Later that evening, Orini asked for a private word. I thought he may have heard from the parents of some of the children we had terrorised, but no. He told me that the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal had been repaired and was awaiting our arrival. But first, he asked a favour that would delay us by a day.
"I would appreciate it if you could do something for Kimmini. She is to be indoctrinated into Tamorein tomorrow and she has asked for you to take part in the ceremony. It is unusual for an offworlder to take part, but there is nothing to prevent it."
I was cautious. "What is involved?"
"You bless her and she does a seeing. She must do a seeing for five beings of her choice, and she has asked that you be one of them. Will you take part?"
I knew what my answer was. "Of course. It is undoubtedly a great honour. I thank her."
Orini appeared pleased. "Kimmini will be happy. Thank you." He then told me more about the ceremony and gave me the words of blessing -"Remani fladi raan".
Na'Tal and I talked long that night.
The next morning, Kimmini did not look well. As the morning wore on and we prepared for the ceremony, she looked less and less well. I thought it must have been a nervous condition brought on by excitement. The Hall of Tamorein was very large, and there were many Markab to witness the entry of Orini's child to the Seer's Guild. It was some years since anyone had been admitted to Tamorein, from what I could gather
The first initiation into a guild is very important in a Markab child's acceptance by adult society, Orini had told me. It was a special honour to sit on the stage, listening to a long and boring speech made even more boring by being in a language that I did not understand. To keep myself alert, I had another conversation with Na'Tal.
Eventually the droning stopped and Kimmini began the seeings. She was looking so very unwell and could barely stay upright. As she stood before me, I placed my hand over her forehead and spoke the words of blessing. She then took my hand in hers. She was trembling. I tried to stroke her hands with my thumb. I was so worried for her that I nearly didn't listen to what she told me.
"You are in a very dark place. You have to be strong and stay together or you will die. Be strong and stay together."
That was it? She stepped away. The crowd was applauding, for she was now a member of Tamorein. They could not see that her whole body was trembling now. She swayed, then dropped to the ground.
I scooped her up and held her close to me. She was ill, but I didn't know what was wrong. Her eyes burned into mine, but I did not know what she was trying to tell me. Her father and the priest-figure ran to us and took Kimmini from me, but she continued to watch me. They examined her, and a word escaped the priest-figure's lips.
The word spread quickly through the hall, spreading like ripples on a body of water. Just as quickly came sounds on condemnation and anger and fear. Orini's aide collected my companions and gestured to me to join them. As we were bundled out the side door, the Pak'ma'ra said that Markab were shouting "Corruptor" and "Defiler".
A ground car was waiting for us. I took little notice of where we were going. My thoughts were full of what had happened inside the hall. I was most worried about Kimmini. The thought of being mobbed had briefly crossed my mind, but I had dismissed it because the Markab were not the type of animal to attack in packs.
It seemed that there was some point to the Pak'ma'ra's existence after all. He told us that the words being shouted by the Markab - "Defiler" and "Corruptor" - had no meaning within Markab society. There is no Tempter in Markab society who leads beings to do evil - it all comes from within. Markabs believe that one becomes corrupt from within, not without. Outside forces do not play a role in wrongdoing. Therefore defiler and corruptor are made up words and nonsensical. That was cold comfort. Those words were directed at me, I am sure, but I had done nothing to contaminate Kimmini's soul.
The Pak'ma'ra also announced that he thought we were being taken back to Orini's lodgings. I hadn't been taking any notice of my surroundings. I was thinking of too many other things.
"What is Drafa?" I asked. I just had to know, didn't I?
The Pak'ma'ra had spent his time profitably - possibly more so than I. He had learnt a great deal about Markab society and now could both understand their language and speak a little of it. He told us about Drafa.
"It is not something that the Markab talk about much. It is the Dark Angel, the Angel of Death sent to punish the immoral and wicked."
"That's ridiculous!" I snapped. "Kimmini's only a child! She is not wicked nor immoral!"
"According to Markab tradition, Drafa is sent to punish the wicked. I thought it was a fairy tale - one can learn a great deal about a society from the stories they tell their children - a story used to ensure that children are good." He told us more, but my thoughts had moved elsewhere.
