Rather late on the third morning of the new year, Crystallin Locke turned over in her bed and drew in a deep breath. It carried to her the aroma of pancakes and honey. Then she recalled with pleasant warmth that her mother was due to arrive that morning. Crystallin threw off her covers.
In the kitchen, all three of her brothers were hard at work on breakfast, and for a change they all worked smoothly together. Mica said, “Morning, Linnie. Dad went to pick Mom up. We’re holding breakfast until they get here. You don’t mind waiting, do you?”
“No, but it’ll be hard,” she said as she slid into one of the kitchen chairs. “It smells so good!”
“Sausages are done,” Larimar warned.
Slate, at the stove flipping pancakes, moved a step back and opened the oven door for Larimar to add the freshly fried sausages to a pan of other breakfast foods keeping warm there. Then he shut the oven door and flipped another pancake on the griddle while Larimar wiped out the sausage skillet and added butter to it.
“Potatoes,” said Mica, handing Larimar a large bowl.
“Thanks.” Larimar slid a quantity of shredded potatoes into the skillet. “Salt and pepper,” he said, and thanked Slate for handing them to him.
Crystallin watched this with quiet enjoyment for a few minutes before she went to her own post at the electric kettle. A brief search made her ask, “Are we out of chamomile?”
“No,” said Slate, “we just took to keeping it on the sideboard while everyone was away.”
After retrieving the tea, Crystallin set the table while the kettle came to a boil. “Who wants what?” she asked.
Slate chuckled aloud. “Good thing Dad isn’t here. Who knows what kind of answer you’d get?”
“I know Mom will want chamomile with candied lemon peel,” Crystallin said, “because that’s her favorite. Dad will either go for chamomile plain or for chicory, depending on what frame of mind he’s in. Mica usually goes for chicory with sugar, but you two are more unpredictable. That’s why I ask.”
“Dad seemed pretty complacent this morning,” Mica said.
“Chamomile plain it is, then,” Crystallin said. “But I’ll leave the sugar bowl out, just in case.”
“Why’s that?” Larimar asked.
“If he gets irritated by anything,” Crystallin said, “he adds sugar to his chamomile. I think it calms him more.”
“I never noticed that,” Mica commented.
“You don’t usually make the tea,” said Crystallin.
“It’s odd to see you two getting along so well,” Larimar noted.
Crystallin looked at Mica, who looked back at her. She knew even without the benefit of human thought sympathy that they were both thinking of Sanna.
The side door opened to give their parents admittance. Crystallin ran to greet her mother. “How was the drive, Mom? Did you make it the whole way without Bertie Hart losing any clothes?”
Coralie smiled wearily. “Yes, thankfully. It helped, in a way, that the heater cut out just after we left the crossroads waystation. I could really make good use of a hot cup of tea. Oh, it’s so warm in here, and smells so delicious!”
The boys brought all the food to the table, and they sat down to eat. Their conversation was all catch-up, so that Coralie got all her questions and concerns answered. She was so drowsy by the end of the meal that her eyes kept closing for several seconds at a time. This reached a point where Everard got up from his place, picked up Coralie in his arms, and just carried her away from the table without a word.
“Must have been a long drive,” Mica remarked.
“Don’t you remember?” asked Slate.
“I haven’t been to Fortress in years,” Mica said, “and when I did still go, I was reading or sleeping most of the way. In either case, I wasn’t paying attention. Most of my life so far, I haven’t really paid attention.”
“That’s one of the hazards of human thought sympathy,” their father remarked as he reentered the dining room. “It’s certainly something to be wary of. Let’s let your mom sleep for now.”
The rest of them finished their breakfast. Slate and Larimar had to check in with their workplace supervisors, although technically they were off for the holiday week. Mica asked, “Dad, do you mind if I head to the medical library before I go to the Tates’? I want to check out some research materials.”
“Go ahead. Linnie, let’s get all this cleaned up.” Everard started to roll up his sleeves.
“Let me do the washing, Daddy, and you dry,” Crystallin urged him. “It’s a holiday.”
“I don’t see how the holiday comes into it,” he said mildly, “but if that’s what you want, then so be it.”
They cleared away the dishes, the pans, the mixing bowls, the silverware, and the various other bits and pieces that the boys had dirtied in making breakfast. While her father finished drying, Crystallin gave the counters and the table a thorough wipe-down with a clean cloth. “Looks good,” she declared, surveying the kitchen and dining room, “though I say it myself.”
“If you’re ready, then, let’s go see if we can help with preparations.”
