The water flows.

Le Nife family motto.

 

Someone left them breakfast – weak soup and bread – before the whorehouse opened in the morning, but the building sat quiet, not a single male voice echoing up. Sarea sat on the bed, staring at dust motes dancing in cracks of sunlight. Mae leaned against the wall, sharpening the knives from – her new knives. Or so Mae insisted.

Sarea barely knew how to use the damned things.

“Tell me,” Mae said.

Sarea glanced across at her. “What?”

“Lay it out. Quiet-like. It’s better than this.”

Sarea hugged her legs against her chest. “When we go out, tonight, we’re going to collect leech-heads.”

“Yup,” Mae said. Shink. Shink.

“We need a bucket and as much of our skin covered as possible. The only thing they don’t like is fire. So we’re going to take torches. Or you’re going to. There’s…” she shrugged. “I’m going to have to show you. It’s a trick.”

Mae said, placid, “We’re not leaving until you try.”

Sarea huffed. “You… bait them. With your hand. You stand on the edge of the cluster, at the range where they can’t quite reach you, and you set your bucket down, and you stick your hand out near it. And you wait. They can feel living things but they don’t seem to know anything more than that. If you stay still, they reach out to tag you. When they’re close – very close – you hit their stalks with the torch. It…” She waved expansively. “If you put a fire between you and them, they stay away. But if you set them on fire, they always drop the leech-head. I think it’s supposed to a kind of seed, too.”

“Charmin’.” Shink. Shink.

“They’re less dangerous without their stems, they can’t take as much, but they can still tag you. That’s why we need to cover our skin. And when you handle them, you need really thick gloves.” She worried at her lip. Or maybe she could float them… if she was careful. “When we have some, we’ll bring them back. If you run them along the edge of a knife, and cut someone, that person’ll get tired. Slow down. Same if you squeeze out the numb-juice and put it in a drink.” Unlike the other plants, it just made people look like they were coming down with cold. “They’ll sleep a lot.

“And we can throw them at people. Same effect. Anyone can do that. Leech-heads can get through one layer of clothing. Maybe two.”

“Okay.” Shink. Shink. “That guy last night.”

Sarea glanced up.

“The one you killed,” Mae continued, not looking away from her constant, steady movement. “How d’you feel about that?”

“Nothing,” Sarea said.

“You killed a person, biter. You feel something.”

“The Instigators aren’t people.” It sounded worse outside her head, hung in the air between them. “They’re horrible, but they’re not people, not monsters. They’re a stone wall in your way. I don’t hate any single one of them.” Except the Commander. “I hate the fact that they exist, but last night… nothing.”

“Walls can be climbed,” Mae said, almost as if discussing the weather.

“The Wall can’t,” Sarea replied.

Mae paused.

Sarea flopped back against the bed and stayed on her side, facing away from Mae.

“Ionas got in,” she said, after a while. “Back when we saved my father. He didn’t use the tunnel, but he got in. Can we find out how?”

“Can try,” Mae said.

:-#-:

“There is a demon-seed in Durabilis,” Lord O’Hallorn said. “And the Instigators are working for him.”

“Yes,” Tolle said.

“Demons are myths.”

Tolle said, “Then I’ve watched myths kill my own people.”

O’Hallorn acknowledged this with a nod. “Still, it seems rather far-fetched. The Viceroy won’t believe it.”

“I don’t care what the Viceroy believes.” Tolle’s voice managed to be calm and even. Ionas admired that. They’d been talking in circles for the better part of two hours, so long they’d brought in enough chairs for everyone and gone through several drinks. O’Hallorn insisted on questioning everything. Isaye, leaning against Ionas’ shoulder, kept dosing off and starting awake.

“I must,” Lord O’Hallorn replied. “The Viceroy feels insecure in his place. Our country is the weakest it’s ever been, the Western Empire is forever sniffing at our borders, and a Durabilan Durasoona would divide the nobles. Potentially, she would cause a civil war -”

“Then don’t tell anyone she’s a Durasoona.”

Lord O’Hallorn nodded. “It’s going to be quite hard to believe, that the Sun is a simple, untrained apprentice. That she’s a Durasoona makes it worse. He won’t believe that she isn’t interested in the throne. He’ll think -”

“Who actually gives a damn what the Viceroy thinks?” Ionas said. Tolle turned to stare at him. Lord O’Hallorn raised his eyebrows, leaning on his desk.

“You should, Pachin,” he said. “He has the power to -”

Ionas laughed. It was bitterer than he liked, but then, he’d been hurting for hours, Sarea was in danger, and really, he’d run out of patience with damned politics. “You’ll tell him,” he said. “You’ll convince him to save her. If you don’t, I’ll destroy you.”

