Because that day is not today.

Julian Auros, the Iron General

 

Night in Durabilis was, somehow, quieter than in the country. In the south side, just across the road, music and mingled voices drifted towards her from a brightly lit, large house on a chill breeze. Sarea leaned against the side of Keyne’s workshop, noise on her left, the empty marketplace on her right. The east side, dark and silent, lay still under the moonlight. The grasses of the market place rustled. A distant owl hooted. Towns mean rats, she thought. She sighed, looking up at the stars through a plume of chimney smoke. They glittered and sparkled. She hugged her borrowed blanket tight around her.

If the ancient people had travelled all the way to the moon, as Ionas said, had they touched the stars?

Ionas. Inside, he and Gregor talked about she didn’t know what. Business, but what business? She doubted she’d get to know any time soon. She fingered the ring Jesse had given her, so large she’d needed to put it on her thumb. He’d said the old foundry, and that’d still been standing before father made her leave town. Hadn’t looked like it was about to fall down soon, either, and people went from to and from it at strange hours, or so it’d been said.

If she let him, Ionas would keep her away from everything. He might even be assuming it was for her own good. But she’d chosen to follow him, knowing full well she’d have to beat the truth out of him at every turn, and she refused to wander behind him like a lost sheep in the dark.

She’d take herself over to the foundry tomorrow.

“Sarea.”

A voice to her right. She turned, startled. Who’d crept up on her?

The figure seemed distant, but if Sarea took three long paces she’d be touching her, and it was definitely a her. She glowed, shimmering in the moonlight. Her hair floated around her shoulders. Ragged clothes hung off her thin body.

“Come to me,” the girl said. “Come here.” She held her hand out. Not knowing why, Sarea took one faltering step towards her. It couldn’t be. They’d found the body. It couldn’t be her –

Blue light flashed past her. The girl screamed and disappeared. Sarea stood still, hugging herself, cold to the bones.

“This way,” Ionas said, tugging at her shoulder. “Indoors. Come on, you need to get yourself warm.”

Sarea went with him, stumbling around the corner to the door. He guided her through the work room and into the common room. It was so hot her skin ached.

“Sit yourself down,” Ionas said, pushing her to one of the chairs gently.

“What was that?” she said. “I don’t – I can’t -” She started trembling.

“Sit,” Gregor said, rising from the other chair. “You need it.”

Ionas glanced back in the direction of the marketplace. “Demon haunting,” he said. “Don’t follow ghosts, Sarea. They never do good. Who was it?”

Sarea shrugged haphazardly. “I don’t know,” she said, lying through her teeth. “I’ve never seen her – it – before.”

Ionas looked straight at her, a shadow against the wall. “Eat something and get to bed,” he said. “You’ll be safe here.”

Sarea opened her mouth to protest, to ask what he’d been doing out there, but he’d already spun around in a whirl of coat. The main door slammed.

“We don’t go out at night,” Gregor said kindly. “Sit. There’s still some bread.”

She wanted to protest – the cream and pastry concoction Isaye ordered had unsettled her stomach, all that rich food. But under his almost fatherly eye she sat down and let him layer another blanket on top of her. Her skin had stopped aching with the heat.

“Does that happen often?” she said. “Ghosts.”

“Every few years,” Gregor said, coming over from the bread bin on the side table. “We’ve learned to target people who see things and protect them, since the first one snapped and walked straight into the river with stones in his pockets.”

Sarea huddled up. “We?”

“You should rest,” he said. “It’s late. Here.” He held out a plate with half a loaf of bread. She hesitated before she took it.

He settled down opposite her and stared at the fire, humming. She ate as quiet and quick as she could, watching him warily.

:-#-:

It was easier to get away the next day than she thought it’d be. Gregor stood with a customer by his store of wood, saying something about grain, when she leaned out of the living area one last time. Coat holding and on her arm, she crept across the floor towards the half-open door. Slow and steady, like a cat after a mouse. Sudden movement would just made them turn around.

Outside, under warm autumn sunlight, she leaned against the wall and breathed for a moment. If Ionas was following her, he’d pop up beside her right now –

She glanced around but the street stood empty and quiet. He hadn’t even come home last night.

Shaking her head, she walked up to the main road. She relaxed once she’d blended in with the crowds going this way and that, horses and carts and people on foot. She dug into her pocket for the packet of sweets from Nettinam, still almost full, and popped one in her mouth. They still tasted like rose-hip tea, too.

