As the days progressed, Thali’s condition only got worse, much to Risa’s chagrin. She had expected the girl to get better, and be back to her old ways, nagging Risa to do the chores and practice her Korish; but every day, as Tanmar emerged from her room (for only he was allowed inside now that Thali had closed the door), he would only shook his head sadly, and go to fetch more of Juris’ potions.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Risa could hear the quiet moans from downstairs, which were almost always followed by the calm and reassuring voice of Tanmar. Channa, strangely enough, either didn’t care to see her daughter, or wasn’t allowed to. Risa would always fold over in bed and try to block her ears in those times; the sound of Thali in pain was somehow very difficult to hear.
This went on for several suns, a little less than a week (according to Risa’s time, which she was trying to be more careful with now); but there eventually came a day she hadn’t expected when Thali was so sick that Tanmar was afraid to go and leave her. Risa could hear her coughing as though something had caught in her lungs and was trying to make itself free; but even her voice was weak, and couldn’t be heard past the door. She had always been a fighter, capable of putting up with anything; but this sudden change had shaken this, and the uncertainty of it worried her.
And it must have been worrying Tanmar also, because two suns after that day he walked up to Risa with a determined stride and told her, “I want you to go inside and watch Thali, to make sure she doesn’t get any worse while I am gone. If it had been anything other than a call from the Yonshu, I would have stayed; but this is not something I can ignore. Bring her cold water, and cloths for her head...and administer the medicine, when she asks for it.”
“But...but she say...never to go--”
“She is too sick now to care for that anymore. She will be angry at me when she is better again; but it is for the best. If anything were to happen to her now...” he stopped, as though not allowing himself to finish the sentence. He looked down at Risa, the glint of something fierce behind his eyes.
“Do whatever it takes to make sure that Thail is still here when I return.”
“Yes,” Risa answered, though her hands were shaking.
The fiery look melted from Tanmar’s eyes, replaced quickly by an hollow and empty stare of worry. “I will not be gone long,” he said. “Now go.”
And with that he left the house. Risa could hear his feet as the hit the ground outside, running with all urgency in the direction of the lifts; and she prayed that nothing would happen while he was gone.
She stared forebodingly at the closed door to Thali’s room. Even more than making Thali angry, she didn’t want to disappoint Tanmar...and she herself was beginning to understand what it was that he meant, for if anything did happen to Thali, she was sure that she herself wouldn’t be able to bear it as well...
So she took in a deep breath and marched to the door, pushing it open with grim determination.
She glanced quickly around the room, searching; but her breath caught in her throat suddenly, as her eyes fixed on Thali.
The girl was quaking with heat; her face was red and feverish, and the blanket that covered her up to her waist was drenched in sweat. A wrap covered her chest, though not as much as it usually did; and Risa could see now what Thali had fought so hard to hide, though she wished she hadn’t. For there were grotesque wounds covering her entire body--from the top of her head down to everything Risa could see, all except for the skin around her eyes.
From the right side of her face down to her shoulder, there was the remainder of the effects of a burn that still looked fresh; and bright red scars that looked like knife wounds wrapped their ways around her neck, making it so that the skin around them could never be whole or smooth again. Both her arms had various scars, most of which looked like mild burns--but her left arm was entirely discolored, so that it was purple and permanently bruised from the elbow down. Thali looked up at Risa, her eyes obviously tired but somehow still fierce--but Risa could see now, in the dim light, that one of her pupils glinted a milky white color, a sure sign of blindness from very long ago.
Risa closed the door and tried hard not to show that she wished she never had entered. The sight of Thali was almost too much to bear; and she could feel her gag reflexes kicking in, along with a nagging urge to throw up. But she swallowed that feeling and held her head high; and she looked down at Thali, her arms folded.
“I know, what you say once...but Tanmar tell me, watch you now. He with Yonshu. So...no think I worry over you, Kalpan.”
Thali nodded, and to Risa’s surprise, a small smile lit her face.
Risa stayed standing for awhile, refusing to meet Thali’s eyes; but she eventually could stand no longer, for the aching of her muscles would not allow it, and she settled down next to the girl, curling her legs up under her chin.
“So, all of...that...how...?” she asked slowly.
“What...do you...care?” she retorted, breathing heavily as she glared up at Risa.
The Justice turned away; but her face had reddened, and her eyes were darkened. Thali wrestled at once with herself, her father’s words returning to her like the desert wind--for even though the Justice may treat her like such, she had no right to return the actions.
