Gnome Day

This short story takes place in the Gryphon Clerks setting, and is found in my collection Good Neighbours and Other Stories. My publisher at HDWP Books has kindly given permission for me to publish it here.

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As the midnight bells tolled, Keen straightened up and poured the remains of his tea into the gutter outside the Municipal Theatre. Around him, his fellow clerks took their places, adjusting the tugboat-shaped gnome hats they had been issued for the occasion.

Before long, they heard tramping feet coming from the north, where the factories were, accompanied by jubilant cries in Dwarvish.

"Victory! Freedom!"

A middle-aged clerk turned to Keen, glancing at the black rank bead that marked him as a junior clerk, just out of the Clerks' College. "You're part of history tonight," he said. "You'll be able to tell your grandchildren you were there when we freed the gnomes."

As the marchers neared the clerks, they slowed, milling, uncertain whether to walk on or turn into the open space of Magnificence Plaza. The clerks beckoned them forward, and they came: striding youths with shining eyes, parents carrying children, the elderly hobbling along or carried on makeshift pallets.

"Hello," Keen said to the first lost-looking gnome he saw. He spoke the careful Dwarvish he'd learned for his job in the Office of Trade and Industry. "My name is Keen. What is your name?"

The gnome stared at him for several long heartbeats. He was about Keen's age, to all appearances; shorter and paler than a human, with a bulbous nose, reddish-brown hair and beard, and large, pale eyes instead of the black hair and brown eyes of Keen's people.

He looked as if he was about to cry.

"Wheel," he said, finding his voice. "I am Wheel."

"Pleased to meet you, Wheel," said Keen, moved by the gnome’s emotion. "Please, come this way. We have food and drink and a place to sleep." He gestured towards the theatre.

The gnome's huge eyes overflowed. "Why are you doing this? They said we don't have to work for the dwarves now, that they can't own our service any more. Is that true?"

Keen wanted to touch him to reassure him, but thought that might be wrong somehow. He said, "Our Realmgold – our, um," he searched for an equivalent in Dwarvish, "our highest Elder, has declared that the laws against slavery include gnomeservice, and always should have done. Humans were slaves under the old imperial elves, you know," he added. "We feel very strongly about it."

"So why now? What's changed all of a sudden? I’ve never even met a human before. Why…" Seeing the gnome’s clenched jaw, the lostness in his eyes, Keen regretted saying that humans felt strongly about slavery. Here, he thought, was someone for whom it wasn’t some abstract principle from the past, but a lifelong reality from which he’d never expected to be free.

"Our rulers have always ignored gnomeservice because they were afraid of the dwarves. Realmgold Victory isn't afraid of anything," he said loyally.

Wheel looked down at his long, pale three-fingered hands. "But why you?" he asked. "Why are you helping?"

Keen looked at the hands as well, and then into the gnome's large eyes. "You are people, and we are people," he said, daring to lay a gentle hand on Wheel's shoulder. "Helping each other is what people do."

He led Wheel into the theatre and got him settled in a corner among the seats with a donated blanket and a cup of soup, and turned around to see a pretty young woman wearing the dark-grey pantsuit, silver gryphon and black rank bead of a junior Gryphon Clerk like himself.

"Excuse me," she said, "did I hear you speaking Dwarvish?"

"Yes," he said, smiling at her by reflex. She smiled back, dazzling him.

"Oh, good. I volunteered, but I don't know any Dwarvish. Can you help?"

"Of course. I'm Keen Cook, by the way."

"Purity Draper. Over here, this woman seems to be in distress."

As they approached, the young gnome woman looked up, and there was something about the way she moved, the angle of her head, her light-brown hair, the startling green of her eyes, that struck Keen’s heart like a gong. He stumbled, almost falling in the gnome woman's lap. Purity caught his arm before he could.

"Thank you," he said, then knelt in front of the gnome woman. "What’s wrong?" he asked in Dwarvish.

"I can’t find my family," she said.

