A few notes. I made two references to The Trinity Tree's incredibly lovable character Larkin from Little Farm of Horrors. If you've read it, you'll know what they are.
This lesson is very short and a bit silly, but I still had fun writing it. SRS BIZZNESS Softly Say Goodbye will resume next chapter.
Family is more than blood, you know. A caravan is a family, just as much as a house full of relatives is. Maybe even more so-but that is because they have to be.
Often times it's better to start all over with a new caravan than to take on new recruits. Yes, an older caravan has experience, but they're also already a family. How would you feel if some stranger butted in and tried to claim they were a sibling, eh? It's hard not to resent an intrusion.
Some families are incredibly welcoming, like the Marr's Pass Lilties. I've never met a caravan more accepting, provided you could throw a lance and swig an ale with the rest of them. Some, like Shella's Yukes, were difficult to get to know, mysteries embodied. But then again, maybe they, too, were welcoming in their own ways.
We tried with Alder and Althea, but some things take time. Some people just don't belong. Some people don't want to. And some require just that little nudge to open up.
The Fifth Lesson
Letters Received at Goblin Wall:
I know you've only been gone for a fortnight at most, but your mother wishes to remind you to take care of yourself. Apparently this year's remaining seasons will be much harsher than usual. She says to wear your coat, or steal one of the twins'.
I said no such thing, Pou, and you will stop saying so. Paper is scanty enough without you filling it with your lies.
(A few scribbles fill the page, as if a fight had taken place over the quill pen.)
Anyway, I forgot to ask while you were home, but would you mind sending back any extra silver you may find this year? I have a few ideas I'd like to work on.
Always thinking of his work. But you know your father. Be careful, sweetheart, and do wear a coat of some sort. Perhaps that handsome man of yours will lend you his?
Enough of your machinations, woman. Zin, do be safe. Your sisters say hello.
All our love,
Father, Mother and the rest
Dear Alder and Althea,
How have things been so far? Not giving anyone too much trouble, are you? The forge is fine, I'm fine, nothing to worry about here.
Be good. Behave.
Your loving Pa-Uncle
Patty and Sinny,
How are you? Ma says to tell you that we're well and the ranch is fine. I've been working on my writing, and even Aldessa is pleased. She still tells me I'm hopp...hopl...hopeless at maths, though.
Bessie dropped her calf a few days ago, and Pa told me I could name it since I helped! I decided to call her Brownie. You can meet her when you come back next year. Pa says she'll be a lot bigger then.
Ma says to take care. Pa says to keep your swords sharp.
Love you both,
These are the only letters that appear.
Letters received at Alfitaria (rather than Moschet's Manor):
Your father, man-child that he is, managed to blow up half the house in his latest experiment. So now not only are we crammed into only two rooms, but he burned his hands as well, so your sisters and I are doing all the repairs. Thank the gods that Alder and Althea's father is an incredibly generous man. He's been helping us as much as he can. Hope you're doing well, sweetheart.
T H A N K S F O R T H E S I L V E R. M Y C A L C U L A T I O N S W E R E O F F.
As you can see, your father is too stubborn to just let his hands rest. He says for you to be careful. Sia and Yis say hello.
All our love,
Mother, F A T H E R, and the rest
Dear Alder and Althea,
You put what in Zin Del's bedroll? Shame on you both! Your ma would be heartbroken to hear what you did to a caravanner, Alder! And Althea, what were you thinking, girl? This is exactly the kind of thing that got you thrown out of your parents' house. Really, I'd think you'd want to stay on your leader's good side!
I'm glad she's teaching you both something, at least. I'd have walloped you both, myself.
Be better than good.
Your loving Pa-Uncle
Patty and Sinny,
Thank you for my press...prezz...present. I really like it! Ma doesn't though. She told Pa a knife was too dangerous. Pa agreed, but told me later he would teach me how to use it anyway. Now I can keep the village safe too!
Brownie is a little bigger. She likes to lick my head and try to chew on my hair when I go near her. She slob...slub...slobbers a lot. Ma says she is cute. Pa says she will grow up big and strong.
Ranch is fine. We are all fine. Come home soon!
These are the only letters that appear.
One night, just after the miasma stream between Alfitaria and Marr's Pass, I purposefully arrange things so that Lian Cre has to dig the latrine. As she is off walking around in the nearby bushes, trying to find a suitable spot, I motion silently for the others to join me behind the caravan.
Without preamble, I ask, "Anyone else noticed that Lian Cre hasn't gotten a single letter from home?"
To my surprise, only Sinna and Althea nod right away. Patrick looks thoughtful, as if trying to remember, and Alder simply looks guilty. Poor boy. I ruffle his sprout lightly, and turn back to the group. "I propose an idea. Why don't we write to her, next time the mail moogle shows up? If we post them in Marr's Pass, she'll get them at the Jegon. I can always hold us up at Marr's Pass for an extra day to make sure they get there in time."
