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Episode 01: The Most Beautiful Smile

Episode 02: A Youthful Realization

Episode 03: A Young Shifter’s Nightmare

Episode 04: The Path of Happiness for a Prophet

Episode 05: A Visit to Uncle

Episode 06: There’s a Very Good Reason

Episode 07: Whispers at the Window

Episode 08: Family Dinner

Episode 09: Surprise

Episode 10: Discovered

Episode 11: A Vawtrian Woman

Episode 12: A New Understanding

Episode 01: The Most Beautiful Smile

Kepsalon poured more purple sand into his hand. Both his skills and confidence had increased significantly in the past few years, but the greatest ease and joy came when he worked with sand. Something about the way the fine colorful grains slipped through his fingers and fell through the air soothed him.

He sifted deep purple sand onto the molten glass, then a layer of pale lavender. Frowning slightly, he quirked up his mouth. The shading was fine, but he needed more gold for the stamen and petal highlights. A light sprinkling with precise movements of his right hand resolved the issue. He smiled, his happiness increasing as the colors intensified, the shading and highlighting merging in the perfect blended formation. Beautiful, he thought.

Of course, he was a little biased. Whenever he worked with lavender, he thought of Sadyr, WroOth and Mara’s eldest daughter and his best friend. Lavender and purple were two of her best colors. His cheeks, neck, and chest warmed just thinking of her. She’d love this flower. Even if the next one was going to be periwinkle. Maybe she would like it best if all of the flowers were purple, but he had to remain true to what was in the vision.
A soft rap sounded on the diagonal door.

Kepsalon stopped the stream of blue sand, clenching his fist. The fine grains dug into his palm and between his fingers. “Yes?” His eyes widened as Mara pressed the door open. “Was I too loud?”

Mara smiled, shaking her head. Though there was often an impish curve to her smile, it was always gentle. Just like a mother’s should be. She left the door cracked open as she moved beside him and peered over his shoulder.

“You never disturb anyone, darling.” She gave a slow nod, her eyes softening. “This is beautiful. I don’t know how you make it so vibrant. All the layers! This is a foretelling?”

“Yes.” Kepsalon nodded happily, pleased at her admiration. “The lel and orange harvests will be particularly bountiful. And a very special baby is coming to a Shivennan family in Dalcof.” Kepsalon funneled the sand back into the bottle, picked up, a triangular tool, and gently guided some of the smaller shifting grains of sand back into position along the petal’s deepest shading. He returned the tool to its place on the low metal table with a satisfying clink.

“Oh.” Mara kissed him on the cheek and turned his face to hers. “Look at you growing up so fast!” She kissed him on the forehead. “I suppose I’m used to Vawtrian children. They stay small much longer, but you’re almost grown at fourteen. You grow up even faster than Awdawms.” She smoothed his hair back. “You might as well be my son.”

Kepsalon beamed, but the happiness at this moment brought a train of others colder and sadder. If his own mother had been like Mara, his life would have been far better. And, as much as she did care about him, she was not his mother. Still, that was not entirely a bad thing.

Mara kissed his forehead again. “It’s almost time for dinner. Better start cleaning up as soon as you can. You don’t want to miss it.” Stepping back, Mara tousled his hair. “And you know what I’ll do if this isn’t all cleaned up.”

Kepsalon set the multi-layered glass pane back on the cooling rack. “I was just sand painting today.” He tried to sound calm, but his heart was already racing faster. Dinner usually meant a chance to see Sadyr. Then he remembered she wouldn’t be there. AaQar had invited the older children to come stay with him and his wife Rasha for a couple nights to work on their water-based forms.

“Well as soon as you’re done, you can come along.” Mara passed beneath the door. “You won’t be disturbing anyone, little squirrel.”

Disappointing as it was to not see Sadyr, Kepsalon still enjoyed spending time with WroOth and Mara and their youngest, Leslo. It was probably like having a real family then. Especially when Leslo wanted him to read to her or needed help separating all of the food into piles based on color, texture, and dryness.

It took only a few minutes longer to clean up. Mara always teased him about leaving big messes mostly because he tidied as he went. Even now, though his current design had had over thirty-four colors, only four jars of sand remained uncovered, only two tools out at a time, and the rough pencil sketch fastened to the wall. He easily found the caps, fastened them, checked the labels, put the bottles back in their homes, wiped down his workspace, and swept up with a cinnamon-scented broom.

What a dream turned reality it had been when WroOth gave him this space to work. The bleak life and future that had spread before him could be no more than memories and cold gloom that clung to the corners of his mind. Elonumato never failed, but it was easier to believe in His goodness and constancy in a warm clean place like this than in the bottom of a pit with maggots and lice.

Within five minutes, he finished all of his tidying chores. He then slipped out into the long hall and down the inner curved staircase to the family quarter’s door. It was heavy, imposing and frightening at one point with its thick gold inlay and deep runic carvings and mysterious home and family symbology. But this door glided back easily on well-oiled hinges. He stepped into the warm bright hall and at once felt at home.

Every Para was permitted to set things up as they chose with regards to their family life. Whether their preferences were more luxurious or minimalistic, it was done as they desired. To be a Para was to consider the biggest picture of all the inhabited and uninhabited worlds, watching always for signs of danger and stifling conflicts and then resolving them before they boiled into catastrophe. While certain laws restricted them from complete power, Paras wielded more than most, and they could make almost any demand they wished and it would be granted. It was a great burden, requiring far sight, deep wisdom, and long patience.

Yet WroOth, like his brothers, maintained a general distrust of finery, servants, and pomp in private life. Walking into the home of one of the most powerful families in all of creation was almost like walking into a modest family home on Eiram. The air smelled like fresh baked bread, cinnamon, brown sugar, apples, and pears. Red rugs ran the line of the hall floor. Paintings of various events, some of his own design speaking of what was to come, adorned the walls.

From the kitchen, Mara half sang, half hummed. The tune wasn’t familiar. Probably one she had made up.

Kepsalon clasped his hands behind his back as he made his way to the family chamber. This large room was where the family spent most of their time together. The large overstuffed couches in one portion along with the ceiling high bookshelves suggested it was more for adult conversation with a smaller area set aside for blocks and bars in the wall for the children to play. But on many nights, the couches were shoved aside, and everyone played.

Of course, play was an odd word choice. It was really more an all out wrestling match. Many times Kepsalon had to retreat to the couch. Leslo, little more than a toddler in size, could easily take him down with a few well-placed blows. The last time she had popped his left shoulder out of its socket before WroOth had intervened.

There was nothing quite like being beat up by the equivalent of a five-year-old to really make one question one’s fighting prowess. But Sadyr had helped him pop his shoulder back in and said that he had been very brave. Somehow she’d managed to say that with a straight face even though he knew she in no way found her little sister running at her, screeching and flailing to be half as terrifying as he did. But she did understand that the different races healed at various speeds. A dislocated shoulder for a Vawtrian could be healed within seconds. But it had taken him a few weeks before all was as it should be.

Kepsalon crawled up onto the couch farthest from the door. Vawtrians also tended to be tall, so his legs dangled over the edge, not quite reaching the floor. With a contented sigh, he folded his hands in his lap. It was nice to be here and to enjoy this particular sort of quiet.

“Hello, Kepsalon.” Sadyr peeked into the family room, a crooked smile on her face.

Kepsalon’s chest tightened at the sound of her voice. Warmth raced to his cheeks and neck. “Sadyr!” He checked himself, biting back the eagerness in his voice. He couldn’t stop staring though. “I thought…I thought you were at your uncle’s.”

Sadyr waltzed into the room on the tips of her feet. She spun around, making her long purple skirt flare out. She grinned as she turned to face him, the playfulness still in her bright eyes. “Uncle AaQar needs to give him some private lessons in dotha paru.”

“Aren’t you worried Kelchon will beat you if you don’t keep practicing?”
“I do practice. Even if I stopped, I’d be miles better than Kelchon.” Sadyr fanned herself with her hands, then tilted her head with great exaggeration. “But I knew that you were going to be here. I wanted to see you.”

Kepsalon’s heart jumped, but he thrust the eagerness away. Something had happened. He must have slipped into his own thoughts or into an indulgent wish. Subtly he pinched the inside of his arm. The sharp spike of discomfort spread through him without causing any of his sight to waver. “What—what do I have to do with anything?”

Sadyr hopped up on the couch beside him. She was a good two inches taller than him, but she folded her legs beneath herself and was essentially at his eye level. “It’s probably dreadfully boring if you’re here alone with Daddy and Momma.” Sadyr folded her hands on her lap.

Oh. Was that all? Kepsalon breathed a little easier, both disappointed and relieved. “Not really. They aren’t bad at all.”

“Not bad. Just…boring.” Sadyr grinned.

Kepsalon wasn’t sure whether he should nod, shake his head, mumble, or…what? His gaze dropped to his paint and sand stained hands. Did Sadyr notice how awkward he was around her? How his voice caught in his throat? How he could scarcely even bear to look at her and how beautiful she was? Please don’t notice, he thought. Please don’t notice.


His heart hammered faster as he dared to glance at her again. “Yes?”

Sadyr studied him, her deep blue eyes expressive and yet inscrutable when he tried to interpret them. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.” Kepsalon tucked his hands together, knotting his fingers within the closure of his palms.

Sadyr smiled. The left side of her smile always pulled a little higher than her right. “Do you think I’m pretty, Kepsalon?”

Oh karish, she had noticed. Kepsalon swallowed hard. “What does it matter what I think?” His voice cracked.

Sadyr’s smile quirked farther up. “You’re a Machat. You can’t lie without terrible consequences. And I’m curious.”

“Being pretty is hardly important really.” Kepsalon glanced at the doorway nervously, his palms sweating and his neck itching. It wasn’t that Sadyr wasn’t pretty. On the contrary, she was stunning. But did that mean she really had noticed or was she only curious? Or was this a great prank? Vawtrians could be cruel in their play even if they did not intend to be. “There are so many other things about you that are important.”

“Like what?” Sadyr tilted her head. Her long blue-and-pink streaked hair fell over her shoulders. The colors were bold against the light chestnut of her original hair. It made a light veil over her long face.

“You’re brave. And smart. And very cunning.” Kepsalon dropped his gaze to the floor, wishing he could look at her without feeling his thoughts flee or that the couch would swallow him whole.

Sadyr laughed. She then poked the side of his head. “You like me, don’t you?”

“I have more I should paint.” Kepsalon scooted forward, but Sadyr grabbed his arm.

“Don’t go, Kepsalon. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” The playfulness fled from Sadyr’s eyes as her expression grew serious. She pulled him back as easily as if he was a doll. “You aren’t like Vawtrian boys or the others in the cadre. No one is really like you.”

“Like me?” Kepsalon winced. Her grip was exceptionally strong.

Sadyr released him and returned her hands to her knees. “No one is like you. You’re so funny and odd.”

“Turtles and monkeys are funny and odd,” Kepsalon mumbled, uncertain if she was complimenting or insulting him.

“Not like you.” Sadyr’s tone was a little more gentle, a little less playful, a little more—Kepsalon dared to glance up again—hopeful?

Sadyr continued, her head tilted to the side and her eyes now deep blue, focused solely on him. She whispered, “I really like you, Kepsalon.”

Those words froze through Kepsalon, then burned as they settled in. The heat rose through his ears. He didn’t dare move.

“Kepsalon?” Sadyr repeated his name, her tone more confused. She plucked at his hand. “Did you hear me?”

Kepsalon nodded weakly. “I…” He tried swallowing but nothing moistened the desert of his mouth. “I—I like—” He stopped short, took in a sharp breath, and rushed the rest. “I like you too.”

Sadyr half giggled, half cooed, then grabbed him in a great hug and buried her face in his shoulder. “I knew it,” she whispered. She squeezed him so tight that his spine and joints cracked. Then she released him and leaned close. “Do you want to kiss me, Kepsalon?”

Kepsalon stared, feeling dull and slow despite the elation at Sadyr sharing his feelings. He righted himself and fought to orient his thoughts amid the tumult of hormones, shock, and excitement. “Kiss you?” he repeated thickly.
Sadyr nodded. She had pretty lips, the top mirroring the lower in a perfect dusky-pink curve.


Sadyr smirked at him. “I won’t tell. I promise.”

Kepsalon swallowed hard. His gaze darted from her eyes to her lips, then back to her eyes. “Sure.”

The door slammed. Footsteps struck the stone and carpet of the hall. “I’m a father now. I can’t just leave because the cabizas have a new queen.”

WroOth’s voice echoed down the hallway, headed in their direction.

“We can bring the children with us,” QueQoa said. “Hunting and dragon rides for all.”

Kepsalon tensed, but Sadyr had already lunged off the couch. She seized two books from the nearest shelf, thrust one against his chest, and rocketed herself onto the couch opposite his. The thick stuffed couch rocked back as she crossed her legs beneath herself and flipped to the middle of the book. “Hello, Daddy. Hello, Uncle QueQoa.” She lifted her gaze from the book with a smile almost perfectly innocent.

Kepsalon remained motionless on the couch, the blood pounding in his ears and cheeks.

“Hello, my darling.” WroOth kissed Sadyr on the top of the head. He then peered down at her book and frowned. “You’re a little young for this, don’t you think?”

The bold lettering worked into the front cover stated the title: Battle Tactics and Maneuvers of Aerial Combat. What book had she given him? Kepsalon hinged the book forward enough to catch the title. Notable Fashion of the First Age. He tucked the book under the woven wool pillow and folded his hands.

Sadyr kept her finger tucked in the book. “I want to fly like you.”

WroOth suppressed a smile though the pride was impossible to mask. “Well, we’ll see about that. You’ll have to master the core water forms first. You’re at least five years out from your first flight. But I could give you a dragon ride, if you like.”

“I’m too old for dragon rides,” Sadyr responded. “Not unless I’m a dragon or a bird too.”

WroOth’s brow knit, his expression wavering. “You’re never too old for dragon rides.”

Sadyr gave him an expression which was at once patient and yet exasperated. “Daddy, I’m growing up. I need to learn how to fly.”

QueQoa patted her on the head. “Let’s set that aside. But what do you say about this, little one? Would you like to come hunting with your father and me?”

“Yes!” Sadyr dropped the book as she jumped up on the couch. “Daddy, can I come?”

WroOth clicked his tongue with disapproval, the distress of only a moment before vanishing behind an almost mirthful mask. “As what? Bait?”

“I make excellent bait.” Sadyr clasped her hands together, widening her eyes. “And I could carry the extra supplies and help you clean the camp!”

“See.” QueQoa extended his arms with a broad grin. “She’ll be fine. Besides, every Vawtrian has to learn how to survive devourment. We were younger than she, and who knows? It might not even happen.”

Kepsalon cringed. At least he didn’t have to worry about things like that. If he was ever eaten alive, it would only happen once. Or never. Hopefully never.

WroOth shot QueQoa an annoyed glare and put his hand on Sadyr’s head. “My children aren’t old enough for any of that, and there’s no reason to rush them into it.”

“Our brothers taught us to survive at a much younger age, and we are the better for it,” QueQoa said.

Kepsalon marveled at how any of them survived. He had met the other two Paras, and he could not imagine either AaQar or Naatos raising anyone. AaQar, despite being generally calm and seeming mild, had all of the strength and ferocity of the greatest of shapeshifters. And Naatos’s very presence demanded compliance even when he was in an amiable mood.

WroOth arched an eyebrow. “True.” He did not sound convinced. “But just because they did something and we got something from it doesn’t mean it was a good method. You’ll recall the reading lessons.”

“Hmm.” QueQoa grunted in agreement. He then tousled Sadyr’s hair. “I suppose you could stand to grow a little more before we start launching you at cabizas.”

“I’m basically a woman now.” Sadyr set her hands on her bony hips, shooting both her uncle and father an annoyed glare.

“You’re a girl, not a woman.” WroOth thumped her lightly on the head. “You just learned to talk yesterday.”

“Daddy.” Sadyr sighed, her cheeks flushing red. She glanced at Kepsalon as if embarrassed. “I just turned thirty-eight. That’s practically a grownup.”
“You’re barely walking and not even flying.”

Sadyr’s face twisted, her shoulders bunching. “I’m not a baby.”

WroOth caught her face between his hands. “Yes you are, and you always will be.”

“Daddy!” Sadyr jerked away, her whole face and neck red now.

WroOth just laughed as he turned then to Kepsalon. “And what of you, my young Machat? How come your prophecies and paintings and portents? Do you see the end of the world coming in the next week or so?”

“No.” Kepsalon breathed with relief, his nervous energy loosening. At least when focusing on his own separate skills there were plenty of topics to explore. Even if he didn’t look into his own future. That was a core guideline of the Machat culture and one he obeyed fully, even though sometimes he wondered about whether he would be with Sadyr more than if the world was going to end. Revelations about one’s own future were not to be sought. If they came naturally, they then had to be tested to ensure that the mind had not wandered in and supplanted the truth. “The orchids are going to be beautiful this year, and there will be a lot of babies. Some other things are possible. Lightning tornadoes maybe. But nothing too exciting this week.”

“Good. You can show me what you’ve seen after dinner,” WroOth said, ignoring Sadyr’s pointed glares and exaggerated huffs as she straightened the cushions. “There have been some rumblings that there may be another plan to overthrow the Tue-Rah. Have you seen anything about this?”

Kepsalon lifted his shoulders in a confused shrug. “No. I’m sorry. I haven’t.” A pang of disappointment pulsed through him. It was impossible for any one prophet to foresee everything or even consider all the possibilities. But for there to be a possible overthrow and for him to have seen nothing more than flowers, babies, tornadoes, and trade agreements struck him as a failure. Worse still was that he had let WroOth down. The Para didn’t often ask him about specific events, and Kepsalon delighted in confirming WroOth’s belief in him and his vouching for him to the Machat leadership as well as investing in him.

WroOth chuckled. “It’s nothing to apologize for. As I said, they’re only rumblings. It might be nothing.”

“You’ll check with the other Machat though, won’t you?” Kepsalon asked in a rush. “I might have missed something.”

“I always check and doublecheck and then check again. And if I didn’t, AaQar would.” WroOth stopped as a sharp shriek broke the relative silence followed by maniacal toddler laughter and Mara shouting, “WroOth, come see what your daughter’s done!” WroOth quirked up his mouth in contemplation. “I think I’m needed elsewhere.”

Sadyr slammed down the cushions again as he passed her, but he didn’t even glance back.

QueQoa straightened the couch, then tweaked one of the strands of her hair. “You changed your hair color again.”

Sadyr restrained a smile but lifted her head a little higher as she smoothed out the blanket. “I am getting much better at it.”

Yes she was, Kepsalon thought. And she looked pretty with all the colors.

QueQoa nodded approvingly. “Your colors are richer too.”

“Yes. Like a grown-up’s.” Sadyr cut her eyes at him. “You can barely see the brown.”

“Oh, what in the shrieking moons?” WroOth exclaimed. “That’s not even possible.”

“Apparently it is,” Mara said over Leslo’s continued cackles.

QueQoa gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. “You’re definitely growing up, but don’t be in such a big hurry. Come on. Let’s surprise your mother and get the table ready.”

Kepsalon sank into the couch as QueQoa left the room. At least the immediate risk of being found out had vanished. Sadyr popped over his face, leaning over the arm of the couch. “We’re both grown-up,” she said firmly.

“Um, yeah.” Kepsalon stared up at her, blinking. “Of course we are.”

The crooked smile reappeared on Sadyr’s face as she stepped away. “I really like you, Kepsalon.”

Kepsalon bolted up, looking in all directions for fear someone had heard her. Sadyr only laughed. “No one’s listening,” she said. She crossed her arms and pulled a comic face at him.

Kepsalon laughed nervously, the heat rising through his cheek and neck again. His thoughts returned to the last question she’d asked him. Did he want to kiss her? The answer flashed to his mind almost at once. “You’re funny too.” He adjusted his paint-spattered sleeve. Of course he wasn’t going to kiss her here. This was her home! And it was seething with family. Leslo’s almost manic laughter rose to a louder pitch as if to underscore the point. Besides he couldn’t even make his feet move.

“Sadyr, Kepsalon,” QueQoa called from the kitchen. “You can come help with the place settings and plates.”

Sadyr kept her eyes fixed on Kepsalon’s face. “Just a second!” The tension rose between her and Kepsalon, not unpleasant though intense. She smiled a little more, then started to turn.

A surge of energy rushed through Kepsalon, shaking him from his stupefied trance. “Sadyr.” Her name fumbled on his lips. He swallowed hard as she looked at him expectantly. “I like you a lot too.” Then, with three bold steps, he crossed the space between them and kissed her on the lips.

Episode 02: A Youthful Realization

Sadyr brought her hand to her lips, covering the spot where Kepsalon had kissed her. Her heart warmed even as she realized he’d already bolted to the dining room like a frightened colt. But he’d done it. He’d actually done it. The pleasant flush and heat that spread through her made her almost giddy with delight. He really did like her. She struck the couch, but she underestimated her strength and rocked it hard against the wall.

“Sadyr,” QueQoa called again. “The cushions don’t need to be straightened anymore.”

No, they certainly didn’t. Sadyr restrained a squeal of excitement, clenched her fists, and then struck the couch cushion one more time. “I’m coming.”
It took all of her newly acquired grown-up composure to make her way to the dining room, but, even if she hadn’t composed herself, the chaos that reigned would have made it unnecessary. Though QueQoa handed Kepsalon wooden plates and decanters in a serene fashion, WroOth and Mara had Leslo in the sink, trying to scrub paint from her hair and face.

Sadyr paused in the doorway. “What happened? Did she eat it?”

“No,” Mara said. “Not this time.”

“This isn’t how you change the color of your hair,” WroOth said.

“But you said I can’t eat it.” Leslo scowled up at him as colorful rivulets ran down her shoulders and into the large wash basin sink.

“For the last time, Leslo, you don’t shift into different shapes because you ate the right ingredients.” WroOth shook his head. “For mercy’s sake, when will you understand that?”

“How many times did you say it took before you learned that lesson?” Mara asked dryly.

WroOth sighed, his hand on the top of Leslo’s head. “She’s much smarter at this age than I ever was.”

“I like the way the paint tastes,” Leslo giggled.

WroOth closed his eyes. “Don’t make a liar out of me, little girl.” He poured another cup of water over her head before looking at Mara. “I can finish with Leslo if you want to finish setting up for dinner.”

“The pies are almost done.” Mara stepped back and picked up a towel. She flicked it at WroOth. “Talk to your daughter.”

