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"I want to stay up all night," Leeba said as she walked with her father, J'han Healer, to the great room.
"Tonight is the shortest night," he said. "Between sunset and sunrise are just a couple of hours of darkness. Even the sun is exhausted from lack of sleep."
"I know." At nearly age seven, Leeba knew everything worth knowing, but her parents had entered into a conspiracy to exasperate her with needless instruction. Today the streets of Watfield were filled with rare pleasures — there was music, and puppets, and people on stilts, and games, and prizes, and sweets. J'han had said he would take her, but — he always said "but" — first they must play the mouse game.
"I want to stay up all night," she said again. She wanted to see the sun set, and stay awake until it rose again. Things happened between sunset and sunrise — she was quite sure of this — things wonderful and terrible, things always kept secret.
"I'll make a bargain with you," said J'han.
He was always making bargains with her. But those bargains were never fair, because he always made her do something she hated before he let her have what she wanted. "What?" she said sullenly.
He glanced down at her with mock concern, and she knew she was in trouble. "Oh, Leeba, are you feeling poorly? Are you having a bout of grouchiness?"
J'han would insist that the cure for grouchiness was solitude. Leeba might declare a hundred times that she wasn't grouchy, but her father wouldn't believe her unless she didn't act grouchy. So she smiled at him, smiled so big her mouth practically reached her ears. "I'm not grouchy!" she said, which was very hard to say when she was grinning like a clown she had seen once — only his grin had been painted on his face.
He laughed. "Oh, you're not grouchy! Well then, this is the bargain — you can stay up all night, but you must take a nap this afternoon. Think about your answer while we play the mouse game."
They stepped into the great room. That room looked different every time Leeba saw it, but it was always big. Today the walls, which in winter had been shiny with ice even when a fire burned in the fireplace, were hung with swags of greenery and flowers. Yesterday the room had been noisy with hammering, but today the musicians' platform was finished, and Karis was lying flat on the yellow wood, peering across its surface, holding a plane in her hand. Scattered over the platform were dozens of wooden ringlets: the lumber was growing curly hair. Leeba ran over to collect some of the curls. She tried to straighten one, and it broke. Why could wood go from straight to curly, but not from curly to straight?
Over by the far wall, Bran and Maxew were talking, and both of them were invisible. Leeba saw them, but no one else could see them — she could tell. She didn't like Bran. Every time he came into the bedroom to clean it, he hid her lizard, and she had to look for it for hours. Sometimes she thought it was gone forever, and she cried. J'han had asked Bran to leave Leeba's toys where they were, and Bran said he was just putting things away. But the worst thing he did was he made J'han believe that he wasn't hiding Leeba's lizard on purpose. Now, every morning, Leeba took her rabbit and her lizard to the air children's room, because that was the only room that she knew Bran never went into, and every night she took them back to her bed again.
She hoped that Bran wouldn't play the mouse game today. But if he did play it, maybe she could punch him in the face and make his nose bleed.
Karis swiped the plane across the wood, and a curl spun out, tight as a scroll. Then she heaved herself up to her knees and hugged Leeba.
Her shirt was speckled with sawdust and smelled like a carpenter's shop. "Leeba bird, how tall you've grown! This morning you scarcely came to my waist, and now you reach my shoulder!"
Leeba began to laugh so hard she could scarcely talk. "You're on your — on your — knees!"
"Oh! Well, I think I'll stay on my knees. I'm so tired of being tall."
She was happy today, Leeba thought. She was not happy very often any more. None of her parents were — not even Medric. "J'han is taking me out to see the holiday."
"Then why are you still indoors?"
"He says we have to play the mouse game."
Now Karis didn't look as happy, because she didn't like the mouse game, and refused to play it with them. She wouldn't even play the parent who only had to say, "Leeba, come to me right away!"
"Leeba, come to me right now!" said Kamren, who was a Paladin like Emil. That was strange — Kamren wasn't one of her parents — but Leeba ran to him as fast as she could, and hid behind him. He held his hand open at his side — he did know how to play the game.
She couldn't see — she wasn't supposed to even peek out. But she knew it was Medric who said in a fake mean voice, "Give me that little girl!"
"I will not," Kamren said, "for I am an avowed Paladin and will spill my life's blood in her defense. For she —"
Leeba noticed that his fingers were outspread, like the legs of the spider. She made her muscles ready, like Zanja had taught her. She also must imagine what she wanted, to escape out the door, and hold it in her mind like a picture.
"— is precious to Shaftal, as are all children, who —"
He closed his fingers into a fist, and Leeba ran.
She heard Zanja shouting: "Run, mouse, run! Run! Run!"
She heard a sharp sound of weapons clashing together, and it scared her, even though it was just pretending.
Everyone except Karis was pretending to fight.
