To the glory of Durabilis.

O’Hallorn family motto

 

Once the party was over and they got back to Isaye’s home, Sarea changed as quickly as she could without ripping the beautiful dress, pulled her coat on, and went for the front door.

“Sarea!” Isaye caught up to her in the entrance hall. “You’re leaving so soon!”

“I’m sorry,” Sarea said. “I can’t -” She closed her eyes, breathing in and out for a moment before turning back to Isaye’s wide-eyed look. Still in her gown, she stood with a hand half-raised. “I need to be alone,” Sarea said. “To think. I’m not use to…” She raised her hand and let it fall again. “That.”

“Of course.” But Isaye still looked hurt. “You looked fine, though…”

“Please. Just let me get some fresh air. I’ll be back tomorrow.” Sarea shook her head, turning back to the door. “It’s not my place -”

Two arms around her. A firmly female presence at her back.

“You looked like a queen,” Isaye whispered. “So perfect. Why can’t you see that?”

Feet frozen to the ground, Sarea said, “Durabilis doesn’t have queens.”

Isaye laughed. “Used to.”

“Please.” She couldn’t breathe. “I’ll come back, I will, I just need -” Air. “Please.”

Isaye sighed, letting go. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” Sarea said, and went for the door.

She made the street before she slowed, head down, hands in her pockets. The sun was turning to set, and the air cooling with it. She walked, not thinking, shivering despite the warmth of her coat.

Because she could, as she turned down the empty road towards Gregor’s, she turned her coat brown. Affordable, plain, brown.

Mae leaned against the wall next to Gregor Keyne’s front door. Mae gestured inside and shook her head, then walked off. Sarea frowned, looking between the door and Mae, and chose.

Fast as she walked, Mae wasn’t hard to catch up to.

“Meeting,” Mae said. “Official sort. Local people keepin’ watch on their neighbours, you know.”

“No,” Sarea said. “Why would they do that?”

“Nosey. Tryin’ to stamp out crime.” Mae shrugged. “Don’t see the point. Four of them are crime. But Keyne says they know things, and Keyne’s the leader, so what he says goes.”

“Not Tolle?” Sarea didn’t know where they were going, but she didn’t care. The streets were quiet and near-empty, an occasional stranger passing on the other side, a far cry from the cramped, bright party. At the crossroads at the bottom of the road, Mae led her around the curve, not sideways to the docks or up into the heart of the East Side. The cold was almost familiar by now, like a friend she’d known only years ago.

Mae shrugged. “Tolle leads us. Keyne leads the country.”

Oh.

Oh.

Sarea froze for a moment, but only that. She followed behind Mae, head down. If he led the Hunters here, then…

Why hadn’t he helped them when they were children? Instead of just pinching their ears and telling them off, he could have fed them, taught them, helped da with work. They could have made it out of the West Side together. Amisine would be alive.

But the Instigators wouldn’t have let us go, she thought. Not once. They never even let da get thrown in jail for more than a night.

The Instigators always wanted them in one place, safe and sound. Them, not the entirety of the West Side. How had she not seen it before? What could Keyne have done but smuggle them out of the city, just like da did her?

They walked up Pilgrim’s way, the whole way, and then Mae led her straight into the bathhouse. She didn’t stop, not once, so Sarea stayed two steps behind her, head down. Mae strolled, as if she belonged there, past servers that ignored them right down the row of changing rooms and right into a small enclosed space, shelves on two walls, filled with clothes.

“Busy day,” Mae commented, bending down in the corner. She heaved up a trapdoor. “C’mon. Safest place in town, here. We own it.”

“The -” Sarea shut her mouth. The Hunters owned Durabilis’ bathhouse. The Instigators had the West Side and the Viceroy had the Palace. There were so many tunnels under Durabilis that anyone could swarm down there like so many invading bugs. Why did she bother being surprised any more?

Mae disappeared into darkness, and Sarea had no choice but to go down there too.

Into a hot, steaming room that stunk of washing soap. She inhaled and coughed, doubling over. Someone caught her hand and pulled her on, through a door into open, clear, air. She leaned against the wall, asping. Her eyes stung, tears wet on her face, and she felt as if she was full of steam, clouding up her body and making it so she could barely get air.

