Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
The lights were on at the Wayhouse, which was still enough of a novelty that Algaina paused after she'd unlocked the shop door to look at it. Wasn't many got up as early in the day as she did, an' the Wayhouse . . . well, it was a wayhouse, wasn't it? Always had been, back to when the Gilmour Agency ran Surebleak. Wasn't meant but to give a newbie on the street someplace in outta the snow to sleep while they got themselves sorted an' settled.
This new batch of folks'd been in maybe four, five days, an' every morning, when Gaina opened the shop, there was the light. Made her feel a kinda warm pleasureableness, that she wasn't awake alone in the dark.
She shook herself and turned back to the shop, her thoughts still half on the Wayhouse. According to the neighbors, there were at least four kids living there, but not one of 'em come in to her shop for sweets. Might be they was shy. She wondered if she oughta take a plate o'cookies up, whatever was left over, when the shop closed. Introduce herself. Find out who was awake so early, every day, and what they did in the dark hours.
* * *
Algaina was in the back, getting the batch of sparemint cookies outta the oven, when she heard the bell on the front door ring out, which would be Luzeal, comin' in for her hot 'toot and warm roll before headin' down to Boss Conrad's territory an' the archive project. Luzee was always her first customer, ever since the first day she opened up.
"Be right out!" she called. "Got somethin' I want you to taste."
Wasn't no answer from the front room, which was typical; Luzee needed a cup o'toot to make her civilized.
Algaina closed the oven door, and stepped back into the shop, sliding the tray onto the counter, and looking 'round.
It wasn't Luzee who was her first customer this morning; it was Roe Yingling, who wasn't zackly a stranger—she let him run a ticket, after all—but nowhere near a reg'lar.
Algaina wasn't that fond of Roe, but he was a neighbor, and aside from having loud opinions at inconvenient times, he didn't stint the street.
"Mornin'," she said, giving him a nod. He'd already drawn himself a cup and was sipping it gingerly, wanting the warmth against the cold, but not wanting to burn his tongue. "You're up early."
He nodded around a sip from the cup.
"Word on the street's they're hiring over Boss Kalhoon's territory, long-term labor. Gonna go over an' see what I can get."
"Hadn't heard that," Algaina said; "good luck with it."
"Need it all, an' then some," Roe said, leaning over the pot and topping off his cup. "Body's gotta be quick if they wanna grab a job before a newbie gets it."
That was Roe's biggest and most frequent complaint, right there, Algaina knew. Not that there'd been that much work, the way things'd been fixed before Boss Conrad showed up to sort Surebleak out, which it—and they—surely had needed. Breaking up the old ways hadn't made work so much as it made time and room for 'bleakers to be able to roll up their sleeves and get on with what needed doin'.
The newbies, they'd followed the Boss to Surebleak, and they were a point of contention. So far's Algaina knew or saw, they was just as willing to work as any 'bleaker, an' somewhat more'n others. They come in with off-world skills, certain enough, but they wasn't 'bleakers. They didn't know what work needed done before that other piece o'work could get done, or necessarily how the weather played in—stuff that 'bleakers knew by instinct. Mostly, the work was team-based, 'bleaker and newbie, and plenty too much for everybody.
Still, there was a certain class of streeter, of which Roe Yingling was one, who wanted to have it that the newbies was taking work away from them, an' there wasn't nothing could convince 'em otherwise.
All of which was worth hopin' that Roe got work today.
"You better get movin," Algaina said. "Early worker 'presses the boss."
Roe nodded at her.
"Zackly what I'm thinkin'. Need a couple rolls to have in m'pocket for lunch," he said. "What was that you wanted me to taste?"
Well, she hadn't wanted Roe tastin' her sparemint, she'd wanted Luzee. Still, she'd said the words and he'd heard 'em—an' it couldn't hurt to have another opinion.
"Here go," she said, holding out the tray. "Take one o'them and let me know what you think. Something new I'm thinking about adding in."
He took a cookie—not quite the biggest—and bit into it, eyes narrowed.
While he was chewing, she got his two rolls, and wrapped 'em up in paper against the probable condition of the inside of his coat pocket. He took another bite, and was ruminatin' over it, when the bell rang, and a kid scooted in, let the door bang closed behind her—and stopped, big-eyed, and shivering, taking stock.
Algaina considered her: too young to be out by herself before the sun was up. She was wearing a good warm sweater, pants and boots, but no coat or hat. Her hair was reddish brown and hung in long tangles down below her shoulders.
"Sleet," muttered Roe, not nearly quiet enough for a kid's ears to miss; "it's one a them."
Algaina frowned at him, but he was staring at the kid, cold as she was, an' tryin' to decide if she liked where she found herself.
Of a sudden, a big grin lit up her thin face. She rushed up to the counter, dodging under Roe's elbow, and addressed herself at length to Algaina in a high, sweet voice.
Algaina frowned and held up a hand.
"Slow down, now, missy. My ears ain't as young as your tongue."
The girl frowned, reddish brows drawing together 'til there was a crease 'tween 'em, her head tipped to one side. Finally, she raised her right hand palm out, like Algaina had raised hers, and said, "Slow down."
"That's right," Algaina told her with a nod. "Now whyn't you tell me what you just said—slow enough so I can hear it."
"Goomorn," the girl said obediently; "beyou manake—baneken—cookies!"
The last word came out as a triumphant shout, like it was the only one she was sure of, thought Algaina. On the other hand, if you only had one word, it was pretty smart to be sure it paid out profits right away.
"That's right," she said. "I bake cookies. You want one?"
"You gonna feed it?" Roe asked, still not botherin' to keep his voice down.
Algaina glared at him.
"Feedin' you, ain't I?"
He opened his mouth, and she shook her finger at him.
"You finish that cookie, Roe Yingling, and get yourself goin' or you'll miss all the good jobs!"
He blinked—and shoved the rest of his cookie into his mouth.
Algaina turned back to the kid. Out from the Wayhouse, sure enough. Looked like somebody at home'd moved their eyes for a half-second, and she decided to go splorin'. Algaina's kid had done the same when he'd been what she guessed was this one's age. Scared her to death, so it had, until she found him wandering the street, or a neighbor brought him back.
Best thing to do, really, was to keep her 'til whoever was prolly already looking for her came by.
Algaina bent forward some and caught her eye.
"You want a cookie?" she asked again.
The girl blinked.
"Cookie," she asserted.
"Comin' right up," Algaina said, and chose a nice big sparemint from the tray. She held it down across the counter. "You try that and tell me how you like it."
The girl took the cookie from her hand with a solemn little bow, and bit into it, her eyes squinched in concentration.
"Gaina," Roe began, low-voiced.
"Later," Algaina told him.
Roe took a hard breath, an amount of stubborn coming into his face, and who knows what he might've said next, except the bell rang again, and in come a boy wearing an oversized flannel shirt over a high-neck sweater, good tough pants, and worn-in boots, carrying a bright red coat over one arm. He caught the door, and eased it closed, the while his eyes were on the kid.
She spun on a heel, and threw up her arms, nibbled cookie still in one hand.
"Donnnee!" she cried, rushing toward him.
He didn't bend down to take her hug, nor even smiled, just stood there with his arms folded, and a frown on his face.
