Chapter Thirty

Part II

Chapter Thirty

Jacques was halfway over Mt. Yenin and he was tired already. He could barely see out of his left eye, the sun was so blinding. His shoulders baked while his feet chilled with every step of the way. He wasn’t even thinking about the minefield that lay ahead of him—he’d appeared to develop some kind of mental block about it. Probably so that I’ll be even less prepared and make more of a fool of myself than usual. He kicked at the snow as a substitute for his obstinate brain. He knew he should be trying harder, but he just couldn’t help it—whenever he tried to focus he was directed to other thoughts, less dangerous thoughts, namely the memories of last night.

He’d gone home and started pacing. Even that was a bad sign, one to make him even more anxious, as his father was a pacer and for that he’d sworn that he never would be. But his brain was moving so fast and so nervously that he felt he would explode if he didn’t match it with some physical movement.

It was here that Sheen found him, pacing furiously and muttering to himself. He’d almost had some kind of speech ready and was just on the verge of calming down when he realized that Atkin wouldn’t just sit there and let him give a speech. Of course not. He had to be able to talk, to improvise, to dodge the bricks sure to be thrown at him.

Sheen cleared her throat to announce herself. He jumped.

“I’m back,” she said.

“Yes,” he said stupidly. His frantic brain could only see two ways this was going—either she had decided to leave, too, or she was going to offer to mend things with the Irkas, in which case he would have to admit that the Council had made plans without her. Either way there would be bickering and fighting and other things he wasn’t in the mood for.

“I’m…I’m back,” she repeated, unable to say anymore.

Clearly there is something I’m not picking up here. “Did you leave?”

“No…” she waited a split second and then said, very fast, “I’ve decided to be an adult part of the process now and I will stop going off about things.”

“What?”

She glared for just a second, but she wasn’t quite over the post meltdown revelation high yet. “I’m apologizing.”

“Oh. Thank you.” Idiot. That’s what you sound like. Great negotiator you’ll make.

“Yeah.” She made for the door, and almost left. Please go. Please. I’m in the middle of a crisis here. She stopped and stared. Uhh.

“What?” he asked, still agitated.

“Why are you so nervous.”

“I’m going on a diplomatic mission tomorrow and have no idea what I’m doing.” Excellent. Now you’ve done it, idiot.

“You’re…to see the Kenazians?” when he didn’t deny it, she demanded, “when was this decided on?”

“After you left and I followed you and then I came back and Zena and Nora had this plan and I decided it was okay.” He tensed, waiting for the outburst.

She opened her mouth to argue, but still caught up in the bubbles of her resolve, she instead moved toward him, forced herself to look beyond the decision.

He saw her take three steps. They brought her right up to his face. Please don’t hurt me, Sheena. Not me.

She took two fingers and lightly traced his clenched jaw line on the left side of his face. Her eyes traveled up his face until she was looking straight ahead into his gaze. Her lips parted, and it seemed to take some effort to get the words out, but levelly she said, “That’s good. You’re good.”

He was very visibly relieved. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

***

Jacques was tugged out of his reverie when he took a step forward and the ground was much farther down than expected. He looked up and saw that he had rounded the Mountain. There was still a little ways to go to get fully off of it, and then he had to clear Mt. Futchi and the Twin Peaks, but the camp was visible. There was no denying the mission now—it was there, every time he glanced southward, ready and waiting.

***

Rouk had built a seat in front of Atkin’s tent, in the place he’d deemed the Courtyard. Atkin himself tried to avoid the term whenever possible, but all it took for him to use it once or twice before it spread around the whole of the camp, the whole of their land. Their land was funny like that. It was bigger than the Pieshop, which Atkin now saw as cramped, but it felt smaller in that people talked more, spent more time together. It was a proper community, their land.

Those were still two of his favorite words. Their Land. Rouk had asked him once if they were going to name it, and his answer was no. All land belongs to the Lords, which they give us as they wish, he told Rouk, quoting one of the Rules. Rouk only nodded gravely and had never brought it up again.

He’d originally had some misgivings around the seat, which Rouk had made out of wood and twine and canvas. He’d probably not done all the actual cutting of the wood himself, but he had driven it into the snow and firmly constructed it, using army techniques, no doubt. Atkin had first thought that Man’s place is on the ground, another Rule, but when Rouk pointed out that he would have his feet firmly on the snow, was in the open air, and his head was no higher than it would be standing, he consented. It was an interesting feeling, sitting on the seat, no taller than any others who came to see him but still apart from them. Once Rouk had asked, the day after he installed the seat, how it was. Atkin had tried to explain then the feeling, but found himself lacking the words. “Nice” was the closest he could think of, but it wasn’t nearly close.

“I understand,” Rouk said, nodding.

As a matter of fact, Rouk was sitting now on the seat in the Courtyard. He often sat after the noon meal. He found it relaxing. Morning was a time of rigid prayer and ritual, which Atkin enjoyed and found that he had missed during his weeks on the Council. It concluded at the Day Meal at noon, and when that was finished Atkin liked to sit, for though he did like the morning, in the afternoon he had a taste of something he’d never savored before, and that was of leisure.

Of course it wasn’t really leisure; that was forbidden. He was enacting his role in the community. People often found him with questions, which he loved answering as thoughtfully as he could. He thought about their land constantly, about the thriving community it could be. He and Rouk sometimes spoke of the potential that the land and the people had. At night, by himself, Atkin did think of the obstacles. The lack of steady food, for one. He was sure he could always talk to Cragg about those things; he was dependable that way. Except that he hadn’t seen Cragg that much since they moved. Rouk had mentioned once that Cragg seemed to be avoided them, but Atkin had dismissed it. They were cousins. He had nothing against Cragg. Of course he knew of the business with the girl, but that had happened and was gone, part of Cragg’s journey, to be sure. And Atkin had nothing against personal fate. After all, look where his had taken him.

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