Beginnings of Oceans of Shelter finds the reader back in Nalan and introduced to a new character, Nuette, and her mother and father as they enjoy the start of their morning before another High-Fantasy adventure!
“Nuette, my Nuette, you’ve shown you knew it. Your answer is right, but now you must prove it!”
The girl snorted and let out a giggle. Her father’s silly rhymes were always part annoying and part humorous. She usually found them more amusing when they included her name. “Ugh. Dad!” Her voice was a whine. “I know it’s right! Can’t we just be finished?”
He tapped her on the nose with a scarred hand that was the color of old brick. It nearly had the texture of one as well. “Of course you do! You’ve worked hard in arithmetic, and I know you understand. But you must still show your work.” Smiling, his well-worn fingers set the slate back in his daughter’s lap. “Now, quickly, quick, show me the trick!”
She puffed out a cheek and stared at her problem. The small board had a gray cast from years of chalk scribblings. Her finger tapped the number she’d written as her answer. “Alpha and 16 equaled to 1024, so that’s 65. The problem shows the solution.”
He winked. “Prove it.”
Pursing her lips, she squinted at him with thin scrunched eyebrows and golden-yellow eyes. They gleamed in the morning light as she tilted her head. “Do I really have to? It’s so dumb that I gotta prove the obvious.”
Rumbing laughter made his chest shake. “Oh, clever daughter, how I wish that were true. But, not all see the world so clearly.” He took her piece of chalk and started writing. “Now, first we do what?”
Nuette rolled her eyes, but she went along with the lesson. “Split the Alpha on both sides.” They continued and slowly balanced the equation until it was a matter of multiplication.
“So. You see, my sweetheart?”
Her lips pressed into a thin line and she narrowed her eyes.
He tapped her nose again.
She dropped back her head and raised her hands with a shake of the wrists. “Yay.” Her tone was flat and the word lingered on her tongue. “We got the same answer. And? It took twice as long!”
“Ah huh,” he responded with a sidelong glance. “But? Mrs. Vumon would not accept the partial answer, yes?”
Her grumbled words were agreement enough. “It’s not my fault she’s a grumpy datsip.”
“Nuette! We will not be vulgar in this household!”
She dropped her gaze to the floor. “Sorry.”
“Breakfast!” The sing-song voice carried up the stairway.
“Coming!” He stood with a careful slowness that involved knee-rubbing and hip stretching and a rotating of the ankles. His joints popped as he shifted the weight on his legs. “So. How shall we count today? Nines? Thirteen?”
Nuette set aside her slate and her frown. She jumped up with a grin instead. “We should do Tereyo’s Sequence!”
He held her hand as they readied themselves at the top of the stairs. “Oh yes? A good one. Seemingly simple, but surprisingly difficult.” Old beams creaked from step to step as they started down. Morning light rippled over the man’s clean-shaven face. They passed the stairwell window with muttered words, “Three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four…”
Outside, the city was murmuring itself awake. A morning train’s whistle chirped, again and again, to warn of its impending departure. Slahs barked and howled at the sharp sound despite yells for them to stay quiet. Criers were beginning to offer their wares. Chanting priests joined their voices in the nearby temple. Laughing young men joked as they unloaded goods for the market.
But, all of that was distant and ignored by the father and his daughter. They paused at the stairwell landing and turned to the wall-mounted shrine set in its corner. Reaching out, the man carefully picked up a single bead of incense. He waited as Nuette pulled out a footstool and stepped up beside him. Her hand pulled on his shoulder as she leaned in to grab her own bead.
Together, they crushed the small spheres and let them crumble into the oil-lamp’s fire. His eyes closed for a moment, but Nuette only squinted. She liked to see the sparkles. Little green flashes crackled in the bright orange flame.
Tendrils of smoke followed as they continued downstairs. Their count resumed as if uninterrupted. “Fifty-five, eighty-nine…”
They ducked under the doorframe into the lower level of the apartment. Their game finished with a hop from the last step. “Four-thousand, one-hundred, eighty-one!” Nuette sang out the number with a flourish.
“Well done! And, good morning you two!” The woman tucked stray black hairs behind her ear and left a streak of butter on her temple. “It sounds as if your lessons were as entertaining as ever!”
“Nope! We spent far too much time showing our work.”
The man chuckled, “Ah, capricious girl. You were having fun. And you improve daily in a hundred ways!”
Nuette stuck her tongue to one side and made a face, “Ech!”
Her father shook his head with crossed arms. “Mm, oh my. What is this ugly thing that has been left in our house? Mrs. Syimga, what will we do with such a grotesque creature?”
His wife checked the stovetop and moved her pan to one side. Tapping her chin with a finger, she leaned against the counter and peered at Nuette. “Oh Beetro, have you let Rocho drag in another ‘gift?’ Hm? That slah must be taught to get bigger game.”
The girl’s eyes had narrowed into a squint and her lips were struggling to keep back a laugh. She let her arms hang limply and scrunched her nose at her mother.
Mr. Syimga picked up and waggled the girl’s arm. Her hand flopped back and forth. This was rewarded with an ill-concealed snicker. He shook his head. “Ah, if only we could train the creature better. There is not much to eat on such a small beast as this. Yet still, we must find a use.”
“Perhaps we might pull out its bones to make new knives?”
