“What were you thinking, child?! A young thing like yourself on her own on these dangerous streets, and with a little daughter in your arms! You could have died, or worse! The Black Market picks pretty ones like you of the street in these parts, and they sell little children like meat! Really, what were you thinking!” The woman had a bosom as broad as a tree trunk and looked as if she could have wrestled any man to the ground with one arm while holding a babe in the other. But right now, she was performing more delicate work.
Nanashi took a sip from her cup of silver-root tea and watched calmly as she changed the child. The Null stared intently at the cup’s bottom, her gaze piercing through the slightly gray blue liquid as she turned it in her hand, then back; as if it could answer all her questions if she just held it right, looked into it the right way. “I have been thinking less and less, these past few weeks. Life used to be simple and tranquil. Now it is all falling apart…” After a moment she added: “That is not my daughter.”
“Oh no?” the woman answered while she tickled the happily babbling child’s chin. “Did she fall out of the sky into your arms?”
Nanashi shook her head. “No, we both got swept into each other’s arms by tides that drowned everyone around us. And I was the one who opened the flood gates.”
The woman was done and handed Nanashi the child. She put down the cup and took it into her arms.
“You sure talk fancy for a pilgrim, young girl; studied at one of the big academies over Middlish way, did you?” the woman pondered. She went over to the stove to tend to the food.
Nanashi was surprised for a brief moment but then remembered that her black robe was probably the reason for her being mistaken as a pilgrim. “I am not a pilgrim. I am a Null,” she answered, though she felt a strange jab of guilt as she said that. What had she done… For a single heartbeat she felt the looming weight of her deed hanging above her like a hammer ready to crash down on her head.
The woman gave that a hearty laugh. “Yeah right, and I am the margrave’s wife! You don’t have to tell me your story if you don’t want to, child.
So, do you have a name? And the little one, what about her?”
Nanashi walked over and stroked the child’s head. There was a lot of soft hair to pat already. “I am Nanashi, and this is Kathlyn… Oakenheart.” She wasn’t sure what made her say that, but now that she had, it was decided. She wouldn’t just raise this child out of duty but also in Günter’s honor. After all, he had given his life to help Nanashi on her quest.
“Kathlyn, eh? That’s a popular name; pretty, too. Well I’m sure little Kathy will like a sip of this broth, it was my children’s favorite: Carrot, potato, cabbage, and mole.”
Nanashi freed one of her hands to pick up the cup and take another sip. “What happened to them?”
The woman tasted the broth with a big ladle, then added some chopped onions and crushed garlic. “They grew up. That’s the way of things. All children grow up eventually and leave you to find their luck and start their own families. My youngest, Lee, he got an apprenticeship with a great magus in Aquaris. Sometimes I still hear from him when the letter bombs arrive down in Yanagata. I have two daughters married to men here in the village, a respectable woodcutter and a good-for-nothing mayor’s son, and my oldest son… He died in the war with Albeney, four years back. Time passes quick, sometimes too quick.”
Nanashi pondered on that. “And sometimes not quickly enough…”
“What was that, girl? I couldn’t hear you from over here,” the woman replied. She had stepped over into the tiny pantry next to the stove to retrieve something.
Nanashi had mumbled those words more to herself then to her, gently stroking tiny Kathlyn’s hair.