Chapter THREE – Liss
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Juniors were allowed the day off from rounds on their Sixteenth, but Liss did them anyway. Being busy kept her mind off the upcoming ceremony. She started her daily circuit at the healer's tent, intending to collect missives and care packages that needed delivering. Mell, the oldest and most wizened healer–and Liss' favorite of the bunch–squinted her wrinkled face around a smile, ushering Liss past patient rooms into a quiet corner of the building suffused with dusty golden light.

"Nothing to go out today, I'm afraid."

The old elf wiped her hands on her apron, then reached toward one of the many shelves lining the wall ahead of her, grappling at a small stoppered glass jar filled with an amber colored liquid. Her long fingernails clicked against the edge of the jar, but she couldn't quite get her hand wrapped around it, so Liss stepped forward and assisted. 

She wasn't much taller than Mell, but a couple of inches were enough. She handed the jar over with a teasing wink. "I thought you had nothing for me."

"You've got it backwards, dearie. I don't have anything for others, but I do indeed have something for you."

Mell held up the jar, gently shaking it. She returned Liss' wink with an exaggerated one of her own. The liquid inside the jar sloshed, forming small bubbles on the surface as it settled.

"Take this before the ceremony to calm your nerves. I can tell you're dreading it."

"You mean this smile isn't masking my absolute horror?" Liss tried and failed to sound nonchalant.

Mell chuckled. "Don’t worry so much, everything will turn out all right. Do you know how I know?" She ran a palm along the back of Liss' head, smoothing down her hair. "Now that you are an adult, I’m free to tell you this: we are of the same bloodline. In the old times, you would have called me great-grandmother. We may be small, but we’re mighty where it counts." She pointed to Liss' heart.

Liss raised her eyebrows, but it was mostly for effect. For a long while, she had suspected Mell was related to her. They got on famously and even resembled one another, with their diminutive stature, green eyes and pale hair; although Mell's wispy tresses had taken on a blue tinge in recent years.

"Tally and Aras?" 

It was a leading question, one Liss knew she might not receive a straight answer to. 

Several of the smallest, fairest women in the clan seemed to keep a watchful eye on her. None had ever approached her or made their intentions known, but Liss had always thought they might be her blood relatives. She often wondered if Tally or Aras–quiet women with faces so like her own–were her kin, but had never been bold enough to ask. The Council forbade the healers from divulging such information. The most they would do was bar certain elves from consorting after consulting the sacred records. 

It was common knowledge that some elves preferred not naming or knowing which of the children was theirs. Which was why the Council had established Engagement seasons, to maintain anonymity as multiple births would often happen in quick succession. But Liss felt almost certain that Tally and Aras knew the identities of their offspring. Like Mell did, apparently. 

"It's not my place to say." Mell frowned, creases deepening around her small, bow-shaped lips. "The others will come forward should they decide to do so. Give it time."

"Why did you tell me?" Liss searched the old elf's glassy eyes, wondering if it was her imagination that Mell looked on the verge of tears.

"Because you need to know you aren't the first who has doubted the traditions of this clan." Mell lowered her chin, signaling that what she was saying was of great importance. "Liss, my dear, it is okay to have independent thoughts, but you must be careful who you share them with. Your friend Dev, can you trust him?" She held up a hand as Liss opened her mouth with an immediate reply. "Let me rephrase that. Can you guarantee your ideas will be safe and understood, should you share them with him?"

Liss bit her lip, considering the question. Mell didn't know about the tome of runes, but she knew of Liss' love of stories from Before, just as she knew why Liss wasn't looking forward to her birthday this year. 

"Safe, yes. Understood? I'm not sure."

Mell hummed as if she had assumed as much. "This fire in our blood is strong, and it is perhaps strongest in you. If you ever need to talk, I'll listen. I wish that someone had given me the same opportunity. Things may have turned out better."

Liss wasn't sure what Mell meant, but she didn't feel comfortable picking the old woman's brain on a topic that seemed to make her sad. Instead, she twined their fingers together and gave a firm squeeze. She might not have much of a life in Cradelow, but she had a brother in Dev and now a great-grandmother in Mell. 

Family was different in the stories from Before. Back then, family had been something you were born and bound to from the beginning, leaving little room for interpretation. Maybe in some ways it was better like this, letting those who wanted to be a part of your life seek you out on their own terms. It might be less painful this way, with less of a chance of losing someone who had never wanted you. 

