Terius faltered on the first step inside the open stone hall. “You’re still awake?” he said, seeing his cousin, Zain sitting at the rich redwood piano situated in the far corner. He looked a little disappointed, but not all that surprised, as if he’d hoped that Zain would have had the better sense of the two of them, but knew that he didn’t.
“Too full,” Zain said, patting his stomach, with one hand still idly pressing the ivory keys.
It had been hours since they’d eaten, but his mother’s welcome dinner was nothing short of culinary excellence. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to him. She was a woman who could have paid for someone else’s talent in her kitchen, but chose to complete the hot and time-consuming chore herself. Because she liked it. And anyone who enjoyed themselves in a task like that usually put in enough practice to be very good.
But Zain didn’t remember the food from when he was small, sitting around her table every night. He thought, maybe, it was just that he hadn’t yet been out on the ocean to learn about the rough nutrition of months aboard ship. Or maybe, it just hadn’t left an impression because he had never known anything else. Or because he was just too young. But he had taken a single bite of his juicy, pink-in-the-center, two-fingers-thick steak that night, and decided he was going to stuff himself.
Terius ran a hand over his own stomach, and nodded sympathy. Coming across the hall, he dropped onto the piano bench beside Zain. He sat with his back to the piano, and leaned forward over his knees.
The big house had gotten quiet. Zain’s haphazard melody echoed lightly off the walls and seemed like the only sound in the lower rooms. Above their heads, most people had already gone to bed, though there was still the occasional thump and creak and shuffle of those too restless to sleep. It was not quite a full house that night – only two of Zain’s brothers were home, and out of the dozen guests that ate dinner, only Terius and his father had chosen to accept their invitation to stay the night – and it was fuller than it had been in a while, but quiet seemed to cling to the walls.
Zain remembered days when a quiet moment meant that his mother was about to rush up the stairs to see what trouble he had wedged himself inside. He smiled to himself, tripped a few quick notes down a line, and took his hands off the keys. Another moment, and he picked up his feet so that he could spin around to sit shoulder with Terius.
“So,” Zain said.
Terius looked at him sideways, eyebrows high in question.
“What do you want to do?” Zain asked.
“Do?” Terius repeated.
Zain nodded. “Yeah. I mean, sleeping has obviously been struck off the schedule. And this is Delvire. A whole island we haven’t seen since we were seven. There’s got to be some fun to dig up that we wouldn’t have been tall enough for then. We–”
Terius’ eyebrows came down slow, a little low now. Wordless, he turned his back on his cousin. Zain smiled when he started to play the piano, quietly but firmly.
Zain smiled. “Too tired?” he asked.
“Too smart,” Terius said.
Terius continued to play. It was a rambling sort of tune, soothing in the quiet way that he played it, though it liked to kick through little trick phrases between measures. It sounded a little like a flock of song birds. If those same birds had decided to abandon their trilling for the day and have a serious discussion with a blind friend over what morning and sunrise and the waking of the world looked like. It was pretty, and a little strange, and one of Terius’ mother, Lynette’s favorites. He had played it a thousand times for her, until now, his fingers rolled it out thoughtlessly.
Zain thought that was what he had tried to play. Not this morning bird thought, but something that his own mother had liked and taught him when his fingers were really too small to span the chords. He had played it for Lyneth once without sheet music, right after he arrived at her house, but that was a long time ago. He didn’t remember it anymore. Just a few notes that should have led into a few dozen more, but he couldn’t find them on the keys.
He wondered if his younger brother, Silas knew the song, if he had played it for Tamzen a thousand times.
“Do you ever think about what you would have been like if I hadn’t come around?” Zain asked.
Terius glanced at him, and kept playing. “What I would have been like?” he repeated, a little disbelieving.
“Yeah,” Zain said.
Terius snorted. “What parts of me are you trying to take credit for?”
“Oh. All the good stuff.” Zain nodded quickly.
Terius just shook his head. “I guess I would have been boring and quiet, always would have had my nose in a book, would never leave my rooms, and would have absolutely no fun.”
“So…” Zain said. “No different?”
Terius took his hand off the keys to push him matter-of-factly off the bench. Zain saw it coming and leaned into it to keep his balance. But they’d known each other too long for that too, and Terius shifted in response, and Zain still ended up sitting on the cool stone floor.
Terius resumed his melody. “Why are you asking?” he asked, as if neither of them had moved.
Zain sighed and laid himself out flat on the floor. “No reason,” he said. He looked up at the dim ceiling. Tracing the wooden supports that backed the stone floor above him, he took another breath and settled his shoulder blades flatter into the chill.
“It’s nice here,” Terius said. “I’d forgotten.”
“It is nice,” Zain said. “A little quiet.”
“You wishing that my Father had never dragged you away to live with us?” Terius asked.
“No,” Zain said flatly. He lifted his head and caught Terius looking down at him seriously. “Look, I still don’t understand it, but I’m good with it. I promise. One older cousin that I could drag into anything, versus six older brothers who hung me out a window once to see if Mother’s hair really would stand on end? Easy decision.” He laid back down.
Terius tilted his head, eyebrows pulling together. “You asked them to, didn’t you?” It wasn’t much of a question.
Zain grinned. “I don’t think I told them to hang me upside down.”
“I bet you did,” Terius replied.
“I might have,” Zain allowed.
“So, why are you asking?” Terius asked again.
Zain paused, considered the wooden struts again. “Silas,” he said.
Terius nodded rather than ask anything more. It was a simple enough thought to follow, too simple really for Zain to keep it from re-forming after every time he shook it loose over the last few hours.
Silas was the youngest of eight brothers. But he was a decade and a half younger than the oldest and even though there was only five years between him and Zain, he couldn’t have much memory with anyone but him and his mother and his father rattling around the huge house. Zain had left too soon, five or seven years earlier than he might have to go sailing, because Terius’ father had shown up at the front door asking for a playmate for his own young son in another huge, empty house.
But Zain might have stayed here. And Silas might have been the one dragged into all his mischief instead of Terius.
Instead, Silas wandered quiet, every action bent with the concentration of mind that simply wasn’t used to there being any reason to be distracted. He smiled bright enough, but there was a seriousness to his brown eyes that Zain didn’t know how to mirror, and a thousand thoughts spinning through the kid’s head that were never said out loud.
Terius regarded Zain quietly, his fingers moving a little slower, but still holding to the bare bones of his tune.
“I think,” Terius said, slowly. “That Silas will be fine.”
Zain took another breath to flatten his back onto the cool floor again. “Yeah. I didn’t say he wasn’t.”
“But if you’re really worried about your chances of corrupting him, I’m sure you have time,” Terius told him, quicker, sharper and with a shake of his head.
Zain laughed before he realized he was smiling.