This is the line. Here, and no further. That is what I should say to you. Here, we stop them. Here, we hold the line.

I am not a liar.

The line will fall. We will die here, man and woman, for we have struck fear in Western hearts and their generals will not let us live. We will die because reinforcements are a day late, and a day is all our enemy needs. We will die for spite, as they will not hold this line, too caught up in other borders and other fights. We will die here because they want to destroy our country’s heart. We will die here, but we will fight our enemy first.

We will die today, but so will they.

Lisheva Durasoona

 

The worst part about walls, Ionas reflected, was climbing them. The wall around the O’Hallorn house was tall enough to daunt casual thieves, but not him.

He hoisted himself upwards, shoes scrambling at the brick, and came face to face with Amisine. He yelped and fell back, hitting the ground hard.

“Graceful,” she said, leaning over the wall. “You truly amaze me.”

“And you’re a bitch,” he muttered, standing up. Ow. That was going to hurt. He launched himself up, having far more success this time, and stared into the darkness below him.

“Well, I missed talking to Sarea for some yummy gossip, so you might as well pay the price.” She floated around him as he dragged his leg over, straddling the wall uncomfortably. One movement and he could drop down, easier than climbing –

He hated having to do this.

“Well?” Amisine folded her arms. “Aren’t you going?”

“In a minute.” Just lift his leg over. He could do it. One movement. He bent his knee, inching over, gripping the wall. Walls, walls, why did people have to put walls in the way.

Amisine leaned in and changed to skull and bone, ragged clothes wriggling with maggots. He jerked sideways –

Hit the ground hard, stars exploding in his head.

“Ow,” he said.

“So it is higher up on this side.” Amisine looked down at him, kicking her feet against the wall. “Thought so.”

“Thank god Sarea is nothing like you,” he muttered, rolling onto his back. He moved his smarting right arm gently, testing it. Nothing like a broken bone, at least. He breathed in, out, and moved the pain away.

He didn’t risk putting his weight on that arm when he stood, though, and limped for a few paces before he could straighten up. How would he cover this with Sarea? Sorry, I woke up with a start and fell down the stairs. Given her opinion of him, she might even believe it.

Above, all but a thin sliver of moon shone. Behind him, Amisine followed, trailing blue light. He found a gravel path through the leafy shadows and walked, slow and steady, up towards the house.

“Are you going to talk to the annoying girl?” Amisine said. “That floozy that likes my sister.”

“No,” he said, “I’m going to talk to the other one.”

“Oh, good. I want to watch.”

He rolled his eyes. “Can I stop you?”

“No,” she said, satisfied, “You can’t. These people don’t have wards against ghosts.”

He found a back door and turned the handle. The lock clicked; the door swung open. Raising a notice-me-not spell, he padded inside the shadowed building.

He knew the layout of the top floor, so he could guess the ones below. The Empire had bedrooms on the top, where all the heat in the building would rise to, but Philippe had shown him the study and the library up there, and Ionas thought the man would jump off a cliff if it would be contrary to the Empire. Instead, he went up the stairs to the first floor.

Voices echoed down the stairs. He climbed quietly. Notice-me-not didn’t mean invisible, and nothing in the world could save you from the sharp eyes of a suspicious enchantress. Up to the empty arch of a door to the first floor, where he leaned against the door frame on his right side, wincing. He’d regret this later. Pain always came back.

He raised his eyebrows at the two coming down the hallway. Well, Isaye walking away, and Larone chasing her.

“They do this a lot,” Amisine said, settling beside him. “I used to come and watch whenever I was nearby. The floozy pulls hair like a professional.”

Larone snapped, “You do not walk away from me!” and caught Isaye’s arm, pulling her around.

“Don’t!” Isaye stepped backwards, two quick steps. Larone stopped, something like guilt flashing across her face. “Don’t,” Isaye said, hugging her arm to her chest. “You don’t get it. I know I can trust her, know it like I know myself. She’s a good person. I feel like knowing her will make me better, will make us all better. That we’ll help her, and – ” Near to tears, she shook her head. “It’s important to help her.

“But if you keep doing this, if you’re suspicious of everyone, it’ll be the death of you.”

Larone stiffened, narrowing her eyes. “You’re not good at threats, Isaye.”

“It’s not a threat,” the younger girl said, “It’s a truth. On the day you die you could have been saved, if you trusted people to come for you. I know it. I’ve been trying to teach you, but you just won’t listen!”

Ionas leaned forward and looked at Isaye O’Hallorn properly. She didn’t glow with magic, but he’d met people with the other gifts so rarely that he forgot they didn’t show. That sounded like…

“I want to be alone,” Isaye said, stepping back again. “I need to be alone. Just leave me alone!”

She turned and fled down the hallway. Ionas and Amisine turned to watch her go, running into a room and slamming the door behind her.

“And that,” Amisine said. “In about half an hour, someone’ll turn up with a glass or something. Probably her maid. She has all the servants here whipped.”

“Or they like her.” Ionas shook his head, going back to Larone. She stood in the hallway for a moment before whirling around and heading for a half-open door at the other end. He followed, keeping up, and just caught the door before she closed it.

She looked back. Opened her mouth –

“Silence,” he said, and her mouth worked without noise. “May I?” and he pushed in, pulling her behind him, shutting the door quietly.

A welcoming room greeted him, understated furniture and green wallpaper on the walls. Another door – for private quarters…

“Watch it,” Amisine said. He turned back in time to dodge a small stone ornament. Larone screamed at him silently.

“Don’t do that, either,” he sighed, flicking his fingers. Magic whirled around her, lifted her up and sat her in a chair. One dampening shield later and he lifted the silence spell. “Where was I?”

“Breaking into my uncle’s house,” Larone snapped. “You dare touch me and I’ll -”

“I really can’t be bothered to deal with you now,” he sighed, strolling forward, and touched her forehead. “You will answer my questions until I say we’re done. Then you’ll go to bed, sleep, and forget I was here.”

Her face smoothed over, dully blank. He summoned another chair and sat opposite her, leaning forward. “Now…”

:-#-:

By the time he was done, the moon was setting. Ionas leaned out into the hallway, checking for early servants. No one. Good.

“Why don’t you just do that to everyone?” Amisine said. “It’s useful.”

“Too much is tiring,” he said, stepping out and shutting the door behind him. “It’s obvious, too. People start noticing holes in their memory.”

“It’s useful,” she declared, floating through door and stopping halfway through. “And all those lovely secrets. I bet Sarea would love to know them.”

“No,” he said sharply, jabbing a finger at her. “You keep your mouth shut, or I’ll bind you to a rock and throw it in the river. You’ll only have fish to frighten.” A lie, but from her scowl, she didn’t know that. “Come on,” he said. “I thought you had some information to share?”

“With Sarea,” she said. “Not you.”

“You’ll have hold onto it for hours, then.” Back down the stairs, quiet and unnoticed. They didn’t even creak. He waved a hand at the front door and it opened.

“You could have just done that?” Amisine frowned at him, very like Sarea. “Why were you even climbing the wall?”

“It’s the spirit of the thing,” he said, wandering through. “You break in somewhere, you go in through the back. It looks good. If someone hadn’t made me fall off -”

“Wow,” Amisine said, “You are really stupid.”

He bristled. “Says the dead girl.”

“I didn’t die because I wanted to pretend I was in a story,” she informed him, floating ahead. “You’re boring.”

“Why did you die?” he called out, but she didn’t answer.

 

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