“Mistra Eryn says you’ve been especially diligent lately, Stray.”

“I guess so. I think the exercises are good for me.”

“I’m sure you’re right. I’ve noticed the same thing… you’ve been at three classes every week, even beyond our private sessions. Do you think they’re working?”

“I guess… I mean, yes, I definitely think so. I’ve been practicing the tones a lot, though, and also the breathing and stretches, when I have time to myself. I don’t think Elkansa appreciates it… understands it, I mean… but she just ignores me when I’m doing it around her.”

“And when is that? Don’t you have a private space to practice?”

“Sure, my room is usually fine. But late at night, I like to do it in the gathering room, before the fire burns out completely.”

“And how is that different from doing it in your own room?”

“Well, first, there’s a lot more space, so the sound is richer, riding the air currents around the room… and the warmth of the fire adds an extra frequency, too. Plus, it feels different. There’s more harmony, and dissonance, so when I find my tone, there’s more roundness to it… it’s got more shape. Does that make sense?”

“Absolutely. In the gathering room, you should be able to feel the resonance of the other people who have been spending time there. Elkansa, first and foremost… at this point, you’d probably recognize her frequency without even having to tune against it.” Mistra Septa hesitated, measuring her tone. “Actually, I’m quite impressed at how you describe the resonance in your gathering room. Those are the kinds of nuances that some of our Prospects don’t recognize until their second or third year.”

“You must be an excellent teacher.” Stray’s smile was sly and charming.

“Thank you, Stray, that’s very kind. So have your family and friends noticed that you spend more time with us these days? Are you still getting along with them?”

“Yes. They’ve probably noticed… Elkansa definitely has… but they haven’t really said much about it. I don’t see them every day any more… Boyle spends a lot of time with Varda, and Edzie has spent a lot of evenings lately at Ghada and Bellaryn’s house. She says I shouldn’t come unless we all make plans together ahead of time.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I mean, I’m not stupid… I know why they suddenly need all that privacy. I wouldn’t want to be there anyway, obviously.”

“Well, of course, but that’s not what I was asking. I was asking how you felt about them spending more time together. Is there anything unexpected? Is your body reacting? Do you feel any new tensions or sensitivities when you introspect?”

“I… I’ve thought about it a little, but not much. Something is different, but I can’t tell what. It’s a tightness, an abrasive sort of… hostility, I guess.”

“Stray, as much as you don’t want to admit it, I think that’s what we call jealousy.”

Stray tried to object… defensive words seemed to emerge spontaneously, reflexively, with a sort of submerged violence… and he adhered to his training and silenced them, forcing the part of his brain that was forming the words to go slack. He searched his mind, looking for a sign of himself, some authentic image beneath his self-defense mechanisms, and gradually managed to detach himself from his jealousy. He focused on this detachment, and allowed new words to rise from it.

“I think that helps me understand jealousy better, knowing that’s how it feels. I mean, I always felt like there was a balance, between me and Edzie and Ghada… like a web strung loose between tree branches. But I’m realizing that some parts of it are tightening, now, and other parts are coming completely unstrung. I figured, if anything, Ghada might pull Edzie away and I would feel abandoned by her… but…”

“But it’s the reverse.”

“Yes. Edzie still feels as close as ever, like our relationship can stretch and shrink and never really change. But I think Ghada was growing fond of me, and now he looks at me like something a little bit dangerous, or beyond his reach. Now that the situation is changing, I feel like the whole past year… or since summer, at least… is coming into focus differently. It’s hard, seeing something you missed that you can’t go back to.”

“I’m glad you can see that so clearly, Stray. I’d say you’re ahead of many people – adults, even – in facing your emotions and integrating them into your life.”

Stray scowled at this. “Funny you say that. The more I pay attention… the more mindful I am, the more I try to be sensitive to my emotions… the more I feel like I’m just getting lost in the woods. The more sensitive I am to those emotions, the more wild and mysterious they seem.”

“That’s common. The first lesson in any great endeavor is to recognize your own inadequacy. All humans are treacherously, devastatingly limited creatures.” Mistra Septa indicated that she needed a moment’s pause – how she made this so glaringly clear without any explicit indication, Stray had no idea – and tightened her topknot. When she was satisfied, she arched her back, restoring her posture to ensiform perfection, and finally continued, her voice keen and methodical. “So let’s keep working on it. Where has your mind been going, at the depth of your meditation, when you finally let go? What have you been thinking about?”

Stray reflected on this question for a moment, and then said, “Well, there are three places so far.”

