"About time," Chynella said, as I deposited the basket of freshly cut parsley on the kitchen bench.
"I am sorry that took a little long. I dropped the scissors." Both those statements were completely true. I was no liar. However, that did not mean I was exceedingly generous with the truth. I did not have anything to hide, but I preferred not to be made to justify every little thing I did, said, or thought. That was tiresome and unnecessary.
"Is your hand feeling any better?" Chynella sounded more curious than compassionate.
I shook my head. "It is about the same. Do you need any more help?" I had work I needed to do, but I did not want to be alone just yet, after the weird conversation with Skids.
"No, the parsley was all. You should get back to your sewing. You have less than an hour until sunset, and sundown is less than half..."
I didn't need to be told what the sun was doing. "I know how much light is left."
"You always do. I had to read the chart. Which I had plenty of time to do. Because I was waiting for you to bring the parsley so I can finish this stage of the soup."
I didn't want to dwell on that subject, so I refrained from addressing Chynella's tone. "Sorry about that. What are we eating tonight?"
"You would know if you paid as much attention to Mother's menu plan as you give to the sun."
"Chynella." I had no time for being teased about my preferred interests. I tried fixing my most intimidating glare on my sister, but it was barely a tenth as effective as even Father's milder glares.
"At least you are aware enough to realise the goat soup will not be ready until tomorrow," Chynella said, smirking as she shook seasoning into the massive iron soup pot.
I kept myself from shouting or screaming at my bratty sister, but only because I practically hissed my words. "Chynella Sara Wilison. Just tell me already."
"You know using my middle name isn't at all intimidating."
"Oops," she said, somehow packing an appropriate amount of contrition into such a short, casual interjection. "Fine, we are having ham. With freshly picked vegetables, of course. Chastity is putting the hams on to cook right now. Did you not see her?"
I hadn't been paying much attention to my surroundings as I'd reached the house, so I had barely noticed our fourteen-year-old sister. "No. Please tell me she is not grilling them."
"Sorry, you know how Father prefers his hams. You can cook your meat however you like after you marry that butcher."
Not in a mood to discuss my impending marriage, I pressed on with my relatively inconsequential complaints about the hams. "Chastity always burns them. I think she serves me the most burned one on purpose."
"You say burned, we say charred. You need to learn to appreciate the char, Char"
"Don't call me that!"
"Ha, I made you slip up, now we're even!"
I just looked pointedly at my sister until the girl realised that she had made the same mistake again.
"Oh." The girl sighed deeply. "Why does it even matter how we talk? The clerics can't hear us."
"You should always speak with respect, care, and precision. The Great Maker hears all. The Great Maker sees all. The..."
"The Great Maker knows all, I know," Chynella finished the quote.
"And we can hear too," said a new, annoyed voice above us. "You are setting a bad example for the littles." Chalice was herding Chyley, Chyler and Chace down from the upstairs activity room. She was almost two years younger than me, and the three with her were the youngest siblings besides baby Cherish.
"I am not little! I am this old!" Chace announced, holding up one entire hand.
"Well done," I congratulated him. "Are they done with today's lessons already?" I asked Chalice.
Chalice nodded and smiled in obvious fond contentment. "Yes. The twins have been very well behaved, and Chace is rather excited about numbers."
I smiled, using the proper serene smile of a young woman pleased to hear about educational success. I was genuinely happy, of course. If the littles had not taken well to their lessons, that would be bad for their futures, would reflect badly on their teachers, and thus would be bad for the whole family. "That is good to hear. Chynella, are you ready to take them out to stretch their legs?" She might not be, as Chalice was slightly early.
Chynella grabbed a clean spoon from the cutlery drawer while holding up her other index finger. "One moment." She filled the spoon and took a considering taste of the soup. "Mmm. Not bad, but it needs a dash more salt." She took the lid off the wooden salt shaker and tipped a little into the massive iron pot. "That should do it. Chalice, could you give it a stir for me?" she asked as she untied her apron and hung it on its hook on the wall.
"I can do that," Chalice said as she tied on her own, larger apron. She glanced around the kitchen and added, "I can see that the big brothers have not arrived with my fresh vegetables yet."
"Great, thanks," Chynella said with a satisfied grin. "Alright you three, time to get your jackets and shoes on so you can chase me around the house a few times. Chadwick and Chester can join in too if they have finished their afternoon chores." She didn't address the issue of the missing vegetables, as it was none of her business.
"Can you tie my shoes, Nella?" Chace asked, as he picked up the correct pair from their wall nook.
