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(This story follows Fall of Duty.)Author's Notes
Ashrein loved her new home. The cottage was barely half the size of their former home in the City of Lights, and all three of her daughters had to share a bedroom, but none of them cared. Their yard was enormous, and beyond it lay a golden sliver of beach leading down to the wide open sea. Kirim hung a hammock on one side of the second bedroom, Laaji and Meniir shared a ladder bed, and they all declared themselves content.
Who needed a big house when you spent most of your time outside anyway? Their new neighbors showed them how to drag driftwood up from the beach and build furniture with it: long curving lounge chairs, an umbrella stand, and a strangely twisted table. They gathered lava rocks from the high end of the yard and made a firepit just outside the cottage. Then they put another one on the beach, just because they could, in case they didn't feel like carrying clams all the way up the slope.
Ashrein loved the ocean too. The soft whisper of waves helped her sleep at night in her small, lonely bed. She missed her husband with a bottomless sorrow. Tovilarn had been a joy and a rampart of her life for years, and now he was gone. Before moving here, Ashrein could not sleep without the sound of his breathing beside her. She would doze off only to wake with her hand flung out over the cold covers and empty mattress. Here at least she could lie awake and count the waves as they washed up the shore. Sometimes they even lulled her back to sleep.
Mornings were difficult too. Ashrein had to get the girls up, and the older two of them ready for school. They missed their father, which often made them tired and cranky. But the beach was there for them too. Ashrein made a new family tradition: they would get up together and watch the sunrise from their beach, as the light slowly colored the waves and the pale sand. They would walk beside the water and write things in the sand for the waves to wash away. Sometimes it made them feel better. If nothing else, it made them feel like a family.
Some days, Ashrein stayed home with Meniir. Other days, she went out to work, if she felt up to it. She could let Meniir play behind the counter or drop her off at childcare, which was a semiformal playgroup here. Ashrein had bought a clutter shop from an old woman who was retiring. It stood on a public beach and got quite a lot of traffic from tourists, even though it wasn't in the best of shape. Ashrein didn't need the money much, just needed a reason to get herself out of the house. It had to be something that wouldn't suffer from her absence on the days when she couldn't drag herself out of bed. That was why she hadn't looked for a hospital job, like the one she used to do. Licensing for simple retail hadn't been difficult to obtain.
Gradually Ashrein got to know some of the other people who worked the public beach. Dulilm ran a restaurant called the Smiling Sea Serpent, her menu full of monster meat that Ashrein still had not scraped up the courage to try. Dulilm just smiled and introduced Ashrein to other island recipes. Neteilyu sold sea monster souvenirs under a tent. She had kindly taught Ashrein and the girls some tricks of driftwood furniture, a craft that many Duurludirj people learned as children. On the other side of the tent was the Jiggling Sea Jelly, currently drawing custom with nude dancers. That was the talk of the town, but honestly, Ashrein had seen a troop of Stark Dancers and these were nowhere near that good.
In return, Ashrein's neighbors got to know her. It was Neteilyu who suggested, "You should wear a widow's pin."
"I thought that was only for people who lost a warsailor to the sea monsters," Ashrein said.
"Originally, yes, that's why it's meant to be a sea monster tooth with the story scrimshawed on it," said Neteilyu. "But you've said that your husband died in the line of duty. It's much the same thing. There are army widows who wear a tooth with a rank pin or a medal underneath it. You could do something like that." The short woman tilted her head. "I'm sure my son Megruu would be willing to do the carving for you, and I've no shortage of monster teeth."
So Ashrein told the story of her husband's death to Megruu, who etched it into a sea monster tooth and wired a mount for Tovilarn's old guild pin. It made Ashrein feel more like part of this place, part of this culture. It also helped because people could read the pin and handle her with the care due her sorrow.
There were women, and a few men, who worked as widow-keepers and they began keeping an eye on Ashrein even though she wasn't strictly speaking their responsibility. They knew so much about coping with grief that she listened to them every chance she got. On the days when Ashrein couldn't muster the energy to come open her booth, one of them was sure to drop by her cottage by lunchtime to see how she was doing.
Ashrein traded her own knowledge in exchange. Just because she'd left her hospital job didn't mean that she'd forgotten how to do it. She still remembered how to help people adapt to new limitations. So she told Neteilyu what shape of chair Megruu needed to compensate for his missing legs. Ashrein even talked him into letting her measure him so she could make a special cushion for the chair, allowing him to work in greater comfort.
The Duurludirj, she noticed, were far more accommodating of people with physical differences. Part of that came from their own dual nature, as the dwarves they considered normal-size lived alongside people like herself whom they called giants. Another part came from the warsailors, who often retired due to injuries like Megruu's. Here they weren't hidden away in shame as tended to happen with the cripples at home, and nobody complained about the "propriety." Megruu sat in his mother's tent shop and used his impressive scars to sell more sea monster souvenirs. If it was a bit silly catering to tourists that way ... well, it was better than him sitting at home nursing his sorrows alone.
One day Ashrein was setting out items in a sale box when someone stumbled into her. She caught him by instinct, surprised by how much of his weight he put on her. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," he muttered, his hands clenched into the side of his shorts. "Maybe overdid it a bit."
He was a normal-sized Duurludirj, Ashrein realized, whose head barely came to her shoulder. This man was stocky, with dark auburn hair and sea-blue eyes touched with gold. Long, livid scars marred his left leg. No wonder he had lost his balance. "Should you even be walking on that?" Ashrein asked. "It looks recent."
