Taro’s shirt was thoroughly soaked with sweat. He pulled his collar from his throat, which accomplished nothing beyond making it feel even more disgusting when he let the slimy fabric fall back against his skin.
“Is it always like this?” he asked Fin.
“This hot and sticky.”
Fin smiled. “No.”
“Sometimes it gets hotter.”
Taro swore. “Just kill me now.”
Fin chuckled. “Are all northerners so fragile?”
“Fragile. Come up to High Scape in winter. We’ll see who’s fragile.”
Taro couldn’t remember ever feeling so awful. Flatwell’s sun exhausted him, blistering his skin, surrounding him with heat he pulled in with every breath. The light pierced his eyes and his mind. He was coated with sweat, even when he slept, for the air barely cooled at night.
If he slept, which was not always, and rarely well.
Even his hair was damp, all the time, heavy on his head. Tying it back made no improvement, merely pressing the hair close to his skull. Panol shaved his head. Taro was contemplating imitating him.
“You’ll get used to it,” Fin assured him.
"I couldn’t possibly.”
“It’ll just take some time.”
He really hoped they wouldn’t be on Flatwell long enough for him to adjust to the horrible heat, though sometimes he feared they’d be circling the damned island for the rest of their lives. They didn’t dare return to the continent without the Empress’s descendant, but neither of them had the slightest idea how to begin looking for that person.
He knew Lee wasn’t feeling the heat nearly so much. Well, she wouldn’t, being a Shield. And a good thing, too; she couldn’t stumble through a performance the way Taro stumbled through everything he did. But that there was a reason she managed the discomfort better, a reason out of her control and having nothing to do with moral fortitude, didn’t make him feel any less grubby, out of place, and weak.
He hadn’t even felt this bad after being stuck in that filthy hole by Creol.
Well, he wasn’t terrified as he had been then, so that was one thing. And while he’d been starving under Creol’s control, the heat of Flatwell had completely crushed his appetite, so that was another. He supposed.
“All right, now,” said Fin.
Taro, Sacey, Panol, and Setter stood about the wagon, two at the end and two on the other side of the rear wheel.
They lifted the wagon.
Rough wood cut into his palms, the weight pulling on his hands, his arms. His muscles burned. Earlier efforts of the day had twisted his lower back, and it felt like something had been torn in his side.
He knew it was only moments as Fin and Leverett pushed the jack under the wagon, but it felt unbearable, and it was only pride that kept his expressions of discomfort to himself.
He kept his sigh of relief to himself, too, when they finally lowered the wagon.
He’d never felt so feeble. He could ride forever, but lifting things and walking through dense foliage and deep soil tested him in ways he had never been tested before. He had never performed hard physical in his life, and it showed.
No one asked him to help remove the broken wheel, everyone aware he lacked the skill to contribute to the task. He could only stand back and watch, waiting to provide another pair of hands when they needed to lift the wagon again.
Because that’s all he was, a pair of untrained hands. One they didn’t truly need. There were others who could help with the wagon, but all of those others had something else to do.
He was useless.
No one cared that he could channel, cared whether he could do it well or not. He had never encountered that attitude before. Even regulars who thought channeling was effortless valued the outcome. And it was easier, he discovered, to tolerate ignorance from those who were obnoxious than the casual disinterest of the friendly, helpful people around him.
He wasn’t allowed to gamble. It was too likely to cause strife within the troupe and between the troupe and the residents of the settlements they visited.
He could heal people, a little, but he couldn’t save lives. He couldn’t knit bones. He couldn’t perform surgery. That was what people expected when they thought he could heal; the impossible.
It made him feel a little as he had when he’d been held in his room in Flown Raven. Trapped in a place he didn’t want to be, worthless and unnecessary.
He could learn to be more productive, he would learn, but nothing he could learn would bring in coin. The others could perform. It was coin that kept the troupe going.
Something he refused to let anyone see; he felt a little jealous of Lee, just the slightest bit resentful. She was wanted. She was the only reason the troupe took on Taro at all. Had he shown up alone, seeking work, he would have been turned away.
Years of being able to gain what he wanted with smiles and words hadn’t prepared him for these people.
He didn’t like admitting it to himself, and he certainly wouldn’t to anyone else, but he was shocked to find himself surrounded by people who didn’t think him fine of face and form. Had someone asked him if he would feel that way, ever, he would have brushed the insulting insinuation off. He was too mature than that.
It was discomforting to notice the absence of that certain spark in their eyes, embarrassing to smile winsomely – He knew he smiled winsomely. He’d been told so. – only to receive amusement in return.
It was a petty thing, he knew that, but it was one more thing that was different, one more thing that felt wrong.
One piece of joy in the damned place; Lee’s reaction to her new-found beauty. It was hilarious. Expressions of admiration could cause her to forget what she was saying, her eyes to widen in shock or narrow in suspicion. Taro had heard others comment that such excessive modesty was unhealthy, and heard the vow to cure Lee of the ailment. That only caused more discomfort for Lee. To see her constantly disconcerted with the attention, the compliments, the flirtation, it was about all that could make him smile.
Well, he could do with a little less of the flirtation, especially from Kahlia, but Lee was oblivious to the woman’s intentions, so he didn’t get too frustrated over that.
Lee was so used to being overlooked and enjoyed, he suspected, being left in the background. It gave her the opportunity to watch everyone else and plot her next step, her next words. He was learning the value of that. And it was, in its way, restful, being able to move about without anyone noticing him, without anyone expecting him to smile and chat and cursing him as arrogant should he choose not to do so.
Corla approached the wagon. Taro watched her uneasily. There was something disturbing about her. Taro couldn’t believe she was truly able to see the future, but her manner was disquieting, as though she did know something most didn’t.
She was carrying a knife and an object he couldn’t identify. An ovoid about the size of her palm, dark green with small light green strands all over it. It was an unpleasant-looking thing.
Once she reached him, she sliced the ovoid in half and Taro realised it was a fruit. The flesh inside was a startlingly bright shade of purple, unlike anything he’d seen outside paint and dye. Had anyone asked Taro if such a colour could exist in nature, he would have said no.
Looking at it made him uneasy.
“It’s a lizard fruit,” Corla said. She carved out a small chunk of the purple flesh and offered it to him on the blade of her knife.
A lizard fruit. Who would give anything meant to be eaten a name like that?
His hands were filthy. He rubbed them on his trousers, uselessly, and then carefully picked up the sliver of fruit between his thumb and index finger. He cautiously put the fruit on his tongue.
Sweetness exploded in his mouth, the most intense flavour he had ever experienced.
It was wonderful.
“Do you like it?” Corla asked.
“Very much.” And he was delighted to like something.
“See? There are pleasures to be found here, not just difficulties.” She put the fruit in his hand and walked away.
And he felt shame. He’d made it obvious to everyone how very miserable he was. That was not only juvenile but an insult to their home and way of life. That was unacceptable. He would have to work on keeping his misery to himself.
He didn’t know how successful he would be.
He would have to find a way to make the experience less awful, to hunt down things he could enjoy.
He would start with the fruit.