Lorwyn borrows an umbrella from the shop and loans me her coat. It’s far too big for me, but, in her words, “It’s not as if you could look more bedraggled.” I’m too grateful for the additional warmth to care what image I present, and Lorwyn isn’t concerned that my appearance will adversely affect her ability to arrange housing for me.
The place Lorwyn takes me is farther away than I’d like, given the rain and the state of my slippers, but not, ultimately, too far of a walk from the more urban part of Sayorsen and the tea shop.
I can hardly afford to be choosy, but I’m surprised when we stop at the side gate of a park.
“A… park?” I ask, certain I’ve misunderstood something.
“No,” Lorwyn says, peering intently into the darkness, scanning for something. “Grounds.”
She bends down and scoops up a handful of rocks as I squint until I make out a looming mansion.
A mansion with a crest, no less. That means it’s not a wealthy merchant’s, but a noble’s.
There can’t be more than a dozen nobles with homes in Sayorsen proper, and Lorwyn has brought me directly to one of their estate houses. This is possibly the last place I should be—a noble is more likely to recognize me than anyone.
And Lorwyn proceeds to throw a rock at one of the mansion’s nearby windows.
“What are you doing?” I hiss.
Lorwyn throws another rock, and then another. “Getting someone’s attention,” she says.
With an effort, I hold my ground and do not hide behind her. “I hope,” I say, “you didn’t bring me here to get me arrested taunting the nobility?”
She grins, a cut through the darkness. “I can’t deny taunting the nobility has its charms, but no. Getting arrested isn’t on the agenda for tonight.”
I fight the urge to throttle her—she enjoys making me work for answers entirely too much—and finally notice her foot is tapping in a steady rhythm.
No sooner have I realized that the sound of the rocks thumping against the mansion are falling in a looping rhythm than a side door opens from the mansion.
Whomever Lorwyn has been summoning has answered.
“A friend?” I ask.
Lorwyn’s face is inscrutable. “Something like that.”
Not a friend, and someone who lives at a noble mansion besides. Perhaps all the nobles of this family are at court this season, but my heart is racing again. “Then I hope you’re certain this person can be trusted not to turn me into the police?”
Lorwyn frowns at me. “Why should she?”
I want to scream, but she may not have understood what I meant when I said ‘local authorities’. Frantically I whisper, “I should not have dealings with nobility. In the interest of hiding.”
Her gaze holds mine searchingly for a moment. “I’ll keep that in mind,” Lorwyn says, and I know I’ve inadvertently rekindled her interest in my story. “But you’ll be fine with this one, I promise.”
Then it’s a noble she’s called after all.
I don’t have time to ask how she can be so sure because the noblewoman in question arrives at the gate.
There’s so little light I can’t make out much of her features, just the shape of her body moving silently in the night. Lithe and rangy. But she wears a rich cloak and her hair falls in a long, thick braid, so I don’t doubt she’s Istal nobility.
“The guards will be back this way any minute,” the noblewoman says without preamble. “You shouldn’t be here, Lorwyn.”
“I could enter House Taresim’s grounds without telling you or anyone noticing any time I want, as you know perfectly well,” Lorwyn says, her voice cutting.
The noblewoman’s braid flips in irritation. “So you want something. What is it? And who’s this?”
“I’m calling in the favor you owe me,” Lorwyn says softly, and somehow it feels as if the world has gone still with her words.
The noblewoman certainly has.
“Guards incoming,” Lorwyn says, and the noblewoman whirls. “We shouldn’t be seen lurking at the gate. Come around to your grandma’s summer cottage.”
Without waiting for a response, Lorwyn grabs me by the elbow and pulls me away with her.
“We’re going around to a secret gate on one of the other sides,” Lorwyn tells me. “Risteri will let us in and show you where you’ll be staying.”
Under duress. “You’re blackmailing her.”
“She blackmailed me,” Lorwyn says, her voice hard.
I can imagine with what.
