Brago flipped an ear up and turned it around, then raised his head in Ember’s lap and kirped at the windows.
A moment later there was a knock at the glass.
Ember looked up from Mekhol’s book on Alleji tactics and spotted blue and red pyjamas and a flutter of gray wings.
Oh well. Wingstand spirals and kickflips weren’t any use to her anyway. She’d already read the book three times through, and Mekhol had nothing anywhere to say about actually becoming an Alleji.
And she could use the distraction. Especially with Ean pestering her every day as he looked for a solution that wasn’t coming.
Ember moved Brago onto the book, then stood and opened the window.
Nanli dove in and crashed onto the bed with a belly flop.
“Brago!” Nanli said as she twisted upright and folded her legs.
Brago hop-flapped onto the bed and ran around the girl three times before settling in her lap. Nanli attacked him with tiny fingers until the room filled with loud kirring.
Ember sat down next to her.
“You know I don’t like you crawling around over the cliffs.”
“I’m not gonna fall. Besides, I’d just float.” She flipped her small wings at Ember.
Ember gave her a shot of slit-eyed disapproval, then sniffed and looked away.
“Fair enough. If you fall, I’m not retrieving you.”
“I know.” Nanli leaned against her, still scratching Brago.
Ember glanced down at the girl and smiled, then put her arm around her and tugged her into her side.
“So, who are you running from this time?”
“Just homework. Math. I’d rather do archery.”
“Math is important stuff.”
Nanli squirmed and looked away from Ember. Obviously, she didn’t want to talk about it.
Ember gave her a squeeze.
“Ean uses math to design all kinds of wonderful things. If you learn it, you’ll be able to do that to.”
Nanli perked up at the mention of Ean and looked up at her at an angle with her ears back and a wide smile.
“Why are YOU running away from Ean again?”
Ember chilled her demeanor from summer day to heart of winter in a blink.
Nanli’s eyes went wide.
“Are you thirsty?” Ember said. “I’m thirsty.”
Ember stood, went to her nightstand, and twisted open the large thermos of iced tisane that Mirza always left there for her. She glanced at Nanli and tossed a question with her head.
Ember poured out one half glass of golden-brown infusion for Nanli and one full for herself. She handed the girl the glass along with one of the jerky treats that Mirza had convinced the kitchen to supply her with.
Nanli took both. Brago kirped and patted her arm with one soft paw. Nanli shoved the treat in his mouth and held out her hand for another.
Ember pursed her lips, then held out another jerky.
Nanli smiled and chomped it as soon as it was in her hand.
Ember sat down next to her again and sipped her tisane. Much of the rich earthy spice of hahx, with a great deal of mountain daisy, an overlay of lavender, and a distinct medicinal edge, mostly drowned out by extra honey. Mirza was probably trying to do something about her stress.
“What’d he do?”
She looked at Nanli.
“Must you ask?”
Nanli ducked her head and took a big gulp of her drink.
Ember put a hand on her head and ruffled her dark hair. Sigh. No escaping.
“Okay, scamp. He asked me to marry him. Really marry him.”
Something about the way she said it…
“You already knew.”
Nanli smiled at her and flicked her ears.
“Yes, they’re very big. Too big. You’ve been listening at doors.”
Ember put a pointed finger on Nanli’s nose.
Nanli ignored her and took another drink. Ember sighed again and joined her.
“Why don’t you?” The girl asked.
“What do you care?”
“Not an answer.”
“Not an answer!”
Nanli leaned into her side again. Brago grawped and scrambled as he started to roll out of the tilting lap. Nanli caught him with one hand and pulled him back before he sank his claws in.
Ember hunched forward and Nanli followed.
Pest. What was that fish the Aothani had told her about? Limpet. A limpet.
“Okay. Because he’s offering me something he shouldn’t. And I’m not attracted to him. ”
“You don’t like him? Why not.”
Ember fixed her with a big, wide, predatory glare.
“Because he’s a tiny human.”
“You don’t get to do that.”
“Trin does it.”
“You can talk to me like Trin does when you’re as old as Trin.”
