At the age of eleven years and ten months, twenty-four days, Joy decided all she really wanted for her birthday was a Fliek’s dragon (“I’m too old for dolls and silly games anymore, Plen!”) and she wasn’t going to let Plen give her anything else, even if she had to make up all the reasons for why it wasn’t a crazy idea (“You could use it to carry stuff into town for Uncle Increase to sell, instead of having to make Faraji do it!”).
Plen didn’t buy any of her reasons (“Oh, so who it was I saw playing ‘tea party’ in the front yard two days ago?” and “Faraji takes things into town for me because Uncle Increase always tries to cheat me because I’m a family member.”), but he did start to think up his own for why it might be a good idea.
“It would get her to shut up, at least,” he sighed to Faraji one evening after Joy had gone to bed. “I thought Mercy was joking when she described Joy in her letters as a demon sent to plague her, but now I’m beginning to see what she meant.” He pushed his empty glass across the table to Faraji in a silent request to have it refilled.
“Compared to some grown women I’ve known, she is the very model of sense and policy.” Faraji eyed the glass and then Plen. “Do you wish to finish the bottle? It’s the next to last.”
“No, I guess not. We can save it for tomorrow.” Plen watched the cork go in with something like regret, but mostly just because he was out of ways to distract himself from the voluble matter at hand. “Sense and policy, huh?” Considering some of the women the two of them had met on their travels.... “Well, maybe you’re right. At least she hasn’t reached the kicking and screaming stage.”
“And I doubt she ever will. Despite her comments to you, your sister did a better job raising her than that.”
“Didn’t Joy spend this afternoon dropping worms down your back?” Plen refrained from mentioning that he’d been watching and laughing the whole time.
“Mere youthful exuberance.” Although Faraji’s serene certainty did seem to slip a little at the memory.
“And then threaten to put honey in your locks?” That hadn’t been funny—the resulting mess almost certainly would have had to have been cut off entirely, and Faraji had been cultivating his locks since before Plen had met him.
“For which she is now forbidden to eat any until the end of the month.” The serenity was now replaced entirely by fond exasperation, though Plen couldn’t tell whether for him or Joy. “She is still a child, Plen, and not entirely capable of understanding the potential consequences of her actions.”
“Which is the issue I keep running into when I’m tempted to just say yes to her!” And really the only issue, if he let himself actually think about it: he could easily afford to buy and keep a Fliek’s dragon, and it would be useful for hauling heavy loads around. They had the space for one, and even an unused shack/shed that could be fixed up to house it. If Joy hadn’t been pushing him so hard, he probably would have done it already.
And Faraji, because he could read Plen’s mind, asked, “And if I had suggested it instead of Joy?”
Plen groaned and put his head down on the table. “We’d have a Fliek’s dragon.”
So really, the problem was ensuring that Joy didn’t wind up with the idea that she could get anything she wanted just by making enough noise about it. Trying to come up with a solution to this kept Plen awake until early enough in the morning that even the peeper toads had gone quiet, at which point he gave up and did his best to salvage a few hours’ worth of sleep.
“It’s hopeless,” he told Faraji later in the morning, when the sun had come up and the heat and the mosquitoes were out in full force again. “Any way we present it to her, she’s going to think we did it because of her, and in a way she’ll be right. And once she gets an idea set in her head, she refuses to even consider that things might not be so.”
“True.” Faraji finished his morning ritual of arranging bread and fruit and milk for each of them—with much honey for him, less for Plen, and none at all for Joy. “We should begin training her out of that soon, or there will be no living with her when she is older.” He slid Plen’s plate across the table to him, set aside Joy’s for when she deigned to make an appearance, and hesitated over his own, spoon in hand. “Have you tried a simple ‘no’? Perhaps if you consistently answer with a flat refusal, and then make it clear when you buy the Fliek’s dragon that it doesn’t belong to her, she’ll understand.”
“That’s more or less the best plan I could come up last night,” Plen admitted around a mouthful of very ripe mango. “I doubt it’ll do any good, but I might as well give it a go next time she brings up the subject.”
Which was five minutes later, when she stumbled in from the stairs, face still creased from her pillow, and hair sticking out in odd directions like an unfinished bird's nest made of burnished copper. She sat down in front of her plate and began eating without any sign of having noticed that she wasn’t alone at the table.
Plen coughed once, hoping that if he caught her attention he wouldn’t have to say anything more to prompt her, but she continued poking at her food without even glancing up at him.
“Good morning, honey-sweet Joy,” Faraji rumbled, taking the matter at least temporarily out of Plen’s hands and earning Plen’s gratitude for the rest of the day.