It wasn’t a long walk from their house to the Tate house, because even though they were in different districts, they were practically across the district boundary line from each other. As Crystallin expected, the Tate house swarmed with activity. Before they even had a chance to go inside, Everard went to help set up tables under the marquee in the garden, leaving Crystallin to continue on by herself. She stepped into the steamy kitchen and said over the clatter, “Morning! How can I help?”
Hapzah replied, “Prop the door open, the cold air feels good!”
Seeing that there was no room for another helper in the kitchen, Crystallin removed herself across to the family room. Lyndon was there, reading in his usual chair. The light from the window gleamed on the round lenses of his glasses, hiding his eyes, but he turned the pages so briskly that Crystallin knew he was utterly caught up in his reading.
An elderly man with a distinguished profile was reading the capital newspaper in a nearby chair. He looked up when Crystallin sat in the chair opposite Lyndon. “It’s Linnie Locke,” the old man said. “Good morning to you, my dear girl.”
“Grandpapa Nigel,” Crystallin exclaimed, “when did you arrive?”
“Late last night,” Lyndon’s maternal grandfather answered.
“And where are you staying?”
“We booked a room at the Orchard Inn ahead of time, on Elder Tate’s recommendation. I’m glad he warned us, because everywhere is so terribly crowded here.”
“It gets like that at New Year’s,” Crystallin agreed. “Everybody’s in the capital to visit family, and the hotels are always full.” She chatted with Grandpapa Nigel about her travels, about the latest South Territory news, and the upcoming wedding.
“And when will your wedding be?” he teased. “Long engagements are no good to anyone.”
Crystallin smiled but also sighed. “Daddy made it a condition that I must have a career path laid out first, and I just don’t know what I should do.”
“He’s a sensible man, your father. You should have your own identity before you merge your life with another’s… especially with someone who has as much identity as Lyndon.”
Lyndon was so absorbed that not even the mention of his own name stirred him from his reading.
“I know,” Crystallin said.
“It’s easy to see Everard is still Southern,” Grandpapa Nigel continued. “There’s a tendency in our culture for the wife to get buried under her husband’s identity, to become a mere accessory to wear on the arm, you see, and your father is watching out that such does not happen to you.”
Crystallin enjoyed chatting with Grandpapa Nigel. He was so dignified-looking, with his hair silver-white and his tall, upright carriage, but he had such a quick sense of humor and gentlemanly charisma that he was not at all intimidating. When Everard came in from the yard, the two men greeted each other like the old friends they were. Crystallin let them catch up on news; she went to kneel next to Lyndon’s chair. She noted that his dark brown hair was getting a little long, to the point of obscuring his widow’s-peak hairline. His forelock hung down between his eyes behind his glasses, so Crystallin reached up and gently brushed it to one side for him.
He looked up from his reading briefly and said, “Just give me a minute, and I’ll be at a good stopping-place.” In about a minute, he took up his pressed-flower bookmark and closed it in the pages. Then he looked fully at Crystallin.
“You need a haircut,” she said.
“I know, but everyone is so busy, no one has the time.”
“May I try? Fiola showed me how she cuts Soren’s hair. I think I can do it.”
Lyndon was placid. “Give it a try.”
They commandeered the mud room. Lyndon stuck his head under the tap in the utility sink while Crystallin sneaked a chair out of the busy kitchen. With the scissors and comb from the upstairs bathroom, and a spare bedsheet from the linen cupboard, their setup was complete. Crystallin stood with the scissors in one hand and her other hand resting on Lyndon’s sheet-covered shoulder. “Well,” she said, “here we go.”
“You can’t do any worse than Michael did, that one time.”
“True. I almost forgot about that.” Crystallin started with the untidy fringe at the base of his neck. Snip, snip, the sharp scissors took off thick locks of hair with ease. She kept shaping Lyndon’s shaggy hair, sides and back, until she finally trimmed up the untidy forelock. Then, scissors put aside, she circled around him. “It doesn’t look right, somehow,” she said uneasily.
“Let me see.” Lyndon walked to the first floor bathroom to check the mirror. When he emerged, he said, “I like it.”
“But do you like it because it looks good, or because I did it?”
“Does it matter? If I like it, I like it.”
It was nearly time for lunch by then. Crystallin and Lyndon were the last to arrive at the table after cleaning up the mudroom. Hapzah said, “Lyndon, you have a new haircut.”
“Linnie took care of it for me. I like it.”