“Okay.” The girl dropped her head. “Still not a good answer.”
“What? I don’t get to not be attracted to him?”
“You do like him.”
Ember almost responded, then stopped.
“You touch him. A lot. All the people who are getting married do it.”
There had been a wedding a month back, which Ember had carefully avoided. Two of the servants. Ember reviewed her experience with humans. Touching, touching, touching.
Looked at herself.
The girl was right. She’d been touching him constantly since the assassination attempt.
Because she liked being close to him. She felt safe. And good.
She thought about her reaction to Tala recently whenever the woman was close to Ean.
Oh thek, how had that snuck in?
“Okay, you’re too smart by far. We both know that.”
Nanli hmmed as she finished her drink.
“So, he is still offering me something I shouldn’t have.”
“Because he’s offering a political marriage, not a real marriage.”
Nanli gave her a blank look.
“A political marriage is…” Ember balked at explaining marital treaties and aristocratic blood alliances. Simplify. “It’s a type of marriage where you marry someone for something other than because you love them. Salshirans believe that is wrong. That’s why they hate my betrothal. It insults the institution. And that’s why I told Ean no. Because it’s not the kind of marriage he should have.”
Nanli stared at her. Was that above her head? Ember thought she could see the beads clicking back and forth on the girl’s internal abacus.
“So… Ean doesn’t love you?”
“He doesn’t want me. Not like that. He isn’t asking for that. He loves me like a brother. Or something.” She thought about that. Or something. “He’s an idiot.”
“Maybe he’s scared. Whenever you touch him, he get’s these big wide eyes,” Nanli showed her big wide eyes, “And then runs away.”
Yes. He did. And that would make sense.
“Very well. Maybe he’s scared.”
“Hmmm. You are scary.”
“Thank you, Nanli.”
“Maybe you should tell him you like him.”
“I think that would make things worse, not better.”
“Why do you want me to marry Ean? Did someone tell you to do this?”
Nanli shook her head.
“Trin. Trin did it before she left.”
Ember cast around for someone else. Who would want to make mischief?
“The twins. They told you to bring this up.”
Nanli glared at her.
Ember examined the girl, searching for a tiny flutter in her eyes, or a twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth. Nothing.
“Why do you want me to marry Ean?”
“Because then you’ll stay.”
Oh. Oh, right.
“Also, then I’ll get a baby Garagran to play with.”
Ember gasped, then snorted a laugh.
“That’s not how it works, scamp.” Ember drained her glass and set it aside, then gave Nanli a big hug. “But thank you. I’d like to stay with you too.”
She felt small arms wrap around her sides and give a weak squeeze. She pulled back and looked at Nanli. She didn’t seem to be sitting quite upright.
“Come on. You’re getting tired. I’ll take you to your room.”
“No. Up.” She pushed at Nanli’s back and Nanli slipped forward off the bed to her feet.
And fell down.
Brago pushed out of her arms at the last moment and slid across the floor.
Ember dropped to the floor and turned Nanli over. Brago came back and nosed her face.
“Are you okay, Nanli?”
“My legs didn’t work.”
She lifted her leg, but it only came up a little.
“I’ll help you up.” Ember took her arm and lifted. The girl felt surprisingly heavy.
She dropped back down as soon as Ember let go. Ember caught her, then fell over herself.
Her own legs wouldn’t work right. She pushed up and moved her toes. Slow. Hard. Like she had to yell to get them to move.
“I can’t… move…” Nanli said.
The reason flashed through Ember’s mind in an instant.
She looked at Nanli.
Oh dear Kai, no!
She grabbed Nanli’s arm and pushed up. Come on, Ember. UP!
She made it to her feet, still holding the girl’s arm. So heavy.
She took a step. Another.
“Lahnria! Get in here!”
She stumbled and caught herself against a chair. Brago was running around on the floor whistle-whining. It was a sound of pure distress she hadn’t heard from him before.
Yahsaw, give me strength. Help me!
Take a step. Another. Pull the girl along.
This was not going to work.