I said nothing of him permitting it.

Come. I hear a horn.

Julian Auros, formerly the Iron General

In the middle of a late breakfast, cradling a cup of herb tea, Sarea sat and thought. Gregor said it was wash day, and her tunic and trousers did need washing, but imposing on him any more than she had to wore at her. She’d give him every last penny they had, if it came to that.

Ionas, who sat outside in the marketplace, holding a staring contest with her dead sister. At least, the last time she looked. Amisine wasn’t talking and he seemed to have the patience to wait her stubbornness out.

Amisine had been…

A nightmare. A delight. The two of them against the world, Sarea trying to tamper down Amisine’s vicious bite, to protect them from her impulsive decisions. They’d never had the freedom of backtalk, of anything beyond surreptitious theft and survival. She’d let her go off with the gang of children whilst she dealt with something da left them, one morning.

The children came back by mid-afternoon. Amisine hadn’t. Sarea had to wait until da came home before she could dart out and look for her. She’d looked everywhere over Durabilis, North Side to South and scouring all their hiding places in the East.

Amisine never came home until she had to. Sarea hadn’t searched the West Side. Even if she had, by the time she came home in the morning, tired and aching, she wouldn’t have looked in the marsh pit.

Her little sister dead and she’d been looking in all the wrong places.

She put her head down, blinking back tears. No crying now. She could’ve cried with Tineke, and she had, a scrawny little street rat bawling her eyes out, but not now.

“This is pleasant enough, I suppose,” Larone said. Sarea jolted, looking up sharply. There was Larone O’Hallorn, swaying into the room under the streaming daylight, looking as if she’d seen a wasp nest in her living room. “A certain rustic style,” the noblewoman said. “Don’t look so startled. Master Keyne let me in. He makes things, for my uncle,” she added smoothly, a hand darting out to touch the stairs. “Annoying to have to find you. It’s wasted time. You’d better come with me.”

Sarea pressed her lips together.

Larone sniffed. “And what is that?”

“Mint and thyme tea,” Sarea said evenly.

“You’re a hedge witch now?” Larone waved her hand in front of her face. “Herb tea. I suppose country people still drink it. Well, hurry up. I haven’t got all day.”

Sarea breathed in and out, tapping all the fingers of her left hand on her leg twice. “Why?”

“You’re not taking part in any parade without a costume,” Larone said.

Parade. Costume? Oh, no. Sarea groaned. “She didn’t mean the harvest festival?” Durabilis held it late. When everyone else celebrated the harvest, this town held a week of memorial. When she was six, they had an early, hard winter, and the harvest festival took place on a inch of dirty snow. If she’d thought about it, she’d –

Still have looked at Isaye’s cousin and said yes. Why lie to herself?

But the Instigators always used to come out in force in the evening. If that hadn’t changed, maybe she could sneak into the West Side and visit da.

“Well?” Larone demanded. “Aren’t you coming?”

Ionas appeared in the doorway, raising his eyebrows. Sarea did a one-sided shrug and sipped her tea. He said, brightly, “Are you kidnapping my apprentice?”

Larone spun around. “Who are you?”

“Ionas Pachin.” He flashed a smile. “And you, pretty madame?”

“Larone O’Hallorn.” Larone folded her hands together behind her back. “That’s an uncommon name.”

“I’m an uncommon person.” The smile widened. “So, are you?”

“She agreed to attend the parade with my cousin. A costume fitting is required.” Larone’s words were clipped off at the ends, as if she wanted to bite, but her hands were linked together loosely.

“Well, wherever she goes, so do I.” Ionas glanced a little over at Sarea. “Isn’t that right?”

“I can’t get rid of you,” she replied. He’d tensed, standing straight and tall. Did he really not like the O’Hallorn family that much?

“Then you will accompany us,” Larone said.

:-#-:

Coat and boots later, Sarea trailed Ionas and Larone through Durabilis. She cradled her half-empty cup of tea, keeping it warm. So focused was she on the right temperature, she didn’t noticed they’d arrived until she bumped into Ionas’ back. The tea sloshed, stray drops spilling onto her fingers. She winced.

“Careful,” Ionas muttered, “This is a snake den.”

