Karleigh opened her eyes, slowly focusing on the plain, pleasantly cream-colored wall beside her bed. She blinked lightly, realizing that she hadn’t moved during the night, hadn’t rolled off her left side, taken her hand from under her head, or un-crooked her knees. Her hair was still twisted and tucked against the pillow they way she’d done as she slipped into bed to hold it off her shoulders. The blanket was still perfectly square where it hung off the edge of the mattress.
Karleigh took a deep breath. She was no longer tired, her mind sharpening with every breath she took as she pulled herself out of bed, but she wasn’t comfortable. She dropped her feet over the side of the mattress, straightening her knees and rolling her shoulders back.
She’d had this room since she was six years old, but it still wasn’t home. She was beginning to believe – and accept in small, silent moments – that it never would be.
It took her a moment to realize that the house was not as quiet as it should have been. Her uncle, Toar, had never been a morning person, and was even less used to having her here. She visited for a few weeks out of the year, and was usually able to wake up, eat breakfast, and slide through the first chapter of whatever book she could find before he stumbled downstairs with one hand tangled in the attempt to tame his sleep-thrashed hair, looking at her like she was a surprise in daylight. The second and third chapters usually passed without interruption before he appeared a second time, fed and ready for something resembling a conversation.
This morning, he was already outside in the flat yard that faced the back of the house, talking too loudly even for his usual conversations, and too evenly to be holding an argument.
Karleigh slipped to the window, standing just to the side so that her thin nightgown, bare arms, and bare knees stayed hidden behind the wall. The air beneath her was tumbling with white-blue gleaming smoke. At the edges it twisted into fire and sparks, then burst into nothing while the body of it writhed like water on the air.
Touching the window pane, Karleigh leaned in to watch. It shifted, sorted itself back into two stranding clouds of smoke, then folded together again. At the seam, it flared like lightning in a cloud, over and over, and fell apart again. On the right side, her uncle stood with his arms bent at the elbow to push the air in front of him. On the left, a lean dark-haired girl sat on the paved center band with her back to him.
She was younger than Karleigh by three or four years, her body still built of straight lines. Her hair was tied tight in a straight braid down her back, and her hands rested palm up on her knees while she tilted her head to one side, listening over her shoulder to everything she couldn’t see. The air in front of her rippled with heat, and her shirt stuck darkly against her shoulders. Sliding past her shoulders, the air immediately burst into violent blue, crackling and turning back toward her even as she leaned forward to escape it.
She wasn’t sure why she felt so surprised to see the girl there, other than the fact that she had never been there before. But Karleigh had heard about her uncle’s too-young, too-capable apprentice for years, and even sitting stiffly inside a jerking half-circle of heat and flash, she looked more at home than Karleigh felt.
Karleigh wrapped one arm around herself, holding back the uncomfortable weight in her stomach.
“You flinched,” her uncle said. His voice was raised, beating down the crackling of the energy in front of him, and sinking easily through the window glass.
His apprentice shook her head without turning around.
“Liar,” her uncle called immediately. “You’re afraid.”
The blue started to fade in the air, slowing, turning and dropping as if it had actually gained some weight. The girl looked over her shoulder, held up both arms, showing the twist of scars that ran upward from both wrists and disappeared under her sleeves. She said something.
“Say it louder,” her uncle yelled back.
The girl held still, exactly as she was. Karleigh watched, waiting for her lips to move, but the girl didn’t respond.
“If you’re not willing to shout it, Jaera, it’s nothing you should have said in the first place,” her uncle said. There was a sharpness in the way he said her name, so close to a taunt it made Karleigh blink and look away.
Jaera only twisted to look at him, and in his same biting tone, shouted, “I have a right to be.”
Toar dropped his hands, just a little but the smoke followed, pulling back toward him so that it didn’t roll quite so hard against the girl. Instead it spun toward his back, sliding close to his skin like it had become an animal, looking to be petted. He held perfectly still, keeping himself away from it.
“You absolutely do,” he said. Each syllable fell heavy from his tongue. “You have the right to be a coward, and a right to be weak.”
Karleigh almost stepped back from the window, still looking down at the floorboards under her bare feet.
“And a right to be delicate,” Toar continued. “And a right to be simple and feeble and useless. And a right to be bold, and a right to be incredible, and a right to be audacious, fire-eating, and stupid.”
Karleigh looked up in surprise. There had been no shift in his tone, but that was kindness. She’d never heard it from him before.
“It’s always going to be your choice,” Toar said. He shrugged as if he couldn’t care less. “Which do you want?”
Jaera was glaring at him, but it was a more distant look than she’d leveled at him before. Her back was straightening, and Karleigh wasn’t even sure it was purposeful.
Jaera wasn’t just at home there, sweating in the close heat, sitting on the ground, flinching and bent on a fight with air and fire and a man who rarely lost.
She was comfortable.
Karleigh drifted away from the window, turning her back on the first step.