"What’s your name?" he asked.

"Stitch. Loom and Grease's Stitch."

He looked at her, his perception shifting back and forth between seeing her as alien and strange or as beautiful, as if she was an optical illusion. He shook his head to clear it. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll find them.”

Keen taught Purity the Dwarvish phrase "I am looking for", and they separated.

"Stay here, please," Keen said to the young gnome woman. The theatre was filling rapidly with gnomes, guided by clerks with often minimal Dwarvish, and if Stitch wandered off into the mob he didn't think he could find her again.

Keen didn’t know how long it had been when he and Purity crossed paths again. "Found them!" she called across the din. "They ended up across the street. I'm going to get her."

"I'll go," he said, "I can talk to her. You help this gentleman." He fetched Stitch and guided her across the street to the Office of Land Registration, which was also full of gnomes. When she spotted her parents she tried run to them, but the floor was littered with blankets and blanket-wrapped gnomes, and she had to dance between them. He watched as they drew her into a hug, and felt a glow of satisfaction when she looked back and gave him a wave. He waved back and turned away, looking for someone else he could help.

As dawn broke, the Leading Clerks called them together for a debrief and dismissed them as the day shift of volunteers took over. Keen found himself walking next to Purity, who smiled through her exhaustion.

"I need breakfast," she said.

"Me too. Let's go somewhere," he said, seizing the moment. Even after a sleepless night, her smile lit up her face and made it glow, and he wanted to spend more time with her.

She looked him up and down for a moment. "All right," she said.

They went to Berry's Café on Magnificence Plaza, just down the street. The plaza, a hexagonal space in the centre of the downtown area, was one of those places where you'd run into everyone you knew if you stayed long enough. Berry's stood on one of the corners of the hexagon, right across the main street from the Great Park. It never closed, and this early in the morning they were able to find a table easily.

They ordered Berry's famous griddlecakes and talked. Purity worked in the Office of Land Registration, across the street from the Municipal Theatre, which was how she'd come to volunteer. Like Keen, she had recently graduated from the Clerks' College. They had even been in a couple of classes together, though their paths hadn't crossed.

From an initial awkwardness, they relaxed gradually as they discovered things they had in common. When they parted, they arranged to meet that night outside the theatre when they came to help distribute meals to the gnomes billeted there. Keen dared to hope that their tentative connection could become something more.

Nearby, a newsstand held the morning newspapers. In massive type, the Koskander proclaimed "GNOME DAY!".

Beside it, the Gulfport Herald, mouthpiece of the Tried and True party, thundered, "REALMGOLD RISKS ECONOMY".

###

A year later, Keen and Purity were back in the Plaza, walking arm-in-arm. Several bands played gnome music with its strong beat and simple, repetitive melodies. Between the raised beds holding trees and flowers, the plaza was thick with gnomes of all ages, many in family groups. Smaller numbers of humans, mostly wearing gnome hats, mingled among them. Keen and Purity both wore their treasured hats, and the small hat-shaped beads on the lanyards of their silver gryphons that marked them as having participated in the original Gnome Day.

"The Office of Gnome Affairs asked me to transfer over to them," said Keen.

"What did you tell them?"

"I said I would."

"That's great! But... your father?"

Keen sighed. "He gave me the usual lecture, straight out of a Human Purity pamphlet. Gnomes are degenerate inferiors who take jobs from humans, the Realmgold should never have interfered, things were perfect the way they used to be. He's been so bitter and shut off since Mother died."

Purity squeezed his arm in sympathy. They had talked often about how much Keen missed his mother's calm presence since her death, just before he entered the College.

The warm sunlight flashed off a pair of the brass-framed sungoggles that the gnomes used to cover their sensitive eyes, drawing their attention to a brown-haired female gnome in a magnificently-embroidered shirt. She rushed up and greeted Keen in Pektal, the human language, her accent thick, but understandable.

"Stitch!" Keen exclaimed, continuing in Dwarvish, "How are you?"

