The dinner bell clanged and kept clanging, mixing with its own echo until Dara was sure that everyone in the house had heard. She swung the handle until she heard the first thudding footsteps overhead. Then she yanked it hard, one more time, encouraging Tadd to climb out of whatever book he had picked up.
Doors squeaked open and clapped shut. Lenor arrived with something less formal than promptness. Janni raced absolutely no one down the stairs, same as always, clattering on the wooden steps. Kal followed a few moments later, leisurely and they caught up with each other at the bottom with a smile.
“Oikos,” Iben said. “Oikia.” He glanced helplessly around their small circle gathered on the grass. The night’s chill and the fog climbing up from the harbor had already dampened the ground, so they all sat with their knees pulled up to their chests, or their sleeves pulled tight on their arms, or their legs knotted together, warm as they could be without giving up and going indoors.
“They’re different words,” Iben said.
“Not really,” Nara said haltingly.
Iben let out a breath, exasperated, and looked at her pleadingly. “I know, I know. Same root, right? But one is masculine and one is feminine.”
“Right,” Nara said, still hesitant, pulled back a little from the intensity of his eye.
Jockie and Tas expected to throw rocks at the windows to call Stu out, but when they saw his house they stopped, blinking. Their mothers would have both their hides if they threw rocks at glass windows. They had no idea Stu was so flush. Glancing wide-eyed at each other, they just stood, holding their pebbles.
It didn’t take long for Stu to notice them. The front door opened just enough for him to slide his narrow shoulders out. Then he ran down to them, fast as he could come, shoes scuffing against the heavy stone steps.
“Whoa,” Tas said. She smiled at him, then nodded toward the house.
Stu watched her trace the square stones that built the face of the building. Its shadow stretched all the way across the street this early in the morning. He shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s…”
“Big,” Jockie said.
“Yeah,” Stu said. He looked at him out of the corner of his eyes, his mouth turning up at the corner. “Glad you said something. I was afraid it was shrinking. It just doesn’t look as tall as when I left it.”
The house slouched between its neighbors, too old to lean out on its walls or keep its eaves straight. The siding had been replaced recently, the windows cleaned up and cared for. The flowers in the front box bloomed brightly and threw thick leaves over the sides. Still, the house looked empty, like it had exhaled whatever air it had a long time ago and never found the strength to take the next breath. There was no hard edge to the place, no severe straight lines, but the curves all bowed inward, gaunt.
Tarra sat across the street, bag slung over her shoulder and watched the front of the house. She fingered the strap of her bag, absently tucked the collar of her jacket tighter around her neck. There was no sound inside. The curtains hung limply in the upper windows. It was empty now, she supposed.
It was almost half an hour before she spotted Deidei making her way down the street toward her. The older woman walked slowly, carrying a large carpet bag in front of her in both hands. Her gray hair was combed back from her face and braided, neat, like always. She approached Tarra with a smile.
“You could have waited inside,” Deidei said. “Unless you’re that eager to leave us and get to your new ship.”
Tarra glared at her in a friendly way, knowing it was an attempt at a good ribbing. “I could have,” she agreed. “But Momma always used to say that it was hard for a house to change owners. It’s easier if one person leaves before the next one tries to call it hers, otherwise the house gets confused and no one really owns it.”