Lane made plans to spend the next day at the river with Jonathan, his wife Amaryllis, and their children. The Council of Archein unanimously agreed that they could do without the sulking widower for the day, as well as any others he felt he needed off. Lane had been an excellent politician and addition to the Council before his wife’s death, but for the past year he had not been as effective as he once was.
Strapping his guns across his hips in the low style of the Balesi, Lane called through the open door to Mika. “Are you dressed yet?”
“Yes!” Her sing-song voice trailed through her bedroom door and she followed it out. She was wearing a hand-me-down apprentice tunic and beige pants, her blonde hair tied back low on her neck. Lane couldn’t help but think she looked just like her mother.
“That’s not ready, go put on your picnic dress.” He was smiling, but serious, and he could tell from her face that she knew it.
Smiling, like her own mother had once smiled at her father, Mikayla looked down at her outfit while Lane waited for whatever she had planned. He had plenty of experience with Rebecca making excuses to get what she wanted.
“Noooo,” Mika drew the word out as she started honestly enough, “it’s not my picnic dress.”
She seemed to consider for a moment and Lane realized this was yet another bad habit he would have to clear her of. Her mother had been one of the best liars he had ever known (for several years she had the whole city-state convinced that she was her cousin, Robert Baine), and Lane did not want Mika to pick up her mother’s less-than-honorable talents.
“Mikayla Morgan, don’t lie to your father,” he warned as he raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms.
She looked up quickly, hurt that he would accuse her of such a thing. “I’m not lying! I’m not wearing my picnic dress because I didn’t want it to get dirty. Kyle said he would teach me to be an apprentice today.”
Lane let out a laughing breath – she had her mother’s talents. He leaned down and picked her up, holding her seated on his hip like she were a child of one instead of seven. “Why would you want to be an apprentice? All the boys will beat you up or try to kiss you.”
Mika made a face at that, but she had her mother’s stubbornness too. “I want to be one of the Balesi. Like Mommy.” She looked up at him with a smile, “like you.”
Lane kissed her on the cheek and set her down. “No you don’t. While it would probably be easier for you to become a Balesi, I don’t want you going through the same things your mother did for her title.” He was smiling again, but completely serious. Rebecca had truly gone through her own personal hell for years to get that title, and had given up quite a bit of happiness to achieve it. Lane would pay any cost to shelter Mika from that.
“What did she have to do?” Mika looked up at her father with wide eyes.
Lane looked down into her brown eyes that were so un-like Rebecca’s. His wife had always held a calculating coldness in her eyes that he hoped never to see in Mikayla. Rebecca always looked as if she was hiding something.
She usually was.
Clapping Mika on the shoulder and directing her back into her room and to her closet, Lane picked out her picnic dress. “I’ll tell you when you’re older. Now change.”
Mikayla’s shoulders slumped and she let her arms hang to her sides. “Ok.”
Jon and Amy lived in the apartment next door, and the trip through the dark hallway was short. The palace was shaped as a U with the two side wings containing the apartments of the ruling-class Bas and Balesi. The apartments on the first floor opened directly onto a large courtyard protected by the high walls of the palace, while the second floor apartments had balconies overlooking the trees and flowers. Lane and Rebecca moved into an upper-level apartment as they had both grown up on the second floor and were quite fond of the balconies. Neither Jon or Amy had grown up in the palace, or even in the city-state of Archein, but Jonathan had been lucky enough to be one of Rebecca’s original Ligos Basilias, and for that he was awarded the title Balesi and allowed to live in the palace with rest of the Bas ruling class.
Mika reached up and knocked on the heavy wooden door that led to the Adrastos’ rooms, and after a moment the door opened with a dazzling display of morning light. Both Mika and Lane found themselves blinking with the sudden change.
“Come in, come in!” Amy said with a smile and moved aside for them both. “I’m sorry we aren’t ready yet, you know how things go.”
Mika bounced in happily and hugged her “aunt” Amy around the side of her big, round belly. Aunt Amy was pregnant again, and hoping for a girl this time; she had two boys already. Kyle, the oldest at thirteen, was an apprentice Balesi, following in his father’s footsteps. Jacob was a year younger than Mika, and very shy. Whenever she came over he hid behind his mother’s skirts and refused to play.
