King? Really? Your people would prefer you to be a corpse.

Sir Lakeston

 

Sarea’s sunlight dimmed after… she didn’t know how long. Ten repeats of the message, enough to imprint it into her mind. The image of Lisheva Durasoona disappeared and, surrounded by a faint corona of light, the edge of tiredness aching, Sarea sat in the dark space and listened to the floor tiles shifting again.

After a while, lost, she stood up and wandered through the passages. Isaye had given her a tour of the winding path, with its two sharp turns, the detour through a pair of rooms, and then another sharp turn into a complex of rooms. Now she retraced her steps, through hallways wide enough for three abreast and empty, clean rooms.

She’d hadn’t noticed before, but the rooms seemed too big for just her. Isaye filled the spaces, but on her own she saw how the other rooms were on the same scale as the map chamber. The study they’d had their picnic in, one of two rooms with furniture left, was so full of bookshelves Sarea hadn’t seen how wide it really was. The other room with furniture had half a dozen tables and stacks of chairs, all pushed up against one side of the room.

A secret chamber, under the O’Hallorn house, with a message in it and a gaping absence. These rooms needed people, crowds of them. It felt like they’d been full of song, once.

Sarea retreated from the loneliness into the study, peering up at the shelves. She took one down – the biography of someone she’d never heard of – and flicked through the yellow-edged pages. If the words were her language, she didn’t recognise them. She put it back and ran her fingers along the spines.

Stopped at a thick, leather-bound book with a date on the spine, painted in gold. 09/797. A date? She bit her lip, calculating. That was the year after Wall nine hundred and three. A hundred and six years ago.

Just the right date to be Isaye’s ancestor’s diary. She slid it out and set it on the desk, settling on the chair. It didn’t so much as creak. Opening the cover, she flicked past a stiff blue page and peered down at looping, elegant handwriting.

She preferred Tineke’s writing. It was small, but easy on the eyes.

Running her finger under the words, she read them out loud. The first entry, marked the second of the ninth month, started out with, “I hoped to start a new chronicle with good news, but my -” She wrinkled her nose. “Father? Died not six days ago, and the last Durasoona king with – with him. They may -” May would fit that knot of letters, but she didn’t see the point in making good words so impossible to read. ” – hold on to their properties -”

“Sarea!”

Sarea twisted around in the chair. Who called her name? Distant, yes. With running feet –

“Sarea!” Isaye bolted into the room, a net bag of buns in one hand. She bounced in place. “He was at dinner!”

Sarea stared at her, lost.

“Your teacher,” Isaye clarified. “Master Pachin.”

“He does get around,” Sarea said. He’d been here. Had he noticed her testing herself?

“All bruised up and aching -” Isaye’s eyes widened. “Did he really fall down the stairs?”

Time to lie. “Slipped and slammed into the wall,” Sarea said. “He shouldn’t have gone out at all.”

“Well, father said he’s coming around every day for the next week!” Isaye beamed at her. You know what that means?”

Sarea shook her head.

“That means you can slip away every day!” Isaye twirled in place, laughing. “And we can talk and look through the books and explore, and maybe you can help me work out what to do with all this empty space -”

She stopped facing Sarea. “You’re glowing.

Sarea looked at her hands, faint but present. “Why, I am,” she said mild, smiling despite herself. “When did that happen?”

Isaye giggled. “Oh, that’s a lovely trick. But every day, except the festival tomorrow of course, we’ll all be busy then – oh, he asked after you. He said he saw us at the market. I told him you went off on your own, of course.”

So I have to cover for hours of absence. Sarea nodded. “Thank you,” she said. “I should get back now, though, if he misses me -”

“He won’t. He’s upstairs looking at father’s map’s. Here.” Isaye held the net out. “You can take these back with you! Fresh from the kitchen. And you must be here very early tomorrow, or we won’t get you in your dress.”

Sarea felt her smile falter. “We can’t have that,” she said. Perhaps she’d fall ill between now and then…

:-#-:

Twilight shrouded the streets as Sarea hurried back to Gregor Keyne’s house, clutching her overflowing basket. If she was quick, she’d get back and settle before Ionas had any hint of where she was.

She slipped into the shadowed workshop, closing the door behind her as quiet as she could. She stopped. Keyne sat in the darkness at the back of the room, watching her.

“Is Ionas here?” she said.

“No,” Gregor said. “We’ve had all day to ourselves, haven’t we? You coming back whilst it’s still light and all.”

Sarea stepped in. Was he offering to cover for her? “I can’t quite remember what we talked about,” she said.

“Oh, this and that, nothing in particular. You’re good, quiet, company.” He nodded at the bright-lit door to the living quarters. “And that’s a good soup in there, I do say. Thank you.”

Soup? She went in, setting the basket down on the side table under the stairs. It did smell good, hanging above the fire in a little metal pot. She inhaled. “Mutton,” she said.

“With some mix of herbs you got from the market. Don’t ask me what they are.” She looked back at him. He winked. “Sit yourself down, girl,” he said.

She folded her hands together, worrying at her skin with her thumbs. “I didn’t go very far,” she said. “Just with Isaye.”

“Where you went is no business of mine, ‘less you ran off to the Instigators.” He rose to his feet. “You’re safe with me, Sarea Sahar Durasoona.”

:-#-:

Ionas limped in late. She’d almost fallen asleep. Gregor had gone to bed long before. Ionas trod past her, curled up in the chair with a blanket, and settled in the one opposite with a low groan.

“I told you not to leave,” she said, keeping her voice down.

He looked up, blinking. “You’re still awake.”

As if he’d tried to make sure she’d be asleep when he came home. She swallowed sudden bitterness. “Yes,” she said. “I waited for you. I mixed another pot of the salve.” She gestured at the side table. “You need to reapply it.”

“I’ll do that,” he said, and sighed, closing his eyes. “In a moment.”

She nodded. “I keep worrying about my arms,” she said, rubbing the welts. “Nothing in the book seems right to help. They’re not really burns, are they? Even if they look like them.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “The very nature of demons is opposed to ours, even just hounds. Your body reacted to an assault from a foreign entity. They’ll fade away in a few months.”

“Oh,” she said, soft. “So that bite is recent, is it?”

His eyes snapped open, focussing on her. “Sarea -”

“Tell me the truth,” she said. “When?”

For a moment, she thought he was putting together another lie. His face seemed to show it. But then he just looked tired, and said, “Nettinam.”

Nettinam. She frowned at him. “The warehouse?”

“Could have been an accident. But the hounds were near it. It would have smelled like sheep.” He reached a hand out. “Sarea.”

She looked away. In the corner of her eye, she saw him drop his hand. “I led them out into the fields and fought them. Killed one.”

“And hid the injury.”

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

She shook her head, hands laced tight under the blanket. “That would have torn your coat apart, and your shirt.”

“I’m very good at fixing mere clothes,” he said, managing a twist of smile. “It’s like patching them up, but you… weave the patch in, rather than sew. I didn’t lie to you. The warehouse wasn’t my fault.”

“No,” she said. “You just didn’t tell the truth.”

Sarea,” he said.

She stood, gathering the blanket. “The festival is tomorrow,” she said. “I have to get up early. Even if you ignore every other piece of advice I give you, please use the salve.”

She left the blanket on her chair and tried to pretend, every step up the stairs, that her heart didn’t hurt.

 

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