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Nyx – A precocious Ailuran often concerned with being inherently good and all the appearances that go with it. Usually sullen or in some way melancholy as she often feels misunderstood or unappreciated, even by her family.
Elmiryn – A child born of noble blood. Though she was made to live by such standards, the girl took after her mother in that she never cared nor believed in the conventions of noble life. As a result, she can be a little too honest sometimes, is very tomboyish, and has an odd sense of humor.
Quincy – A shy girl, uncoordinated, and easily made to cry. Never leaves her home unless forced. She has a fascination with stories and loves hearing tales of heroes and heroines unburdened by the world. She is Hakeem’s quiet shadow.
Hakeem – Quincy’s older friend. Is rough and tumble and has a quick temper. He thinks Quincy is weird but finds her strangely attractive. He dreams of what adult life is like to a great extent, and tries very hard to emulate his father, thus making him more serious than is typical for his age.
ARTIFACTS OF CHILDHOOD
The Manard House knew something of an awakening when summer came around, because the first week of the month brought about a heavy surge of activity with the weeklong Ortian holiday. The servants bustled putting up fresh curtains, lining the archways with golden wreaths, hanging up sun discs with beveled faces, and sprinkling potpourri along the windowsills. Three days into the special week, Warner was in his study making political arrangements for the new year, Brianna was trying to find some peace in her bedroom, painting, and Elmiryn was being fitted for a new birthday dress in her bedroom. She found it hard not to fidget.
“Lady Elmiryn, I mean it, I don’t want to poke you. Please be still.” Her attendant, Julianna, was a pretty twenty-something with rich caramel colored hair that had streaks of bright gold here and there. Her freckled nose wrinkled as she pinned up a bunch of baby blue silk.
The girl gave a melancholy sigh. “Why must we do this now? Can’t we do this next week?”
“You know very well that your seventh birthday will have passed by then! Don’t you want to look pretty for your party?”
“Don’t I always look pretty?” The girl asked guilelessly. Her mother told her this so much that she had started to take it as a fact–and as most facts went, it lost its charm on Elmiryn.
She watched as a dust mote floated towards her face. Her eyes crossed as it came too close for her to follow. She heard Julianna laugh at her, and the girl gave a happy smile. She loved making adults laugh.
“Yes, lady Elmiryn. You are very pretty. Now unless you’d like to be a very pretty pincushion you’ll mind my warning and cease your fidgeting!”
The next day, when Elmiryn was making her dolls swan dive off her dresser into a deadly vat of broccoli soup (smuggled in from the kitchens), her mother, Brianna, came into her room, Julianna and two slaves, a Santian and a Fanaean, behind her.
“Elle, we need to decide on a hairstyle for your birthday party…and what is that? Soup? What have we said about bringing food into your room!” The girl’s mother was dressed in a slate gray dress with jeweled shoulders, the cut opening at the front in an hourglass shape to reveal creamy lace. Wrapped about her waist was a glossy forest green ribbon that tied into a rose-shaped buttress in the back. An abalone clip pulled her warm brown hair back, and her ears held matching earrings. The woman’s face broke into her wide smile, and she sat on her daughter’s bed. “Oh, nevermind that. Come here, sweetest!”
Elmiryn would have protested, but Brianna knew that the youth was less likely to resist her request than Julianna’s. The girl pouted, but without an objection, she went to sit next to her mother, whilst Julianna stood off to the side. The slaves, each carrying a silver tray bearing hairdressing accessories, set their burdens onto the dresser. Then they turned in unison, bowed, and quietly left the room. The child attendant sat at the floor of her house mistress, and carefully she reached over and took up the white-bristled silver brush, which had a mirror fixed into the back of its head. The attendant held the mirror-side to the girl and her mother, and Brianna pondered the reflected image.
“What do you think, dear? What style do you wish to see on your birthday?”
“Can’t we just comb my hair?” Elmiryn mumbled, her lip pouting further.
“You know that isn’t an option. Come! Would you like to see braids? A bun? We can put flowers in your hair–now wouldn’t that be just darling?”
“Okay. Whatever you want me to look like, mother.”
Brianna frowned in the reflection. “Oh, Elmiryn! You make this such a chore! Not many little girls your age are given a chance to decide their appearance, you know.”
