The visitors sweep into the yard like whorls of dust in the air, barely touching the ground. Fluffy and floating, all frills of grey cloth and dandelion-puff pompoms. Zae imagines them gliding through the sky like that, floating town to town like the dirigible that goes past every few months when the fields start to turn yellow.
One of them sweeps towards the tree at the centre of the garden. Looks up, almost at Zae.
Zae pushes aside one of the big round leaves, and peeks down. The tree sways a little, up here. She’s closer to the crystal-blue bowl of the sky than the red ground.
The visitor moves away. Says something to the other cloud-person with her hands.
Zae leans out for a closer look. The branch she’s sitting on squeaks, a little. It’s been doing that more and more lately. Even with Mum-with-a-T watering it every day, the big tree doesn’t make as many leaves as it used to.
She reaches her face out further, and down, sticking one leg off the other side of the branch. The tree creaks loudly. The other visitor looks up, and Zae sees straight into her bright orange eyes.
She sits back quickly on the branch and hides behind a leaf.
On the verandah, her sister curtsies to one of the clouds. Will Zae have to curtsey?
Here’s her big sister Naïs, who climbs trees with her, turned into sharp, strict adult movements. And then Mum-with-an-O is here, and she even bows to the strangers. Then, mercifully, she shuffles them inside.
Zae climbs down a few branches, and watches the ants as they trace their busy lines between the lumps and bumps of the tree trunk.
“Zae!” Mum-with-an-O’s voice out the window. “Zae, come and say hello to the visitors.”
“Goodbye, ants.” Zae slips down a couple of branches. Gets a good grip on the last one, then swings under it. She steels herself for the house, and drops to the ground.
Naïs is in the hall when she comes in. “Here, Zae, take your shoes off. Dust off your jeans. And you’ve got dirt on your cheek. Hold still —” The face washer is damp and cold. Zae squirms out of her sister’s reach as soon as she can.
“That’ll do.” Naïs hangs the cloth on a handy door handle. “Here, they’re in the dining room.”
The cloud-people are arranged in mid-air in the big, empty room, perched in tall seats around the table. Usually, this room only has piles of books, and pens and paper. Today, when Zae clambers onto a chair, she gapes at warm flat-bread, and red-and-white bowls: nut-paste and Mum-with-a-T’s best pickles.
“Zaien, say hello to Oenorcor and Easennon Ahiari.”
Mum-with-an-O beams at the two clouds. But they are focussed on Zae, all their four eyes staring out of two too-elven faces, nestled in piles and piles of cloud-stuff.
Zae’s tongue freezes. She reaches for a piece of bread instead.
Mum clicks her tongue sharply, and Zae retracts her hand. She looks back at the faces for the shortest second, and squeaks something like a greeting.
One of them smiles with bright orange eyes, then turns to the other and talks with her hands. The other — Easennon? — pulls her green hair back to peer at Zae. “Are you ready for the test, Zaien?”
The first one reaches down to the seat beside her. Puts a box on the table.
Zae slips off her chair and underneath, where there are no weird faces to do tests on her.
She ignores her mother’s voice. She wants no part of whatever testing they’re doing up there.
“Zaien!” Mum-with-an-O speaks louder.
Zae twists around, looking for a way out. Nope. She’s surrounded by legs: wooden, people-legs and cloud legs. No way out.
Naïs ducks below the tabletop. “Zae, it’s all right. They’re only people in fancy clothes.”
Zae squeezes under a chair and curls up, peering at the floor. If only she could fit between the boards, like the ants do.
“Zae, just come up and have a look. Please.” Her sister’s voice is softer. “They just have some pretty pictures to show us.”
She looks at Naïs’ outstretched hand, and chews at her lip.
“Here, I’ll lift you up.”
She relents, and lets her sister help her back onto the chair.
The bread is pushed off to the side now, and instead there are little bits of paper all over the table. Not like Mum-with-a-T’s boring papers. These ones have pictures: tiny, colourful paintings. They almost glow.
Heedless of the faces, Zae picks one up. A scene of orange clouds, over deep-green water.