Sadyr found it hard not to smile, though the warmth in her cheeks was now not nearly so strong as it had been when Kepsalon kissed her. She stepped alongside her mother and took down a stack of plates as QueQoa carried out a large glass cloche which covered a haunch of some sort of meat.

“All right,” WroOth said, lifting Leslo from the sink and wrapping her in a towel. Some paint still stained her hair, but her face, neck, and hands were now clean. “That’s enough of this. Let’s get dry for dinner.”

“Can I wear the dress with the rainbow scales?” Leslo asked.

“If you can find it and put it on.” WroOth carried her out of the room.

Mara pulled two lattice-topped pies from the oven. “Not the one with the rainbow scales. That’s for the Ilcanat Festival.”

WroOth stuck his head back in. “It’s only for a couple hours.”

Mara shook her head firmly but smile as she deposited the pies on the stove. “No.”

Leslo wailed from the other side. “The others are boring!”

“That just means you’ll have to find other ways to be interesting,” WroOth said. His voice faded as he continued down the hall. The last thing Sadyr heard was the rather obvious advice that one didn’t become interesting by eating interesting things. True enough, but it was unlikely Leslo would believe him for quite some time. She felt very grown-up for recognizing this.

Mara continued to shake her head, loose rivulets of dark hair curled around her ears. She placed the thick quilted squares on the counter. “One day when you are a mother, if you decide to be a mother, Sadyr, you’ll realize how much patience it takes. But never forget that it is worth every minute. Or how important it is to have people to rely on.”

Sadyr smiled a little at this statement. She picked up the clay bowl shaped like an apple. It held her mother’s signature spiced pear butter. The flavor wasn’t quite as delicious for her as it seemed to be for her mother or other Awdawms, but she loved the cool creaminess and the cinnamon speckles scattered throughout. “Mama,” she said softly. “What did it feel like when you kissed Daddy for the first time?”

Mara turned, setting one hand on her hip. “What now?” Her dark eyes widened.

“When you kissed Daddy, what did it feel like? And what was it like compared to the other boys you kissed.” Sadyr cupped the clay bowl, giving her mother the most innocent expression she could manage.

The slightest hint of a smile tweaked at Mara’s lips. She scooped up a handful of chopped apples and walnuts from the pot on the stove and poured them into the wooden bowl. “It was…do you remember the time we made the chocolate volcanoes? And how we added cinnamon, allspice, and kali cloves to the bubble water. That’s what it was like.”

“What are we talking about?” WroOth poked his head into the kitchen, pressing both hands against the door frame.

“Sadyr wants to know what it was like the first time you kissed me.” Mara smiled.

“Magic. Perfection. Absolute rapture.” WroOth grinned. He wrapped his arms around her waist and spun her closer.

“WroOth.” Mara shaded her eyes and then smacked his arms lightly, though her amusement remained apparent. “Not here.” She returned her gaze to Sadry, her eyes sparkling the way they always did when she was with WroOth or talking about him. “But that isn’t far from the truth. It was wonderful.”

“Granted, that was what you thought of me from the moment you saw me.” WroOth kissed her shoulder. “To think I almost missed you.” Leaning closer, he kissed her on the lips. “My sweet viskaro.”

Mara returned the kiss, then abruptly pulled back, a frown creasing her lightly sweating brow. “You didn’t have enough time to get Leslo dressed.”

“She assured me she’s more than capable of dressing herself,” WroOth said.

“And what about the rainbow scales dress?” Mara asked, her eyebrows arching.

“I told her not to wear it,” WroOth said matter-of-factly.

Mara pressed her lips in a tight line, her expression less amused. “And you believed her?”

WroOth opened his mouth to speak, then paused, closing it quickly. He gave Mara a quick peck on the cheek. “Leslo,” he called out as he returned to the hall. “You know I meant it when I said you can’t wear the rainbow scales.”

Sadyr carried the bowl of spiced pear butter out into the dining room.

QueQoa stood at the head of the table with Kepsalon, showing him how to slice the meat evenly.

Her cheeks, neck, and chest warmed almost immediately. As her gaze briefly met Kepsalon’s, a thrill of deeper warmth passed through her. She wasn’t sure that it was quite what her mother described with her father. He made her happy. But lots of things made her happy. Did he make her feel happier than she felt when her mother made fresh snowball cookies or when her father took her flying? Did he make her feel happier than when she beat her brother in a game? Looking up, she noticed Kepsalon watching her again, and her heart beat faster. It was so different, how could it be compared?

“Dinner time,” Mara called out, carrying in the pies. She placed one on each end of the table. “Thank you for cutting the meat already, QueQoa. Kepsalon, it looks like you’re figuring it out well.”

“No, you can’t wear it under your smock. I’m not going to lie to your mother,” WroOth said as he entered the room with Leslo in tow. Leslo scrubbed at her eye with a balled fist, her face in a deep pout.

“It doesn’t sparkle,” Leslo said miserably.

“You can sparkle later,” WroOth said firmly. He boosted her into her chair on the right side of the table next to QueQoa. “Right now it’s time for you to eat.”

“When I have my own home and am all grown up, I’m going to sparkle every day,” Leslo said.

“Not after you realize how hard it is to maintain sparkles,” QueQoa said, taking his chair.

Sadyr’s heart leaped as she realized this meant she was going to sit next to Kepsalon. She avoided looking at him in case someone else noticed as well.
Dinner passed as it usually did with plenty of laughter, a few arguments, and many stories that went over Sadyr’s head entirely. And when it ended, Kepsalon, QueQoa, and WroOth went to look at Kepsalon’s latest work.

Normally, Sadyr would have gone with them, but this time, she stayed behind to help her mother clear the dishes away. She didn’t want it to be too obvious that she liked Kepsalon. Besides, it would have been Kelchon’s night to help, and now she had him beat in yet another way. He would have to make up for this on some night of her choice. Maybe the next time she had to sweep the main hall and dining room and kitchen. She hated sweeping!
As she stacked the plates, Sadyr mulled over what had happened. She still hadn’t been able to sort out her own feelings beyond her simple desire and happiness at being noticed. And Kepsalon was sweet. He looked frail sometimes. Almost as delicate as the glass paintings he made. Had he ever seen her in those paintings or foretellings? Her mind veered into all the possibilities for her future. What she would look like. What she would be like.

“Hello in there.” Mara waved her hand in front of her face. “Are you all right, darling?”

“Hmmm?” Sadyr looked up from the stack of plates. “I was just thinking.”

“About?” Mara tied the pale blue apron around Sadyr’s waist and gave it a quick knot. It matched the one Mara wore.

“How did you know, really know, that Daddy was the one? Did you know before you kissed him or did it just make sense afterward? Or did you just realize that because he was a Vawtrian, you didn’t have a choice?” Sadyr carried the plates into the kitchen.

Mara gave a slight shrug of her shoulders. She began scraping the plates into the wooden bucket at the edge of the counter. “Well, maybe a little of all three. Being Vawtrian really made it simpler. It wasn’t always easy, of course. But I knew that for Vawtrians, kissing is basically the same as marriage vows if it results in locking. You never know if it will be the first kiss or the second or the tenth. And I was ready for whatever that brought. Good or bad.”

“If you could have met Daddy sooner, would you have?”

A sad smile tugged at Mara’s mouth. She continued to scrape the plates. “I love your father very much,” she said. “But I am not sure what it would have been like if I had met him earlier.” She frowned a little, setting the large spoon aside. “Is there a reason for all these questions? Is there someone…Sadyr, are you getting feelings for someone? You’re young enough it might take longer for the locking to happen, so you might feel more…more feelings initially. Before the locking, I mean.”

Sadyr shook her head and deposited the dirty dishes into the sink. “No. I’m just curious.”

Mara watched her in silence for a long moment. She then gave a slow nod and tucked a loose strand of Sadyr’s blue and pink hair behind her ear. “I see. Well, if that should change, you’ll tell me, won’t you?”

Sadyr nodded. She felt a little bad lying to her mother, but she pushed that guilt away. Her mother wasn’t a Vawtrian after all. And while that wasn’t a bad thing, it meant that her mother didn’t keep secrets. She would either go and tell Sadyr’s Aunt Rasha or WroOth to see what needed to be done. And for now, she just wanted to enjoy the possibility that she might be falling in love like a non-Vawtrian girl. After all, she really was growing up.

Kepsalon struggled to keep his focus during dinner. It was hard not to look at Sadyr, and he found himself wondering whether he was looking at her too little. Too much or too little would both be triggers for anyone paying attention.

But thankfully Leslo’s obsession with sparkles, bright colors, and rainbow scales dominated the conversation. The situation became more challenging once he had to talk in the large open chamber WroOth had set aside for Kepsalon’s prophetic artwork. It was down the hall of the family quarters with a ceiling and door suited for Vawtrian height rather than Machat, but everything else was designed with a Machat in mind. Thankfully, the chamber appeared ordinary enough, and WroOth was used to his mumbling and stammering at this point, and there was no reason for WroOth or QueQoa to suspect something was wrong. Right?

WroOth picked up a piece of parchment and turned so that the fading sunlight lit the back. “These are all very good, but I still think you’re holding back.”

“Maybe.” Kepsalon shifted his weight, uneasy for a new reason now. “I just don’t want to go too far too fast.” Sulak’s last warnings rang in his ears, so loud he couldn’t hear the other reasons for discomfort. He was damaged, and all of the other prophets knew it. It was only a matter of time before he did something that ruined everything. “I need to master the basics—”

“You have mastered the basics. At least sufficiently.” WroOth patted his shoulder, the gesture warm and far more confident in Kepsalon’s abilities than Kepsalon deserved. WroOth returned the parchment to the long low table. “You need to stop being afraid. Trust your instincts. Elonumato gave them to you. You know they’re good.”

QueQoa stood before the latest glass painting with the pressed image inside. “And who is this? She’s been in a number of others you’ve done.”

Kepsalon turned slowly, the skin along the back of his neck prickling. He didn’t like looking at her anymore than he had to. “Yes. The Neyeb woman.”
WroOth strode toward the glass painting. He then crossed his arms and released a sad sigh. “You gouged her face again?”

Kepsalon offered an apologetic shrug but still refused to look at her. “She’s so sad, Lord Para. There’s…there’s so much pain. I—it feels like she’s looking at me, and I can’t help her. It hurts.” Though he did not want to, he could not risk a single glimpse up.

In this latest image, the Neyeb woman held a strange creature that almost resembled an infant if it weren’t for the haunting, gaping eyes and the lopsided jaw that hung disjointed. The loolanor was a common symbol of death. An indication of destruction. But she held it like an infant. That frightened him.

What frightened him more though were her eyes and the expression they held. They overwhelmed him. Almost worse was that she lacked connection. It was the one thing he usually liked about sketching and drawing Neyeb. They almost always held that sense of community and closeness that went with their culture and people. Here though, there was silence and emptiness, a separation from the rest of the Neyeb. It was as if she was a Neyeb and yet wasn’t and that severance had nearly destroyed her without her even realizing it.

“What else do you know about her?” WroOth circled the etching.

“Just what I’ve said before.” Kepsalon rearranged the tools on his table even though they were already perfectly organized. “I think she’s going to be connected to you somehow, but she’s marked with death. And there’s something to do with the Tue-Rah. I think she’s going to die badly. Or perhaps badly for a good reason.” Kepsalon wished that he had more skill and strength, but the woman’s eyes haunted him with their questions. As he grew older, perhaps his strength and clarity would grow. WroOth assured him that this would be so. That the discomfort with peering into the future would soon pass as well. Yet thus far, there had been no ease.

“To die badly for a good reason is not so bad then,” WroOth said. “But so many times with this woman? She must haunt you greatly.”

“Unless he simply likes the look of her face,” QueQoa chuckled. “Perhaps Machat are more like Awdawms.”

Kepsalon shrugged again. There was another face he would much rather see. A far prettier and sweeter face with eyes brighter and easier to look upon. “I don’t like her in that way. The shape of her face is nice I suppose, but I can’t bear the eyes. I wish I knew what it really meant.” Kepsalon returned his gaze to the painting he had finished that afternoon. The lel blossoms reminded him of Sadyr once more. Perhaps like flower petals though he had never kissed a flower before. He wanted to kiss Sadyr again though. The thought twisted inside him, making him nervous and happy at once.

“So you’ll keep painting her until you know what it means,” WroOth chuckled. He shared a knowing look with QueQoa. “I think you’re right, brother. He does have feelings for her.”

“What?” Kepsalon looked up sharply, his face falling. “No, no, I promise. I don’t have feelings for her. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

WroOth hesitated, the slight frown indicating his surprise. “Of course you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s common for young ones of your age and kind to start feeling such things.”

The thoughts tumbled and twisted in Kepsalon’s mind. Had WroOth realized who he really had feelings for? “You aren’t upset then?”

The frown on WroOth’s face deepened. “Why would I be upset?”

“Because…wouldn’t—wouldn’t you disapprove?”

WroOth’s eyes narrowed with confusion as he tilted his head. “You wouldn’t be the first Machat to feel stirrings for someone whom he has never met. Especially in the early years. It’s not as if this Neyeb woman means anything to me now. I don’t even know her name. Perhaps she is your heart mate.”

Kepsalon breathed with relief, realizing that WroOth still meant the Neyeb.

“Oh yes,” he said. He resumed organizing his brushes once more. “I don’t like her that way though. And she isn’t my heart mate. But I thought you wouldn’t approve of my getting distracted.”

This time WroOth shrugged, mimicking Kepsalon. “It’ll happen in time, boy. You’re not truly a child but you’re not quite a man. And this is the start of that transition. But perhaps it is better to remain focused on your work and studies here. When the time comes though, you needn’t be secretive about it.”

“But you probably will be,” QueQoa said from behind the painting. He circled back, his arms still folded, but his smile was broader. “It seems ever in our nature to hide these things. And speaking of hiding, I must depart.”

“Where are you going?” WroOth asked.

“There’s a new cabiza queen. Two new worlds discovered. I’ll just stop in and say goodbye to Mara and the girls.” QueQoa tapped his fingers to his forehead. “The wilderness calls.” He paused in the doorway and bowed his head to Kepsalon as well. “Good to see you again, young Machat. Perhaps you’ll find your mystery woman soon.”

Kepsalon waved farewell. He then glanced back at the Neyeb woman as WroOth went on to examine his other pieces in progress. He didn’t have romantic feelings or stirrings for the Neyeb, but if everyone thought he did that wasn’t so bad. It made it all the easier to hide the real feelings developing within him for Sadyr. Especially after this evening.

Kepsalon’s cheeks heated, and his mind returned to the kiss that evening. The flash of heat encompassed him. He wasn’t sure how to work out his feelings for Sadyr, but he knew he wanted to kiss Sadyr again and again and again.

Episode 03: A Young Shifter’s Nightmare

It was three days before Kepsalon and Sadyr saw one another again. And when Sadyr slipped into the high-ceilinged room where he painted and sketched, excitement and joy welled up within Kepsalon with such power that it pushed all his fear and anxiety out. He clasped her cheeks and kissed her quickly. Her brilliant eyes lit up, widening with surprise. Then she seized him and lifted him off the ground as she pelted his face with rapid kisses.

Nothing had ever felt more perfect. The two found times to slip away. While his studio was nice enough for an occasional demonstration of affection, it was too risky. There were no locks on the doors, and a large window opened out over the Machat and Awdawm community below. Their favorite spot became a location underneath the staircase at the back of the hall, a mostly empty storage closet with a walnut door. They crawled inside, sometimes lighting a stub of candle or sitting in darkness, and kissed each other. Everything was better with one another, whether giggling and whispering or even just sitting in silence.

One afternoon in late summer, Sadyr met Kepsalon in their secret hiding place. He had gotten there a little early and set up the candle, all while keeping a tight grip on a parchment he’d brought especially for her. But as soon as Sadyr slipped in, He saw her eyes were puffy from crying and he set it aside, not even bothering to tighten it as it whirred open. “Sadyr, what’s wrong?”

Sadyr flung her arms around his neck, sobbing.

Kepsalon patted her back awkwardly. “Sadyr?”

Tears streamed down Sadyr’s face as she straightened. She hiccuped, then grimaced. Shaking her head, she sat down with her back to the wall. Kepsalon sat beside her. For several moments longer, all was silent except Sadyr’s sniffing. Kepsalon held her hand. At last, Sadyr spoke slowly. “I fell asleep on the sun seat. I…dreamed. The most horrible dream.”

“Tell me about it.” Kepsalon slid his arm around her and his hand back over hers. “I’m good with dreams.”

“It was awful.” Sadyr ducked her head. Tears fell onto her pale-blue trousers, staining them in small dabbled patches. “I dreamed something horrible had happened. We were missing. Or dead. I don’t know which. But Daddy did something he wasn’t supposed to. He went into a large stone room with glass panels that opened out into a mountain. There was a small box in front of him. And whatever he saw in it…it was killing him. He was holding his head and then he started crying, except he couldn’t make any noise at first. Then he was on the ground, and he was…it was so horrible. He sounded like he was dying. They found him, but no one could help. Uncle Naatos, Uncle AaQar, Uncle QueQoa. No one. He kept getting louder too. Like he was being torn apart. It didn’t sound like him. It didn’t sound like anyone.” Sadyr clutched her fist to her mouth, trembling. “Then he stopped. And his eyes changed. Everything stopped. He started to turn into a dragon, but he couldn’t. Halfway through he stopped, but he couldn’t turn back. Even though he wanted to.”

Kepsalon’s throat tightened.

“You mean…”

“Yes.” Sadyr’s voice shook. Though she wiped her eyes, more tears took their place at once. “He became a skinchanger…”

A chill spasmed down Kepsalon’s spine.

Sadyr scrubbed her face again. “He started killing everyone,” she whispered. “The Machat. As many as he could. Uncle AaQar and Uncle Naatos tried to stop him. But they couldn’t. He was too fast and too strong. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t eat. It was like he was dead inside and his body was living. I couldn’t get him to see me. I couldn’t find Mama. She wasn’t anywhere! They were going to have to kill him to stop him!” She burst into sobs again.

Kepsalon pulled her closer and tried to think of something comforting to say. But there weren’t any words. And telling her it was just a dream overlooked a very important part. Vawtrians generally didn’t dream. It wasn’t unheard of, of course, but usually when they did dream there was something significant. Usually about their past. But this sounded like the future. Yet if this was prophetic… “That sounds horrible.”

“But what does it mean?” Sadyr demanded. “When you dream, it always means something, but Vawtrians aren’t Machat. We don’t dream like that. I’ve never dreamed before. Is this the future?” She pulled her knees to her chest, her lips trembling. More tears poured down, forming shining rivers on her cheeks. “Is this going to happen?”

“I don’t know.” Kepsalon prayed it wasn’t. “Maybe it was just a fear.”
“It was so real.”

Another longer pause followed. Kepsalon bit his lip, contemplating how to phrase this. “Are you sure this is the only dream you’ve ever had?”

Sadyr shrugged. “I mean, there have been a couple others I sort of remember.” She hiccuped again and closed her eyes, then once again scrubbed away the tears. “Maybe I dream and don’t remember. But I haven’t ever had a dream like this.”

“Have any of your other dreams ever come true?”

“No, but none of them were like this,” Sadyr insisted. She bit her lip hard, her lips flushing almost white in parts and dark red in others. “None of them.”

Kepsalon nodded, but he still did not know what to say. He threaded his fingers through hers.

“If it is going to happen, I won’t let it.” Sadyr’s expression turned grim. She clenched her narrow jaw and shot Kepsalon a ferocious look. “My dad isn’t going to be a skinchanger. He won’t!”

“What can I do?” Kepsalon asked.

“Can you find out if my dream is prophetic?” Sadyr asked. “Find out what it is that makes him a skinchanger.”

Kepsalon hinged his head from side to side, cringing a little. “I can try, but—”

“You’re the smartest Machat ever,” Sadyr said. She peered into his eyes, her dark blue eyes cutting deep into him and filling him with a warm expanding desire to please her. “You can do it. You can find out if it’s true and then what we can do to keep him from doing it.”

“I’ll do my best,” Kepsalon started.

“And I know who else I can tell. Mama is probably back now. Come on.” Sadyr grabbed his arm. “Let’s go tell her.”

Kepsalon pulled back sharply. “Oh no, no,” he exclaimed. “Your mother can’t see us coming out of the same place together. What if they think we’re—we’re—” He wasn’t sure how to put it other than what if her parents thought they were doing exactly what they were usually doing under the stairs.

“Fine.” Sadyr stood. She wiped her thin arm across her eyes and nose, then sniffed. “I’ll go first. You follow.” Turning sharply, she strode out of the narrow room.

Kepsalon leaned back against the stone wall, his heart thundering both from the thrill of holding her, the terror of being found out, and the unease of Sadyr’s dreams. Surely it wasn’t a prophetic dream, but a niggling itch in his mind kept him from dismissing it entirely. Only vaguely did it occur to him that it was odd that Sadyr wanted so much to confide her in her mother about this. Lately she and Mara had spent more time fighting, mostly about Sadyr’s age and independence and what she was and wasn’t ready for. But he brushed that thought away and focused on preparing himself.

Taking a few steadying breaths, he decided that he did need to treat this as seriously as he could. And at the very least he could try to look into WroOth’s future. That was more than reasonable, and, at this point, essential. He scrubbed his hands over his face, organized his thoughts, and then slipped out from underneath the stairs, leaving his latest drawing behind.

Sadyr had not fully closed the ornately carved door to the family quarters. Kepsalon stepped inside, trying to mirror the confidence he had had before he started falling in love with Sadyr. He had always been welcome before. Mara often greeted him with warm cookies and even warmer hugs. Now he felt like an intruder in more ways than one.

Mara’s attention was otherwise occupied this time. She sat at the kitchen table, a vertical frown line creasing deep as she studied her daughter. Sadyr sat in the wooden chair beside her, hiccuping and sobbing even harder than when she had been with Kepsalon. He’d never seen her cry this way.

“Sometimes I have nightmares when I nap too,” Mara said.

Sadyr cut her off with a wild slash of her hand. “It wasn’t just a dream! You weren’t there! You were gone. You were gone!”

Leaning forward, Mara cupped her hands around Sadyr’s face. She wiped her tears away with her thumbs. “Baby girl—”

Sadyr’s face twisted into even more tears. “It was real. It’s going to happen.”
It occurred to Kepsalon that maybe, despite how upset she was and how much she wanted his help, Sadyr had actually been trying to be brave when talking to him. As Mara folded her close, tutting and whispering soothing words that Kepsalon couldn’t make out, he knew he needed to give them more time alone.