"Beautifully well!" said Stitch, embracing him. He felt the softness of her breasts just above his hip, to his discomfort. She turned to Purity. "I remember you. You helped me that night too," she said, and embraced her as well.

They walked and talked, mostly in Dwarvish, which Purity was starting to learn. Stitch worked in a human-owned factory now, doing fine embroidery such as that on her shirt. "I'm in the Realmgold's scheme, I own my needles and frames, and buy the materials from the owner, then sell him the finished goods," she said proudly. "All at a fair price, regulated by the law. Soon I will have saved enough to get my own shop."

Purity jumped up and down in excitement. "That's wonderful, Stitch! I'm so happy for you."

"Excuse me," said a voice behind them. They turned. "Mister Keen! It is you!" cried a gnome, and Keen recognised Wheel. They pressed palms in greeting, Wheel's three fingers pushing against Keen's four. "I am so pleased to see you!" he said in good Pektal. Keen grinned, remembering the confused gnome who hadn’t ever met a human a year before.

"Wheel, how are you? What are you doing now?"

"I am studying to be a Gryphon Clerk," said the young gnome.

"Ohhh," sighed Stitch quietly at Keen's elbow. Thanks to Gnome Day, Gryphon Clerks held even higher status among gnomes than among humans.

"Congratulations, Wheel! This is my... close friend Purity, and do you know Stitch?"

"No, we haven't met," said Wheel, his tone conveying how glad he was that this was about to be rectified. Stitch smiled shyly, and they walked on, in the direction of the food tents that had been pitched in the park.

They studiously ignored the small cluster of protestors, waving their signs and chanting “Gnomes out! Gnomes out!” near the park entrance under the watchful gaze of the Realmgold's guards. The word “purity” was conspicuous by its absence, the Realmgolds having banned the Human Purity movement, but the Reversionists, in Keen’s view, were just Human Purity by another name.

###

On the eighth anniversary of Gnome Day, Keen, Purity, Wheel and Stitch strolled arm-in-arm through the cheerful crowds. Around them two children, both four years old, played a giggling game of tag that somehow, without discussion between them, transformed into skipping hand-in-hand in front of their parents, swinging their hands back and forth in unison.

The little human girl, Keen and Purity’s Amity, glanced back at them. "Come on!" she called. "Yes, come on!" echoed Victorious, the gnome boy, named by Wheel and Stitch after Realmgold Victory. They dodged between two older gnomes, round a rosebush and into the juice tent. Their parents laughed and followed.

"That girl of yours," said Wheel. He wore his own silver gryphon now, with the medium white stripe in his black bead that designated a Senior Clerk, a match for the one round Keen's neck. They were colleagues in the Office of Gnome Affairs.

"Can't think where she gets it," replied Keen, darting a glance across at Purity, who shoved him playfully, almost into Stitch. Stitch laughed, nudged Keen back again affectionately and smiled up at him. "I'm thirsty," she said. "Come on."

In the tent they found Stitch's parents, cheerfully attempting to quieten the excited children. They already had charge of two-year-old Freedom, Wheel and Stitch's little girl. Juice all round did a little to settle them down.

When thirsts were quenched, Keen leaned out of the tent and glanced at the public clock on the front of Realmgold's House. "We'd better get moving," he said. "Are you all right with these rascals?"

"Of course," said Stitch's mother Loom. "Go and have your ceremony. We'll be there in the front row."

She kissed each of them, and her oathmate Grease pumped their hands.

"You be good for Gramma Loom and Grampy Grease," said Stitch to the children, and Amity said solemnly, "Yes, Auntie," then gave her most mischievous smile and danced away, towing Victorious.

The couples walked unhurriedly but directly, again arm-in-arm four abreast, across the honey-coloured stone paving the plaza in the direction of Realmgold's House. Despite the name, the Realmgold didn't live there. It was just another government building like several others near the plaza, but built on a larger scale. Creepers spilled down the pale-grey stone face from garden balconies, softening the square, dwarf-built facade.