“She’s right, lady Elmiryn,” Julianna said earnestly. The girl’s eyes fixed on her attendant’s pretty face. “Take another look at the mirror. Pretend it’s magic, and whatever you imagine will appear. Now think of all the things you like–from art, from the stories we tell you, from what you see in the city–and think what would you like to see?”
Elmiryn’s frown deepened, but her lower lip pulled back to a contemplative curve. Her little hands went to the sides of the mirror, and her cerulean eyes lit up with thought. The girl took a deep breath. “I see…”
When the girl trailed off, her mother patted her knee. “Yes, Elle? What do you see?”
“I see branches sprouting out of my head!” Elmiryn giggled out. “And they’ll bloom into pretty red flowers!”
The attendant tried and failed to contain her laugh.
Brianna gave a suffering smile. “That’s…nice, dear. But I’m afraid we’ll have a little trouble growing that within less than a day, let alone getting your father’s approval for such a thing!”
Elmiryn’s pout returned full force. With a heavy sigh, she said, “Fine then. I see a ponytail.” She didn’t even look at the mirror this time.
Julianna gave an enthusiastic nod. “A ponytail is good, milady! Very elegant! Very pretty!”
“If you want flowers, we can make a crown for you, sweetest. But not red, I think. White is more appropriate.”
Elmiryn just let out another sigh.
Then the day of her birthday came. A small ball was held at the Manard estate, and the newly-turned seven-year-old was the center of all the attention. She sat aside her mother whilst Warner sat on Brianna’s left. Their head table was decorated with silver and gold linings and generous amounts of confection. Across the room was a long table weighed down with presents. Elmiryn stared at them longingly.
“Sweetest, your gifts won’t up and walk away,” Her mother murmured to her. “Why don’t you go play with your cousins?”
“Because they’re stinky,” Elmiryn said primly.
Brianna blinked down at her daughter. “Now why do you say that?”
“They play boring games and think they can bully me. Can’t I just open my presents?”
Her mother frowned reprovingly. “Now Elle, you know your cousins love you very much, and they came all this way to celebrate your birthday! Just play with them a while, sweetest, and I promise that the time will pass quickly.”
“Elmiryn,” Warner said, his eyes managing to cut across at her even as he did not move his head. “Do. As. Your. Mother. Says.”
Elmiryn shot up very straight at her father’s look. The last time he’d looked at her that way, she wasn’t allowed to play outside for a week. “Yes, father!”
With that, the little girl slid from her seat, her puffy baby blue dress hissing with each step she took. Her eyes gave one last longing look toward the presents before they flickered to her four cousins gathered near it. There was Roark and Lydia, asymmetrical twins with pumpkin colored hair and wide slate-gray eyes flecked with gold. Then there was Berian, the dirty blonde with pickle-green eyes with red sauce on his white night shirt. And finally…
“Hi Adara…” the redhead mumbled as she approached her eldest cousin. Adara was nine-years-old and had long wavy brown hair.
“Hullo baby cousin,” Adara said, giving her best adult smile.
Elmiryn resisted the urge to scowl. “What are you playing?” she asked in as neutral a voice as she could manage.
“Family. Roark and Lydia are the babies. Berian is the father. You can be the mother if you’d like.”
At this, the seven-year-old blinked. “What are you going to be?”
“I’m like a director. Have you ever seen a play? I tell everyone what they’re supposed to do.”
“But don’t the father and mother say that?” Berian interjected sullenly. He was just a few weeks younger than Elmiryn, and the girl actually liked him quite a bit. They both liked racing and wrestling, and once, the boy had eaten an earthworm, which the girl still giggled about to this day.
Adara tilted her head back and gazed at him coolly. “How old are you, Berian?”
The boy drew himself up. “Six-and-three-quarters!”
“Well I’m nine-and-a-half, so I know more about Family than you do! That makes me director.”
Berian’s shoulders slumped, defeated.
It went without saying that Elmiryn hated Adara. The older girl was bossy, snobby, and vindictive. It didn’t help that once her cousin had snitched on her when the redhead tried to sneak to a party being held at the slave quarters. That was the time Warner had barred her from the outdoors, all thanks to Adara.
Roark and Lydia, who wore matching white and black outfits with silver ribbons, exchanged looks. Elmiryn did not dislike the twins, but they were very much followers and had little to contribute to any game save to just nod their heads. Nothing was duller than two human dolls for playmates.