“’M not honey-sweet,” Joy told her still mostly-filled plate. “’M not allowed to have any for a whole month.” Clearly a tragedy of the highest order.
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still say a blessing for the meal,” Plen pointed out, wondering as always if a commanded blessing actually held any merit.
Joy finally looked up at him, but only long enough to make sure he saw her scowl. “Bless food to body and body to service, truly truly,” she recited grudgingly.
After waiting a minute for what should have followed, Plen added, “and say thank you to Faraji for preparing your meal.” Where had her manners gone? She hadn’t been this unruly since—well, since he’d taken over her guardianship.
“Thanks to Faraji for preparing your meal,” she rattled off, entire being radiating mulish obstinance. Faraji hmm’d in response, the narrowing of his eyes suggesting that Joy had just about used up his considerable good temper—less than five minutes had to be some sort of record.
“I do not think I like you very much this morning,” he said to Joy in Xatab.
“I do not think she likes you very much either,” Plen answered in the same language, learned over several years’ worth of shared midnight watches and kept in hand by conversations such as this. “But talking over her head like this will not improve relations.” Faraji studied Joy for a long, silence-heavy moment, undaunted by Joy’s increasingly-baleful glower. She hated it when they shut her out like this, and Plen had to sympathize; he’d wound up in similar situations many times more than once.
“It keeps me from worsening them by smacking her,” Faraji finally responded, and then switched seamlessly back to the Queen’s tongue. “But you are right.” He stood up, empty bowl in hand. “Did you wish to join the conversation, Joy of my heart?”
“No,” she muttered, still hunched defensively over the remnants of her meal, before visibly changing her mind, sitting up straighter and putting on her most winsome smile. “I mean, yes. Uncle Plen, have you thought about my request? I know you said we don’t need one, but really—”
Plen closed his eyes for a moment, praying most emphatically that Faraji’s suggestion wouldn’t lead to the whole situation ending in doom and despair. Faraji was almost always right—perhaps he would be this time too, however unlikely that seemed at the moment. When Plen opened his eyes again, he did what he’d been putting off for nearly a week now: he gave a definitive and final answer to the standing question.
He said, “No,” right in the middle of Joy’s carefully-constructed argument.
“No?” she repeated, face scrunched up in confusion. Usually that expression made him melt like hot butter, but today—today he was ready to be done with this.
“No,” he reiterated. “I will not, now or ever, buy you a Fliek’s dragon. And neither will Faraji,” he added when she automatically turned to that court of appeal. Faraji nodded once in confirmation, face absolutely devoid of expression.
The temptation was to shut his eyes against the tantrum that was sure to come, but Plen knew that he couldn’t show any kind of weakness in this and so resolutely kept them open, the better to stare Joy down, if necessary.
It was not. Her frown deepened until it seemed the creases must become permanent, but she did not scream or kick or do any of the things Plen had feared. Instead, she did something almost worse: she picked up her bowl and carried it to the sink, setting it down with such care that it made no noise against the enamel. That accomplished, she turned and walked toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Plen couldn’t keep from asking; he’d seen that look on her mother’s face many times, and the results had never been pleasant.
“I am going to go live in the yard with Faraji,” she said without looking back, and closed the door behind her so gently that it didn’t even rattle against its frame. Plen and Faraji stared at each other for what seemed like a long while after that, at a complete loss for words.
“...Are you going to point out that I only sleep out there?” Faraji finally asked with more detachment than Plen could’ve mustered even on better days.
“No. The mosquitoes will drive her inside by evening anyway.”
But they didn’t. She remained outside all day, even when it rained hard enough to knock the last of the mangoes off the trees. Nor could dinner lure her in, and Plen had to settle for leaving a plate for her on the porch and then retreating back into the house.
“What if she really won’t come in?” he worried, watching her out the window while Faraji rewashed the dishes that Plen had barely rinsed in his agitation. “She’ll be eaten alive—even if I offered mosquito netting, I doubt she’d accept it. Not when she’s being this stubborn about the whole thing.”
“I made her a warding bracelet this afternoon while you were tending the garden.” Faraji set aside the last of the plates to dry and joined Plen by the window. “Not strong enough to keep them all off her, but enough so that she can sleep if she really wants to.” Plen looked at him askance.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
But Faraji refused to explain, instead getting out the almost-finished bottle of wine from the night before and a pack of very battered cards. “If she wants to come inside, she can, and she knows she can, just as she knows we will help her set up another hammock and net if she asks. All we can do now is wait for her to make up her mind one way or another. Don’t copy her mistake with you and try to make it up for her.”
