The timedial had just edged past the second hour of Gray Dawn, and Gannah’s sun hadn’t yet opened its eyes. But, regardless of the chilly gloom that made sensible people snuggle deeper into their beds, Hadassah sat at the dining room table and sopped up the last of the shimmering red gravy in her bowl with a crust of black bread.
A three-tongue stew, sweet with onions, was not a traditional breakfast. But this was not a typical morning.
Her mother reached for the tureen. “Have some more.”
Dassa shook her head. “Thank you, Emma, but I’m ready to burst.” She glanced at her mother’s bowl, which held more mundane fare—the nightlong-simmered porridge of grains and dried fruits called micken. “You’ve hardly touched yours.”
“It’s too early to eat. Perhaps I’ll have some later.”
Dassa knew why her mother’s appetite had not awakened this morning. When an emma loses a child, she never gets over it.
Dassa glanced at her own two boys across the table, alert despite having been wakened so early. They’d devoured their micken and now pulled plump cerecfruit into sections. Dark orange juice streaked their little hands.
She clenched her jaw against the tender smile that threatened to undermine her authority. “Are you going to eat that or just make a mess with it?”
Six-year-old Johanan looked up, popped a section in his mouth, and grinned. “I’m eatin’ it, Emma. See?”
His little brother Jehu wrote a J on the table with his finger, using the juice for ink. “Me too. Only I gotta write my name first.”
Dassa put on her most severe mother-face. “You will do no such thing. Fruit is to eat, not write with.”
Jehu’s finger stopped in the act of forming an awkward E. Eyes cast down, he bobbed his head in a frightened little bow. “I’m sorry, Emma.”
Beside her, Dassa’s mother chuckled. She could afford to baby them, for their discipline and education didn’t rest on her shoulders. “Such good boys you are, both of you. Your abba will be proud at how well your emma’s been training you while he’s off- planet.” Pursing her lips, she turned to Dassa. “But he should be here for these events in your lives. Johanan passing his First Level, Jehu learning to write. And you, going off on your Final Quest.”
Dassa rose and went around to the other side of the table while Emma continued. “How can he neglect his family this way? It’s enough to bring shame upon his mother.”
Dassa wiped Jehu’s handiwork from the table with the handcloth that was a part of every Gannahan place setting. “Rosh is on a mission for the toqeph, not off on a lark. He could scarcely refuse.” She rinsed out the cloth in its water bowl then cleaned Jehu’s sticky face and fingers. “Besides, he knows his family is in good hands.”
Emma’s voice grew husky. “But he should not permit you to go on this Quest.”
Supervising Johanan’s ablutions, Dassa sighed. If she lost one of her precious boys, would she be able to cope with the grace Emma showed? Dassa kissed the tops of their dear, curly heads then turned to her mother.
“I miss Areli too. All Gannah does. But of course, none so keenly as you.” She knelt between her children and drew them close, inhaling their scents.
Emma pushed her uneaten micken aside and rose, green eyes glowing with suppressed emotion. “So you know why, while you’re gone, I will fear for you. But mostly, why I’ll hold your sons as if they were my own.”
Still crouched between the boys, Dassa watched her mother’s approach. “I know you will, Emma. And so does Rosh. That’s why he isn’t worried about them.” She gave her children a squeeze. “Kiss me goodbye now. I’m off.”
In an instant, four arms enwrapped her and two sniffly faces smeared her tunic. She sensed the boys picked up on Emma’s sorrow and fear and weren’t quite sure what to make of it.
“I’ll be back, babies. You can count on it.”
“Four weeks, more or less. As I told you last night.” She spoke into Johanan’s tousled black curls. “I’m going to the Cleft of Raqiya to pick the toqeph some mossberries. Then I’ll come home, make him a pie, and he’ll pronounce me a Nasi.”
Jehu’s brilliant violet eyes, thickly lashed and so like his father’s, glittered with tears. “Why not just make him a shachorberry pie instead?”
“Because it doesn’t work that way. A Nasi must prove his or her courage and skill by hiking all the way from Armown to the ocean cliffs, picking a bucket of mossberries, and bringing them back to the toqeph. It’s not the pie that count, it’s the berries.”
“Then will your tongue be purple, like Grandfather’s and the other Nasi men’s?”
Dassa nodded. “The toqeph will eat as much of the pie as he wants, and I’ll get the rest. The berries will stain my tongue purple, and that’s how people will know I’m a Nasi.”
Johanan pulled away and put a not-quite-clean hand on Dassa’s shoulder. “I’ll be a Nasi one day too, Emma. And I’ll make you a pie.”
She smiled. “I’ll never be toqeph, sweet. Likely it will still be your grandfather, or maybe your Uncle Arodi by then. But if you’re smart enough, strong enough, and faithful enough, yes. You can bring the toqeph a mossberry treat and be a Nasi one day too.”
Dassa gave each boy one last kiss then rose. “But it’s a long walk to Raqiya, and I must be going. You two be good for your grandmama.” She narrowed her eyes as she glared down at them. “Because if you’re not, you’ll have to deal with me, your mother the Nasi warrior. And that, little men, will be fearsome indeed.”
They bowed, as good children should. “We will not shame you, Emma.”
Her mother took each of the boys by the hand. “I’m counting on it.”
Dassa drew a deep breath and tried to calm the fluttering of her stomach. For more than three years she’d trained for this, and now the moment had come. Straightening her spine, she smiled at her family—those who were here to see her off, at least. “The Yasha be with you.”
“The Yasha be with you.” The boys bowed, and Emma’s eyes brimmed.
Dassa took in the sight of them one more time then turned and left the dining room.