[NOTE: I wrote this over a few days in mid-December 2019 as a way to test out whether I could use the 750 Words site while at the office at the Former Day Job. (Come to find out, I could, which saved my sanity for a while.) I thought it would be fun to feature the Bridgetown gang in a Special Christmas Episode. I also wanted to prove to myself once and for all that yes, I CAN actually write a short story if I put my mind to it. And yes, it is considered canon in the Mendaihu Universe.]
It felt so comforting, so freeing to finally go to a Winter Festival without having to worry about her job. Caren couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone to one of these without that hint of tension lurking somewhere in the back of her sensing. She could even walk around Tower Park now without that feeling of sorrow and dread and being reminded of that riot in Kendall Fields. That was all behind her, a good couple of years now. It had taken such a long time, but she’d come to terms with that fateful day and moved on. The pain was still there, hiding so deep in her spirit, but it was no longer an obstacle. Just a reminder.
She walked slowly down the wide promenade with her arm in Anando’s, taking in the lights and the people and the scents of baked goods. The level of positive energy here was intoxicating in a pleasant way, just enough to bring her own spirit some holiday joy. Even though it was early December and a cold snap was going to be coming in late in the evening, there was nothing that could break this mood for anyone.
Anando was bundled up in a heavy coat, knit hat and fingerless gloves, but he emanated such a warmth both physical and spiritual that she didn’t want to let go of him just yet. He seemed to be oblivious of the dropping temperature, focusing more on the people and the sights and everything else. He wanted to stop at each booth they walked by, either to say hello or to try the foods they were selling, but she kept him moving. They were due to meet Poe and Akaina at one of the large seating areas up ahead, and she didn’t want to keep them waiting.
“You’re in a hurry,” he said in amusement, after she’d nudged him on for the fourth time.
“And you aren’t,” she retorted, giving him a playful nudge. “We can visit everyone again after we have dinner with Poe and Kai.”
“I know…” he said, waving at yet another booth attendant. “I just don’t want all my friends to think I’m ignoring them.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “So you know pretty much every single person on the Western Path of the Winter Festival grounds, is that what you’re saying?” she teased. “Because I’m telling you now I’m not nearly as much of a social person as you are. And I meet a lot of people on the job.”
“Yes, I do,” he said, and gave her a peck on the head. “You’ll just have to deal with it, Karzi.”
She giggled and hugged his arm tighter. She loved it when he used that name with her. “I guess I will,” she said, and pointed at one of the larger stalls further on. “Hey, isn’t that…?”
Anando hummed and made a beeline for it. “Yes, that’s Mancka alright. I’ve rarely seen her since she retired, come to think of it. We should at least stop and say hello, yeah?”
They stepped up to the booth together, the both of them sending a small wave of love and cheer her way. Mancka Udéma had been an extremely important part of keeping the Ninth Season running as smoothly as it did, helping keep the Governor’s council from intruding and possibly making things worse. After Denni’s final ascension and freedom, Mancka had considered her role complete and slid back into the shadows. They’d stayed in touch for a little while but then Mancka had gone off the grid for nearly a year. Caren had never learned why, and chose not to ask.
“Karinna! Anando!” she said, beaming and reaching over the booth boards to give them hugs. “Somfei, somfei, my sehnadha! It’s wonderful to see you again! How are you?” She pulled back, but didn’t let go of either of them right away. She held their arms tightly, full of excitement. “I’m so glad the two of you are still together. How is everyone from the circle?”
Goddess, she really had taken herself out of the loop! “Everyone’s fine,” she said. “They all miss you, emha. We’ve all wondered where you’d gone off to.”
Mancka waved a hand and smiled. “Oh, here and there. Outposts, stuck in the Tower, recuperating at home, up on Trisanda, that sort of thing.”
Anando blinked at her. “When were you on Trisanda? I never sensed you there and I was up there almost constantly for five months after everything was over!”
“Oh, much later than that,” she said. “Almost a year later. I had some business to attend to with Ampryss and Dolan.”
Both Anando and Caren raised their brows at her. “Business…?” she said warily. “Dare I ask?”
Mancka waved her concern away. “Nothing terrible. The Season may have come to a close, but there’s still so much to do to keep this Awakening alive. We just want everything to work, yeah? We’d rather not leave anything to chance.”