Hapzah and Grandma Apple exchanged a look. “That’s a relief. We’ve been so busy, I was afraid we’d have to pull your hair back under a ribbon for you to witness the wedding. And it’s a relief that someone else has passed the haircut test. He’s always so particular,” she said to Grandmama Penelope. “Usually, only Mom or I can touch his hair with scissors. All right, Linnie, I now commission you as Lyndon’s official hairdresser.”
Crystallin’s face warmed. “Yes, ma’am. I accept.”
It was a noisy, animated meal. Coralie had come after her nap and was chatting with Hapzah and Feilin about winter clothes. Larimar and Fineas were discussing how best to adjust the mineral content of soil with different kinds of compost. The two sets of grandparents were exchanging memories of Michael’s growing-up years. Mica was quizzing Uncle Archet about sympathies from a medical standpoint. Michael and Helena were gazing at each other across the table, hardly aware of anyone around them in their obvious excitement for the next day. Uncle Kent, Slate, and Everard were talking about a recent track and field meet that Everard had missed watching during his travels. And when Crystallin’s attention came back around to Lyndon across the table from her, she found him gazing at her with an absent-minded expression. As their eyes met, Lyndon smiled a little and dropped his gaze to his food.
After the meal, the kitchen became busy again, driving all who weren’t involved out to the seating area of the family room. Grandpapa Nigel went out on the front porch to cool off, having thermal energy sympathy, and Crystallin was one who went out with him. For being the third day of winter, the weather was surprisingly fine. “I hope this lasts,” Michael said. “At least just for another two days.”
“It would be helpful,” Everard agreed. “Cora and I were married in a sleet storm. Her mother nearly suffered nervous exhaustion, just trying to keep the floors clean from every guest tracking in slush.”
“Ah, I remember that,” said Uncle Archet. “It was a miserable week for weather. But you said it was a perfect week for a honeymoon.” He grinned. “On account of having a perfect excuse to stay in for the first four days of your marriage, just you and Cora.”
“Do you really have any room to talk, Archet?” Grandpapa Nigel said. “You went so far as to take Nirva on a trip to the interior, just to be alone.”
“But she had such a big family,” Uncle Archet protested, “it was the only way to get away from all the visitors.”
Crystallin’s father said, “Speaking of visitors…” He gestured toward the street with his cup.
Uncle Archet leaped to his feet. “Rusza!” He ran across the yard and out the front gate without closing it behind him. “You came!”
“And so did she,” Crystallin muttered. She got up and went inside, all the way through the house, and took refuge in the workroom at the rear. Helena’s wedding dress was there, displayed on a tailor’s mannequin. Crystallin touched one of the seed pearls sewn onto the bodice.
Lyndon found her there a few minutes later. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” she said. “Shouldn’t you be out with your family, though?”
“I greeted the guests. What else am I required to do? They aren’t my guests.” He gave the wedding dress a careful study. “Will you wear something like this when we get married?”
“Probably. Don’t you like it?”
He shrugged. “It’s a little fussy. And I can’t imagine how I’m supposed to get you out of—” He shut his mouth with a hot blush.
Crystallin laughed. “That isn’t something you need to worry about,” she teased. “The same women who put me in will take me back out so I can wear something more practical to our new home, wherever that will be. And I won’t tell Daddy that you thought about taking me out of my clothes.”
His blush darkened. “It gets tougher not to think thoughts like that. I missed you a lot this last time you were gone.”
Crystallin went to open the workroom door. She caught sight of Mica loitering in the hallway, obviously avoiding Miss Demyan and her mother like Crystallin was. “Mica, over here.” When he came closer, she said, “Come sit with me and Lyndon in here. Be our chaperone. It’s a good excuse, isn’t it?”
“Thanks.” He came into the workroom. “That’s an impressive dress,” he said.
“We were just talking about that.” Crystallin exchanged a mischievous look with Lyndon and laughed softly.
“One of those conversations,” Mica said. “No wonder you need a chaperone. While I’m here with just you two, Lyndon, I’d like to ask how you decided to ask Linnie to marry you.”
“How? I just missed her,” said Lyndon. “She went away with Aunt Coralie, and it wasn’t two days before I noticed I couldn’t think about anything but where was she, how was she, when was she coming back. I decided the only long-term solution was to get married so we could be together always.” He sat down on the bench at the worktable.
Crystallin sat next to him and let him put his arm around her shoulders. “Because we have a chaperone,” she said impishly.
Mica shook his head. “You two.”
