Klara lay awake for a good two hours before she got back up and slipped out the door. She tried not to slam it and wake Snuri, sleeping like a rock on the top bunk, but of course in the way of hostel doors everywhere it caught an inch from closing and then fell into place with a wham.
Oh, well. It’s what Snuri got for insisting on a hostel in the first place.
Klara made her way down the steep stairs. In her head she was already drinking a hot brew from the vine and perhaps, if she were lucky, there’d still be a stale pastry under the pastry glass. She’d make that pastry last until dawn if it’d keep her from her own thoughts.
Only she walked into the small dining hall, and someone was already at the table – the kid from dinner with the absurd green tricorn fitted over his long, slim horns. The one who’d told the joke. It’d been a good joke. No, better, it’d been a terrible joke, one she could never tell her—
“Hmph,” Klara said in the kid’s general direction, and then went over with her canteen to try and coax after-hours brew from the vine. It was a thin, pale, tired vine, almost certainly undernourished and long since drained beyond the reach of ordinary pleas. Klara clucked her tongue at it. What was the good of planting the thing if you weren’t going to make full use of it?
Klara’s pleas weren’t ordinary. She hummed a tune to it, one her mother—
She hummed a tune, and she stroked the base of the vine’s stem. Then she bent to whisper to the vine’s roots and, because the kid behind her reminded her of it, she told the vine his joke from dinner. It was a little awkward, knowing he was sitting ten feet behind away scribbling away in that journal or whatever it was, but she brushed off the awkwardness and finished the joke anyway.
By the time she’d straightened, the vine was already looking a healthier reddish brown, and when she plucked a likely-looking shoot, steaming hot klah dripped down into her canteen.
She turned around to find the kid staring at her. “I can’t believe you squeezed anything out of that thing,” he said.
“Squeezing is your first mistake,” Klara said, seating herself on the other side of the table and for chairs down. “It needs coaxing. And conversation, too. You’d think it would get plenty here, but they need dedicated attention, and it’s clear no one’s been giving it any.”
“Plenty of what?”
She scrutinized him, trying to judge if he sincerely didn’t know or if he just wanted her to spell it out. He looked back with frank interest, and finally she said, “Sex. They want to hear about sex. And they love puns.”
“You told the brew vine a sex joke?”
“Yours, actually.” The kid looked startled. Feeling suddenly that she’d given too much away, Klara said, “Perked it right up, didn’t it?”
The kid peered at Klara’s canteen. “You think it has any left for me?”
That one joke would probably be worth a few dozen new shoots by breakfast, but there was no point in flattery. “Try and see.”
He came back grinning with a paper cup of the stuff. “I have to tell you, you’ve made my night.”
“Make my night and tell me there’s a berry crumble left under the pastry glass.”
Grimacing sheepishly, he said, “A sunfruit scone, and I took it. But we could split it?”
Klara gave him another long look, and then she moved two seats nearer so he could tear off half the scone and hand it to her.
“It’s Barr, by the way,” the kid said.
“You’re up late,” Barr said conversationally.
She shrugged. It was the gesture of rainfowl shedding water off its back, of shedding questions she didn’t care to answer. She’d perfected it, the past few months. “You, too.”
His eyes lit under that ridiculous tricorn. He spun his journal around and pushed it towards her. “I had this great idea, and I couldn’t sleep.”
Whatever flight of artistic fancy Klara had expected, it wasn’t this. She knew armor schematics when she saw them, even if she didn’t recognize the design of these. They still had components she was familiar with – the lines of power crossing at the chest to prevent structural failure there, flowing down the arms to increase the strength of spells cast.
The armor was handsome, too, another point in its favor. Never discount the power of elegance, Klara’s mother had said, the strength in aesthetics to withstand brute force—
“It’s very nice,” Klara said, thrusting the journal back to Barr, utterly disinterested in continuing the conversation. It was social habit that made her ask, “Where did you get the design?”
“It’s mine,” he said.
“It is not,” Klara said in disbelief.
It didn’t seem to occur to him to take offense. He only grinned. “Like I said, I got this idea while I was lying in bed, and I had to get it down, you know? Sometimes I lose ‘em if I wait until morning. I mean, I’ve been working on this set for a while, but see right here, the weave of the power lines at the shoulders?”
Reluctantly, Klara peered over at the page long enough to see. “Yes.”
“Yeah, I think that could be useful.”
Klara shook her head wonderingly. “You can’t be old enough to engineer for the Narrative.”
He laughed. “Not quite. I’m in school first. First year at the design institute in Canterwell.”
That still put probably him a year older than her, which she wouldn’t have guessed. He shouldn’t wear that hat if he wanted anyone to take him seriously, she thought, and then she looked at the lines at the corner of his eyes as he chuckled, and she realized he didn’t care.
He didn’t seem discomfitted by her consideration, either, or by the ensuing silence. Her mother would have said that spoke well of him.
Well, her mother wasn’t fucking here, so what did it fucking matter?
“My mother commanded a spell squad,” Klara said. Alice would have been appalled, airing family business to some strange kid in a hostel in the Craters. That knowledge sat in Klara’s belly like anger. It spurred her on. “She was in offense and advancement - ballistics, biological destabilization, you know.”
Barr nodded, eyebrows rising a little. Maybe he did know.
“It was all learn and point, just memorized spells designed by other people. She always wanted to know how they worked, though. She had a notebook like yours. She’d write notes in it when she had time.”
Barr nodded again. Go on, the nod said.
Klara opened her mouth again and found that she had no more words, no other family trivialities to babble. Only one thing remained to say, and even in this dark hour, untethered from daytime’s conventions and constraints, Klara couldn’t say it aloud. She died in Langencamp. The words sat on her tongue, sour and unspoken, silencing her as securely as any binding.
Barr cleared his throat. “I’ve actually been fooling around with some plant motifs. Do you want to see? Maybe you could give me some ideas.”
The question broke the hold on Klara, and she found she could breathe again. She hadn’t even noticed she’d stopped. She shook her head and repeated the question over to herself, and then she said, “I’m no botanicals expert.” But she was already rising from her seat. She rounded the end of the table and took the chair next to his.
Casually she broke off a piece from what remained of Barr’s scone and stuck it in her mouth. He smiled, as she’d meant him to; she didn’t so much see it as feel it in the air between them. That was something. “Show me what you have,” she said.