She stopped, arms falling to her sides, cookie still gripped tight.
"Elaytha," he said again, and held out the coat. "It is cold. You wear this when you go out. Also, you frightened your sister."
His voice was level; his accent marked, but understandable.
The response to this was a burst of words as musical as they were unintelligible—which was cut off by a sharp movement of the boy—no, Algaina thought; not a boy. A man grown, only a little short and scrawny, like they was.
"In Terran, Elaytha," he said, still in that stern, solemn voice. "We speak Terran here."
"Pah," the girl said, comprehensively. She advanced upon her—brother, at a guess, Algaina thought—cookie extended.
"You try that," she said, her inflection and accent Algaina's own; "and tell me how you like it."
"Yes, very well." He took the cookie, and thrust the coat forward. "You will put this coat on," he said sternly. "Now, Elaytha."
She sighed from the soles of her boots, but she took the coat and shoved first one arm, then the other into the sleeves.
"Seal it," her brother—Donnie—said in that same tone.
Another sigh, but she bent her head, and began to work on the fastenings.
He watched her for a moment to be sure she was in earnest, then raised his head to meet Algaina's eyes. His were dark brown, like his hair.
"We watch her," he said, in his careful Terran, "but she is very quick."
She grinned at him.
"I remember what it was like, raising my boy," she said. "Yours looks like another handful."
He tipped his head, eyes narrowing, then nodded slightly.
"A handful. Indeed. I am happy that she came no further, and hope you will forgive this disturbance of your peace."
"No disturbing done. Bakery's open for bidness. I'm glad she come inside. It's cold this morning, even for born streeters like us." She nodded at Roe, who hissed lightly, and turned away to pick up the wrapped rolls.
"Thanks, Gaina," he said. "On my ticket, right?"
"Right," she told him, and watched him push past the girl and the man without a nod or a glance, goin' out the door into the lightening day.
"You have a taste of that cookie and lemme know what you think," Algaina said brightly, to take attention away from Roe bein' so rude. "New recipe; just trying it out the first time."
Donnie gave her a particular look, and a nod.
"I am honored," he said, and took a bite, chewing as solemnly as the child.
"Donnnee," Elaytha said.
He held up a hand, and closed his eyes.
After a moment, he opened his eyes.
"The texture," he said slowly. "It wants some—" He frowned, looked down at the kid, and held out what was left of the cookie. She took it and had it gone in two bites.
"It wants—" he said again, and stopped with a sigh.
"Your forgiveness; I have not the word. I will demonstrate. Elaytha, make your bow to the baker."
She turned and did so, smiling sunnily, the red coat meant for a taller, wider child. Like her brother's shirt had been made for somebody Terran sized.
Straightening, she added a rapid sentence, that Gaina guessed was some order of thank you.
"You're welcome," she said. "You come again, anytime you like. But you don't get no cookies unless you're wearing your coat, unnerstan me?"
She pouted, damn if she didn't, but answered, "Unnerstan."
"Good," she said, and turned her head, eye drawn by a movement.
Donnie was making his own bow.
"Thank you," he said. "I will demonstrate. For the moment, we are wanted at home." He held out a hand.
She took his hand. They turned to the door—and paused, as it opened to admit Luzeal.
"'Morning," she said, giving the two of them a nod and a smile before passing on. "Gaina, I'm starving! Got any mint rolls?"
"When don't I got mint rolls?" she asked, as Donnie and Elaytha exited the shop. "Got something else, too—want you to give it a try."
* * *
Luzee was carrying a three-ring binder under one arm like she'd taken to doin' ever since the call came out from the Lady and the Perfessor for old records, old letters, old books—all and anything.
Luzeal's family, they'd been in the way of managing the Office of the Boss, 'way back when the Agency was still on-world, and the Boss—the really big Boss, who oversaw it all—was called The Chairman. Even though they'd left her just like they left everybody, Luzeal's great-grandma'd organized a rescue operation, and moved all The Chairman's papers, and files, and memory sticks and, well—everything, down the basement of their own house, so it'd all be safe.
Which, Algaina admitted, it had been, all this time. Safe as houses, like they said. Safer'n most people'd been, includin' Luzee's grandma, who'd got herself retired by standin' in front of The Chairman's front door and tellin' the mob of Low Grades they couldn't come in.
Luzeal headed right for the hot-pot. She drank the first cup down straight, just like every morning, and brought the second over to the little table in the corner, so her and Algaina could talk while one et her breakfast and t'other minded the oven.
Algaina set the roll out on a plate, and ducked into the back to take the next batch out. More rolls, this was; rolls was the best she could do, not havin' a mother-of-bread, like grandpa'd wrote about in his card file. That was all right; her rolls were good an' hot for breakfast, and she was best at making cookies and simple sweets. Sometimes, though . . . she shook her head as she brought the tray out into the shop.
Just as good to wish for flowers in a blizzard, Algaina, she told herself.
Luzee had broken her roll in half, and was busy at breakfast. Algaina slid the fresh tray into the case, then went down to the end of the counter to pour herself a cup of 'toot.
"Was that the Wayhousers, just now leaving?" Luzee asked.
"Couple of 'em, anyhow. Little girl give 'er sister the slip an' gone splorin'. Big brother come lookin' for 'er. Too bad it was Roe Yingling in here when they come."
"He didn't get ugly with a kid?"
"He coulda been less rude, but nothin' past talking too loud."
Luzeal sighed, and picked up her cup.
"He's a neighbor, but sleet, I wish that man would learn not to say everything jumps into his head."
"Day that happens, I'll make a cake for the whole street," Algaina said, and nodded at the binder on the table. Most of Luzee's binders had seen work, but this one looked downright rough. There were bits o'paper hanging out the edges, including a strip of ragged red cloth, and its edges were banged up like somebody'd thrown it up against a wall—or a head—more times than twice.
"Looks like that one's seen some fun," Algaina said.
"This?" Luzee put her hand on the old binder. "Now, this is the Human Resources manual, all the rules about how the company and the employees was s'posed to act in just about every situation you can think of, an' a couple more you can't. Got lists, pay grades, holidays, memos—I 'spect the Lady's gonna be real glad to get the one—I was up all night reading it and more'n half a mind not to let it go!"
"Agency's long gone," Algaina pointed out. "An' I'm not sure we need a rule book that don't say, right up at Number One: Don't desert your people to die, f'all you ever knew or cared."
There was a small silence while Luzee finished her roll.
"Actually," she said, putting her hands around her mug and meeting Algaina's eye. "It does say that. There's a whole evac procedure. They coulda done it—they coulda took everybody offa here, there wasn't no disaster nor any reason they had to make hard decisions. They was s'posed to've took everybody."
Algaina stared at her.
"Why?" she asked. "Why'd they leave us? My grandad always said there wasn't room . . . "
"Turns out," Luzee said; "there's room, and then there's room."
She took a long swallow from her mug and pushed back from the table, heading for the hot-pot. Algaina picked up one of the sparemint cookies and bit into it, chewing slowly, trying to figure out what Donnie Wayhouse had found missing . . .
"What they did," Luzee said, coming back to put the mug on the table, "was a cost-benefit analysis. And it come out that it was more . . . well, fiscally responsible's bidness-talk for it. Means they figured it'd be cheaper to leave everybody below Grade Six right here on Surebleak, and declare a loss on the equipment. Woulda put 'em in the red for years, an' given 'em a disadvantage with Corporate, if they'd brung all of us away."
