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12: Aum Renau

They stayed at Aum Renau for three weeks.

Tinker tried to be happy there. Certainly it was a pleasant enough stay. She had the new universe of sex to explore. Outside of bed, Windwolf seemed genuinely in love with her, although why was as hard to fathom as how she felt about him. Her scientific mind wanted something to see and measure and quantify before she was willing to admit that she loved him.

Windwolf arranged things so she could avoid the queen, the court, and all things politicalapparently needing only to cite her age and recent transformation to excuse her from those "duties." He, however, could not absent himself, and so needed to spend hours away. The first two days, she took apart everything remotely mechanical in the Wind Clan section of the palace: ten clocks, three music boxes, the kitchen dumbwaiter, and both master bathrooms. After that, Pony and a changing subset of the palace's twenty sekasha took her out exploring the countryside. They rode horses, sailed on a nearby lake, hiked in the mountains, visited the open market down by the river, practiced archery, and played a cutthroat, fast-paced cousin to lawn croquet. Eventually she bored of that, and nosed her way into the kitchen to carry on science experiments in the form of cooking, and spent a day in awe of the massive, steam-driven laundry facility, and finally talked her way onto the dreadnought (but only after promising that she'd take nothing apart).

The palace's staff took to her invasion well, their initial dismay and subservience thawing to open friendliness. At least she seemed to be meshing much better than Sparrow, especially among the sekasha, who seemed to treat Sparrow with quiet disdain.

"Sparrow is too self-centered," Pony explained. They were on the archery field, whiling away the long summer afternoon. "It is true that the domana rule the other castes, but it does not mean that it's more important. If the seyosa did not farm, and the sepeshyosa did not fish, and selinsafa did not do the laundry, or the sefada did not cook, where would we be?"

"Dirty and hungry." Tinker took aim at the warg target down field. (She refused to shoot at the disturbing humanoid targets.) The first arrow hit in the warg's hindquarters, but the next three grouped around the heart bull's-eye. The last actually landed in the red. "Kiyau!"

The sekasha laughed at her answer, and complimented her on her shots. One of the runners at the end of the field collected her arrows and ducked back to his shelter.

"Exactly. Pull!" Pony called, setting the warg whizzing around on its track in unpredictable starts and turns. "A body must have a brain, mouth, eyes, hands, bowels, and feet." He shot as he talked, loosing his five arrows nearly as fast as he could nock and pull, and yet they all grouped around the heart, three in the red.

"Oh, you flatter me so," Tinker said, meaning their compliments on her shots.

"You are doing well for someone who never handled a bow before," Pony said. "I've been practicing for nearly a century, the rest for millennia. Someday you'll be good as we are; your eye is good."

A century. That still put shivers through her. The sekasha seemed happy to spend an entire day on archery, but she was bored in an hour or two. Of course, they were honing their abilities while she saw it as a mere diversion, something to do while talking. She supposed that they didn't do math problems for fun. She wished she had been able to at least bring her datapad with her. Windwolf had given her several reams of fine paper and a score of pens, but it wasn't the same. He promised that he'd take her home soon, but needed the queen's permission. ("Is that elfin time or human?" she complained. "Elfin," he said sadly, "for I fear the human 'soon' has already passed.")

"Sparrow believes the brain to be all important." Pony drew her attention back to the conversation about Windwolf's assistant.

"Sparrow thinks nothing of making work for the rest of us," complained the female Stormsongwhose attitude toward clothes and boots delighted Tinker no end. "She demands fresh flowers in her quarters, special food from the sefada, and countless changes in her gowns. Pull!"

They fell silent the minute it took Stormsong to shoot. She carefully put all five arrows into the red, but Tinker had learned that the sekasha unofficially took points off for being too deliberate at aiming, and gave points for managing a discussion around one's shooting, as Pony had. It seemed a secret ego thing between them.

"Am I making extra work?" Tinker asked.

They laughed at Tinker's fear, belittling the idea that she was a nuisance.

"No, no, domi," Stormsong hurried to reassure her. "Pony's job is to guard you, and most of the time we merely include you on activities we normally do."

"Sparrow never says please or thank you." Skybolt made a sound of disgust as he shot, sending out his arrows in a show of graceful speed. "The other castes are beneath her politeness."

He too put all five arrows into the red; even Stormsong acknowledged his skill with "Kiyau."

Pony shook his head. "Sparrow does not see the clans' strength to be the cooperation of castes, but solely as the clan head in possession of spell stones. Since she can't access the stones, she grasps for other ways to show power: withholding politeness and petty demands."

The others nodded to this.

"We should call you Hawkeye," Skybolt said, "for your clear-sightedness."

The next day, it rained, trapping Tinker indoors. The grayness seemed to invade her soul, so after a Windwolf-less lunch she curled in the sunroom and watched the rainfall, fighting to keep in tears. It would be stupid to cry; everyone had been bending over backward to make her happy.

All the little seeds of fear, doubt, and unease, though, were growing into a wild, dark tangle. What was going to happen that made her the pivot? Beyond the cryptic warnings, there had been nothing more from the seer. At some point, all would depend on her, and she had an unspoken terror that the decision would have to be made when she was completely alone against a horde of oni, without so much as a datapad.

And what if the queen never let her go back to Pittsburgh? Certainly if the queen wanted to keep control of the pivot, she could insist that Tinker stay at Aum Renau, or take her back East. Windwolf told her that he asked permission daily, but for all Tinker knew, he could be lying to her. Surrounded by beauty and luxury, it seemed stupid to be so homesick for the squalid, half-abandoned steel town. She wanted her computers, tools, and hoverbike. She wished she could call Oilcan; just to know he was okay and not worrying about her. She desperately wanted to talk to Lain; since her grandfather died, Lain had been her guide through life's confusion. Lain could tell her what to do, make it all right.

"Domi." Pony crouched down beside her. "The sefada know you are unhappy and say that you can come help them make falotiki. They are very simple to make, and the sefada promise to watch carefully so they will not catch fire, and afterward you decorate them with icing in bright colors."

"Um," her voice cracked, and his face blurred, so she scrubbed at her eyes. "Yeah, sure." And then to make them all stop worrying about her, "It sounds like fun."

And through sheer determination on her part, it actually was.

* * * | Tinker | * * *