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A BLIGHT OF MAGES

Chapter One
There were times — many times — when Barl thought the sound of ticking clocks would drive her mad.

Not that the clocks ticked while they were being created, of course. And once they were completed they  ticked just long enough to prove they were in perfect working order, and not a moment longer. After that they were warded between tick and tock and remained hushed as midnight until they reached their destination, so that the artisanry’s wealthy patron had the privilege of setting his or her ruinously  expensive purchase into motion.

But even so, she could still hear the wretched things.

Or perhaps what I’m hearing is the rest of my life ticking into oblivion, into obscurity, into nothing but eventual, echoing silence .

Before her, on the sturdy workbench that had become almost her whole world, sat her partly completed current work piece. This time she was creating a journey clock for Lord Artur Traint, Mage Inspector of the Eleventh district. At the tender age of twenty-twoshe was the youngest, least experienced clock mage in the artisanry. According to her self-appointed betters that meant she should be flattered and honoured and humbled by this task.

Instead, she was offended.

A mole had more artistic integrity in its whiskers than Lord Traint did in all his overweening body. If only he could be guided toward a more daring construction. If only someone would listen when she pointed out the neglected opportunities in the district inspector’s humdrum design. But no, he was a great lord, born to one of the seventy First Families’ upper ranks, so she must defer to his lack of taste and daring, she must abase herself before his withered imagination, she must —

“Barl Lindin! Do you work or do you frabble?”

Both, she wanted to say. But Artisan Master Arndel, owner of the artisanry, was a stickler for the courtesies and the scourge of any mage who idled time. Hiding the impatience that would get her in trouble, she looked into the bony face looming above her on the other side of her bench.

“Master, I thought to revisit the question of Lord Traint’s clock design. Perhaps if we —”

“Revisit?” Arndel’s wide brow creased with his displeasure. “Mage Lindin, if you raise the topic again we will revisit the question of your suitability for this task. Our duty is to fulfill the patron’s expectations, not indulge our own whims.”

“I’m sorry,” she said stiffl y. “I thought our duty was to exceed expectations. If a patron can be shown a better way to —”

“Better?” Up went Arndel’s scraggly eyebrows. “By whose lights, Mage Lindin? Do you suggest I substitute your judgement for Lord Traint’s?”

When his lordship’s judgement was lacking? Yes. Of course. But she couldn’t say that. Not exactly. “I was only thinking that —”

Arndel narrowed his muddy green eyes. “Mage Lindin, as I have told you already, there is more to being a clock mage in my artisanry than a desirable bent for the magic. It would seem, however, that my wise words fall upon stony ground.”

Barl felt her cheeks warm, knowing too well how her fellow mages were enjoying the Artisan Master’s displeasure. Every reproof she earned from stolid Arndel was a carelessly tossed gift to those who   resented her for being who and what she was: the best mage they would likely see in their lifetimes.

“No, Master Arndel,” she said, and lowered her gaze that he might not see her hot resentment. “I understand perfectly.”

“Yes?” Arndel’s voice was soaked in skepticism. “Then it is past time you proved it.” His severe finger  lifted in warning. “Mage Lindin, you are a young woman with some talent, I allow, but not the wit or the wisdom that will permit me to permit you to override a loyal patron’s wishes. You are required to create the clock as Lord Traint has envisioned it. Are your skills unequal to the task?”

No, you prosing fool, my skills are wasted!

She wanted to shout the words loudly enough to raise the artisanry roof. But if she did, she’d only be  rewarded with dismissal. She couldn’t do that to Remmie. He’d sacrifi ced far too much for her to throw this position aside, no matter how confining she found it.

“Mage Lindin?” Arndel rapped out her name as though he were striking his knuckles to the bench. “Do you attend me?”

Staring at the inked design for Lord Traint’s tedious journey clock, she took a moment to be certain her voice and face were schooled to repressed obedience. Then she looked up again.

“Master, I apologise. I thought only to surprise Lord Traint with a small and unexpected delight.”

A soft snort from Ibbitha Rannis sounded from the artisan bench beside her, as Arndel’s creased brow creased a little deeper.

“Mage Lindin, you must curb your unfortunate tendency toward fancy. A precocious mage is a dangerous mage. Think upon that, rather than the unrequested rearrangements of a patron’s commission.”

“Master,” she said, lowering her gaze a second time. She felt so hot with anger now she thought she  might easily ignite the fool. Which would well serve him right, but . . .

Bear with it, Barl. You must bear with it.