Liss didn't think it was likely true, but there was a comfortable practicality to it. A kind of self-preservation.

"I'll be at the ceremony." Mell gave Liss a last hug before leading her slowly back through the tent's narrow halls. Liss was empty-handed except for the glass jar gripped in her palm, but for as sedately as they traveled none of the other healers or their helpers seemed to notice or require her courier services. Maybe they thought they were doing her a favor on her birthday, but Liss would have preferred if they didn't. 

Mell stood propping the door open as Liss passed into the sunlight. "Take the calming draught half an hour before the ceremony. Don't worry about side effects, it's just wild chamomile syrup and a few other herbs."

Liss wasn't sure she'd take it, but having it gave her a certain peace of mind. Her great-grandmother was a fantastic healer, and Liss trusted the concoction would work. She only hoped she wouldn't need it.

***

Sixteenth ceremonies were an obnoxious affair. By mid-afternoon the grounds in front of the sacral tent were already being cleared, while several younger juniors twisted long-stemmed flowers and sprigs of sage into the vines that clung to the ceremonial arch. 

Liss had spent the rest of her rounds wandering from tent to tent, asking for parcels and messages to deliver. When that had gotten boring, she'd gone out to the fields and offered to carry up baskets of the day's harvest: beans and peppers and bundles of freshly picked herbs. The heat had been oppressive, soaking through the thin layers of her grays, sweat beading on her brow. 

Now, walking past the hullabaloo in the center of town, she glanced down at her stained, dusty uniform and realized she was going to need to wash up and redress. Opting to wear her grays to her Sixteenth was one thing, but if she went looking like she'd just returned from scaling the mountains, the council would not be pleased.

Dev caught up with her in the juniors tent. It surprised her to see him wearing his ceremonial garb–an off-white tunic that reached past his knees, belted with a brown woven sash, and tall deerskin boots beneath–but maybe it shouldn’t have. Unlike Liss, Dev usually followed the rules. 

"I'm going to be the only one not dressed up for my Sixteenth." 

Liss had just emerged from the girls’ washroom in a set of fresh grays, her wet hair still wrapped in a towel.

"More than likely," Dev agreed, adjusting and readjusting his sash in front of the narrow mirror set into the wall against the outside of the girls' washroom.

What was going on? Dev never worried about his appearance like this. There was only one mirror in the barracks, and girls customarily dominated it. Even now someone was waiting for it, a shy younger girl named Jess whose short lavender-brown waves were a shade lighter than Dev's.

Liss wondered at his strange behavior. This was her Sixteenth, Dev had already endured his own. What did he have to be concerned about?

"A little solidarity on your part would have been nice," she muttered. 

It was a joke, but Dev was too distracted to notice. She left him to admire himself and walked back to her cot, plopping down over her wrinkled quilt. She unwound her long hair from the towel and set at the tangles with her fingers. 

"You look fine," she called to him across the room. "Stop preening."

He turned and approached, his dark eyes downcast. "I'm not preening, you're being prickly."

"Prickly–?" Liss raised an eyebrow. Where had he learned such a silly word? Her fingers caught on a stubborn snarl. She reached for her bristle brush in her side table, her voice slightly muffled over the drawer full of odds and ends she'd collected. "Did Rana teach you that one?"

"See what I mean?" 

Dev smoothed down the back of his tunic and stretched out on his tidy bed, clasping his hands behind his head. With his eyes closed he didn't notice the feminine gazes landing on him from around the room, a few of them younger girls from Rana's nosy little retinue, including Jess watching through the mirror. But Liss didn't miss a single one, or Dev's sudden change in demeanor. 

She grunted and continued brushing out her hair. 

So what if she was prickly? Didn't she have a right to be? This day had been threatening her for years, and her dread had grown ever-greater the closer it came. Not because she believed that any little white lie would be her demise after tonight's ceremony, but because everyone else believed it on her behalf. Life was about to change, regardless of whether it ought to, and that was something Liss had a hard time accepting. Dev had to understand, he knew her better than anyone. Better than anyone except, perhaps, Mell, Liss realized as she eyed the jar of calming liquid resting in the still open drawer of her side table. 

She recalled what her great-grandmother had said about Dev. Liss knew she could trust him, but whether he truly understood her remained to be seen. 

She picked up the jar and tucked it into the inside pocket of her jacket, next to her notebook, still hoping she wouldn't need it. But now she was having doubts.

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