Chapter Four

And So I Was His Mother

At last, we reached the city, and at last, I was allowed to fall to the ground, dead.

Well, not dead, but awfully close to it.

"Get up, Ciane." Duke looked back at me over his shoulder, his eyes lined in black with four days' worth of worry, a thin rat of a boy who hadn't woken in half a week on his back. Blaisius stood beside him looking very much like he wanted to join me on the ground, but to his credit he was stronger than I and remained on his feet. "We've got about a quarter mile left and most of that is over the hill. Come on. Henrie, kick him."

"No!" I shouted in protest to the black boot that was about to swing into my face. It stopped, paused not several inches from my would-be-broken nose, then planted itself back down. My, from down here Henrie looked to be a giant. When I finally stumbled to my feet with a cough and a wheeze, I again beat her height by a good half-foot and order was restored. "All right then, Duke, I'm ready now," I said to the boy who'd already started up the last leg of the journey, too determined he was to even wipe the sweat from the back of his neck; the sun caught it and made it stand out on his ascent.

According to him there was no time to stop and admire the scenery, but as I trudged behind the others with Henrie just slightly ahead, I did it anyway. I don't know what made me want to pause for once and take everything in, and what made me believe that we'd reached the place where my new, higher life would begin—that was impossible. This city Lorden Ka would be no better than the scum from whence I descended... but still, the scenery was rather fantastic. I slowed further.

Sato Chiisai, where I'd grown up, had been for lack of any other words quaint. There were three shops, one for books and one for clothes and one for other things that you woke up one morning and thought you needed; there was a market just outside of us that was sometimes there and sometimes not, and the food from it was sometimes edible and sometimes not. For all our ailments we'd go to see Ribbon the Medi. I remember being led hand in hand by one of the village mothers—my father would never take me, I was outside his range of caring—to see him after I lost a fight with several of my brothers. He was a mage. He took the pain away. That's when I decided that I wanted to take other people's pain away too.

Sato Mura was the horridly dull town I'd just left, and though it was larger than my own home it was far less friendly. Made-up women in long silk robes that some foreigners called Kimonos and high sandals fluttered past me every day on the streets, and their perfume blinded my eyes to the point where only glasses could clear my vision. Or if it wasn't the perfume that ruined my eyes, it was the beating I'd received that day at the stocks when I tried to feed the prisoner a tomato. The store owner's wife can sure pack a punch.

But Lorden Ka even from a distance appeared different. As we drew closer with a quickening pace, we passed many other travelers on the road, of various classes and various dialects and various styles of dress. Some were distinctively foreign. I looked over at Duke to see if he knew any of them, being a foreigner himself, but he gave no one a passing glance and was the first of us by a tenth-mile to step foot into the city.

"It's so...big!" From not just the run I was breathless, but from cheer and relief and a lot of other emotions two that were too muddled to distinguish, and I resisted the urge to spin around with my arms in the air. I still wanted to drop dead. Henrie caught me as the euphoria slipped away all of a sudden and I sank to my knees, and she stood my back up so I could lean on Blaisius instead. He looked sideways at me, quirked what I took lazily to be a reassuring smile, and said nothing. I patted his head. What a good boy he was.

"Of course it's big. Everyone is here for the Tournium. Two weeks." Duke didn't glance back at me, just hiked his rat of a load up his back and grabbed the first Lorden Ka native he saw. "You! There! Where's the nearest Medi hospital place?"

I gazed across the street at a small building, in front of which hung a sign that I had to adjust my glasses to read, and after I did I saw that the lopsided letters spelled out: the Slight. Looked to be a pub. With my hand to the few coins in my pocket and a grin on my face I turned to Henrie. "Care for a drink? You'd probably end up paying, but I promise to be good company all the same."

"Drinks? There's no time for that!" said Duke. Micah's head lolled forward onto the his shoulder, and with a determined edge to his eye the older of the pair shoved his way through the crowd, following what I assumed were the directions of the native. In case he hadn't thanked her in his hurry, I elbowed my own way through, to a point, and called in her direction so that she would hear me and not think us rude.

"Thank you!" I leapt up above the head of a bent old woman in a hat twice her size to see the native girl turn towards my voice. "Now the rat can be cured—thanks a lot!" She smiled. Daft.

Upon rejoining Henrie and Blaisius, who was looking quite lost and meek among all these people, I dropped my bags at the nearest outdoor table of the nearest lenient restaurant—lenient to the point where they'd allow us to stay in one spot and recover from the journey. If the owner demanded we buy something, I'd take my time ordering a cup of water and then nurse it to the last drops. Henrie sat to my left, Blaisius to my right—or perhaps it was the other way around, as my head was spinning so much I couldn't tell straight. She picked up the little inky menu card, skimmed it, then handed it off to him and adjusted her hood. It was now so far forward her face had sunk into darkness. I realized then that Henrie had her secrets too.

"Such a many-people place." Blaisius turned the card over again, and again, and again, and a bit of blood was beginning to form in the spot where his teeth pierced his lip.

"I suppose we'll get used to it. Once we win I think we'll move here. Yes, that'd be nice." I put my hands behind my back and wrapped my fingers in my unruly hair. Making a face to myself, I decided that if I ordered a glass of water, I'd simply pour the water over my head and have my first bath in four days. "I'm sure there are many mages here. They must live in packs. Or maybe there's one large mage village not far from here, with grass and animals and flowers, and all the mages vacation there. Yes, that is what they do. That's what I'll do once I become a mage."

