The sun is our guide.

Auros family motto.

 

It’s only to keep me safe until tonight, Sarea told herself, elbow-deep in dishwater. Only until Mae comes for me.

But the kitchen – the Hunter’s kitchen – only seemed to get louder and louder with each passing minute, every word and laugh another bar on the cell keeping her trapped here, pushing her down. The kitchen got busier, too, more people brushing past her, plates and bowls rattling as they were set down and she had one more stack of work to do. The acrid scent of the soap had her stomach churning. She couldn’t even smell the food they were cooking.

Only a little longer. Only a bit more…

“Will you stop slacking off?” Edith demanded behind her. Sarea jumped, dropping a bowl back into the water. “Now look what you’ve done. Did Tineke never make you work? Honestly!”

Sarea pressed her lips together and picked the bowl back up, rinsing it off. She set it down on the side.

“Look at me when I’m speaking to you,” Edith said, and caught her shoulder.

Sarea whirled around, shaking her hand free. “Don’t touch me.”

“Jumpy and lazy. What was she thinking? You’re coming with me. I’ll find some real work for you -” Edith reached out.

Sarea caught her wrist, hand tight. “Don’t touch me,” she repeated.

Edith stared at her, anger bordering on astonishment. “Are you threatening me, child?” she said. “I am your family. I will do as I please.”

How could this woman claim her like that? How dare she? “Where were you?” Sarea demanded. “If you’re my family, where were you? I was alone.” The bitterness tangled itself in guilt and, today, the guilt fuelled fury. “I never once met you before today. Where were you, Edith Aldhouse?” She let go, pushing Edith’s arm away. “You’re nothing to me.”

Face red, Edith snarled back, “After everything we’ve done for you -”

Sarea ignited sunlight. Edith cried out, looking away, covering her face. Sarea stared at her. There was a space, here, where she stood above everyone else, isolated in a sea of whispers and looks and people, and she wanted to run, just run and run and –

“Hey,” Mae said, squinting, from the kitchen door. “You coming or what?”

Sarea blinked, letting the sunlight fade. “What?”

Mae had her coat on her arm, a familiar crooked smile on her face. “Night time. I reckon you need air, right?”

“Yes,” Sarea said, and stepped around Edith gingerly. People stepped back from her. Mae held her hand out. Sarea hesitated before she took it, but Mae’s hand – the firm weight of calluses and hard labour – felt right.

“C’mon,” Mae said. “Lets get out of here.”

:-#-:

“You’re sure he’s willing to do this,” Tolle said, leaning on his desk. Or rather, the table in a private room stacked with papers and books.

“He wants to destroy the Instigators,” Ionas said, relaxing back into his chair. “He wouldn’t say it, but their power challenges his. There’s a militia inside the heart of Durabilis. All Jorge has to do is take the palace and the country is lost. O’Hallorn looks to have his grandchild as Viceroy, and they’re in the way.”

“Tolle Range!” A woman’s voice.

“Talking of people aiming at the Viceroy,” Tolle muttered, rubbing his face.

A woman flung the door open and stalked into the room, ignoring Ionas to slap her hands down on the table. “Tolle Range, you lying bastard.”

“Edith,” Tolle said, “This isn’t the time -”

“Sun!” the woman shrieked at him. “She’s the damn sun!”

What on earth has Sarea done now? Ionas wondered, eyeing her. She fairly crackled with magic, but lightning rather than fire. If he had to guess, he’d say that her temper fuelled her, and that would make her a terrifying opponent.

Or she’s just angry, and that doesn’t affect her fighting at all. Ionas sighed. Seeing magic could be so imprecise…

Tolle pinched his nose.

“You knew,” the woman said. “And you said nothing. You let me make a gods-damned fool of myself in front of everyone – and she’s the sun, you knew we couldn’t use her. You knew damn well there is no way we’re taking back our throne with a sun -”

“Yes,” Tolle said. “I knew. I was trying to keep it secret. How did you manage to provoke the girl?”

“Provoke? I did nothing wrong. She was slacking off in the kitchen -”

Tolle sat up. “What was she doing in the kitchen -”

“Oh,” Ionas said. “You touched her, didn’t you? Sarea doesn’t like being touched, sometimes.” He paused, considering it. “Most times. I can’t blame her for it.”
Tolle touched his cheek. “I can provide testimony to that,” he said dryly.
Edith shut her mouth, visibly fuming. “And who is this?” she said, voice smooth and treacherous as ice.

“He is Ionas Pachin,” Tolle said. “Edith, I understand – ”

Ionas laced his hands together and interrupted with a cheerful, “Working on a coup, were you? Trying to restore the Durasoona family?”

Edith bristled. “It’s our right to hold that throne. The Viceroy -”

“Why Sarea?”

“Better a Durabilis child than a Western brat,” Edith snapped.

A family network, then. Betty Singer in Nettinam, Tineke caring for her in South, and Edith here – and more in other places, beside. He’d seen its like before. “And no one bothered to tell Sarea?”

“No,” Tolle said. “I haven’t been told much, but I imagine they took advantage of Balint. I believe Tineke was meant to teach her, and it’s worked. She has the command and intelligence to make a good Queen.”

Ionas shook his head. “But a miserable one,” he answered. “She doesn’t want for much but a comfortable life. She makes things domestic. It’s amazing.”

Edith frowned at them. “What are you talking about?”

“A monarch does not have to be happy,” Tolle said, and wasn’t that wisdom indeed? “Edith, please.” He leaned forward. “I understand the work you and yours have put into this, but the world has changed under your feet. Sarea is needed for something greater than one country and, here and now, we must deal with demons and Instigators before anyone can argue over a throne. I respect you, but I cannot waste time on this. Give me two hours, and I’ll come to speak to you myself, but until then…”

Rather than infuriate her, the crackling around her calmed. Edith still looked at him darkly, but she ground out, “If you say so, Hunter Commander,” and stalked out of the room.

The door slammed.

“Edith Aldhouse is the best quartermaster in the Hunters,” Tolle said, tiredness aching through his voice, “But that damned plot of the Durasoonas may be the death of me yet.” He straightened. “Where were we, Pachin?”

Ionas shrugged. “You were doubting that O’Hallorn will work with you.”

“No. I have no hope but to trust you with that.” Tolle leaned back against the chair, sighing. “We’ve barely had a chance to curtail the Instigators, let alone play politics. If he’s willing to ally with us and handle the palace side of it, I’m more than happy to let him think the Hunters his army.”

 

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