Still. I’m not sure how I’d thought this was going to work, but profiting off old bitterness leaves me more than a little uncomfortable.
I slow. Lorwyn tugs at my arm, and unthinking I yank it back.
We both stop.
“Look, it’s not what you’re thinking,” Lorwyn says, sounding irritable again. “We’re not friends anymore, but whatever else you can say of Risteri, she’ll keep her word. She promised me a favor of comparable magnitude in exchange for what she needed from me, and I’m holding her to it. That’s all. Okay?”
I read anger and anxiety in her face, which I do not equate with “okay.” “And I’m worth it?” I ask. “A sizable favor from a local noble house, the leverage you have over someone who’s tried to take advantage of you before?”
“You have spent time with nobles, haven’t you?” Lorwyn asks. Apparently rhetorically as she continues, “It’s not exactly easy for someone like me to cash in favors like this one. The only things I might need are too small or big to qualify. This favor’s been sitting around unused for half my life now. I can’t think what else I’m going to do with it, so someone might as well benefit. Are you coming or not?”
An answer to my second question, but not my first.
But I start walking again.
Half Lorwyn’s life means she’s known this noblewoman—Risteri—since they were both young. Childhood friends.
I wonder how it came to pass that a noble daughter met a refugee witch, but then again, I had just wandered into her tea shop tonight.
And I think of my sister Saiyana, who arguably knows me better than anyone. I think of how over time our impressions of each other, our goals and priorities, can become unbearably tangled, twisted from a place of understanding.
And I decide not to ask.
As the minutes pass, Lorwyn’s shoulders relax a touch, realizing I’m not going to press any further into this wound.
We trudge up a path through some trees, and I see why Lorwyn called it a secret gate. Even in the daylight, if I didn’t already know there was a gate here, I wouldn’t see it.
“Let me do the talking,” Lorwyn says. “Trust me.”
“Says the woman who fed me beetle scale tea,” I say mildly.
“And ultimately you got a drinkable cup of tea, didn’t you?” Lorwyn responds unapologetically.
But not with irritation, and I’m relieved as we approach Risteri at the gate.
She doesn’t open it, standing there with crossed arms.
“I know you, Lorwyn, but how do I know I can trust this person?”
“Seriously?” Lorwyn’s voice drips scorn. “Because if I had any interest in causing you or your family trouble I’ve had years to do so in a way you’d never be able to connect back to me. Come on, Risteri, surely you haven’t gotten hit on the head that many times in the last decade.”
“You’d be surprised,” Risteri mutters, but she does open the gate.
I follow, nonplussed at what kind of situations a noble daughter can get into that would get her hit on the head more than once.
A stone path winds through a copse of trees to a small cottage. I see why Lorwyn wanted to talk here: there are so many trees no regular guard patrol will see us coming or going.
The inside of the cottage isn’t much warmer than outside, but it’s not wet. Risteri claps a magelight system on, and a fire blooms in the corner.
Risteri blocks the doorway, making a face as she gets her first good look at my slippers. “What were you thinking, wearing shoes like that in fall in Sayorsen?”
It’s so like what Lorwyn said to me earlier I want to laugh, but I don’t think Lorwyn will appreciate it. “If nothing else comes of tonight, I can at least count on this shoe experience to be memorable enough to not bear repeating,” I say.
“Take them off,” Lorwyn instructs. “The coat too. You’re shaking with cold again.”
I didn’t notice until she mentions it, and now that I have I shake so hard Lorwyn and Risteri have to help me into a chair by the fire. Suppressing discomfort has been necessary as a princess, but it occurs to me that it might not be entirely healthy.
Lorwyn forced me to notice what I was feeling. It occurs to me now too, belatedly, to reconsider what kind of reaction my youngest sister Karisa had wanted when she forced me to feel the cold of my hands and feet this morning before entering the Grand Shrine.
This morning. Spirits, that had only been this morning.