Caren nodded solemnly. This had been one hell of a Season of Embodiment, what with her younger sister being the One of All Sacred and Caren herself being a Warrior and Protector of the One. “Denni’s doing fine,” she said quietly. “She’s up in New Boston, her first year in college.”
Mancka’s eyes widened. “Oh, that’s right! I’d forgotten how old she is now! She’s studying under Alec’s brother, isn’t she? Majoring in literature?”
“With a minor in art, believe it or not. Given the last few years, she felt the need to study something close to her heart instead of what everyone expects. I’m proud of her, taking that chance.”
“I’m glad,” she said. “Tell her I said hello when you have the chance. I miss her terribly. We had some really interesting conversations back then.”
“I will,” Caren said with a wide smile, and started nudging Anando down the wide path again. “Alec and Akaina are here, by the way, I’ll send them your way after we have dinner with them?”
“Certainly! Pashyo, it’s good to see you again, Caren. Look me up when you have the time.”
They waved their goodbyes and continued their walk towards the dining area. She checked her watch; it was nearing seven, which meant that Poe and Kai were most likely already at a table, waiting for them to arrive. She pulled at Anando’s arm again and double-timed it.
She felt Poe’s spirit well before she saw him or Kai, and that helped her find them easily. He held himself as quiet and closed as possible most of the time, but he’d left that one connection between them wide open. She did the same for him; they trusted each other that complicitly. She gave him a wave as soon as his eyes lifted towards hers. Kai, who had been facing the other way, had perked up quickly and turned around, beaming at her.
“Hey!” she said, getting up and rushing towards them, giving them both a big squeeze. Caren could feel the baby bump in Kai’s belly pressing up against her. She shivered with joy every time she thought of these two friends of hers starting a family; this was a blessing for both of them. Kai gave both of them kisses on the cheeks and brought them back to the table.
“So good to see you two!” she said, dropping back down in her seat. Her spirit was in such an excited state that she could hardly sit still, and shifted between them. “Ashan and I have been so busy at the northern outposts lately, I miss everyone!” She reached over and touched Poe’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “Especially this one here,” she said, smiling at him.
“Oh, you’re not missing much with him,” Caren laughed. “He’s been his usual dour self.”
Poe snorted at her. “Okay, I’ll give you that,” he said. “The Season might be over, but the level of casework we have to do hasn’t changed at all.”
“True words,” Caren said, and turned back to Kai. “So, girl… tell me about your brother. He’s doing okay? I haven’t seen him in nearly eight months. No one has. He’s been… scarce.”
Kai pursed her lips slightly, then let it go. “He’s… he’s doing okay, if that’s what you mean,” she said quietly. “He’s got a lot on his mind lately, eichi. He won’t say much, but I have some ideas why he’s been acting the way he has. Not here, though. After dinner. If you aren’t busy, you can come to our place and we can talk about it.”
Caren knew better than to press further. Besides, this was Winter Festival, and they were all here to see each other and be happy and sense the joyous spirits around them. She let it go for now.
Poe’s apartment had not changed much at all over the years, other than that it no longer had that stink of cigarette smoke. He’d quit for good at the end of the Season, and had not touched one since. It was also tidier, thanks to the major cleaning party they’d had soon after everything was over. He’d made good on his promise and kept the place clean and tidy. Kai had moved in after a few months, and they’d gotten married soon after that. Caren and Anando were in no rush to go down the same road just yet. Seeing a domesticated Alec Poe still threw her for a loop, though. She’d known him for so long that such changes still surprised her.
Poe leaned through the kitchen door and smiled at them. “Coffee all around?”
“Please,” Caren said, pulling the small blanket around her shoulders. Though the heat in his apartment was going full blast, she was still shivering from being outside for so long. “If you’re spiking them, I won’t say no.”
“Spiked it is,” he smirked, and ducked back into the kitchen.
Kai sidled up next to her, providing additional warmth. “So, eichi… tell me what’s been going on in the city. Ashan and I have been unplugged for the last half year. Anything we should know about?”
Caren knew a pointed question when she heard one and smiled. “Nothing out of the ordinary, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “It’s been business as usual. The occasional request for security during mass rituals, a few small arguments to settle, things like that. It keeps us busy enough. The Elders have been poking at Alec and I about joining one of their collectives in Swope Heights or across the river, but we keep saying no.”
Kai studied her for a moment before answering. “Personal?”