Patrick nods. "I guess I just never thought about it. She was always busy with something; picking an artifact, getting the myrrh, checking her gear. But still, just because she has no family in Tipa doesn't make it all right for her to not get any letters."
Listening carefully, I can still hear her stomping around in the brush. "All right, so we'll all write a few extra letters to post at the pass then. Back to camp, everyone, and act natural."
"Wait!" It's Althea, her scratchy voice kept low. "Why don't we have our families write to her, too? A caravan's supposed t' be a family, right? So if we're her siblings, wouldn't they be her parents?"
Her cousin stepped up to that. "We can also have them ask around the village to get even more letters. And if we see any caravans on the road, ask them to write too. I mean, we're all in this together, aren't we?"
As we all agreed to that, I realized then and there that I'd never needed to make an effort to include Alder and Althea in our little family. They'd been a part of it, in some way, for as long as we'd been caravanners. They were just closer now.
Min Doran is delighted to see I've picked up two Lilties since last time we crossed paths. He congratulates me in private, and asks after Kindryth. Word travels fast between caravans, especially when it comes to something as important as leadership.
"He's alive," I say shortly. "Not good, not bad. The miasma poisoning is eating him from inside, starting from his lungs." It's important to spread information. "Too much miasma exposure that he survived, I guess."
Min is understandably confused. He knocks his spear butt against the ground. "How did such a terrible thing occur?"
"He got caught outside the chalice, but close enough to a myrrh tree that it wasn't affecting him as much, or so we thought," I explain. A myrrh tree has the same general effect as a crystal, though its range is much less. To be on the fringes of it would probably give the same effect standing near Tida's dying crystal did. I don't want to lie, not when someone's life may depend upon it, but my caravan depends on this falsehood.
"I see. So we must keep to the chalice, as always." Min understands. This news makes little difference, other than to caution the others to stay close to the myrrh tree after reaching it. "I would send my regards to Kindryth with you, and take yours to him, should I speak with him first."
"I appreciate that. And on that note," I make our caravan's request to him. He quickly agrees, given that they see a mail moogle.
Conference over, we move from behind his caravan. Althea looks over at me from where she stands with Min's second, Sol Racht, and winks. Ah, Lilties. Always suckers for a strong woman.
The blond Selkie man, Dah something, smiles. "Lian Cre, huh?" he asks, and contemplates the bored woman staring off at the horizon.
His partner, a girl with a silver mane, frowns in response to his cheerful expression. "Why should we be wasting our paper on one of yours?" she asks, and rightfully so. They're new caravanners, with not much experience nor gil. Besides, Selkies always drive a hard bargain.
"Well, she's from the isle," I say, slipping a bit into the Leuda way of speaking. "Moved to Tipa a few years back. Thought maybe you knew her, is all."
"I'd like to," Dah-something says plaintively, and the silvery Hana Kohl casts me a desperate look. She opens her mouth and I cut her off.
"More 'n likely she's a cousin of yours or something," I continue, acting as if I never heard him say anything. "She could be your auntie."
She smiles at Dah-something's newly crestfallen expression. "We'll write," she promises, and drags her erstwhile partner away from the road.
The innkeeper at Marr's Pass agrees, as do his children. The Selkie merchants promise to think about it. I avoid the ladies' man and ask the blacksmith's daughter instead. She is delighted to help.
We post our letters and I make my excuses. We spend a week in Marr's Pass. Hopefully something will show up at the Jegon.
Lian Cre senses something is going on, but other than a few suspicious looks she says nothing about our mass exodus to the post office. Probably doesn't want us to realize she never goes there herself.
Well, Lian Cre, dearie, the post is coming to you.
The Jegon River is blue and serene as always. A slight rushing sound fills the air as we draw close, and our papaopamus's ears prick up as he lifts his head to sniff the air.
"Can he swim?" Althea asks Patrick. She and I are walking close to where he sits on the driver's box. Her excitement is nearly palpable. I'm starting to wonder just what she convinced those Lilties to do.
"I'm sure he could ford a river," Patrick says after a moment of consideration, "But no, I've never seen any of them swim. We should definitely find out though," his grin is wicked with mischief. "All right, everyone," he calls, "We're going to save some money and let Blue here pull us across the river!"
"What?" Sinna yelps, and as we round a bend suddenly the river is in view a distance away.
"Here we go!" Patrick shouts, and urges Blue to speed up a bit. The papaopamus grunts and heaves forward, the wagon bouncing over a bump behind him. Althea and I begin to run to keep up, laughing so hard we can barely manage more than a jog.
"Patrick, stop that this instant!" Sinna yells, then shrieks at something.
"Hold on!" he belatedly calls back, then looks down at us. "You two better speed up," he comments mildly as the caravan begins to pull away from us.
"Patrick!" Sinna yells.
"Patrick!" Althea protests.
"Patrick!" I shout. If he leaves us without chalice protection, oh, I will beat him with my racket.
