Chapter Eighteen

 

Chapter Eighteen

Cragg had never thought about how big the Snow Mountains really were, particularly Mt. Yenin, until he had to clamber around it on foot. Of course, the mountains really were small mountains, too small to be really named as such, but some explorer had christened them that way and it was stuck. Whatever the scientific term might be, Mt. Yenin, named for a Usomian word meaning “gift”, was plenty big enough to tire out a group of teenagers and children carrying poles, canvas, rugs, and everything else from their homes.

Atkin and Rouk—Cragg had hoped that he or some other Heads would be included in the discussion, but apparently not—had decided to not “waste time” going all the way around the mountain, which would involved cutting through the vegetation surrounding it and walking on the edge of the desert, and instead led the group up over the western side of the mount. They didn’t actually climb up that far, but the ground was snowy, rocky, and uneven, and it took a very long time. Cragg trudged a long near the middle of the pack, well aware that he was below where his station commanded him to be, but frankly not interested in that right now.

Kesle tried to talk to him in the beginning—being his twin, she didn’t nearly give him the respect she owed him as the Head of house, and he didn’t blame her, but when he refused to respond adequately she went to walk with some of her friends instead. She certainly had enough of them. She didn’t seem to have a single enemy in the whole group. Even those who had never gotten on well with her household she was nice to. Cragg knew his parents had been starting to pressure her into looking at possible husbands, as her prettiness, friendliness, and connectedness should be enough to make up for her family’s lack of wealth. Cragg’s father, while brother to Atkin’s father, (who was well among the ranks of those eligible for Council and Leader positions, though he had been saving them for his son) had never had much money or possessions. It didn’t help that, though Cragg and Kesle were twins, their mother had had no living children after they were born and the other children who lived with them were all his cousins. They provided for them, of course, but had to spend so much more resources on them than they probably would have liked. Cragg found his cousins—five little children born one year after the other—rather annoying and left it to Kesle to take care of them. In the traditional custom, he called them his siblings but never brother or sister.

All Cragg could think about as he walked was Nora. She was the only thing he missed so far. He liked to think of himself as tough-skinned, that he didn’t care where he was or grow attached to places or objects, but he felt that he would actually miss some things about the colony—only some, mind you—and most of them were due to Nora.

They’d met on this very mountain, Mt. Yenin, actually. He went up climbing on it soon after he moved here, when he was eleven. Nora was new as well, and had folded herself into a small cave behind a large boulder. He probably wouldn’t have talked to her or even stopped if she hadn’t asked who he was.

She looked a lot like her sister back then, always small, able to fit herself anywhere. She also didn’t talk very much. When he realized that later, after they were friends, he was amazed she’d even opened her mouth. But then she had been curious. “Who are you?”

Cragg, himself lonely, tried to respond with classic boy arrogance. “I’m Cragg, son of Kereg.”

She crawled out from behind the boulder. “What are you wearing?” she wrinkled her nose.

“Just clothes.”

“They look funny.”

“Who are you?” he countered.

“Nora Flynn.”

He remembered being confused by her name, but unsure what to say about it. “Why are you up here?”

“Just exploring. I found a tree by my house.”

“There’s a tree over in Traveler’s Rest.”

“Yeah, that’s it. It’s my tree now.”

“You can’t own a tree.”

“It’s mine if I say it’s mine.”

Thinking back, Cragg wasn’t sure what prompted him to ask her to come exploring with him. Fate, probably. In any case, she’d accepted, and that was that. Explorer friends, that was all they’d been. For a long time.

Or had it been a long time? He’d been teased about his “Mashomi girlfriend” for ages, and always brushed it off, first with kid seriousness, and then with teenage annoyance. It was true that eventually they didn’t walk anymore but sat, in the small cave at first, and then the tree (though Cragg hated tree-climbing) when they outgrew the cave. It was true that eventually they stopped asking questions of each other because they felt they already knew the answer. And it was true that Cragg (and Nora, he was pretty sure) grew to forget what areas they came from and yet were acutely aware of it, recognizing it only as a part of who they were and not as a condition that kept them from being friends.

And it was true that Cragg thought about kissing her ages before he actually had.

But what did that mean?

