Ahiga had stripped himself of the last remnants of his prison uniform. He wore only his loincloth – the normal clothing of an Ammippian, Thomas knew, except in the dead of winter. Ahiga still looked angry. Little wonder. What was he doing here?
When Ahiga finally spoke, it was in Ammippian. "You should not leave me without guard. I am a danger."
"I am knowing that," Thomas replied in the same tongue.
Ahiga smoothly switched to the Mippite language. "Then why did you so? I could have escaped."
"I left you free," replied Thomas in Mippite, holding out the teacup, "so that you should know in what manner I am claiming you."
Frowning, Ahiga took the cup, but he did not drink from it. He said, his voice harsh, "You are a thief."
Thomas raised his eyebrows.
Ahiga pointed at the amulet hanging from Thomas's neck. "You steal our images. You steal our tongue. Who is giving you knowledge of such things?"
"My grandmother," Thomas replied, and then added her name in her native tongue.
Ahiga looked at Thomas as though he were something unpleasant that the Ammippian had stepped on. "You are a half-breed."
"A quarter-breed," Thomas replied calmly. "One-quarter of my blood is Ammippian. The other three-quarters . . . a mixture. I'm a Mippite. That means I'm not ashamed to be of mixed blood."
It was the truth, though not the entire truth. Thomas, like many Mippites of his generation, gloried in his mixed heritage, but his father had adopted the older view that mixed blood was a taint upon a pure bloodline. Compassion's Keeper was always defensive about the fact that he had married a Vovimian woman, and he had done his best to keep his only son from being in contact with his own Ammippian mother. Thomas had sneaked away periodically to visit his Ammippian grandmother – the first of many acts of defiance he would show toward his father.
In the Ammippian language, there was no greater insult than to call someone a half-breed, unless it was to name what Thomas's grandmother had done when she married Thomas's grandfather. Thomas could see that Ahiga was puzzled by the Assistant Keeper's calm acceptance of the insult that had been flung at him.
Thomas carefully explained, "She was the last member of her tribe. She didn't want her tribe's ways to be forgotten. So she taught me her language, as well as the language that the tribes use when speaking together – the language that the Mippites refer to as Ammippian. She taught me the ways of her tribe and the ways of all the Ammippians, so that, if I should ever meet another Ammippian, we would be able to converse together, and share knowledge."
Still frowning, Ahiga said, "You have the blood of the invaders. Your people destroyed mine."
"Yes," said Thomas softly. "And you had your revenge for that, didn't you?"
Ahiga abruptly turned his face away, as though he had been struck. His dark-skinned face had begun to flush. Thomas pressed him: "Why did you return here? You were free to escape and wreak further destruction."
For a long moment, the Ammippian did not speak. Finally he said in a low voice, "I was taught wrong. I do not want to return to those who taught me wrong. And the others among my people, who might have taught me right . . . they have wiped their memories of me." His throat moved as he swallowed.
"You have only reached your twenty-first autumn," Thomas replied. "There is still time to learn the right teaching."
Ahiga turned his face slowly back to look at the Assistant Keeper. He bore the tattoos of manhood on his torso; he had already undergone his coming-of-age ceremony. He might justifiably have been insulted by such a suggestion. But his forehead was puckered, as though he were considering the proposal.
Over the years, Thomas had found that honesty was the best manner in which to disarm hostile prisoners. Now he said, "I'm a year younger than you. I can't claim to hold the wisdom of an elder. But I can do one thing for you that your eldest elder couldn't do: I can protect you here. If you allow me to claim you as my lad, I will protect you against any guard or prisoner who wishes to harm you. I swear that."
"You would do this for the sake of your grandmother's ghost?" Ahiga replied slowly.
Thomas hesitated. But Ahiga was bound to find out, soon enough; better that he should hear it from Thomas. "And for another reason. Having a lad will give me status among the other guards. I need that status, in order to protect the other prisoners. I can't claim them all as my lads, but if my power is greater than it is now, I could influence the other guards' behavior. If you are willing—"
"You are alone."
Ahiga's words stopped Thomas's mouth. He stared down at his boots, uncertain how to reply. He could hear, faintly, the sound of the night guards, laughing as they shared some joke with each other.
"How long is it being?" Ahiga persisted.
Thomas could feel sweat upon his skin, clammy. He took a deep breath. "All my life, I think. There was a time recently, when I came to know another man at Mercy Life Prison—"
"You took him as your lad?" The Ammippian seemed wholly absorbed in the tale.
"Not as my lad, no. That wasn't part of his tradition. But when I was with him, I wasn't lonely, for a while. Now . . ." He forced himself to look up and meet Ahiga's gaze squarely. "I'm sorry. I should have realized that my motives for trying to help you were selfish."
