For the Denorian settlement as a whole – its influential families, its open community, its excited adolescents – the Festival of Release proceeded as it always had, with victuals and distractions and visiting friends and family. The outsiders trickled out over the course of three days, and many of the traveling merchants remained for another day to handle lingering business concerns. It was so unremarkable, so banal in its celebratory rise and fall, that Edzie found the whole denouement almost insulting. For her, a vast, irreplaceable fulcrum seemed to have collapsed, and the settlement that was emerging from those tumultuous days had a different aspect from the one that had entered.
The trackers who had been sent after the criminal returned empty-handed, with only the thinnest scraps of news: he had gone directly west, diligently avoiding the Aerimus, and had apparently picked up a steed at one of the roadside enclaves, because his tracks ended abruptly. A few of the travelers had seen him, but he had given each of them a different story about who he was and where he was going. The trackers had no better information than the account given by Ifris, who suspected he was returning to the westerly cities.
As for Ifris and the other Hexcalor, they gave Thistleroy an extra day to recover, and then fixed him to a specialized litter that stabilized his leg. They commissioned a pony… a rare rental for the unriderly Concordance tribesfolk… and began their toilsome walk back southwest, toward the Range River and its tributary, the Huskin Draw. Their parting was stiff and formal, but the tribal relations were only raw, not ruined beyond the power of time to repair.
In the ten days after the festival, Edzie tried to explain her behavior to Stray, going over the events of the exhibition match several times. At first, she thought she would simply describe it as an angry outburst, and he would understand and sympathize. In the course of their conversations, she quickly realized this wasn’t the case… she and Stray harbored very different violent impulses, and when they talked about the emotions beneath their rage, they seemed to be speaking different languages, or the same language learned with entirely different denotations.
Edzie learned, in particular, that Stray seemed to regard his anger as something wholly outside himself, like a dark stranger following him through his waking life. He fought the anger in his dreams and in his meditation sessions, so that he could maintain his dominance – his stalwart, sympathetic reasonableness, the statesman’s demeanor for which he was now so admired – without his psychic struggles ever appearing on the surface.
Edzie herself, on the other hand, did not separate herself from her temper, or even see it as a burden. Her attack on Thistleroy had been a decision, a show of force and an assertion of control, that she’d felt was justified in the heat of the confrontation. She certainly didn’t begrudge herself that decision, or feel compelled to regret it. She didn’t need her own forgiveness, nor that of the tribe as a whole… for some reason, only Stray’s blessing seemed to carry any weight, and in the dark days after the mishap, he wasn’t inclined to offer it.
Elkansa’s reaction to the incident was severe, though not unexpected. Within days, she looked like she had aged considerably, and she often fell to silent, vacant rumination, trying to sort through a sudden abundance of anxieties that wasn’t traditionally her style. Her relations with Edzie remained cold, and in this mood, she orchestrated a numbing punishment: She ordered Edzie to spend her days with the Mistras, either attending lessons or helping to conduct them, and she further demanded Edzie be home for dinner every evening, and that they spend two hours every night practicing her forms. This was intended as a program of disciplinary habit and social engagement. To Edzie, it seemed like retaliation and persecution.
While Edzie fought against her mother’s sanctions and her own resentment, Stray kept his schedule, attending two regular Mistras’ lessons each week, and logging an additional four hours in his private sessions, plus at least an hour each day in private meditation and exercise. During private meditation, he practiced visualization and immersion; he only thought about his own life, his emotional state and his plans for the future, while his hands were busy doing chores, his muscle memory caught up in the mundane and repetitive. These times were productive, but his conclusions were always tentative and indistinct, caught in a limbo of indecision until he let them out into the world by talking about them to a friend or acquaintance.
A week after the disastrous Festival of Release, Stray walked across the settlement to Ghada’s dromo. It was one of the first truly wintery days, chafing under a frigid wind that kept threatening to yank his brivsa off his head. He wore a light deer-skin and a pair of lined sleeves, tied over his shoulders, and he kept his hood down and his scarf tight, doing his best to keep the gusts out of his eyes. It was early morning, overcast, like the sky was scabbed over, nursing a wound.
