Never play dice games.

Ionas Pachin

 

Sarea woke up with a dream-image of a sheer crystal wall in her head. She lay still, trying to hold onto it, but it slipped away like dreams always did. Sighing, she sat up.

Outside rose voices, a noise of voices. Market day!

She hurried through washing and dressing, pulling on her last clean dress – she hoped Gregor’s washerwomen were quick – and darted down the stairs. “Ionas -”

She stopped at the bottom. “Ionas, what happened to you?” Ionas sat sprawled out in the chair opposite Gregor, shirt in his lap, his right arm, shoulder, and the side of his head a mass of livid bruises. She shook her head. “Where did you go?”

“Oh, I…” He waved his left hand. “Went to go look at the map downstairs, slipped and fell. It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” she said. She moved across to him, holding his chin and peering at his eyes. They looked fine. “Master Keyne, can he walk properly? Do you know?”

“Straight as die,” he said. “Safe and sound.”

Good. If he’d hit his head, it didn’t look like he’d done any major damage to it. “I can help,” she said, “If you stay still.”

And she darted back upstairs, digging in her back for Tineke’s book and her little collection of herbs.

She set her load on the floor, sitting cross-legged, and flipped through the pages.

“You don’t know them by heart?” Gregor said, and laughed. “The mysteries of hedge witches revealed.”

“I can identify any plant you show me,” she returned. “And prepare by heart any medicine I was shown. I’m not…” she hesitated. “I can read,” she settled on. Before Ionas’ damnable runes book, this was the only book she’d ever read. “My usual bruise salve has to have a freshly picked ingredient. It wasn’t a problem in South.” There. She stopped, leaning down, running her fingers under the words. “My training wasn’t completed,” she said quietly. “I know enough to say when to run for a real hedge witch, to help a person until they come.” Enough to know Mistress Junker had held the village council off on sending for a new witch, someone who might not want a second-hand apprentice or would supplant her place and the little income she had. Serious injuries didn’t happen that often, and there was a smaller village with a true hedge witch not four miles away. Sarea could run through the routine just fine.

She sighed. “You’re going to have to stay out of trouble for at least a couple of days,” she told Ionas. “A week would be better. I’d confine you to this building if I could -”

“I can,” Gregor said.

Ionas huffed. “It’s a bruise.”

A bruise and, somewhere under the mottled colour on his shoulder, what looked like the scars from a bite mark. They were freshly healed, and raised like red welts. She went back to staring at the book. At the bottom of the page, Tineke had written, double the knot weed and it kicks like an ass, knocks the idiot out for hours. She smiled. That could’ve been any of the young farm hands, playing around on the farms and falling out of the gnarled old fruit trees.

“Mix it up,” Gregor said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “He can sit back and do my accounts for me.”

She looked up at him. It hadn’t been falling off that metal ladder, she knew. He’d never have climbed back up. From the look of Gregor’s face, he knew it too. He squeezed softly, a silent, don’t worry.

Did she trust him to control Ionas? “If he damaged anything in that mad head of his, Master Keyne…”

“I know the signs, I’ll send for help,” he said. “It’s market day. Enjoy yourself.”

She nodded slowly. “Yes,” she sighed. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.” A broad, wide smile. As a boy, he must’ve had every girl in sight swooning at that smile. He let go. “Get yourself something nice.”

:-#-:

She remembered the market as a place of risk and reward. If they snatched enough, they’d be set for food for the week, maybe more. If they got caught, they’d get their ears boxed and tossed in one of the guard’s cells until the guards were bored of them. The food wasn’t horrible, but any kid in there had to do anything the guards told them to or get beaten black and blue. The stories…

Sarea had been too sensible to get caught, and Amisine too fast.

Now she mingled amongst the maze of stalls and people, basket on her arm and purse tucked inside her coat, amazed at the stalls that weren’t food. She paused by one, rolls of soft, dyed fabric heaped over each other. If she had the time here, she could sew Ionas a decent tunic.

