Title: The Sound of Snowfall
A/N: The Jewel's edits are crawling along at a depressing rate (think a paragraph a month--I'll be done sometime before the next millennium) and I was desperate to get to writing again, so have this incredibly silly short story about Jade in the meantime. Those of you who are, or who know, good betas who are the kind that would like the Jewel, please leave a message--I'm desperate!
Anyway, regarding this story...
If you haven't read the Jewel: You're in luck! This story requires absolutely no prior knowledge. There might be one joke a few chapters in you won't understand and that's it.
If you have read the Jewel: A few of the minor details reflect the EDITED version. They are fully explained in the story--but I'm warning you ahead of time so you don't go "Uh, that's not what I remember." Just smile and nod.
"I've never seen the like!" Dad shouted as he stumbled into the house, shaking snow out of his hair with one gloved hand while he yanked at the door with the other. The wind wasn't having that, though, and Sasha and I had to lend our strength to his to get it shut. Even standing by the open door for a few heartbeats chilled me to the quick, and we all did the cold dance, stomping our feet and blowing on our hands as Mother fussed around us, snatching Dad's wet things as she shooed us towards the fire.
"Can't see more than three strides from the door for all the white in the world. Didn't Pit tell us it would be a light winter?" Dad stomped over to the stairs and shouted up them, "Didn't you, Pit?"
"Indoor voice," Mother said firmly, as Dad shouted, "What?" Pit, sounding close to tears, cried, "That's what they toles me!"
Sasha was up the stairs in a heartbeat, cooing comfort, and we all glared at Dad. He shrugged sheepishly and yelled, "Not blaming you, dear, just wondering!"
"Well, the damage is already done," Mother said, her voice boding ill for anyone who had just upset my little brother, and gestured me sharply towards the kitchen. Dad sighed and shuffled his feet. I grinned at him, shrugging as I obediently trudged off.
The kitchen was warm and wonderful after the chill, and I held my hands over the hearth, soaking in double pleasure from both the light and the scent of the stew bubbling over it. It was lamb with carrots and greens, boiling in beef broth and herbs from last spring's garden. Mother must have been in the middle of slicing a potato to add to the pot, because there was a knife and a half-whole spud set out on the counter. After my hands felt like my own again, I picked up the knife and resumed the job.
Then, someone knocked on the door.
Right away, Pit stopped crying and Mother stopped yelling and I stopped chopping, because it was just too strange to be real. Not only was the worst storm in Dad's memory roaring outside, but our house was dead center in the Blue Gorge. We rarely saw visitors even in the summer, when the passes were neither twenty men high with snow or twenty deep in flooding rains. It was probably just a broken branch falling against the porch, if anything at all, but we were all stunned quiet anyway.
And then it happened again. "Are you going to answer the door," Sasha shouted, "or do I have to come all the way down there t' do it myself?"
I stepped out into the great room again to see Dad shake himself all over and grab the knob again. With a grunt, he braced himself mightily against the wind to make it swing open only partway. There was a lot of snow through the crack, and darkness, but no one visible from where I stood. "Hello?" he called. He jerked suddenly, said, "Well, I'll be," and let the gale take the door fully.
There was someone standing out there, standing about a handspand shorter than me and wrapped in a long hooded cloak. The cloak was some dark furry material, and it took me a moment to place it because I had only seen it once before: velvet. Either the stuff was a lot warmer than I had thought, or our guest had to be about three heartbeats away from freezing to death.
Maybe they already were dead, because they were standing there motionless in front of our doorway, even as the door smacked against the side of the house with a thunder-crack bang. "Come in, come in!" Mother called, not letting the freezing wind deter her as she bustled forward and put a hand where the stranger's arm presumably was. "What are you waiting for?"
"My pardon," the stranger said, and we all jumped that time. I had not ever thought to describe someone as sounding like syrup before, but this voice was that dark and sweet and low. I thought it might be a woman speaking, but I could not be sure, and that too was something I hadn't encountered before. "But I have no sense of urgency to fade through the shadow of death via terminal collision upon a keen silver shaft."
Mother's mouth parted, her brow wrinkling, and Dad's eyes darkened as he said, "Now see here." I realized, startled, that they hadn't understood the stranger's words at all, and that if I didn't say anything, they were likely to turn him or her back out into the night.
"It's my fault, Dad," I interrupted quickly, with a nod to the stranger. "I didn't mean to bring the knife out here. I was just chopping potatoes. No one is going to harm you here."
"Well, if the matter is decided," and in stepped the hooded figure. It was obvious Dad still wasn't too sure about the situation, but he needed to shut the door away, so with a heave he did just that. Now, strange or not, our visitor was our guest and bound to our hospitality.
"Can I take your coat?" Mother asked uncertainly, and the stranger moved further away from us all, as if trying to blend into the corners of the room unlit by candles.
"Ah," they said. "As much beloved would I be to partake in such an action of uncountable hospitality, there is a—dilemma of a delicate nature. Before any such occurrence might, as it were, occur, I find myself in pressing need of a mask." When none of us were able to say anything at all, the stranger added, a little more loudly as if we were hard of hearing, "Anything of approximation will do. A sack with two holes in it. A triangular scrap of cloth. A rectangular scrap of cloth that, with uncommon imagination and strenuous exertion of the mind, might be rendered into a triangle."