Never yell or scream, Leeba reminded herself. She ran, folded over with her arms tucked in, dodging this way and that, like a mouse. People tried to grab her. She didn't know who was supposed to be a friend or an enemy, so she avoided everyone. A Paladin ran at her, and she dodged, and the woman fell down.
There were people crowded around the doorway. She heard Zanja, shouting, though it sounded like she was laughing too. This was a time for Leeba to slow down, then smash through with all her might. Leeba bent herself over and aimed between the legs of the people who blocked the doorway. She banged her shoulder hard into someone and heard a shriek. People grabbed at her shirt, but she yanked loose. She was through the door. She ran down the crooked hall, and now she was supposed to yell: "Help, Paladins! Help!"
Zanja was right: yelling for help did make her feel more scared.
Everyone in the great room was clapping, cheering, and laughing. "Little Hurricane, come back!" Leeba went back, and the Paladins were sheathing their weapons, and Emil, Zanja, Medric, and J'han crowded around her and told her how well she had done.
Zanja said, "Remember to keep as low as you can. What do you do if someone gets hold of you?"
"Fight!" Leeba cried. It had been scary, but fun-scary, and she was still excited.
Karis picked her up. Leeba was big now, but Karis was very strong. She hugged her. "Leeba bird, go have a holiday with J'han."
"Karis, come with us! You can have a holiday too!"
Karis had become the G'deon, which was supposed to be a good thing. But bad people were trying to kill her. She could only go outside if a lot of Paladins surrounded her, to protect her. Karis said, "I'll have a holiday when we catch the bad air witch."
She wasn't happy anymore.
On the Festival of Short Night, the people of Watfield strung the trees with little lanterns and lit a bonfire in every square. In the house Karis called Travesty because so much was wrong with it, people crowded in to offer their good wishes. In the sweltering great room, Zanja na'Tarwein and Emil Paladin danced, clasping each other by the waists, twirling madly, so the still air became a wind. Later, they leaned together, panting with laughter, sharing a cup of cider.
"That is an extraordinary sight," gasped Emil. "Is Gilly trying to teach Clement to dance?"
"Or is it the other way around?"
"The incompetent teaching the ignorant!"
"But which is which?"
"I believe you have drunk enough cider." Emil took the cup and drained it dry.
The gray-dressed general and her secretary once again attempted a simple figure, but even though both were gazing intently at their feet, they managed to entangle them. Clement staggered; Gilly fell to one knee, and Seth, who seemed to be instructing them, laughed until she herself nearly fell over.
Zanja felt the friendly pressure of Emil's shoulder ease away. She said, "If you dance with Clement, it will be an act of charity. But dancing should never be a chore."
"No sacrifice is too great for Shaftal," said Emil, grinning like a boy.
"Wait — your hair is half out of its tail!"
"How correct you are, as always." He began picking at the knots in the leather ties that held his iron-gray hair.
She pushed his hands away and undid the ties, saying, "Whose knots are these? Not yours — Medric's? Don't soldiers learn how to make a knot square?"
Emil laughed. No one could teach Medric anything — no one but Medric.
She combed his hair back with her fingers and tied it properly. He bowed mockingly to her, then walked to Clement and bowed to her with apparent sincerity. The huge room was so noisy with music and laughter that Zanja couldn't hear what he said. Clement laughed and mimicked raising a cup of tea to her lips. But in Shaftal, reinforcements always bring tea.
The fiddlers bowed and leapt. The drummers spun their drumsticks casually, as though drumming were no work at all. The whistlers stamped the rhythm as they played. J'han thudded past with a giggling Leeba standing on his feet. Two Paladins glided in and away: coatless, light footed, serious, each with his hair secured in a topknot by a wooden pen.
All this music, dancing, fellowship, and affection made the room too hot, too crowded, too noisy to endure. Zanja forced her way to the door and down the long hall to the kitchen, where she handed the cider cup to the volunteers who had been washing dishes for hours already. They didn't seem to appreciate the effort it had taken for her to bring the cup to them.
The hall leading to the parlor where Karis received visitors was crammed with people. Zanja spotted two babies, asleep in the arms of parents or strangers — for the Shaftali passed babies about quite casually — waiting to be held by the G'deon. Even in Meartown, when Karis had been believed to be an ordinary earth witch, they had brought babies to her on holidays. In the settlements of the border people, in the south, at the coast, and in every town she had ever visited, Karis had held the babies. Clement's baby, Gabian, probably thought Karis was one of his mothers, he spent so much time in her arms.
Norina Truthken was somewhere in that hall, keeping watch on the crowd. Zanja let her gaze unfocus and then she spotted her, for she could contradict some aspects of air logic with her own logic, if she didn't try too hard. Norina was alone, and must have sent her students to bed. She gave Zanja a sharp glance, and Zanja squeezed through the crowd to join her.
Norina said, "You must not visit the border tribes to bring them into the Council of Shaftal until we know that Karis is safe."