“It’s fine. This much is acceptable for an engaged couple, or so Grandma says,” Lyndon said in all seriousness.
“If Grandma Apple says so,” Mica replied. “I wish I hadn’t left my book in the family room. Is there anything back here I can read?”
Voices from the corridor drew all their attention. Uncle Archet sounded tense. “I know: I just met her. I’ll form my own judgment from my own experience. But Rusza, I am very concerned about you. I’ve heard such things as to make me doubt my own senses, and if they didn’t come from people I know and trust to be upstanding, honest sources, I’d take it as slander. No, it wasn’t from Everard, nor from Linnie either. Linnie wrote only to Lyndon, and he wouldn’t show me the letter. It was Axel Taivas who wrote me first. He likes you very much, and your conduct worried him deeply. Were you cruel to your friend? In front of strangers?” A pause followed. Uncle Archet’s sigh was profound. “Rusza, tell me you understand why we’re so worried about you and this new relationship.”
“I get it.” Rusza spoke clearly this time. “I let myself get pulled along for a while. And I’m sorry about that. I’m still immature. I get it. And I’m trying my best to do better now. I gave it a lot of thought. I need to take the lead, because I’m older than she is. We’ll work on it together. It’ll be better, Dad. I promise. Please, just give Irina a fair chance.”
“I can do that,” Uncle Archet promised, “but you can’t expect anything from Everard anymore. You’ve used up all your chances with him.”
“I tried to apologise,” Rusza said, “but every time I try, he keeps moving away, talking to somebody else. He won’t give me a chance to say I’m sorry.”
“If you haven’t noticed this about your uncle yet, I’ll just tell you: Everard places no value on spoken apologies. The only kind of apology he believes is a permanent change in behavior. He’s avoiding you because he thinks it unkind to tell you outright that you’re wasting your breath by just saying the words. I’ll tell you one more thing: it’s almost unheard-of for him to take an active dislike to someone like he has now, especially toward a child of sixteen. You would do well to find out what happened between them to set him so firmly against her.”
“I told you, I let her pull me along…”
“Rusza, you know how rational he is. That would make him angry with you, not her. Find out. He sees things we can’t, and I trust his judgment, even if you don’t.”
“I never said I didn’t!”
“Some things, you don’t need to say to make clear, Rusza.” Uncle Archet sighed again. “I thought things were going so well for you…”
“Dad, you ought to know. You always said, from the moment you saw Mom, you knew you loved her. You should understand where I’m at.”
“I should,” said Uncle Archet, “but I don’t think I do. But we have to settle your guests first. I can’t believe they didn’t make any reservations. Hapzah will probably be all right with letting them take her room… it’s just good that we’re out of the house tonight for the vigil. You’re coming with us. No complaining. As long as your girlfriend is sleeping under this roof, you won’t be. We’ll figure something else out for the rest of their stay. Let’s get back to everyone.”
Crystallin didn’t want to look across at Mica. She had a hard enough time with her own emotions. But she was a little surprised when Lyndon said, “I haven’t ever heard Dad as strict as that before. He must be really worried.”
“He should be,” Mica said. That was all he said. He had found a book of fashion plates from before the turn of the century and was perusing it out of curiosity. “Did women actually wear things like this?” he asked as he held the book out toward them.
Crystallin and Lyndon leaned forward to look. They both snorted with laughter at the sight of a picture of a woman wearing a dress like a thick wrapped bandage from neck to ankles. “How were you supposed to walk in something like that?” Crystallin pondered aloud.
“You couldn’t,” Lyndon said. “It’d be physically impossible.” He and Crystallin looked at each other. “Inchworm,” they said in unison, and then laughed.
They spent the rest of the afternoon in the workroom, secluded from everyone. Crystallin was glad for Aunt Feilin’s jewelry-making paraphernalia, because it not only provided her with employment for that afternoon, but because it was unfamiliar to Lyndon and Mica. Both were inquisitive enough to want to know what she was doing, and this led to the entertaining task of teaching them to make their own bracelets. “Jewelry doesn’t need to be feminine,” Crystallin told them. “Daddy wears a black hematite bead bracelet as a remembrance of a friend who died in action. Lyndon, show Mica your ring.”
Lyndon pulled a chain from under his shirt to display the bone ring Crystallin had given him for New Year’s.
“A man made that. I’m going to learn how to do it too. I bought it…” Crystallin remembered then what she would have rather forgotten, and her words ran out.
“In Cavern, at the Co-op, right?” Mica supplied. When she glanced at him, she saw that he was not looking in her direction. “That’s the sort of thing you find there. What do you need to learn to make bone jewelry?”
