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Moonlight


By the moon, the hour is late, but he waits for the opinion of the eight-day clock in the parlor. He sleeps lightly without her beside him, waking often. Insomnia is a cold bedfellow, its grip on his mind as unpleasant as damp sheets against his body. Izumi never forgets to air the bed and coddles his cold feet with knitted bedsocks and the skillful use of a warming pan. He wonders where she learned to take as much pride in housewifery as in alchemy. She has told him more about her training than her upbringing—has hinted that they're one and the same, which he doubts. But she and he are still newly married and he, at least, is patient. They have years to learn each other.

And she rewards patience, which might surprise those who find her temperamental and overwhelming. With weakness, she is gentle: every child in Dublith knows who to ask about luring a puppy out of a drain or setting a bird's broken wing. Strength she meets with strength, demanding no less of others than she does of herself. Injustice she remedies with the fury of an archangel and the manners of a fishwife. But silence, his silence, she relaxes into as if it were a warm bath, and in those charmed moments she tells him—by look or touch as often as by speech—the secrets of her self.

He's tried to make a proper return, but what does he know? The quirks of every military base in the south, courtesy of his father. (He wonders what the old bastard will do when he finally retires—he has too much brawn to fade away.) And meat, courtesy of the uncle who sheltered him when he bolted rather than enlist. (He doesn't love his trade as she does hers, but it's profitable enough to keep a wife and, someday, a family.) That's all. She must be overlooking the imbalance, for she pounces like a starving cat on inequities less grave, less close to home.

Perhaps she thinks he makes good the lack in other ways. He brings her an umbrella when she works in the rain. He forces purple and golden crocuses in the basement for her birthday in midwinter. And he tells her jokes. He is not a whimsical man, but he cannot forget the breathless chortle he startled out of her by drawing a cartoon cow on the sign announcing the next meat day. He's stalked her sense of humor ever since, carefully rationing his witticisms—one in three months, then two in a week, then none for half a season. She laughs readily, but no one else, he's sure, has ever seen the double-takes with which she greets his successful deadpan strikes. He has another honed for her return; he rehearses it for a while, as the wind chatters in the trees behind the house next door and the moon ducks in and out of the hurrying clouds.

For this, above all else, he does for her: he lets her leave him.

He never heard her sound so muddled as she did the first time she tried to explain where she was going (nowhere special, visiting colleagues) and why (to test herself, to help others, to refine her skills, to prove her worth) and for how long (a few weeks ... maybe just a month ... no longer than he'd miss her ...). He agreed with all of it to quiet her and then held her so she could breathe. Departing, she doesn't kiss him—only when she returns. He doesn't offer to travel with her. He has the shop to mind, after all.

Lying awake, he tries not to ask himself which side of the scales hangs lower now.

Instead, he admits the truth. He doesn't want her to be away on a training journey. He wants her here, in their bed, her breasts and belly as white as milk in the moonlight. He wants to give her the children she longs for—six, they've promised each other, three boys and three girls. She is full of plans for them, sees them by turns scholars or shopkeepers, athletes and alchemists.

He only knows that he will never raise a hand to any of them in anger.

The clock strikes three as the tallest poplar's branches catch the moon. It was full when she left; it is nearly full again. He can begin to anticipate her return. He rises from bed and goes in search of the dust mop. It rained last week; he thought he scraped the mud off his shoes, but they're still shedding dirt everywhere he walks. Izumi will have words for him if he doesn't clean up after himself. What is this, a house or a pigsty? Can't I trust you to manage on your own?

He hesitates no longer than it takes the clock to mark six seconds, then shoulders the mop and steps into the hall.