Dear Mom and Dad,
Well, I’m here. It’s not so bad, and I don’t want you to worry, even though I guess you will. The Terricks are taking good care of me. Mrs. Terrick is nice. I like her. She showed me how to spin on a spindle the other day. I know, mom, but it’s important here. I think it’s called housewifery? I remember that from one of my social studies classes. It’s not physics, but running a big house like this one takes a lot of work.
Kate paused to rub her fingers. They were smudged with ink. She dipped the quill pen and began again.
Mr. Terrick is just like I remember him. Gruff and kind of forbidding. He reminds me of that judge that you introduced me to at the Christmas party last year? But he means well, and he’s kind of nice. He even –
She stopped. Would her parents understand when she wrote “He even smiled at me this morning”? She couldn’t cross anything out. She knew they would worry over the crossouts and what she didn’t tell them. Look, she told herself, it’s not like they’re really going to read this. In a week or two, she wouldn’t even be able to read it, once her brain reset from crossing the gordath.
Just tell them the truth.
He even smiled at me this morning.
Colar has two brothers, Aevin and Yare, and a little sister, Erinye. He had another sister, but she died, he said of a fever. He said it was probably something we could have cured back home. That’s so sad, isn’t it? That’s why I plan to become a doctor in Aeritan. Aren’t you proud of me? Haha. I know, you always wanted me to be a doctor.
She put in a smiley face and continued.
Aevin is okay, except he is constantly trying to prove himself and it gets tiring. Yare’s a little pain in the butt, and Eri’s a sweetie. We share a room and I look after her.
Kate paused again, thinking about that. It seemed to help Lady Terrick that she was there to make sure Eri was dressed and clean and had someone to keep her company at her chores. She didn’t mind doing it, and had stepped up without being asked, but now that it was expected, she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She didn’t know how to put any of that in the letter, so she carried on.
I want you to know how much I love you and miss you. I’m in good hands, okay? I’ll write as often as I can, and maybe someday, you can read these letters.
Her vision blurred and she sat back so that she wouldn’t let a teardrop fall on the paper. She strewed sand across the paper and blew on it, then set the paper aside so the ink would dry. Kate blinked back tears as the door opened behind her and Eri came in.
“Kett, mama said it’s time for dinner.”
“Okay, I’ll be right there.”
She got up, sniffed and wiped her face with her sleeve. Eri watched her seriously.
“I’m sorry you’re sad, Kett.”
“Thanks, sweetie. I know.”
Eri came over and took her by the hand. She looked at the letter on the thick, coarse paper, cocking her head sideways the way she did when she was absorbed in something. The lamplight cast her delicate face in shadow so the child looked like a Renaissance subject in her kerchief and simple dress.
“Is that writing?”
“How can you read it?”
“I’ve only been here for a half-month,” Kate said. “Soon, I won’t be able to read it. It fades away after a while, and then I can read and write in Aeritan.”
Which made the whole exercise moot, she thought, because at the point that she couldn’t read and write in English, her parents wouldn’t be able to read what she wrote next.
She squeezed Eri’s hand.
“Let’s go. I’m hungry and I don’t want to keep your mom and dad waiting.”
Eri giggled. “You’re funny, Kate.”
“I’m funny! You’re the funny one, you silly kid you.”
Eri laughed louder and they teased each other on the way down the stairs.
Kate thought the great stone house looked like a dragon. It was draped across the landscape, its jagged walls and towers like the backbone and winged joints of the mythical beast. The main part of the house was a rough square, its narrow windows facing the road that led away toward the rest of Aeritan.
She and Colar had ridden up that avenue when she brought him back to Terrick two weeks before.
The stables and outbuildings were scattered to the rear of the dragon, its tail as it were. Allegra and Hotshot were stabled there, and Kate made a point of visiting her horses daily and making sure they were well taken care of. She knew enough not to fret; To a Terrick, it was a point of honor to care well for horses and hounds.
She thought she knew about a Terrick’s honor before but now, living under their roof and by their code, she knew she didn’t understand it at all.
Kate and Erinye slipped into the dining room. The family stood by their chairs at the shining table. Lord Terrick would arrive last, per custom. There were Aevin and Yare on the left, Colar at his father’s right hand. Lady Terrick sat at the foot, and there were two empty chairs for Eri and Kate. Even that stinker Yare sits higher than I do, Kate thought.
It shouldn’t have mattered. She knew who she was and her own value, and all the ingrained sexism of her strange world couldn’t change that. It grated though. Maybe that was in her expression, because Colar caught her eye and shook his head slightly. She gave him a half smile, half-grimace, and stood next to Lady Terrick, Eri on the opposite side. As it happened, she stood next to Yare.
“You’re late,” he told her. “And Eri’s face is smudged. Mama!”
