Justified

“What’s up, Piksel?”

Rooka had her big spear again today. She had it slung over her shoulder like it didn’t weigh as much as she did and that was something Piksel always liked seeing, because it was cool, and he liked that Rooka was cool.

But today he didn’t really pay attention, a little bit because he had most of his face buried in a blanket and a little bit because he had been getting upset again. Now he was upset and Rooka was going to know. “Nothing,” he mumbled, twisting the blanket in his claws. “Nothing is up, Rooka.”

Rooka cocked one brow, and slipped into the room. Everything she did was graceful and pretty. Piksel decided he would not look at her. “You’re not a good liar, Piks.”

“I’m not lying.”

“Are too.” The bed squeaked as she sat down beside him. “Sisters can tell. Sure you don’t wanna talk about it?”

Piksel felt his face twist all bad, into the ugly upset face nobody ever liked to see. He didn’t think even Rooka liked seeing it, so he pulled the blanket over his whole face instead. “They killed Vanilla today.”

Rooka didn’t say anything. He wanted Rooka to say something. He peeked over the edge of the blanket at her, and was met with a sad expression. That, at least, made him feel a little better. “Aww, Vanilla was a sweetie. But she’d stopped giving milk, you know?”

Piksel had real sharp claws. He kept them sharp because mother had always said it was the proper artificer thing to do, even though he couldn’t be a proper artificer after all. Now he dug them deep into the blankets he clutched. “I didn’t want her to die! She didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not her fault she can’t make milk. She got old.”

“Yes, but if she isn’t helping the clan, we can’t justify feeding her,” Rooka said gently. “It’s the way of things. Now she’ll help to feed us.”

“What’s ‘justify’?”

“It’s like … having a reason to do something.”

“Oh.”

She reached out and squeezed his shoulder, and eventually he let the blanket fall from his face. “Say,” Rooka said, picking her spear up from where it leaned by the bed. “Let’s go for a walk. Okay?”


It was late and it was autumn and it was cold. Rooka pushed her way through overgrown underbrush with a spring in her step, humming a tune. Piksel trailed several steps behind, well out of range, as he’d been taught. Only when the trees broke into a footpath was he able to walk next to his sister.

“Rooka,” Piksel said as the footpath wound around to follow the bend of a little creek, “how do I get Ketler to give me my job back?”

Rooka didn’t say anything and at first Piksel thought maybe he hadn’t said it loud enough, because once Rooka had a monster scream by her face and it had hurt her ears so she didn’t hear so good now. But she looked at him from the side of her eyes and she was frowning and that all made Piksel worried. “I don’t know if you can. He was pretty upset about the barrels, wasn’t he?”

“It was an accident though! I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to knock them over. I picked them back up.”

“I know you did, but all the wine went into the river.” She chewed her lip. “I think you’ll have to get a new job.”

It was quiet for a long time after that, except for the creek. Piksel was thinking very hard. “I’m not good at jobs,” he said after a while. “Um. I don’t … Maybe I could watch the sheep. Maybe I could be a shepherd.”

“I don’t think so, Piks, I think that’s maybe too dangerous.”

“Could I help Zeelim and the other guards?”

“Well …”

“Or Drask? I could butcher things … I mean, not like Vanilla … maybe not the ducks … Rooka—”

Rooka had stopped in the path. “What if you—”

“Do you think if I tried really hard and practiced every day Mom would start teaching me to be an artificer again?”

Rooka’s face already looked pained and when Piksel said that it looked worse. She picked at her spear hilt. “I think,” she said, slowly, reluctantly, “I think Mom is probably too busy with her other apprentice.”

Silence, then, for a while. Until in a quiet, sad voice: “Rooka?”

“Yes, Piks?”

“Am I going to end up like Vanilla?”

When Rooka turned to look at him, Piksel was staring at his muddy feet. He didn’t want to look at his sister. He didn’t want her to say yes.

But then Rooka put down her spear and took him by the shoulders, and then put her arms all the way around him in a great big hug. “You won’t end up like Vanilla,” she said firmly.

“But I can’t do anything. I can’t help the clan. And you said—”

“I said that because Vanilla is a cow,” Rooka said, catching one of his hands and squeezing it. “She was an animal. You’re a person, Piksel, and that means we’ll take care of you even if you can’t do anything. No matter what.”

Piksel hated to cry. He seemed to do it more than ever, these days. So it was now that he stood there sniffling, his eyes burning, holding Rooka’s hand. “Promise?” he said at last.

Rooka smiled. “Promise, Piks.”