Edzie tried to scale the fish, with Eryff supervising, but she was squeamish, and she suffered from a crippling case of distraction… her thoughts always going back to the face imprinted on Eryff’s back, causing her to recoil from his tutelage. Eventually, she gave up on the fish, and Pithri took it from her and finished preparing it. Edzie surrendered to her discomfort and asked to be excused, claiming she wanted to get home for her midday meal.

A few minutes later, she passed out of the smells of the fishing village and Docktown, and her discomfort faded as quickly as it had transpired. Instead of heading straight home, she cut through the intervening fields, passing to the west of her dromo. The day was still young, she reasoned, and she had already attended a lesson… she was ready to join the boys at the Chronoboros, and maybe tell them about her lesson in fish-catching.

Cutting across foot-paths, skipping through gardens and avoiding the weary glances of passing adults, she forded the Splitmouth and continued by the path that led north past Mistra Septa’s pavilion. Finally, having walked for nearly an hour, she neared the open court around the Chronoboros, with its serene carpet of scrubby grass, its single towering witherleaf tree, and its small conferences of adults, lost in private conversations.

There, at the other end, she saw two figures: one sitting on a marker, the other standing over him and offering a consoling hand.

Edzie’s gaiety turned abruptly to alarm. The figure on the marker was Boyle, apparently in distress, trying to suppress his tears (as Edzie had seen him do often enough in the past). The figure above him was Ghada, leaning over and putting a hand on his shoulder. Stray was nowhere to be seen. Edzie was thoroughly alarmed, but she knew she had a tendency to be insensitive at these moments, so she approached slowly and kept her distance. When Ghada looked up at her, his brow was furrowed with concern.

“What happened?” Edzie asked, glancing around again to see if Stray might appear.

“Stray got mad and knocked him over,” Ghada explained, his voice registering discordant notes of anxious patience. “Boyle hurt his arm, but he seems okay otherwise. I think the real problem is Stray’s behavior. He was a little scary there for a second.”

“Stray?!?” Edzie was absolutely bewildered. “Boyle, Stray hurt you? Why?”

Boyle collected himself enough to answer the question through intermittent sobbing. “We were joking about how the Protectorate can make people disappear, and I said maybe that’s what happened to his dad.”

“I’ve told him before, Stray’s sensitive about that,” Ghada interjected.

“Stray’s sensitive about that?” Edzie was still baffled. “Stray’s never been mean to anybody in his life! Where is this coming from?”

“He’s not, when he’s around you,” Boyle stammered. “Usually when he gets mad, it’s because somebody is doing some katsun exercise wrong. But Ghada’s right, we don’t talk about his dad much, because it sometimes sets him off.”

Edzie stood in paralyzed silence, trying to process this surplus of new information, a bizarre anecdotal narrative about some version of Stray whom she had never imagined nor encountered.

“You didn’t know about this?” Ghada asked.

“No!” Edzie was emphatic, letting her confusion come out as shock and dismay. She moved to approach Boyle, and then hesitated, asking a question instead: “Where did he go?”

“West,” Ghada said, pointing down the main road. “Are you going to do something?”

“I don’t know,” Edzie said, “but I think I should probably find him.” She offered Boyle an almost inaudible apology, but he had withdrawn again. Finally, decisively, she turned and hastened down the path to the west, setting her sights on the watchtower.

Traffic in the settlement had settled into its typical routine, and Edzie could avoid pedestrians with only the slightest effort. This was fortunate, because Edzie was caught in her own head, and the normalcy of the foot-traffic only made her journey seem more surreal. Stray was fully predictable in their play, their exploration, even in their informal lessons where Edzie kept him abreast of her katsun training. Chasing Stray, trying to anticipate his state of mind, unable to account for his behavior… this was strange territory for Edzie, who always felt so complacent in their relationship.

Traffic thinned out as she neared the watchtower. She half expected to find him there, talking to Genefre or one of the other Denorians, but there was no sign of him from the ground. The warrior keeping watch told her that he had passed this way, but had only noted that he was taking a walk by the grazing huskin to the west, and he would be back that evening if anybody needed him.

