An excerpt from Chapter 3, Stem, Book 2 of the Peacebringer Trilogy

FIRST DRAFT – to be revised and copyedited

She wasn’t sorry. She wasn’t! Dad could call her into his office after supper to lecture her–You can’t talk to your aunt like that, he said, rambling on about being respectful to elders and when she was older blah blah blah–but he wouldn’t stop Auntie Nee from being so hateful to Jazlin. What about respect for Jazlin? Shouldn’t elders have to treat other people with respect? He didn’t have an answer for that, just a tired sigh, and she almost felt guilty, seeing how his shoulders slumped. Almost.

She unclenched her hand, wiped her palm on her dungarees, and went back into the kitchen. Jazlin turned from scrubbing down the tin counter next to the sink, a question in her eyes. Mareya shrugged meaningfully: later.

Domita paused in mid wipe of the big wooden bowl, the dishtowel dangling forgotten. “What did Daddy want?”

Mareya ignored her.

Auntie Nee sat at the table with a cup of tea. She never helped clean up; she only stayed in the kitchen to watch Jazlin. Her Bible lay open in front of her, the creased pages flat under her fingers, but her eyes were closed and her lips moved.

“Auntie Nee.” Mareya faced her from across the table, from behind a tall chair back, the knobby end of one spindle rigid in her hand.

Auntie shaped a few more words before opening her eyes. She painstakingly arranged the faded satin ribbon that marked her place and with a riffle of pages closed the Bible. She sipped her tea, the scents of mint and coneflower wafting up, and set the cup down. “Yes, Mareya?”

“I–” Auntie knew what she was supposed to say, Mareya could tell by the glint in her eyes. Fine. Hooking her foot around a chair leg, she yanked the chair out with a scrape of leg against floor that made Auntie wince, and flopped onto the seat. “Dad says I don’t have to wear the dress Momma sent. And I don’t have to go to cotillion if I don’t want to.”

Auntie’s mouth snapped shut, cutting off whatever pithy saying she’d had ready.

The wooden bowl clattered onto the counter. “Did he say I could go instead?” Domita asked breathlessly.

“You have to wait until next year.” Mareya didn’t need to ask Dad; everyone knew sixteen was the age for cotillion. She’d had to wait, and her sixteenth birthday had been just a few weeks after cotillion, not months like Domita’s.

“Oh!” Domita sighed with disappointment.

“Besides, Jazlin’s a month older than you are, and she doesn’t have a gown yet.”

Auntie’s gaze slewed around to Jazlin.

Mareya added, “Maybe Momma will send her one for next year.” It might even fit. She refused to meet Jazlin’s dark troubled eyes.

“Your mother–” Auntie clapped her splayed fingers to her mouth.

“Excuse me,” Jazlin murmured. She slipped out the back door to the veranda.

Auntie’s hand fell. She curled her fingers together over her Bible, looking pleased with herself. “Whether you wear the gown or not, you owe your mother a thank-you note. You should write it tonight so it can go out with the mail coach tomorrow.”

Thank Momma for sending her a cast-off gown? She’d write a note, all right–one lecture from Dad was enough–but there’d be precious little thanks in it. What was Auntie smiling about, anyway? She hadn’t made her apology yet. Steeling herself, she stood. “Auntie, I apologize for telling you to go to hell. Please forgive me.” Even to her the words sounded forced, but she managed not to emphasize “telling.”

“Of course I forgive you.” Auntie smirked.

That was all Auntie had to say? She headed for the door. She should have saved her breath.

“Write that note tonight,” Auntie reminded.

Mareya let the door thud softly behind her.

She found Jazlin under the kenlat tree in the foundpark, just as expected, sitting on her poncho with her legs crossed and her up-raised palms resting on her knees. Deep in self-sense, Jazlin barely nodded a greeting.

She threw herself belly-down onto the damp earth next to Jazlin. She didn’t care if mud soaked through her shirt and dungarees. Auntie Nee, Momma, Dad’s lecture–the anger and frustration and disappointment wadded together like one of Inessa’s hairballs. She itched for . . . for . . . She didn’t know what, but the skin stretched so tight across her back that a feather stroke would make her shriek. Having to listen to Dad’s earnest voice . . . Miz Odea dying, and she was one of the few people who treated Jazlin like she was a person and not a thing . . . How could Momma have sent one of her hand-me-downs? Dad shouldn’t have let Momma go off and leave them, just like he shouldn’t let Auntie treat Jazlin the way she did. Dad wouldn’t say anything to them, yet he stopped her from apprenticing with Miz Odea, and if she’s been there Miz Odea might still be alive. The dissatisfaction swelled under her skin, swelled, her skin getting tighter and thinner till she thought she would burst.

