In the end, the world will take everything we have, that we bought, all we took. Our possessions and our pride will crumble to dust and time forget us. With the world waiting to take, why not give it what it will inevitably have?

Sir Lakeston

 

Sarea moved through the first steam room as quick as she dared whilst seeming proper, and scrubbed off the sheen of sweat in the cool room as fast as she could. The second steam room didn’t seem as hot as the first and, folded robe over her arm, she emerged into a hallway and followed it out into the final bath room.

The illusion’s grandeur didn’t matter so much to her, now. This room had the same size and scent. It was larger, to be sure, with one pool three times the length of the first one she’d met, and a distant smaller one next to it. On her left stood a patio area with half a dozen tables, a dozen chairs, and large lacy sun-shades.

And there was finally someone else here. A woman floating in the large pool, head back, fair hair fanning around her head like a halo. Sarea left her robe on the side and moved down the steps into the pool slowly, water rippling away from her.

“Oh, it can’t be time to close already,” the woman said, and Sarea froze. Her voice was haughty and clear as a bell, so painfully noble. After a moment, the woman raised her head. “Oh! Not one of them.”

Sarea nodded, moving into the water. This one got much deeper than the first. Not so deep that she had to try and swim, but deep enough that within a dozen paces the water came to her chin, and she bobbed up and down with every step.

“Are you new in town?” The woman rolled onto her front with a splash, catching at the edge. She turned around once she was standing. “I don’t remember your name. Or your face, for that matter. Who are you?”

Sarea opened her mouth. “I’m -”

“Oh!” The woman giggled, covering her mouth with her free hand. “Here I am, interrogating you when you’re so obviously fresh from the road. You look so tired. You really should just close your eyes and relax, it’s lovely in here. I’m Isaye. Isaye O’Hallorn?”

“Sarea Sahar,” Sarea said, and after a moment of O’Hallorn’s fixed smile, “Is that a Charter name?”

“Yes,” O’Hallorn said brightly. “Yes, it is. We live over on the south side, you know. My sister is engaged to the viceroy.”

Sarea nodded like this meant something to her. “Congratulations,” she offered.

“We’re all so proud,” O’Hallorn sighed, smiling. “And what about you? You can’t be one of that riff raff.” She gestured with her hand underwater, causing a small wave. “There’s a burr in your voice, you’re so clearly a country girl, but -”

“My mother married down,” Sarea said, lying smoothly. Better to fit in than be talked down to. “She taught me everything she could, but I had to be apprenticed, so -”

“Apprenticed!” O’Hallorn bounced closer. “How exciting! Is it a craftsman? A bard?”

“A wizard,” Sarea said.

O’Hallorn clapped both hands over her mouth and squeaked.

Sarea frowned at her. “Is something wrong?”

“You have magic!” O’Hallorn cried out, taking her hands. “Oh, how delightful. It’s been so long since we’ve had anyone special join our circle in so long. You will come to the parties, won’t you? At least one. You absolutely must. And look at you, you’re so tired, you must be hungry. We’ll eat something and you can tell me all about what you’ve been learning!”

Sarea opened her mouth and shut it again. She said, “I haven’t bathed in -”

“I’ll pay, of course. Well.” O’Hallorn giggled. “Father will. He opened a tab, you see. Come on!” She pulled Sarea along. “This is going to be so exciting!”

Sarea wasn’t entirely how she got from the pool to sat at a table, robe wrapped around her securely, watching O’Hallorn tell empty air that they were having pastry and cream with wine, but she was becoming certain this was magic of a kind Ionas couldn’t even imagine.

“They’ll fetch it,” the other woman said, leaning in. “So you must tell me everything.”

Sarea opened her mouth and shut it again. What was there to tell? She couldn’t talk about the hounds, and she’d only been learning for two weeks. She could summon up fire and change the colour of her coat. But… “I don’t think I’m really supposed to tell,” she said, and bit her lip.

O’Hallorn looked like she’d bitten into an apple and found a ruby. “But you can show me, can’t you?”

Sarea nodded. “If you’ll give me a moment.”

“Of course I will,” O’Hallorn said.