Caren shrugged in response. “You could say that. It’s not that we don’t trust them, it’s just that…” She glanced at the kitchen doorway, knowing full well that Alec was listening in. She exhaled again and continued. “It doesn’t sing to either of us.”
Kai touched her shoulder and nodded. “I understand. Sometimes we follow our own path instead of a collective one. Alec has told me before about the Elders, especially the collective down near Webster Park. They’re Reverend Miriam’s old group, if I recall.”
Miriam! Caren hadn’t heard that name in quite a long time. He’d fallen off the face of the planet soon after the Season had ended, and everyone had assumed that he’d travelled to Trisanda and stayed up there. No one blamed him, after everything he’d gone through over the last two Embodiments. He deserved the rest.
“They’re…” she started, then stumbled to a stop. How could she put this delicately…? “Well. Remember Amna at the warehouse near the end of the Season? When everything started going wrong?”
Kai took a slow breath and put a hand on her belly. “When the chaos set in, you mean,” she said quietly.
Caren nodded. “It feels like that. I don’t necessarily sense anything wrong about to happen, but…”
Poe came out with a tray of steaming mugs and placed it on the table, and glanced at her. “…but they’re being uncharacteristically pushy about it,” he said, and sat down next to Kai. “You and I talked about this about a month or so ago. Remember when I told you about Elder Thomas?”
“Oh, that’s right,” she said, waving a finger at him. “I’d told Ashan about it afterwards and he said not to worry too much about it.”
“I’m not worried,” Caren said, and turned to Anando. “I’m just concerned. I doubt they’re in full crusade mode. A bit zealous, perhaps.”
“That’s what concerns me,” Anando said. “As a non-Elder, they’re really trying to pull us lower level adepts in.”
“And I do not want Denni involved,” she said, turning to the others. “If only because I know she’ll want to do something about it.”
Kai sat back and thought about it for a bit, slowly sipping her tea. “I’ll tell you what Ashan is worried about,” she said. “It’s the extremes. Not the extremists, mind you… just the fact that we have Elders trying to raise their numbers, the occasional recently-awakened that takes it all just a little too seriously… and those who are using it all for their own ends.”
Caren hummed. “Everyone with eyes opened but no one looking anywhere,” she said.
Poe smirked at her. “I’m usually the one who quotes Kelley James. But yeah, that’s it exactly.”
She turned to Anando again. “Is that what you’ve been sensing?”
“Yes, I think so,” he said. “It’s hard to tell, especially when there’s still so much noise out there. It’s like on the surface level they’re fesh crahné, but deeper within they’re fesh piann.”
“And still not enough sehn-dayenné out there to steer them in the right direction,” Kai said. “That’s part of why Ashan and I have been spending so much time in the outposts. It’s the best place to start teaching.”
Poe hummed and leaned back. “You know…”
Kai huffed at him and put down her mug. “Alix, we talked about this.”
“I know we did,” he said, his voice calm and quiet. So unlike him. “But seriously… if it comes to it, I’m willing to take that step. If it’s necessary.”
Caren raised an eyebrow; clearly this was something Poe had chosen not to share with her, even as her ARU partner. She didn’t fault him, though. “What step is this?”
“Become a sehn-dayenné myself, of course,” he said with a smile. “Maybe not as psychotic as Elder Crittiqila of course. More like, I don’t know… our girl Denni.”
“That’s blasphemy, you know,” Caren said with a quick grin. “But I see where you’re coming from. After all, you are the Dahné Mendaihu, last I checked.”
Kai sighed in resignation. “That’s what worries me,” she said. “It’s a full time job and it’ll put a strain on all of us.”
Caren continued sipping at her coffee. Why could she not get warm? Even with Anando by her side, she couldn’t shake this chill from her body. It wasn’t just because of the weather, either. She’d been feeling it all day long, and the more she thought about it, the more it felt like an inner chill than an outer one. She was in proximity of multiple kiralla in this room, but that wasn’t it either.
Perhaps her own spirit was trying to tell her, warn her, about something within.
“That’s not all Ashan’s been up to,” Kai said, leaning back into the soft cushions of the couch. “Between the teaching and everything else, he’s been running himself ragged. I’m worried about him, but he won’t listen to reason.” She let out a frustrated sigh and sipped at her tea again. “He’s my eicho and I love him dearly, but he’s been so distant to everyone this year, especially me. Either he’s going through a personal change of spirit…”
“…or he’s holding something from us out of safety,” Poe finished. “Last time I talked to him about a month ago, he’d closed himself off damn tight. Amiable in his own way, sure, but you can sense a damn thick barrier between himself and everyone else.”