"Mage's assisstant," said Henrie, the cold smugness of her eyes radiating even through the darkness of her hood. "You have no blood."

"I have blood! If I bleed, I have blood and—who the gods are you?" I sat up straight and eyed the girl that had come to stand in front of our table; oh yes, it was the native who'd stupidly saved the rat's life. Not that he was going to die anyway, because that was just Duke's overreacting, but I eyed her stonily and the smile that spread her lips.

"There are a lot of Captors here. You're all Captors too, right?" The girl swayed in spot. Blaisius stopped turning over his card and Henrie raised her hooded head in her direction.

"Does it really matter if we are?" I asked, and then Blaisius squeaked, "I am!" and I rolled my eyes and my head into my hands. Suppose she is trying to steal your Hold—think! But Blaisius did not hear my silent screams, as they were, amazingly, silent.

"Well." With her hands behind her back, the girl continued to sway, her eyes never leaving mine in such an annoyingly confident way. It was the rat all over again—except I didn't find myself annoyed exactly, or at least not yet. The encounter so far was young. "Well, I'm Cicero, and if you need help finding lodgings or an inn or..."

"Thank you." I forced a smile and avoided a twitch. "But we'll manage. Just as soon as we find that idiot and the rat."

Cicero's bottom lip quivered with confusion, and her desire to be helpful had her point to some unknown square far off inside a crowd. "If you need a rat, the rat seller sells there. He has a cart, and you can get them roasted or burnt or alive, sometimes, but the alive ones die when you eat them anyway, and..."

She went on for perhaps several more minutes, describing all the things you can do with rats and all the ways to devour them with I suspected a sense of self pride, but my ears were deaf as I assessed her appearance. Certainly she was slow in the head, I'd already seen that, but besides her lack of intelligence she was quite well-kept. A cloth headband held back her dark hair, and the same cloth made up the front of her shirt and the entirety of her skirt. By craning my neck I learned that there was in fact no back to her shirt, just several tight strings. It was always warm here, it seemed. Cicero's hair was brushed and combed, and her face bright, and she even wore jewelry in the form of an upper-arm band and an ornate belt.

Learn, Ciane. This is what a real girl looks like.

I tried to shake myself out of my head and realized Cicero had quieted. Her eyes, if they had ever left, were again on me, as were Blaisius' and Henrie's. I paused, and I frowned, and I ran my hand along my throat with a rasp. "Woe, woe, would it be too much to ask for a glass of water? I feel so sick I didn't hear a word of anything—I'm not even hearing myself."

"Certainly! I'm sorry! I'm sorry for your health!" Cicero gave a short bow and scampered off to fetch a server. I watched her skirt disappear into a thin crowd and noted it was lucky we arrived when we did as the other tables were beginning to fill.

"I am good," I thought aloud on the subject.

Henrie pulled back her hood so I could the chill in her faze, directed at me. "You," she said, "are an idiot."

"Idiot? And you're the one in a huge heavy cloak when the sun is right out above our heads! You're burning up and I'm the idiot!"

"Taking advantage of people won't get you anywhere. You're too far from anywhere to get."

"Too far from sanity--"

"That's exactly it."

"No--you!" I sprung from my chair just as Cicero bounced back and pressed the cup into my surprised fingers with a smile. She was always smiling. With a fake one I shoved my chair back into the table, grabbed my bags and forced the water into Blaisius's hands to dispose of without taking so much as a sip myself. Well, maybe one sip; it was hot and I was tired, after all. I drained the glass and pushed it back to him, and miraculously, it seemed, my disposition began to lighten.

My first thought was that Cicero had poisoned my water.

But as I wasn't dead, I shook the pressure from my head and clapped on hand on her shoulder. She beamed, easily—delightfully easily—pleased. "Okay, Cicero, we are in need of some maps and guidance around this place. Lorden Ka--"

"Biggest city in all of Solum Lacus!" she quipped, and rocked back and forth beneath my hand on the balls of her feet. I hesitated for a sigh.

"And what pride you have for our country. Wonderful. But I still don't know how to navigate the area and it really is bothersome to ask people because they're not always nice, you see." I steadied my hand to keep her still and looked into her eyes, imagining myself like the hero of a book I'd skimmed, and a hypnotist. I imagined my eyes entrancing hers, and it seemed to be working. She stopped moving with a blank face, mouth set, determined and obedient.

My, this girl was easy to read.

"You'll come with us, won't you, and show us where we can find a roof?"

Henrie stood up. "You can find a roof anywhere, but it's whether there's room under that roof that's the problem."

Blaisius set down the cup. I looked at him. He folded his arms defiantly, then unfolded them and drew himself up perhaps a half-millimeter taller. "It's not mine to carry, Ciane."

I hesitated, but the silly little boy who found pride in disobeying simply orders wasn't worth my time. Yet. Two weeks would pass before he'd begin to be worthless, I thought with the most delightfully sour of smiles aimed at him. His hand on the table flinched slightly until he balled it into a fist. "Right you are, Blaisius. Just leave it there and let the hired hands carry it away. It's their job, after all. Just don't tip them; we can't afford that."

