There'd been a lot of shouting at that meeting -- well, there always was shouting at the meetings Farnch took 'him to. Wasn't no use saying he didn't wanna go, on account the shouting hurt his head -- Farnch just called him an auntie, and shoved him into the nearest wall. Then Jewl would yell, and punch Farnch, too, if he wasn't faster'n her fist, which wasn't nobody faster'n Jewl's fist -- and Farnch'd get mad, but even Farnch knew better'n to swing on Jewl, so he'd just get madder'n madder, 'til Darby's head was like to bust with it, and either Farnch'd go out with his crew, or Darby'd go up to the garden 'til either he could hear himself think, or the tips of his ears started to burn in the cold, or Jewl sent one of the twins up to bring him back inside.
Jewl'd been feelin' bad these last couple days, and he'd just managed to get her to sleep when Farnch'd come home, growling about how there was a meeting and it was up to him and Darby help take Surebleak back. . .and all the other kind o'nonsense Farnch was on about lately, him having a grudge against the New Bosses. Farnch, he'd been ambitious, under the Old Bosses. He'd been working all the angles there was, and some that, in Darby's personal opinion, didn't really exist, looking to get onto Boss Goyan's staff. Farnch's big plan was to work his way up to insurance man.
He'd've prolly made, too, Farnch being just that mean, but then what should happen but Boss Conrad come to Surebleak, just particularly to ruin Farnch's life. Least, that's the way Farnch felt about it, and there wasn't any way at all that Darby could change what his brother felt about having his life-plan ruined.
So, for the sake of Jewl's rest, and his own fragile head, Darby'd come along quiet to the meeting, and sat through the yelling and the hating, and the wanting to do something-or-someone a lot of hurt and harm.
That last, that was the worst. He could mostly ignore the yelling and the hating. . .well, that wasn't so bad when there were lots of folks. The feeling got. . .spread out, somehow. Hate was a lot harder to deal with, when it was concentrated in one person.
The bloodlust, though, that got scarier'n a sleet-storm, real fast. Killing rage multiplied in a crowd, until it overwhelmed every sane thought in the room.
Hadn't been so bad tonight; tonight being a planning meeting. There was gonna be a shooting competition at Sherman's, and all the New Bosses were gonna be there with their 'hands. The Streeters for Taking Back Surebleak committee -- that was what Farnch's friends called themselves, though Darby didn't see that Surebleak'd gone anywhere. Sure, there was the new people come in -- Liadens and suchlike -- but Surebleak was still right there under the boots where it'd always been, far's Darby knew about it. . .
Anyhow, the Streeters for Surebleak, they was thinking maybe to disrupt that shoot, and show the New Bosses a thing or three, and put the fear of winter into 'em.
So that was the meeting, and he'd lasted 'til it was over, pretty well pleased to've come out in good order, with only the tiniest headache, and his ears ringing with the shouting.
"Darb, we're going on down to Rogin's and talk about this some more. You coming?"
No, no. He knew 'way better'n drinkin' with Farnch and his friends and talking some more about real 'bleakers and how the foreigners had taken every good thing that'd ever been in everybody's hand, like they'd forgotten the way it had been, with the Old Bosses.
Like they'd liked the way it'd been, under the Old Bosses.
Well, and that was just it. The way he'd understood it, the couple times he couldn't think of an excuse not to go with Farnch's crew, was they had liked the old ways better. They were strong, and liked violence, too -- that was the difference between them and Darby. He could hold his own in a fight -- wouldn't lived long on the streets after their Dad died, if he hadn't learned that. Wasn't as fast as Jewl, nor not as big as Farnch, but he was quick, and he knew where to hit.
Didn't like to fight, that was all. 'specially didn't like to fight when there wasn't anything to fight about.
Farnch, though -- was waiting for an answer, and Darby was walking the thin line of making him look bad in front of his crew.
"Can't tonight," he said, managing to sound like he felt sad about that. "Gotta check on Jewl; see if she's any better."
"Right," said Farnch, who'd been pretty put out with having to make his supper outta twin-made soup and handwich. "Tell 'er I expect to see her fresh as a new fall tomorra."
Jewl wasn't likely to be up tomorrow, but there wasn't any use telling Farnch that. Always worked out better with Farnch, if he just discovered things when they happened, 'stead of giving him to time to work up a mad.
"I'll tell her," Darby said, and nodded to his brother's crew before he headed on down the street.
"Brother ain't real keen?" he heard Vesti ask. It'd be Vesti. Always making trouble, that girl.
"He's in," Farnch said, his voice getting thinner as the crew headed off in the opposite direction. "No doubt there. M'sister's been sick, is all, and he worries over her like she was our Ma."
