The way back home? Well, you just follow that road there down to the crossroad with the old oak in the centre, and you look up to see the longest branch, and wherever that branch points, you follow that road, and then –

What, no oak? Well, now. You’ll have to find your own way, then.

Grand Warlock Tomas Bartlebie

 

Isaye wouldn’t let her sneak off.

The parade long over, the awkward smiling and waving, and Sarea’d long since changed back into freshly-cleaned travel clothes, but the entirety of Durabilis seemed to be out on the streets and Isaye wouldn’t let her go. Trapped by the sound and bustle, Sarea trailed Isaye, hands curled over the tops of her pockets, unnerved that she couldn’t see any stray pickpockets in the crowd. The moon rose over the tidy rooftops of the dockside warehouses on the horizon. Late, too late. Any longer and the Instigators would be returning to the West Side.

She cast her gaze elsewhere, scanning the multicoloured mass of people before settling on Ionas, a pace ahead of her. Scarecrow hat still perched on his head, he popped the last mouthful of some sort of savoury pasty in his head. How much could the man put eat? She’d been stuffed full hours ago, but Isaye kept going, and Ionas kept eating.

Someone jostled his right side. He flinched, curling his hand in. There! Her excuse. She could to get him back to Keyne’s for treatment. That was it. She said, “Isaye -”

“And these darling things!” Isaye pounced on someone with a tray of baked breads that looked like unshorn sheep. She passed them three coppers, and plucked up three sheep. “You must try this.”

Sarea took hers and swallowed burning anger. All the food around them, all the people laughing and dancing, the crowds pushing and pulling, and her not being listened to…

Well, that happened in the West Side. She smiled back at Isaye and slid it in her pocket when the other girl was distracted. Ionas ate his in three bites.

There, also in her pockets, was the cloth back with little pastries – “Bird,” Isaye said when she handed them over. “Chicken from the smell, I think, but last year I found pheasant.” – and an assortment of small snacks. She smoothed her pockets down to hide the growing bulge. Isaye didn’t seem to have noticed yet.

“Isaye,” she said, “I have to -”

“Oh, I do love a good festival.” Isaye clasped her hands. “There’s going to be dancing.”

Ionas nodded. “All kinds of dancing.”

No. She couldn’t stay for the dancing. The food in her pockets, and the bag of buns from yesterday… they weren’t much, nor were they solid, but they were something. Savoury, not rich. Filling, and they’d last. But she had to get into the West Side if she was going to give them to da, if she was going to help him. She didn’t even know if this food would help. When he confronted them, she hadn’t even seen him properly. How thin was he? If it was real starvation, not the slow hunger she’d suffered so often as a child, she could sneak him out, hide him someone, start him on a decent diet –

A flash of dark hair, in the crowd, with flashes of red and against pale skin. Maevanon d’Sala Mon Loss flashed a grin at her and ducked around a couple in pale blue and green. Why Mae? Was Keyne having them followed? It didn’t matter. Whilst Isaye babbled at Ionas about dances, Sarea waited until Mae reached a gap in the crowd and mouthed a, hopefully clear, help me at her.

May disappeared into the mass. Gone. Sarea turned back, accepting some strange sticky lattice from Isaye, and forced a smile. This, with Isaye staring her down, she ate. It tasted like honey and nuts. “Good,” she said.

“I know. I shant be hungry for days!” Isaye giggled. “We should be going west, I want to introduce you to my sister. She’s going to be at the dance, you know – ”

“Hey! Hey, healer girl!”

Mae. Thank the goddess, Sarea thought, and hoped her relief didn’t show.

“Who is that?” Isaye exclaimed, and Mae caught Sarea’s arm and pulled her around.

“Healer girl,” she said, sharp and short. Her attempt at a Durabilan accent almost hurt. “You said to fetch you, I’m fetching you. It’s m’brother.”

“Your brother?” Isaye said. “Is everything all right?”

“Fever, missus,” Mae said, fixing her gaze on Sarea. “Said to fetch her. I am. Coming, healer girl?”

