A knock sounds at my door, and I throw it open without any preamble. “Come right—”
Risteri takes one step toward me, and then a shadow flashes behind her.
She throws the bundle in her arms at me, whirling and throwing a punch—
That misses, because it’s Entero who’s dropped from my roof right behind her.
But at her attack, he responds in kind.
I’ve barely managed to catch the sack Risteri cast my way and somehow they’re battling on my doorstep.
“Stop!” I cry as they land together on the ground, locked in a grapple.
“Miyara, get inside!” they both yell back at me.
And that’s enough for them to pause and stare at each other.
I run over and put a hand on each of their shoulders. “Entero, this is my friend Risteri. She’s the one who arranged for me to be able to stay here.”
“Where did he come from?” Risteri demands, shoving away from him back to her feet.
“He’s guarding me,” I say as she stares at me incredulously.
“Which means,” he growls at me, “no one goes into your house before my say-so.”
Ah. As a princess I had a team of guards—no one could have gotten close enough to my chambers to knock without their approval, and guards inside would have opened the door to greet them. Entero couldn’t do the work of so many without my help.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Risteri and Lorwyn are always welcome here.”
And Deniel. But surely he won’t want to come to my house.
“You know Lorwyn?” Risteri asks him.
Entero scowls. “To my displeasure.”
Her eyes narrow. “I don’t like your tone.”
“Are you going to tell me you’re friends with her?”
Risteri’s expression shutters, and she doesn’t answer, turning her back on him. “I got your message,” she says to me. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” I say. “Sayorsen is my home now, and this is part of it. I want to see.”
“What’s this?” Entero asks.
“Then let me help you get changed,” Risteri says, gesturing at the bag. “I brought some of my spares, since all your clothing is so delicate.”
Entero crosses his arms and waits.
“Risteri is a Cataclysm tour guide,” I say.
He shakes his head immediately. “No. Are you mad? Absolutely not.”
“How refreshing,” Risteri says. “A guard who says what he actually thinks of his charge. You must be new at this.”
Entero flushes but stands his ground. “You’re not going into the Cataclysm. It’s not even a little safe.”
“Well, it’s a little safe,” Risteri says. “At least the parts I’d consider taking the uninitiated to, and I’ve been at this a while. But you’re right, that safety isn’t certain. That’s why I asked if she was sure.”
“If I were entirely safe anywhere, I wouldn’t need a guard,” I say. “I trust Risteri.”
“I don’t,” Entero says.
“Any reason in particular?” Risteri asks. “Just out of curiosity.”
“You’re carrying witchcraft.”
Entero and I both watch Risteri freeze.
“Everyone inside,” I say, heading for my door. When they’ve followed, both resolutely not looking at each other I say, “Is it Lorwyn’s?”
Risteri jerks, glancing at Entero, who is in turn staring at me.
“Yes, everyone here knows Lorwyn is a witch and will keep her secret,” I say impatiently. “Well?”
“I’m not answering that,” Risteri says. “He does not sound like he has Lorwyn’s best interests at heart.”
Entero tenses. “I won’t raise a hand to her.”
“Is that so?”
I sigh. “Fine, you two just keep scowling at each other, then. I’ll go get dressed.”
“Miyara—” Entero starts.
“I am going,” I tell him. “If you have particular concerns, perhaps Risteri would be gracious enough to address them for you. But once I’m changed, I’m going.”
I’m dressed in green leggings and a short gray tunic with boots big enough I’ve had to stuff a pair of socks into them to keep my feet from sloshing too much. Entero walks beside me in his customary black, having elected to ensure my safety personally.
And we’re clumped in the middle of a small tour group, where the anticipation is palpable. Almost everyone is Istal, though a couple watchful Velasari stand toward the back, eyes gleaming.
I catch Entero’s eye, and he casually edges between me and their line of sight.
Probably they’re just tourists, and probably they wouldn’t recognize me like this, in common clothing and with shorter, green hair. But it’s Entero’s job to mitigate potential threats, and he leads us away from them.
“Welcome!” Risteri calls. “My name’s Risteri, and I’ll be your Cataclysm guide today. Now that you’ve all been through the safety briefing, you’re ready to go! Remember, you’re going to experience a lot of strange things, but do your best not to make sudden movements or noises. And if you wander away from the group, expect to be eaten before anyone can find you. So let’s get to it!”
I whisper to Entero, “Do you think she realizes how much creepier that sounds in such a cheerful tone?”
“Yes,” he says. “Hush.”
