* * * * *
“I heard he’s a pirate.”
Nate. Micah and his sister Glenna. The Koll Square Market. Late morning light and Saturday crowds. Rie is at home with Mumma, and I’ve got a couple of coins to buy drenberry tarts, but it’s so hot out that I’m actually eyeing the ice vendors as we pass and wondering which is better: a few mouthfuls of warm berries and pie crust, or putting an ice cube on my head and having ten minutes of blissfully chilled water dripping down my scalp.
“A pirate?” Nate says to Glenna, laughing as we trot to the side of the road to avoid a steam-powered cart chugging slowly through the crowd. “What are you, an idiot?” At seventeen, Nate is nearly two years older than me and Micah, tall and gangly and spotty (and yet somehow convinced that, unlike his father’s fish, he would be quite the catch). Glenna’s face goes carefully blank; the only sign of her hurt is the slight downward twitch at the corners of her mouth. I exchange a quick glance with Micah as Nate continues: “Pirates have an X-shaped brand, not that circle-y thingy he’s got.”
“Nate,” Micah says, “she only said she heard he was a pirate.”
“Maybe he was a pirate AND something else too,” I say. “If he was a pirate and then escaped and got branded for something else, and they put it over the X— ”
“Funny it would be an X for pirates. Like X-marks-the-spot,” Micah says. A second later, his thin face seems to expand to twice its normal size as he grins. “Wouldn’t that be a brilliant kind of treasure map? Branded on your skin so you could never lose it?”
“On your forehead, so that anyone except you can read it?” I say, and duck as Micah swipes at me. We all laugh.
We’ve reached the center of the square, and sure enough, the nameless man is sitting on the edge of the fountain, like he always does on market days. He’s so stiff and statue-like that I imagine he’d just topple over and shatter against the pavement if you pushed him. I’m aware of the fact that we’ve all stopped walking, though it wasn’t a conscious decision, and our stillness causes an eddy in the crowd, like a rock in a stream. Several other shoppers pause to follow our gaze, and one little boy being led by his mother earns himself a smack on the side of the head.
“Mumma, I didn’t—”
“He’s nameless. D’you want to end up like him? Don’t let me catch you looking again.”
The little boy and his mother pass by, and for several long seconds, we just stand there and stare.
“We can’t...” Glenna says, then hesitates.
“We can’t what?”
“I just...we can’t end up like him just by looking, right?”
“Oh my shit-sucking God,” Nate says, running his hand through his rumpled straw-like hair in exasperation. “What are you, five? You think he’s got some kind of curse on him? Or that he’s gonna curse you?” He pauses for a moment, cocking his head to one side and regarding the man with narrowed eyes, and then spins back to us with a gasp of mock-horror. “Maybe...he’s a witch!”
I laugh, but Nate doesn’t get quite the full effect he’s looking for because Glenna is sulking and Micah is looking thoughtful.
“I dunno. Maybe he is a witch,” Micah says.
“Witches don’t exist,” I say.
“Not anymore,” Glenna says, rubbing at a stain on the front of her dress. “They used to. Our mum says there was a witch in her village when she was a little girl, before her parents moved here.”
“Can you lose your name for being a witch?”
For a moment, I’m tempted to say something about Rie’s strange fascination with the man, about how she always gives him food and how she claims he’s her friend and is forever trying to invite him inside. But I know Nate will just crack some snide joke, and unlike Micah, I won’t let Nate—or anyone—make fun of my little sister.
“Let’s just ask,” Micah says and strides forward, slipping between two fruit stalls and heading towards the fountain.
“Hey!” Nate says, shoving his hands into his pockets and calling after Micah. “Thought you were afraid to look at the witch! You want to end up as a little toad sitting in a pile of crap?”
But we all follow Micah anyways.
We don’t stand too close. Instead, we cluster a couple of yards away from the man, like nervous pigeons. I’ve seen Rie talking to him, so I doubt he’s dangerous—still, the sight of that circle on his forehead gives me a funny, twitchy feeling inside and makes me want to find some excuse to skip home sooner rather than later. Maybe I could blame the heat? The air in the market square is heavy and motionless, and I can feel a little line of sweat tracing its way down my spine. Several vendors and nearby shoppers have turned to stare at us in disbelief, and I can’t blame them for gawking. After all, nobody tries to talk to the nameless man. Nobody except Rie, that is.
“Hey,” Micah says.
The man doesn’t look up and doesn’t respond. His gaze is fixed on the ground somewhere between his feet and ours.
“Um, excuse us for asking,” Micah continues, “but can you tell us why you have that mark?”