She took a hard breath, and put her hand on the beat-up binder. "It's all in here—the original policies, and notes and the votes from the meetin's that rescinded 'em. Dates, names . . . "
She shook her head.
"That's what made me decide the Lady needs this more'n I do."
Names and dates. The way Luzeal told it, the Surebleak Historical Search and Archival Liberry din't think there was nothin' better'n names and dates.
"What're those?" Luzee asked, nodding down at the sparemint cookies.
"Hermits. Had the receipt in my granddad's box, but couldn't never get raisins, is what they're called. Always wondered what they'd taste like—the raisins and the cookies. Yesterday, I was at market, and freeze me if there weren't a whole bin o'raisins just come in."
"Couldn't just let 'em set there, could I?"
"Not you!" Luzee said, grinning back. "That what you want me to taste?"
"If you got time. Try one and see what you think."
Luzee chewed thoughtfully.
"s'good," she said eventually. "Crunchy. You gonna be able to do these reg'lar?"
"I'll talk to the grocer next time I'm in; see what we can and can't do. I got a couple receipts in that box wantin' raisins. I'll look 'em out. In the meanwhile, we'll find does anybody else like 'em."
"Hard to think anybody wouldn't," Luzee said, finishing hers and eyeing the tray.
Algaina handed her another cookie.
"Thank'ee. I tell you what, Gaina—you oughta take that box down to the archive."
"That box is my livelihood! 'sides what's a buncha receipts gonna tell the Lady—or anybody else?"
"Well, this one right here'd tell 'em raisins used to be usual 'nough they got put in cookies—more'n one kind of cookie—and here you never seen 'em your whole life until just now—nor me, neither!"
"Still—giving away my receipts! I don't got 'em all by heart, now do I?"
"See, now, if you tell 'em you're bringing a working document, they'll make a copy and give you the original back. You take 'em in a plate o'these cookies and tell 'em how they was last made in your grandad's day, they'll see the importance o'them receipts.
"Anyways, it's what I'm planning on doin' with this book here."
"You want a copy of all the old rules the old bosses voted out when they wasn't convenient? For what?"
"Well, I ain't finished reading it, for one! For t'other, there's maybe things in here we could adapt for the Surebleak Code, like the Lady talks about. It was the Human Resources manual, after all, an' far's I know 'bleakers and newbies is all human."
A bell pinged in the back, and Algaina went to bring out the next batch. When she came back out, Luzee'd finished her coffeetoot, an' was pulling her hat down over her ears.
"Gotta get goin'. You wanna take that box to the archive, I'll come with you, whenever you decide."
"I'll think about it," Algaina said, and watched her out the door.
* * *
Kevan had a nightmare again.
Don Eyr woke him, and sat at his bedside, holding his hand until he stopped shaking, and answered the questions that kept him awake most nights; answered them to soothe and heal. Not lies; he did not lie to the children, and less so to a comrade. But where there were no facts, there a heart might build light and airy palaces of hope.
So, for Kevan, and for himself, he answered—no, there had not yet been word from Serana; not from Ail Den nor Cisco nor Fireyn. Yes, it was worrisome. But only recall how confused and dangerous it had been in Low Port when Korval's mercenaries arrived.
So four of their house's defenders had gone to show the mercs the alleys and back ways, that they might flank the approaching forces and deny them Low Port.
Don Eyr might have been with them—Jax Ton and Kevan, too. They had the right, and just as much knowledge of the streets as the others. But head of house security—Serana herself—had counted them off; three to go with her to guide the mercs; three to keep the children safe.
Serana had more lives than a cat; she said it herself, and certainly she had survived—they had both survived—desperate situations before they had arrived in Low Port, and became the defenders of youth.
Surely, Serana was alive. Was well. Don Eyr did not accept a universe in which these things were not facts.
No more than Kevan might come to terms with a universe that lacked the living presence of Ail Den.
And so, in that small space of uncertainty, where the truth was not yet known, they had each built a palace of hope.
Kevan was nodding off, his grip softening; Don Eyr heard a soft step behind and turned his head as Ashti came to his side, holding a cup of tea and a book.
"I'll stay with him," she said, the low light waking sparks of red along her cropped hair.
He slipped his hand free, and stood, flexing his fingers, looking down at the boy.
Ashti put her hand on his arm.
"Sleep, Don Eyr," she murmured. "We need you."
Not for much longer would they two, at least, need him, he thought, though he did not say so to her. She and Kevan were old enough, able enough; the younger ones trusted them. He might leave, and have no fear for any of them—but he would not leave. Not yet; not while there still remained some hope that Serana, and the others, would find them.
He left Kevan in Ashti's care, but he did not seek his own bed.
Instead, he walked through the crowded rooms, checking on each sleeper, straightening merc-issue blankets, picking up fallen pillows, smoothing the hair of those who moved uneasily on their narrow cots; and once stopping to murmur a few words in Liaden.
Their daytime language might now be Terran, but Liaden was the language of home, no matter how little they had been cherished there, and it soothed the fretful back to sleep.
Satisfied that all was well with the children, he descended to the kitchen, where he found the teapot warm and a cup set by. He smiled, recognizing Ashti's hand, and poured himself a cup, which he carried to the window.
The street was a short one, sparsely lit by what a daylight inspection had revealed to be self-adhesive emergency dims. One might wonder who had put them up, and who replaced them, but in that Surebleak was like the Low Port: Someone had taken up the task, for reasons known to themselves, which might or might not have anything to do with the common good.
Halfway down the street, a brighter light flared, and he stepped back against the wall before his laggard brain realized that it was not muzzle-flare, but only the light coming on in the sweet-bake shop.
He sighed and shook his head. This place . . .
The unit commander charged with seeing them to safety had chosen to interpret her orders liberally, the children having quickly become favorites, and the mercs having no opinion of Low Port. Thus, their eventual arrival at Surebleak, deemed a damned sight safer'n where we found you. No offense. Sir. The mercs had seen them generously provisioned, and brought them to the attention of the proper civilian authorities, who took their application and the character reference provided by the unit commander, settled them into transitional housing, and located a 'prenticeship for Jax Ton.
Don Eyr sighed. He was, indeed, grateful to the mercs for their care, which had included putting messages through their internal networks, for Ail Den, Cisco, Fireyn, and Serana.
He closed his eyes, and sipped his tea, deliberately turning his thoughts toward the future.
They would need to find larger quarters within three local months. That was the limit of the local authority's charity, and more generosity than Liad had shown any one of them. He hoped to hear of opportunities, when Jax Ton came to them for his day off.
For now, then, they were well-fixed. Locating a more suitable establishment and employment were high on the list of things to be done. The most urgent item on that list, however, was Elaytha.
Elaytha had been theirs from a babe, pulled from a pile of wreckage that had once been an apartment house; the only survivor of the collapse. She had been odd from the first, and remained odd as she grew. Her mind was good; she could read, and cipher, and follow directions. She could speak—Liaden, Terran, and Trade—though she preferred her own tongue, which she shared with no one else they had ever found. She was sweet-natured, and her ability to mime was nothing short of astonishing.
