You love me? You’re a sweet fool, a butterfly on the road of life. With your naivete and your innocence and your blustering, childish pride, what do you know of love?

Lisheva Durasoona

 

Durabilis looked the same as it always had, even from the river. The scattered houses on the road in were faded and worn, the west side like a blot on the landscape, and the docks still lay in the shadows of the six ancient, towering warehouses.

People had changed. The dockworkers’ faces were new, or eight years years had dulled her memory so much that she didn’t recognise any of them. She’d run this area with Amisine and the other children, but there weren’t any west side children here. Sarea shouldered her bag and followed Ionas off the barge, leaping the foot-wide gap between boat and dock. No putting out the gangplank for two passengers.

But the workers were silent, and after a second scan Sarea could see why. A group of men in leather armour and red cloaks had set up a tented space on the edge. Sarea glanced back, hoping there was still time to get back on, but the barge had pulled away. Setting her bag on both shoulders, she adopted a posture that might pass for relaxed.

Ionas nudged her. “Who’s that? Durabilis only supported a militia during war.”

She curled her hands around the bag straps. “They’re the Instigators.”

“I see,” he said, in a tone that said he didn’t. “What do they do?”

“Regulate the west side and hunt for demons.” She shivered, thinking about the black cloud Ionas said was behind them. It didn’t help that the air was getting cold, the sun going down.

Ionas snorted. “They’re doing a poor job.”

“Please don’t say that to their faces.” But the Instigators weren’t usually on the docks. It wasn’t under their control. The rest of Durabilis lay in the purview of the palatial guard. Something had turned for the wrong since she’d left, and she didn’t like it.

“Looks like we have a check point,” Ionas said. “Come along, Sarea.”

She stared at him. “Check points mean names,” she said. “I can’t give them my name.”

“You have heard of lying, haven’t you?” Ionas said lightly.

Lie to the Instigators? She opened her mouth to tell him that they always knew when you lied, but he was already gone, striding towards the tent. She hurried after him, skipping over a knot of rope. “Ionas!”

He stood tall and straight-backed over a young man at a desk, guarded on both sides by Instigators with hands on the hilts of their swords. He folded his hands together neatly. “Hello,” he said.

The same voice he’d used when he first met Mistress Junker. Polite. That was good. She slowed down to a steady walk, stopping to his left side.

“Name and occupation,” the scribe said dully.

“Ionas Pachin, wizard.” Ionas gestured over his shoulder. “Sarea Sahar, my apprentice.”

“We thank you for your patience,” the scribe droned, picking up his quill and dipping it in ink. “Intentions?”

“I beg your pardon, I don’t quite understand,” Ionas said.

Sarea avoided looking at any of the Instigators, shifting as close to Ionas as she could. They could tell. They could always tell. If you looked like you were doing the slightest thing wrong, they’d come up to you and lift you by your ear and yell at you –

Ionas shifted closer to her. She relaxed a little.

The scribe was saying, “We only wish to know why you are visiting our fair town.” His tone implied he didn’t think Durabilis was at all fair. Neither did she.

“Visiting an old friend,” Ionas said cheerfully. “Then maybe we’ll go to Pallos. It all depends on a letter, really.”

“Thank you for your time. You may go.” The scribe formed the last entry slowly. Ionas tugged Sarea towards the dock road. She let him, carefully avoiding looking at any of the Instigators along the way until they were on the main road again, in full sunlight.

“You have friends here?” she said to Ionas.

He shrugged. “I should do,” he said. “Someone who moved here about ten years ago. Good man. Carpenter. He said he’d be by the market, so I could always find him.” Ionas let go, turning slowly. “Where is the market these days?”

She sighed. “This way,” she said, and led him around the curve of the wide main road. It’d always run right through the centre of the town, even when it was still a city. The entire east side spiralled off the slow, right-leaning curve in the road, cut short in the north by the Pilgrim’s Way. To the north of the Way was the south side, full of large houses and gardens. The south side had the money, and the east side had a mass of little houses and shops, built by some wealthy benefactor or another for dock workers and craftsmen. Some along the road had been converted into tiny, dark shops.