Stray was acutely aware of the sensitivities he might trigger by visiting Ghada. Treya, Kosef, and Bellaryn were still caught up in an emotional crisis mode, and though they knew Stray was innocent of wrongdoing, they were too protective of Ghada to let him get near. Edzie’s transgression had tainted him, marking him as a threat by proxy, just as Stray’s misbehavior had once done to Edzie in the eyes of Boyle’s parents… and like Edzie, Stray was forced to play the role of the fugitive, approaching from outside Ghada’s window to avoid the family’s attention.
Stray had to pull himself up a few inches to see through the window. Ghada was invisible from his vantage point, but he could hear the shifting of weight and fabric outside his field of view. He pulled himself up high enough that he could poke his head further in, and in a voice between a whisper and a rasp, he called Ghada’s name.
“Stray?” Ghada’s voice caught in his throat as he suppressed his volume.
“Yeah, it’s me, Ghada. I came to visit.” He paused, sensed Ghada’s hesitation, and reassured him: “It’s just me. No Edzie. How about some company?”
Stray heard Ghada stand up and take a few tentative steps toward the window. The air in the room shifted, and Stray suddenly sensed the boy’s position and proximity, his pulse and presence a few meters away.
“This probably isn’t the best time,” Ghada said, and then almost immediately corrected himself. “Well, I guess there won’t be a best time for a while, and you’re probably right that I could use some company.”
Stray rested on the windowsill, his legs still hanging out into the empty air behind the dromo. He was suddenly short of breath. “So, should I come in?” he grunt-whispered, feeling momentarily awkward.
“No, best not. I don’t know if mom will hear us, but Bellaryn definitely will. Safer for me to come out there, I think.”
Ghada appeared suddenly, directly in front of Stray, and shoved his hands at Stray unceremoniously. Stray twitched with shock, seeing the hands bound in linens… they didn’t look much different from normal hands, wrapped too tightly to count the digits. Still, something in Stray’s mind was aware of their incompleteness, and so he reflexively visualized the bloody stumps of the thumbs, and recoiled from the image. Momentarily, he realized Ghada was just asking for help in getting through the window.
Stray braced himself with his left hand and reached out with his right, grabbing Ghada’s opposing wrist. “It won’t hurt?” he said as he tightened his grip.
“No, it hurts,” Ghada said, grunting out the words as he pulled himself up against Stray’s weight. “Hurts… every second… and almost… unbearable… right now, … doing this.” He struggled for a few more seconds, and then finally got his own weight into the window, and used his arms and upper body to pull himself out, jerking and wrenching himself over the threshold. Finally, he landed in a crouching clump, tipping over onto his right arm. He managed to take a deep breath. “It’s okay, though, it’s all part of healing it up.”
They arranged themselves against the exterior wall of the dromo, the coldness of the dirt penetrating through their pants. They sat in silence for a moment before Stray finally spoke.
“Is it healing, at least?”
“Well…” Ghada considered this, and then answered with uncharacteristic honesty. “That question doesn’t even have an answer yet. They’re cauterized, but they still bleed every day, and Greya has to change the bandages and apply salves and remedies.”
“Does it help?”
“I mean, they must be helping, but not that I can tell. Most of the time, it still feels like my hand’s just been torn in half. I get a little relief when I can distract myself, but even then, it’s wickedly painful.” He glanced at his left hand, but looked away almost immediately. “I can keep telling myself that the pain’s going to go away, and that helps, but that just makes room for something even worse… for all the fear and disgust to come along.”
Ghada looked at Stray, and Stray noticed that his eyes were red and sunken. Concern washed over Stray, but he had nothing to say, so he waiting for Ghada to continue.