Or buy proper bedrolls from the trader just across from him. They’d need that in winter. She fingered the solid material, taking advantage of his occupation with another customer to listen in on the haggling. The numbers came down to three silvers and a copper for luck. Too high a price for her light purse. She moved on.

She did find another shirt for Ionas, perhaps a little big but solid enough, and got away with ten coppers. She’d never been the best at bartering, not in a crowd. She opened her purse, picking out the coppers, and paused.

Three battered gold coins glittered on top of the rest. That was a fortune. One gold would pay for twelve days at the bath house, or food for –

The stall keep cleared his throat. “Sorry,” she said, and paid him. Gregor Keyne! This was his doing. Slipping her money. She’d take it right back to him, she would. She didn’t need his charity.

Shirt neatly folded and laid in her basket, she turned around to do just that and came face to face with Isaye. Isaye, in a pretty green dress, covering her mouth with white-gloved hands.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the girl said, and giggled. “I couldn’t resist. You’re here, too!”

“It is market day,” Sarea said, smiling despite herself.

“It is, it is, and no one else to come out with me!” Isaye caught her free arm, pulling her away from the stall. “Larone was still asleep when I left, and father has business, and Kite has to keep an eye on her little brothers – the Ap-Merills are a very large family, you know – so I thought I’d come out and look for some lace.”

She didn’t have a basket herself. Sarea shifted hers on her arm. “And did you?”

“Oh, yes. Her boy is running it to home.” Isaye turned to her. “What are you looking for?”

“Just a few supplies,” Sarea said quietly. “Nothing that can’t wait, now you’re here.”

“Are you sure?” Isaye stopped in the middle of the flow of people. “Please don’t be embarrassed, Sarea. I want to be with you, but I don’t want to stop you from doing your things. I understand that other people don’t have the resources I do. There’s no shame in that. If I could shower everyone around me in money, well,” and she sighed. “I would. There’s so many struggling people. But father disapproves so. Instead, I buy lace from -” She shook her head. “Widows and paupers, flowers from children, things I don’t need and can give to the servants on their name-days.”

Caught by the sudden honesty, Sarea stared.

“Sarea?” Isaye leaned in. “Are you…?”

“Fine,” Sarea said. “I’m fine. Why are you – why are you telling me this?”

“I want you to see the truth, not the, the -” Isaye raised a hand and dropped it again. “What I want to be, not father’s little girl.”

“But why?” Sarea burst out.

Isaye smiled. “I trust you,” she said, like it was obvious as the sun above them. She tugged at her. “Now, come on, you must have some things on your shopping list!”

“Yes,” Sarea managed. “I should get ink, and a quill pen to write with -”

“Oh, I know exactly what you need!” And Isaye pulled her through the crowds, onwards.

Something bright caught Sarea’s eye. She stopped suddenly, slipping out of Isaye’s hold, and went to it.

Scarves. A stall of scarves, and shawls, and gloves like Isaye’s. Every colour she could imagine hung there. The woman behind the desk brightened up, smiling. “Good day, young mistresses!”

“Oh, yes,” Isaye said, stepping up beside her. “The sun’s out, and not a cloud in the sky.”

Sarea ignored them. Tucked behind a rainbow was a dark blue scarf. In the shadow, it seemed dull, but where its tail caught the light, it sparkled.

She tugged at it. It fell like snow, soft like Mistress’ Junkers fine old dresses. Gregor had said to buy herself something nice, and only he could have slipped the coin in her purse…

“This,” she said. “How much is it?”

Later, much later, back in Isaye’s favourite little room in the secret chambers under her house, feasting on an array of small fresh fruit buns, Sarea glanced at her basket. The scarf had been wrapped in thin, white paper, but she remembered the sparkling. Expensive. Almost half the money Gregor had given her. She’d tuck it away, where no one would find it until she wanted to show it off.

At least she had the ink, and a strange metal quill for writing.

“So,” Isaye said, between mouthfuls. “Did you get anything from your Master?”

“A lot of rambling about the world outside the Wall,” Sarea said doubtfully. “It sounds like your map.”

“Tell me!” Isaye reached out and took her hand. “It’s going to sound wonderful.”

 

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