Author's Note: I promised a reader a chapter by the end of last month, and I met the deadline (for once). This is the beta-ed version as of June 2014. Many thanks to BlueTrillium.
Chapter 12: Expectations
Hearing this strangled exclamation, Ashre paused on her way to the pantry to bring out Ronan's breakfast. Signaling him to hold, she peered around the kitchen door.
The speaker was Izark; the breathless note in his voice seemed to be the result of trying to force intelligible words through the mirth that flushed his face.
"O-okay," he panted yet again, talking to someone hidden from Ashre's view by the door frame. "Look, I'll take them out. J-just turn around, and–– a-and––"
"Stop it already," Ashre heard Noriko mumble, her tone one of resigned exasperation. "It's not that funny. Seriously, Izark–– sometimes you're really mean."
Forgetting for a moment that she did not want to be involved, the Kilahb craned forward, trying to see the island woman without actually entering the room. She succeeded, momentarily––then promptly lost her balance, and had to save herself by catching hold of the door casing.
Noriko stood facing the wall, diligently taking apart one of several thin, lumpy braids that sprouted from her head in every conceivable direction, including straight up. These were particularly awkward, because they jutted resolutely away from her scalp before gravity took over, making her resemble a tree with twiggy, trailing branches.
The braids were, to Ashre, surprising. Not funny––though the look on Noriko's face would certainly have made plenty of people giggle. But the braids…
Two startled gazes––one brown, the other flashing green before melting to black–– flicked toward her as the Clan girl pulled herself up on the door, scrambling a little to get her feet back underneath her.
Noriko's blush deepened. "Oh, Ashre. Good morning. Um–– Breakfast should be ready in a little while. I just heard Auntie Gaya in the pantry."
The Kilahb ignored the attempt at lightness and stepped closer, amber eyes fixed on the plait the young woman had been busy dismantling.
And quickly resumed, when she realized what had Ashre's attention.
"No, wait," said the Clan girl, reaching out and stopping Noriko's hands, then wresting the braid away and re-weaving the undone section with expert speed.
She was completely unaware of the glance that passed between Noriko and Izark as she nudged the island girl around. Deftly, she began rearranging haphazard sections of plaited and free strands, disguising unattractive bumps by overlaying them with smooth sections and tugging everything back and up.
"Mother and Father always let Jmnes and Chska practice on them. I'm used to salvaging whatever they end up with," Ashre murmured absently, weaving a braid under one loose section and over another before tucking it into the hand that held the other sections in a high ponytail. "I need a tie."
Izark handed over his uniform headband, his face blank, but there was a light of comprehension in his eyes when he caught Noriko's look. Play along. I think I know what she's doing.
Uh– Okay…? the Japanese girl answered his projected thought, reaching up a hand to try to get a sense of what was being done to her hair and snatching it back when Ashre swatted her away.
"There," the Clan girl sighed as she secured the cloth, and tugged Noriko around to scrutinize the final outcome. "That'll do. In the worst case, you could wind a scarf around it." She turned to Izark, ready to tell the warrior that he needed practice.
And stopped, jaw hanging open as she suddenly remembered where she was and who she was talking to.
That Chska and Jmnes, and Mother and Father, and anyone who wore their hair in the intricate woven styles favored by the Kilahb were hundreds of miles to the north or sailing the Great Ocean. She herself hadn't braided her hair since leaving the Crossings Site.
That she was supposed to have delivered her message, pled her cause, and hurried back.
That so far, she had failed.
"Why is komainu blocking the hall?" inquired an accented voice from the door, referring to Ronan with the Japanese moniker Jinta had adopted for the huge, maned canine–– 'lion-dog'. Chiyako entered the kitchen, balancing a pottery crock on each hip. Gaya followed her in, a huge wooden bowl lifted over her head to fit through the narrow door.
Because he's a good boy, who does exactly what he's told without a speck of shame, Ashre thought, and swallowed hard. "He's waiting for his breakfast," she explained. "Are there any leftovers he could have?" Suddenly, all she wanted to do was crawl up the back stairs and into her cot, and realized that she was dreading having to sit through a meal with these cheerful, enthusiastic strangers. The thought that Duke Jeida and his family would also be at the table was enough to make her lose her appetite entirely.
She felt tired–– old.
Perhaps that sense of fatigue showed in her voice, because Gaya cast an appraising look her way and smiled sympathetically, saying, "There are some in the pantry. Come, I'll show you."
Gratefully, Ashre moved after the Gray Bird woman, whistling a 'follow' command to Ronan.
Chiyako set down the crockery with a clunk on the table, and turned to ask Noriko about her hairstyle.
"Noriko-chan–" she began, but stopped short. Something about the way Noriko and Izark were staring at the door, shoulders angled toward each other, made her think that a conversation was in the works. She paused for an awkward moment, but lost patience. How could it be rude to interrupt a discussion she wasn't even sure was going on? "[Noriko-chan, why is your hair like that?]"
