The main hall had a high ceiling, and eleven rows of tables running from left to right. There were four entrances, one on each wall. The tables to the left were covered in fine china and had well-made clay cups, while the tables to the right had chipped plates and mugs with broken handles. Raven directed her to a table a little toward the right. As people filed into the room, Ray realized that they were sorting themselves according to the color of their clothes, but it was a pattern that made no sense to her.
“Look at the table,” Raven whispered. Ray could barely hear her over the shuffling of feet, the creak and clatter of benches accommodating hundreds of people, but she obeyed reluctantly. Black, blue, red, yellow, gray, brown, purple, green—they were in the green rows, surrounded by other women in cotton dresses, although Ray could tell that the women further down the table, toward the far door, were wearing other fabrics. Raven kicked her, and she looked down again, running her finger across the surface of the table.
It left a green trail, exactly the same hue as her dress. Ray froze, but Raven looked up at her with stern eyes.
“Better posture,” she mouthed. Ray sat upright, wincing a little at a kink in her back. “Don’t make faces. No smiles, no frowns, nothing.” Raven’s voice was quiet, but clear. Ray fought the urge to roll her eyes, stifled a sigh, and let Raven force her hands to her side, although her eyes watched the green streak until it faded from sight.
Suddenly, the room fell silent. Ray tried to look up, but Raven grabbed her dress. She stared at her plate and cup instead, listening intently for some sort of explanation for the silence. Her cup had a crack that ran most of the way down its side, and her plate had such a large chip missing that Ray worried it would break if she lifted it up. It was stained and sticky with something that caught the light from the high windows. Maybe juice?
The silence didn’t break. Women carrying baskets of fruit and pitchers of water traveled down the lines, starting with the black table and moving forward. Ray kept her eyes fixed on her plate and cup until a woman in an orange dress stopped behind her. Wylwon lifted her hand and pressed it against the table, leaving a green stain the color of a lime’s skin. It was the shape of her handprint, as clearly as if she’d dipped her hand in paint first. The woman tipped her head and set down what looked like a large apple that had a dark, green skin.
Ray mimicked Wylwon, leaving a green handprint that was a hue darker than Wylwon’s. Tipping her head again, the woman in orange set another dark green fruit down on Ray’s plate. Ray opened her mouth to thank the woman, but Raven’s grip on her dress tightened, and Ray closed her mouth. Another woman, this one in yellow with a haughty expression of condescension, came by to pour water into her cup. It leaked out through the crack, and the woman sneered, though she said nothing. Anger flared in Ray’s chest, but Raven’s hand was insistent.
The sound of eating was a low bustle in the hall; people didn’t speak, but they shifted, and the fruits seemed to have a little crunch to them. Ray eyed hers warily, not sure how to go about eating it. It was larger than her too-large hands, wide enough that taking a bite seemed as though it would be problematic.
“Eat,” Raven whispered, taking a bite of the fruit. Ray held in a sigh and picked up the heavy fruit. It was cool to the touch; she took a bite and found that its texture was like that of an apple, though its juice was as plentiful and sweet as a pear’s. It tasted better than she’d expected, though she still wished for something warm.
Ray heard the sound of ceramic shattering. She began to turn, but Raven yanked her back and tipped her arm upward. Ray ate obediently, though her ears were pricked, and it was a struggle to keep her eyes on her plate.
“Kywonnh hakkyllida, plyam essa,” a woman’s voice begged. Quiet though it was, it was easy to discern in the quiet hall. She seemed to be near tears, or worn ragged with exhaustion. Ray guessed that she was middle-aged. “Tah te srenaspata. Shaal te e kerren!”
“Foorynakh,” an old woman’s voice said. She seemed to be sitting at the black table, and her voice was lazy and regal. Though there was nothing menacing in her tone, a shudder seemed to run through the crowd. The fruit tasted bitter in Ray’s mouth. “Kyp te kevvensa uyo, te tuo iya? Chy ny kyp errevanpata ky ny shaan. Tyff te chy yulln nu aren?”
There was a moment of silence. A child seemed to be choking back a sob.
“Etten,” the woman replied, her voice hoarse.
“Fy,” the old woman chuckled. “Ypuroesh.”
“Ermen?” The first woman’s voice caught, and the child sobbed, whispering something that Ray couldn’t make out. The rest of the people in the hall went back to eating, ignoring the scene entirely. Raven bit her lip, though, and Ray knew by their tones of voice that something was wrong.
