They don’t leave anyone alive. Stop waiting for them. We need to go.

Lisheva Durasoona

 

The day after Sarea’s failures was quiet. Ionas sat with her in the room whilst she read the book on runes. Every time she asked a question he answered her quickly, too intent on the wall and his thoughts to pay her much attention. The cat scratches in his cheek – trust him to try and stroke a feral cat! – seemed to catch the dim firelight.

Finally she shut the book and said, “What are we going to do?”

He glanced across at her, eyes wide and innocent. “Do?”

“We need to take care of the west side,” she said.

“Scouting it out,” he said, waving a hand dismissively.

She sighed. “And we need money,” she said. “We can’t not pay our way here, and we’ll need another pack for you, because I can’t carry all our food supplies and my things. You need another change of clothes, you can’t just magic everything.”

“Oh, I can,” he said.

She frowned at him. “No, you can’t. I don’t even know where we’re going after this.”

“The cathedral,” he said.

She frowned at him.

“It’s in the exact centre of the desert, at the heart of the Wall. We’ll go north into the lake country, there’s a town called Cod I need to pick something up from – something for you,” he added, grinning. Before she could ask what he went on to say, “Then we’ll follow the main trade road around the top of the desert to Pallos. It’s not the only way into the desert, but it’s easier than the road out from the mine.” He rolled his eyes. “Getting hold of a license for that road is like pulling nails.”

She stared at him. She knew the lake country, a country made of a single large lake and an island, and she’d heard of the desert, but Pallos? She knew stories, nothing more. She’d never concerned herself with where the traders had been. Once she’d thought she’d never leave South. Ionas was taking her far beyond what she knew.

“What will we do in the cathedral?” she said, voice trembling.

“Magic’s a trade,” he said. “I’ll have a word around town. Drum up something to do.”

“Ionas -”

“Something legal, I don’t fancy meeting up with the Instigators before I have to.” He relaxed back into the chair.

“Ionas!”

He turned back to her. “What?”

“Answer my question,” she said.

His grin faded into a worn smile. “We’ll see when we get to it,” he said. “Oh, and speaking of money.” He pulled the coin purse from his pocket and tossed it across. She caught it, the metal inside clinking and rattling. “It’s not much, but I’m sure it’ll tide you over. Treat yourself.”

Treat myself? She still had most of the sweets in the paper bag, and that was enough for her. She opened the purse, evaluating the contents. Mostly copper and tin, with the glint of a single silver penny. She might get him a new shirt and stretch for quills and a bottle of ink so she could use her work book. Recording her thoughts, at least, sounded good.

Or she could meet up with Isaye. What time was it? The light from the windows above the stairs was bright and clear, but there hadn’t been sounds of anyone on the road for a long time. She weighed the purse. “I’ll go to the bathhouse,” she said.

Ionas nodded. “Be careful,” he said. “Try not to hit anyone.”

:-#-:

There was a queue at the bathhouse today, mostly men. Sarea kept her head down, clutching her basket and the single silver penny. The black cord she wrapped around her wrist, safe and tight, and she changed as quickly as she could, combing out her hair so she looked presentable. She handed the basket of clothes to the nearest attendant and hurried through to the baths, and stopped.

Isaye sat on the edge of the first pool, splashing her feet, robe folded up beside her. Her face lit up. “Sarea! You came!”

Now Sarea regretted it. “Were you waiting for me?” she said.

“Only a little.” Isaye beamed at her. “I sent everyone down into the main pool. I wanted to surprise you.”

Everyone. How many was that? “I ought to wash first,” Sarea said, resisting the urge to step back and run away and waste an expensive entrance fee. “You shouldn’t have.”

Isaye laughed. “Come on, then,” she said, and jumped into the water. “It’s lovely in here.”

Scrubbing was more self-conscious with Isaye there, and other women passing through, and the main bath was noisily full. Maybe twenty women were in the bath or sat at the seats, eating and drinking and talking. Isaye took Sarea’s hand and pulled her forwards, towards a pair of girls at the side. “Here she is!” she announced, bouncing forward. “I told you so.”