After a few minutes of searching, Edzie found Stray’s tracks, stamped into the mud and leading between two parallel tree-lines into the huskin pastures. He wasn’t trying to conceal his path, and from the distance and the freshness of the prints, Edzie could tell he wasn’t hurrying at this point. He wouldn’t be hard to follow, and she could catch up with him without exhausting herself. Nonetheless, she moved quickly, eager to talk to him and clear the air about the incident with Boyle.

Stray had reached the edge of a sprawling huskin pasture and turned right, heading north along the base of a jagged embankment. By the time Edzie caught up with him, he had lost all his restless momentum and stopped under a tree, suddenly feeling languid and aimless. He gazed across a muddy trench and into an endless expanse of tall grass, just low enough that he could see over it from his perch in the crotch of the tree trunk. A few huskin families grazed in the distance, too few to constitute a herd, but enough that the group didn’t have to worry about predators.

Edzie waved as she approached the tree. She made a tactical decision to assert herself, rather than hesitating… before Stray could object, she situated herself at the roots by his feet, slouching against the tree trunk like she was fully entitled to the space. Having acknowledged her presence, Stray kept his eyes fixed forward.

“Nice spot,” Edzie said. “You been here before?”

“Nope.” Stray answered curtly, and then remained silent for a moment. Finally, he asked an unexpected question. “Hey, remember that story about Estus and the huskins?”

“Yeah, I know it,” Edzie said. “Mom told us that story every few nights when we were little. There was a version in one of Mistra Septa’s books, too, that was a little different. How come?”

“How was it different?”

Edzie struggled to review the story in her head, and after a few moments of silence elapsed, she started going through the stories out loud. “Well, in mom’s version, the first people on the plains stole the huskin calves and ate them, and there was a war with the huskins over their young being used for food. That’s the same in the book. In mom’s version, Estus was a human priest who learned to speak Huskin, and he made allies with them and brought them before Dissadae the creator, who settled the war. In the book, Estus wasn’t a peace-maker. He was just the leader of the humans, enemy of the huskins, and the huskin prince was favored by Dissadae on her own merit.”

“Right. So in the book, there was no human betrayal, and the huskins didn’t need any help from the humans to come before Dissadae. Weird.”

“Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that,” Edzie replied. “Anyway, they both end the same… with the curse of the plains.”

Stray nodded, still looking forward. “Right. Humans get the huskins’ meat and milk, but they have to follow them and protect them and respect their herds, because the humans depend on the huskins, and not vice versa. If the humans violate the pact, they die alone in the empty pastures. And that’s how the Concordance started.”

“Yeah, that’s how it is in both the book and from mom.”

Stray was lost in rumination for a moment. “Do you think it’s true?” he finally asked.

“I mean…” Edzie struggled to articulate her skepticism, which always troubled her in light of the story’s potency. “I think stories like that are kind of true, even if people don’t remember quite how it happened. They’re true in a secret way, even when they’re just made up.”

Stray nodded, seeming to understand. “And do you think it applies to me, too?” he asked. “Do I owe the huskins my allegiance, like you and your mom and all the rest of the eight tribes?”

Edzie frowned. “Sure. You get your food from the huskins, same as me and mom. You follow them from settlement to settlement, just like the rest of us.”

“But I don’t come from here,” Stray said. “I wonder if my dad died after he left the huskins. If we’re really Denorians, me and him, he shouldn’t have been able to just wander off like that.”

“Your dad and you are a lot different, I think,” Edzie said, feeling this was the simplest way to speak to Stray’s concern. They both sat in silence for a few minutes, then, watching the huskins stand, sit, congregate, and munch on the grasses at their feet. The sun was descending before them, falling into the western horizon, and losing its shape in the wet clouds in the distance. Finally, feeling she had done her due diligence, and Stray was prepared to listen, Edzie spoke. “Ghada and Boyle said you got really mad today. What happened?”

“He was being mean,” Stray said, struggling to come to terms with the whole situation.

“It sounds like you were a lot meaner than he was,” Edzie observed.

“Yeah, but he deserved it.”

