“Don’t get any big ideas

They’re not gonna happen

 

You paint yourself white

And fill up with noise

But there’ll be something missing

 

Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone

Now that you feel it, you don’t

You’ve gone off the rails

 

So don’t get any big ideas

They’re not gonna happen

 

You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking”1

 

____________________________

 

The end of spring meant examinations, and Nyx had to rub the ink off her face from falling asleep on her notes. She’d had that dream again. The one with Taila and the honey soap in her bedroom. She shivered, the unreal memories flushing her body with a pulsing heat. If she had the time, she’d rinse herself clean both in body and in mind with some cold water. But as things stood, Nyx did not have the time, and if her guess was correct, she was, in fact, late.

 

Her hair was in a frizzy ponytail, one leg in her trousers as she searched frantically about the mess of her room for her book on Later History. It was still early morning, the sleepy teu-teu of the grosbeaks outside her window having just started. The fourteen-year-old muttered under her breath as she hopped about, trying to get her other foot in.

 

“On the 4th cycle of the lunar year 906, the Illuminari Pantaleon established trade routes with the halfling settlement, Règlem, creating a new era of agricultural development and…” she trailed off, her tongue finding its way to her cheek as she spied the familiar corner of a mauve book cover beneath a pile of scrolls on the floor.  “There you are!” Pulling on her pants, Nyx went and plucked the book up.

 

Blowing at her bangs, she tossed the text onto her bed and removed her nightshirt.

 

A male voice made an appreciative sound from the doorway, and the girl jumped, her hands bundling her shirt to her chest as she turned to look.

 

She only caught sight of a shadow being pushed down the hallway by her mother.

 

Fotini hissed at the stranger, her face pink.  “Get out!

 

Nyx turned her eyes to the ground, her heart hammering against her chest.  She listened and heard the front door slam shut.  Silence rang for a long drawn out moment before her mother slipped past the beaded curtain of her bedroom doorway. It was times like these that the teenager wondered why Ailurans couldn’t take a leaf out of every other cultures book, and just build doors.

 

“I’m sorry, Nyx.  I…didn’t think you would be awake yet,” Fotini said, her eyes also downturned.

 

The teenager glanced at her, before returning her eyes to the floor.  “I was going to meet Ampelos for an early study session before class.”  She bit her lip, debating her next question. With shoulders hunched, Nyx asked, “Atalo didn’t see, right?”

 

Fotini’s silence felt almost frosty.  The girl swallowed hard as she forced her eyes onto her mother’s face.  Quietly, she said next, “A-ma…why don’t you just choose one?”

 

Something indescribable passed the older woman’s face.  Fotini was still a beautiful woman, but the touches of age were beginning to show in the silver lines of her thick and curly hair. The woman’s eyes batted, lines appearing around them as her brow tensed, then eased.

 

“You’ll be out late again tonight, yes? I’ll have a stew ready for when you’re home,” the woman said.

 

Nyx scowled at her mother’s sidestepping, but simply nodded. “Please make sure that Atalo takes his tonic for the night. That cold still hasn’t left him entirely, and he’s too stubborn to do what he needs to.”

 

“I will, do not worry my little night shard.” Her mother smiled thinly and stepped forward, kissing her daughter’s forehead. “You should hurry, Nyx,” Fotini murmured.  She turned and left the room, the beaded curtain tinkling in her wake. “Don’t keep Ampelos waiting.  He’s such a nice boy.”

 

____________________________

 

The girl walked slowly through her village, her eyes roving over her surroundings.  The daikuts were still dark and quiet, but the village paths were beginning to show signs of life as merchants and craftsmen rose early to prepare for the day.  The sky was a soft rosy blend of hazy white calamine and passionate damask.  The dark mountains guarded the northern skyline as the suns’ rays began to spear up over the forested western lands.  The days had been getting chillier, but that particular morning saw no wind, and the air was cool at best.

 

As such, Nyx felt overdressed in her winter smock. She tugged at the furry collar, the soft deer suede gentle beneath her sweaty fingertips. She felt like she were roasting. She paused in her walk to set down her bag of school materials and to strip the item off. Her cheeks blazed as the act reminded her of her earlier state of undress, and the stranger that had peeped in on her. It hadn’t been the first time that had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.

 

The girl had always been aware of her mother’s proclivities, but it only seemed to reach her when their home served as the stage. Somehow, those acts of indulgence were things apart from their family.  Apart from her mother.  And yet, the skulking partners seen during the wee hours of the day illuminated a connection that was more disturbing each time she witnessed it.

 

“Sweet Aelurus…it doesn’t feel right!” Nyx thought with a shudder. “Why can’t she just choose a suitor, like Thaddeus says?  Why does she have to keep doing this to us?”

 

The girl stuffed her smock into her bag and resumed her walk at a quicker pace. As she left the village outskirts to the western hills, she caught the scent of incense and roasted almonds long before spying Ampelos sitting atop one particularly grassy knoll. He was leaning back on his hands, his face upturned towards the sky with his eyes closed. Nyx stopped just short of him, feeling her tension mount for reasons inexplicable. One hand gripped her bag strap whilst the other wadded the front of her shirt.

 

She swallowed when Ampelos’s honey-colored eyes opened and turned her way. He must have caught her scent somehow, because she hadn’t made a sound. For some reason, he was always able to sense her presence—an ability that irked her to no end during their childhood games of hide and seek.

 

The teenage boy smiled at her before he looked down at his lap. “Nyx!” He brushed back his curly hair as he reached for his book on Later History. “I thought you’d given up on me.”

 

“That’s funny, because I still can’t believe you haven’t given up on me,” Nyx returned, a nervous smile on her face. She was only half-joking. Ampelos was a priest-in-training. Over the years it was discovered that, while Nyx was very well-read in secular knowledge, her religious knowledge was rudimentary at best. And so, the boy had taken it upon himself to help Nyx gain a more rounded understanding of their faith—beyond what the politicians used for their distortions.

 

Ampelos was a generous person, if quiet and a bit shy. Seven years of familiarity made discourse much easier between them, but even after so much time, the boy still found it hard to look into her face for too long. He had a brilliant mind, regardless, and his affectations seemed to be the very portrait of piety. Nyx couldn’t help but feel uncouth or roguish in his presence, as though there were some sin she couldn’t wash out from her skin. Having seen her mother’s most recent indiscretion, the feeling was intensified.

 

When Nyx didn’t move to sit next to him, Ampelos looked up at her, his brows knitting.  “Nyx? Is something the matter?”

 

At his genuine concern, the girl felt some of her tension ease a bit and took a seat next to her friend.  “No, no. Sorry. I just…had an awkward start today.”

 

“Want to talk about it?”

 

Her response was quick to chase his. “Not really.”

 

Ampelos gave a nod of his head, his smile gentle. His eyes searched her face for that small second before they predictably turned away.  “So…Pantaleon?”