"I can make a mask, actually, if that's what you really want." The soft voice made me grin even before I turned to see Lee, sneaking quiet as a cat up behind me. Everyone had to smile when they looked at Lee. She was just so pretty, with her brown curls and red cheeks, and if our future children were half as clever or good with their hands as my sweetheart, I would die a happy man. Of course she could make a mask; she could make anything. "Is there a particular color you would like?" She fetched up at my side and flashed me a shy smile. "I have blue, green, and brown."
"Green, then," said the stranger, and for the first time after coming out of a blinding storm into a strangers' house, sounded grateful. "Two handspands in width—well, perhaps three of yours—and one between the eyes, if you would."
"It will just take a moment," Lee promised, and shifted her skirts to the side as she went up the stairs.
That left the rest of us to stand in awkward silence by the door. "Would you like something warm to drink in the meanwhile?" Mother asked the guest.
They sighed deeply. "As birds lift their head to crow at the sun, so do my desires take wing swiftly, and yet abstain."
"Mm," Mother replied, blinking and pressing her hands against her sides. "Well."
I don't think any of us had ever before met someone as strange as this stranger, but it really seemed that me and Lee were the only ones who any idea what they were saying. I winced on the inside, because I knew I was the least of us to handle niceties and manners. I never had been very keen on entertaining, either. But since it was to me the task fell all the same, I put on a game smile and said, "At the least, will you come warm yourself by the fire? I'll even put the knife away so you aren't worried."
"In my heart of hearts, the threat of a stripling shaking branches against the wind bears little concern," the stranger said dryly, "but do not take the offer amiss." With three great strides the stranger passed up Mother and Dad, crossing the threshold into the kitchen. For a brief moment they paused beside me, and I thought I saw a pair of eyes glinting inside the hood before they passed. I felt awfully stupid thinking it—of course the stranger had eyes, not that there was anything against not having so, Thed up the mountain go along just fine without—but it seemed to me that I had never seen any sight so wondrous and eerie.
Since the stranger didn't seem overly concerned about my knife any longer, I shrugged and finished cutting up the potato. He or she planted themselves in front of the fire with their back to me, leaning as closely as possible to the flame without personally catching afire.
From the corner of my eye I could see Mother and Dad hovering by the door, watching us anxiously, and I grinned a little to myself. I was sure to foul this all up somehow, but it was kind of a thrill, being the important one in the household for a moment: the only one able to communicate with our strange guest.
I scooped up a handful of potato slices and touched the stranger's cloak lightly, nudging him or her to the side so I could drop them in the pot. The cloak was indeed velvet, smooth as I remembered, though completely soaked through. "If you're concerned about your face," I said, enjoying the solid plop of each slice dropping into the broth, "you could leave your hood up but swing the rest of the cloak over your shoulder. That way the rest of you underneath could dry some."
"Though I've not the slightest apprehension your utterances are for any but my health," the stranger said, sounding faintly amused, "the social disease of humility would throw me asunder in an instant."
It occurred to me, as I gathered the remaining slices from the table, that the stranger probably could talk normally, but chose not to. If I really let my imagination run away from me—something no one, not even Lee, had ever guessed could happen—I could almost guess he or she was testing me, waiting to see when I would get tripped up. "It's your health," I replied, shrugging and adding the rest of the potatoes to the pot, "but I don't think embarrassment is going to kill you any more quickly than death will."
"That is an unlikely happenstance." The murmur caught me by surprise, because for the first time in my life I had just caught onto the fact someone was hiding meaning from what they were telling me. I didn't know if I had picked up social graces from the rabbits in my trapping line in the weeks since I had made it down to the town, but this conversing thing was easy. Wait until Lee heard.
I looked around the countertop until I found a spoon, which I used to sample the soup. At my side, the stranger awkwardly shifted, seeming less sure about their decision to keep on the wet cape, but still did not move to take it off. "Mother," I shouted over my shoulder, "did you put in any onions?"
She didn't a reply, but after a moment Dad stuck his head into the kitchen. "Your mother is gone upstairs to help Lee," he said, glancing between me and the stranger's back a few times, "but I know there were four onions out the last I checked, so if there's no less than that, I reckon not."
Four onions were clustered around the pine board we used for cutting, so I grabbed the knife again and started on those. The stranger made a soft noise almost as soon as I began and shifted away, though no further than the fire's heat stretched.
"Sorry," I said. "Just, whatever you do, don't rub your eyes—it makes it worse, believe me." I was going to drop the skins into the fire like I usually did, but decided better on it for the stranger's sake, and put them in a bowl covered with a plate. They watched me do so without comment, or at least I assumed so; the hood was pointed my way, at least.
I also noticed the cloak start to shake, and I dropped knife more quickly than I intended, making a sharp rattle that made us both jump. "Look," I pleaded, "please take off your wet things. If it's that much of a trouble, I can leave and finish dinner later."
"Much more to my shame were I to impose further in this matter," the stranger murmured, and I imagined I saw a flash of those strange eyes again, deep in the hood's darkness. For a moment we stood angled towards each other, and just as I was going to flee the room rather than prolong our discomfort any longer, the stranger said in a low voice, "Can you prevent anyone else from entering?"