For this festival day, the streets had been closed off and a large platform erected right in front of Realmgold's House. It was draped with white cloth, and several gnomes, mostly Wheel and Keen's colleagues from Gnome Affairs, bustled around it with clipboards shouting at each other and anyone else who came near.

Several competing bands were again playing in different parts of the plaza, including one near the platform, which only increased the shouting. Lathe, Wheel and Keen's immediate supervisor, bustled up. "There you are," he said, "I was beginning to worry. You're..."

"Exactly on time," said Wheel, glancing up at the big clock.

"Yes, well, go round the back, someone will brief you." He hurried off, shouting at a younger gnome.

Stitch smiled up at Keen again, with that green-eyed gaze that still took him by surprise flashing even through the sungoggles, and he squeezed her arm briefly.

A harried gnome greeted the four of them by name and launched into his briefing.

"You'll stand on the Realmgold's left once she arrives," he said. "Now, the committee spent hours debating how you should be placed, so listen carefully. Keen, you'll be closest to the Realmgold because you have the greatest seniority as a Gryphon Clerk, and then Wheel, then Purity, then Stitch on the outside."

"Purity has been a clerk longer than me," Wheel pointed out.

"Oh, for holy's sake, don't start the whole debate again," said the gnome. "You alternate, all right? Now, when the Realmgold... oh, here she is."

Victory, founder of the Gryphon Clerks and emancipator of the gnomes, swept out of the main doors of Realmgold's House and stopped, surrounded by a small entourage of guards. She was a compact, middle-aged woman, simply dressed as always in the white prototype of the "Victory suits" that everyone nearby, except the guards, wore. (Stitch's was embroidered rather more than average.) She wore a white gnome hat and her own silver gryphon, with the white bead of the Chief Clerk.

The briefing gnome introduced the four. "Delighted to meet you," said the Realmgold, nodding to them. They bowed.

Someone must have tipped off the band, because it started playing the Realmgold's ceremonial march. "Oh, my cue," she said. "Excuse me." She turned and walked at a stately pace up the stairs at the back of the podium, flanked by four of her guards, while the others dispersed to form a perimeter. The gnome gestured the two couples up the stairs after her.

There were no seats, so they stood, a little nervously, to the left of the raised lectern as the ceremonial march finished and the crowd burst into applause. Many gnomes and a scattering of humans were hurrying from all parts of the plaza and the nearby park to hear the Realmgold's now-traditional Gnome Day speech. In the front row, as promised, between several newswriters both gnome and human, stood Loom and Grease with the children. Despite Loom's best efforts, little Amity was yelling, "Daddy, Daddy, hi! Look at us, Daddy! Mama, look at us! Uncle Wheel, Auntie Stitch!" and, as always, Victorious was following her lead. Keen gave a little wave from beside his hip, which only redoubled the noise. Finally, Stitch, who had always been able to get Amity to behave when nobody else, even Purity, could manage it, raised a finger to her lips in a "hush!" gesture, just as the crowd quieted down to listen to the speech. Amity's eyes went big as her Auntie Stitch apparently made everyone be quiet, and, for a miracle, stopped making a noise herself. Keen was hard put to it to keep a straight face.

"Greetings," said the Realmgold, in her perfect, unaccented Dwarvish. A minor bit of energy magic amplified her voice across the plaza.

"Greetings, and welcome to the eighth celebration of Gnome Day. I will not give a long speech today, because I believe actions are to words as the sea to the river.

"These four beside me, these four citizens, are friends. They met for the first time eight years ago today. And now, they are neighbours, their delightful children" (she smiled down at Amity and Victorious, and Amity's eyes went even bigger and she put her hand to her mouth) "play together, and they share meals every day. Two of them, the two men, work together side by side in our own Office of Gnome Affairs."

She paused while the crowd applauded and cheered.

