Flash Fiction: Before Sleep (1464 words)

Toar said the best way to test control was to practice in the dark.

A good keimon, he told Jaera, could spread her hands and do her Work in daylight without the glow on her palms even showing in the sunshine. She could thread her energy onto the air like beads on lace, hiding it under the pattern of the light that was already there. It would only show in the shadows, motes on shafts of sunlight that didn’t exist. She could Work quietly, spread her energy thin and have everything she needed ready in the air.

The very best keimon, he said, leaning down to look her in the eye, need never even glimmer in the shadows. She could Work in the dark, and never dispel a shade of it. She could cast energy onto the air as if she was only putting its proper skin on it. With perfect, iron control, she could spread her energy everywhere, and still blink sightlessly into the pitch black.

Toar had held her eye to make sure she understood what he intended her to be. Jaera had nodded.

It was hard to sleep now, without first laying her hands flat and letting the ice of her energy crawl down her arms to seep out through her palms. She didn’t move on her mattress. Staring up at the ceiling, breathing deep and slow, she watched for shifting shadows. She watched the darkness, and as it stilled and settled and did not move, she stilled, relaxed, and drifted down into thoughtless sleep.

There was something moving. Jaera opened her eyes, still half asleep as she tried to settle that feeling alongside the absolute knowledge that the room around her was as quiet as an ocean bed. There was still a chill under the skin of her arms and shoulders, and she felt like she had fallen asleep with two packs of ice between her back and the mattress. She had been Working in her sleep, she realized.

Squeezing her hands into fists, she stopped the chill immediately. Toar said it was all right to Work while she rested. He said it was normal, for her unconscious mind to carry on the task while she was sleeping if that was the last thing she had been doing. She didn’t like it. She could see too many ways her thoughtless self could make a mistake.

The motion stopped, and Jaera blinked for a moment.

Her room was still quiet. Evvi slept against the far wall, breathing softly. She had not moved since Jaera opened her eyes. Sitting up slowly, Jaera waited in the dark to be sure, but the woman stayed as she was.

Jaera uncurled her hands. The ice came back to her shoulders immediately, and something moved on the floor below her. She didn’t like that her energy had spread that far either, but she waited, feeling the air sway and step with someone who should not have been up at this time of night. After a moment, Jaera folded her blankets back and dropped her feet to the floor, toes first. Her night shirt fell to her knees as she stood, and she crept to the door as quietly as she could.

There were no lights in the hall. The stairs were shadowed, too dark for there to be any lights downstairs either. But there was someone walking through the kitchen, as quiet as she was.

The door across from her was open, but she could see the Galen, Connell, and Barrett’s outlines in their beds. The next door down was shut tight, as it always was when Maren and Kile were sleeping inside. Jaera crept to the top of the stairs and listened hard. Someone was shuffling through things. Dishes clacked, but too slowly for the usual sounds of the house. One of the cupboard doors sighed open. Moving carefully, Jaera stepped down the first three stairs, then crouched down to see under the ceiling. There was a man in the kitchen, in boots and coat, moving deftly in the dark. He had something in his hands, and he had half the cupboards opened around him, as if he didn’t want to risk the sound they might make in closing.

Jaera took her next breath slow and quiet, then crept back up the stairs. Avoiding the floorboards she knew squeaked, she stepped into Galen and Connell’s room. Galen had his head pillowed on one arm, his back to her, but she put a hand on his shoulder and gently pulled him around to face her.

She couldn’t really move him until he woke up enough to help her, and he blinked up at her as he turned.

“Jaera?” he said. “You all right?”

She pressed a finger to her lips. Glancing over her shoulder, she bent close to whisper, “There’s someone in the house.”

He blinked at her again, eyebrows coming together as he woke more fully. “Where?” he asked, voice as low as hers.

“In the kitchen,” she said.

He squeezed her shoulder and guided her back a little so that he could get out of bed. Padding across the room, he tapped Connell, then pushed the other man down into the mattress when he started awake.

“Shh!” Galen told him. “There’s someone in the kitchen.”

“What?” Connell asked sleepily.

Barrett woke as well, rising onto one elbow in the dark. “What?” he echoed his son.

“Get up,” Galen told Connell. He turned toward Barrett. “We’ll take care of it.” But all three of them left the room together, moving quietly to the head of the stairs with Jaera trailing behind.

Making sure not to run into each other in the dark, they went down the stairs one at a time, disappearing in the dark. At the bottom, Connell went to the right, toward the front door, and Barrett went to the left, covering the back, while Galen hovered by the bottom of the stairs. Jaera felt them shift, moving quickly, then settling into place, while the man continued around the kitchen. She moved halfway down the stairs, then stopped and waited like the others.

“What are you doing, friend?” Galen asked.

The man froze. Then he bolted.

Jaera felt Connell come up on his toes to run toward him. Galen turned, digging in for a run as well. Barrett braced his feet. Jaera turned her head so she wasn’t looking directly at the man anymore, and snapped her hands open.

Blue white light flashed, crackling like thick ice. The man shouted and thudded into the floor. Connell and Galen stopped up short, skidding in their last stride. The air hissed. Yellow flame caught on one of the man’s sleeves and he rolled away from a large sack to smother the fire beneath him. Jaera kept her hands open, letting some of her energy that had gathered around the edges of the room glow dully.

Connell laughed. “Wrong house, friend,” he said, scooping up the sack. Opening it, he glanced inside, shook it to see more of what was at the bottom, then closed it and set it behind him.

The man was starting to pick himself back up, wide-eyed as he glanced around. His chest was heaving, and his face was red along one side.

“This is my house,” Barrett said, coming up behind Galen. He clicked his tongue against his teeth, chiding the man as if he’d gotten lost.

The man just stared.

Galen picked up the knife, weighing it against his palm. He seemed to like the weight, and flipped it over so that the blade ran back along his forearm. Then he seemed to forget about it, looking back toward Barrett. “Do you want me to get the Watch?”

“Nah,” Barrett said, watching the man push himself up onto his feet. “Man’s already interrupted too much good sleep. We can make a report in the mornin’. Mean, s’not like he’s a good thief. Got caught by’n eight year old kid.” He paused. His eyes narrowed and his voice sharpened. “Why are you still here listenin’ to me? I didn’t invite you over for a chat, and I’m drimmed sure not going to cook you breakfast if you stick ’round.”

The man ran for the front door and they didn’t stop him.

Connell laughed again.

Barrett shook his head.

Galen started to stifle a yawn, then just let it happen.

Gathering together at the base of the stairs, they started back up slowly. Galen put an arm around Jaera’s shoulders when he reached her, pulling her along with him.

“Nice job,” he whispered in her ear.

Jaera rolled her hands into gentle fists. She let her arms relax, leaning in against him. She knew she had done well. But she was tired.

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