The house was quiet when Jaera woke, opening her eyes to the dim yellow light that wriggled its way through the shutters. Outside, she could hear people passing by on the street, her neighbors calling back and forth to each other, and someone pounded with a hammer, already deep in the day’s work. She was the last to wake, but she just yawned and stretched slowly. She had time.
She swung her feet out of bed and sat for a moment, blinking sleepily at the strips of light across her floor. When her thoughts started to lose their fuzzy edges, she stood up, stripped out of her nightshirt and put on the day’s shirt, breeches, and jacket. Then she finger-combed her hair enough to fit it into a braid.
Opening the door, she moved down the hall, then blinked in the brighter light of the main room as she came down the stairs. The windows were all open wide, letting in the breeze and the sunlight, and letting out the summer heat that was slowly building. The front and back doors were open as well. Jaera glanced at them, and pulled her sleeves down over her hands. She was still losing the comfortable, heavy warmth of sleep, and the air felt a little cold.
“Mornin’,” Barrett said behind her.
Jaera turned at the sound of his voice, not surprised to find him still at the kitchen table. He had a thick chunk of bread on a plate in front of him, stuffed with something that smelled very strongly of garlic and rosemary. The others’ dirty plates were stacked up behind him with their cups, but they’d left the water jug and cooking pan in the middle of the table. Barrett would clean everything up when he was finished eating. He always stayed to take care of the house.
“You’re late, aren’t you?” he asked her.
She paused. Then she shrugged. She was later than she usually was. From his tone, he thought she should be rushing, but she didn’t see the need yet. It was sort of nice to wake up slow, without the usual morning’s clatter and crowd.
“You goin’ t’lessons?” Barrett asked. “That’s where you go every mornin’, right?”
Jaera nodded. Looking at his breakfast, she considered whether she should go to the cupboard to fetch something for herself. She thought sluggishly, then decided that was a silly question. Of course she wanted food. The rest of the loaf was sitting in the middle of the table, already sliced. Taking the nearest piece, she pulled a chunk off between her fingers and stuck it in her mouth on her way to the door.
“You gonna tell your teacher you lit a man on fire last night?” Barrett asked her.
Halfway to the door, Jaera stopped and blinked. She wasn’t sure what thought she had meant to have next, but whatever it was, it was gone now. She would have liked it back. Slowly, she looked over her shoulder at Barrett, but didn’t move otherwise. She blinked again. “No,” she murmured.
“No?” Barrett repeated the light question in her tone back to her, with a quick smile. “You don’t think that’s the sort of thing that should be told?”
Jaera hesitated. “It didn’t catch,” she said.
Barrett paused, smile fixed dully for a moment before he took a breath and composed his expression again. “Somethin’ about the way you say that makes me think that there are stories I shouldn’t ask you for.”
Jaera didn’t say anything. Barrett shook his head a little and looked back down at his breakfast.
“Come and sit for a minute. I need t’say a few things,” he told her. He motioned toward the chair across from him at the table and waited a moment for her to move. He looked her in the eye again when she didn’t come back to the table. “Am I gonna make you late?”
Jaera knew Toar probably hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet, and wouldn’t miss her for an hour yet. He hated mornings. She only shook her head because she still wasn’t thinking fast enough. As soon as she did, she realized she might have lied and escaped.
“So, sit,” Barrett said firmly.
Moving carefully to the chair, she sat on the edge. She held her slice of bread in both hands on her lap, and met his eye.
“Why you lookin’ like that?” Barrett asked her. He put his elbows on the table to lean toward her. “You so sure I’m about t’say somethin’ terrible? Knock that out of your head, kid. This is serious, but I don’t expect it to hurt none, and I don’t like to be looked at like I’m ’bout t’steal your lungs.”
Jaera leaned back in her chair, but she didn’t know how to change her expression. It seemed stuck. She did take a deep breath though, and forced herself to relax her spine as she exhaled. “Yes, sir,” she said quietly.
“How ’bout you don’t call me ‘sir’,” Barrett told her. He pushed his plate just to one side, clearing the space between them. “I let Galen do it, ’cause I know how he feels about the other folk he calls ‘sir’ and I don’t mind being given that sort of respect. But my name’s Barrett.”
“How long you been living in this house?” Barrett asked her.
“Three weeks,” she whispered.
“Three weeks,” he confirmed. “And last night was the first time I’ve seen you… do anything.” He looked pointedly at her hands.
Jaera didn’t look down. She just pushed her hands forward, hiding them under the edge of the table.
“I know keimon aren’t exactly common ’round here, but I’ve seen ’em,” he began. “I know what they’re like. Knew one once that took every excuse she could to light her hands on fire, or put light tricks in the air. She had this thing she could do that looked like a waterfall made outta lightnin’. It kinda popped and crackled. Hissed like a real waterfall. She said doing that kind of thing felt good.”
Barret paused to see if Jaera would react. She took another breath and blinked. He waited one more moment then continued on as if there had been no silence.
“Met plenty of keimon who weren’t like her, but still, know ’em for a day and you know exactly what they are. Except you. You, I figure, are hidin’.”
Jaera looked down.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Barrett said quickly. “I understand it. It’s okay. I’m not tryin’ t’tell you shouldn’t, or that I want you t’stop. You do what you need t’do out there.”
Surprised, Jaera brought her head up slowly again. He was still watching her, and it took her a moment to meet his eye, but it was a gentler look than she was expecting.
“All I wanted t’say was…” Barrett stopped to reorder his words before he went any farther. “What you did last night – it looked like you did it right t’me. Looked like you knew what you were doin’. You didn’t light the walls on fire, or the rug or anythin’ else. You didn’t really hurt nobody. You just scared a man that broke into the house, tried to take what wasn’t his. He walked out on his own feet. We walked out on ours. You walked out on yours.”
Barrett nodded, to her first to make sure she understood that those were the important things, then to himself and thought for a moment. Jaera thought he looked like he was making sure he had said what he had meant to say, tracing out his thoughts to remember what was supposed to come next. She took another breath and waited.
“My da always said that a man should be a lord under his own roof,” Barrett said. “And I always thought he was mostly right. We should all be lords and ladies under our roofs.” He looked at her directly. “And this is your roof. You understand me?”
Jaera hesitated. Then she nodded.
“If you want t’hide here,” Barrett said. “You go ahead and hide. I’m not gonna stop you. But don’t do it, if the only reason is cause you think you have to. Hide cause it makes you feel safe, or cause it makes you feel comfortable. Or don’t.”
Jaera listened until he was finished, then looked down at the table to let it sink in.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“Your roof,” Barrett repeated.
She smiled at him.
Barret nodded toward the door. “Get outta here. You’re late.”
She stuffed a piece of bread into her mouth, smiled again, and ran for the door.