“Power tools, mainly,” she said.
“Like for woodworking? That’s…”
“You can’t imagine your little sister, doing woodworking?” Crystallin teased him.
“Actually, I can. That’s what alarms me.” Mica smiled at her a little. “Is this a potential career path?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Lyndon reached out to squeeze her hand, and the beads he had threaded went bouncing and rolling everywhere. After they chased down the stray beads and Lyndon started over again, Aunt Feilin came to the door. “So this is where all of you went,” she said. “Dinner is nearly ready.”
“Thanks, Aunt Feilin.” Lyndon started looking around him helplessly.
“Those small pouches in the green tray are for projects in progress, if you want to save what you’ve done,” she told him, as if there was nothing odd about her scientific nephew taking up beadwork. “Each bead container has a lid, so you can close it and put it in the pouch with the project.”
Mica also took a small pouch. This provoked Crystallin to say, “I didn’t think you would be so interested.”
“Lieutenant Ietta said that small, inexpensive pieces of jewelry make good courtship presents,” he replied. He noticed at once when both Crystallin and Lyndon stopped to stare at him. “Didn’t anyone tell you? I’m courting Sanna.”
As she recovered from the initial shock, Crystallin said, “That would be… really good. Really. I hope you win.”
“Win,” Mica repeated. “I never thought of it in that sense.”
When they returned to the main area, they found considerable confusion. Grandpa Gar and Uncle Kent were hoisting a table in from the marquee to extend the seating indoors. There was a general scramble for seats that ended with Crystallin across from Fineas, with Lyndon at Finn’s left. Farther up the tables, the Demyan girl had claimed the seat next to Rusza, while her mother was adrift at the far end of the table.
“Nigel,” said Grandpa Gar, “would you do the honors?”
Grandpapa Nigel bowed his head. His clear, deep voice rang out. “To the Only One, who alone gives life and breath to all things, who grants food according to each one’s need—”
Rusza gave a stifled exclamation that made several people lift their heads. The Demyan girl covered her mouth with both hands and giggled in a scandalized way.
After a pointed pause, Grandpapa Nigel continued, “…and who bestows grace upon grace to even the most undeserving, we offer our heartfelt gratitude.”
A murmur of agreement ran around the tables. Hapzah spoke in an incisive voice. “Miss Demyan, let’s come to an understanding. When we pray at this table, we are taking an opportunity to turn our thoughts and souls toward the Only One. We do not use it as an opportunity to grope our boyfriend’s crotch.”
Crystallin’s father coughed sharply.
“It was an accident,” said Miss Demyan.
“It was the kind of accident that could never have occurred, had you set aside your flirtations for a few moments of prayer,” Hapzah retorted.
Miss Demyan appeared to be ready to fire back her own retort when Rusza said, “Irina, please. Please…?”
The silence around the tables was almost tangible. Irina Demyan looked from Rusza to other people around the table, stopping in the end only to give Everard a reproachful glare. “I bet you talked ill of me, didn’t you?”
“Miss Demyan,” Everard said, “you yourself have told everyone in this room more about yourself in the last two minutes than I ever could. Hapzah, would you pass the potatoes?”
As if his request was a cue, conversation resumed around the tables. Crystallin took a spoonful of roasted squash at Aunt Feilin’s urging, but she had no appetite for any of the food that lay before her. She wanted to get up and leave, but she did not want to make a scene in Grandpa Gar and Grandma Apple’s house. While she stared at her plate and mauled her pork chop with her fork and knife, she suddenly felt someone’s foot pat her toes. She looked up, but Fineas across from her was talking with Aunt Feilin about the farm work. Her gaze shifted to Lyndon and found him looking at her with slightly lifted, slightly puckered eyebrows. She smiled to reassure him. The foot under the table pressed down on her toes, so Crystallin took her other foot and put it on top of his foot.
“Really,” Grandmama Penelope was saying, “I cannot believe how much Lyndon looks like Nigel did at that age. Do you not think so, Nigel?”
“He’s much better-looking,” Grandpapa Nigel said.
“There is a strong resemblance,” said Coralie. “Especially the hair, and around the eyes. You can see he’s definitely a Yeardley.”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Demyan, “then he’ll be a real handsome man even when he’s a grandpa.” She smiled at Lyndon.
All of this scrutiny made Lyndon turn pink and lower his gaze, but Crystallin rubbed his foot with hers under the table.