In point of actual fact, Darby didn't remember their Ma all that sharp; she'd already been sick when he'd come along. Jewl'd been there from the first; Jewl'd had the raising of him, Jewl and Dad, 'til Dad got made a zample. Jewl'd got pregnant right after -- 'nother kind of zample-making, which was something he wasn't s'posed to know, and Jewl didn't never talk about. That got 'em the twins, and Jewl'd been first-minded to toss 'em into the snow. He worked with her on that, just putting weight and warm on what Gran Delaros said when she come to check in, which she'd done three, five times a day, at first, when Jewl wouldn't get up, and turned her face into the pillow when the twins was brought to suck. It took some time, it took some work, but the talk about snowbanks melted away, and she'd cuddle 'em a little when they sucked, and started in to play with them, and to pick 'em up, instead of leaving that to Darby or to Gran -- Farnch, he'd been out with his crew, mostly, 'round then, him needing to stablish his space on the sidewalk. . .
"Alien! I'm gonna stomp you inta paste you little --"
The voice was loud, and slurred, coming from the street on Darby's left. There was the sound of meat hitting meat, and a soft cry, then another yell -- and Darby was running, not away from the fight, which woulda been sensible, but toward it.
Darby recognized the big guy -- Pablo Gerstein, who'd been Boss Goyan's insurance man -- the guy Farnch'd planned to throw outta his job. Now Goyan'd gotten retired, Pablo, he'd kinda retired, too, bullying the local bartenders into giving him drinks, and staying just a little drunk, and a lot belligerent, all the time.
Nowadays, he got his money by beating up 'streeters less able with their fists, or less willing to give -- or take -- damage, than he was.
Tonight, he had his mark pushed up into a corner -- Darby had a fast glimpse of a short, slender figure, ducking not quite out of the way of Pablo's fist, and then he was on it, grabbing the big man by the elbow, and spinning him around with a yell.
"You bastid!" Pablo shouted. "Better get the sleet outta here, or I'll --"
Darby swung, taking advantage of the big man's chancy balance, to land a good one on his jaw.
That sent him staggering, but punches weren't the way to take Pablo down. Even a hard strike to the skull didn't always do the trick; years of drinking had given him a head as hard as a paving stone.
The big man'd already recovered, and was coming in swinging with his ham fists. Darby ducked inside the other's reach, got a good chest punch in, and turned his head to yell at the mark, who was still standing in that corner.
Well, that was a mistake. Pablo's fist came outta nowhere, and the next thing Darby was seeing was snowflakes, in real pretty colors, and feeling the wall against his back.
Pablo was so mad, he didn't have any more words; he was still fighting, though -- roaring and all his attention on Darby.
Desperately, Darby pushed himself away from the wall -- and there was a flash of motion between him and Pablo, a short, slight figure that seemed to skate over the surface of the street, hand striking high, foot striking low. Darby heard something go crunch, Pablo screamed and -- fell over.
"Sleet and thunder!" Darby yelled. He dashed forward, grabbed the little guy by the arm and dragged him in his wake.
"C'mon! Run while he's down!"
Half a block away, Darby felt the little guy kind of stagger under his hand, and caught a spike of pain. He slowed, shifting his grip to give the boy some support under the elbow.
"Hey," he said, breathless, "you OK?"
The street was dark, but there was a little spill from the sign over Greenlie's Dry Goods, enough to see a thin face behind a long snarl of reddish brown hair, bruises already rising along a high, fragile cheek. Dark eyes looked at him straightly, brows pulled against that little burn of pain.
"You OK?" Darby asked again. "My place is just another block down. Can you walk that far? I don't think Pablo's gonna be chasing after us. That knee must hurt where you kicked him."
"Indeed," the voice was light, and somewhat unsteady. "If I remembered my. . .lessons, that knee. . .cap is crushed. Pablo will require a physician."
Something flickered over his face -- another sort of pain, Darby caught -- and that fast, it was gone.
"I am Kez Rel ter'Ista Clan Wilkin," he said. "I thank you for your. . .timely assistance." He paused, and Darby felt the shiver go through him. "What is your name, sir?"
"Darby Bajek, and I ain't a sir. Just Darby's good. You OK to walk down to my place?"
"There is no need for you to trouble yourself further. I will continue to my lodgings."
Darby eyed him, seeing the wobble in the knees, and feeling the flicker of pain, and something else, around the pain. He wanted a closer look at that, but first things first. The boy needed to sit down and collect himself, else he was gonna fall over onto his pointy little nose.
"'less your lodging's right next door here, you're better coming with me. Get you cleaned up, something to settle you -- my nephew made a big pot o'soup for our supper. Sure was good, and I'm betting there's still a cup left for you. While you're having that, we'll get you a taxi to the lodging."
Darby paused, considering. He didn't get the feeling that Kestrel Terista was afraid; sensibly wary maybe covered it. Still, couldn't hurt to say it out, plain.
"Won't hurt you."
He heard the sharp intake of breath, saw the eyes widen, maybe in insult -- and then a wry smile.
"Thank you. . .Darby. I will come with you, and call a taxi."
"That's the ticket. Just right this way."
He thought about offering an arm to lean on, remembered that half-gasp of insult and bit his tongue. He did set a slow pace, though, down the street, toward home.
Ean opened up a crack, took in Kestrel Terista with one wide blue stare, and stepped back to fling the door open.
