For the third day in a row, Sahala’s sister brought a her basket of food. Sahala had buried Pahel four day ago, and ever since she’d been trying to care for their two young children, with Shena’s help. The town was keeping them all well-fed, too. Shena accepted their generosity at face value; Sahala thought it was to assuage their guilt after letting Pahel’s killers gain strength for so many years.
Shena barged through Sahala’s unlocked door. “You summoned Red Petra?” she gasped.
The children stared up at their aunt from their cushions at the table. Sahala, unfazed, wiped a fleck of tomato from Jiral’s cheek and came to Shena.
“You noticed the door,” she replied calmly, taking the basket.
“Hard to miss!” Shena hissed. “Huge red circle, one black dot per kill?”
Sahala nodded. “I made the blood pledge this morning, at sunrise, like—”
“Like you’re supposed to – I know how Red Petra works!” Shena dragged her fingers through her hair. “Sahala, Red Petra takes one, maybe two lives at a time. She can’t take out the entire cadre at once.”
“She’s never been asked to.” Sahala finished unloading the basket’s contents into the cupboard and folded her arms. “And gods know the guard never will, so why not try it?”
Shena looked like she was about to argue, but reconsidered. Why shouldn’t Sahala pursue vengeance, anyway? “The city leadership will never push for justice,” Sahala pressed. “Half of them are in the cadre’s pocket and the other half are too terrified of – of what happened to Pahel.”
Shena looked away. Pahel was not the first to be killed for refusing a bribe.
“And if she doesn’t come?” Shena asked quietly.
“She will.” Sahala nodded, staring straight ahead. Her days of weeping were over. She’d shed no more tears for Pahel; she’d show him only strength now.
“Mama!” Jiral started wailing; Alari had taken his share of rice. Sahala swooped down on them, swatting Alari’s arm and returning Jiral’s bowl of rice.
“If Red Petra really is coming,” Shena said quietly, “she’ll come at sundown.”
“I can stay with you, until it’s fulfilled. If you want.”
Her brave baby sister. Shena would even face demons for her. “I’d like that.”
Sahala had always thought that the stories of Red Petra were vague because the teller was trying to be mysterious, but after Red Petra came, she found she couldn’t recall many details. The sky turned blood-red just as the last sliver of sun dipped beneath the plains, and then she was there, draped in a thick traveling cloak the color of old blood and dragging two swords at her sides. They left gouges in the road that oozed red.
Sahala spoke; Red Petra responded. Sahala couldn’t recall anything that was said. She remembered Shena’s hand, clammy in hers. Then Red Petra was gone, and when Sahala tried to follow the twin trails of blood, she found the road unmarked.
The next morning, Sahala’s memories were even more blurred. Only faint traces of the red circle remained on the door, now singed as if the circle had burned. For all Sahala knew, maybe it had.
When the bodies of eight of the cadre’s ringleaders were found, a city official came to ask Sahala questions. She made him tea, as was polite, and they sat on cushions in the parlor. The official’s questioning seemed perfunctory, and Sahala said as much.
He scratched under his boxy felt hat. “The…manner in which the men were killed raises certain suspicions,” he said. Sahala noticed he was sweating, and wondered how many bribes this man had taken during his career; how many times he’d looked the other way; if he, too, felt Red Petra’s shadow looming over him.
“Oh? What suspicions?” she asked over the rim of her teacup.
“Certain – rumors – It doesn’t concern you,” he stammered, flushing. “Official business.”
“Of course,” Sahala said lightly.
The official stood, handing her a carved wooden token. “If you think of anything, you can find me at the address on this coin. Show it at the door and you’ll be granted an appointment. If you can recall anything of use from that night…”
He trailed off, hopeful for any answer beside the truth he dreaded.
“Nothing,” Sahala said, shrugging. “Not that I can remember.”
photo by Aaron Burden