 

Nyx took out her textbook and opened it to the dog-eared page. “He was a member of the Illuminari in 906, during the age of the Sorels and Felix the Great.  He established trade routes with Règlem, and helped birth what became known in Old Ailuran as Zvéri Kenthas—which is…?” she trailed off pointedly.

 

Ampelos blushed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh. Uh… Zvéri Kenthas was the agricultural revolution that saw us through the next ten years of famine. The halflings introduced us to old elven techniques, which we adapted for our purposes. Right?”

 

“Right. But here’s the thing…if we hadn’t had made that diplomatic connection, what do you think would have happened?”

 

“We would have died as a society.”

 

Nyx smiled. “You think?”

 

Ampelos blinked at her. “Uh…yes?”

 

The girl giggled and pointed at the third paragraph of her book.  The boy found the same place in his copy, and she began to read.  “’Though the Ailuran Nation gained new skills in agricultural, their dependency on the halfling cartels increased to such an alarming degree, that leaders were faced with either meeting their demands, or finding themselves deprived of the very tools and resources needed to implement the new agricultural practices that kept their people fed.’”

 

“And then there were the dwarven riots,” Ampelos said, his eyes brightening.

 

Nyx gave a nod. “You see, there isn’t anything wrong with trying to reach out to other societies. The mistakes made in the wake of Pantaleon’s excellent discourse was that his fellows allowed for a situation in which the Ailuran Nation became politically weakened, and tied to dangerous conflict. The agricultural methods the halflings showed us required many things only they could provide, so we became reliant on their trade. When the riots broke out, our livelihood was threatened, and we had to send soldiers in to assist the halfling cartels in suppressing the dwarves in their settlements. And sweet Aelurus, if you think the Fiamman ginger weeds are bad, you should’ve seen the dwarves! Many of them were hardened warriors and skilled crafters, and their weaponry made them a dangerous force to reckon with. A lot of our soldiers died.

 

“Now, most people will argue that we had no choice, and no one’s arguing that our eventual survival wasn’t a good thing, but I think–and don’t put this down as an answer in the exam, or Leander will mark you down–I think it would’ve been safer for our nation to stick to our own methods of survival. We have our own practices for surviving famine, ancient practices that may have been harder on our people—but I think you and I both agree toughness was never an issue for our nation. Agricultural leaders in 906 forsook tried and true methods for expediency and wealth. That’s the point everyone revolves around. Lots of hypotheticals get thrown back and forth, and it gets really confusing. I don’t think there is any one right answer.

 

“You see, interaction between cultures has been historically shown to lead to an increased chance of exchanged ideas, and even sometimes a joining of traditions, like for instance, how we now celebrate the end of Spring with seven days of revelry each year. That’s a practice with elven roots, called Printemps. But it’s important to see that it is a conscious choice by society to accept those kinds of ideas and customs, whenever or wherever they may come from.”

 

“So what is there to learn?” Ampelos wondered, his eyes on his book.

 

The girl quirked an eyebrow at him. “Pardon?”

 

He looked at her, startled.  “Huh? Oh! I was talking to myself, sorry. I…I mean…well, isn’t this what history is for? To teach us about the present and what the future can hold? This sounds like Leander’s attempt at asserting Ailuran superiority again. So what’s the lesson?”

 

Nyx offered a bemused smile. “Amp, the lesson here is easy. When dealing with others, one has to walk the fine line between being taken advantage of, or missing out on good things. The power comes in realizing there’s a choice, and in so choosing, one commits themselves to a path they are a lot more likely to succeed by.”

 

“So did Pantaleon make the right choice?”

 

“Yes, I think so. It was the other leaders who allowed themselves to be misled. But if the trade routes hadn’t been established? I think we still would have survived, despite the harsh conditions. Just remember to make that point when asked, and you’ll get full marks. Throw in some Ailuran patriotism, and Leander will probably just pass you.” At this, the girl rolled her eyes.

 

Ampelos chuckled. “Thanks Nyx.” He gestured at her bag.  “You look like you have more than usual today! Were you going to see Taila after our examinations?”

 

Nyx grinned shyly and patted her bag. “Well I brought my smock today, so that’s why it’s so big, but yes. I was planning on seeing Taila after. Will you be joining me?”

 

“No. I have special training at the temple, and Urian wants me there as early as possible.”

 

“Darn. Well, I’ll tell her you said hello, then.”

 

Ampelos’s smile waned and he fingered the corners of his book. “Gods…It’s still weird, not having her around all the time. I hardly get to see her at all these days.”

 

To this the girl said nothing, her eyes turning down to the book in her lap. Scribbled in the margins were special notes for Taila. The girl’s friend had ended her schooling to take up her family business after her mother became seriously ill. Taila’s father was aging, and he couldn’t take on all the work himself. So she worked every day, from sun up to sun down, and had been for nearly a year. Nyx had started tutoring the older girl when her lessons began to cover material she had missed out on, which had been for four months now.

 

“What you’re doing is a good thing,” Ampelos said suddenly.

 

Nyx looked at him, her eyes wide. “Huh?”

 

He looked at her, an almost sad smile on his face. “For Taila. Helping her with her work and tutoring her.” He looked away. “It’s the kind of care I wish I could show someone I love, if only my priest duties didn’t keep me so busy. I like serving Aelurus, but I like caring for others just as much.”

 

The girl’s face blazed red. Clearing her throat, she turned the page. “Let’s keep at it, Amp. We don’t have much time left before class starts.”

 

____________________________

 

Examinations were done, and Nyx breathed a sigh of relief. As was often the case, she had overestimated the difficulty of the test, and the only challenge she faced was in finding a way to word her answers so that Leander wouldn’t think she was feeding him lines. Which she often was. After being singled out for so many years, the girl decided it was wiser to keep her true opinions to herself regarding the propaganda and skewed history, and just play along.  With the fervor over the Fiamman war, her opinions would even be lethal, in some cases. Leander already did his best to find excuses to punish her, she didn’t want to add oil to the fire.

 

Dashing out of the classroom and away from her navi’s contemptible gaze, she gave Ampelos a parting wave before hurriedly speeding through the arched hallways to the wide brick stoop of the erduk, the village place for learning. She was about to descend the stairs when someone bumped into her harshly, nearly making her tumble headlong down the steps. Her fists clenched. The stoop wasn’t crowded. That had been purposeful.

 

She turned to the offender, her eyes glaring. “Hey!”

 

She immediately regretted looking, for who turned to her was none other than Killen, Leander’s nephew, who just so happened to hate her as much as their navi did, if not more. The boy’s hazelnut eyes fixed on her tightened face, and he just smirked, his gaze searing beneath the wisps of his dark bangs. The girl was seized with bewilderment—never had he looked at her in such a fashion before. It was always glares and snarls and cruel amusement. This was so much more…reserved. Without so much as an insult, the boy turned and continued on his way, toward his hollering fellows.

 

Nyx stared after him, something cold flashing along her skin as she watched her longtime nemesis saunter away.  He was a year older than she was—still younger than Taila, but already growing into the stature of a proud Ailuran male. Her stomach beginning to ache, the girl set her bag down and shakily sought her smock.

