There was a man who would settle for nothing but the best. He ran a smithy. From swords to horse shoes, he would try to make the one in front of him better than the last one he made. Sold everything cheap as dirt because it wasn’t perfect.

Everything except the sword above the inside of the door.

It never rusted or lost its edge. Every time it was taken down to kill someone the blood just ran off it, leaving it as clean as if it hadn’t struck a single soul down.

When the smith died, everyone agreed that he’d crafted the best steel inside the Wall. But they pitied him. His entire life, he’d been trying to beat an enchanted sword.

Now there’s a lesson for you, princeling.

Grand Warlock Ionas

 

 

As the cart rolled into Nettinam, roads going from potholed to time-worn stone, Sarea could feel the weight of a town surrounding her. Houses lined the road in, painted bright colours, and streets off showed even more of them, and there were shops. Everywhere, shops. She counted four general stores before she gave up, hunching her shoulders against the old echoes of her city-self.

It’d be so easy to steal things here, there wasn’t a tricky lock in sight –

No. She’d be better than that. Better than her father.

Everywhere in the area was built around a central square, not just South. Nettinam’s had a proper ritual pillar, a tall stone carved with figures, surrounded by a ring of evergreen willows. The buildings were grander, and the road surface looked like it’d been washed clean every morning. The Guiding Star was there, next to a tall brick building with a clock.

Sarea hadn’t seen a real clock tower in years. She peered up at it as they passed. Four in the afternoon, and the sun already dipping on the horizon.

They passed through the grand gates of the Guiding Star into a shadowed courtyard, and stopped.

“Just speak to Betty indoors,” Jesse said.

“Thank you kindly,” Ionas said. He hopped off the cart and strode towards the inn’s back door. She sighed, inching her way forward until she could jump down. The pack thumped against her back.

“Thank you,” she said to Jesse.

He grinned at her. “Aint no carriage, but it’ll do, yeah?”

“Yes,” she said, and turned away.

Do we even have money? she wondered, walking across the courtyard. She didn’t. It wouldn’t be right to stay then skip out on the bill, either. Dangerous to, when the Instigators might be travelling down the main road, tracking rumours of demons.

” – so what do you think?”

Ionas’ voice echoed out the door. Sarea paused just beside it, listening.

“We’ve got a minstrel and that’s all we need,” a woman said. Betty, probably. “Bad enough the lad was taken in and gave you a ride. I don’t fall for petty trickery.”

She knew that voice.

“It’s not much,” he said. “Just one room, a couple of meals, and I’ll do all the tricks you could ask for.”

“Go sleep under a hedgerow,” the woman snapped.

Sarea turned the corner, leaning against the door frame.

She hadn’t remember the name of the inn, but she recognised its kitchen, the flagstone floor and battered ovens. Father sent her out from Durabilis, a lone nine year old pickpocket of a girl in the care of a merchant who owed him a favour.

Betty – Bethilde – looked at her. “And you can -”

The woman looked almost the same, too. A few more wrinkles, and somewhere in the years her hair had gone grey, but it was her. She’d always had a stout frame, because she’d never been truly poor, and wide shoulders that’d appealed to no man but one.

“He’s really a magician,” Sarea said. “If it helps. A fool, but an actual magician.”

Ionas looked between them. “That I am,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe what I can do.”

“I’m sure there’s room in the attic,” Betty said slowly. “And I’m not offering more than what any other of my people get, mind you.”

“And I get to keep my tips,” Ionas said.

Sarea shook her head. “Half of tips go to the house,” she said. “That’s the rules. It’s being kind, after all.” She focused on shifting her voice for a moment, and said, “Can’t give an inch, they’ll take the street and spit on y’for it.”

Betty looked, for a moment, like she’d swallowed a bee.

Ionas frowned at her. She pointed upstairs. Later.

“That’s the deal,” Betty said. “Now shift upstairs. I’ll want you down in the evening,” she said to Ionas, and turned back to a roll of pastry.

Sarea walked in, caught Ionas’ hand. She led him through the smoky, ale-stained common room and up a set of winding, circular stairs. The higher you were, the more they creaked. Three floors of them led up to the attic, a cramped space under the low roof, arrayed with low beds and blessedly empty.

“What just happened?” Ionas said.

She touched her fingers to her lips. “Her name is Bethilde Singer,” she said softly. “Her mother was Juniper Durasoona.”

Ionas’ face went blank. He stared at Sarea intently, eyes darkening.

“Juniper married out, and well,” Sarea said. “More than a few of the family did. They became crafters and tradesmen. I visited here once. It was… memorable.”

Betty had spent the night making her respectable enough to be a hedge witch’s apprentice. She’d taught her how to clean her hair, brushing it through with water and shampoo and water again. Whilst she braided Sarea’s hair, then outrageously long and unwanted, Betty’d been crying.

And here Sarea was again. Tineke always said she took after her father, and he after his. How much of a ghost did Betty see on her doorstep?

“What about the hounds?” Sarea said.

“What?” Ionas blinked at her, his entire person shifting from darkly dangerous to fool. “They don’t like towns,” he said airily. “Too many houses. They can hunt here, but it’s not easy. They won’t come after us here. Not on the first night. You should look around. They’re not much fans of daylight, either.”

And leave him alone in the inn with her cousin. She shook her head. “You can take the time to teach me,” she said, and folded her arms. “Something better than setting fires.”

“Tonight,” he said. “After the show. You can learn the tricks.” He patted her on the shoulder. “They’re good for apprentices.”

 

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