“I slept for the first time since that redge attacked me,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “For four days, I couldn’t sleep, mostly because of the pain. Then last night, I finally got some sleep, but it was only for a few hours at a time, cause I kept waking up. First I woke up thinking I could hear someone in the room, and I almost screamed, but I couldn’t even draw enough breath for it. Then, later in the night, I woke up again, this time having groggy dreams about holding things… clothing, sewing needles, greasepaint pens… and having them disappear when I tried to use them.” His voice cracked, and suddenly he was wrestling with whispers and sobs. “I woke up thinking it had been a nightmare, and the scariest part of the nightmare was that I had somehow lost my thumbs, and then I looked down and remembered that it actually happened, and I…” He closed his eyes. “I couldn’t sleep any more. That’s all the sleep I got for the past week.”
Stray reached out and took Ghada’s hand, indifferent to the wrapping. Ghada hadn’t expected this, and he tried to jerk it away, but Stray kept his grip on it. “Ghada, I’m sorry,” he said. “I know this doesn’t mean shit right now, but I want you to hear it anyway: you’ll be okay.”
Ghada’s face contorted into something vile for a moment, and then relaxed a bit as he controlled his grief. “I know. I mean, I don’t see how… I can’t do regular work, I can’t cook or sew, I certainly can’t fight like before, and as soon as people realize I’m missing half of both hands, it won’t matter how sophisticated I sound… they’ll forget everything but pity for me. But… I don’t know. What’s left to do but wait?”
“Nothing,” Stray said, shifting closer to Ghada. “For now, do nothing. Let the future come on its own. Your katsun and your tailoring were just decorations. You’ll be okay because even without them… even without thumbs, even if they’d taken your arms and legs, you’d still have the love and faith of this whole tribe, well-earned and deserved.”
Stray was starting to cry now, just a little, so he retreated into his meditative space for a moment, smoothing out the folds and fissures of emotion in his psychic topography. When he opened his eyes, he found that Ghada was leaning into his space, hoping for an elbow, a caress, a bit of physical affection. It was bold – almost desperate – and though Stray had been inviting it, he hadn’t expected Ghada to make the move so suddenly.
Stray put a firm arm around Ghada and let Ghada’s head come to rest on his shoulder. When Ghada tried to raise his head toward Stray, looking for Stray’s lips, Stray recoiled, embarrassed, as though out of shyness. Ghada looked back down, eyes tired, mouth numb, mired in self-loathing.
“Ghada,” Stray said, trying to be gentle, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t the kind of love you need right now. You need to recover on your own, with the support of your family, and figure out how to move forward.” Ghada didn’t react to this assertion, so Stray continued. “And you know how impossible it would be, after you and Edzie were so close. I can’t just step into the shadow of that relationship, however cursed it turned out to be.”
Ghada didn’t move, but Stray felt a tear – or a drip of snot – seep through his tunic. They stayed there for a few more minutes, silent, as Ghada processed Stray’s wise, cruel rejection. He didn’t move, but Stray imagined he sensed a nod of assent, or a breath of understanding. It gave him the courage to deliver his next bit of news, having no idea how it would land.
“Ghada, I thought I should tell you… you first, before anyone else… I’m going east after the year changes, to be a Caesura Prospect. Maybe I’ll fail the tests… maybe I won’t even like it. But I want to see what the Order might be able to offer me.”
Ghada didn’t move his head, but he breathed in and out. Finally, he said, “I kind of want to vomit right now.”
Stray just pulled his deer-skin off his shoulders and put it over both of them, though it was only large enough to cover their abdomens and half their legs. They sat there in silence for a few more minutes, cursing the cold air, but largely indifferent to it.
“Edzie. That’s not attack form two. It’s not one of our forms. I don’t know what it is. DO ATTACK FORM TWO.”
Edzie shook her head. “Mom, I AM doing it. I can do the attack forms as easy as blinking my eyes.”
“Edzie, I’m telling you… STEP FURTHER. The point is to advance on your opponent.”
“It’s an attack form! The point is to deliver the payload! I need both feet on the ground!”
Elkansa rolled her eyes again, for the third time in the last fifteen seconds. “Well, you need to be lighter on your feet. Edzie, I’ve been doing this for thirty years. Stop fighting with me over every little detail.”
“I’m not twelve anymore, mom! I know how the forms work! If you came at me with that long step, I’d have you on your back in a split second.”
