Chapter 16 can be read below the cut.
Kallinu stood in front of the mailbox at zer parents’ house, looking through the mail. There were the usual advertisements, a bill, and a letter for Kallinu’s mother. Ze shuffled through the stack again, frowning, and then gasped as ze saw the letter they’d been hoping for.
Kallinu ran back inside the house, holding the letter from the Tsurennupaiva Space Agency above zer head and the rest of the mail in zer other hand. “I got a response! I got a response!” ze shouted.
Chisa and Beryn Jurne sat at the dining table. Beryn pointed to the mail in Kallinu’s hand. “Are those bills, Kallinu?” ze asked.
“Dear, open it first to see what it says,” said Chisa. She lifted her mug of tea to her mouth.
Kallinu handed the stack of mail to Beryn, still staring down at the letter in zer hands. “Is that from the Space Agency?” Beryn asked.
“Yeah,” said Kallinu.
Beryn looked down at the stack of mail and wrinkled zer nose. “Utility bill, of course.”
Kallinu started looking around the kitchen for the letter opener, then remembered the knife in zer pocket. Ze skimmed the letter, looking for the words ze hoped would be there. “Dear Kallinu Jurne, applicant blah blah blah…” Ze suddenly pumped zer fist in the air and jumped. “ACCEPTED! FUCK YEAH!”
“Kallinu,” said Beryn in exasperation. “Manners, please.”
Around noon, Veitlen and Temurlin sat at one of the tables at the riverbank, waiting for Kallinu, who was supposed to be here a few minutes ago. Temurlin was probably more annoyed by this than he let on – Veitlen had gotten better at reading his body language over the past few weeks.
“Kallinu’s late,” said Temurlin, almost on cue.
“By what?” said Veitlen. “Five minutes? Are you really bothered by that?”
Temurlin sighed. “I just don’t like wasting my time waiting for people,” he said.
“Well, me neither, but it’s hard to say someone is late when it’s only been five to ten minutes,” said Veitlen. “I think you’re actually just hangry.”
Both Temurlin and Veitlen looked toward the source of the noise to see Kallinu run up to them. Ze pointed to zemself, grinning widely. “Guess who just got admitted to astronaut school?” ze said giddily. “ME!”
Veitlen jumped up. “Holy shit! This is great!” he said.
“It’s fucking awesome!” agreed Kallinu.
“Congratulations,” said Temurlin calmly.
Veitlen grabbed Kallinu’s arms; Kallinu did the same and the two of them started dancing around in a circle. “You’re gonna be an astronaut!” said Veitlen.
“I’M GONNA BE AN ASTRONAUT!” Kallinu echoed loudly.
Veitlen stopped the spinning, but kept his grip on Kallinu’s arms. “Do you know what this means?” he asked.
“What? What? What?” said Kallinu.
Veitlen and Kallinu broke apart. “We’re gonna have to throw you a party!” he said. He finally sat back down and attempted to smooth his hair back down.
“Are you really going to throw a party?” Temurlin questioned.
“Yeah, of course!” said Veitlen. “Why wouldn’t I do something like that?”
“Kallinu, does anyone else know about this?” Temurlin asked.
“My parents! And everyone at the Space Agency who made this decision, I guess. And ye two! But no one else,” said Kallinu.
Temurlin looked down at his watch. “Well, Ren should be getting off work soon, so if you want to wait a few more minutes, you can tell her, too.”
Kallinu somehow managed to look more excited. “Ooh, ooh! I know where she is! I’m gonna go tell her right now!”
With that, ze ran off. Temurlin and Veitlen stared after zem, then looked at each other. “You wanna wait for them to get back before we get lunch?” asked Veitlen.
“Do you even thinking Kallinu is going to come back?” Temurlin asked. “I’ve been hungry for a while. Let’s just go.”
In the open-air market, Kallinu walked through the vendors, looking for Ren. Ze had been to Ren’s family’s antique shop a couple of times, but somehow always had a hard time finding it, even though it had never moved.
Ze turned zer head to see Ren sitting at the shop, looking a little bored and staring off into space. There were books stacked all over the place and a replica dinosaur skeleton on top of one of the stacks that Kallinu hadn’t seen before.
