I have faith in them. You should, too. They’ll be your men one day.

Julian Auros, formerly the Iron General

 

It wasn’t until a pair of women showed that the girls left her alone. Sarea didn’t listen to Isaye – something about dresses – in favour of lunging for her robe. She tried not to look like she was running, but she slammed the changing room door behind her and slid down the wall, staring into space. She’d done everything with fire she could think of – fountains, rivers, a waterfall that hissed and steamed when it hit the bathwater.

And then Isaye insisted that she had to come and be part of a parade. Wary of Larone, Sarea couldn’t say anything but yes. She closed her eyes, leaning her head back. Her hands trembled. She laced her fingers together.

“You remembered the fountain!” a young voice whispered. Close and familiar. “You remembered it. It danced just like that -”

“No, I’m just going mad,” she muttered.

Someone poked her arm. “Open your eyes.”

“Mad as Ionas,” she sighed.

“Great,” the voice that definitely could not be Amisine said, “You got boring out in the country.”

She opened her eyes. Her sister beamed at her, nine years old and translucent around the edges. “Hi.”

Sarea shut her mouth. She stared, unblinking, at an impossible thing. “You’re dead,” she said.

“Ghost.” Amisine leaned on her legs, possibly a little through them, head in her hands. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

That was one word for it. “That night, in the marketplace -”

“Sorry. I was so happy to see you, I forgot to turn off the drain.” Amisine’s smile actually managed to get wider. Sarea shivered. “What happened? Out in the country. It must have been exciting.”

“I just -” And her nails reminded Sarea of claws. “I studied under Tineke.” She had to keep her voice down. Anyone might think she was mad. “Then she died. It wasn’t very much.”

Amisine frowned. “No knights and dragons and treasures?”

“No,” Sarea said. “There were monsters, though. They lived inside the people.” She shrugged loosely. “Just the same as here.”

“That sounds boring,” Amisine declared. “Just as well I avoided it.”

Sarea bit down a sharp retort – she’d been found face down in the marsh, that was avoiding your entire life – and settled on, “I need to change.”

“Oh! Yes.” Amisine bounced – floated – up. “I’ll wait outside.” Then she rose up and went straight through the wall. Sarea gave the door one last, stunned, look before she opened up the clothes basket.

Amisine wasn’t the only one waiting outside. Maevanon leaned against the wall, arms folded, watching passing people. Her sister rolled her eyes, floating above the ground. “Hunters are boring,” she said, “But she won’t leave you alone, I don’t think. She can’t see me.”

Sarea nodded, wishing wholeheartedly that she couldn’t see Amisine, and cleared her throat.

“I’m ordered to take you back to headquarters and make you safe,” Mae said. “We’re either in the middle of another infestation or that teacher of yours is making himself a pain in the ass.” She raised her eyebrows. “What’s the odds on that?”

Sarea sighed. “Can I take the basket back to Master Gregor’s first?”

“Sure.” Mae flashed a smile. “That’s where headquarters is.”

Sarea followed her, Amisine floating by her side and humming a song. When they got to the workshop, empty and silent, the girl stayed outside with a loud sigh and an “I’ll be right here.” Sarea told herself to ask Ionas what runes kept ghosts out as May locked the door behind them.

Then upstairs, to the little bedroom she used. May laid her hand on the wall, fingers spread. “I hate this door,” she said, and the wall slid open.

Sarea stared the dark, empty space. “How long has that been there?”

Mae shrugged. “Long as old Keyne, I expect.” She walked through. Sarea sighed, dropped the basket on the bed, and followed, pushing the door shut behind her.

Without light, the darkness seemed absolute. She inched along the floor, a hand on each wall. Somewhere ahead, around a corner into a larger space, May called out, “Watch your eyes!” and fire burst into life. Sarea blinked, eyes watering. A single lantern hung on the far wall.

“Down, down, down,” Mae said cheerfully. “Make like a mole. Watch your step.” Then she dropped through the floor. Sarea stepped back, eyes wide. No, the floor couldn’t just be invisible. She walked closer, feeling with her foot, and found a gap she couldn’t quite see. Crouching down, she felt into the hole and found a pair of metal rungs, one under the other.

How deep could it go? She reached down, one trembling foot, into the hole. Three rungs, four, five. She climbed down into the dark.

The lantern grew ever more distant and she went, until all she saw was a faint glow. Goosebumps prickled on her skin. She gripped the rungs tightly, exhaustion creeping ever onwards through her. But she came down into a large space, a room, with soft yellow lights creeping around the ceiling.

One long wall had a gaping hole in the far corner, then a row of tall, closed cabinets, then a small table and half a dozen chairs in the corner behind a low dividing wall. Gregor sat in one chair, smiling wearily. Tolle glared at her from another. The other wall was filled with a large glowing map of Durabilis, the width and length of the ruined city instead of the thriving town. The West Side was a splotch of throbbing pitch, and across the town were small black pulsing dots.

“Please say you were going to tell me about this,” she said, surveying the map.

Tolle snapped, “Never, you -”

“Be calm,” Gregor rumbled, and he shut up. “Yes, Sarea.”

Another black dot appeared.

Ionas would say that, and he’d be lying, she thought. Gregor hadn’t proved his word beyond trust yet, though. “I take it this finds demons,” she said.

“That it does. I had one of our enchanters make it.” A creak. “Come and sit down.”

She shrugged. “I can’t stop him from doing anything.” Give me sunlight. She hugged herself, rubbing the raised bumps on the underside of her left arm. “Not yet,” she added.

“He’ll come to you,” Gregor said. He chuckled. “I’d have told him where the base was if he’d asked.”

Maevanon must have gone straight out of the other exit, the hole in the wall. That would mean tunnels. She stepped in closer. Smaller green dots flickered across Durabilis, probably Hunters. Gregor’s workshop seemed lit up pale blue, rather than the white of the rest of the map. She glanced across the map, spotting all the blue areas. A black dot appeared by one.

He’s already coming, she thought. Good. I don’t want to be near Tolle without him. The man was right to be angry at her, but that didn’t make her comfortable. She turned on her toe and strode over to the table.

The red mark on Tolle’s cheek hadn’t so much as faded. She stopped just shy of the low table and said, “Does it hurt?”

“It burns,” he said. “I can’t sleep.” He glowered at her. “Is that what you want to hear?”

She shook her head. “May I help you?” It only seemed right to fix something she did. “I’m sorry. I don’t like strangers touching me. I was…” She paused. She still didn’t know what had come over her. Was it coming back home after so long? “I’m not usually like that.”

“Let the girl make amends, boy,” Gregor said warmly. “It won’t hurt.”

Tolle snorted. “Don’t make it worse.”

She circled around the table, coved his burned cheek with her hands, and focused on drawing the heat – the fire – back out of his skin. It didn’t work for three long breaths, but then all the heat sank into her skin, making her arms burn like she’d been in the sun too long. She stumbled back into the table, the world twisting dizzily around her. Gregor rumbled a low, “What -” but it was Tolle that caught hold of her, rising from his chair and gripping her shoulders long enough for her to stay upright. He let go when she focussed on him, watching her with something she wouldn’t call concern. Confusion. It was more like confusion.

“I’m just tired,” she said, trying for a smile.

“Well, you missed dinner,” Ionas said. Sarea didn’t bother to look around.

Tolle switched straight back into anger, and this time it wasn’t directed at her.

 

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