“Is she in shock?” Risteri asks.
“She’s been half frozen most of the night, as far as I can tell,” Lorwyn answers. “But she’s thinking clearly enough.”
I focus. I’m huddled in a large chair in front of the fireplace, but Lorwyn and Risteri are hovering around me.
I finally notice it’s not so much out of concern for my wellbeing, or at least not entirely, as the fact that there aren’t other chairs. There’s a small kitchen, with a single stool at a bar. It’s quaint, clearly designed for only one person, and not at all where I’d expect to find the grandmother of a noble house residing. Maybe referring to it as her ‘grandma’s cottage’ is a joke of some kind?
“Bathroom’s behind you,” Lorwyn says, jerking her head in the direction around the other side. I crane my neck to see the wall blocking it and the beginning of a staircase. “The attic is basically a closet with a bed.”
I blink. “Is the closet or bed particularly large?”
“Not particularly,” Risteri says.
“The closet,” Lorwyn says at the same time.
They glance at each other and then away again.
It finally occurs to me to take a look at Risteri now that she’s taken her cloak off. My assessment outside was accurate but incomplete: she’s dressed in silken pajama pants tucked into very sturdy, well-worn boots. More than that, her arms are well muscled: not huge, but defined, far more so than I’d expect of a noblewoman outside the armed forces. She’s about our age, maybe twenty; no wrinkles in her face, but her skin tone is dark brown, like someone who spends considerable time in the sun. Not typical for a noblewoman at all—but then again, most noblewomen our age live at court. Clearly, she’s not typical.
“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?” Risteri asks.
“I told you, I’m calling in my favor,” Lorwyn says. “On your honor.”
Risteri’s braid swishes again. “Yes, I heard that part, but you haven’t said what you want.”
“This is Miyara,” Lorwyn says, gesturing at me, where I watch quietly. “She needs a place to stay, and I happen to know this cottage is unoccupied.”
She means for me to stay on a noble estate? Is she mad?
“Why can’t she stay with you?” Risteri asks, and I see that the second the words are out of her mouth she regrets them.
“And stay where?” Lorwyn asks. “You know how many siblings I have. We already don’t fit. If I knew of another place for someone to stay, don’t you think I’d be living there?”
“I could find you both a place, instead,” Risteri says.
Lorwyn shakes her head. “No. First, she needs a place now. And that wouldn’t be an equal exchange.”
“What about this is equal?” Risteri asks. “I’m not exactly on great terms with my father, and you think I’m just going to explain away someone taking over my grandmother’s cottage?”
Lorwyn doesn’t even move, but her voice cracks like a whip. “I’m asking you to help someone hide, and to do so in the shadow of your noble family home.”
Risteri reels back like Lorwyn has struck her in truth. There’s a meaning there I don’t understand, presumably related to their past exchange.
“Since you will have to deal with your family,” Lorwyn says, biting every word, “the deal is that Miyara will only stay until spring, when your grandmother arrives. After that, she’ll be out of your hair, and your debt to me will be clear. You can’t tell me that isn’t a comparable exchange.”
Risteri crosses her arms, scowling at me. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the notion that Lorwyn is forcing a noble daughter to go against the head of her house at all, let alone that Risteri isn’t dismissing the very idea out of hand. Whatever Lorwyn did for her, it must have been serious.
And Risteri is going to have to make it stick for six months—apparently even Lorwyn doesn’t think Risteri can stand against the house matriarch after that.
“It’s not like you to be so compassionate,” Risteri says—to Lorwyn, apparently, though she’s looking at me when she says it. “What are you getting out of this deal? You don’t do anything without getting something in return.”
Lorwyn’s expression has twisted, and I know Risteri has pushed too hard against an old wound. Before Lorwyn can answer, I blurt, “I think there’s a lot of beetle tea in my future.”
Both of them look at me.
Then Risteri’s eyes narrow and she looks incredulously at Lorwyn. “She doesn’t mean sleekbeetles, does she?”
