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.
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.”
Fulke took half a dozen lazy steps in no particular direction across the deck, then stopped in Galen’s path, looking at him with half a smile. Galen stopped too, looking down at him patiently.
He was older than Fulke by four years, and it showed. At seventeen, Fulke had gotten tall, but he was still spear-thin, the bones of his shoulders making perfect right angles out of his frame. The fashionably long cut of his hair did something to soften the edges of his face, but he was mostly angles there, too. What muscle he had from hauling lines and running the decks was still lean and hidden under the clean lines of his uniform.
Galen had been working ships for eleven years, and he’d worked them harder than Fulke had. He was naturally broader and two inches taller, but his age and his work had given him bulk-rounded chest and arms. Adjusting the coil of rope wrapped over his shoulder, he considered bumping the kid to the side and continuing on his way. It would have been as easy as any stride. There just wasn’t much need.
“Hello,” Fulke said. He smiled before he made his joke. “I didn’t see you there.”
At nineteen, Galen had put out a dozen ship fires. None of them had been easy, or done any less to rattle his bones, though some of them the crew had stopped faster, and they’d taken smaller bites out of the boat. Fires in the hold got smokey, quick, and burned in his lungs and eyes worse than the others. Spilled lamp oil clung to planks, and burned long, and there was a different kind of panic when that wave of heat hit his face and he realized he needed something other than water to smother it. Fires on deck spread fast in the wind, and fires in the rigging had to be reached quick before they rained ash and coal and ate through the only way to reach them. But no other fire was like keimon fire.
Keimon fire crackled and jumped, spun like smoke, and rolled like water. No matter how carefully he watched it, he couldn’t read where it might move next. It glowed brightest where it was coolest, a blinding ice-blue. At its hottest, it was just a streaky black sheet under the yellow flames it lit all around it. It couldn’t be smothered, just held down for a little while until it found air again.
Keimon fire always bit deep, until the keimon who lit it reined it back down to nothing.
At five, Jeara had lit three ship fires, all on accident, and they were getting worse.
Galen was not home when Tarra came back at the end of her work day. He was supposed to be at the table, bread and cheese and yesterday’s happy find of fresh carrots and zuchinni spread on the table for dinner. Instead, the house was dark as Tarra approached, and she spent ten minutes lighting the lamps and calling his name in every room upstairs and down, looking for him.
She exhausted every cranny that a seven-year-old could stuff himself into. Then she stood at the base of the stairs, listening for him. All she heard was her heart beat.
He was not home.
And the house was too empty.
Wrapping herself back into her coat, she snuffed the lamp, and ran outside. She knocked on one neighbor’s door, then the others. Neither Arri nor Ceddir had seen him. Ceddir who usually sat at his front window all afternoon putting in hems and patches, hadn’t even seen him come home.
Enil used to spend the beginning of every night laid flat on the narrow roof of his family’s home, watching the sky for lucky stars. The unlucky ones fell, leaving their chalky streaks across the growing dark, and the constellations continued their spin around the seasons. The lucky ones appeared here and there, steady, bright, and wandering all alone. He used to save up wishes for when he found them, hanging them on their bright points in order of what he wanted most. The very important wishes, he pinned to two or three stars, and twisted his fingers that one of them would hold its fidelity.
He often twisted his fingers, always avoided the cracks in paving stones, and touched the toes of the warrior statues every time he passed them.
He caught lady bugs, looking for the ones with an odd number of spots. He slept facing south. He wore his red shirt as often as his mother would let him between washings.
Tarra paid one of Dene’s nephews three sugar sticks to wait on the forward peaks and watch the horizon for sails. He was an eager little thing, with brown hair grown too long below his ears and eyes that could spot a frog three yards away in the weeds. He grinned at the thought of doing a favor for Dene’s soon-bride, grinned wider when he saw the thick sticks, and ran out the door with one already stuck in his mouth.
The hawks had come in days ago, and Galen’s ship could arrive in port any of the next four days. Tarra herself had lived long enough on a ship’s schedule to know that it was more likely to come in on the fifth than it was the first, but she also knew her brother. Galen was always around at the right times, and today was his birthday. Waking, lying in bed and looking at the sunrise turning her ceiling from ash gray to warm brown, she could believe that he would walk through the front door that day. If he did, she intended the whole street to celebrate with him.
He was bold as a lion, but half as high, half as wide, and calling him golden would have been charitable. The mutt was more a sand color, richer and deeper for the coat of dust that was scrubbed into him, or else he might have just been a forgettable tan. But he trotted along, just to one side, matching Galen’s stride as he strode down the street.
Almost, Galen thought the dog would duck his head toward his hand. He was a little thin, and Galen had some sweet things in his pocket left over from lunch. The dog had sniffed at his jacket when he came along side him, but then had turned away, cocking his ears toward the rest of the street. Galen whistled to him. The dog quirked his head toward the boy, then looked away again. Galen blinked, and looked away as well.
“I don’t get it,” Galen said. He smiled as he spoke and shook his head, sitting on the deck. He had one knee bent, his arm propped against it, his head leaned forward a little to catch the warm sun on his neck and shoulders. Relaxed.
Zain was staring at him. His mouth hung open, breath caught somewhere in the back of his throat as he tried to come up with another way to explain. He sat cross-legged, leaned forward over his knees earnestly. “Definitions… can never exactly be the object that they’re attempting to define.”
“But that’s what a definition is,” Galen said.
Zain stared at him harder. Then he glanced to the side for help. It was impossible to say whether he looked to Terius or Jaera, as close as they sat, with Terius sat on a low crate with his arms wrapped around Jaera while she leaned her back against it. Both of them shrugged, almost at the same moment, then broke into smiles of their own. Jaera met Galen’s eye and shook her head too.
“But a definition is not the thing!” Zain said.
“No,” Galen repeated, but he sounded like a school boy, repeating the answer he thought the teacher wanted, complete with the snickering undertone of pity for the teacher’s ignorance.
Deidei answered the door as soon as she heard the knock – his knock, the five sing-song raps he’d learned and borrowed from his father – and smiled before she’d pulled the door open.
He’d gotten taller while he was away. She expected that of a fifteen year old boy, but was still surprised when she had to turn her head up to look at him. Her smile broadened, almost to a laugh as she saw how he filled the doorway, curly blonde hair tangled with salt and breeze, shoulders too wide. He’d stretched, the way all sailor boys always did, from hanging so long in the rigging, built broad shoulders and callused hands from hauling sail.
“Look at you, Galen,” Deidei murmured. “I think you’re taller than your Da, now.”
“Hey, Deidei,” he said. He ducked his head to look inside. “Still room for me?”
“You’re not that tall,” Deidei told him with a dry look. But he had to keep his head tucked to come inside.