. The boy and the girl put on plays for the mice, and sometimes the mice stay and watch, simply to hear the sound of the children's laughter.
This is their secret place, their magical world where they can pretend to tame unicorns and hunt red foxes and swim in the True Sea, and no one can tell them what to do.
In this imaginary land, they are not orphans. They are the king and queen of Ravka and Fjerda and the Shu Han, and whatever else lies beyond the rolling, frothing expanse of the ocean. The world is their playground, and nothing can hurt them.
This is where they escape to when real life is cruel, if only to dream for a little while.
This is also where they go when the girl can't sleep.
So, tonight, the boy and the girl sit across from the mice. The girl is pale, with dark circles under eyes red from crying, and she shivers in the cold night, scrawny as she is. The boy is small and pudgy, so he puts one arm over her shoulder, sharing his body heat. He smells like Ana Kuya's cooking, and he's desperately in need of a bath, but the girl doesn't mind. She lets him hold her.
He looks her in the eyes. "Tell me."
The truth comes more easily than she thought it would. "I dreamed about my father."
"What about him?"
"We were in a house. And my father rolled out a big paper, and handed me a brush, and dipped my hand in ink, and moved my hand so I could draw a picture."
"A picture of what?"
The girl blinks back fresh tears. "I... I don't know."
The boy hugs her close. "I'm sorry, Alina."
The theater room is quiet. A mouse scuttles through the dust, and then vanishes into the shadows.
"Ana Kuya said the dreams would stop, Mal," the girl says. "Why don't they stop?"
"Don't know." The boy shrugs. "But it'll be okay."
"How do you know?"
The boy laughs. "You have me, silly. It's you and me."
The girl wipes her tears away. "Really?"
"It's always just you and me, Alina."
The girl giggles. Softly, she whispers, "And the mice."
"And the mice."
They laugh together, and the boy hugs the girl as hard as he can. For a moment, this is all that exists for them – the ease of their closeness, the safety and warmth in this place. The boy has the girl, and the girl has the boy, and they will always have each other. Wars and politics and magic are alien. They know nothing of change. They know nothing of the power that lies in wait within the shivering form of the girl, or of the strength and prestige that will await the boy. There is only today. There is the only the sound of their breathing.
The girl leans close, whispering something in the boy's ear. "You're my best friend."
The boy smiles. "No, you're my best friend."
They laugh again, and they don't even care if they wake Ana Kuya. They are safe. They are not otkazat'sya, "the abandoned," because they have each other. And that is how it should be.
Still, exhaustion settles in, and the girl turns to leave. "Thanks for everything, Mal. For... being here."
As she heads back to bed, she thinks she hears the boy say, "Always."
I shrugged. "I guess it's easy to have a lot in common when you're kids." Like loneliness, and memories of parents we were meant to forget, and the pleasure of escaping chores to play tag in our meadow.
~ Shadow and Bone