He moved instead to the family chambers. Both WroOth and Mara had told him he was welcome anytime he liked, and he had taken them on it before. Now that he was alone he no longer felt like quite so much an intruder though there was little reason for his feelings to change aside from the fact that he did not have to risk interacting with Sadyr in front of her mother when she was in such a state. He removed some parchment, a quill, blotter, and ink from between the nearest couch and the wall, one of his secret stashes. At the very least he could use this time to help in his own way. Then, curling up, he closed his eyes.

It did not take long to recall to his mind each of the elements Sadyr had mentioned. Her nightmare, though terrifying, was fairly simple, and WroOth was someone with whom he was exceptionally familiar. Bright white sparks streaked along the insides of his eyelids as usual. If he had been sitting in sunlight, they would have been rich orange or bright yellow. These faded as he repeated the elements and focused on WroOth. Ordinarily, this was when his sight would unfold.

The long grey quill rested easy in his hand. He slowed his breaths as the darkness encompassed him. Soothing, calming, neutral darkness. Show me what’s to happen to the Para, Elonumato, he prayed. Is WroOth in danger?
Though he worked to intensify his focus, he still heard Sadyr’s cries and Mara’s muted attempts to comfort her wafting from the next room. As hard as it was, he pushed those sounds away and entered the deeper quiet of his vision chamber, the most sacred portion of a Machat’s mind.

A ball of anxiety formed in his stomach. The darkness didn’t ordinarily disturb him. He actually liked it. Like most Machat he found it soothing, comforting, essential. But now, unlike any other time, a clammy fear crept across the back of his consciousness: what if he didn’t get an answer. What if—

“I’m not an Awdawm like you!” Sadyr screamed, her voice grating through his mind like metal on metal. “I don’t just dream for fun! Why am I even talking to you? You don’t know anything!”

“Sadyr!” Mara exclaimed.

WroOth’s harsher tone cut in as well. “If you want to see me angry, keep disrespecting your mother like that. Apologize now.”

Kepsalon cracked his eyes open, not sure why this had startled him out of his meditation. The lengthening of the sunbeams on the floor suggested he had only been gone for perhaps fifteen minutes. And clearly the fight was not yet over though WroOth had arrived.

“You can’t turn into a skinchanger,” Sadyr continued, her voice a hoarse mixture of panic and rage.

“I’m not planning on it.” A chair’s legs scraped across the floor as WroOth spoke. “Darling, Vawtrians don’t become skinchangers in a single breath. It takes something enormous or a long period of time, and I assure you, I’m fine.”

“But that’s what the dream showed,” Sadyr insisted. “Something terrible did happen. You have to believe me.”

“First, you have to apologize to your mother.”

Kepsalon resisted the urge to look. He ducked his chin against his chest and refocused his thoughts. The darkness swept around him once again, and he descended back into the deeper reaches of his mind. But it was no longer comforting. It unsettled him. As if something crept within the darkness, sneaking up on him. Nothing could hurt him here, so this had to mean something, but what?

Please, Elonumato, he prayed. Please. I don’t understand. Is Sadyr’s dream prophetic? Is it a warning?

A strange scene unfolded in his mind, dull white light with yellow undertones. A heavy veil distorted his vision. As he focused on the light beyond the veil, it weakened.

A desert formed around him. White sand rose in large hills and broad gullies. Bleached branches rose up like bones, and small polished bits of dull stone lay scattered at intervals. Even the sky was faded. As if Elonumato had forgotten to use color in this place.

Words riveted through Kepsalon, striking the center of his mind and coursing through him like lightning on iron. “The Paras must not go to Selvatine or continue with their plans for the Tue-Rah.”

Kepsalon gripped his stomach, falling forward onto his knees. His knees made small dents in the sand, but the sound was swallowed up. Cringing, he peered up into the sky at the heavy red sun that was so weak he could look at it without harm. The heavy foreboding terror blew into him like the wind, choking his words.

In a place like this, his words weren’t needed. The vision might still be unfolding.

He returned to his feet and circled about, searching for signs. Any sign. Yet not once did he see WroOth or any of his marks nor even any indications of a skinchanger.

As he circled once again, footprints appeared in the sand. A long trail formed as if a cloak trailed along it. Lifting his gaze, Kepsalon paused, startled. A cloak, his cloak, lay on the edge of the fallen sand tree, shredded, tattered, and blood spattered. “Stay focused,” Kepsalon,” a deep voice intoned, rumbling in his thoughts. “Do not let yourself be distracted. Beware of false happiness. Troubled times are ahead.”

The white sand, tree, and cloak, dissolved into darkness.

Gulping a deep breath, Kepsalon opened his eyes. Slowly the room returned to focus, the broad sunbeams even longer now. This time he had been gone perhaps an hour. And still WroOth, Mara, and Sadyr argued. The parchment beneath his hand, however, was filled with half scenes and scribbled notations, stark with black lines against pale paper. His heart beat faster as he stared at what he had drawn. Numerous strange elements crowded the page. A curved claws dripping venom. A river spilling into a waterfall in a lush mountain garden. Sand with disappearing footprints. His own cloak shredded as if by a creature. And a strange rock formation.
What did any of this mean?

It didn’t really confirm Sadyr’s nightmare or suggest that it was actually prophetic. At least none of the elements she mentioned were present here. Yet that sickly damp foreboding sensation remained along with the strange message that had presented itself. He didn’t even know where or what Selvatine was. Only that he had to speak.

Capping the ink pot, Kepsalon gathered the words as best he could. He then hid his items and strode into dining room.

Sadyr stood across from both her parents, her eyes wild and bloodshot. Her hair had come undone, and the tears left dark tracks on her cheeks and neck. Mara stared at her with a mixture of concern and confusion, her own face pale and her shoulders tight. WroOth stood beside Mara and shook his head, the agitation and frustration apparent in the tightness of his jaws and stance.

Sadyr continued to shout, her fists clenched at her sides. “You think I’m only a child. That I couldn’t possibly know anything about the future or the world. That I couldn’t know anything outside of your stupid walls and your stupid books! But I’m not! Something terrible is going to happen. If a Machat told you it was going to happen, you’d believe them. But you don’t believe me, and I’m your daughter.”

“If you don’t want us to treat you like a child, then stop acting like a child,” WroOth said sharply.

“Excuse me.” Kepsalon spoke softly, his hands clasped before himself. He twisted his own thumb to keep his thoughts clear.

Everyone’s attention at once focused on him. Mara pressed her hand to her cheek. “Oh, darling, forgive me.” She sighed. “I didn’t mean to ignore you. I must have forgotten that you came. Are you hungry?”

“No,” Kepsalon said. He strengthened his voice, avoiding looking at Sadyr though he felt her gaze pressing hard upon him. “No. Maybe later. But for now, I need to share something else. Sadyr asked me to search for an interpretation to her dream. And I don’t know whether the dream itself is prophetic, but I did receive a warning. That you, Lord Para, and your brothers must not go to Selvatine. Something terrible will happen if you do.”

WroOth’s mouth fell open. He shut it abruptly, then closed his eyes. He drew his hand over his brow as if his head hurt, but when he opened his eyes again, they were blade-sharp. “What did you just say?”

“Is that connected to Sadyr’s dream?” Mara asked. Her gaze shifted to Sadyr, the concern wearing deeper upon her. “Is it really more than a dream? Is it a prophecy? Do Vawtrians have such dreams?”

“I don’t know,” Kepsalon said shakily. He placed the parchment on the table. “Maybe it’s symbolic of something. Maybe it’s connected. This is just the message I received while searching to answer her question. And we don’t usually get yeses or nos. The message I did receive was clear that you must not go to Selvatine, Lord Para, nor can you continue with any plans for the Tue-Rah.” Kepsalon licked his lips nervously and bobbed his head. “I’m sorry I can’t give you more information than that.”

WroOth laughed slightly, only the faintest twitch at his eye suggesting any nervousness. “I do not know what you’re talking about, child.”

Mara shot him a sharp look. “We agreed,” she said softly. “Those plans of yours—”

WroOth lifted his hand and gave her a warm smile. “This isn’t related to that at all. Selvatine is a mythic Shivennan location, a place that most likely does not even exist. It was the home of Kishveran and DuKal if they ever existed. And history suggests they didn’t.”

The names sounded vaguely familiar, but before Kepsalon could turn them to any particular connections, WroOth returned his focus to him. “Thank you, Kepsalon, for your word of caution and for hearing my daughter’s concern. In this case, I fear you are not quite as close to the mark as you usually are, but I appreciate your forthrightness.”

Sadyr held the parchment Kepsalon had filled. “Daddy—” She shook her head. Mara continued to watch him, her usually soft gaze now cutting and sharp as an osprey.

WroOth put his arm around Sadyr’s shoulder and drew her close. “Kepsalon,” he said. “This is the message, what you have put on the parchment here and the words you shared, this is what you received when trying to determine whether Sadyr’s dream was prophetic.”

“I was—”

WroOth lifted his chin. “Yes or no, Kepsalon.”

Kepsalon swallowed hard again, his uneasiness growing. “Yes, sir.”
“And was there anything else?”

“I felt bad,” Kepsalon said. “It was uncomfortable.”

“Understandably.” WroOth turned his focus to the parchment and pointed at it. “Sadyr, are any of these images the same as what appeared in your dream?”

Sadyr shook her head. Then she scowled, but much of her fire had faded. She buried her face in his chest. “It was awful though.”

“I don’t doubt it was,” WroOth soothed. “But that doesn’t mean that it must be real. Now you trust Kepsalon, don’t you?”

Sadyr nodded.

Mara nodded as well. She studied WroOth, a hardness in her eyes. “I trust him very much.” The way she said it held an edge he did not expect.

An uncomfortable twinge passed through Kepsalon. Those two were likely to have words later, and it was his fault. Selvatine obviously meant something unpleasant.

WroOth acknowledged her with another charming smile and then went back to stroking Sadyr’s hair. “So if you trust Kepsalon, Sadyr, then that means that you just had a dream. And for all of the fighting and yelling, it isn’t particularly hard to decipher.” He sat then in the chair and took her hands in his, bringing her to stand in front of him. He spoke more cheerily now. “Let’s think about it, shall we? You dream that I am very upset, that no one can make me feel better. And that is what makes me a monster, a skinchanger. But, darling, if you knew half of what I’ve been through, you’d know that if I was going to be a skinchanger it would be long before now. Hmm? And also, do you really think I could ever get stuck halfway in a dragon form? What is the one shape I am a master of?”

Sadyr nodded, her head still low.

WroOth chucked her lightly under the chin. “And as for why you can’t find your mother in the dream, well, that could be for all sorts of reasons. It’s no secret that you haven’t been getting on so well with your mama. It’s rather the way of things. Young girls often start cutting out their mothers until they realize that their mothers aren’t a threat to them. You’re an independent soul, Sadyr. You feel constrained here. But your mother loves you. She might not be a Vawtrian, but she loves you and understands you better than you think. And you need to listen to her and treat her with the respect she deserves.”

Kepsalon fell silent as Sadyr murmured her acknowledgments and apologies. He focused on the smooth wooden bowl on the table until he no longer saw it, turning over the latest events in his mind. WroOth’s interpretation wasn’t the worst. It was reasonable that Sadyr might be dreaming about striking out on her own and fearing that her departure would unbalance her family and she could not fix it. But it didn’t sit well with him. And the warning had been so clear. Selvatine was such a clear and distinct word. Mara’s response also suggested that something more hung about it.

Mara stepped back from hugging Sadyr, her daughter almost matching her in height. “Come on,” she said. She licked her thumb and scrubbed away a spot on Sadyr’s cheek. “Why don’t you wash up and then we’ll go get your little sister and visit with your Aunt Rasha. Kelchon should be almost finished with his lessons. But if we hurry, I bet we could swim in the sun pools.” She smiled at Kepsalon. “If you’d like, you can join us.”

Kepsalon opened his mouth to speak, but WroOth had already crossed over to him and placed a hand firmly on his shoulder. “Kepsalon and I need to talk. You two run on ahead. We’ll see you shortly.”

Episode 04: The Path of Happiness for a Prophet

WroOth’s words hung in the air, intensifying the dread that now practically swallowed Kepsalon. He didn’t think it could get any worse until the door shut, signaling Mara and Sadyr’s departure.

“That was a strange vision you had,” WroOth said after another moment of uncomfortable silence. “Not that it is unusual for even the most advanced Machat to sometimes make a mistake or pursue the wrong path.” He patted Kepsalon’s shoulder and strode toward the family room. 

Kepsalong hung back, his muscles aching with tightness. “I was wrong?” He hadn’t been though. The words were unmistakably clear.

“Yes, but don’t let that trouble you.” WroOth continued into the family room. He opened one of the large drawers and removed additional parchment and pastels. “You’ve generally avoided that, but this is a part of growth. You should be proud of yourself.”

Kepsalon followed him slowly. “But—”

WroOth turned, giving him a stern look. “When it comes to my own life, I assure you, I know what is happening. Selvatine is a mythical place, and my brothers and I have never even desired to find it, let alone visit it. And our only plans involving the Tue-Rah relate to passing it on to the three Neyeb who will be chosen to replace us.”

The way WroOth spoke unnerved Kepsalon. “Well then…” What else was there to say? Perhaps he had been wrong, but the conviction remained, even if he could not defend himself.

“Don’t let this undermine your confidence though.” WroOth placed the artistic tools on the carved wooden table. “Every Machat must make at least one or two large errors in their lifetime. It’s why the larger prophecies are corroborated by others and with the council. It’s why nothing is revealed without care unless certain protections are in place. Our relationship is a little more informal, of course. But even the greatest of Machat with all of the checks and balances sometimes find themselves stumbling down the wrong trail. This is all part of your growth. But let’s examine this further.” He sat on the couch. “You’re seeing the Tue-Rah’s future, you think?” 

“There is something strange happening with the Tue-Rah.” Kepsalon lifted his shoulders in a half shrug. A little more comfort seeped into him. Talking to WroOth almost always left him feeling better, and this was proving no exception.

WroOth rested his chin on his fist. “What have you seen?” 

Kepsalon hesitated. 

WroOth laughed a little. “You don’t have to be uneasy, Kepsalon. How long have you been under my tutelage? Perhaps I can help you determine what path you were to follow in the prophecy’s path? You know you can trust me, do you not?” 

Kepsalon nodded slowly. “That’s not the issue,” he said. “I just…there wasn’t much more to it than that. And I feel like I know at least one of the names that you said before, but I don’t know Selvatine. So why would it be in my mind if it didn’t mean anything?” 

WroOth nodded, compassion shining in his eyes. “I understand your confusion. It is to be expected. But you see, even that has a clear answer. The time for the transition of power with the Tue-Rah and the selection of the new Paras draws closer and closer. Indeed, it is the first event of this magnitude that you have ever come close to experiencing. This is where a Machat’s desire to see certain things and receive certain answers may actually become…less accurate. Especially before you learn to temper the desire to be important.”

“You’re suggesting I’m trying to make myself more important?” Kepsalon found the words difficult to say. Shame heated his face and neck. “I wasn’t—”

“You don’t need to be embarrassed,” WroOth continued. Leaning forward, he opened the small box on the table and removed an envelope. “You are brilliant beyond your years. Of course you will want to be someone of importance and see things of importance. I would be worried if you did not. You just have to learn to temper that. Be aware that what you see may actually not be what is or what may be.” WroOth gave a casual shrug.  “You may find this time to be emotionally troubling. Your vision may show you such things as your parents returning to take you back.”

Kepsalon broke eye contact. He didn’t even want to think of that. A cold pain coiled within his chest, springing up from a place had healed long ago. His mind tried to return to those awful days long before—Stop it, stop it, he thought. He dug his fingers into his palms as his breath snagged in his throat. He never wanted to think of it again. Never.

“Or perhaps you might see my brothers and myself doing something absolutely ludicrous like deciding to assume our positions as Para permanently and taking charge of all the worlds.” WroOth chuckled. “It’s hard to say what you might think of that, hmm?” 

Kepsalon swallowed hard. Beads of sweat trailed down the back of his neck, the painful coil of fear and horrid memories still tight within his chest. “I’d know it was false,” he said hoarsely. “You aren’t a fool.”

“And that would make me a fool, would it?” WroOth asked playfully.

Kepsalon nodded. He fought to release the tension in his chest. “Of course. It’s prohibited. Each world must be free to govern itself as a whole or in many parts. The role of the Para is to prevent particular violations, genocides, and the like. To promote freedom and integrity and ensure that—”

With a wave of his hand, WroOth stood, laughing. “I didn’t mean for you to give me a textbook answer. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Of course you know that. You’re a very clever Machat, Kepsalon. And you are right. Even if the worlds were sliding into chaos and all was going to madness and unbundling like miles and miles of rotted string, you know that it would be wrong to subvert the peoples’ governments and their rules and cultures to a single ruler or even a few rulers.”

Kepsalon nodded. The Paras did not have an easy task in overseeing the Tue-Rahs and ensuring it was not abused, and their abilities to influence the nations and worlds in smaller matters was limited, even if the decisions being made were horrible. But it was essential that the Paras not have too much power. “Choice and freedom come at a price.”

“And that price is never too high.” Briefly WroOth’s eyes went cold. Then in a breath, they returned to their usual warm blue green. “I am glad you are as resolute as other traditionally trained Machat. I’ve told you before, and I will tell you again that I see tremendous potential in you.” He tapped the envelope on the back of his hand and then offered it to Kepsalon. “I want you to have this. There is only one requirement.”

Kepsalon’s eyes widened. He turned the envelope over in his hand. A spark of surprise and elation coursed through his as he recognized the indigo seal. 

“Go ahead,” WroOth said, folding his arms. “Open it. Even if you do know what’s inside.”

Carefully, Kepsalon broke the seal. The paper was marble smooth to his touch and slid out like shining silk. His heart beat faster, his excitement mounting. Then he unfolded the letter, and his mouth fell open. How could this be? The flowing mahogany script informed him that he had officially become a member of the Machat Council, scheduled to begin his duties at the start of the new year. He wasn’t even sixteen! To even be considered for this, let alone to receive it, was beyond incredible beyond comprehension!

“Congratulations,” WroOth said. “It took some effort to convince the other Machat that you were more than qualified and suitable for skipping certain steps. There are still some who are not fully convinced, so I don’t recommend that you speak of your latest prophecy to them. It can be our little secret.” He winked. “Now, as for the one thing I want you to do, I want you to start looking to your own future.” 

Kepsalon struggled to understand this, the gears of his mind turning as if in sand. At the moment his thoughts were absorbed with the fact that he had achieved what he never thought possible and so early as well! The blight of his parents’ conduct remained over him. Yet now it was as if he had been washed clean and placed on a fresh mountain with all the tools he would ever require and practically an entire lifetime to create his own reputation. He was to be a junior member of the council that handled all matters of Machat culture, government, and advisement to the Para. “You did this for me?” 

“Of course,” WroOth said, grinning broadly. “I’ve always seen your potential. And it was not your fault that your parents are who they were. You deserved a chance even if your own people didn’t want to give it to you. I may not be a Machat, but I know very well that you will make a great difference in the worlds. You are a leader at heart, and you will be one of the greatest prophets as well. Now, returning to my request though, I want you to focus on your own future as well. Your own happiness.” 

Kepsalon hesitated, words of warning, painful and sour, returning to his mind. “I don’t know if I should. Sulak and Chero say that it’s dangerous even if—”

“Yes, I know. They believe that because you did not feel secure and loved in your early years and were left in the light, that you will always search for love and acceptance if you try to see your own way. That it is dangerous in general to see one’s own way. That you will only see false paths when following your own desires.” WroOth stepped closer, his brow furrowed and his voice ringing with sincerity. “But you are no ordinary Machat, Kepsalon. And we are not defined by who we are as children, thank Elonumato. If we were, I shudder to think of what I would be. Terrified of solitude and abandonment.” WroOth’s gaze had shifted to the window. A smile quirked at his mouth. Though a strange sadness dampened his eyes, he laughed.

“People…they think they know you, but so few will ever truly know what you are. Don’t let those who don’t understand you be the ones who define you. In fact, best not to let anyone define you but you.” 

“What if they’re right though?” Kepsalon asked. He stared at the parchment, careful not to crinkle the gorgeous paper. Pale green leaves and faint impressions of twigs had been pressed within the material. The sweet cedar-and-pine-like scent wafted up to him. 

“They aren’t,” WroOth said. “You’ve never even attempted to seek your own happiness through your gifts. So of course you may make some mistakes. But you would be foolish not to use your skills in this fashion. None of the other Machat have offered you this gift. So it falls to you to take what is rightfully yours and to learn as you go. Would it not be wise to see the path that brings you the most happiness and then  move in that direction?” 

“Sometimes dreaming about happiness can keep us from seeing the path we’re supposed to take,” Kepsalon said softly. The weakness in his voice wasn’t from actual fear any longer but from the painful hope of his relationship with Sadyr. What if he could? What if he was able to peer ahead and see what lay in store for them? Would WroOth be so eager to ensure that Kepsalon sought his own happiness if he knew that it involved his daughter? The words of wisdom the elder Machat had spoken sat in his mouth like coarse stones, impossible to swallow or spit out.

“We find what we look for, Kepsalon. So please. Dream. Peer into your own future. Record what you find and pursue it.” WroOth handed him the large parchment journal and the rich pastels. “You don’t have to show me anything you find, of course. These realizations may be of a more intimate nature. So keep it to yourself. Don’t even show your Machat elders. This is to help you to be prepared for your own future and even your position on the council.”
Kepsalon nodded slowly, finding that the stones of Machat advice were no longer so heavy within him. “I don’t know how to thank you for this,” he said.

WroOth smiled, a look of paternal pride in his eyes. “Just dream and follow the path to happiness. That’s all I ask.” He placed a firm hand on Kepsalon’s shoulder. “Now. If you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare for my children’s return.” 

The door clicked open and loud voices heralded the newcomers. “No! It’s my turn!” Leslo howled. 

“Ahh,” WroOth said with a sigh. “I’m out of time.” 

Kepsalon returned his focus to the gorgeous parchment journal and creamy pastels and smiled. 


