|A Year and Change|
Adrienne was not spared music practice, but she found Michiru was a much better teacher than her father, and a much more patient one. Freed from overcorrection, she found she could play well, and even enjoy it.
It was not Haruka she found most difficult to warm to, after all. The tall, androgynous woman did not intrude on Adrienne unduly, but she did not neglect her. In fact, on a day when her father had been absent for more than a week, and Haruka taught her the rudiments of baseball, a game that was very popular in America and Japan, she found herself thinking that Haruka in some ways was a better father than her own.
The babies were easy to love, because they were just babies, after all.
No, the one who was hardest for Adrienne to adjust to was the first person she had met in her father's new household: Nereid. Nereid spoke little--except, paradoxically, to Anne Marie. She could babble with the maid for hours, mostly in Basque, which she spoke much better than Adrienne. Anne Marie had found a new pet. But when Nereid spoke to Adrienne, it was usually to correct her--and nearly always at the most embarrassing moment.
One night, after the little pest had gone to bed, Adrienne told Titania what she thought of Nereid. Titania said, "Nereid does not make friends easily. She misses our friends in America. And she misses her other sisters."
"Other sisters?" exclaimed Adrienne. "But her father is not our father."
Titania said, "Otousan is not the only one who has children by more than one mother," said Titania. "Maman chose Chiba-san to be Nereid's father, when she wanted to have a baby of her own. Later he married Auntie Usagi. They have three daughters, Kimi, Ikuko, and Juliette. But Chiba-san is also the father of Ishtar, whose mother is Auntie Minako, and the father of Lily, whose mother is Auntie Ginger." Titania laughed briefly. "Neri-chan is always doing this thing she does to you. She does it to me. She does not do it to people she does not care about."
"Perhaps," said Adrienne doubtfully.
Titania said, "I think Neri-chan will be better after we visit our friends and her sisters. Maman will be performing in San Francisco soon. We will all go there."
"Before papa gets back?" asked Adrienne.
Titania said, "Maybe . . . Neri-chan heard okasan and maman talking. They don't want to tell us yet because they are not sure papa will come with us. He does not really like to perform with maman. Maman says it is because he does not like to perform with anyone as good or better than he is."
"That is papa . . . Nereid hears a lot of things."
"Yes . . . that is one of her special talents."
Adrienne remembered San Francisco from several visits, and even recollected the Paramount, Oakland's grand old cinema turned theater and concert hall. She had no foreknowledge of a small place named "Kensington," which was where Titania's old home was. Her home was a hideous mansion. Adrienne recognized it from pictures, but found it was larger than she expected. "Your Auntie Usagi owns this?"
"Oh, no," said Titania. "It belongs to Auntie Minako's stepfather."
They had been picked up at the airport by a woman who seemed a giant. "Auntie Mako" was actually slightly shorter than Haruka but more solidly built. She had scooped up luggage as if it were empty, not even breaking her conversation with Adrienne's stepmothers. They spoke Japanese, so Adrienne could follow only the few words Titania had managed to teach her in odd moments, and not the gist of it at all. But it had been serious, whatever it was.
Their father had not come with them; he was supposed to come in another week, after he finished a tour through Latin America. But they had brought Anne Marie--and they had not told papa about that, according to Nereid. This was the first secret Nereid had chosen to reveal to Adrienne directly. She did not doubt that it was an important one; Anne Marie had never traveled to a performance before. "Maman said she wanted to bring Anne Marie because the babies were used to having her around, but Haruka-papa said it is also because she wants to show up your papa's stinginess," Nereid had told her.
It was a miserable day out. The amazon driver explained, "We will go in the back way." The back entrance was off a short side street. The back of the house was cluttered, but practical-looking, especially the broad awning to park under. It was a stormy day, with tree-swaying gusts, and brief showers of wind-driven drops that hit the van like so much small gravel. There was also a long ramp, obviously added long after the home was first built, because it broke the long covered veranda. Somehow it was more honest and more inviting than the front. It was also inhabited. People were waiting, including two people in wheelchairs.
Nereid was off like a shot as soon as the door opened. She bounded up the ramp and made her way to the wheelchairs and the embraces of those in them and behind them. Titania stayed to help with their luggage and, probably, to act as a guide to Adrienne. Others came down to meet Haruka and Michiru. They were more restrained, exchanging bows and hand-holds. But this was cut short as the wind rose and the rain returned, managing to hit them under the awning from one side, then the other. The first priority was to get the babies inside; the luggage followed in a scramble. Adrienne made a final dash to the van's final parking space along with Titania to retrieve Nereid's last, forgotten item—her child's violin.
"Should we tell otousan she forgot it?" asked Titania.
"No, but we should tell Nereid we will . . . Let's wait and see if the rain stops for a minute."
The van was already beginning to cool off. The mansion had no carriage house; simply a steel framework to hold a roof. There were traces of something, though. "Was there something here before? Where those bricks are?"
Titania said, "I guess so. The little man told me something about it once, but I forgot exactly what he said."
"The little man?" asked Adrienne.