But Elmiryn wasn’t going to give over the night.
“Well it’s my birthday tonight, and I say, I’m the director,” she declared with chin thrusted out.
This earned her a sharp glare, but the others seemed to perk at the idea. Berian stepped forward quickly, grasping Elmiryn’s shoulder. “Yeah! It’s Elmiryn’s birthday! We have to do what she says!”
Adara huffed. “Well what does she want to do then?”
Elmiryn smiled, showing all teeth. “We can’t play Family without good toys…”
Within a few minutes, the children had managed to escape the watchful eyes of their attendants under Elmiryn’s leadership. Giggling at the audacity of their slipping away from supervision, the group followed the birthday girl from room to room, collecting items, before they finally ended in Elmiryn’s bedroom. There, they laid out their prizes on the girl’s bed sheet: a wooden toy horse, a small porcelain doll, a monocle, a pretty pink ribbon, and the silver mirror brush.
Elmiryn handed these out to everyone, but kept the brush for herself. “Okay, now we all have what we need!” She gestured near her toy box. “This is the children’s room,” she pointed toward her large bookcase, “That is father’s study,” she pointed at her small vanity dresser, “And this is mother’s room.” She waved the brush through the air. “Dinner will be ready soon! Everyone has to get ready. I’ll come around so that you can tell me what you want to look like.”
The children went off to their respective spaces, but in a few minutes, they were intermingling and slipping into their make-believe roles with excitement and giggles. Even Adara seemed to forget her earlier power struggle in favor of playing the haughty mother. Berian grumphed and harrumphed a lot, smoking a pretend pipe and squinting at everything through his monocle—-a very accurate depiction of his grandfather—-for his actual father had died years ago in the Ailuran war. The twins cooed and rolled around, playing with Elmiryn’s toys.
The redhead took to her role of “director” with relish.
“Roark, you have to pretend you’re a doggie. Of course children do that! I did when I was a child! And Berian, put your finger under your nose. There! Now you’ve got a mustache! Adara, look Lydia is crying. Stop being a bad mother and go make her feel better!”
When enough time seemed to have passed, Elmiryn announced it was dinnertime. She came around with her silver brush mirror and held it up to everyone. “Now what do you see yourself wearing tonight?”
Berian announced he was going to wear a cloak of snails. Roark and Lydia decided they too wished to wear a cloak of snails. Berian complained that the twins were copying him, so they changed to wearing diapers and golden crowns with big fat jewels. Adara whined that they were ruining the game. Elmiryn snapped that she wasn’t even trying to be a mother, just a snob. This made the older girl declare that they were all stupid children in real life, and she didn’t want to play with them anymore.
And just like that, the fun was over.
As her cousins left to return to the festivities, Elmiryn stayed behind to hide her stolen “toys” under her bed. A clear voice reached her from the doorway, and the girl froze, her face turning red. Turning, she saw Brianna and Julianna standing there—her mother with her hands on her hips, and her attendant with one hand over her mouth. Standing behind them with downturned heads were her cousins.
Snitches! Elmiryn thought with clenched teeth.
“Sweetest, come here please,” her mother said ominously.
The girl sighed and obeyed. Gripped in her hand was the silver brush.
Brianna raised an eyebrow at her as she reached down and took away the brush. “Elle, what, may I ask, were you doing with all those things?”
“Playing Family?” she mumbled.
“Are these things yours to play Family with?”
Brianna just shook her head with a slight smirk. “Sweetest…” With two fingers, she gave the girl a smack on the forehead that stung, and then pointed down the hall wearily. “Just get back to the party before your father sees.”
Elmiryn didn’t need telling twice. She ran, her cousins in tow, back to the guest hall where the partygoers were just settling in for their first serving of dinner. The redhead glared at Adara. “You snitched, didn’t you?”
“Did not!” The older girl snapped back. She pointed at the girl’s face. “It was your mother’s mirror brush that got us caught! She was looking for it to freshen up before dinner was served!”
Elmiryn pouted, but said nothing further. The rest of the evening went well enough, and Warner never heard of her daughter’s antics. That night, the girl received as presents: a new doll house, a rocking horse, many new dresses and accessories, and a young horse, which she excitedly named “Scabby” due to how the filly’s ruddy brown coat reminded her of the scab she had on her left knee (but this was vetoed by her mother and father both, who quickly renamed the animal, “Rose.”)