With an invitation to return for dinner, Kepsalon retreated to one of the smaller rooms in the family quarters. He sat on the window seat and stared at the parchment and pastels. He had never worked with anything so beautiful. All the while he turned over the concept of seeking his own happiness and inquiring into his own future. Occasionally, he tried to return his thoughts to the prayers he had been taught, to inquire whether Elonumato would permit or approve of this. But his mind was a haze, clouded with eagerness. It was too risky to return and beg one of the older Machat to inquire into his future. They might tell WroOth about his feelings for Sadyr. And besides, none of them had ever wanted to help him. Machat like him had to find their own way. He could only bring matters for discernment and clarification. Nothing would be revealed to him otherwise. It wasn’t fair. He’d never felt it was. It wasn’t his fault that his parents violated their vows. It wasn’t his fault that they hadn’t followed the requirements of their people. So surely this qualified as an exception? He chewed on the bottom of his lip. “Just tell me then, Elonumato. Do you really mean for me not to look into my future?” 

The oil pastels rolled in his hand, each one wrapped in a thin paper lining. He held the cobalt for a moment, then the rose pink. Pastels were used only for special occasions, their creamy texture and, in this case, secret infusion of ingredients offered far greater opportunities for additional layers and symbols. Each medium and element possessed its own voice. Kepsalon picked up the pale blue and held it up to his eyes as if it was a fine jewel. 

The door creaked open, and Sadyr poked her head in. “Congratulations, Kepsalon,” she said as she pressed back the door. 

Kepsalon dropped the pastel. “Sadyr!” 

The redness and swelling around Sadyr’s eyes had gone down, and the streaks from her tears left no trace. She wore a fresh moss-green smock and pale-blue trousers, her waist bound with a bright pink and pale-blue floral sash. She closed the door behind her. “I had to help Mama cut the meat for the braising and then go over Leslo’s numbers with her,” she said. She rolled her eyes with great exaggeration. “Big sister duties. You’re so lucky you don’t have them.” She flopped down beside him. 

Kepsalon placed his pastels in the slim white box and set them aside. “Are you feeling better? I’m sorry I couldn’t confirm—”

“It’s fine.” Sadyr walked up to him. She slipped her hand in his and peered down at him. Had she gotten a little taller since this afternoon? “You did your best, and whether the dream is prophetic or not, I do know what I have to do.”

“And what’s that?” Kepsalon peeked over her shoulder, half expecting someone to fling the door open. 

“Well, you’ll keep looking to the future, especially my dad’s. And you won’t let him become a skinchanger. Meanwhile I’ll do the same. Between the two of us, we can do this. If it’s coming, we’ll see it long before it gets here. And I’ll keep getting strong so I can fight it off and protect you and my family.” 

“That sounds good.” Kepsalon’s heart was all aflutter. It was hard to think anything coherent when she was so close to him. 

Sadyr picked up three of the pastels and rolled them across her palm. “These are the ones Daddy got for you to see into your future, aren’t they?” 

“Yes.” Kepsalon paused. The conflict intensified abruptly within his chest, pressing painfully against his ribcage and lungs. “Sadyr,” he blurted out. “I don’t know if I should. Machat aren’t supposed to look at our own futures. The things we want can distract us.”

“That’s for regular Machat,” Sadyr said. “You aren’t.”

“No. I’m broken.”

Sadyr smiled, lifting her eyes to his in an utterly exquisite and beautiful manner. “No you aren’t. You’re wonderful.”

“I could get things wrong. I could get distracted. I could miss something important—”

Sadyr kissed him quickly on the lips. The golden sunlight brightened her deep blue eyes, bringing out the gold and cobalt flecks. “That won’t happen, Kepsalon. And if you look into your future and mine, you’ll be sure to see anything like what my dream warned about.”

“I guess,” Kepsalon said slowly. 

“Daddy told you to dream and follow the path to happiness.” Sadyr sat on the legless couch and folded her legs beneath her. The warm light framed her now jet-black hair. “I heard him telling Mama. He’s so proud of you. You’re essentially one of his sons. And he smothers us. We’re not allowed to do anything dangerous at all. He doesn’t even think I should be hunting for besred. So if he says that something is all right, that it’s safe, then it is.”

That was true. The tightness evaporated from Kepsalon’s chest. This couldn’t be bad. “All right,” he said. He picked up the tray of pastels. “Pick a color.”
Sadyr fished one out. “Coral-orange,” she said with an impish smile. 
Kepsalon accepted it. The heat had returned to his cheeks and neck, but it was not unpleasant. “Let’s see what is going to happen.” Taking a deep breath, he moved the pastel into position and closed his eyes.

Episode 05: A Visit to Uncle

Sadyr had never watched Kepsalon create his art like this before. At least not this sort, the kind that was a vision or some form of foretelling in the moment. The process fascinated and soothed her. His muscles relaxed once he closed his eyes. He gripped the coral-orange pastel, his breaths slowing.

At first, he made a few strokes, forming small images, almost more impressions in the beginning. Then he opened his eyes, focused on the parchment, and began to sketch. He hunched forward, his shoulders to his ears. Nothing existed except him and the parchment and the pastels. 

She folded her legs up beneath her and rested her cheek on the cushion. She liked watching him draw almost as much as she enjoyed watching the Awdawm children color and paint. Her mother had tried to get her to do the same, but she didn’t enjoy it. Nothing had moved the way she wanted it to, and she already had to do enough to learn the basics of biology for her core form. Watching, however, was an entirely different matter. 

She sighed. Things had been so much harder lately. Especially with her mother. It wasn’t that Mama was cruel or terrible, but she was annoying. Mostly because she was an Awdawm, and she was weak. Sometimes she was even silly. Her mother was of course the reason that her father smothered them. It was her mother’s fears that kept him saying no and prevented him from seeing that she was like him and ready for stronger and harsher challenges. And it wasn’t that she didn’t love her mother because she did, very much indeed. But she also knew that she had to find a way to convince both of them that she was ready for more and deserved more. She was no longer a child. She was a woman.

Her mother’s words returned to her mind from yesterday’s fight about the cabiza nest. “If you want us to treat you like an adult, you must behave as one. Be faithful in the small things. Prove that you can handle those and that you can listen. Then maybe you can investigate.” 

Sadyr pressed her palm to her temple and then rubbed her eye firmly. The words settled poorly within her. Especially in the aftermath of this day’s dream. 

Mama was dear in her own way, even if she didn’t understand how hard it was to be a Vawtrian. She was safest in the family quarters, and the family quarters were where she stayed. She was neither wild nor adventurous. She would be happy to remain here forever! But that also meant that it was up to Sadyr to protect her mother. Just as something dreadful had happened to her father in her dream, something horrible had happened to her mother as well. She would have to find a way to be stronger to protect both.

The soft squeaking and shirring of the pastel and Kepsalon’s hand across the page further calmed her and intensified the conviction that this was indeed her course. She peered over Kepsalon’s shoulders and smiled to see herself present on the page. 

There she was, all grown up. Sleek dark hair, straight like her father’s and not wavy and curly like her mother’s, complete with lavender and coral highlights with a coiling blue dragon tattoo running the length of her neck across her collarbone. She was beautiful, her chin strong, her arms tightly muscled, and her eyes sharp and bright. Kepsalon stood beside her in this picture. He too was a man. A very handsome man indeed. The stripes on his face, neck, and hands had intensified to a deeper sienna tone, and he was even a little taller than she. Sadyr smiled, wondering if that would be so or if he was perhaps standing on some block out of sight. Everyone knew that Machat were short and Vawtrians were tall. Most of the time at least. Still she liked the picture.

Kepsalon moved on without comment, passing her the first page and starting on the second. Sadyr covered it in tissue and placed it in a leather folio, then lifted the tissue and stared at it.

They passed the rest of the afternoon in this fashion. The following day they met again, the next day the same, each time focusing on these gorgeous pictures. WroOth had fortunately supplied multiple packs of the pastels, and Kepsalon went through three in the first week. Sadyr never tired of watching him at his work, and while he sketched and smudged, she tested her own muscles and shifting abilities, narrowing her fingers and adding claws. The practice was so simple to watch her father and uncles. They could transform their hands into a hundred forms within the span of three minutes, each one appearing effortless. Her own fingers stung and burned with even small changes. It was like shoving needles into her skin or pushing blades out from the flesh. But this was what it was to be Vawtrian. So she gritted her teeth, performed the exercises, and watched Kepsalon create beautiful visions of their future.

The pictures themselves were quite similar, but she nor he tired of them. They showed the two in various states of happiness and romance. Ever bright and cheerful. Sometimes Kepsalon and Sadyr appeared in a field with pink and lavender roses, the colors little more than delicate hints of the shades in some places and so intense in others it was almost hard to look at. Other times they were sand surfing in the desert. In some, they swam in indigo and emerald oceans, playing with the nes monsters that hid behind the air mountains. But it was always very good. Their future was bright indeed.

Everything else improved from there as well. At the start of the new year, Kepsalon took his seat as a junior council member. Not all were pleased, but none opposed him directly nor did they make his life difficult beyond what had already been done.  

For Sadyr, the nightmare returned twice, but Kepsalon found nothing else in his drawings or searchings to indicate that it was prophetic. Despite this, Sadyr could not fully set it aside. It no longer set her to tears and agony as before, but in her soul she knew that there had to be more to it than anyone else thought. But she kept all thoughts and words related to that dream locked away in the most secret part of her mind. 

Her plan worked whether she spoke of the dreams or not, and she followed that plan with all the tenacity and strength she could muster. She helped her mother and tried to restrain her annoyance and anger with not being permitted to take on harder challenges or having to play with her little sister. She completed extra chores and tracked the basic shifting exercises her father assigned her and went over and beyond either parents’ expectations. And when she discovered that her mother was having another baby at the end of winter, she did all she could to assist in every way she could think. 
Yet still the tension remained, sometimes breaking with her smarting off or picking a fight with her mother. Sometimes she wondered whether other Vawtrian girls and Awdawm mothers struggled in this fashion and why it was that it was so much easier to fight with her mother than her father. 

Whether they liked it or not though, she was growing up. Time could not be stopped. She and Kepsalon continued to sneak kisses and hold hands in private, but one day too that would be out in the open. Sometimes as she walked through the temple she witnessed Machat and Awdawm couples, holding hands, whispering, and gently kissing one another on the forehead, cheeks, and lips. Her own heart swelled with excitement at the thought of such a public display, but Kepsalon never liked that idea.

“It’s not a good idea,” he always said. And he always drew back, seeming to pull into himself and become even smaller than he was. “I haven’t seen the future on that point yet, but I don’t think it’s going to go well.” 
Sadyr could never bring herself to lie about that point. But between that and the dream, she knew that she needed help. She and Kepsalon needed allies, both to support them in their relationship and in defending her father from the skinchanging and whatever horrible fate awaited her mother. 
They needed powerful allies. Accomplishing a task was simple once one found the proper individuals. That was something she’d overheard her uncle Naatos say a time or two. And he struck her as the most logical choice to help in both matters.

So, one morning after her mother took Kelchon to his tutoring with AaQar, Sadyr decided to act. Her stomach ached a little. She’d just convinced her mother to let her stay home alone. This was only her third time. But time was vital. Her father was in a council meeting with the Machat. He probably wouldn’t come back to check on her since he hadn’t done so since the first time. 

Still, she stuffed one of her dressed with some blankets, put her sister’s doll in the neck, plopped a wig on top, and situated it in the window seat with a book over her face. Though it was a little later than Sadyr typically rested, this would almost assuredly be enough to fool Mara. 

And with that, she slipped out of the family quarters and to the Tue-Rah. She hurried along the smooth marble floors, nodding and smiling to everyone she passed. She didn’t even linger in the Hall of Creation with all the marvelous statues and tapestries depicting key events from Reltux’s history. 

The Machat guards, clad in well-tailored brown and ecru uniforms with broad beaded sashes, regarded her curiously. Before they could even ask, she announced herself and stated that she had her father’s permission and needed to see her uncle immediately. Both hesitated but then nodded. “As your father wishes,” said the one on the right with a faint nod. 

 Happily, Sadyr passed through. It was close to the change of the watch as well, so these guards would soon be gone and returning home, which meant they wouldn’t be on duty when her father finished his meeting and thus wouldn’t feel the need to check with him as he passed the chamber. She glowed with her own cleverness as the Tue-Rah swept her up in bright light and passed her straight to the Temple of Tiacha.

As the light faded, Sadyr found herself standing on the onyx dais of the central Tue-Rah of Eiram. Seven Neyeb guards and attendants stood nearby. Her heart leaped at the sight of them. Unlike the Machat, they could read minds. Supposedly they didn’t without permission unless there was some form of necessity which required it, but they were all capable of telling whether someone was lying. Which wouldn’t be a problem unless they asked her whether she was here with her parents’ permission.

“Hello,” she said, assuming a tone of confidence and authority. “I’m here to see my uncle, Naatos. It’s very important. Where can I find him?” 

The Neyeb nearest the door pointed to the doorways that opened out into a great red hall. Her fingernails were short but pointed, and her long silver hair was braided and coiled in a large bun that circled the back of her head. “He is in the third map room. The Saltopar. Do you need an escort?”

“No,” Sadyr said. 

“Does your uncle know you are coming?” another of the Neyeb guards. His dark eyes narrowed slightly as if he was evaluating her.

Sadyr shook her head. “No, but it’s important.” The faint fluttering sensation over her mind was probably at least one of them, testing her truth. 

The woman gestured once more to the doorway. “Then proceed.” 

Sadyr resisted the urge to run but did permit herself a swift walk. She repeated the nonsensical lyrics to one of her favorite jumping songs over and over, Hey, what does a kookaburra know? And what does a whippoorwill say? No, see what the dolmath does, and speak as the mockingbird says. 

She messed up the order of the verses, but it didn’t matter. The steady rhythm kept her pushing ahead, and hopefully kept the Neyeb from “accidentally” swishing their minds over her thoughts. For all his mysteriousness and solitary ways, Sadyr did not understand why her uncle liked the Neyeb so much. A slight shudder twitched down her back as she hurried down the open red stone hall. She liked being able to have secrets just like him, and living among mindreaders seemed to make that difficult. Then again her father liked surprises and he lived among prophets without a lack of surprises. 

She tilted her head, mulling this apparent paradox over and trying to determine whether they were similar enough to make a comparison or entirely different. 

Her leather soled shoes scuffed lightly on the polished marble floors. This hall was one she had walked a few times, always with her father or mother or one of her uncles. Once with her aunt Rasha. But it wasn’t one of the busier halls with attendants, ministers, counselors, healers, and logicians. It struck her as humorous that this temple was built almost entirely from deep red, almost rust-colored, stones while the temple on Reltux was built mostly from brown, black, grey, and green stones. Of course, that in and of itself wasn’t the funny part. What was funny was that Reltux’s Para, her father, wore red, black, and brown as his ceremonial colors while Eiram’s Para, her uncle Naatos, wore black and green as his ceremonial colors. It was odd and likely meant nothing really, but noticing small things like this reassured her that she was indeed growing up.

Her heart skipped forward a little, her stomach knotting up in anticipation. Up ahead she glimpsed the intersecting passage that led to the map rooms.

Of her whole family, Naatos could be the most severe, but he was also the one who made things happen. Once he was moving, nothing stopped him.  
As she drew near to the third map room, she confirmed her location on the labeled plaques alongside each entrance. The iron-bound door was half closed, and from inside came the soft rustling of pages and rhythmic scritch of a pen. Sadyr peeked inside. 

The broad room was nearly as wide as it was tall with ceilings that stretched up at least twenty feet. An enormous polished slab table occupied the center of the room while massive maps filled the the three inner walls. No windows provided light, but an iron chandelier with thick candles and polished jet wax bowls provided enough light to illuminate most of the room while free standing torches helped to fill in the corners. Comfortable couches, cushions, and chairs, all in shades of red, brown, cream, and even muted orange, provided several sitting areas, and a long even line of wooden chairs that matched the table had been moved to the back of the room. 

Her uncle stood to the left, facing the table. Papers, ink, models, inkpots, stones, and even a few daggers filled up most of the table even beyond his arm’s reach. He was frowning, his brow drawn in a deeply focused manner and his jaw pressed tight while his hands were braced against the table. His hair draped down over his shoulders, more on the left than on the right as if he had been pulling at it or pushing it aside while in thought. He didn’t look to be in a bad mood at least. Sadyr rapped on the door with her knuckles. 
Naatos glanced up, then paused. The creases in his forehead deepened.

“Sadyr?” He straightened. “What are you doing here? Do your parents know where you are?” 

“They’re busy.” Sadyr strode inside, glancing around the chamber. There was apparently only the one door unless there was a hidden one (which wouldn’t surprise her at all, perhaps even a trap door or two), and the wall with the door held numerous charts with legends and numbers. 

“So they don’t know.” Naatos’s expression melted into a sterner mask. That expression was one which had frightened her when she was little. Now it didn’t bother her even a bit.

“I need to talk to you,” Sadyr said. “Like a grownup.” 

“If your parents don’t know where you are, they will worry. What will your mother think when she comes home from Kelchon’s lessons and finds you missing? She’ll go mad with fright. And if your father finds out before her—” 

“Please.” Sadyr tucked her hand in his and smiled up at him. In spite of her recent growth spurts, he was still easily a head and a half taller than she. But that worked to her advantage here. Each of her uncles had a particular smile or look that always worked on him. For QueQoa, it was a cheeky smile with impish eyes. For AaQar, it was serenity and hope with clasped hands and the head tilted a little to the left. Naatos had taken her the longest, and sometimes she wasn’t always certain she had found it. Especially now when he met her gaze unflinching, even as she attempted her best innocent smile and concerned brow. “You’re the only one who can help me,” she said, staring up at him.

“I doubt that,” Naatos said. He lifted his hand and motioned toward the doorway as a Neyeb attendant passed. “Talcob, send someone to tell the Lady Mara that her daughter is here with me, and I will bring her home shortly. She’s most likely with my brother, AaQar, in his family quarters or the training hall. Send someone to WroOth as well in case his meeting concludes before they return.” He returned his gaze to her then, his eyes narrowing but not hard. “What is it you want then, Trouble?” 
Sadyr grinned and swung his hand. Naatos rarely used nicknames, but he sometimes did, especially since she had told him that she wanted one.

Things were going well now, all things considered. True, she would have some extra work to do if she was going to soothe her parents’ anger at finding out that she had left without permission, but she would find a solution for that. Right now, her task was simple: determine whether she had an ally in Naatos. “I need to know how to tell Daddy and Mama that I’m growing up.”

Naatos’s eyebrows lifted. He regarded her in silence for a moment. “That’s it?” he said at last. 

Sadyr cocked her head, mirroring his frown and folding her arms as he usually did. “It’s a problem. They don’t know I’m growing up, and I need to help them understand that. I need more challenges and freedom. They have Leslo and Ephalon already. Mama wants another little girl, and Daddy wants more kids too. But I’m the oldest. They should be able to let me do more.” 

“That will happen in time, Sadyr.” Naatos turned back to the stack of papers and picked up the quill. “You are the firstborn, and they love you. No matter how old you get, you will always be their little girl. But in time you will gain more challenges and freedoms.”

Sadyr grimaced. “They aren’t going to let me do more if they think I’m a baby though. You and Uncle AaQar raised Daddy and Uncle QueQoa. How long was it before you were ready to stop treating them as babies?” 

“As soon as possible. But that was different.” Naatos wiped off the end of the quill with a thick piece of soft green fabric. “We raised your father and your uncle because we had no other choice. Practically every day was a fight for survival. Every delay in their development put them at risk, and we needed them to be strong and grow beyond their years. That is not your life, Sadyr. And I am dearly glad of that. But why are you talking to me about this and not your uncle AaQar and aunt Rasha?” 

Sadyr rolled her eyes. “They’re barely letting Nydas begin ocher combat maneuvers, and that’s hardly above the basics. Kelchon has been going over to work on his water forms, but they only do basics!” She wrinkled her nose in disgust at this.

Naatos removed three of the green-cornered pages, tapped them against the tabletop, and placed them lengthwise at the head of the table. “The basics are your foundation, Sadyr. You must master them before—”

“We’re not going to be little kids forever,” Sadyr said sharply. “I know my basics. If you fight me, I’ll show you.”

“No.” Still Naatos did not look at her. He dipped the quill in ink, jotted two notes on the side of a page, then tapped his finger farther down the page, and made another note. “Your father has made your course for learning very clear.”

“You mean my mother,” Sadyr huffed.

“No, your father. I know who I am talking to and who is the one who wants something done or not done. Trust me, Sadyr. Your father is less thrilled with you fighting than even your mother. He has made it clear there is to be no contact battle. Only play fighting. Not even responsive kuvaste.”

Sadyr shoved him, her palms driving into his ribs. “I can fight you.” 

A long streak of ink flowed out from the quill onto the page before Naatos braced himself. He turned his gaze toward her, his jaw tighter. “Strike me again, child, and I’ll fetch your mother myself.” 

Sadyr drew back. “I came here because I need your help.” 

“And I will give you what help I can, but you should be aware that there is a very strong likelihood that that means taking you back to your parents and involving them in this discussion.” 

Sadyr scowled at him as fiercely as she could manage. This was not going the way she wanted it to. It also seemed incredibly apparent that Naatos would not help her parents accept her relationship with Kepsalon. There was still one more thing that might convince him to help her in the other matter though. “I thought you loved my dad.” 

It was Naatos’s turn to frown. “If you don’t want him to be upset by your disobedience, then—”

“No, that’s not what I mean.” Sadyr folded her arms, gratified that she once more had his full attention. “I’m here because I need your help saving my father’s life.” 

If she had had any doubts about whether she had his attention before, she had none now. Naatos’s brow furrowed deeply and his eyes narrowed.

“What do you mean?” 
Sadyr took a deep breath and assumed her most grown-up tone. “It’s a long story. So I’m going to need you to listen and not frown at me.” 

Episode 06: There’s a Very Good Reason

Kepsalon had not been especially thrilled with Sadyr’s decision to seek her uncle’s help. He bore a particular unease around Naatos. When she had pressed him on this matter, Kepsalon had tried to excuse himself from the discussion, simply suggesting that her uncle was rather…well, terrifying.

Standing here now, after telling him to stop frowning, Sadyr realized that her uncle did frown a lot. And there was a mark of severity in his voice. He clearly disapproved of her disobeying her parents, and he was quite likely to tell on her. Unless she convinced him otherwise. 

“If your father is in danger, why have you not told him?” Naatos asked. His expression clearly suggested that he thought she was stalling for time. But…the fact that he had not dragged her off suggested that he might believe there could be something else.

“I already told him, and he doesn’t think it’s a serious threat. But I know that it is. And I need you to help me protect him and convince Mama and Daddy that I can take on more responsibility and train harder. That way I can help protect them to.”

Naatos folded his arms. “Why don’t you tell me what has put your father at risk?”