“Lon-om,” the older woman replied, her voice suddenly sharp. Ray went back to eating slowly as silence lapsed, but suddenly the silence was broken by a sharp crack and a child’s wail. Raven dragged Ray’s gaze back to her plate, but the sound came again and again—it was the sound of a slap. By the end, the child was sobbing, and Ray’s hands were shaking. Somehow, the food on her plate was gone, and her fingers and lips were sticky with its juice. It tasted like bile in her throat. The room began to clear, and the footsteps of a hundred people drowned out the child’s soft, hiccuping sobs.
Raven dragged her to the door, glaring at Ray when she made to turn back and look for the crying child. The crowd dispersed; those in black went to the first row of houses, those in blue to the next. Beneath her feet, the dirt felt cold through the thin soles of Ray’s shoes, and the bright air felt dank on her skin. Her ribbons clung tightly to her skin, tugging little enough that Ray could ignore them, but never enough that she could fully forget them.
“What was that about?” Ray hissed, her voice catching in her throat. She felt sick. “What happened back there?”
“Wait until we’re home,” Raven murmured, looking at some women in pink as they bowed ahead of her, hiding a child in their midst. “I told you to stay quiet.”
Ray gritted her teeth. The sound of the little girl wailing still rang in her ears, making her want to leap to her feet and demand that they leave the poor kid alone—whatever she’d done, there was no reason to hit her like that! Ray had smacked Raven a few times in the past, but Raven had never wailed like that: a headache snapped at Ray as she even considered the thought, and she pulled back.
Finally, Raven darted ahead and slid open the door, letting Wylwon and Ray through before slipping inside and shutting the door.
“What was that about?” Ray demanded, keeping her voice low. “Why did they beat up that kid?”
“She broke a plate,” Raven said, looking away. Wylwon watched them with furrowed eyebrows, clearly lost. “You never balked at hitting anyone who misbehaved,” Raven whispered. Ray bit her tongue, fighting down her frustration.
“Why’d they beat her up, though?” Ray demanded. “Our plates looked like they’d been banged around by a toddler. I bet that the plates further down the line were even worse!”
“The Pink family barely gets anything that’s not in pieces,” Raven said. She sighed. “The Yellow woman who was pouring the water knocked the girl’s plate onto the ground on purpose. She’s the one who broke it.”
“But then why blame the girl?” Ray asked, trying to run a hand through her hair and finding her progress halted by the braid. “Smack that stupid smirk off the woman in the yellow dress. Don’t beat up a kid!”
“It’s not just a dress, Ray,” Raven said, pulling a hand through her own curls. She led Ray to the right, opening a door that opened into the space beneath the loft. It looked like a closet. Ray waited for Raven to explain, and finally Raven sighed, leaning her head back against the wall. “That woman was a pure Yellow. Completely pure. Sure, she was Cotton, too, but that’s a Rayain distinction. I told you that Rayai takes its Colors seriously. Do you honestly believe that a Yellow woman would be blamed when a Pink child could take it for her?”
“What are you talking about?” Ray demanded, falling back against the wall and sliding down to look across at Raven. “What’s with all this Color stuff? I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Sure you don’t,” Raven muttered, rolling her eyes. “Come on, we only get a few more minutes before it’s time for mandatory exercise, and then you have to go off to Keshaan training. Ask me something useful.”
“I honestly don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Ray snapped. “What colors? What do you mean, pure? What’s this about cotton?”
“Cotton is a Rayain way of making more distinctions between the Colors,” Raven said, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. “Cotton is the lowest. Wool is above Cotton, Velvet is above Wool, and Silk is above Velvet.”
“Wool? I didn’t see any place for livestock,” Ray said, thinking of the lack of meat and the tall rows of fruit plants.
“I call it wool, but that’s just because there’s no word for it in English,” Raven sighed. “Same with silk. They make everything from plant fibers. I just call it that based on the texture. Come on, Ray, I’m sure that you have more important questions. I’m only going to answer one more.”
“Explain these colors to me, then,” Ray said, leaning back against the cool wood and closing her eyes. “What’s this about purity? And why did that woman at the black table have any right to tell the woman to beat up her kid?”
