Written under a sky dark with cloud, stray bands of scarlet striking out from the setting sun.

 “Three things inside the Wall matter to the common man: wife, wage, and welfare. All else complicates.”

Viceroy Jarrol Plain

First on the list of things to do today was deal with Ionas, Sarea thought. She’d had a bushel of a dozen carrots hanging from her ceiling not an hour ago, and sometime when her back was turned four of them had disappeared. Ionas was eating a fifth, raw, leaves trailing over his wrist.

She could start something hot, but that would take time, and her supplies wouldn’t last long with someone that hungry. You couldn’t waste a good ham, either.

She needed time to think about this. It had been too long since she’d had to cook for anyone except herself.

“Come with me,” she said, taking her coat from behind the door. It looked like it might rain.

“Where?” Ionas said.

“We’re going to see a friend.” Her only living friend, at that.

“You don’t need to be here?” he wondered, looking around. She followed his gaze to the beds. They were meant to unfold, but she hadn’t had the energy last night to do hers, and the other –

“I want to get out for a while,” she said, and pressed her lips together.

“As you say,” he said, and trotted past her into a crisp carpet of dry leaves.

Before she left, she unburied a stack of old signs in a corner of the cottage. They had the sigils for each of the neighbouring farms and towns, to tell people where she had gone. She took one that looked something like a stooping heron and hung it on the door.

The leaves on the ground were swept up into a house shape. Ionas stood with his hands in his pockets, smiling too much to look innocent. Sarea wondered if she was meant to treat him like a newly trained working dog and stroke his hair.

“Do all magicians do silly little things?” she said instead.

He shrugged. “I’m not a magician.”

She frowned, then gestured with her hand. “This way.”

The cottage was on an overground dirt track that led down to mistress’ Junker’s house. Local lore said there had been a grander house beyond it once, but if it had existed the ruins were lost in a wild wood of willowy trees and tangled berry bushes.

Sarea never really used roads.

She set off on another path, one marked only by her own feet and the occasional tree trunk. Two months ago it was travelled daily, and the grass was shorter there than anywhere else.

Ionas couldn’t seem to walk quietly. His shoes squeaked.

Mistress Junker’s house was built out of proper brick, had two floors, an attic, and even a cellar, and a little maintained garden. It and the cottage were so close Sarea could see the green copper roof in minutes.

She stopped.

She hadn’t been there since the funeral ceremony. Almost everyone had come to see mistress Tineke off, and they’d mumbled condolences to her with downcast eyes. Then mistress Junker had ushered everyone indoors for food, and she’d left, unable to bear pitying glances and low words. Every now and then there was a parcel wrapped in brown paper and garden twine left on her doorstep. Mistress Junker’s way of saying that she was still welcome.

And yet Sarea couldn’t take one more step towards that house.

“Hey,” Ionas said, stopping beside her. “Is it that bad?”

She sighed. “No.”

“Then we’ll do it together.” He held his arm out.

She raised her eyebrows. “Are we landed lords or summer lovers?”

Ionas gestured with his other hand. “There’s all the realm at your feet, if you choose to claim it. Who is there to stop you for taking a step in a new direction and never stopping? Gentry have boundaries. You, Sarea Sahar, do not.”

“It helps to be subtle,” she said, but a smile tugged at her lips anyway.

“Never shall I let a thing as slow as subtlety get in the way of my goals,” he said, solemn. “Shall we?”

Her legs weren’t quite so stiff. Ignoring his arm, she thought step forward and they obeyed.

She couldn’t seem to breath easily until they were walking through the little garden to the kitchen door. Mistress Junker grew nothing but flowers, and late blooms scented the air.

She raised her hand to knock on the door. It opened before she even touched the wood. “Sarea!” Mistress Junker said, taking her hands. “It’s so good to see you. Come in, come in.”

In her youth, she’d been the local beauty. It was still there to be seen, no matter how much age tried to hide it. No living soul who smiled so, warm as the sun, could ever be ugly. Sarea tried to smile back as brightly. “Good day, Mistress.”

“And it’ll be better tomorrow, love,” Mistress Junker said, patting her hand. “Who’s this?”

“Ionas Pachin,” Ionas said, bowing. “A traveller fallen on hard times.”

Sarea glanced at him. He’d changed in a flash, light emotions replaced by something polite.

“I’m Anerin Junker,” the old woman said, holding out her hand, “But you can call me Ann. Junker was my husband’s name. I’m an Ap-Merill and proud of it.”

“Ap-Merill?” His face animated. “Of the east-side Durabilis line?”

Mistress Junker laughed. “A very long time ago! Do come in, the both of you please. Have you eaten?”

In the cool shade of the kitchen, shrugging her coat of, Sarea said, “A little,” at the same time as Ionas said, “No.”

They looked at each other. He grinned.

“Well, you can try this pie,” Mistress Junker said, disappearing into her pantry. She brought out a pie more than four hands wide. “Plum and fig. I need it tasted before I bake for the harvest.”

“We can’t,” Sarea said, because Ionas was leaning forward, eyes closed. It smelt good… she gathered her thoughts back up, because Mistress Junker was staring at her. “I’m here to impose,” she explained, cheeks heating up. “It didn’t seem right to send him on his way without at least a coat, or leather to fix his shoes.”

“That’s no imposition, my girl!” Mistress Junker set the pie down. “I’m sure there’s still some of my husband’s things lying around here. Charity is the duty of every living soul. Sit, do, you both look positively faint!”

“She looks utterly terrifying,” Ionas whispered to her, as the good Mistress delved in a cupboard for plates. Sarea gave him a look that, she hoped, showed how unimpressed she was.

“And that affair at the door?” she said.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said loftily.

“If that’s the truth, may someone break into this room and carry me off to be married,” she said, and smiled at Mistress Junker.

Ionas glanced at the door. It stayed shut.

“At least I’ve got someone with fight this time,” he muttered, almost too low for her to hear.

Mistress Junker set set two white china plates on the table and deftly cut the pie. “Enjoy! I’ll be upstairs, just give me a shout.” She bustled out of the room, skirts trailing behind her.

Sarea ate, slow and steady. She didn’t look at Ionas, because she didn’t think she was meant to hear that, and because making a scene in someone else’s house was rude.

“So,” he said brightly, between bites. “Lovely woman.”

“Yes,” Sarea said, soft. “She is.”

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