"It is. My physician says that treading on sand helps restore muscle function," the man said. He still couldn't put much weight on that side, though. His fists clutched the fabric, knuckles white as he struggled to overcome the pain. "So I take walks on the beach."
"That's true, but it's very tiring," Ashrein said. She watched him gingerly testing his leg to see if it would hold him now. She'd seen this before, strong men fighting against a fresh weakness, unwilling to give an inch. "You should probably carry a walking stick for stability, too."
"I don't have one," he said as he pulled away from her. It was a frassy excuse if she had ever heard one, because anybody could pick up a nice length of driftwood to make a staff.
"Citizen? What happened to your leg?" Meniir asked, tugging on the hem of his shorts.
"I'm so sorry," Ashrein said as she hurried to scoop up her daughter. "Don't ask nosy questions, sweetheart, you're not a Monitor."
But the man just chuckled and said, "That's not a nosy question around here. What happened is that Death bit off more than he could chew!"
"Oooo," Meniir said. "Are you a real warsailor?"
"Well, I have been. Not sure if I'll come back from this furlough," he replied with a grimace. "I've sure had my share of adventures, though."
"Feel free to sit down for a few minutes," Ashrein suggested, waving a hand at the nearest driftwood chair. "I'll find you a walking stick. It's the least I can do in thanks for your hard work protecting our shipping."
He opened his mouth to protest, but then his gaze snagged on the widow-pin that Ashrein wore. "All right," he said as he sank into the chair. "Sorry for the imposition."
Neteilyu had been right. The pin made a difference. Ashrein sorted through the walking sticks that she kept in a bin. Then she offered the two most likely to suit her visitor. "It's no trouble at all. One of these will do for now, but you'd be better off with a half-crutch that you could use in hand or under your shoulder," she said.
"I haven't seen anything like that," he said. He hefted the two sticks and chose the lighter of them.
"Well, you wouldn't; not many people know how to make them. I could make one for you if you want," Ashrein said. "I used to do that as part of my job, and I've still got the license."
So he let her measure him and make arrangements to meet again at the end of the tenday. He finally got around to introducing himself -- his name was Draberil -- and he listened to the tale of how Ashrein and her children had come to Tifijimi. It was a thoughtful conversation.
Then Draberil tried to get up, and found that his muscles had stiffened during his rest. Even with the walking stick he limped badly. "What an unverified disaster this is," he grumbled under his breath.
"It might be prudent for you to hire a carry-chair for the trip home," Ashrein said. It was a challenging process, pointing out things that might help, while leaving the decision open.
"I can make it back," Draberil said testily. "It will just take longer."
"You already have muscle spasms in your calf, I can see them from here," she said clinically. "If you walk on that, you might make it home, but you'll wind up with cramps all up your leg -- and then you'll be hitting the hazeleaf until you pass out, or else you'll get no sleep at all tonight."
"So now you're a physician too?" Draberil asked.
Ashrein shook her head. "I worked as a life therapist," she said. "That's not my job anymore, I needed a change, but I still know what I'm looking at. Take my advice or don't. Here I'm just a shopkeeper you bumped into when your leg gave out."
He looked away. "Sorry. I'm still getting used to the new limitations, and I don't like them, and that makes me cranky as a winch handle sometimes."
"Even if you know that your job carries a high degree of risk, it's never easy to adjust when that hits home," Ashrein said gently. She had known how dangerous Tovilarn's work was, and his death still came as a shock.
"Now that's as true as the tide," Draberil said.
"I found a carry-chair," Meniir chirped.
"I never agreed to -- oh, fine, don't look at me like that, I'll take the chair," Draberil said.
Ashrein could have told him that Meniir pouted like a master, but if it got him into the carry-chair, she'd overlook a little playacting on a man who evidently had no experience with small children. "That sounds like an excellent plan," Ashrein said.
The walking stick was enough to get him to the chair, and Draberil settled into it with a sigh of relief.
"You didn't tell us this was for a warsailor, young citizen," the front porter said to Meniir. "There's a discount for that." He tapped one of the posts that held up the awning, where it showed a complicated carving along with several names.
"Neteilyu is teaching us to read those, but I haven't got them all straight in my head yet," Ashrein said.
"This says I have two asea -- they're my cousins -- and the topmost mark is for my mother who died in service," said the porter.
"The Empire thanks them," Ashrein murmured, an all-purpose response for work well done.
She and Meniir waved as the porters trotted away with the carry-chair between them. Then Ashrein led her daughter back behind the counter. She had a bucket of seashells to play with there. Hopefully it would keep Meniir busy for a while as Ashrein returned to the sale bin.
The booth was plain. Ashrein hadn't gotten around to personalizing the decorations. Now she looked at the smooth posts and wondered about the propriety of carving a symbol for Tovilarn to match the widow-pin that she wore. She could ask Neteilyu about it later.
Ashrein rubbed a thoughtful hand over the spare staff as she put it away. Her old job had paid better, though not by a lot -- taking care of cripples wasn't the Empire's highest priority. She still had the relevant licenses, though, and with so many warsailors around here, maybe she didn't need the hospital position anymore. She could just as well start stocking her booth with some of the little tools that made life easier for someone who had a bad leg or arm. Each of the vendors along the beach had their own particular twist on what they sold. Maybe this could be hers. Then she could stay here, with the wave-shush in her ears and her daughter playing with seashells, and not have to take up an indoor job again even after she got her feet back under her.
Ashrein looked over the wide open sea and thought that would be nice.
This story was inspired by the Torn World Muse Fusion card 4-16-14. It also fills the "Building / Creating something" slot in my Cottoncandy Bingo Card 3-30-14. It has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette.