Marka, dearest?" Keeta said. "I'm sorry. There's something wrong with him."
Marka tried to answer, but her throat filled with tears. Her youngest son, not yet two years old, sat on a red-and-blue carpet in a patch of sunlight that spilled through the tent door. He was frowning at the edge of the brightness; over and over again he would reach out a pale brown hand and touch the shadow next to it, then draw his hand back and frown the harder. Tight brown curls hung over his forehead; now and then he would bat at them as if they bothered him, only to forget them again in an instant.
"He does know his name," Marka said. "He may not have any other words, but he does know his name."
Keeta sighed and sat down next to the boy, who ignored her. They made an odd pair, Keeta so massive and dark, Zandro so slender and pale. Even though she had taken over the business end of managing their travelling show, Keeta still juggled, and her long arms sported muscles many a man had envied over the years. In her curly black hair, which she wore cropped close to her skull, grey sprouted at the temples.
"I've been afraid for months," Marka said at last. "He still can't use a spoon."
"Is it that he can't use one?" Keeta held out her hand to Zandro. "Or that he simply won't?"
Zandro whipped his head around and bit her on the thumb. Calmly, without speaking, Keeta put her other hand under his chin, spread her fingers and thumb, and pressed on both points of his jaw. With a squeal he opened his mouth and let her go.
"That's better," Keeta said to him. "No biting."
His head tilted to one side, he considered her. She pointed to the teeth marks on her thumb.
"No! No biting!"
All at once he smiled and nodded.
"Very good," Keeta said. "You understood me."
This he ignored; with a yawn he returned to his study of the edge between light and shadow.
"Ah ye gods!" Marka said. "Just when I think it's hopeless, he'll do something like that. Understand a word, I mean, or even do something kind. When Kivva fell and cut herself yesterday? He came running and kissed her and tried to help."
"I saw that, yes. At times he's really very sweet."
Marka nodded. In the twenty years since her marriage, she'd borne nine pregnancies, not counting the miscarriages. Six of the children had lived past infancy--Kwinto, their firstborn son; Tillya, the eldest daughter; Terrenz, born so soon after Tillya that they loved each other like twins; their sisters Kivva and Delya, named after Keeta's longtime companion, who had died in the same fever that had killed another infant son. Zandro would, she hoped, be the last. She wondered how she was going to find the love and strength to deal with him, who would demand more of both than all the rest of them put together. Keeta must have been thinking along the same lines.
"It's not like you don't have enough troubles on your mind already. What with Ebany's"--a long pause--"illness."
"Oh, come right out and say it!" Marka snapped. "He's gone mad. We all know it. And now his youngest son is obviously mad, too. Why are we all being so coy? How would Ebany put it? He's demented, lunatic, deranged, insane--" Tears overwhelmed her.
Marka was aware of Keeta getting up, then kneeling again next to her. She turned into her friend's embrace and sobbed. Keeta stroked her hair with a huge hand.
"There, there, little one. We'll find a way to heal your husband yet. We'll be playing in Myleton next. They have physicians and priests and the gods only know who else, and one of them will know what to do."
"Do you think so?" Marka raised a tear-stained face. "Do you really think so?"
"I have to. And so do you."
The tears stopped. Marka sat back on her heels and wiped her face on the sleeve of her tunic. A sudden thought turned her cold.
"Wait--where is Ebany?" Marka scrambled to her feet. "Here we are, on the coast, with the cliffs--"
"I'll stay here with the child."
Marka ducked out of the tent, then stood blinking for a moment in the bright sunlight. Around her the camp spread out, a grand thing of white tents and painted wagons, the biggest travelling show that Bardek had ever seen. At the moment, however, the camp seemed curiously empty. Most of the performers had retired to their tents to sleep away the noon heat. Since she could see none of their animals, some of the men must have led them to the water trough by the public fountain, hidden from her sight by trees. Nowhere did Marka find Ebany, but in the far view, at the edge of the caravanserai, between the palms and the plane trees, she could see the cliffs and distantly hear the sea pounding on rocks below.
Marka trotted off, panting a little for breath in the hot sun. All those pregnancies had buried the slender girl acrobat somewhere deep inside a thick-waisted matron who had to bind up her heavy breasts for comfort's sake. At those moments when she had the leisure to remember her younger self, Marka hated what she had become. Especially when she looked at her husband--as she hurried along the cliffs, she saw him at last, strolling along and singing to himself a good safe distance back from the edge. Her relief mingled with anger, that he would still look so young and so handsome, with his pale blond hair and his pale grey eyes, his pinkish-white skin just glazed with tan and as smooth as a young lad's. When he saw her, he smiled and waved.
"There you are, my love," he called out. "Do you have need of me for something?"
"Oh, I was just wondering where you were."
"Enjoying this glorious day under the dome of the sky. The sea's full of spirits, and so is the wind, and they're all enjoying it with me."
"Ah. I see."
Not of course that she did see the spirits teeming. He often spoke of spirits, as well as demons, portents, and visions, all of them invisible to everyone else. Still, she had to agree about the glory of this particular day, with the sea a winter-dark blue, scoured into whitecaps by the fresh wind.
Excerpted from The Black Raven by Katharine Kerr. Copyright © 2000 by Katharine Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.