Sadyr nodded, encouraged. He was almost leaning back against the table, another sign that he wasn’t about to haul her back. “Lately I’ve been having bad dreams.” She launched into a full explanation, concluding with Kepsalon’s visions (without any reference to their smuggled kisses and hidden snuggles). “He said that Daddy mustn’t go to selvan or the selvans.”

“Selvans?” Naatos’s scowl deepened. “The lamprey runners?” 

Sadyr shrugged. “It wasn’t my vision. But I thought it was a place. He was supposed to stay away from it. And he said it doesn’t exist. It’s a myth.”

“Selvans do exist,” Naatos said slowly. “They are not common, and there are myths regarding them. And they’re not a place.”

“Well something terrible is going to happen,” Sadyr said, her voice sharpening. “And I need to help protect them. Especially if you aren’t going to take this seriously. In the dream, something horrible happened, and Daddy turned into a skinchanger! Don’t you care about that?” 

“Sadyr.” Naatos said. He knelt down and gripped her by the shoulders, looking her steadily in the eye. “I don’t know anything about your dreams or why you are having them, but if there is one thing I can promise you, it is that I will take care of your father. He is my brother. And if by some horror he became a skinchanger, I would not permit him to die.”

“You can’t promise that,” Sadyr said. Her voice trembled. “No one can promise that.”

“Actually I can. I have a friend, a very dear friend who is skilled in stitching up the fractures that lead to the skinchanging,” Naatos said. “You’ve met him, I think. Killoth. He is a Neyeb.” 

Sadyr shook her head, the name vaguely familiar though she could not place the face. 

“That doesn’t matter,” Naatos continued. He sighed and then smiled a little, his manner growing more reassuring. “He is perhaps one of my closest friends who is not part of our cadre, Sadyr. And I have seen him bring back four Vawtrians from skinchanging. He would give his life for me or mine as I would for him. If your father ever became a skinchanger,  your uncles and I would pin him and let Killoth work his skills upon your father’s mind.” 

“He wouldn’t be too strong for you?” Sadyr asked. She had heard the tales. They gnawed at her like termites in a wooden wall. Skinchangers possessed exceptional strength and endurance as well as an inability to feel more than muted sensations of pain and fatigue. They were machines of death, exhausting their own resources and hurling themselves into the blades of destruction while dragging as many others along with them as possible.

Naatos chucked her cheek lightly, his smile pulling up a little higher on the left. “Has your father ever bested me? I’m the one who taught him how to fight.” 

“Kepsalon’s going to watch the future for any signs that this might happen,” Sadyr said. “You remember Kepsalon, don’t you?” 

Naatos nodded. “I know who Kepsalon is. If he foresees anything that threatens WroOth or your family at all, then he is welcome to talk to me or to WroOth whenever he chooses.”

Sadyr doubted that Kepsalon would take her uncle up on that offer. “I can still learn to be a better warrior though.” 

“Yes, by mastering your foundation.” 

Sadyr hung her head back and sighed, her frustration mounting. “I am not a little child any more.”

“You may not be as little, but you are a child. And if you want more responsibility, you must prove yourself worthy of it.”

“My parents are never going to see me as anything but their little girl.”

“They know you’re growing up.”

“I want them to see me as a grown-up now.” Sadyr eyed him with growing cantankerousness. “I am practically an adult.” 

Naatos met her gaze, unflinching and unimpressed. “We can’t all have what we want.”

“If you talked to them—”

“Sadyr, you are your parents’ firstborn daughter. And they love you. But they are also learning with you. It is not surprising that they do not want to see you as anything other than their baby. And some part of you will always be that way to them. That doesn’t mean they won’t treat you as an adult when you are old enough.”

Sadyr grimaced. “You and Uncle AaQar raised Daddy and Uncle QueQoa. How long was it before you were ready to stop seeing them as babies?” 

“As soon as possible. But that was different.” Naatos began sifting through the parchment squares while continuing to lean against the table. He set two green cornered squares aside. “We lived in a very dangerous place. Every delay in their development put them at mortal risk. That is not your life, Sadyr. And I am glad of that. You should be as well. I don’t suppose you’ve tried talking to your Uncle AaQar and Aunt Rasha about this?” 

Sadyr huffed at him, blowing several loose strands of now candy-rose hair from her forehead. “What would be the point? They’re barely letting Nydas begin basic combat maneuvers. Kelchon goes over there to work on his water forms, and it isn’t much but at least they’re challenging him.”

“Kelchon’s skills are deficient. Reaching the basics are his challenge.”

“The point is that he is being challenged. Couldn’t you tutor me? I can help take care of Daddy then. Or talk to him about me getting challenged. Talking to him is the least you can do.”

“No.” Naatos glanced at her almost coyly, his expression otherwise somber.

“The least I could do is nothing. If your parents don’t think you are ready for live combat training, then that is between you and them. Now.” He set his hands against the table as if to punctuate the statement. “It’s time for you to go home. If your parents find you missing, there will be justified hysterics.” He pointed to the door. “Let’s go.”

Sadyr grabbed up a stack of papers and tapped them against the tabletop to neaten them. “What if I start helping you with things here? I can do lots of things.”

“Sadyr.” Naatos took the papers back, his tone sterner. “Now.”

Sadyr pulled back, mimicking his stance and glaring at him. “No.”

“Sadyr.” Naatos stepped toward her.

Sadyr dove back and slid under the couch nearest the wall. It was high-legged with more than adequate clearance. 

“Sadyr,” Naatos said again, all good-naturedness fleeing. “Come out from under there. Adult women do not hide under couches.” 

It wasn’t a particularly smart plan, but it was a minor stall tactic. Sadyr calculated where it would be best to go next and whether it really was worth it staying. Her father was likely to be back home soon, and—
Footsteps beat rapidly outside the room. WroOth burst in, clothing disheveled and headdress awry. “Sadyr is missing, Naatos!” he shouted.

“She’s gone somewhere, and I don’t know where.”
Naatos turned to face him. He opened his mouth to speak, but WroOth cut him off with a violent wave of his hand. “No! It doesn’t matter what you’re working on or what you’ve discovered. It can wait. Sadyr is gone!”

Sadyr cringed. She ducked back a little farther, pressing her slim body against the cool stone wall. This was getting out of hand. Should she just come out and tell her father she was there? No. She tossed that thought aside immediately. Then he would know that she had left the family quarters without permission. If she could just slip out and get back up to the family quarters, she might be able to convince him that she had fallen asleep somewhere else in the house and hadn’t heard him when he was looking for her. Yes. That seemed much more reasonable. 

“WroOth,” Naatos said, his tone deep and no-nonsense. 

“No, you won’t cut me off!” WroOth glared at him. “This is my daughter we’re talking about.” He continued to pace around the room, his face drawn and his voice unusually high. “She’s vanished. I’ve looked everywhere, and there isn’t anything in her room except a stuffed dress and a wig.”
Sadyr huffed an annoyed breath. Oh yes. She’d forgotten about that. It would be a little hard to explain that one away. Unless she told him that she was playing with an imaginary friend. They thought she was a child anyway. Why not pretend to be a child and avoid getting in further trouble?

“She’s run off,” WroOth continued. “That has to be it. She has run off, and she’ll be dead in an hour.”

“Brother, you—” Naatos started again. He had his back to Sadyr, but he wasn’t within grabbing distance if she did sneak out from under.

WroOth spun around. He clapped his hand over Naatos’s mouth. “Is it too much for you to help me?” he demanded. “You think I am angry, brother? What do you think Mara is going to do when she finds out our child is missing? Thanks to this Tue-Rah business, we haven’t feshtashooned in five days! How do you think she’s going to take this news? No better than me, I can tell you that. No. We have to find Sadyr before Mara gets back. You go to AaQar and get some tracking dolmaths.”

Sadyr slipped out from behind the couch and slid behind the large tapestry map on the wall. It went all along this wall. Then there was that large table against the side. She could crawl the rest of the way under it to the nearest doors and run to the Tue-Rah from there.

Naatos cleared his throat, but WroOth continued, shaking his head like a mad man, his words accelerating. “No, I can’t go there on my own. If I could, I would. But if I show up, Mara will want to know ‘where’s Sadyr?’ And I can’t exactly ask for tracking dolmaths without her getting suspicious or AaQar at least asking ‘why do you need tracking dolmaths?’ Otherwise I would be there now. So you have to go, and I’ll search for Sadyr. She can’t have gotten far. Not in an hour. Unless she got through the Tue-Rah.” 
Naatos seized WroOth by the shoulders. “WroOth, look under the couch!” he bellowed. 

WroOth pulled back, a stunned expression registering in his eyes. He then dropped to the ground and peered under. He flung his arms up with frustration. “What am I supposed to see?” 

Naatos crouched beside him. His scowl deepened. “Sadyr!”

WroOth straightened. “Why are you calling her? Haven’t you been listening? She’s run away!” WroOth punched the wall. The bones in his wrist and forearm snapped with an alarm crack as he doubled over. “Gah!” His bloodied fist healed as he gripped it.

Sadyr grimaced inwardly. Maybe it would be better if she hid and waited until her mother came home. She’d be angry but nothing compared to her father.

“No, she hasn’t disappeared. She’s—”

“No, don’t even say that.” WroOth gripped his fist tight, sweat beading his forehead and neck. “If someone took her, I don’t even know what I would do except kill whoever it was in the most vicious way possible. But that’s assuming I find her.” 

Sadyr slunk down from behind the tapestry and crept toward the door. Almost there.

“No one has taken her.” Naatos pulled the couch out from the wall and began looking around. He ripped the next one out as well, sending it sliding across the stone floor. “Sadyr, come out now. You’re about to give your father an aneurysm.”

WroOth turned. “You mean she’s here?” He started to look around. 

Sadyr flattened herself on the ground. But it was too late. Her eyes met her father’s. Her mind went blank almost immediately. All she could think to say was, “Hi Daddy.” 

The tension boiled within the room. WroOth’s hands shook, and his color did not return except for in livid streaks across his cheek and forehead. But he didn’t say anything now. He only stared.

Naatos cleared his throat, putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “WroOth…breathe.”

The touch seemed to jolt WroOth back into awareness. He pushed Naatos aside. “Have you been here this whole time, Sadyr?” WroOth stepped closer. His voice trembled. But not with grief. 

Sadyr stood as well. She folded her hands before herself. Uncertain what else to say, she just nodded. There was no making this any better. 

WroOth turned his focus to Naatos as if searching for confirmation. Naatos lifted his shoulder in a half-shrug. “She wanted to know if I would be willing to challenge her in her training and so forth.”

“She wants a challenge?” WroOth laughed coldly. His eyes blazed as he looked at her again, all the panic melting into anger. “Surviving to your next birthday is your challenge. Get to the Tue-Rah. Now!” 

Episode 07: Whispers at the Window

Kepsalon struggled to focus all that afternoon. Sadyr hadn’t been in the family quarters when he arrived. Which meant she was either with her mother and siblings or with her uncle Naatos. He prayed that she was with her mother. Of all her family members and the cadre, which was essentially a large extended family, he was most afraid of Naatos. If any one of them would feel comfortable tearing his arms and legs off and leaving him there in the sand of the quarry, it would be him.

But Sadyr was not one to always listen. In that she was much like the rest of her family, and one of the few lessons that his people had taught him was that while many people sought the advice of the Machat as well as their insight, not nearly so many listened. Otunal always said, “those who seek do not always listen” with the most somber of expressions and heaviest of voices, but it was the first time Kepsalon had felt this so deeply.
The meditative state he entered helped calm some of his thoughts and emotions, blocking out the outside world for almost an hour. And once he left it, he resumed his actual work rather than the more pleasant task of envisioning his future and Sadyr’s. He had nearly finished etching an image of a child holding six scorpions by their tails when the door slammed on the other side. Loud footsteps and shouting reached him as well. “I wasn’t gone that long!”
“You say you want to be treated like an adult, but then you run off without a word and leave some poor excuse of a doll to hide your tracks and offer ridiculous lies. All of this is unacceptable!”
“If you hadn’t come back early, you would never have known. Mama said I could stay by myself!”
“No, she said you could stay behind. If I hadn’t been delayed, I would have been there.”
“So you’re the one who lied—”
“You should not finish that sentence! If you ever want to do anything outside this house again—” The next door slammed shut, and the shouts grew muted.
Kepsalon set down his blessed chisel. The uncomfortable knot had returned to his stomach, bringing a cold sweat and overall uncomfortable sensation to his whole body. Slipping to the doorway, he peered out. The family plaque hung crooked on the door. Muffled shouts continued from the other side.

What had happened exactly? And what did a doll have to do with any of this?

Stepping into the hall, he tried to listen without getting too close.
The muffled yelling continued. Whatever situation had made WroOth so furious, if there was more than Sadyr slipping out without permission and trying to cover it up, had clearly riled him, and whatever Sadyr’s high pitched voice was actually saying in response only sounded as if it frustrated him more.

After only a couple minutes of listening, he decided it was best not to eavesdrop. While WroOth had never had a harsh word for him beyond the occasional reprimand and had only raised his voice in jest, Kepsalon doubted that the Para would appreciate his presence at this point. He returned to his own room and sat on the embroidered rug, working his hands one against the other as he tried to piece together the best response.

Obviously he needed to see Sadyr. Whatever had happened had not gone well, and she would need a friend at the very least. A sweetheart might also be nice, but he guessed that a friend who listened and provided useful thoughts would be better than someone who held her hand and told her she had beautiful eyes and a gorgeous future. But that still left the question as to how he would reach her. He had never come to the family quarters admitting he was there to see Sadyr, and he was fairly certain that neither WroOth nor Mara ever guessed that that had been his real reason lately. And with WroOth in such a heated mood, it would be hard to avoid recognizing aloud that it was not a good time and showing himself out. If only he was a Neyeb. With their mindreading abilities, they could hear conversations behind locked doors and speak messages and comfort straight into the minds of their loved ones, all without having to leave their own safe rooms.

However, he was not a Neyeb. He was a skinny Machat who happened to be as good at climbing as a grey fox squirrel. And since the door was not an option, the window ledge some fifty feet on the other side might be.

Creeping out onto his ledge and moving onto the coarse grey-brown stone did not concern Kepsalon at all. Machat learned to climb and scale almost as soon as they could walk. Some of the older Machat competed with the goats and skelros in climbing competitions, and while the mountain creatures always won, some of the Machat did come fairly close to besting them. Kepsalon had never participated because he hated the pulse of competition and drive of winning. This little mission however suited him perfectly. It made him feel rather like a hero himself. Especially once he reached Sadyr’s window and peeped inside.

Sadyr sat on the edge of her bed, plucking at the bright blue blanket with chimeras embroidered across it in an eternal dance of rings and flame.

“Sadyr,” he whispered.

Sadyr looked up, and her dour expression at once brightened to joy. “Kepsalon!” Running to the window, she clasped his cheeks between her hands. “What are you doing?”

“I heard the shouting.” Kepsalon shook his head free and climbed a little higher. Dropping down onto the windowsill, he crouched on the eight-inch ledge. He used only his left hand to maintain his balance. “Are you all right?”

“Mama let me stay home alone, but apparently Daddy was coming too. Hiding I suppose. They don’t like it when I lie, but apparently they can.” Sadyr crossed her arms and shot an irate look at the closed cedar door. “Apparently that’s what being an adult means. You can lie and not get in trouble, and you can have double standards. And Uncle Naatos was no help of any sort.”

A knot formed at once in Kepsalon’s throat. He steadied himself. “You did go to see your uncle?”

“Don’t worry.” Sadyr’s expression wavered between annoyance and affection, her head cocked, her eyes shaded, and her tone dry. “I didn’t tell him about us. He would have just told my parents.”

“So why did you go to see him?” Kepsalon asked.

“Because we need allies,” Sadyr said.

Relief passed through Kepsalon. “I don’t think we should tell anyone,” he said softly. I don’t think they’ll understand.”

“Uncle AaQar won’t. He and Aunt Rasha have already said that Nydas must train in the foundations until he is at least eighty before he can attend his first Ceremony of the Viskaro. And Uncle Naatos, well, I thought he would help them understand and help us protect them.”

“Protect them?” Kepsalon hesitated.

“From the skinchanging and whatever bad thing is going to happen,” Sadyr said. She rolled her eyes dramatically. “Daddy would probably turn into a skinchanger if he knew I even liked a boy. Let alone had kissed one. Vawtrians aren’t supposed to do that. We aren’t even supposed to feel anything.”

Kepsalon laughed nervously. He glanced at the door. He didn’t know what her dreams were actually about, but he didn’t think they were prophetic. WroOth had been adamant that Selvatine was a mythical place, and if there was one thing WroOth would never take lightly, it was his family. The thought of what her family would do to him when they learned about their relationship was far more concerning and much more realistic. “I guess you just challenge a lot of things.”

“I do.” Sadyr lifted her chin. She smiled at him, pleased. “I am not an ordinary Vawtrian. That’s the last thing I want to be.”

“There’s nothing ordinary about you.” Kepsalon’s own heart warmed. He wasn’t sure how things would work out between them. He knew all about the locking and how supposedly Vawtrians didn’t and couldn’t fall in love until that happened, though they could care for people. Yet this felt like so much more than friendship and family. Perhaps some part of the Awdawm had come through in Sadyr.

Sadyr’s smile quirked up on the left side. Her eyes sparkled. “Well, I am not allowed to leave the house or have guests for over a month. But since you have a standing invitation to any of the family events, you should come over when Uncle QueQoa gets back next week. We’re having a big dinner. He wasn’t gone so long this time, but I overheard Daddy tell Mama that he routed a whole pack on his own.”

Kepsalon caught her hands in his. “Please promise me that you aren’t going to tell anyone. Please, Sadyr. Not now anyway. I don’t want to risk losing you. And I, I mean, I haven’t had any visions but I do have some intuition, and it tells me that they aren’t going to like this. If they aren’t willing to see you as old enough to be challenged in your training and responsibilities, then they are going to hate this. Let’s wait until I get a vision or something I can use to show us how best to handle this.”

Sadyr offered him a crooked smile. “The only thing I want more than to know that my family, stupid as it can be, is safe, is to not hide what we have. You’re part of my family now you know.” She twined her fingers through his.

Some part of Kepsalon’s soul yearned to give Sadyr precisely what she wanted. Yet an even deeper part feared the consequences more. “One day we will. But not now. And remember if something happens and your father decides he is no longer mentoring or overseeing me, I’ll probably be sent off. Probably to the Upaks. Council or not.”

“I would not let that happen.” Sadyr leaned her forehead lightly against his. “No one is ever going to take you away from me, Kepsalon. And if I change my mind and do decide I’m going to tell them everything, you can run off and hide until everything is better. I won’t think badly of you. I promise.”

“Wait.” Kepsalon pulled back. A cramp passed through his chest, intensifying his unease. “Are you going to tell them or not?”

Sadyr rolled her eyes again. “I’m not planning on telling them. I’m just saying that if something happens that makes it seem like telling them is better than not telling them, then you don’t have to stay there for that. I’m being thoughtful.”

“All right.” Kepsalon wished once again he was a Neyeb. A Neyeb would know if she was simply trying to calm him, and his own nerves and unease prevented him from peering into the future, even in a broader sense. The undirectableness of the future did not lend itself well to precise answers, especially in matters where one was particularly emotionally involved.
Sadyr kissed his cheek. “I’m supposed to stay in my room until dinner. Do you want to join me?”

Kepsalon glanced around. Though he remained uncomfortable, he hated the thought of leaving her alone here. After all, he had just told her no about something that she really wanted. He nodded at last. It was worth the risk. “All right. Just let me get my things.”

It only took him a few moments to return to his room, gather some art supplies, place them in a long-strapped cloth bag, and climb back over to her windowsill. For the rest of the afternoon, he sat on the windowsill with Sadyr, sketching and drawing while they spoke in hushed tones. Once or twice, he had to drop down and hide when WroOth or Mara knocked or wanted to speak with Sadyr. Thankfully they did not remain long, and Sadyr did well at pretending to be a repentant daughter.

When they called her for supper, Kepsalon packed his things up once again and kissed her forehead. He promised to come sit with her whenever he was able and that he would also search the visions and prophecies for all of their concerns. This seemed to comfort Sadyr, and Kepsalon left, hopeful that only good awaited them so long as they maintained discretion and their love for one another.

Chapter 08: A Family Dinner

The rest of the week passed swiftly, and, as Sadyr said, Mara and WroOth both invited him to join them for a big family dinner. These sorts of dinners with all the family members coming together to share a meal and stories occurred at least once a month. It was smaller and cozier than the cadre gatherings which happened just as frequently and which Kepsalon never attended though he was always welcome and frequently invited.

As for family gatherings, ever since he had been invited, Kepsalon had never missed even one. But that morning he woke with a pit in his stomach and an uncomfortable premonition that Sadyr would think it necessary and blurt out the nature of their relationship. When he confessed this to her outside her window, she reassured him that he was being silly. She wouldn’t do anything to risk him or their relationship.

And though her words were sweet, Kepsalon found his stomach still cramping and his palms still sweating. He debated finding an excuse not to go all day, but when late afternoon came, WroOth arrived to look over his work and Kepsalon had not come up with any excuse that would pass muster.

The family quarters hummed and sang with life and energy, a pleasant chaos reigning as Kepsalon passed over the threshold once more. AaQar read to little Leslo while Rasha cradled baby Ephalon and talked to Mara in the kitchen. WroOth, QueQoa, and Naatos played some game with the other children that involved chasing, shifting, tackling, and taunting. Kepsalon sat on the edge of couch, knees together, hands on his knees. Sadyr stopped playing long enough to smile and then turned her pale-pink hair into jade-black with spines at some of the tips.

Kepsalon half smiled. He liked watching her shift. She had such an imagination. If he was a Vawtrian, he imagined he would probably choose only boring options. The ones everybody thought of. But Sadyr, when she was fully trained, would probably be one of those rare Vawtrians who could invent creatures in their minds and become them in the flesh. He hadn’t seen any prophecies or visions that explicitly showed her having this ability, but he knew she had it.

Those thoughts gave him a little courage as Nydas accidentally smashed into one of the oil lamps. The glass shattered, and oil spilled everywhere. Nydas’s face paled as he pulled back. “I’m sorry!” he exclaimed.

“It’s fine,” Mara called from the dining room door. She waved her hand dismissively. “We don’t keep valuable breakables in this household. Are you cut?”

“Nothing that didn’t heal.” Nydas examined his palms and side. A few shards glittered on his garments, and small pools of blood formed on his hands.