"Sure," I replied with a relieved grin. "Dad, don't let anyone in here, okay?"
"Yep," was the reply, and I heard his boots clomp over to the stairs.
Thinking that he or she might still be embarrassed about having me around, I gestured to the board and said, "Okay, I'm just going to finish chopping these onions. Do what you need to and don't pay me any heed. Just let me know if you need my help."
I made good on my words as the stranger murmured, "Many are the seasons that have flown by since I needed a nursemaid to unclothe me." A few moments later, a rustling of cloth began that continued for some time. I hadn't reckoned how difficult it would be to resist the curiosity to turn around and at least find out if our guest was a man or woman. In the end I cut up all four onions when I knew we would only want half that, just to give me something to keep my mind away.
"Would it be all right," I called out, "if I put these in the pot now?"
"Go ahead," the stranger said, with such unexpected simplicity I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to absolutely trust those words, or absolutely not. The soup needed onions, though, so I brushed the pieces into another bowl and turned.
There was one time—it was the kind of occurrence you only let happen once, believe me—when I got between a rutting bull moose and his intended mate, and received a hoof in the chest that threw me across the clearing. It left a big, ugly dent above my heart, and I still had a half-moon scar to this day. I thought these two experiences felt similar, and indeed I probably stared at the stranger like he was the bull moose returned again, back for further vengeance.
It was definitely a him. He hadn't stripped down to his underclothes, but underneath his unsuitable cloak he was wearing an even less suitable white shirt that clung to his skin in certain places and billowed in others, and was furthermore cut down the center all the way to his waist, so if he had been a girl I certainly would have noticed. His breeches did all of the shirt's clinging and none of its billowing, and made the gender thing even more obvious.
His eyes and hair were a shade of green I had never seen before, one so bright that it made my eyes water more than the onion. No wonder the glimpses I had had seemed strange—those were not a human's eyes. His skin was the deepest shade of ink. I have seen folks of all colors in the village, but no one had ever had skin like this, so dark I imagined the night sky paled in comparison. There was only one race of beings that color, and one that should absolutely not be in our little cottage kitchen.
"Um," I whispered. "Should I kneel?"
He made a gesture than on anyone less graceful would probably have been impatience and said, "Don't fill your head with fluff and cobwebs. If the waves of sound that hit my ears still function in this world as it stands, your soup needs onions." The syrup voice was now so much vinegar, and I hastened to obey, upending the entire bowl at once into the pot. He turned around, resolutely ignoring me now, and held out his hands above the fire again.
His cloak had been dropped at the floor at his feet, dangerously close to the hearth, and this simple problem shocked my brain into thought again. "Let's get this hung up, then," I babbled, grabbing the cloth, spinning until I found an empty pot peg, and willed my hands to stop trembling long enough to get it affixed there.
Numen, numen, my mind was chanting. They say whoever looks upon their face becomes obsessed, said it happened to a prince over in Redfort, and though I didn't feel obsessed I was rattled. It was only natural, when one of the Emperor's guardians appeared at your doorstep in the middle of a storm.
When I glanced over my shoulder, unable to help sneaking another peek, I noticed that his shoulders were still shaking and he was rubbing his hands again and again. Spirit or not, it seemed that everyone got cold. Without thinking, I shrugged out of the wool coat I had forgotten to remove earlier and dropped it around his shoulders. I made sure not to touch him in any way as I did so, fairly confident that was forbidden. "Here," I said inanely, "should be warm."
He silently grabbed the sides and pulled it close around him. I figured that he must be bad off if someone who dressed so foppishly was willing to put up with my coat, which was nearing threadbare in some places and hadn't been properly washed since fall's freeze had iced the river. I tossed another log into the hearth, just in case. "Many thanks," was his soft reply.
Unsure what my mother would want me to do with two prematurely chopped onions, I dug around in the kitchen for another plate to slide over the bowl, where at least the fumes might not bother our guest. When the numen spoke again, I nearly dropped the whole mess, and had to thrust the bowl onto the counter to keep it safe. "It seems passing strange that a cat as bright-starry as you keeps your jaws shut against all multitude of questions."
I shrugged and opened the kitchen shutters just enough to scoop some snow off the side of the house, which I dropped on the oak board before my fingers could freeze. Finding a rag, I began to scrub the onion bits off of it, melting the snow into water. "Would be rude," I said, "especially before you get warm."
"And when I am?" the stranger replied. I could not tell his mood at all, if the numen even had moods like I did, or someone as bad at reading emotions as I was could tell. If he were poking fun at me, though, it wouldn't be the first time someone did—nor did I ever mind—nor would it ever keep me from speaking my mind if I did.
"Then I'll be wondering if you'll want my parents' bed, which is big but all the way in the attic and a mite cold at night, or my cot, which is in the den," I replied. A thought came to me and I snapped my fingers—Mother had specifically mentioned wanting to try our neighbor's ginger in this soup. I opened the earthenware jars beneath the window, one after the other, looking for the brown and gnarly roots. "Also, whether you mind goat's milk with your dinner, since I think we're out of brew until tomorrow night at the earliest, because Dad's friends came over unexpected-like last week. Or I can melt some snow for tea, of course."