“That woman was the Black Council Woman,” Raven said. “I guess you wouldn’t know about that, since we didn’t have a Council in Phoenix. That old woman was Araya Devolair Thyn.” Fury flashed in Ray’s chest, so powerful and sudden that it scared her. It felt separate from her, like she was experiencing someone else’s fury. Raven sighed, and Ray became aware of the world around her again. The wood was cold and rough against her palms, even though they were thick with callouses that weren’t hers. Her breaths came with little puffs of steam, and she shivered in the cold.
Raven sat back. “I don’t want to explain the Council right now,” she sighed, sliding a hand over her eyes. “It’s hard enough to explain it without trying to cram it into the ten minutes before mandatory exercises.” She looked at Ray, her eyes serious. “Don’t bother asking about the exercises. Just follow the lead of the woman in front of you, and you’ll be fine. Mommy’s body should know the stretches, anyway. She’s done them every day since she was three years old.”
“You said that I’d get one more question!” Ray said, exasperation leaking into her tone. Raven rolled her eyes.
“You asked three,” Raven said. Leaning forward, she narrowed her eyes. “I told you—I’m not scared of you any more. You’re not going to terrify me into doing whatever you want me to do. Mommy won’t let you hurt me, I know it. If you even try, then she’ll rush back to get me.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Ray snapped. She tried again to run a hand through her hair and cursed when it snagged in her braid. “I just want to know what’s going on!”
Raven looked at Ray warily, balancing on the balls of her feet as though she might leap away at any moment.
“You’re my sister, Ray, right?” Raven murmured. Her tone was so vulnerable that Ray felt startled. Raven sounded young again, and her guard was slipping. A part of Ray geared up to strike, but the rest of her shoved it down. “What do you mean when you say that you don’t want to hurt me?”
“I have no reason to hurt you,” Ray said, trying to make her tone convey how earnest she felt. “I don’t know why I’ve been feeling angry like this—it doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t feel like it’s me that’s getting angry.And even if the sight of you makes me feel like I want to punch something, itshouldn’t mean that I’m actually going to snap and punch you—you’re just a kid.” Ray put her head in her hands, feeling dizzy and nauseous. “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what I’m doing here. Everything is all wrong, and I can’t put any of the pieces together. Any time I try, my head feels like it’s splitting open.”
Raven was silent for a long moment. Wind rattled the paper windows that caught the light and brightened the whole house; they looked faintly green.
“We’ll get in trouble if we don’t exercise,” Raven said quietly, getting to her feet and dusting off her dress. Ray looked up; Raven’s expression was soft and pensive. Examining Ray’s face, she nodded. “I’ll explain after training. Just don’t talk to anyone, keep your head down, and do as you’re told. When you go to Keshaan training, go off on your own and pretend to meditate. It’ll look like you’ve failed, but it should keep you mostly out of trouble.”
Ray opened her mouth to reply, but Wylwon opened the door beside her, peering in with nervous eyes. Her hair was coming free of its ponytail again, and her bottom lip was red from being bitten.
“Te ko junak?” she whispered, looking at Raven, but glancing at Ray. Her expression filled with concern as she met Ray’s eyes, but she looked away quickly.
“Iya,” Raven replied. Wylwon stiffened, and Raven shook her head. “Soosh… Tah kemmenina, Wylwon Es. Tah by kemmenina.”
“Saye ko gott?” Wylwon asked, and Raven nodded. Wylwon looked at Ray, eyebrows drawn up with regret, biting her lip again. She sighed. “Et tohn toqu nu fa.”
“We have to go,” Raven said. Ray pushed herself to her feet. “Just do whatever Wylwon does in front of you; we’ll be in a line. Don’t mess anything up, and don’t talk, no matter what happens. You kept trying to look when that little girl was getting slapped. Don’t. There’s nothing you can do, and if you do anything to stop them, it’s not just you who’s going to pay the price.”
Raven walked out the door, and after a moment, Ray went after her. Nerves knotted themselves around her stomach.
“What do you mean?” Ray asked. Raven hesitated just outside the door to the outside, her hand in the notch to slide it open.
“Well, it depends on how badly you mess up,” Raven said quietly. “I didn’t think you’d care if you weren’t the one in danger.”
“What do you mean?” Ray said again, dreading the answer. Her own voice sounded low, dangerous, and foreign to her. Raven looked at the ground, digging her fingers into the door’s notch.
“Well, just don’t mess up,” Raven said. “If you do, well, I might not be here to answer any of your questions.”