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6 excerpts from Smith's journal, and 5 stories they didn't tell him

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Here I am, back in this country again after five years. I sent word of my return to the Eihon clan and they have offered their hospitality again. I am inclined to accept. I can see Amira and Karluk's smiles in my mind's eye already. They are still the most cheerful people I have met in all of my travels.

*

Amira was just out of the bath when the letter arrived. The clamor of voices made her want to run out into the courtyard to see what was going on, but she knew that if she didn't finish brushing her hair, it'd be a tangled mess later. She combed swiftly, trying to fight her curiosity. Luckily, she didn't have to wait long.

"Smith is coming back."

Karluk was standing in the doorway. She smiled as he pulled the door hanging closed behind him and she pushed the comb firmly through her hair.

"It will be nice to see him again. Is that what everyone is talking about out there?"

She began to braid her hair, fingers darting like a needle through thread. He watched her, for a moment forgetting her question in appreciating her beauty.

"Karluk?" She picked up her scarves and began to bind up her braid. He came back to himself, face a little flushed.

"That's right. They're all talking about what we should eat on the night we welcome him back," he answered.

"Oh! I could get some rabbits, what do you think?" Her face was bright with excitement. She hurried with her boots, excited to join the conversation.

"I think that would be wonderful," Karluk said, smiling as she darted past him.

*

The oldest daughter of Akunbek, Seleke, gave birth to another girl in my absence, Houri. She is more timid than any of her siblings, but seems to have a special fondness for Amira. Apparently the birth was hard and Seleke was ill for some time afterward, and Amira took care of the baby while her mother healed.

*

The baby's wail barely split the comfortable quiet of the pre-dawn morning before the blankets rustled and Amira was out of the bed. Karluk didn't open his eyes. She hated waking him up, no matter how much he insisted he didn't mind. After the first couple of times he just kept his eyes shut and dozed. He liked listening to her bustle and care in the warm minutes before he had to start the day.

"Ssh, ssh," she soothed. It didn't take long for the child to stop crying. Karluk smiled sleepily.

She'd be such a good mother, if the way she attended to his sister's child was any indication. He hoped that Seleke would be well soon, but at least the baby was in good hands until then.

A good mother. He drifted off again with a certain interesting heaviness in his thoughts.

*

Today Amira went into town and returned with reports of Pariya, whom she met on the way. Pariya's life has changed a great deal since I was first here.

*

"Oh, Pariya, she's lovely," Amira said. "Those cute little cheeks! Can I hold her?"

Pariya flushed and nodded and said, "If you want." She carefully arranged the swaddled bundle in Amira's arms, and the baby immediately began to cry. Amira was undaunted by this. Any child of Pariya's would be spirited. She cooed at the babe.

"She cries a lot, but I'm told that's normal," Pariya said defensively. Amira just smiled, brushing a soft baby face.

"They're just trying to talk to us, that's all," Amira said. "The little ones just don't know the words yet."

"Maybe," Pariya allowed, watching Amira calm the baby. The little girl held one of Amira's fingers in a firm grip.

"Amira--" Pariya began, and looked away quickly. "Why-- You--" She bit her lip and blurted, "Don't you want one? A baby of your own?"

Amira blinked, surprised by the question. "Of course," she said, color rising to her own face. "We -- Of course. Soon, I'm sure."

Pariya mumbled something. For once, Amira didn't ask her to repeat it.

*
Tileke left to marry just a few months before my arrival. She does not live far away, however, and her mother visits her often. Seleke says that it was a good match, and the house is always full of laughter.

*

The night before Tileke was to leave for her new husband's home, the women gathered in a room to help her prepare. Laughing, talking, and sewing, they passed on the advice of experience.

"Don't be frightened," Seleke counseled, when her daughter seemed hesitant. "He is a kind man and he will keep you well. Soon you will be building a family of your own."

"But it's hard to have a family!" Tileke burst out. "What do I do? Babies cry all the time!"

She looked as if she were about to cry herself. Amira reached out and grabbed Tileke's hand.

"Let's figure it out together, okay?" she said, with a hopeful smile.

Seleke's brow furrowed just a little. Then she smiled.

"Amira," she said gently, "did you have this time with your female relatives before you came to be with us?"

Amira shook her head. "My mother died in childbirth when I was young, and my father had no sisters. My own sisters didn't know any more than I did."

"Then let me give you some advice," Seleke said, and she smiled.

*

The Hergals have not troubled the Eihons since the night of the town invasion. It greatly damaged their pride and reputation, from what I understand. And they no longer have any grounds for taking Amira back, in any case.

*

Amira danced in the firelight, hair gleaming, and Karluk's fingers traced the end of her braid when she sat down again beside him. Later in their room, he brushed her hair out to fly loose around her shoulders.

She leaned over and kissed him, heart beating fast. Their hands tangled.

"I'd like to know you," she said quietly, and wiped away his confused expression with an explanatory kiss.

Clumsily, slowly, they began to figure it out. Now Amira understood why Seleke and the others had been vague when trying to help her -- this was something unique to each couple, something they had to learn on their own. A beautiful and sacred thing to discover -- like all of marriage, really. She liked the adventure.

Later they slept, warm in each other's arms.

*

Amira and Karluk's daughter is six months old. She has her mother's eyes but Karluk's calm disposition. I think that Amira and Karluk's smiles have become even brighter in my absence.