The edge of the Cataclysm is almost invisible. I can stare off into the distance and see forests and mountains—but then it ripples, shimmering like a bubble, reflecting Sayorsen back at me.
And my own image. I stare at myself, gawky in Risteri’s unfamiliar clothing.
But in my eyes, I see determination.
I poke the bubble, watching it ripple like a liquid mirror, warping the images behind, through.
I take a breath and walk into the barrier.
Risteri is calling for the group to follow her, and I stumble, trying to catch my bearings.
Of course, there are none.
We’re walking through a forested path, which Risteri calls one of the few stable paths, as long as you don’t wander from it. But the deeper you go, the less reliable it will be.
On one side, I see forest, but though I can’t explain it, it feels not just different, but wrong.
And then I watch a face form in the bark of the tree, smiling a kindly, wise smile.
“The elder tree,” Risteri explains, “lures prey in with the promise of great wisdom. The bark exudes a chemical that makes people feel special or chosen just to look at it. But that smile opens and swallows you whole. Fortunately, the chemical effect is pretty light, so as long as you’re aware it’s happening you’re not in any danger.”
The elder tree’s smile widens, exposing sharp fangs and gaping void behind them.
Moving along, Risteri twists a few vines together which then emit a high screech as she holds them there for us to pass before the vines can, apparently, wrap us up and squeeze us to death.
There’s the brilliant blue flower that blinds any that come too close, the stones that skip themselves over a pond, the tiny bird that projects the image of being a bird of prey to intimidate predators. The path we walk on takes us into a spiral in the air, and as we walk our heads turn toward the ground, which is now the sky, and the path becomes desert.
Risteri steers us clear of a small sentient squall passing through and deftly navigates us through a maze answering the frog lord’s riddle. For our amusement she makes a show of nearly sitting on a boulder that then stands up in the shape of a bear and stalks a few steps away in a huff before curling into a boulder again. When a cosmic haze descends, she rubs some liquid from a stopper on a dagger and plunges it upwards until the haze explodes into rainbow wisps.
And so we go through, one impossibility after another.
But it’s clear what she meant about reality destabilizing the further we go. Some of the tourists are nauseated from all the twisting orientations, others holding hands in terror because they can’t tell what’s real anymore.
That bearing I lost before this excursion.
“And that’s the end of today’s tour!” Risteri declares. “Let’s head back. Don’t worry, the trip takes less time that direction, except when the moon outside is full.”
I wonder how many moons the Cataclysm has at any given time, and as I look up my mouth falls open.
There are glowing eyes, and shimmering scales, and oh, there is a dragon in the sky. Or perhaps the dragon is the sky.
“Risteri,” Entero says quietly.
“I see her,” Risteri says. “Everyone, stay—”
Someone screams, and the eyes flicker out of the sky, replaced by clouds, as if they never were.
But the scream calls other things.
Thorns grow out of the ground at our feet, shooting up to waist-height as a swarm of grotesque butterflies dripping acid descends, and Risteri has her hands-full hustling the group to less actively hostile ground while a tangible wind delightedly winds itself around her.
Once there, I ask her, “What was that?”
“Nothing I’ve seen before, and nothing that should have been that close to the trail,” she says quietly before swearing. “You! Where’s your friend?”
It’s one of the Velasari, and he spreads his hands in a show of distress. “Why, she was just here—oh, you don’t think—?”
Entero says quietly, “She’s definitely not here.”
“Spirits.” Risteri scans the area and waves Entero over. “Let me show you the things most likely to start up.”
“You’re leaving us?” one of the tourists gasps.
Risteri says, “The woman who wandered off is probably dead by now. But I’ll go look for her in case she needs help, the same as I would for any of you.”
“She knew the rules,” another mutters nervously.
Risteri’s expression is sheer disdain. “I hope you can be sure you’ll never err or be in need of assistance, if all your friends think like you. Wait here, or take your life in your hands. It’s your choice.”
After a minute, Risteri and Entero exchange professional nods, and then she disappears.
Entero relaxes almost immediately, and I suddenly realize I’ve read him wrong in the past: the utter relaxation isn’t comfort; it’s readiness for extreme danger. It’s making his muscles liquid, so that when he has to act, he moves instantly.
But he’s still close to my side, despite various tourists’ protests. And if they crowd him, he swipes with a knife to clear space.
Because he’ll protect them only because whatever comes for them will also come for me.
But I can tell that makes him angry. He’ll do his duty as my guard, but not happily, and I like him better for that.
We wait, and wait, and wait.
And finally, Risteri returns and practically tosses the Velsari at her friend.