Lorwyn rolls her eyes. “It wasn’t my idea.”
“You’re spending your time making sleekbeetle tea,” Risteri echoes. “I don’t believe this. Lorwyn, what are you doing at that place? You could leave—”
“No,” Lorwyn says, “I can’t.”
They stare at each other some more, the weight of old arguments hanging between them, thickening the air.
I’m abruptly too tired to be patient with the drama not quite unfolding in front of me. It’s clearly so important to them, and just as clearly not going to be resolved tonight, and at this rate Lorwyn is going to push Risteri to throw us both out and then my feet really will freeze.
“I don’t suppose,” I say, “I might be able to find a kettle in the kitchen for some tea? Perhaps a, ah, more conventional cup.”
Lorwyn doesn’t laugh as I’d hoped, but she does break their staring match to look at me. “Risteri can show you where everything is. I’ll be back to pick you up tomorrow morning.”
She’s walking away, grabbing her coat off the hook by the door, as Risteri says, “I still haven’t agreed to this.”
Lorwyn replies, “You agreed to this a decade ago,” and the door shuts behind her.
Leaving me alone with a noblewoman who certainly does not want me here.
On the other hand, Lorwyn’s continued presence was likely to make our interaction even more awkward.
We regard each other in silence for a long moment.
“I didn’t realize the sleekbeetles were common knowledge,” I say.
Risteri’s eyebrows shoot up. “Lorwyn didn’t tell you?”
“I suspect the list of things Lorwyn hasn’t told me is quite long.”
A smile ghosts across her face. “There is that. But she will always tell you what she thinks of you.” She shakes her head. “I lead tours of the Cataclysm for work.”
I blink rapidly, trying to process the wealth of information in that single statement.
First and foremost, there is the fact that she works. For money. For a noble, performing labor at all, let alone being seen to, is practically obscene.
And she does it of her own volition.
No matter her reasons, that would all be shocking enough, but her choice of vocation is another matter entirely.
What we now call The Cataclysm once comprised the bulk of Istalam’s empire, as well as a number of countries that used to lie on the other side of our borders.
We’re not certain how many continue to exist. We don’t know how far the Cataclysm stretches.
Fifty years ago, magic exploded somewhere to the east. No one agrees on what caused it, though many people fear it was witchcraft gone rogue.
In the end, the magical detonation left a huge swath of land uninhabitable. The Cataclysm destabilized reality; within its borders, magic is wild. Not only do the rules that govern our physical world not function there, there are no rules except that everything is changeable. Up becomes down, solid land morphs into fiery miasma, fruit evaporates or becomes angry creatures with claws once eaten, tsunamis form in places with no water, and there is no way to navigate to north. Anyone caught within the Cataclysm before the border had stopped expanding died.
The scale of loss is incalculable.
Lorwyn’s people, the Gaellani, were the biggest group that managed to flee the devastating effects, rushing west ahead of the spreading magical effects as fast as they could. Most others weren’t so lucky.
It’s possible to cross the border into the Cataclysm. On the edges, the effects aren’t so pronounced. Daring tourists go to see wild magical novelties—shifting glimpses into other landscapes, beasts that have never existed, vines that are conscious and hungry, weather that travels in pockets that burst without warning—in a relatively controlled setting. But the deeper in you go, the harder it is to find your way back. Teams of trekkers regularly fail to return, but those that do bring back with them magical treasures that can make them fortunes.
If Risteri leads tours, she’s ventured into the Cataclysm so often she knows the layout of its rim well enough to be a guide. She also has enough experience in the Cataclysm that she’s trusted to deal with magical anomalies and random attacks that may crop up, trusted to defend the hapless tourists and bring them back across the border safely. Only on the rim, of course, but that she can at all implies she’s spent considerable time deeper inside the Cataclysm, too. But even as a tour guide, she risks her life every time, and by the sound of it, every day.