That night, when Brianna was tucking Elmiryn to bed, she stroked the girl’s hair and said with a smile. “Sweetest, mother has one more present for you. Are you ready?”
Her daughter gave an eager nod, all appearances of sleepiness fleeing her, and her mother laughed. From beneath the bed, she pulled out a slim white box, and held it out to the girl. Elmiryn took it and opened it quickly. She gave a small gasp.
Inside was her mother’s mirror brush.
“I know you liked it, so I wanted you to have it, Elle.”
Elmiryn gave a huge grin, hugging her mother. “Mama, thank you!”
Brianna laughed, hugging her daughter back. “Mother, not Mama…but you are welcome, Elmiryn. I love you very much.” She pulled back, holding the mirror side up to her daughter’s face. “Well? It’s a new year for you! You had fun playing Family with your cousins, didn’t you? And what role did you play? I think I see a very lovely wife in the future!”
The girl just blinked at her mother. “That’s not what I see.”
Her mother gave her a puzzled look. “Oh? Then what do you see?”
Elmiryn smiled at her mother as if she were being silly. “I see me, mother. Just Elmiryn.”
Brianna laughed again, a full and beautiful sound. She thought the girl was just being overly literal to make herself seem more mature. She kissed her daughter goodnight and left her to sleep. Elmiryn settled into her covers with the mirror brush clutched to her chest, more secure than she had ever felt before, because in her heart, she knew she had answered the very question her mother had meant.
What do you see?
I see me, the girl thought with a sleepy smile. Just me.
“The Watch and the Sword”
He scratched at the dried mud on his knee and felt the day’s heat reach its peak. He was seated on a wicker basket with ashy legs stemming out straight as though daring anyone to walk over them. His feet were like old man’s feet because he went around barefoot, despite his mother’s nagging to put on shoes. Hakeem didn’t care. He liked feeling the soil between his toes. He wanted tough feet like his father’s. Ba-Kafeel was so powerful that the boy was certain none would dare cross him.
The boy looked up, his dark eyes meeting clear azure. “Habari, Quincy.”
The little brunette was dressed in a simple cream dress, her fine hair teasing her face as the wind played with it. Gripped in her petite hands was a rusty sword—a gift from her father, which she rarely parted with and which everyone tolerated because she could hardly lift it let alone swing it. It was also notoriously dull, failing to make an impression even on the softest of wood. She made circles into the dirt with her toes. Quincy used to wear shoes until the village children teased her for her tender feet, and then she did away with them. It was not a little frustrating, waiting for her tender feet to catch up when they walked through the jungle sometimes. Even after a year, she was still tender-footed.
“Play?” the girl mumbled shyly, her eyes on the ground.
Hakeem looked past her to see Tobias poking his head out of their hut down the trail. At the boy’s notice, the man quickly pulled out of sight. He gave a crooked smile. “Play,” he returned with a nod.
In the months since Quincy had first arrived in Kimbia, she had yet to become fluid in Fanaean. She knew enough to communicate basic needs to the villagers, but she could hardly keep a conversation. Luckily for her, Hakeem was interested in learning Common, and so they shared a hybrid of the two languages.
The boy held up a finger and slipped into his family’s hut. Inside, Ma’Nguele was preparing dinner for the day, her face sweating over a large pot of iguana stew. Seated on the ground near the fire was his father, who frowned over scrolls. In his native tongue, he said to them, “Mamu, Babu, I am going into the jungle with Quincy.”
Ba-Kafeel looked up from his work. “You are going into the jungle?”
“Wait.” His father stood, his cloth skirt slipping over his powerful thighs. He strode past Ma’Nguele to a small satchel behind her, from which he pulled out a small item. “You remember how I taught you to keep time, yes my son?” He held out his hand, and from it slipped a silver watch on a chain. “I want you both back here by the fifth hour. The suns are deceitful this time of year, and the night has become dangerous with the new jackal threat.”
Hakeem took the watch. “Yes, Babu. We will be back by the fifth hour, then.”
Ba-Kafeel smiled at his son and gave a rub of his curly head. “Have fun, and be safe.”