"Farnch?" he asked, when they were inside, and he had pushed the door to, but not locked it, yet.
"Down Rogin's with the crew," Darby told him. "This is Kestrel Terista, E. He got on Pablo's bad side. Kestrel, this is my nephew, Ean, E for short. He'll show you where to get cleaned up."
There was a weighted silence from his side, and he turned to look at his guest. The right side of his face was swollen and starting to go purple; his eye just a dark slit. The left side showed smooth, gold-colored skin, and a well-opened dark brown eye, just at the moment staring right at him.
Darby concentrated, and caught something like humor and aggravation twisted around together, 'til it was hard to feel one from t'other.
"If I done something wrong, you're gonna hafta tell me what it was so I can make it right," he said. "Only thing I can say is, I don't mean to offend. We're maybe not quite what you're used to, here."
Humor bloomed, and the thin mouth curved slightly upward.
"That is very true -- for both of us, I think. Thank you for your care, Darby. I am pleased to meet your nephew." He inclined his head, carefully, as Darby read it, in E's direction.
"Was it you who made the supper-soup?"
"Nah, that was Peor. I made the handwiches." Ean cocked his head to one side. "We got some o'both left over, if you need something to eat, after you wash your face."
"Thank you. A cup of soup would be. . .welcome."
"'k, then. C'mon this way, so you can wash up. . ." E led Kestrel down the hall toward the lav.
Peor came in from the kitchen side, looking worried.
"How's Jewl?" Darby asked.
Peor's worry was like a snowfog, clammy and chill.
"She was cold, and wanted another blanket," he said. "I brought her the one off our bed, but she was still cold, so I got your blanket, too, and our winter coats." He took a breath.
"We tried to get her to eat some soup, but she didn't want it. E got 'er to drink some warm water, and then she said her head hurt. I sat with 'er while E did his book work. He came to switch out with me when she was just back asleep. We looked in a couple times, but she was still sleeping."
Darby shivered; felt Peor's worry spike.
"You did good," Darby said, and smiled. "I'll go check on her now. You hear we got a visitor?"
Peor nodded. "We still got plenty dinner, like E said. Darb?"
"Is Kestrel Liaden?"
"Pretty sure so, why?"
"Maybe better get him outta here 'fore Farnch comes home?"
Before Farnch came home after a full night drinking with his friends, and telling over all the wrongs that Liadens had put onto them.
"Yeah. Whyn't you zip down to Miz Prestoro's and call for a taxi? Oughta be here by the time he finishes his soup."
"All right," Peor said. And, "Is Ma gonna be all right, Darb? She was. . .she was crying, that's how cold she was."
Jewl never cried. Never. Not even the night she come home beat up and bleeding and all her nails and a couple fingers broke.
Darby controlled his own shiver, and gave Peor a nod.
"I'll go in and check on her. You two take care of Kestrel."
Peor nodded, and turned toward the door.
Darby went down the hall, to his sister's room.
He eased the door open, so's not to wake her, if she was still sleeping. The room lamp was on in the corner, with a towel thrown over it to dim the glare and to ease Jewl's aching head.
He didn't see her, at first, just the pile of blankets and winter coats in the center of the bed. Then he saw a movement, as his eyes adjusted -- a tiny constant movement of that mountain of cloth.
He crossed the room and knelt by her bed, reaching beneath the blankets to find her, the while feeling. . .feeling. . .
. . .absent, cold, so cold, and all his thought was focused on how to get her warm, if this wasn't enough.
His questing hand found hers, like ice.
A sound -- a whimper -- and he'd've never in his whole life heard Jewl make any such sound.
Carefully, he peeled back the edge of the blankets until he found her face, flushed, and damp, and when he put his hand across her forehead, burning hot.
There was a fever going 'round; Mister Warchiski, who worked at the clinic, he'd told him about it, two, three weeks ago.
"Summer flu," Mister Warchiski'd said, and added, like an afterthought, "nasty one."
Darby stroked Jewl's hair back from her face; it was soaked, like she'd just come outta the shower.
He needed help, he thought carefully, Jewl needed help. Clinic -- but he didn't want to move her, sick as she was and maybe infectious, too. Call, then. Maybe the clinic had a travelling doctor.
Darby got to his feet, pulled the covers back over his sister, and left her, moving fast. Kitchen first, where Kestrel sat at their table, clean and neat, his hair combed and braided, and tied off with a piece of twine. There was still that little hot-spot of pain, wound around with whatever it was, but Darby didn't have time for that now.
"Kestrel, you gotta go," he said, which was maybe too abrupt, but there was Jewl back there in bed, freezing and burning at the same time.
Kestrel raised his head, and gave him a sharp look out of his one open eye.
"Immediately?" he asked.
"Yeah. I'm sorry. Maybe Miz Prestoro'll let you wait for the taxi at her place. Peor went down to call it, so shouldn't be long. But you gotta go now. I'm real sorry, but my sister's sick, worse'n I thought."
Kestrel put the cup down, and rose from the table.
"Take me to her," he said, briskly.