We arrived back at Orini's home. There, the Pak'ma'ra and Russell scurried to terminals and started researching. Russell managed to get through to the space dock where my ship was and found that the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal was repaired and ready to fly. What the Pak'ma'ra discovered was extremely disturbing.
Drafa is not some superstitious nonsense. Drafa is a disease that afflicted the inhabitants of an isolated island some 500 years ago. The inhabitants were known for their excesses, and so Drafa came to be thought of as a punishment for immorality.
The disease was fatal to all the islanders.
In the last few years, a few sporadic cases if Drafa had been recorded ("X struck down by the Dark Angel....Y paid the full price for his immorality..."). In the last year, the number of cases had increased dramatically. If it was not checked, it would increase exponentially. This was not just a disease. This was a plague, and the government was actively covering it up.
My thoughts were slowly absorbing this news. "Have there been any survivors?" Another question that I had to ask, but feared the answer to.
The Pak'ma'ra looked uncomfortable. "Err, no."
"So Kimmini is going to die."
The Pak'ma'ra squirmed. "Umm, err, well as far as I can tell, yes."
All my anger and frustration and worry burst out of me. I brought my fist down hard on the table. It shattered. The Pak'ma'ra fled, but he was peripheral to my troubles and I hardly noticed. I wanted to hit things, break things. I thundered out into the back gardens, where I expended furious energy attacking the play equipment. Why did that sweet harmless little girl have to die? The fury left me, and I sat on the swing and wept for an alien pouchling.
Some time later, Nar'Bon approached me cautiously and told me that Orini would be giving a speech broadcast across the planet in about 10 minutes time. I said I would join them soon. I didn't know how this alien child had found her way into my heart. Perhaps it was just that I missed my own pouchling so very much.
I sat on the swing as it gently rocked to and fro, squeak...squeak. Squeak...squeak. Kimmini would never play here again. I stood up and went inside.
Orini broke with his government and announced that the Markab suffered a plague of Drafa. He begged his people to understand that Drafa is a disease that strikes down both sinner and innocent regardless. His own daughter was proof of that. He pleaded with the Markab to help find a cure before it was too late, to stop ignoring the problem because they regarded themselves pure and incapable of being afflicted by Drafa. His was a brave attempt, but it was doomed to fail. These people were too edict-bound and too closely tied to years of tradition to respond.
Fear and worry and anger notwithstanding, it was getting near dinner time and I was hungry. The housekeeper didn't seem to be around, so I opened up the food stores. Everything was neatly arranged according to species, and I easily found some food compatible with Narn constitutions. Some nice, fresh spoo and a tin of (sweet and sour) flavouring. I thought the Human would be able to eat it too - we can share many foods, though much more alcohol is needed by Narns for it to have the same effect as on Humans. I wasn't sure about the Pak'ma'ra. If he couldn't eat it, it would be his loss.
I've never caramelised spoo before, but that is how I managed to cook it. It was very odd. I blame the cooking apparatus the Markab have - it only had one button. I ate what I had made, and the others made a brave attempt, but I doubt that they enjoyed it very much.
Hmm, that's right - around the same time that I started trying to cook dinner, we fell under siege from the media. They were everywhere outside. I threatened the Pak'ma'ra with serious bodily harm if he opened the door to them or talked to them or even showed his face. He bucked against me, but eventually followed my orders.
Orini came home. He had to push through a flood of reporters to reach his own home. He looked distressed, and I can't say that I blame him. Even I felt sorry for our host - I, if noone else, can imagine what it would be like to lose a pouchling. He refused the offer of dinner, not that I can blame him for that either. I just can't let even barely edible food go to waste.
Orini told us that he was trying to get us off the planet as quickly as possible, but as he had resigned from his office, he had less influence. He told us that Kimmini was at a relative's place, being cared for by his housekeeper. We expressed our sorrow at his daughter's illness, and I even apologised for breaking the table.
"A table is not very important now," he said. I remember that so clearly. That one sentence carried so many different meanings. I wonder if he knew how very sorry I was about Kimmini.
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