The Shadow Boy, Chapter 1: An Elder Sister's Send-off

An Elder Sister's Send-off

Nadira was dressed in her clan princess clothes, nothing of the landed gentry lady she more often presented as. Opposite her, Adam looked drab against her jewels and bright dies. On the table there were colourful dishes with dates, apricots and savoury pulses, dancing attendance on a large round teapot, painted blue and white.

She poured the fragrant tea, redolent of cardamom and cinamon, in two thin tall glasses, with slow, deliberate movements.

"I will miss you, Adam", she said in the language of home; a home Adam had left too young to remember.

She behaved with what seemed extreme formality to Adam acting in her clan role. Adam found her difficult enough in her usual mode, and didn't like her any better this way.

"It shouldn't be too long until I'm back, but I'll miss you too", he replied and took a noisy sip. "I'm surprised father got me the place in the end. He didn't seem very sure--"

"Between us, I don't think he was." She took a sip herself. "I an uncertain that he was well advised in pressing them. You have been admitted, but at what price?"

This was the first he heard about her reservations, and it took him by surprise. Nadira had been known to disagree with their father, but it was unusual, and more so about something as important as this.

"I'm not sure I follow", he replied, eyeing the apricots and longing for the language of the Empire, which he spoke with greater fluency. "As I understand it, he wrote that letter to the board and they agreed to take me in without any extra expenses."

"That is not what I mean, little wolf. Every action has a cost. Who knows what resentments may have been stirred in people's hearts? In the board, of course, but also in your teachers, your fellow students, their parents and relations, and everyone who objects to our pressence. I fear father may have miscalculated this time."

"He didn't say anything to me!" he said. "He should warn me if I'm going to have problems like you say." He no longer felt like eating the apricot.

"Perhaps he preferred you not to have preconceptions." She crunched on some of the fried lentils.

"If so, aren't you interfering?" he asked.

"Eat an apricot. Don't be so concerned. I may well be worrying over nothing, but it is my obligation as your elder sister, and what passes for our inner council, to forewarn you if I think you're being sent into danger without adequate marching orders. Anyway, I thought I'd do a foretelling."

He picked up the apricot and couldn't avoid laughing, hearing her sister's talk of backward beliefs she should be well over.

"You believe in that stuff?" he asked in the language of the Empire, breaking the forms. "It's superstitious nonsense, surely. You're well informed on the sciences and your proofs are better than mine, as our tutor keeps pointing out. How can you think foretelling is any use?"

"I will remind you the clans are not ignorant", she replied in the language of home. "We have contributed to science and mathematics, preserved precious texts, developed useful techniques, and if we weren't scattered around the entire world expediting trade--never mind. Believe me or don't, but it would set a sister's heart at ease if you let me do it."

"That's alright then", he followed her language choice this time. "It can't do any harm. Whatever I think about it, we may as well try it out."

She took out a needle, and cleansed it, first with arakh, then with fire. Adam stretched his right hand towards her, and she pricked his palm. She smiled at him as he kept from shouting or moving as a few drops of blood fell in her thimble. She made sure to rap his hand in a clean cloth, and threw five ancient-looking dice, one by one, from the thimble onto an empty dish. She might be weird about traditions, but he knew she'd make sure to cleanse everything afterwards.

"The dice speak of friendship and love. An extraordinarily long life in your beloved's company. Change. Wisdom..."

"And the fifth?" he asked in spite of himself.

"I am perhaps not reading this accurately", she muttered. "Everything matters: the number, the placement, the orientation... It seems to speak of... Regret?"

"Well, it sounds mostly good. I'll try to pay attention to things I may end up regreting", he said, knowing he would do nothing of the kind. Realising her sister was superstitious had made him give less weight to her opinion about the school, and he began to eat with greater pleasure.

"Was there anything else we should discuss, or would you like to play a set of backgammon?" he asked.

"I'll be defeating you on the board shortly," she said smiling, "but there's one more thing. As the ranking woman in our clan, I want you to swear to my first born."

"Swear what exactly? This place isn't matrilineal."

"Not your share in father's estate. That is yours by the laws we live under and the traditions are clear: the law of the land is the law. I would have you swear friendship and shelter."

"Of course I'll befriend and shelter my nephews and nieces. Why do you want me to swear to it?"

"Call it a presentiment, if you must. I fear our clan will wither without you fully committing to our traditions. Without mutual rights and duties, there is no clan at all."

He didn't understand her point very well, but he didn't mind taking the oath. Some more blood, of course, his right hand on her womb, and a few solemn words.

"I promise, until the sky shatters on the final sunrise, and while there remain in the world a grain of sand, a drop of water, and a burning ember, to be a friend to my sister Nadira's first child, and to give them shelter within our laws and customs to the end of their natural life."

"Witnessed", she said, and the oath seemed to dispel her worries as she smiled at him. "Now get ready for the anguish of defeat, little wolf", she said, laughing brightly and setting up the backgammon board.

Errata

Too many to specify. This draft was a bit too rough and I made quite a few changes to make Adam sound more casual (he still sounds much too stiff for a 12-year-old boy) and to clarify and enhance the text.

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