Leah muffled her scream into the blankets as she doubled over the bedstead. Fierce pangs burned her thighs, and she grunted with the effort to push.
“Head’s out.” Joneis kneaded Leah’s lower back with the heel of her hand. “Another push.”
Leah wanted to curse the old woman for her calm voice and measured words. Instead, she shoved her fist into her mouth and gave the last push she could muster.
She gasped at the burn, and the baby slid out. Still bent over the bed, she looked down.
Joneis cradled Leah’s son in her hands. Blood and phlegm covered him, matting and darkening his thatch of hair. Leah reached down with shaking hands and took him. She held him to her chest as Joneis helped her into the bed. Seconds passed as she stared at the wet, red-faced creature in her arms. His fists and legs flailed and he squalled. Tears poured down Leah’s face. “My boy. Oh, gods, I love him.”
Joneis produced a cloth and wiped the baby’s face and forehead. Cleaner, Leah could see that his hair would be bright red. Just like his father’s. “I should name you after your Daddy, little one.”
A bowl clattered, and Joneis grunted. “So you’ve decided to keep him? What about your visions?”
Fresh hatred surged in Leah’s chest against the old woman, for bringing up painful realities. “If I wanted to put stock in those visions, I would have killed him while he was still in me.” She clutched the baby closer as fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.
Joneis sighed, and dragged a little stool forward to sit at the side of Leah’s bed. “You told me what you saw. Visions that he’d be arrested, imprisoned, executed.”
“I also had a vision he would be stillborn.” She snapped. “Visions shift like changing tides.” She moved back to lean against the wall, and took a deep breath, inhaling the stagnant air of her tiny room. When Master Saichin had given her a job, he’d been kind enough to offer her the back room to stay. Enough space for a bed, wash basin and a little stove, for cooking and warmth. “Open the window, would you.”
Joenis sighed, and did as Leah asked, shoving open the casement window over the bed. She sat again, and laid her hand on the baby’s forehead. “He will have magic. It hasn’t emerged yet, but when it does he will not be safe.”
“Safer with me than anyone else.”
Joneis shrugged. “Perhaps. But magic can emerge in surprising ways. The rumors about you are not kind. Those stories will tarnish him as well.”
The sticky blood between Leah’s legs began to itch. She drew up her feet, and tucked them under herself. The baby wriggled, legs kicking.
Joneis leaned forward to adjust him in Leah’s arms. “Here. Tilt him up so he can suckle.” She turned the baby’s head toward Leah’s breast.
He latched quickly to a nipple.
Leah’s heart broke. A vision struck so fast she gasped. Her baby, lifeless, caught among branches in the river.
She clenched her teeth to hold back a scream as the vision released her.
Joneis studied her, eyes narrowed. “Another one.”
Leah jerked her head away to avoid the woman’s piercing gaze. “No. It was nothing.” She shuddered. He felt so warm and alive in her arms. She couldn’t stand the thought of seeing him dead.
Joneis shifted on her stool. “You know, they passed the same rumors about me and my husband as they do about you.” She studied the baby, eyes bright. “I wonder, if I’d had such visions, whether I would have been brave enough to have a child.”
“But you did.” Leah brushed a finger down the baby’s cheek. He stopped suckling, and his nose crinkled in confusion. “And Eta is just fine.”
“Eta has no magic.” Joneis shook her head. “I fear her baby will, but I can do nothing about that.”
“She will give birth soon?” Leah hoped changing the subject would steer Joneis from her course.
Joneis nodded, finally smiling. “Any day now.”
“I thank you for being here with me, when you ought to be with her.” Leah cradled the baby closer and sighed. “Maybe our children will be friends.”
“Leah, think. You can’t afford a baby, you can’t keep your job with a baby. Beyond that, knowing the boy has magic, it’s cruel and dangerous to raise him here. Have you forgotten all the reasons you hid your condition.”