"Of course, Chace, but remember to say 'please'."
"Pease!" Chace's adorable response was the cause of multiple girlish giggles.
Chynella conveyed the younger three outside without trouble. Once they were gone, Chalice stopped stirring the soup and took out a fresh spoon for tasting.
"How bad is it?" I asked.
"This is only a three on the Chynella Cooking Disaster Scale. A little too much nutmeg, again. Plus she tried adding cinnamon to mask the taste of the nutmeg."
"Typical," I said, shaking my head. "It is a blessing of the Great Maker that she did not pour in the entire shaker of salt. I have to admit that she is improving. But she really is not ready to be cooking unsupervised yet, whatever Mother says."
"Mother knows that Chynella's cooking is better than no cooking at all. We all have to pull our weight while Mother is... feeling delicate. And Chynella is competent now, just with an unusual sense of taste."
"Unusual? You mean her tastebuds are still mostly burned out from the Paprika Incident."
"You know she is over that, Charity. She simply has different tastes to you."
"In any case, can you salvage this?" I asked, not wanting to argue that point again. It never achieved anything.
"Salvage? Who have you been listening to? Are there sailors in town?"
Sailors. I had initially suspected Skids might be from the coast. "No sailors. Not to my knowledge. Never mind that, what about the soup? Can you save it?"
"It will be alright. A three on the scale is only unpleasant, not toxic or unpalatable. I can improve it by adding more garlic." She took another taste and considered it further. "It needs lemon juice too. She either forgot or skipped it. But that beats the time she added an entire cup of lime..."
"Don't remind me!"
Chalice shot me an appalled look. "Wow, if not sailors then you have been around barbarians altogether too much. You, the girl who wants to be the secretary to a cleric!"
"Sorry, I have a short temper today. The pain in my hand, you know?" Or it could be Skids' lazy speech rubbing off on me, but... no, I had barely talked with him. Best to put that behind me.
Chalice didn't answer for a minute, as she had to retrieve a lemon from the cold cellar under the kitchen. In her absence, I busied myself keeping an eye on Chynella and the littles outside. They were burning off some of their boundless energy while there was still enough light to run safely. "You were saying, about your injured hand?" Chalice asked as she secured the hatch over the ladder. Locking it ensured that none of the littles could open it and injure themselves.
I kept my report brief. There was no point in going on about it and making a place for unnecessary worry or hope. "It is growing worse. Father hopes he will have a chance to ask the clerics for help."
"You know he cannot afford the price they would set for healing."
"He might strike a good deal."
"Based on what?"
I didn't have a good answer for that. Father was primarily a farmer, which gave him little authority or status compared to a cleric. Blessed with a large healthy family and a married son, he had no basis to ask for additional favour. "Father is not just a farmer. He leads a patrol. He has for over ten years!"
Chalice halved the lemon and began squeezing out the juice. "Do patrol leaders earn major boons by showing up on time and walking around the city finding nothing, Miss Legal Expert?"
I sighed. "No." Why was I even arguing about this?
"And has any patrol in our lifetime ever spotted anything notable around Forrester's Crossing?"
"So stop assuming Father can afford to have your hand healed without the rest of us starving. Be practical, for once."
She had a lot of nerve, saying that to me. "Why do you think you have any right to tell me to be practical, Chalice?"
"Why do you think that knowing everything about everything should make you practical?" Chalice replied, as she always did. "There is a word to describe people who think they know more than the ones The Great Maker put in authority over them, and that word is not practical."
"Oh, you mean 'rebellious'? Me? You know how devout I am!"
"Do you really believe that?"
"I have the entire Codex of Purity memorised. And the Foundational Clerical Discourses, the Advanced Clerical Explanations, and all the Annotated Greatest Sayings of the Maker."
"All that has not kept you from being a lazy dreamer. Here, wash the knife and squeezer while I crush some garlic."
"You can wash them yourself. I have curtains to sew."
"Really, Charity? You were happy to forget about that while you were standing around idle, but you suddenly remember now that I want your help? I see how it is."
She was being grossly unfair with her insinuations. "I was happy to put aside my work to talk with my favourite sister, but now you are calling me a lazy dreamer."
"And you are doing nothing to prove otherwise. You try to hide it, even from yourself, but you have to face the truth. Father is marrying you off to a butcher in Deepbloom. Not a cleric, or the son of a cleric, or a scholar. A butcher."
"A butcher who has extensive contacts. And Deepbloom is both bigger than Forrester's Crossing and closer to the capital. I see it as an opportunity."