“With your forms looking like this, I could skewer you before you could even reach me.”
“Mom, I can go blade-for-blade with any redge in this village. I’d have you disarmed in thirty seconds.”
“First of all, Edzie, have a little respect. Second, I wouldn’t let you near me with that katsun. For all I know, you might cut my arm off, just out of carelessness.”
“Mom, I’m not CARELESS. My forms are PERFECT. If I cut somebody, it’s because I WANTED TO CUT THEM.”
Elkansa looked down, arms crossed over her breast, shaking her head. “Your arrogance will get people killed, Edzie, and then it will get you killed. I know you’re just going through your hardest years, but I’m honestly getting very tired of it.”
Edzie sheathed the katsun and yanked her brivsa hood off her head. “I’m getting tired of… I’m getting tired of it, too, whatever it is.”
“What are you doing, Edzie? Stowing your weapon in the middle of practice?”
“Come on, mom. It’s well after dark. I think we can be done.”
Elkansa turned away, restless and defeated. “Fine, I guess you’re the one who decides that now. I hope you’re more respectful to the Mistras than you are to me. It’s humiliating.”
“Feel however you want about it, mom. I need some air.”
Elkansa said something about the cold weather, and about having to get up for household chores the next morning, but Edzie wasn’t listening. She picked up a furry brivsa from the gathering table and pulled it on over the lighter brivsa she already wore, and then she stormed out the front door. Elkansa, stewing in disappointment, turned toward the storage cabinet to find something to eat.
It had been cloudy a few days prior, but a deeper cold-front had pushed the clouds away east, so the night air was sharp and crystal-clear. Edzie could walk briskly by moonlight without stumbling over anything, and she didn’t have to think particularly hard about where she was heading. She passed Boyle’s dromo and crossed the Splitmouth, making a concerted effort to keep her wrapped feet out of the freezing water, and then she turned right and headed along its bank. She would pass the grove of orebarks shortly, and she had to decide where to go from there.
These walks were becoming very frequent, now numbering four or five a week, including the ones late at night that Elkansa didn’t know about. Edzie was supposed to be at the Mistras’ sessions every day, but every second or third day, she would skip a few lessons and go take cat-naps in the empty dromos near the eastern storage buildings. It was getting too cold for this, but she could usually keep warm enough by huddling in a corner.
In the two-score days since the festival, Edzie’s attitude toward the settlement as a whole… its hoary elders, its tight-knit politics, its Caesura missionaries… had soured, and it hadn’t even started recovering. As she walked, watching her breath condense into little puffs, she thought about the other Concordance tribes, but she had seen their towns and their representatives, and they already seemed like familiar faces, as stale as her own mild-mannered neighbors. Her thoughts ranged further, and she thought about Resine, and wondered what kind of life… what kinds of lives… she could discover in a city that big, where so many roads crossed.
The feeling of discontent she harbored was troubling, considering her only reassurance, the only light that shone within the wide shadow of her resentment, was Stray. They had grown subtly apart, especially since the fiasco at the festival, but she still kept a tight hold on her memory of more carefree, intimate days. She expected that her younger, more naïve attachment to the tribe was gone forever, but she felt she could reforge her relationships and learn to tolerate this lifestyle again, as long as Stray was a part of her life.
It would help, she hoped, that the tribe had finally decided to move. The new herd of huskins was skittish, and there were wide open spaces to the south and west. It hadn’t even required a council of the elders this time… the consensus came easily, and they had already sent out the scouting parties to stake out new territory for a springtime migration. It was possible, Edzie thought, that a new settlement, a new landscape and scenery, would make it easier for her to embrace life as an initiated tribeswoman.
She wandered through the orebark grove as these thoughts faded and flickered through her mind, echoes of joy and anger and fear that were still resonating in her subconscious. In the dark of the night, she could barely see the stump she had once occupied, but she remembered vividly: herself sitting there, Stray and Boyle trading blows in the open clearing, the whole grove charged with the sound of his voice trying to replicate a Caesura chant. Edzie let herself imagine, in a moment of willful fantasy, that the grove would still look exactly the same when the sun rose the next morning.