… … … …

Edzie and Ghada’s intermittent romance began in 3339, and by 3340, most of their friends and acquaintances were aware of it, though they were politely circumspect about it. It was the same way with Boyle and Varda, except that Varda wasn’t close friends with Edzie or Stray or Ghada, and Boyle spent the better part of that year trying to keep it that way. Edzie and Stray only felt that relationship as a sort of undercurrent running beneath Boyle’s various moods. When he and Varda were feeling productive and compatible, he was less available, but much more animated and cheerful. When there was distance or tension between them, his cynicism became almost unbearable, and he became (somehow) both clingy and unreliable.

Eventually, in the months leading up to the Festival of Emergence, Boyle realized he needed to merge his social circles. Between Varda, Stray and Edzie, and his crucial time alone with his canvases, he had too many parts to play, too many public faces to keep track of. Slowly, he started creating opportunities for Stray and Edzie to spend time with Varda, so that they could bond over their few common experiences: the trials of Denorian adolescence, the stresses of having parents and teachers, and the noteworthy privilege of having Boyle as a close friend.

At first, the three only talked in short bursts after their sessions with the Mistra, or when Boyle and Varda happened past Edzie and Stray’s dromo. Even in these brief encounters, Stray and Edzie could tell that Varda was genuinely shy, taciturn about her own family, suspicious of in-depth questions, and reserved about participating in idle chatter and roughhousing. If you could get her to open up and look at you, she was quite handsome: her eyes were a brown so rich it was almost burgundy, her arms and shoulders were broad and shapely, and she kept her thick black hair folded up on the crown of her head. She tended to wear her brivsa hood up, but left the scarf loose over her upper body, which might have been taken as a sign of disrespect on a more precocious child.

Finally, a few weeks after Emergence, as the first floral weeds were springing up in the spongy earth around the settlement, Boyle arranged an extended rendezvous with Edzie, Stray, and Varda. He couldn’t maintain his exclusion – his downright possessive segregation of his social groups – any longer, and so he gave Edzie and Stray a warning and an appeal: he wanted them all to go visit the merchants along Handworkers Row together, and then spend some idle time at the Chronoboros, so would Edzie and Stray please try to behave, and make a decent impression? He knew they had his best interests at heart, but mischief seemed to follow them like a calf after its mother.

The three of them – Boyle, Edzie, and Stray – attended Mistra Septa’s session that afternoon. Her lessons were less useful than they once had been… all three of them had attended so many, they had flat-out memorized most of the material. Still, they made frequent obligatory appearances… Stray to help out the younger children, and Edzie and Boyle because they found the cadence of the lectures refreshing. After the lesson concluded, they gathered at the edge of the pavilion and headed northeast, toward Handworkers Row.

As they passed the rows of vendors, the three of them noted the changing atmosphere… the morning’s dry breeze had passed entirely, and a heavier, more ominous stillness had replaced it, a humid chill in the shadow of thick clouds. The traders in the Denorian market were looking nervously skyward, ready for the onset of precipitation. Edzie pulled her brivsa’s hood tight over her hair as she followed the boys.

Halfway along the market row, they reached Varda’s parents’ table. Varda’s older mother was a stonecarver, and Varda helped her engrave tiles and bricks. She was presently smoothing the sides of a rectangular block, cut from some sort of sandstone; when she saw Boyle, she looked up just long enough to smile and wave, and then turned and said something quietly to the young woman behind her. The woman nodded, and then inspected the brick Varda had been attending.

“Who’s that?” Edzie asked Boyle quietly.

“That’s her younger mother,” Boyle said. “They sell the stone in the mornings, and then her older mother comes in the evenings to take special orders and finish up the day’s business.”

The block apparently met with the inspector’s approval, because Varda received an affectionate squeeze on the shoulder, which served as a dismissal. Varda hurried down and embraced Boyle, and then gave a polite nod to Stray and Edzie, who returned her greeting awkwardly. After a moment’s discussion, the three of them turned back east, with Boyle and Varda leading the way and Stray and Edzie remaining a few steps behind.

The trip back along Handworkers’ Row was a slow one… each of the four children were accosted by at least two or three adults, supplying idle compliments and demanding their regards be sent to the teenagers’ parents. Varda knew almost all of the merchants, having spent by far the most time in the market, but they knew she was timid, so they were usually satisfied with a quick, silent nod from the girl. Edzie and Stray had fewer acquaintances here, but they proved annoyingly talkative – every woman who knew Elkansa made a show of admiring her children and asking how she was doing. All four, but Edzie especially, were relieved when the gallery of vendors finally tapered off.

Now that there was more space around them, Stray took the opportunity to catch up to Boyle and Varda, whose conversation seemed to be at a lull. When he reached Varda – a fast, focused walker – he spoke cheerfully and listened patiently, painfully earnest in engaging with her.