“Let me see.” QueQoa pulled Kelchon from his back and set him on the ground before he approached the boy.

WroOth pulled a large cannister from the top of one of the shelves and tossed the fine white powder over the oil. The others, including Sadyr continued to roughhouse, all of them focusing their energy on a brutal rush against Naatos. “No one fall in the oil. You’ll track it everywhere, and then we’ll spend the whole evening cleaning it up until Momma Dragon is satisfied.”

“And you know how hard that is,” Mara called from the kitchen.

“Not personally but in theory,” WroOth answered.

Breaking things was normal in this household. Kepsalon wondered if his life with Sadyr would reach this level of insane chaos as well. If they had children, that was.

Leslo squirmed out of AaQar’s arms and pushed the book aside. Running up to Kepsalon, she seized him by the wrists. “Come on,” she sang. “Let’s play!” She almost dragged him off the couch.

“Let him go, Leslo,” AaQar said. “If he doesn’t want to play, you shouldn’t force him.”

“He wants to play. Everyone wants to play.” Leslo stuck her lip out.

Sadyr pounced on her from behind. “He’s not a Vawtrian, you silly bop. You don’t play with non-Vawtrians like you do Vawtrians. Don’t you know anything?”

Leslo shrieked as her older sister lifted her up in the air. “Throw me.”

“Let’s…” Sadyr whispered something in her sister’s ear. Leslo’s brown eyes lit up, excitement shining in her face. “Yes!”

AaQar smiled a little. He glanced at Kepsalon. “You’re going to have to learn to fight that one off.”

Kepsalon froze, terrified for a moment that AaQar knew about him and Sadyr, then, in a breathless spasm, realizing he meant Leslo. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

AaQar chuckled. “If you don’t, she’ll most likely hurt you. She is one of the most solid children I have ever come across, and she knows how to drive that shoulder into the solar plexus already. With someone like you, she might actually kill you. Unintentionally of course.”

Kepsalon laughed nervously. He wished he could just disappear.
AaQar fortunately did not appear interested in continuing the conversation. He chose a volume from the built-in bookshelf and resumed his own reading as Naatos collapsed under Sadyr and Leslo’s dual launch onto his back. The cackles and shrieks of laughter made Kepsalon’s head hurt more than usual. The potent scent of the spilled oil didn’t do much to help that, of course. Mara scented it with rose and cedar, a pleasant faint combination that was barely noticeable. Until spilled everywhere and combined with that powder, whatever it was.

Kepsalon swallowed hard. His shoulders and neck throbbed with the tension.

“Kepsalon,” Mara called, returning to the doorway. She motioned for him to come closer. “Why don’t you come in here?”

Kepsalon shook his head, managing a smile. “That’s all right. I’m fine here.”
Mara smiled, shaking her head. She then held up a finger and flashed a warning look at Naatos, WroOth, and QueQoa. “Do not crack any of my children’s skulls against the walls or the ceiling, you three!”

Kepsalon turned to see what had brought that comment on but paused when he realized Mara was now looking at him. “You can come into the kitchen and sit down if you like? It’s a lot warmer but a little quieter.”

“I’m all right.” Kepsalon managed a smile.

Mara crossed over to him. She placed her hand on his shoulder in a maternal fashion, her smile softening. “You know you don’t have to stay out here all the time though. It isn’t rude if you need to go sit in one of the back rooms or even hide in the closet under the stairs. I go there sometimes when I can’t take anymore.”

Kepsalon quirked up his brow, surprised at this confession. It wasn’t that he didn’t know that she did it, but it didn’t seem like the sort of thing a non-Machat would admit to. Especially an Awdawm. They tended to be so much more social.

“So whatever it is that you need, you just make sure that you let me know or slip off and regain your thoughts.” Mara gave his shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “Even if you weren’t family, you shouldn’t be embarrassed to take care of yourself.”

Kepsalon returned the smile, grateful. It wasn’t the first time she had assured him he was welcome and could have whatever he needed. Mara had always been like, well, he preferred to think of her as an adopted aunt rather than a mother since that would make his relationship with Sadyr even stranger. But this was the first time she had admitted to needing to go off by herself as well. He had always hoped that they didn’t notice when he did that, and his own self-consciousness had perhaps kept him from seeing that similarity.

Kelchon’s laughter rose above the rest of the chaos. “You can’t break me, Uncle QueQoa! I’m a snake.”

Kepsalon turned in time to see the young Vawtrian attempting to shift into a water serpent of some kind, his skin flushing grey blue. But the form wavered, falling away as if it was water. Kelchon’s cheeks flushed, but he continued to grip his uncle’s arm.

“You’re getting better, aren’t you?” QueQoa said. He swung Kelchon, tossed him in the air, and caught him easily by the heel.

Mara darted toward him. “Don’t hold him by that leg!” she exclaimed. “His hip is weak.”

WroOth had already maneuvered himself in and had grabbed Kelchon by the shoulders. “There you are. You’re all right. It’s not bad. It’s just a little slower to heal.”

Kelchon scowled, still upside down. “I hate it though.”

“Well hating it solves nothing. All that we really must remember is that if you’re to be hung by a leg, it must be the left one.”

“The left one,” QueQoa repeated, nodding. His forehead creased a little as if he thought of something else and then set it aside.

Mara shook her head and rubbed her hands over her face. As she turned back, she gave Kepsalon a smile that said quite clearly she knew he understood how stressful this could be and yet would never choose another family. Of course, what she didn’t understand was just how close he wanted to be to this family. What would she think if they were to tell her? “Maybe I could help you in the kitchen?” Kepsalon offered.

“You can help me chop up the pears and apples for the garnish,” Mara said.
It was actually a relief to escape the chaos of the more open family quarters, and even though the kitchen was not that far removed, it at least had a warmer shroud of quiet around it. Rasha continued to sway back and forth, her focus on baby Ephalon.

Kepsalon took up his station with the small black handled paring knife. He had helped out before, and he knew how Mara liked the apples and pears cut: even little cubes, almost all the same.

The clamor and laughter continued in the next room. Mara squeezed his shoulder as she passed by and returned to the island counter where she resumed kneading the still-sticky dough. She rubbed her hands through flour and then sprinkled some on the bread. “You are such a dear to help,” she said.

Kepsalon smiled. Mara tended to compliment him on the littlest of things almost as much as she did the big. But it still made him happy. He took greater care to line the slices of apple and pear up and to cube them just so.
All at once Sadyr was next to him. She peered over his shoulder and nodded, her expression more somber and contemplative than he expected. She then gave an abrupt nod and strode to the other side of the kitchen. “I’ll take out the bread and soup.”

“Don’t stack them the way you did the last time,” Mara said.

Sadyr piled the loaves together, some of the ends sliding into the soup.

“They’re all going to the same place,” she muttered.

“Sadyr,” Mara said, chasing after her. “Stop. I’m very glad that you’re helping. But they’re going to fall in.”

“Not much.” Sadyr carried them out to the table. “At least I’m helping.”


Kepsalon kept his gaze focused on the cutting board and its thick rich brown stripes and alternating strips of red wood. He kept the knife steady as he cubed more apples and pears, forming a tidy pile at the end by the wood burned emblem of a chimera.

Sadyr responded, but her words were obscured. Only the sharpness of her tone carried through.

It hurt Kepsalon a little. It had been hard between Sadyr and Mara, more and more it seemed. Nothing tremendous. Only an increasing friction and frustration. His knife strokes slowed a little. The two obviously loved each other. But it was like coarse fired pottery against coarse fired pottery in a mule-drawn wagon, grating and grinding and making anyone else who listened cringe a little even though it was really perfectly natural.

WroOth’s voice rose a little louder over the thrum of play and combat in the next room. “Sadyr, don’t argue with your mother. And don’t disrespect her.” A pause filled with more rumbling followed.

Rasha chuckled, shaking her head. “Willful,” she said, adjusting the blanket around Ephalon’s arms. Her gaze shifted to Kepsalon. Then she smiled, but her smile sent chills through him as if she saw straight through him and had cataloged the ten best ways to kill him. “All of this must be quite overwhelming for one such as you,” she said. The smile faded to a smirk. “But you must have some measure of grit and steel in you if you continue to deal with this.”

Kepsalon lifted his shoulders in a weak shrug and then tried to smile. But his voice betrayed him even more. “‘Sa good family,” he managed.
Rasha nodded. The contemplative look in her eyes unnerved Kepsalon even more. “That one is going to be a force of nature when she is grown. I don’t think even AaQar knows what he is dealing with. She could be a full Thuldoyan if she chose it. Provided she can focus on her training. Even the basics which seem so meaningless right now.” The contemplation became pointed as if she wanted Kepsalon in particular to hear this.

Kepsalon nodded, maintaining his polite and withdrawn manner that he always kept around adults. Especially adults who could snap his neck or spine with a flick of their wrists. “She seems very talented.”

Something loud and metal clattered to the floor. Mara uttered an exclamation of frustration, and more footsteps thundered about.

Kepsalon chopped faster, his head ducked. Did she know about him and Sadyr? Or did she suspect? Or was this just Rasha? He had never gotten a particularly good read on her. Sometimes she reminded him of Naatos. Other times she seemed like a being far beyond any one’s comprehension. But if there was one thing you didn’t do around Rasha, it was assume you knew what she meant.

Mara returned to the kitchen, her cheeks flushed. Sadyr skulked in and moved alongside him. “So much for helping,” she muttered, casting a sidelong glance at her mother.

Kepsalon remained rigid, not wanting to seem too happy to see her.
Mara opened the oven, picked up bright red oven pads, and removed two savory loaves from the steel racks. Her mouth was pinched and bright streaks highlighted her cheeks like vivid lines of paint.

“It all goes to the same place anyway,” Sadyr muttered. “If we didn’t chew food, maybe she’d have a point.”

Kepsalon scooped the apples and walnuts into the bowl shaped like an apple. Mara had already deposited the walnuts, brown sugar, white sugar, and cinnamon inside. He hoped Mara didn’t hear what Sadyr was saying. He didn’t want Sadyr to get in trouble again, and even more he didn’t want the friction to escalate into a full fight.

Thankfully he was spared this as it was finally time for dinner.
Kepsalon didn’t speak much at any of the dinners unless he was asked a question that no one else answered. Tonight he wanted to speak even less. The knot that formed in his stomach tightened further as dinner progressed even though the food was delicious.

Both the tomato basil leek soup and the savory spiced cheese loaves were among his favorites, but his worries kept him from enjoying them quite so much. Sadyr occasionally brushed her hand over his at the table, but for the most part, she kept her attention raptly on her other family members, most loudly correcting her younger brother. Kepsalon hoped that this was further confirmation that she would not tell anyone about them.

Once the meal concluded and the dishes tended, they moved to the more open living area. Leslo scooted out the couch with her cousin’s help and began playing behind it with blocks. Mara rocked Ephalon as WroOth passed out goblets of cobalt wine to the adults and tart cilna tea to the children. Everyone else took seats either on the couches or the floor. Kepsalon folded himself up on one of the large ottomans, his back to the wall and his knees to his chest. Sadyr sat beside him on the far end of the broad ottoman, and Kelchon flopped down between them, kicking his bare feet almost in Kepsalon’s face.

WroOth cleared his throat and tapped on the wooden goblet with a carved phoenix straw. The polished cedar gleamed, but it was not so bright as the inset ruby eye which caught the light and glowed. The soft thunk thunk rose above the cheerful voices and animated conversation.

As everyone stilled, WroOth began. “While all this has been great fun, there is one serious matter that must be tended to this evening. As you all know and as many of you have reminded me, our little ones do not remain little forever. And, Sadyr, while you may feel that we do not understand this, I promise we do. There is no way for any of us, not even me to keep you little forever. If there was, I’d certainly consider it. But I’d probably pass it by because then we would lose the opportunity to see what you become.”

Sadyr sat up a little straighter. A pleased smile spread over her face as her gaze darted back and forth between her parents. Mara gave her a soft smile as she continued to rock Ephalon. Sadyr folded her hands on her lap, her shoulders squared.

“So with that…” WroOth picked up a small packaged wrapped in purple tissue and bound with dried reeds and lavender from the top of the nearest bookshelf and crossed over to her. “Your mother and I want you to have this.”

Sadyr accepted the package, her face brightened. When excitement sparkled in her smile and eyes, Kepsalon thought she was even more beautiful than any art form could ever capture. “What is it?” she asked, already pulling the reeds aside.

“Open it,” WroOth said. His grin broadened as he exchanged a knowing look with Mara.

Kepsalon wondered what could be inside that was so important and exciting.

Sadyr tossed the last of the reeds aside, opened the box, and removed the top layers of tissue. Amid the remaining thin sheets of crumbled pale-green paper lay a pair of thinly woven lavender gloves.

A slight frown creased Sadyr’s forehead, deepening with each passing moment. “Oh,” she said flatly. “I see.”

One of the sheets of tissue paper fluttered to the ground. Sadyr’s scowl deepened.

Chapter 09: Surprise

Kepsalon bit his lip, uncertain what Sadyr meant. The gloves looked quite nice to him. But it was obvious that there was something quite terrible or infuriating about them. Perhaps both.

“What do you mean, Sadyr?” Mara asked, shifting Ephalon to her shoulder. “What do you see?”

Sadyr lifted her gaze to her mother’s, her brow knit together so tight that her eyebrows nearly touched. “You don’t want me to find a viskare.”
Mara’s eyes widened as WroOth arched an eyebrow. “One day, you will find a viskare,” he said, a bit of color rising in his cheeks. “But not yet.”

Oh! Realization flashed through Kepsalon’s mind. He gripped his mug of tea tighter, staring down at the bright yellow rim. He hadn’t been thinking about this as a Vawtrian. Gloves were an essential part of their culture. Unmarried Vawtrians wore gloves from puberty to the day they locked, a day when the Vawtrian was joined forever to her spouse. The gloves themselves often symbolized some aspect of the Vawtrian’s personality and sometimes changed over the years. Naatos wore black gloves without ornamentation while QueQoa wore rust-brown braided leather. Sadyr’s appeared to have phoenixes or some sort of flying bird embroidered along the palms and up the index fingers and inside of the thumbs.

“But you’re giving it to me now,” Sadyr said evenly. She didn’t flinch even though everyone was watching her, her brother, cousin, and sister unable to keep their mouths from hanging open. “You are trying to tell me that you don’t want me touching boys.”

WroOth cleared his throat again, stammering a little. “One day you will find a viskare. But not now. You’ll have to meet him first. And why would you be touching anyone anyway? There isn’t any reason for that.”

Kepsalon’s hand ached around the mug. He didn’t dare move, not even to breathe. Only the word “no” pulsed within him as he desperately wished that he could disappear into the wall or cushion.

Sadyr pushed the gloves onto the red ottoman, her head cocked to the side. “Who says I haven’t met him already? I want a viskare. And if you don’t let me have one, I want a lover like the Awdawms and Bealorns have.”
“Sadyr!” Mara exclaimed.

WroOth’s goblet dropped from his hand, clattering on the floor. The remaining beverage spilled out, the dark purple-red liquid turned blackish red on the woven rug.

Sadyr stood. With deliberate focus, she picked up the gloves and set them neatly on the table, even taking the time to fold the thumbs in. “I like the color of these gloves. I like knowing that you know I am not a child. But I will not wear them because I don’t want to. I don’t want to wait to fall in love. If I am old enough to wear gloves, I am old enough to find a viskare and make him mine.” She crossed her arms and lifted her chin.

Kepsalon struggled to unfold himself. He needed to leave. Now. But his muscles remained so tight he could not even draw in more than a cramped breath.

WroOth picked up the goblet, ignoring the stained rug. “You haven’t even mastered your second form,” he said slowly. His fingers worked along the base and stem. “You cannot be mastering kalamati and locking already. You’re…you’re too young.”

Sadyr shrugged. Her smile was both arrogant and playful with a hint of unease. “Just because you won’t let me advance and be challenged doesn’t mean I haven’t figured things out on my own.”

The goblet stem snapped in WroOth’s hand. “What?”

Naatos put his hand on WroOth’s arm. AaQar leaned forward, clearing his throat. “Sadyr, have you found someone? Or are you wanting to find someone?”

Still keeping her chin high, Sadyr twisted her shoulders up. “That doesn’t matter. What does matter is I am not a child.”

AaQar’s eyebrows quirked up slightly. “There’s a boy.”

QueQoa lifted his hands, the most relaxed of any of them other than perhaps Rasha who appeared as calm as ever. “There is no reason to be concerned. We just have to make a list of all the boys she has been in contact with. Then we interrogate them if she does not wish to speak of this further.”

Naatos rolled his eyes. “That isn’t necessary. The first step is to determine whether she has taken anyone against their will. If she doesn’t know what she’s doing, some boy could be suffocating or starving.”

Mara’s mouth fell open. She stared at Naatos aghast. “My daughter would never kidnap anyone. She is a good girl!”

“I never said she wasn’t.” Naatos cast her a perplexed look before shaking his head as if annoyed. “But if she has found someone she thinks she might be compatible with, it is within the realm of reason that she took matters into her own hands to ensure that it worked the way she wanted it to. Vawtrians are generally the initiators. Not all Awdawms are like you. Besides.” He gestured at Sadyr with his goblet. “You should be talking to her regardless. She isn’t a victim in this.”

“My little girl would never kidnap anyone,” Mara spluttered. She looked at WroOth desperately, her eyes widening so that the whites were visible all the way around her dark irises.

“I’m not a little girl,” Sadyr said hotly. She folded her arms. “And I could kidnap a boy if I wanted to.”

“See,” Naatos said.

“Naatos!” WroOth snapped. He crossed over to Mara and gripped her hand.

“Sadyr.” Naatos returned his attention to her. “You need to answer me frankly. Have you abducted someone or are you simply saying you are capable of it?”

Sadyr lifted her chin higher. Though that gesture most likely looked defiant to the adults in the room, Kepsalon was certain she was panicking inside, realizing that she might have played this too far. At least he hoped that was what she was thinking. That harsh glint in her eyes terrified him.

Mara uttered an off-note shriek. “She wouldn’t!” Terror underscored her words.

“If you abduct someone,” Naatos said. “You do know that you need to feed them. It is not as simple as carting off fish. It’s only wrong if you cannot give them a better life than the one they had, though they won’t find that persuasive. So you might as well not share that truth when seeking to persuade them.”

“Stop giving her ideas!” WroOth smacked Naatos on the back of the head. He shook his finger at Sadyr. “If you abduct someone, you will be in so much trouble, young lady. Abduction of a mate is only for the desperate. You can do much better than that, and you are far too young to be getting desperate.”

“WroOth!” Mara’s eyes bugged even more. “Kidnapping is wrong. Do any of you understand that? It’s wrong. Always!”

WroOth sat beside her. “Maybe we can have this conversation later,” he said. “The point isn’t whether it’s right or wrong in general. Just that we want better for our daughter.”

“Well, whatever you do, do not use drugs,” Naatos said. “You do not want to be handling a possible viskare and give him an addiction as well. And if you do not lock, there is no shame in releasing the person.”

“I don’t think she’s ready for this conversation,” AaQar said.

“She’s old enough to be thinking about it, she’s old enough to discuss it,” Naatos said. “When would be a good time? When we find some Awdawm or Bealorn tied in her closet, half starved and suffocated?”

“I mean Mara,” AaQar responded. He crossed over to her as well. “It is not so bad as it sounds, Mara. I promise.” Sitting beside her, he placed his hand on her shoulder. “I assure you.”

“He’s right,” Rasha said from her position on the settee. “I would have abducted that one if he had not been cooperative. But he was, so there was no point. Abduction is sometimes a necessary step when one strongly suspects that it is the only way that a match can be made or time is essential and the mate is stubborn.”

“Not a wise step,” AaQar hastened to add. “In most cases, someone who would be willing to accept one as a viskaro after kidnapping would be willing to do so before if given sufficient time. And one must always accept the negative feelings that are certain to be aroused through such steps.”
Rasha winked, letting her hand slide along her own cheek. Kepsalon wasn’t at all sure what that gesture indicated.

Mara started shaking her head quickly. “Kelchon, Nydas, take the little ones to the play room,” she said. “Kepsalon, you may remain here or go with them or return to your home. But know that this is not going to be a pleasant discussion.”

Kepsalon tried to answer, but his mouth was too dry and he couldn’t unfold himself. Sadyr crossed her arms, her head still cocked sharply to the side in a manner that suggested confidence but he was certain was more because she was trying to think of a way out. Not that he would be helpful. The only consistent thought streaming through his mind was for a prayer that Elonumato get them out of this without either of them dying.

Nydas picked up Ephalon while Kelchon took Leslo by the hand. Leslo whispered, “I want to watch,” but he shushed her. They disappeared down the hall, none of them seeming especially concerned. Fights of all sorts were common in Vawtrian families, but they stressed Kepsalon more than anyone here except perhaps Mara.

As for Mara, she sat on the edge of the couch, her arms braced against the red cushion. WroOth had slipped his arm around her shoulders, but she remained tense, not seeming aware of his presence. Once the children left, she pushed him off, stood, and stared Sadyr straight in the eyes. “I want you to listen to something very very carefully,” she said. “I cannot believe that we are even having to have this conversation, yet here we are.” As she spoke, she stepped forward, she punctuated her words with her finger. “And once we finish this conversation, I do not ever want to have it again.”
Sadyr actually stepped back as her mother stepped in front of her. Her eyebrows lifted high.

Kepsalon’s own chest cramped with alarm. He had never heard Mara speak in such a tone.

“Are you listening to me?” Mara demanded, now standing alongside Naatos.

Sadyr nodded slowly.

Mara abruptly turned and began beating Naatos’s shoulder and chests with her hands. “Do not ever talk to my daughter about abduction again. No one in this family kidnaps anyone! Kidnapping is wrong! Especially if you think you might fall in love with that person. I can’t believe you! Any of you!”
Naatos fell back, holding up his arm to block her blows, a look of startled disbelief disrupting his usually stoic features.

Mara shoved him in the chest, knocking him off balance and onto the nearest couch. “Kidnapping is wrong! It’s not a morally grey area at all. It is wrong. And do you know what this family doesn’t do? We don’t do things that are wrong!”

If it hadn’t been for the tremendous tension that seethed within the room, Kepsalon might have laughed at the oddness of Naatos’s expression and his shock, half reclined on the arm of the wine-red couch, his left arm raised to ward off the blows and his reaction suggesting he actually was not sure what to do since he clearly could not kill her.

