There were two trees in Nita’s yard. She named them when she was three, but forgot to say the names out loud often enough to remember them when she was nine. She thought she might have named them after stars, or like stars, or under the stars. She knew she had snuck out once, after a nightmare. She fell asleep curled up under one of them, cheek against the bark, buried in calm and company, because they were just named enough for her to believe they had heartbeats.
She was seven when she finally stretched tall enough to climb into their branches. She was never sure how it was that she grew enough on the same day that both trees fell into her reach, but she clambered through one, and then the other, for hours. The first had thicker branches and she could pull herself higher before it started to shake the same way her arms and legs did, and the common trembling forced her back down. The other spread wider, and one of the lower branches had a perfect twist for tangling her hips and knees and heels and sitting back for a while.
Mommy says my goldfish ran away today. I don’t know why.
He was my birthday present – a Big Girl Birthday Present Papa said – and he’s yellow like sand, smooth and perfect, with two black stones for eyes. His fins are so thin, like lace or water skin, sometimes he moves and I don’t see them and I think he’s not swimming, he’s flying. He looks grumpy about it too, as if he doesn’t like the way we don’t notice his amazing trick. And he’s all mine.
He was all mine?
I asked Meria what I should do with him when I got him. I wanted him to be happy.
“A year?” Tiernan repeated. “Callix, we can’t.”
“I know,” Callix said. He dropped his head, ran his hand over his forehead as if he could scrub something away in one hard motion. “Stars, I know. I know how unthinkable it seems on that first moment, imagining leaving them there for a year. But stop. And tell me why we can’t.”
Tiernan stared at him, hard. “Because Madden has sided with Vardeck. Because Vardeck’s keimon guard is about to be repeated. If we leave them alone for a year, there’s no promise that we’ll find all of them again.”
“And who exactly promised you that they would all be there if we left now?” Callix asked.
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.
Tarra’s mother slipped something more into Tarra’s pocket. To keep her luck, Tarra pretended not to notice, but smiled when her mother squeezed her elbow. She felt the new weight on her next step down market street. For some reason, everything felt heavier on this birthday.
Galen snuck up behind her, quick. Too fast, he reached up and grabbed her pocket. Tarra squeezed her eyes shut, just to keep her luck, and he pulled her pocket open, dropped something inside and put his small hand over the fabric to hold it closed when he was done. Tarra had paused in her step to let him, but she turned quick as soon as he was finished. She scooped him up and he squealed, fighting to get back down. She pressed a kiss to his cheek, wiggled her fingers down his ribs and he threw his head back and laughed.
“Stop it!” he said.
And she hugged him tight instead.
“You have to let me down!” he told her emphatically. Then he whispered in her ear, “It’s your birthday.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure that his mother hadn’t heard him spill the secret.
There was no difference between the air on this side of the door or that. There was nothing powerful about the slatted wood that made the door, or the dozen other panels that made the wall it was set in. There was no slice in the universe that divided one from the other.
But one side was home, and the other was not.
One side, the air seemed lighter. And so did bone and breath and body.
One side, the wall looked like a standing guard and guardian instead of another of a dozen rugged outward faces on the row.
One side, the universe disappeared into a pocket, while the square living room that backed into a narrow kitchen, and the twisted stairs, and the bedrooms overhead, burst open into mansion spaces.
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 look pleased as punch,” Kadelyn said deliberately not looking at Brance as he dropped down on the steps at the foot of her chair. Her brother leaned on one elbow, one hand idly wrapped around the other wrist, one knee propped up, which should have looked absurd in his formal blue coat and marble-white shirt and breeches. As always though, he just looked comfortable. And likely to invent trouble.
Leaning his head back, he smiled at her. “You mean, you’d be pleased to punch me,” he returned.
Back straight, hands in her lap, Kadelyn shook her head and still refused to glance down. She would smile if she looked at him, and she didn’t want to. “No,” she said. “Not in front of so many people.”
Brance snorted, but looked over the ballroom noticing its attention as well. There were always a few heads turned their way, between spins in the dance, between bites at the long line of refreshments down the side, or just in the middle of a conversation. They were used to the attention, daughter and son of the Clan Lord, and he and Kadelyn were hard to miss: dark-haired, sharp-eyed, richly-clothed, sitting at the head of the room, with their bodyguards floating by the walls tethered to them like steel kites. It didn’t bother either of them.
Tarra took her jacket off as soon as she stepped through the door. Outside, the spring night had barely warranted the extra layer. She’d slipped it on as she left the workshop only out of habit. Inside the Hatchman, it was usually warm, but tonight the double ovens spilled heat from the kitchen and the usual crowd wove lightly through the room like sparks in the updraft of the flame. They laughed and talked and ate and drank and slid around each other as they moved toward friends, carried food back form the bar, or just sat trying to keep out of the way.
As usual, it was easy to spot the Captains. They were the only ones who kept their coats on in this heat, and even half of them had caved and hung them on the chair backs, shoulders squared, still showing off the yellow stripes. Some of them sat with their Mates. Others had brought lower officers, lieutenants or keimon. A few sat by themselves. They all had the same comfortable way of looking around the room as if they were waiting for something, and barely knew what.
Tarra knotted her jacket into one hand and moved toward the bar on the right side of the room. There was already a mug of cider waiting for her when she reached it, fresh and full to the brim. Tarra looked around for Rachlyn,wondering how she’s seen her come in through this crowd. The woman was pouring drinks at the other end of the bar, laughing at something one of the patrons had said and spinning to catch and fill the next mug. Tarra took a sip of her cider and waited.
It was only a minute before Rachlyn came running down to her. “Hey, Tarra,” she said. She let her gaze stop on Tarra’s face for the space of a breath, giving her that efficient, friendly assessment she always did to make sure that Tarra was happy and healthy, then turned to rearranging something under the bar.
“Hey,” Tarra said.
“How’s your brother?” Rachlyn asked.
They decided to bury the box in the yard, their two brown heads bent together as they dug their hole with hands and thick sticks. Every once in a while, one of the sticks broke, and one of them would jump up to find another, then jump back and continue digging. Remei leaned her head against the window frame, arms crossed over her chest and the cold seeping through, and watched.
Felip was ten. He pointed to the corners of the hole, showing his sister where to widen it. Then he picked up the box, sliding it into the ground to test the space. Lora was eight. She leaned back on her hands, body still made of straight lines and narrow bones. She waited for him to pull the box back out, then leaned forward and immediately started digging again.
They’d spent all morning poking around the house, picking up their favorite things and tucking them into that box: The carved bear, curled up to sleep, that Felip’s Da made for him. The lion he’d made for Lora with the long sleep body and bare teeth. The jar of crushed yellow flower petals she liked to stick her nose into every night before she went to sleep. The red leaves he’d painted in thick wax to save their brilliant color. His favorite scarf. Her favorite ribbons and the laces from her old boots that she’d tied around her wrist rather than let go. The ball they played with. The perfect skipping stones they’d collected off the beach the summer before. The sea shell with two many colors, that they’d sworn belonged to the Fish King, that they’d kept to make sure they could collect their wishes from him. A jar of the fennel and tarragon that they liked to chew on lazy afternoons. All their favorite things.
“What if we forget where it is?” Remei heard Lora ask. The girl didn’t raise her head until she noticed that her brother had stopped digging to look at her seriously.