Arndel nodded, not entirely convinced by her show of meek acceptance. One of the other mages raised a  hand, desiring his assistance. With a final, critical glance he answered the call for help, leaving her to fume at the various components neatly arrayed on the bench, and the clear crystal shell of the prosaic  clock she was being forced to complete. What it could be, what it should be, sang in her blood.

Traint is an idiot. And so is Arndel.

With the Artisan Master occupied elsewhere, Ibbitha shifted along her bench seat until she was close  enough for whispering.

“Truly, Barl. You never learn, do you?”

Not counting Remmie, Ibbitha was the nearest thing she had to a friend. Talented enough, in a  mundane sort of way, her fellow clock mage lacked energetic imagination or ambition and was a stickler for convention, uninterested in challenging a single rule or restriction handed down by Dorana’s Council of Mages or the Guild of Artisans or Artisan Master Arndel. Staid . That was Ibbitha. A friend of convenience, not of the heart.

She’d never had much luck when it came to making friends.

Mindful of their irascible employer, Barl risked a sidelong glance. “Nonsense,” she whispered back. “I’m learning every day.”

“Yes, but what?” said Ibbitha. “You —”

Daggered looks from the diligent mages around them killed what remained of Ibbitha’s scolding lecture.  Not mourning its death, Barl returned to her clock-making, hardly needing to think about each incant and counter-ward as, with scant effort, she continued to build Lord Traint’s lamentable timepiece.

I am bored. I am so bored. I deserve much more than this.

 

 

Later, when the artisanry emptied for the midday meal break and they were sitting alone on a stone   bench in the sunshine, Ibbitha resurrected her scold.

“You must be more careful, Barl,” she said, dabbing a napkin daintily to her lips. “And you mustn’t be greedy. It was nearly two years before I was permitted to create commissioned clocks. And you? Why, you were accorded that privilege after a mere seven months! Why can’t you be satisfi ed with that?”

Roaming her gaze around the other mages in the garden, lunch box on the bench beside her, Barl polished a plum on her green linen skirt. “Why is a babe not satisfi ed with crawling? Why does it struggle to first stand on its own feet, then walk, and then run?”

Ibbitha wrinkled her snub nose. “You are a babe if you think rubbing Arndel across his grain will get you what you want. Besides, there is nothing wrong with Lord Traint’s clock design.”

Barl looked at her in wonder. “You truly believe that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Ibbitha, prickling. “Why would I say it if I didn’t believe it?”

“You wouldn’t,” she said, and took a bite of plum. Rich purple juice tickled down her chin. Another bite splashed more juice to her skirt. She vanished it with a thought and a fl utter of her fingers, then nibbled the rest of the plum’s sweet flesh off its stone.

“I’ll never understand you, Barl,” said Ibbitha, staring. “Why can’t you accept things the way they are? Given your family background. . .” She trailed away, uncomfortable. As a rule, such things weren’t  discussed. Everybody knew what rank everybody else’s family was and how they fitted into the wider tapestry of Doranen society, and that was enough. Gossip on the subject was keenly discouraged. “Well. You know.”

Barl swallowed a bitter laugh. Oh, yes, she knew. Didn’t she beat her fists every day against the  constraints of family and her proper place and what was and was not acceptable when one hadn’t been born with the right pedigree?

“Anyway,” Ibbitha added. “What is so terrible about Lord Traint’s clock design?”

“Ibbitha . . .” She sighed. “If I have to explain it then you’ll never understand.”

Cheeks pink, grey eyes bright, Ibbitha folded her napkin with quick, overprecise little movements. “I see.”

Bother. Her impatience had landed her in trouble yet again. Remmie was forever taking her to task over  it. A little kindness never goes astray, Barl. Nobody likes to be thought a fool, even if they are one. Not  that Ibbitha was a fool, exactly. She was simply prosaic.

Around the garden, their fellow artisans were collecting themselves in dribs and drabs, the brief midday  break coming to an end, a long afternoon of clockworking and leadlighting and ceramics and weaving and glassmaking ahead of them.

“Ibbitha, I’m sorry,” she said, and touched placating fingers to her sort-of friend’s arm. “I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant to say was —”

Ibbitha patted the napkin into her emptied lunch box. “Please don’t, Barl. You said precisely what you  meant, so don’t insult me further by trying to pretend otherwise.”

