She Names a Nation - Part 9

By nightfall the fish had been removed from the streets, their guts and oil deposits washed away, and the horrible smell had begun to dissipate. Still looking out from the rooftop, she watched the streets gradually fill with people again, then empty as the light faded and most returned to their homes. Long after the sun had set she let her eyes wander about the city, marking the patterns of what traffic remained and noting the clusters of men that gathered, then dissipated, secure—as they thought—in the anonymity of darkness. When even these had dwindled and disappeared, and all but the most nocturnal had extinguished their lamps, she descended back into the house and navigated the barren halls to her own chamber, her steps but soft and furtive echoes even in the still emptiness of the night.

Her own lamp had gone out long ago, or never been lit; she required little of her servants. She moved about the room without the aid of light, stripping off her clothes and tossing them into the hallway to be washed. From a small chest at the foot of her bed she took a single long garment of dark gray, which she pulled over her head and fastened with a belt about her waist, so that the hem of the garment fell halfway down her thighs. Then she opened a small box of carved cedar wood and took from it a piece of reddish clay and a mortar and pestle of stone. After grinding up the clay, she took a small jar of oil from the table and poured a few drops into the mortar, then mixed the two substances together. Finally, setting the mortar back on the table, she unbound her braids from her head and shook them loose, until her hair fell about her face. Then she took the mortar, along with a small, fine-pointed brush from the cedar box, and returned to the passage outside.

She emerged from the main gate of the house and turned at once to the right, quickening her steps to leave behind the worst of the fish odor. Before long she had melted into the darkness of the city. She had left her sandals behind and moved from corner to corner with scarcely a sound on the soft dust of the road. None challenged or even observed her, but still she felt her heart slow to a normal pace only when she neared the border of the city and looked up at the surrounding wall, towering black above her and blocking out the light of the rising moon. She glanced back up the street before her and closed her eyes, mapping out in her own mind the path by which she must return home. Then, taking the brush from her belt, she approached the corner of the nearest house, which bordered a narrow lane running parallel to the wall.

Dipping the brush into the paint she had mixed, she passed a few quick strokes over the wall of the house, at about the level of her own eyes. With one more dip into the mortar, she completed the work, then took a step back to examine it. The paint glistened faintly, its wet surface reflecting the dull light emanating from a window two houses away, but when dry it would fade well enough into the background of a growing city, only visible to those already seeking it.

painting of a symbol like a triangle with a tail extending from its left side like the shaft and feathers of an arrow, with three small semicircles in the head of the arrow