It is common wisdom that only the very brave or the very stupid venture into the Cataclysm.
Of course this is the kind of noble daughter a witch made friends with as a child.
“I think I see why your relationship with your father might be strained,” I say.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Risteri says. “Come on, let me show you around.”
She leads me around the cottage, pointing out spell anchors and how to activate them.
“The magetech isn’t slick by modern standards,” she says, “but you won’t have trouble with the oven or anything.”
As if I would know what to do with it. It’s a marvel that she does.
“The cottage was built for a favored steward generations ago,” Risteri explains as we head up the stairs, “but more recently it was used for the occasional visitor as a guest studio. More privacy and functionality than an inn, and it’s convenient on the grounds. But Grandmother inexplicably decided she liked it and would rather have privacy than stay in the main house all the time, so now it’s reserved for her use when she stays with us for spring and summer.”
Lorwyn wasn’t kidding about the second floor. Most of the space is devoted to clothing storage—chests of drawers and empty racks. It’s not large as noble closets go, but it’s adequate for a season’s wardrobe. If Lorwyn shared a small space with her family, I can imagine how her standard for size would be different than Risteri’s.
But my attention is drawn to the bed. It’s not large at all, but it is piled high with blankets and plush pillows and never has anything looked more inviting in my life.
“Here, sit down,” Risteri says.
I ignore her, afraid that if I sit down I’ll never stand up again, and watch as she goes to one of the chests of drawers.
“Grandmother always leaves some clothes here, in case her luggage gets delayed on the way from the capital,” Risteri explains, pulling out some cloth. “It won’t fit you super well, but it has to be dryer than what you’re wearing.”
I take it hesitantly. It’s soft, almost fluffy, and I can feel a lump inside that I dearly hope is socks.
Socks. I have never appreciated them as well as I do today.
“Are you sure this is okay?” I ask.
She shrugs. “Sure. It’s not like my grandmother ever needs to know.”
Risteri must be the strangest noble girl in the world.
Then again, although she’s clearly rebellious, of the two of us she hasn’t actually abandoned her family.
“That’s not what I meant,” I say. “You know nothing about me.”
She nods slowly. “That’s true. But I do know Lorwyn, and it’s not like her to go out of her way for people. So either she knows enough about you to make you trustworthy, or she’s learning compassion. Unlike her, I do care about the wellbeing of people I’ve never met, so that’s enough for me.”
Lorwyn as uncaring—the characterization doesn’t sound wrong, exactly, but certainly incomplete. Whatever happened between these two as children ran deep.
“Lorwyn told me,” I say, “that no matter what, I could trust you to keep your word.”
Risteri goes rigid, and then she takes a deep breath and changes the subject. “We can sort out more of the details of your stay tomorrow. Do you need anything else tonight?”
I start to say no automatically, but pause, remembering how I keep forgetting that I’m cold, and think.
“I don’t suppose,” I ask, “there might be any food the main kitchen could spare? It’s been some time since I’ve eaten.”
Risteri frowns. “How long?”
I’d started fasting the night before the ceremony, so— “A day, about.”
Risteri winces. “Wait here.”
I succumb to the temptation of socks before realizing she’s only going downstairs.
“This is all I have on me,” she says when she returns, handing me a sack containing nuts and a hunk of cheese.
“You keep snacks in your cloak?” I ask.
Risteri shrugs. “Sometimes you don’t notice a magic pocket on the horizon until you’re caught in it. Best to be prepared.”
That sounds like wisdom. I suspect in the future I will never find myself without snacks, trustworthy tea leaves, and a sturdy pair of boots.
“I’ll see what I can find at the house,” Risteri says. “Munch on this in the meantime and start getting ready for bed. You look like you’re about to keel over.”
I’m having trouble keeping my eyes open, the exhaustion creeping up on me almost as suddenly as it did on the train. I manage to finish the snacks and pulling on the nightclothes, but I’m asleep before she returns.
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Continue to Chapter 4!