As the boy turned to leave, he heard his mother call after him, “And if you see any, bring back a bunch of plaintains! We are low.”
“Yes, Mamu,” he said over his shoulder.
Putting the watch chain around his neck, he went to Quincy and jerked his head toward the jungles to the north. “Let’s go,” he said in Common.
Together, the two children traveled through the village, where they passed other children playing. Hakeem waved to some of them, but Quincy just kept her eyes on the ground, her shoulders even hunching at the sight of some of the others. The boy didn’t blame her, but he didn’t think she helped her case by dragging around her rusty sword. The adults laughed about it, stating, “You always know where little Quincy goes for the line her useless sword makes in the dirt!” As much as Hakeem liked the girl, it frustrated him that such silliness followed him around.
As they left the village proper–the musical weave of Fanaean conversation, and the comforting aromas of stewing meats dissipating from around them–the two children breached the cool jungles. They took to a well-known trail, leading up a hill and past a grove of spiny gora-gora bushes, to a small waterfall.
Hakeem checked his watch. It was only one. Taking it off and placing it on the rocks near the treeline, he immediately ran up the steep hill to the top of the waterfall, his face grinning in anticipation of the jump he was about to make. Quincy watched him go with pressed eyebrows, her hands tightening around her sword’s hilt. Once at the top of the waterfall, the gentle stream flowing about his shins, Hakeem gave a wave. “Watch!” he called out.
With a deep breath, the boy took three steps back, and then with a whoop he did a flip off the cliff edge. He landed into the water with a big splash.
After returning to the surface, Hakeem looked to see that Quincy still had not joined him. He frowned. Normally the girl was backstroking in the water by now. “What wrong?” he asked, spitting water from his mouth.
The girl bit her lip and looked up at the top of the waterfall.
Hakeem’s eyebrows rose and he swam to the shore of the little lake. “Go up?” he asked dubiously. Quincy wasn’t afraid of heights, but she was notorious for getting hurt. The last time she had attempted to climb the steep hill, she had slipped and sprained her ankle.
Quincy didn’t respond. She only went to the hill going up to the top of the waterfall. Then with a grunt, she lifted her sword and stabbed it into the soil. Pulling herself up, she managed to pull the sword out, and though she wobbled dangerously, she did it again. Hakeem watched, fascinated, as she slowly made her way up to the top of the waterfall.
Once there, she looked back at him, panting. Then she grinned.
The boy could feel a warm funny feeling blossom in his chest, and with more excitement than was probably warranted, he cheered and clapped his hands.
Quincy jumped off the cliff with a high laugh, brighter and fuller than any he had heard in a long time.
They stayed and played for hours. The tree cover made it hard to see the passing of the suns. Hakeem didn’t think to look at his watch again until it became hard to see his own feet in the darkness.
“Tai’undu!” the boy cursed. Dripping wet and shivering from the evening air, he snatched the watch from its place on the dry rocks. “Late!”
“Late?” Quincy returned, frowning. As there were no large predators in the jungles near Kimbia, they were used to being able to play even into the dark. But the girl didn’t know about the jackals that had come to the area.
Hakeem grabbed her hand, his father’s watch clenched in his other fist. “Run!” he said.
Together the two children ran through the jungle, their feet skipping over the rough but familiar terrain. Hakeem could see the lights of their home ahead. He picked up his speed, forgetting that Quincy was clumsy and still very tender-footed.
She cried out, tripping on something unseen in the dark. Hakeem lost his grip on her as she fell, and he skidded to a halt. “Quincy!”
That’s when they heard the beast growl.
Both children froze, their eyes wide as they turned toward the source of the sound, which came from amidst a collection of ferns at the base of a mango tree. Haunting eyes glowed from within the reaches of the leaves.
Hakeem tried to move slowly toward Quincy. “Quiet!” he whispered. “Slow!”
The girl said nothing, her eyes fixed on the animal that watched them. Her hands gripped tightly around her sword, and even in the dark, Hakeem could see her tremble.
He touched her arm and tried pulling her up. “Go! Quiet!”
Just as the girl began to get up to her feet, the animal burst forth, knocking both of them to the ground. Hakeem was the one who ended up on his back, and so the beast went to him first, snarling. Quincy screamed, and the boy gave a hoarse yell as he jerked his face away from the jackal’s snapping jaws. He managed to dodge one strike, but in the fraction of a second it took for the jackal to attack, the boy knew he would not be able to fend the animal off again, let alone get free of it.