Just to see if she could do it, drifting through the crowds, she thought about Tineke’s berry juice, mixed at the end of summer with all the berries left over from the woodland and left to sit and be flavoured by sloes. Bitter and sweet, all in one cup. The taste filled her mouth. Her left eye twitched. She’d forgotten how much of a shock the first mouthful was.

Most traffic went into the Pilgrim’s Way, the next road on the right, but Sarea kept going. She followed the curve of the road all the way through the south side, the towering stone-fronted, many-windowed town houses on her left and the garden wall of a big house on her right. She slunk into the middle of the road, shoulders hunching up, fingers rubbing her coat. Stay brown, she told it. I can’t stand out here.

Her mouth tasted like rose-hip tea again. She focused back on the berry juice, with what was left of the sweet.

One road on the left, a thin back alley of a road, then two on the right as the road turned to the bridge out of Durabilis before she reached the second on her left, just as she remembered it. She ducked left sharply, darting into the north side.

Straight up, between rows of small terraced houses, then a quick right and left and she’d be at the old foundry. But the north side was eerily quiet, no children calling. Front doors hung open and voices drifted out onto the still air. The streets were stamped down dirt with a stinking channel in the middle, and clothes hung above her head between the buildings. Thin curtains at open windows twitched. A shutter banged. Sarea curled her arms together, gripping her coat tightly.

She turned towards the old foundry, an imposing three floor, red brick building surrounded by smaller houses, and caught a flash of someone running around the corner. It didn’t surprise her that the little wooden door in the wall was wide open.

She pulled the ring out of her pocket and rubbed the sun and moon. Her fingers found the motto inscribed onto the inside. We endure. What would her ancestors think of her, afraid of this? It was an obvious trap, at least, and she had fire and a need for answers.

She set her jaw, stood up straight, and walked in.

The building was cavernous and empty. Dust swirled in the light from dirty glass windows, but it smelt nothing like musty, and nothing scrabbled in the stack of barrels against one wall. She moved into the middle of the room, step by step. Something was wrong here. It looked disused, but there wasn’t an inch of mud on the floor, and there were gaps on the wall that looked like there’d been pictures hanging there not a day ago.

Sarea sagged, her heart sinking. “Hello?” she said, and that was pointless because there wasn’t anyone else here.

The door slammed shut.

“Hello,” someone said. “What’s all this, then?”

She tensed, curling her free hand loosely. She sheltered a flame there. She turned around, facing three people and a shut door. Two men, one dark and one lighter, and a woman. “Jesse said there was help here,” she said, holding out her right hand with the ring. Demon darkness in the west side, a ghost in the market place – whose side was Jesse’s help on? She should’ve asked Gregor questions, should have said where she was going –

The two men shared a look. The woman moved forward, snatching the ring from her hand. Sarea recoiled, backing away.

Three swords. One each. Knives, probably, and their clothes looked like solid leather. She weighed the odds that they’d locked the door.

“Little mouse poking around where it don’t belong,” the first man said, taking long strides to her. He stood too damn close, so close she could smell smoke on him, see the start of a beard on his dirty face. His hand was on his sword hilt. “Who gave you that?”

“Jesse,” Sarea said. “In Nettinam.”

“Questioned by Instigators days ago, had his stuff tossed,” the second man said, voice low. “Can’t trust her.”

“Not at all,” the first man said. “How about that, huh? Name?”

She set her jaw, looking him in the face. “Sarea Sahar. We came into town last night -”

“It’s real,” the woman said. “Hasn’t been tampered with.”

“I’m from South,” she said. “There were demon hounds -”

“South,” the first man said, tapping her nose. She jerked back. “Nervous little mouse here,” he said, laughing, beer on his breath. “No one leaves South. Tiny little village, middle of nowhere.”

“I did,” she ground out.

He reached out, holding the side of her neck, thumb rubbing her cheek. “That’s a real good attempt at country bumpkin, but I can hear the city. The Instigators sent you? What, you some east side docker’s brat? You’ve a familiar face.”

She pressed her lips together, fisting her hands. Oh, she’d burn him first. Burn him to ash and bone. She couldn’t bear having him this close, and she wanted to hurt him. He was touching her. “You’ve probably met my father,” she snarled back at him.

“Yeah? Who’s that?”

“Balint Durasoona,” she said, and hit him with a fistful of fire.

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