“Pachin,” Tolle said.

Ionas settled back in his chair, shifting his arm. Ow. “And I won’t just destroy you,” he said. “I will destroy everything you ever cared for. You’ll live to see your family ruined, Durabilis in ashes, and your children on the streets. You’ll live long enough to understand what you’ve done, what Durabilis has done, when you abandoned the West Side to the Instigators. When the O’Hallorns abandoned the Durasoona, the very family they used to serve.”

Lord O’Hallorn said, “You have no idea what you’re doing, Pachin. I can -”

“You won’t be able to do anything,” Ionas said pleasantly. “If Sarea dies, everything I have ever done will be for nothing. The only thing I’ll have left to do, before the demons break down the Wall and every single last human in the world dies screaming, is to destroy you.”

Stillness.

Lord O’Hallorn stood. “Get out.”

Ionas smiled. “No.”

“Get out of my house.” Voice still low. Not quite shouting. “Get out of my city!”

“Uncle?” Larone said.

“Get yourself away from me, or I swear I’ll -”

“Uncle!”

O’Hallorn turned. Larone sat rock-still in her chair, pale, staring at Ionas. Her hands were folded together in her lap, tight. “Don’t,” she said. “He can do what he says.” She swallowed. “If he is who I believe him to be, the only person who’s ever stopped him is the Grand Warlock.”

“He nearly killed me.” Ionas’ smile widened. “He won’t have the chance, next time.” He considered the two of them, and the weight of Isaye, dozing on his shoulder. Sarea won’t like it if I hurt her, he thought. Pity. “Save Sarea, and I won’t touch you. In fact, I’ll never step in this country again.” Let her die… He cast a glance at Isaye.

“Done,” Larone said.

Lord O’Hallorn turned on her “You do not have the right -”

“You won’t,” she said, “So I will. Done. The O’Hallorn family will ensure the safety of Sarea Sahar Durasoona. Then you will leave, and you will never come back, or we will tell her everything you just said.”

… ah.

“I don’t think you want to see what she would do,” Larone said, tight. “She doesn’t strike me as someone who would accept someone threatening her friend. I’ve heard about what happens when a Sun gets angry at someone.” She pressed her lips together. “I imagine you have too.”

It was a few magnitudes above Gavirn Durasoona’s little hole in the ground… if you let it happen. “That’s perfectly acceptable,” Ionas said. He nudged Isaye upright. She yawned, blinking. “Tolle, you know where I’ll be.”

Tolle Range eyed him and shook his head. “Get out, Pachin.”

Only too pleased. Walking hurt, again, the ache spreading downwards. Still. He mustered up the energy to walk out like he didn’t hurt at all, and let the door slam behind him.

:-#-:

The whorehouse stood so empty, the matron let them out of their hidden room in the afternoon to go down to what had once been a thriving kitchen, but now stood as a cold, stone, empty room with a flickering small fire in the hearth. Sarea sat in a corner, behind a dozen of the whores sitting in a floor circle singing old songs and drinking mouthfuls of wine, next to the matron on her stool.

It meant fresh air, at least.

Sarea stayed exactly where she’d been put, legs pulled up against her chest. She felt like she was six or seven again, a child in the family home, huddled under the blankets with Amisine. Waiting for the sun to set, so they could search for the things they needed and collect the grass-heads, and… what? Take on the Instigators, just like that?

She could do it. She had to do it. It still felt hopeless.

“What was my mother like?”

She almost didn’t recognise her own voice. Strange, West Side sharp with rounded country vowels. The matron cast her a look like daggers. Sarea took a deep breath and repeated, focussing on the country Tineke had so wanted to hear. “What was she like?”

“You never cared before,” the matron said.

She shrugged. “I was a kid. I didn’t know any better.”

“Hah!” The matron shook her head. “You don’t know any better now. You came back.”

Sarea sighed. “Maybe.” She closed her eyes, settling her head on her arms. “Father never said anything. I can’t understand how horrible living like that would have been. I suppose they didn’t know each other.”

The matron said, “They knew each other. That’s how it worked. Him and her and three others. They worked out the system, like.” She snorted. “Make sure as few were involved as possible. They’re all dead now, though. And he’ll be, soon. He’s an old, old man now, your da. But don’t go asking. We don’t talk about ghosts here.”

It might summon them. Sarea nodded. “That’s fair.”

“Nothing’s fair,” the matron muttered.

After a while, she added, “Your ma liked the rain, though. Always liked the rain.”

Thank you,” Sarea said quietly. It wasn’t much, but… even a shred of a person was better than nothing.

 

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