He laughed—it was such an unexpectedly rich, warm sound that I had to turn and smile, even though I knew this time it was laughter at my expense. His teeth were sharply white against his dark skin, and I decided suddenly that numen probably did have feelings like the rest of us. It was something in his voice as he said, "And all butterfly thoughts of how I came rapping upon yonder door in the dead of evening have fluttered right on out, yes?"
"I don't think knowing how a numen did something would really help me or my family," I pointed out, "so if you don't want to tell me yourself, no, I'm not really curious about that. I mean," I said, starting to back-paddle as the smile dropped abruptly from the stranger's face, "if you want to explain, or if it's important, please do so. It's just I'm not going to do the rudeness of asking."
"I am not a numen," he snapped, and his eyes became so vibrant I couldn't look towards him any more and had to stare at the floor. Before I could point out that he was obviously wrong, I heard Lee's voice on the stairs, announcing cheerfully to Dad that the mask was done and would he please let her pass.
"I'll get it," I said, both to assure our guest I wasn't going to go back on my word and to remove myself from the room entirely. The sight of Lee, one hand wound in her skirts and the other clutching a green scrap to her chest, immediately made me feel better, and I fancy I was able to appear quite composed as I came over to them. "How does it look, Lee?"
She sighed, her shoulders rounding in a way that made my heart ache, and said, "I had to guess about so much, but—it will do the job, I hope. Is—are they okay?"
So she hadn't been able to figure out our guest's gender either. I started to grin, and then I remembered what they said about numen, and stiffened. It wasn't that I thought Lee was going to become ensnared by our visitor's appearance, but if this stranger had any designs to capture her heart and then leave without it when the snows thawed, I was not going to stand for it. I hoped that Lee's mask really wasn't good after all, and that the stranger would insist on hiding his face in our garden shed until the spring.
"Warming up," I said, nodding, and took the mask back to the kitchen. Handing our guest his request diverted his attention, so I stole a moment to give him a long, hard look-over. I didn't think that he was the type for girls to sigh over—his features were delicate and pointed, without the square jaw and muscles I had sometimes heard my sister and Lee exclaim about—but I really wasn't a judge of such things. The green hair, brilliant even in the flickering red firelight, seemed an obvious girl-repellent. Maybe I didn't have to worry about him stealing anyone's feelings after all.
"No prior words fell from lips about this green being plaid," our guest murmured, but, plaid or not, he pulled the mask across his face and tied the string behind his head. Lee obviously had done the best she could, and I wondered if the stranger appreciated the neat stitching that hemmed the sides. The eye holes were a little off, however, giving him a slightly cross eyed appearance. In my opinion, this was all to the best.
He ran a hand through his absurd hair, smoothing it down, and smiled for the first time since he had taken off his hood. "To myself I am returned," he pronounced. He shrugged out of my coat, passing it back to me, and then sauntered out of the room. I heard three gasps from the hall, and the patter of feet running across the loft to come join the rest of the family at glimpsing our guest.
I thought about going out there myself, mostly to run damage controls on his pretty looks, but I could already hear Lee's voice in my head—I'm free to oogle whomever I want, she would say, so just you go mind your business. I winced at the very thought of her displeasure and continued to clean the kitchen instead, the part near the door so I could eavesdrop.
"Holy smokes!" Sasha shouted, and I heard a few additional clumps on the stairs. "How did you survive in the cold dressed like that?"
"Ah." Our guest sounded somewhat taken aback, and I grinned at the spoon I was scrubbing. "Plans did not originally include tromping around in a gale more ice than a winter festival, or my attire would have been more fitting. Surely luck was yanking me along to your humble abode."
"Is the mask fine?" Lee's worried voice. "I wasn't sure what color ribbon you wanted."
If he was mean to her... "It is very serviceable," the guest replied, a shade more kindly than he had spoken before. I relaxed and set to straightening the wooden dishes. Still—if he was going to be extra nice to Lee, this could be a long, long winter.
"Well, we hope our lodgings will suit you," Dad said, with a sharp clap of his hands. "Wes told you about the sleeping arrangements, right? Have you decided where you'll stay?"
"Oh, I would be loath to impress imposition on you folk any longer. As soon as my cloak stops shedding more water than a punctured cistern, I should be on my way again—I'm due in Gladberry in a few shades."
His words were met with a long silence. "Dear," Mother, the only one who could conceivably call a numen by a sweetname, said, "the pass to Gladberry won't be open for a good three weeks yet. With the snows this bad, you won't even make it back to the village."
"Yeah," Sasha chirped in, "I just checked the view from the attic, and the drifts are over your head. Even flying, you wouldn't be able to get over the canyon walls, because the wind up there is bound to be a hundred times more than what's down here."
"Let one misconception be erased from your minds swiftly," the stranger said in a voice that shook, "I am not a numen. Flying is not in the gameplan, now or ever." I finally did stick my head out of the kitchen. He was standing there with his arms wrapped tightly around himself, seeming even more delicate than he had in the kitchen, even if his chin was jutted out proudly and his eyes alight. My family and Lee were perched variously across the stairs and railing, leaning at every angle so they could fit and still see him. It would make a good sketch, I reckoned—an allegorical something-or-other about mortals meeting an angel.
"Wes!" Pit shouted happily when he saw me, breaking the picture as he scooched his butt down the stairs and ran over. He buried his head of blond curls into my tunic and said, muffled, "Sorry about the storm."