Cicero extracted two coins from some off place on her body and pressed them down on the table, then looked at me for approval and gratitude. I patted her once on the head, swiped one of the coins into my pocket, and smirked a grin to the world. The service wasn't that good anyway. "Now," I said, "we can go."

xXoOoXx

"We've been everywhere." The crowd parted around Blaisius as he plopped himself onto the side of the street, bag slumping over and threatening to spill its few contents out under the feet of any loose-stepping travelers. "And everywhere is full."

"Everywhere? Then we've certainly covered a lot of ground." I stepped forward, but the crowd barreled right into me and jostled me around until somehow my face was uncomfortably close to Blaisius' stinking feet. He tucked in his legs. I nearly passed out. Henrie helped me up and as I patted the dirt and dust from my clothing, and as she did I said, "But we must keep looking. We haven't covered nearly enough."

"But your face has." Henrie snickered at her own joke beneath her hood, and I snatched my hand away from her shoulder. Ceciro laughed too, then stared at me with wide eyes and a guilty blush.

"I'm so sorry, Ciane!" She grabbed at me despite my attempts to wave her perkiness out of earshot. Her tan fingers found my arm anyway and I winced, recalling with her touch the claws and clutch of Henrie and the bruises she had left me. "Ah! Are you okay? Are you hurt? I'm not hurting you, am I? Am I hurting you?"

"My ears, yes, my ears are hurting. And my eyes; kindly step to where I can't see you." She paused with evident confusion. I sighed and smiled and gently tugged myself from her hands. "Cicero. Surely there's some place we haven't checked? We've been out here for hours, the sun is burning red in my neck and my tongue has started to shrivel up. Look, see? It's covered in shrivel bumps. Thee? You thee?"

Cicero nodded gravely and turned to look up the street in both ways. I tactfully ignored the look Henrie was aiming at the back of my head, and released my tongue with a smile at Cicero when her face lit up and she pointed. "There! There's someplace we haven't checked!"

"The Silver Silk?" Blaisius turned back towards us. "We've been in there twice already."

I shook my head at the foolishness of such a young boy—it had turned out that he was fourteen and a year younger than me, which granted me authority over him as if that had eluded me before. He frowned a bit down at me, but I tactfully ignored that too. "No, we went into the Red Silk. The Silver one is different, because I have a good feeling about this place. Also, it's silver. You all stay here, and I'll go in and check to see if they have room." Yes, a good feeling indeed, but I didn't learn why until I actually entered the Silver Silk and had to run right back out again. Before that, though, I had the good feeling.

I waved my hand dismissively at Blaisius as if he were a dog, and he cocked his head silently, a hint of insolence on his thinly drawn lips. During our travels his hair had grown shaggier and thicker, and now brushed his shoulders in true dog-like fashion. He even growled behind his teeth when I patted his head. "I mean it," I said. "Sit. Stay. Good boy."

If we hadn't been in so public a place, Henrie would have shot me. That's what her face said when I turned around, and that's what she told me several times after the fact. I walked past her.

The Silver Silk was not the smallest inn in Lorden Ka, nor was it the largest; it was not the worst nor was it the nicest; it was not the most rancid-smelling nor was it the most pleasant, because it smelled like horses and oil and lilies. However, the Silver Silk nearly gave me a heart attack as soon as entered the door.

A boy paused on the stairs. A silver band glinted on his right arm. The sun had tanned his skin brown, and his hair matched several shades darker, and he stopped as soon as he saw me. Thin golden eyes glared at me though his mouth was twisted in the most knowing of smirks. And just like that, he was gone, his footsteps ghosts on the stairs.

And just like that, the ground slipped out from under me and smashed into my head.

A few people thundered over to help me up by the elbows ans shoulders and scruff of the neck, but I freed myself with several curt "thank you"s and nearly smacked myself into the door in my hurry to escape. I knew it. He 'd been following me. Or I had been following him.

The Silver Bandit.

He looked so different when the moon wasn't casting her spell over him, when he was in a normal inn dressed like a normal person, looking normal in the most abnormal sense of the word. I touched his—my--Hold where it bulged in my pocket, and by the time I joined back up with the others my resolve had returned.

"That was rather quick." Henrie's arms were folded across her chest, but the cloak revealed her tiny pale hands and much-too-long fingernails where it fell back around her wrists. Sometimes she wore black gloves to protect her hands from her bow, but her bow was unstrung and her gloves most likely lay wadded at the bottom of her quiver. "Did you secure our rooms already? Did you get more than one?"

I bit my lip and pretended to stare into the sun for a minute until I spun around and placed my hands on Cicero's shoulders. She looked so fail and my hands so large and clumsy next to her body that I wondered with a flash of fear whether I'd bruise her simply by holding her. But she looked at me with no pain in her eyes. "Cicero," I said, "may we board with you?"

xXoOoXx

Cicero lived on the darker side of Lorden Ka, and as we slunk through her neighborhood she advised us airily to walk quickly and hide anything shiny from sight, or swallow it, if you had to. "I've learned from experience," she said, and patted her stomach. I trotted up the stairs behind her as she put her hand on the door to open it.

She paused, and just as I was about to prompt her to move a bit faster, our arms screaming from carrying our things, Cicero dropped the bag of mine she'd been toting for me. I didn't bother to pick it up. Something was wrong.