 

“Nyx?”

 

The girl paused to turn and see Ampelos standing in the entryway of the erduk, his face once again donning a look of concern. “Weren’t you going to Taila’s? I thought you’d be halfway there by now?”

 

“Oh, well I just caught a chill and was looking for my…uh…smock. It was buried beneath my books. Pretty deep,” the girl said this with a weak smile as she tugged out the item in question.

 

“Oh.”

 

Nyx shouldered the bag, the smock gripped in her other hand. She started sidestepping down the stairs. “I’ll see you later, Amp.”

 

The boy nodded, his concern failing to fade away completely. “I…Goodbye, Nyx.”

 

The girl turned, and with a quick gait, she set off down the village path to Taila’s. She pulled her shoulder strap over her head, so that it crossed her chest, and struggled into her smock. The three suns were now nearing the dusky westward heights that would usher in the night. At this point in the day, Taila and her father should have been baking honey bar soaps to sell on market day.

 

Sure enough, when Nyx came upon her friend’s home, the chimney was trailing with smoke, and she caught that unmistakable sweet scent. Feeling some of her anxieties fall away, the teenager came up to the daikut and knocked on the door. The house was not in the best of shape—its roof needed mending and the stone foundation could have used with reinforcing. Inside were similar stories—of needed repairs and the funds that lacked to achieve them.

 

But when Taila opened the door, Nyx knew these were not the things weighing on her friend’s mind.

 

Taila was fifteen years old and already the very image of a woman. She had full supple breasts, rich tender thighs, and a confident air about her that failed to fade even in the face of real threats. Her amethyst eyes, even now as they held consternation, were large and captivating. In a way much like Ampelos was with her, Nyx found it hard to look into Taila’s eyes for too long. She chose to ignore the implications of that relation.

 

The older girl bopped her on the head.  “Cajeck! Didn’t I tell you could just walk in?”

 

Nyx winced and blushed, rubbing the spot that Taila had given her a thump. It hadn’t hurt, but she felt chided all the same. “Sorry, I just didn’t want to intrude, in case–”

 

“Nyx, from now on, walk in.”

 

“…O-Okay.”

 

“You’re always welcome, and to be frank, it’d be less of a pain if we didn’t come running to the door every time you were here. You come almost every day anyhow. Do you see where I’m coming from? My A-pa says you’re practically a part of this family, so we don’t have to be so formal, y’know?”

 

“Yes. Sorry.”

 

Taila placed her hands on her hips as she gave a slow shake of her head. Nyx’s shoulders hunched around her ears and she stood clutching the bulge beneath her smock that was her bag. Then the older girl grinned.

 

“Geez, Nyx. What am I going to do with you?” She placed a hand at the back of the girl’s neck, pulling her in.

 

Nyx’s breath hitched, feeling that vulnerable place of passivity enter her in a ghostly wave before the contact ended and she heard the door shut behind them. They stood in the small dining room kitchen, simply furnished, the sweet fragrant smell even stronger here than outside. Dried herbs of all sorts hung from the ceiling, creating an almost wild, foresty feel to the space. Taila’s father, Terus, a tall man with eyes an even richer hue than his daughter’s, stood at the table reading over a ledger. He looked up at Nyx and smiled good naturedly. Exhaustion wrinkled about his eyes.

 

“Hello, Nyx. I see my daughter’s put you straight.”

 

The girl burned red and ducked her head. “Y-Yes sir.”

 

“We’ve some biscuits if you’d like some. They’re in the basket over there on the counter.”

 

“I’d love some, thank you sir.”

 

“A-pa, are you okay with the last batch?” Taila asked her father, as Nyx fetched a roll from the basket. She bit into it and tried not to grimace. They were like rocks.

 

“No, you go on, Taila. I was just trying to finish these records before the week’s end.”

 

She gave a nod, and looked to Nyx in turn. As her eyes fell on the half-eaten biscuit, her lips quirked up, and she gestured for the younger girl to follow. Together, they entered the small hallway, where on the left was an open entry way—Taila’s room—and the left, a curtain-closed entryway—her parent’s.  Nyx was careful not to make a sound, lest she disturb Taila’s mother, Jezah, who was no doubt sleeping by this time.

 

Upon entering her friend’s bedroom, the smell of fragrant honey lessened, a musky scent nearly overtaking it. There was a kickball in the corner—dusty now—and a rack of slim gaudily painted clubs for a game called tuetri on the right wall. Clothes were strewn everywhere, the bed unmade, and there was even an old ink spill on the small writing desk next to the bed, the inkpot still having yet to have been turned right side up. Taila cleared her throat, hurriedly trying to pick up some of the clothes on the floor. “Er–Sorry. I didn’t think it was this bad. I had meant to clean up earlier, but—”

 

“It isn’t so bad,” Nyx said earnestly. “You should see my room.”

 

“Maybe later.” Taila deposited her gathered clothes into a small wicker basket near the door, where they spilled over the edges like water would an over-filled bucket. She fixed her eyes on Nyx, her eyebrow quirked. “How’s your biscuit?” Her eyes shined with knowing.

 

Nyx narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You baked these, didn’t you?”

 

Her friend just giggled and said, “So what are we studying today?”

 

Nyx pursed her lips and shoved her biscuit into her smock’s left pocket, then sat on the bed while Taila sat in her desk chair. The younger girl pulled out her book on Later History. “I just took an exam on this, so I figured we could go over some of it while it’s still fresh in my mind.”

 

Taila wrinkled her nose. “Later History?”

 

“You haven’t studied this yet, right?”

 

“No. I quit lessons way before my navi got there. I think the last thing we covered was…” and here the girl trailed off, her eyes rolling to the ceiling and her head tilting back with a sigh.

 

Nyx’s eyes flickered to her exposed neck, long and tanned and slender…

 

Taila’s head snapped up, making the younger girl jump. “The Heretic Rebellion! Yeah, that was it.”

 

“Sweet Aelurus, really?” Nyx palmed her face. “Taila you should’ve said so! I only focused on language arts so long so that you could get all the advanced rules down!”

 

“Nyx, Later History doesn’t necessarily paint itself out as vital knowledge for me right now.”

 

At this, the younger girl’s face softened.  She looked away. “You’re right.  I’m sorry.”  She bit her lip and glanced up shyly. “How’ve…things been lately?”

 

Taila shrugged one shoulder, her face going blank. “Fine. A-pa and I have been keeping up with the care of the bees pretty good. A-ma’s been doing well. Her fever’s been down, she’s breathing okay, and the thrush seems to have left her tongue. Her skin is even clear of breakouts.” The fifteen-year-old picked her pant leg, where a trail of honey had dried onto the fabric. “So we’re fine.”

 

Nyx nodded, fingering the corners of her book.