"It's fine, love," I told him, "but this is the time to be quiet, okay?" He nodded, pulling back to stare at me with wide and solemn eyes, and I smiled and raised my head.
"What do you mean, you aren't?" Sasha asked, her brow wrinkling as she twined a lock of pale hair between her fingers thoughtfully. "You sure look it."
Mother gasped loudly, startling all of us, and covered her mouth with her hands. "You're a—one of them," she managed. "One of the Crowned Jewel's?" Whatever that meant, she did not look happy. I think we were all surprised at Mother's atypical outburst—all except the stranger, that is, who just looked resigned.
"I am," he said, taking a small step back from everyone as he nodded. "My appointment in Gladberry is of such high importance it's barely visible on the scale, and whether or not this pass is open, I must get there. You need not fear your family will be exposed to me long." He sounded a touch sarcastic at the last.
Sasha and I exchanged a long look, and as usual, I decided to take the burden of social leper. "Exposed to what?" I asked.
Mother immediately fled to my side, and I winced, wondering what kind of tongue-lashing I was about to receive. Instead, she planted herself squarely between myself and the guest, and said, "I'm not letting you touch my son! Or—or my husband!"
Our guest looked distinctly pained. "There is eminently no fear of either situation ever occurring," he replied. I was more perplexed than ever, and after a brief glance at my face, he said, "Your mother refers to the oft-held and patently untrue rumor that all of the Jewel's courtesans prefer their own kind. She fears your virtue is unsafe with me. What she fears in regards to her husband, I can not entirely say."
Our guest had been speaking rather plainly this whole time, and especially in that last part to me, but for the first time I found myself time utterly unable to tell what he was saying. Sasha, though, slapped a hand on the railing and shouted, "You sleep with people for money?"
He looked distinctly pained as he replied, "In the very basest sense, I suppose."
"Why?" I blurted out, and winced as everyone turned to look at me. I shrugged a little and said, "It doesn't seem too productive, all that sleeping."
"Wes," Lee hissed, her lovely eyes narrowed over her red cheeks, and Dad scratched the back of his neck, looking awkward. I realized after a moment that everyone was upset not because I was just being rude—although there was that too—but also because, as usual, they thought I was stupid. I sighed loudly, and said, "Of course, I was referring to bonking."
"Of course," the stranger echoed, and for a moment I saw the white flash of his smile before his expression closed again. "Productive," he said, lingering over each syllable as if they amused him, "or not, it earns money. Now, dear lady, unless your son spurns productivity and has several very, very large chests of diamonds hidden away here, his virtue is impeccable in regards to myself. If your fears are too looming to unspin, then I will depart post-haste through the storm, where by the grace of the Emperor my carriage may still be waiting for me."
We all fell silent, looking at Mother. It would be unthinkable for her to throw a guest out in the snow, but if she really thought this stranger couldn't be trusted, we would at least have to start preparations for him to stay in the garden shed. She was drawing careful breaths, twisting her hands in her tunic, which she usually only did shortly before a pastry exploded in the oven and was never a good omen.
"Update!" Pit bellowed, ignoring all of the tense atmosphere, and dashed from my side, thundering past everyone on the stairs and disappearing into his room. The stranger stared after him, one green brow raised. Before Sasha or I could explain, Pit raced down again and launched himself into Mother, who was forced to stop her fretting to catch him. "They say 'whooooo!'" he shouted happily, waving his arms and nearly toppling over backwards before Mother grabbed his head.
She shot me a look, and I extracted Pit from her grip, manhandling him into a more proper position braced against my hip. "And what does that mean?" I asked him, bouncing my brother a few times.
"Woosh, and ft-ft-ft-ft," he said, thunking the top of my head with each sound effect. "For long and long and long!" Content with his report, he curled up against me, nestling his head against my shoulder and popping his thumb into his mouth.
"Don't do that," I said automatically, and he glared around his thumb until I grinned and looked away. "Apparently it's going to keep snowing. Ma, look, why don't we have him sleep in the kitchen? Dad can sleep on my cot if you're really worried, and I think he could take this guy, no offense," I nodded to the stranger, who rolled his green cat eyes upwards, "if he decided to, uh, bonk him."
Sasha burst out laughing and Dad slid his hand over his face, apparently not trusting himself to say anything. Mother scowled at me. "This is not a laughing matter," she snapped, but then she sighed, deflating. "But nor is throwing a guest into the storm. Very well." She spun on the stranger and marched over, grabbing his arm with one hand and shaking a finger in his face. "You will behave, amongst the boys and the girls, or else it's the winter for you!"
From the stranger's expression, I don't think anyone had ever treated him in quite this manner, and Sasha and I shared a grin. "As you will, milady," he said meekly.
"I am not a lady," Mother growled, and then her face smoothed completely. "Of course," she said with a smile that seemed to completely alarm our guest, "we have not so much as exchanged introductions."
Pit, who loved meeting new people, perked up and squirmed at the word. I set him down, and he ran over, thrusting his hand upwards at the guest as he declared, "It is nice to meet you I am Pit!" He glanced at Mother and corrected himself, "Pitfall!"