She also had a tendency to wander, heedless of hour or weather, and was afflicted with odd terrors. Lately, she had achieved a horror of food, and would cower away from a bowl of cereal as if from an assassin.
Perhaps worse, she had since arriving in this place, become convinced that there were…shintai, as it was said in her tongue, which he understood to be akin to ghosts, upon the street, who required her care. The others tried to dismiss it as play, but, if so, it was like no other play in which she had previously indulged.
Ashti suggested that Elaytha was merely framing the strangeness of their new situation in her own terms. For himself, he feared that she was delusional.
Don Eyr left the window to pour himself another cup of tea.
Elaytha needed a Healer, he thought, carefully.
On Liad, that thought would not have been possible. In Low Port, the situation would have been hopeless. The Healers did not administer to the clanless.
He could not have said why he thought the Healers who had come to Surebleak might deal differently, unless it was merely that, Surebleak had dealt them a hand, when Liad had refused even to sell them a deck.
He would ask Jax Ton to also find them information regarding the Healers of Surebleak. He sighed. Perhaps, instead, he ought to send one of the elder children to bear Jax Ton company, and to find the answers to all of Don Eyr's questions . . . .
He carried his tea back to the window. The sky was brightening; the emergency lights a fading reflection. Down the street, the window of the sweet-bake shop blazed like a sun, which brought to mind the fact that he had not fulfilled his promise to the baker. One needed to deal fairly with one's neighbors. Neighbors were important, for those who had neither kin nor clan to shield them.
Ashti would scold him for not going back to bed, but, truly, baking was every bit as restful as sleep. Moreso, now that he slept alone.
Turning away from the windows, he set the tea cup aside, and began to assemble his ingredients.
* * *
The bell rang while she was in the back, and Algaina called over her shoulder.
"Make yourself at home; just gotta get this batch in the oven!"
There was no answer, but Luzeal was prolly more'n half-asleep still, at this hour. Algaina glanced at the clock. It was some early for Luzee, but—sleet, it was early for her, if it come to that. It'd been one of them nights where bad memories come slipping into your sleep, pretending like they was dreams.
Just as good—better—to be baking, than laying flat in the bed staring up the ceiling, and afraid to close your eyes. So, she'd gotten dressed and come downstairs, started the oven up and pulled a recipe out from the old box without looking at it.
Turned out it was a cake she hadn't made but once before, on account it was so fussy. Well, good. Fussy was just what she needed.
She slid the pans in, closed the oven and set the timer.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she stepped out into the shop.
"You're early for the rolls—" she started to tell Luzeal . . .
'Cept it wasn't Luzeal in the shop at this early hour of the day.
Standin' all solemn right in front of the counter was the little girl from yesterday—Elaytha. Her hair'd been combed and braided, and her red coat was buttoned up against the cold. She was holding a covered plate in two ungloved hands, and smiling to beat the sun.
Just behind her was an older girl, with a good knit cap pulled down over her ears, hands tucked into the pockets of her short jacket—no gloves there, either, Algaina was willing to say. Well, that was easy 'nough to fix. She had the kids' old gloves an' mittens that they'd outgrown. Might as well they got some use. If you didn't look out for your neighbors, who'd look out for you?
"You coulda set that down, got yourselfs a cup of something hot," she said now, looking from one to the other of 'em. "That's what make yourself at home means."
She looked pointedly at the younger girl, who opened her wide eyes even wider.
"We will remember," the older girl said, her voice unexpectedly deep. "We are grateful for the information."
"You're welcome," Algaina said, gruffer than she meant to. She cleared her throat. "Either one of you want a cup of something hot?"
She nodded at the hot pot, steam gently rising from its spout.
"Thank you," the older kid said politely, "but not this time. We are to deliver Don Eyr's cookies. They come with this message."
She gave the younger girl a slight nudge with her foot.
"Try it!" that one said, loudly, holding the plate high. "And tell him what you think!"
"That is correct, Elaytha. Well done."
Algaina took the plate and set it in the center of the counter.
"I'm obliged," she said. "I ain't got anything out yet, but if you—"
"Thank you, no," the older girl said, with a small bow. She held out her hand.
"Yes!" said the child, and that quick they were gone, the bell ringing over the closed door.
Algaina shook her head, and lifted the towel from the plate. A warm breath of spice delighted her nose, and she smiled as she picked up one of the dainty little rectangles, and bit into it carefully.
Still warm, and it fair melted in the mouth, soft and sweet, with just a bite of something tangy on the back of the tongue.
She had another bite, analyzing the taste, working out the spices, wondering how he'd gotten it so soft . . .
The bell jangled, jerking her out of her reverie. She opened her eyes as Luzeal stepped into the shop, shaking her head from the cold.
"Mornin’," she said, moving over to the hot pot.
"Mornin'," Algaina answered. She pushed the plate down the counter.
"Try one o' those and tell me what you think."
Luzee picked up a cookie and bit into it, eyebrows rising.
" 'Nother new receipt outta the box?" she asked.
"This," said Algaina, "is what Donnie Wayhouse thinks those cookies I made yesterday oughta be." She took another bite; sighed. "He had a bite o'one of mine, and I asked him to tell me what he thought—and he did think something, but he run outta words. Promised to send a demonstration."
She nodded at the half-cookie still in Luzee hand. "That's his demo, right there."
Luzee took another bite, pure satisfaction on her face.
"I tell you what, Gaina," she said. "You know I don't like to meddle in other people's bidness—" That just wasn't so, but let it go; they all meddled in each other's bidness, that's how the street had stayed more or less peaceful, even in the baddest of the bad ol' days.
"I'm thinking you'd do worse'n go partners with that boy, if he don't got other work. Be good for both of you."
"We're thinking along the same lines," Algaina assured her, picking up another of the dark, soft cookies. "I'll return his plate proper after I close up this afternoon. Can't hurt to ask, can it?"
"Not one bit," said Luzee, and reached for another cookie.
* * *
It was snowing, but only enough to make an old woman wish she'd remembered put on her flap-hat, 'stead of the one that just covered the top of her head.
She knocked on the door of the Wayhouse.
It snowed a little more before the door opened, and she looked down into a pair of bright blue eyes under a shock of bright red hair.
"Yes?" the kid said. "Please say what you want."
Well, that was one way to answer the door, Algaina thought. Right to the point, anyhoot.
"I'd like to see Donnie," she said, and hefted the plate she was carrying covered over with the same cloth. "Wanna return his plate."
L'il Red took a bit to chew that over, then stepped briskly back and raised a hand to wave her in.
She crossed into the tiny hall, and stood to one side so the kid could shut the door and throw a series of bolts.
"This way," was her next instruction, and off the kid went, turning right into the hallway, and Algaina barely able to keep up.
It wasn't a long hall, but they passed four kids, and then a couple, three more on the stairway before the one she was following cut right again, through a swing-door and into a cramped, too-warm kitchen.
There were another two kids at the stove—older kids, Algaina thought, though none of 'em was tall enough to look like anything but a kid to her.
Not even the one standing at the table, working with a spoon in one hand and something else in the other, a plate set before him, and a couple small bowls.
"Donnie, there's a lady," the red-haired mite said, and turned to look up at her. "Here you are, lady."
And was gone.