 

With a pop, Taila stood and sat next to her, her amethyst eyes bright and intent. “To hell with studying for right now! I’ve been working all day. I just want to hear about how you and Amp have been. Go on, tell me!” the older girl tickled Nyx’s side, eliciting a laugh from her friend.

 

Nyx clapped a hand on her mouth, her eyes wide as she looked toward the doorway. Taila looked too, her eyebrows high. When nothing came of the small disruption, the friends shared a silent giggle.

 

“Well,” Nyx started, grabbing her knees. “Ampelos says hello, first of all. His priest training has been taking up more of his time, so I don’t see him as much as I used to. He even misses erduk some days. Oh, did I mention to you? I study with him in the early mornings when we can. So you’re not the only one.”

 

“I bet he loves that,” Taila said with a smirk.

 

Nyx blushed, not for her friend’s meaning, but for the alluring tilt of her lips.

 

The fourteen-year-old cleared her throat and went on in a mumble. “Atalo’s fine. As fine as that flea-brain could ever be.” Nyx grinned at the floor. “You know he ate a cup of earth worms on a dare last week?”

 

“Disgusting! What the hell for?”

 

“He was trying to impress a girl. Hemalia.”

 

“Diphene’s daughter? Ugh, but she’s such a narcissist! She’d probably marry herself if she could! Can you imagine her trying to service herself? It’d be like one of those Santian paintings, searching for the deeper meaning of self-buggery.” Taila only knew about Santian paintings because Nyx had shared some of her father’s outside books in some of their study sessions.

 

She shoved at Taila’s shoulder. “What a thing to say!”

 

“Oh I can say more, believe me!” The fifteen-year-old chuckled deeply. “So did Atalo’s ploy work? Is the lovely Hemalia all his?”

 

Nyx rolled her eyes. “Apparently he’s taking her to Ebon Lake this weekend.”

 

“The stupid thing was, he got sick from it! I’m half-expecting his mouth to mutate into a giant worm!”

 

“Oh Aelurus bite me, I can just see how they’re first kiss would work out. ‘Oh darling, you can bait my salmon any day!”

 

Nyx feigned horror as Taila snorted, her hand clapping over her nose and mouth. She tried to stifle her laughter and was clearly failing. The younger girl grinned as her friend threw herself back onto the bed. Setting her book aside, she turned her body so that she was leaning further back onto the mattress, one hand planted, one leg tucked beneath her, the other arm draped lazily along her side.

 

Her eyes trailed to Taila’s chest, jumping and quivering with her humor.

 

When the older girl calmed herself down enough to speak, she chortled out, “Gods, what do you think makes people choose the lovers they do?”

 

Nyx’s smile waned as her eyes traced Taila’s features, so lovely and even that she felt abstract and monstrous in comparison. Her mind flashed with images of her recent dream—of wet skin, joined lips, and searching hands. Then her mother’s face popped into the girl’s head, and Nyx shut her eyes with a hiss. Her friend blinked up at her, her smile also fading.

 

“Nyx? What’s up?”

 

The fourteen-year-old turned away, her shoulders sagging. “She did it again, Taila.”

 

The silence that followed seemed to drag on for too long. Then Taila sat up and hugged her from the side. Nuzzling her friend’s ear, she asked quietly, “It’s okay, Nyx. Tell me.”

 

Nyx swallowed, staring up at the ceiling. “I was getting ready to see Ampelos really early this morning. I took off my shirt, and I heard a man’s voice from the hallway. When I turned to look, my mother was shoving someone toward the door. She apologized after, but when I asked why she couldn’t just choose someone she just…” the girl trailed off, her head dropping to her chest.

 

Taila stroked her hair and said nothing.

 

Nyx closed her eyes and tears dropped to her lap. “It’s normal, it’s natural for us to seek a new partner when one leaves us. Even Thaddeus has given up on our A-pa ever coming home. How can she bring so much shame to our home? She isn’t courting, she’s just—sweet Aelurus! There’s just no end to it! I wish she’d at least do it elsewhere, so that Atalo doesn’t have to see it.”

 

“And me either,” the girl added inwardly.

 

Taila’s hand stilled on her hair. “But you’ve seen it, Nyx. You’ve seen more than most could even understand at such a young age, and you haven’t turned into some sort of hedonist.”

 

The girl winced, feeling her stomach turn. “I wish I hadn’t told you those things.” She meant every word.

 

Her friend grabbed her chin, forcing her eyes onto hers. Nyx could feel Taila’s warm breath on her lips. “I’m glad you did. If you hadn’t, you’d be sitting on all of this without anybody to talk to, just letting it all eat at you. And then where would you be?”

 

“Not lying. To you. To me.”

 

Nyx swallowed and said, “I just…I don’t want Atalo to know those things.”

 

“He will someday. And whose to say he hasn’t already?”

 

“He’s eleven. If he must find his way to it, than I’d like it to be in a…healthier way than I.”

 

Taila sat back, her eyes blinking. “Than…You mean you’ve…” she made a vague gesture in the air.

 

“No!” Nyx shook her head frantically, her face flushing red. “No, of course not!”

 

Her friend just smirked at her. “Nyx, it’s fine if you have. Sweet Aelurus, I have.”

 

Nyx felt her chest pull, a sudden deafening roar entering her ears. She stared at Taila, her features going slack, her eyes burning, as she tried to reconcile the information that hit her ears. Her rational mind knew she was being unreasonable. But another part of her felt like screaming, just the same.

 

“With who?” She heard herself ask.

 

Taila shook her head, turning her face with a shy smile.

 

Nyx felt her muscles clench and her bones began to ache. She, the animal inside her, was stirring with her turmoil. The girl swallowed and gave a shake of her head, trying to calm herself with deep, quiet breaths. She was being stupid. Taila was not hers and never would be. Even considering how close they were, it was silly to expect her friend to come running to her with news of her first lay. Virginity was not a hated trait, but not a prized one, either, and the loss of it was nothing exceptional.

 

The girl started talking, her eyes on the floor. “I didn’t know what I was seeing as a child. I’ll be out of erduk soon, free to support my family, and all I can think is that I’ve got to do all that I can for them. That includes making sure Atalo is raised right.

 

Taila pinched her friend’s cheek with a frown. “Have you got fleas in your brain? You’re talking like you’re so old!

 

“I feel old…” Nyx muttered with a frown. She took Taila’s hand from her cheek. She held it, unable to help running her thumb along her friend’s palm—the skin was dry. Rough. Her nose flared and she picked up that signature honey scent that she would forever attribute to her friend.

 

“Nyx, I know you love your family, but our situations are different. You’re talking as though you’ll be through with erduk in a few months, but you’ve got at least two more years. Forget taking on a side job, either. I think you should stick to your lessons. Thaddeus is taking care of your needs, isn’t he? Trust your brother!”

 

“But we only get to see him once a year. What ELSE am I supposed to do when my mother brings her army of suitors through our home? They eat what we have, are a bad influence on my brother, and soil our honor as a family!”

 

“Right,” she said instead, feeling the rift of misunderstanding as acutely as she felt her friend’s hand in hers.

