“It’s raining,” Katja said. The dark cloth of her hood was dusted with the gleam of rain caught on its surface. She took it down and pulled off a single shower of droplets that fell silently to the carpet.
Aston looked up, one hand braced against the table. He squeezed the muscle above his knee with the other, gently kneading the ache out of the bones. He glanced at the line of windows running down the length of his study. Even if the rain hadn’t been sluicing down the glass, he would have known that the storm had rolled in.
But he smiled, bending his head back toward his papers. “Is it?”
“Like a bear,” she said. “Half the island is made of mud.”
He nodded and flipped a page in his ledger. “I heard three-quarters.”
Katja laughed, softly. Her cloak rustled as she took it off. Hanging it over the back of one of his huge wooden chairs, she stepped farther into the room. “I think, I’d like to go home,” she said.
Aston paused. He looked at her cloak, now elegantly forgotten behind her, then at her. She was playing idly with her fingernails, mouth curved in a pleasant smile. She held her shoulders back, with the same simple elegance she usually wore. Her hair was braided damply down one shoulder, gray temples shamelessly exposed. Her blue gown was dark at the bottom, maybe just with water, maybe with mud as well, like she had walked in from her home at the top of the city.
Aston straightened, blinking, and smiling, and shrugged at her. “Well, all right,” he said. “I don’t really need you today.”
Katja shook her head. Turning to the side, she bent her head to hide a smile of her own. A few easy steps, and she stopped at another chair, close to the windows. Most of the room was shadowed and gray, but there, there was a flat square of light. She slipped into the seat.
It was the most pleasant insubordination he’d ever known, the most polite way to command him to a more serious conversation. But she had always been able to do that. He pushed off the table and came to the windows as well, leaning against the seat back of the chair across from her.
When he didn’t sit down, she nodded, once to him, then to herself. It was the most pleasant response to insubordination, the most polite way to inform her that this was still his room.
“I’d like to go home,” she repeated.
“And when you say home, you mean…” Aston prompted.
“To Iter,” she said.
“For how long?” Aston said.
“My husband and I don’t intend to come back,” she said.
“Did something happen?” Aston asked. “Your brother…”
Katja shook her head, gently. “No,” she told him. “My brother is fine. He and his wife are both very happy with the lordship I handed down to him. They’re doing well. Their daughter is set to inherit.”
“So, if you’re not going back to take back what’s yours, what then?” Anton looked at her curiously.
“I just want to go home,” she said. “Is that such a strange thing to say?”
“It is when you ran away from it twenty years ago because it was…” He tried to remember her exact words from two decades before. “Boring? Stifling?”
“It was a well-disguised cage,” Katja said. “That looked very much like a road, except that there were no turnings, and no chance to see what existed to either side in the wilds. I remember what I said.” She lifted her chin, met his eye evenly
“You came to this island, because you wanted to,” Aston said.
“I left my Clan because you needed me,” she returned. “And ambition made it easy. But I’ve had my fun, and now, home seems like a sweet, quiet place, and there’s a girl there who is going to take control of my family’s long-held mansions and I’ve never even met her.” She stopped herself, abruptly. She took a slow breath and did not continue.
“You’ve talked to your Clan Lord already,” Aston said.
Katja nodded. “He’ll give me back my wristband, put me back into my family’s line, if you’ll take your wristband back.” Laying her hand on her knee, she pulled her sleeve back just enough to show the piece of leather wrapped around her wrist with its plain-stamped hawk. “He’s an intelligent man. He doesn’t want to anger either of us.”
Aston looked down, and shook his head. “A Clan Lord willing to step into a personal matter with another clan’s First Lord, and a rankless runaway? Most people wouldn’t call that intelligence.”
“Well, he’s an old friend,” Katja murmured.
“I offered you a place here for a reason,” Aston told her.
“You wanted a strong keimon for your Clan,” Katja said. “And I’ve done good things for you.” She paused, considering something, and smiled slowly. “Both my boys have decided to stay. This is the only clan they’ve ever known. Toar, my oldest, has already agreed to take my place.”
Aston paused. “Are you bargaining with me?”
Aston shook his head. “You think there’s something I could do – would do – to stop you from going home?”
Katja paused. “I thought you might try.”
“I might,” Aston agreed. “But you’d still be the runaway. You don’t need me to pave a road for you.”
Katja looked down, her smiling slowly widening. “I see,” she said.
Straightening, Aston waved her toward the door. “Go,” he said. “I’ll send a letter to our Clan Lord this afternoon. You’ll be kicked out and on your way to Iter within a week.”
Katja nodded and stood. “Thank you,” she said.
“Enjoy the mud,” Aston told her as she gathered her cloak.
She smiled over her shoulder and stepped out the door.
My friend, Kate is a thief! She stole the first line of this piece for a piece of fiction of her own. Be sure to stop by her blog and read about her rainy day.