Lane followed his daughter in and kissed Amy on the cheek. “How are you?” he asked without hiding his concern. It had taken Rebecca and him several tries before Mikayla, and even then they had almost lost both mother and child during the birth. As far as Lane was concerned, childbirth was the most dangerous thing any person could do, and he had faced armies with nothing but a six-shooter at his side.
“I’m fine.” Amaryllis slapped his shoulder with a smile and shut the door behind him. “How are you? We heard Mika scream last night.”
He winced. “I’m sorry. She had another nightmare and came to sleep with me. I would let her sleep with me every night but she really needs to learn to sleep on her own.” For months after Rebecca’s death Mika wouldn’t leave her father’s side, especially not at night. She had gotten over her fear of losing him during the daytime, but at night when the nightmares came she would always go find him to make sure he was still there; to make sure she hadn’t lost both parents.
“It’s fine, Lane,” Amy reassured him, “we just worry about you. Both of you.”
With a weak smile he turned to Jonathan who was just coming into the main room. Like most of the apartments on the second floor, theirs consisted of a main room with a seating area and small stove and a bedroom on each side. Lane wondered where they would put the new child in a few months, but he supposed they could always switch to larger apartments. For now it was nice to have good friends close by.
“Alright then, who is ready for a picnic at the river?” Amy said to the room.
“Me! Me!” Mika jumped up and down and ran to grab the blanket that served as their picnic table on these expeditions. It was a little too big for her to carry, so Lane scooped it up and tousled her hair as she led the way out the door and down the hallway to the stairs.
The river ran north to south through Archein, diverted by canals around the palace in the center of the city. The canals made a natural barrier for the palace, whose stone bridges were easier to guard than any courtyard could be. As they crossed the bridges, Lane and Jonathan were saluted by the passing Olesi, the common guards of the city-state Archein. They were easily recognizable by their olive-green tunics and khaki-colored pants, and made up the bulk of the army – trained warriors who didn’t have the parentage necessary to become Balesi or the privilege of the guns the Balesi carried. The Balesi wore royal blue tunics and black pants, as well as the large six-shooters slung over each hip. Even dressed in civilian clothes Lane and Jon wore their guns.
At the river they laid out their blanket and nibbled on snacks of cheese, bread and wine. Kyle and Jacob wasted no time in tearing off their shirts and jumping into the river to race against the current and each other, and Mika was fidgeting on the blanket while Amy braided her hair. Jonathan and Lane sat smoking hand-made cigarettes and thinking to themselves.
This was the same river, almost the exact same spot in fact, where Lane first met Rebecca as herself. He had known her as Robert Baine for several years, for they were apprentices together when they were very young, and the excitable and friendly Lane had not been a fan of cold and aloof Robert. The day was warm for an early summer day, and Lane and his friends went to the river where Robert was swimming alone. As the boys jumped in the water Robert tried to leave, but Lane was the stronger swimmer and caught the other boy around the waist to pull him back, catching instead on something no boy should ever have: breasts. In his surprise, Lane let go quickly and “Robert” swam up shore and exited the river behind a tree that was growing over the water. What Lane saw through the leaves was not the body of a thirteen-year-old boy, but the body of a sixteen-year-old woman.
Lane took a long sip of wine and rubbed at his eyes. Perhaps the river had been a bad idea; there were too many memories for him here. This bank had become his and Rebecca’s unofficial courting spot and he couldn’t count how many times they had ended up hidden behind the brush just west of where he was sitting now, talking, planning, crying, making love. Mika had been conceived there after they both thought Rebecca was beyond the ability to successfully carry a child to term and give birth.
“Lane, what are we going to do?” she asked him when she found out for the final time that she was pregnant. “I can’t stand losing another.”
He held her close and pet her hair, trying to get her to calm down. They had been through half a dozen miscarriages already. “It’s ok, Rebecca. It’s going to be fine. This one will be fine. I promise you.”
“You’ve promised me before!” she cried into his shoulder. “We’ve been careful before!”
He let her cry all her rage out into his tunic and when she finally lifted her head her eyes were red and puffy, but they had a familiar determination in them. “I’m going to find that woman and get one of her potions. I won’t survive carrying another one for six or seven months before it dies. I’m going to stop it now.”
“No, you can’t.” Lane grabbed her by her elbows tightly. “Please don’t do that. This one will be fine, this time it will work. Please…” His voice broke as she looked away. “Promise me Rebecca, and don’t lie. Promise me you won’t kill it on purpose.”
He held her until she looked up at him and nodded. A little over nine months and the baby still hadn’t come. Rebecca went into labor late one night, finally having carried to full term, but before the child came the labor stopped. They walked her around the room, they told her to push harder, and then the midwife gave her a drink that would cause her muscles to contract – to make her have the baby whether or not her body wanted to. Mika was born dead, umbilical cord wrapped around her throat too tightly to breathe, but Lane wouldn’t give up. He unwrapped the cord and put his mouth around hers, breathing into her lungs so her chest rose and fell. And finally – finally – she gasped and then cried in a meek little voice, and Lane held the tiny child and wept. And he thanked a God that he didn’t believe in that the fate of his child had been spared. Jonathan christened her Mika – the one who made a fool of her fate.
Jonathan’s voice brought him out of another memory that Lane didn’t realize he’d slipped into. Jon was used to it – it happened quite often since Rebecca’s death. They all missed her; Jonathan himself had looked up to her as a teacher and a parent figure. But time moved on, and Lane was going to have to keep moving on too.
“Sorry.” Lane managed a half-hearted smile. “I was just remembering something.”
Clapping him on the shoulder to let him know it was ok, Jonathan nodded at Mika who was now up to her knees in the river with the hem of her dress getting wet. “When will I be seeing her in class?”
Lane gaze landed on his daughter as his brows knit together. “I don’t think you will. I don’t want her to become a Balesi.” After a moment he added, “Neither did Rebecca.”
Jonathan shook his head, “Rebecca always said she didn’t want Mika to become Balesi, but I think she would be happy to know that her daughter could take care of herself.” When Lane didn’t reply Jon turned to look at him. “She won’t go through the same things Rebecca did, I promise you that. I would never let that happen to Mika.”
“I know.” Lane winced, he never agreed with Rebecca that she told Jonathan everything that happened to get her title. “I just… I don’t want… she’s still too young.”
“Alright,” Jon nodded. “I can agree that she might still be a little too young.”
Most Balesi started training at six or so, but then again most Balesi were males who, at six, were very excited by roughhousing and learning how to fight. Mika didn’t like fighting, but she didn’t like dolls either, and she was well on her way to being raised as Rebecca was – motherless and with a Balesi father. She was washed in the tradition of the Nobel Protectors.
“In that case, perhaps it’s time she had a mother-figure again.” Jonathan said cautiously, as if he knew Lane would not like the idea.
“She’s got Amy.” Lane ignored the suggestion, although it tugged at him deep inside.
“That’s true, but Amy’s going to be busy again with the new baby. I thought perhaps Mika would like a mother figure who wasn’t already up to her ears in dirty diapers and crying infants.”
“She’s got nurses.”
“Aye, and they dress her and tell her to mind her manners, clean up after her and then leave. That’s not a mother, Lane. That’s a babysitter.”
“Well what do you propose I do, Jon?” Lane turned a cold gaze on him. “Mika had a mother. She’s gone now. It happens and we are moving on the best we can.”
Jonathan sat silent, waiting for Lane to calm down so he would listen to him. “Kelly was asking how you were the other day…”
“No.” Lane flicked his hand as if trying to disperse the name from his ears. “No. Whatever you were going to propose, don’t. I won’t hear it.”
“Mika needs a mother.” Jonathan said again. “A real mother; not a nurse, not an aunt, but a woman who will live with you and take care of her while you are working, and teach her how to grow up in the courts if you don’t want her to train as a Balesi.” He waited a moment for Lane’s reply but none came. “Kelly would be perfect. She was Mika’s wet nurse, after all, and I’m sure you wouldn’t mind the company. She knows you both very well, and-”
He didn’t get the chance to finish as Lane slammed his fist into the ground and stood up, walking first to the west towards the brush and the small opening he knew was just beyond, and then deciding otherwise and walking towards the bank of the river and his daughter.
“Daddy! Watch me be a fish!” Mika giggled and sucked her cheeks in to splash around in the shallow water as he sat on the bank. She tripped on a rock and fell face-first into the water, giggling as she surfaced in her wet picnic-dress. Kyle started a water fight and she squealed as she tried to make a splash bigger than his.
Lane sighed; he would rather raise Mikayla as a Balesi than go crawling back to Kelly Sanne.