 

Nyx consciously let go, and opened up her book on Later History.

 

“Let’s get to this before we’re both nodding to sleep in our seats,” she said with somber eyes.

 

____________________________

 

Upon arriving home, Nyx found the stew her mother had promised, and served herself the last remaining portions before eating it cold. When she was done, she cleaned up and checked Atalo’s tonic bottle. She found with satisfaction that the amount was less than when she had check it the day before. Taking a piece of charcoal from the counter, she notched another mark along the glass.

 

Her family was asleep, as it was quite late, so Nyx slipped into her room and stripped off her clothes. She was exhausted, her movements sluggish and dazed. She and Taila had succeeded in their studies, though the girl sensed it best to leave off on Later History and focus on Arithmetic, which her friend was doubtless to find much more useful.

 

Sitting in the corner next to her desk was her pitcher and wash basin. Sitting in the basin was a honey bar soap, a gift from Taila. Standing naked, the girl took up the bar and pressed it to her nose, breathing deeply. Her eyes rolled shut, her nipples hardening as a growing warmth in her body challenged the cold of her room. Taking up the pitcher, she poured out some water and crouched down. She splashed herself in places, shivering at the frigid water. Lathering her hands with the soap, she began to bathe, letting the soap glide over her skin.

 

Her eyes closed, her mind wandering inevitably to that torturous dream, where Taila’s hands cleansed her body without hesitation, massaging her breasts, squeezing her thighs, trailing up her back, touching that place between her legs that so pulsed with need…

 

Nyx came, hardly aware of what was happening. She knelt, her soapy hand between her legs, her eyes fluttering as the waves of pleasure and the head rush she felt both sobered her and exhilarated her.  Then she removed her hand and stared at it, as though it were a thing—alien and grotesque to her. The teenager’s eyes clouded with tears, and she tried to swallow down the lump in her throat.

 

When she was done crying, it took longer to rinse the soap off because it had dried onto her skin.

 

____________________________

 

The next week passed with little event. Atalo overcame his cold, and it even seemed he had succeeded in wooing the young Hemalia as his sweetheart. Her mother had not seen any suitors, or at least, none that Nyx had witnessed, and the household felt content. In just another month, Thaddeus would be returning to them, and Nyx would get to talk to him about her intention of finding a job outside of her studies. Ampelos was quite busy that week, but the girl managed to meet with him a few times for study sessions.  Taila reported no change in her mother, and she and her father seemed to be handling the workload of the beekeeping just fine. Nyx came to help them on market day with Atalo, and though their sales were only just acceptable, Taila’s father was optimistic that next week’s visit from the halfling merchants would yield more gold.

 

On the last day of the weekend, Nyx was prepping for dinner when her mother came in from gardening outside, her face flushed and a dreamy smile on her lips.  Her daughter paused in her chopping of mustard greens to quirk an eyebrow at her.

 

“A-ma? How are the radishes? Are they ready to harvest yet?”

 

Fotini looked at Nyx, blinking. “No. Not yet.” She took off the white handkerchief on her head, her dirty gloves wringing it as she sat at the table.  She stared into space, oblivious to the fact that she was sullying the clean fabric.

 

At this, Nyx abandoned her task for the moment and sat with her mother at the table. She reached over and grabbed a gloved hand. “A-ma? What’s wrong?”

 

The woman just laughed in response, her eyes focusing on the teenager’s face. “Nothing! Everything is wonderful!”  She gave a little sigh. “I just…Nyx, have you been with a boy, yet?”

 

Nyx pulled back, her face burning at her mother’s lack of tact. “N-No. I haven’t.” She stood quickly and returned to her mustard greens, the knife gripped in her hand tightly.

 

“What about a girl then? At least once?”

 

The girl winced, her shoulders coming up around her ears. “A-ma, please don’t.”

 

“Well it’s all right if you have! I’ve done it once or twice—“

 

STOP it!” Nyx slammed the knife down onto the cutting board.  She turned and glared at her mother. “You never wanted to talk to me about these things before, so why now? What’s gotten into you all of a sudden!?”

 

Fotini flushed pink and looked down at the table. “I’ve just been thinking. You’re right.  I haven’t talked to you about these things, and I should have. I suppose, I just assumed, giving your hunger for reading, that maybe you would have…” the woman let out a rough sigh. “No. That’s a lie. I didn’t want to talk to you about these things. That’s all. I haven’t the slightest idea what to do about Atalo, either.”

 

“He’s only eleven. I think you’ve got a few more years before amorousness becomes a real concern,” Nyx said harshly. “Unless unrestraint runs through the family…” she muttered next.

 

Her mother rose to her feet, her pink face turning a blotchy red. “Little night shard, I may be getting older, but do no think I cannot thrash you when foolishness takes you!”

 

Nyx felt herself seize, her ears aching with the memory of her mother’s wrathful pinch. But she was not a child anymore. Swallowing, the girl settled for ducking her gaze, but went on to say, “A-ma, I love you, but I don’t love some of the things you do. I’m not so young that I don’t know what it all means now.”

 

“And what does it mean?” Fotini challenged heatedly, stepping closer. “What does it mean but that your mother is a lonely woman seeking some respite from our struggles?”

 

“Our struggles come when your suitors eat and drink our money! When they laugh and take their jollies from you without any commitment, casting us further down into shame!” Nyx snapped back.

 

Fotini backhanded her.

 

The blow was hard, and the girl was sent back into the counter, her head snapping fully to the side. Her eyes batted, her mouth open as her cheek stung and throbbed.

 

“What’s going on?”

 

Fotini and Nyx turned to see Atalo staring from the hallway, shirtless and barefoot. Both women seemed too startled and ashamed to speak. Then Nyx turned and resumed chopping the mustard greens with great zeal, her teeth bared. “Nothing. Go get dressed, Atalo. We’re seeing Taila again today.”

 

She heard her brother give an excited whoop before the sound of his bare feet echoed back to her.

 

“Nyx…I–”

 

“Mother, can you please start skinning the potatoes? Dinner will be ready twice as fast with your help.” Nyx just managed to keep the irony out of her voice at her last words.

 

There was a long pause.

 

“Yes, all right,” Fotini said with a heavy sigh.

 

____________________________

 

“Are you mad at her?”

 

Nyx looked at Taila as they strolled to Ebon Lake, towels over their shoulders and their feet bare. After market day, Terus allowed his daughter one afternoon of rest, and they both decided to celebrate with a swim.

 

“Yes,” Nyx said in response. “…No. I don’t know. I think I understand, kind of. What my A-ma is going through, I mean.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

The girl smiled humorlessly as she watched Atalo running through the trees up ahead. “She’s lonely.”

 

“Lonely? But she’s going through so many—” the fifteen-year-old cut off with a cough and turned her face. “Sorry. I shouldn’t comment. I guess I just don’t understand.”

 

Nyx looked at her sideways. “No,” she agreed. “It’s okay. I guess you wouldn’t.”