Titania said, "The man who owns this all. Auntie Minako's stepfather. He is a little person. You know, very short?"
"I didn't see a little person," said Adrienne.
Titania said, "I don't think he will be here while we stay. He travels a lot. He has a place in Switzerland that is bigger than this. Well, the house is a little smaller, but there is much more land."
The wind rose even higher, and there was a sharp crack! Adrienne started, closing her eyes in brief but heartfelt terror.
"Oh, look there!" said Titania.
A huge branch had fallen, blocking the pavement up to the big car shelter.
Another crack! sounded, but different. It was lightning; everything had looked like it was caught in a photoflash.
Presently the amazon woman came out to the van, moved the huge branch out of the way, and drove them back to the awning, so they could make a short dash into the house.
Adrienne had to credit Titania with being a good guide, but there was simply too much to take in, too much that Titania knew as a matter of course and did not think to explain. It was easy to know who Usagi was; she was the blond woman in the wheelchair who seemed to have final say. The girl who used a wheelchair was her daughter, Kimi, who had been badly injured some time ago, but who was recovering, slowly. That one Adrienne knew quite a lot about, from Titania, but she was reluctant to approach Kimi, because Nereid was usually around her, and also her older sister, Sarah (or "Chibi-Usa," as Titania sometimes called her. Sarah was not that much bigger than Adrienne, but she was two years older, and something about her made Adrienne think she was "tough," more than bluff. Sarah was extremely protective of her younger sister. There was another reason this made Adrienne uneasy . . .
As for the others, Adrienne found there were just too many of them. There were many babies; the amazon, Makoto, had twins, including a boy named "Zeus," and there were three other sets of twins. There was a housekeeper, a small woman from the Philippines, also with a baby, but she was related to the owner in some way Adrienne didn't understand and didn't want to ask about, yet. She knew that "Auntie Naru" had nine children, including twin infants and an older pair of twin daughters, but she could not really get the names right, or even pick out all of them except for Pleione, the oldest, who looked like a taller version of her father, and Maia, the same age as herself, and the one who most perfectly resembled her mother, at least in appearance. Ishtar looked almost like a twin of Kimi, but of course she was not injured, and she was often with her smaller half-siblings, who had dark skins from their father, who was dead . . . Ishtar was also with Kimi a lot.
It was really all too much. Adrienne was actually glad when it was time for bed. Titania asked if she could share a dormer room with Adrienne.
The dormers were something like a youth hostel: plain, but adequate. There were electric heaters instead of the vents elsewhere, and they did not seem adequate in the stormy night. But combined with a generous allocation of quilts, their room was as at least as habitable as the chilly one she had had in Paris. In fact, it felt rather special, with the wind and rain and even some more lightning and thunder outside, and the smell of well-aged wood inside.
However, the sanitary arrangements in the loft were a bit rudimentary, and entirely too cold. So, when nature called in the wee hours, Adrienne made the longer journey to the floor below. Once the necessities were taken care of, Adrienne found herself drawn to the walkway around the top of the huge front room. This level, just below the dormers in the loft, had the main bedrooms, a half-dozen in front and another in back. The adults who lived here, and some of the older children, and the babies, slept in these rooms. She had forgotten where Haruka and Michiru were staying, and she walked around, trying to figure out where. While her hearing was not like Nereid's, it was sharp, and she thought she could recognize Haruka and Michiru's sleeping sounds by now. It was silly to do what she was doing, and Adrienne knew it, but she did it anyway.
A small girl came out of one of the other bathrooms when Adrienne was wondering whether she had found the right room. She padded past Adrienne, saying "Hi," in a small voice—probably more than half asleep, in Adrienne's judgement. Renee had been like that; she could get up, do her business, and come back to bed, not really waking up . . . Adrienne found herself wiping away a tear as she watched the little girl walked the distance of two more rooms, and then entered one.
Adrienne caught herself, and decided to go back to bed. But as she walked past the room the little girl had vanished into, she noticed something . . . the door was closed. Closed. Not halfway open, not slightly ajar, but closed. Adrienne pressed against the door, and it moved back no more than a millimeter before the latch stopped it. No, it was closed.
<How had she done that?> All the doors she had found in the house had sturdy, noisy latches. No matter how careful the little girl had been, she should have made a noise that Adrienne could hear. And she had been half-asleep.
Adrienne was looking at that puzzling door when a voice startled her.
"What's on your mind?"
Adrienne turned, and found herself looking into the eyes of Sarah, one of the ones she had been avoiding. "Nothing," she said. But Adrienne felt something strange, something she had never felt before. She would not have noticed it, if it were not such a quiet moment. And a startling thought came to her: <Is she doing this to me?>
After a moment, Sarah asked, "Are you lost?"
"Perhaps." Somehow, she did not want to tell a lie. In a sense, she was lost, now, unsure of where she stood. "I saw a little girl go in this door. But she made no noise. How did she do that?"
"That was Lily," said Sarah. "She just does it . . . Don't worry about it. Are you all right?"
Adrienne said, "I think so. I should go back to Titania."