Mrs. Demyan continued, “It’s funny, how different kids in the same family take after different relatives. Now, Rusza takes after his father; anyone can see that. And his father takes after you, Elder Tate. There’s some strong blood on your side of the family.”
“I take after my mother’s father,” Grandpa Gar agreed. “But Michael, he takes after my father, and Finn takes after Apple’s side of the family. If you lined the four of them up side by side, you might never guess they were brothers, but if you know the different family lines, it’s interesting to trace them in the boys’ features.”
“It is a peculiar thing,” said Mrs. Demyan. “Now, you wouldn’t believe it to look at me now, but Irina looks just like I did at her age. But my sons all look so much like their father that it’s almost eerie sometimes.”
“Except Tim,” said Irina. “He looks different.”
“He has Pa’s eyes,” Mrs. Demyan replied with a slight edge to her voice.
“I’ve never noticed.”
“Then that just means you never looked. You look, when we get back. Tim has Pa’s eyes.”
“Appearance isn’t the only marker of genetics,” said Everard, drawing the conversation away from the pair’s awkward tangent. “Temperament seems to be a matter of inheritance as well.” He went on to talk about Crystallin and her brothers, and which of them took after whose personality, and the conversation flowed onward.
It was a relief when dessert came to the table, and Linnie could plead a full stomach and retreat again, this time to the front porch. “Oh, I wish they would go away,” she muttered to herself.
Lyndon spoke behind her. “Give them time, and they will.”
“Ooh,” Crystallin said, startled. “I didn’t know you followed me. You’re so quiet on your feet, Lyndon. But you know, the mother was right about you. You’ll be a handsome old man someday. Well, I think you’re handsome enough right now,” she said, half-teasing and half-serious.
He gave her that abstracted look again. Then, sighing, he went to sit down. “You’re sure it isn’t too chilly out here for you?”
“Better out here,” she said. She paced along the railing, away from Lyndon and then back toward him. “What can he see in her? I don’t understand it at all. Yes, she’s pretty, but how can he not see what she’s like?” On impulse, Crystallin said, “Do you think she’s pretty?”
“She’s pretty,” Lyndon replied gravely, “but you’re mine. I don’t want anybody else.”
Crystallin had to melt a little at that declaration. “You do blurt out the sweetest things sometimes,” she laughed as she sat on the bench next to him. “I’m glad you’re beside me. I don’t want anybody else but you, either.”
Others started to drift out to the porch. Grandpapa Nigel sat at Crystallin’s other side on the bench, keeping her warm with his radiating heat. “It’s refreshing to be up where the winter gets cold for a change,” he said. “All that excellent food makes me want to take a nap under my newspaper. If I stayed inside, I would fall asleep whether or not I wished to.” He stretched out long legs and sighed.
Lyndon seized Crystallin’s hand and held it. If anyone remarked about it, Crystallin already knew what he would say: This much is acceptable for an engaged couple, or so Grandma says. But no one remarked. It was mostly the men of the family who congregated on the porch, and these all seemed preoccupied with other matters. As the sun sank, and the temperature with it, one by one everyone returned indoors. Lyndon pulled Crystallin by the hand, and his Grandpapa Nigel followed them in.
Grandpa Gar was saying, “It’s about time you fellows set off to walk Michael to the new home.”
“Oh, I just need to put my things away,” Rusza said suddenly. He grabbed his bag and dashed up the stairs two at a time.
Lyndon let go of Crystallin’s hand and followed after him just as suddenly. No one commented on either exit. Gar had his hands on Michael’s shoulders. “This is my blessing, since I won’t be sitting the vigil tonight: For the first day of your married life, through to the last day, I pray to the Only One that sound judgment and compassion will be yours in all your decisions as a husband and a father.” He pulled Michael forward so that he could kiss his grandson’s forehead. “Bless you, Michael. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Thank you, Grandpa,” Michael said. His gaze fairly shone.
Uncle Kent came forward too. “For me, I pray to the Only One that your household will be like a well-watered field, abundantly fruitful.” He hugged Michael briefly.
“Thank you, Uncle Kent.”
“We’ll set off now,” Archet said. “Everyone, we’ll see you in the morning.” With his hand on Michael’s back, he led the other men of the family out into the darkening street.
Lyndon came bounding down the stairs. Crystallin thought he looked a little agitated, but he stopped beside her just long enough to say, “I have to tell you something tomorrow,” before he ran after the men.
It was a few more minutes before Rusza descended the stairs with heavy steps. The Demyan girl was clinging to him immediately. “You aren’t really going, are you?”
