Lavinia froze in the doorway, feet rooted to the outside stoop.
Ty pushed her forward. “Mama, Papa, we are home!”
The grin he flashed at his sister held smug amusement. Oh, she was in for a lot of explaining. Lavinia exhaled a breath and stepped into the sudden bustle of the cool interior. At least she wasn’t alone, in companionship or explanations.
Lavinia flashed a smile at her brother in return as aunt Nicia rounded the corner from the kitchen in a cloud of flour that smelled of fennel and smoked fish. Her hug enveloped Lavinia in the comforting softness of home and family, whether she was ready or not.
“My little nina! We have worried, even more since your brother’s letter.”
Only a swat on Nicia’s shoulder moved her sideways to embrace Ty, who flinched at her tight arms. Otherwise, he did not show signs of the injury that nearly killed him.
Free of her aunt, Lavinia was left facing the delicate face of her mother. The blue eyes Lavinia and Ty shared as siblings came from Madeiro, though hers held flecks of deep sea green. A new worry line marred the space between her dark brows and she looked thinner than Lavinia remembered, and shorter if that were possible. But it was her mother who returned her gaze at a teary-eyed arms length, taking in her returned daughter much as Lavinia regarded her mother. Both woman reached for the other at the same moment.
“I worried, but only because you didn’t send word,” Madeiro whispered in her ear. “Until the word Ty sent was dire.” Madeiro pulled back enough to place her bird-light fingers against Lavinia’s cheek. “Where have you been?”
“Far,” Lavinia said, taking her mother’s hand and kissing it before offering her to Ty. Ty turned to Madeiro with open arms that bore none of the hesitation that he had felt at the dock while she had been so anxious to arrive she’d nearly asked Darag to fly her. Only the thought of arriving on the back of a dragon, who was also her husband, kept Lavinia to the more traditional paths of staircases that climbed the cliff from Mirocyne’s harbor to lofty city proper.
As delicate as their mother appeared, Lavinia had seen her hoist sales in gale winds that crashed monstrous waves over the old family merchant ship that had been the first of many for Madeiro and her husband. She may have worried for her children, but she’d raised Ty and Lavinia on the decks of sailboats more than a house and would be the first to claim her daughter followed in her footsteps, be they in rigging or on heaving ship.
Behind Madeiro, Tyero stood with the aide of a cane. The injury that had delayed Ty from leaving for his apprenticeship had robbed her father of captaining his best ships. That was a role Ty was to have taken when he returned. They did not realize how close he’d come to never doing so. Lavinia swallowed against the memories that closed her throat and walked to her father to save him the steps.
Strong arms held her close and the scruff on his chin pricked her forehead when he kissed her hairline. Despite his injury, in many ways her father was unchanged. It made her happy. It worried her for Ty. Her father’s opinion of her brother’s dreams had never sat well for either.
Behind her, Lavinia heard her mother. “Come in! Ria, look how you’ve grown. Who is with you?”
Lavinia tensed so that her father released her. She wasn’t ready for it, but the time had come. She sighed a laugh at herself and led her father forward. What she had to announce, she wanted everyone to hear. And only wanted to speak once.
“This is my partner, Ci’erra.” Ria held Ci’erra’s hand as she sweep her free hand toward the petite woman with striking blonde short hair and a fire dragon on her shoulder.
Lavinia could have hugged her friend for the drama she created. With everything they had to share among her friends, her parents might just be numb by the time they reached the last introduction.
“Ci’erra is a Fire Elemental,” Ria continued as Lavinia slipped around her. “Oh, and I am a Spirit Elemental, which you’ve probably never heard of before. But that is why the Church of Four Orders often took my family. Spirit Elementals were hunted until… recently.” Ria beamed at Ty and Lavinia. “Your children had a huge part in that.”
Madeiro managed to close her mouth to offer a wan smile. Lavinia giggled as she slipped her hand into Darag’s as she leaned against his shoulder.
“What does a Spirit Elemental do?” Madeiro asked.
“Just about whatever they want,” Ty said from where he lounged against the door. “Ria is the one who sent your ship to Mirocyne.”
Ria blushed and stammered, “But I’m not even sure how,” which made Ci’erra laugh.
Ria kicked her, though the swipe had no force to it. Still it sent Seifa spitting sparks. Tyero raised an eyebrow, his glance sliding to Madeiro. That made Lavinia happy they stood before her parent’s stucco and stone house rather than one of their wooden ships. She doubted Seifa would be allowed on board.
“I think you’ve rubbed off on her, Zhao,” Ci’erra teased, avoiding another swat.
