The home on Street Ten where Claudia had grown up was right at the corner of an intersection with the east end of the Divide. When she was little, Claudia worked to help her mother, and on her way home in the dark she would look for the yellow-orange glow of the open window.
Claudia knocked on the chipped, round door.
“Coming!” Hurried steps led to the rattle of a latch, and a heavyset, middle-aged version of Claudia with muscular arms opened the door. Her hair was tied in a bun, but gray strands wiggled from the organized bunch. “You’re back! Who’s this?”
“A new friend,” Claudia said.
“Rat’s the name, ma’am.”
“Interesting name! It doesn’t fit your clothes, though. Lovely to meet you. I’m Daliah.”
“I brought him here,” Claudia said, “because he doesn’t know what cactus pear pie is.”
“Well, we can fix that! Come on in!”
Daliah ushered the two young ones into the kitchen, and Rat noticed the stacked, broken Thyra eggshells in the rubbish bin. On the counter was an iron skillet of smooth pie, with one piece missing. Daliah set the skillet down on the table and pulled two bone forks from a drawer.
“Do you have a spare plate?” Rat asked, forgetting the kind of household he had entered.
“No need!” Daliah said. “You two dive in. Eat from separate ends if you’re squeamish.” She winked.
“Aren’t you having any?” Claudia asked.
“I did. One of my best yet, if I may say.”
As Rat stabbed down into the crust and separated a bite, he couldn’t believe how smooth and stable it was, like a finely-made custard. Claudia and her mother watched him as he tasted it. It was a creamy and tart mix, yet very cool and gently herbal.
“Delicious!” Rat said. “You made this from a cactus fruit?”
“The juice,” Daliah said. “The fruits are loaded with hard, round little seeds. Instead of eating it plain, it’s best to crush the fruit, drain out the juice, and simmer it down. Then you combine it with a cream made from goat’s milk and a few other things. Bake it carefully and you’re done!”
“The hard part is waiting for it to get cold in the larder,” Claudia said. “You cook it so it stabilizes, but it’s not as good hot.”
Rat liked it more and more with each bite, soon embarrassing himself as Claudia couldn’t keep up. He learned from hearing Daliah’s thoughts that she especially liked the color: as white and dark red made an earthy, clay-like pink. But beyond the appearance was the inexplicable flavor, at once moist and refreshing, yet rich and corrupting. None of the aristocratic foods he had tasted in his life took a single tone of flavors and explored them so thoroughly.
They talked about simple things, the daily events that Claudia had missed as Daliah maintained her empty nest. The topic of loneliness came up, and Rat asked Daliah something based on what he knew of Merrian.
“Do you ever think about teaching children?” Rat asked. “Or watching them?”
“Why, so I can feel like a mother all over again? Once is enough, thank you.”
Daliah laughed. “What I mean is, have you ever had an experience that you never want to try and feel again, since you know it could never be quite as good? That’s how I feel about raising my daughter. I’m glad to have her out there, coming back sometimes. Especially with a nice man!”
“Ugh, momma,” Claudia said. “You sure feel inclined to relive my days as a teenager, since you treat me like one.”
To that, Rat started chuckling, and he watched them banter back and forth as if he weren’t there, blinking back a few tears as subtly as he could.
Claudia offered to show him her room. They sat on the small bed while Rat looked at her child-height furniture. It had been used well beyond its practical time. The many documents of a jurist-to-be, stuffed into a little chest carved with cute animal heads, filled him with delight. This was the real way to learn about someone, not by having their thoughts blast over him like the scraping winds of a sandstorm.
“Is it always like this here?” Rat asked, sitting down next to her on the bed. It was about ready to tip over like a see-saw.
“Yes.” She was laying on her stomach, hair and head dangling.
The strength of the compliment threw her off balance, not that he’d know with her staring at the floor.
“What are those?” Rat asked, pointing to a broad, polished wooden bowl holding what looked like potpourri.
“Oh…” Claudia said. “The day of Reginald’s match, they were selling flowers, to throw into the ring and celebrate your fighter’s victory. There were a few little blooms left in a few of the seats, likely left behind by those who had been rooting for him. I couldn’t leave them there.”
“Oh. I see.” I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you.
“What were your parents like?”
“Didn’t know them. All I know is that I was found on the steps of a Latalla temple near Delvina. The clergy raised me. I thought I was lucky, like I had twelve or more parents.”
“Did they try to make you join them?”
“Not really. But that’s the path for orphans who stay, and I chose to see the world. By that time, I was fourteen and very comfortable reading minds. I was confident. They gladly set me free with their blessing.”
“Now then, I have a question for you,” he said.
“How can I stand my mother?”
“No! What inspired you to become a jurist? Surely the process wasn’t easy, for someone in your class.”
Claudia rested her head on a propped hand. “You’re right. My fellow students were a lot more like you than I. It was her,” she said, motioning with a thumb to the way out of her room. “I learned to defend myself from her, and to never let someone use their power against me. She defended me… from the worst people in the world.”
Rat wasn’t sure how to respond. This was apparently something she never let enter her thoughts, as it was all new to him.
“You see, Rat… my mother is a mage.”
“What? Then that means you’re a mage, aren’t you?”
“No. Or, I don’t know. I didn’t get any magical aptitude when I came of age. The only thing odd about me is that when I get angry or stressed, my eyes can change color, from green to orange. Maybe that’s the only shred of magical strangeness passed down to me.”
It’s incredibly rare to receive so little, Rat thought. “What rank is your mother? Leftivacus? Vextrus?”
“I don’t know the ranks. I only ever saw her use magic once. Even before Sallith made it dangerous to be a mage, she hated her aptitude. She considers it a curse. But my father...”
“…what did he do?”
Claudia turned from him, swept her hair away, and before he could speak up, unpinned her peplos at the shoulders, letting both the front and back portions fall away from each other to her waist. By doing this, she exposed her lower back to him. The scars were thick and round, like childhood wounds awkwardly stretched with growth.
“There are spells that can wound or mend flesh. He used me, testing his ability to magically mend a wound perfectly, leaving no scar. As you can see, he took a lot of time perfecting it.”
“What a piece of human refuse.”
“Save your anger for the living,” she said, redressing. “He paid for his perversions. To this day, neither my mother nor I understood what drove him. At first it was done in the name of punishment, if I were caught stealing or something. But then he found excuses. He was smart about hiding it, but got sloppy later on. It lasted about a year. One day, when I was six, she found out, and just changed. Became someone else for a night.”
“She cast a spell?”
“Yes. Turned his entire body into stone and smashed him. He broke into thousands of pieces, like the world’s most delicate vase. She disposed of that, and held me every night for months, promising me that I had done nothing wrong. But she couldn’t answer my questions. She had married a good man, and somehow… he changed.”
“Thank you, Claudia, truly, for trusting me enough to tell me this. Bringing me into your childhood home was enough of a gesture.”
“I wanted it this way. Now we both know a secret about each other.”
He couldn’t think of someone who had gone though more than Claudia, and returned as someone as bold and capable as she had. It was true tolerance for pain, the kind that keeps someone fighting for the powerless, even in a hopeless, tyrannical state.
“I think I should go to the atheneum and see Merrian.”
“This late?” Claudia asked, shooting off of her bed. “Would she even be there?”
“She’s been living there lately.” Like some kind of penance, he thought.
“…do you really need to?” she asked.
“I have a new favorite dessert, thanks to you. And your mother is a dream. But I’ll feel better once I get a few things answered. Thanks for the hospitality!” He rushed out before she could stop him.