"This," she said, "is what I hoped for on that first Gnome Day, that gnomes and humans would come together as equals and live in partnership and friendship, working towards common goals. But there is more. For today, these citizens, these friends, have come before you to bind themselves together with oaths of friendship, and to my delight they have allowed me to officiate."

Even more applause, and broad smiles from the crowd. Amity waved her arms above her head and cheered too, although Keen knew that she didn't really understand what was going on. Her auntie and uncle were part of the family already, as far as she was concerned. Which was, he supposed, the point, and the reason that they were undertaking this public act of mindmagic. When he and Purity had oathbound, it hadn’t created their relationship, it had recognised it, and deepened their bond to the point that, after eight years, they could sense each other’s emotions, and even each other’s location in their tiny apartment.

His reflections had to wait, then, as the Realmgold descended from her podium and took the celebrant's place between the two men on her right and the two women on her left.

At her whispered instruction, each pair turned, clasped hands with his or her counterpart, and looked into each other's eyes (insofar as the humans could see the gnomes’ eyes through the sungoggles). The most common oathbinding ceremony was, of course, between couples, and the less common ceremonies for friends, long-time mentor and student or, occasionally, master and servant had taken on some of the conventions from the couples' ceremony over the years.

Amplified by Victory's spell, their words rang out across the silent crowd.

"Wheel," said Keen, as each of the others said the name of his or her counterpart, "I am your friend. I swear to you abiding friendship and devotion, to be linked always by oath and binding, one heart until death."

"By my authority, so let it be," said the Realmgold, and Keen felt the binding take hold. He didn’t have a strong magesense, but as the Realmgold’s mindmagic linked them, he felt his pride and affection redoubled as it joined to Wheel’s.

Among the cheering and the clapping, he vaguely heard someone calling his oathmate's name: "Purity! Purity!" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something, perhaps a bird, diving from the direction of the park.

Then he realised what was happening as the guards raised their weapons and began shooting, the dull pop of the pressure rifles almost lost in the roar of the suddenly panicked crowd. It wasn't his wife's name, but the slogan of the banned Human Purity movement, that he had heard. And the figure plunging directly for them, shooting, was a man with some kind of flight pack holding him aloft.

"Down!" he, Wheel and the guard sergeant yelled almost at the same moment. Wheel turned and clasped Purity, and together they shielded the Realmgold, who seemed, as always, perfectly calm.

Keen, linked to Purity and, freshly, to Wheel, felt the bullets hit, three of them. He felt his oathmate and his oathfriend jerk with the impact. Felt Purity's life leave her. Felt Wheel's pain, and then felt him lose consciousness. Screamed, and lost consciousness himself.

###

Twelve years later, and Keen still missed them every day, like a step on a stair in the dark, like a missing tooth probed with his tongue. While the jagged grief had eased to a dull ache, it was still there, stretched across his stomach like his pale-grey suit.

"Are you coming to Gnome Day?" he called up the stairs to his sixteen-year-old daughter.

"No!" she shouted back.

He climbed the stairs of their tall, narrow apartment to the upper level.

"Why not?" he asked outside her open bedroom door. "We always go."

"I don't want to go this time."

"Amity, what's wrong?"

"It's stupid Victorious."

"What's he done?"

"He's being all stupid because he doesn't like Perty."

Keen wasn't exactly in favour of his daughter's latest boyfriend, Pertinent Grocer, either, but as the father of a sixteen-year-old girl this was more or less expected of him. He had no idea why Victorious, Wheel and Stitch’s son and his daughter’s lifetime friend, would object to him.

"What doesn't he like about him?"

"I don't know, Dad! He didn't give me his reasons," Amity said in the long-suffering tone of one who is out of patience with the stupidity of everyone in the world.

"So you don't want to go because you'll see Victorious? Isn't that a little..."

He hesitated, not sure whether the word "immature" would have the desired effect of bringing her to her senses, or whether it would simply confirm her in her bad mood.