“This is Zhao,” Ria continued, voice hovering between laughter and annoyance. “He is a Wind Elemental from the Bay of Tiak. Yes, we’ve been there. And Laireag is from the forests above Valia and is Kith. You’ve probably never heard of them.
Lavinia bit off the desire to add, “or seen them.” Her parents gazes rested on Laireag’s patterned, dark skin. If it weren’t for the lighter strips, she guessed they’d say he was tattooed. But the color that mimicked the bark of a tree was natural by birth and different to each Kith, as Darag’s lighter tones of shadows and dabbling attested.
“And this is Darag,” Lavinia said when Ria finally paused her chatty introductions. “My husband.”
Lavinia smiled brightly, expecting the news to shock her parents. She was barely old enough to wed in her culture. Really, she should have been four months into her two year apprenticeship now and not arriving home married. But that fact was hardly the worst. To her, in many ways, it was the best. Because of it, she had Darag to squeeze her hand as her mother turned to her father while a hush infiltrated the previously bustling yard and house.
Too flustered to pretend anything otherwise, Madeiro clasped her palms together. “Come in! Why don’t we have chilled wine while you tell us… where you have been.” She swallowed hard as she turned to the house and gestured Tyero and aunt Nicia to the lead the way.
“That went well.” Lavinia’s lips felt numb. Darag’s chuckle warmed her. The kiss he swept to her forehead added a smile to her face. “I think you should begin,” she said to Ty.
“Why? You are doing so well.”
Lavinia stuck her tongue out at her brother.
“I’ll start,” Ria said as she put her arm around Lavinia. “After all, it was me stopping the knife that made us run from the Church.”
“And not the fact that those men who threw the knife were looking for Ty?” Lavinia laughed at the dark look Ty cast her. She pushed her brother before her into the house.
It was later in the deep cool of the evening as Lavinia’s head buzzed with too much wine that she finally felt ready to tell her parents the rest. Zhao and Laireag had unrolled bedrolls along the edge of the back garden and slept amid fragrant jasmine that grew beside the olive tree. Ria had retired upstairs to the guest room where she’d stayed often when visiting as a girl. Ci’erra was officially down the hall in a room that offered a small fireplace for Seifa. Though Lavinia had seen her aunt sneaking out the floor rug.
Ty’s confession of abandoning his apprenticeship had taken place an hour before. Their father’s tight lipped silence had only broken when Ty showed the still healing wound from the Sword of Ranak when Ty’s old associated had plunged into his gut. Even knowing the story, Lavinia had winced. Tyero had teared up and finally reached for his son, holding him close with hands that shook. That had been about all her parents had wanted to hear of Ty’s exploits.
Talk had moved to how Lavinia had met Darag and the time he had come to save her in the desert which freed her brother to sleep. Something he sorely needed to mend his wound. By the end of her story, Madeiro had looked at her husband with the same warmth Lavinia remembered from her childhood. Tyero had taken his wife’s hand and kissed it, before offering a handshake to Darag. It made Lavinia wish that were all she had to say.
Lavinia had to clear her throat to begin. Darag sat straighter at the sound. “The Kith are soul bound to a tree.”
“Laireag mentioned that, I think.” Madeiro trilled the ‘l’, adding a strange lilt to her friends name.
“And marriage in the Kith way means I am joined to Darag and his tree as well.” Lavinia nodded, sipped her wine, and continued, “The Kith, we, will live as long as our tree.”
Lavinia held her mother’s gaze until the budding acceptance faded to worry again. But it was Darag who finished what she needed to say.
“Our trees live a very long time.”
Tyero broke the silence with a deep inhale and slow exhale. “How long is that?”
Despite knowing the moment would come, tears brimmed against her lashes. “Centuries.”
It took several more minutes of explanation before Madeiro and Tyero sat in their chairs looking like they had battled the Church for Ria’s life themselves before Tyero raised a hand to massage his eyes. “Is there anything else we should know?”
“You daughter is an excellent swordswoman,” Darag said seriously.
Lavinia snorted, elbowing him for having taken the easier of the last two details. “And I can now control water and fire like an Elemental.” She illustrated the fact with a flick of her fingers that sent the candle flame shooting in a pillar skyward. Relief filled her for having finally said the last piece that had weighed on her for weeks. Her parents sat frozen. Ty was missing a moment he’d love to tease her about, which only added to her lightheartedness. “But you should see what Darag can do.”
At her words, lights twinkled into existence across the garden while mist wrapped around the house, leaving only the view of the moonlit sea visible between the last of the houses near the edge of the cliff. Lavinia looked at the wide-eyed and thoroughly overwhelmed expressions on her parent’s faces and started to laugh. Maybe she would tell Ty.