It was around this time that Quincy hit it in the back of the head with her sword.
The jackal let out a yip, its body going weak just long enough for Hakeem to push it off of him. He scrambled to join Quincy, who was looking at the sword to the jackal and back as if she couldn’t believe what had just happened. The boy was equally impressed, and he stared at the girl with amazement and a strange sort of pride.
Then the jackal’s growls returned, and their attention snapped back to the situation at hand. Hakeem pulled at his friend. “Run! Run!” he shouted, but inwardly he knew the jackal was faster. They were dead. He should’ve listened to his Babu. He should’ve kept his eye on the time…
There was a loud rumble as the earth trembled beneath their feet. Both children stopped, struggling to keep their balance. Within a few seconds it all stopped, and both children looked to see that the jackal was gone, the soil churned and raised where it had once stood.
Tobias stepped out from the cover of trees, his face a displeased white mask in the darkness. “Children, come.”
Ducking their heads, they did as they were told.
Back at the village, both Hakeem and Quincy received lectures from their respective caregivers. The girl was sent to bed without supper and the promise of extra chores in the coming days. The boy was put over his father’s knee and switched.
The next day, Hakeem limped over to Quincy’s hut to find her outside, sullenly skinning potatoes. Lying next to her feet was her rusty sword. Still around his neck was his father’s watch, and Hakeem was very conscious of it. He had five minutes to say what he needed to say before he had to do his own chores.
The girl looked up at him, startled. “H-Habari, Hakeem.”
He smiled at her. “Thank you.”
She blinked at him, “For what?”
Hakeem tapped the back of his head. “Sword.” He pointed at it. “Save me.”
“Oh…that…” She shrugged and said, “I don’t know how I lifted it! I was just so scared the jackal would hurt you!”
The boy didn’t understand her words exactly, but he got the gist of her meaning. His smile widened. “Quincy strong and brave.”
Quincy blushed and looked down at her skinned potatoes, but Hakeem could detect the hints of a pleased smile on her lips before he turned to return to his hut.
“N is for Nyx”
Nyx was in the middle of practicing her Common alphabet when Atalo shoved a banana in her ear.
“Koen!” she screamed, standing up so fast that her chair was knocked back onto the floor. Mushy banana bits clung to her hair and she tried to bat these away, managing to get her palms and the side of her face covered in sticky slime. “Ugh, you little monster, what’s wrong with you!?”
Atalo, meanwhile was laughing so hard his face was beet-red. Thaddeus was also laughing from his place in the hallway entrance. “He got you good!”
“This isn’t funny!” Nyx shouted, her eyes teary. “Why doesn’t he do these things to you?”
Her older brother shrugged. “Because I don’t react to him like you do.”
Nyx bared her teeth and whirled on Atalo, her hands before her like claws. “Well let’s see if he likes this reaction!?”
Atalo screamed, his eyes wide, but he was still smiling as he scrambled to dodge his sister’s violent lunge. They ran around the kitchen table, displacing chairs. Fotini came through the door just as Atalo ran for it. He collided into his mother, and Nyx just managed to slide to a halt. With his new refuge found, the little boy clung to the woman’s leg. Their mother stared at them all, a basket of leeks on her arm.
“Sweet Aelurus, can my house not be the host of chaos every time I step away?”
“It’s like this even when you’re here,” Thaddeus mumbled with a smirk.
“And after dinner, when you’re arrogance comes running like water from your ass, do not ask you’re A-ma to help you wipe it, Thaddeus,” her mother said with a sharp look.
“A-ma! You would poison your own son?”
“Poison? Gods no! I was only referring to your tendency to eat like a pregnant pig.”
Nyx laughed as her mother moved around her, the older woman grunting as she dragged Atalo along. The boy, in his stubborn refusal to let go, had wrapped his legs around hers. Thaddeus just held up his hands and backed into the hall, where he was no doubt going to retire to his room until supper. Fotini glanced at her daughter over her shoulder as she set her basket on the counter.
“Now what was the commotion about?” She gave a weary sigh. “I imagine it has something to do with the slime all over the side of your face?”