Amity sighed the sigh of the massively put-upon.

"All right," she said. "I know how much it means to you. I'll go. For Mother and Uncle Wheel."

"Thank you," he said. "Are you ready?"

"Daad!" Amity managed to make one word stand in for a speech, in which she lamented the ignorance and idiocy of fathers and, indeed, males in general, especially regarding how one must look before one could set foot outside the house, and how much complicated effort it took to achieve this. He sighed.

"All right. But don't be too long."

Two chapters of his book later, he called up, "Are you going to be much longer?"

"No."

Another chapter. "Are you nearly ready?"

"Just go without me, I'll see you there."

He briefly considered it, but knew better. He climbed the stairs.

The bedroom was a riot of clothing, much of it made or embroidered by Stitch. "You look ready to me," he said.

"Oh, Dad. I'm not happy with this shirt..."

"You look beautiful. Come on."

He used his I-mean-it tone, and she slouched after him, rather reducing the effect of her efforts to look attractive. But once they were outside, walking, she straightened up a little.

"Why do we have to go so early, anyway?"

"People expect to see me there."

"People are stupid," she muttered, but kept up with his brisk pace.

Keen, now in his forties, was starting to grey and wrinkle. His suit these days was much lighter grey (and cut somewhat larger in the waist), and the bead above his gryphon on its lanyard was mostly white with wide bands of black top and bottom. He was a Leading Clerk, still working in Gnome Affairs, one of the most senior humans still there. Most of the others had transferred out to other departments as gnomes gained enough experience to fill their places, but he was liked and respected and nobody pushed him to leave. His formal lanyard held a good sixteen beads marking long service, commendations, successful projects and special events.

On the front of his coat, over his heart, he wore two red ribbons, tied with the knots denoting the loss of a spouse and a friend. He felt his heart contract underneath it as he passed Berry’s, where he and Purity had first talked.

At the plaza, they passed through one of the temporary security arches that had been set up on all the approaches. Nearby, an elderly man cursed as the arch prevented him from walking through, tugging at his wallet. "Sorry, sir," said a nearby city guard, pointing to a notice, "all magical spaces to be emptied and shown to us before passing in."

"That's silly," muttered Amity.

"I know, dear, but you of all people should understand why they do it. We don't want weapons coming in."

Amity didn't dignify that with a response.

She distanced herself a little, physically and certainly mentally, as serious men and women came up to Keen and pressed his hand sympathetically. They glanced at her, but she radiated a strong "keep away" and they sensibly did. Keen wondered again whether she would train as a mindmage.

They made their way slowly over to the raised garden across the street from the front of Realmgold's House. It was permanently planted in various red-flowered plants and held two of the reddish-leaved trees known as mourning trees, each with a simple plaque. They didn't trouble to read the plaques, just bowed their heads for a few moments in remembrance, looped red threads around the trees and tied the appropriate knots. As always, Keen wondered how much Amity recalled from that day. He had never dared ask her.

Stitch came up as they were leaving the area and hugged him, then his daughter, who would put up with this from Auntie Stitch. None of them said anything. There was no particular need. Her sober son and daughter went with her to pay their respects by the trees, tying the threads on. A line began to form behind them, now that the family's threads were up, of people who wanted to add threads of their own. By the end of the day, Keen knew by experience, the trees would look as if they were wearing red socks.

He was pleased to see a few young dwarves, their beards as yet unbraided, waiting in the line.

Elsewhere on the grounds, bands were playing, people were eating, talking and laughing, celebrating the day, but this place midway along one side of the hexagon was set aside to remember their sacrifices. There were other plaques along the side of the garden, too, each one simply a name on a rectangle of bronze, people who had died so that others could have this day.

Keen didn't cry here any more, but every gleam of sunlight off a gnome’s sungoggles, every note of music, still reminded him of his loss.

He collected Amity, who was talking to Freedom and studiously ignoring Victorious, and they went to get a drink before the Realmgold's speech.