“Fine. I won’t,” she said, lobbing her plum stone into the garden’s fringing of flowers. “Instead I’ll say that Lord Traint’s clock will keep perfect time with all the grace of a farm hog trying to run on ice. The man is a boor, Ibbitha, lacking any hint of imagination. He understands function, I grant you, but has no  comprehension of beauty or elegance.” A chance here to mend fences a little, so she took it. “Not like  you, for instance.”

Ibbitha was too shocked to notice the compliment. “ Barl , how can you say such things? Lord Traint has  a second cousin whose wife was considered for the Council of Mages. His third cousin designed two fountains in Elvado. And his grandfather submitted a new incant for ratifi cation and patent. True, it was rejected, but even so, he submitted. And you call him a boor ?”

Simmering with frustration, Barl warded shut her own lunch box then translocated it home with an impatient finger-snap.

“What does any of that have to do with his talent? None of those achievements belong to him, Ibbitha.” “He’s a district inspector!”

“Only because he’s a Traint. If he wasn’t I’ll wager he’d not lay one finger on an inspector’s seal. Artur  Traint is living proof that family connections count for more than talent. And why should that be? Why should you, or I, or any mage in Dorana be denied opportunities, denied anything, simply because we weren’t lucky enough to be born into a First Family?”

“I declare, Barl, sometimes you talk the most arrant nonsense,” Ibbitha retorted. “How can you claim that you or I have been denied opportunity when every day we are free to create mageworks that are the envy of Dorana’s magickless neighbours? The least of our clocks are admired in Trindek and Feen and  Manemli, oh, everywhere . This artisanry is becoming famous. And if you think Master Arndel would risk its reputation on a mage whose background is little more than adequate, who has flitted from calling to calling, as feckless as a bee, and who is never satisfied no matter how much favour is shown her, well — Barl, if I have to explain your situation then I don’t suppose you’ll ever understand.”

It was the worst scold Ibbitha had ever given her, and mostly it stung because it was true.

Which it shouldn’t be. Every word she utters only goes to prove I’m right about how unjust things are.

But when it came to mage rankings, it seemed there was no justice. There were rules and protocols and dictates and acceptable .

And because the rules had held sway for so long, because certain important people made sure they  continued to hold sway, nothing changed.

Why won’t Ibbitha see it? Why doesn’t she rile up when she’s told by the Council of Mages what she is  and isn’t permitted to do and to be? And for no better reason than a family name? Why should that handful of men and women decide our fates?

“I understand well enough, Ibbitha. The wrong blood is flowing through my veins. What you don’t seem to understand is that I don’t care, and I don’t see why anyone else should care either. Nor do I see why my family tree, however stunted some may call it, should be the yardstick by which I am judged as a mage.”

“Oh, Barl.” Tartly sympathetic, Ibbitha shook her head. “Life will seem far less harsh once you stop   kicking against it. If only you’d accept things as they are, if you’d stop rubbing Artisan Master Arndel   against his grain, he might let you create a little mantel clock of your own to sell through the artisanry shop. He doesn’t deny your talent. Nobody could. It’s your temperament that’s questioned, and not without cause. What a pity it would be if your own stubborn pride should make you stumble when the  path before you was always clear.”

The path before her had been laid with bricks not of her choosing and meandered pointlessly toward a future littered with opportunities denied. But if she fl ew at Ibbitha for reminding her of that unpalatable truth then likely she’d lose the woman’s shallow friendship, and she didn’t want that. So she sighed and nodded, making sure Ibbitha would think her scolding was welcome.

“You’re right. Patience and I aren’t well enough acquainted. And of course the journey clock’s design isn’t anywhere near as bad as I complain.”

“I should say it’s not!” said Ibbitha, taking a suggestive step toward the garden gate. Tardiness was deeply frowned upon by Master Arndel. “Lord Traint’s taste is the very defi nition of elegantly refined simplicity.”

No, it was the manifestation of a stunted mind, but there was no use in saying so to Ibbitha, who was  forever dazzled by a mage’s social standing. As for Arndel, he was just as bad. Artur Traint was a lord, he was a district inspector, and his purse was full of coin. The man’s dull sensibilities counted for nothing compared to those useful attributes.

Defeated, Barl walked with Ibbitha back to their workroom. There she spent the afternoon finishing  what she’d begun, and before the day was over Lord Traint had his lacklustre journey clock.

Called to inspect it, Artisan Master Arndel walked round her bench, lips pursed as he considered the completed piece. Standing well to one side, giving him free rein to examine her work for nonexistent defects, Barl felt the hard stares of her fellow mages. Not a one of them could complete even a simple  clock like this so swiftly or so well, even though they’d been artisans here for three years or more and came from families twice as illustrious as her own.