Cicero leaned her entire body against the door, suddenly looking limp all over, and she squeezed her eyes shut. The blood drained from her face and hands, and began to trickle from the corner of her mouth. Without really knowing what to do I reached for her and took one of her trembling shoulders to try to steady her; perhaps there were some hero instincts deep inside me, for I held her to my chest and shouldered my way through the door. It slammed open against the far wall.

I didn't stop once to take in my surroundings, but with Henrie's help I lowered Cicero onto a pile of cushions in the middle of one of few rooms. Henrie tossed her quiver for Blaisius to catch and barked for him to get water. I was still holding Cicero's shoulders. The poor light filtered through the grimy window adjacent us illuminated her sweaty face in the otherwise gray darkness. The blood by her mouth was growing and she struggled against my hold.

"No!" I gritted my teeth and pushed her back down. "You'll die! We'll figure out what's wrong."

Eyes red, she gasped through a mouthful of red-stained teeth, "I...know..."

Henrie shoved me off of Cicero so hard my feet stumbled me back into the wall several feet away. Once my head cleared of the spinning I was ready to launch myself at Henrie, but Cicero had already picked herself up and was running for the opposite room. Idiot girl. I lunged but Henrie snapped arm around my neck, her elbow just under my chin and another finger pressing lightly on a pressure point that was starting to make me feel sleepy... I knew even as I tried that struggle against her would be fruitless.

"Ciane!--stop--being--stupid--and look!" A jerk of her arm snapped my head around to where Cicero was bent over a dented metal tin, shoving something into her mouth and then tipping up her chin. She shuddered, her hands still white on the table for support, and then was still.

At any moment she would tip over, dead.

No, after a moment she stood up straighter and wiped the blood from her mouth, and she replaced the tin back wherever it had come from and attempted a wavering smile. Blaisius, with his white face and trembling grip, looked as if were feeling whatever she just felt as he handed her a cup of water, and as she washed the metallic from her teeth he slumped into a chair. I twisted free.

"Cicero?" I looked straight at her so that she would feel ashamed if she didn't answer my question, which was delivered in a voice that I refused to let waver, "Is there something you want to tell us?"

Her eyes met my gaze easily and held it. Whatever she'd just gone through was certainly more frightening than my stare, but I preferred not to think that and I started to glare. A little. "It was nothing. That just happens sometimes."

Blaisius raised his head weakly, the color still gone. "Will it always happen?"

It was impossible to describe what happened in her face. It seemed to grow smaller, somehow. "Not always," she said, and I turned away.

"Interesting abode, most interesting." I stroked my chin a bit for good measure as Cicero retied the strings on her shirt that had come unloose and bounced over to stand beside me. She was beaming again, although a bit gray in the face. "Silver paint on this wall, orange on that, brown—what is that color?--you all have certainly had a fine time decorating. You and your parents, I mean, where are they?"

"Out," said Cicero pleasantly, rocking back and forth again on her toes. "They'll be back later. They'll be back. I know they will be. Later. Oh, my brother Lyrien is here now, but he's not really here—he's out training."

I narrowed my eyes. "For the Tournium?" She nodded. I turned away. "I hate him already."

Henrie came to rest her elbows on the table and looked up at me with accusing, yet perhaps amused eyes—no matter, all her expression was in her eyebrows anyway, and when she shook her hair down over her face it was a great deal harder to tell what was on her mind. "That's a bold declaration, Ciane, seeing as you haven't ever met him and you're sleeping in his house."

"Not his house, Cicero's house." I sniffed in what was supposed to be a haughty manner but ended up more as a snort. "There's a difference. And I can see you rolling your eyes, don't think I'm dense!"

Henrie lowered her eyebrows in an extremely bored manner and let flicker the tiniest hint of a smile, a smile with every trace of superiority in it, I noticed that too. I opened my mouth but her words were faster. "You know what I think? I think we should go to visit Duke and Micah, make sure they haven't both died." She stood up straight. "Cicero, would you mind leading us there?"

Cicero glanced at me, but I was in no mood to see the rat or the rat's shameless caretaker. For some reason she seemed to want my input, my permission to lead them to see some people I really didn't care about. Blaisius stood up. I tightened my mouth and said nothing, and then a hand went to my arm and I shook it away with a large step back. Cicero cast her eyes to her feet. "Well," I said, folding my arms, and she looked up, "I don't want to go. I'm staying here--"

"You can't stay here, it's not your house."

"I'm staying here," and I made my voice louder over Henrie's, and I do believe she rolled her eyes again before shifted the hood over half her tiny face. "Cicero will take you, and I'll see you when you get back."

Blaisius leaned back on the wall, looking not so pale anymore but with a slight glow to his eyes. I supposed the boy had conveniently just regained all his strength. "Ciane, what will you do? We might be gone a long time..."

"I won't do anything bad, so stop thinking th--"

"No!" His cheeks won back some of their color in an instant, and red to go with it, and he seemed to be on the verge of overflowing with panicked tears. Pulling my face tight into a gentle frown, I stepped forward. "No, that's not what I meant. I meant, what if we stay overnight, or stay forever? You'll not have anything to do. You'll be sad. And lonely."

I raised one eyebrow at him and felt it move like a great hairy caterpillar above my eye, and I reflected that it was probably time to pluck them. There was something to do, right there. "Worries will only turn your skin wrinkled and sun-spotted and leathery. Don't. Just, ah, give Micah my undying love, won't you? Thanks."

