The Nichan Smile, Chapter Three

The human’s name was Marissin. Meaningless. He’d wipe it out of his brain if he possessed such power. If someone called him that again, he’d feign ignorance. No one would know the truth. He’d never say anything. 

Never. 

Hidden in the shadows, he curled up and hugged his legs. Through the many pounding footsteps coming from all sides, he knew safety no longer stood, that he’d be caught eventually. He blocked his breathing, tucked his neck in. 

Go away, you don’t want to find me. Just leave me alone. 

A mute and useless prayer. He’d begged anyone willing to listen to be left in peace since those men had come for him. No one listened. The Gods had not answered a single prayer for nearly two centuries. They’d disappeared. Their beautiful faces no longer brightened the sky. It was the first thing ever taught to Marissin. 

Leave me alone . . . 

These people, so tall, with their dark eyes, wouldn’t respond to his plea. Only unknown, incomprehensible words came out of their mouths. Even if his prayer turned into a scream, the only result would be a sore throat. 

Long, bare feet passed his hiding place. The child followed their progression. 

Go away!

Then the same feet retraced their steps. When they stopped in front of him, Marissin straightened up like the rope that had been passed around his neck. Instinctively, his hand covered the aching wound circling his throat. If they captured him, would they put another rope around his neck? It had felt as if they’d tried to separate his head from the rest of his body. He . . . 

No, not now. It was that memory, that feeling that no words could convey, that threatened to surrender the rest of his strength. He couldn’t afford to think about it.

After his escape, he hadn’t gone far—it was no wonder he’d been found so easily—yet a glimmer of hope had turned him into a fool. A fool who could not run, who could not go back home. No one could be trusted, he was certain of that. Not a single soul, not when even Mother had left him . . . No! This memory had to be suppressed as well. 

A shadowy face appeared in front of the corner sheltering the child. The newcomer sighed before saying something in his unknown language. Then he extended his hand toward the human, who reacted by reflex. A faint squeak escaped his lips as he bent down to grab this outstretched hand with his teeth. His jaw snapped in the air. It didn’t stop a second attempt, and another. Each missed its target. The person facing him yielded and growled something. It was an expletive, Marissin was sure of it. 

The table above his head suddenly shook and then rose with a loud grinding sound. Light invaded the child’s hiding place, and he unfolded his legs to flee. But where could he run? A fool, through and through.

So the tallest of the boys grabbed him in his arms and shattered his hopes.

* * *

Domino should have been in the water by now. The fumes rose up behind his back, their comforting warmth inviting him to forget about everything else and immerse himself completely. He’d gotten rid of his wet, cold clothes, exposing his skin to the soft clamminess of the baths, and then turned to the human. Mora had found the blond child in no time at all. It had to be said: the winged boy reeked of sweat, piss, and filth. Any nichan could have tracked him down with eyes closed. 

“Go wash yourself, Domino.” Mora had repeated himself more than once, but his little brother still didn’t obey. 

Domino wanted to wait for the human. In his condition, the child would probably need his help to clean himself. On the other side of the long room, Beïka was vigorously rubbing his belly and arms with soap. There were no such places in Kaermat. Soap, a bucket of water, and a sponge had always been enough. Here the instructions were different: they would wash from top to bottom in front of a fountain that could be activated with a pump. Then they would rinse themselves under the same fountain before going to the stone basin flooded with hot water to warm up and loosen their muscles. To bathe in cold water, one had to turn to an identical basin on the other side of the room. 

A pile of clean cloths and towels had been placed at the baths’ entrance.

When Domino turned his attention to the human, Mora undressed. Wordlessly, the teenager sniffed his tunic and rippled his soft face in a deep grimace. Then he grabbed the braid of black hair resting on his shoulder and repeated the same process. Each gesture was studied to serve his purpose: it was time to wash. 

It didn’t have the desired effect. The little human pressed himself harder against the wall.

“He doesn’t understand,” Domino said, noting that his brother’s impatience was beginning to wane.

“Of course he understands. He’s just scared.”

“Why? We’re nice, aren’t we?”

Mora sighed and rose to his feet, unraveling his long braid. “The door is locked. He’s not going anywhere.” 

“But he must wash himself. I can help him.”

“Forget it.”

How? Domino looked down at the human and wondered if he could ignore his presence. His wings, his fascinating eyes, his hair that must have been golden underneath the dirt. After a brief reflection, he decided that it wasn’t possible.

“This is the last time I’m telling you this—go wash yourself, Domino.” Mora walked away, took the rest of his clothes off, and sat on a low stool in front of one of the faucets. When the water began to pour, Domino was still studying the human’s curled up body. 