“Varda! So Boyle says that was your mother, back at your table?”

“Yes,” Varda said. “That was mother Obrii.”

“Is she the one who does all those intricate carvings on the stones? They look like the swirls on the Caesurites’ robes!”

“No,” Varda replied, “That’s mother Matrista. She won’t be here for another few hours.”

Sensing Varda’s shyness, Stray gave her a moment, and then tried to be as gentle as possible in making his inquiry. “So, can I ask about your mothers? Just tell me if you don’t want to talk… about them, or anything.”

Varda glanced at Boyle, apparently looking for some kind of confidence from him.

“It’s okay either way,” Boyle reassured her. “No need to go into it.” He turned to Stray, his tone conciliatory. “She’ll tell you about them later, maybe.”

Varda seemed to perk up a bit with Boyle’s encouragement, so she lifted her head and spoke a bit louder. “No, actually, it’s okay. I’m just a little tired from the work.” She looked at Stray, forcing a smile. “Mother Obrii is the younger, and she’s my birth mother, if that’s what you wanted to know.”

“Sure,” Stray said, happy to have cracked the girl’s defenses. “How did they meet? Did you know your father?”

“Stray, don’t be pushy,” Edzie warned, still a few paces behind.

“No, it’s fine,” Varda said, continuing to brighten as she acclimated to the company. “I never knew my birth father. He was an outsider, traveling with mother Obrii, but when they came to live with the tribe, he left mother Obrii for mother Matrista. She says he was a rake, though, so she drove him away, and ended up taking care of mother Obrii, who was pregnant with me. They both say it’s complicated, but it sounds pretty simple to me.”

Stray nodded. “Yeah, it does. When they say ‘complicated,’ they probably just mean they don’t want to think too much about it.”

Varda smiled and shrugged. “Fine with me.” They all hesitated a moment, and then Varda chuckled. Her mirth punctured the tension in the air, and finally all four of them laughed together, celebrating the strangeness of the adults who were raising them.

The four of them reached the Chronoboros shortly thereafter, making their way among a peppering of bystanders. It was late afternoon, so the court was dominated by the youth of the tribe, many of them free of their chores and sessions with the Mistras, and not yet engaged in their evening rituals. At the outskirts of the court, there was a great deal of playful prepubescent ruckus, but the Chronoboros itself called for some respect, so it became quieter as the four Denorians approached it.

They only paused once to consider the available space, and then they decided, seemingly in unison, to settle right beneath the tree itself, crouching over its roots. They were old enough that they could keep still and restrain their voices, so they didn’t expect to attract any disapproval. Once they were comfortable, Stray renewed his efforts to charm Varda out of her defenses.

The conversation turned almost immediately to the pinti – the bone flute that Varda was learning to play – and Varda’s interest in music and crafts. Varda said that her mother Obrii had come from a musical community before she had joined the Denorians, and that she had taken an interest in the pinti as soon as she had learned of its place in Denorian tradition. She had made friends with a craftswoman – Nordimae – who furnished Denorian artifacts and sold them to voraish travelers and merchants at exorbitant prices. Nordimae had taught Obrii to carve the flutes, and though Obrii didn’t show an aptitude for hand-carving, she was able to pass the interest on to her daughter.

What she lacked in practical coordination, Obrii made up for in musical talent. Once Varda was carving flutes, drawing on Nordimae’s occasional tutelage, mother Obrii was quick to teach her how to play. Varda was learning more slowly than her mother would have liked, but she was improving at a steady pace, and now she was initiating Boyle into the practice. Luckily, Varda had the patient disposition required of a teacher.

Stray asked Varda if she had one of her pinti with her. She didn’t, but Boyle had one wrapped up in his portable canvas, along with his charcoals. It was rough, lacking the porcelain smoothness of the instruments that Nordimae made, but it was vastly improved by the etchings on its surface: overlapping curls, framed in rectangles and often spilling out of their borders, adorning the cylindar from tip to tip. There was a single opening to draw the breath, and then eight finger holes, as per traditional pinti construction… one for each of the formal harmonics. Delighted, Stray asked Varda if she would play something for them (he would have requested a duet, but only one instrument was available).

Varda nodded, and she and Boyle briefly discussed her song choice. Varda wanted to play one of the traditional Denorian hymns, whose steady, interwoven tones would unfold slowly and deliberately. It would be familiar to Edzie and Stray, who had heard many such songs from the gathered crowds at the seasonal festivals. Boyle considered this song choice, and finally opposed it, suggesting that she play “one of Obrii’s songs” instead. Varda looked hesitant, but she agreed, and put her lips to the pinti.