###

"You want to what?" asked Keen.

"Dad, we thought you'd be pleased." Amity, newly graduated from the Clerks' College and with her shiny silver gryphon and black bead gleaming round her neck, looked disturbingly like her mother sometimes, and this was one of those times. It didn't help that Victorious, sitting beside her and self-consciously clutching her hand, was the image of his father Wheel. It gave Keen cold tingles on the back of his neck.

"You can't -- Amity, you can't."

"Why can't we? We're adults, we're both people. Loving one another is what people do. And when you love somebody you get oathbound." She narrowed her eyes and glared at him, so exactly like her mother that he quailed back for a moment.

Keen put his head in his hands. "Amity, you... I hardly have to remind you about..." He stopped, unable to finish his sentence.

"About Mother and Uncle Wheel? No, you don't have to remind us. We were there." Amity's voice turned dark and hard. "And if we let that stop us then that lunatic won."

"Amity, it's not that simple. I don't want you hurt. I don't want you..."

"Father, it's an unsafe world," she said, with a 22-year-old's confidence in her own immortality. "We're not going to cower in fear and not acknowledge our love for each other in public because some people might want to hurt us for it."

"But then... but what about... I mean, you can't have children together. Can you?"

"No, the lifethreads don't match," said Victorious, in the baritone voice which always startled Keen still, because he remembered it as small and piping. He wore the engraved bone bracelet of a lifemage, still gleaming and new. "But that doesn't mean we can't bring up children. There are plenty of children, gnomes and humans, who don't have parents."

"And anyway, Vic can always take a gnome wife as well," said Amity, and her father looked up, startled.

"Father! I can't believe you thought for a moment that I meant that!" she scolded. "You've known Vic all his life. He's a new-style gnome. He doesn't believe in polygamy. And anyway, he wouldn't do that to me."

Victorious put his arm around her and squeezed her, and they kissed, a little more than affectionately.

"I... I'm sorry, Amity, I... just need some time to get used to this."

"Father! What is wrong with you? You've worked for the betterment of gnomes every day since before I was born. You're the highest-ranked human in the Office of Gnome Affairs. Your best friend was a gnome, and he died because he wanted to affirm how important that friendship was to him. Vic is his son, and you know him as well as you know me. He's a kind, generous, intelligent, wonderful person! Why would you not want us to be oathbound?" Her eyes added hurt to the fury that had been in them since his first reaction.

"Yes, Uncle Keen, what's wrong?" said Victorious, consternation in his large eyes. "Have I done anything to make you think that I'm not fit for your daughter?"

"No, Victorious, never. It's not that. It's just you're both so young, and..."

"Oh, Father, we're no younger than you and Mother were, or Uncle Wheel and Auntie Stitch, for that matter. There's something else wrong. What is it?"

"I don't know, sweetheart. I just... I just need some time, that's all."

"Well, I just want you to know that I am disgusted, and furious! Come on, Vic."

She stormed out, towing Victorious. As they passed through the doorway he glanced back, perplexity and hurt still pinching his symmetrical features.

Keen sat for a long time, his thoughts going round and round, unable to reach a conclusion or explain his behaviour even to himself. He was vaguely aware that it had got dark, and rather cold, but it wasn't until someone worked the small spell to bring the lights up that he started out of his miserable trance.

"Have you eaten?" said Stitch's quiet alto, speaking Dwarvish. She was self-conscious about her accent in Pektal, even still.

"No," he replied. "I've been thinking." His own Dwarvish had got much better over the years. He hardly put vowels in it at all now, and he could aspirate a consonant with the best of them.

"Come over," she said. "I have soup, and a fire. You can tell me what conclusions you've reached."

"None, I'm afraid. The kids talked to you?" he said, as he heaved himself from his chair and followed her out of the room.

"Yes, they've just gone. I thought I should check on you."

"Thanks for doing that. I... you know I..." He struggled with an apology, but couldn’t get it out.