Nyx pointed at her little brother, who only stuck his tongue in response. “He smashed a banana into my ear!” A thought occurred to her, and she returned to her place at the table, where her Common alphabet book still lay open. Large chunks of banana were on the pages. The girl’s eyes teared up as she stomped a foot. “He got it on my book!”
Fotini massaged her brow with one hand. “Atalo, apologize.”
“Sorry, Koah.” But the boy’s face was lit with an impish smile as he ran off to his room.
“That’s all you’re going to do?” Nyx whined. “Some of the words on my book are even ruined!”
Fotini looked at the girl over her shoulder. “Really? Which ones?”
The girl sniffled back more tears as she pointed at the page. “These ones! The first letters of the Common alphabet and some of the other vowels too!”
“Vow-els? Are those really so important?”
“This book translates Common to Ailuran, of course it’s important A-ma!”
Fotini closed her eyes with a suffering expression. “All right, all right, my little night shard.” She fished into her apron pocket for some coins, then held them out to the girl. “Here. Why not go buy a new book at the market?”
Nyx scowled. “But they only sell Ailuran books!”
The woman let out a sharp hiss and grabbed the girl’s hand. She forced the coins into her palm. “Nyx, enough. A-ma’s head hurts and she’d like to get started on dinner before the next disaster strikes!”
Nyx’s face crumpled and she slammed her fist onto the table. “This isn’t fair! This book was A-pa’s, and you don’t even care that Atalo ruined it! You never care!”
Fotini stared at her daughter, taken aback. “Nyx! That isn’t–”
But the girl snatched the book off the table and was running out the door.
“Well, you can say goodbye to your ears, then.”
Nyx stared at her friend, mortified. “You’re not helping Taila. Why would you say something like that?”
“Because it’s true?” Taila gave an unconcerned shrug.
They were sitting on a rock near Taila’s home, the hum of bees comforting in the mild weather. The suns peered around large white fluffy clouds and the breeze was gentle. There was no erduk that day, and they were all glad for a variety of reasons.
“Maybe…maybe she won’t pinch your ears?” Ampelos said, twirling a long piece of grass between his fingers.
The girl smiled at him gratefully. “Thanks, Amp.”
He looked at Nyx shyly before ducking his gaze with a blush. “M-Maybe she’ll just give you extra chores instead?”
At this, Nyx’s face fell.
Taila threw her arm over the girl’s shoulder. “Aw, c’mon Nyx! Your A-ma tried!” The older girl gestured at her friend’s hand, which still gripped the coins Fotini had forced unto her. “You can get a new book with the money she gave you!”
Nyx scowled and slid off the rock. “You can’t replace this book. It was special…” She looked at her book in one hand—the cover was a dull sea-green, the faded title a tired wine-red that said in Ailuran, “Common Alphabet”—and the coins in her other hand. Baring her teeth, Nyx pulled the coins back, ready to throw them out into the high grass when something shiny out of the corner of her eye caught her attention.
Blinking, she turned her head to see Marq coming down the trails from the northwestern hills, his large pack on his back, jingling with trinkets. As he neared, the girl saw his slim face break into his usual haggard smile. “Kitten! It’s good to see you again!” he said in Ailuran. “Have you been practicing your Common as usual?” this he said in Common.
The girl swallowed and held out her book, tears pricking her eyes again. “Hullo Marq. Yes. I try, but stupid brother got food on alpha-bet book. Made ink bad. Can not read some words anymore…”
The elf frowned. “Must’ve been cheap ink to get so easily fouled up! What did he get on your pages?”
“A…how do you say? Anade?”
“Ah. A banana,” the elf chuckled. “Your Atalo I take it.”
“Yes!” Nyx snarled as her friends joined her at her sides, their eyes curious. “He is a cajeck!”
“Nyx,” Ampelos whispered. When the girl looked at him, he mumbled, “Maybe ask the elf if he can help?”
Her eyes widened. “Good idea, Amp!” Returning her eyes to Marq, she asked. “Can you fix?”
The elf merchant blinked down at her. “Ah, I don’t know kitten.”
She held out the coins. “I have money!”
The man bit his lip at the outstretched hand. Then he gave a small shrug and said, “Okay. Give it here.”
Nyx handed him the money and book eagerly, turning the latter to the page where the banana had fallen. Marq looked over it shrewdly, scratching at the paper. After a minute, he snapped it shut and handed the item back. “Nope. Nothing I can do.”