Edzie considered sitting by the orebarks, and then she thought about taking a quick detour to the north, to curl up in one of those empty dromos. She considered going further, past Ghada’s house, just to see if his light was still on. These all sounded preferable to being trapped in her own residence for the rest of the evening, but eventually the cold won out. Edzie started trudging back along the Splitmouth, walking slowly, listening to its noises. Aside from a couple skittering animals – probably swimcats or shade hares – the settlement seemed entirely deserted, and this was a solemn relief for Edzie, who would have felt a poisonous pang of resentment at the sight of another late-night pedestrian.
Boyle’s parents’ light was on, but Boyle’s was off, so either he was sleeping, or they were doing something together in the gathering room… or perhaps he was staying later at Varda’s dromo, now that she had earned some of Alynn and Dredda’s trust.
Edzie guessed she had been gone for an hour and a half when she finally passed through the front door of her dromo. In the light of the thresh lamps and the dim glow of the fire, she could see that Elkansa was sitting at the table and Stray was across from her. Elkansa had an half-empty dish of food in front of her, looking limp and cold, and they both had their eyes turned towards Edzie. She sensed that she had interrupted a sensitive conversation.
“Hey, Edzie,” Stray said, watching her take off the winter brivsa and unwrap her feet. He looked back at Elkansa presently, and she reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. When this cryptic gesture was finished, Stray stood up, picked up Elkansa’s dish, and stowed it away by the counter to be washed the following morning. He then gave Edzie a polite apology – sheepish and suspicious, Edzie thought – and headed for his room, apparently wanting an early sleep.
Elkansa followed a few minutes later, leaving Edzie to pace, and try to read, and warm herself by the dwindling fire.
On the third day of the year, early in the morning – amidst a parched and bitter frost – a small gathering of Denorians stood on the pitted earth of Cragstep Road, just across the Twilit Bridge, a refreshing walk from the settlement’s residential centers. Most had come from the western quarter of the settlement, but there were also a few from the central dromos. They had made a small circle around one particular individual, and now they were variously rubbing their hands, tightening their winter brivsas, and holding one another by the hands and waists and shoulders.
Stray felt a certain stable energy, a calm, unfamiliar warmth, emanating from the gentle, melancholy gazes of his friends and family. He was the one in the center of the circle, and he was dressed more warmly than any of the others. His brivsa (a gift from Rodra) was made of layers of fur and wool, and his coat had been taken from the tribe’s shared cache, in exchange for some significant promises from Elkansa. At his feet was a backpack, heavy with small equipment and dry food… everything practical and necessary, except for the freymane statuette, his gift from Edzie, which was wedged in between layers of underclothes. Upon his thigh he wore a katsun that had been donated by Mistra Eryn.
The Denorians gathered around him were a colorful motley bunch. Mistras Septa and Eryn stood together, and next to them, Elkansa stood a couple steps closer, wearing a sad smile. Ghada had made it out… his hands were still bound, but the majority of the pain had passed… with a stoic Bellaryn and an impassive Kosef, politely suppressing his shivering and impatience. On the right-hand side of the circle, Boyle and Varda had come with Mother Obrii, who kept a protective arm around her young daughter.
“Oy, have I not gotten enough presents already?” Stray was saying, his hands turned up in resignation.
“We only just finished it last night,” Boyle replied, handing Stray a very small object wrapped in a linen cloth. Stray unwrapped it and found a freshly-carved pinti, looking like it had been made from a sizeable huskin bone, with Boyle’s distinctive swirls and warped animal figures carved all around the pipe barrel.
“Beautiful!” Stray said, an earnest wonder in his voice. “Next time I’m here, you can help me learn to play!”
“Maybe one of the monks knows,” Varda said. “Or, knowing you, you might just learn to play it by yourself, and you’ll already be the best in the tribe when you get back.”
Elkansa looked over them skeptically. “Lovely work, but are you sure you can carry that, and your little bird statue? You don’t want to get weighed down with… memorabilia.”
