It was less than two hours after we’d fled from the party, and less than one minute after I’d finished venting my feelings on a climbing clea stalk that refused to stay put and kept tangling burnflowers in with the frost blossoms.
I looked up from the charcoaled stalk with vicious triumph, and my eyes fell upon Jontan standing outside the gate to my garden, watching me with an amused expression.
“Uh, hi,” I said, embarrassed. I climbed to my feet from the crouched position by the climbing clea crates. They were right over the patch of ground where my thayflowers used to be. “I didn’t, uh, see you there.”
“I gathered,” Jontan said. “So this is how you made a big impression on that party?”
I flinched. “You heard about that already?”
“My parents were there,” he said. “The hosts are good friends of theirs. So what’s this about their being a new kind of magic?”
“It’s not a new kind of magic,” I corrected him, irked. Was I going to have to spend my whole life explaining this to everybody? “It’s a new kind of system. Magic was a system. Status is one, too.”
“Uh huh,” Jontan said. “So this was what you did there?”
I looked down at the blackened clea stalk in my hand. I probably shouldn’t have killed the plant, even if it had been annoying me to no end. “Sort of,” I said, somewhat sheepishly. “Mostly I stopped a girl from getting burned.”
Jontan nodded. There was silence for a moment between us.
“I heard you were back,” he said. “I had assumed you were going to stay in Central, with your sister.”
“Plans change,” I said. “I wanted to go home after just a few days, but then magic died and the Ruler’s Roads stopped working.” That explanation was missing a few crucial steps, but it was as much as I was going to give him.
“I’m sorry you left,” he said. “My family missed you.”
I felt a lump in my throat. “I missed everyone here, too,” I said awkwardly.
I hadn’t asked my family about Jontan because I’d been afraid what they’d say. Was Jontan married now? Was he not? I wasn’t sure which would be worse.
If he was still unmarried, that might mean he held a candle for me, which would be awful because I’d rejected him. If he was married, that meant his whole life had changed while I was away, and I’d missed all of it.
Plus, a small part of me would be intensely jealous of whoever he did marry. Not that I’d ever admit it, but . . . he was the person I was closest with that I wasn’t related to, after all.
And now that I no longer had to worry about magic, he wouldn’t have been the worst suitor to have. Marriage could be based on friendship, after all. Perhaps I could manage to fall in love with him after we got married.
“How’s . . . everybody?” I said with some difficulty.
“My parents are well,” he said. “Eliss is engaged.”
I cursed him for not answering the question I hadn’t asked. “And how are you and . . . your wife?”
“Suellen’s pregnant,” he blurted out. “She lost the first one last year, during the last cold season. I think it was because of malnutrition. Please, I need you to teach me whatever you know. She couldn’t bear it if she lost this baby. I don’t think I could, either.”
I barely kept from bursting into tears. You idiot, of course he’s married! What, did you think he would wait for you after he thought you were gone forever? And after you’d rejected him?
“I would be happy to teach you,” I said bravely. “You’re one of the most responsible people I know. I’m sure you would use it wisely.”
“Thank you,” he said, looking relieved. “Your grandmother brought us burnflowers last week, which saved our altons from the last frost, so we should be able to . . . to get a few more fruits out of them than we’re usually able to, and . . . whatever I can do to . . . well . . . just, thank you, Raneh,” he said at last.
I nodded dumbly, not trusting myself to talk.
Suellen probably loves him more than I do, I thought. He deserves that. She deserves him. This is good. I’m glad he moved on with his life. He should have.
And I really was glad. I wouldn’t have wanted Jontan to pine after me. He didn’t deserve that kind of misery, and he would make a wonderful husband and father. I knew Suellen was a good match for him.
But it would be a lot easier to take if I had any prospects right now myself.
“I can’t start teaching you today,” I said, keeping my voice from cracking. “But you’ll be one of the first students I take. When I’ve decided on four others, I’ll teach you all at once. In the meantime, if you have any more improvements that your land need, I’ll . . . be over there tomorrow morning. You’re one of my oldest friends. I’ll help your family in whatever ways I can.”
Jontan broke into a smile. “Thank you, Raneh.”
I nearly choked on a sob. I had to get rid of him.
“Here,” I said, bending over to scramble through the burnflowers by my feet. I somehow managed to hold back my tears, my arms trembling. Two-tens-and-four burnflowers bloomed upwards at my touch, and those swelled out a large number of seeds. I knocked the flowers sharply with my thumbs and caught a double handful of seeds. I made sure my face was completely composed before I straightened.