She banged her fist against the wet dirt, and still that achy discontented itch wouldn’t go away.

She rolled over and stared at the sky. The kenlat’s hand-shaped leaves, black against the scarlet sunset, quivered in the breeze, and a scattering of leftover raindrops fell from them. The tree had grown almost sixty feet since she and Jazlin planted the seed, taller than any trees in the compound. The old kenlats might have been that tall before they got whatever disease it was that made them die back to the ground. Mareya shoved her arm under her head and scowled at them. They looked healthy now, suckers growing out of all three stumps. If only her stump could sprout like that.

Above her the kenlat creaked, and more water plopped on her. Mareya sat up. The tree had a nasty habit of dropping its lower branches. First the leaves would dry up and blow away, then the branch got harder and heavier, and it broke from the trunk, leaving a smooth greenish circle.

Dad’s face had yellowed to putty when he saw the first fallen limb. He sucked air as though he’d been slapped in the belly with a mill beam, and he gathered up all the fallen kenlat in a shed built special for it. Nobody’s to touch that wood, he ordered.

Mareya wiped her muddy hand on her shirt. She wouldn’t touch the kenlat if it wouldn’t touch her. The tree creaked again. “One of those branches is fixing to drop.”

Jazlin stirred out of self-sense. “The kenlati will not harm us.” She spoke Nolfet, her tone matter-of-fact.

“You know everything, don’t you?” Mareya responded in Settler, just to be perverse.

Jazlin pulled up her knees and rested her forehead on them, arms wrapped around her legs. She didn’t look at Mareya. “No.”

“If that branch falls on me I’m going to carve it into a walking stick.” She glanced over, but Jazlin just sat there without saying anything. “Are you going to cotillion next year?”

“You should not have teased your mother-sibling so.” Jazlin lifted her head, the sharp white angles of her cheeks reddened by the sunset. Her gaze bit into Mareya. “To come of age is a matter of importance.”

“In Nolfetul, maybe! Here it’s a stupid dance.”

“Domita does not believe as you do, nor does your mother-sibling.”

“They’re stupid, too. Did you see Auntie’s face when I said Momma might send you a gown? For a minute she thought I was serious. Momma doesn’t even know you’re here–nobody in Bluford does.”

“You cannot know that.”

Did Jazlin have to argue with everything she said? “Sure, there’s probably all sorts of rumors. But it’s not like anybody important enough to make things happen has heard of you.”

Jazlin drew her hand across the matted grass at the edge of the poncho. “You borrow my name to disquiet your mother-sibling.”

Mareya made a rude noise. “What do you care? After what she did to Belhir?” She was sorry as soon as she said it.

Jazlin’s fingers dug into the soil, and her breathing slowed to that steady rhythm she used to control her greening. She took several breaths before answering in a low voice. “Your mother-sibling feared Belhir.”

Yeah, feared a kitten enough to poison her. Not that Dad or anyone else believed it, but Jazlin wouldn’t say she smelled poison in Belhir’s mouth if it weren’t true. “I don’t see how you can forgive her,” she said in disgust.

“No! I do not forgive.” Jazlin hugged her knees and shivered. “I understand.”

“That makes one of us. Some things are just plain wrong.” She scrambled to her feet. “You sit here and feel sorry for her. I’m going for a walk.”

* * *

Mareya’s presence receded, though the turmoil she had brought with her remained. It laced through Jazlin’s neck and shoulders, and coiled around her spine.

Mareya did not intend to trouble her with hurtful memories, and Mareya could not know how she longed for her own come-of-age ritual. But Mareya willfully borrowed her name to tease Miz Bernice–her name, a gift from her mother-sibling the kenal Nuril, and all that was truly hers. And Mareya cared little for her distress.

No cold-eyed snub or chant of “Jaz-a-lin, slimy skin” could ever slice her heart as Mareya’s offhand dismissal did.

She clutched the wet earth. “Belhirtan Filuran Jonitir Lortenik Rekantir Venagtir Gatafrin Helnatir Tanfarin Zaluken,” she murmured, naming the kenlati. Slowly, in gentle pulses, the tension seeped from her neck and shoulders to her fingers, and was swallowed into the soil. “I thank you.”

The kenlatik’s broad branches swayed an acknowledgement.