It was not until they could see the strip mine’s blotchy shadow begin to creep down from the horizon that Esker began to speak, still staring straight ahead.
“The five of us would take food and water and come out here for a whole day,” he said. “Not when it was too hot—we knew better—but when Kem had just got a hiding, or when Ozier’s pa was getting too serious about The Future of the Amen-Enkh Name, or when Inber had some Chanter holy day he didn’t want to celebrate. He’s serious about that, now, but he didn’t use to be—you wouldn’t have known him from a Singer but for his lightness, and we were out in the sun so much he burned as black as anyone, almost. When we were little, we hid and played tag and Marshals and Gods-in-the-Vale. And then we got older and we had contests to climb up the steepest slope, or we’d run races, or we’d sight a cave and see who could reach it and get back fastest—we had an old watch that Ozier had stolen from somewhere in the plantation, so we could time each other. Kem always won—anything to do with speed, he won, whether it was climbing or running or reciting the Music backward. Or we’d go after the rain and look at what was growing in the pools before they dried up; or sometimes we’d find little rivers and lakes and play in those. And then we got a little older than that, and sometimes we’d pair off and—” He found himself choking on the words. He hadn’t expected to; he’d been thinking about how he’d say these things to Hasina for some time. But they weren’t said to women. They weren’t said at all. The words he’d chosen seemed simultaneously to reveal too much and to distort what the experiences had been like. Panicked, Esker retreated to cliché. “Do what boys do.”
He wanted to forge on, to forget he had said anything, but he forced himself to look back at Hasina—to see if she had a reply. She looked at him in contemplation. Do you want to know what the girls at Mme Twilight’s have to say about you and “what boys do,” Esker Sepherene?
“That depends,” he said. “Do you believe it?”
She shrugged. Not especially.
“Then I don’t care what they have to say.”
They walked without speaking for a bit. Pairing off seems awkward with five, Hasina said, smiling.
“We didn’t do it that often. When we did, it would only be one pair at a time, and the rest of us would do something else. I could tell that Kem and Inber and Ozier didn’t enjoy it all that much.”
But you did.
“Not with them.”
Hasina didn’t ask With who, then?—but Esker knew she knew.
They were drawing up on the strip mine, now. Esker began to see the familiar striations of the earth, the geometry of the excavations—a meandering shape he had once thought natural, like the shapes water hewed in stone, but now seemed cancerous. “They thought there was black silver here, a while back,” he said. “They found wild blackroots growing. That was before they knew how blackroot worked. It has capillaries that go hundreds, thousands of feet deep. A little field of blackroot could be concentrating the black silver from a huge amount of soil. But they thought it was different—like they were tapping into a vein of it or something. So they went looking for the vein.” He shrugged. “Wasn’t one. But it took a while for them to understand that.”
Hasina tugged on his sleeve. Who’s “them”? she asked.
Esker shook his head. “Some company,” he said. “Some name. I’m sure my pa told me once.”