Taila hissed at him, not understanding Common but understanding enough to know the merchant’s meaning. “If he can’t fix it, then he should return your coin, Nyx!”
Nyx looked at the elf imploringly. “Marq can no do anything?”
The man rubbed the back of his head, “Uh. No. No, I can’t, Kitten. I’m sorry.” He thumbed eagerly at his backpack. “But I have more books in my backpack if you’d like to see!”
Taila kicked him in the leg, but Nyx was already walking away, her heart sunk.
Nyx pushed her food around her plate at supper, and though Thaddeus, Fotini, and Atalo conversed animatedly, she did not come out of her shell, not even when her little brother moved Thaddeus’s plate of curds beneath his elbow. Quietly, she cleared the table, then retired to her room. Her mother watched her go with a sigh.
Later, Fotini appeared at Nyx’s bedroom entrance. “Little night shard?”
Nyx didn’t answer. She lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling.
She heard her mother slip past her bead curtain and felt her sit on the bed. “Sweet Aelurus…I didn’t have to deal with such behavior from Thad until he turned fourteen at the latest! But then again, I forget how much more mature you already are when compared to him at eleven, so…” she trailed off. A few moments passed, and the woman took a deep breath. “Nyx.” The name came with a great rush of air, and Fotini shook her head. “I’m sorry I was insensitive about your A-pa’s books. I know they mean a lot to you. I’ve talked to Atalo about it, and he won’t be allowed near any food unless it’s mealtime and I’m there to watch him eat it.” The woman rolled her eyes. “Gods, that I was born such a wild child.”
Nyx rolled onto her side, facing away from her mother. Fotini looked at her, pained. Touching her daughter’s little foot, she said quietly. “Yes, Atalo is wild, but I love him for his antics, as I love you for yours, my little night shard. I love that you love books and that you are so capable of learning so much. I want you to know that I do care for you and the things you find important, but sometimes we must compromise, yes? It’ll be an exercise for the both of us, kitten.”
The girl looked at her mother. Slowly she sat up. “A-ma. I’m sorry I ran away.”
“You were frustrated and hurt, my love,” Fotini said, smiling as she hugged her daughter. “I will try to be a better mother. I will try, so please forgive me when I fail?”
Nyx turned her face into the woman’s neck. “Okay…”
The next day after breakfast, Thaddeus opened the front door, intent on checking a squeaky window from the outside, when he came across something on the front step. Frowning he picked it up and came back inside. “Nyx?” he called.
The girl was practicing her Common handwriting from the good pages of her alphabet book. “Yes?” she said, blinking up at him.
Thaddeus held out a small scroll to her, which was attached to a leather pouch. “This is for you.”
Nyx blinked and took the items from him. Opening the pouch first, she was surprised to find it was filled with the same coins her mother had given her the day before. Turning next to the note, she unfurled it and read the shaky Ailuran,
You’re friend was right. I shouldn’t treat my best customer with such shoddy service. I had no right to take your coin when I couldn’t perform the task you wished of me, so here is a once-in-a-lifetime refund! But you know, I went poring over my personal collection of books, and I realized that maybe all it took was a bit more effort from me. So here is a list of the words ruined in your book, alphabetized, with examples in both Common and Ailuran. You’re lucky, kitten, that there was only one page that saw your brother’s terror! Otherwise, I would have had to give you something else for free…perish the thought!
Your Trusty Provider,
Following this was a short list of words and examples in both languages, as the elf had promised. Nyx was grinning so hard, her face ached.
“What was it?” Thaddeus asked, pulling a chair out next to his sister.
The girl slipped the note into her alphabet book and took up her leather pouch. “Nothing! I’m going shopping!” the girl exclaimed, still smiling.
The soldier watched her go with wide eyes. “Damn, what’s the rush?” Then he sat up straighter in his chair just as his sister ran out the door. “Oh! Hey! You aren’t going to see that filthy elf are y–!” he was cut off as the door slammed shut behind Nyx. Thaddeus let out a hissing breath, his eyes turning onto the note that his sister had slipped into her book. Pulling it close to him, the man opened it, and his eyes were drawn to one thing on the note…
A is for Always, as in, “Nyx will always love her family, and will always be loved in return.”