Donnie looked 'round from his work, eyebrows lifting slightly on seeing her, his face a study in unsmiling politeness.
"Baker Algaina. It is good to see you. Did the cookies please?"
"The cookies more than pleased, which is something I'd like to talk with you about, when you're less busy. In the meanwhile, I brung your plate back, with a little something to say thank you . . . "
She glanced around. There didn't seem to be any room on the work table. There didn't seem to be any room, anywhere. Every surface was full, and there were kids underfoot, and . . .
"Kevan," Donnie murmured, and one of the kids at the stove turned, gave her a frank smile, and slid the plate out of her hands.
"I'll take care of that," he said, and his Terran was good—not 'bleaker, but not sounding half-learned, like Donnie's Terran. "Thanks very much, Miz—?"
"Now, no Miz called for. I'm Algaina from the bake shop down the street, like your brother here says."
Dark eyes flicked to Donnie, back to her.
"Miz Algaina, then. Thank you; we always appreciate something extra with dinner." He turned back to the stove, uncovering the plate, and showing it to his partner there.
Dinner, she thought. They was cooking dinner, with all these pots 'n pans. Dinner for—
"How many kids you got here?" she asked Donnie, before she had a chance to work out if that was the kind of question he was likely to answer.
Turns out, it wasn't.
His eyelids flickered.
"Some few," he said quietly. "If you do not . . . mind, we may talk now." Another quick glance at her before he said over his shoulder.
"Velix, take Miz Algaina's coat and hat to dry. Cal Dir, bring her a cup of tea. Ashti—"
A stool appeared even as her coat and hat were whisked away to hang on a peg near the stove, and steam that smelled like flowers rising from the mug that was put in her hand.
She took a careful sip, just enough to discover that the tea tasted like the steam. Then, she put both hands around the mug, and watched Donnie make another one of . . . whatever it was it was he was making.
Flowers, birds, leaves . . . all somehow fashioned from one scoop of whatever was in the bowls, and him working with a spoon.
He put the latest creation—a fish—on the plate with the others, and she sighed in mingled pleasure and frustration, which caused her host to look straight at her.
"There is a problem? The tea does not please? We have—"
She held up a hand.
"The tea's wonderful, thank you. It's only—I just watched you make that, and I can't figure out how you did it."
He smiled then—she could tell more by the way the corners of his eyes crinkled up than from his mouth curving, and it come to her then that Donnie wasn't as young as she'd taken him, even on second look. In fact, now she was close, she could see there were some few threads of silver mixed in the dark brown hair, and lines worn in 'round his eyes and mouth.
Still might be the older brother, she thought, at least to some of the kids. An' he wasn't gonna tell her nothin' about 'em at all. Well, she thought, taking a sip of tea, why should he? He didn't know anything 'bout her; and the kids had to come first.
'Course they did.
"Once you have made a few dozen, it comes without thought," he was saying. "These are chernubia. Small sweets, to have with mid-morning tea, after the first work of the day is done."
She watched him make two big wings connected at the center; she didn't think it was a bird. Something from his home, prolly. Way she'd heard it, there were a lot of things on his homeworld that never'd quite made it to Surebleak, nor weren't likely to ever arrive.
"I tell you what," she started, and then stopped, turning on her stool to discover the reason for the sudden ruckus out in the hall.
The mob in the kitchen shifted, one kid going out the door with a big bowl held in both hands, calling out what might've been names. She'd scarcely cleared the room when another took her place—older, though younger still than Donnie. This one was wearing a tool-belt and a couple shirts, Surebleak style, heavy over lighter, and a knit cap on his head.
"Jax Ton!" Kevan called from the stove. "I don't think we made enough food!"
"All is well, little brother; I will be satisfied with your dinner, only."
That was greeted with laughter, and a little one came running into the room, arms working, yelling, "Jax Ton! Jax Ton!"
"Kae Nor!" the newcomer called back, and swooped the kid up into his arms, spinning in the tight space like he had the whole street to dance in. The child screamed with laughter; and was still laughing as he was transferred to another pair of arms, to be toted out of the kitchen.
"Jax Ton," Donnie said quietly, and here he was, slipped in close, right between her stool and the table, like it was all the room anybody needed.
"Don Eyr," he said, quietly, and paused, his eye drawn to the plate of fanciful shapes.
"Chernubia in cheese and vegetables?" he asked. "I do not think this is one of your better ideas, brother."
"Elaytha has become afraid of her dinner," Donnie—no, Algaina corrected herself, Don Eyr said levelly.
Jax Ton looked solemn.
"Will this cast work, do you think?"
"It is all that I can think," Don Eyr said, sounding suddenly weary. They'd forgotten she was there, Algaina thought, and sat very still while they talked family around her.
"I am happy you came tonight," Don Eyr continued. "She needs a Healer. Can you find if they will they see her at the hall here?"
"They see Terrans at the hall here," Jax Ton said. "They train Terrans at the hall here. I will take her with me when I go back to work."
"We cannot leave her alone among strangers . . . "
"Which is why Kevan will accompany us. He will bide with her, and I will join them after the boss is done with me. They will neither be bereft."
Don Eyr took a breath, sighed it out.
"If the child needs a Healer, that is where we begin. We do not count cost against need." Jax Ton extended a hand and gripped the other's shoulder. "So you yourself taught us."
Don Eyr half-laughed.
"Did I? A poor influence on soft minds, I fear."
"Never that," said Jax Ton.
He removed his hand, and seemed to see her for the first time.
"My apology," he said. "I—"
"Jax Ton, this is Miz Algaina from the sweet bake shop. Our neighbor."
"Ah!" Jax Ton smiled like he'd been born on Surebleak. "Welcome, neighbor. I am Jax Ton tel'Ofong—or Jack O'Fong, according to my boss."
"Pleasure," Algaina assured him. "You live here, too?"
"I am 'prenticed to Electrician Varn Jilzink, in Boss Torin's territory. It is too far to travel every day, but I come home here for my day off."
"It's good to be with family," she said.
"That is truth," Jax Ton said solemnly, and turned back to his brother, who was holding out a plate full of fanciful shapes.
"Do you think that you might try?"
"Of course, I will try, though it likely means I will have to eat a carrot chernubia myself."
"The carrot chernubia are very good," Don Eyr told him gravely.
"Everything you bake is very good. Where is she?"
"Upstairs. In the tent."
Jax Ton's smile faded somewhat.
"Ah, is she? Well, as I said—I will try. Miz Algaina, I hope we will meet again soon."
He was gone, bearing the plate, and it came to Algaina that the kitchen was empty now, save for herself and Don Eyr. There were still voices to be heard, but down the hall, in another part of the house.
"Well." Don Eyr turned to her. "Now, at last we may address your topic."
"I don't wanna be keeping you from your supper," she said, "so I'll be quick. I'd like it if you made cookies like you sent down to me this morning, an' some of those shernoobias—sweet ones at first, then we'll try and see if the veggies'll sell—"
There was the smile again—easy to see now she knew what to look for.
"I figure the split to be seventy for you, thirty for me. I buy flours and other supplies wholesale, you can buy from me at my cost, if that'll suit. Anything special you need . . . "
She let it run off and waited, taking a sip of her tea, which had gone cold, but was still tasty.