Darby shook his head.
"Not smart. She's gotta a fever; prolly contagious."
"Yes, that's very possible. However, I may be able to help."
Darby blinked at him, seeing E sitting stiff at the table, his face white and his eyes wide.
"Help? How can you help?"
Kestrel was seen to sigh.
"I am a physician," he said, and stepped around the table, reaching out to pick up his jacket as he came. "Please. Take me to your sister."
Kestrel had taken an instrument case from inside his jacket, and opened it on the table next to Jewl's bed. He took a long moment to examine each object, his tension palpable, but not overstrong. Likewise, his relief upon finding his instruments undamaged was perfectly clear, without being overwhelming.
"Please, if you will pull the blankets back?" Kestrel said. "I would not wish to distress her with a stranger's touch, when she has kin by her."
Darby came to the opposite side of the bed, and eased the covers back, until he'd uncovered her to the waist. Her face was white, with fire-red splotches high on her cheekbones; her hair was a soggy snarl across the pillow.
"Enough," murmured Kestrel. "Hold her hand, and sit, so she will see you, if she should wake."
Darby sat on the bed and took his sister's hand, twining their fingers together as he felt for her -- but all he got was a sort of vast weariness.
"I don't think she'll wake up," he told Kestrel. "She's just. . .really tired."
"Thank you. Please tell me if that state alters. I will now take her measurements -- blood pressure, temperature, respiration."
Ean and Peor were watching from the door, so tense that he Darby felt he might start crying himself. He tried not to pay attention; focusing his concentration on Jewl.
Concentration and calm -- that was what spilled from Kestrel, like a cool, bracing breeze. Darby breathed in some of that cool competence, and felt it settle his nerves, while the examination proceeded.
"How does she fare? Does she wake?"
"No. . .'bout the same. Just. . .too tired even to dream."
Kestrel sighed, and turned back to his case.
"As you know, she -- what is her name, your sister?"
"Jewl," he repeated, like he was tasting the sound. "Jewl has a high fever; her blood pressure is elevated; her white blood count is elevated. These things indicate that she is fighting an infection."
"The summer flu," Darby said.
"That is how they name it at the clinic, yes. Now, I have something -- a small injection -- that will bring the fever to a less dangerous level. She will rest easier. I would not disturb her tonight. Tomorrow, she must be taken to the clinic, so that she may be more thoroughly diagnosed and treated. Call, and they will send the clinic taxi, so that the opportunity for infecting others is lessened. Do you understand this? I wish to be clear."
"Understood," Darby said.
"Good. I will administer the injection." He did that, and returned the injector and the rest of his instruments to the case.
"Someone ought to stay with her," he said, slowly. "If she wakes and asks for food, she may take some of Peor's good soup. Tea, or water -- warm, or tepid, not cold." He sighed again, and seemed to sag where he stood. Darby felt a wave of pain-laced weariness flow from him, and, unthinking, reached out to ease the pain, and instill a little burst of energy.
Kestrel looked up, lips parted, as if he were going to say something.
But whatever he was about to say was cut off by the sound of the door opening, and a heavy, uncertain tread in the main room.
"Hey!" Farnch called, voice slurred. "Where's everybody?"
Peor and Ean ran out, meaning, so Darby felt, to turn Farncher toward the kitchen.
"Put on your jacket," Darby said to Kestrel, as he got up from Jewl's bed, and pulled the covers back up to cover her shoulders. "Stay behind me. Sounds like my brother had one beer too many. Gets feisty. I'll take you down to Miz Prestoro's. Taxi oughta been here by now."
"Sleet, no, I don' wanany o'that slop. I want real food. Where's Jewl? In bed already? Get 'er up and tell 'er I gotta have something to eat."
"Ma's sick," Peor said, voice shrill with worry. "She's gotta sleep."
"Sick, is it? She can go back to bed after she gets me something to eat."
It wasn't cool competence Kestrel was feeling now; it was outright alarm, though not, as Darby parsed it for himself. He was worried for his patient.
Darby wanted to tell him that they'd settle Farnch, and keep him away from Jewl, but there was the main room coming up, and the door, and Farnch just to one side of it, listing a little as he yelled at Peor.
Darby took a breath, and walked firmly toward the door.
Farnch spun, staggered, caught sight of Kestrel, and froze.
"Liaden," he said, flat-voiced and suddenly sounding stone sober.
Darby stopped, keeping his body between Kestrel and his brother.
"Liaden," Farnch said again, and lurched one step forward, roaring fit to wake all the neighbors.
"You cow-eyed auntie! Screwing a sleet-scarred Liaden in my own house? Or, no, wait -- it's Jewl, ain't it? Sleeping, is it? I'll damn well make sure she's sleeping!"
He lunged, and Darby felt his brother's intent to strike out, at him, at Kestrel, and Jewl -- and that intention of his brother's, it. . .set fire to something inside him. He didn't know what it was, and he sure didn't know what to do with it. . .
. . .except to strike out, and strike down, and stop Farnch right now!