“It’s our family tradition,” he said, “and Michael is the first of my brothers to marry. I’m going. Be good.” He kissed her forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning.” Then, without a look at anyone else, he went out.
“Well,” said Hapzah, “let’s clear the family room. We have our own vigil to sit tonight. Feilin?”
The two aunts brought out of a storage closet a large bouquet of cut flowers, all in variations of white, and a tray of candles. Grandpa Gar and Uncle Kent removed the extra table back to the marquee. Then they bid everyone good night and went upstairs.
“My dear,” said Grandma Apple to Helena, “tomorrow you will be our daughter. Bless you, and may you find your heart’s true contentment in covenant with Michael.” She kissed Helena on both cheeks. “Good night.” Then she followed Grandpa Gar upstairs.
As the women of the family began preparing the family room for the bride’s vigil, Irina Demyan said, “Well, what am I supposed to do, with Rusza gone?”
“We have plenty of books and games for amusement,” said Hapzah. “There’s another New Year’s concert on the radio that we plan to listen to later.”
“And you brought your embroidery,” said Mrs. Demyan. “You can always do a little more work on that.”
“Do you embroider?” Aunt Feilin asked the girl. “May I see your project?” She took the hoop and examined the project. “This is very nicely done. Very even stitches. Where do you get your patterns?”
“Ma has a sheaf of them in her work basket,” said the girl. “I just pick one of those.”
“They must be handed down from earlier generations,” Aunt Feilin said, “because I’m sure they’re true antiques. I love the old patterns. They have such a charm about them.” She was able to draw Mrs. Demyan out about the mother who had collected the patterns and handed them down to her, for her to give them to her daughter. That led to an offer to show the girl and her mother some of the embroidery work there in the Tate house.
After the trio had gone back to the workroom, Hapzah breathed deeply as if she had been suffocating. “Thank the Only One for Feilin. She has such a knack for dealing kindly with people that everyone else wants to kick. While they’re out of the way, here, Linnie, help me spread this over the sofa.” She shook out a white-on-white quilt that had begun to yellow with age.
They made haste to prepare the rest of the decor for the vigil, lighting the thick pillar candles and spreading garlands of evergreen. Then they placed Helena on the quilt-covered sofa. Coralie knelt on the other side of the low table in front of her. “Tonight, we celebrate your life as Helena Jeru. Tomorrow, you begin your life as Helena Tate. All these things you see here are reminders. The white covering beneath you signifies your determination to enter into this marriage with no impure desires.”
Helena blushed. “I don’t know…”
This made Coralie laugh. “Oh, you dear girl, desire for your husband is the most proper desire you can have on the threshold of marriage. Impure desires would be to enter marriage with a desire to control or abuse your husband, or while harboring desire for another man, or things like that. Anything that would cause strife, anything concealed to your or his harm, must be left behind you from tonight onward. When you face each other tomorrow, in front of the Only One and your community, you must do so in all honesty and courage.”
“That’s what I want,” Helena said.
“These candles,” Coralie continued, “give light and warmth–“
“It looks very pretty out here now,” the Demyan girl said as she walked back into the family room.
Her mother said, “Shush, they’ve started something.” She went to grab a chair from the kitchen table and set it to the side, as if she were the audience at some performance.
Crystallin could see that this interruption had rattled her mother’s self-possession, but Coralie gathered herself to start again. “These candles give light and warmth. They stand for the light and warmth that you are determined to bring to your marriage. When Michael gets worried or discouraged, will you warm him with your support and your love?”
“Yes, I will,” said Helena fervently.
“Then your marriage itself will become light and warmth to others, as long as you both offer each other that same love and support.”
“Ma,” the Demyan girl whispered, “when I marry Rusza, do I have to go through all this?”
“I think it’s lovely,” the mother whispered back.
The girl yawned.
Feilin sprang to duty once again. “You must both be tired from all the traveling. Let me show you to the room we’ve prepared for you.” She led them to Hapzah’s room, explaining as she went where the nearest bathroom was and other little details for their comfort.
Coralie sighed. She turned to Helena again. “Usually, this night is reserved only for the bride’s family, as they prepare to escort her into her new life. But, since your situation is unusual, we decided to add a few people.”
Her words were a cue for the front door to open and a very chilly-looking Sarajane Young and Rosamund Fulke to enter. Both went immediately to hug Helena. “We get to be part of your family tonight,” Miss Rosamund said. She hugged Helena again. “I’m so excited for you!”