“Good choice, Zaien”
She looks up, heart in her mouth, but the green-haired lady is smiling. She holds up another card. “Do you like this one?”
The new card is even prettier: a big, wide purple flower, filling the whole picture. Zae grins. Green-hair reaches across and places it on the table in front of her.
The orange-eyed visitor in turn offers her two more cards: a hot sun, and a deep, blue river.
Orange-eyes sets both cards on the table. “Choose one you like.” Her voice is different: more careful than the other visitor’s.
Zae brushes the sun with her fingertips, and the visitor slides it toward her. Then she sweeps an arm across the table. All the other cards disappear into the folds of her cloud-robe.
All except one: a picture of three sparkly stars in the green-haired visitor’s hand.
“Zaien, can you try this?” The lady holds it up facing Mum-with-an-O, with a big wave of her arm. Says something Zae can’t understand.
The card leaps out of her hand and unfolds into pretty, shimmering sparkles.
It’s gone. Not fallen onto the table, gone.
Zae clutches her own cards tight, and shakes her head.
“Zae, try it please. For the nice Easennon Ahiari.”
“No.” Zae turns away from Mum-with-an-O, and puts the cards in her pocket. “They’re too nice to go pop like that.”
Her mother makes an angry noise. “Zaien!”
Zae stares hard at one of Mum-with-a-T’s books, left behind in the corner of the room. Mum-with-an-O clicks her tongue again. Zae doesn’t turn around.
The room sinks into silence. The visitors are doing something with the cards, but Zae keeps her eyes away for as long as she can.
By the time she looks back, the orange-eyed cloud-person is holding out two more cards, newer and brighter than the rest: a baby cat; and a glowing horse, galloping in the sun.
Zae reaches for the horse. The lady pulls it away. Repeats the magic words the other visitor used, and starts the arm movement.
Zae pulls the flower card from her pocket and holds it out to the visitor. Pleads with her eyes.
The lady says the words again, and starts to lift the card higher. Stops. Nods to Zae. “Will you?”
Zae looks at the flower, then the horse. Its so-bright sun. She chews her lip. Thinks, slowly, then nods. The lady repeats the words, slowly so Zae can hear them.
She mumbles a rough imitation. Holds up her arm. Nothing happens.
Mum-with-an-O breathes out suddenly, like she’s tried to hold her breath between two signs on the road.
“Try a bit louder.” The orange-eyed lady demonstrates the words again, making them sound different. Clearer. Does the gesture with no card in her hand.
Zae copies again, and lifts up the flower card in the same, big movement. It lights up. She nearly drops it. Does let go, even, but the card hangs in the air, blooming into a wide purple flower that levitates above the table for a few seconds. Then it drops down, unharmed.
Zae grabs it back.
“Zae! You did it!” Suddenly her sister hugs her. “You’re a mage. You’re going to be an Ahiari, Zae!”
Zae looks at the cloud-ladies, and shivers. “A big fluffy thing?”
“Zaien!” Mum’s voice is sharp, but the visitors are laughing.
“It’s fine.” The green-haired one smiles. “Not if you don’t want to, Zaien. But one day you can visit us at the tower and learn more magic.” Her eyes smile behind her green fringe. “Do you want to see a really good trick?”
Zae thinks. “Will it make my cards go pop?”
A smile. “The cards are safe. They’re yours now.”
She considers further. “Will it be pretty?”
Another smile. Zae claps her hands, and nods.
“Very well. Then come outside.”
Zae and Mum-with-an-O and Naïs follow the visitors onto the verandah. The sky has turned as grey as their cloud-robes. Zae climbs down the steps and inspects it suspiciously.
“Look!” The other cloud-lady holds her hands over her head and makes a slow twisty movement.
A drop of cool water lands on Zae’s nose. More drops come dripping and pittering around her, splashing rings in the dirt.
“Rain!” Naïs dashes out from the verandah and leans back, to let the water fall on her face. A bit later, Mum-with-an-O walks down to join them. Water runs on her face too, but Zae can see she’s happy, really.