"I know. I don't know why you feel the way you do, but I'm sure it's for a good reason."

"I'm not."

"Well," she said, opening the door of her apartment, "sit down, anyway, and I'll get the soup." They were still neighbours, still living in the same adjacent apartments they had first bought with their oathmates, though both lived alone now and it was probably time to move. Freedom had followed her mother into the shop, and lived in the flat above it "to have her independence", and the older two had been living in student housing.

Stitch's lights were redder than Keen's, tuned for gnome eyes, and combined with the fire they were calming. The mushroom soup was hot and flavourful, a favourite recipe that Keen had eaten many times, and which never failed to comfort him -- because, he realised, it meant "Stitch" to him. They ate in companionable silence, as they often did. They had been eating meals in one another's homes since before they were both widowed.

Keen put down the soup bowl, a deep green piece that he had given Stitch and that she kept for him, and sighed contentedly. He leaned back in his chair, put his head back, closed his eyes, and began to talk without knowing what he was going to say.

It was a ritual he used to work things out when he was puzzled by a problem at work. He called it, to himself, "explaining things to Stitch".

As always, she listened without comment. He heard her pick up a piece of embroidery from beside her chair, the movement so familiar to him that he would know the sound anywhere.

"When we first met," he said, "I saw you all in a moment. Your head was at an angle, and you looked up and I saw your green eyes, and it startled me, because I'd never really looked at a gnome woman before. I mean, I'd go into a shop and there'd be a gnome behind the counter, and probably she didn't speak much Pektal, and if I spoke Dwarvish she wouldn't say anything, and she'd take my money and I'd go away. And she was just a person in a shop. But in that moment I saw into your eyes, and you were real. And actually you were beautiful, and I remember that I tripped, because I couldn't believe how beautiful you were, and Purity caught me. And I looked into her eyes, and they were brown, like mine, and she smiled at me, and later on we went and ate breakfast together and talked. And when I saw you next we were together, in love, and you met Wheel and that was all right.

"And then you were my friend's oathmate and my oathmate's friend, and you were Stitch, beautiful calm shy Stitch who could calm wild Amity down and make serious Wheel laugh helplessly and who made beautiful embroidery and good soup.

"And then we lost them. And I'd lost so much, you see, and it made me afraid, small and afraid, and I held on to what I had, to my little Amity, and you were always there but I couldn't talk about what mattered to us most. But you made soup and were calm and listened, and helped Victorious with his courage and his confidence and with the bad dreams he had at night. And you taught Freedom to embroider, and you ran your shop.

"And my mother was dead, and my father never understood why I would choose to work with gnomes, so I couldn't talk to them, and Purity's people never liked me much and especially after she died, because they thought it was my fault, I think. And I think I agreed with them. And your parents were always more like grandparents to Amity than any of her actual grandparents. Gramma Loom and Grampy Grease.

"And I found that if I worked hard and didn't think too much, and took care of Amity, and kept life much the same from day to day, that I could mostly bear it except sometimes in the middle of the night when I would wake up and miss Purity next to me, and know she wasn't in the apartment for half a heartbeat before I remembered why." Tears were falling down his cheeks by now, pushing past his closed eyelids to drip off his jaw onto his shirt collar, which Stitch had made for him.

"And today Amity and Victorious came to me, so happy, and they can be oathbound. They want to be oathbound. And some people won't like it, but a lot will, and it's right, it's the right thing for them because they've known each other all their lives and they're best friends, and now that I think about it they've probably been lovers for years, haven't they? Or maybe not. I don't know any more. But it's right, it's a good thing, and the reason I wasn't happy for them, the reason I wasn't happy right away, is..." and he opened his eyes, and looked at her, and saw her, beautiful and strange at once now, and he saw her answer in her eyes even before she said, "It's all right, Keen. We've lost a lot of years, but it's all right now. It's all right, my love."

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If you enjoyed that story, there are 11 more in the collection Good Neighbours and Other Stories.

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