Then we cross an invisible line in the ground, and the air is pure and sweet and smells faintly of water. I stop running immediately, with Althea slowing shortly after. "We're safe," I tell her, and she nods. We walk sedately to the dock, where Patrick is already chatting with the ferryman.
"I just like having three ladies call my name," he is explaining as we approach, carefully ignoring Sinna's glare. I give him even less directions to look at by adding my glare, as does Althea after examining our faces and finding a new position. Alder is carefully unhitching Blue, doing a poor job of muffling his laughter. Lian Cre doesn't bother to hide, leaning against the caravan with a wide smile on her face.
Oh, we'll see who's smiling in a few minutes.
"T' be honest, I'm right glad you're here," the ferryman confesses. His normally shrewd business face is gone, replaced by simple astonishment. "I'm starting to wonder if'n my boat here can hold all them letters and your caravan."
"Letters?" Althea is the portrait of innocence. "There's letters for us?"
As the ferryman offers to show us, I hear a slight sigh. Lian Cre slowly makes her way to the back of the wagon, making a show of rummaging through her pack. I'd call her over, but the others would never forgive me for spoiling the fun. We wait.
"Lessee, here, got one for Zin Del," the ferryman says. "One for Patrick and Sinna. One for Althea and Alder," he pauses as we accept our individual letters and seat ourselves on the dock. "Do ye know of a caravanner by the name of Lian Cre?"
Beautiful even with her eyebrows furrowed, Lian Cre peers around the back of the wagon. "My name is Lian Cre," she offers. Clearly puzzled, she wanders over to where we stand. "Why?"
Alder can barely contain himself, grinning from ear to ear. Sinna places a warning hand on his shoulder and we all don our most innocent expressions.
"Why, I think there's about twenty letters for ye back here!" the ferryman exclaims, reaching behind him to remove a small sack. He tosses the brown burlap at Lian Cre, who barely catches it. Something clanks, and now I'm really wondering what Althea convinced those Lilties to send. She looks bemused, as if fully expecting a mistake of some sort. She looks to us, but we've practiced looking carefully in other directions on the way here.
Nonchalantly I open my own letter, ripping the already tattered envelope to shreds in my incompetence. It's my mother and father, their usual banter skittering across the page and reminding me of home. I don't read it closely-there will be time for that later. Right now I want to watch Lian Cre.
She reaches blindly into the sack and pulls out the first letter. I recognize the markings as those of the Marr's Pass post office. Probably the innkeeper then. Her lips curl upward into a small smile as she reads through whatever message he has to offer her. Still bemused, she gently sets the opened letter to her side, tucking a corner under her thigh so that it can't blow away.
A few more letters with the Marr's Pass stamp, then some with Tipa's. I recognize my father's painstakingly blocky hand and my mother's thick lines, the familiar drawn on lines of Sinna's and Patrick's brother practicing his handwriting. I even notice the curled, loopy handwriting that appears on Alder and Althea's letters.
Giving up the pretense of reading our own letters, we watch with delight as Lian Cre opens letter after letter. She reads each one closely, then places it next to her. Each letter seems to change her expression slightly-more of a smile here, a crinkling of eyelid there. After one letter she raises her eyebrows, and I think, Dah-something and Hana Kohl. After another she shakes her head and smiles and I think, Min Doran's caravan. The next her hand unwittingly rises to cover her mouth and a pang in my heart tells me it's from Kin.
The last one is, of course, ours. Her facial expression contorts for a moment, then smoothes into blankness once more.
There are twenty-three letters and a very odd metal ball, all told. The ferryman has already made his way into his cabin by the time she finishes the last one. For a long moment we all sit in silence on the warm, rough, wooden planks. Our feet dangle down to the water below, covering the spectrum of Patrick just barely dipping his toes to Alder's short legs jutting straight out. Lian Cre stares at the splintered area beside her letters for a long time.
"Thank you," she says at last, voice oddly hoarse. "You didn't have to do that for me."
"We wanted to-" Sinna says, at the same time as Althea, who says, "You're family-"
"Both are true," Patrick finishes for the both of them, smiling at her. "You're one of us, and if there's one thing Tipa's caravan won't abide by, it's not getting any letters."
Alder looks up in feigned shock. "I thought it was not getting any myrrh."
"No, we're actually in this for the letters, accolades, and pretty Selkie boys flirting with us when we go home for the rejuvenation ceremony," I tell him seriously. "Well, if you like that sort of thing."
"Pretty Selkie boys?" Patrick demands, leaning on my left shoulder. "Why haven't I ever gotten any of those? You been hogging them, Zin?"
Lian Cre looks up at last. Her eyes are slightly red rimmed and maybe a little watery. That's perfectly normal. There's a lot of water around rivers, right? "I think I might be the guilty party here when it comes to taking the pretty Selkie boys," she says, and laughs.
I had never heard Lian Cre laugh before that moment. None of us had. To this day, I think she even surprised herself. But that's the wonder of family. They bring out the best and worst in you, often all in one day.
At that moment, we were so close. I thought that together, nothing could break us.