He saw that Ahiga was grinning.
"Ha!" Ahiga shouted the word up to the ceiling, then swallowed the tea with one gulp and threw the cup at the wall, shattering it. "Ha, now I know you! I thought you wished to take me from pity, standing in your lofty station above me – but it is not that, is it, Mippite? You know me to be like you. You see me alone, and you see yourself. And the danger – you have known the danger?" Ahiga's voice was eager now.
"Yes," said Thomas firmly, doing his best to hide his surprise at Ahiga's change of mood. "I've known the temptation to destroy, many times."
"Then you can teach me." Reaching forward, Ahiga thumped Thomas on the back, so hard that Thomas staggered. "You wish to destroy, but have not. You are alone, but you think not of your aloneness – instead, you reach out to another who is alone. You are an elder, Mippite, though you have not known it. And I—"
Suddenly he was on his knees in front of Thomas, and Thomas's heart was throbbing in his throat as he felt that supreme ecstasy of power which he knew his father had always known when he forced a lad to serve him in bed.
But this was different. Thomas knew it was different, from the fierce joy in Ahiga's face. "I am your lad," the Ammippian pledged. "And you will teach me right, in the ways of your people, so that your grandmother's ghost will not sorrow. We will give this gift to her ghost, so that she may speak to the other ancestors on my behalf. I will do whatever you wish, for the sake of this learning."
Thomas took a deep breath, feeling Ahiga's willing submission enter into his heart, healing the wound there. "In that case," he said quietly, "I wish you to ready our bed."
"—no excuse for what I've been doing," he told Tom. "I know perfectly well that he has only been offering himself to me because he fears me. It's not as though the Boundaries of Behavior that you inspired Merrick to invent are hazy on this point. 'I take no one unwilling,' they say. Offering yourself up to your guard because you're afraid he will torture you is not a willing giving. I've been taking advantage of him."
Tom did not speak for a minute. His eye was on the far end of the lake, where smoke rose from an eastbound locomotive. As the thunder of the train neared, Tom crouched down and cleared a little space around the young pine tree.
The locomotive passed, sixty-five tons of deadly steel, swooping over the tracks with the elegance of a great blue heron swooping over the water. "Blue herons are good luck," he had been told when he was young, but this heron was dark and deadly . . . like himself.
"Tom?" he prodded finally. "What should I do?"
"I don't know." Tom rose to his feet.
He stared. It was not the answer he had expected. "Tom . . ."
Tom shook his head, still staring at the sapling. "I just don't know. I'm too far away from Mercy to know for sure what you're doing. You'll have to trust your own instinct."
"My instinct?" He gave an incredulous laugh. "My instinct is for destruction, always. If I don't have someone to stop me—" He cut himself off abruptly. He was not prepared to say aloud what the entrance of Tom into his life had meant.
And now Tom had failed him. Had failed to give him any guidance whatsoever on what to do.
He tried again. "Should I leave the prison? I know that you've been counting on me to help with matters at Mercy, if you should ever gain control of Compassion, but with my instinct for destruction . . ."
But Tom did not seem to be listening to what he was saying. The Assistant Keeper's attention was focussed on his visitor's left hand.
He looked down at his hand. He was still clutching the last of the leaves he had picked up before. It was not yet crumpled. Looking at it, he could feel the desire rising in him: to mutilate, to tear, to crush. To utterly destroy.
Tom's hand folded over his, pushing his hand into a fist. The leaf crumpled. Its remains fluttered to the ground, onto the space of ground that Tom had cleared around the sapling.
He looked up, bewildered. Tom looked steadily back at him. "Saplings need soil to grow. Soil needs dead leaves. There's a place for everything offered in sacrifice throughout the cycle of death, transformation, and rebirth . . . even for your consummate skills in destruction."
"Tom . . ." he said weakly.
Tom turned away again, his attention caught by something moving further down the bank. "I can't tell you what to do about your prisoner. But I can remind you of what you've told me today. As I understand from what you've hinted, today you had the opportunity to molest without consequences a young, orphaned tramp. You had the opportunity to watch that same tramp be arrested and even murdered . . . again, without consequences for you." Tom's eyes followed the object moving beside the lake. "Instead, using that deadly talent of yours, you forced two men in authority to reconsider the immorality of their lives. You rescued the young man from arrest. You rescued him from death, at risk of your own life. You paid him a month's wages for an hour's work, and you did your best to set him on the road to a better life." Tom turned and gave him a crooked smile, saying softly, "He trusts you. I trust you. Perhaps, my friend, it's time you learned to trust yourself."
On the water, the moving object coalesced into a flutter of wings, and then the great blue heron soared into the sky, climbing toward the setting sun.