You rotten little brat, Kate thought. She flushed. She had forgotten, again, to make sure Eri was kept clean and presentable. The little girl looked as beautiful as always, but to be sure there was a smudge on her cheek and her simple smock was awry.
“Sorry –” Kate began, but Lady Terrick made a gesture.
“Goodness, child, it’s not the end of the world. Eri is old enough to make herself presentable. Are you not, Eri? Try not to disappoint your father, as he loves you very much.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Eri said in a small voice.
Kate’s stomach clenched. No wonder I’ve lost weight; every dinner is like this. The terror of obligation to one’s parents, their honor, and above all their love permeated all things Terrick, even a simple dinner.
Lord Terrick entered the room, bringing the smell of outdoors with him. His eyes flicked down the table and back. Kate’s back stiffened, and she thought even Lady Terrick’s did. To her relief he didn’t cast a particular grim eye over Eri. Saved by the lack of electricity, she thought. The dining room was illuminated with plenty of oil lamps but was still dim.
“By the grace of the high god who holds us all in his hand, we are blessed with food and shelter,” Lord Terrick said. He sat, and they followed suit.
The meal was simple yet hearty; spiced lamb, flatbreads, stewed greens and tubers, like potatoes. Every bite tasted like sawdust. Kate chewed diligently and without savor. She had learned to eat with just a spoon and a knife. Her first dinner at Terrick, she had made a joke to Colar about inventing forks. She thought he would laugh. She thought he would accept her offering of their shared history. It was, she thought, meant as an us against them moment. Instead, he looked at her seriously and said that she would get used to a knife and spoon, just like he had gotten used to forks.
Not us against them at all, she thought. She hadn’t gotten it at the time, but she came to understand that it was him with them. Him with his family. Me against them.
It will be different when we marry, she thought. She washed down an impossibly tiny bite with an even smaller sip of Terrick brandy, which tasted like mouthwash and she loathed. As always it made her break out into a sweat, even the polite taste she had taken. She concentrated fiercely on her dinner, not even trying to catch Colar’s eye. She had tried that on their second dinner, hoping to get a smile from him, only to have Yare shout, “Mama! She’s making eyes at Colar!”
Her face flamed at the memory, or maybe that was the brandy.
Lord Terrick was going around the table, asking everyone their business. When he got to Eri, his eyes narrowed and Kate held her breath, but he said only, “Erinye, have you practiced your letters today?”
“No, lord father,” Eri said in a small, frightened voice.
“I see,” Lord Terrick said. “Perhaps you had better things to do than improve your mind?”
Yare made a derisive noise, then jumped in his seat, by which Kate thought that Aevin had kicked him under the table. Good, she thought at the boy.
“I–I” Eri started.
Lord Terrick waited politely, and when it was clear that he had silenced his daughter into frightened immobility, he turned to Kate.
“Perhaps our foster daughter can help you, Erinye. Kate’s knowledge and understanding impressed us all last year. You learned to read and write with Talios, among your lessons as his apprentice, did you not?”
“Ye – yes, sir, I did.” Kate winced inwardly at her own stumble. “I would be happy to help Eri with reading and writing, and math too.”
“Math! Learned indeed. Erinye, how would you like to be Kett’s pupil?”
Eri beamed with relief and Kate smiled back at her.
“So it’s decided then.” He turned toward his wife, but Kate interrupted.
“Lord Terrick, it’s just that I can’t just yet.”
He turned back to her. The entire table fell silent. Kate took a deep breath. “I can’t read yet in Aeritan. Yet. I’ll be able to in a few weeks, but it takes a while.”
Lord Terrick’s expression was unfathomable. Kate hurried on. “Same thing happened for Colar, actually. Right?”
She turned to Colar. Help me, she beseeched him silently.
“It’s true,” he said, and she sighed with relief. “But,” he frowned. “It didn’t take me that long – a half-month?”
“Yes,” and now she was babbling. “Longer even, because you were in the hospital, and it wasn’t until you were out and at home that we even began to try to read and write, remember? We started with Catcher in the Rye, because you were going to need it for freshman English…”
Her voice faded. Lord and Lady Terrick were looking at the both of them, as if they couldn’t understand what was happening. Yare had an expression of evil glee, and Aevin just looked shocked.
“Catcher in the Rye,” Colar repeated, as if the memory wasn’t a pleasant one. She had to admit, he had a point.
“When you can, then,” Lord Terrick said finally. “Math,” he added in a considering voice. “Perhaps you should also teach Yare.”
Kate and Yare looked at each other in equal disgust.
“Of course,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Yes, lord father,” Yare said, but she could tell by the gleam in his eye that he had no intention of obeying. Great, she thought. And it’ll be my fault if he doesn’t learn a thing.