“Mm! Grand idea, Peyla!” Beetro snapped his fingers. “That we will do! I shall yank out the ribs right this moment!” He reached down and began tickling Nuette’s sides.
She squealed and wiggled and tried to shove away her father’s hands. “Ugh! No! Stop!”
“Oh! It is still alive!” He hooked his hands under her armpits and lifted with a grunt. “Well then! I suppose we must feed you!” Spinning around on his heel, he plopped her down into her chair. “Lucky thing, we have an extra plate!”
Peyla watched carefully as her husband set down their daughter. She shook her head as he rubbed his lower back. “Mr. Syimga, you must be careful! Our daughter has grown far too much for your tired arms. She is thirteen! Let her jump if she wants to fly!”
He kissed his wife on both cheeks. “Ah, Mrs. Syimga, these tired arms are still quite strong! They have years yet of helping Nuette float!”
“Yeah, you know dad’s strong! He breaks clay pipes with his bare hands!”
“Hmph! And a silly thing that is to do! He cuts and bruises his hands instead of using the right tools! How is this not a foolish act?” She turned to hide a furtive smile and used the moment to disable the stove’s heating stone. It ceased its ruddy glow as her finger touched the inlaid emblem of garnet.
Beetro dropped back onto a chair and it gave a creaking complaint. “Ah, but sometimes the tools do not fit! Plumbing is not often in a place of great space!”
Nuette laughed and earned a mussing of her silvery-gray hair. “That’s why he likes my hands to help!” She wiggled her fingers. “They fit better in the small places!”
“Mr. Syimga! She is supposed to watch, and to hand you supplies! Will you let a spider nibble at her fingers?” She untied her apron and set it on a glazed clay hook. Her arms were then carefully loaded with three plates of eggs and grilled flatbread. “Hire a new assistant already! Jotel has been gone for months!”
He waggled his finger at her. “Peyla! Our Nuette will be my new assistant. She is very clever, and has caught on to the profession quite well!”
“And so she has with working clay.” Peyla set food on the table and leaned against the back of her chair. “I was hoping to gain her assistance with many orders this week. Not all I do is make your new pipes, dearest sir.”
“Ah! So you are correct. I see that we must divvy up our daughter. What do you think, Nuette? Must we slice you in two and have ourselves twins?”
She cringed at the suggestion and drew up her shoulders with some exaggeration. Her teeth bared in a grimace. “I don’t think I’d like that.”
He laughed, “No!” His smile brought one to her face. “I suppose that wouldn’t do.”
“Well. It seems that we have much to discuss after she leaves to school.” Peyla settled into her seat. “But no more talk of work or slicing up our beloved child. Let us eat and finish the morning.”
“Could I just stay home? School had been incredibly dumb.”
Beetro narrowed his eyes and shook his head with a mouthful of food. “Mmmnng!” He swallowed. “How can you say something so terrible!? Nuette! School is wonderful! You learn so much!”
She poked at her food with a fork. “Yeah. But, you’re both just as good as any teacher, and the kids there aren’t worth talking to.”
Peyla put down her utensils. “What do you mean? You had a lovely group of friends. What about Hueko? And Lena?”
“They stopped coming to school.” Nuette scowled. “Their parents needed them at the shops.”
“Well, I do understand such a decision. Extra help is always welcome.” Beetro shrugged. “But! This is a great opportunity for new friendships!”
The girl hung her head. “We don’t get along. They make fun of my gloves. Can’t I go back to not wearing them?”
Wife and husband exchanged a glance. He reached across the table and pushed aside Nuette’s plate of food. He beckoned with his fingertips. “Give me your hands.”
Her lips tightened together as she followed his instruction.
Taking her hands in his, he turned them palm-up and opened his own for comparison. The scarring on his hand had grown soft and faint, but the branded eye was just visible. Nuette’s mark was still bright and pink. “Darling, these marks are important to bear with pride. With strength. They show our commitment to Kalshen.”
“Then why do we always cover them? Even you and mom dip your hands in wet clay. I seen it.”
Peyla sighed. “Nuette, this world is ever changing and we must be cautious. To have the marks is necessary, but we cannot always expect acceptance.”
Beetro closed his daughter’s hands into fists. “And so sometimes we must put away that which makes us strong and most proud. But! You still feel the scars, yes?”
She nodded slowly with eyes downcast. “Yes.”
“And covering them does not lessen what they mean. You still know they are there.” He touched his chest. “We still know.”
“You cannot change your skin, Nuette.” Her mother smiled. “But, different situations alter how it must be covered. Otherwise, why do we put on clothes?”
The hints of a smile touched the girl’s lips and she looked askance at her parents. “Well I’m not going out naked!”
Her father chortled, “Exactly!” He drew his hands away and picked up his fork. It waggled as he spoke, “Sometimes, we must put on armor against the world! Our clothing protects us, and your gloves protect you.”
Peyla tapped the table. “Now eat up! You have to be ready for helping your father!”
Nuette grinned wide. “You mean I can skip school today!?”
“Well,” said her mother with some hesitation, “If you are to be his assistant, we will have to alter your schedule.”
Beetro laughed, “Oh hoh! Mrs. Syimga! I respect the wisdom of your decision.”
The adults exchanged tight-lipped smiles as Nuette shoveled food into a grinning mouth.