They had argued about this issue that morning in the kitchen, until Zanja walked away in frustration. But Norina could leave nothing unfinished. Zanja said, "You don't know how to enjoy a party, do you?"
"I danced with my husband."
"Good for you. You can cross common decency from your list of things to do."
"And I see that you're drunk."
"I believe I am."
Like Norina, Zanja leaned against the wall. "How pleasant that I don't resent you, Madam Truthken. I should drink too much every day."
"Drunk or sober, you still resent me."
They stood in silence for a while. Having been forced to live together, they had learned how to cooperate with each other.
Fortunately, they did not have to like each other.
Norina said, "I have been wondering: What if the night of the assassins was a distraction?"
More than three months had passed since Zanja, with blood drying to a stiff crust on her bare skin, and Emil, barefoot and in his nightshirt, had stalked the invaders through the unlit maze of Travesty's hallways. Eleven people had been killed that night: Paladins, librarians, clerks, and nearly all the assassins.
"What would they have been distracting us from?" Zanja asked.
"If we were successfully distracted, how could we know?"
Zanja said, "That night haunts us like an illness that has no cure.
Can't we enjoy one worry-free day?"
"Perhaps you can." Not once had Norina taken her attention from the slow-moving line of visitors.
Zanja sighed, and wrestled her intoxicated mind into something that resembled attentiveness. "So you're speculating that the assassins gave up their lives just to distract us? They seemed sincere to me!"
"Oh, they were sincere. But they were in thrall to the rogue air witch, whose intentions they couldn't have known."
"I'll find Medric and ask him what he thinks."
Zanja walked away. When she glanced back, Norina had become invisible again.
The ill-planned building had one unlikely, eccentric tower, reached by a staircase that for most people was impossible to find.
Zanja found it, and in pitch darkness felt her way up the narrow, twisting stairway. Like everything in that house, the steps were wrong: each one at a different height, made of stone so soft it wore away under her feet and every step was slippery with powdered stone. She counted the steps, yet cracked her head on the trap door without realizing she had reached the top.
"Who's that cursing beneath my floor?" called Medric. He yanked open the trap, and his spectacles winked with the faint light of his candle as he peered down at her.
"How can the number of steps keep changing?" she asked.
"It's not even possible," Medric said. "Oh, it's you, who steals my husband, wears him out with frivolity ..."
Zanja climbed the last steps, rubbing her bruised head. "If frivolity tires Emil, then surely you're the culprit."
"Oh!" cried Medric. "Oh! Oh!" He staggered away, comically clutching his chest, and collapsed into the small room's only piece of furniture, an armchair with an attached candle stand from which poured a torrent of hardened wax. The candle that perched there atop the remains of its predecessors jiggled dangerously. Its feeble, flickering light fell upon books stacked carefully upon the floor, a tangle of cobwebs sagging from the ceiling, and a dozen unwashed windows, most of which stood open. The housekeeper, Bran, apparently had been unable to find this dirty den, and it was just as well, since his thoroughness was matched by an equally great thoughtlessness.
Zanja spotted a glimmer of gilding in the shadows. "You've been stealing my glyph cards again."
"Borrowing," he said.
She claimed the card, which lay atop the tower of books.
Emil had gathered artists to copy the thousand illustrations in the lexicon from the past: one copy for Zanja, to replace the deck of glyph cards that she had lost at sea, and a second copy for the scholars to study. Every few days, the artists gave her a card.
She squatted on the dusty floor and tilted the new card toward the candle flame. It depicted a ship, strangely shaped and oddly rigged, which flew high above a distant landscape of forest, fields, and winding river, all partly obscured by clouds. "I've only glanced at this one in the book. Does it make sense to you?"
This was how they always talked to each other, asking and answering questions, with a glyph card between them like an empty tray they endeavored to fill with understanding.
The seer said, "Arrogant indeed is the ship that sneers at its river!"
"Oh, do you mean that this illustration is about air logic? Then I don't care what it means." Music and laughter from the square below seemed far away, muted, irrelevant.
Medric said, "You're cranky. I suppose you've been talking to Norina. Why don't you avoid her like I do?"
"Because I can only avoid her by avoiding everyone, like you do. She's wondering if the night of the assassins could have been a distraction."
"She suspects the rogue air witch sacrificed five followers as a decoy? Well, our Truthken may be cold as fish and a hundred times more spiny, with a thorn bush for a heart and a dagger for a brain, but she knows her own kind." Medric rested his chin on his hand and blinked at her like a cat.
Zanja examined the mystifying Ship of Air, the ship so arrogant that it sneered at the river. "Which air witch is arrogant? The one who's somewhat domesticated and obsessively devoted to the law, or the one who has gone rogue and is devoted to his or her own laws?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Air Logic"
Copyright © 2019 Laurie J. Marks (lauriejmarks.com).
Excerpted by permission of Small Beer Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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