The provost marshal on duty checked the two women out of the Registration building and opened the private entrance. Despite the warning bell getting louder now they were outside, Alessia smiled when she saw Mas waiting. His yellow Lightmans cloak was blackened on one sleeve.
“Set yourself on fire?” He patted the smudge.
“Put one out.” He gave a warm smile for Bailey but Alessia had to take a moment to gather herself. The bells had only started a few minutes before she left. The damage to his sleeve was from something that hadn’t reached the main authorities. Mas caught her staring and shook his head almost imperceptibly over Baileys head. He kept up light amusing conversation for the girl as he and Alessia escorted her home. Bailey lived on the outskirts of town and it was almost dark by the time they watched her enter her home. Even in the twilight Alessia could see plumes of smoke dissipating.
The bell finally stopped. It didn’t relieve her because she knew it would ring again tomorrow or even tonight. It was the fifteenth bell this week and they were becoming more frequent. Mas held out his hand to steady her on a loose rock but didn’t let go once she took it. Alessia squeezed so hard she was convinced it must hurt. He made no comment.
As they reached her house she heard raised voices inside. She stopped at the gate and took a moment to look at the sky.
“I’ll say goodnight here,” Mas murmured. Giving him a tired smile she leant into him, his arms wrapping around her. Glass shattered inside. She turned her face into his chest and sighed. Mas rubbed her shoulder.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said. He opened his mouth to speak but a shout from inside drew her attention. Letting go she walked to the door. Just before she opened it she watched Mas walk to the end of her street. At the corner he stopped, turning to make sure she had gone in. She still remembered the way her face had heated when she noticed he did that. Now, as well as making sure she went in, he blew her a kiss. She waved and entered the house just as another door in the house slammed. Her Father was at the table holding himself up.
“Is he still here?” she asked. Her Father jumped at her voice and spun away but it was too late to hide the wetness on his face. Moving to him she held his arms to steady him. His bowed spine meant he was now shorter than her. His hand covered hers and tried to push her away.
“You haven’t forgotten what today is?” he asked.
“I don’t understand why it must be dragged out so. The boat arrives the same time every day. Why could I not have gone-”
“It’s for your own safety, Father. Once it’s past curfew…” she guided him to a chair by the fire. She heard a sniffle and pushed a handkerchief into his clenched fist.
“I know my darling.” He sighed. “It’s just so hard on you and Isaac.”
“No, Father. It’s not hard on me.” She made him a cup of tea and tried not to linger while she made it. “I can’t speak for Isaac. But don’t travel beyond the water thinking I struggled with it.” She sat at his feet with her own tea as he blew on his. After a moment, she put a hand on his knee.
“Tell me a story of Mother.” With a weak smile, and a sigh, he did. She leant her head on him and listened to his voice.
A soft knock on the door eventually interrupted them. The Lightmen she let in were wearing dark cloaks over their ochre ceremonial robes. She helped get her Father ready for the cold as their lead man ran through the order of events. They asked him some questions to make sure he understood as Alessia checked the house for Isaac. When she returned alone her Father nodded.
Past curfew they had to walk in silence so they attracted less attention. Alessia saw lit candles in darkened windows of some of the houses, the only well wishes that could be made. Her Fathers hand clutched her arm. His grip was weak, his pace slow but steady. She covered his hand with her own and felt the slight tremble of thin muscle under his papery skin. She caught him looking at her from under his hood and tried to give him a reassuring smile. The closer they got to the dock the stronger the smell of smoke. They heard voices and one of their escort motioned them to wait. He went ahead to investigate. She looked around. All the houses were dark here. One had thick black smoke marks rising from empty doors and windows.
Soon they were moving onto the shore and the docks came into view. A line of Lightmen guarded it, their robes bleached white by the moon. The gentle lapping of the water was matched by the sound of wood bumping against wood. The boat was moored. Her Father stumbled on the uneven ground. She went to catch him but one of their Lightmen held him up. The sleeve of his ceremonial robe peeked out from his cloak and she saw a familiar smoke mark on it.
“You didn’t think I’d miss your Fathers departure.”
She tried to smile but her face was so cold it barely moved so squeezed his arm too. Mas took her Fathers weight allowing her to hold his hand. The sound of a wave rushing towards them had her looking over the water. A warning cry came from a Lightman as she realised it was the sound of people running down the beach. The line of Lightmen raised their arms, bows in hand and pointed over her head. She and Mas dragged her Father forward as he cried out in alarm. She stumbled on the sand and pitched towards the line. Hands grabbed her and forced her the rest of the way. Behind the line, she turned to see a crowd closing on the dock, some carrying torches.
“Alessia!” she recognized her Fathers voice and moved. She felt slow and useless, like running through water. Mas was heading onto the pier but her Fathers hand was outstretched towards her. She reached for him. His grip was so tight it was like he was a younger man again. She soothed him and whispered in his ear, reminding him of the cabin and that she would meet him there one day. With Mas helping to carry him, they headed along the pier.
