Milyi pressed two fistfuls of damp earth against her palms. The grit scratched her skin, stung in the raw places where she'd worn the skin away prying at the edges of her prison. They'd put her in the basket. Her people, her family, had locked her away on nothing more than Rani's childish word.
They hadn't even seen the spider.
She thought of Horatch and shivered. The walls of the basket had been woven from bark strips. Chill air whistled through the gaps and, overhead, Milyi could catch the distant spark of stars against the night. They'd trussed her up, carried her like a pig through the village, and then deposited her in the basket with no gentleness. The crowd grew as they went and lingered long after the women wove strips through the front wall, sealing her inside until her punishment was decided.
She might be killed. They hadn't once questioned her, hadn't asked Milyi for confirmation or denial, and certainly hadn't been moved by her pleas as to her innocence. Not that she was innocent, but she was still Milyi, still one of them, daughter to Ogria and once-friend to her accuser.
No one had been locked in the basket in years. She'd been a baby the last time and only had Grandmother's stories to judge from. That and the fact that the last person in the box had been executed. At least Horatch had escaped. She'd seen him streak upwards, a smear against the bark. Safe. The canopy would hide him even if the hunters searched forever, but nothing, not the basket, or the night, or the thin protection of her skirts could hide Milyi.
They ringed her in for hours, whispering like the wind through the grass. When the adults were forced away to resume their tasks, the children remained, rattling the woven walls or tossing stones onto the domed roof. They sang and circled and laughed cruel, pre-conditioned laughs that had no real understanding of the situation to back them.
She forgave them that. Milyi couldn't hate the children. She'd have been among them before meeting Horatch. She let their singing fade into the background of her senses, curled her body tightly around her knees and held herself in a knot of shivers and mad thinking.
Why did they hate the spiders? No one had ever explained it. If they remembered the source of their derision, no one said it out loud. If they had a good reason, no one bothered to pass it along. But they did hate them. She understood that fully for the first time when they'd tied her feet together. She'd betrayed that hate, had lifted herself above it, and now she had no place among them.
They probably had to kill her.
"Milyi." The whisper was so full of tears that she barely recognized Rani's voice. "Milyi?"
"I'm here, Rani." Where else would she be? "What do you want?"
The girl didn't answer, but her feet pattered against the ground. The audience had left her when the sun went down, gone to dinners and beds in warm dwellings. Somehow, Rani had slipped away from hers. She appeared between the woven bark strips, flashing here and then over there as she circled the basket.
Milyi unfolded, scooted against the icy soil and pressed her face to the wall of her cage. With her eye right against a crack, she could see her friend. Rani squatted beside the basket, skirts tucked up into her waist and eyes wide as the moon and ringed with red. She sniffled, wiped her face on her sleeve, and then walked forward like a crab, cradling some bundle in the crook of one arm.
"Here." She stopped right next to the door and set her cargo on the dirt beside it. Her brown fingers found a loose spot in the weaving, and Rani worked at one of the holes, stretching, scooting the bark wider and wider to form a gap. "Help me, Milyi."
"Why should I?" Milyi watched. She heard the accusation in her own voice and she felt no regret, not even when Rani's head snapped up, when her eyes teared and spilled more streaks across her dirt-stained face. "You didn't really help me, did you?"
"I'm helping now." Rani stuck her chin out and shook her head. "I didn't know what they'd do."
She might not have. Rani was so young still. But the sting of wind burn on her face took away any forgiveness Milyi might have spared the girl. It was a selfish thing Rani had done, one born out of jealousy for Milyi's attention, and if she hadn't known the risks, it didn't make Milyi any safer.
The bark folded and bent under Rani's prying fingers. She worked it furiously now, pushed her anger or her guilt into the task. It made little difference. She could work the weaving all night and only tear a hole as large as her fist at best. The basket had been tested many times.
Still, Rani struggled to free a portion of it, and when a circle perhaps as large as a kuli fruit was open, she pushed something from her bundle into the gap. It fell through and dropped sofly to the ground. Milyi felt for it while Rani went to work again without pausing. Soft leaves, edged with a braid of grass--Milyi lifted the bundle into a sliver of starlight and examined it.
"What is this?" She turned the prize over in her hands. Rani had folded the leaf into a packet and bound it with a grass twist.
"Take this too." Rani shoved the next gift through. This time it hit the ground hard. The thud gave it away before Milyi's probing found it, a rock, smooth and round, and now the hole had stretched near to the size of a child's hand. "When they come to talk to you tomorrow, you can show them."
"Show them what?" Milyi's heart sank. Her stomach tightened and she examined the rock, compared it to the leafy packet and knew, suddenly, what Rani had put inside it. "What did you do, Rani?"
"You can show them." Rani's eyes welled up again. The shimmer was obvious, even peeking through the gap in the prison wall. "Please show them, Milyi."
"Oh, Rani." Her fingers shook as she untied the braid. Milyi's eyes stung, too, by the time she unfolded Rani's gift. Inside the leaf, an ordinary spider curled in a pathetic, defensive knot. One of its legs had come lose, either in capture or from rough handling after the bundle had been tied around it. Now it held perfectly still, possibly dead and definitely not as dangerous as Milyi's own family.
"In the morning," Rani insisted. She peered through the hole, so close that she became only one, huge watery eye. The eye of a blind people. The eye of fear. "You can show them."
"No." Milyi felt her own death in the word, and she repeated it louder just to be certain. "No!"
She pushed the leaf up to the hole and Rani scrambled back. The bundle, the braid, and the spider dropped through, free if it could escape fast enough. Freer than Milyi would ever be again. She heard the patter of Rani's flight. She heard the girl's angry sobs.
Milyi curled around her knees and shook her head for the stars to witness."No."