Galen moved slow as a regular habit, like he understood the world needed a little warning before he met it face to face. Meeting him on the street, Barrett caught sight of him yards ahead. When the kid came to visit, Barrett somehow always noticed him when he turned the corner at the end of the row, then watched him take those slow, considerate strides up the hill to the house. It seemed stupid when he was ten and round and as threatening as unbaked dough, but it was starting to make sense now. He was taller than most. Twelve years on a ship had hardened most of his old softness. Worst of all, he had kept that quiet that always made it hard to tell what he was thinking, and now it rested confidently behind a square jaw and steady gaze.
He was carrying his ruck with him now, and it made him look even bigger, adding its long evening shadow to his as he stopped in front of the house. Barrett leaned back in his chair under the short porch roof and shook his head at him.
“Evenin’, sir,” Galen said. His voice had gotten deep too. He tapped his forehead in a sailor’s salute.
“What are you doin’ here, boy?” Barrett asked. “Connell’s not due into port for weeks.”
Galen gave him a thin, honest smile and nodded. “I know,” he said.
“You just get in?” Barrett asked.
Galen nodded again. “This mornin’, sir.”
“Mornin’?” Barrett repeated. “So what’ve you got in the sack that you can’t let out of your sight for the whole ricken day?”
“Nothin’, sir,” Galen said, a little too firmly, and he shook his head as if Barrett had just said something that would have been funny on any other day. “Honestly, I’ll be happy when I get t’put it down.”
“Well, I can see you’ve got dirt right under your feet. If you don’t like it that much, drop it a while,” Barrett told him.
Galen glanced down, maybe considering it, and smiled weakly again. “I’d like to,” he said. “But I came here with a question for you.”
“Guess you’d better ask it,” Barrett said.
“Guess I’d better,” Galen said. “I’m lookin’ for a new place to stay. Been lookin’ most of the day, actually. Would you have room?”
“Who under this sky is turnin’ you down?” Barrett asked.
Galen almost laughed. “No one actually,” he said. “But I don’t come alone. I got a little girl I take care of.”
Barrett paused to nod. He’d heard of her, and not the way he usually heard about kids. The stories were always short, and never spoken when someone who actually knew her might be around to hear. He’d been waiting to hear something she did get spun into a hearth tale. She already sounded a little more like a thing in the dark than a little girl. He could understand why folk didn’t want her under their roof.
Barrett lifted his chin, his decision easily made. “Where is she?”
“Left her with a friend while I’m out lookin’,” Galen said. He was straightening too, squaring out so that he looked taller still.
“Go get her,” Barrett said.
Slowly, Galen shook his head. “It’s late–”
“She’s old enough t’sail but not to ask for a place for herself?” Barrett asked. He tilted his head, narrowed his eyes, making sure he understood what answer he was supposed to give.
Galen blinked at him, unmoved. “She’s eight,” he said simply.
Barrett paused. From what he’d heard, he would have made her older than that. It didn’t change his mind though. “Go get her,” he repeated.
“It’ll be dark soon–” Galen began.
“You think I don’t know how the sun works?” Barrett demanded.
Galen snapped his mouth shut. It was a stupid question. The more the silence stretched, the more Barrett was pleased that Galen did the smart thing and didn’t cap it with a stupid answer.
“You think I’m gonna make you drag an eight-year-old kid down here in the dark so that I can say no to her face?” Barrett demanded. He took a breath, and forced his tone to quiet even if he didn’t know how to be gentle. “Go get her,” he said.
“And leave your ruck, boy,” Barrett order. He waved toward the base of the porch. “I’ll have dinner for you when you get back. You look half dead.”
Without taking his eyes from him, Galen slid his ruck off his shoulder. He let it drop almost to the ground, then caught it and set it gently against the post beside Barrett’s chair. Another moment, and he murmured a thanks before turning and starting back down the street. He set a long stride, and left a little quicker than he’d come. Barrett watched him go until he reached the corner, then pushed himself out of his chair and went inside.