“I’m worried about him,” Kai said quietly. “He’s never been like this before.”
Caren hummed in response, wanting to say more, but held her tongue. Ashan had always maintained a level of cold distance from most everyone other than his sister. And he had been dealt a painfully heavy blow near the end of their Season, when he’d nearly lost her forever.
Perhaps that was why she felt cold today. Without thinking, she’d laid her left hand over her right, rubbing her thumb against the skin. She’d gone through her own heavy battle at the end there as well, nearly getting torn to ribbons by one of the final battles between Denni and Saisshalé. She rarely used her touch-sensing abilities since then, finding it just that bit…alien.
Perhaps Ashan was feeling the same thing. The sensation of something so integral, so heavily entwined within his soul, suddenly vanishing. Even if that something was returned whole, it wasn’t the same ever again.
“Karzi…?” Anando whispered in her ear. “You’re okay?”
Caren shifted out of her thoughts and gave him a quick smile. “Fine,” she said. “Just thinking.”
“Well,” Poe said, breaking the silence. “I won’t push him. He’ll come to us if he needs to. I trust him.”
Kai took hold of his hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
“Right,” he continued, and pushed himself up. Everyone in the room felt a small but significant wave of love and affection emanating from him. “It’s Winter Festival, it’s the first significant amount of time we’ve all had off, so I think we should celebrate! What do you think, Kai?”
She laughed at him, sending a wave of love his way in return. “Who am I to stop you, Alix? You’ve been so twitchy about this for the last two weeks!”
Caren eyed the both of them. “Okay, what are you two up to?”
Poe gave her a ridiculously wide grin and held up his fingers. “Wait right there,” he said, and dashed off into the other room.
“Kai…?” she said. “What’s going on?”
But she just shrugged. “He’s from a big family, you know how he is.”
“He didn’t… Poe!” Caren called out. “You better not have presents in there! You told me you wouldn’t!”
“I lied,” he called back.
“We didn’t get either of you anything!” she said, feeling embarrassed. “I thought we agreed. He’s done enough for me, I don’t expect anything else.”
“That’s what makes it so fun,” Poe said, coming back out with two small black boxes. She handed one to her, and the other to Anando. He was equally surprised and took it from him, wondering what was inside.”
“Alec…” she said.
“You two deserve this,” he said, sitting back down next to Kai, taking her hand. “We don’t want anything in return.”
She eyed him, first with contempt, then with a grudging acceptance, then with frustrated affection. He was always doing this, going so far out of his way to make everyone happy. She could only hope he’d finally learned to include himself in that equation. She and Anando glanced at each other, then at the boxes.
Inside, there were two beautiful gold rings, one in each box. Both with inlaid stone set in the shape of the Shalei sigil, two intersecting circles. With a trembling hand, she pulled it out of its box and looked closely at it. On the inside, she saw it: allei aiya, cho-shadhisi inscribed on the inside of the band.
She turned and looked at Anando.
He had the biggest grin on his face. “Allei aiya, Karinna Shalei. Please be with me throughout all the universes,” he said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
“Oh…” she said.
“Took you long enough,” she heard behind her.
“Oh…!” she trembled, up and on her feet.
Denni stood there in the doorway, having just Lightwalked into Poe’s front room without a sound.
Caren darted around the couch and ran into her sister’s arms and held her tightly. “Ai…!” she cried. “What are you doing here? You weren’t supposed to come back for another week! I’ve missed you!”
Denni giggled and held her close. “I wouldn’t miss my sister getting engaged for the worlds, you know,” she said.
She gasped a third time, realizing the ring was still in her hands.
This had been planned far, far in advance, and she’d had no idea…!
“Ai…” she sobbed. “You’re going to kill me here!” She burst out into laughter she felt throughout her entire spirit, and made her way back to Anando. He was still sitting on the couch, the other ring in his hand. Waiting for her to respond. She walked over to him, lifted him to his feet, and pulled him into a warm embrace.
“Allei aiya, cho-shadhisi,” she whispered in his ear. “I will be with you throughout the universes.”
She heard cheers and whoops all around them, felt a ridiculous wave of joy and love emanating from everyone in the room, but at this moment she only paid attention to one person, the one currently in her arms.
“I love you, Anando,” she said.