"Opportunity, really? Living near a few thousand more people who work on farms will make no difference. And neither will being closer to the capital. Deepbloom is best known for its three railroad turntables. A butcher's wife is not going to find herself doing anything but being a butcher's wife. But there is nothing wrong with being a butcher's wife."
"I can prove myself more useful as a..."
"You have already proven what you are useful for. There is nothing you can do that any other healthy woman cannot do. Giving you special privileges is simply not practical, and the sooner you admit that to yourself, the better."
I didn't understand how Chalice managed to be the more practical one, given that she was younger and less inquisitive. However, I was sure that her argument had not accounted for everything. "But surely they will understand..."
"Understand what? That you are worth helping at a low price? Face it, you are one of seven sisters. Our family has a rather high survival rate. We are already very blessed. You know how it works: for such a fortunate family, it would take a significant sacrifice to earn further favour. Face it, losing your hand would be the cheaper option. Besides, I can hardly imagine anyone as clumsy as you would survive more than a few years married to a butcher without losing a few fingers at least." Chalice held up her knife for emphasis.
"Hey!" I was starting to rethink her 'favourite sister' status. While it was a joke, she was not wrong about my clumsiness, and that hurt.
"You have to admit that is the truth, Charity. Or you can wash this for me."
"I do not have to admit anything."
"Only because you refuse to let go of your false hope."
"The thing I refuse to let go of is my hand!" Continuing this conversation was only making me angrier, I realised. Convincing Chalice would not actually change anything. What happened to me was entirely up to Father, and the clerics. And the Great Maker, of course. "I... This is dumb. Sorry, Chalice."
Chalice nodded. "Same. And you should get out of here before the grown boys catch us standing idle." She pointed out the side window, past our running younger siblings. I quickly spotted Channing and Champion in the distance, each carrying a basket.
"Right, sewing," I said, having failed to think of a graceful way to exit.
Time passed quickly as I threw my attention into my sewing. I was working on a set of kitchen curtains, which should add a personal touch to my future home. The task required concentration, serving as a welcome distraction. A simpler task would have left me free to worry about my encounter with Skids.
Our brief meeting had left me with many questions, and thinking about them only lead to more questions. Most of all, I worried whether the man was really just a harmless but strange foreigner. Or was he something dangerous, even... inhuman? He'd appeared to be physically human, as far as I could tell. His face had looked normal enough, but his strange choice of outfit had given him a very unusual appearance. That made it rather difficult to compare him to a normal man. But everything I had heard about those which lurked in the dark was far more unusual than anything I had seen in Skids. From whispered tales, I expected brightly coloured hair, numerous tattoos, and the inability to survive under the sun.
The cheery ringing of a hand-bell roused me from my worries. Apparently, the sewing had not been enough to keep my thoughts from drifting off after all. I'd only sewed half as much as I'd promised myself. Another failure to add to my long list of failures. Father was not keeping track of any of these.
"Dinner's ready! Time to wash up!" Chynella called.
I quickly set down my work and left the sewing room. I found my younger siblings lined up to use the wash-tub. Chastity was in the middle of ensuring Chadwick's face was completely clean of a grass stain. Chalice was holding tiny Cherish, but was preoccupied asking Champion to fetch a fresh bucket of water. Cherish had succeeded in reaching a bar of soap, and I swooped in and retrieved it right before she could begin nibbling on it.
Soon the littles were all clean and Champion changed out the water. Thankfully nothing was spilled in the process, and no new messes were created in the process of waiting. I remembered some bad days when that hadn't been the case. Such disasters had mostly been averted since Father paid for copper tubing to bring water indoors from the rainwater tank, reducing the carrying distance and wait time. On a couple of memorable days, someone had made the mistake of preparing multiple buckets of water by the basin, and they had not survived the inevitable stampede of little legs. We had all learned from the resultant punishments.
Finally, everyone was clean and ready to eat. Everyone except Father, I quickly realised. He was due back from his patrol, but was evidently delayed. I hoped this meant he was in discussion with the clerics, and feared that something interesting had occurred. At this hour, that could not be at all good.
I tried to put my worries aside. That was not too difficult, thanks to the aroma of the imminent meal. Chastity had evidently not burned the meat too badly, and the vegetables were done to perfection. It was mouthwatering to anyone who had put in a long day's work, and it looked splendid set out on the long wooden dining table under the soft glow of the aquarium and potted mushrooms.