The main room was quiet, but he could hear voices upstairs, and heavy, creaking footsteps as folk moved about comfortably. Evvi sounded like she was unpacking, letting Maren yap at her while she shuffled through her bag and organized the chest at the foot of her bed, just the way she liked. Kile might have been dancing, for all the ruckus he was making. Barret ignored them all and went to the cupboard to see what had been left after dinner.
There was a good chunk of dark bread, and a slab of cheese that broke easy in his hands. There were two apples and a pile of carrots and one of those fruits that only ever showed up with Maren. Barrett didn’t know what it was, but it had more spines that he liked to see on his food. He took one of the apples out and set it next to the bread, then put the other in the crook of his elbow and went back to the porch to wait.
It was less than an hour when Galen came back around the corner. The sun had already disappeared, but it didn’t hurry him any, and the girl beside him matched stride easily. Barrett watched her.
She had dark hair, curly like Galen’s, but long and braided over one shoulder. Short, she barely came up to Galen’s elbow, but it didn’t seem to bother her that she had to look up so far to meet his eye. Her sleeves were dragged down as far as they would go, and she had her thumbs hooked through holes in the fabric. Her bag was almost as big as she was, but she carried it as if it barely pressed its weight against her shoulder. She didn’t speak as they approached. Either she had learned Galen’s silence from him, or she’d just picked it up along with his tension for the night.
“Go on inside,” Barrett told Galen as the boy opened his mouth. He jerked his head toward the door, and Galen blinked at him. Barrett raised his eyebrows, daring him to argue. “She can’t talk for herself?”
Very slowly, Galen swallowed whatever he was going to say and took a breath. Glancing at the girl, he gave her some sort of silent apology. Then he picked up his ruck, nodded to Barrett, and pushed through the front door. The girl watched his back until it disappeared.
“I bet you get into lots of places just walking next to him, don’t you?” Barrett asked her.
She met his eye without hesitation, but didn’t say anything. After a moment, she nodded.
Barrett nodded too. “I was thinkin’ ’bout this while he was fetchin’ you,” he told her. “And I decided I had four questions for you. You got four answers for me?”
She considered it. Then she nodded again.
“What’s your name?” Barrett asked.
“Jaera,” she said. Her tone was quiet, but firm, and he knew it wasn’t shyness that had kept her quiet before. She was bold as brass, and had picked up all of Galen’s trick, with a little extra bite from somewhere else. Barrett would have smiled if he didn’t need to keep his steely look for the next question.
“You dangerous?” he asked her.
She tugged on one of her sleeves, surprised a little. She didn’t look like her last breath had filled her chest quite as smoothly as she would have liked. Carefully, she opened her mouth.
“Don’t give me the answer you think I want,” Barrett stopped her. “Tell me the thing you know is true.”
She watched him, and to her credit, she didn’t look scared when she breathed, “Yes.”
He’d already known as much. It was good that she knew it too. “You ever hurt any one on purpose?” he asked. “I count things they own as being part of them, just so you know. So if you took it into your head to destroy someone’s boots or books or house or what have you, cause you was mad at them–”
“No,” Jaera said. She said it quick, but it wasn’t defensive, just quietly offended. “I’ve never meant to hurt any one.”
He’d hoped for that, and was glad of it. He lifted the apple toward her, still tucked in the crook of his elbow, just above the clean stump of his arm. “Hungry?” he asked.
She looked surprised for half a moment. Glancing at his other arm, she marked where it stopped short as well, the wrist capped with skin and no hand. Then she stepped forward and accepted the apple. Her small fingers brushed his skin without hesitation and she nodded her thanks.
“I don’t scare you?” Barrett asked her.
Without effort, she met his eye, holding the apple against her chest because it was a little too big for her hand. “You’re not the nicest person I’ve ever met,” she said. “But no, you’re not scary.”
Barrett chuckled. “Wanna go inside?”
She tilted her head to examine him one more time. Her gaze didn’t catch on his arms, just flicked over him, up and down. She turned to go inside before she bothered to tell him, “That was six.”
He laughed a little too loud, but caught a smile from her too before she passed inside.