“You’re an idiot,” someone snapped, and a hand pressed against her chest. “Every one of you, idiots. The harvester’s right ass cheek, the minutes we give you all pendants you forget about the face masks -”

Between heartbeats, Sarea could breathe again. Clean, good, air. Her eyes still stung, but air mattered more. She stared into piercingly bright green eyes set in a young face, under brown-grey curling hair.

“Edith Aldhouse,” the woman said crisply, hand still pressed against Sarea’s body. “Feeling better?”

Sarea nodded.

“Good. Because I’m not a healer.” The woman stepped back and whirled on her heels, stalking towards Mae, stood leaning against a case. “Maevanon d’Sala Mon Loss -” and she devolved into the same sharp words Mae’d used, once, or it sounded like it, and Mae flinched. Actually flinched, bowing her head under the onslaught.

Sarea glanced around. The room she stood in had to be as wide as the bathhouse itself, filled with shelving racks. She could see clothes, boxes, and bottles, a rack of drying herbs, sacks of flour and potatoes… everything anyone could need, in huge quantities. She took a step to test her legs, then walked across to the rack nearest, one with rolls of fabric on it. Runes were carved along the shelves, from one side to the other, and she could barely guess at what they were. Protection she recognised, after watched Ionas carve runes in the ground every night, but otherwise…

The shouting stopped.

“And you are coming with me,” Edith said, coming around the corner. “Bringing you down here without so much as a word of warning! Against orders!”

Mae said, leaning around, “Nowhere else to take her. Need her tonight.”

Edith whirled back. Mae flinched, and muttered something Sarea couldn’t understand. Edith sniffed, facing Sarea again.

“But it’s not your fault,” she allowed, and pressed her lips together. “It’s dinner time soon. You’ll have to pull your weight to be fed.”

Sarea nodded and said, “Of course.”

Edith stopped, staring. “You are Sarea Durasoona, aren’t you?”

“She is,” Mae said, and flinched back again even though Edith didn’t turned on her.

“Well, what’s wrong with your voice, girl?” Edith demanded, taking Sarea’s chin. She pushed her head up, examining her face. “Not an inch of Durabilis in it. Tineke turned you into a country bumpkin!”

Sarea bristled, stepped back. “What’s wrong with that?” she said. “I liked living in South.”

“You’re a Durasoona,” Edith snapped at her. “Sound like it! At least one of us should. Harvester, Tineke was always so ridiculous about her voice. Come along, girl.” She marched past Sarea.

Sarea stayed still. “You knew Tineke?” she said, and Edith stopped.

“First cousin twice removed,” she said, not turning around, “Which makes us first cousins once removed. My father taught her.” She huffed. “And before you ask, if my mother hadn’t died four years ago, she’d be your cousin. Now will you please come on?”

Sarea glanced at Mae. Mae offered a smile that could be called sheepish. “Go on,” she said. “I’ll pick you up.”

“Once she’s recovered her pride from the floor,” Edith said icily.

Sarea put her hands in her pockets, one touching the bag of sweets and the other her family ring, and walked after Edith Aldhouse.

“I was going to fetch you when you turned seventeen,” Edith said, still not bothering to look at Sarea. “But some jack-knave got there first, I’m told. No matter. I should have had the two of you when you turned eight, but your father refused to let you leave. A much better age for a student. Seventeen – hah!”

Sarea frowned, staring at Edith’s back.

“Did Tineke even bother to teach you basic exercises?” Edith said. “I’ll have to go and tell her off myself, letting this happen.

“Tineke is dead,” Sarea said, and Edith came to a sharp stop, turning slowly.

“Tineke is not dead,” Edith said. “Don’t be lying to me, girl.”

Sarea’s frown deepened. “She died six months ago. I was there. I know.”

Edith shook her head. “That old bat can’t be dead. I haven’t even finished the rune stones yet. She wouldn’t dare die on me.”

“Tineke is dead,” Sarea repeated quietly, and for a moment – just a moment – an emotion that wasn’t severe or hard flashed across the other woman’s face.

“The kitchen is waiting,” Edith said abruptly, and turned her back on Sarea.

 

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