There had to be a solution. That stench, that filth, not to mention the boy’s blood-crusted nails and skin—Domino could stand neither the sight nor the smell of it. They awoke discomfort in his belly while reviving the memory of the man pulling the rope. The child probably ignored how badly he needed a bath. 

He was scared. That was why Domino had to help him. 

It would be impossible to carry the child to one of the fountains and clean him, yet Domino couldn’t stop marveling at the thought. He’d saved this boy’s life. Bathing him would probably be child’s play. Mora had done this dozens of times with his brothers when their mother was busy. Domino still lacked strength, but he could do it. He had to, otherwise who else would take care of this little one?

He walked to one of the fountains and pressed it down several times. Water sprinkled on his legs and feet; it was hot. A glance over his shoulder reassured him. The human had not moved an inch. Domino took the brown soap from a small wooden dish and one of the cloths hanging on a hook and passed them under the water. His fingers disappeared under the lather, and a strong, musky scent mixed with the surrounding sweat. 

Now ready, he returned to the boy, whose wide eyes promised danger ahead.

“Just to be clean.” And Domino crouched down in front of him, gently bringing the wet cloth to the child’s pale face. The child moved backwards, his gaze going from Domino’s to the cloth carefully wiping the corner of his chin. 

The dirt gradually faded away, and Domino continued his cleaning, gaining confidence with each passing swipe over the jaw, the cheeks, the brow. He avoided the sensitive burned part on the boy’s temple and forehead. 

Before him, the little boy was as still as a rock, but the tension in his body was thickening the hot air into paste. The thunderous beating of his heart reached Domino’s ears. The nichan slowed his movements. A small voice whispered to him that he was taking a risk. 

Yet the human was letting it happen. 

This was permission enough for Domino. “The rest we must clean up too,” he announced.

He reached out and grabbed the hem of the human’s tunic. Before he realized his mistake, Domino was shoved by two small hands. He collapsed backward, right onto his ass.

“Domino, get away from him,” Mora ordered.

Domino froze, staring at the child, who now rubbed his filthy hands all over his face. The shock of seeing his help and efforts rejected was more painful than the hard stones against his cheeks. What was the reason for this? What had he done wrong? Domino only wanted to help him. If the human let him, he would see that Domino meant him no harm. Until he was older and big enough to fight, this was the only place where he could prove himself useful. Maybe he had to try harder. 

Yes, harder.

As he stood and walked forward again to take over the human’s ablution, a hand gripped Domino and shoved him away. Breathlessly, the child dropped his cloth and soap.

“Leave him alone,” Mora said, frowning, the spitting image of their mother at that moment. “Go and wash. Now.”

At last Domino obeyed. 

* * *

The darkness was a poor attempt at familiarity, although Marissin was used to it. He’d spent most of his life lying on or sitting in its cold embrace. It seemed to him that all sorts of things could, like him, lurk in the dark—things with no faces, waiting for him, preparing to hurt him. 

The darkness had always been there. Then Mother came, the sound of her footsteps gradually approaching. The door opened, and she joined him in the back of the room only lit by a white crystal lamp that sizzled continuously. In the distance, the man in black waited. He didn’t move, didn’t utter a word. He always stayed too far away for Marissin to discern his features. 

Mother watched, judged, then talked. “I can see you didn’t sleep, Marissin. You don’t have to wait. I’ll be back when I’m back.” She opened the Artean, the Book of Blessings, placed it on her lap, asked Marissin to sit up straight and listen with all the attention the Gods had given him. The little boy listened, as concentrated on the words Mother recited as on the movements of her thin lips, of her white fingers on the worn pages. However, no matter how much attention she forced him to devote to the teaching, he always ended up looking toward the door. 

Leaning against the frame, the man watched them with his arms crossed. 

Mother would finish reciting her verses, finally feed her son, then get up to leave, sometimes allowing herself a caress on Marissin’s hair. Every time he looked up at her, she would remove her hand and step back, clenching her jaw. 

“Don’t look,” she’d say, raising her voice. “Eyes like yours must stay on the ground. Do you hear me? I told you that a million times. Don’t look at me.”

So he lowered his gaze, tears gathering at the edge of his eyelids. Then she left the room, only to return hours later. The man would disappear with her on the other side of the door. And Marissin couldn’t sleep.

It was unlikely the man would come back tonight. Marissin had not seen him since the two strangers had taken him away. Neither him nor Mother.

Now sitting in the corner of the dark room, he fought to keep his eyes open. Since the three boys had found him, he’d barely slept. He wouldn’t close his eyes. Behind his eyelids was a rope and two men to pull it hard enough for Marissin’s body to fly and hurt. Sometimes he didn’t even need to see it to feel the burn on his skin and the air leaving his mouth in a mute cry. But it was getting harder and harder to stay awake. 