 

Taila gave her a sharp look. “Oh don’t put it like that! You make it sound as if I don’t know what it means to be unhappy!”

 

The younger girl opened her mouth, her cheeks tinging pink, before she snapped it shut. She took a moment to breathe in deeply, then muttered, “Well, now we’ve both stuck our foots in it.” Her face softened. “I’m sorry.”

 

Her friend sighed and took her hand. “I’m sorry, too.” She traced her thumb over Nyx’s knuckles, making the girl’s heartbeat quicken.

 

“Hey you two!” Atalo shouted up ahead. Both girls looked to him, and he beat his bare chest. “I’ll race you to the water!”

 

Taila laughed, taking off after the boy. “You’ll regret those words, lil’ flea!”

 

Nyx smiled as she watched her friend chase after her brother, then she followed. The rest of the day was pleasant. Atalo decided to cover himself in mud to look like a monster, and his sister, annoyed, wrestled him into the water to clean it off. Taila came to his rescue by tackling Nyx into the lake. Beneath the surface, they spun around each other, the water erupting in bubbles, and Nyx knew the secret joy of feeling the other girl’s firm body against hers. They had berries from the forest and bread Nyx had baked the night before for lunch. They exchanged funny stories and had swimming races around the lake. Then it was time for home.

 

Nyx and Atalo said goodbye to Taila along the village path and returned home. As they approached their daikut however, the teenager immediately noticed that something was wrong. It was dark inside. A-ma hadn’t mentioned leaving for any reason that night.

 

“Stay here,” Nyx ordered her brother firmly.

 

“Huh?” he squinted at her, but she was already up the path to their home, her feet ascending the steps until she found herself staring into the grain of the front door. She put her ear to it, squinting. She couldn’t hear anything.

 

The girl closed her eyes and took a breath. Quietly she opened the door and slipped inside, glancing back only briefly to make sure that Atalo was following her instructions. He hadn’t moved. Once inside, she shut the door behind her and strained her ears again.

 

And then she heard it.

 

The labored breathing.

 

That small squeak of the bed.

 

She stood frozen, staring down into the dark mouth of the hallway as though it were a beast waiting to swallow her. She thought to turn and leave. Knew that was perhaps best. But a cold memory, distant and fuzzy, perhaps because of her conscious neglect of it, returned to her.

 

She recalled her mother in the forest, for once sitting atop her partner. Her generous breasts had been free in the air, her hair loose about her alabaster shoulders. And the look on her face—such release! Such ecstasy! That had been the last time Nyx had seen her mother in such a fashion. She was ten years old. A snapped twig beneath her little foot had ended the magic, and her mother reacted as one angry…and ashamed.

 

It was this experience, coupled with Ampelos’s spiritual guidance, that the girl began to see her mother’s behavior for what it was.

 

Unhealthy. Excessive. Grotesquely selfish.

 

But that look—the one Fotini wore on her face as she moved her body against her male partner—it was like a hook in Nyx’s mouth, breathing a little objection to the call for piety. Did her mother have it on her face now? Was she on top, in control, well aware of the pleasure as much as the pain she was causing?

 

Nyx entered the cool dark of the hallway, and the sounds became clearer. She tried to swallow, but found her mouth dry. Her body shook, a betraying wetness present between her legs. Slowly, she peered into the room.

 

A man she couldn’t recognize right away was thrusting into Fotini, who was on her stomach with her hips raised. He was young, judging by his physique, and he was much more aggressive than any of the partners Nyx had seen her mother with in the past. The teenager recognized a need to cry as she saw the stranger shove her mother’s pretty face into the mattress, but the tears didn’t come. She could hardly breathe even. She just stared, her stomach turning angrily in her stomach.

 

Then it happened. The man looked back. He must have caught her scent. And Nyx saw who it was.

 

“Killen…” she said, feeling the nausea come up.

 

Fotini twisted around, effectively moving him off her. Her eyes were wide and her body flushing pink as she locked eyes with Nyx. “Gods! Nyx, I didn’t—I didn’t think you’d—”

 

“So this is what got into you earlier,” Nyx hissed, trembling. The tears started to come easily now.

 

“Well, actually, I was in your mother right now,” the teenage boy corrected with a lazy smirk.

 

Shut up!” Nyx screamed.

 

Killen just laughed. Her mother gathered the blanket to her body while the boy got dressed unhurriedly. “Nyx,” Fotini began.

 

The girl didn’t let her continue. “Mother he is just a little under half your age. And let’s not forget how much he beat me as a child! How could you!? Are you so possessed that you cannot keep your appetites contained for the sake of your family??” She held up her hands. “Oh, no. Wait. Of course you aren’t! You only think of yourself!

 

“Nyx, that’s not true!”

 

“Then why did you bring someone here again after what happened last time!?”

 

“Oh about that,” Killen said, raising a lax finger. He had his pants on, his boots in his other hand and his shirt over his muscled shoulder. “That was me.”

 

Nyx felt the color drain from her face.

 

The teenager went on, his eyes roving up and down her body, a cruel smile on his lips. “I must say very nice! If you’d like a go Nyx, I have no qualms with indulging the desires of a degenerate. After all, the apple must not fall far from the tree, eh?”

 

Fotini just closed her eyes, her chin crumpling. The girl stared at her rival—now her most hated enemy—and whispered, “Get out.”

 

Killen raised an eyebrow, then ducked down to peer into Fotini’s face. The woman looked away, her shoulders hunching around her ears, much as Nyx would do. “Is that what you want, my dear?” When no response came, the boy straightened with a chuckle. “All right. I’ll take my leave of this cesspit then.”

 

He bumped past Nyx, and as he went, he whispered. “Offer still stands, Nyx the Nitwit.”

 

The girl leaned away from him, but before she did, her hand moved imperceptibly between them. Killen took no note. Within a moment, she heard the front door shut, and thought of Atalo outside. She turned on her heel and started for the door.

 

“Nyx!” Fotini called after her.

 

The teenager stopped and looked back to see Fotini standing at her bedroom doorway, the bedsheets draped around her like a sad gown. Her hair was mussed and her face already tear-stained. “Where are you going?” she asked quietly. She sounded so fragile all of a sudden.

 

“Away,” Nyx answered hollowly.  “It isn’t safe for me and Atalo here anymore.”

 

“When will you be back?”

 

Nyx didn’t answer. She turned and left without further protest. Outside, the teenager took her little brother roughly by the hand, and at his protests, she said, “A-ma needs to be alone.” Even the new bulge in her left pants pocket did little to calm her nerves. They walked and walked until…

 

They stood outside Taila’s house.

 

Just as before, Nyx sensed something wrong.  With great foreboding, she went up to knock on the door, but then stopped, remembering Taila’s words.  Slowly, she opened it, and beckoned for Atalo to follow.

 

Inside, she heard crying.

 

“Stay here, Atalo,” Nyx said.

 

“Again?” he whined.

 

She gave her brother a look, and he muttered sullenly, but took a seat at the dining room table.

