This will never happen again. There will be no empire!

Isobel Durasoona

 

The seamstress, at least, had chased Larone out of the room, but Sarea could only take the prodding and measuring so much. The seamstress’ apprentice pointed out the scars on her arms and the seamstress tutted over them, making a scrawled note. “We’ll have to keep them covered,” she said. “What did you do to yourself? Country girls.”

Sarea bit back a retort. It’d last longer if she argued with them. As it was, her feet were aching before they bid her go, coat over her arm and empty cup in hand, slamming the door behind her. She stood in the hallway, surrounded by simple wealth, and muttered, “Townies.” But there was no real anger to it. She sighed, letting the emotion, a lump of resentment, go.

Larone had really disappeared. Sarea glanced around, trying to remember the way back to the entrance hall, but couldn’t. She was sure there had to be servants around here somewhere, but she couldn’t see or hear any to ask them. Shrugging, she went right.

Not ten paces down the wooden hallway, she turned the corner and found the garden.

Beyond a pair of smooth glass doors, the gardens stretched out. Banks of green, sculpted like islands in a river of gravel, swept this way and that. A central path, covered by a tunnel of big-leafed scarlet vines, meandered downwards. Sarea tried the door handle. Unlocked. She let herself out and shut it behind her, careful to make as little sound as she could. But her feet crunched on the raked stones. She’d leave footprints, even if no one heard her.

The air had managed to warm up a little, or maybe the garden wall sheltered her from the wind. She pulled her coat on anyway and wandered down under the vines.

After a disorientating series of turns, Sarea found herself back in the garden itself. A long seat, backed by an arch of tall bushes, lay empty. She sat down, staring into the flowerbed opposite. Only one flowering plant remained, a wide, pale pink mass of flowers reaching towards the sky.

And a faintly blue glow on the other side.

“I know you’re there,” Sarea said. “You’re following me around.”

“You went away for seven years,” Amisine protested, peering over the flowers. “I missed you.” As sweet as her young face seemed, Sarea found something strange about it. Like her eyes had stretched too wide for her face.

“You promised me you’d burn the world down for me,” Amisine said.

Sarea glanced around. “We were eight,” she said, pitching her voice low. “I needed to get you to sleep.”

“Why? So you could run off and steal with da?” Amisine floated through the flowering bush. “You left.”

“Not once,” Sarea said. “I said I never would.”

“Yeah.” Amisine sniffed. “That’s why you only came home now.”

“Father put me on a cart -”

“Da!” Amisine snarled. “He’s da! You sound like one of these lot. My sister called him da!”

Sarea shook her head. Footsteps crunched somewhere, coming closer. “Only in my head, I do,” she said, ever more quiet because she couldn’t risk anyone else hearing the old West Side accent. Not here. “Out loud ain’t safe.”

“Talking to yourself?” Larone said.

Amisine scowled, drifting backwards. Sarea managed a smile before she turned away from her. “Thinking,” she said, doing her best to intensify the country burr. “Imagining growing up like Isaye did.”

“A little presumptuous.” Larone folded her arms. “You didn’t, after all.”

“I don’t think I would want to,” Sarea said, casting a quick look back at Amisine. “It seems lonely, having a place you’ve got to stick to.”

Her sister brightened up. “You were lonely without me?”

Not what she meant to say, but there was no correcting her now.

“Of course. I imagine you country people have children by the litter just to maintain the land.” Larone settled on the other side of the bench, gathering her skirts tidily. “She has everything she could want.”

“I had only a sister, and she died.” Sarea shrugged loosely. “My parents, too. I was raised by my aunt.”

A pause. In the corner of her eye, she saw Larone relax her hands. “I’m sorry.”

“It was years ago,” she said. “They say the bloodline is cursed. My aunt didn’t want to let me learn magic but there’s no other choice left, now.” Truth and lies blended together, to form a story that’d make no one want to look for the proof. If it worked. “I had everything I could want, too, if I didn’t want very much. But I didn’t have everything I needed, so I was just surviving.”

Larone heaved a melodramatic sigh. “And I suppose you know what she’s missing, after knowing her two days?”

“No,” Sarea said.

That earned her a narrow-eyed look.

“After all,” Sarea said. “I’ve known her two days.” She sat still, looking across at the maze of dying flowers and paths, towards the grand stone wall. Larone stared at her. She’d suffered worse looks, from people that terrified her with their anger. She waited. If she could deal with Ionas, she could deal with this.

“You may be,” Larone said, carefully pronouncing the words, “One of the better toys she’s found. But you are nothing more than that. Her toy, her doll, to show off and play with.”

“You should be a queen,” Amisine said. “That idiot girl your toy.”

Was it just Sarea’s imagination, or had the thick bush next to her rustled? There wasn’t a breeze…”Nobody is anyone’s toy,” Sarea said. “I don’t fancy anyone wants to be called that, either. But I’ll play the role she wants of me, as long as I can.”

“See that you don’t overstep your place.” Larone rose to her feet. “Do your job well and I may even find you a better teacher than that fool.” She turned, paused. “I think you’ve sat here long enough, don’t you?”

She walked away, clicking on the path.

“I’ll wring her neck,” Amisine snarled, “Drive her into the river and drown her -”

“I’m sorry you had to hear that,” Sarea said, shifting minutely towards the bush.

A pause. “I’m used to it, really,” Isaye sighed. “She does this with everyone.”

Amisine narrowed her eyes. “That stupid peacock girl is in there?” She curled her fingers into fists. “She’s spying on you?”

“I should leave,” Sarea said quietly.

“Oh, don’t!” Isaye pushed a branch out of the way, leaning through. “It’s so boring around here, and the seamstress can work quickly but she will need to check something at least once, she always does. Your teacher is too busy talking about politics with father to leave, anyway, I’m sure of it.” She beamed. “So you can stay! I don’t care what Larone says.” Then her face lit up. “Oh! Your necklace is even lovelier than I remembered. Wherever did you get it?”

Sarea shrugged, fingering the twists of ribbon and bead. “Master Pachin gave it to me, in return for a service.”

“So sweet,” Isaye sighed. “I wish I had someone to give me lovely things.”

“I was a hedge witch’s apprentice,” Sarea said then, daring another lie, “He’d been waylaid on the road. I gave him shelter and found him a coat.” It wasn’t as if she knew where he’d been before he turned up. It could be true.

“And he took you for his apprentice and swept you away for a life of excitement!” Isaye leaned on her arms. “So sweet.”

“The road isn’t exciting,” Sarea said. “It’s a road. We walked most of the way here, and had to scramble for shelter in a wall storm. Most of the time we slept under the trees and we were lucky it didn’t rain, because we don’t have tents or a cover.” And demon hounds prowled around the wards every night. “Anyone might be a robber. Food is anything you have on you, because there’s never enough time to cook a good meal, and you can’t bathe or be clean -”

Isaye was looking at her, a strange look on her face. She’d seen the women in South use it on their children, though. A sort of fondness. “You’re doing something,” Isaye said. “You could still be a hedge witch’s apprentice in some little house on the edge of a tiny little village, and now you’ve got an entire world at your feet. That matters, Sarea.”

Sarea shrugged, looking away. She couldn’t face that look for long. “Maybe.”

“Not maybe. Now come on.” Isaye beamed. “I want to show you something. It’s important.”

“I’m going to watch something interesting,” Amisine declared, and drifted upwards. “This girl is boring.”

“Yes,” Sarea said, relief filling her that her dead sister wasn’t going to be right there for a little longer. “That sounds good.”

 

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