EVERY GRAM OF SILENCE

I saw her eyes, just the once: when she pulled me from Father’s house, her blindfold had come undone. So bright, emeralds on fire.

Rain had daggered her lashes like ingrown teeth; they scratched, scratched at the glistening wet and the veiny white underneath. Black veins. Their stunted branches grew, pulsating, as she tore away my rubble blanket, brick and stone crushed to dust between her skinny fingers.

She had looked at me. They were glass…no, they were flesh, throbbing in their sockets, but they shone like glass. They were blind too – the left wandering far too left, the right pupil a gaping hole – yet she saw me, those all those pale rain-tears.

I stopped breathing. My crumpled legs tried to flee, but they were pinned under a concrete pillar five feet wide. Shameful, to have been so afraid. They were just eyes, blind and glazed in the soaking twilight, and whether they blinked or not was no reason to fear eyes over being buried alive.

But I feared. I wished the rubble had covered me like a blanket.

Maybe that was why she wore the blindfold; delirious under the debris, half-drowning in a grey brine of rain and quicklime, I was certain that her errant gaze was scorching the life from me…or maybe it was only the quicklime that did the scorching.

I had fainted. A blink, a quick nap, but long enough that when I looked again her blindfold was back on, that thin white satin fence between the green balefire and my sanity. She had hefted the pillar onto her shoulder, a stick of concrete twelve feet long. Her right hand was clawed into its flank, her fingers sunk to the second knuckle; her left she had offered to me.

Her hand…

Warm. Burning. Not the heat of a living body, but thick old leather roasted under the desert sun. A fever, even on her fingertips. As she held me up by the wrist, dangling me there like a doll with half its stuffing on the floor, my face had pressed against her arm. Under her coat of faded black wool, it was skin and bone. Yellow-grey blotches ran from her wrist into the shadow of her sleeve, then appeared again under her high collar, almost touching her earlobe. Then I smelled the stench.

A powerful, chemical stench. At first I thought it some kind of cheap perfume gone rotten from sitting on a shelf for too long. Now, after three years of handling jars and canisters of that same stink at James’ behest, I knew better. After a thousand days spent in her company, I no longer smelled her at all.

The same indifference could not be said of those who came to our House.

They all shrank from her; even the brawniest men became weasels at the sight of her. They put silken handkerchiefs to their snouts, and pretended to sneeze until they chain-sneezed. Most first-timers gawked as well, sometimes with a dash of light retching if they were polite, or worse if they were frail.

Not a month ago, a child had gone into a seizure in the waiting room, streaming bloody snot onto the Marisian rug and wheezing something about missing his purple friend, but before I could call him James was already storming out of his office, yellow snow piled thick on the shoulders of his marquee robe, and a minute later the boy was calm and dozing, a stupid smile on his chubby face. Then his mother had apologized, and asked whether the good Master would object to keeping her at a distance from the Seneschal’s son.

The next day I was given a desk in the lobby, facing the big oaken doors. When I sat behind it with the papers and clipboards James tripled my wages, so I often sat there until well into the night. I greeted the clients when they came in and showed them out if they had no gold or appointment, or I made them wait if they had both, and when they went into James’ office I closed the door behind them, then stood on the left by the petunias while she stood on the right.

Sometimes they screamed. Sometimes they cried. They laughed too, occasionally, but never the sane kind. She was always silent though, never a noise. And most times I stood with her, in case James needed tea or some concoction to be fetched from the laboratory, but now and again deliveries would come in, or some other client would start banging on the bell, and I’d have to step away. She never stepped away.

Not when James was in there.


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