The song she played used all the familiar notes, those eight formal harmonics from the tribeswomen’s ritual chants, but they were employed in such a strange way, it left Stray and Edzie visibly baffled. The notes were so distinct, and came so quickly… they would seem to proceed like a birdsong, or a familiar phrase, and then suddenly they would turn aside like a tree-limb wrenched by a gust of wind. When Varda finished, no more than a minute later, they all felt like they had taken a long journey, and that hours must have passed since she blew the first note.

“Wow!” Stray was the first to speak. “It was… beautiful! So many notes!”

“Yeah, weird, isn’t it?” Boyle said, a note of awe in his voice.

“I was looking for the tonic… or some kind of dominant tone, or resonant attitude… but it moved so fast, I couldn’t track it!” Stray glanced at Edzie, and then back at Varda. “Where does that kind of music come from?”

“That one is from somewhere down south,” Varda said. “Obrii learned it when she was a child.”

Edzie nodded, recognition showing on her face. “Right. I’ve read about those songs, from the new kingdoms… lots of notes, with different emotional effects, like stories.”

Varda handed the pinti back to Boyle, who placed it neatly inside his canvas and rolled it back up. Edzie looked at Stray, and found him deep in thought, reflecting on the strangeness of this foreign song that had materialized before him. Finally, having made as much sense of it as he could, he started talking to Boyle about tones and frequencies, repeating the lessons he was learning from Mistra Septa about sound and stability. This conversation led to a discussion of balance and meditation, and before any of them knew what was happening, Stray and Boyle were standing up and trying to balance on one foot.

Boyle was perfectly oblivious, but Stray noticed when they started getting disapproving looks from bystanders. They were very close to the Chronoboros itself, and it was no place for foolishness. Highly conscious of these gazes, Stray suggested they move elsewhere, and Boyle, caught up in the discussion, was quick to agree. They ran off to the west side of the court to compete and make fools of themselves.

“Nice to see you and Boyle getting along so well,” Edzie said. “Me and Stray used to be the only people he seemed to like being around.”

“Yeah, I like him a lot,” Varda said, smiling modestly. She paused, watching them with a sort of paternalistic interest. “Stray seems great. I can see he really cares about Boyle.” She paused. “I’m sorry about Boyle’s mother, and how hard she is toward you two.”

Edzie smiled. “Well, maybe with you on our side, she’ll start being nice to us again. If enough people tell her that Stray is a good friend, she has to start believing it eventually.”

Varda scowled a bit, looking away from Edzie, and then her expression softened again. “No, it won’t help. Alynn isn’t changing her mind… if I were you, I’d stop worrying about it.”

Now it was Edzie’s turn to scowl, registering her dismay as frustrated defensiveness. “But why? What’s the problem?”

Varda checked to make sure the boys were out of earshot, and then leaned in closer to Edzie. “She doesn’t see any point in encouraging the friendship. I’ve heard her argue with Dredda about it… they’re not very quiet… She thinks of Stray as a typical boy, and an outsider, at that. It won’t do Boyle any good to keep endearing himself to outcasts.” Varda paused and watched Edzie for some reaction, but Edzie’s expression was stone, so Varda continued. “She knows Stray is a good friend, but… I think, for Alynn, the friendship is what she’s protecting Boyle from.”

Varda finished her explanation and looked at Edzie with concern, but she saw no discernible reaction. She shifted back, giving the other girl space; Edzie’s eyes were glazed over for a moment, and then they glanced at Varda, and then returned to a state of reflective emptiness. For Edzie, there had been a sudden change in the atmosphere… she still saw the people around her, Denorian children running around the markers, tribeswomen standing in small groups talking quietly, a few lone bystanders doing exercises and practicing advanced forms… but these figures dropped out of the foreground, becoming remote and flat and empty, drained of their personalities and animating principles. Edzie suddenly felt entirely alone in the center of the court, as if a mark of trespass had been placed upon her. The air felt colder, and the ground felt harder beneath her folded legs.

It only took Edzie a moment to shake off her disquietude, but the feeling remained. She tried to conceal it under polite conversation, but some of her sullenness must have been apparent, because Varda became less responsive, as well. By the time Stray and Boyle returned and sat with them, their conversation had tapered off almost to nothing, and there was no hope of rekindling it.

Stray did the best he could with an atmosphere that seemed to have wilted. Varda and Boyle talked with an inspiring intimacy, and Stray engaged in the conversation as much as he could, as Edzie remained quiet and disconnected, withdrawn into her own thoughts. She was profoundly distracted, but she had the presence of mind to realize she wasn’t contributing, so she excused herself on some shaky premise and started the plodding walk homeward.