Sarea cupped her hands in front of her, trying to think of something that might impress. Fire. A pool of it, in her hands, flaring in front of her eyes. O’Hallorn squeaked again. Sarea risked a glance at the water behind them, then fixed her gaze back on the dancing fire warm on her hands. Rich people had fountains. Which meant she needed her fire to pretend to be water, at least for a while. She closed her eyes, trying to remember what a water fountain looked like. She hadn’t seen one in so long, chasing Amisine through gardens in the south side, but they rose up in the middle and showered down in a dome. She remembered the chaos of a thousand ripples hitting each other, the constant movement she’d stared at long enough for a gardener to notice she was there and come at her, waving something metal.

O’Hallorn sighed. Sarea opened her eyes. The fire fountain in her hands was the fountain she’d seen in miniature, fire rising up hot and showering yellow droplets into a red pool. O’Hallorn had her head in her hands, staring at it with wide eyes and a smile. “It’s so lovely,” she said, and Sarea realised with a start that for all her airs, Isaye O’Hallorn wasn’t any older than Sarea herself. She’d never fought in the dark, hadn’t used magic to start a dozen camp fires, didn’t heat water with it. All she saw was beauty.

And it is beautiful, Sarea realised, staring at the fountain.

“Your food, my ladies,” an attendant said.

Sarea started, hands flexing. The fire disappeared in a blink of an eye. She shook her head, looking around. Nothing had changed. The garden was still there, the stone patio, the tables. Birds sang, the fake sun lit the area, and the air was damp. She’d forgotten it all, too focused on playing a trick for a stranger.

She needed a lot more practise.

“How much?” Isaye said. Sarea looked at her, startled. The attendant had a green glass bottle open and poised, waiting, above two glasses with long, winding stems.

“Not very much, if I may,” she said.

“Half the glass, then,” Isaye said. “Full for me.”

Whilst the attendant poured, Sarea looked down. On a thin white plate was recognisably pastry, but lighter than anything Mistress Junker made, filled with enough thick, off-white cream to use as a taster on a dozen fruit pies. She picked up the fork, metal and shining, and prodded at it carefully.

Isaye giggled. “Both of us,” she said, “Getting startled like that.”

Sarea smiled back at her. “Tell me about Durabilis,” she said.

Isaye was content to be distracted by talking, at least, whilst Sarea savoured every mouthful of fluffy pastry and rich cream. She’d never tasted anything like it. Was this what Tineke meant when she talked about childhood treats? And the wine! She sipped more delicately than Isaye, unused to something that tasted more like berry juice than real wine.

The other woman was on her second glass, and Sarea just finished cleaning the plate, when a butterfly of red and gold fluttered through the air and landed on Sarea’s wine glass.

“Oh!” Isaye stopped, staring at it. “I haven’t seen one of them here before.”

The butterfly stayed still. Sarea touched a shining wing and it dissipated in a shower of glittering gold dust. “I’m being summoned,” she said. Who else could it be from? “I’m sorry, my – master -” She stumbled on the word.

“He’ll get impatient if you don’t go immediately, I know. Mother’s the same.” Isaye patted her hand. “Will you be here two days from now, around the same time?”

“I -” She couldn’t possibly, she wouldn’t lean on Gregor for the money and she didn’t know how much Ionas had, but under the full force of a sweet smile, she faltered. Disappoint that? “I will,” she said.

“Perfect!” Isaye’s eyes crinkled when she smiled. “All my friends would love to meet you.”

All her friends? Sarea retreated as politely and quickly as she could, dizzy with the thought. An entire group of people like Isaye! And Isaye wanted her to meet them. She hurried through the hallway back to the first pool, and out to the changing rooms, where she said to an attendant, “I had a basket -”

“This room,” the attendant said, stepping forward to it.

“Thank you,” Sarea said, entering. Door shut and latched behind her, she stopped. Was it just her or had everyone she’d met here, except Isaye, looked like the same person?

Just more of the illusion.

She dressed as fast as she could. This dress was tied up on the back, but she’d been doing them up on her own for years, at first reluctant to trust Tineke, and then because she always had. She tied the bow at the bottom, feeding the ends of the cords into a hidden pocket just below, and looked down at herself. Two weeks and she was almost unused to being in a dress again. She reached into another hidden pocket, pulling out another ribbon, and tied her hair back. There. She might even pass for having a noble mother now.

If she ever could.

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