Blaisius allowed himself a small laugh but kept his head down and his eyes aimed at his fingers at he twiddled them. His hair masked his eyes as it fell over his down-turned face, but to anyone with half a wit and glasses as thick as mine his emotions would have been clear. I hesitated to put my hand on his arm to ease his uneasiness, but I did and felt him tremble. This boy was messed up, twisted up inside, and I was only just beginning to comprehend that; but the more I understood the fact that he had repressed issues, the less I understood what those issues actually were. I looked to Henrie.

"Don't want for my guidance, Ciane." But she slipped past me, dislodging my hand from Blaisius, and stared him in the eyes with the softest hardest expression I had ever seen. I stepped back, and watched. "Blaise, you don't have to worry about him becoming lonely—worry about Micah and Duke and the safety and health of them, because Ciane won't be at a loss for things to do. I'll make sure of that. I'm staying with him and we're going to go register our group in the Tournium."

I'd been looking forward to a bit of time by myself, with hot water and a comb and a knife for the rough edges of my hair; and afterwards with a pillow and Cicero's presumed large and comfortable bed and an eternity of sleep. I would dream of candy and mages and ghosts, the pleasantest of dreams. When I woke up I would eat lots of sweet meats and hot biscuits and drink goblets of wine. No matter that there seemed to be not a trace of any of that in this dilapidated flat, no matter.

That fantasy and Henrie simply did not go together.

I shook my head. "No. No. That won't work. Go visit the rat and act depressed, and leave me here. If you're feeling sorry for me, you stop it right this instant, young woman." I pushed my glasses up my nose for more effect.

Henrie tipped her head to the side with a devious curve of the lips. "Yes, I think I will go."

I stomped in the place where her foot was a millisecond after she moved it, lost my balance, and stumbled into the table. "No, I think you will not."

"Then you'll come, and we'll wait for you." One pale finger was pointed straight between my eyes like an arrow ready to hit its mark deep inside my skull, and her face was all shadows and smirks. "We're not—I'm not leaving you here alone."

"You don't trust me."

"I don't trust you." A high note in her otherwise steady speech made me believe otherwise and so I felt no temper rise inside of me, but Henrie shook her hair around her shoulders and admitted no sign of noticing. Out of the pure goodness of my heart I reached over and pulled out a chair so she could sit down—she didn't show it, but I'd bet Blaisius' life savings she was starting to grow tired. It showed in the deepening lines on her gray face, and it was only now that I noticed it. Like the virtuous person I was I pulled out the chair. Like the ingrate she would forever be, Henrie refused it.

She shook her head. "I don't think so." I attempted to kick the chair over with the back of one leg, but missed, and though Henrie ignored it Cicero hurried to my side. "Now, we'll all eat a little and we'll all sleep a little and then we'll go to the hospital, and then we'll get registered for the Tournium. That's what we're doing. Any comments?"

I raised my hand.

"No? Good. Cicero, we'll need three blankets if you have them. Please." Henrie lowered her hood and patted down her hair with the barest hint of victory.

I stood off to the side and smoldered and planned how to best sneak out of the flat. But I said nothing against this new plan of hers; the first part sounded rather appealing. Something like a yawn tickled the back of my throat, but I silenced it and stalked off into the next room.

The ground was hard but I barely noticed as I sunk down to it, the whole room spinning before my eyes, and then spinning forward into my face; and then my face spinning into blackness. I groaned into the floor, my cheek pressed against it, but I did not move. Even rolling over took too much effort now. My thoughts melted away. The dim light cast an eerie glow over the surroundings I cared not to inspect, light like the moon cast over a boy I'd once met, a boy by the lake. But even thoughts of his mystery were too much. I enjoyed the way everything seemed to melt together, and thought that this was really and truly...

Peace.

Eternities or maybe half a minute passed of my enjoying the quiet, the beauty of not thinking, of being able to rest, before Cicero tiptoed in. Her footsteps faltered, then tremors shook the floor as she thundered over to my fallen body. Her knees hit the floor. Ouch! Ouch, don't shake me, it hurts... I couldn't find the strength to say that, but I could and did find the strength to reach up and backhand her cheek.

"Ah—but Ciane! Ciane, are you okay? No, you need to get up. Come. You need to..."

"I'm fine." I grunted, took a breath, and after another would-be silence were it not for her jagged gasps, I managed to groan out another word: "Leave."

An eternity went by, an eternity of willing the girl to leave but not finding the strength to open my mouth again. An eternity of her blinking down at me, her wide-eyed stare burning worry into me as I tried to relax and forget her. An eternity of gritted teeth from me and hesitation from her and then she stumbled to her feet.

The door closed. What little light had slipped in from the other rooms slipped away. I breathed.

A second later the door opened and she came in again, and I swear I was going to throw both my shoes at her. Instead of talking Cicero bundled a few blankets at my side, then knelt and began to spread them over me, one by one, tucking them in around me and making sure I was comfortable. Her fingers ran once through my hair. With my eyes closed and the blankets much too hot and uncomfortable and scratchy, for that matter, I pretended to be asleep and content and that everything was fine. Air whistled through my nose, whistled a tune of the only two notes I could manage to fake. Cicero stepped back for a moment, and when the door closed it left me again in darkness and in a more permanent peace.

Against my wandering mind and general uneasiness I shut down all emotions, and I slept.