Sarah said, "Sounds like a good idea . . . It was nice of you to stay with her, when she asked."
Adrienne said, "Well . . . I think it was her being nice to me. I am used to her. You, you are really all strangers to me." Adrienne began to find her feet with this one, somehow. "I don't really know why I am here now. Why are you? Do you know?"
Sarah said, "I had a bad dream. I have them, sometimes. And you? . . . I watched you with Lily. Does she remind you of any of your sisters?"
"Yes . . . I suppose," said Adrienne. <How did she guess that?>
Sarah paused a moment. "My mother is awake, too. Do you want to come downstairs? I can make some chocolate for us all."
Adrienne said, "Thank you. Ahhh . . . O.K? Is that how you would say?"
"Your English is better than my French," said Sarah.
Adrienne said, "Thank you . . . let me check on Titania first?"
Titania was usually an early riser, but nearly always a sound sleeper, and Adrienne knew she would be unlikely to stir for awhile, once she saw her. She paused to put an extra quilt over her, and then went down to face the mysteries of "Auntie Usagi," and her intimidating daughter Sarah.
The kitchen had a long, sturdy table that could serve for food preparation or for consumption of same. It was also a safe place to put a baby carrier—or five of them. Besides the woman in the wheelchair, their was "Auntie Naru" and, no doubt, her youngest, one of whom was at her breast, and a delicately built younger woman who was feeding an older baby from a bottle. This one she recognized as Hotaru, who had been brought up by Haruka and Michiru and an older friend Adrienne had never met. She also remembered Hotaru was married to Usagi's brother, and there was some problem there, something even Titania did not want to share with Adrienne.
Mrs. Chiba's babies were both asleep. She was working on yet another quilt, talking with the others in Japanese as Adrienne came into the kitchen. But then Mrs. Chiba said, in English, "You missed Tenou-san and Keiou-san, Descartes-san. They were here with your sisters a little while ago."
Adrienne said, "Oh . . . I don't know. The time is so different here. I don't know when the babies will be up."
Mrs. Umino said wearily, "Babies are so much work. Don't you start having them too soon."
"You should talk," said Mrs. Chiba.
"I am only twelve, Mrs. Umino," said Adrienne.
"You are old enough to worry about what boys want to do with you," said Hotaru.
"Boys are all idiots," said Adrienne, with conviction.
"So are girls," said Hotaru, with more.
Sarah brought over a cup of chocolate. "From a mix," she apologized. Then she exchanged some words with her mother—<not Japanese; it sounded a little like Basque. >
"What did you say?" asked Adrienne.
Sarah and her mother glanced at one another. Then Sarah said, "I told her there is nothing in the chocolate but chocolate."
"What?" asked Adrienne.
Mrs. Chiba continued her sewing, but began to speak. "Do you feel anything now?"
Adrienne found she did feel something. "Yes . . . I don't know what it is."
"Ne-e-eh. My daughter is right, I am afraid." Mrs. Chiba put her sewing down, and turned to Adrienne. "Descartes-san, will you promise to keep something secret?"
"I don't know. Why?"
Mrs. Chiba said, "To keep a small child out of trouble."
Adrienne said, "I suppose . . . what exactly is this secret? About the feeling? Are you giving me the feeling?"
Mrs. Chiba said, "Yes . . . that is something else I wish you would keep to yourself."
Adrienne said, "Maybe . . . I don't understand."
Mrs. Chiba said, "I know how you think, Adrienne. Tomorrow, after you have slept, you will figure it out."
"Figure what out?" asked Adrienne.
Mrs. Chiba said, "How Lily-chan got through that door without making noise."
Adrienne asked, "There is a secret to it?"
Mrs. Chiba said, "Yes. She did not make noise because she did not open the door. She just went through it."
"Went through it?" Suddenly, Adrienne remembered what she had rationalized away—<the little girl had gone through the door, without opening it.>
"Yes . . . Lily-chan has magic, and she is too young to really control it well. Especially when she is almost asleep." Mrs. Chiba picked up her sewing again, and began adding another piece to the quilt. "That is why Haruka does not let you be alone with Hecate. It is not because she does not trust you with her baby. It is because Hecate has magic already. Haruka wants to keep it secret from you. But pig-headed Auntie Usagi knows that she cannot do it much longer . . ."
Within a few more minutes, Adrienne Descartes was made party to secrets nations had not been able to discover.
The next day was difficult. Adrienne's stepmothers were clearly upset at Mrs. Chiba's initiative, Michiru particularly so. Nevertheless, Michiru explained at length the true nature of herself and her life-partner, and about some of the difficulties and dangers she could expect to face. Haruka was more comforting—but left Adrienne with the most disturbing thought of all.
"Now that it is done, I think odango atama was right. She has always had a way of doing exactly the right thing when it really needs to be done . . . Adrienne, if we cannot be here, someday it could be up to you to take care of Hecate and Amphitrite. I do not think your father could every really understand what it is to be a senshi, if he ever has to learn. But you can. Odango would not have told you if she was not sure you could understand."
Next: Roland Descartes
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