Mother emerged from her room wearing a drab housecoat, her hair freshly brushed. I pulled her chair out for her and helped her sit comfortably. Chalice took the seat beside her, with Cherish in her lap. The rest of us took appropriate places around the table, with only minimal jostling and scraping of chair legs on the floor. Father was not present to take note of who was careless, and Mother made no comment. She did ask Channing to say the blessing over the meal, since he was the oldest man of the family present.
Channing nodded, and we all bowed our heads. "Great Maker, we thank You for Your bountiful blessings, specifically the food before us. May it nourish us and strengthen us that we may do Your work. Keep us from the path of evil, and shield us from magic. And we request our father's safe and prompt passage home to us. As You will, let it be."
"Let it be," the family echoed.
We began to eat in relative silence. While there were plenty of other foods I preferred, there was nothing to complain about. Not that I ever would. As our hunger became sated, some light conversation about the day's events ensued. Champion mentioned a planning meeting for an upcoming town celebration: Forty Thousand Day. This was a very significant event, the likes of which only happened once in a generation. Everyone in Forrester's Crossing was excited about it, and my family was no exception. That naturally turned into a more general discussion about railroad safety. I tried to pay attention, but none of it felt important. I had somehow forgotten about the pain in my hand while trying to sew, but now it flared up again as I cut up my ham and vegetables.
Chastity evidently noticed my focus on my hand, and drew the wrong conclusion. "Just a few more months to go, Charity. Thinking about your new life?"
"Hm? Oh, yes, life." And death, but that was not a topic for mealtime.
Chastity either failed to notice my disinterest in discussing my impending marraige, or didn't care. Most likely the latter, I suspected. "I wonder what kind of a match Father will find for me. Perhaps a tailor? Or even a glass-blower! I do not think I should like to marry a butcher though. Not that there is anything wrong with butchers. Especially yours. Quite the successful businessman, I hear," she prattled. I knew she was jealous that I was soon to be married. Not that she was old enough herself, but she was clearly the pretty one, while I wasn't. Chalice was a year older than Chastity but she was much more practical about the topic, as she was about most things.
"Your turn will come at the right time," Chalice said. I knew Chastity would not be deterred by such a statement. It wasn't the waiting she cared about so much as me being ahead of her.
"Well we cannot all marry a wealthy widower," Chastity said with too-careful politeness. "Or perhaps..."
Whatever sneakily-barbed comment she was about to fire at me was cut short by father's arrival. I quickly left the remainder of my meal to take his crossbow and mushroom lantern from him. As I moved to hang them on the appropriate hooks, I was shocked to see another man behind him. He wore an oversized brown leather coat which was missing its top button, and a floppy-brimmed grey felt hat. I realised who he had to be: one of the members of Father's patrol. Mister Friche. I could not remember his first name, but that did not prevent me from taking his things and hanging on the hooks reserved for guests' belongings. Their boots followed moments later, and I put father's coat away while the men washed their hands.
While that was going on, Chastity fetched a plate of food she had kept hot in the heated-rock oven. After some whispered instructions from Mother, she split the hot food between two plates and supplemented them from the dishes on the table which had cooled somewhat. The boys adjusted their chairs to fit in an extra one for Mr. Friche beside Father, and they began to eat after Father gave a short, standard blessing.
"Do you have news, Robert?" Mother asked once his plate was half empty. Mr. Friche had eaten a little slower, but was clearly enjoying the mostly-hot meal.
Father nodded gravely. "Both good and bad."
The room went from quiet to silent. We all waited for Father to continue. He took his time, savouring a piece of baked potato.
"The good news is that I have earned a boon from the clerics." I could hardly recall seeing a softer expression on his face. Perhaps when holding his newborn children.
I hardly dared to hope, even as I realised Father's eyes were on me. The room seemed to grow even more silent even as my heartbeat roared in my ears like a freight train over a track joint in winter.
"Charity's hand is to be healed tomorrow."
When everyone stared at me I realised I had noisily gulped in the breath I had neglected to take. "Er, I thank you, Father. And thanks be to the clerics and to the Great Maker." Wanting the attention off me as quickly as possible, I added, "And the bad news?"
Father's expression hardened, as if it was cement setting instantaneously. Beside him, Mr. Friche's studious chewing halted. "Forty Thousand Day is cancelled."
I had to replay Father's words in my head twice before I could really comprehend them. By the expressions on the faces of my family, this was a common affliction. Even as I had asked about the bad news, some part of me had not expected to really care about the answer. But this... this was big. Not as big as a city being wiped out, but definitely a shattering blow.
It was Channing who spoke up. "You mean... There was... Did...?"
"Yes," Father said. It was clear this was not the answer he wanted to give. "There has been an incident."