For about seventeen minutes; that's exactly how long it felt like before something slammed into my stomach. "Hu--!" My eyes jerked open to the grey floor and black world, my hands snapping to my torso and muscles clenching against the pain. My insides twisted as slowly, slowly, building red rage in my white hot blood with every second, I looked up into the face of my cruel, vicious attacker.

Cicero giggled.

"What was that!" The pulsing pain started to slow and I could sit up and look at the girl without wanted to brutally tear off each one of her limbs and making her choke on them. Well, I could almost do that. I winced and wondered with sick, justified glee what she would look like with her leg stuffed into her throat. "Cicero. Whatever you're doing, stop it and get the fotch away from me right now."

"Well..." She stared down at her hands. "That wouldn't be good for you."

I stared at her. What would she look like with a severed arm in her windpipe?

Cicero ducked her head, clasped her hands, unclasped them, laced her fingers, then began to rock back and forth, back and forth on her heels. Like the sea. A scared child confessing to his mother. I stopped massaging my stomach and watched her. "Ciane, what I mean is, it's better for you to practice Bunraku so you don't get hurt in the Tounrium and--"

"How do you know I have a Hold?" I sat up straight, my back against something hard against me, my hands clutching themselves into fists at my side. "What if you're wrong? What if I don't? Because I don't! Blaisius is entering, and Duke is entering, but I couldn't enter even if I wanted to and that's what you'll believe, okay?"

"I just thought... You were entering so..." Cicero glanced up once, was the first person to ever shrink back at my perfected icy glare, and turned her toes both inward. We met eyes again and she met mine with a swallowed shriek.

Then she threw herself at me. What was she, crazy? I rolled out of the way and knocked her to the side with my arm, hard enough to leave a bruise across her perfect skin. Sobs seemed to roll from her mouth and tears from her squeezed-shut eyes as she stumbled to her feet for the door. "I'm sorry Ciane. I just wanted to help. You'll get hurt, I know you will. Please don't get hurt. I just met you, please don't get hurt..."

Her voice carried in falsetto even after she stepped into the hall, and continued to carry when I shut the door in her face--shut, not slammed. Suddenly I wasn't in a fuming mood anymore. My arms and legs protested with every aching movement, and my back made a loud pop! that shot all the way up my spine as I lowered myself back into the blankets. I hissed and tried not to think of all the things now forcing themselves into my mind, the heavy emotions that suddenly wanted to settle over me. Sleep couldn't come fast enough.

The problem was, it never came at all.

xXoOoXx

When I opened the door the first thing I saw was Blaisius doing a small skip down the hallway, and I wanted to grab one of Henrie's arrows and stab him.

"Have a nice sl—oh. I suppose you didn't." Blaisius wisely directed his eyes from my face and the blotchy redness that spotted it; hours of screaming into my hands and crying and wishing for sleep, hours of pacing the floor and going out for water and then changing my mind and locking myself in my room again. Hours.

Happily for my mood, though, it appeared Henrie didn't rest much either. Like tangled rotten brown seaweed her hair dangled to a point down her back, and she could have been wearing lining around her eyes, the bags were so deep. A frosty paleness had come over her features. She stumped right past me, and a nearby clock ticked a moment's passing before I noticed she wasn't wearing her cloak.

My eyes snapped open.

"Henrie? W-wait, Henrie, what are you wearing? Henrie? I know you can hear me!" I caught up to her and grabbed her arm with renewed vigor—to an extent—and I tried to tug her back to me. She shook off and pushed her way into the kitchen, and into the thick smell of roasting bird and skinned potatoes and chocolate melted into a cup and then heated over a coal fire. The entire kitchen swam with a smoky aroma, not as if Cicero had burnt the food, but as if we were about to be served a fine meal.

Besides, it wasn't Cicero cooking anyway.

With this realization off in my head like the ding of a bell, I lifted my head from the plate of potatoes into the face of the young man who was slathering them with butter and honey and sprinkling them with olives. When I was bent he was two heads taller than me, and when I stood up and backed over to the fall wall he was but one. Ha. Through narrowed eyes I found myself wondering how someone so thin, like a branch off an olive tree, could look as healthy as he did; Blaisius and Henrie looked perpetually sick and on the verge of succumbing to some horrible, fatal disease. The answer would have been found in his bony—nay, angled—face, manly man brown hair cut in a girlish fashion about his shoulders, and deep eyes the color of those olives. It would have been found there if I'd dared to look there, but for the moment my mind was on other things. Not exactly olives.

"Who the fotch are you?"

That's what I said to him.

My hands were gripping the windowsill behind me, ready to snap it off and use it as a weapon if the need arose as I believed it would. Henrie, however, didn't join me by knocking an arrow and aiming it for his throat. Instead, she smiled. I think I nearly died. "Lyrien. A nice meal, I assume we're invited to feast with you and your sister?"

"Cicero would decapitate me if I insisted on any other way. Could you?" Lyrien held up the platter of potatoes, and I stepped away from the window long enough to let him pass them into my hand and smell the steam that curled around my fingers. Ah, I could live forever just off the aroma and still call myself in paradise! There was a long silence. I looked up, and he cocked his head. "You're kind of burning your hand."

Heat seared through my fingers and with a yelp I flung the plate in any direction. Potatoes flew towards the ceiling; Lyrien managed to catch the platter before it shattered on the floor at his feet, but the potatoes that rained down on us were lost. Blaisius caught one, blew on it, and ate it whole.