Edzie considered this for a moment. She wasn’t inclined to recommend pacifism or wilting ambivalence, but she sensed that Stray’s overreaction was impractical, and probably, to some degree, unfair in its disproportion. When she finally found advice to give, it was a synthesis of all these principles.

“Well, let’s think of what you just did in terms of tactics. If you think of the sixteen forms, this certainly wasn’t a withdrawal form, or even a withstand form, right?”

Stray nodded. “Yeah. It was an intercept form. He attacked me, and I fought back.”

Edzie winced at this distortion of the situation. “Okay, so that’s how you see it… but are you sure Boyle even thought he was attacking you? … and if he was, he was just attacking with words, not hands or feet. You didn’t neutralize, you escalated. If anything, that’s an attack.”

Stray paused, struggling to accept this, and then conceded the point. “Yeah, I guess he might see it like that.”

Edzie continued. “And like mom… Elkansa… has told us, when we’re aggressive, we have to be decisive, and we have to be very clear about why we’re attacking. I don’t think you were entirely clear on why you hurt Boyle. I’m still not sure you’ve figured it out.”

Stray finally deigned to look Edzie’s direction. “No, I know why. It’s because when I think about my father leaving, I don’t feel like a Denorian any more. It’s like I forget you guys are my family for a second. All of a sudden, I’m a stranger, like that guy the Protectorate took away.”

Edzie wasn’t sure how to help with this problem, and she found her patience suddenly wavering. “Well, you know you’re family, as far as we’re concerned… me and mom and also Boyle and Ghada and the Mistras and everyone else. So you can stop being sore about it.” She became self-conscious, suddenly, and forced herself to soften her tone. “Maybe it’ll keep getting easier.”

Stray shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. Maybe I’ll stop thinking about it after I get initiated.”

“Yeah. But for now, we should probably go back to the village and say sorry to Boyle. He’s smart… hopefully he’ll know better than to make jokes about your dad from now on.”

Edzie and Stray headed back along the path as the light softened and cycled through its twilight colors. They greeted the guard at the watchtower as they passed, and Stray’s mood slowly lightened, so that he was cheerful again by the time they reached their own region of the settlement. The path was deserted, which was unusual, but nothing to be alarmed about. Stray was hesitant, but Edzie coaxed him toward Boyle’s dromo, urging him to apologize so everybody involved could return to their former rapport.

Stray’s attempt was frustrated by the frigid reception he received from Alynn and Dredda. At first, they simply refused to acknowledge him, effectively shutting him out of their household at the front entrance. To Stray’s solicitations, they replied that Boyle was not in the mood to entertain, and they thought Stray and Edzie should go home and attend to their own affairs for the moment. Stray and Edzie left in dismay, an anxious and disturbed mood settling over both of them.

At home, they fared little better. Elkansa had heard about the fight from Alynn, and had assured her that she would speak to Stray. She was in a cruel and impatient mood when they arrived, and she confronted Stray in the kitchen, effectively ignoring Edzie, who kept as close as she could without drawing any more wrath from her mother.

“Stray, you can’t start trouble with your friends when they are also my neighbors. Boyle’s parents are unhappy with all three of us. Frankly, I find it petty and irritating, but I can’t seem to talk them out of their fit, so we’ll have to be cordial and apologetic until we’re all back on friendly terms.” She shook her head. “In the meantime, I have no patience for you, either, throwing temper tantrums about trivialities.”

Edzie interjected. “Mom, he hardly did anything. Boyle wasn’t hurt, was he? Stray just knocked him down. We do that to each other all the time.”

Elkansa knew better, and her sensibility overrode her sympathy. “You may have thought so, but both Boyle and Ghada felt threatened. They said this sometimes happens, meaning you” – looking at Stray – “get mad and lash out at people, often enough that they’re familiar with the situation.”

Stray’s mood had gone from anxious to thoroughly sulky, just hurt and angry enough that he wasn’t ready to be contrite. He stared at the ground, scowling defiantly. Meanwhile, Elkansa’s lecture continued on the momentum of her disapproval. “Frankly, I don’t think I can abide such a temperament in my household. I’m certainly not going to advance your lessons or give you a huskin until you show me you’re capable of keeping friends and staying on good terms with our neighbors. Let me know when that happens, and we’ll see about your progress on your forms.”