Fire seared through him. He saw his brother stagger, and crumble to his knees, before his own sight went grey, then black, and he hit the floor hard.
A sharp smell filled his head, and he sat up, choking, his eyes running with tears.
"See, there," Kestrel said, to the twins, who were leaning over his shoulders, where he knelt there on the floor at Darby's side. "He is well, your Uncle Darby. He may have a headache. I understand that this is sometimes a result of such strikes, but he will do very well."
Darby sat up, looking into Kestrel's one good eye, but reading nothing there. The cool flow of calmness was back, wonderfully bracing.
"Farnch?" he said, his voice hoarse, and his head still filled with the stinging scent.
"Most soundly asleep," Kestrel said promptly. "I detected no harm done. I would suggest that he be left where he is until he wakes."
He used his chin to point to the left. Darby looked, and there was Farnch, stretched out full length on his back, snoring away.
He looked back to the twins.
"Getcher Uncle Fancher a blanket, right?"
"Right," E said, and ran down the hall to Fancher's room, and the only bed in the house that hadn't given its blankets to Jewl.
Kestrel sat back on his heels, and stowed the little vial inside his jacket.
"I would like to talk with you," Kestrel said, "when we have both rested and recovered." He had a card between his fingers; and held it out. Darby took it, gingerly, never taking his eyes from Kestrel's tired, bruised face.
"Call me, please, and let us meet for tea and -- and chernubia --" a wry smile. "See how I am tired? I lose my Terran. I mean. . .dessert. Will you do this?"
"Yes," Darby said. "I'll do that."
"Good." Kestrel stood, and leaned down, offering a wiry hand.
Darby took it and climbed inelegantly to his feet.
"You should find your bed," Kestrel said. "My friend Peor has offered his escort to Ms Prestoro."
"All right," Darby said. He felt slow, and stupid, and out on his feet. "Good-night."
"Good-night," Kestrel said, and followed Peor out the door.
Darby stood there, feeling blank, until E came back with a blanket and threw it over Farnch.
"You better hit the bed," he said, looking at Darby critically. "Peor an' me'll watch Ma."
"If she looks like getting worse, you call me," he said.
"Deal," said Ean, and Darby nodded again, and walked unsteadily down the hall to his bed.
* * *
Ander's Sweet Shop was just a block away from the clinic, and in the not-so-far-away past he'd've had to pay a toll to get across that street, if the tollkeepers let him through at all, which wasn't all that certain a thing, Boss Goyan and Boss Rinehart not bein' what you'd call best friends.
Today, it was just zackly as easy as crossing the empty street -- empty 'cause almost everybody'd gone to the big shootout at Sherman's -- and walking down to the door under the bright yellow awning.
Darby walked slow, trying to get himself in order, though why he should be in disorder was a puzzle all its own. He wanted to see Kestrel again -- it'd been seven days since the night they'd met. Jewl was up again, good as ever she had been. Good enough to fight with Farnch about sending the twins to the new consolidated school.
That was an argument came 'round every time it snowed, seemed like, and Farnch wouldn't allow it, him being head of the family. This time, though, Jewl'd said that she'd found rooms to let, affordable, nearer to her work and to the school, and she figured Farnch'd do just fine as the head of a household of one.
Jewl was good enough with her figures that Darby figured she meant him to go with her, which. . .wasn't as warming as it might've been on another day.
Funny thing about that argument had been -- Jewl'd won. Farnch'd got to the point where usually he punched the wall, or threw something or -- and it was like the mad went right outta him, and he just shrugged and said if she wanted to get her brats mixed up with the New Bosses, it was all on her, whatever happened.
Why he was thinking about that now, he didn't know, 'cept prolly Kestrel would want to know how his patient was. He figured that was it, and he took a good hard breath, before he pushed open the door, and stepped into the sweet shop.
Smells hit him first -- chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla -- and he paused for a second, just to let his nose get its fill. Then, he looked around the room. There ahead of him was the counter, all sorts of good things on display. To his left, there were a couple of tables, and a short, slim man with a brown jacket over a winter-weight blue sweater, was standing up from a table for three, while a dark-haired woman remained seated, watching him with interest.
The man came forward, reddish brown braid falling forward over his shoulder, and it was right then that he recognized Kestrel, his face smooth and unbruised, both eyes wide open. A waft of cool amusement reached him, and he smiled.
"Almost din't recognize you," Darby said, walking forward with his hand out, "with all them bruises gone."
Kestrel hesitated, then placed his hand into Darby's, but not like he was going to shake. Instead, he brought Darby forward, to the table, and the woman waiting there.
"I hope you will forgive me for bringing a. . .friend with me," he murmured. "I think you may find her of use."
"Of use?" Darby asked, but Kestrel had let go of his hand, and gave the woman a heavy nod of head.
"Hestya, this is the young man I told you of -- Darby Bajek. Darby, this is Hestya van'Lorin. She is a colleague from the clinic."
Another doctor then, Darby thought, and gave her a friendly nod.