 

Nyx went down the hall and found the sound was coming from Taila’s parents room.  Clearing her throat, she said, “Hello?”

 

The curtain pulled back, and there stood her friend, her damp hair turned frizzy, her eyes red and puffy from crying. Behind her, in the simple bedroom, knelt Terus, his eyes on Jezah, who lay still with eyes closed on the bed. Her skin was pale as death.

 

“She’s gone,” Taila said needlessly. Her spine bent as her face contorted with her grief. “Sweet Aelurus, Nyx, my mother is gone!

 

Nyx felt the tears cloud her eyes for what seemed the millionth time that night, and hugged her friend tightly. Taila shook in her arms, and she held on fiercely, her personal pain ebbing for the moment in the face of her friend’s need. She glanced down the hall and saw Atalo staring at them, his eyes also shiny with tears. She gestured for the boy to come over, and he ran, hugging them both.

 

“I’m sorry, Taila,” Nyx breathed. “I’m so sorry…”

 

____________________________

 

When Taila’s father left to find the village funerary master, and they were all sitting in Taila’s bedroom, the older girl asked her friend, “You came over for a reason. Did something happen, Nyx?”

 

She was already shaking her head. “No, it’s nothing. I just wanted to—“

 

“Nyx, tell me.”

 

Nyx gazed somberly at her.  She turned to Atalo and said, “Atalo, why don’t you go take Taila’s ball and play with it in the kitchen? Be careful not to break anything.” Her brother pouted, but did as she asked. When he was well out of sight, she said, “I walked in on her this time.”

 

“Walked in on her? You mean she was–”

 

“Yes.”

 

“But so soon after what happened last time?”

 

“And guess who it was she was with?” Taila frowned and gave a shrug. Nyx closed her eyes and swallowed through a tightening throat. “Killen.” She whispered.

 

At first, the older girl said nothing. She just stared, her mouth hung open. Then her face grew red. She stood with a stomp and started to pace. “That bastard.” She kicked the wall. “That bastard!

 

“Taila, don’t. There’s nothing we can do. Thaddeus will be able to handle it once he gets here. We just need to hold on.”

 

“And what about your mother? What are you supposed to do in a home where you don’t even feel safe anymore? Where your kin place their own needs over their family’s!?” Taila shook her head. “It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that my mother is dead before seeing her family grow, and it isn’t fair that yours seems to think it’s okay to kill the one she’s got with her vices!”

 

Nyx grit her teeth. “Taila, stop. This isn’t helping!” She stood. “Once your father comes back, I think…I think we’re going to go. We can’t stay here when your family has so much to deal with. We’d be intruding.”

 

Her friend stopped long enough to stare at Nyx. “No.”

 

“Taila…”

 

“No. You’re staying. A-pa won’t mind. But I can’t be alone with him. He…this’ll ruin him, Nyx. He loved my A-ma, and I don’t know if I can handle all of this alone. You can borrow my clothes, and you can stay here as long as you’d like. So you’ll stay. You can’t go back home after what happened there. Your mother needs help, but the kind she needs won’t come from you! Let her seek guidance at the temple or something!”

 

Nyx just nodded slowly, her eyes spacing out from the weight of the night’s events. “Yeah…yes, you’re right.”

 

Taila’s father returned with the funerary master and Urian, the village temple priest, in tow. They said some prayers, of which Nyx and Atalo joined (with curious looks from Urian) and then plans were made with regards to Taila’s mother’s last wishes and how the funeral rites would be fulfilled, and when. This was talk left to the adults, so Taila, Nyx, and Atalo were excused to go to bed.

 

It was very late. Taila’s bed was a little bigger than Nyx’s, but it was squeaky and lacked a proper frame. Nyx offered to sleep on the floor, and the older girl refused, stating, “We’ll all fit just fine, Nyx. Don’t worry so much.”

 

Together they climbed under the sheets, Nyx on the left, lying on her side, Taila on the right, lying on her back, and Atalo sandwiched between them, facing his sister. The boy fell asleep almost immediately, and Nyx gazed at him with a strange combination of love and envy. Despite her exhaustion, both in mind and in body, she felt no closer to sleep. Taila was similarly awake, her eyes staring up at the ceiling. Nyx couldn’t tell in the low light if her friend was crying. Then she heard a wet sniffle and had her answer.

 

“The last thing I said to my mother was, ‘What would you like for breakfast tomorrow?’ Not, ‘I love you’, just…’What would you like?’ How could it be something so…mundane like that? She didn’t even answer me. She was…she was still breathing then. And then my A-pa came and said she wasn’t anymore. I was thinking of surprising her with something sweet–” she broke off with a sob, her head turning away.

 

Nyx reached over and touched her friend’s arm. She thought to say something, but found herself stuck. She could only think of all the things she couldn’t do or say—the affections that would have translated into soft caresses and gentle kisses, an almost fervent hope that proximity could squash whatever pain or sadness existed between them.

 

Taila turned her head back, taking Nyx’s hand in hers. She kissed it, then pressed it to her chest.  “Nyx, I love you. Thank you for being here. I know it wasn’t happy reasons that brought you here, but…thank you.”

 

“I’ll always be here, Taila.”

 

“And if you wanted more, I would give it to you. I would give you everything.” Then the girl stiffened. “…Gods, listen to me! She’s grieving over her mother, and I’m getting excited! I’m scum!

 

Nyx pulled back her hand hurriedly, and as she did so, her palm brushed her brother’s shoulder. He stirred.  She gave a start, her eyes falling onto his face. He didn’t open his eyes, his features still relaxed. Gently, she laid her hand on his arm.

 

“When dealing with others, there’s always a choice…but do I know of all the options yet?

 

____________________________

 

Sleep came, though it was fitful, and Nyx later awoke to a dimly lit bedroom. The girl batted her eyes. It was still early, judging by the rosy sky, and Atalo was next to her. Taila, however, was gone. This made the girl sit up. Rubbing her eyes, she slipped out of the bed. The nightshirt Taila had lent was too big, so that it brushed well past her knees. She tiptoed into the hallway and dared to peek into the other bedroom. Taila’s mother was still as they had left her the night before, Terus curled up against her. It was custom for the surviving wife or husband to spend one last night in this way. But Taila was nowhere in sight.

 

Frowning, Nyx went out into the kitchen only to find the same case there. Outside, where the bee nests and small garden was kept, she found nothing. Then a thought entered the girl’s mind that chilled her blood.

 

“Oh, Taila no…”

 

Without even bothering to put on her clothes or fetch some shoes, Nyx ran. She ran through the village, past the rousing merchants and craftsmen, past the sleepy daikuts to the one place she knew her friend would go after last night.

 

Nyx found Taila sitting on a fence, one of her tuetri clubs over her shoulders as she stared at Killen’s daikut. She approached her, panting.

 

“Taila, don’t do this,” she managed to get out, before leaning on the fence to catch her breath.