“I’m sorry,” Sarea said, glancing around. “It’s – there was this boy, a cut, it got infected -”

“Oh, you must go, you must.” Isaye gazed back, a softer cast to her face. Then the other girl giggled. “I’ll save you ribbons and beads from the dance.”

“Thank you,” Sarea said, thinking, please don’t.

“And I’ll suppose I’ll have to go along,” Ionas sighed. “This day has been lovely, miss.”

“It is, it is,” and Isaye laughed. “Oh, and there’s Larone – excuse me -” She turned away, pushing through people.

Sarea stayed still. Mae said, “She’s gone.” She grinned. “Hullo, biter.”

Without Isaye the crowd’s noise was deafening, their mass stifling. Sarea said, “This way,” and pushed through the people to where she knew there’d be an alley. It wasn’t quieter – nowhere in Durabilis would be quiet, tonight – but it only smelt of old rubbish. Stopping against the wall, May and Ionas clustered around her, to her left and right. Sarea said, “I’m going to see my father.”

“Him?” Mae shrugged, scratching her arm. “How’re you getting past them lot? They don’t let people out now.”

Sarea shook her head. “We’ll be fine. Ionas found a way in.”

A flash of something else, something wide eyed, crossed his face. Just for a moment. He presented raised eyebrows and innocence so quick she doubted she’d seen it, but then he said, “I have? News to me.”

Lie pulsed through her head. Not strong, like this morning, but it she could taste it. She cupped her hand against the wall, behind her back, and summoned sunlight, easy as breathing. “Of course you have,” she said. “You wouldn’t settle until you had.”

Ionas shook his head, hat wobbling. “I haven’t found a way into the West Side.”

Lie. This time it came in strong enough to set her reeling, if she hadn’t the wall to keep her upright. She let her sunlight go. “Ionas, please don’t -”

“Liar, liar, arse on fire,” Amisine sang out above them. May looked up and jerked back, going for the long knife at her waist. She snarled something in some twisted form of their language, close enough that Sarea could almost hear the word ghost in the mix. Ionas’ face went hard as stone, gazing up. Sarea let go of sunlight and rubbed her eyes, slumping back against the brick.

How could she deal with him if he kept lying to her?

“Don’t,” Sarea said to Mae, knife drawn and raised, shifting from foot to foot. “That’s my sister.”

That,” May said, “Your sister?” She gestured upwards.

“She was nine,” Sarea sighed. “Are you going to stay up there?”

Amisine dropped down, landing on the ground cat-like. “He’s lyin’ to you,” she said, eyeing Ionas with a sharp, sharp smile. “Can I hurt him?”

Sarea shook her head. “I know.”

“Tell her or I will,” Amisine said, “And then I’ll scream n’ scream n’ scream.”

Sarea bowed her head. Ionas wore that face once or twice before, around enemies. Whatever’d happened to Ionas, she didn’t doubt Amisine was involved. Not now. “Ionas,” she said. “Please. I need to see him.”

“One way,” he said, and pressed his lips together. He admitted a grudging, “But it isn’t easy.”

She nodded. Good. She’d have honesty from him if she had to shame and chase it out. “Will you show me where, or do I have to ask her?”

He shrugged. The hat disappeared. He shoved his hands in his coat pockets. “I will. You won’t see it without me.”

:-#-:

Keyne wasn’t home, but his door opened to Ionas, and that was all that mattered. Sarea darted upstairs, catching up the net of buns from on top of her bag, and ran down in time to see Mae back away from a laughing Amisine.

Sarea stopped, trying to take in the entire scene. Ionas, far from Amisine. Mae, hand on the hilt of her long knife. Amisine had claws on the ends of her hands, but as she turned to Sarea they disappeared, replaced by mere childish fingers. Sarea glanced at the healing scratches on Ionas’ cheek and back to Amisine, holding her sister’s gaze, counting in her head.

By twenty one, Amisine ducked her head, but no ghostly pink filled her cheeks.

Cat, Ionas said. And she believed him. Why wouldn’t she? Amisine’s nails only seemed like claws, before.

“Show me,” she said to Ionas, staring down the road, anywhere but at them. “And lock the door.”

 

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