Lyrien set the platter on the table with a small laugh, not with annoyance but as if nothing could have pleased him more, and sailed past me. My nose detected the smell of flowers and butter in his hair, and my nose wanted to sink into the smell and be lost in there forever. My mind wanted me to bark at him to wash his hair and to not make it so girlish smelling. I settled for quiet muttering to myself as I sat down, wrapped my fingers in cloth and waited for the heated pain to pass. Lyrien turned to Blaisius, who was happily licking the honey form his fingers. "I'm glad you like them. Could you run to the next building and ask the neighbors for some ice for...his fingers? Tell them they're burned."

"They're not burned." I glared at the ground. Don't pity me, bow to me. Don't pity me, bow to me... "And I'm fine. I don't need ice."

"If you say so." Lyrien smiled down at me but I refused to look because I knew he'd probably just have perfect teeth too and that would make my own teeth feel bad. My teeth would probably start crying. And then I'd have a big puddle of saliva from my crying teeth and that wouldn't help anyone. "Blaisius, fetch the ice anyway."

"What! But I don--"

"Time to make a fresh batch of potatoes!" Lyrien bent in front of a cabinet as I leaped to my feet, the 'bandage' coming undone at the edges—which was fine, because my hand didn't even hurt anymore. "Let's see, perhaps I shall add some more spice this time. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg."

"Wonderful." Blaisius' eyes glinted as he slipped out of the door. If I reached for him to pull him back, my fingers really would start hurting, so I kept them to myself and kicked my feet as hard and as loud as possibly against the legs of chair. Thunk. Thunk. A pause. Thunk. No one seemed to notice, and no one seemed to be annoyed, and Lyrien began to whistle. My interest did not hold out for very long.

Lyrien snapped his head up with a wrinkled brow but Henrie, who'd begun to rearrange some bowls on a shelf, did not stop working or return the look, even when he said, "Who are you?"

"Henrie." She stuck a small bowl inside of a larger one and then reversed the order, only to see that it did not work as well. "I've already deduced who you are, so if you're not Lyrien I suggest you'd better get out of here before Cicero gives me permission to turn your body into a mangled, holey corpse. Or before I do it anyway."

"No, I am." Lyrien nodded with a wide quirk of the lips, then shot a finger at me. "And who are you?"

"Ciane." I let no emotion drip into my voice. I gripped the cloth tighter to the invisible burn that now pretended to sting.

"Boy or girl? I can't tell."

"Boy." I tightened the cloth until it drained the blood from my skin, and from my face too. There were a thousand things I could have dwelt on, but I was lost in his easy tone, his voice like a melody that soothed over the urge to stab something and then grow a mustache. Strange urges. I stopped yanking the cloth. "Thank you."

"I think I should like to give you a haircut later. Good." Lyrien settled back on his knees, content, and reached for a box of something in the back of the cabinet. Inside the box were little cloth bundles filled with spices that he held to his nose, eyes closed, and inhaled as if they were the spices of his life. "Ah. Good, now I know your names. Here, catch."

He flung the purple bundle at me, and I readied myself, and all three of us watched it sail between my hands and land on the floor. The clock struck another minute gone. Lyrien shrugged and waited for me to pick it up and throw it back at him to prove my strength. He caught it of course, effortlessly, and handed it back to me. "You'll be in charge of adding the spices when I say add, all right?"

"I've done more difficult things."

Whether he next graced his mouth with a wry smile, or a genuinely pained smile, I could not tell. "I'm sure you have. Do you know where my sister is?"

I pulled the string on the bundle and peered inside at the little green grasshopper heads. They were supposed to add flavor. I supposed. "No."

"Well, I do. She's out working and then buying you chocolate in case you get hungry, and apparently as an apology for something she did? She didn't bind and gag you, did she? I hate it when that happens." Lyrien tucked a lock of hair below his ear, but far more still hung in his face and eyes. "Add."

I stared at him. Then I adjusted my glasses to make sure I wasn't staring at a psychopath out of his mind, related to the other psychopath Cicero—which I probably was, but he seemed nice enough so I was willing to grant him a benefit of the doubt this one time.

"Add. Please."

"There are no potatoes to add them to!"

"Then add them to my mouth." Lyrien stooped on one knees and opened his mouth wide--"Aah!"--and I made a face at him and tossed the grasshopper heads to Henrie, and as she rolled his eyes Lyrien grabbed my waist and spun me around. His chest was to my chest, and I could only hope that I'd wound the cloth tight enough; his mouth was at my ear, and I could only hope that he hadn't bad breath. It smelled like humidity and peppermint with a dash of salt. I pulled away, or tried to, but his gentle hands smoothed themselves over mine. He was so close I could feel his eyebrow raise. "Are you sure you're a boy?"

"Catch!" Henrie threw the bag at Lyrien's head, and when he let go of me and went after it with a grin and good aim, my lungs began to work and again I could breathe. I think I died a little death back there.

I don't ever want to be that close to anyone ever again.

"Ouch. I think you hurt my hand. No, you did, see?" I held up the cloth as I bound it unnecessarily over my palm, and he paled.

