Your face is strange to me. Has it been a year?
That is not the face with which I shared my cheer.
Your eyes were young then, your laughter bright and loud,
No great trials and troubles had tamed your pride –
Speak with joy, stranger, and let me seek in you
An old friend of mine that once I thought I knew.

Unknown

The garden exit came out in an area laid with marbled stones. White statues stood scattered around the stone floor, gentle-faced maidens with lace and light gowns blown in the wind. Ivy trailed around their bases, trimmed but untamed, and in the centre was a fountain.

“How old is this?” Sarea said.

“Oh, thirty years, forty.” Isaye shut the metal-bound gate behind them and it disappeared, seeming to melt into stone. “Father insists on keeping it. His mother had it built. There’s a sort of quaint charm to it, I suppose, but it’s a little too much like the Empire for him to come down here himself.” Isaye sighed. “I keep petitioning for some sort of shelter, so I might sit here even on wet days, but he refuses to change it. Why?”

Sarea shrugged, fixed on the fountain. “It feels like I’ve been here before.” The water spouted from the mouths of four fish. She’d forgotten that until she saw it again. Three levels, the fish on top, standing on their tails, water flowing from their mouths into a lower pool, where it drained down a sheer carved cliff, a wall of water, into the bottom of the fountain. The water in the bottom rippled and sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, and the edge, the very edge of the fountain, rippled like a boat’s wake.

“Even better than you remember, isn’t it?” Amisine said, behind her. It was only luck Sarea didn’t jump.

All those years ago, the two of them had come so close to Isaye and would never have known it. They didn’t care who owned the houses. Would the gardeners even recognise her now?

“Sarea?” Isaye said, voice small. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Sarea said. “Just a memory.”

“Where have you been?” Larone snapped, and Sarea did jump, whirling around. Isaye flinched back from Larone, eyes wide. The older girl took full advantage, advancing into the paved area. “I’ve been looking everywhere. You missed dinner. How dare you do this to us?”

“I’m sorry,” Isaye said, “I didn’t mean to -”

Sarea stepped forward and said, “It’s my fault.”

Larone turned to her. “Yours?”

Sarea held Larone’s glare with calm, refusing to raise her voice. That made them angrier. “We were talking. I should have noticed the time.”

“No,” Isaye said, “I should have. It’s my fault.”

Larone laughed, sharp and bitter. “Covering for each other now? How old are you?”

“I am your guest,” Sarea said, inclining her head, “And these are your family. I shouldn’t have taken so much of your time.”

Isaye shook her head. “No, no, as a guest you’re entitled to my time -”

“Be kind, sweet child,” Lord O’Hallorn said, appearing around the corner. He seemed to radiate power. “Are you not used to her ways?”

Bristling, Larone pressed her lips together and nodded. “I am,” she ground out. “But she is older and better than this.”

“I’m too old to want time to myself?” Isaye said. “To speak to someone on my own? It’s not as if I’m allowed to court anyone.”

“No, dear one,” Lord O’Hallorn said, “But please, let us know where you are.”

Isaye dropped her gaze, cheeks pink. “Yes, father.”

“Go the kitchens. There will be leftovers. And you, Larone, leave her be. I know you have letters to write.” He turned his bright blue eyes on Sarea. “Come with me.”

She didn’t protest. She followed him back onto the gravel path, head down, watching his slow, measured footsteps.

“My niece does not trust you,” Lord O’Hallorn said.

“Who does she trust?” Sarea muttered, and froze mid-step. “I’m sorry, I -”

Lord O’Hallorn laughed. “She has her reasons, miss Sahar.”

Sarea set her foot down, and kept walking. “I’m sure she does,” she said. Neutral. Calm.

“I cannot say I trust you, unless it is to be honest. You are often that, it seems, even to your own detriment.” His voice rang with laughter. She flushed, cheeks heating up. “Yet my dear one likes you so much she must have you at the parade, and miss dinner talking to you. I hope you aren’t filling her head with the wrong ideas, miss Sahar.”

The edge in his voice had no humour now. She swallowed. “I hope the same, sir.”

“Good.” Warm again, welcoming. “Your master intrigues me. I’d hate to have to turn him away.”

She thought it sounded like a threat. If she were an apprentice like the blacksmith’s boy, it might be, but whatever she and Ionas were, it didn’t have the same boundaries. Unless Ionas had changed his mind, he wouldn’t care if the O’Hallorn family spoke to him or not. Still, she nodded, and said, “And I, sir.” People misunderstood being polite and quiet for weaknesses. Mistress Junker taught her that.