"I will like that," Don Eyr said slowly. "When do you wish the first baking, and how many?"
Algaina smiled, and leaned forward.
"Okay," she said. "Now, here's what I'm thinking . . . "
* * *
Don Eyr had gotten up early, to see Jax Ton and Kevan and Elaytha on their way, with two pails packed with food and chernubia. Elaytha had been so excited to be going with Jax Ton that she scarcely had time to give him a hug. It pained him to let her go, but that was foolish. Jax Ton and Kevan would keep her safe; both knew her moods and her foibles, and Kevan understood—or seemed to—a good deal of the language she had created for her own use.
He hoped the Healers would see her.
He hoped the Healers would effect wonders.
He hoped . . .
In the end, it was good that he had the baking to do; it kept him aside of worry, even as he was reminded of other days—better days—when he was up early to bake for the shop in Low Port, and Serana would slip in, cat-foot, to make tea, and sit on a stool to watch him. The early morning had been their time, when they reaffirmed their bond, and their curious orbit, each around the other.
He had expected her to leave many times over the years.
Serana had a warrior's heart; she had been born a hero, fashioned for feats of valor. Caring for children—for gormless bakers—wasted her.
And yet, she had stayed . . .
. . . until that moment when her skills were at last called for, and she had not hesitated to take the lead.
He took out the first batch of spice bars, and slipped the second into the oven. He had a brief moment of nostalgia for his ovens, then shook his head. What was, was. This oven, this kitchen, was perfectly adequate for the baking of a few batches of sweet things.
At . . . home, he had made loaves, cheese rolls, protein muffins—sweet things—those, too. But it had been the bread that drew customers in, and provided the household income.
He had spoken of bread to Miz Algaina. Her kitchen was also too small to accommodate large baking, nor, she confided, did she have the knack of yeast things.
He had the knack, but his bread-heart was lost in the shambles of Low Port, with his ovens, and the library, and the homey things they had amassed over the years. Algaina had spoken of a larger house at the far end of the street, beyond the gate. It had been part of the former boss's estate. There were ovens, she said, and quarters above that were more spacious than those of the Wayhouse.
They might, so he understood, petition the Council of Bosses Circuit Rider to relocate to this other house. He would have to show that the property would be put to "use and profit," so it was even more important that this venture with Algaina prove successful.
He also understood that the granting of the petition would go easier, if he secured the support of the rest of the neighbors—and here, too, Algaina had offered her aid. All the street came into her shop, and she would talk about the idea. It would also be useful, she said, if he worked the counter a couple hours every day to show the world his face.
This made sense, and was something he could easily accommodate. Without the shop, now that they were settled again, together, he found himself with few duties. The elder children taught and cared for those who were younger, with any disputes brought to Ashti, who now stood as his second. It would be good, to have work, and to meet their new neighbors.
The timer chimed, and he removed the second batch of spice bars from the oven.
While they cooled, he looked in the coldbox where the chernubia prettily adorned their plates. He glanced at the clock and did a quick calculation. Yes, he did have time to make a batch of quick cheese rolls—not real bread, but satisfying enough. Perhaps Algaina's customers—his new neighbors—would find them pleasant.
* * *
Well, that might not've been the best decision she'd ever made in her life, Algaina thought, but it'd sure do for now.
She waved day's done to Don Eyr and Velix, and locked the door behind them. He'd taken to bringing one of the kids with him on-shift, so the neighbors would get to know all of them.
Don Eyr taught her his way with the hermits—spice cookies, according to him—so that baking came back into her shop, while he continued to provide chernubia, and day-rolls. She'd shown him the receipt for flaky pastries, and the sorry result of her efforts. He took it away and brought back a plate of buttery crescents so light she feared they'd float out the door and into the sky.
An' more than his baking improved the shop. He'd brought in two more hot-pots, each with a different kind of tea—one fruity and light, and the other grey and energizing. Her pride was piqued at that, and she ordered in a better grade of coffeetoot, for them that had the preference.
Luzee saw that people wanted to linger over their sweet and their cup, so her and Binni Bodyne went together to get some old tables from down the cellars up into the street, then wheedled a hand o'kids, including one of the Wayhousers, to scrub 'em clean.
Erb Fliar come down to see what all the commotion was about, went back inside his place, an' a half-hour later reappeared, holding a bolt of red-and-white checkerboard cloth.
Well, Pan Jonderitz knew just what to do with that, din't he just? An' while he was doin' that, Luzee organized another hand o'kids to clean the windows and wash the walls, and by the time it was all done . . . din't it just look fine?
Better'n the place lookin' fine, and bidness bein' up, Don Eyr was making a good impression on the neighbors, and the kids were, too.
The best sign she saw, though, was the afternoon she walked to the door to close up for the day, and there was a confusion of kids running 'round the street, armed with snowballs—street kids, Wayhouse kids—all of 'em shouting with laughter.
The only oil on the ice was Roe Yingling.
If he came into the shop while Don Eyr was on counter, he turned on his heel and left. He quizzed her on each roll, cookie, and cupcake to find which'd been made by them and flatly refused to try any of it—even when a sample was offered for free, which was just unheard of.
Worse, he didn't see any reason why they should move into the old catering house. If they needed more space, they could find some other street to live on. Sleet, they oughta buy their own damn place up on a hill somewhere; everybody knew the newbies was rich. Look at the Road Boss, bringing his own damn house with him, on account of nothing on Surebleak was good enough!
Well, fine, they could do what they wanted—somewhere else. Chairman Court hadn't asked for 'em, Chairman Court didn't need 'em, Chairman Court was better off without 'em—and that, by sleet, was exactly what he was gonna tell the council's circuit rider, next time she was by.
Algaina shook her head.
Roe was only one voice, after all, she told herself. There was still the whole rest of the street who liked Don Eyr and his kids just fine. All they had to do was say so.
Everything would be fine.
* * *
The house was noisy when he and Velix entered, having done their shift at Algaina's shop. Not merely noisy, thought Don Eyr, stopping with his hand on the lock, head tipped to one side—jubilant.
He stood, listening, Velix at his side, until one voice rose above all the others Velix was off, running down the hall toward the gather-room, shouting, "Fireyn!"
Hope flared in his breast, so fiercely he could scarcely breathe, yet somehow his feet were moving, not quite Velix's headlong flight, but quickly enough that he was in the room before his heart had settled; sweeping in, gripping an arm, wringing a hand, taking in the familiar faces of his kindred-in-arms, those who guarded the children with him—
"Ail Den," he murmured; "Cisco. Fireyn—"
He stopped, searching faces gone suddenly still. It was Fireyn who gripped his hand, and Ail Den who caught him 'round the shoulders, even as he whispered—
"No," Cisco said, voice rough, his face thinner, worn, and wet. "Old friend, no. We were separated. We searched, we checked; the mercs counted out their wounded, and the dead . . . Serana . . . "
"We lost her," Fireyn finished. “We had hoped . . . she was already with you . . . ”
He took a hard breath, ears roaring; an edge of darkness to his vision. All three of them closed 'round him in a comrade's embrace, while he gasped, trembling, and saw . . .
. . . the bright palace of his hopes crumble beneath the weight of truth. Crumble, flicker, and die.
