Jaguar kneels over the small sleeping form of her young brother. She strokes one finger gently over his golden brown cheek. His skin is as yet unmarked by the green tattoos her people painted across her own. She is fifteen. He is five.
Love is nowhere, Abigail Mortin thought to herself. If it were anywhere left, it would be right here with her husband she no longer knew how to relate to, but she couldn’t feel love when she looked up from her kneading dough at the tired middle-aged man frowning at the kitchen table over a newspaper.
David had been buried in work and statistics so long—just a few more months, he had always promised, and they’ll wrap up this project—but by the end of those eight years when David finally dragged himself out of numbers back into the real world, they had grown apart. He knew only numbers. Abigail could not share his love for them.
Paper rustled. She watched her husband stand and walk over to her, put one hand on her hand.
“Are your hands clean?” she sniffed, kneading with a little less vim.
“Teach me how to make bread,” David suddenly said softly.
Abigail glanced up in sharp surprise. “You’ve never been a baker,” she pointed out, perhaps a little harsher than was warranted.
But David pressed his hand a little more firmly onto hers. “Please.”
It surprised her, the quiet desperate pleading in that voice. She looked up at him, uncertain, more uncertain than she’d been when he took the job as City Statistician and buried himself in a deluge of work she simply couldn’t understand.
Her heart and body softened, enough, and she nodded. Baking. She pulled out the numbered measuring cups and spoons she never used—always been taught with a pinch of this, a handful of that—but that he would understand. It was a start. It was enough.
The old preacher wearily settled his bones at last on a wooden pew, harder than the harsh land that had grown this church. Years had bent and burdened him, years of reaching out his once strong, now gnarled hands to a people with ears stiff from not hearing, mouths folded in grim lines, and jaws set each one against their neighbor.
Word came at dawn of the newly outfitted military station in Westerfields, that vast uninhabited territory between Glaston and Edyll, both kingdoms cities. A quick reconnaissance by interested parties (read: operatives) identified standard and, to them, quite familiar signs of Thorn Republic activity. Once upon a time, those operatives had been the source of those signs, and they knew their own, besides any other departments Thorn might tap to do their dirty work.
Shift promised him pain when she took him in, promised him her protection, but also promised that it would change everything he was. She hadn’t mentioned nearly putting a knife in him and showing him she could break his neck with her bare hands. Justus was bone-weary by the time he left the training courts and stepped into the shower in his private quarters.