You can’t meet the one at some fancy party and say that’s it, no more looking for love. There’s no finding the love of your life in three days or even three years. Look for someone who seems to fit with you, someone you can be fond of, just as they’re fond of you, and work at it. Gods willing, when you’re both old and grey, you’ll turn to your side and there they’ll be, the love of your life. Right where they’ve been all the time.

An old gardener to Robett Wisefall, Crown Prince of the Great Western Empire.

 

“Your father told Larone to show me the banqueting hall,” Sarea said, peering into the store room.

“Oh, that? Just silver leaf and paint.” Isaye finished moving a box across. “We can’t have gold, of course, that’s wrong, no matter how lovely it is.” She’d shifted a wall of them back, but if Sarea hadn’t been watching her do it she wouldn’t have seen the difference. Just wooden boxes, three high, a little further from the wall.

There wasn’t any dust here. There wasn’t dust anywhere. The house must be scrubbed top to floor, or – Sarea leaned back, giving the top of the door frame a narrow-eyed stare. If she looked at the right angle…

There. Carved markings. Faint, but visible.

“Right,” Isaye said. “Come on in! You have to dangle your feet down, rather, but I have a little step ladder.” She dropped out of sight. Sarea frowned, closing the door behind her.

The store room was lit by a single window, small and high up, sunlight catching the top of the walls. In the shadows behind the boxes, a light flickered. Sarea inched crept through the maze of stacks. She had no idea what could be in any of these.

Behind the boxes was half a door. The top half, in fact, sticking out of the floor like someone had built the entire house wrong. In any other place, it’d be a solid weight to protect you from rowdy neighbours, thieves, and storms. Here, it didn’t fit. The light moved and shifted on the other side.

“You are coming, aren’t you?” Isaye called out.

Sarea crouched down gingerly. Someone had sawn the door half so only the visible part swung open, tall enough for her to sit in the gap and duck her head through. She sat and shifted forwards, dangling her feet out in search of the promised step ladder.

“Oh! I forget. I have rather long legs.” Footsteps. Isaye came back, lantern in hand. She beamed up at Sarea. “Is this better?”

“Much,” Sarea sighed, finding the step ladder an inch below her feet. She dropped down into the darkness.

“Here.” Isaye held out the lamp. “There’s only two ways in, but there’s lots of ways out. I shouldn’t let anyone know about this one.”

Sarea took it, stepping onto a floor that sounded strange under her boots. She held the lantern out, looking down. Tiles, she thought, walking forward. Lots of tiny, tiny tiles, forming a pattern. An island of green in blue.

The door half shut. Isaye climbed down, panting. “There,” she said. Sarea turned to her and looked at the entire thing door. No taller than she expected, but it had the some twisting simple carved into it.

“What is this?” Sarea said.

“Whatever was here before the house.” Isaye laughed. “Great great…” She raised a hand, folding down fingers. “Great great grand-papa found we had an old ruined house here, lost in the paperwork, and built a nicer house on top of it. And then grand-papa added the front. I found a little space with a diary from great great grand-papa’s day, but the way I had to clean down here! I don’t think anybody’s been down here since, not really. There’s proper lights. Stay here.” She darted off into the darkness, footsteps echoing.

“You cleaned?” Sarea called out.

“It took forever,” echoed back to her. “I was just a child, creeping through the house, and I couldn’t tell anybody, because it was my secret, so – there!” A solid clunk.

Click, and a light turned on. Closer than Sarea’d thought, but still far away. Isaye laughed, spreading her hands, and, each with their own click, the lights rippled on around the walls.

“I stole cleaning things,” Isaye said. “Spent days watching the maids clean the house and oiling the doors. They thought it was just another strange thing I did.” She bounced on her toes. “What do you think?”

Sarea blinked rapidly, trying to adjust to the lights. The patterns were everywhere across the floor, turning around a circular dais large enough for one to stand on, spanning a space very nearly as long and wide as the house itself. The walls were painted with runes, and another three doors spread evenly throughout the space. She extinguished the lantern and set it on the step-ladder, pacing out into the centre. The patterns seemed to make some sort of sense…

“Is something wrong?” Isaye said.