Kallinu ran up to Ren and waved. That snapped her out of her reverie. “Kallinu!” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here today.”
Kallinu set zer palms flat against the table. “I got accepted to astronaut training! I start in the fall!” ze said.
Ren looked stunned. “You did? That’s incredible!” she said. Immediately, she looked sheepish. “Uh, not that I didn’t believe you couldn’t do it! I did. I’m just surprised and happy for you that it happened.”
“I don’t care! I’m just really happy, and I’m glad ye’re happy too!” said Kallinu. Ze leaned forward. “So ye get off work in a few minutes, right? I was gonna go get lunch with Veitlen and Temurlin. And don’t worry about the cost. I’ll pay for everything!”
Ren looked unsure. “You’ll pay for everything? But shouldn’t other people pay, since you’re the one receiving the good news?”
“Veitlen said something about throwing a party for me, so I’ll pay for this one,” said Kallinu.
The two of them made their way back to the riverbank, where they found absolutely no trace of Veitlen and Temurlin. The chairs at their table were even pushed in – probably by Temurlin. Veitlen likely wouldn’t have thought about doing something like that with an outdoor chair.
“So, they were here?” Ren asked.
“I can’t believe those two just left!” said Kallinu in disbelief. Ze crossed zer arms and frowned.
“Well, we could just get lunch on our own, right?” said Ren.
“So how mad do you think Kallinu is going to be when ze learns we just abandoned zem?” Temurlin asked.
Veitlen scooped up some hummus with his pita bread. “Pretty mad,” he said. “Ze’s gonna yell at us when ze sees us again.”
“Sounds pretty normal,” said Temurlin. He took a sip of his wine.
“So have you figured out what you want to do yet?” Veitlen said suddenly.
There was only one thing he could possibly be referring to. “With my life?” Temurlin asked. “No. It’s such a hard thing to decide. I’m interested in a lot of things, but I don’t think I’m interested enough to commit the rest of my life to any of them.”
“What are you talking about? You don’t have to do that at all,” said Veitlen.
“I know, but no one wants to hear that from me,” said Temurlin.
Veitlen sighed. “Well, then just tell them to fuck off or something. It’s not any of their business if you have an unconventional life,” he said.
The brusqueness of the statement surprised him. “Why are you so blunt all of a sudden?” Temurlin asked. Veitlen took a long drink of his wine. “Oh, you’re just drunk. You know, you should just give the rest of me, since you’re such a lightweight.”
“How about no,” said Veitlen.
A couple of days later, Veitlen ended up in front of the Kerruveil household with a large bag in his hand. The woman who answered the door resembled Temurlin somewhat, but with straight hair instead of wavy. “Veitlen, right?” she said. “Come on in! Temur’s been anxious just waiting for you.”
“He has?” said Veitlen in surprise.
“I’m Fynneil, by the way,” she said as he followed her into the living room. “Temur! Veitlen’s here!”
Temurlin leaned around the corner from what Veitlen supposed was the kitchen. “I know. I heard,” he said.
Veitlen walked to the counter and set the bag down. “Thank you for letting us use your kitchen, ma’am,” he said to Fynneil.
“It’s no problem!” said Fynneil. “I’m really happy that Temur’s actually brought a friend over. If you need any help, be sure to let me know! I’ll be in the garden.”
“Okay, thanks,” said Veitlen. He watched Fynneil leave out the back door, then turned back to Temurlin and frowned. “Why do you look so worried? Did something happen?”
Temurlin shook his head. “No, I’m fine. I just expected that my mom was going to say a lot more. She must actually be busy.”
“What do you mean by that?” Veitlen asked.
Instead of answering, Temurlin looked toward the bag. “So did you really go out and buy a bunch of ingredients? After I told you we have everything here at home?” he asked.
“Don’t change the subject!” said Veitlen. “And I didn’t just want to use your stuff. That would be inconsiderate.”
The two of them stared at each other for a moment – Temurlin frowning and looking uncomfortable, and Veitlen also frowning and feeling irritated.
“Let’s just start, okay?” said Temurlin.
“You better tell me what’s bothering you,” said Veitlen.
“Or what?” Temurlin asked, crossing his arms.