You see? Talent does count for something. It can’t always be about the family name stitched to our heels.

“Hmm,” Artisan Master Arndel grunted at last, halting. “I can detect no fl aw in the piece, Mage Lindin. Your incants and counterwards mesh smoothly, and your crystal work is pleasing.”

Her crystal work was magnifi cent, but Arndel would never admit it. Not only was it better than the work of every other artisan whose talents he employed, it was better than his own — and he wasn’t a man to take pride in the achievement of a mage who stood below him. Take credit for it, yes. He was more than willing to do that and would, when Lord Traint came to collect his clock. Not claim the piece was of his making, of course. But he would suggest and imply and hint and wink that without his constant oversight the finished clock would have been sadly inferior.

And because this was his artisanry she had no choice but to let him. So she feigned gratifi cation. “Thank you, Artisan Master.”

Arndel’s flickering glance was suspicious, seeking insincerity or sarcasm. Detecting none, for he was  nowhere near as clever as he imagined himself to be, he nodded.

“Therefore let this be a salutary lesson, Mage Lindin. When one remains constrained by the limits of design, one is free to per-form such work as may be pleasing. Shall we hear the tick of Lord Traint’s new clock?”

As clock mage, it was her fi nal task to release the clock’s temporary warding so that its voice might be tested for precision and a certain sweetness in the air. In this, and only this, was an artisan permitted to indulge his or her individual whim. A clock’s tick belonged to no-one but its maker.

Barl stepped to the bench. Looking down at this thing that she had, with despair and contempt, created for a man whose ordinary mind could envisage nothing more daring than a square crystal box touched here and there with gold, she heard the caged mage within herself wail.

It could’ve been so beautiful. Given the chance I’d have created a clock to make the sky weep for days.

With a whisper, she set the ugly thing’s voice free.

“Very nice,” Artisan Master Arndel said, grudging, as the sweet tick-tock-tick echoed through the workroom in harmony and counter-harmony, doubled and trebled notes shivering the air.

Barl looked down, outwardly modest, inwardly seething. Nice?  Nice? You cantankerous old mole. “Thank you, Artisan Master.”

With a snap of her fi ngers Lord Traint’s clock sounded the hour, and even the most unfriendly artisan in the workroom smiled to hear the lilting carillon of notes. Watching Arndel from beneath her lowered lashes, Barl saw a spasm of jealousy clench his face for a heartbeat, then let go.

“Yes, that will do,” he said, as though she’d presented him with a correctly salted boiled egg. “Step back, Mage Lindin.”

So she stepped back and waited for him to master ward the new clock between ticks. That was his right, as Master of the artisanry. The balance of the clock’s purchase price bought the sigil that would unward it. Assuming Lord Traint accepted his finished commission, and he would, she had no doubt of that, she’d receive a token payment on top of her weekly artisan’s wage.

But for all her work it was Arndel who’d emerge the richer, in both purse and reputation.

Which is theft, pure and simple.

The injustice of it burned.

As soon as he’d departed, taking Lord Traint’s warded clock and the inked design with him, Barl began the methodical task of clearing her workbench.

First, the emptying of the sand trays. Since Dorana had no fine sand fields of its own, sand for crystal alchemy was imported at great expense from Feen and Brantone and Iringa. With the unused sand  returned to its stone jars in the storeroom, next she had to collect the unused gold in its nuggets,  shavings and dust, for there again was Dorana a pauper. One gold mine only within its jealously guarded borders, and that did not yield the finest red gold found beyond them. Silver and copper of its own Dorana possessed, and in plenty, but every remaining skerrick of those elements she also had to collect for later use. Artisan Master Arndel treated all his supplies as though they were sand and gold. Next she took the gemstones not used for the clock’s inner workings, rubies and emeralds and topaz, and saw them stowed safe in the artisanry gem drawers. Last of all she purged the workbench with a cleansing incant. That made sure no lingering memory of Lord Traint’s journey clock could catch in the next working she undertook and spoil its unique design.

By that time the work day had drawn to a close and the artisanry’s other clock mages were leaving. With her own piece still only three-quarters completed, Ibbitha warded her bench.

“Barl, are you coming?”

She opened her mouth to say yes, then abruptly changed her mind. I shouldn’t. It’s madness. If I’m found out I’ll be dismissed. But even as her heart leapt at the terrible thought, she knew she was about to be reckless.

“I can’t,” she said, pretending irritation. “The cleansing incant hasn’t taken properly. Finishing Lord  Traint’s clock tired me more than I realised.”

