Kiss of the Dragonfly

14. Gifts

The book lay open to The Wayrite of the Dead.

Petra had found it beside her bed: a small copy of The Rites of Passage in a waterproof goatskin case. Tucked between its pages were two downland coins of soft gold and a note.

      I’ve marked the most important rite. It is the first that I taught your father.

Petra slammed the book closed on the coins and thrust it into her clothes trunk. In the trunk, she discovered a coil of spider silk and a mechanical spinner designed to be threaded onto a belt. At the silk cord’s end was a steel pod that snapped open into a four-pronged hook.

Grapple’s and Genna’s gifts were fine ones, meant for the trail. They were so pointless now, they nearly made Petra cry.

When she limped out of her tent, she found herself in a camp of women, children, cripples, and old men. Most Drakhorn men fit for the trail had gone to reinforce her father’s raiders, and Elder Genna with them.

She got the details from One-armed Canuut in the kennels, while Bane licked her hands.

“Counting your pa’s raiders, that’s fifty men on the trail,” said Canuut, shaking his head. “Most of the dogs, and all the mules but one.”

“Mistake?” No surprise if he was the last mule in the pen.

“Yep. Truculent false-bred monster. Grapple wouldn’t risk taking him. And here, he eats enough for three dogs.”

“Let him forage,” said Petra.

“Too easy to spot, with his color.”

“So who’s left?”

Canuut told her that of the Drakhorn scouts, Ward had left only two to keep watch down-valley. He’d sent Lucan south with three Broks to intercept the Travers, and then to fetch the mule train. The fittest men left in camp were the Brok camp guards, including Mollos of the hairy arms, his shadow Gench, and Cort.

“So Gronnor got his way,” said Petra, remembering his arguments with Grandma Brael and with Ward at the gate.

“Mostly. Gronnor says the men he held back make better guards than trailsmen, and I can believe that. Ward trusts his opinion.” Canuut didn’t sound happy about it.

Of course Ward trusted Gronnor. The clans couldn’t have joined otherwise. To earn trust you must offer it—that’s what Ward had said. But Petra didn’t trust Broks as far as she could spit.

She limped around the camp, unable to stand straight, glaring at anyone who looked at her. There was Mollos Brok, pissing into the brook upstream of where the kin were washing clothes. One of his crew had taken Sten’s post by the gate. The camp was oppressively quiet. Even the kids did their chores in an apprehensive hush.

She imagined that the young kin laughed at her for being left behind. The suspicion made her shifty-eyed and mean. When Borak and Ola offered to help her with chores, she turned her back on them.

At supper, she waged a war of silence with her mother, in whose eyes she saw smug gloating.

Every few minutes, despite lips compressed to keep them in, words burst out of her mother. “It was a ridiculous idea of Ward’s to take you. Imagine, a girl your age. You’d have slowed them down.”

So Ward had decided to take her. Petra clenched her jaw, blinked away a prickling at the corners of her eyes.

A minute later, her mother said, “Gronnor had to remind Ward that your life should not be thrown away as Tarran’s was.”

Petra’s heart seemed to stop for a second. She swallowed.

Her mother’s eyes narrowed. She’d seen her words hit home. She sighed for effect. “I’ve decided to enter you in the dances this winter.”

That startled Petra into speech. “Huh? But I’m …”

“Too young? Not too young for the chaperoned fillies’ dances. With older boys, of course, because the boys your age never take it seriously. I’ll find suitable partners from the best clans. Your name and clanmarks work in your favor, even if your behavior does not.”

Her mother had got deep under Petra’s guard. Petra made a disgusted face. “Ma, that’s so … so old-time, so downlandish. Nobody meets anyone at those stupid, prehistoric rituals. If you sick some loser boy on me I’ll trip him up, I’ll spill soup on him—”

“You mean you’d embarrass your father with a League clan?”

Petra’s face worked. “It’d be a huge waste of time.”

“As for ‘waste of time,’ I have pleasant memories of dancing with your father in the spring youth—”

“You met at a dance?” interrupted Petra, appalled that she might owe her existence to something so lame.

