No Such Thing as Strangers
Primera Black, for all that she had flown into Nisan at two a.m., tiptoed into the Cathedral at sunrise. Not hard at all, not to disturb her father back home; he was practically unwakeable on the best of days. But she knew there were quite a few weary travelers taking shelter in the Cathedral, and she wouldn't have wanted to disturb them.
It hadn't been anyone's fault that they'd gotten home so late, really. Truth be told, she was up listening to Midori as late or later as her father had been talking to Kahr. Jessie let her drive, much to her delight, and he spent the better part of the trip home with his boots on the dash, asleep. Prim passed the time trying to memorize the constellations and the star names that Midori had been teaching her. She loved the sky from New Aphel, always so cold and bright. And a trip to the Shevite city meant visiting Midori, and Davy and Samuel and Micah, kids her own age that she'd grown up with in Aquvy.
But it was so rarely, these days, that Primera got to spend any time at home in Nisan, so she was determined to make the most of it. Festivals and crowds of people notwithstanding.
She was grateful to be the only layperson in the Cathedral proper at that hour, and probably the only one awake in the whole building. The light was still dawning-early, and the sisters were just starting to sing matins in their hall.
Primera breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn't missed it.
Holy Mother Marguerite would need her, no doubt, to drive her transport back to Bledavik after the spring festival and the Feast of Saint Sophia. And the day would be full of holiday hubbub and chattering and noise, and she wouldn't even have the fun of spending time with her brother, who wouldn't be back from the Thames for another week at least.
But right now, this morning, was hers alone, and nothing could change that. Primera let herself sigh, sinking into a polished wooden pew and letting the music swallow her.
She liked listening to the sisters singing, she always had. Especially in the early mornings; their first prayer was almost like another sunrise, gentle in its brightness, and reassuring. There were words, carefully layered and repeated, but Primera had never learned the Old Nisan to understand them. Maybe that was why she sought their song so often, because she could hear the prayer in the melody alone, without having to drown the thought in words.
The music instilled a little sliver of peace in her heart, and she cradled it gratefully inside her.
How long she spent staring at her feet, she didn't know... and how long it took her to realize there was a pair of shoes resting next to hers, she had even less idea. They were brown, she thought, curious without any active thought. Brown and well-loved, smudged with gear oil. Only when her eyes focused upwards on the trouser cuffs brushing the tops of these boots did it occur to her that they were occupied.
She started, staring wide-eyed and wordless at the young man standing at her elbow.
"Um, 'scuse," he said, one hand sheepishly in his dark hair.
She blinked at him, embarrassed but not knowing what to say. His face was hard to make out, backlit as he was against a bright stained glass window.
He mistook her silence for disapproval. "Sorry, miss," he said, with a rueful laugh. "Didn't mean to disturb your prayer."
As if he had been the rude one! Primera was surprised into a smile, and her voice came nearly without effort. "Can I help you?"
"I'm a little lost," he admitted, hushed as though there were someone nearby to overhear. When he turned his head his eyes caught the light; they were very blue. "Think you could give me directions to the supply shop from here?"
She nodded briefly. "You really can't miss it." Easy enough to describe: it was a path she'd walked often, she could walk it in her sleep. Lucky she'd lived in Nisan for eight years, so that she could give directions without really having to think about it. But she couldn't meet his eyes while she talked, so she watched the way his hands hooked in the belt loops of his pants. They were good hands, she thought.
"Think I've got it," he said with a nod. "Much obliged."
The art of conversation had always been foreign to her. As a rule, Primera would never ask a question of a stranger. "Are you one of Renk's new mechs?"
He didn't miss a beat. "No ma'am, but I could be in a heartbeat if there was work to be had. Who's Renk?"
She was glad to be sitting down; all these sudden words were making her feel dizzy. The voice she heard surely couldn't be her own. "He works on the hydraulics, behind the Cathedral. Tall. Bushy red beard." And here, almost she hesitated, but she swallowed and kept on before her nerve could fail her. "Ask one of the nuns, and say you're looking for work with him. I'm sure he'd be glad to have you."
"Hey, thanks," he said, running his hand again through his hair. "I really appreciate that."
Not one but two questions bubbling from her, this second one prompted by the stains on his shoes and the shape of the callouses on his hands. "Do you drive a transport?"
He nodded, proud. "A solar skiff," he said.
Primera didn't even notice her own shoulders relaxing, her hands unclenching in her lap. "X-23 engine or the new V-18 model?"
His eyes widened, obviously not expecting such a response. "Well, it was an old X-22 but I upgraded a bunch of her components myself."
"So it's an X-22 and a half?"
He laughed out loud. "Oh, give me some credit! At least an X-22 and three quarters. But the control console is really the best you can get--"
"The Uzuki M-Type," they said at the same time, and Prim noticed she'd been watching his face while they talked, and couldn't remember when she'd lifted her eyes. Shyly she looked down at her fingers again.
"Well," he said, after a pause, "thanks a million." He tipped an imaginary hat to her, and she blushed a little. "Thought I was going to wander aimlessly till lunchtime-- you're the only person I could find up this early."
She didn't believe that for a minute. Noticing her skeptical look, he coughed. "The only person who's not a nun," he clarified, eyes flicking up to the cathedral's second story. "No disrespect intended, of course. But it looks like they're all still pretty busy."
"The Feast of Saint Sophia," she nodded. "It's a big deal in town."
"Yeah, I gathered." He coughed, looking a little daunted. "Maybe that's why this place seems so big, just because it's so crowded."
"It often is. After Deus--" she began, and checked herself, trying to remember that not everyone had been quite so close to the end of the world as she had. "After the plagues," she tried again, "the Cathedral opened its doors to refugees, and half the world came to Nisan."
"Great time to be a missionary," His lip twisted, without any real heat. "But I guess it's all in a day's work. Guess the Holy Mother really keeps 'em hopping, right?"
Primera, imagining Margie hiking up her skirts and trying to teach Sister Agnes to play hopscotch, couldn't stifle her giggle.
The young man grinned, looking as if he'd like to make her laugh again. He shrugged gamely. "You live here?"
She nodded, glad he hadn't asked if she was from here. Most people in Nisan had only the barest idea that Aquvy was even the name of a place, much less where it was on the map.
"...Are you a, um, novice?"
What had gotten into her today? "Depends on the subject," she said, with a straight face.
He chuckled, shaking his head. "That'd be a no, then. Doubt the Holy Mother could keep up with you."
"You don't know Margie--" she started, and bit her lip. "Holy Mother Marguerite," she amended. "She's..." Prim might have been used to words failing her, but it was more frustrating at this moment than she could quite remember it being in the past. She stared down at her hands, floundering in her own silence. "...She's fun."
He raised a dark eyebrow eloquently. "Don't mind your manners for my sake. I take it you know her?"
"I'm her transport driver," Primera said, grateful for the easy answer. And she found that the respect in his smile pleased her, easing something open in her throat. "My name's Primera," she added.
He swiped the palm of his hand against his pants in an exaggerated show of getting it clean. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Judah." And he shook her hand, like she were a fellow mechanic and not somebody's little sister. "My ship's currently downed about three hundred sharls out of Nisan, or I'd promise you a ride."
Wouldn't Billy just die, Primera thought. But what she said was, "My transport's working just fine. I should offer you a ride. But after the festival. Too crowded."
He winked. "I was hoping you'd say that. I'll hold you to it, you know?" And he turned to go, boots surprisingly noiseless on the cathedral floor. "I'd better get going. See you around, Primera."