The man raises his head and looks directly at me. I suddenly realize that this is the first time I have ever met his gaze without trying to look away. His grey-blue eyes are flat, and if there’s anything behind them, it is somehow walled-in; I can’t read any expression in them at all.
“You,” he says, completely ignoring Micah. His voice is dark and brittle. Everyone is staring at me now.
“Uh...” I say.
“You,” he says again, then makes an odd, up-and-down gesture like he’s patting the air in front of him. “Girl,” he says.
“You know, he’s right,” Nate says. “Duncan does look a lot like a little girl.” His grin falters for a moment as he realizes that none of us are laughing. Then he smiles even more broadly. “What?” he says. “Oh come on—it’s a joke!”
“Do you mean Rie?” I say to the man.
“Yes,” he says, nodding. “Rye.”
“No, Rie. My sister. The little girl.”
Nate snorts. “Are we going to stand here all day and teach him how to speak? It’s a lost cause.”
“Nate, shut the hell up or go away,” says Micah.
There’s an odd pause before Nate speaks, like he can’t quite figure out what Micah just said. He narrows his eyes, smiles, and gives a little huff of a laugh. “Uh. What?”
“Go away,” Micah says evenly, looking up at Nate in such a way that the height and age difference between them seems reversed. “You’re being a bastard. Come back when you feel like being nicer.” He turns to me. “How does he know Rie?”
“I...um...” I’m distracted by the look on Nate’s face, an expression that is narrowing and focusing and sharpening into something unpleasant. “I guess...I mean, he hangs out around the inn a lot, and she likes talking to him.”
“Wait. She won’t talk to me and Glen but she talks to him? I thought she only ever talked to you and your mum.”
I don’t want to be having this conversation here and now, so I ignore the question and address the man. “Sorry. Uh, so, can we ask what that scar means?”
I don’t think the man’s eyes have even left my face since I turned away.
“No name,” he says.
“Well, yes...but why did they take away your name?”
“Here’s a better question,” says Nate, his face ugly with contempt, anger in every line of his body. “Why d’you talk like a moron? Is Duncan’s retard sister rubbing off on you or something? Having little idiot get-togethers in the street?”
I do not think. I whirl around to face him, and as I do, out of the corner of my eye, I see the nameless man stand up. My anger is so white hot that it’s transparent and I don’t even know it’s there until after my fist connects with something in Nate’s face.
For one endless moment, he is falling back away from me so, so slowly, his eyes wide in surprise.
And then the dam breaks and world comes pouring back into my senses and I’m standing in the street and the nameless man is beside me and there’s someone lying on the ground in front of us and Micah is saying “Oh my God. Oh my God,” and Glenna is crouching next to the figure on the ground and the figure is Nate and Nate isn’t moving.
“Oh my God. Somebody get a doctor.”
This is wrong wrong wrong wrong, and clearly a dream, because I have no control over myself or my surroundings. I stumble forward a few steps with the intention of kneeling next to Glenna and instead find myself wandering in a semicircle until I’m facing the nameless man.
“What...?” I say. “What did you do?” I can’t even tell if I’m speaking aloud or not, because he doesn’t react. There’s a crowd surrounding us now—a mass of faces, too many to take in individually. Someone barges past me to crouch next to Nate, but I’m still staring at the nameless man.
“What happened here?”
I wrench my gaze away and see a uniformed man standing just inside the circle of onlookers.
My heart begins to throw itself against my ribs. There’s a constable. Nate is on the ground, not moving. There’s a constable. And all the people are looking at me.
“Can anyone tell me what happened here?” the constable says again, slowly, like we’re a bunch of stupid children. He pulls his cap from his head and smoothes his hand across the gleaming baldness of his scalp, staring around at us with narrowed eyes.
Nobody says anything. Nobody moves.
“Come on,” he says, tucking his club under his arm. “Speak up.”
My body is a tight spring of compressed panic; I feel as though some faraway voice is yelling at me to run and run hard, but I’m not moving. The soft splashing of the fountain has become a roar in my ears. Micah turns to me, his expression too big for his face, and inhales sharply—
—then his gaze slides sideways and he raises his hand towards something beside me.
“He hit Nate.”
Micah is pointing at the nameless man.
I turn and look. The man shows no surprise or even fear; it’s like he doesn’t even see Micah’s hand aimed at his chest. Instead, his expressionless gaze roves over the crowd of people before us before coming to rest once more on me. The flat grey eyes find mine and lock on.
And he is still staring at me ten minutes later when the constables lead him away.
* * * * *