“I cannot go back to Nietza.” Leah winced at her volume and took a deep breath to calm her temper. “What do you suggest I do?”
Joneis closed her eyes, as if gathering herself. “Leave him in the forest.”
No ready answer came to Leah. She could only stare at the old woman, mouth agape. Seconds passed, and Joneis said nothing else, only waited, expression bland, as if she’d commented on the weather.
Leah finally found her voice. “Abandon him to be raised by strangers. The Lin La are practically savages.”
Joneis snorted. “You haven’t lived in Yois nearly long enough to have developed that attitude. They treasure children. Whoever finds him would happily adopt him into their pack. He would be safe.”
Leah looked away. The baby wriggled and came unlatched from her nipple. He began to wail, and exhaustion swept over Leah. She was already tired of the night, and it wasn’t nearly over. “I want to see him grow up.”
“Then keep him. And see him marked as you are.” She stood. “And when his magic sparks, which is will, you’d better hope it won’t happen where everyone sees it. Because that will be a bad day for both of you.” She winced, as if wounded by her own harsh words. “I’ll try to come by in the morning.”
Leah licked her lips and tasted the salt of her tears. Joneis would go back to her daughter and son-in-law, and welcome her grandchild. A child that would be safe. Born to Yois parents, into an established family, he wouldn’t be scrutinized his entire life. “What if you took him?” Leah almost choked on the words, and on impulse, clutched the baby a little closer to her chest.
Joneis turned to stare at her. “What?”
“Take him to Eta and Melech. Say you found him, abandoned. Would they take him in?”
Joneis stared into a middle distance and took a deep breath. “Eta wouldn’t hesitate, and I’m certain her husband would agree.” She shook her head. “But that solves only the immediate problem. What about later?”
“If and when his magic sparks I can bind him. You’ll be able to arrange for me to get close. He’ll be safe behind a good Yois name.” Her jaw trembled. “And I can watch him grow up.”
Joneis turned and walked back to the bed. “Indeed. And do you think that’s worth the price he might one day pay?”
Leah bowed her head over her son, and pressed her forehead to his belly. He smelled like blood, and sweat, and like her. She wanted to keep him, her last connection to Seav. But she couldn’t.
“Please. I can’t lose him completely.”
Joneis picked up the blood stained blankets and spread them on the bed. Leah laid her boy down, brushed a hand over his forehead and kissed him. She watched the old woman wrap the blankets around him. Joneis hefted the bundle, and Leah’s throat caught. She would still see him, but he would never be hers. She would never hold him again, sing to him, or feed him.
Joneis rested a hand on Leah’s shoulder. “Get some rest, child. Tomorrow morning, I’ll tell Master Saichin you’re still feeling ill.” She left, taking Leah’s entire life with her.
Leah rose on shaking legs, and walked unsteadily to the water basin. She cleaned the blood and filth from her body, and finished, she collapsed on her bed. And sobbed tears of relief. Her boy was safe. For now, at least. Safe but still close.
She cringed at her own selfishness. He’d have been safer if she’d left him to the Drayow, or Gods forbid, carried him to the Nietza border and given him to travelers to take into Nietza.
The empire and Leah’s own parents had chewed her up and spit her out. She would never allow them to take a bite at her again, nor her son. She curled on her side on the cot, and cried herself to sleep as she done so many other nights.
Just two days later, Joneis announced to the village that Eta had given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Leah sought the new mother out, and felt a pang at the sight of her boy, nestled in Eta’s arms, alongside a tow-headed little wisp of a girl.
“They’re beautiful, Eta.” Leah whispered, so her voice wouldn’t catch.
Eta smiled. “I didn’t imagine how much I’d love them.” She gazed tenderly down at both little ones, her smile not wavering as she looked from one to the other.
Leah’s heart lurched to realize that while her boy would be near, he would never again be hers. She bid Eta good day, and fled back to her little room behind Saichin’s shop. And she vowed she would change her situation. And one day, her son would know who she was.