* * *
"So, that inflatable tent we found in the cellar when we went down to get the tables?" Binder cuddled against her chest, Luzee was talking to the crowd pushed in as tight at they could be, some sitting at tables, some standing 'round the walls.
"Well, that tent was special made for the year-end block party. I got all the information right here!" She raised the binder over her head and shook it like a bell.
"Happens that The Chairman threw a party for all the Grade Six an' belows, at the end of the fiscal year. It was s'posed to increase morale and team-buildin'. I showed this to the Lady and to the Perfessor, and they both said that one of the things that pulls people together is a shared holiday. They was wonderin' if us here on Chairman Court wouldn't like to follow the directions in this Human Relations manual, and throw a block party. The Bosses'll be invited, to see how it works out, and might be next year, Surebleak entire'll have a block party, and . . . "
Algaina went into the back and pulled out a tray of cookies. Spice cookies, they were. She'd made an extra batch for the meetin', which was good, because there wasn't nobody, always exceptin' Roe Yingling, who didn't like the spice cookies.
But it was also a bad thing, because they reminded her of Don Eyr . . . who hadn't been in to the shop for more'n a week, which was bad enough. Worse was the notion that he wasn't baking, neither.
"Don Eyr is . . . ill," Ashti had told her. "He will come again when he is able. In the meanwhile, two of us will come to you every day, to give you rest, as we have been doing. We do not wish to stint a neighbor."
Stint a neighbor? Algaina thought, and—
"How sick is he? Can he bake?"
"He . . . " Ashti had closed her eyes and taken a deep breath. "I regret, not at the moment. None of us has his touch with chernubia or the other small sweets. We may continue to provide rolls; several of us are proficient."
"Rolls, yes; that would be good—people like the cheese rolls. But—I don't want to meddle—should he see a medic? Or I could come and take a look—"
"Our medic has rejoined us," Ashti said. "She is watching Don Eyr very closely."
She'd managed a smile then, shaky, but true.
"He is dear to all of us, as to you. We will not lose him."
* * *
He ought to stand, he thought, for the dozen dozenth time that day. He ought to leave this room, and be sure that all, and everyone, was well. The children needed—but no.
Ail Den, and Cisco, and Fireyn were home. The children had no further need of him. He was free to leave, to strike out again alone, as he had wished so often to do, when they had first come into Low Port, on a day-job.
Day-job. What use was he on a day-job? But, there, his delm had called him home, the least of the clan's children, to fulfill a debt owed to Clan Abra. The terms of settlement required an agent of Clan Serat to hold himself ready at all times to fulfill those tasks Abra required of him.
Serana had come with him; his bodyguard, as she explained herself, which Abra found to be a very fine joke, and so it had been the two of them, sent down to clear a newly-inherited parcel in the Low Port.
Clear it of debris.
They had not understood the nature of the debris until they arrived at the corner they were to clear.
Eight children and one barely past halfling; their leader, who had promised them safety, and, judging by his grip on the piece of pipe he had chosen for a weapon, was prepared to die for his word.
Together, the three of them cleared the area. He and Serana, they had thought they would establish the children safely, give their protector advice, and such small funds as they held between them—a few days spent, only that.
They had been fools.
Over time, they had gathered to themselves, to their service, other fools, and so the children were kept safe.
Serana had died, to ensure their safety, and he—
He heard the door open; raised his head, and took a breath. It was Ashti, perhaps, come to tempt his appetite, or—
"Donnee?" came a high, sweet voice, followed by Elaytha herself, unruly hair braided; cheeks plump; eyes wide and bright.
"Ah, shintai. Donnee zabastra kai."
"Elaytha," he murmured. "Welcome home, child."
"Welcome home," she repeated in a tired, flat voice, and climbed into his lap, putting her arms around his neck, and leaning her forehead against his.
"Donnee is filled with light," she said, in a voice he did not recognize. "Shintai goventa."
* * *
Jax Ton was in the kitchen, eating soup. Velix, at the stove, immediately filled another bowl, brought it to the table with a mug of tea, and slipped away, leaving them alone.
"Ail Den told me," Jax Ton said softly, rising. "Al'bresh venat'i, brother."
They embraced, cheek to damp cheek.
"The child is a Healer?" Don Eyr asked, when they sat again to the soup.
"The child will be a Healer," Jax Ton corrected him. "She shows some early ability, which, while unusual, is no cause for alarm. She has received instruction in controlling her gift, and also in its best use."
He cocked his head.
"I would say that, so far, her training has been adequate."
"Indeed. However—trained in best use, young as she is?"
"As I understand it, once a gift has manifested, it cannot be denied. So, yes. As young as she is."
He spooned soup; looked up.
"The Healers will want her back with them for a full evaluation and training on her twelfth name day. In the meanwhile, they have Healed her of most, if not all, of her terrors. My challenge lately has been to feed her enough."
Don Eyr smiled.
"They did not Heal her of talking nonsense."
Jax Ton moved his shoulders.
"It is, according to the Healers, not an affliction; it causes her no distress; and creates no impediments for her in daily life."
"Ah," said Don Eyr, and pushed his empty bowl aside.
"What other news do you bring me?"
"Boss Jilzink's associate has taken Kevan to 'prentice. He will learn the art of resource reclamation from Esser Kane, who has several teams working for him, and sees in Kevan a future leader of a new team. Master Kane is well and favorably known to the Employment Office. Kevan will tell you all, when he comes home on his day off."
"Soon, we will be scattered all over Surebleak," Don Eyr said, not without dismay.
"Children grow up," Jax Ton said, and reached to catch his shoulder in an affectionate embrace. "This is what you set yourself to do, brother, and I will tell you that there is not a morning that I wake in which I do not thank the gods, should they exist, that it was you and Serana who came that day. I had promised to keep them safe, but you—you kept my honor for me."
"You do me too much—"
"That is not possible," Jax Ton said firmly, letting him go.
"I have one more piece of news, which may not be so delightful as I had hoped, as Ashti informs me that you have given over baking."
Don Eyr looked at him.
"Perhaps I shall begin again, if the news is of interest."
"Well, then, I bring it forward at once! There is a baker in Boss Conrad's territory, with an established shop, who is interested in adding Liaden delicacies to her offerings. I may have shared one or two of your chernubia with her. If you would be willing to provide these to her, nonexclusively, she will pay you a percentage of the profit, and will seal the contract with a portion of her mother-of-bread.”
* * *
The block party hadn't been much of a 'spense to The Chairman, Algaina thought grumpily. Management provided the tent, and some prizes, and—all right, bought the beer and the desserts. Most everything else, though, was made and brought by the guests. Eating each other's food and trading receipts was s'posed to be good for morale and team-building.
There were games set out in Luzeal's binder, and a timeline of how things were s'posed to go. F'rinstance, there was a space o'time put aside where everybody said what their best accomplishment had been in the last year. An' another space o'time when the year's just-borns were called by name.
An' a space o'time right at the beginning of the party where everybody stood in a circle, and said outloud the names of those who'd died during the year.
Algaina'd made a batch of almost everything in grandpa's receipt book, and had the neighbor kids moving them out of the shop the second the tables went up inside the tent. For drinks, Erb Fliar'd promised to put out tea, 'toot, juice, an' beer—light beer, he'd added. No sense anybody getting stupid.