XII XII XII XII XII
Rottenina—aid to Zena, State Seer of the Kingdom of Guzena—closed her eyes, slowly running her hands around the shape of the crystalline orb that rested in her lap. The large stone sphere was cold to the touch, smooth, and solid– almost like ice, except that it did not melt no matter how much heat it pulled from her flesh nor become slippery with the layer of water that would form if it did. So long as she didn't look through the clear mineral at the oddly refracted view of what lay on the other side, the young seer felt there was very little of the character of water in the object she held.
Using her sense of touch, Rottenina measured the dimensions of the crystal ball, assuring herself as she always did that it was just a bit smaller than her own skull––a mental trick she'd devised with the help of Miss Zena. Keeping her eyes shut, she took a moment to imagine that the clear globe was actually inside her skull, then took another moment to consider her objectives. Finally, having determined her purpose, she opened her Sight.
Miss Gaya circled the open green at the center of the garden (a new addition, created especially for the swordswoman when she'd come to live with Zena), calling out instructions to the two women sparring at the focus of her round.
"Chiyako, raise your guard! Wrists, Katarina! At that speed, your form had better be perfect!"
The other Gray Bird glanced her way, and stuck out her tongue in playful insolence. Immediately, Chiyako lunged forward, forcing Katarina to pay attention and making Gaya grin. The blond warrior maiden was a great deal more experienced than her opponent; however, the blade was not Katarina's primary weapon, and the little Japanese woman was proving quick and aggressive.
Sound had no bearing on Rottenina's ability. The shouts and thuds she heard came from a window down the hall and through the open door of the workroom, faint and indistinct. In fact, the young seer probably wouldn't have been able to understand a word of what Gaya said if she hadn't seen her lips moving in the weird exactness of her 'sight', which defied all the conditions of physical visual perception by registering everything with the same acute detail. Simultaneously. There was no perspective–– no depth to the picture in Rottenina's mind, because it was all there, a perfect three-dimensional figment of the space she chose to examine. A caterpillar's inching progress up a twig at the corner of the pavilion was no less discernible than the comparatively vast and swift arc of a wooden practice sword.
Beneath the feet of the swordswomen, the turf and soil of the garden fairly churned with activity, insects and other small life forms going about their business.
Here came the tricky bit. Recalling her image of the crystal ball, Rottenina visualized the garden scene filling the space within the orb inside her head. Then, shifting a small part of her attention away from the vision, she opened her eyes.
The crystal sphere in her hands was no longer clear, but alive with movement as a tiny Katarina parried and counterattacked, an even smaller Chiyako ducked and blocked, and a larger but still tiny Gaya circled the garden green, shouting. Everything was translucent, making it possible for an outside observer to see what was happening no matter what angle he or she viewed the scene from.
"Wo––w," Akane whispered, staring at the miniscule vision, fascinated. Somehow, the nine-year-old had managed to stay still and silent the entire time Rottenina had needed to prepare.
"Will you…please…check… the…window?" said the part of Rottenina that was not devoted to maintaining a connection between the globe and her sight. It was a struggle to speak, and even that part of her that formed the words barely recognized the slow, monotone voice as her own.
Her ears took in a hurried tap-tap-tapping that receded into the distance, then a child's shout of "Okaa-san! Okaa-san!"
The Chiyako in Rottenina's mind disengaged from her opponent before looking up to smile and wave to a person outside the boundary of Rottenina's perception, while the young seer's corporeal eyes registered the same actions taking place within the real globe. Dual images of Gaya and Katarina also reacted with attention and smiles. The caterpillar was too small to see in the globe, but its mental likeness continued to ascend the twig at the corner of the pavilion, uninterested by the social interactions of humans.
The image in the globe matched the figment inside her head. That meant that the transmission of her visions into the globe was stable.
Well and good; she could proceed to the next stage. Still maintaining the link between her vision and its reproduction inside the crystal, Rottenina turned the better part of her concentration back to the mental image; specifically, to the perimeter, where her sight blurred and melted into formless colors. Slowly, painstakingly, the young seer began to push that limit.
Little Akane stood in the window, pausing a moment to watch as her mother and the two Gray Bird women resumed their exercises before turning away and walking back down the hall.
Rottenina strained, forcing herself to believe that the figment in her mind was shrinking, condensing to fit the interior of the crystal, even as her perception expanded to follow Akane's progress down the hall.
Akane was at the door to the workroom. Down in the kitchen, Anita appeared briefly inside the border as she retrieved a spoon from its drawer, then disappeared as she stepped back out. On the other side of the house, in a ground floor guest room, a hazy distortion marked the place where Izark rested, concealing his presence from the awareness of those who were sensitive to it.
She'd have to ask how he managed to do that––the blind spot he caused within her perfectly detailed perception was distracting.
A faint gasp reached Rottenina's ears, telling the part of her that could afford to care that Akane was truly in the room, as both figment and reproduction corroborated.
As was Rottenina herself, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the room with her back to the outside wall, the crystal ball glowing in her hands. On the opposite edge of her perception, Ashre slept fitfully on her cot in Miss Zena's bedchamber, Ronan curled into a tight ball at her side.
The figment globe shimmered and danced, giving off an energy that nagged at Rottenina's concentration. It was the same as the energy emanating from the real globe resting in her lap—which, for the sake of the link, it mustn't be.
