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(Ed. Note: events of this story follow “Prelude to a Parting”.
Twin lines of light painted the passageway Tallcrag made his way into. The door to his home was open. And blocked by a round figure, the form of which became evident when he made the final turn.
"Ah! An unexpected pleasure, cousin," Thumbprint chimed as her face met his. She seemed to be just on her way out.
"Yes, it seems we're both harder to get in one place lately. Cousin." Soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized his tone was terser than he'd have liked, surprised as he was to see this particular visitor. The hunter didn't like surprises.
Fortunately, Thumbprint didn’t appear to notice. "How goes the hunt, if I may I ask?"
"Don't know yet, as it hasn't begun. The team heads out on the morrow. Can't go into details as to the route. Surface work." He spoke as he walked, a habit he'd picked up from his patron, Blotter. Just on the other side of the threshold stood Tallcrag's wife, Soupstone. Stepping inside his home, he kissed the mother of his child full on the lips. Such a passionate act before witnesses was considered unseemly by most, but this was his home after all. He'd do as he liked.
Soupstone returned the gesture, and recovered her own composure. "Thumbprint was just here to reply personally to the party invite," she explained. The cook then turned back to her guest. "But now that my husband is home, it truly is time to say good night."
"Good night, then," the Scholar confirmed with a polite nod. "Thank you kindly for your hospitality."
Tallcrag added a half-hearted wave to his wife's as his relative departed. There was a question or two he might have asked. But he didn't know that he could get through them without revealing something best left buried to one or both of the women. 'Better to just see the back of her.'
Soupstone propped a hand on her husband’s shoulder and gave him a small kiss on the cheek. "You could have been nicer. She is family." Mock disapproval tinted her chiding.
Tallcrag grunted a reluctant acknowledgement. "Just have a heavy mind. Things to do before the next dawn." Hiking in daylight wasn't much fun. But it was best to get moving during that time, while the hated point-ears were hiding from the sun. "I'll go look in on the mump, then."
"Are those the party favors?" she asked, patting a satchel at his side. "Don’t forget to leave them in the nursery."
"I know, I know! I just went and got 'em to put there, didn't I?" He kissed his wife's cheek before he moved off. His mind was heavy indeed, his footsteps felt equally weighed down. He was disquieted by the visitor. It had been going on for decades; ever since her marriage to Soupstone’s former lover, Slag, and change in station from the lofty Library to the secretive Archives. Thumbprint was spending an increasing amount of time out of the public eye. Appearing at a family event, such as his daughter’s upcoming birthday party, had become the exception rather than the rule.
Where was the book-handler going, then? Not into Slag’s company, that was for sure. In which case, where was Slag going, when the woman he was bound to didn't come home?
Tallcrag looked over his shoulder, at Soupstone. Her guest departed, she was cleaning up the settings of tea and lichen cakes she must have laid out while the two women talked. An old rule of her family; anyone who came to her door wouldn’t leave hungry. She waved at him with a small smile. He blew a kiss, silently comparing her hand motion to the one she'd given a guest in her home, and entered the nursery.
"Hello, Quartz! Papa's home!" The bright-haired toddler looked up at him briefly, smiled her mother's smile, and waved her arms up and down. A hand still clasped one of the many brightly colored blocks that surrounded her in her play-cot. He’d been told several times at her first showing that the shape of her eyes favored his. And his own mother told him that the baby girl’s nose looked very much like his did before it filled out. He loved the girl fiercely, as he loved her mother. But, still that scratch at the back of his mind...
"This was going to be your birthday present,” he declared, reaching down into the bag past the cache of supplies. “But Papa thinks he can manage to find something else for you then, too!" Tallcrag reached into the bag and presented a doll to his child. A knitted mushroom doll with large black button eyes sewn to the top of the stalk, giving the upturned cap above the impression of being a hat. Thick handless arms jutted from the side, with legs sewn into the front just so the toy could sit on its thick rump of a stalk. The cap itself was decorated with knotwork, speaking to the whimsical value of the whole piece.
Quartz's chubby hands clamped onto the doll and she hugged it fiercely, twisting her whole body back and forth, sending her shock of gold-orange hair to and fro. A giggle of joy escaped the girl, which warmed Tallcrag's troubled heart. She looked up at him with a loving grin and huge wide open eyes. Heart melting, he reached down and patted her chubby head, curled his fingers round the back of it.
"Papa loves you. Don't ever forget that."