The Velsari woman is white, clothes shredded and babbling through tears as her friend goes through the motions of soothing her while watching Risteri.
Who says, “Don’t let me see you in the Cataclysm again.”
The Velsari nods, hauling the woman with him as Risteri leads the distraught group back to the relative safety of Sayorsen.
When the rest of the group is gone, Risteri says to Entero, “Thank you. You shouldn’t have had to take that on.”
Entero shrugs. “You’re the one who knows how to navigate the Cataclysm. You had a far better chance of finding the dragon.”
Risteri scowls. “Yeah. Not that it mattered.”
“That’s what you wanted to be doing? Investigating?” I ask Entero, who shrugs and looks away.
“I could kill those Velsari,” Risteri mutters, kicking a pebble at her feet.
“What were they doing?”
“Scouting,” she says, shaking her head in disgust. “Magical experimentation on the Cataclysm is seriously regulated, since no one really understands it or wants to take the chance of making it worse. So periodically you get people trying to go around the law, because they’re so special they clearly know better than anyone else when they’re so inexperienced they can’t even make it through the outer rim unscathed. A lot of Velasari think they’re holier because Velasar is the furthest country on the continent, so it was physically untouched by the Cataclysm.”
“And because they burn witches and are proud of it,” I say.
“Yeah,” Risteri says. “Makes their scouts easier to spot than the Istals and Taresals, anyway, since Velasari who visit the Cataclysm rarely have anything good in mind.”
“Why let them go on the tours at all, then?” Entero asks.
“Because that kind of discrimination is illegal,” Risteri says. “And there’s no proof. The organizers just always try to assign them to my tour group, since foreigners will hesitate to start a feud with an Istal noble house.”
“But you still went to save her.”
“I know how many horrible ways there are to die in the Cataclysm,” Risteri says. “Stupidity and sanctimony aren’t good enough reasons to abandon someone to that.”
“Nakrabi never try to scout?” I ask.
“Not in my experience. Too superior to be curious about our continental problems, I suppose.”
Maybe. But Thiano was still in Sayorsen, rather than another city with greater trade access.
“Risteri, do you have any plans for the afternoon?” I ask. “It’s my day off, and I wanted to try learning how to cook.”
Risteri hesitates. “My cooking skills are pretty slim and mostly involve campfires.”
“I can boil water and reheat food on a stove, so I’m sure you’re already ahead of me.”
“I suppose that’s true,” she says. “Why me, though? Lorwyn could show you, I’m sure.”
“I don’t want to be shown. I want to play, and I thought you might enjoy an activity involving fire.”
Entero sighs as Risteri laughs and says, “I’m in.”
Much later, as Risteri and I sit full, exhausted, and surrounded by a greater mess than I could have imagined, she asks me, “So who is that guy anyway?”
It takes me a moment. “You mean Entero?”
“Yeah. What’s his deal?”
I consider. “He’s the bane of Lorwyn’s existence.”
“How do you mean?”
“Like the closer they are to each other, the chances of spontaneous combustion increase a hundredfold.”
Risteri’s eyebrows rise. “Oh ho, so it’s like that, is it. That explains some things.”
I frown at her. “Like what?” Risteri waggles her eyebrows at me, and it still takes me another moment. “Oh. You think so?”
Risteri nods, sipping her tea confidently. “Yep. That’s how Lorwyn is when she likes someone.”
“Murderous?” I ask incredulously.
She laughs. “Yeah. I think being attracted makes her uncomfortable, so she goes on the attack hard.”
I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that Lorwyn could like—or at least be attracted to—Entero. “How do you know?”
“I paid close attention, because I used to have the biggest crush on her.”
I set my tea cup down carefully. “Ah. And she…”
“Didn’t like me. Not like that.”
“Does Lorwyn only like men, then?” I ask.
“No, she likes men and women. Just not me,” Risteri says matter-of-factly.
Oh dear. “Is that part of the reason you two…?”
“Oh, no. Our issues are separate.”
Because that couldn’t have complicated matters enough. But apparently that, at least, is resolved between them, so I say, “I wonder if Entero likes her too.”
“I don’t have a solid read on him yet, but maybe,” Risteri says. “He was awfully sensitive to her witchcraft.”
I shake my head. “I can’t imagine expressing fondness for someone by attacking them the way those two go at it,” I marvel. “How could that ever work?”
Risteri looks at me oddly. “Okay, I’m going to bring over a stack of romance novels for you to read. Your education on what matters is clearly lacking.”
