The baby was coming soon. Not in the next few hours, but Chaela knew it was no longer a matter of weeks, but days. A handful of days and she would hear him for the first time, instead of just feeling him and all the sharp corners of his elbows and knees.
She put her hand on her stomach, fingers spread wide to cover as much of the baby as possible, and tried to remind herself to breathe. It had been nine full months, but just a few days more was still too soon.
Chaela had felt the baby’s company for a long time now. He liked to kick. He nudged her and moved with her, woke her and seemed always curious about the exact number of ribs she owned. She knew him already, had named him so long ago. She wasn’t ready to let any of this go.
And the last time…
Chaela stopped that thought as soon as she found it. She had had it too many times before, and another repetition would solve nothing, support nothing.
The baby kicked. Chaela winced, and then she smiled.
It was a beautiful gift, all smooth corners of blue paper that gleamed like moonrise on the water, and leaping white ribbon. It felt nice in Chaela’s hands as she picked it up off the table, the paper more cousin to cloth than tree. She would have been content to leave it just as it was for a long while if Leonathan hadn’t been standing in the doorway, quietly watching and waiting. She turned it around in her hands once, letting the white light of the lamps catch and dance one more time across the top of the box. She could hear something shift inside, something muffled and nestled, and perfectly content to be held inside.
Chaela wobbled on her new heels as she turned back toward the door, the shoes still stiff around her feet. She let herself slide into it, let her feet slide out and stood on the carpet in her bare toes. Her wide skirt hid the shoes still, but she sank back to her usual height. Looking up at Leonathan – back to the way she was accustomed to looking up at him – she smiled, more to herself than to him. She felt silly for kicking out of her shoes. And she felt better. They only met each other’s eye for a moment while she smiled. He smiled back, but she could feel the weight in it. She looked back to the gift in her hands quickly, and pulled in a breath, pull the next moment along more quickly as well.
Gently, she slid the ribbons out of their knots. Chaela let them fall around her fingers. The seams of the paper were laid in carefully, but with the ties gone, it was easy to slip her fingers between the layers. She peeled the paper back too, careful not to turn the thin-walled wooden box inside upside down. The lid sighed as she lifted it.
Taryn crawled faster than any child had a right to, disappearing under table skirts and scuttling all the way across a room in the time it took his mother to blink. Chaela lost him more times a day than was good for a new mother’s heart, and always found him as he tore out into the open again, looking for new conquests.
He wasn’t a noisy baby, but he had a way of looking at Chaela like he really saw her, eyes a little too sharp in the roundness of his face. He turned his head quickly, almost knocking himself over under its weight as he threw head, neck and shoulders around to get a look at the other side of his world. Chaela felt like she caught him more than she held him, more his safety net than his caretaker.
But he laughed as soon as he knew how, grinned into the rush just before she stopped his free fall, and giggled into her shoulder when she tucked him close.
He played with his feet more than Chaela thought he would, fingers wrapped around his toes as if he was always counting them. Often he would hit his heels against the floor, listening to the thunk, as if he was trying to gauge their strength. He hung on his father’s hands, and kicked against the ground. He pulled himself up on chair legs and table clothes and walls, balance on the edges of his feet, then looked across the room as if wondering if he could make it.
“You don’t believe in ghosts,” Aaren said and looked across the table at her friend, Chaela. It was the look that made the other girl pause and take notice of the question, not the tone.
Chaela swiped her wet rag in a close circle on the table top one more time, before she stopped, smiling lightly and looked Aaren in the eye. She shook her head. “No,” she said. Then she went back to scrubbing the table. The top rocked as she worked, and Aaren leaned back to pull the bowl of half-shucked nuts into her lap.
“No,” Aaren repeated, almost questioning.
Without looking up from her work, Chaela shook her head.
Aaren cracked another nut. She twisted her hand to drop the shell into one side of the wide bowl, then back to put the nut meat in the other. “But you believed in the rabid bear the size of a house in the woods last summer.”
“There is nothing under the eight suns, or under the thousand stars, or in the hundred oceans, that would convince me to do that,” Leonathan said. Spine straight, arms crossed, eyebrows high to strengthen the emphatic syllables, he spoke with the assurance and wariness and absolute shock that made Chaela smile, then cover her mouth just to hold in a laugh.
She glanced over at the rope bridge swaying between cliffs. It was old, missing a few boards. The knots anchoring the end were thick, but fraying in age. It looked a little dangerous, a little like it might have the heart and the sense of humor to drop you into the water fifty feet below.
But the bridge had been there for as long as Chaela could remember and she had wanted to cross it for twice as long.
“When will you be back?” Chaela asked. Leonathan walked beside her, close enough that his shoulder brushed hers from time to time. He kept his hands in his pockets, so she held hers in front of her, playing with her fingernails.
Shaking his head, Leonathan looked out at the harbor, dyed gray and red in the sunset. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’re headed farther south before we turn back for home. It’ll be months before we make it that far. Stars only know how long it will be before we sail out again, or which way we’ll be going.”
“Won’t you be coming this way on your way back home?” she asked.
Leonathan shook his head a little more firmly. “That’s not how the wind works.”
Chaela woke up slowly, stuck her head out her door to see if anyone else was awake yet, then sighed and drifted back inside to get dressed. Sunlight invaded the room through the square window above her bed. Squinting against the light, she moved quickly and ducked back out into the hallway.
Quietly, she walked down three flights of stairs and into the inn’s taproom. Everything was cleaned and scrubbed from the night before. All the chairs and tables were neatly in their places. The bar sat empty and her steps echoed against the floor. At night, nothing in the room echoed, too full of music and voices and smoke and drink. It was eerie so early in the morning, so hollowed out by vacancy.
Chaela crossed the room, unlocked the front door, then disappeared into the back room to escape the echo.
A minute later, she elbowed her way back out, arms locked under a wide tray of washed and drip-dried mugs, and he was standing at the bar.