WroOth was making some gasping strangled noise as he tried to say Mara’s name while AaQar stared on in utter shock. Apparently no one had ever seen Mara behave this way. Rasha stood, swiping her hands down over her thighs to smooth out her long cobalt gown. The full skirt flared downward. “Stop being so dramatic,” she said, adopting a patronizing tone. “Abduction is not all the same. If one has the ability to offer one a better life and needs time alone to determine—”

Mara lunged forward and seized Rasha by the ear, yanking her head down so that she was eye to eye with her. “Hearth and home are my domain, remember?” she snarled. “And how I raise my children and the standards I impart to them are my business. You may think I am soft, but you will be glad that you can grow back ears because I’ll rip yours off and see just how many you can grow back before you decide it isn’t worth it.”

Kepsalon’s jaw dropped. He peered over his knees, wide-eyed and terrified. What was Mara doing! Everyone, including Sadyr, stared in shock as Mara shook Rasha like a red wolf with a fanged squirrel.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Mara continued. She jabbed her arm back at AaQar. “That is a dear, sweet, and gentle man. He deserves to be with someone who respects him and respects his decisions. He did like you and he did accept you, but if he hadn’t, you would have had no right to force him to! How could you even consider such a thing? How could any of you?” She flung Rasha back and spun on WroOth. “And you, you big loping hypocrite! You told me to leave you alone, and I did. You told me not to kiss you, and I respected that! How dare you, how dare you, how dare you, how dare you even suggest that I should have tried to force myself on you!”
“I wasn’t suggesting—” WroOth started, holding up his hands. The utter bewilderment in his expression reached his words.

Mara cut him off with a forceful wave of her hand. “No. I know what you’ll say. All of you. I wasn’t supposed to force myself on you because I wasn’t strong enough. That’s why your brothers were willing to threaten me. That’s how you settle this sort of thing. If someone is strong enough, then it’s fine. If you can offer a better life and that person doesn’t come from a family or a community strong enough to stop it, then that’s fine. Well it isn’t, and it never will be. Good may come out of it, but it comes out of it in spite of it, not because of it. I fell in love with you for who you were, WroOth. Yes, even in spite of this! You fell in love with me for who I was, not just because I needed you or you could make my life better.” She flung her arm in the general direction of AaQar and Rasha. “And you two fell in love because you actually were and are good for each other. Abduction didn’t need to even enter the discussion. And that was disrespectful and wrong. So far as you, QueQoa, I hope you aren’t taking any thing they say to heart—”

QueQoa lifted his hands. “I don’t like complicated relationships.”

“Just make sure that if that changes, you don’t let these ones corrupt you.” Mara jabbed her finger at Naatos. “And you had better wipe all thoughts of abduction being acceptable right out of your mind. I guarantee you it will lead to nothing but problems. You think you’re ready for that? You think you can find something good on the other side? I don’t think so, and so help me, so help me if I ever find out that any of you ‘whisked’ someone away I am coming for you. And that’s what ‘whisked away’ really means, isn’t it? That’s your code to make sure that Awdawms don’t know what you’re really doing. Well it isn’t romantic, and it isn’t right. And if any good ever comes from it, it is in spite of it, not because of it. Yes, I know I repeated myself. But remember that!”

She spun at last to Sadyr, her eyes blazing and sweat beading her forehead but her pronunciation viciously articulate. “And as for you, young lady, love is something to be cherished. It is beautiful and wonderful, and the best day of my life was the day that I met and locked with your father! It is not something you force. If you ever dare to force some poor soul into a relationship with you, then you will spend the rest of your life with more regrets than you can count. You cannot erase cruelty or pain. Just because someone isn’t you or isn’t as strong doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect. Your viskare deserves the same respect you deserve. And if I ever learn that you have done such a thing, you will make an enemy of me until all is made right. I would still love you because I will always love you, Sadyr. But I will not abide such acts. Not in this household. Not in this family.”

Mara paused and took a breath. Her chest rose and fell, her shoulders squared. The heavy tension in the room brimmed with shock as she lifted her chin, the expression in her eyes and her manner of holding herself reflecting something Kepsalon had often seen in Sadyr. She fixed her gaze even more sternly on Sadyr and stepped closer, speaking slower and with greater deliberation. “Now tell me this instant, did you kidnap someone?”
Sadyr’s face twisted with emotion. Then she squeezed out the word “no” and burst into tears.

Mara remained resolute a moment longer before stepping forward to comfort her daughter. Sadyr remained stiff, her shoulders tight as her mother put her arms around her. Mara began to whisper something in her ear that Kepsalon could not hear, but he was grateful that the turmoil had come to an end.

At least he hoped it had.

Episode 10: Discovered

The tension continued to hang in the room as Mara consoled Sadyr and the rest shifted their weight awkwardly. Rasha held her hand to her ear, regarding Mara with an expression Kepsalon could not interpret while AaQar sat beside her, his hand comfortingly over her free one. QueQoa avoided looking at anyone as Naatos picked himself up and straightened his doublet, resembling a large usually graceful cat who had just fallen and was trying to pretend that that fall was intended. WroOth, for his part, edged closer to Mara and Sadyr. Kepsalon could practically see all the bits of dialogue tumbling through WroOth’s mind as he tried to think of the perfect phrase or response. There was none, and thankfully, he opted for nothing and put his arms around both his wife and daughter.

Kepsalon wanted to creep away now. His muscles were relaxing, but all of their strength had faded, sapped from the clenching terror of moments before.

But then Mara pulled back from Sadyr and slipped her scarred hands along the sides of her daughter’s face. “Now, tell me, Sadyr, is there a boy you like? Or are you just wanting us to treat you more like an adult?”

Kepsalon’s heart stabbed him with terror.

Sadyr though remained calm. “I want to have a boyfriend if I want one,” she said, her tone contradictorily meek. “I’m an adult. I want to find challenges and be better.”

Perhaps it was the quiet tone or the softness that lined her voice, but this explanation Mara and WroOth both seemed to accept. Mara pulled her face down to kiss her on the forehead and hugged her even closer. “You are almost a woman, Sadyr. You’ll be a full one before you know it. Please just enjoy this time now. There will be more than enough challenges, I promise.”
WroOth said something as well, but he spoke in such quiet tones that Kepsalon couldn’t catch the words. He just prayed this really was done. Or that the feeling would return to his legs and he would be able to leave. He slumped against the thick cushion, his shoulders aching with tension.

A loud squawl from, presumably, Ephalon shattered that relative silence.

Mara stepped back, her hand to WroOth’s chest. “I’ll take care of it.”
Rasha drew closer as well. The characteristic superiority which Kepsalon associated with her was no longer so apparent. Her long red hair hung over her shoulders and back, once more immaculate. “I need to speak with you if you are willing,” she said.

Mara hesitated, then nodded. “If you wish.” She walked from the room, neck stiff and shoulders bristling though her voice had been calm.

WroOth scowled, his brow furrowing at once with concern. He leaned sideways toward AaQar. “Kuvaste?” he whispered.

AaQar shook his head though his expression remained just as perplexed. “I doubt that.”

WroOth pursed his lips, mulling this over. Then he abruptly moved forward as he muttered something under his breath.

AaQar sighed. He braced his hands against his thighs and stood as well. “WroOth, leave them alone. If Mara needs help, she’ll call. And none of your forms will fool them anymore.”

Both disappeared around the corner.

“Uncle Naatos!” Leslo’s loud and unmistakable voice cut through next. “Come see the monster I made.”

Naatos sighed, straightened his doublet once more, and started to leave the room. He paused, glancing back at Sadyr. “No matter what happens, you’ll always be my niece, Sadyr,” he said, his voice a little gentler than usual. “You’ll make mistakes, and if you’re like your uncle, they’ll be big ones. Just do your best not to do anything too foolish. Which…if you need to know whether something is, you know where to find me.” He strode from the room.

QueQoa remained on the couch at the far end of the room, appearing almost as stunned as Kepsalon and Sadyr. While Sadyr kept her arms wrapped tight around herself, QueQoa removed a half-carved stick from the pouch that hung at his side, set a shallow dish on the floor between his feet, and began carving. The design, as best Kepaslon could tell from this angle, looked like a series of geometric shapes, mostly angles with varying degrees of depth, soft red wood against rigid black bark with the uppermost lines of wood a little lighter than the deeper.

Kepsalon slowly unfolded himself, the steady shush shisk of the blade against the wood actually comforting. As he slid his legs over the side of the couch, Sadyr turned to look at him. Her expression was inscrutable, her eyes a much darker blue than usual and appearing more contemplative, her lips pressed tight, and her arms even tighter around herself in an unrelenting hug.

Kepsalon motioned toward the door and mouthed “I should go.”
Sadyr cut her eyes away to QueQoa. Her chin angled up once more. “Uncle QueQoa,” she said, her voice resuming a little of its former strength. “Can I talk to you?”

QueQoa smiled slightly, the right side of his mouth pulling up more. “I’d think you’d be all talked out after tonight. I can’t imagine it went the way you planned.”

Sadyr picked up the gloves that had fallen to the rug. She smoothed them out. “It didn’t.” She walked toward him.

The uneasy dread swept over Kepsalon once more. Why was she still talking? Why did she still need to talk! His gut warned him that all was about to be exposed. Here. Now. Unless he thought of something to do or say. Everyone else was a few rooms over. And what would QueQoa do? What would he say? How long before everyone knew? The blast of terrified thoughts ripped through him, rooting him to the couch as if chained there to await his execution.

“I hope you don’t abduct someone though,” QueQoa said. “It isn’t so much that you couldn’t. But it makes things very complicated. Morals aside.”
“I don’t want to. I just could do it if I wanted to,” Sadyr said, her voice growing stronger as she repeated her statement from the start of this nightmare. “But there is something I need help with.”

“Is there?” QueQoa’s thick blondish-brown eyebrow lifted and then fell. He ran the tip of the blade along the inside of a curved groove.

“If I tell you, you must keep it secret,” Sadyr said.

Kepsalon struggled to breathe. His lungs refused to fill. His fingers gripped the sides of the soft cushion, but he couldn’t gain any traction.

Sadyr now stood directly between him and QueQoa, but he could still hear the shush shisk of the narrow blade.

“Secrets are important,” QueQoa said evenly, his gaze fastened to the wood.

Kepsalon tried to say something. Anything. Fire, maybe? Run! Some great horror was about to be unleashed upon Reltux. Anything at all! But the dryness of his mouth was matched only by the dryness in his throat and the slickness of the cushions.

Sadyr leaned closer, now clasping her arms behind her back. “You must not tell anyone else. Especially not Daddy or Mama. But I did find a boy. And I love him.”

QueQoa’s smile broadened a little, then softened. “Did you now?”

Please, Elonumato, just stop her, Kepsalon thought. Painful spasms exploded within him.

“I can’t tell you his name,” Sadyr continued, her voice little more than a whisper. “But it starts with the letter K.”

He was dead. Dead. That was all there was left. Sadyr was cunning and generally fearless but subtle she was not! Not that he was being especially subtle either. Kepsalon let his head flop back on the cushion and stared up at the stone ceiling.

QueQoa laughed a little.

Kepsalon tilted his head enough to see, panic robbing him of any other movement.

“What all have you done with this boy?” QueQoa watched Sadyr now with a surprisingly understanding gaze. As if what she had confessed was not only natural but expected. As if he knew that something had happened between them.

“We kiss. We hold hands. I like kissing him. But we haven’t locked yet.”

“No. Kepsalon is still too young and so are you.”

Sadyr feigned surprise. “Kepsalon?” She lifted her shoulders in an exaggerated fashion as she stared at him with wide, innocent eyes. “No, not Kepsalon. I—”

QueQoa shifted the carving to his knife hand and placed his left on her shoulder. “Sadyr, that boy has been about to melt through the floor for the past few months every time I’ve seen him here. And he is now paralyzed. I think you may be close to giving him a heart attack or some sort of panic spell. He’s always been a nervous child, but not this nervous.” Rising, he set the whittling aside, then crossed to Kepsalon. “Come along then, squirrel. No one is going to hurt you.”

Kepsalon begged to differ on this point. There was no possible way that anyone could guarantee that. But he still had no words and the clenching of his chest left him panting and gasping like a fish stranded on a pebbled shore.

QueQoa lifted him up so that his back rested against the pillows. He shook his head and clicked his tongue. “You’re robbing the cradle, Sadyr. This boy is more a child than you. Breathe, Kepsalon. I want you to breathe. Try to follow this rhythm.” He began tapping just beneath Kepsalon’s collarbone. After three taps, he shifted to tapping the side of his neck, then the center of his chest, next over the heart, and on along either side of his lungs, back to the collarbone only on the opposite side.

Slowly, the panicked cords loosened from Kepsalon’s chest and saliva returned to his mouth. “Don’t tell anyone,” he wheezed. A burst of coughing followed.

“I love him.” Sadyr stood awkwardly at her uncle’s shoulder, shifting her weight from side to side. “And he loves me.”

QueQoa patted Kepsalon on the back as he continued coughing. “Keep breathing, squirrel.” He smiled as he then gestured for Sadyr to join him on the other side. “Why don’t you sit here?” He waited until Sadyr obeyed and then he continued. “I don’t doubt that both of you care about one another deeply and do love one another in some ways. But this isn’t what you think it is. At least not now.”

“Yes, it is,” Sadyr said stubbornly. The petulant look returned.

“Sadyr…” QueQoa quirked up his mouth, his brow forming new wrinkles as he sought the words. “This isn’t that simple. It’s not that Vawtrians can’t or don’t marry non-Vawtrians. It’s just that if you do lock, you would only be able to love him romantically. And for Kepsalon, that might not be the case. And he is far too young to make that choice. He might have other romantic loves. This is not fair to him. While I do not doubt that he cares for you very much right now, he may not always.”

“I would though,” Kepsalon said hoarsely. His voice trembled. There were many things he was not certain of, but his love for Sadyr was one thing that he believed in with all his heart. More than his own courage, prophecies, strength, and mind. He held his hand to his throat and cleared it, then leaned forward to peek at Sadyr around QueQoa. “I’ll never stop loving her.”

“As I said, I know you feel that way now. But you are little more than a child.”

“The Lord Para thinks—” Kepsalon began.

For the first time a measure of sternness entered QueQoa’s gaze. “He has seen great skill and potential within you so far as you becoming a prophet. But you know that he would not approve of this for either you or Sadyr. Otherwise you would not have attempted to hide this, and you would not have been so terrified. Your mind may have exaggerated what he would have done, but you know he would not be pleased. At least not at this time. And in this you must trust others. From what I know of the Machat, and it is not much, a prophet is not to be trusted to prophesy his own fate or future without corroboration. And the younger you are, the more dangerous it is. You know that your own desires may lead you into a place where you cannot see what is to happen. Tell me your age.”

Kepsalon stiffened, his pride pricking for the first time and now bleeding his resolve, limited as it was. “I’ll be fifteen in four days.” QueQoa’s words stung mostly because his own peering into the future had revealed so little. At least little of anything that could be verified. As pleasant as the images had been, there always remained that nagging awareness that they might be only his own desires manifested into artistic images. Images that held no prophecy or prediction but revealed his desires and hopes.

QueQoa’s voice resumed its more even tone. “You have at least five more years before you are of age and ready to begin considering a mate, and, Sadyr, it would be best if you waited at least twenty. Perhaps another fifty.”

“That’s so far away!” Sadyr reached out to Kepsalon but then dropped her hand, her face falling as if she had struck some invisible barrier. “I don’t want to wait that long.”

“I’d wait for you,” Kepsalon interjected. “It’d be worth it to wait for you.” As much as he loved her, the thought of waiting actually brought him a measure of hope and peace. She was all he could think about, all that filled his mind and heart. If that intensified, he wouldn’t be able to complete any of his tasks or see anything but his own desires. If they were to wait, if he grew, then perhaps he could love her and be a good prophet.

“It’s still a long time.” Sadyr crossed her arms, shooting her uncle an annoyed look. “Ridiculously long. Daddy wasn’t a hundred when he married Mama.”

“No. He was older.”

“Well,” Sadyr paused, then surged forward, scowling, “Mama wasn’t.”

“Your mother wasn’t a Vawtrian. Now if you are so convinced that this is the right thing, then you will tell your parents right now.”

“No!” Kepsalon cried. He gulped in a ragged breath, the stabbing pains returning to his chest.

Sadyr glared at QueQoa. “See what you’re doing to him? You can’t tell them unless you promise to make them agree.”

QueQoa pressed his lips in a thin line. He turned to Kepsalon and began tapping beneath his collarbone again. “Breathe,” he said. “I won’t tell them and you don’t have to either so long as you make a bargain.”

The ability to breathe more freely came when QueQoa struck the space just above Kepsalon’s heart. He nodded, his mind growing ragged.

“Anything,” Sadyr said. “We’ll do anything you say. I can sharpen your knives and—”

“No.” QueQoa waved her back. “Sadyr, just listen. You and Kepsalon are too young for this. You are too young to know what you want or who you are and to do anything more than play at love. But that play may make a deeper connection than you intend, so you must stop it. You can remain friends though. You can also whisper sweet promises in each other’s ears and sit beside one another in whatever secret place you’ve found. But there must be no kissing. No holding of hands. And no snuggling. You have not locked, Sadyr, and you are fortunate that it has not happened because in some cases it does. When you are both of a more appropriate age, then I will go with you and speak with your parents and help you gain their favor.”

Sadyr scowled. “I like kissing him though!”

“I am sure you do. But those are my terms. If you want to keep kissing him, we can go and speak with your parents now.”

Kepsalon shook his head fiercely. “We’ll take the first option.” He gave Sadyr a pleading glance, desperate.

Sadyr’s eyes narrowed. Her shoulders slumped, then tightened as a thought occurred to her. “How will you know if we do? And what happens if we…you know, accidentally, kiss each other?”

QueQoa gave them a half smile. “I will know, children. Make no mistake about that. There is a Neyeb who owes me a favor and—”

“That’s all right.” Kepsalon lifted his hands. He coughed again and shook his head, the dryness intensifying. “We won’t do anything.”

“I know you won’t,” QueQoa said. “And in time, if you both find that you do still feel this way about one another, the whole family will be delighted. There is nothing better to celebrate. But you both must have time to learn who you are, and you must have time to determine whether you really do want to be with each other. There is nothing wrong with either of you if you find that what you have shared is simply an intimate form of friendship. But it must go no further or else Sadyr may become trapped, and there are few worse places for a Vawtrian.”

“I don’t want that,” Kepsalon said. He didn’t believe that he would ever not love Sadyr, but the thought of her trapped or unhappy terrified him.

Sadyr’s glare intensified. “It isn’t fair,” she insisted. “I love him now. You have no right to say we’re not old enough or mature enough for this.”
QueQoa turned to face her, that slight note of sternness returning. “There is one other reason I know you are not ready for a relationship, Sadyr.”

“What?” she demanded.

He leaned closer, his hand shielding his mouth as he whispered in her ear.
Sadyr’s eyes welled up with tears. “That’s—that’s…” Her voice trailed off.

“You’re a good girl, Sadyr. But you still have some growing to do. You need to listen,” QueQoa said.

Tears trailed down her cheeks. “I’m not—”

Footsteps whispered outside the room. Kepsalon sat up straighter as Sadyr stiffened. Both Mara and WroOth appeared in the broad doorway. Mara held Ephalon and WroOth had his arm around her waist. All but the baby looked exhausted, dark rings especially prominent beneath Mara’s eyes. Ephalon clutched at her embroidered neckline. “Say good night to Kepsalon and your uncle,” Mara said. “It’s time for bed.”

Sadyr offered no objections. She kissed QueQoa on the cheek and barely nodded to Kepsalon. As Sadyr left, her steps somber and her head down, Mara followed. Mara paused briefly in the doorway. “Good night, Kepsalon. I’m sorry about all this. I hope you have a good evening. If you want to sleep here, you can. I know it’s hard living alone sometimes, and the invitation is still open even after all this.”

“No,” Kepsalon said, pushing off the couch. “I need to go home. I think I left my paints out anyway. They’re probably half dried.”

Mara nodded while WroOth stared blankly at the wall. She smiled a little. “All right then. Good night.” Then she disappeared through the hall.

WroOth watched her go. Then he directed his gaze at Kepsalon. Kepsalon had never seen him look so exhausted. “Are you really all right?” he asked.

“I’m fine.” Kepsalon smiled weakly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” When WroOth nodded, Kepsalon darted away, his balance only faltering as he neared the door jamb. He caught himself and continued on. As he went, WroOth entered the room. Kepsalon glimpsed him slumping onto the couch and heard him say, “I’m not ready for this. Why can’t they stay small?”

QueQoa’s lower voice responded, “I don’t know, brother. But they can’t. And they won’t. And even if they could, they shouldn’t.”

“I know,” WroOth said wearily. “I’m just not ready for this.”

“It doesn’t matter,” QueQoa said.

WroOth sighed. “I know.”

Kepsalon escaped out the door and down the staircase.

Episode 11: A Vawtrian Woman

QueQoa was not cruel. At least he never had been. Until tonight.

Sadyr struggled to keep her lower lip from quivering and more tears from burning down her cheeks. She avoided looking at her mother.

“Do you want to talk, Sadyr?” Mara asked. She sounded far more like the woman Sadyr was used to speaking with than she had when she was yelling at her about not kidnapping boys.

She shook her head though. “No.” It wasn’t as if her mother understood what she was going through. She got to meet lots of boys and men and have lots of relationships when she was much younger than Sadyr. If her uncle was telling the truth (and Naatos didn’t usually lie about family), then her mother started kissing boys before she was even thirteen!

But as angry as that thought made her, it evaporated as QueQoa’s words echoed in her mind. They chilled every heated part the rage lit. She set her jaw but still choked on that statement. She and her mother passed the doorway into Leslo’s room. “He climbed very very high because the stalk reached all the way into the clouds.” Naatos sat with Leslo on the low couch reading to her from a large painted book by some Awdawm who had probably had just as many lovers as her mother. Lucky Awdawms. Even Leslo was lucky. She was still young enough and small enough that she was sucking on her thumb and half asleep with her blanket rubbing her cheek. That was too young to be interested in boys like Kepsalon.

And once more QueQoa’s words resounded in her mind. Her pace slowed.

“All right then,” Mara said. She stopped in front of Sadyr’s room. “I want you to know I do love you. I understand that you’re angry with me, and that’s all right. A lot of this won’t make sense now. Just know that I want what’s best for you. I don’t want you to go through what I went through or anything even slightly similar. You are more precious to me than you know.”

Sadyr grunted in response, her heart tugging a little in response to her mother’s words.