As they came up to the corridor of red ivy, Sarea spotted her cup still on the bench. She picked it up without missing a step.

“The parade is on rest day,” he said, as they neared the house. “I hope that is the next time I see you.”

She thought about the secret entrance. “I understand, sir.” Rest day. She’d almost forgotten it existed. All anyone did on that day was attend to whatever faith they had, back in South, before they went back to their chores.

But the day before was market day, in Durabilis. She’d never been to the market as a customer before.

:-#-:

Ionas sat on the stairs in the entrance hall. He bounced up. “Sarea! Have fun?”

“It was interesting,” she said, not looking at at Lord O’Hallorn. He’d said nothing more since the garden. “You?”

He grinned. “Absolutely. Tomorrow you said, Lord Philippe?”

“Indeed,” Lord O’Hallorn said. “I want to know your thoughts on the Empire’s rise. It’s been a long time since I met such a dedicated historian.”

“Nonsense,” Ionas said. “I’m an amateur. My thanks for the company and conversation.” He bowed with a flourish. Lord O’Hallorn laughed.

“Be well, both of you,” he said, and left with his back straight and dignified.

Ionas formed a strange symbol with his fingers, one straight up and the other across the top of it. “He’s a bastard,” he said.

She winced. “Ionas!”

“Don’t worry. When I do this -” He held his fingers up again. “No one else will be able to hear us.”He held his arm out. “Coming?”

She took it.

Out on the courtyard, Ionas said, “Have you any idea what you’ve gotten us into?”

Sarea shook her head, but she was beginning to have an idea.

“He’s a presumptuous, arrogant bastard. Of course, he’s got a right to. That was the second most powerful man in the country, Sarea.”

She stopped dead. “What?”

“A close, personal friend of the last Viceroy. Daughter engaged to the current Viceroy. That’s power.” Ionas tugged at her. She swallowed and kept going.

“The council,” she said. “They wouldn’t let the Viceroy do anything they don’t want him to.”

“The country of Durabilis is small and imperilled,” Ionas said with a sigh. “Look at the state of its capital. If the Viceroy pushes to rule like a king, he’ll have his way. No, the O’Hallorns are in a position of immense power here. We must be careful.”

Sarea thought about the secret chamber and the map, the network of passages and the sealed off way into the underground tunnels. She wasn’t going to let Ionas anywhere near it, if she could help it. “I like her,” she said. “She’s kind.”

He snorted. “The other one isn’t.”

She shrugged. “I think they both took after him, in different ways.”

Ionas missed a step, stumbling. “Both?”

“Well, yes,” she said, an odd joy rising up in her. She’d seen it, and he hadn’t. “They’re both his daughters. Can’t you tell?”

“No,” he said, “He took her in when his brother died -”

“When she was barely old enough to tell anyone different?”

“Four years old.”

She nodded. “Daughter. By some other woman. He brings them both to heel the same. Only a father can make you so frightened of his disapproval.” One of the farmers in South had two sons out of wedlock somewhere to the east. They appeared the same way, after their mother died. Everyone called them his nephews, but they knew the truth.

Larone had pride, and fear. Proud of her blood, afraid of losing her place. Now she understood, Sarea pitied her.

Ionas shook his head. “Come along, then. I need to walk the city that was.” He flicked the fingers of his other hand. Something indescribable went away, like a cobweb on her shoulders that she hadn’t noticed. Sarea held the feeling in her memory.

“Nice trick,” Amisine said, popping up beside Sarea. She flinched, clutching at Ionas’ arm.

“Don’t do that,” she hissed. “You’ll frighten a person to -” Death.

“This isn’t the time, Amisine,” Ionas said, sounding nothing but bored. “Do you have something for me?”

“No,” Amisine said sulkily. “I wanted to see my sister.”

“You’ve seen her.”

“I’m not going to leave her alone with you.”

Before they could fight, in broad daylight on the main road, Sarea said, “Tonight, Amisine, please.”

The girl brightened up. Literally. “Really?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Really.”

“Then I’ll go spy on the Instigators just for you,” Amisine said, flashing a pointed look at Ionas, and disappeared.

“I’m sorry,” Sarea said.

“Don’t.” Ionas heaved a sigh. “She’s hardly under your control.”

I wasn’t there to save her, she wanted to say, it’s my fault she died, but kept her mouth shut and looked away.

 

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