She stepped back, then, waiting for a reaction. Stray’s head remained down, his gaze fixed on his own feet. To both Edzie and Elkansa’s surprise, he gave a simple, tortured nod of assent, and then shuffled off to his room at the back of the house, silent and unreadable.

Watching this confrontation play out, Edzie thought back to Stray’s meditations of an hour earlier, his confessions of alienation as he watched the huskins graze. She felt an inexplicable rage well up in herself, as if Stray’s suppressed anger had seeped into her through the air between them… for the first time in her life, she felt an open, flagrant hostility toward her mother, who looked so cruel and stupid, standing in the light of the thresh lamp. Edzie found herself wanting to physically attack her mother on Stray’s behalf… and even on her own behalf, out of a sense of injured righteousness.

There was no way Edzie was challenging her mother, especially in the latter’s present stormy mood, so she muttered the worst curse that she, as a mere foundling, could muster, and then hastened to Stray’s room to see if she could offer him any consolation.

She found Stray sitting on his bed, facing a wall. He refused to turn toward her, but looking from the side, she could tell that despite his best efforts to be strong and self-possessed, tears were streaming down his cheeks.

… … … …

Elkansa’s threat proved redundant, because she had been neglecting Stray’s lessons even before his fight with Boyle. Now she simply had a convenient excuse to delay his informal initiation, which should have happened that summer. Edzie and Stray both knew Elkansa’s tendency to set things aside and never return to them. Even Edzie’s katsun was still unfinished.

The situation with the neighbors remained awkward. Boyle quickly forgave Stray, even going so far as to acknowledge his own role in the disagreement, but Alynn remained frigid, mildly disapproving of Stray and Edzie’s visits. She extended this treatment to Elkansa as well, though she relented a bit when she encountered her by chance, and Dredda – gentle husband and caretaker of the household – was swept up and carried away by his wife’s anger. He was polite to Stray and Edzie when he was out of Alynn’s sight, but he couldn’t openly defy the protective mother’s grudge against her neighbors and long-time friends.

The days grew warmer, and the Festival of Emergence approached quickly, sending the settlement into a flurry of anticipation and preparation. This festival was the traditional celebration of the new brood of huskin calves, conceived during the previous mating season, around the time of the Festival of Release. For several weeks, activity picked up in the settlement, and though Stray was left free to play with Boyle in the fields, Edzie was enlisted by Elkansa to help with the preparations. In the final ten days before the festival, Stray was recruited, as well, and Boyle was left to wander off and attend to his own amusements.

Where the fall festival, the Festival of Release, was generally a tribal affair, with its rituals of mutualism and pacification, the Festival of Emergence was more open and more volatile. It was a customary gathering for family members returning to the Concordance from the kingdoms beyond, a homecoming for a great many emigrants who still had ties with the tribe. It was also a time for trials by combat and tests of martial skill, where those rivalries that couldn’t be calmed and unraveled at the fall festival would be resolved, instead, by mediated bloodshed.

This was also an occasion for the elders to account for themselves, and to name their successors, in cases where they hadn’t already done so. It turned out, to Stray’s delight, that Ghada’s mother Treya was being named a successor, and so all who knew her had extra cause for celebration.

So it was that by the last few days before the festival, Edzie and Stray were both mortally weary of cleaning and cutting fruit, dressing butchered huskins, and tidying up gardens and public spaces around the settlement. Elkansa had an endless stream of mundane tasks for them to complete, and it gradually dawned on them that without some convincing excuse, they would never get away from her litany of small jobs.

Luckily, on the last day before the festival, Ghada invited them – Stray, Edzie, and Boyle – to join him in primping and choosing his wardrobe. He promised Stray and Boyle that he would help them prepare, and even provide some accouterments and accessories to make them presentable. Edzie herself wasn’t terribly interested in this spectacle, but word had reached her that Ghada’s sister Bellaryn was going to be visiting, and she very much wanted to see her.