With a quick glance of his own at Mother to judge her reaction, the stranger took Pit's hand and bowed low over it, as if Pit were a town magistrate. "A pleasure to meet such a fine young man as yourself, Pitfall," he said, the picture of elegance. "I—"
"Oh, can I try that!" Pit shouted excitedly, and the guest, bemused, let Pit turn over his hand. Pit attempted a bow himself and nearly overbalanced, and the man, with a surprisingly warm smile, crouched down so that the gesture worked more elegantly. "A pleasure to meet such a... yourself! Pitfall!" he declared.
"Oh Pit, do let him be," Lee said, coming down the stairs and gently extracting the two. Pit immediately ran over to Dad and tried to introduce himself over there, as Lee smiled and dropped a fair curtsy to our straightening guest. "I am Merrilee, a guest like yourself, trapped in the storm." She flashed a smile over to me and Mother to show she didn't really mean the trapped part. "I hope you enjoy your stay."
This time the man bowed with his hands placed before him, a gesture I had seen before but couldn't quite pin down. Perhaps a painted scene in the village's Hour book? I was mulling it over too much to catch most of what he said, but I did get his name: "Please, call me Jade." Sasha ran down so she could be next, and then Mother and Dad, and Pit again ("Yourself is pressure!"). The picture I was trying to remember had peaches in it, I was quite sure, and I felt if only I could remember where the peaches were—on a tree? In a bowl on the table?—then I would be able to place where I had seen someone bow like that.
Sasha had to clear her throat quite loudly to get my attention, and I found the man in front of me, his green brows lifted in skeptical amusement and his mouth twisted in a wry smile. He was younger than I had supposed, up close, although who could really guess the age of numen—or whatever he was if he wasn't one.
"Sorry," I said. "I'm just Wes. Well, Westar, but really just Wes." I wasn't sure if I was supposed to bow or hold out my hand or what, so I just settled on nodding. That seemed fine, since Jade nodded back without a pause.
Now that we had all been introduced—which was just about a binding contract of friendliness here in our mountains—Mother had relaxed completely. She and Dad bustled about getting the house ready, fetching Jade a hot mug of tea and straightening furniture and finding blankets that would be safe to lay down in the kitchen without catching fire. Pit was happily bowing at anyone that passed, and was now chasing one of the cats around, trying to capture its paw. Sasha, unsurprisingly, had cornered our guest and was talking a mile a minute, Lee hovering shyly just behind her shoulder. Since Mother and Dad seemed to have everything else under control, I went to join my sister and sweetheart.
"What material is this?" Lee asked, lightly touching the edge of our guest's shirt. "I've never seen its like."
He glanced down at it, and said, with a shade of embarrassment I thought, "I am as far from the person to ask as one can conceivably conceive."
"I think it's silk," I said, eying it. "I saw some at the museum. It's made from—well, you don't really want to know," I put in hastily. Seeing Lee open her mouth again, I corrected, "I mean, I completely forget." She hated crawlers fiercely, but she would look lovely in silk someday, so I wasn't going to ruin that future sight.
She giggled instead. "Imagine, you knowing material I don't!" Lee's eyes were shining as she looked at me, and I tried not to feel too proud about my lucky opportunities. It wasn't that I was special, just that I had been at the right place at the right time when the village head wanted someone with muscles to pull a sleigh to the museum of Gladberry. The mayor had given me a wink and enough coin to get me a whole day pass.
Our guest looked incredibly amused at our exchange, and I wondered if my face was as red as it felt.
"What color hair did your parents have?" Sasha cut in. "Were they green too, or yellow and blue? Or something else altogether?"
To my surprise, rather than taking offense, Jade laughed. Suddenly his hair was pink, the color of the brightest roses of spring, and then it went the precise blond of Sasha's, and then the same stripy plaid of his mask. We all shrieked—well, I'd like to believe I gave a more manly gasp—and our parents bustled into the room quickly again to see what the matter was.
"Do stripes!" Sasha shouted excitedly, "Can you do stripes?" He did, mixing that startling pink and blond together, and then his hair went the pattern of Mother's tunic, blue with little rosettes sewn in. She laughed and clapped her hands, blushing.
In short order, Sasha had convinced him to do all of our shirts, and then the various wood patterns in the house. Rather than get distracted by his hair, however, I decided to watch his face. The somewhat mocking amusement I had seen earlier was gone. Jade actually seemed to enjoy this display, grinning as he patiently tried, and occasionally failed, Sasha's increasingly absurd suggestions. I considered the way he had stood motionless by the door, preferring the cold when he saw the knife in my hand, and wondered if he had actually been scared of us this whole time. I hoped that now he had come to the same conclusion I had—that any family who was going to find such amusement in his hair wasn't about to cause him harm.
Then I thought I was probably crazy, because any creature magical enough to array his hair in arm-length golden spikes around his head with only a thought probably had nothing to fear whatsoever.
"Sasha, let him rest!" Mother called out from the kitchen, and my sister immediately apologized and insisted we all have some of the soup. Dad rolled out the big wooden table his brother had made for us, the one we only used for guests since it was so awkward, and we all scrambled to find enough chairs for all of us and our guest. Since the last time we had eaten at the table, Pit had been small enough to fit on Dad's lap, this was harder than it sounded.
