CLOVER HAMILL ATTEMPTED TO CALCULATE his share of the modest birthday pie his mother had just brought out from the wagon. Three hundred and sixty degrees of pie divided by nine people was forty degrees each, but that would only be if the slices were cut evenly, which they seldom were. Clive, being the man of the hour, would be in charge of dividing the pie up, and that didn’t bode well for his younger brother. It wasn’t that Clive would apportion himself the largest piece—though no one could have blamed him for doing so on his own birthday—but that he would undoubtedly give outsize pieces to their mother for making the pie in the first place, and to their father and Eddie and Burns because the men needed to keep their strength up, and to Michael because he’d throw a tantrum otherwise, and to Gemma and Flora just because they were girls. Clover figured he would be lucky to end up with a twenty-degree slice. Given that the height of the pie was about four inches and the radius about five, his share would amount to . . . roughly seventeen cubic inches of pie.
Attendant Bernstein could have taken the math even further—reckoning the caloric content of the pie based on its constituent ingredients, for example—but Clover hadn’t yet received the education to carry out such a calculation.
His mother put the pie down on the trestle table. A lone beeswax candle was sunk into the middle of the doughy lattice, but the breeze had already put out the flame. Everything would have been so much better back at their house in the Anchor. The pie would have been a cake at least twice the size of this one, and the room would have been pitch dark but for the candle flames spitting shadows over the walls, and everyone would have been warm and comfortable and clean.
But they weren’t at home. They were on the road. And on the road, you took what you could get.
Clover realized he’d missed the first couple of lines of the “Birthday Hymn.” He joined in just in time to wish his brother long life and happiness—in the name of the Father and the Daughter and Holy Gravity. Clive closed his eyes, looking prayerful and solemn even though he was probably only wishing for an extra-special present from Gemma tonight, and then he made a show of trying to blow out the candle. Everybody laughed.
“Eighteen years old.” Honor Daniel Hamill gave a little whistle, then clapped a firm hand on Clive’s shoulder. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
“He doesn’t look like a man to me,” Burns said, in that way he had of joking and not joking at the same time.
Eddie Poplin squinted into the horizon. “We should get moving,” he said. “Only a couple hours of light left.”
Eddie was Gemma, Flora, and Michael’s father, as well as the ministry’s official handyman (or, more technically, “factotum”—a word Clover had always liked, but that he liked even more now that he knew enough Latin to translate it: “do everything”).
As Clover finished his meager helping of pie (the slice had been closer to fifteen degrees than twenty, and the bottom was burnt from the pot), he watched his brother head off with the other men, toward the clearing where the gathering would be held. Clive gave Gemma a little wave good-bye, and she waved right back, smiling coyly.
Some dark burrowing demon of jealousy quickened in Clover’s belly; he felt like taking a swing at someone, or throwing up. Maybe he would’ve, too, if not for the pair of arms that wrapped around him from behind, still powdered with flour. He made sure Gemma wasn’t watching, then allowed himself to relax into his mother’s embrace, softening like stale bread brought back to life with a bit of water and a few minutes in the oven.
“You look a hundred feet off the ground, darling. Everything all right?”
Ellen Hamill followed her son’s line of sight, out to where the men had begun laying out the tent poles.
“You know your time’s gonna come. Two years is nothing.”
She turned him around and gripped him by the shoulders. Of the million injustices the Lord had visited on Clover, perhaps the most painful was his height—where Clive seemed destined to take after their father, who towered over almost everyone he met, Clover
had gotten the literal short end of the stick. Face-to-face with his mother, his eyes were on the exact same level as hers.
“You believe this or not, but growing up isn’t all roses and kittens. Your brother might be a man in the eyes of God now, but being a man means bearing a man’s responsibilities.”
“I could bear ’em.”
“I’m not saying you couldn’t. I’m saying you should enjoy the fact that you don’t have to. It doesn’t last.” There was a deep tenderness in his mother’s eyes, such that he had to look away. “You know your father and I are awful proud of you, don’t you?”
“I know you are.”
“Daniel is too. He’s just not good at showing it.”
“He shows it to Clive.”
“Clive’s chosen a simpler path. Or not simpler, maybe, but one your father understands. You getting noticed by the Library, learning all those things . . . I think you scare him a little.”
Clover rolled his eyes at this obvious lie. “What’s there to be scared about? I barely learn anything. You wouldn’t believe how many rules they’ve got.”
“There’s nothing wrong with rules, Clover. What does the Filia tell us about knowledge?”
There were a number of verses his mother could’ve been referring to, but Clover knew her tastes well enough by now. When it came to the Gospels, she’d take Jiehae and Ivan over Armelle (and she never wanted to hear any Nelson). “Learning is a lightening,” he quoted.
“That’s right.” She drew him into a hug. “I just don’t want you to float away before you have to.”
She gave him one last squeeze. “You should get started tuning. The work’ll be good for you.”