She sighed, though it sounded more like something had caught in her throat; and after coughin fidgeting in her spot, trying to get comfortable, she began to speak.
“Back home...in Nishem...” she said, the words struggling to escape her mouth, “there was a man...named Zeyar.”
Risa’s head tilted back toward Thali; she felt as though she had heard that name before, but she couldn’t remember where.
“He...was a student...of Ponne. They all called him...a master. I...I looked up to him too, once.”
“Was he...one who...do this?” Risa asked in spite of herself. Thali nodded.
“There was a time...when he was kinder. We all loved him...even I loved...him...but then he changed.” Her expression hardened, and Risa could hear the disgust in her voice. “He needed money...and someone told them they would...pay, if...if he...conducted experiments...”
Risa’s eyebrows furrowed. “Experiments?” she sounded out quietly, unfamiliar with the word.
“Experiments...untested magic...used on humans...to create...medicines, on...on how to cure burns...how to fix broken bones...how to...how to heal a sunburn...” She gasped, and her chest rose and fell. “They...didn’t exist before...before he researched them. The light...it was too bright for me. I am still...too sensitive.”
She shifted around, and Risa noticed that the pillow beneath her head was damp. But she couldn’t seem to move; everything was slowly making sense in her mind, and she couldn’t seem to think properly.
“The experiments...went on for...several months. By that time, my health...was diminishing. I could...tell no one though...
“Then one day...a young woman came...from Kor. She...she told me that...her husband...was a good friend...of the Kalpan Yonshu. He would...rescue me, she said...once she...told him. But...she died, before...before that ever happened...”
Risa’s expression had frozen. She wasn’t sure what to feel; pain, sorrow, pity. Anger. They were all swelling together inside of her, and after awhile she almost couldn’t tell most of them apart. But she knew that they were not the right responses. She wasn’t sure what the right responses were anymore.
“Juris...was the one who...who told Papa. I still don’t know how...he knew, but...but he did, and Papa...came to kidnap me...and Mama, to...to save me.
“But Mama...she wasn’t allowed...in the gates, because...because she was...an outsider, an enemy...and I was too sick...so he...he married Mama, to protect...to help me. But he...he really loves her,” she said fervently, her eyes shining in the darkened room.
“I know,” Risa said quietly.
“And he loves her,” Thali repeated, “but she hates him. He stole her...from the man she loves...”
And then the tears welled up in her eyes, and they ran in droves down the sides of her face; and she cried, turning her face away from Risa.
“What...what? Have you...pain?” Risa asked, startled.
“No...no...” she moaned, her words barely audible. “It’s just that...the man Mama loves...is Zeyar...”
“What?” Risa asked, dazed.
“That man...is Zeyar. I never told...I never told Mama. She never...she never would have...forgiven herself. But I fought...hard, after that...to learn Ponne. I wanted to...to cure myself, and help...the others that might have been...like me. Ponne is...not such a terrible thing, but he...he twisted it...
“Juris, when he found me...was so shocked...it was almost as though...as though he blamed himself...for not knowing...how to help. He worked tirelessly...he taught me everything he knew...he gave me the strength...to keep going on, even when...even when it hurt. He spoke often of the man...who ordered the experiments, for he knew him...saying...that man deserved to die...for what he had done...
“I will never...never tell Mama, or anyone...what happened to me. Because someday...someday, I will be normal again. But until then, I have to...fight it...just like...everyone else. Just like...you.”
Risa’s eyes glinted of surprise. “Me?” she echoed.
“Yes...you. You have been...hurt, just as...just as I was hurt. Betrayed. You had to...to give up something important...just as...just as I had to...didn’t you?”
Risa opened her mouth to say something; but she closed it soon after, and her eyes shifted to the ground.
“Never...never give up. Okay? Keep...fighting. You will find your answers...when you need them most, when you are...ready...to accept them.”
Risa swallowed, feeling her throat tighten painfully. “I think...I think you...need water,” she said, turning around and stumbling out of the room.
And she broke down the second she was in the hall, crying as she had not allowed herself to cry in over a month, mourning the loss of her brother, her family, her people. She cried for everything she had lost, everything she once had cherished, that she had given up for the sake of someone else’s pride.
But somehow, within that moment, she knew she had been given a gift. For there were times when she felt as though this young Kalpan girl had treated her kindly for this reason, inadvertently telling her all the words she had ever needed to know, like someone else used to do when she was tired and afraid...all the words she had ever needed, perhaps, to move forward.
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