“You know that, don’t you?” Mara pressed, tilting her head.

Sadyr nodded. She hated how short her mother was. It had been easier to take her seriously when she towered over her, but her mother was now half a head shorter than she. Still it wouldn’t do to bring that up, so she buried it.

“Sadyr?” Mara said her name with a sigh.

“I know,” Sadyr mumbled.

“All right then.” Mara sighed. “Go to sleep then.” She turned and left, her shoulders a little slumped.

Briefly Sadyr felt guilty. Especially if she thought of her mother in conjunction with what QueQoa had said. But she thrust that aside as best she could once again and pressed her bedroom door open.

She pulled back almost at once though when she saw her aunt Rasha standing there. She looked like an elemental goddess now. A vengeful elemental goddess. Her hair, now blue-black and icicle straight, fell past her shoulders and beyond her muscle-taut waist. “We need to talk.” She lifted her chin. “Do you want your mother present for this conversation?”

“I don’t want to talk anymore.” Sadyr crossed her arms, but it was more defensive. Though she was not precisely afraid of her aunt, she did not particularly want to talk to her. She wanted to be alone and think.

“You will.” Rasha gestured to the padded blue bench beside the bookshelf, the motion sharp. “Sit.”

Sadyr hesitated. She glanced back over her shoulder, but her mother was already gone. What could her aunt possibly have to say to her that hadn’t been said already?

“Now.” Rasha’s tone grew sterner.

Sadyr obeyed, closing the door before giving Rasha a baleful look.

Rasha allowed the moment to rest between them, expanding with each breath as she studied her, her gaze as sharp as a mindreader intent on uncovering her deepest secrets. Except an almost painful worry cringed through Sadyr, warning her that Rasha knew. She knew everything. Somehow. Her mouth dried and her throat thickened.

“Neither you nor I have behaved entirely as we should,” Rasha said at last.
That was not how Sadyr expected this conversation to start. She frowned slightly, not quite relaxing but a little more curious. She didn’t mind hearing how adults had messed up, unless it happened to be that they had messed up by putting their trust in her or something like that. Her mother had caught her a few times on that rather sly point.

Rasha waited a few breaths longer, her gaze on Sadyr. Then she continued, her tone unchanging. “It is easy to look down on those who are not Vawtrians, lilka. Especially when one feels that one is stronger. Superior. Even if one feels that way about one’s own mother.”

“I don’t think I’m better than my—” Sadyr responded.

Rasha flashed her hand in a sharp cutting motion, giving Sadyr a bored look. “Maybe not all of you thinks that way, and maybe you don’t even know it. But you do. Sometimes we all do. And in that we are wrong.” She tilted her head. “You do not know much about my past, in part because I do not speak of it. But I associated little with non-Vawtrians throughout my life. I am a Thudolyan. An association of the greatest of the great.” She paused, a crease knitting her brow briefly as a thought crossed her mind. “At least of those who are willing to join. And there are many benefits to it. So your mother and Igrold and the others who are not our kind but part of the cadre are among the first non-Vawtrians I have had to live with. And with Igrold, he is an honorary Vawtrian like most of the others. Your mother is utterly unique in that she is a more ordinary Awdawm. At least so it would seem.”

Sadyr could not guess where her aunt wanted this conversation to go. So she simply watched her, nodding a little when she guessed her aunt wanted the acknowledgment.

“But lately I have been considering many things. A great many things. I have been cruel to your mother. I have indicated that such things are acceptable because it is better to speak one’s mind than to restrain it, especially with regards to weakness. And truth should be spoken, but I have used it to wound for my own reasons. And that is wrong. I should not have done that.”

“Tonight changed all that?” Sadyr scowled fully then.

For the first time, Rasha laughed. Her brow smoothed, but a sadness remained in her eyes. “You’re a clever one, lilka.” She turned her gaze toward the window. “Changes of thought and belief don’t generally happen all at once. You might say that the seed was planted long ago. Tonight it bore fruit.” She turned back to Sadyr and leaned forward. “It is not surprising that your mother has such strong thoughts on the morality or appropriateness of abduction. Awdawms often have strong beliefs on morality in general, even in areas that do not seem so practical to us. But, while we may not agree fully on the appropriateness, she is entirely correct that abduction causes many problems with any sort of long lasting relationship. And she is your mother. She will have a tremendous impact on all of your relationships.”

“If I ever have one,” Sadyr muttered.

“We will get to that momentarily,” Rasha said, her voice briefly amused. “But there is something else I must tell you first. Sometimes…I don’t like your mother at all. She seems weak and small. Very soft and tiny in mind. And I have communicated this to her. Her statement regarding home and hearth is one that I said to her once. Perhaps more than that. And she cries so easily. Becomes emotional over the smallest of sentimentalities. When your father eliminated the men who violated and tormented her, at least those he could find, she went into hysterics and had to be calmed like a child. She should have been happy that they were dead. But she wasn’t. When you are powerful, it is easy to despise someone like that because you assume they are weak and that they are weak because they have not suffered. Or some other similar nonsense.

“But your mother is a powerful woman in her own rite. You see, the reason that I am not always fond of her is because I know what she went through. Things that…I do not think you should hear in detail from anyone but her. And not until she is ready to speak of them. And she may never want to speak of them. But it should be enough to know that your mother endured great horrors before she met your father. And somehow she survived them without being able to heal or shift like us. She has known starvation, torture, abuse, suffering, agony, betrayal, and so much more. There is a part of me that does feel fear to think of facing that without my abilities. To endure it as she did. All Vawtrians carry that fear deep within. We are not that different from Awdawms at all. And we all make mistakes.” Rasha dropped her gaze to her hands. “There is a strength in presuming that we understand others and could triumph over their woes, but it is a false strength. And your mother would not make a good warrior nor would she make a good general. But she is an excellent mother and a powerful survivor, and she understands things our kind do not. Besides should the time come when she must fight, she would. Perhaps not effectively. But ferociously. And even if she did not, she is your mother, and she deserves your respect. You are blessed to have one who loves you so much. And so far as her concern regarding you taking a lover or a viskare, she is absolutely correct.”

Sadyr bristled at this. “But—”

Rasha inclined her head forward. Even in this manner, she towered over Sadyr. Her eyes had grown sharp as cobalt blades. “You are playing with fire, lilka. It is not the same for us as it is for the Awdawms or Machat. It isn’t even the same for us as it is for Vawtrian males. We are outnumbered five to one, my dear. Perhaps even more. And when we love in that way, we love deeply. So deeply that it can uproot us and undo us. It is no small thing. You are not ready for that experience, I can assure you. And if you awaken that depth before you are prepared, it will consume and destroy you.”

Sadyr twisted her sleeve around her fingers, unease prickling in her fingertips. “How? If you meet someone and you fall in love with him, how could that be bad?”

“What you feel now is not that sort of love. But it isn’t because you cannot love that you must wait. It is because when that love awakens, you will love so strong. And what you feel now for this Machat boy is nothing compared to what you feel.”

Sadyr shook her head abruptly. “Oh there isn’t—”

“Don’t insult me.” Rasha spoke with bland amusement. “Your father and mother are probably the only ones who don’t know because they see you both as their children, far too young to even be considering these things. And if you are too young, then he is especially.” She smirked a little. “You should be careful with him though. He is a fragile creature. A stern look might break him.”

Sadyr bowed her head, not sharing in the amusement. QueQoa’s words stung her once again. “Are you going to tell?”

“No. I am going to give you the chance to make things right and show that you are more mature than your years.”

Sadyr wondered if Rasha was going to offer her the same deal QueQoa had. At least this time it would not be so difficult to accept.

“You have until the end of the week to end your relationship with the Machat boy, or I will inform both your parents. You will tell me what you have decided.”

Sadyr’s mouth fell open. This was worse! “You can’t—”

Rasha’s eyebrows arched, her expression growing harsher. “Do you understand what you are, Sadyr? How powerful you will become?” She scoffed and then stood, staring down at her. “You say you want to be trained in a more serious fashion. But what have you done to challenge yourself? Every chance you get, you slip off to be with this boy and take him from his own training. He too is slipping. I can tell just from your poise and from the skills you have demonstrated and the way you walk that you have not used even half of your potential at this stage. You give only words to strength and growth, and it will grow worse, lilka. Trust me. When I met your uncle, I was consumed with passion. I abandoned my training for months, but by that point I had mastered all the forms and tiers. I had earned the peace and rest, so I took it. You will not advance beyond the third tier or past your second forms if you lock now. Only a few Vawtrians lock before one hundred. Even fewer before fifty. None of those have broken past the third tier.”

Sadyr bristled. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I can’t! No one thought three Vawtrians who didn’t have any connections or any noble blood could become Paras, but my father and uncles did. My family does what no one else can.”

“Then march out there and tell your parents the truth.” Rasha’s eyes blazed. “Do you know how disappointed I am in you? When your father and your uncles spoke of your dedication and eagerness to excel in your skills, I was delighted. Perhaps you were almost ready to launch into tiers and forms beyond your years. But no. All of this angst and strife, and for what? A boy.”

Rasha shook her head. “I was prepared to offer to train you. To convince your father and mother that, though you are not quite to forty, that you were ready for what I could show you. But love too early is a poison.”

“Uncle QueQoa—”

“QueQoa is a sentimental romantic who prizes the idea of love so much he has not even begun to consider locking. He’s little more than a child himself. I was the same way at his age. Life looks different at two thousand and forty nine than it does at nine hundred and some. And more than that, he is male. For us…the desire is always there. Waiting. Just beneath the surface. Kill it a thousand times, and it will rise again. Your uncle and I love each other passionately. I keep him tired and happy, but he can only keep me happy. As female Vawtrians, we are passion. We are vengeance. We are strength! Do not cast that aside. You are the firstborn, Sadyr. This is your duty. You say that your mother is weak, and in some ways she is. That makes your responsibility all the greater. You must be ready to protect her. To protect your siblings. These are dangerous times. More dangerous than you know. If something were to happen to your father and the rest of us were not here, you must be prepared to defend your family. Kelchon struggles with even the basics. And Leslo has not even begun her training seriously.”

Rasha crossed her arms over her chest, speaking a little gentler now. “There is so much more to life, so much more to being an adult than kisses and self-indulgence. What will you do with your life, lilka? Before your grandfather knew your grandmother, I was taming worlds and fighting battles that will go down in the annals of the worlds for all time. What will you do? What will you be known for?”

Sadyr’s heart swelled and fell at once. Listening to her aunt inspired her and filled her with such excitement and dread. Yet there was still Kepsalon. “Does that mean I have to…” Her eyes misted with tears.

The sternness in Rasha’s gaze softened even more. “Not forever, lilka.” She sat beside her and put her arm around her shoulders. “Only for now.” She kissed the top of Sadyr’s head. “If you and he are to be together, a few centuries will be nothing. And you will both come together, powerful in your abilities and fulfilled in your potential. And we will celebrate your union. All of us. What I ask of you is hard, I know. This is not what you wanted to hear, but it is what you needed to hear. You are full of potential, lilka. You could be greater than even me. But you must give yourself that chance.”

Tears rolled down Sadyr’s cheeks. She was both inspired and heartbroken. But there was one other thing. “Is Daddy in danger?” she asked. “And Mama too?”

“No,” Rasha said firmly. “I have heard of these nightmares of yours, my love. And they are understandable, but they are no more than phantoms of your own mind. They represent your fears and your growth and your understanding of who you are becoming.”

“So Daddy isn’t going to become a skinchanger and Mama isn’t going to disappear?”

Rasha shook her head, the firmness in her expression even clearer now. She placed her hand over Sadyr’s. “You and I have a great deal in common, lilka. When I was your age, I had similar dreams.”

“You did?” Sadyr tilted her head, studying her face. Her aunt rarely spoke about her life before she locked with her uncle, except in broad strokes that painted rough images in her mind. But Sadyr hoped that perhaps now Rasha would share a little more.

“Oh yes. For quite some time.” Rasha patted her hand and smiled a little. “There was a great and terrifying path ahead of me though, and I used the fear that those dreams created to push myself forward, to become better, stronger. And if you are fortunate enough to receive dreams, then you should respond to them accordingly. Become stronger. You are a warrior, lilka. Such a warrior. In a hundred years, the worlds will realize they have never seen your like. And your family will be there for you. Your uncle Naatos speaks very highly of your potential.”

The warmth of pride warmed the cool fear that had spread through Sadyr. She felt her cheeks burn a little. “Really?”

“Everyone knows you will be exceptional, darling. And we will give you every chance and every opportunity that we can. But there is one opportunity we can never give you. Only you can give it. And in the end, it is the one opportunity that matters.” Rasha cupped her hand beneath Sadyr’s chin. “I know this is no easy task. Truly. I promise you though that it is worth it. No for now does not mean no forever. And if you and this Machat boy are to be together, then you will be together when the time comes. Even if it takes a few centuries. And I swear to you that we will celebrate your union. All of us. Now.” She tapped Sadyr’s cheek and stood. “It is late, and you are young. You need sleep, and I have tasks that require tending.” She strode to the door and paused, her smile softening. “Good night, lilka.” She closed the door behind her.

Sadyr folded her knees up and clasped them to her chest, her chin resting on top of them. Her aunt’s words filled her with a whirlpool of contrasting emotions. On the one hand, the powerful energy and ambition that fueled her aunt’s words now flowed within her, brilliant and heady. Her aunt was intoxicating with mystery and power, and to be like her…that was more than she had ever hoped. But a sharper energy, painful and tragic, cut through that, speaking of how long she and Kepsalon would have to be apart. Kepsalon was sweet, a good friend, and the love of her life. She knew that to be true even if no one else thought she was really old enough to understand that. When she was with him, she was happy. Secure. Their future together was bright and pretty.

But there wasn’t really much of a choice in this matter. They had to wait. She had to become stronger. She had to become better. She was a warrior in the making and before she could make time for this love, she had to become that warrior and learn what she was capable of.

Episode 12: A New Understanding

Kepsalon strode down the mountain path slowly, grateful to now truly be alone but unable to put aside the weight that rested on his shoulders and heart. He had planned to run back to his home, two rooms carved into the side of a butte. Instead he simply walked.

He didn’t come here every night. Some nights, perhaps most nights now that he thought about it, he slept in his studio. A few he had even spent the night in WroOth and Mara’s home. Both had urged him to stay publicly, Sadyr suggesting it privately. But he had not been able to accept since their relationship had become more than mere attraction.

This little hovel was the home of his own father and mother, a place which they had long ago abandoned but which he had maintained as best he could. It sat nearly a mile and a half away from the temple itself, easy to miss unless one knew where to look. The one task he always enjoyed was returning to it and setting it right, especially if he had been away for a day or twelve. It was a good place in its own way. Good for thinking and being alone.

It sat in full view of the moon’s silver path. It would be easy to unlock and enter through the door. But tonight he just pulled the grass-painted shutter open and crawled through onto his rumpled cot. He hadn’t been home for five days, and the sheets and blanket were just as he had left them with the exception of the thin stranded webs now strung over his pillow. With a deliberate brush of his hand, he swept them away, then collapsed face first. The quiet seeped into him, soothing as warm water and healing as hot tea with honey and cinnamon. The constant chaos did wear on him. WroOth and Mara’s home was many things, but quiet was not one of them.

Maybe QueQoa was right. Not that Kepsalon wanted to admit that. As happy as he was to think of life with Sadyr and to spend time sneaking kisses, he was weary. Weary of the tension. The burden. The stress. The anxiety. He loved Sadyr but the heaviness inside his mind pressed hard on him. Maybe they could wait until they were older. Until they didn’t have to sneak. He cradled his head.

He wished he could be like Sadyr. So intensely carefree and intentional with her chaos. He rolled onto his side. A pad of paper and a chunk of graphite lay on the sanded tabletop. Drawing it closer, he began to sketch, slowly at first, trying to peer into his future.

His fingers moved over the page clumsily. The lack of color and brightness likewise increased the difficulty. There was no particular pleasure in this, especially not compared to what he had been experiencing when thinking about his future with Sadyr, a future which he feared was too happy and too perfect to exist. Unless he and she were truly exceptional.

A slow frown tightened over Kepsalon’s forehead. He stared down at the creamy paper and the dark lines that flowed from beneath his hand.

Sadyr was exceptional. She was the child of two loving parents with extraordinary skills and a future that was certain to be brilliant, barring some tragedy. But he…he was the child of two hateful and apathetic parents. No matter what happened, that did not change. His skills might be advanced well beyond his age, but that did not alter the burdens he carried and the pall that should have been present over his own future. More frighteningly, when was the last time he had received a prophecy or vision or foretelling of anything that wasn’t related to Sadyr?

It had been days.

Kepsalon swallowed as a painful knot formed in his throat and his chest tightened. He couldn’t remember when precisely. Even before that his work had tended toward being more self-indulgent except for a few snippets about the Neyeb woman and the strange light. WroOth had not chastised him. He only encouraged him to keep pursuing his happiness and taken steps to avoid his having to deal with the elders of the Machat council.
Kepsalon scrubbed his palm against his temples and then pushed the pad of paper away.

There was a reason Machat weren’t supposed to look into their own futures without great care and awareness. He didn’t need an elder to tell him that he had failed to take into account his own selfishness and his own desires. And he had barely even considered the seriousness of the matter.

Kepsalon flopped onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. The thoughts twisted through his mind, sharp and insightful, pointing out his failures and the hopes he had raised within Sadyr. He had not lied to her. What he shared was what he had seen. But he might as well have lied. He wanted to pray for Elonumato to erase them from her mind. If they were to have any future, they both had to—


Kepsalon started at Sadyr’s voice, bolting upright.

Sadyr peered in the window, her head outlined in moonlight. Before he could respond, she had pulled herself in and sat on the sill with her bare feet dangling on the edge of her bed. “Are you angry with me?”

“Angry with you? No!” Kepsalon scrambled forward. He peered over her shoulder abruptly, half-expecting to see QueQoa. “I—Sadyr, I have to tell you something—”

“Me too.” Sadyr held up her hands. The silver light glinted on her lavender gloves. She smiled, fluttering her fingers shyly. “Maybe it’s the same thing. I know I’ve pushed you a lot. And you want me to be happy. I want you to be happy too. And this is all happening very fast. I know that I love you and that you love me.”

Kepsalon found it hard to believe. He nodded. “I do.”

“I need a promise from you then,” Sadyr said.

“Anything.” Kepsalon knew that he meant that. Yes. Anything. Even if it meant giving up silence and peace, tradition and calm. Some small voice in his mind scolded him for his weakness, but the rest smothered it. He didn’t care.

“I’ve been thinking about what Daddy said. And I think he was right. Things were fine until I started having that dream. And every time I have it, it gets worse. I think that’s why I have felt so…upset. As if I have to prove I’m not a child. Because if I wasn’t a child, I could stop it from happening. But maybe it isn’t real. Maybe it doesn’t have to be real for me to take its message.”

Sadyr tugged on the finger of her gloves to straighten them. Then, somberly, she lifted her gaze to his. “You promised me you would keep looking to the future to see if Daddy turns into a skinchanger. You haven’t seen anything, right?”

“Nothing.” A true statement on so many levels, he thought ruefully.

“Then promise me again that you will let me know if you see anything and that you will not let him become a skinchanger.”

“I swear.” Kepsalon’s heart beat faster. It had only been a few hours, and already he missed the touch of her hand in his. He lowered his gaze back to the cracked windowsill. “I won’t let anything happen to your father.”

“Thank you.” Sadyr angled around, resting her back on the wall. She stared up into the sparkling night sky.

She was sad. More distant now. She mirrored Kepsalon’s own feelings. He climbed up on the broad windowsill as well, resting his back against the painted frame. The night thrushes trilled back and forth. Crickets chirped. The wind rustled down along the grass.

Kepsalon managed a weak smile but it faltered before he could do more than lift the corners of his mouth. “For a moment I thought you were going to ask me to promise to wait for you.”

Sadyr tucked her hand in his. A thrill of desire coursed through Kepsalon, tingling and ringing. “You already promised me that. And even if you hadn’t, I know that you would.”

Kepsalon nodded. “As long as it takes.”

“It’ll probably take a long time. I have to become what I am supposed to be. And maybe that is the other reason for the dream. To remind me that…that I have responsibilities to be the best that I can be.” She tilted her head back and sighed. “If anyone tried to hurt Mama or Daddy or Ephalon or Leslo or Kelchon, I’d want to kill them now. But I’m not strong enough yet. Soon I will be. I will be stronger than my aunt. Fiercer.” Her eyes glinted with excitement that pushed away the sadness. “I don’t want to wait to be with you, Kepsalon. But I know you’ll wait to be with me. So we will both become our fullest and save our love until we are older. Then I will lock with you, and you will pledge to me.”

It was so difficult to express the combination of relief and sadness which Kepsalon felt. He had no doubts though. QueQoa was right that they were very young. But he would never love anyone as he did Sadyr. “I pledge myself now, and I will wait for both of us to come of age.”

Sadyr tilted her head. Her long brown hair slipped down over her shoulders, framing her face. “As will I.” The smile brightened her face, reaching her eyes. She turned her face away to stare up at the sky, but her hand sought his for a quick squeeze. Then she folded her arms loosely, her hands resting on her knees.

Kepsalon’s pulse raced all the faster at her touch. But he let her draw her hand away and drew himself back against the wall as he stared up at the stars as well. It would be a long time, but it was good. And soon it would be even better.

The heaviness and release hung between them in the night sky. Strangely a peace as well. There was so much to say and yet nothing that needed to be said at all. But what needed to be understood was understood.

At last, Sadyr jumped out of the window. Her soft slippered feet made a dent in the thin grass below. She grinned up at Kepsalon, the left side of her mouth tweaking up. “See you soon, Kepsalon. It’s all going to be worth it.”
Kepsalon smiled a little, realizing he felt more sad than relieved at this moment. “Yeah, if we’re lucky we’ll make it.

Sadyr’s smile broadened. Abruptly, she bolted forward, grabbed him by the shoulder, and kissed him on the cheek.

Spiking tendrils of emotion and desire cut through Kepsalon, disorienting him for a moment as he swayed on the windowsill.

Sadyr pulled back and braced him against the wall. “I’m always lucky.” She winked at him, then giggled, and ran away.

Kepsalon stared after her, mouth hanging open and his hand thrust against his cheek. As she disappeared down the hillside and into the swaying silver-green grass, he closed his mouth and gave his cheek another rub. This was for the best. He prayed to Elonumato that the days would pass swiftly until he and Sadyr could indeed become viskaro and viskare. More importantly he prayed that all would be well for all of them.