I hesitate for a moment and then ask, “Will you bring them on your way out before the house wakes up?”
Risteri looks at me too blankly. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I saw you a couple days ago, and then you vanished,” I say. “I assume this is whatever you bargained with Lorwyn for years ago, to hide a person in the shadow of your family home. What I can’t figure out is why you need to.”
Risteri stares at me.
And then she sighs, removing a metal cuff bracelet and showing me the frayed string bracelet she hides underneath it, made of faded colorful threads braided together, tied to other, newer threads.
“This used to be a friendship bracelet,” Risteri says. “By the time I demanded she help me, we weren’t really friends anymore, so the fact that she spelled this is… very Lorwyn. I re-tie it as I grow or it comes apart. The shape doesn’t matter, apparently, just that it uses the same threads.”
“And you can hide it under other bracelets,” I say. My cuffs had never come off, before my dedication ceremony. It never would’ve occurred to me to search there.
“The spell hides me from my father or anyone that belongs to him,” she says. “So I still have to sneak out, because it won’t hide me from anyone else. Like you.”
My eyes widen. A spell with parameters that broad should have been a huge magical working, and Lorwyn apparently performed it before she was even in adolescence, with no training. Spirits, but she was powerful.
“I know,” Risteri says, interpreting the look on my face correctly. “I knew I was asking her for something serious, but I didn’t really understand how serious until later.”
“Would you have asked, if you had?”
She looks away. “Not the same way. I didn’t mean for it to go like it did.” Then she meets my eyes and says, “But I’d still have asked.”
Knowing how painful their relationship has become, I have to ask. “What is so important that you can’t risk your father knowing about?”
Risteri squares her shoulders. “I don’t just give tours in the Cataclysm.”
“I assumed you must spend more time there, and deeper inside, to be able to lead groups safely through,” I say.
“I try to recover treasures people have lost, when I can,” she says. “I find Gaellani and Istal artifacts, mostly. I want to help ground people in what our lives are now and connect them to their roots, to be part of bringing people together and healing those old wounds. We’ve all lost a lot, but we’re here now and all part of Istalam.”
I can imagine Lorwyn gagging at this sentimentality, and I can’t help but say, “It’s hard to heal wounds when Istal institutions systematically foster divisions.”
Risteri lets out a breath. “You sound like Lorwyn. I know that’s not how oppression works.”
I realize I don’t believe her. I believe she cares, I believe she wants to help, and I believe she’s not afraid to work. I don’t believe she understands systemic oppression, but I’m hardly an expert to tutor her in it.
So I say, “I’m sure that must appall your family, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you couldn’t work around them without magic if you really had to.”
Risteri regards me steadily. “Do you promise not to laugh?”
“Lorwyn and I used to explore the Cataclysm together, when we were children. Yes, I know it was reckless, but the thing is, one time we found people.”
I can’t have heard that right. “What?”
Risteri nods. “I know. And yes, I’m sure. The eyes we saw in the sky today? I’ve seen eyes like that, but not for fifteen years.”
Oh, spirits. “You think there are people lost in the Cataclysm?”
“Until today, I thought they must have died. Lorwyn’s thought that for years. She couldn’t believe I wanted to keep wasting my time and hers searching, but how could I not? How could I know there might be people trapped in the Cataclysm and not try to help?”
I can imagine too clearly. Risteri, with stars in her eyes and righteousness in her heart and all the privilege of nobility. Lorwyn, who had to work to feed her sisters, who couldn’t afford to keep being dragged away on what was probably a fool’s errand and maybe one day not come back, who was already in so much danger outside the Cataclysm, who had so few resources but so many responsibilities and couldn’t subsist on hope alone.
This is what started the rift between them. And once it started, it grew and grew.
“Where does your father come into this?” I ask.
Risteri looks away. “In my defense, I was a child, but it was still stupid. I told my father about the people thinking he would help me rescue them.”
“And I heard him send some of his people out into the Cataclysm, though he claims he never found them. He says it must have been a childish fantasy.”
“You don’t believe him.”
Risteri looks me in the eye. “No, I don’t believe him. I don’t know what he’s hiding. I don’t know what happened that day. But I will never give up on finding out.”
Even once Lorwyn did, once she had to, because it’s the right thing to do. And Risteri can afford to lose everything, but she can’t live with herself if she fails.
“I believe you,” I tell her. “I’m neither a witch nor a warrior, but if I can help, I hope you’ll come to me.”
Risteri lets out a shaky breath, wilting. “I haven’t dared talk about this in years. That you believe me is enough.”
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