He clambered to his feet and automatically took Isobel’s hand when Maia set her down. “Mama, when it snows, will you do something Papa would do?”
Maia swallowed a lump in her throat and ruffled his hair. “I suppose. What is it?”
Carol reddened and hurried into the inn, leaving the three of them on the stoop. Maia frowned after her, then looked back at Ash, expectant.
He grinned, showing off his neat white teeth. “Write his name in the snow!”
Maia stared at him, mind blank for a moment. When she recovered, she asked, “Is that how you learned how to write your name?”
She managed a creaky smile. No wonder Sage had such an easy time looking after three children. He hadn’t ever really grown up. “Girls can’t do that, Ash. Come on. We can talk about Papa later if you want. It’s time to see your grandmother and grandfather from my side.”
He frowned, obviously confused about having more grandparents than Nan and Grandpa, but waddled into the inn before her, dragging Isobel behind him. The pleasant smell of bread and soup floated out to meet them as they went inside, and Maia’s tension eased enough for her shoulders to relax. The inn was sparsely decorated—there were a few paintings on the walls, and the tables and chairs were of a fine enough wood—but the atmosphere more than made up for it. It wasn’t busy yet, but there was a comfortable buzz of talk and laughter mixed in with the scent of food and drink.
Carol waited for them just inside the mudroom and took Maia’s jacket to hang up with the other patrons’. Maia thanked her with a smile and began to scope out her parents in the dim taproom.
“You knew he was going to suggest that,” she said, more of a statement than question.
“I caught Sage and Stride showing him once. I’m terrified for when Ash grows up a bit more. Those three are going to be a terror.”
Maia shrugged. “I’ll visit my parents when that happens. There they are.” She pointed to a pair seated before the crackling hearth, and her stomach dropped when she realized just how long ago she had last seen her parents. Neither of them had any colour left to their hair, and their skin was crackled and weathered. Relief flooded her when they looked up and she saw the same youth and passion in their eyes; they hadn’t really changed, despite the outer shell being different.
“Maia, love.” Her father started to climb from his cushioned chair, then seemed to think better of it and remained seated. “You look so grown up.”
She smiled and stooped to hug him, then her mother. “I’m a real adult now. How are you? Was the trip all right?” She hauled Isobel away from the hearth before she could totter into the fire, and settled herself in the seat opposite her parents. Carol made herself comfortable beside her, holding Ash’s hand so he couldn’t wander too far off.
The trip was fine; apparently they had an easy ride with a few of their neighbours who were also en route to the City. They had been more than happy to take two extra passengers when they heard they were going to meet their daughter, who they hadn’t seen in over five years.
When her father finished his explanation, his eyes settled expectantly on Carol.
“Oh!” Maia adjusted the squirmy daughter on her lap and gestured to her mother-in-law. “Mama, Papa, this is Sage’s mother, Carol of the City. And these are two of your newest grandchildren, Ash and Isobel. Carol, these are my parents, Aberle and Lilith of Lamplight.”
Carol, ever graceful, extended a hand. “We’ve heard only the best things about you and your family,” she said with a warm smile. “We actually have some of your candles at the Arbour. Beautiful things.”
Lilith flushed prettily, looking once more like the woman she had been. “Thank you. Now that we’re finally meeting, I must say that we are so glad our daughter married your son.” She smiled at her husband, and Maia managed to keep from rolling her eyes. Their adoration had terrified Sage upon their first meeting. “We always knew he was a good lad.”
To distract them from embarrassing a man who wasn’t even present to defend himself, Maia plunked Isobel on the table. “Bella, Ash, this is your Grandfather Aberle and Grandmother Lilith,” she said, patting Isobel. Lilith instantly scooped her up and began fussing over her hair, exclaiming loudly that Maia was so lucky to have children with such lovely blonde hair.
Aberle smiled, but it didn’t seem entirely genuine. “You never did explain where your other son is. Or why Sage isn’t here to see us.”
Maia’s throat closed up, mouth suddenly dry. “I—I’d rather not talk about it right now, Papa. Sage doesn’t want it to be common knowledge where he’s gone.”
He nodded. “Later, then. Let’s get some food in us, and you can tell us all about your lovely children.”
She imitated his gesture, feeling suddenly like her insides had been scraped hollow. While her parents and Carol were fussing over Isobel and Ash—the latter of whom positively adored the attention being slathered on him—she quietly excused herself and went outside, hoping the peace of nature in the Willow Plaza could relax her.
She ended up sitting on a bench in a park, facing the open gates to the impoverished residential district, the Pit. There was a cool wind blowing in off the mountain around the City, but she barely felt it; she didn’t even blink as she stared into the Pit, watching the poor and desperate wander about without a real goal.
Only the thought of Ash and Isobel in the Republic Inn, and Sage sailing into unknown seas to find Flynn, kept her from standing and marching straight into the shady alleyways of the Pit. The shadow of her fifteen year old self that still resided somewhere inside her begged her to stand and just go into the Pit. Even from this distance she could see the telltale signs of someone lost in the throes of a high.
It would be so easy. And it wasn’t like she would necessarily get addicted again. She knew how to find dealers, and she could get just enough to calm her down and make her forget about Sage and Flynn and the baby she lost.
Someone shouted her name and she jerked out of the reverie, finding herself in a cold sweat. Running trembling fingers through her hair, she shut her eyes and exhaled slowly.
“This is what happens when you aren’t here, Sage,” she whispered, cradling her head in her hands. “I can’t do this without you.”