Crystallin helped take the newcomers’ coats, and everyone settled down to continue with the ceremony part of the evening. Coralie said, “You see all the pine boughs hung around the room. It signifies the constancy of genuine love. Genuine love always looks for the beloved’s good. It gives a fragrant aroma, especially when it’s bruised or cut, so that others can tell at once when it’s present in a marriage. Because you will wound each other. In a marriage, you live in such close proximity that you won’t always be able to help it, however good your intentions. It’s in those times when genuine love shows itself the most clearly.”
Helena nodded. Her shining eyes were solemn. “I understand.”
“And the cut flowers signify the brevity, beauty, and fragility of married life. Cherish the moments, Helena, because life itself is brief and fragile. None of us knows how long we have. Even if we live full lives, to eighty or ninety even, it will still seem too short a time to say goodbye to the one we love best. Make the most of your time together. Never take it for granted.”
Helena wiped at a tear that slipped down her cheek. “I have seen that fragility. It seems like a dream that I get to marry Michael. I do cherish him. I will cherish him.”
“I know you will.” Coralie came around the low table to sit next to Helena. She hugged her with tears in her own eyes. “I’m so happy for you.”
“Now,” Hapzah said, “we make merry, as the old stories say.” She brought from the kitchen a pitcher of dark red liquid. “Fortified cherry cordial— you need to be careful, Linnie, because you aren’t used to alcohol. It’s not strong, but still, don’t gulp it.”
They played charades, and Sarajane finally had to go back out to the front porch to cool down because she couldn’t stop laughing over Hapzah’s mime for saddle.
Then Grandmama Penelope taught the capital women a Southern game called Pass the Orange, only in their case they passed a tennis ball around the circle as they recited, “My great-aunt offered me an orange yesterday, so I took it to be polite. I don’t like oranges much at all, but I peeled it to be polite. I took one bite, oh dear, but it was sour! But I ate it to be polite. Then I had such a stomach ache, oh, was I sick! All from wanting to be polite. So if someone offers me another orange, I will smile to be polite, and I’ll pass the orange to my sister dear, and say No, thank you!” By the last word, whoever had the ball in her possession had to take a penalty by doing something silly. Crystallin had to laugh at how frantic her mother was to get rid of the ball before the chant ended each time.
By the time everyone had lost at Pass the Orange, it was time for the radio concert. They refilled their glasses, settled in, and Sarajane turned on the radio in time for the performers’ introduction. The concert itself had only just started when Helena turned around quickly. “Miss Demyan, is something wrong? Can we get anything for you?”
Crystallin turned to find the Demyan girl on the first step upstairs, looking as if she had been caught out. The girl laughed a fake laugh and said, “Oh, no, I don’t need anything. I just can’t share a bed with Ma. It’s so cramped, and she kicks and her breath stinks, so I was just going to borrow a different bed, since there must be so many empty with all the boys gone.”
Hapzah stood abruptly. “That would be completely inappropriate, Miss Demyan. I’ll fix you a blanket-bed on the floor.”
“On the floor?” The girl echoed in distaste.
“Oh, Hapzah is really good at making blanket-beds,” Helena said brightly. “I can testify that they’re very comfortable.” She remained turned around until Hapzah escorted the girl back to her room. Then Helena sat back the right way around and said, “Oh, dear.”
Rosamund Fulke said, “Who is that girl?”
“Rusza’s new girlfriend,” Coralie answered.
“Oh, dear,” Miss Rosamund sighed. “Though I must admit, that’s the sort of girl I always expected him to choose for himself, but still… She can’t continue staying here.”
Aunt Feilin asked, “What makes you think that?”
Helena and Rosamund looked at each other. Helena said, “I could tell she was there because I sensed something from her. I’m not sure how to describe it, but…”
“I can describe it,” Rosamund said grimly. “It’s the very same sense I get from some of the children at school sometimes: a gleeful rejection of rules, feeling of superiority over those who enforce the rules, an elation over outwitting the system to take what you want by stealth or trickery.”
“And her motivation…” Helena paused. “It had nothing to do with the excuses she gave. I’m afraid her motives were entirely lewd.”
Coralie sighed. “That lines up with the things Everard told me about his dealings with her. He made me promise I wouldn’t say anything to anyone about it, so that you could all draw your own conclusion about her.”
Everyone was silent until Helena returned. “Such a liar. Too cramped, she says! Her mother was still up, doing her needlework. That girl is up to no good.” She looked around at the expressions in the family room and said, “What?”