"Are you okay?" Two of his strides brought him right to me, too close, too close, too too close. I shoved him away and he stepped back obediently, like a trained puppy, with big trained puppy eyes and big trained puppy innocence, crafted to deceive. Henrie slid onto the table, pulling her cloak over her dangling legs like a blanket, and I noticed her clothing to take my mind off of Lyrien. He was already back to his potatoes.

Her sleeveless black shirt showed thin arms, paler even than Blaisius and the thinnest of us all. Her archer gloves were again stuffed into the bottom of her quiver, so it was her tiny white hands that showed over the top of her cloak. Her pants flared slightly at the bottom her leg but came together sharply at her ankle, and a thick black-and-silver belt kept her shirt ever just so. The kinks and twists and knots in her hair that had formed from sleep, or lack of it, and had been there not an hour ago, had smoothed themselves out in the heat of the kitchen. She'd drawn half of it up and left the rest hanging, and Lyrien looked up.

At the same moment I realized that Henrie might have had some trace of 'girl' in her, Lyrien realized she may have had some trace of 'pretty.' I snorted. He offered her a piece of baked bread still hot from the back of the fire. She accepted a corner of a slice and then he passed the bread to me.

"Want to know something?" he said as a I lifted up a large piece and sent tendrils of steam into the air. With the bread in my mouth, I looked up, and Lyrien smiled. "I'm losing my hearing. So slow I can't even feel it except for when my ears hurt and bleed. And do you want to know what else?"

I was trying my hardest not to pity him, or feel sorry for him—we all have our own problems, 'tis the truth—but the bread fell out of my agape mouth as I answered with a dumb nod. He caught the slice just under my chin and gently pressed it back on my tongue, between my teeth. "Bite," and I bit down into it, but what had once tasted of cherry and honey and flour now tasted of dirt, and soot, and ash. Lyrien leaned back on his elbows. "The what else is that my eyesight is going too. It may have been a birth defect or it may have been from the Bunraku camp—I didn't escape that dungeon until I was thirteen and I didn't know my mother, so I don't know. Cicero has the worst of it, though. She's going to die."

The bread fell again. It landed at our feet, untouched.

"Your face is rather blurry." Lyrien bent closer. "Are you okay?"

I squeaked, and then Henrie grabbed my arm and I squeaked again; she clapped one hand over my mouth—a hand that did not even move when I sunk my teeth into her flesh—and pulled me towards the door with little resistance and no effort. Her voice managed to be steady as she stopped right in front of the door. "It's nearly midnight, Lyrien, and I thank you but there's no time for bre—dinner. We'll catch Blaisius on our way out, pop over to the hospital and then go register. You should probably be asleep by the time we return."

Lyrien's eyes misted over and a gentle breeze caught his hair and blew it around his face. He was a child, lonely, devastated, who'd just been told his dog had run away and then been made into a fine stew by the neighbors and we are all invited over to eat with them, isn't that wonderful? His arms hung at his sides, too long for his body. I pulled away from Henrie for the smallest moment, but she was fast to grab me back by the collar, where it would choke.

"All right." Lyrien smiled. "If the hospital will let you in."

Henrie released me, but I did not run as she spun her cloak about her shoulders and fixed her quiver and bow. She shook her hair back with a knowing smirk before the hood went up. "Oh, they shall."

As Henrie and I stepped into the moonlight, the white light seemed to glow off the grass, and the trees, and the ground, like frost, but when I put my hand to it I saw that no beginnings of snow had fallen; it was just a trick of the light. I drew back my hand and shook my head. Henrie turned away from me as if ashamed, but I did not ask what, only stared at my feet and then at her.

"It's not really frost." I ran the water over my fingers and imagined it washing away everything welling inside of me, all the things I'd done for which the guilt was starting to set in. I bit my lip. "Only dew and light."

"It was so mysterious until you had to go and ruin the illusion. Why do you do this to yourself?" Henrie gave what might have been a small sigh, but neither of us moved as if out of fear of disturbing the seemingly wintry background. I hugged my arms in the wind, and breath pushed through my lips like little puffs of jin smoke, poisoning the air and everyone around it. My stare at the ground was cold and bitter, for if I wished hard enough I knew a hole would open up right underneath me and suck me away into precious darkness. Henrie watched the ground too.

"Ciane, you look cold." She shifted on her feet. "Do you want my cloak?"

"No."

"Here, take it."

"Give it to Blaisius."

Henrie, after a moment, relaxed her hands from her cloak and looked back down at her feet. Overhead birds streaked silver through the clouds that masked the moon and shadowed us all: the trees, Henrie, the small places where Cicero's blood shined just beneath the frost. When the clouds moved again I looked away.

"Henrie."

"Yes."

"Do you really think...Cicero...what her brother—what Lyrien said about himself, and her..." I looked up to see her running the toe of her boot over the blood and frost, her face all shadows and darkness even in the flooding moonlight. Her arms were hugged to herself.

"It's true." She shifted so her hair hung low and hid what few emotions might have betrayed her coldness on her face. "There's no reason for it not to be."

"I know." I puffed into the air and imagined again the air to be poison, twisted and curling around itself and casting black death over the entire world without a sound. A silent killer. I watched it dissolve harmlessly into the air. I touched the blood on my lip and let it drip to the frost, to mix with Cicero's and then maybe she'd be saved. It was a stupid hope. "I don't know why I asked."

"I wouldn't want you to tell me." Henrie turned her head. "You have your reasons, somewhere."

I said nothing.

"Come. Let's go find Blaisius."