 

The older girl didn’t even turn her head. “You need to get more active, Nyx. It wasn’t all that long a run from my house to Killen’s, was it?”

 

“Taila, don’t do this!”

 

“And why not?” Taila asked, her jaw tight as she frowned at her friend. “Why shouldn’t this shit-box get just what he’s been asking for all these years?”

 

“Because this is wrong,” Nyx said firmly. “Because this will bring no small amount of trouble for you and your father. Because this will do nothing to help me or Atalo!” She stepped closer, taking Taila’s face in her hands. Reluctantly, her friend met her gaze, and Nyx saw the tears in her eyes. “You aren’t doing this for me, I can see it in your eyes. I don’t want this, Taila. I…I care for you too much to let you do something like this!” She took her friend’s wrists and gently pulled. “Come on. Before someone sees us out here. Your A-pa needs you back home.”

 

The older girl slowly slid off the fence and with one last dark look over her shoulder, followed Nyx back to her home. Taila began making breakfast just as the funerary master arrived with his attendant and work bag. Nyx changed and left, promising Atalo she’d bring back some of his clothes before they left for erduk.

 

When she arrived at her home, the suns were over the horizon, their light painting the sky a richer gold. Nyx felt her stomach turn again beneath her smock, but with a staying hand and Atalo in her thoughts, she marched up to the door and went inside.

 

She found her mother sitting at the kitchen table, an untouched tea cup in her hand. She was dressed now, in a long dark gown, and her eyes were a craggy red, the eyelids puffier than even Taila’s had been.  She stood upon seeing Nyx, tears startling down her cheeks as her chin quivered.

 

“Nyx you’re back!” she breathed.

 

“Atalo and I need clothes and our school things,” Nyx said guardedly, her eyes turned away.

 

“Can you spare a moment? To…to talk?”

 

The teenager sighed. She looked at Fotini, her brows pressed up and together. “Mother, you need help. That’s all there is to say. You need to see Urian at the temple and find some way to…to deal with this.”

 

“Yes, I know that now. I was so afraid I’d lost you both…”

 

“You weren’t going to lose us…” Nyx mumbled. She crossed her arms and scuffed her shoe on the floor. “I just wanted you to see what Thad and I have been trying to tell you all this time.” Then with great pain, she added, “Maybe you had to be with Killen to see that.”

 

Fotini flinched as though struck. “I—it wasn’t…” she let out a harsh sigh, a shaky hand going to rub at her mouth as she hugged herself with her other arm.  “Nyx, I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t…I didn’t know who he was! It’s been years since I’ve seen that despicable boy!”

 

“That doesn’t make it any better,” Nyx said with a deep scowl.

 

“No, it doesn’t.” Fotini took a tentative step forward, then another. When Nyx didn’t move away, her mother enveloped her in a hug. “I’m sorry, Nyx. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

 

The teenager reached carefully around her mother’s waist and squeezed, her face turning into the older woman’s collar bone. “A-ma…promise me you’ll see Urian. I won’t mention any of this to Thaddeus when he comes, but promise me, or I’ll go to the temple myself!”

 

“I promise. I’ll do it Nyx, just…come home. I don’t like an empty house.”

 

“I know, A-ma. We’ll…I’ll think about it.”

 

“Okay. That’s okay.” The woman pulled back with a quivering smile, more tears slipping from her eyes. She turned her face toward the window, and with a wistful look, said, “I was just sitting there, and I was thinking…Your father is never coming home.”

 

The statement was so sudden that Nyx only batted her eyes.

 

Fotini looked at her daughter, wiping at her cheeks. “You’re so much like him, it frustrates and delights me at the same time. I don’t know what to say to you because of it. Alvis was…always a complicated man.” The woman chuckled. “I try to garden, like he once did. He had a beautiful spice garden you know, and we were never in short supply of herbs and new ingredients to use. The spices are all gone now. Our personal crops would yield more if I had a better mind for it.” She sighed, her smile waning. “I’m not very good at growing things.”

 

Nyx bit her lip, then touched her mother’s arm. “You do fine, A-ma.” When no further response came, she turned with the intention to get her and Atalo’s things, but then she stopped when she remembered something important. “A-ma, I thought you should know,” she paused and took a breath. “Taila’s mother died last night.”

 

“Oh gods!” The woman looked at her in genuine surprise, her hand at her throat. “How is Taila and her father doing?”

 

“As well as can be expected. I think they’re going to bury her soon.”

 

“I’ll be sure to do something for them, then.”

 

Nyx gave a nod and retrieved the items she sought, then left with a final hug from her mother. She ran all the way back to Taila’s. Being on the opposite side of the village from the erduk meant that she and Atalo had to hustle to make it in time for their day’s lessons. They stood in the kitchen with Taila for goodbyes.

 

“I wish I could stay here with you, Taila.”

 

“It’s okay, Nyx. I know how Leander gets with you. Just be sure to put a tack on Killen’s seat for me.”

 

“I’m sure that would go over well.”

 

Their laughter was weak and short-lived. It was hard keeping up the normal exchange when so many things about their lives were different now.

 

Nyx ruffled her brother’s hair. “I think I’m going to let Atalo go back home, just so that my mother doesn’t do anything rash, but I’ll come back here after erduk, okay? Do you want me to tell Ampelos?”

 

Taila nodded. “Yes. He should know. I’d do it myself but,” she thumbed weakly over her shoulder.

 

“It’s okay.” Nyx loitered, knowing she and her brother needed to hurry, but something kept her rooted. Chewing her lip she looked at her friend, who gazed back at her inquisitively. She considered hugging the older girl. Maybe even being so bold as to kiss her on the cheek.

 

The power comes in realizing there’s a choice, and in so choosing, one commits themselves to a path they are a lot more likely to succeed by.

 

She thought of her mother, her eyes on the garden outside their daikut, lamenting the lack of spices in her life since A-pa had disappeared.

 

Nyx turned and guided Atalo to the door. “See you tonight, then…”

 

“Yeah, see you Nyx.”

 

“Bye Taila!” Atalo cried.

 

Taila’s smile widened for a moment. “Bye lil’ flea.”

 

Nyx and Atalo arrived to erduk just in time. As Nyx went to her usual seat in Leander’s room, she paused to whisper into Ampelos’s ear to speak with her during their lunch break. He blushed a deep red and nodded. The girl felt Killen’s eyes on her, and rather than ignore him, she turned and stared at him. The teenage boy, who had been leaning onto his desk, straightened up, his smirk dying on his lips as he frowned. Nyx smiled at him slowly, her hand patting the bulge in her pocket from the night before.

 

The boy’s face fell, and he searched his pants. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, his eyes widened and he stared, open mouthed. The girl took a seat and tried to keep her body from shivering too much. With her leverage, she felt safe, at least for the time being.

 

“You’d think after seven years, Killen would learn to quit bumping into me. He’s really got to learn to read history, the cajeck.”


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  1. ‘Nude’ by Radiohead, from the album ‘In Rainbows’. Self-released, 2007. []