“Well, no, we met in a winter Clash. He was Drakhorn raid commander and I was defending the Stray nest, and—”

“See!” said Petra. It was hard to imagine her mother whirling a blood flail.

Her mother took the kind of deep breath that meant a lecture was coming. “Petra, it is high time you put aside fantasies of raiding nests and accept the responsibilities of your position in society. For most of your life, your duty will be to your marriage clan and your children. The first step is to meet suitable young men from good clans and refine your—”

“I look too young,” protested Petra. “An older boy would want to dance with a girl like Tegan, not a stick like me. They’ll resent it.”

“If you’re slender it’s from running all day like a goat.” Her mother reached forward to touch Petra’s bruised cheek. “Fighting like Basta does not improve your appearance either. I hope that whoever gave you that eye has taught a lasting lesson about the dignity of your person and the merits of acting your age.”

Petra scowled at the teapot. It wasn’t enough to get a pasting from Otger and be left behind. She had to endure this.

Her mother continued. “If you’d only attend to the gentler camp skills, I’m sure you’d blossom as your cousin has. The Strays are as renowned for the beauty of their girls as they are for their intellects.”

“I’m all Drakhorn,” growled Petra. But her clanmarks shouted her mother’s blood as clearly as they did her father’s.

“Other clans will honor your heritage, Petra. You should be mindful that your clanmarks will win you a very advantageous marriage.”

“Like I’m a trophy! You know Pa doesn’t like them mentioned.”

Petra didn’t like them mentioned either. As the girl kin grew older, childish awe at her clanmarks had become a poisonous envy mixed with contempt for the ‘Drakhorn princess’. And her father’s silence didn’t change the fact that they made her a thing to be bartered.

Her mother’s head pushed forward. “Your father knows little of society. A cadet clan will pay handsomely to have their bloodline improved by yours. And from an ancient clan we might find you a mate with as fine a clanmark. That would improve your odds of breeding true.”

Petra scowled, her mouth twisting. “Am I nothing but my clanmarks to you? Nothing but a breeder?”

Her mother pointed her meat skewer at Petra. “Listen to me. Clanmarks aside, as a woman, your power will be in your intellect, your education, your skill with people, and your understanding of politics—things men can get by without. Why aspire to be an inadequate hunter when you can be taken seriously as a leader in your marriage clan and ultimately in the League council?”

Inadequate! Petra groped for a retort.

Jabbing the skewer for emphasis, her mother continued. “The sooner you’re married, the longer you’ll have to build influence through your work and your children.”

A disconcerting vision of Bella, the goat herd’s queen doe, bounded into Petra’s head. Bella was queen by virtue of the how many kids she’d popped out, and how fat she’d grown doing it.

“Ma, seriously, I haven’t had my first blood yet!”

Her mother’s eyes became slits and she thrust her face forward. “Running. Too. Much.”

Petra didn’t know what to say. Tegan’s had come that summer, but she was quick at everything. When Petra had asked Genna, the elder had laughed, and said with conviction, “Don’t be in a hurry for that, dear.”

Her mother skewered a mutton cube. “What about that nice boy Jot Flain I introduced you to last spring? I get on well with Brega Flain, and she’s amenable. The Flains are prosperous.”

Petra grimaced. “The fat boy in furs? I thought I was doing you a favor, keeping him occupied so you and his mum could talk.”

“He’s not fat. He’s next in line to be Tash.”

“They’re almost farmers!”

“They’re furriers, and they’re very progressive. Tashara Brega leads the clan.”

“They keep stuffed animal heads in their tents. Jot could only talk about his airguns.”

“Think, Petra. If he’s not as smart as you, wouldn’t that be an advantage?”

Petra knew she’d fallen into a trap from which words wouldn’t free her. Her mother always had more and better words than she did. She shut her mouth and resumed her silence.

Her mother had the final shot. “Petra, either you’ll be a willing participant in this process, or accept a decision made for you. I might well betroth you this winter, and you can learn to whom by listening at tent walls.”

Petra lay long awake that night, hurting in many ways, listening to the Brok men roar with drunken laughter in Gronnor’s tent.

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