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"And I am pleased to meet you, Darby Bajek." Her voice was. . .harder than Kestrel's, her accent more pronounced. And the feelings he got from her -- well, he didn't get any feelings from her. None at all.
"Aha! I confuse him!" she said, like it was a pretty good joke. She raised a hand and waved at the two vacant chairs. "Please, sit. I refuse to strain my neck by looking up at you."
They sat, and Kestrel waved to the guy behind the counter.
"Tea will come," he said, settling into his chair, "and a selection of sweets."
"Kez Rel tells me that we may share a gift, you and I," Hestya said, then, leaning forward with her elbows crossed onto the tabletop.
Darby blinked, at her accent, and suddenly turned toward Kestrel -- toward Kez Rel -- his ears burning.
"No wonder you were mad!" he blurted. "I got your name wrong! You shoulda told me."
"Well, and so I should have," Kez Rel said, and put a hand on Darby's wrist. "But, I found I liked the error. Kestrel. And, truly, panting as I was, and my face in such a state, it was wonderful that you made a guess that was anything so close. Please, I would be honored if you would continue as you have begun. I will have a nickname -- do I have that correctly?"
"That's right," Darby said, doubtfully. "If you're sure you don't mind."
"Not at all," Kestrel told him, and looked up as the tray arrived with tea and a plate of sweet things.
"So," Hestya said, after they had each sipped some tea, and chosen a sweet. "Darby -- I may call you Darby?"
"Excellent. I will be Hestya, and Kez Rel will be Kestrel -- a tidy band of mischief-makers, eh?"
Darby felt a flicker of amusement from Kestrel, but still nothing from Hestya, though she was clearly teasing.
She smiled, and raised her tea cup.
"I see that I remain a cipher. Would you like to learn to be so mysterious yourself, Darby?"
"I don't think I understand you, m-- Hestya."
"I think that you half-understand me," she chided him; "but allow it to stand. Tell me, how fares your brother?"
"My -- brother?"
"Indeed. His name is, perhaps. . .Farnch? Kestrel tells me that you felled him with a thought on the adventure-filled night of your meeting."
Darby looked down into his teacup, then up to meet Hestya's eyes. They were light blue. He felt concern, from Kestrel, and remembered the night of their meeting and the way he had controlled his pain. He thought Hestya had taught him that, and wondered if she'd teach him. But, he had a shrewd hunch that she wouldn't teach him anything until he gave her an answer.
"My brother Farnch is doing pretty well, thank you."
Hestya inclined her head.
"No headaches? Noooo. . . behaviors that are, for him, not quite what you might expect?"
"I --" He stopped, remembering the fight with Jewl, and how Farnch'd just given up.
"There is something," Hestya said, softly. "Tell me."
"He -- it's just he let my sister win an argument. Old argument, 'bout whether or not the twins ought go to the school. Got to the point where usually he throws something, or hits something, and he just kinda. . .folded up. All the temper went right out o'him and he told her to do what she wanted, and remember that if something happened, it was her fault."
"Ah. And this is new, since you struck him?"
"I didn't -- strike -- him," he said hotly. "I only -- only --"
He floundered to a stop. Hestya was watching him with interest, her head tipped to one side.
"Yes, I see," she said, when he just sat there like a lump and his face burning. "You have not the words, and it sounds foolish -- to you -- to say that you pushed your brother with your anger. Was it something like this?"
He felt a hard shove at his -- at him! dammit, at where he lived, in the center of his head -- and threw up a hand, even though he knew that wouldn't stop what she'd thrown at him.
Across from him, Hestya threw her hand up, reflecting him. The pressure against him. . .stopped.
Darby cleared his throat.
"I guess it must've felt sorta like that -- to Farnch," he said slowly. "To me, it felt like -- it felt like I. . .caught fire, and threw it all at him. He was gonna -- he was drunk, and he was gonna hurt somebody." He threw an apologetic glance at Kestrel.
"My brother don't much like Liadens. He's got. . .politics."
Kestrel inclined his head, but it was Hestya who spoke.
"We have been told that there are no Terran Healers," she said. "This would appear to be. . .an error. Clearly, you are a Healer, Darby Bajek, as I am. The difference between us is that I have been taught control, which makes it much more unlikely that I would unintentionally kill my brother."
"Kill!" he stared at her, his breath gone like she'd punched him. He felt Kestrel's hand on his wrist again, and a waft of gentle concern.
"Kill," Hestya said. "Your gift is no shy flower, my friend; if I were not shielded, I don't doubt you would deafen me. But there is more. Kestrel tells me that you gave him peace and strength when his energy was flagging. Is that true?"
"Yeah. He was out on his feet, and he still had to get home. Little jig o'energy was all; didn't hurt anything."
"Indeed, it was precisely what was needed, as I understand the case. However. A Healer does not Heal, unasked. There are. . .ethical considerations."
Darby looked down at his tea cup, picked it up and drank, deeply. When he put the cup back on the table, Kestrel refilled it from the pot.
"I didn't know that," he said. "I'm sorry, Kestrel. I hope I didn't hurt you."