“Good lord,” a black-haired girl said, smiling. “The miracle girl is real.” She eyed Sarea and raised her eyebrows. “Could do with some work.”

“Larone O’Hallorn,” Isaye said cheerfully. “My cousin.”

“Unfortunately,” Larone murmured, leaning back against the side. “Sweet little thing that she is.”

The other, brown haired and tall, took Sarea’s free hand. “Kite Ap-Merill,” she said.

“Sarea Sahar,” Sarea said quietly, trying to shift out of Larone’s eyesight. There wasn’t much she liked about that watchful look. “I know a woman born an Ap-Merill. She lives in South.”

“That would be great-aunt Ann,” Kite said. “How was she, last you saw her?”

Sarea shrugged loosely. “Hale and happy.” Talking about her was too close to the truth for her own liking, but Mistress Junker would know to be careful.

“Didn’t something dreadful happen down in South?” Isaye said, leaning in. “A man accused the hedge witch of bringing fiend dogs down on them! Did you hear anything about it, Sarea?”

Sarea shook her head. “It must have happened after Master Pachin and I passed through,” she said, and the lie rolled smooth on her tongue. She wouldn’t name Ionas master of anything, let alone her.

“Fiend hounds?” Larone raised a hand dismissively. “Hedge witches heal. Something in the grain. You know what these country people are like.”

Sarea rubbed the underside of her arms, fingers bouncing over the healed bumps. “I suppose I do,” she said quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Larne said, flashing a quick smile. “I forgot.”

“Pachin is your teacher?” Kite said. “What is it like, learning magic?”

Sarea paused, trying to find the words that would make them stop asking that, but Isaye jumped in with a quick, “Oh, she can’t tell you, you know that. It’s magic.”

“But she can show us,” Larone said, her voice soft, her gaze intense. “Can’t she.”

“Of course she can!” Isaye bounced on her toes. “Do the fountain again. It was beautiful.”

Larone kept looking at her, like she knew exactly what was going on. Sarea gritted her teeth and held her hands out just above the water. It took less, now she knew what she was doing. Fire rose up from her palm, pooling then fountaining up and raining down. Isaye and Kite leaned in, gaping. Larone stared at it, then back up at her, eyes narrowed. Sarea held her gaze, trying not to show anything. She counted her breathing just to make sure it was even, and made thirty by the time Larone sang out, “Isaye, dear, isn’t that Elisabet?”

“What?” Isaye’s head shot up. She scanned the bath. “Oh! It is. She has to come and see this. Kite, come on, we have to get Elisa and the others to see what Sarea can do!” And she grabbed Kite’s hand and pulled her across the bath.

Larone said, in a soft voice that made Sarea want to bolt, “What are you doing here?”

“I said I’d come,” Sarea said. “I keep to my word.” If she could.

“You’re no apprentice. I’d write to the registry, but it’s worthless. I’d wager my dowry there’s no one called Sarea Sahar on it.” Larone folded her arms. “How long have you been casting?”

She blinked, trying to work it out. Time ran too quickly around Ionas. “Two weeks?” she guessed.

Isaye’s cousin raised her eyebrows. “You expect me to believe that?”

Sarea shrugged, letting the fire go. “I can’t do much more than that,” she said honestly. “If there’s a registry, I haven’t been told about it.”

“Is this mother of yours even real?” Larone tapped her fingers on her arm.

Time for another lie. Sarea ducked her head. “My mother’s mother was a Durasoona cousin,” she said, dropping to a hushed tone. “We don’t… show it off.”

“I suppose that would explain talent with an element,” Larone said, drawing out the words. “Not that I or anyone I know would let one of that ilk learn, but better taught than uneducated…” She traced a circle on her skin. “You may associate with my cousin, but I warn you. I am an enchanter of the second level. If you… disappoint her, I will visit her pain upon you.”

Sarea nodded. She had to ask Ionas what an enchanter was.

Voices rose, coming close. Sarea glanced across at where Isaye had gone. She was coming back, with half a dozen girls not two steps behind her.

“You must show them the fountain,” Isaye said brightly. Sarea swallowed.

 

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