I walked steadily over to where he stood outside my garden, and reached my arms out over the gate. “Hold our your hands,” I said.
Jontan quickly did. I spilled the numerous seeds onto his palms with a loud shifting noise.
“Plant those wherever you want them to be,” I said. “I’ll be over tomorrow morning to grow them higher. Remember, burnflowers have very, very deep roots, so they’re pretty much permanent. And make sure you have barriers to keep the other plants around from catching on fire.”
Jontan nodded, his face lighting up. “Thanks, Raneh!”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said, bowing slightly.
As he walked off down to the path, back towards his family’s land, crunching on the thin layer ice and snow, I felt my heart squeeze.
Everything’s changed while I was gone. Everybody has changed.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t glad that they had moved on, but I’d missed so much that I felt like I was in a crowd of strangers.
I felt like there was no longer a place here for me.
“Are any of my other suitors married?” I burst in through the back door, accosting Grandmother, who was in the kitchen. “Derrim? Genn? Adran?”
“Of course they are, and you know Adran’s married,” Grandmother said pointedly, “seeing as it happened five years ago and you were at the wedding. I take it you met Jontan out there?”
I nodded, barely keeping tears from spilling.
“That was your choice,” Grandmother said, chopping a thin bulge tuber into slivers. “You turned him down.”
I looked away, my vision blurry, feeling angry.
“Genn was last year,” Grandmother said. “Frankly, I’m surprised it took him so long, since he was so besotted with that mathematician girl. But he was taking his sweet time choosing a new landowner family, since the Ruler’s heirs weren’t coming to enforce the deadline.”
“And Derrim?” I asked.
“I haven’t kept up with his family, but I believe the boy is engaged,” Grandmother said.
I nodded. I felt much more calm about that. I knew I hadn’t wanted to marry him.
“I don’t have any prospects,” I mourned. “And I’m twenty.”
“Well, that ought to change, now that you’re telling people you’re the Keeper,” Grandmother said. “That ought to increase your desirability.”
I winced. “I don’t want anyone to want to marry me just because I’m the Keeper!”
“Well then, you can keep being picky.” Grandmother slid the slices off the chopping board with her knife, pushing them into a bowl. “Good luck with that.”
“Besides, I haven’t told anyone yet. I only told them about fireweaving. And don’t you tell them, either!” I added hotly.
Grandmother gave me a level stare. I had the distinct impression that she was exasperated. “And how long are you planning to wait?”
“Until the crisis is over,” I said. “Until the famine’s done. As long as it’s still going on, I don’t want people to know magic’s dying is my fault.”
Grandmother hesitated. “Well, that sounds reasonable,” she said at last. “But Raneh, nobody here really knows what the word ‘Keeper’ means. You don’t have to take the credit for creating fireweaving, but you ought to have some explanation for why you can do some things that they can’t.”
For a moment, one of Alaxa’s memories overwhelmed me. I lurched off to the side. He’d lived most of his life on boats, and the tossing waves always made me feel seasick. I hadn’t even known what a boat was until his memories.
“Alaxa managed to keep people from realizing he was the Keeper of tides for most of his life,” I managed to stumble, resurfacing. “And this was with people who knew what a Keeper was. It’s possible.”
“It may be possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s responsible,” Grandmother said tartly. “You might need to have some authority when outliers inevitably start abusing your new system.”
Urgh. That was the thing I most dreaded. I knew there were bound to be loopholes I hadn’t seen, problems I hadn’t anticipated, ways in which my system could be used horribly. It had happened to every other system throughout history.
“Well, I’ll deal with that when I come to it,” I said.
“Well, at least you showed off some of the things your system can do,” Grandmother said, pouring a small dollop of sweetsap into the bowl, then spinning the jar around so that the goo fell back inside instead of leaving a sticky residue around the edges. She was better at that than I was. “You’ve been home for two weeks now. It’s about the right time to start teaching a few people.”
I watched her whip the bowl vigorously.
“I didn’t want to start yet,” I hedged. “I was hoping to have a few more weeks to prepare for it.”
“Then it’s just as well that it came out at the party,” Grandmother said dryly. “Poorly as you handled the situation, according to Hurik.”
I don’t want Hurik, of all people, criticizing my social skills! I thought indignantly.
“When’s dinner?” I asked, trying not to sound sulky.
“In a little less than an hour. I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
I left the kitchen and stormed up the stairs, in a rather bad mood about how this whole day had gone.
I was really dreading tomorrow morning.