So they played cards until the sun had gone and the night noises had come and Faraji had fleeced Plen into having to do all of Faraji's chores for the next month and a half.
“Enough,” he said after Plen had folded on a winning hand for the seventh time in a row. “It hurts my pride to have you lose to me like this. Let us both go to bed and hope things are better in the morning.”
“Sure,” Plen sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. “Sleep sounds good.” But after Faraji had gone out to his hammock for the night and could be presumed to have fallen asleep, Plen got up out of his own bed, crept down the stairs, and lit a candle, just in case. And then he curled up in a chair and tried to convince his eyes to stay closed.
Eventually he must have succeeded, because the next time they opened, the candle had lost nearly half its height and almost drowned itself in the melted wax—and the door was easing open so slowly Plen thought at first that he had only imagined it.
“Joy?” he whispered after making sure that the door really was moving.
It stopped, and just as he began to silently curse himself for worsening matters, Joy peered around the doorframe, face unreadable in the deep shadows. Plen tried his hardest to look welcoming instead of exhausted and exasperated.
“Everything all right?” he added when it appeared she wasn’t planning on moving any time soon.
“Yes,” she whispered back, but it must have been the right thing to say, because she came the rest of the way into the room, leaving the door open behind her as she was wont to do when not in a temper. “Why are you down here?”
Plen struggled a bit to sit straighter in his chair, and had just opened his mouth to give what he knew would be an obviously false explanation when the candle abruptly went out. Joy squeaked at the sudden darkness; Plen may have made a similar noise purely out of sympathetic habit.
“Where are you?” Joy asked a moment later, voice slightly quavery.
“Right here.” Plen patted the arm of the chair as noisily as he could, and was rewarded seconds later by a small, sweat-sticky body colliding with his knees. He pulled her up onto his lap, and for a few minutes they sat in silence, curled around each other as though the previous day and week hadn’t happened. But eventually Joy shifted uneasily, tension creeping back into her spine and shoulders.
“You’re not going to leave me, are you?” she said, so quietly Plen could barely hear her.
“No!” He hugged her more tightly, trying to physically convey what he apparently hadn’t been verbally. “No, I’m staying here, and so’s Faraji. Even if you get sick of us, we’re not going anywhere. What made you think we were?”
She pressed her face against his throat, so that when she spoke, he could feel the words as they came out. “Faraji always sleeps outside, and you talk in funny languages sometimes and don’t tell me what you’re saying and you won’t let me get anything to keep except what fits inside my trunk and Uncle Increase said you’re a sailor and sailors never stay in port for more’n a month or so and I thought if you’d get me a Fliek’s dragon it would mean you were going to stay but you said you won’t!” By the end of this, she was crying hard enough that he could barely decipher what she was saying, her tears dripping down his neck and onto his chest.
It should’ve been uncomfortable, but was instead strangely comforting.
“Is this why you’ve been such a brat the last few days?” He asked as gently as he could, not really expecting an answer, but she nodded, still sobbing.
“I thought if I was m-mean and you still didn’t leave—”
“Oh, Joy,” he sighed into her hair. “We really aren’t going to leave you, and Uncle Increase shouldn’t have said anything to make you think otherwise. Faraji and I were sailors, but we’d decided to stop that and live here even before I got news that your parents had died.” She’d almost stopped crying now, which he hoped meant she’d actually heard him.
“Then why does Faraji sleep outside?” she asked, still sniffly.
“Because it is cooler and I enjoy not having to sleep below-deck with twenty other men,” Faraji answered unexpectedly from the direction of the doorway. “Take it as a sign of why I will never return to sea, if you like.”
“Oh,” Joy said faintly. “And why won’t you and Uncle Plen let me have a Fliek’s dragon?”
“Because it would be too big for you, and we’ve decided to get one for all three of us.” He crossed the room, strides quiet and sure even in the dark, and Plen felt rather than saw him crouch before them. “If you had not been so determined that it be yours, we might have gotten it already.”
“Oh,” Joy said again, sounding humbled and pleased and slightly confused all at once. “...You really aren’t going to leave?” she asked one last time, but the tears were finished now.
“We really aren’t going to leave,” Plen affirmed. “Are you ready to go to bed properly now?” He started to move to stand up, but she tightened her arms around him.
“Can we just ... stay like this for a little?” she asked—pleaded.
“Sure,” Plen said, settling back in the chair and resigning himself to being sore in the morning. He heard Faraji get up and pull over one of the other chairs in the room, and when dawn finally came, it found the three of them sitting together like that: Joy sound asleep, using Plen’s shoulder as a pillow, and Plen and Faraji wide awake and exhausted and stiff, but glad that the crisis was finally over.