Instead of responding, Stray just laughed, tucked the pinti into his backpack, and wrapped his arms around both Boyle and Varda, kissing each of them on the cheek. He turned to Ghada next.
“Strength, love, honor, beautiful prince,” he said. “Dissadae keep you.”
Ghada was doing his best not to shed tears as he spoke. “Go make peace with the world, Stray. You’ll be here in my good dreams, chasing away the bad ones.” They embraced, Ghada pressing his head to Stray’s shoulder. Bellaryn reached out and gave Stray a squeeze, and then the embrace ended, and Stray turned, passing momentarily over Elkansa, to speak to the Mistras.
“I think I’m ready,” Stray said.
Mistra Septa hardly looked convinced. “Do you remember the word of sanction?”
“Iproma val trastis bronton dragnin avre dribidis ben ritasna (I am the words uttered by your voice in the world returning to you),” Stray recited, pronouncing the Old Concordage with inflection that evoked the deep histories of the Caesura sect.
“Very good,” Septa replied, refusing to betray any pride or approval in her tone. “Do you know the way?”
“Of course,” Stray said. “East along the road, past the Marker’s Perch, the Drake River, and Chisel Finger Road, and then along the Andromous Front hewn along the river’s north bank. In the roots of the mountain, I’ll reach the ruins of Gryffe, and there will be a road cut into the stone that leads up the mountain to the temple. I go alone, I do not join any of the others who travel the same route, and I have to be at the front arch – Dissadae’s Relief – at dawn, seven days hence.”
“Right,” Mistra Eryn said, “and take care of yourself on your travels. Use your rations sparingly. Hunt or gather food when you can. Remember the six ways of keeping warm without shelter. Be alert for hungry animals… grasscats, bristlebears, drolven, and anything that looks more than half your size… and be especially alert for fellow travelers who seem too friendly or desperate.”
“I will.” Stray grasped each of the Mistras’ wrists in turn. “Thank you for sharing your wisdom with me, and choosing me for this honor. I won’t disappoint you.”
Mistra Septa smiled beneath her brivsa. “No matter the outcome, Stray, we have no intention of being disappointed. We are just glad you’re considering our Order as part of your future.”
At last Stray turned to Elkansa. He outmatched her in body weight, but he was still a few inches shorter than she, and he suspected he didn’t have much more growing to do. As he looked up at her, he saw that her eyes were just slightly wet. He embraced her as he spoke.
“Elkansa, you’ve been the best mother I could have hoped for. To me, you are the tribe… the tribe that’s accepted me, a hopeless outsider, and taught me what it means to be loving and generous and strong. I think, because of you, I’ll be able to do this.”
Stray stepped out of the embrace, and Elkansa put her hands on his shoulders. “Stray, I think you know how much the tribe favors you… sometimes it doesn’t deserve such a Denorian as yourself… but at any rate, I don’t need to speak for the tribe. I can only speak for me and Edzie. We’ll miss you hopelessly, Stray, whether you’re gone for a mere season, or for the better part of a lifetime. Here in the settlement, or up there on the mountain, or somewhere else out in Pantempus… wherever your inclination takes you… you will always have us, your family, traveling with you, and you’ll always be safe and warm in our dromo… your home. You have made all our lives more beautiful and more free.”
Stray and Elkansa embraced one more time, and then Stray picked up his backpack, waved, and started walking east. The gathered Denorians watched wordlessly, paying the tribute of their presence, until he was nearly out of sight. The Mistras left first, full of casual confidence in Stray’s inevitable success in the Order. Most of the Denorians left a few minutes later: Elkansa and Mother Obrii, walking and chatting quietly, and behind them, Boyle, Varda, and Kosef. Ghada remained a few minutes longer, silent and inscrutable, until his sister finally took him by the arm and led him home.
“Mom?” Edzie stumbled from her bedroom into the gathering room, tunic hanging open, no brivsa to cover her head. She reached the basin in the corner and splashed a bit of its cold water on her face. “Is it still early? Why didn’t you wake me up?”