“This used to be a grand city,” Ionas said. “Twenty thousand people. My cousin lived somewhere over there.” He gestured with his free hand beyond a row of houses to the left. “I suppose it’s all gone now. I knew people who lived where your west side is. Parties every night.”

She nodded, passing the second road on the inside of the curve, and stopped. “Here,” she said. A roughly triangular strip of land stretched out in front of them, dotted with buildings on the edge. Low grass and flowers grew amongst rows of square stones..

“Right,” Ionas said. “So, third building out of five, can’t miss it -”

“You be gone from here or I’ll tan your hide,” a man bellowed distantly. A door slammed.

“That’s him!” Ionas let go of her hand, running across the grass. Sarea closed her eyes, counting ten breaths instead of chasing after him. All the better not to be thought of as with him.

She opened her eyes and picked her away between ruts and market stall foundations. The last time she’d been here it was market day, and she’d been busy stealing small trinkets for her da to sell. The time before that, Amisine had dragged her out in the middle of the night to look at the stars. They’d laid down just over there. Amisine created constellations out of thin air. This one was the Angry Instigator, that one was the Dead Pig.

Sarea shook the memory away. No time to think on it now. But still, just before she reached the building Ionas had run into, she turned around. For a moment, maybe, there was someone else standing in that spot, looking back at her…

Wishful thinking, she thought, and sighed.

The building was the largest in the market, but that didn’t say much. It stood two floors tall, build out of brown brick, with a row of wide windows along the top. On the other side was a cobbled road, thick with mud, and a massive sign painted on the wall next to an ornate wooden door. It had a cart and a chair.

“Keyne’s,” she read out. “Nailing it for forty years.” She huffed. “That’s terrible.”

“I know,” Ionas said, leaning out of the door. “Isn’t it wonderful? Come on in.”

She followed him inside. A bell above the door rang when it shut behind her.

The shop was lit brightly, a wide expanse of space littered with wooden travel trunks, pub benches and everything in between. Most items had a red-topped label on top, meaning that they were accounted for. Probably waiting for their owners to come back through town. The high room was defined on one side by a brick partition – living quarters? – and along the very back wall, under the light of the setting sun and behind the workshop, planks and lumps of wood were stored. She ran her hands along a desk carved with leaping deer. Good work. Very good.

“Oh, come on,” Ionas said, bouncing out from a gap in the partition. “You can look later, Sarea, you have to meet Gregor!”

“We’ve already met,” she muttered, but trailed after him nonetheless. The room was at least warmer than the shop, the walls painted yellow but unadorned. For a carpenter he had very little furniture, just a pair of chairs and a side table. Along the side a set of stairs went upstairs, probably into the bedroom.

From what she remembered, Gregor Keyne had been a large man, and when he rose to his feet he was as tall as Ionas and twice as wide. He’d had quick, sharp eyes, and a constant frown, and a temper to match. No one dared try to steal money from his pockets. He might just snap your fingers for you.

“Sarea, Gregor.” Ionas gestured at the carpenter. “Gregor, this is Sarea Sahar Durasoona.”

“Ionas,” she snapped.

Ionas shrugged. “He’s my friend. We’re safe.”

“I know you,” Gregor said, and his voice was the same rumble. She flinched backwards. “Balint’s girl,” he said, holding his place. “The one that got out. You used to run with that crowd of little thieves.”

“I stole nothing from you, sir,” she said quietly.

“Not for lack of trying, eh.” He held his hand out. “I’ll not throw a body out for having a past, girl, or long-shanks here would have his arse on the cobbles.”

Sarea inched forward and took it. His hand was rough and calloused, his skin warm. “You can do it to him any time you wish, Master Keyne,” she said tartly.

“Gregor,” he said. “No need to be formal.” He smiled down at her, the look of one who shared the joke.

“Master Gregor?” she offered.

He laughed, a low rumble she found herself liking very much.

 

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