"No harm," Kestrel assured him, with his slight smile.
"One could not expect you to know," Hestya said in her hard voice. "You have had no training, and you are, therefore, a -- what is the phrase, here? Ah! You are a danger on the street, Darby Bajek. You must be less than that -- and more."
"You'll teach me?" he asked.
She threw up both hands in a wide gesture the meaning of which was lost on him.
"It would seem so. I will not be your only teacher. There is a Hall here -- a poor thing, compared to the Great Hall at Solcintra, but we will do our duty by our kindred."
"I can't pay," he said, thinking that was prolly rude, but also that she had to know that, right off. "Maybe teach me just to do what you're doing -- or what Kestrel did, when he was hurting, and needed not to be distracted by it."
A flash of shrewd blue eyes.
"Ah, you saw that, did you? Well. I think you are very much worth our time, Darby Bajek. We will teach you. When you have learned all that you may, then we will discuss proper payments, and Balance."
Darby glanced to Kestrel.
"Are you a. . .Healer, too?"
"I? No, I am. . .sensitive. I may learn such things as the small wall, to separate and control. . .distress. And I am aware of a Healer's touch." He looked to Hestya.
"Will you have him in the Hall?" he asked. "Or with us?"
She held her cup out, and he poured tea for her, while she studied Darby through half-closed eyes.
"The Hall," she said, after she had taken a sip from her newly filled cup. "He must learn to be safe, first."
Kestrel inclined his head; and raised it to smile at Darby.
"The Healers will teach you, and you will be able to teach others. Also, we would like to woo you. Or, at least, I would like to woo you. Hestya must, of course, bide by her melant'i as teacher, first."
Woo. . .
That got a body warm and thinking about things he hadn't thought about since Sandep started seeing his other boy, and then lied about it when Darby'd asked him -- like Darby couldn't see a lie two blocks distant.
But, there'd been something else -- a word. Words were, in Darby's experience, very important, especially when dealing with people who maybe spoke Standard Terran, but not necessarily 'bleaker Terran.
Not to mention dealing with people who had a whole 'nother language to think in, that no 'bleaker Darby knew could even begin to wrap their tongue around.
"Melon-tee?" he asked. "What's that?"
"Ah." Kestrel looked at Hestya. She laughed softly, and picked up her cup.
"Melant'i," he said. "Melant'i, as my colleague Zack would have it, is choosing which hat to wear in specific circumstances, given a very large possibility of hats. For instance, Hestya and I are colleagues. She works with me at the clinic, to ensure peace of mind and calmness in those who seek our aid.
"Hestya and I are also lovers," he continued. "However, when we are at the clinic, working, that part of our relative melant'i's is not. . .active. Do you see?"
"It is a concept that comes more easily, when one has learned the language," Hestya said. "Which -- forgive me -- I fear you will be required to do."
Darby looked at her.
"I don't know that I'm very good at learning languages, m-- Hestya."
She smiled, and he felt, for the first time, her amusement, bright and sharp, like a new knife.
"Do you know?" she said; "I think you will prove to be very good at learning languages. Now."
She put her hands flat on the table, and looked at him very earnestly.
"You will be required to live at the Hall during the first phase of your instruction. It is our habit to assign an elder Healer to a novice, for both the safety of the House and the novice. Once you have mastered the core curriculum, you may choose to live outside of the House. When you are ready, Kestrel may commence his wooing, but you will tell him when you are ready, or if you are, indeed, interested in pursuing such a joint melant'i."
She gave him another one of her direct stares.
"I have overwhelmed your sensibilities," she murmured.
"You know that's not true," he said. "I want to learn -- to learn how to use my gift for the best."
"Then we are in accord, we three friends. You have kin, Kestrel tells me, who depend upon your protection."
He frowned at her, then at Kestrel.
"Your sister and her children," he murmured.
"Jewl?" It was a shock, to think of Jewl needing his protection, and he was about put them right about who needed whose protection, when he thought about Jewl huddled sick in her bed, and the boys alone, when Farnch came home drunk and demanding his dinner.
Farnch. . .he coulda hurt the kids that night. Coulda hurt Jewl, too -- killed her, maybe, if he'd managed to even half-rouse her. The reason it didn't get anywhere near that bad was he'd been there to deal with Farnch. Even had Kestrel by him to turn his bother's anger.
He looked at Hestya.
"Kestrel's right; I should talk to my sister. If Farnch gets mad. . ."
Or, he thought, if he moves Vesti in over Jewl -- sleet! That's just what he'll do, too; and Vesti ain't happy 'less somebody else ain't.
"Peace." Hestya said. She extended a tiny hand and touched him for the first time, fingers curling 'round his wrist. He immediately felt calmer -- more peaceful -- and raised his eyes to hers.
"I thought you were s'posed to ask," he said.
She laughed, and removed her hand; leaving him grinning with a bouyancy that had little to do with peace.
"Kestrel, my friend, your felicity grows! Not only do you find for us a Terran Healer when none are said to exist, but he is quick, and observant -- and lacks an appropriate sense of respect. He will, I think, do well."