“It’s beautiful work, Barl,” said Ibbitha. For all her prosy scoldings, she could be generous. “You should be proud.”

In moments like this she felt sick with the need to pretend that her caging didn’t chafe. “I am. You were right, I’m lucky to be shown such trust by Artisan Master Arndel.”

A small, pleased smile softened Ibbitha’s habitually disapproving face. “I’m glad you see it. Can I help you with a stronger cleansing incant?”

“No, I’ll manage. I’d not keep you from Arno’s eager embrace.”

A faint blush. Newly wed Ibbitha was so terribly proper. “Well, if you’re sure, I’ll see you on the morrow, Barl.”

Barl watched the workroom door shut behind her, then pretended to fuss over her bench as the last  three artisan mages departed, bidding her a disinterested farewell. As soon as she was alone she leapt  back from her bench. Excellent. Now she could play.

Although, to be clever, she should wait a little while to make certain Arndel didn’t return. To pass the  time, she gave Ibbitha’s work in progress a cursory inspection. A betrothal clock for Lady Isolte’s eldest  daughter. Ho hum. Oh, the actual design was pretty enough, but as a clock mage Ibbitha was hardly  inspired. There were so many ways she could stamp herself onto this clock, lift it from pretty enough into the realm of magnificent, and she’d not taken advantage of even one. Ibbitha’s problem was that she had no vision. She never looked past the confi nes of an inked design to the hinted possibilities that lay between and beyond the lines.

I don’t think it would even occur to her to try. I could make Lady Isolte’s girl a glorious betrothal clock.  Given the chance, I could make it sing.

Instead she was lumbered with journey clocks, shackled to the parched imagination of patrons like Artur Traint. What she was doing now was barely a step up from where she’d started in the artisanry, making the cheaper, less fastidious trade clocks that were sold throughout Dorana and into its neighbouring lands.

Arndel is a nubbin. Why won’t he admit my true worth? He has to know it would only enhance his reputation.

There was still no sign of the Artisan Master. Surely she’d be safe now. Heart skittishly thudding, she  withdrew to the storeroom. Just this once she would craft a clock worthy of her gifts.

A trickle of nervous sweat tickled her spine. Hurrying, she tipped the raw ingredients for her dream  clock onto the floor. Three types of rare sand, pink and silver and blue, gemstones for weight and counterweight, gold and silver and copper for pendulum and cradles. She didn’t need Lord Traint’s inked parchment to guide her, the journey clock’s design was etched in her memory. Squat and  uninspired, functional, plain . And all the incants needed was a little tweak here, a twist there, a subtle  realignment in this note and that one. So simple. So elegant. How could Traint not see ?

Sigil by sigil, breath by breath, the journey clock she’d longed to create grew beneath her sure, steady  fingers. Not a slow process this time, since she’d created it once already. But now the clock’s sheer  crystal housing glowed, alive with a pearlescent sheen. It rose swiftly before her, slender and strong, not squat, not merely functional, but a tender, eloquent expression of hope. Journey clocks were made for  travelling, and here was a clock to travel full of dreams and possibilities. Created to echo the dreams of  the traveller who carried it.

When the clock was finished she knelt gasping, close to tears. If only she could show this piece to Lord  Traint, instead of the spiritless lump of crystal Arndel had taken away with him. That clock was correct in all its particulars, scrupulously accurate, possessing no soul. But this clock?

This is the clock that deserves my beautiful chiming. This is the clock that should sing with my voice.

And no mage could ever see it.

She sketched a warding sigil, then uttered a harsh unmaking incant to collapse the reimagined clock into sand and gold and gemstones. Did weep, just a little, seeing it destroyed. And then she returned each  individual component to its proper place so that Artisan Master Arndel would be none the wiser for her meddling.

She nearly ran into him as she came out of the storeroom.

“Mage Lindin!” he said, surprised and not pleased. “Why do you tarry here? Your fellow artisan mages are long departed.”

“I know, Artisan Master,” she murmured. “I’m sorry. I had some little diffi culty cleansing my bench.”

His eyes slitted, as though he were reluctant to believe her. “You did? That seems . . . out of character.”

“I was weary,” she said, holding his suspicious stare without flinching. “But the bench is cleansed now. Would you care to inspect it?”

His gaze shifted to her empty workbench then back again. “No. Such matters are your responsibility, Mage Lindin. If your cleansing incant was inadequate, your next commission will tell the tale.”