Algaina was pulling on her bright green sweater, which was too good to wear in the bake shop, when the bell over the door rang.
She turned around, and there was Ashti, and Elaytha, and Jax Ton, and Velix, all carrying a tray of chernubia, each one looking different.
She looked at Jax Ton.
"Better, yes." Jax Ton smiled and nodded at Elaytha. "He said to tell you that the chernubia on that tray are made from carrot, and kale, and cheese."
She laughed, in equal parts relief and fun.
"Well, that's just fine. You come with me and we'll get them set up in the tent." She looked at each of them, sharply, in turn.
"You're all comin' to the party, now?"
"Yes," Ashti said. "All of us are coming to the party. We are sent ahead with the trays."
"Good," said Algaina, and added, believing it for the first time since Luzeal had decided on having a block party; "it's gonna be fun."
* * *
Don Eyr closed the sack, and crossed the kitchen for his coat. The others had gone ahead, leaving him to pack his contribution to the shared meal alone.
His offering—his personal offering—to the goodwill of their neighbors was bread—a small loaf for each. He had also made a loaf—one loaf only—of Serana's favorite: a crusty, chewy round, with a dense, nutty crumb.
Coat on, he shouldered the sack and left the wayhouse. It was snowing, densely, diffusing the tent's glow into an iridescent fog.
The street was filled with the sound of voices, and laughter, and for a moment, he stood, frozen in the snow, every nerve in his body marking Serana's absence.
A deep breath; a memory of the light Elaytha had given him. Serana was here, because he was here; her memory, as her life, a benediction.
Centered, he walked the short distance down the street, then out of the snow, into the bright warmth of the tent.
"I ain't sitting here with them!"
Roe Yingling's voice soared over the pleased chatter of those gathered.
"They invaded our planet! They took our jobs! They ain't really people! Sure, they want a party, let 'em have their own party, and let us real 'bleakers alone!"
Carefully, Don Eyr put the sack and on the table by the door, and moved across the room, toward the man confronting Jax Ton, with Ail Den and Cisco flanking him, and the others spread behind.
"Roe," that was Luzeal, moving between the angry man and the children. "These are our neighbors. They don't stint the street, an' nor do you, nor anybody here! We're neighbors, we depend on each other."
The man threw his hand out, pointing at Elaytha, who had stepped out from behind Jax Ton.
"It ain't bad enough that they don't belong here, but they're broken, too! That one can't even talk!"
That brought a hush, shortly broken by a quiet voice.
"I can talk," Elaytha told him, evading Jax Ton's hand, and walking forward until she stood before the man in all his anger. She glanced at Don Eyr as he arrived, near enough to kick the man's legs out from under him, if he dared try to—
Elaytha smiled and looked up at Roe Yingling.
"You can be more happy," she said. "You don’t need to be angry. You don’t need to always want to be mad."
"Why you—" Roe Yingling began—and stopped, a perplexed look on his face.
“What do you know about what I want?" he said, at a somewhat lesser volume. "Newbie can’t know what I want. Strangers can’t . . . How can I tell you what I want?”
“Don’t you want to be more happy? You came to the party to be more happy. Have a chernubia, or a cookie. What do you want? Which?”
The crowd closed, listening. Elaytha leaned toward him, hands in a gentle gesture of request, eyes locked on his.
“What I want is . . . ”
It seemed to Don Eyr as if he swayed.
A woman came out of the crowd, glanced at Elaytha, and took the man's hand.
"I'm sorry, missy," she began; "he's a good man, but sometimes he don't think before—"
“What I want is,” he tried again, his face losing tension, “is a reason to be happy. Can you understand that?”
Ashti stepped around Jax Ton, bearing a tray of chernubia. She paused at Elaytha's side.
"A reason, yes," Elaytha said. "Please, take a sweet. Be happy with the day. Be happy with your neighbors. You will feel better—"
Don Eyr, felt that last strike hard against his chest; the child was performing a healing, here and now? He held his breath as she plucked a flower from the tray, and offered it to the man on upraised palm.
“This is very good, made by my brother. Please, take it. Be pleased with it. Do not be mad at everything, and you will not hurt so much! Look, we have a party. The neighbors have a party. Better is now. For your friends, be happy.”
He stared down into her face, then, like a man in a dream, he took the chernubia from her hand, and ate it. A long sigh escaped him; there was no other sound in the room.
"Roe?" his wife asked, putting her hand on his arm. She looked down at Elaytha, eyes wide, and Don Eyr tensed, even as Luzeal stepped up, taking each by an elbow, and turning them toward a table at the side of the room, where two children were watching, eyes wide.
"She's right, Marie," Roe Yingling said suddenly. He stopped and looked around the tent as if he had just woken to the realization of the gathering.
"She's right," he said, more loudly. "I don't hurt . . . "
"Well, who could hurt," Luzeal said practically, "with one of them good sweet things inside you? Now, you just come on over here and have a sit-down, Roe Yingling . . . "
In the back corner of the tent, someone said something, and someone else laughed. Don Eyr felt a small hand slide into his, and looked down into Elaytha's smile.
"Will that last?" he asked her.
She frowned slightly.
"Maybe?" she said, and moved her shoulders. "Kai zabastra, kai?"
A sound, then, of quiet engines, and someone near the entrance called out that the Bosses were here.
Most people moved further into the tent, finding chairs and tables. Luzeal and Algaina were heading for the entrance—the hosts, Don Eyr understood, coming to greet the Bosses.
He stepped back to let them pass, and Algaina reached out to catch his free hand.
"You, too!" she said; so he and Elaytha joined the reception line, just as a dark haired man—Boss Conrad himself, he heard someone whisper, loudly—stepped into the tent, shaking the snow from his hat. He paused, turning back to the entrance, one hand extended to the woman who followed, leaning heavily on a crutch, snow dusting her cropped red hair like sugar.
She paused, just short of the Boss's hand, and threw out the arm unencumbered by the crutch, but Don Eyr was already moving.
He caught her in an embrace perhaps too fierce. She was thin, so thin, and the crutch . . .
"I said I would come back to you," she whispered roughly into his ear.
"Even a cat comes to her last life," he answered. "Cisco, Fireyn, Ail Den—they lost you in the fighting; the mercs had no records."
"All true. But not dead. Quite."
"I'm a fool," he answered, and, even softer, "What happened?"
"I will tell you everything, my small. But, for tonight—you must introduce me to our neighbors."
Copyright © 2017 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Maine-based writers Sharon Lee and Steve Miller teamed up in the late 1980s to bring the world the story of Kinzel, an inept wizard with a love of cats, a thirst for justice, and a staff of true power. Since then, the husband-and-wife have written dozens of short stories and twenty novels, most set in their star-spanning Liaden Universe®. Before settling down to the serene and stable life of a science fiction and fantasy writer, Steve was a traveling poet, a rock-band reviewer, reporter, and editor of a string of community newspapers. Sharon, less adventurous, has been an advertising copywriter, copy editor on night-side news at a small city newspaper, reporter, photographer, and book reviewer. Both credit their newspaper experiences with teaching them the finer points of collaboration. Sharon and Steve passionately believe that reading fiction ought to be fun, and that stories are entertainment. Steve and Sharon maintain a web presence at http://korval.com/.