She could hear orders being shouted, the thrum of bow strings releasing. Another Lightman ahead of them held the boat steady and they helped her Father in. Alessia lay herself down on the pier so she could keep hold of his hands. The warning bell rang out drowning out everything else. Her Father looked up at her, not out to the water as she would have expected. His face looked ghostly in the moonlight.
“What if your brother is right?” he cried.
“He’s not,” she replied and gripped his hand harder. His was just as strong. She felt his fear through their hands and knew it was up to her to let go. She clambered forward with her elbows so her Father could hear over the noise.
“Do you remember when Isaac was little? He asked you to write us a letter telling us what the cabin is like when you get there?” He nodded. “You will need both hands to write.” His smile quivered but he nodded again. They let go at the same time and she was sure he mouthed that he loved her. She watched until he turned to look into the fog.
The same moment the sounds on the beach broke through to her. Yelling had turned to screaming and acrid smoke smothered her. Mas dragged her up. The pier was on fire, their exit blocked. The other choice was deep black water. Mas took her hand and with a nod from her they jumped.
Her skin stung everywhere the water touched and her lungs felt like they were burning. For a moment, she thought she was on fire anyway. The current was strong and dragged her. Terrified she would be carried away from shore she thrashed. It took her a few moments to realise it was Mas pulling her through the water. He was heading further out and away from the riot. She needed air and tried to swim to the surface. He pulled her down again but she yanked her hand out of his and broke free. She could see muted light and headed for it. Her face broke the surface and she gasped in air. Water landed in her open mouth and she choked. She tried to cough it out but couldn’t find the surface again. Her sight was blurring and she knew it was tears as well. Kicking hard she breached the surface and swiped at her face. She was out of the water and sucked carefully through her lips but this time it was only air. Hands grabbed her from behind. She shrieked and beat her fists against her attacker. Her hands became tangled in clothing and they wrapped their arms around her. Their heads pressed together as she struggled Alessia finally heard Mas’ voice.
“It’s me! It’s me.” It was his cloak she was battling with. Balling her hands around what material she could find she pulled him closer. He pulled her back until she was lying on his chest, her face uplifted to the sky. It was easier to breath without the water crushing her chest. There was a flickering light. Turning to look she could see the entire dock was on fire. She knew Mas was watching too. She could see people running away and black clad bodies lying on the gold sand.
“Do you think the current will take us to the cabin?” she asked,
“It’s not that strong,” Mas answered and began to swim them to the shore.
Alessia dried her hair in front of the fire as Mas made tea. She had given him some of her Fathers clothes to change into and she couldn’t watch him like she usually did. Isaac was still not home. Despite being out of the water for a while her hands were still cold. She held them closer to the fire. She was startled when Mas covered her hands with his own and drew them back.
“You’ll get chilblains.”
“I know,” she sighed and took a cup from him. He settled on the floor next to her and took the blanket she offered. “I just can’t get warm.” Putting his cup down, Mas put her free hand between his and rubbed gently. There were occasional shouts in the distance. She tensed at every one. A board creaked outside and her head went up, looking at the front door expectantly. When it didn’t open, she turned back to the fire.
“I’m sure Isaac is safe.” Mas leaned loser with a smile of encouragement. She didn’t look up. “He’s a smart boy.” Alessia drew her hand back and wrapped the blanket closer.
“He’s not a boy. And he is smart. Which is why I’m so worried.”
“It’s a fad. Many of the youngest ones go through it.”
“In Botown’s history there has never been so much violence. And it’s not like there are missing records. I know. I checked. There’s no cover up, no conspiracy…” She sighed and slumped over. “I just wanted my Father safe.” Mas placed an arm round her shoulders and pulled her closer. She turned her face into his chest and let herself breath him in. The clothes smelled of her Father and of Mas. She had never felt so comforted.
A creak of a board and a stern knock had the pair of them leaping away from each other. When Mas opened the door for her several Lightmen were outside. They were carrying a stretcher, a cloak covering the head and shoulders. As a Lightman read her the charges against Isaac, and the punishment they had meted out, she stepped closer to the body. Her Fathers ring was on his finger. She removed it and looked at the blood speckled hand. The Lightman finished. In the silence the stretcher bearers swayed from foot to foot. Pale grey light was moving across them as dawn broke.
“Are there any charges being brought against myself? As his sister?”
“No, milady. It was clear that you were not mixed up with him and his…cohorts.”
“Then you can take him away and bury him with the other criminals.”
“Alessia-” Mas stepped forward and reached for her. She moved away from his outstretched hand and went inside. She returned with his still damp cloak and uniform, handing it over without meeting his gaze.
“I want all of you gone before my neighbour’s wake. I have no family now.” With that she turned and closed the door.
Picture used under Creative Commons Licence from Pixabay.com.