Elkansa sat at the table, idly shredding getherroot and tapping one foot. “Of course it’s not early, Edzie,” she said. “It’s already afternoon. I thought I might give you a chance to sleep for once, since I don’t even know when you get home from your late-night walks any more.”
“Well… thanks,” Edzie stammered, understandably suspicious. She sat down at the table across from her mother. “Do we have any fruit?”
“If you want to cut it,” Elkansa said, nodding toward a small basket of pastapples in the corner.
As Edzie approached the basket, she started noticing some extraneous details in her surroundings. Both of Stray’s brivsas were missing from the space on the floor where they usually resided: his winter brivsa, and his formal indoor brivsa. All his foot-wraps and winter shoes were also missing. In fact, the area around the front entrance was noticeably bare.
“So, uhhhh…” Edzie said as she returned to the table with a pastapple, “where’s Stray? Out with one of the Mistras?”
Elkansa looked up at Edzie with a piercing seriousness in her eyes. “Well, Edzie… I suppose we should discuss that. I guess you haven’t looked in his room yet?”
Edzie just shook her head, one eyebrow raised.
“Stray is gone, Edzie. He left a bit after sun-up this morning, to undertake the Caesura Prospectus. He wanted me to say goodbye to you, once you awoke.”
Edzie twitched, drawing her head back. “He left? For the Envoclajiz? Wha… why? And why didn’t he tell me?!?”
Elkansa considered, and then answered the second question, apparently ignoring the first. “Well, Stray didn’t tell you because you are dealing with your own problems right now, hoping to redeem yourself before next autumn. And further, he didn’t know how you’d react, and he considered the possibility… bizarre, I know… that you would actually find some way to stop him from going, either by persuasion, or by delaying him through some deception until it was too late.” She paused, letting that suggestion sit in the air for a moment. “Of course,” she finally continued, “Stray insisted on telling you, whatever the consequences. I’m the one who convinced him not to, for your sake and his.”
Edzie scowled at her mother. “Well, I wish he had found the nerve to tell me, instead of just being afraid of me. So why did he want to do it?”
Elkansa shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure. I think, because the Mistras have taken such a shining to him, they’ve convinced him he’s got some special talent for their rituals. He probably feels like this is something he can excel at. That’s a powerful draw for a boy like Stray.”
Edzie was quiet for a few minutes. Elkansa watched her closely, prepared for some kind of outrage or indignation or exaggerated offense, but Edzie was surprisingly sanguine about the news. “Maybe he’s looking for something better than all us murts,” she said under her breath, and then, catching Elkansa’s baleful gaze, she said, “Sorry. It’s just a shock. I hope he finds whatever he’s looking for, if he’s gotta go leaving our dromo.”
Elkansa complimented Edzie on her maturity in the face of Stray’s departure, and tried to offer her a bit of consolation, in the form of a speech about how she had been a wonderful sister. Edzie smiled and nodded, looking introspective, and eventually, both Edzie and her mother lapsed into silence. Edzie finished her pastapple, excused herself, and left for her next session with Mistra Septa.
The day was generally uneventful: Edzie helped Mistra Septa with two sessions, returned home to help Elkansa with dinner, practiced her forms for several hours, and left to take a walk, as had become her habit. It was mortally cold out, but Edzie had taken her warmest furs, so Elkansa wasn’t worried about her. When Elkansa decided to turn in for the night, Edzie wasn’t home yet – another common occurrence those days.
As Elkansa curled up on her wooden cot, she felt something unsettling in the air. The house was warm, as always, from the dying fire in the gathering room, and Elkansa’s room was dimly lit by moonlight… nothing seemed noticeably out of the ordinary. Still, Elkansa remained awake for another hour, shaken by some deep-seated anxiety. It must be Stray’s departure, she thought to herself… funny, I didn’t even stay awake like this the night Tamlis left me.
Eventually, she heard Edzie return… a bit of shuffling and activity in the gathering room, her daughter’s unmistakable footsteps, and a slight increase in the glow of the gathering room fire. Feeling inexplicably reassured, Elkansa closed her eyes, and finally dropped off to sleep.