Sarea stepped up onto the dais – higher than it’d seemed – and scanned the floor. There – she stood in the middle of an isolated area of green, with variegated blue ribbons and masses, in a wide expanse of even more, darker, blue. There was green everywhere across the blue, from four other large green spaces, much closer to each other than the central one, to little isolated ones and little clusters of them. On the edge in front of her, ice.

She stamped a foot on the dais experimentally, but nothing happened.

“Sarea?” Isaye stepped forward, hands clasped, worry clear on her face.

“An expanse of water larger than a thousand lakes,” Sarea said to herself. “A thing of cold depths. There were two of them.” Something Ionas had told her, a lifetime and two weeks ago. And there were two very large areas of blue… “Osheen,” she said, but that wasn’t right. “Oshean – ocean.”

“Ocean,” Isaye repeated, slow and cautious. “Sarea, what -”

Sarea looked up at the ceiling, midnight blue, with pinpricks of white for stars and constellations that were only a little wrong. “It reminds me of something I was told, once.” She glanced across to Isaye, smiling. “This is beautiful.”

Isaye beamed back at her, relief and pride. “I know,” she said. “Isn’t it? And there’s more! I think it goes all the way down under the garden. Come on!” She ran for the door nearest to her and flung it open. “It’s so lovely down here.”

:-#-:

“This seems a good place to have friends,” Sarea said, sitting down. They’d wound up in a little study, lit with white light, lined with bookshelves. The desk, small as it was, had a soft chair that showed none of its age. “Little tents, a picnic…”

“Oh, I don’t have friends down here.” Isaye shrugged loosely. “I’ve only really shown you. It’s my secret, you see.” She set the book in her hand back on the shelf. “Even father doesn’t know. He’d be using it if he did. I’ve explored all around. There’s only two ways in, really.” She ran her finger along the shelf. “There’s a trap-door under the rug in my bedroom, clear as day, but no one else seems to really see it. The maids all thought I was playing a game. All the other ways out don’t seem to be able to be ways in. In the garden, the kitchen, another in the entrance hall… I’ve stood with half a foot out and half a foot in during one of father’s parties and no one saw the great big hole in the wall!” She giggled. “I think…”

She ducked her head. “I’m sorry, am I talking too much?”

“No,” Sarea said. “Go on.”

“Great great grand-papa had four sons,” she said, “But only two were ever adults, and father says that great grand-papa was the younger. His big brother was in on all sorts of family secrets and even a conspiracy! Father says great great grand-papa and his oldest son were caught and killed in a fight, and great grand-papa saved the family by discarding their ashes in the river. You never did that, then. It was a great dishonour. All the secrets were gone, though. Father went through all the old papers from then, he keeps them in a box, but he can’t find them any more than grand-papa and great grand-papa did.

She dropped her hand. “I think there is something strange in our family,” she said. “A way of seeing that no one else’s had since great great grand-papa died. We’ve always had lots of enchanters. Is that silly?”

Sarea shook her head. “I’m only an apprentice,” she said. “I wouldn’t really know about anything like that. But I don’t think it’s silly.”

“Maybe you could ask that dashing teacher of yours.” Isaye glanced at her in the corner of her eyes. “Without telling him about this?”

“This is your secret,” Sarea said. “It’s my duty to keep it.”

She was rewarded with a blindingly bright smile.

“And you can come any time,” Isaye declared. “Read the books, look at the patterns – there’s a way I use when I want to sneak in and out of the house. I’ll show you it.”

It turned out to be through the third door, down a sloping passage into the earthen passages of the Hunters’ underground network. But the way to the network had been blocked off with stone and sealed with a white substance. Instead, a metal ladder led up to an equally metal trapdoor.

“There’s an alcove off the servant’s path,” Isaye said. “Just like the holes in the wall. No one ever sees it. We can meet down here!”

The first good thing I’ve heard in this town. Sarea smiled back at her. “I’d like that.” Then, trailing Isaye back into the vast, cool space, “Where does the fourth door go?”

“Around the house, really. There’s a little way down to the bottom of the garden. We’ll go down there!” Isaye clapped her hands twice. “Everyone expects me to turn up from the garden. I hide out there in the shelter all the time, and I’m sure someone will have been looking for us.”

 

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