The others lay on a mattress settled on the rough, woven floor, eyes closed, breathing peacefully. 

They’d been brought here after their bath. 

The bath. Torture. The two tallest ones had washed Marissin without giving him a choice while the smaller one looked across the foggy room. The human had struggled. His chest swelled with fury that he was too weak to fully express. He’d screamed and cried. He didn’t want to cry—tears were the statements of the weak, Mother used to say—but this treatment had overcome his resolve. He didn’t like their hands on him. He hated the imposed nudity just as much. It didn’t matter what their intentions were, or that the human was covered with dirt so thick it ran down his legs to the slabs on the ground in dark nets. No one was to touch him. The Book of Blessings said so. 

Mother had said so. “People . . . people like you taint the air. They make the milk curdle, and they darken the sky. The Corruption is such that anyone who touches you will see their soul blackened, stained by the Corruption as well. O Marissin,” she moaned as she took his hand, letting it go immediately. “Giving birth to you has already damned me. As Blessers, it is our duty to erase this defilement. It’s the only way to return their Light to the Gods, to bring them back. I . . . I didn’t think it would be this hard.” Tears had filled her blue eyes, and she’d left, refusing to be one of the weak.

He rubbed his face and shook his head, as much to chase away this memory and the voice that echoed through it as to keep himself awake. 

What was the point of all this? She’d read the Artean day after day, had dictated a course of action to him—what he could do, what he could say, what actions would cost him punishment. But outside the dark room where he’d lived, the world was absolute nonsense. Everything was brighter, blinding sometimes, and at the same time so much more frightening. She hadn’t prepared him for what was on the other side of the door. It wasn’t fair to him to have botched such a teaching.

Marissin was doing his best. When someone spoke to him, he looked down. But these men had hurt him. He’d let himself be beaten despite the rage bubbling inside him. Then he’d fallen into the flames . . . 

“The way of an abomination is submission. Don’t look. Don’t answer. Don’t fight.” 

He’d disobeyed Mother. He’d fought and watched. Now that he’d tasted the forbidden, its sweet flavor had become addictive. He couldn’t help himself. He wanted to look and see what would happen. It gave him . . . strength. But it went against his faith.

Without Mother to guide him, what could he do? He missed her. He resented her. He wanted to see her. He hated her. Every emotion almost suffocated him. Truth be told, it was easier to hate her than to mourn her presence. If he learned to hate her hard enough, would he stop hurting? Could he even achieve that?

As sole answer to his thoughts, his stomach growled. He pressed his hands against his belly as one of the boys stirred on the bed. It was the smallest one. Lit by the lamp hanging by the front door, he sat up as he rubbed his eyes, his wavy short hair pointing in all directions. Marissin pressed harder on his stomach, but there was only one way to hush it. 

He couldn’t see the boy’s eyes but knew they were watching him. For a moment, the room and its inhabitants remained still. 

Leave me alone. Don’t look at me. 

Marissin wanted to lower his eyes, as he’d been taught, mainly to divert attention from himself. 

Another fool move. The moment he looked away, someone would catch him. Who would catch him? Anyone. There was always someone to trap him as soon as he let his guard down, and there was nothing he could do against the powerful hold of their arms.

The black-haired boy tilted his head to the side. “Korono shi otta?”

It was only a whisper, other words whose meaning passed beyond Marissin’s comprehension. On the mattress, the little boy looked around. He got up, and Marissin suppressed a sob. The other child turned to the window and tiptoed up. He turned his back to Marissin, hiding his actions. Water splashed on the black-haired boy’s feet, but the wriggling of his toes was his only reaction. There was a loud scraping sound, and one of the other boys rolled and grumbled on the mattress—though no waking up on the horizon. 

When the younger boy turned around, he held something in his hands. After a few steps sprinkled with a little water, the child stopped and that something he held appeared before Marissin’s eyes: a cup filled with water. The boy didn’t come any closer. Marissin had used all his strength to push him away in the baths, and he would do it again if necessary.

Without making any sudden movements, the black-haired boy squatted down and put the cup on the floor. He tried his luck and pushed it with his fingertips a few inches toward Marissin, who stood motionless, stunned. Then the other one left him in peace, going back to lie down on his mattress. 

Silence returned. 

Marissin stared at the cup with his swollen eyes. The flame of the lamp was reflected on the water. He’d never seen a flame before the men took him away, only the white crystal that lit up Mother’s pale face and red hair and crackled endlessly. 

“Fire will make you pure, my son.” A promise.

He missed the white crystal. 

He missed Mother.

He was hungry. 

He threw himself on the water and drank it as his stomach growled again. And in spite of himself, he fell asleep a few minutes later, his face pressed against the wooden wall.

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