At the riot, Nora had mentioned marriage between them as an example. It was just like her to throw out a flippant remark like that without thinking of what it meant. But it would also be like her to hide something under a conversation, testing him on something before she asked him straight out. It was one thing he liked about her, that she saw beyond what other people saw, in themselves and in others. And from her he’d learned to do it himself, as she usually shared the results of her findings. But she’d never said if she did it to him, as well, and that was suddenly bugging him. If I were back there now, what would we be like? He asked himself, did I ruin everything? Or if I hadn’t left, would she have kissed me back?

***

Atkin carried himself proudly, both his bearing and his pack, as they rounded the wide curve of Mt. Yenin and viewed the rest of the mountains. After Mt. Yenin, the grounf leveled out for a while, with two small mounts forming a line. Atkin thought they looked like an arrow, pointing to the unclaimed lands at the end of the range. The first mount was marked on the Council map as Mt. Futchi. It was an Usomian word, like Yenin. It meant “battle.” Like the other mountains, this one had once been part of Jerel, the Usomian country to the north.

Beyond Mt. Futchi there was a small mount with two peaks. While Mt. Futchi was about the size of the Pieshop, this little one was probably just big enough for their whole group to stand on.

“There’s our goal,” Rouk said, pointing to the cluster of mounts past the twin peaks.

“How big is it?” Atkin asked.

“Plenty big enough for us. We can have a proper fortress. There’s this courtyard place in front and plenty of little peaks for the important people.”

“And the others?”

“Beyond those is a woods. Can’t you see it?”

Atkin realized he hadn’t really looked closely at their possible home. He squinted and saw the treetops reaching just above the peaks. “We don’t live in woods.”

“Of course not. You aren’t sneak-elves. It’s a very sparse woods. There’s plenty of room for tents in between the trees. I thought it would make a nice, orderly change from that cramped area.”

Atkin nodded. “That makes sense. We won’t make it by night.”

“If we push and walk in the dark we could, and set up in the morning.”

“No.” Atkin was sure of this. “We’ll stop when the sun sets. Night is for sleeping and the Lords.”

“As you wish.” Rouk took several purposeful steps forward to continue the journey. Atkin sped up and edged in front of him.

As you wish, Atkin mused, that has kind of a nice ring to it.

***

Once he had calmed down from his encounter with the missionary, Jacques thought long and hard about the Council meeting in the morning. It has to happen. We can’t hide forever. The only problem is that those girls will be at each other. He smiled slightly and then rephrased his thought. No, they’ll be at the Kenazians. Actually, I don’t know what they’ll want to do. I don’t know what I want to do. Nora will probably want to go after them, but we don’t have a military, so that ain’t happening. Sheen will try to forget about it and write them off. But Zena will probably too mad to let that slide. The question is whether she’ll want to go off and bust some heads. Here’s hoping she doesn’t. That was as far as he got before he abandoned his brain to lighter matters.

***

Zena was thinking about tomorrow’s meeting as well. Having successfully tucked Neo into her bed, she was avoiding both her parent’s bed and the fateful couch by staying awake as long as possible. Contrary to Jacques’s thinking, though, she was absolutely not interested in busting any heads. Those Irkas can’t survive on their own. They aren’t farmers. And furthermore, there’s nothing to farm. She braided her hair with both hands as she walked the floor, making one small braid and then another, letting them fall easily out of form as soon as she dropped them.

Frustrated when her head came up with no new thoughts, she lit a candle and wandered into the kitchen. She thought about taking a walk outside, but figured that that would only make her sad and cold. So she placed the candle in the wall holder next to the spice shelf.

Usomian food, like the rest of their culture, was colorful, and particularly spicy. Zena had had a penchant for the flavor ever since she was young. As she grew older, it was just one more reason to love the culture of her home. Also one more reason that she wasn’t as anti-Usomian as most people thought.

She grabbed the small spice-mixing bowl from the stove, where she’d left it after the last time she tried to cook something for herself and Neo. It hadn’t worked very well. She put a little bit of each of the ten spices into the bowl and mixed them together with her finger. She raised the bowl to her nose and breathed in the smell, sinking to the ground in relief as she exhaled slowly. At least this hasn’t changed. She gently lulled herself to sleep on the kitchen floor with the rich smell of the spices and the taste of her own tears.

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