Father will never let me lead. I’m a girl. He’s got two boys to do that.

Lisheva Durasoona

 

“Everyone’s angry at me, Sarea,” Ionas said. Footsteps stopping. “What did I do?”

“Lie,” she said flatly. “Play tricks, posture, and threaten. Disappear for hours on end and never tell anyone where you’re going or what they need to know. You’re a proud fool. Why would he be happy to see you?”

Ionas grinned, but she wasn’t looking at the proud fool now. He had his hands tucked into his belt, his walk a shade too casual. His gaze, shadowed in the light, was focussed just beyond her.

“Well,” he said lightly. “The security here is pathetic.”

“This happens when someone sets off all our alarms.” Tolle pronounced each syllable like they were death knells. “We can cope with the demon. We cannot -”

“Catch demon miasma or ghosts.” Ionas put his head to one side. “Or purify a demon.”

“It’s not that easy!” Tolle strode forward. Gregor cleared his throat. Tolle stopped short of Sarea almost like he’d meant to, drawing himself up. “We were doing well,” he said, curling his fingers. “There was a plan and it worked. We contained the demon and fought the Instigators. That’s all we’re capable of! We don’t have wizards with – ” He gestured. “With power to waste and spend frivolously tricking our people into dealing with false alarms. I have thirty people and all of them will spend half their night running around after your tricks, slowing down our plans. He stopped, shoulders shaking, and took two deep breaths. “You’ve been missing for twenty years, Pachin!”

Ionas rocked back on his heels. “Huh. Really? You’ve gotten worse fast.”

Tolle tensed. Gregor rose, catching his shoulder. “We’re having a word later, Ionas,” he said. “But you and I are getting a drink upstairs.” When Tolle opened his mouth, Gregor added a soft, dangerous, “Remember who is in charge.”

Tolle Range bristled, pulling Gregor’s hand off him. “I remember perfectly well.” He turned, clearing the little wall with a hop, and went for the ladder. “We’ll be having this out, Pachin.”

“Kings and emperors, Sarea,” Gregor said as he passed her. “Kings.”

Back as far as there’d been a Wall, da used to say, the Durasoona had ruled. She couldn’t command anyone, let alone Ionas. Perhaps she could call him to account.

Ionas sighed, his body shifting back into his normal posture. Sarea said, “Don’t.”

“Don’t do what?” His grin came back, brighter than ever. “Sarea, I met -”

“Don’t give me that look, act like an excited child, and show me something new and distracting,” she said. “I’m too tired to deal with it. What were you doing tonight?” She waved her hand at the map. Every now and then, the black spots disappeared. “Why?”

“Testing response times,” he said promptly. “It’s a neat little rune, good disguise -”

“Ionas.” She folded her arms. “I won’t repeat myself.”

He transformed in front of her eyes again, but this time it was the exhausted madman she’d spoken to one night in her cottage. His shoulders sagged and his face seemed to dull down. “I pulled a miasma out of your head last night,” he said. “Demons leave them around.” He sighed. “They intensify negative emotions. I went around looking for any others and thought I’d see how quick the Hunters dealt with a problem. That’s all, Sarea. That’s the truth.”

She nodded slowly. He switched roles in a heartbeat. Was there some secret to it? It proved useful, even if she could see right through his manipulations. “How did you do that? Pulling?”

“Just reached in, caught it, and tossed in the fireplace.” A crack of real smile. “If we meet someone infested, I’ll show you how.”

She nodded, tapping a foot on the floor, not taking her eyes off Ionas. She waited. Patience and a meaningful look. That was how Tineke dealt with children.

He shifted from foot to foot, hands flexing. “Sarea.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She shrugged. “For what?”

“I meant to tell you when I was sure you weren’t still infested.” He looked down. “I didn’t mean to involve you in my test.”

She took a deep breath. “It’s the Hunters you need to apologise to, for wasting their time. Master Gregor may be your friend, but they aren’t, and we’re on uneasy ground with Tolle.” That started out her fault, but she was working on it. “You need to make it good.”

Shoulders hunched up, it was a long time before Ionas said, “I will.”

“And please someone where you’re going,” she said.

A crack of smile. “You want to come along?”

The chance to never let him out of her sight tempted her, but… “Not tonight. I’m tired.”

“I’ll be indoors tonight.” He rubbed the back of his head. “Too many people out in the dark unhappy with me. Tomorrow I was planning on exploring the ruins of the old city, though. How about that?”

She considered it. “If you tell me why I met my sister today.”

Ionas flinched.

He knew, she thought. The bastard. He knew. And didn’t tell her.

“I,” he said, and stopped. “It’s -”

“If I wasn’t tired,” she said, “I might be panicking. It doesn’t feel real. She’s dead. She’s still nine and she’s sitting outside Gregor’s front door, and she’s got claws and sharp teeth and -” Almost inhuman eyes, especially when she was looking at Sarea with love. “She floats!” She hadn’t grown one inch in death, and she was so scrawny. Had Sarea been that thin, too? There was still marsh weed in her hair. “Why is she still here?”

“I don’t know.”

Ionas’ voice came from closer than she liked. She blinked, trying to focus through tears. Crying. He sat on the little divider wall, legs folded, peering up at her. “No one really knows how ghosts happen,” Ionas said. “The only thing needed is to die. Some books said you needed violent deaths, or something left to do in life, or a connection to someone living. She meets all three. But it could be pure dumb luck.

“We struck a deal last night. She doesn’t drain your -” His face twisted. “Your fire, your life, and she gets to be near you. But I don’t trust her. The dead don’t think the way the living do. If I had my way, I wouldn’t have her anywhere near you. We could use an invisible spy, though. I…” He rubbed his face. “Do you trust me, Sarea?”

“I’m trying to,” she said, low. “I really am.”

“I’ll work on that, then.” He frowned up at her. “What have you been doing?”

She sighed. “Tricks for Isaye. Fire fountains.”

“Fire fountains,” he echoed. “Like what?”

It was a easy trick by now. She held out a hand and a fountain formed, but tired as she was, her focus wavered and the flames guttered. Ionas cupped his hands around hers, sparking it back into life.

“Impressive,” he said. “We’ll have to try something a little more daring tomorrow. But you need to rest.” He grinned. “And I’ll sleep by the foot of your bed, if that’ll soothe you.”

She shook her head. “It’s a start,” she said. “But you don’t have to do that. Just tell me what I need to know. I need truth, not lies.” She eyed the ladder. “And help up that thing.”

:-#-:

She didn’t sleep that well, for all she dozed off the moment her head hit the pillow. Visions of crystals whirled through her head with distant loud voices. Somewhere in the distance there were howls – the demon dogs, she thought dazedly, and rolled over, dropping into another hazy dream.

 

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