“Or I’ll leave,” Veitlen said.
He didn’t go through with the threat. About an hour later, the cake was in the oven. Veitlen leaned against the counter with his arms crossed. Temurlin leaned against the opposite counter, looking downward. “So are you going to talk now?” Veitlen asked.
“I don’t want to,” said Temurlin.
Veitlen frowned in bewilderment. “Seriously? It’s not like I’m gonna tell anyone if it’s something embarrassing!” he said.
Temurlin sighed. “Fine. My mom is usually really embarrassing and overbearing when I bring someone over. It’s why I haven’t invited you over until now,” he said. “And half the time she tries to set me up with them, too! I can’t handle that sort of thing. It exacerbates my anxiety.”
Veitlen crossed his arms. “I seriously thought you were going to say what most people do. You know, that they can handle themselves and don’t need their parents to fuss over them. But your mom seems like a pretty normal person. Not overbearing or anything, so I’m a bit unsympathetic.”
It took Veitlen a moment for his own words to sink in. “Uh, wow. I really said all of that. Forget it. Please,” he said sheepishly.
“You know, you could have said nothing,” said Temurlin.
“I know. I hate my brain sometimes,” said Veitlen. He looked away from Temurlin. “So how long have you been baking? If I’d known about this sooner, I might have challenged you.”
“A few ye-challenged? What?” said Temurlin.
Veitlen smiled. “Yeah, a cooking challenge! Or a baking challenge.”
“But why?” Temurlin questioned.
“Because it’d be fun, that’s why,” said Veitlen.
Temurlin frowned, but he didn’t look angry. “Veitlen, I’m not nearly as competitive as you,” he said.
“But it would be fun,” Veitlen said.
“For you,” Temurlin shot back.
Veitlen let his shoulders slump. “I’m just trying to connect with you man,” he said.
“It’s very easy to do that without competition,” said Temurlin.
“Okay, Temur. Tell me how,” said Veitlen.
“I was just going to say I’m okay with you just talking to me, but now I want you to shut up,” said Temurlin.
The two of them stared at each other for a moment and then burst out laughing. Veitlen wiped away a tear from the corner of his eye. “Do you forgive me for saying all that shit?” he said.
“Yeah, of course,” said Temurlin.
They left the house around eleven o’clock. Temurlin carried the box with the cake in it, and Veitlen goodbye to Fynneil. Once they were out of earshot, Veitlen turned back to Temurlin. “Be nicer to your mom, okay?” he said.
It looked like Temurlin had suppressed the desire to roll his eyes. “Alright, Veitlen,” he said.
Kallinu lived closer to Veitlen than Temurlin, so Veitlen felt like he was walking home while they headed toward the Jurne household. Ze had already told him that zer parents wouldn’t be home today, and that the front door would be unlocked. It was, in fact, unlocked, and Veitlen stepped into the foyer first.
“Veitlen, do you want to take the box and go ahead? I’ll put our shoes away,” said Temurlin.
Veitlen narrowed his eyes at Temurlin. “Are you trying to ditch me?” he asked.
Temurlin looked baffled. “What?”
“You go do it, and I’ll put our shoes away,” said Veitlen.
“Fine,” said Temurlin with a sigh. He brushed past Veitlen and walked into the living room. Veitlen heard him talk to Ren and Kallinu, but it wasn’t until he heard Kallinu talk about opening up the box that he ran into the living room.
“No, you can’t look at it until it’s time to eat it!” he said.
Kallinu stared at Veitlen blankly. “But what if I want to eat it now?” ze asked.
Ren raised an eyebrow. “Now? It’s not even noon.”
“I’m an adult. I’ll eat cake in the morning if I wanna,” said Kallinu.
Temurlin sat down on the couch next to Ren. “Is it just us four?” he asked.
“Yep. Didn’t want to have many people here today,” said Kallinu. “I’ll go to parties where there’s a buncha people. But a party just for meself? I just want the people around that I know well.”
“But I don’t know you very well,” said Temurlin.
Kallinu made a grumpy face at him. “Yeah, and I don’t know ye very well either. Ye’re mostly here because of Veitlen.”