“Has the commission been decided upon, Artisan Master?”

Now he looked her up and down, his resentment of her gifts, that added coin to his treasury, clear in his face.

“You are impertinent. It is for me to broach such matters, not you. Be gone.”

“Artisan Master,” she said, bowing her head, and escaped the workroom before he did something  disastrous like banish her back to the making of ordinary clocks.

The late summer light was fading, but that didn’t matter. There was glimfire to guide her way, should  she need to conjure it. Or she could do what every other artisan mage did and translocate herself home.  Only she didn’t care for travelling magics. She rarely admitted it but they made her feel weak and  unsteady. Besides, they denied her the pleasure of the sweetly scented fresh air. Arndel’s artisanry sat on the greenly grassy outskirts of Batava hamlet, where she and Remmie lived, at least for the moment. Her solitary walks to and from work each day helped clear her mind of leftover clock maging and gave her  precious time to herself for dreams.

Not that there’s much use in dreaming. Dreams won’t change what’s wrong in Dorana. Only the  Council of Mages can change the rules and it won’t. Not until it’s made to, anyway .

And there was wickedly little hope of that. The General Council  was too busy with day-to-day concerns, collecting taxes and enforcing the mundane rules and dealing with Dorana’s neighbours and the  complicated trading arrangements they made with the outside world. Its members seemed perfectly  happy to leave the intricate laws of magework to their sister council. Sometimes she thought she was the only mage breathing who cared for what was right and just. Everyone else she knew was like Ibbitha,  content to settle for the crumbs dropped careless at her feet by Dorana’s supremely selfish First Families.

Even Remmie.

I love him to pieces, I do, but sometimes I can’t believe we’re related.

The laneways she walked were bordered each side by flower-straggled hedgerows. Fireflies danced  above them, glimmering brightly in the lowering dusk. Tonight, though, not even their whimsical beauty soothed her. Rankled still by the loss of that other clock, the clock  Arndel should have let her create, that he’d as good as stolen from her, she stamped the damp grass underfoot and with each step imagined Lord Traint’s inferior clock smashed to shards beneath her heels.

I’m glad no-one will ever know I made it. Let every mage who  sees it think Traint’s journey clock is Arndel’s monstrosity. He deserves to be tarred with that brush. My day will come. In time the whole world will know my name. It will see what I’ve created and be dumbstruck with awe.

It was almost properly dark by the time she reached home. Stars pricked overhead, and glimfire lamps    burned in the unshuttered windows of the hamlet schoolmaster’s cottage.

“There you are!” said Remmie, turning from the sink as she  entered the kitchen. “I was about to do a searching for you.”

Though she was tired and disgruntled, she couldn’t not smile at her brother as she sniffed the fragrant  air. “Yes, here I am, you fussy old mother hen.”

“Hen yourself,” he said, shoulders hunching. He didn’t much care for that kind of teasing. “Do you think I don’t have enough to contend with, that I need fears for you rattling round in my head?”

The mood she was in, it would be far too easy to strike sparks with him. She took a deep breath and after a heart-thumping moment let go of her peppery temper, along with all her bitter thoughts. Remmie was  the soft, kindly one, and always had been. The boy in him still felt the too-soon loss of their parents, was quick to dark imaginings and leaping to the worst conclusions. With her own scars from that wounding long since healed, she found it easy to forget.

“I tarried at the artisanry,” she said, her voice deliberately gentle. “Not thinking. I’m sorry. Is that mutton-and-barley stew on the hob?”

“Not that you deserve any,” he said. “Why did you tarry? There’s no trouble at Arndel’s, I hope.”

His question stung, but it wasn’t entirely unfair. They were each other’s only family and he had picked   up and moved with her every time her restless impatience caused her to fall foul of an employer, or abandon one position in search of the next. And if she fell foul of Artisan Master Arndel, or lost patience entirely with working in his artisanry, her brother would follow her again.

Which was why she strove so hard to stay sweet with Arndel, to not care so much that she wasn’t  properly appreciated. Remmie wanted to stay in Batava. Teaching in its little school pleased him, deeply. He never would listen when she wailed that he wasted himself on other people’s offspring.

“Not the kind of trouble you’re imagining,” she said, sliding into one of the two chairs at the small  kitchen’s table. “My work for Arndel is well-prized. He knows he’ll suffer if he dismisses me.”

“Good,” Remmie said, turning to face her, and not even trying to hide his relief. “But still, since I’m  neither blind nor doltish, I know something’s fretting you. What’s wrong?”