He wiped his pie-sticky hands on his trousers and headed for the small wagon. Down in the clearing, the men had smoothed out the canvas, which lay on the grass like some sort of huge, flat mushroom. Burns had taken off his shirt, revealing his heavily muscled chest and the quilt of scars that were the origin of his nickname (if you could call it a nickname, given that nobody knew his actual name). Though they’d been on the road together for nearly four months, Clover still didn’t trust the man. Burns was a sergeant in the Descendancy Protectorate, tasked with keeping them safe as they preached the word of God along the Tails. But they’d been on plenty of tours before this one, and they’d always gotten by without any protecting. Was the world really getting more dangerous, or was Burns’s presence yet another example of the Protectorate’s increasing involvement in the doings of the Church?
Clive said he’d heard all sorts of rumors about the sergeant back in the Anchor: that he’d been born outside the Descendancy, that he’d been married to a captured Wesah warrior woman, that he once pulled out a man’s eyeball in a bar fight. But so far as Clover could see, all the sergeant ever seemed to do was make off-color jokes and brood. And why didn’t he ever bow his head during service, or sing along with the hymns? What was he looking for when he scanned the crowds that gathered beneath the tent to worship, his eyes narrowed like those of some hungry bird of prey?
Eddie and Honor Hamill finished fitting together the pieces
that made up the tent’s main post, and then all four men dove under the fabric, little lumps moving like feet beneath a bedsheet. The tent seemed to lift itself up by the center, as if the devil himself had reached down from the sky, pinched the sheet of canvas, and pulled. They emerged through the front flap a minute later, red-faced and sweating. Raising the tent was hard work, and now that Clive was a man, he’d have to do it before every gathering.
It was some slight consolation, anyway.
Inside the small wagon, the soft leather cases in which the instruments were kept were roped tightly to the walls. Clover unpicked the knots and laid them all out in a row, and then he pulled out the tuning fork—a gift from his father on his tenth birthday.
Not a lot of things stay constant in this world, Honor Hamill had said. But this will.
And it was true. No matter the time of day or the orientation of the stars or the clemency of the weather, the fork rang out its piercing G like a call to arms against chaos.
Clover tapped the metal against the wooden floor of the wagon. There was something magical about the way the sound just appeared, pulled out of the very air. Not for the first time, he considered the question of just what made one tone different from another. If he’d had to put it into words, he would’ve said it had something to do with how fast the note shook in your ear—only that wasn’t quite right. He’d asked Attendant Bernstein to explain it to him once, but it turned out acoustics was yet another subject he was too young to learn about.
He began with his own instrument, the mandolin, then went on to Gemma’s fiddle, his father’s bass, and his brother’s guitar. It
was anxious, delicate work. They only had so many extra strings to last them through the tour, and given the heat of the days and the changes in humidity and elevation as they’d passed over the Teeth—the mountain range to the east of the Anchor—breaks were inevitable. Two tours back, Clive had had to play a five-stringed guitar for a whole month.
Luckily, today was a good day, and all the strings remained intact. Clover put the guitar back in its case and began carrying the instruments one by one to the tent, which was now fully stretched out and staked. Inside, Eddie was hanging the big annulus, while Clive and the two younger Poplin children cleared away any rocks that might trip someone up during the dancing. Just as Clover was making his last trip from the wagon, Gemma came in with a couple mugs of pine tea. She handed one to her father, then offered the other to Clover.
“What about Clive?” he asked.
“I already made him one. It’s his birthday, isn’t it?”
But she was always looking out for Clive first. Didn’t matter that it was his birthday one bit.
Gemma Poplin was seventeen years old, born right smack-dab between the two brothers. Clover thought about her in ways he knew he wasn’t supposed to—not just because lustful thoughts weren’t holy, but because she wasn’t his to think about. Eddie had been Honor Hamill’s best friend since they were boys; it only made sense for their firstborn children to marry. Clive knew this, of course, and as a result, he treated Gemma exactly the same way he did all the girls who fawned over him: not mean or anything, just careless, the way you treated anything that had been handed to you, that you’d never had to fight for.
Of course, even if Gemma hadn’t been promised to Clive, it wasn’t as if she ever would’ve fallen for Clover. No girl wanted a husband younger than herself, especially one with all the social graces of a wild dog.
So he would always be the little brother in Gemma’s eyes, however much he wished it different.
“Something got you blue?” Gemma asked.
Clover hoisted the double bass up onto the platform, then hopped back to the ground. “Everybody keeps asking me that. What would I be blue about?”
“I don’t know. Your brother turning eighteen, maybe? I know it’s not easy—”
“Good. ’Cause I won’t be dancing with any moody boys tonight.” She leaned over (an inch taller than him, of course) and whispered in his ear. “You’ll save one for me, won’t you?”
Clover couldn’t help but smile. “Slowest song there is.”
Gemma put on a bit of an outerlands accent. “Then I’ll be waitin’ for you in the darkest corner of the room.” She gave a little flash of the eyes, then turned on her heel and swept out of the tent.
They talked to each other like that, but it was just playing at words. They wouldn’t ever meet in the darkest corner of the room. And if they danced tonight, it would be like a couple of kissing cousins, not sweethearts.
All part of the good Lord’s plan, Clover’s father would say. But that thought was seldom as comforting as he made it out to be. In fact, a good portion of the time, the good Lord’s plan seemed a downright mess.