Finally everyone had a seat but Sasha and I, and we ended up perched on the wood bin. Between this and our guest, whose hair was green once again, it made for an interesting meal—Sasha and I kept having to shove centipedes back into the bin before Lee could see them, or occasionally squash the more insistent ones underfoot, and Lee was trying to show our guest how to use the soup skewers as subtly as possible, since he seemed completely at a loss with them. The soup was good, though.
"Of course, you must be used to much heartier fare at the Crowned Jewel," Mother said, more apologetic than critical now that she had accepted our guest. "I've heard the finest chefs in the world work there."
Jade's smile flashed again as he corrected, "The chefs with the most credentials, you mean. Some of them are skilled, but there are others whose egos soar so high among the clouds that their fare, if I dare say so, is more twinkle than substance. This," he gestured with his spoon to the soup, "they could not begin to approach, so concerned are they that no guest be able to guess the slightest ingredient in the mixture."
"Ingredient," Mother repeated, snapping to attention. "Goodness, Wes, did you remember the ginger? Samuel was so proud of growing the darned thing; he'll be devastated when I say we haven't had any yet."
My brow furrowed briefly; I could recall looking for it, but I wasn't sure if it had actually made it into the pot. "Don't remember. Sorry, Mother."
"There'll be other dishes," Dad rumbled soothingly, patting Mother's hand. "But—Jade, yes?—if you don't mind my asking, how'd you end up all the way out here in Blue Gorge? It seems a mighty long distance from anywhere the finest cooks would travel to, excepting all of those fine cooks in this room of course."
Our guest's face lost all trace of humor and went quite bland. "I was to escort someone," he said, stirring his soup distractedly, "at a friend's request. Gladberry was just a stop along the way to their city."
I was starting to sense a rough pattern in the way this man talked: large words when he was nervous, strange phrases when he wasn't, and ordinary when—well, I couldn't place that one quite yet, and maybe ordinary was the wrong word. Maybe only people in the village and this house talked like we do, and maybe everyone else in the outside world talked like Jade. It made me feel very odd, the very possibility that everyone I knew might be different from the everyone of everywhere else.
Sasha leaned forward, her long hair tumbling down dangerously close to her soup bowl. "Will this person you're supposed to get be all right? They're bound to be stuck in the storm, too."
"They're quite some distance from here, so likely not. I doubt they are expecting me, either: I had thought to surprise them by arriving early, but that was a lark pegged by a hawk on its first flight."
"Pleased to meet you!" Pit shouted at his reflection in the pewter candlestick holder, then bowed into his soup bowl. The resulting fuss in getting him clean again was the end of our guest's questioning.
After dinner, Dad and Sasha rubbed dishes down with snow while Lee and I rolled the table back into the main room and, with Pit's encouraging yelps, fixed it back above the rafters. That done, Lee cast a furtive glance around the room, then beckoned for me to follow her up the stairs.
The loft was scarcely private, as only a railing separated the floor from the main room's ceiling, but Lee's pallet was in the furthest corner and surrounded by clever curtains she had fashioned to raise and lower when she wanted to change for night. She lowered them now as I perched at the foot of her pallet, and then came to sit by my side, placing her hand over mine and smiling.
"What a night!" she whispered excitedly. "Do you know what your mother was talking about, him being from the Crowned Jewel?"
I shook my head and said, "I've never heard of it."
"Would you ask him, please, if you get the chance?" Lee asked, taking my hands in hers and squeezing. "I would perish of shame if I tried, but he seems to like you, I think. What did you speak of while I was working on the mask?"
"Nothing really," I said, squinting my eyes as I tried to recall. "He seems a private sort of person. I just wonder how he survived out in that storm—he seems the delicate type, too. How do you think he found our house?"
Lee's smile gleamed in the traces of firelight sneaking up through her curtains. "I guess not the same way I did," she teased lightly. "Can you imagine him stumbling into a well—"
"—and needing a brave young lass to pull him out?" I finished, grinning. It had not been my finest hour, but Lee had been so concerned over my pain-filled delirium she had insisted on staying until the snows fell, which more than repaid my shame. The fact I had in my haze declared her a numen herself, arrived to escort me to heaven, had endeared her more than any of my usually heavy-handed speech could have. "No, surely his fine cloak would have snagged upon the well's edge first."
"And his hair would have led all means of rescuers to him right away," she giggled. "Oh, I feel bad speaking like this. Wes," she said, her voice going sober again, "what did you think about what your mother said, about him wanting to, to sleep with men?" There was something in her voice I couldn't quite place, and I realized glumly that my newfound social skills with our stranger didn't necessarily apply to everyone else.
"Well," I said, wracking my brain for what kind of response she might be looking for, "he said he didn't, right? And even if he did, well, just because you want to sleep with someone doesn't mean you have to, right? I mean, I want to sleep with you and I haven't."
"Wes!" Lee cried, breaking into giggles again, and I put my face in my hands and groaned. "You are—oh dear." She put her arms around me and I relaxed, glad she didn't seem too upset. After a moment she released me again and said, "That wasn't quite what I meant, though. Do you think it's—unnatural?"
Again, I couldn't for the life of me tell what she was after, so I decided to just answer honestly. "Since Thed's stallions bonk each other all the time when they're left alone in the paddock, I couldn't say it's unnatural, no. Just not productive. I mean, it doesn't exactly make foals when the stallions do that."