Temurlin and Kallinu both turned around to look at Veitlen, who was leaning against the back of the couch. “What?” he said. “You said it was okay! Don’t look at me like I did something wrong!”
Kallinu clapped zer hands together. “Let’s get on to the fun stuff!”
“Veitlen’s actually told me a little of what he knows about astronomy,” said Temurlin. “He said he learned it from you.”
“That he did!” said Kallinu proudly. “He didn’t know shit until I taught it all to him!”
“Didn’t know shit?” Veitlen repeated. He was definitely tipsy. “Who’s the one who grew up in a place with dark skies, Kallinu? Oh, that’s right. It’s me, not you.”
“Ye know it’s really easy to get out of the Avens and go someplace fairly dark, right?” said Kallinu calmly. Ze pointed at Veitlen and grinned. “I could see the Silver River AND the Dark River! All the time! Whenever I wanted!”
Temurlin looked at Ren, who seemed equally wary. He didn’t know if they’d need to defuse the situation or not. Veitlen tended to be belligerent when drunk, but Temurlin had never actually seen him fight anyone, and he definitely did not seem like the type who would fight Kallinu.
Ren broke eye contact with Temurlin and looked at Kallinu. “So is that how you got interested in wanting to be an astronaut in the first place? Because you could always see the stars?” she asked.
Kallinu dropped zer confrontational demeanor. “Naw, it’s because I found a book about astronauts at a library when I was a kid,” ze said.
“What!? You never told me that!” said Veitlen.
“Well, ye never asked,” replied Kallinu.
“It was about our astronauts, right? Not the ones the Old Humans had?” asked Temurlin.
Kallinu shook zer head. “It was Old Humanity’s astronauts.”
“Really?” said Temurlin in surprise.
“There’s enough information on that kind of thing to fill an entire book?” asked Ren.
Kallinu nodded. “Yeah yeah! A lot of mission information was preserved on some of the moonbases on Sairren. The tech there is old, but if you get to it you can extract all the data. And they’ve got tons of paper lying around, too. And it’s not like any of that information is classified, so it just gets released to the public.”
Ren frowned. “None of it’s classified? None at all?” she asked.
Kallinu stared at her blankly. “Why would it be? Those governments don’t even exist anymore. It’s not like their secrets need to be kept hidden.”
“Now I’m curious,” said Ren. “What sort of thing would the Avatar want to be kept hidden even if it was something the Old Humans did?”
“Don’t ask me. I don’t have any clue what ye’re even trying to insinuate,” said Kallinu. Zer eyes widened. “Ooh, this is because ye’ve been hanging out with Nymue, isn’t it? She’s turning you into a conspiracy theorist!”
“Kallinu, no,” said Ren. “I’m just talking out loud.”
Everyone eventually migrated into Kallinu’s room – Kallinu, Temurlin, and Veitlen lying or sitting on the floor, and Ren sitting at Kallinu’s desk.
“I wish it was later so we could tell ghost stories,” said Kallinu absently.
“You said something like that when we were in Fyrda,” said Temurlin. “Do you really like ghost stories?”
“Yes!” said Kallinu excitedly. “Horror is the best genre and I love hearing about regional scary stories! Do you know any?”
“Um, no…and I’m from here, so I think you’ve probably heard all the stories from Tivadshy,” said Temurlin. He elbowed Veitlen, who only reacted by glancing at him. “You should ask Veitlen. He’s the one from the middle of nowhere.”
“Do you want horror stories or normal spooky stories?” asked Veitlen flatly. “I have both.”
Kallinu stared at him, wide-eyed, as if ze didn’t want to know what he was about to say next. “The…the ones that aren’t real,” ze stressed. “Ye know what I mean.”
Veitlen grinned, and Kallinu’s shoulders slumped in relief. Ren clearly noticed this, as she frowned in confusion. “I actually have a lot of those!” said Veitlen. “And not all of them are from Senna. Some are from other villages and some are from Emira.”
Temurlin had never heard Veitlen seriously discuss what had actually gone on in Senna. He’d heard what life was like in small villages where the majority of people hunted demons, but he didn’t know how much of that was fact and how much was fiction. And with Veitlen changing the subject every time they got close to something like that, he doubted he’d ever know.