Sarea glanced up at the house. It only looked grand to her. Three floors high, it stretched across the back of the cobbled courtyard, cover in the painted stone carving of a single massive ivy vine. The front door was twice as wide and taller than any door needed to be, sitting under a protruding arched roof. Six windows extended on either side of it, on the bottom floor at least, and the roof shone copper-green in the sunlight.

Larone turned back to them, a movement almost like an actress in a travelling troupe. “Well? You are coming?”

“Just admiring the design,” Ionas said, bouncing on his heels once. “Built in true Grand Anila style, just like the old summer palace.”

“Yes,” Larone said, narrowing her eyes. “So I’m told.”

“Very alike,” he said, just as she started to say, “But of course -”

She stopped, frowning.

He waved his hand. “Go on, my lady.”

“But of course,” she said, “There are no surviving pictures of that palace.”

Sarea felt Ionas stiffen beside her. He said, as if careless, “People do ignore illusionists. You’d be surprised at what gets kept in the visual traditions.”

“I expect so,” Larone said, and turned back.

You’re not fooling her, Sarea thought, sipping tea. He acted like he didn’t want anyone else to know he was three hundred years old – or so he claimed. She wasn’t sure anyone could live that long.

Ionas sighed a tired, “Come on,” and strode up to the house. Sarea shrugged and followed.

The entrance hall didn’t have so much as an inch of painted gold. She looked around at the white walls, edged with sky-blue, as she scraped her boots off on the mat as best she could. The carpet was blue, too, white and black silhouettes dancing across it. The hallway itself seemed to stretch all the way to the back of the house where, through a pair of wide, glass doors, the garden lay. To her left, a dark wooden staircase led up into a space with red walls.

“Don’t gawk,” Larone said, but without a sharp tone. “What do you think, Sarea Sahar?”

“Disappointing,” Sarea said, and drank more tea.

Ionas laughed. “Well, it’s understated, I’ll give you that. But that’s mountain mahogany, isn’t it?” He rapped the rising bannisters.

“Yes,” Larone said, and pressed her lips.

“It grows slowly, so it’s expensive. And I think this is cotton from Lenife, rather than wool.” He tapped a foot on the carpet. “Ann Junker couldn’t furnish a house this well.”

Sarea shook her head. “I expected more, from the stories people tell.”

“Gold leaf is the fashion of the West,” a man said from the top of the stairs. The stairs didn’t creak as he came down. Dressed in just a shirt and dark trousers, he was very firmly grey-haired. “We are not yet of the West.”

Sarea hunched up under than imperious gaze. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It is lovely, I just thought -”

“Is the Empire turning its gaze east again?” Ionas said. “I thought they were still trying at Lenife.”

“They are,” the man said, smiling in… was that delight? “But their armies are great, and they will try us, I fear, sooner instead of later. Lenife can only shame them so long.”

“I disagree. They’ve been trying for two hundred years, and they’ve claimed less than a mile. An empire has pride, good sir. If anything, they may go north east, claim the desert and Pallos.” Ionas shrugged. “Hold iron and coal mines both.”

“And face the Unity of Titus?”

“There is no Unity left,” Ionas said. “Twenty years and they’ll be at each other’s throats.”

“I am Lord Philippe O’Hallorn,” the stranger said. “Larone is my brother’s child. You, good sir?”

Ionas smiled wryly. “Ionas Pachin, wizard. This is Sarea Sahar, my apprentice.”

“Consider yourself welcome in my home,” Lord O’Hallorn said. “Any friend of my daughter is a friend of mine.”

Larone cleared her throat. “The seamstress is waiting for us, uncle,” she said.

“Then perhaps I can entertain Master Pachin in my study,” Lord O’Hallorn said. “Few in Durabilis speak of the Empire. They strike fear into stout Durabilan hearts.”

“That sounds a most interesting prospect,” Ionas said, and if he smiled any wider it’d be a grin. “I’m sure you can be without me, Sarea.”

“Since when did I tell you where to go?” she said. Uncle? This man looked more Larone’s father than Isaye’s. Being alone with Larone made her spine go cold, but she could live with it. She’d survived Master Treeback.

“Have fun,” Ionas said, moving onto the stairs.

Sarea turned away and looked to Larone. Larone stared back like she’d grown a second, hideous head. “This way,” she said abruptly.

“Be sure to show Miss Sahar the banqueting hall,” Lord O’Hallorn called out. “I’m sure it’ll meet her standards.”

Sarea ducked her head, cheeks heating up.

 

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