"Ah," she said softly. She was silent for a long time before she tentatively added, "My brother. He, he's like that, and it scares him. I'm the only person he's told, and now you I suppose, but... do you think if the storm eases up enough for the village to reopen, we could maybe have our guest talk to him and tell him it's okay? Even if he's not like that, maybe he knows someone who is, right?"
"I have no idea," I told her honestly, "but if it means something to you, I'll ask him." Lee threw her arms around me again and we sat like that for a long while, warm and content in her attic hide-away. Sooner than I would have liked, though, I heard Mother shouting up for me to help her get a bed together. I reluctantly pulled away from Lee, and she squeezed my hand lightly.
"Thank you," she said.
"Anything for you," I promised, and clumped down the stairs.
Everyone was in the kitchen debating about where and how the blankets should be laid down and in what proximity to the fire, except our guest, who was hovering just outside and looking extremely uncomfortable. It was amazing how expressive his face could be around the mask, I thought, and after a good look at him I decided it was his eyebrows, which didn't fit under the cloth. They were currently pulled back, like the cats' ears whenever Pit pulled their tails and they couldn't decide whether to flee or bop his nose. I grinned and clapped Jade's shoulder with a friendly hand as I joined the kitchen crowd.
"There!" Mother declared, adjusting the last pillow so that it lay perfectly in the center of the floor. I knew in a moment that this must be a compromise between everyone's suggestions. If we didn't rely on Mother moderating, nothing would ever get done in the house, because no one here ever agreed exactly on anything. It looked good enough to me. I helped her pull a horsehair blanket over the pads, and then a softer wool pad my grandmother had woven years ago, and finally a light linen contribution of Lee's on top.
"Now, we should all get to bed," Dad said firmly, scooping a yawning Pit off the floor. Mother had to all but drag Sasha, who was scowling her displeasure at being unable to further chat with our guest. I remembered the leftover onions sitting out in their bowl and, after some thought, dumped them in one of the empty canning jars and screwed the lid shut. The jar would have to be boiled again before we could use it, but that wasn't too much trouble if it would stop them from bothering out guest again.
"Hey, kid," Dad murmured as he passed me, "it's up to you. Do you want me to take your spot down here? It's no sweat to me either way."
"Nah, Dad," I replied, fighting to keep my face straight, "someone has to look out for your virtue."
He snorted. "Don't let your mother hear that," he said, shaking his head. His tone was light, but he still seemed worried, and I sighed, starting to realize why Lee's brother might be afraid of wanting to bonk men, if this is what he thought he was going to have to put up with.
"Jeeze, Dad," I said. "I can snap a deer's neck with my hands, remember? I'm pretty sure I can protect myself. Go take Pit to bed and I'll make sure everything is straight here."
"Yes, Dad," he teased me, and the last of everyone trooped upstairs.
I sighed, then called out softly, "It's safe to come in here."
"Ah." Jade took a tentative step into the room. Someone, Mother most likely, had blew out the rest of the candles in the house, and seeing him only by firelight renewed the impression that I was looking at something from a story or a dream. The green of his eyes outshone even the flame.
"Do those change color, too?" I asked, and immediately felt stupid. To hide my embarrassment, I started straightening the pots on the wall so I didn't have to look at him. "I'm sorry, everyone has been bothering you all night, haven't they. I should let you get some rest. Do you need anything else?"
He didn't reply, and I glanced over my shoulder to see what the matter was. His eyes were now the same dull brown as my own—although I immediately had to change that thought, because the color could be called in no way dull when it was on his face. I didn't understand how a color could be transformed by moving it from one place to another, but it struck me just as strongly as the green had.
"Huh," I said, releasing the pot to turn around completely. "Is that—useful?"
His brows rose again, but he didn't seem offended by the question. "It is unproductive in the extreme."
I wasn't sure whether to try to defend my honor by teasing him back or let it go, so I just shrugged and said, "Well, it kept everyone entertained."
"Ah, and thus my life is reduced to entertainment." He entered the room finally and, after a critical look at the blankets, crouched down slowly upon them.
"I didn't mean it as an insult."
"I know." He raised his head, grinned, and said, "I wasn't disagreeing."
"Ah." A sudden thought struck me, and I pinned it by slapping my hand to my forehead before it could escape. "That's what bonking people for money is for, isn't it? Their entertainment?"
Our guest's mouth twisted through a myriad of emotions, too quickly for me to catch. "Sometimes politics as well," he said at last.
"Politics," I repeated blankly. "I'll—well, I don't get it, but I'll sleep on it and see what I understand in the morning. Oh, if Mother hasn't told you already, only sleep under the first blanket. If you put Granny's blanket on too, you'll die of heat, and get all sorts of sores from the horsehair."
"That will occupy the forefront of my mind throughout the star's turning," he said, his eyes alight with amusement. "Westar. I appreciate your kindness in the face of adversity as much as your unwillingness to introduce your knife to my innards."
"Just Wes," I corrected automatically. "You're welcome. I hope your rest is pleasant. If you need anything, I'm just in the next room."
From my cot, I could see our guest's shadow stretched out across the floor, scattered by the firelight. I watched it turn and eventually settle, and, content, I let sleep take me as well.