The juxtaposition of having not just two globes, but now three, was more than she could handle, and the young seer knew it. She needed to get beyond the workroom before her concentration broke.
She pushed the limit.
Too forcefully. Her mental image of the crystal seemed to implode as Rottenina's Sight rushed outward.
Down in the living room, Noriko looked up from translating one or another of Dr. Clairgeeta's theories into Japanese, her expression quizzical. Her brother sat nearby, plucking away at the strings of his foreign instrument, his guitar. His fingers were moving, at any rate.
The next door neighbor's cook scolded her son as the child wept over a broken vase, while Mistress Sida's cat pelted out of the kitchen. The fluffy tip of its tail was the last thing to vanish as the animal raced away from the increasing perimeter.
Cats tended to do that. They always seemed to know when she was seeing, and left the picture. Still, Rottenina liked cats. Pity they made Miss Zena sneeze.
"Onee-san? Onee-san. Onee-san!" Somewhere close to her, a little girl called loudly. Akane's insistent shouts barely registered as Rottenina's consciousness continued to surge out, engulfing countless unrelated incidences and occasionally snagging on the familiar or the interesting.
An old man begging for alms near the platform at the center of Palace District's square stiffened and cowered as her Sight passed over him. On the opposite side of the limit, Tachiki Yuri walked with one hand under her father Suou Jin's arm and the other tight around her husband Tachiki Daisuke's wrist as the author stared around them in rapture. Jin blinked, turning his head slightly in the direction of the house.
The young seer made a token effort to gain a purchase on the recognizable, to anchor the boundary to something known before the vision gained anymore momentum.
She wasn't surprised when she lost her grip almost immediately. She never could keep it, when this happened.
By now, the underside of her mental image had broken through bedrock and was passing into the aquifer that fed the shrine pool under the Seer's Palace. Fleetingly, Rottenina noted that many new wells had been sunk, releasing the pressure that forced the water uphill. That might explain why the sacred spring was shallower than normal.
There were events that Rottenina actively pushed away from—trysts, embarrassing situations, private behaviors—not really comfortable with some to the moral implications of her talent. Others she fought to hold onto and see as much of as she could, no matter how uncomfortable or graphic they were. She couldn't stop that kidnapping, or that suicide, or that rape, or that murder, but if she could remember just a few details, maybe she could help stop the next.
Up in the palace, Glocia paused with her tea cup halfway to her lips. Princess Alehandra fairly leapt up from her seat, whipping from side to side, her eyes wide. In her office, Zena jerked out of meditation to throw her mind after Rottenina's, but then thought better of it. Sighing, the Seer recomposed herself, her foreknowledge of the situation having nothing to do with her own talent.
A small raptor soared through the clear sky, opening its mouth to shriek in hopes of flushing other city dwelling birds—prey—into ill-advised flight.
At the tavern known as the Roc's Egg in Market District, Wei was dressed in a dancer's costume and flirting delicately with a bulky man whose aura made the seer's real flesh crawl. It wasn't that the man was particularly strong, but the quality of his power was murky—a little like Izark at his worst.
Both men reacted to Rottenina's presence. Worry chased surprise across Wei's carefully made-up face, his imposed feminine posture faltering while the shadowy man twitched and glanced around the taproom, searching for an observer.
The responses of those sensitive to her Sight were getting weaker. It was, in a way, a good thing. Rottenina braced herself none-the-less.
Somewhere in the tenements, a child of seven or eight recoiled and hid behind some crates. A few blocks away, another child whooped and raced the perimeter as it passed through his neighborhood.
In Cerise District, a pair of young women walked hand in hand, smiling whenever their shoulders brushed, their fingers twining, oblivious to the disapproving glare of a worker they passed.
Danjel kept pace with Dr. Clairgeeta as the two men wandered in the general direction of the palace and its library, probably waiting for a wagon they could hitch a ride on. The scholar cocked his head to the side, but did not slow.
Her Sight was fraying, fragmenting as she reached the absolute limit of her range. Then, up in the sky—
A huge winged beast circled, waiting for its rider's next command. Another creature entered the perimeter of Rottenina's Sight, this one with two passengers.
Rottenina knew them all.
Geena had perked up the instant she felt the other seer. The little clairvoyant frowned, then smiled and turned to speak to her father, who stopped yelling over the wind at Barago long enough to hear what she said and look where she was pointing in the city below.
The vision shattered.
Confused? Me too, but I distinctly remember someone wanting to see what Noriko's hair looked like after Izark got done with it, so...
Hooray for summer break!
Thanks for reading, and for all your thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews. Please let me know if you spot errors or inconsistencies.
P.S. BlueTrillium suggested that I leave an explanation on pronunciations. Lets see if FFN can tolerate a superscript schwa.
For those who are wondering, the schwa—that upside-down 'e'-is used in English pronunciation to denote an unstressed vowel, like the 'i' in 'easily' or the 'a' in 'alone'. A superscript schwa is used, as in 'battle' and 'redden', to represent a barely there, swallowed vowel sound— an unaccented vowel.