"Shall we come with you, to your sister?" Kestrel asked. "She does not know either of us, and she will wish to satisfy herself that we mean you no harm."
"Sure," Darby said. "Let's do that now."
Miz Prestoro and Mister Warchiski were sitting on the stoop when him and Kestrel and Hestya came walking up the sidewalk, Kestrel carrying a sack full of the sweets they hadn't eaten, for the twins. He said.
"Brother's crew just brought 'im," Mister Warchiski said.
"Blood all over," Miz Prestoro added, and jerked her head up the street, opposite of where they'd come from. The sidewalk was wet.
"War 'n me, we hosed down the walk. Tinthy got 'em a blanket so he din't drip up the stairs."
Darby didn't wait; he flung himself up the stairs, two at a time, feeling Kestrel at his back. The door to their partment was half-open, he hit the door with his shoulder without slowing down --
. . .and ran straight into Ornil, Farnch's third, who grabbed him and shook him, until Ron, Farnch's second, snarled at him.
"S'only the kid brother. You snow-blind?"
Ornil didn't let him go, but looked over his shoulder.
"That ain't no kid brother," he said.
Riding the wash of angry surprise, Darby twisted, kicked Ornil hard in the knee, pushed him away, and threw himself hard against Ron, knocking him off balance before he could grab Kestrel.
"Leave 'im alone; he's a doctor!"
"He's a damned Liaden, same's Farnch got shot up by!"
Ron pushed him; he staggered, caught himself, spun, and managed to put himself in front of Kestrel.
"You better go," Darby said over his shoulder.
"Indeed, I think I had better stay," Kestrel answered, and raised his voice. "I am a doctor. There is a wounded man in the house. Let me through; I can help!"
"Let him through!" came another voice, from behind them. A hard voice, crackling with power. Ron and Ornil fell back, eyes wide, and --
"Let him through!" Jewl shouted from the kitchen. "My brother and the doctor, too!"
Darby felt a push go past his shoulder. Ornil and Ron went back another three steps. He moved forward, toward the kitchen door, feeling Kestrel, and something else, something like a wall of ice, behind him.
There was blood everywhere. Farnch was on the table, stripped to the waist. Vesti was pressing a towel soaked and dripping red against his shoulder. Gil was holding another against his side. Jewl had their kit out and open on the counter. Her sleeves were rolled up and she was bloody to the elbow. Darby saw her see him, and felt her relief; then she saw Kestrel and she raised a hand, hope blazing like lightning.
"The bleeding won't stop," she said.
"I understand," Kestrel said calmly, moving past Darby to Jewl's side. "Where are the children?"
"Down with Gran Delaros."
"Excellent," Kestrel said, reaching into his jacket for his little kit. "Now, tell me what has happened -- he has been shot?"
"Damned Liadens," Vesti spat.
"That is useful, thank you. If the pellets came from a Liaden gun, they will be of a different size than those in common use on the street here. Darby, my friend, please call the clinic. Ask them to send the taxi."
"No!" Vesti yelled. "Clinic'll call the Watch. We was there, you unnerstand? We was with them taking a stand 'gainst the New Bosses! Watch'll arrest us all!"
Kestrel gave her a long stare.
"That may be," he said, cool-voiced. "But it is not the problem before us. Please move the compress, so that I may examine the wound."
Vesti snarled, grabbed the compress -- and Darby felt a blast of freezing cold go past him.
Vesti froze in the act of throwing the bloody towel into Kestrel's face. Gil shifted then -- and he froze, too. Darby snaked past him, out of the kitchen, to the hall, where Hestya stood, face calm, eyes hard.
"Do you need help?" he asked, pausing at her side.
"I may, later," she answered, and he felt. . .something slip into the core of him, like she'd put a piece of candy into his hand. "Go, call the clinic; then return to help me watch these."
He nodded, and ran, past Ron and Ornil, who were sitting against the wall, eyes closed. Ornil was snoring.
* * *
"Well, I hope they'll be good to you, Darb," Jewl said, as she folded blankets into boxes. Her and the twins was moving, after all, to that new place closer to her work and the school.
Farnch -- well, the Watch was gonna have him; they'd already taken up the rest of the crew. The New Bosses were gonna be holding trials, they said, for the ringleaders who had come out shooting against them. Farnch, and his crew, they hadn't quite been ringleaders. The New Bosses needed to make a Policy, word was, about what to do with the 'streeters who'd just kinda. . .gotten involved.
That wasn't Darby's problem, though. Not right now, it wasn't. He had his bag packed -- not much stuff; clothes, books his Dad'd given him. Pictures of Jewl and the twins.
"You come visit us, when they let you," his sister said, putting her hands on his shoulders, and kissing his cheek. Promise me, Darb."
"Promise," he said, and kissed her, too, then stepped out from under her hand, and walked down the hall, out the door, and down the stairs, where the taxi was waiting to take him to the Surebleak Healer Hall, and on to the rest of his life.
Copyright © 2015 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller